Square Peg, Round Hole

What this is really about is matching your program to your goals. Programs should always have the components you are looking to improve incorporated in them and be progressed accordingly (below I have some examples of what should be in programs for the basic goals there). What this means is that we will always be training specifically for whatever our goal is. Now that seems like a simple enough concept to understand, but go to the gym and see how many folks are doing things that are counter to what their goals for training really are. This is due to a number of issues like misinformation, survivorship bias, and so on. Let’s cut to the heart of the matter here: what are your goals?

Lose Weight

If your goal is to do this, your first focus needs to be on what you are eating. If you are running in a caloric surplus you will never lose weight. It is incredibly hard to out train a bad diet. So the goal here is to get a good idea of what you need every day as far as calories go and cut that number by 250-500 calories. There are a number of good apps on the market and websites that can give you a simple idea here of where you stand (google search calories needs, also the Harris Benedict equation is a good start). Track your weight for a week or two and if you aren’t losing weight (and you are being honest about your calories) try adding in some more work to your training and cut a few more calories (don’t cut your total calories by more than 1000 a day that’s a recipe for disaster.

After the cutting calories the next thing you need to do is preserve your muscle mass. Muscle is very metabolically active tissue whereas fat is not. If you see someone who has just went on a hard diet and doesn’t train notice how they typically just look shrunken (I use the term freeze dried). The reason for this is simply they have lost muscle mass with their fat mass. You can avoid this by keeping some resistance training in your program specifically going heavy in the 5-10 rep range. You want to give the body the message that although there are less calories around you still need your muscle. Use compound movements and for the love of god make sure you are squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and pulling heavy stuff not pink dumbbells.

For the conditioning (cardio) work, now is the time to do the long slow distance on some days and run some hard sprints (hill sprints and car pushes are great for this) to burn even more calories. Listen to your body here and don’t overdo it. Try and keep with your typical amount of training volume per week, and don’t increase it by much more than really only 10% a week. The goal is to make changes that you can maintain for long periods of time (well the one to three months that you hit this hard for).

Gain Weight

If your goal is to do this, your first focus needs to be on what you are eating. Notice how that is the exact same sentence as earlier. Now the goal here is if you aren’t eating enough you won’t be gaining weight. Add in an extra 250-500 calories a day from quality sources (this isn’t an excuse to add in 500 calories of ice cream a day, though that is fun). Track your weight and see what happens. Now the goal here is also to make sure that you are gaining muscle not fat. The way you can do this is by doing some hard resistance training aiming for heavy weight in compound movements with around ten reps each set. Play with your total training volume and make sure you are hitting every major muscle in the body at least twice a week and see what shakes after a month or so of focused training. You might want to cut conditioning out at this point since that just makes you have to eat more calories to offset the ones you burn from that training.

Common Mistakes

Using the programs meant for someone other than you. Don’t worry about doing Michael Phelp’s swimming program, JJ Watt’s lifting program, or Meb’s long distance program. The key is to do the program meant for someone at your current level of health, strength, endurance, flexibility, and so on. Don’t try and do what any pro teams are doing unless you are a pro yourself in that area. If you are  a beginner do a beginners program, if you are an intermediate do an intermediate program, if you are an advanced trainee do your own program because lord knows your know your body well enough at that point to know what you need to do. If you are not sure what level you are on start with a beginners program and work your way up. There is nothing wrong with starting easy and increasing with time, starting on Nightmare level and trying to hang on is a recipe for disaster.

Another mistake is to do a program meant for different goals than yourself. Sounds like a mistake most people wouldn’t make, but trust me it happens. The key here is some folks who are naturally small will tout things like long distance running as the be all end all for being in shape, or doing yoga, pilates, etc. These can be great additions to a total program, but if you think doing yoga three days a week is going to get you in shape then I’m sorry about the brutality of reality, or congrats on winning the genetic lottery and everything works for you (just kidding Bo worked hard too). So if your goal is to look better in just about anything you typically need two things; more muscle and less fat. Do this by some hard compound weight training and some also hard cardiovascular training/conditioning combine this with a good diet you are set. There are a number of ways to skin the cat, but a number of folks sell themselves short by completely avoiding one of those two methods and then not getting the results they are aspiring for. When you look at the program you should be able to see what they are doing to help you build strength, build endurance, or build flexibility. If it is doing the same thing every day with no progression or just a random happenstance of movements and lifts what then exactly are your progressing towards?

