Know your Barbells

This past weekend I was in the student rec center doing once again some upper body speed work. While there training I happened to witness some super bros. doing what could only be referred to as a shrug, partial deadlift, and seizure hybrid lift by taking a bar in the power rack and lifting it from the safeties at mid-thigh height. Between their hyper extended spines and weird vertical and horizontal oscillations, I’m still confused as to what was going on, but glad no one died. At first glance it looked like they were doing this with an Olympic lifting barbell (due to the amount of whip) and I talked with the front desk worker about this. She corrected me that it was a Texas deadlift bar they were doing this with, but what they were doing was still not good for the bar.

Seeing this got me thinking about doing a basic piece about knowing your barbells. Not all barbells are the same, most bars that you use are 7 feet long and weight 45lbs. while empty (some people refer to these as the “big bars”), shorter bars when made of steel typically weight 35 lbs. and are not meant for the heavy lifts (exception women’s Olympic bars), but to help people learn the movements. It is even possible to get 15lbs. aluminum bars to do some lifting technique work with young children and weak adults. The rest of this will mostly center on talking only about the 45lbs. conventional barbell and some subtle differences between each bar you come across. Some have more focused uses and we can break them up over three basic components:

Knurling

This is the grip the bar has, bars that feel sharper are typically newer bars and will do a better job of staying in your hands when doing different lifts. If you are doing max attempts at just about anything aim to use a bar with sharper knurling. With this being said be careful to make sure that you use chalk on your hands to avoid getting “rips” also known as painful removals of the top couple layers of skin on your hands. A bar with little to no knurling is not necessarily a bad thing since it will challenge your grip more and be useful for higher rep hypertrophy work especially after your hands have taken a bit of a beating from the heavy weights (I like this when deadlifting).

Where the knurling is at on the bar also effects what it is most useful for. If there is knurling in the center of the bar this is to set it in your shirt when you are squatting with it, typically that band is about six inches long, for a high quality squat bars this will be a foot or more wide which is great since it will really seat the bar on your traps/upper back when you are squatting, this is not optimal for deadlifting since it is a good way to donate more shin skin to the barbell. When there is no center knurling this is an indicator that this is a good bench press, deadlift, or Olympic lifting bar. How you know which of those three functions it is best for you learn from the next two details.

Spin

This is the collar or sleeve of the barbell where you put weights on. All barbells should spin a little bit here, how good they spin comes down to the quality of bearings, has it been oiled recently, and how well has it been taken care of. A good Olympic bar should spin freely and quickly if you flick it to do so. This is good so that when you are cranking the bar on the snatch or clean it is going to rotate to make it easier to catch. If the bar rotates slowly or not at all this is not a good bar for Olympic lifting since the momentum of the bar weights on the collars rotating might make the bar rotate in your wrists and risk hyper extending your wrists or otherwise (experience talking here hint: it hurts). However, this lack of rotation is great for pressing and deadlifting. You want a bar that won’t roll and stay static in your hands to make it easier to control with your wrists while you are pressing.

Whip

No, I’m not talking about my hair back and forth, this is how much the bar will oscillate under a heavy load. Some folks might not lift heavy enough to ever get a bar to do this, and that’s ok. Bar whip is useful when you are deadlifting heavy because the bar will actually flex before it will final leave the ground which makes it easier to start the deadlift (almost like pulling from blocks). For Olympic lifting this can be useful and allow you to ride out the lifts and allow the catch to be a bit gentler on the body. Whip in the bar is the last thing you want when weights are heavy in the squat and pressing since this makes the bar feel less stable and is rather uncomfortable to lift with.

Bonus point – Bend

This is not a good thing for just about anything aside from squatting. A bent bar can put the stress poorly on your wrists and hands when the weight gets heavy. Now putting the bend across your upper back when squatting actually feels better than a straight bar and in fact some specialty bars are made to do just that (I’ll write about specialty bars at a later date). In order to check for any bend in a bar put it in a rack and slowly spin it while watching the end of collar if it starts to move up and down as you rotate the bar, the bar is bent. At this point make the decision if this is acceptable for you.

Bonus Point – Diameter

Your typically barbell has a diameter of about an inch where you grip and two inches for the collars. Some bars will be slightly thinner than the typical bar width where you grip the bar, this is useful if you have small hands. Slightly thicker bars are made when they are designed for heavy squatting or are poorly made (fat bars are a specialty bar that I will talk about later). When in doubt put your hands on a bar and feel the diameter and when you have been lifting for long enough you will be able to just notice what is what.

