Category Archives: training
Here’s one truism we can all agree on: your body doesn’t want to build muscle unless it’s absolutely necessary. A muscle must be challenged to work harder so your physiology has no choice but to manufacture new muscle tissue to adapt to the demand.
Exercise variety is important and necessary to offset overuse injuries, but merely switching from a standing barbell curl to a dumbbell hammer curl won’t do anything to spark new growth in your biceps. This is true for training any muscle group.
You might get sore when you switch to a new exercise, but that’s mainly because the muscle is being challenged in a different way: it doesn’t mean the muscle has to grow to meet the demand. A better strategy is to find a free weight or body weight exercise that you like, and increase the frequency of training that movement over the course of 4-6 weeks.
What it’s best for: muscle growth
Explanation: we all know that increasing the load of a movement is great for building strength, and some muscle growth will follow. However, I’ve found that the fastest growth occurs when you significantly increase the weekly training volume for that muscle group.
Let’s take two guys (Jim and Tim) that perform the pull-up, as an example. Jim weighs 180 pounds and does the pull-up twice per week for 6×4 with an extra 30 pounds of weight attached to a chin/dip belt. You can calculate his weekly training volume with this equation: load x total reps = volume. Since his load is 210 pounds and his total reps are 48, his weekly volume is 10,080.
He’s been feeling pretty strong so the following week he adds 10 more pounds to the chin/dip belt. Now his weekly training volume for the pull-up is 10,560 (220 pounds x 48 reps).
In other words, Jim’s weekly training volume increased 5%.
Tim weighs 210 pounds and has been doing a body weight pull-up for 6×4 twice per week. Therefore, his weekly volume was the same as Jim’s first week: 10,080. Tim has been feeling strong too, but instead of adding an extra 10 pounds to a chin/dip belt he decides to add an extra pull-up workout, thus increasing his training frequency to three times per week. So if we plug in the numbers for Tim’s second week we get a volume of 15,120 (210 pounds x 72 reps).
In other words, by simply adding one extra body weight pull-up workout Tim increased his training volume by 50%!
So which method do you think would send a stronger signal for new muscle growth: a 5% increase in weekly volume or a 50% increase? Yep, you know the answer.
The irony is that it’s easier to add an extra pull-up workout than it is to strain like hell with more load to achieve the same 6×4 workout.
Now, I must state that for maximal strength gains you must focus on adding load to your workouts. But when fast muscle growth is the goal it makes perfect sense to increase the frequency for that movement because it results in a significantly higher weekly volume.
Exceptions to the frequency progression are a barbell squat, bench press and deadlift. However, use the frequency progression for any upper body lift or single-leg exercise and you will build new muscle more quickly.
How to use it: add one extra workout per week for the lagging body part. Perform around 25 total reps with a load that allows 6-8 reps per set. Keep adding one extra workout for that movement for 4-6 weeks straight.
Question: Chad, is it possible to replace traditional barbell and dumbbell lifts with exercises using nothing but rings and parallettes? How does that fit into a full-body workout? Thanks, JB
CW Answer: Yes JB, it’s not only possible, it’s ideal. Even though exercises with rings and parallettes don’t require external loading, you can build just as much strength and muscle as you can with iron, no matter how heavy that iron is. In fact, if you know which exercises to do, you can break through hypertrophy plateaus and achieve newfound muscularity with exercises on the rings and parallettes.
You only need to look at the muscular development of the Olympic gymnasts who specialize in the rings events to know how powerful those exercises are for muscle growth. Every single guy has an upper body that most of us would commit a felony to possess.
A typical retort I hear when I mention the muscularity of the rings gymnasts is something like this: “Yeah, but they’ve been doing those exercises for 10 years!”
Well, I know many guys who’ve been lifting weights for more than 10 years and their upper body looks nothing like those gymnasts. If I could turn back the clock I would’ve started training my upper body on the rings 10 years ago and I’d have a lot more muscle than I do now.
So the question is: How do you incorporate exercises with rings and parallettes?
1. Choose High-Tension Exercises: When most people think of maximal strength development, they only think of lifting heavy loads. Even though that’s certainly a way to build maximal strength, the essential factor is tension not load.
I’ll use the rings handstand push-up as an example. Most fit guys can only perform a few partial reps of this exercise. And if they can do a full range of motion handstand push-up from the rings, they can’t do many. Therefore, that rings handstand push-up is building maximal strength even though there’s no iron.
For maximal strength development, the key is to choose exercises that can’t be performed for more than 10 continuous seconds. This could be a muscle-up, front lever, back lever, handstand push-up or any other body weight exercise. When you follow that rule, you’ll always build maximal strength while achieving maximum recruitment of the high-threshold motor units.
2. Train with Sufficient Volume: To promote hypertrophy, the volume of each exercise must be sufficient. Even though there’s little research to reference with regard to volume and hypertrophy, my empirical data demonstrates that at least five sets is necessary to elicit a strong hypertrophy response. One or two sets of any exercise, no matter how much load or tension, won’t make your muscles grow. You can’t go wrong with 5-10 sets.
3. Perform a Full-Body Circuit: When an exercise mandates high levels of muscle tension (e.g., rings handstand push-up), you need at least three minutes of recovery before you repeat that exercise. Although, this doesn’t mean you should sit around for three minutes. By placing your rings and parallette exercises in a full body circuit you can get at least three minutes of recovery while keeping your workouts relatively brief.
Here’s a circuit that works well for a relatively fit guy:
1A Handstand push-up from rings for 3 reps
Rest 30 seconds
1B Box jump for 3 reps
Rest 30 seconds
1C L-sit hold for 10 seconds
Rest 30 seconds
1D Dumbbell single-leg deadlift for 3 reps, each leg
Rest 30 seconds, repeat 1A-1D 4-9 more times
Between the rest periods and the time it takes you to finish those four exercises, you’ll have three minutes of recovery before repeating an exercise. Of course, the options are endless when it comes to exercise selection or the number of exercises you have in a circuit. The above is just an example.
The trick with rings exercises is that many of them don’t fall perfectly within a “push” or “pull” category. That’s one of the reasons why I started my Rings and Power tour. In that 2-day seminar you’ll learn how to program all of the rings, parallettes, and body weight exercises into the ultimate power and muscle-building system.
To find out how to reserve a spot in the Rings and Power seminar, go to this link.
40 Years of Insight, Part 2
I have a box in my storage room that contains all my training journals. Besides sets and reps, I toss in what’s going on in my life. Often, I find long essays about the future, lists about “what works,” and funny little tidbits about my life that I would’ve quickly forgotten had I not wrote them down.
It hit me when I picked up this box the other day that I’ve been recording workouts since 1971, five years after first picking up a weight. That’s forty years! I started to think about the lessons I’ve learned and, before I knew it, I had a list of forty lessons that I had to learn the hard way.
One thing that Laree Draper, wife of former Mr. Universe Dave Draper, finds interesting about me is that I sit in the front row at conferences. Each year I go to camps, clinic, workshops, conferences, and gatherings. I buy nearly every new book and DVD on the market. I read and comment on a lot, although as a rule I only comment after I read something and only universally after I’ve tried it.
Now, this might seem counter to Lesson 20 (“When reading something over the top, that has the markings of “secret” or “exotic” or even “expensive,” don’t leap in with both feet and break your ankles), but as the saying goes, an intelligent person can hold conflicting opinions in his head.
Here’s the thing: I appreciate Mike Boyle’s insights about single-leg training. Why? Because I’ve listened to him talk about it three times. I like his logic, I like his decision making process. Moreover, I also like the hour-long conversation we had discussing this topic.
