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CNS Fatigue

The term CNS fatigue is often used interchangeably with other words where overtraining, fatigue, or something more general might be more accurate. Everyone who gets tired these days thinks their central nervous system is fried, and many have never stressed the CNS a day in their lives.

The nervous system can certainly burn out; this is fairly well-established in science. The chemistry of the nervous system can get depleted, the ability to create strong and fast impulses for the muscles decreases, timing and coordination suffer, force production suffers and progress grinds to a halt.

The exercises that really bang on the CNS—demand a lot of nervous impulse—are not squats or bench presses, but are exercises done with focused effort and straining, done reactively with speed, and those that are complex and have a high skill component.

Throwing a medicine ball for distance is pretty CNS-intensive. Kettlebell snatches, despite the light weights when compared with barbell snatches, are CNS-intensive. Gironda-style 8×8 training with the squat is horribly hard, but the CNS isn’t the main sufferer there.

The ratio of testosterone to cortisol coming from the adrenals is considered a reliable measure of overtraining. But what would the adrenals have to do specifically with CNS fatigue?

No one knows exactly what causes nervous system fatigue. People sometimes use the term CNS fatigue as a brainy sounding synonym for overtrained, but the two aren’t exactly the same.

The gist of it is fatigue has a nervous system component. In momentary fatigue, like at the end of a set, the nervous system tires and the muscles can’t keep adequately firing to continue the effort at peak level. In fatigue over days and weeks, the nervous system can’t recover its full capabilities between workouts.

Both the peripheral and central nervous system are involved, but CNS fatigue affects the whole system. You can’t train your nervous system on a split routine because you only have one brain.

High Intensity Cardio

Is it your understanding moving your body by foot over a mile distance will burn up just under a hundred calories? Isn’t that what we’ve always been told, whether running or walking, covering a mile clocks between 98 and 104 calories?

I’ve heard those figures given at least a dozen times in lectures over the past twenty years. It never made any sense and every time had me scratching my head, but given the authority behind the statements, I found myself repeating the 100-calories-per-mile average throughout my time in the gym business.

Apparently all that credulity was strained for a reason: According to Dr. David Swain, author of Exercise Prescription: A Case Study Approach to the ACSM Guidelines, calorie expenditure while walking at a 17-minute-per-mile pace burns 3.3 calories per minute on top of resting, while running at about twice that pace burns about twice as many calories, and if the person works the same duration covering twice the distance, he or she gains a fourfold greater caloric expenditure.

In his article Interval Training, HIIT or Miss, Mike Boyle writes,

“Further evidence for the superiority of higher intensity work can be found in the September/October 2006 issue of the ACSM Journal. Dr. David Swain stated running burns twice as many calories as walking. This is great news for those who want to lose body fat. I am not a running advocate, but we can put to rest another high intensity (running) versus low intensity (walking) debate.

“Do the math. Swain states that a 136-pound person walking will burn 50 calories per mile and proportionally more as the subject’s weight increases. In other words, a 163-pound person, weighing 20 percent more, would burn 20 percent more calories. This means that expenditure goes from 50 to 60 calories, also a 20-percent increase. Swain goes on to state that running at seven miles per hour burns twice as many calories as walking at four mph. This means a runner would burn 100 calories in roughly eight and one half minutes or about 11 calories a minute. The walker at four miles per hour would burn 50 calories in 15 minutes (the time it would take to walk a mile at four miles per hour). That’s less than four calories per minute of exercise.

The study Mike’s referring to was done to determine whether moderate or vigorous exercise was better for improving cardiovascular fitness, which seems like a no-brainer and barely worth a second look, but the striking point was how this turns the mileage debate upside-down.

This doesn’t mean many of us should trot out the door and head out on a run, because the truth is, most of us aren’t built for running; we’re too heavy to be good at it, or our joints aren’t acclimated for it, or, in the case of women, there’s likely to be hip or knee issues that make running sub-optimal.