Wrapping up

This was a basic overview of components of barbells that effect training. I can definitely be a bit of a princess with lifting bars, but if you are lifting maximal weights having proper equipment is useful. You can play baseball with a wood bat or metal bat, but you probably won’t try to hit a baseball while using a wiffle ball bat. Overall my favorite bar to use is a Texas power bar (Texas Forever, Pruter and Jaked!), it just works well for everything but isn’t optimal for anything if that makes any sense. It is a great general bar. From there you can get Olympic lifting specific bars, deadlift bars, squat bars, and so on. If you are going to buy yourself a bar to lift with accept the fact that a good bar costs at least $300, this is something where you pay for quality. The Sears brand bars will bend with only 300 lbs. on them and if bars say they can handle 1500lbs. unless they are called a mastodon bar you are probably wasting your time.

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Conversations with Hitter: Back Work

Once again RECing myself on a Saturday I run in to an ex college football player turned natural bodybuilder who is a lot of fun to work with, I’ll refer to him here as “Hitter”. I’ve thrown him in the bod pod a number of times and let’s just say the guy could do his laundry with his abs. He is a very smart, motivated, and social young guy who I have had a number of good conversations about drugs in sports (steroids and otherwise), nutrition, and motorcycles. He is a straight edge guy so it is nice to work with someone that also knows the temptation but has reasons for not using PEDs (I’ll talk about drug use at length at a later date).

So Hitter is doing some back work and starts his workout off with pull ups and then moves on to some t-bar rows. He works hard and his intensity on his training is up so I ask him about his training weights and he says how he always does bodyweight on the pull ups and then on to the rows, then some neutral grip pull downs and some dead lifts later. We chat for a bit and here is the advice I gave him for getting more out of his training here.

#1 Deadlift first

In general take the movement that requires the greatest amount of muscle mass and effort to do and do that first, you can definitely deadlift in a fatigue state if your goal is to force other musculature to take over for what has fatigued out, but otherwise stick with it first so you can load it up and have the greatest amount of difference on your lean body mass especially as a drug free trainee.

#2 Weighted pull ups

Hitter does sets of 10 in the pull ups easier than most do sets of 10 in crunches. In order to get stronger at this point he needs to push himself to do loads that are more challenging and in the world of body weight exercises you have two choices: add weight or reps. Reps can be nice but the higher repetitions are starting to work more of an energy production issue not so much a total amount of contractile tissue limitation (more muscle = more force). So adding weight to his body weight will allow him to keep moving forward and improving

#3 Don’t be afraid to do single arm compound work.

Now some people like the t-bar rows, I don’t. Barbell rows are great, but he didn’t have any form of single arm dumbbell or barbell rows (sometimes called meadows rows). This is a movement that most people can do more with one hand than they can with two (unlike dumbbell pressing) so a larger load to be lifted with requires a larger force, hence more work and damage to the muscle tissue by overload which in turn should end in more muscle hypertrophy. This was a point you can argue either way, but I wanted to put my two cents in.

#4 More weighted chin up work

Lat pull downs are something you do when you aren’t strong enough to do enough chin ups or pull ups. If you can consistently bang out sets of ten on various grips of pull ups just keep adding weight to yourself. Hitter is one of those guys, so my advice to him here was to go do things that are awesome (weighted chin ups) instead of that type of machine work. Changing your grips when you are doing chin ups will start to utilize slightly different recruitment patterns to the muscle.

#5 Adequate volume    

If he is doing all of these exercises for about 3 total works sets overall he will have done 12 sets of work which will be a solid training dose for the day (10-20 will be enough for most). Hitter has a good head on his shoulders and doesn’t do sets of less than 4 or 20 reps or more for hypertrophy. Your goal when training for size will be over 5 and less than 15 most of the time with the sweet spot being about sets of 8-10 reps. That being said you can always change your emphasis over different training cycles as a means to keep progression going and avoiding boredom.

Hitter went back to his training and as per the usual got after it. The guy works hard and I look forward to seeing how he progresses with time in both life and training.

At the end of the day your training for size and strength really comes down to two variables: how much force you are producing and how long you are producing that force. Using compound movements with large loads always requires more force production and utilize higher reps (10, I’m a powerlifter keep that in mind) will induce more hypertrophy with time, especially when you consistently increase your loads (and periodically take a deload week). If you have any questions or otherwise please post them and I will go ahead and take them on.