Finally, just run one program at a time. There is a reason that you don’t see people that hold world records in powerlifting and the Olympic marathon much less at the same time. You can be competitive or enjoy both, but the body only has so much of a recovery capacity so you have to make sure that you are only stressing yourself as much as you can handle. Why do two program and get half the possible results or one program and be able to get all of the results possible?

Bonus mini rant

What I get a kick out of when I go to any major gym you will always see someone on (typically female) on the hip adduction and abduction machines (also referred to at the good girl/bad girl machines). Muscles have really only two options really, get bigger or get smaller. You get them bigger by training them, so doing the adductor machine turns out can help hypertrophy your adductors (big surprise there). However when you ask someone if they are aspiring for big meaty inner thighs they tend to not be so enthusiastic, though that is what they are actively training towards. Bros don’t do endless sets of curls because they don’t want bigger muscles, but for some reason this logic can break down from time to time.

Conclusion

At the end of the day make sure you are doing programs that apply directly to what you are trying to accomplish and are appropriate for your health and fitness level. Find a program you enjoy, because at the end of the day training is really about the journey not the destination. We are all heading towards the big dirt nap so might as well find something you enjoy that gives you the body and physical abilities that you want. If you want me to expand on any ideas more thoroughly leave a comment for me to do so. Thanks for reading.

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What Would Alvin Do?

So I just got done with a meeting this afternoon and was gearing up to work in the office for a few before training and in walks one of the cheerleaders I work with here at Eastern. Good kid, freshman, works hard and I enjoy working with him (though he does need a haircut).  He stops in my office and asks if he can borrow a stapler from me for an assignment he has. I’m fine with it and he then informs me that he is going to do some training after this over at the student rec center. I’m also about to train myself in the athlete’s weight room so I’m getting my mind right accordingly. He leaves and I go back to work for a minute and wrap up some work.

I get done with working and change, I head down to the athlete weight room to train. I step in the room getting my mind right to do the work I need to do. Then I think to myself: What would Alvin do? (WWAD). At that point I grab my bag and walk over to the rec and find Sean who is warming up the bench and we proceed to go train together.

Benching: I do a 5×5 on bench and had Sean instead does a 5×3 since his technique was off a bit (flaring his elbows out too much and cocking his wrists), but his aggression and intensity is where it needs to be. We superset these with body weight low rows, since we want balance in the shoulder girdle and he is already a bit slumped forward from lots of pressing like most young guys get. (Look at the posture of most gym bros and you can see the internal rotation and forward slump, definitely not a good thing). Between each set we took at least two minutes rests since the bench and low row stations are on opposite sides of the gym along with we spotted each other.

Supplemental lift: We then move on to dumbbell incline pressing with a neutral grip (changes the emphasis to more shoulder and tricep work which carries over more to the stunting in cheerleading)) super set with chest supported rows holding the movement at the top for a second. Altogether did five sets of ten reps on both movements. This was done more up tempo but still having to walk across the gym, no spotting each other and trying to move quick between each.

Accessory: For this he did pushups with chain resistance and I did weighted dips, since his body weight relative strength is not quite there yet and this was done more as a finisher. We superset that with one arm barbell rows sometimes referred to as meadows rows. Just a total of 4 sets of ten on both, that wrapped up the training for the day and both of us were definitely a bit gassed, but we took a selfie on the way out of the gym. The sets of this movement were done back to back since we set them up right next to each other.

Yesterday (October 23, 2015 I did some training at the rec center with a few students. Two of which are powerlifters and one is a body builder (ex-football player). We did some deadlifting, specifically sumo style, and here is my critique of the training session and what I saw from each. First off what I look for is good posture/position on the floor (back flat, ramp like posture, low hips, knees out and in line with the feet). From there watch the first movement off the floor, make sure they hold position (back and knees) and the chest and hips rise and close to the same rate possibly the chest come up a bit faster and then push the hips through at the top to lock.