How about if we swap that joint-destruction for some harder work on an incline? What about pulling something, pushing or dragging and, heck, let’s add a weight vest and traverse the hills while we’re at it.

If the point is intensity, we can provide that without the impact of running, and if we can work harder, longer—and this is separate from the discussion of interval work, which you should read and consider in Mike’s thorough article—we can gain cardiovascular improvement at the same time as we burn more calories.

Here’s a truth; see if you don’t see a little of yourself in this one: When we first start doing regular cardio for a purpose, we’re not very good at it; it hurts, we hate it and head back to the weight room in a hurry. No more of that! It’s boring, and cardio’s for wimps. Isn’t that what most of us settle on?

We sell ourselves a lie, because it’s easier to hate cardio for life than go through the pain of the conditioning phase. It’s a lesson we’d best re-teach ourselves, to learn a better version of the truth.

Take home message: Work your cardio a littler harder, a little longer and a little more often.

TRX Suspension Training, Multi-Planar Training

The Cutting Edge of Function, with Fraser Quelch

The Las Vegas IDEA personal trainer conference opened early for me with a day-long pre-conference class taught by Fraser Quelch, the guy who’s behind the gathering and organizing of a vast array of exercises done with the TRX Suspension Trainer.

Starting with a foot on the floor, this session traced the actions of the muscular-skeletal system during basic actions like walking and training, muscular reaction to gravity, the ground and momentum, corrective exercises easing into functional movements, the planes of motion common exercises work through and, taking that into consideration, how to program more effective workouts.

His main gig is this: Get your body working in as many angles and directions as you can dream up, and make sure the movements cover all the major joints… in all directions – all joints, all planes of motion.

Let’s look at an example from Fraser’s article on Multi-Planar Training (click to read in full). About mid-way through the article he documents the movement planes of a traditional bodypart training program. It’s a common-looking program, plenty of good exercises that includes squats, lunges, leg extension, leg curls and calf raises on the leg day, for example.

After his mapping of the primary joints and planes of motion using the sample workout, he writes,

“Hip is primarily involved in only 2 of 22 exercises
Shoulder is primarily involved in 9 of 22 exercises
Spine is primarily involved in only 5 of 23 exercises
Elbow is primarily involved in 9 of 23 exercises, more than the hip and the spine combined

15 (68%) occur in the sagittal plane
2 (9%) occur in the frontal plane, both at the shoulder joint.
5 (23%) occur in the transverse plane, the majority of these were also at the shoulder and none at the hip.”

What do you know?! It’s an average weekly training routine, and it’s upside down. I’m telling you, he spent the day leading us slowly and patiently to one blatant conclusion: Our normal gym-based programs need to be re-evaluated. Bigtime.

Here’s the link again to the multi-planar training article where Fraser explains, including a revised sample workout that he’s split into one third in each plane of motion, plus charts that will make his training philosophy clear… and compelling.

To make this multi-planar thing easier to figure out, consider a splurge for a TRX Suspension trainer because that really makes blending planes of motion simple (if you’re a personal trainer, this is a shoe-in, no kidding). Fraser didn’t do a sales pitch in the session, that wasn’t what this was about. But after watching that treasure in action as he demonstrated a few of his points, I bought one and have used it daily since. I love that thing.

Say, you still have any of that stimulus check left? This suspension style of training will seriously stimulate you, no doubt about it. Aside from making the multi-planar action easy and fun, it’s demanding on the core in pretty much everything that can be done on this thing, which is pretty much unlimited as far as I can tell. Suspension training also works the joints differently than our traditional training, because they have to stabilize continually, and again, in all planes of motion.

We had a longer discussion of the TRX here in the forum, where Fred Fornicola and Jim Bryan offered their more-experienced considerations, along with some suspension training workout plans, and where Byron Chandler has suggestions on how to trick out your existing ring set-up to more closely match the TRX design. The talented frugal types will be able to pull this off easily enough.