As a bonus here is a video from training this week:

Top deadlifting set

Chatting With Alvin – Things I Forget to Remember

On Saturday I went down to campus and got in a good little speed upper training session which was moseying along pretty well. Part of my speed work I do chin ups with a weight attached to me for sets of 3-5 focusing on fast concentric (lifting my body up) and controlled eccentric (lowering myself). The goal here is to recruit high threshold motor units without having to use maximal loads. I utilized relatively brief rest periods with high total training volume on the Prillipen chart. I’m super setting this with close grip speed bench with some chains added to the total bar weight for their accommodating resistance aspects.

Notice how self-involved that paragraph seemed with a bit too much analysis (not to be anti-intellectual but I’ll explain more on this in a later post).

Enter Alvin.

Alvin is an older gentleman that I’ve seen in the gym consistently for the past year I’ve been training at the student rec center on campus. He’s a lean older gentleman who is probably about 6’2” and pretty lean. Not overly muscled but he has bicep veins that stick out like he has pencils under his skin. I’m doing these pull ups and he compliments me on doing the weight like that. I tell him thank you and something along the lines of “sometimes I like to add a bit more to body weight” and Alvin tells me to keep it up. I go back to the speed bench and come back to more pull ups and Alvin is doing some weighted dips (with a 25 strapped to him). I tell him nice work and he says thanks. Things go on and we both hit our own independent workout. He wraps up before me, so I walk up to him to introduce myself. He tells me his name and then tells me somethings that I forgot to remember. He says to me (best as I can remember):

“Whenever I come here I always try to compliment the kids on what they are doing. I try to encourage them so they set this habit and keep it up. I went to my 50th high school reunion a few weeks back and those of us that are still around, and a number aren’t, are fat and can barely get around. I just want to make sure they can enjoy their health and moving when they get older.”

In my mind at this point I’m thinking about how I look at some of the crazy stupid stuff I see at the student rec center and how it makes me sigh and want to rant to fix things, but at the end of the day the kids are in the gym. They are doing something. They are moving, lifting, and working. And if we can do our best to help reinforce this behavior we have a better chance of making this world a bit better of a place by one person at a time. Alvin has that figured out, and I greatly appreciate his words. Not only does he understand this, but he encourages them to keep it up.

Who knows how many people walk in to the gym intimidated and concerned about how they look in there? Who knows how many people just need to hear that one word of encouragement or that one high five that lets them know they are on the track and will keep moving where they need to go. Research in the area of exercise motivation shows that at the beginning of an exercise program extrinsic (outside of yourself) goals and rewards are more important than intrinsic (internal validation), but this motivation changes with time to more intrinsic with time. Alvin is the guy who is helping with that extrinsic motivation and giving praise which might be needed by someone on the fence about training. We could all gain in being a bit more like Alvin.

To finish up, Alvin and I chat for a few more before he goes on his merry way and I get back to the training, but I greatly appreciate him talking with me and reminding me what is really important.

Thanks Alvin.

-Mike

Fire it Up and Back it Down – Applied Autonomics

Over the weekend I had a chance to visit some family and get in a few workouts with old friends and family members. I was there visiting because some people who are close to me are going through a trying time, but they are going to get through it. I did my best to be supportive (which still means I was somewhat destructive, but that’s what you get with a bull in a China shop). I applied Dave Grossman’s advice of leading with “I’m glad you’re ok, and is there anything I can do to help?”. These guys were already pretty overwhelmed, so aside from making my typical snide comments and poor attempts at humor I never really got to give them the advice I would want to.

Before I get in to that I have to give you a crash course in the autonomic nervous system and its two branches. Autonomics are mostly (we’ll get in to that at the end during the advice) subconscious part of the nervous system that works with arousal. On one side we have the Sympathetic nervous system which is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response, the other side of the coin is the Parasympathetic nervous system referred to as the “rest and digest” response. We rarely are fully dominate on one branch or the other. The key is the ebb and flow of life tips the scales to one side or the other.

When it is time to train or throw down in general you want a bigger dose of your sympathetic nervous system, it gives you increased contractility of your muscles and your heart. Speeds up your reflexes and lets you physically perform. It does this at the expense of your digestive rate, higher cognitive functioning, fine motor skills, general recovery, and much more. You go too high on this and that’s when you have a total breakdown in skill when it comes to athletics (read about catastrophe theory) and fall apart when it is time to speak in public or otherwise. The bigger part this can have is the vasoconstriction increases your blood pressure especially if you aren’t exercising when this happens and this in turn means you get less blood flow to everything that isn’t exercising muscle. Not a good thing when you are trying to think clearly, recover from anything, and or not beat yourself down.