Hitter: body builder with good athleticism, no real crazy limb lengths, good generalist build. This was literally the first time he had ever done sumo deadlifts. Made the typically rookie mistakes of taking a grip and stance that was too wide for his body so his range of motion would be larger than necessary along with knee valgus (knees buckling in). fixed his set up and worked up heavy enough to start to see some technique breakdown, which is he had great leg drive (speed off the floor), but not enough back strength in general so that he would be able to get the most out of that form of deadlifting (his back rounded here). This could be also caused by not enough mobility so he is fighting his own natural tightness as a means to get in a good start position on the floor or simply not enough strength.

Trivium: stocky powerlifter that is another good general build for lifting. He has done some sumo work, but is mostly a conventional puller. He did a great job, but kept having knee valgus on the pull, this can mean that he either didn’t have enough groin flexibility or he is not pushing out in to the floor and using his hips. Just tested his flexibility and he seemed a bit tight, nothing too catastrophic but it will take a bit of training to enhance the mobility to give him a better start.

Mulling it over: powerlifter with long legs and short arms so the start position for this lifter will always be hard. Still beat up from a meet that they did two weeks ago, so the goal was to go light, but they are the type that won’t back down (problem with powerlifters in general, but that endears me to them). Due to the hip tightness their start position the entire time was flawed, as we kept working on increasing the ROM (range of motion) in the hip by warming up and stretching they still were setting up with their hips too high and doing more of a straight leg DL with a sumo stance. Strength was good, but mobility is just poor (for obvious reasons that are very fixable) and when we did force technique they complained about no strength off the floor. This happens due to neural inhibition when you are a bit beat up (think about trying to grip something hard when your hand or wrist is hurt).

Me: deficit sumo, I pull from a narrow sumo position (Ed Coan style) and this felt pretty good for me. I still need to work on sinking and opening up the hips more with this, but felt good. It was great training with partners again and that definitely helped bring me up.

After the main movement we then went on to assistance work. The goal here is work movements to build the weaknesses. This is a bit controversial for some, but I like it with my training. My leg drive off the ground is crap as is my upper back strength so I did deficit snatch grip deadlifts. I did lunges because I want to get better with them, and gravity boot sit ups for both ab strength and back decompression. For Hitter I had him do the same as a means to just trying out the movements. Trivium did deficit pulls with a normal grip due to mobility issues for getting in to that low position correctly. Mulling it over we had do deficit sumo light with an emphasis on knees out and not even focusing on pausing on the floor, but feeling out the mobility and greasing the groove.

Good training day and I had a lot of fun with them. I know this write up might be a bit quick and or confusing. If you read this give me some feedback on your thoughts on this post and if you would be interested in doing more of this.

I told him to look off in to the sun, and we both did so very literally.
I told him to look off in to the sun, and we both did so very literally.

Number, Numbers, Numbers, Math, Math, Math

“Number, Numbers, Numbers, Math, Math, Math” – Gaige

Using stats and such for your progress

When it comes to health, fitness, and progress the more you can quantify the better off you will be. Now you don’t want to lose your mind trying to track all of your metrics (unless you were potty trained at gun point and that is how you roll). The key is to track what you are the most interested in progressing and getting a realistic view of how quickly or slowly these metrics will change. Everyone probably remembers their physical fitness testing from elementary school and possibly middle school, that’s a good example of periodical quantification of performance changes. Do you need to go climb the rope or go do the shuttle run? No, but some tests can give you an idea of your changes, before I talk about some good tests for your average trainee, I need to talk about one important factor to remember.

Reliability

Specifically the test retest reliability. What this means is that you can test this same variable over and over again and you should always get consistent results, this doesn’t mean you are actually accurate. So reliability means that each time you test something your results will be close enough that your measurement variability won’t be adding in a bunch of error. If you were sighting in a gun, this would be your grouping, a tight grouping means you are reliable, but it doesn’t mean that you are accurate. The bullet holes might be tight, but way off the bull’s eye. This can be ok, if your goal is to be perfectly accurate then get a better test, but for most of this will be fine.

An example here would be a scale that constantly weighs you two pounds heavier than you are. This is not a deal breaker in itself, because it constantly weighs you that amount you know what you need to correct, and either way when your weight shifts you know that you have made progress one way or another. Where people go wrong is they lose reliability be weighing in on multiple different scales. If one scale weighs you heavy and another light it can be easy to seem like you have lost or gained huge amounts of weight in a short time without having a constant scale to track your weight.