Steve Cotter Bodyweight Exercises

Bodyweight exercises have taken center stage as I attempt to train up a faltering structure; most of the corrective exercise experts remind us not to try to add strength to dysfunction, and they point to bodyweight work as a key in determining our fail points.

Yet, many of us can’t think of anything past the pushups and situps we learned wrong back in the third grade. Sure, a YouTube search will dredge up a few hundred clips, but are you sure you want to learn from the authority who calls himself iamdrunk?

There’s a guy, Steve Cotter, who’s well known in both the martial arts and the kettlebell worlds. He’s an outstanding kettlebell instructor, and a generous teacher; if you get a chance to join in a Cotter workshop, you’ll end the day having learned your money’s worth, and more. Just watching the guy is a jaw-dropper.

Meanwhile, for us at home, we have a chance to expand our exercise selection with his bodyweight conditioning dvd series. I expect you’ll plant your face in the floor a few times as he inspires you to try more than you’re able to pull off. I even had to drop back and relearn the basic pushup; somewhere along the time between grammar school and middle age, I picked up an elbow-flaring habit that Steve clearly and repeatedly advised against.

In his teaching, he demonstrates easy, beginning options to the movements, building on each one until only one in a thousand will be able to follow along. On top of these useful progressions of common exercises, we also lay our eyes on unusual ideas such as the side-to-side squat as demonstrated below.


His Encyclopedia of Bodyweight Conditioning is a three-dvd set that covers 56 upper body exercises, 62 lower body exercises and 42 core torso options. There are plenty of $40 and $50 dvds out there running a whopping 45 minutes; clocking in at almost four hours, Steve’s Encyclopedia is a gold mine as well as bargain.

Steve Cotter

Seriously, don’t you think you could learn something from this guy? Scroll forward to the 30-second mark for a mind-blower:


Byron calls Steve a mutant. You can be sure he means that most respectfully.

Using Your Agility Ladder, a Beginner’s Guide to Foot Speed and Agility Training

At first glance, you may think agility training is not for you. That’s sure what I thought the first time I tried it; I’m no athlete and perhaps neither are you. Yet, agility training is hugely beneficial to the non-athlete because not only will the hips become stronger, the ankles will become both more mobile as well as more stable, and overall balance will increase.

After agility training, if you take a stumble over a curb, it’s extremely likely you’ll catch yourself with no more than a second’s hesitation. Without agility, that stumble may become a swollen ankle with a two-month recovery period, and we might even tack on a broken wrist to finish out the picture.

Earlier we learned how to make your own agility ladder. Now let’s figure out how to use it.

Lay out your ladder on a flat surface, outdoors, indoors… wherever you have a little space to move. You’ll be running or jumping through the ladder openings and to the outsides, so make sure you have side-to-side space in addition to ladder length.

You’re looking for light footsteps for quickness and balance, as opposed to an upright jogging style. Lifting your knees higher than normal jogging is going to work your hips in a way you probably haven’t done in awhile, and cutting back and forth between the sides of the ladder will work lateral movement, another lost ability for must of us. Take it easy at first, because you’ll probably be a hurtin’ puppy tomorrow.

Run through your movement prep or activity mobility warm-up before you get near this thing. Include in that some upright walking/running mobility such as toy soldiers, heel kickbacks, high knee runs and the like.

Use your arms – pump your hands and keep your elbows high with your shoulders and hands relaxed. Keep your torso controlled and your head steady.

Examples of basic agility drills

Agility drills can (and should) be done both forward and backward. Repeat the drills, making sure to alternate between the left and right as lead foot. Drills can also be done hopping with both feet held together.