I strongly believe in spending money to get exposed to the cutting edge of what’s going on in the field of strength and conditioning. I read and reread books, magazines, eBooks, and blog posts, trying to cut away the extraneous and hone the message.
It costs me money to do this. And I’m okay with that.
This is so obvious I’m embarrassed to write it. I’ve had the opportunity to sit with some fairly high level bodybuilders and train with some of the best of all time. I can promise you that the training tools of the elite bodybuilders are basically the same weapons you use in the gym.
When it comes to diet, though, you need to listen up. There’s this thing called “protein” and that seems like the only thing you need to think about when cutting fat. Carbs and even fat becomes a misty island far off in the distance that one may or may not see again for a while.
These guys are serious. My friend Lance once described his sodium loading cycle for an upcoming contest and it was like sitting in the front row of a chemistry class, except I’d missed the first few months. He lost me at “hello.” Lance was eating chicken breasts, which isn’t surprising, but also a hefty amount of fish. Now, to call this “fish” is a reach as there was no salt, no seasoning, and really no nothing.
One of my coaching principles is “success leaves tracks.” If you really want good advice about fat loss, talk to a competitive bodybuilder. Avoid the weekly magazine advice you see at the supermarket check-stand and get some real information.
This one is near and dear to my heart. I’ve an unbending training principle that’s as old as medicine. “First, do no harm.” I think any coach, program, or training system that injures people is wrong. If you’re an athlete in a sport that has an age or year ceiling (high school or college eligibility) and you lose a year to an injury, you don’t get that back.
My doctor said something interesting. If you’re 75 and have a major joint repair, its purpose is to literally to help you go to the toilet on your own. At 55, the same surgery might ensure a quality of life that will keep you young. At 15, this surgery is a tragedy for an athlete and one may never be able to compete again at the higher levels of sport.
Recovery from injury and surgery may take tremendous resources to attain. Besides the financial toll – which can be overwhelming – there’s a physical and emotional toll from injuries. I’ve been on crutches several times in my life and there’s not a single aspect of life that’s easy on crutches. From bowel movements to escalators, every action and move has to be thought through before attempting it.
Again, sure, you can get injured, but you may not have another recovery. In high school, my mom and sister could help out if I was hurt. When my daughters were little and I had wrist surgeries, I had to buy shoes without laces because when my wife wasn’t around, no one was there to tie them!
Plan your training with intelligence and foresight. Train hard, but try to avoid things that can’t be fixed without a surgical team.
There’s no question that running hills or doing Tabata front squats is the “best way” to heat up your system, burn fat, and make the world a safer place. However, I think we’ve lost sight of the importance of “easy,” especially in the fat loss race.
The Tabata protocol comes out to 3:50 minutes a week, as the last ten-second rest doesn’t really mean anything. And you can make progress in those four minutes. However, don’t throw out the importance of long, easy cardio like walks or heavy hands. A long walk won’t hit your fat stores like a furnace or whatever the ad copy says, but it will give your body a chance to recover and perhaps find some gentle, easy ways to lose the muffin top.
The principle here is to move away from “either/or” in strength and conditioning. My career has been built on the idea that “everything works, for a while” and while Tabatas might be fun to watch, there’s nothing sinful about a nice long walk. Moreover, like hiking, long walks tend to be more open ended, and rarely does one look at the watch worrying about “getting it all in.”
Keep those tough HIIT workouts, the hill sprints and the hard stuff, but don’t forget to keep those long lazy “workouts” as part of your palette.
Train hard, but enjoy competition. Compete hard, but enjoy your training. One key point that must be kept in mind always is to never judge a workout or competition as “good” or “bad” solely on that single day.
I often tell my new throwers, “Sorry, you just aren’t good enough to be disappointed.” Judging one’s worth as an athlete over the results of a single day is just idiocy and will lead to long-term failure. Epictetus, the Roman Stoic philosopher tells us, “We must ever bear in mind – that apart from the will there is nothing good or bad, and that we must not try to anticipate or to direct events, but merely to accept them with intelligence.”
If that’s too complex, I have a favorite story.
A farmer had a horse and a son. One day, the horse died. All the neighbors said, “Oh, how bad.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” The next day, the neighbors got together and bought the farmer a new horse. They all said, “That’s a good thing.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” The following day, the horse threw the son while trying to break the horse. The son broke his arm. The neighbors all said, “Oh, how bad.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” The next day, the army came into the town, drafted all the young men, save the son with a broken arm. They all died in the first battle. The neighbors said to the farmer, “Oh, how good it was for your son to have a broken arm.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.”
So, get in the gym and train. Finish your plan and shower off. Then, be sure to come back and do what Woody Allen says and “Show Up!”
When I was in the ninth grade, one quarter of my training was the military press, and I made progress. Then I dropped it. My progress stalled. When I met Dick Notmeyer, literally everything was over my head and I made progress again.
As I aged, I dropped the overhead stuff and everything went to my belly. I started up with one-arm kettlebell presses and my waistline shrunk back in weeks to a reasonable girth.
If Janda was right and certain muscles weaken with age (and he is, trust me), a quick study of that group should give you an idea of why you should press.
There’s no question that one-arm overhead presses work the obliques better than all those odd side bends and twisties I see in the gym every day. Now, you might argue that the glutes don’t work, but try to press one-handed anything over 100 pounds with a sleepy butt. I’ve tried it many times and I think I may have done it once.
When in doubt, press overhead.
I hate workouts like 10 sets of 10. For one thing, I never remember what set I’m on. I know I’m supposed to use matches or cards or something, but I’m old and never remember them, either.
I like ladders. A ladder is a series of reps that usually go up. The first set is always easy as the reps and load are low. The last set seems hard, but it’s odd because you feel like you recover in an instant. The standard ladders are:
1-2-3-1-2-3. You do a single, rest, a double, rest, a triple, rest, a single, ad infinitum!
And my favorites:
I love 2-3-5-10 for hypertrophy. If you do that cluster five times, that’s 100 quality reps and you’ll storm through the doubles and the triples with practically no rest. You’ll finish strong and pumped.
2-3-5-2-3-5-2-3 is my favorite variation of the standard 5 x 5 protocol. Again, how quickly you get through the reps and the ease of adding more plates is a pleasant surprise.
I know of no easier way to add volume than to do ladders.
These are mantras I repeat to myself and to my athletes. I’ve won National Championships in lifting and throwing on the very last lift or throw. I do it with so much regularity that Don Bailey, a good friend and fellow thrower, has told people I do it on purpose for “the theater.” It’s not true, but I do like the point.
It always works well in training. Charlie Francis, the late, great sprint coach, would end workouts when his athletes got a personal record in anything. His idea was “there you go – you peaked – now rest.” That is an extreme, but I wish I would’ve known this when I was younger. Injuries tend to show up when you want to add just a little more to your lifetime best. Learn to celebrate success and keep improving over the long haul.
This skill has to be practiced. You have to draw a line in the sand and say, “This is it. This is the last thing I do today and it’s going to be my best effort.” Now, I know most lifters don’t do this, but I also know that most don’t make any gains!
Always strive to leave practice and workouts “on top.”
This is a new idea for me. After a hard workout, come back the next day and, at a low level, move through the basic patterns of the human body in a kind of movement massage. The loads are light, the reps are unimportant, but the movement is key. With an adult, I often recommend up to three of these easy recharge workouts a week. It can be as simple as doing the basic patterning movements.
Follow with an easy walk. It doesn’t have to be much, but you’ll thank me as your mobility, flexibility, and patterning improve without much residual soreness.
Dick Notmeyer smiled and nodded as I told him about my weightlifting career. I thought I’d done it all. I had a big bench and could do pull-ups with the best of them.