The parasympathetic system does the opposite, it slows down your heart rate and decreases your blood pressure to everywhere in your body. This is where you are able to relax and recover from exercise. This is a bad situation if you are looking for maximal force production, power, or aggression, but most of your life you want to be here and able to recover. (There is fun research in this area that says couples that have an effect of decreasing sympathetic tone when they are with their significant other are more likely to be together with time (aka you tend to be with someone who doesn’t stress you out)). This is also the state of mind you want to be in while you are learning things in the academic sense or picking up skills for the first time.

Now let’s get in to a few ways to turn up either side of the spectrum when the situation calls for it. These are based on both personal experience and advice I’ve been given over the years along with some literature.

Sympathetic:

Breathe through your mouth – Sounds simple and it is. I picked this up from Bryan Mann at Mizzou when getting ready for big lifts taking short fast breathes through your mouth can help get your aggression up (which we are looking for an epinephrine response so this is what we want).

Pace – Also from Bryan Mann. Pace back and forth while you are focusing to help increase your drive along with added points for picturing yourself as a caged lion ready to attack. In my experience this works, if you are not in good enough shape to do this without it gassing you out than this is probably not for you

Smack yourself – In the face is the most effective and most likely to get you some weird looks. Turns out pain tends to wake you up and get you aggressive and lord knows a smack in the mouth is high on that scale. I got this from training with Rick Perry (assistant strength coach for Da Bears) before he floor pressed 470lbs. and it was at that moment I figured this works, also to never mess with Rick.

Inhalants – Nose torque, ammonia, or smelling salts are just like the aforementioned smack in the mouth only now this is done to your nasal passages. Be careful not to go too hog wild here otherwise you might get a bit jittery.

Imagery – Picture things in your mind that make you angry or otherwise. Picture yourself dominating the weight, opponent, or event. The more detailed this is the better your outcomes tend to be, and this can be a good way to get excited. This again is from Bryan Mann, read his work if you get a chance.

Yelling – Self-explanatory, but don’t be the guy that screams to deadlift 225. I’m not the biggest fan of this since you can greatly impact those around you, but it can be useful. I also am a fan of having a word or two that you shout, but I’ll save that for a later post. Key here is conditioning with that word (doing it over and over when you are wanting to be in a particular state), and yelling in general can be a good way to speed on a black out or lose your tightness so be careful here.

Parasympathetic:

Rest – pretty simple here, just relax. Don’t be on your phone or playing video games, just sit still or lay down and relax. Let your body come down and lose tension. Turns out losing consciousness for 8 hours a night (on average) is good for not just mental, but physical health. Nearly all of us are sleep deprived and this deprivation does some interesting things like decrease testosterone and insulin sensitivity, but the entertaining effect is over time we become more confident in our abilities with less sleep even though we are testing worse and drugs don’t necessarily help this.

Breathe – This is more than just what you do all day. This is a good way (as described by Dave Grossman and others) as a way to help turn down the sympathetic side and is something we can all gain from learning how to do. The key here is slow steady deep breathes. Dave Grossman recommends “combat breathing” which is 4 seconds in, hold 4 seconds, 4 seconds out, hold 4 seconds, repeat. Doing this can calm you down, I personally used this in a few stressful situations as a means to maintain calm before presentations. Another way to look this up is sometimes referred to as “box breathing” and looking up either will give a much better way to instruct and implement.  Specifically focusing on the exhalation is more important for increasing parasympathetic drive. Also incorporate this while stretching and see how much more effective it seems. Anytime you find yourself in a stressful situation focusing on your breath can help you calm down and stay even keel. This would be my top advice for most everyone after getting sleep.

Take a drink – This is also from Dave Grossman, partially for the fact that it effects your breathing, and lord knows we can all use more hydration. Like everyone else I try and stay hydrated all day and this seems to be another mechanism to be calm. From my personal experience being dehydrated is definitely stressful so having the balance here definitely helps me.

Mindfulness and slow exercise – You can do Tai Chi, Yoga, slow cardio (like walking). This does elevate the heart rate slightly, but keeps you relaxed and most likely will help enhance recovery from hard exercise due to increased cardiac output with no increase in vasoconstriction like harder exercise will cause.