  • One ins – run forward, light and low to the ground, one step in each square.
  • Two ins – same as above, but stepping twice in each square.
  • Hop scotch – One foot in the first square, two feet in the second, and repeat, alternating sides on the single-foot squares.
  • Out, Out/In, In – Left foot outside, right foot outside, left foot in square, right foot in square.
  • Shuffle – Start at the left side, step into the first box with your right foot, then with the left. Shift your weight so you can stop out to the right side with your right foot, then step into the second square with your left foot and head back to the left. Think in-in-out, in-in-out and you’ll get it.
  • Shuffle.Stick – This is done the same as the shuffle above, only you’ll “stick” in place on the outside step before shifting off in the opposite direction.
  • Lateral feet – Step twice in the first square (left/right), then twice outside the first square toward the right (L/R). Step twice in the second square (L/R), then twice outside the second square toward the left of the ladder (L/R). Continue forward through the ladder, then repeat, changing the lead foot to right/left.
  • Lateral Shuffles – Turn to the side and shuffle through the ladder to the right. Repeat the shuffle to the left.

What you’re working on with agility ladder training is control of your feet using your hip strength, as opposed to more leg and glute strength as seen in the momentum of forward full-stride running. At the same time we’ll be cutting from side to side, working the lateral hip muscles, as well as sticking in place to practice stability and deceleration with the landings.

Here’s a link to some quicktime movie clips of agility ladder drills from University of the Pacific.

DIY: Homemade Agility Ladder

At last weekend’s Power Systems strength and conditioning workshop, Jay Dawes did a session “Developing Total Athleticism,” which included about an hour on agility ladder drills. This part was an audience participation bit, and being a bit of a klutz I seriously considered standing to the side as the rest of the hundred or so personal trainers went through the ladder training.

I was startled to discover how fun it was, and that I wasn’t quite as terrible at it as expected. Heck, I didn’t even fall! So, after the session I popped over to the Power Systems sales booth to pick up an agility ladder just for the fun of it. What’s twenty bucks, right?

Wrong. Those things cost $70 and up, and I’m not kidding. I yanked my hand back off that goodie and backed away thinking, jeez, I can make one of these.

Turns out I could. Total cost in money, $5.43. Time invested, about three hours because of fumbling fingers. (Reminder to self: Add finger mobility to joint mobility sessions.)

homemade agility ladder

Here’s how to make an agility ladder for under six bucks.

The material you’ll need is 20 yards of fabric trim and a spool of outdoor canvas thread. The trim needs to have a little heft to it because it needs the weight in order to lay well. Too wispy and your ladder will flutter with the breeze.

Measure out two lengths of 15 feet of the trim. This is your ladder length.

Depending on the material chosen, you may need to address end frill. The trim I got started unraveling at the cut, so instead of simply making cuts, I instead marked the cut and wrapped a piece of scotch tape around it. Then I cut in the middle of the tape, making a ravel-proof end on both sides. Cloth athletic tape would have been better, had there been any handy.

Lay the two lengths together, outstretched. Measure 17-inch lengths, beginning the measurements 3-4 inches from the end, and mark both lengths with a Sharpie. These will be your openings, the ladder boxes.

Cut the remaining yardage in 36-inch strips, again taping before the cuts if there’s any potential for end frill.

Line up the 36-inch strips and mark at the 10-inch and again at the 26-inch points.

How you’ll put the ladder together depends on your work space. Once you have the trim measured and cut, this will make sense and you’ll organize yourself without instruction. I started with the intention of laying the entire piece out and wrapping the joints while in place on the floor, but quickly realized I’d be fully incapable of any agility whatsoever after hunching over the project for the duration.

Using about 20 inches of the canvas thread, knot the center of the thread around the first junction, carefully lining up the Sharpie marks. Wrap the thread over and over the junction points using a figure-8 wrapping to heavily secure each section.

We’re in a bit of a dispute around here over the last bit. Dave thinks I should fasten a dowel to one end to enable rolling it up. I like the rolling-up part because this thing is nice but could easily slip into a tangled mess. On the other hand, I’m not so keen on making any part of it less flat and may just use a dowel roll up, unattached. Dave thinks that’s silly, that I’ll never trip over it. I think he said, “what was I trying to make, something froofroo, or an aggressive training tool.” You’ll have to work out the roll-up attachment issue on your own.