Dick stopped me. “Here, you’re going to do snatches and clean and jerks.” That was basically it. For two years, I did the Olympic lifts in the summer sun and foggy blindness. It was rep after rep after rep. And I made tremendous progress.
When Pavel came out with “Power to the People” and suggested five days a week of deadlifts and side presses, a few brave souls took on the challenge and expanded their work capacity. His “Program Minimum,” of nothing but swings and get-ups, is still my “go to” recommendation for someone exploring the goals of general conditioning.
In the book, “Beyond Bodybuilding,” he sets up a hypertrophy program consisting of five days a week of deadlifts and bench presses under the direction of deLorme and Watkins, the founders of what we now call progressive resistance exercise.
I’m a fan of minimal workouts. The biggest reason is there is no wiggle room for “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” The very essence of this training idea is “do this!” It’s not the kind of training for someone who needs music, TV, Internet, and conversation during sets. Folks, it’s dull work – actually, it’s work.
Every so often, try two weeks of just two movements. Make the combination cover the bulk of the body and strive for mastery of the movements. It can change your career.
My friend, Josh Hillis, notes that when a woman can do three pull-ups and deadlift or squat 135 for five, almost universally they’re around 19% bodyfat, which is what he calls “Rockstar Hot.” Since he told me this, I’ve been carefully watching the physiques of women, although to be honest I’ve been doing that since early puberty.
There’s another issue. Women who can do three pull-ups and show some numbers on the barbell can also go out after a clinic and have a good time. Recently, a top female physique contestant told me at a bar that, “Oh, I can go out and party and not watch every single bite when I’m not peaking.” Unlike the “skinny fat” women who you normaly see in the weekly magazines, this woman was strong enough that when she trained her body had to gather up a lot of resources to adapt and recover.
What does this mean for you? I’ve seen it many times at workshops and clinics. The skinny, weak guys bring their own weighed chicken breasts and magic protein bars for the whole day. When we do something physical, they fade into the corn rows. The big, strong guys who’ve never seen a strongman event will jump in and flail around dangerously close to death and dismemberment, but fight the good fight with the anvil, axle, or stone. Then, they eat passionately and without apology.
In other words, as Brett Jones taught me, absolute strength is the glass. Everything else is the liquid that goes into the glass. The bigger the glass, the bigger everything else can be for you.
So get stronger and eat more without freaking out about it.
Twice at the Olympic training center, we were asked to take some time to do an “autobiography.” Really, we simply listed the best and worst of our athletic career. We were allowed to add life events, too.
I still have my lists. They’re odd to look at from a decade-plus distance, but I still smile when I see “Turkey Day Football” and “Picked to Start for Brentwood,” and “Winning hit in 1967” mixed in with performances that are worthy of national ranking. I don’t want to address the “Worst” list, but that was the point.
After a fairly long wait for everyone to finish, we were asked to look at the lifetime lows.
“Put your finger on it,” we were told. Now, look at the high side and see if there’s a match.
Just do it.
Incredibly, for the bulk of us, every low, every “worst moment,” lead directly over to a best moment. We have to keep Lesson 25 in mind (don’t judge everything), but the lesson was clear. Our lows are often the steppingstone to the greatest moments of our lives.
I’ve used this little exercise for my athletes and in my classrooms. Sadly, there are some who argue that they have very few “best” moments. It should come as no surprise that these timid souls often have no “worst” moments either.
I have an extremely damaged tiny spiral notebook. It’s red and falling apart. Since 1973, I’ve been keeping quotes in here that inspire me.
“The guy with the biggest butt lifts the biggest weights.”
“Arnold’s Three-Part Secret”
Positive mental outlook
Honest hard work
“Greatness comes to those that dare to sweat, dare to strain, and dare the pain.”
“Quality is the key, not quantity”
“Never, never give up. Never give up.”
“Yield to all and you soon have nothing left to yield.”
I also include training programs from people that I admire and odd snips of ideas that still are forming in my head.
Here’s one final one.
I wrote that as a senior in high school in my English class to answer something along the lines of, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I was lucky to have the magazine “Strength and Health” growing up. It wasn’t just bodybuilding information; this magazine really respected all areas of strength. So several times a year I could read about throwers or football players. An article on a discus thrower named Gary Ordway came at a great time in my life as I’d embarked on an attempt to be a thrower and they listed his workouts. I’ll only list his top lifts in his preseason workout:
Deadlift: 455 x 3
Power clean: 285 x 2
Incline press: 325 x 3
Sit ups: 4 sets of 25
As a kid inclining under 100 pounds, the direction was clear. I needed to get stronger. I knew the path – lift weights.
To be a strength athlete, you have to engage in a progressive program to lead you to your goals. The nice thing about lifting is the numbers are crystal clear. I’m benching 95 and you’re benching 405. I have to get stronger!
This is why I still like the Olympic lifts and the deadlift for comparing generations. The O lifts and the DL have essentially stagnated for the past twenty years. Certainly there are amazing lifts, but there’s been less than stellar improvement across the board.
My good friend, Marty Gallagher loves to point out that outside of gear (in this case, squat suits, squat briefs, bench shirts, wraps and the like), there’s been almost no progress in powerlifting. Yes, there are exceptions, but like O lifting the sport has slowed to a crawl.
Find out what the best are doing. Look at what you’re doing. Now shrink the gap.
This is a criticism that gets tossed in my face sometimes. I’m a snob, a prude if you will, when it comes to track and field. I love reading how this magic program, device, or herb is the “do all and be all.” Fine. Take your profits, invest in some athletes, and prove it at a track meet.
The response is always something along the lines of, “Well, this isn’t sports specific,” or, “Track depends on perfection of biomechanics.” Okay, fine.
It’s easy to convince someone that a weight “feels lighter.” It’s not so easy to add three feet to the shot put or drop time off the 200-meter sprint.
If your idea does work for sprinters, throwers, and the rest of track and field, I’m going to sit in the front row and take notes. Even if I disagree with everything you say, if you get it right in Track and Field, and probably swimming, too, you’re right and I’ll listen to this grand scheme.
This looks like a rant, but it drives me crazy. Moms show up to practice and ask, “Are the boys hydrating?” No, first perspiration, then hydration.
The area from your hips to your shoulders is now the “core.” Today, Grandma asks me if discus throwing “builds your core.” Is shot putting “functional?” To play a one-hour game of soccer – or 20 minutes of standing and 40 minutes of picking daisies – my daughter used to get a sports drink, an orange, cookies, and a treat. This was to counteract the incredible efforts of a group of seven-year-old girls who usually forgot which goal to kick the ball towards.
I’m tired of it. Let’s bring an end to this pseudo-quasi-scientific language that’s permeating youth sports, recreation, and fitness. American children are getting fatter at a rate that no one predicted twenty years ago and yet parents flock around their kids like paparazzi around this week’s latest Lindsay Lohan scandal.
It’s called “water.” Deal with it.
I have an axiom when asked for advice. “Well, in four years, you’re going to be four years older no matter what, but if you go to college, you’ll have your degree.” Or, “In thirty years, you’re going to be thirty years older no matter what, but if you save ten percent of your income, you’ll have a comfortable retirement.”
The longer you put off something like “squat mastery” or eating clean, the more you’ll regret it later. Now, I don’t know when and what’s going to happen, but life seems so much easier when you master the basics, make yourself a slave to good habits, save ten percent of your income, and nurture quality relationships “now” versus “later.”
Get the degree, finish the thesis, buy good insurance, see your dentist twice a year, and do all the boring things of life as often as you can. Trust me, your health – financial, physical, spiritual, and emotional – will benefit from taking care of business early on.
Some of the athletes I first worked with are now sneaking up on age fifty and two are already over the half-century mark. Whenever we talk, the most common “gift” that I bestowed on them was this understanding to get Ôer done.