So there are some simple ways to help turn up or down whichever side of the autonomic nervous system you are interested in. Both systems are good and necessary, but we need to avoid having too much dominance of one over the other (most of us probably have a bit too much sympathetic in our lives). The parasympathetic stuff was what I hoped to have time to explain, but there was enough already going on without me adding in my two cents. If you are going through stressful times in your life try applying a few of these ideas to help your body along, because if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else. If you have any questions on this since it was a crash course let me know.

The body is a barbell, and some are loaded heavier than others.

When it comes to training bodyweight calisthenics can be a good addition or start to any program. The key is knowing how to progress this training accordingly.

In a perfect world everyone has access to a full gym with barbells. One of the many advantages of barbells is that you can incrementally change the weight in small amounts to increase performance. Bodyweight movements don’t afford the same types of advantages, but you can scale them in a variety of ways to make them more or less difficult. I’m going to go in to a few ways to make things easier to start and progress from there.

Squatting

If you happen to be in the group where your barbell is loaded a bit heavier than others let me introduce to you to the concept of box squatting if you haven’t already learned about it. Literally find a box that you can sit down to and stand up off of if you are very heavy and maybe even make sure there is a hand rail there so you can give yourself a boost. I have worked with a few 250+ lbs. clients and I always found this to be an easy way to start squatting. Every few weeks decrease the height of the box and then eventually remove the box altogether. It might sound dumb, but if you are a personal trainer working with a big person this can be a great option. Keep in mind when you perform a squat you are lifting around 80% of your body mass each rep so large people sometimes aren’t strong enough to do a full range of motion repetition in the beginning.

Push ups

You can always start with your hands on a bench or with your knees bent. Both methods decrease the load by shortening the moment arm (levers) so you have to lift a lower amount of your body weight. Again a smith rack with the bar set high for big clients here has been a life saver. Once they develop the strength at one bar height lower the bar height down one notch and keep going until your hands are on the floor. Simple, not necessarily sexy, but it works well. Mixing in occasional sets of negatives with the legs straight then pushing up from the knees can be a good way to help show progress and give you some more variety for the training

Rows

The body weight low row, or lovingly referred to as fat man pushups are a great choice, doing them from an angle that has your client just lean back at a 60 degree angle to the ground should be doable for anyone. You can keep working them down lower and lower until their torso is parallel with the ground. This is probably the best use of a smith machine you can ever do. Just try and progress the barbell lower to the ground until you are running parallel and even elevate your feet. Same straight leg negatives and bent knees on the way back up to the bar from the push up part can be pretty useful here.

Lunges

If your client is big this is probably out for a while, so I would use small step bodyweight step ups. Taking the stairs two stairs at a time might be maximal work for them, and that’s fine. Progress the step height with time. This is a point where using those aerobic steps can be useful for things other than handstand pushups (I’ll talk about that later). Now when you are trying the lunges finally having them perform them on a ramp lunging up it can be useful to make life a bit easier with the range of motion and having a guard rail to balance with.

Now let’s talk about hard mode:

Push ups

One arm push ups, progress these the same way as listed in the previous push ups. These are fun since you feel like Rocky.

Handstand push ups

Anyone that says they are too strong for pushups I want to see them do handstand pushups. That pretty much never happens, and if they have that start increasing the range of motion by putting your head between benches, or use those aerobic benches I talked about earlier. (My little sis is visiting soon so she’ll take some pictures of this (I would take these pictures myself, but she told me I’m not good at it and she can do it for me)).

Pull ups

When these get to be too easy start doing muscle ups, body levers, and legitimate one arm pull ups (not that one hand on your wrist soft stuff).

Squats

Do these on one leg all the way up and all the way down. When those get too easy, quite being so damn cheap and either buy a weight set or a gym membership and start squatting with weights on your back.

Rows

One arm low rows are an option, or no legs on the ground body weight low rows.

Conclusion

One final note here is don’t think everything needs to be ACSM 3 sets of 10. When doing these movements like all others quality trumps quantity. Doing 6 sets of 5 with strict technique will pay more dividends. Since it is highly unlikely you will be gaining or losing large amount of weight focus on increasing your total training volume each time you train (AKA how many total reps you do) this will be a way you can show progression and improvement. If you have any questions or ideas you want to talk about please feel free to comment.