Calculating and cutting took about an hour; the thread work took another couple hours. If you or a willing accomplice has agile fingers, this part will go much quicker. No duh.

Side note: In looking for a link to agility drill videos for the “using your agility ladder” guide, I happened upon a 15-foot ladder for $39.95 over at jumpusa. If a DIY project is beyond your interest level, this one’s close to half the price of the strength and conditioning models.

Next we’ll talk about what a beginner might do with this goodie: Using an Agility Ladder.

Training Periodization — Workout Cycling Plan

I can’t emphasize enough how effective a good cycling plan — periodization — can be in getting off a plateau. It’s not just a plateau-buster, either; it’s a way to live.

1. Keep your routine simple, using just a few multi-joint moves. Try Squat, Row, and Bench for the first few cycles; DL, OHP, and Chin for the next few.

2. Work out three times a week in a whole-body routine.
3. Use a Heavy/Light/Medium weekly mini-cycle.
4. Make your heaviest set on Week 1’s heavy day (say, Monday) ~85 percent of your 5RM and do 5 on that heavy set. Do one more work set with 90 percent of that first set.
5. Monday on Week 2 should see you using ~92.5 percent of your previously-established 5RM.
6. Monday on Week 3: 100 percent.
7. Monday on Week 4: Go for a new 5RM and lay off the rest of that week.
8. Week 6: Start over using the new 5RM as the basis of the next cycle.
9. Use 80 percent of Week 2/Monday’s heavier set for Week 1/Wednesday’s heavier set; 90 percent of Week 2/Monday’s heavier set for Week 1/Friday’s heavier set. Follow that template for each of the first 4 weeks.

Poundages go up with this simple cycle. You get big and strong.

Some of the basics are what you’ll read from other people, like using a full-body routine, using multi-joint moves . . . and very few of those at a time.

The point I like to harp on is cycling. I first read about cycling in the 1970s, but I couldn’t make myself exercise at anything less than full-bore intensity. That was a legacy of my Nautilus days. Even when a coach in New Hampshire named George Elder was writing great articles on the concept in Iron Man, I’d flirt with cycling for a short while but then revert to driving every set to failure.

Never think an old dog can’t learn new tricks, though. And, hey, it only took me a few decades. Pavel Tsatsouline’s outline of cycling in his book, Power to the People! was what finally brought me fully over to using cycling.

The cycling he advocates is different from what I toyed with in the early 1980s and gained a lot from (amazing how even success won’t convince the person who’s been so thoroughly educated in and convinced by another school of thought!). It forms the basis for one method of gaining strength without much mass and another method combining strength and mass. Both approaches, which are based on the same foundation, guide you to real success.

The idea behind cycling is nudging the body into greater and greater accomplishment, rather than trying to force it. Like all of life, growth in strength and size comes in cycles.

Stimulus is followed eventually by growth. And because growth can happen as the result of some unknown minimum of intensity (percent of 1RM), cycling poundages up and down but with an overall increase, allows the body to recover enough to respond.

In Power to the People, Pavel states that a good cycle lasts between 8 and 12 workouts. If you exercise 3 times per week, that’s an overall upward increase in poundage used over 2.5 to 4 weeks. If you follow that with a week of low intensity – exercising with resistance and reps that feel pretty light – recovery is enhanced. A full layoff might be even better, if the HST crowd is correct, because it allows you to strategically decondition (“soften up for gains,” a la McCallum). A good compromise might be to go light on Week 4 (and later, on Week 8) and lay completely off after 2 or 3 cycles (at about the three-month mark).

Linear cycling
A linear cycle is one in which the weights just go up from session to session. This is what I did – or intended – during 2 productive periods of my training life. One was when I progressively pushed my bench press way beyond where it’d been before. But I got stuck with a double at my highest poundage. Unfortunately, the things I’d read about cycling hadn’t really penetrated my sometimes-thick skull, and I hit an impasse. If I’d known what I was doing, I’d have backed off to about 85 percent of that and gone slowly up again, doing triples or slightly more reps. But I was dumb and impulsive, and I turned my attention in another direction.