Aerobic dance continues to flourish in community centers. There’s a lot of “woos” as you walk past. What you don’t see is progress. For the record, if I took the introductory class, I would get the workout of a lifetime. Why? Because I would suck at it! Fat loss exercise, however, and it breaks my heart to say this, is about being completely inefficient.
Aerobic dance and most of the TV offers work for a few weeks. Then, you get good at it and progress stops. This is why I like the kettlelbell swing for fat loss. It’s a massive body move that eats up a ton of energy and you move nowhere. In fact, as you improve, you probably attack the movement harder, causing you to still move nowhere.
Len Schwartz’s HeavyHands was the same principle. You load up a couple of dumbbells in each hand and go for a walk. With these big pumping arm movements, you waste a ton of energy up and down and turn an easy walk in the park to an extremely wasteful use of energy. And you burn fat.
I love the combination of swings and push-ups, or goblet squats and push-ups for fat loss. The secret to fat loss is that wonderful pause after finishing the push-up when you have to get back up. It would be “better” to press as that would save you energy, but in this case, that’s “bad.”
For fat loss exercise, discover things you’re terrible at and do them. If you’ve never skated before, pad up and see how a quarter mile can ruin you for hours. As you get better technically, find something else! It’s the polar opposite of getting good at a sport or skill, but this is why consistent fat loss is so elusive for most people.
I said this at the Test-Fest in Washington, DC, and it still holds true. I’ve argued for years that taking a weekend to listen and learn is far better than doing the “same old, same old” thing in the workout.
And as I said that at Test-Fest, a guy walked in with his wife beater, his belt, and his little bag filled with gym gear. I couldn’t have planned it better. There’s a need for all of us to humble ourselves and open up to some new ideas. You probably should hang on to 80% of what you know, but be willing to throw out that other 20% and fill it with something that will get you to the next level.
This sounds similar to “put your money where your mouth is,” but there’s more to this. I think the hotel bar after the talk or the lunch between sessions or the hallway outside the conference is an opportunity to grow in ways you can only imagine.
You might get a chance to fill out a napkin (don’t lose that napkin) with a training program from one of the great names in the iron game. You might get invited to something like a dinner or a party and meet people that will change your life. You must go to these events to understand the idea behind the ideas you see presented here at TNation.
It’s a rare day I don’t think of my mom and dad, Coach Ralph Maughan, some of my heroes, and some of my friends who are no longer alive. I carry on, as best I can, but it’s becoming woefully obvious to me that my torch is burning dim and I’ll be passing it along sooner than later.
That’s why I write. That’s why I keep lists. That’s why I answer the same questions over and over and over again.
Our time on this precious earth is short. Good health and a measure of strength can help you live a better quality of life. And that’s the greatest lesson of my life.
I have a box in my storage room that contains all my training journals. Besides sets and reps, I toss in what’s going on in my life. Often, I find long essays about the future, lists about “what works,” and funny little tidbits about my life that I would’ve quickly forgotten had I not wrote them down.
It hit me when I picked up this box the other day that I’ve been recording workouts since 1971, five years after first picking up a weight. That’s forty years! I started to think about the lessons I’ve learned and, before I knew it, I had a list of forty lessons that I had to learn the hard way.
It makes me smile to see my attempt at neat handwriting in my first journal entries. The bench press workout was 85 x 8/8/4. I noted, “I was supposed to do six on the second set but it was too easy.” In the summer before my freshman year, I benched 100 pounds; my sophomore year, I benched 200 pounds; and I got 300 during my junior year in track season. I would write what I benched as a senior weighing 162 pounds, but you wouldn’t believe it.
I have a few notes about my coach’s son who came to our weight room one afternoon to see if I was “really as strong as my dad said I was.” I told him I’d already lifted and he said something that questioned my lifts. So, I put a low 300-pound lift on the bar and it went up so fast that he told me to stop. “I believe you…wow, I believe you.”
The value of a journal is seeing the progress (and the regress) of your training and training philosophy. I believe a thorough review of your old journals is probably as good as a training session.
Lesson 2: Eat like a man
This article pulled together some wonderful disconnected links that had spun in my brain for a few years. Yes, low carb is good, but carbs are not evil. For the strength enthusiast, or someone who wants to just be powerful, this article gives the template. The carb-depletion workout fit perfectly with a weekly volume day. The carb-up fit perfectly with life!
Now, you can agree or disagree with the diet, but all the athletes I had use this template found that their ability to train longer and harder was enhanced naturally by this simple eating program. And, as the author notes, people fear you in the supermarket!
You may not need to ever squat heavy, and you may also discover that there are some better tools for you (for you, read that carefully) like Bulgarian split squats or pistols, but mastery of the squat is worth every second you spend on it.
In past articles, like this, I’ve given you a template to follow. However, I still feel that the message has NOT been delivered. You must master this basic movement. Spend years on it if you have to, as I did, but learn to do this.
Yes, these are “books,” but the depth and insights will astound you.
Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” It still stuns me and scares me. The diet advice is unsupported by research.
T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King.” The first part is “The Sword in the Stone” and the book changed my life.
Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” The book is a science fiction legend, but the respect for education, in all its forms, makes it worth reading.
I would also tell you to read all of Harry Potter. Any book that introduces a character in the first chapter that’s so crucial to the whole story, yet won’t be seen again until the third book, and a question from the very beginning that isn’t answered until literally the end, deserves one’s time and energy.
There are others, of course, but the idea is that at times big goals and big stories also include epic tragedy and overcoming failure.
When I first made waves as a writer, I was usually quoted for insisting we go outside and train. It’s still great advice. I think that carrying equipment outside and working out in a communal gathering is the single best way to train. As a discus thrower, bringing my kettlebell to the field to do a few movements “now and again” was a game changer in helping me improve my throws. Grab some food and drink and a training tool and go outside and have some fun lifting.
I wrote on this a few years ago here . It’s very simple.
The Southwood Program is to be performed three days a week in the gym:
Although I learned this while Nixon was President and nobody traded with China, it still holds fast as a great training program. You don’t miss a single bodypart, it’s simple to learn, and a bit rigorous to do. It also demands that you clean and military press which we’ll get back to later.
If there’s a skill that’s overlooked it’s the ability to nap when necessary. If my athletes struggle with getting or staying asleep, we’re going to have issues down the line. Training oneself to relax is the first step. I recommend squeezing a muscle tight, then breathing out and releasing it. This helps enable falling effortlessly asleep literally any time, anywhere.
Sleep is the best recovery tool I know, but the skill of sound sleeping is often overlooked. Although I recommend ZMA®, Z-12TM, and eyeshades and earplugs to just about every audience I speak to, I still say that one also needs to practice relaxing. There are many CDs, DVDs and downloads that walk you through this skill and I can’t comment on them all, but it’s worth your time to practice this underrated skill.
I learned this from Pavel. It’s a “truism.” My all-time best number of pull-ups was 14 when getting ready for my senior year of high school football. I know this because of my journal (see Lesson One!). As I grew larger, I let myself slide all the way down to four reps. I also noted my shoulders hurt.
Taking Pavel’s advice, I started doing one or two pull ups throughout my training workouts. When two became ridiculously easy, I moved to three and soon four. I am now back to nine pull-ups and “miraculously” my shoulder health is back to being fine.
One surprising point about pull-ups is that they’re also a wonderful abdominal exercise. I don’t know why that is, but it will be evident the day after a long pull-up workout.
I love pictures of the old time strongmen with the huge kettlebells and fixed bars. When I first started training, gyms had fixed barbells in a rack, so you could grab a 75-pound barbell or a 105 pounder, just like the dumbbell rack today.