Tests

Body weight calisthenics

Push ups, pull ups, and sit ups for total number of reps or amount of reps you can do in a specific period of time will be a good metric to track your progress. If you can do more pull ups you will be dead to rights stronger or leaner simply because you are lifting your total body. There is no way around that. An issue with body weight movements is the fact that they can get to the point that the reps are stupid high (100 or more) or you literally can’t go any faster to crank out more reps in a minute. At this point we move to the next part:

Strength

Every time you lift it can be its own test (and lord knows when you are young that really is every time you train). Barbell training is great because you can add in small amounts of weight to keep showing progression. Each time you lift a heavier load than you have before congrats you are now stronger. This is true of not only the heaviest load you can lift for one rep, but also for two, three, four, etc. I know lifters that track every rep number 12 and under for weight lifted PRs. This is an easy way to quantify your progress, and typically when you have pushed up a specific rep PR it will push your other PRs (unless you are doing reps over 15 or so because let’s face it, that’s cardio). Be sure to only count the work you do with good technique. The goal is not to slop your way to a PR.

Circumference  

Total bro move here, but take a flexible tape measure and track your chest measurement, waist, hips, neck, thigh, etc. By tracking multiple girths you can literally see the areas where you are expanding or contracting. Don’t do this post training since this will just give you can inflated number due to da pump. If your waist measurement is staying the same and your chest is increasing (especially if you are male) safe to say you are putting on muscle. If your waist measurement is increasing and your chest and hips are staying the same, congrats you are an American and probably just getting fatter. The good thing about taking circumferences (sometimes referred to as girths) is it keep your from obsessing over the following metric:

Body weight

I really don’t like this metric simply due to how weight obsessed most people can be. At the end of the day your body comp is way more important than body weight, but if this is what you have then this is what you do. By using the same scale, at the same time of day with the same amount of clothing on you can get reliable testing methodology that can give you results that you can use to show progression or regression accordingly. I just want to throw as a word of caution here that the scale doesn’t differentiate between fat mass and lean mass. If you gain a pound and that is muscle good work, but that might freak out some folks that are trying to stay small. The opposite will be true of a person trying to carry large amounts of muscle, so using the scale in conjunction with the circumference measurements will be a better indicator of how things are progressing. Body weight will never be the end all be all, this should never be the only indicator you follow. Go back and read that previous sentence again. It is only useful to follow when you have other indicators to go with it.

Body composition          

This is a testing method that I’m a giant fan of, looking at changes in body fat over time with the added information of body weight really tells the tale of the tape of training effectiveness. In our lab at Eastern we have a bod pod, Tanita scale, and DXA scanner. All of those methods can give great amount of information of body composition and different levels of accuracy, but the key to keep in mind is to make sure that you are testing with the same method every time you come in. The more that you can control extraneous variables (like hydration status can heavily effect your results here) the better information you will get.

Feelings

Not sure these things exist. Just kidding, but tracking your day to day energy levels, mood, anxiety, and so on can be a good indicator of how your training and nutrition is going. Turns out burnt out people aren’t as enthusiastic about training and life in general. A good way to avoid this is to follow and measure your mood as you go through your training cycles. The body is always right, and a lack of enthusiasm to train can be a good indicator that you are overreaching (overreaching can be a very good thing and a necessary thing for higher level trainees to keep progressing). So you can use a simple Ligert scale here or any type of mood inventory you find online and then pick a day each week (or multiple days) where you fill it out and then track this over time.

Progress Pictures

This is an easy way to do two things everyone enjoys at the same time; be vain, and see your progress. Most of us see ourselves multiple times in a mirror every day so it is easy to not be able to see your own progress. Take a picture in the same clothes with the same lighting (and the same pose for that matter) from the front and side. Do this once every few months and you can see what way your body is shifting with time.

Bringing it all together

Once you have this data the easiest way to break it down is simply to graph it (yeah math teachers people do need their algebra). A simple scatter plot will suffice to give you an idea of how things are changing with time. You can even add a best fit line to get an even better indicator of which way you are making your progress with time given how fast/slow your progress is coming. Lots of fun ways to break down data here. I might put together a simple video on this at some point.