Another productive time was when I decided to give deadlifting a go. I was busy and chronically tired from getting up early and battling Beltway traffic, to get to work by 7:00. I worked on DLing for a few months, never having really concentrated on them before, and I added chins late in that game. Both were cut short by medical need, but not before making really good progress. My DL got pretty good for a few months’ work, and the cycle was rarely modified from a small increase almost every session.

Step cycling
On the few occasions that my DL progress slowed, I kept the poundage the same for another session. I didn’t really think about it, but it was a form of defacto step cycling. Stepping is simply alternating an increase in poundage (over several workouts) with keeping the poundage the same. So, 8 sessions might look like this: 225, 230, 235, 235, 240, 245, 245, 250.

Wave cycling
Don’t confuse this with wave loading. The best way to think about wave cycling is to look at the tried-and-true heavy-light-medium weekly mini-cycle. My favorite way of doing HLM is to make Wednesday’s heaviest set 80 percent of next Monday’s heaviest set. Friday would be 90 percent of next Monday’s.

Why next Monday’s heaviest set and not this Monday’s? It’s a small detail, but if you’re planning out the cycle in advance, you’re going to know what each heavy day’s going to look like anyway. And I like making this week’s light and medium days a run-up to next week’s heavy day.

I like wave cycling the best, because (especially as you get stronger) the light and medium days help with recovery and still stimulate muscle growth to varying extents. That’s important both for advanced weight trainers and older weight trainers, because both populations need to pay attention to recovery issues.

A lot of people might look at the 3-session/week nature of HLM and dismiss it, because they prefer more volume over fewer workout days in the week. I think frequency is important, though. Like everything in this art, it is a variable, but in general, I think that if you’ve got a choice between less frequency and more, and overall volume is the same, more frequency is generally the way to go. The body likes repetition when it’s training to get stronger.

Next I want to discuss how a simple cycle can serve both for neural training and muscle-growth training, but let me sidetrack for just a moment to respond to a comment of Fred Fornicola’s:

Along the lines of “cycles”, those who really understand high intensity training (or as I prefer to refer to it as simply “hard work”) utilize some type of cycling as well. It’s not as formalized or planned out but I don’t feel anyone can make progress banging it too hard all the time – it just becomes counter productive.

It’s my opinion (based on several conversations with those who were there in the beginning and just my own feelings) that Arthur Jones was still “discovering” and “experimenting” and never really took his concept to the “next level”. The next level I am referring to is how to implement the level of intensity to the recreational lifter as well as the older trainee. AJ would recommend significant layoffs to recover – which I feel is counterproductive. I believe a smart coach/trainee understands that you don’t need to bury yourself into the ground to make progress (progress defined as your own, specific goals – not someone else’s) and that you learn how and when to accelerate and when to brake. Basically, using your head to cycle your training.

I have implemented this approach over the last few years and have had good success with the people I work with. It’s amazing what little amount of exercise is truly needed if applied intelligently.

During one of the conversations I had with Ell Darden about 15 years ago or so, I asked him his opinions about cycling. He didn’t think it was necessary to plan such a thing out, even if you do back off every so often. (The big exception to that would be his recommendation of cycling higher-volume — but still high-intensity — work for specific bodyparts throughout the year.)

I said, “Well, what about some of Arthur’s earlier writings, which advocated making Wednesday a session using lower intensity than on Monday or Friday?”

“That’s for when a trainee progresses to the point where his recovery ability can’t keep pace with his strength.”

I knew that, but I pressed him: “But isn’t that a tacit admission that some level of intensity below 100 percent can still yield muscle-building results?”

“Well, those workouts are more to prevent losing gains than making them.”

“Which makes it a matter of degree, right? I mean, if 85 percent intensity prevents me from backsliding, that’s sort of like progressing, but slower. The thing that keeps me from losing progress is progress. It’s just relatively less progress.”