There’s some beauty in this. Originally, all I had was a 53-pound kettlebell and a 70 pounder. So, when I trained, I had two options. The “lack of options” made me dig down harder for certain movements. A few years ago, I noted that most of us should toss out the bulk of our weightlifting plates and just use 45s and 25s. One would have thought I’d blasphemed! I got negative feedback for weeks from that.
I stand by it. Yes, it’s a jump to go from 185 to 225. It means you have to own 185 and you’d better be ready for the load at 225. It’s also how we trained in college as the small plates were all broken and the football team stole all the 35s to stick on their machines (I won’t comment).
So, my first group of recruits when I began coaching learned to lift with 95, 135, and 185 pounds in the snatch and clean. They mastered the loads quickly because, well, we had no other options!
At nearly every talk I give, I note the importance of dental floss. Flossing is really good for you and it seems like it makes a difference in heart health. It takes about a minute to do it, too. But I get emails from guys who tell me, “I’ll do anything to get to X, Y or Z.” When I ask them first to floss twice a day, I get a return email that says something like “that is a problem as…” Listen, if you don’t have the discipline to floss twice a day, good luck with the Velocity Diet.
I do all the weird stuff. I use a Neti Pot for my sinuses, and I no longer take allergy medicine, so it “works.” I use a tongue scraper every morning, and learned that some foods really do make mucus, and I always supplement with fiber. Now, I don’t go so far as to do some of the higher-end stuff like colonics, but that’s not a judgment on my part.
I think that taking a little time each day to “cleanse” is worth it to your overall health. To me, it’s like eating vegetables and fruit. It’s got to be good for you at some level. And, let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to do.
When I first began throwing the discus as a 118-pound tower of terror, I won a lot of meets. No matter what, the kids at the other school would tell me, “If (insert name of fat kid) would’ve been here, he would’ve beaten you.” I used to believe that crap.
Whenever I win something, especially now in the Internet age, I always find out later that “somebody else” would’ve won it if, of course, they’d just shown up. Folks, it’s a truism that should be stuck to your bathroom mirror. “Show Up!”
I’ve fond memories of helping a friend off the floor as he was dieting down for an amateur bodybuilding contest and he was doing depleting workouts. He was in a brain fog for probably three weeks. Of course, on the dais under the lights, he looked magnificent and won “easily.”
The dude showed up. If you’re gunna gunna, you have to show up to prove it. “Gunna gunna” was a phrase my mom used for people who were “gunna do this and gunna do that.” It’s like graduating from high school or college. I swear to you, if you just show up, you’re gunna gunna do just fine.
One of my favorite books is Steve Ilg’s “Total Body Transformation.” Published in 2004, the book has amazing insights into human performance and reflects on Ilg’s courageous victory over a terrifying back injury. In the book, Ilg looks at a quote made about Mark Allen that he had become the World’s Greatest Athlete by winning a series of triathlons. Ilg came up with an interesting contest to see who actually was the world’s fittest human.
Ilg’s contest included basic gymnastic movements, weightlifting maxes, and yoga moves. My favorite section was the third day’s endurance event, a mountain bike race to an uphill finish. His genius is realizing that downhill is where the injuries happen, so why not test the athletes’ fitness as safely as possible?
I’ve had a lot of injuries that have caused me to spend a lot of time in hospital beds. One thing I’ve learned is that it is “almost” okay to get injured in competition, but it’s insane to get hurt in preparation. Stopping several reps short of failure or injury may not sound courageous on paper, but coming back to train tomorrow is more important than an additional “junk” rep.
I love the word “glib.” Usually, it means nonchalant (that has to be a French word; we need to find a way to say this glibly), but it also means “lacking depth and substance.” Now, most of my ex-girlfriends say that about me, but I digress.
I’ve always taken about six weeks a year to assess, reassess, and deal with my weaknesses. It’s always around the same few issues:
My hamstrings are too tight.
I need to work on X, Y, or Z.
So, how does one usually address these issues? Most people usually address weaknesses while also doing literally everything else. So, what happens in a typical six-week assessment program is we continue doing everything we did before and hope the weaknesses vanish magically. Without Harry Potter, that isn’t going to happen.
In the last decade I’ve discovered that weaknesses demand full concentration. As I’ve argued before, if you want to really address fat loss, do the Velocity Diet. Oh sure, there are other fine options, but do the V-Diet once and then decide how “grueling” Atkins or Ornish or the Zone are in terms of sacrifice.
Weaknesses need to be given full attention. If you have flexibility issues holding you back, then you need some kind of challenge. In the past I’ve recommended the Bikram Yoga 30-Day Challenge (you promise to go to the 90 minute sessions every day for thirty days) and I still can’t think of a better way to address the issue.
Weaknesses need to be attacked with depth. I charge you to examine every possibility in your search for ridding yourself of this issue. I’ve had people squat five days a week to address poor squatting technique and do 1,000 full turns a month to deal with discus throwing issues. If you have a clear weakness, total focus with every tool and weapon you can muster has to be the plan.
Don’t be glib.
Neither is it treadmilling, or whatever machine you think of right now. Conditioning is more than that. I gave some insights in this article, but few people were interested in trying out the tumbling. This little workout is the finest “finisher” I know and you only have to do it once.
Five right shoulder rolls
Five left shoulder rolls
Three cartwheels followed by three cartwheels to the other side
One set of bear crawls (about ten meters)
Sprint to waste basket
I think the intensity of conditioning trumps the duration most of the time. I have more to say on this later, but most people don’t train hard enough to get in and get out.
That said, I also think most under-appreciate hiking, biking, and long, easy treks along the beaches and meadows of this fine planet. As noted earlier, go outside and breathe real air.
Recently, I wrote a series of articles on the five basic human movements.
Now, you can certainly add vertical and horizontal and rotational and many other things to this list, but if you’re skipping one of the basic five human movements, your training isn’t optimal.
You’re probably missing loaded carries and squats. The one lesson I’ve learned over and over is most people ignore these two things. So, start doing farmer walks, waiter walks, suitcase walk, sleds, and pushing cars a few days a week and master the basics of squatting.
You won’t believe the progress you’ll make!
I still love the Atkins Diet. I keep some correspondences from 1999 from a group of women who lost 100 pounds each doing the Atkins Diet and a little weightlifting. I probably learned more from them than I ever learned from those with a bunch of initials after their names.
Here was the genius behind Atkins, in case you missed it. Dr. Atkins notes in his book that to become obese, you did something “unbalanced.” To get yourself back to sleek, lithe, firm and fantastic, you honestly can’t do a balanced approach. Finding balance at 100 pounds over-fat will keep you there. He recommended an “unbalanced” approach to get back to your target.
I’ve used this contrarian thinking process ever since I read this. In coaching the throws, I teach athletes with bad habits to throw with the “other” hand, do things backwards, try throwing with the 56-pound weight, and a variety of things that I’d consider “unbalanced.” Now, if I’m working with a raw beginner, obviously I’d pattern and model the best technique possible, but with someone with ingrained bad habits, I look for ways to completely rework the system.
If you’ve been training for four years and never really squatted, I’d recommend you squat five days a week for two years. Crazy? Yes! But that’s exactly what Dick Notmeyer had me do, and not only did I add forty pounds of lean body mass in four months, I also mastered the movement.
This “theme” seems to be a reoccurring lesson in my career.
But if you do decide to “do everything at once” for a while, there may be benefits at the other end of the wormhole.
By the time I was a senior at Utah State University, I’d lifted at least three days a week, usually five to eight, for seven and a half years. I played football, soccer, wrestled, and competed at a fairly high level as an Olympic lifter. Oh, and I was a Division One thrower gathering points as a discus thrower, hammer thrower, and shot putter.