No load like deload and Mock Meet

Two things before I start this:

  1. This post is going to be edited and added to over time since this past week has been a bit crazy and I need to upload the videos. Made my first update with the squats and bench uploaded on 10.12.15
  2. My deepest thanks to: The employees at the rec for putting up with me and letting me go a little stupid. My wife for pretty much the same thing. My family, especially LA, mom, dad, Ryan, Pat, Joyce, Brian, and Matt. The EKU strength and conditioning coaches Jon Mike, Brandon, and Ryan. All of the faculty and staff that I get to work with. All of my students, research subjects, and the EKU cheerleading squad. Thanks to one of the most fun families I get to hang out with the Sabins. My various training partners: Chris S., Chris K., Ty, Lucas, Lauren, Chad, Travis, Tyler, Justin, Kody, Andy, Zack, Jake, Brad and many more. Thanks to the Miller brothers for letting me train in their gym. And of course Scott.

Deload week

This week was a deload for me. So the basic goal here is to remove a significant amount of load and to decrease the volume (both a volume and intensity deload). I wanted to do a real meet this weekend but after tweaking my groin two weeks ago I settled to not do it, and today I felt good so I just went for it. My deload is as follows for most meets:

Three weeks out:

Last heavy deadlift workout was on wednesday. All other training as usual. That friday was when I tweaked my leg. Thank you to the EKU athletic training staff for giving me some solid myofascial release

Two weeks out:

Last heavy bench and squat workouts due to the groin the weights were even lighter on the squats. Saturday super light deload, don’t push anything.

Week of:

Everything is super light. Squats, bench, and deadlift I won’t handle anything heavier than 135. At most do a total of 10 sets including warm up. I psychologically get antsy if I don’t train at all so I just go in and spend a lot of time loosening up and just hitting good technique with the light loads. Friday was no training.

Saturday mock meet:

squat three attempts were at: 500, 535, and 555. Hit all of them and videoed the last two. Will put online and then link. In general did the warm ups without knee sleeves or a belt until I hit my last warm up at 455. I start with the empty bar and from there 135, 185, 225 and so on. Took some time to hit some stretching between each attempt. The squat in general felt good.  Also on the 555 attempt I smashed the crap out of my thumb racking the bar being a little too jubilant about getting the weight. Guess I’ll never be a hand model.

Bench three attempts were at: 325, 345, and 360. Hit all of them and videoed the last one. Will put online also. Had a miscommunication with my spotter for the 325 so it was probably a 5-10 second pause which was hilarious since he forgot to say press and then I had to try and say it without losing my air. Needless to say I survived so it is funny as hell now. 345 felt good and not too difficult. I’ve hit 355 with a pause in the gym before so I wanted to build on that and went to 360 which was a good max weight to hit for me. I belt up for the bench press when I compete only since I have found it to save my low back for the deadlift. I also will occasionally throw on wrist wraps for max benching since it helps with the psychological effect of making the bar feel lighter in my hands. I had a great hand off even though the bench was a bit slippery which really helps for grooving the weight where you want it and feeling strong lifting it.

picture of my thumb after the 555 squat due to racking it poorly. Man I look goofy in this picture.
picture of my thumb after the 555 squat due to racking it poorly. Man I look goofy in this picture.

Deadlift: Well this was weird since the rec center was closing so I had to take big jumps and literally went from 585 to 730 and then was done. Got a video of the 730 and it was mean. Bar didn’t want to come off the ground due to both poor set up and not enough leg drive (stuff I will work on for the next cycle). That was a very hard lift and probably a very good estimate of my max. I’m really happy with this since the previous best was 716.

Overall I feel really good about this. I have no idea how much I weigh right now, but typically it is between 214-218. So after hitting these numbers I am going to go to a lighter (as far as percent of 1RM training) cycle with much more volume (think body building sets of 10). I’m currently planning on switching back to high bar narrow stance squatting to help me focus on using my damn legs on squats and deads. I’ll throw the safety squat bar in a bit, for deadlifts working more deficits and snatch grip pulls. Furthermore for the deads doing full pauses between each rep for the exercise. I like the split squat work on fridays so I will keep that in and incorporate some light loaded carries. For bench press that lift is moving well with my cycled heavy fives so I’m going to keep that train running for now. Thanks again to everyone and I will elaborate on all of this soon.