In January of my senior year, I hit the wall. I was sick of lifting and just couldn’t keep up trying to do everything.
This “plan” worked perfectly. After all those years of training half the year as a thrower and the other half as an athlete in another sport AND keeping an enormous load in the weight room, I backed off everything.
I never went over 385 that winter and spring in the squat. I did clean and snatch, but always within reason. I didn’t play in pick up games or intramurals or, honestly, anything. I went to school, lifted a little, and threw a little. I ended up with what Coach Ralph Maughan called “the greatest season in the history of USU throwing,” which, at the time, was quite a big deal.
The lesson? Well, after doing seven years of “everything,” backing off to just one thing propelled me to a level of success that simply shocked me with the ease I attained it.
Less is more. This is a fundamental truism in the strength arts. But you first have to really put a lot of “more” in. Like Earl Nightingale used to say about the fireplace, many people walk up to the fireplace and say “give me heat.” The right way to do it is to get some paper, some kindling, some logs, and light a match. Then you get some heat.
You have to explore and learn and try many things to be able later to whittle them all down into a simple package. I can show you some short cuts and so can all the other authors here, but you need to put the time and effort into the “more” before you can master the “less.”
My friend, Pavel Tsatsouline, handed me this great two-day a week training program. I shared it with a young, busy guy who told me it was too easy. I knew he was lying, so I tweaked it for him. Here’s the “King of Less Training Programs”:
|Day One||Day Two|
|Bench press||Bench press|
That’s it. It’s the minimalist’s minimal workout. Now, let’s look at my tweaks:
- Only 45 and 25-pound plates!
- No less than ten reps on every set of bench and squat until the last set.
- No less than five reps on every deadlift.
So, the bench press workout was sets of ten, add weight, until the last set where you grind out as many as possible.
A bench example from 1993 when I did this same basic program:
225 x 10
315 x 10
365 x “as many”
For the squat, the last set should be around bodyweight, usually 185 or 225, and you go for at least 30 reps.
In the deadlift, keep grinding out those sets of five. Over time, feel free to slide this down to three reps, then two reps.
On paper, this looks so easy!
Whenever I talk with someone who has been around gyms for a long time, usually this story comes up:
The interesting thing is the experienced guy probably got more out of the exchange than the neophyte. When you try to teach someone something you know, you begin to pick up those subtle points that you may have forgotten or, perhaps more common, you may know but never knew you knew it! Teaching someone to squat might make you rethink how you move the whole system down and not just bend the knees.
Oh, sure, you can lose your mind helping someone learn the basics of weight training, but for most the time spent teaching others is like finding a vein of pure gold.
I’ve been there. I read those massive ads for Nautilus in Scholastic Coach and Athletic Journal and thought, for sure, that this was the ticket to success. Plyometrics had me leaping off tall buildings with a single bound and limping up flights of stairs. Don’t even get me started with the stupid things I’ve tried.
Most of “it” is crap. From the magic supplements, like B-15 (better than 14!) to the promises of this huckster or that guru, I’ve rarely discovered much beyond the basics that works.
I remember fasting for 14 hours before a workout and doing set after set after set of compound leg exercises and consuming a whiff of some exotic herbs to enhance my growth hormone. It enhanced someone else’s wallet.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
Training Speed to Get Strong
Imagine two lifters standing near one another – each with a barbell loaded to 405 pounds on the floor in front of them.
Assume these two are identical in every way – except for one key fact. Lifter A was a high-jumper, but Lifter B got his physique from more traditional bodybuilding methods.
Neither of these guys has ever deadlifted 405 previously.
Which of the two do you put your money on to hit the PR if you don’t know anything else about them?
Ten times out of ten, I take the high jumper – and I’d guarantee you that most folks in the human performance industry would do the same. Why?
Based on his athletic background, you can assume that he’s learned to apply force quickly.
These two might have the exact same peak force capabilities, but the guy who can put force into the ground the quickest to break that bar from the floor stands a better chance of completing the lift.
The take-home message is very simple: learn to apply force quickly and it’ll make you stronger. The optimal approach, however, is not that simple; in fact, it’s different for everyone – and that’s what I’ll cover in this article.
What You Can Learn from the Crazy Father of an Unathletic 14 Year-Old
At Cressey Performance, we train a lot of high school athletes. Roughly once a week, we have a father come in and tell us that his kid needs more “agility training” in his program because he isn’t quite fast enough. I encourage them all to read this article: Make My Kid Run Faster.
The basic gist of the article is that you can do all the speed training you want with a young kid, but unless he has a foundation of strength, it won’t help much at all. It’s the equivalent of swapping out the fuzzy dice in the mirror of a car with no engine.
Sprinting and change-of-direction work involve substantial ground reaction forces, and without adequate strength to provide eccentric control, unprepared bodies turn to mush. You have to have force in order to display force quickly.
How does this apply to incorporating speed work in a strength-training program? Very simply, if you haven’t built a solid foundation of strength, incorporating specific speed work in your program probably won’t do much for you.
What’s a solid foundation of strength? If I had to estimate it based on previous experience, I’d say a 1.5x body weight squat, 1.25x body weight bench press, and 1.75x body weight deadlift.
With folks that aren’t quite at that level who still want to give a passing nod to speed, I typically just recommend that they add a few additional warm-up sets on their first exercise of the day. On these additional sets, their focus is outstanding concentric bar speed in perfect technique. So if a 185-pound guy is working up to squatting 230×3, he might proceed as follows:
95 x 5
135 x 3
155 x 3 Fast
165 x 3 Fast
175 x 3 Fast
185 x 3
205 x 3
230 x 3 (first official work set)
A normal work-up for this guy might be 45×8, 95×5, 135×3, 185×3, 205×3 – and then on to his first work set at 230. In this instance, however, he adds an additional three sets of speed work without beating up on his body or adding unnecessary volume that could interfere with his more important work sets.
In the process, he not only gets a chance to practice technique, but also learns that he should always accelerate the bar as fast as possible. The intent to develop force quickly is where it’s at – even if the bar speed isn’t tremendous, that bar speed will come in time.
What Constitutes Speed Work, Anyway?
I’ve seen some blanket recommendations about how to best train bar speed in the weight room, but I’m not sure that there’s one that’s universally accurate. You see, the slower you are (regardless of how much force you can develop), the lower the percentage of one-repetition maximum (1RM) you’ll need to use.
Conversely, the fastest guys usually don’t even need to train speed; their natural reactive ability allows them to just lift heavy stuff and continue to get faster. You can usually identify these naturally fast-twitch guys as people who will absolutely smoke a lift at 99% of their 1RM, but get absolutely stapled by 101%. They either crush a lift or don’t get it at all (whereas most folks will have to grind them all out).
As the saying goes, “It’s easier to make a fast guy strong than it is to make a strong guy fast.” Most folks (myself included) are somewhere in the middle.
With that in mind, I like to let the bar “sound” dictate whether the weight is right. In most cases, if you’re accelerating the bar with good speed, you’ll hear the plates rattle against each other in the strongest portion of the movement.
In fact, a good way to test this out is to simply load up a bar to roughly the weight you think you should use, but use several 2.5- and 5-pound plates in the process, then put the safety clamp about 1″ away from the weights. If you’re smoking big weights, the plates will make some noise – but you won’t get this if the bar is too heavy.
At what weight will this take place? In most cases, 40-70% of 1RM is your best bet. Of course, there are exceptions; as an example, jump squat percentages will be lower because you’re actually leaving the ground. And, of course, the Olympic lifts – which are absolutely fantastic for improving rate of force development – are self-limiting in that if you can’t move the bar fast, you simply won’t complete the lift.
Of course, all the preceding paragraphs assume that you need external loading to improve speed to the point that it’ll carry over to lifting. That’s not necessarily the case.
Ten Ways to Train Speed in Your Strength Training Program
A lot of folks get stuck in a rut when it comes to training speed in the context of strength and conditioning. It seems like everyone’s all about just doing box squats and bench presses – but there really are a number of other options.
- Sprinting: No equipment needed. It might not carry over perfectly from a specificity standpoint, but running fast will never make you less athletic. In terms of resisted sprinting, I’ve never been a fan of sprinting with parachutes, but we will use sprinting with sleds.
- Box Jumps: You go up, but don’t come down – so the pounding on the body is minimized. I’ve read of quite a few high-level deadlifters who have utilized box jumps with outstanding success.
- Countermovement (Vertical) and Broad Jumps: You can do these with body weight only, or against added resistance. Band-resisted broad jumps are arguably my favorite exercise for training posterior chain power.
- Medicine Ball Drills: These might not carry over from a specificity standpoint, but frankly, people spend too much time in the sagittal plane – and power training is no different. Plus, it’s fun as hell to try to smash medicine balls. You can do overhead, rotational, and scoop variations. I’d also put sledgehammer swings against tires in this category.
- Non-Sagittal Plane Plyos: Like medicine ball drills, they aren’t necessarily “specific” to lifting, but there will be carryover, and you’ll certainly move better on the whole. We utilize many different variations of heidens with our athletes.
- Olympic lifts: As noted earlier, assuming you learn proper technique and you have the adequate mobility to perform them correctly, you can’t go wrong with Olympic lifts if you’re trying to improve universal bar speed. Cleans, snatches, high pulls, jerks, you name it; if you’re slow, they can help.
- Squat Variations: Following the percentage variations I noted above, you have loads of options for variations: different bars (straight bar, giant cambered bar, safety squat bar), free squats, box squats, Anderson squats (from pins or chains), and different forms of accommodating resistances (chains and bands).
- Deadlift Variations: I increased my deadlift from 510 to 628 in just under a year, and I’m convinced that it had to do with the fact that my programs included speed deadlift variations twice a week for that entire period. You can do conventional, sumo, trap bar, and snatch grip variations.
- Bench Press Variations: As with the last two examples, variety is easy to include. You can vary grip width, change bars (straight bar, multipurpose bar, thick bar), perform the movement with or without a pause at the bottom, and implement different accommodating resistances.
- Plyometric or Clap Push-ups: These can be a good change of pace for those who are bored with speed benching – and they can be great exercises to take on the road if you don’t have a lot of equipment at your fingertips.
How to Pick the Right Speed Exercises for You
Several factors influence which of the above modalities you choose, but the foremost of these factors are a) your goal and b) your current training experience.
If your goal is to deadlift a Buick, then you need to go with specific options. I’d use speed deadlift variations almost exclusively, and perhaps just use some broad/box jump variations and a bit of hip dominant squatting for speed as variety. Specificity will always rule if lifting heavier weights is the only goal.
If you’re just an Average Joe trying to get more athletic with some solid carryover to your strength training program, I’d rotate my “speed work” on a monthly basis. Each month, in both the upper and lower body, I’d do one movement with minimal external loading (jumping variation, sprinting, medicine ball work) and another with more appreciable loading (speed box squats, speed deadlifts, or Olympic lifts).
If you have two upper-body and two lower-body training sessions in each week, you could simply do one in each as the first movement of each session. I’m in this category, and I tend to do one day of speed benches and one day of speed squats or deadlifts per week, then supplement it with a bit of sprinting and some medicine ball throws. In other words, I get some general, and some specific.
If you’ve got decent speed already, chances are that you can get away with just once a week in both the upper and lower body.
As you can probably tell, I don’t see any reason to devote specific training sessions, weeks, or entire blocks specifically to training speed. Rather, I see it as one component of a comprehensive program – and something that can be trained alongside other strength qualities in each training block. You might do more of it at certain times than others, but that doesn’t mean it should be performed to the exclusion of everything else; heavy lifting and rep work definitely still has its place!
When to Include Speed Work
Most of the time, the best place to put your speed drills is first thing in your strength training session, right after the warm-up. In other words, it’d be your “A1.” There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule.
I’ve often done my speed deadlifting as my “B1” exercise after heavy squatting.
We’ll also integrate complex training, in which a speed exercise is preceded by a heavier load. In other words, you might do a heavy set of 2-4 reps on a front squat, and then do a set of five countermovement (vertical) jumps within 20-30 seconds.
You’d rest 2-3 minutes, and then repeat the process. Through a principle known as post-activation potentiation, the heavy loading of the front squat increases neural drive and recruitment of high-threshold motor units, which in turn allows for greater power output on the subsequent task. It can work great, but if you do it all the time, you can burn athletes out.
Finally, in certain cases, it might be necessary to do a separate speed session altogether. Sprinting and medicine ball work, for instance, may need to take place in a separate location than lifting, so for sake of convenience, you’d just perform those exercises on their own.
Basically, the idea is to train speed when you’re fresh. Doing a bunch of box jumps at the end of a heavy lower body training session isn’t just unproductive; it’s dangerous.
Everyone needs speed, but some certainly need to improve in this regard more than others – and some don’t even “qualify” for dedicated speed work because they haven’t already built up a solid foundation. If you use the aforementioned strategies for implementing speed training in your training programs, I’m confident that you’ll start hitting big weights faster than ever.
Pull-ups are to workout routines like vegetables are to nutrition. We all know we should eat lots of fresh vegetables, but how many of us actually do? The same goes for pull-ups.
It’s an exercise that should be in any training program, regardless of whether the goal is strength or physique oriented. There’s no better test of real-world strength, and getting strong at pull-ups will have carryover to all other major lifts. They’ll also add serious muscle to your lats, traps, rhomboids, biceps, and forearms, and if you control your lower body, even your core.
According to strength coach Mike Boyle, lifters should be able to do pull-ups with as much weight (including bodyweight) as they can bench press, meaning that a 200-pound guy that bench presses 300 pounds should be able to do a pull-up with 100 pounds added.
In my opinion, a 1:1 pull-up to bench press ratio should be the minimum. I’d much rather see the scale tipped towards pull-ups.
Sadly, I rarely see that happening, and considering pull-ups have been removed from most middle school physical education curriculums – because so few kids can even do them – it’s doubtful that we have a generation of kick-ass “pull-uppers” on the horizon.
This is not okay, and it’s time we raise the bar and get people pulling their chest up to meet it.
I’m going to assume that most of the males reading this can do at least 7-8 bodyweight pull-ups, with whatever grip you prefer. If you can’t, and have been training for more than a few years, take this as a wake-up call that you seriously need to reconsider your training, nutrition, or both. Read this article from T NATON contributor Tim Henriques and get to work. If you can already do 7-8 reps, keep reading.
Once you’ve established a solid strength base, it’s time to take it up a notch. Here are five effective ways to get more out of your pull-ups and build some big-time strength and muscle to take your training to the next level.
I put these first because they lay the foundation for the progressions to come.
- Pull yourself up until your upper chest is level with the bar.
- Keep your chest puffed out, elbows pulled down and back, and focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together hard. Now hold it right there.
Feel those muscles burning in your upper back? Those are the ones you should be using on every rep of pull-ups. For now though, just squeeze harder.
Iso holds are great because they force you to recruit the proper muscles. If you don’t actively retract your scapulae and try to rely on your arms to do the work, you won’t last long. They’ll also help strengthen the lower traps and rhomboids, which can assist with posture and ward off shoulder issues.
I recommend doing these with a pronated “false” grip (an overhand grip with the thumbs draped over the top of the bar). While both variations work the lats, research has shown significantly higher EMG activation in the lower traps during pull-ups as opposed to chin-ups, which emphasize the biceps. Using a false grip helps take the elbow flexors out of the equation so the back can bear the brunt of the work.
Try adding a 30-45 second hold at the end of your regular pull-up workout. Once you reach 45 seconds, add weight.
Here we literally take the arms out of the pull up. You’ll need a pair of ab straps, typically used for hanging leg raises.
- Get into the same starting position as you would for leg raises, with your upper arms in the straps and your legs hanging straight down (I prefer to cross them to prevent leg swing).
- Make sure the straps are flush against the top of the triceps, almost into the armpits.
- Puff out the chest and arch the back slightly.
- Now pull up as high as possible and hold for a second.
If done correctly, you should get a similar sensation in your upper back that you felt during the iso holds, and the body position should be essentially the same: chest up, elbows back, shoulders pinched together. Now lower as far down as you can and repeat for reps.
The range of motion will be slightly shorter than a normal pull-up, but the basic movement pattern is the same. These aren’t meant to replace pull-ups, but can serve as a teaching tool to help you learn to use the right muscles to get more out of pull-ups. Try doing a set of these before your regular routine to help activate the right muscles and give you a sense for how it should feel.
This variation is also great if you ever (heaven forbid) incur an injury to a finger, hand, wrist, or elbow so you can still get a good training effect while your injury heals.
This is a personal favorite of mine because it’s a teaching tool and a muscle and strength builder all wrapped into one. When someone comes to me saying that they “can’t feel their lats” during pull-ups, I give them these and voila, it’s an instant cure.
You can use any grip you wish – pronated, supinated, neutral, they’re all great. However, if you go with a pronated grip, I’d recommend using a “false” grip since this is more a “feel” exercise and we want to remove the elbow flexors as much as possible.
- Perform a pull-up as normal.
- Now lower yourself halfway down until the top of your head just clears the bar, and pull yourself back up. That’s one rep.
- Now lower all the way down and repeat.
- Perform 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps.
This style helps ensure that each rep is done under control and the right muscles are doing the work. Not to mention that because you’re performing twice as many contractions as a normal set, it’s great for strengthening the upper back and lats, and the increased time under tension can lead to more muscle growth.
1.5 reps can be used in place of regular pull-ups in your routine. Remember though, that 6-8 means 6-8 “1.5” reps. You should be able to handle about two-thirds of what you can do for regular pull-ups, so if you can normally get 12, you should be good for 8 “1.5” reps.
Once you can get 6-8 clean reps, add weight. Just be aware that they can produce intense soreness, particularly in the beginning, so be aware and consider limiting the volume to start.
Let’s shift from “feel” exercises and focus on getting stronger. Weighted pull-ups are the first step, but most lifters will quickly reach a plateau. Here’s where “speed work” can come into play.
Powerlifters have long used speed work to improve their bench, squat, and deadlift. The goal is to improve rate of force development, so instead of going heavy they’ll use a lighter load and move it fast. Taking this concept and applying it to pull-ups, we get the band-resisted pull-up.
- Attach one end of a band (or bands, depending on your strength level) to a heavy dumbbell on the floor directly beneath the pull-up bar.
- Affix the other end to a belt attached to your waist. The band should be taught at the bottom, but not overly tight.
- Do pull-ups as normal, trying to do each rep explosively. Speed is key here.
Bands work great because they provide accommodating resistance, meaning there’s less tension at the bottom and more tension at the top as the bands get pulled tighter. This forces you to pull explosively through each rep to avoid being pulled down by the bands as the tension increases.
Once a week, perform 6 sets of 3 reps in place of your normal pull-up workout. Do 2 sets each with a pronated, neutral, and supinated grip, and don’t go anywhere near failure on any set. Add more band tension as needed, but err on the side of too light as opposed to too heavy.
Supramaximal Weighted Hangs
I got this idea from Dante Trudel, creator of Dogg Crapp Training, and adapted it for my own purposes. Dante suggests strapping onto the bar and doing a heavily weighted, wide-grip pull-up hang for 90-120 seconds at the conclusion of a back workout to help stretch the fascia and induce hypertrophy in the lats.
There’s research to suggest that prolonged weighted stretching may induce hypertrophy, and Dante’s track record of producing behemoths certainly backs up his methods. However, that’s not my primary goal with this movement.
I suggest doing the hang without straps and only holding it for 45 seconds. This is to increase task-specific grip strength and to get the body acquainted with heavier loads than you’d otherwise use for pull-ups, so when it comes time to perform the weights don’t feel as heavy. It can also lead to some new muscle growth, but I suppose that’s just gravy.
It’s important to note that this isn’t a passive hang – you still want to keep the chest puffed out, lats flared, and scapulae depressed to keep the tension on the muscles and off the joints. Another way to think of it is to keep your shoulders pulled down as far away from your ears as you can. A pronated or neutral grip works best here, as a supinated grip puts too much stress on the shoulders and biceps.
Perform one hang at the conclusion of your pull-up workout, on a different day than you perform the iso hold mentioned above. Be sure to choose your weight conservatively in the beginning and work your way up slowly. It will take some getting used to, but soon you’ll be able to handle far more weight than you could ever dream of pulling up. Once that happens, grip strength should be a non-issue and your heaviest pull-ups will feel far less intimidating.
Now that you’re armed with five new tools for your pull-up arsenal, it’s time to figure out how to put them to use in your current program. While I suggested general guidelines for how to use each exercise, I avoided exact sets and reps recommendations as that must be based on your current strength levels and the program you’re following.
I certainly wouldn’t include all five variations at once though, simply because you’d have no way of knowing what worked and what didn’t! Add them in slowly, and always give it a few weeks to see how things go before making further changes.
Which exercises work best for you will largely depend on your weaknesses. If you’re one of those people that can’t seem to “feel” their back working on pull-ups, the hands-free and “1.5” rep technique work well.
On the other hand, if your rhomboids are weak and you struggle to finish the last few inches of each rep, iso holds may help, and if you lack starting strength, try speed work. Finally, if you need grip work, weighted hangs could be just what the physique doctor ordered.
You get the idea. Figure out where your weaknesses are, and see if you can apply the right tools to help shore them up. Whichever way you chose, just make sure that you include some form of pull-ups and for goodness sake, get strong at them. After all, someone has to carry the mail for the next generation of couch potatoes.
Older athletes are reluctant to take it easy even though their bodies have aged – The Washington Post
Older athletes are reluctant to take it easy even though their bodies have aged
By Rebecca Leet,
Back Building Basics
Get Some Back, Baby!
- Deadlifting is the base. Train deads with relatively low reps and volume but with very heavy weights. Try working deadlifts in four week wave cycles.
- Chin-ups are the most effective exercise for upper back width. Try them with varying grips for relatively high reps and sets to build a complete back.
- Heavy rows are vital for adding upper back thickness. Barbell rows, old school T-bar rows, and heavy dumbbell rows are among the most effective variations.
- Try the Kroc row to take your back size and strength to a new level.
Week one: Work up to one heavy set of 5 reps in 4-5 sets.
Week two: Work up to one heavy set of 3 reps in 4-5 sets
Week three: Work up to a heavy single in 4-5 sets.
Week four: No deadlifting.
Warm up. Then perform as many sets as necessary to total 100 reps, alternating each set between a wide overhand grip, a medium neutral grip, and a close neutral or underhand grip.
Work up to one all-out set (with each arm) of 20-30 reps with as heavy a dumbbell as possible. Every week strive to set a new rep PR. When able to perform 30 reps, increase the weight. Don’t do the wimpy where you keep your elbow tucked!