There was one of those long pauses you get in a conversation with Darden, and it doesn’t mean he’s confused. It means he’s choosing his words . . . or mulling over your words. Finally, he said, “You can put it that way, yes.”

“So, if one day a week is sub-maximal, and you plan that, it’s really a kind of cycling of intensity.”

“Well, you can say that, but bear in mind Arthur’s changed a bit on that recommendation.” At that point, we began talking about working out twice a week, rather than three times. It was a direction of Nautilus theory that I embraced for a few years and ultimately rejected; frequency, I began to understand, really is important to continued progress, especially on the neural level. It requires less than 100 percent effort on a high percentage of your workouts, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Back on track, here’s the foundation of the program.

This is the neural piece.

Getting strong is accomplished partly by getting a better neural connection to your muscles and partly by getting bigger muscles. The neural connection is more than just skill, though skill is probably its biggest component. It’s increasing what Arthur Jones called neurological efficiency. Jones said that NE was fixed at birth (actually, at conception). He said most people have around 30 percent NE, meaning that 3 muscle fibers out of 10 are contracted at any single moment during a maximal effort. On either end of a bell curve, you’ve got “genetic freaks,” who have 50 percent NE, like Paul Anderson and Casey Viator, and “motor morons,” who have only 10 percent NE.

The history of the strength sports seems to contradict Jones, though, concerning the fixed nature of neurological efficiency. Weightlifters are able to get stronger and stronger over a period of years without leaving their weight classes, for example. Beyond questions of drugs and motivation, there appears to be a good case for NE improving with the right kind of training.

Tension and strength
So, first, what is the right kind of training to get stronger on the neural level? Neural training is the same thing as training for high levels of muscular tension. Such tension is the end result of that kind of training. So, the statement we can work with is: Acquire the skill to generate more tension.

Like any skill, this takes repetition. You don’t learn to play the guitar like Eric Clapton overnight, and you don’t learn how to lift a large barbell over your head overnight, either. Both involve learning and practicing a set of smaller skills. In the latter case, they’re the skills involved in creating more and more muscular tension.

The five key conditions for training these skills, creating high levels of muscular tension, are:
1) moving slowly
2) consciously maximizing muscular tension, as though you’re posing
3) using heavy weights most of the time
4) minimizing fatigue
5) using specific techniques:
a. power breathing, b. hyperirradiation, c. pre-tension, d. successive induction

Slow motion
Force/tension drops off rapidly when velocity increases. When you have to deal with resistance over several seconds, rather than for a fraction of one second, you just get better overload. Lifting heavy weights will always trump throwing things for building strength. One reason is because to get sufficient overload, you need resistance greater than what you get in something you can throw.

Arm-wrestlers and powerlifters are good examples of athletes who move slowly and get very, very strong. There are exceptions to this slow-speed rule, but the general principle holds. (I’m not talking about super-slow training here, by the way.)

Does this mean you’ll slow down for some other sport you’re engaged in? Not necessarily. I think the important thing to do in such cases is not to make strength training the main thing you do (it doesn’t take long, and, done right, it doesn’t exhaust you, so this shouldn’t present a problem). Spend most of your time training the fast thing you do. Keep those skills highly honed. The small investment of time using slow, heavy weights won’t, in my opinion, take away from the fast skills you work on at other times.

Maximizing tension
Even if you’re using a light weight, it’s good practice to handle it as though it weighs a lot, if you’re aiming at training yourself to create high muscular tension. Tense the muscles on purpose. You’re using dynamic tension, which can build a lot of neural strength.

Using heavy weights
We’re talking about the 85-95 percent range of your 1RM. There are at least three reasons for using heavy weights.

One, you build strength in the connective tissues and joints. An added benefit is the effect using heavy weights has on inhibiting your mechanoreceptors, the governors of your body’s strength. Those guys say “okay” to your using heavy weights, once they’re used to them through repetition.

Two, you need to experience real, live resistance to gain skill at creating high tension levels in your muscles. Electrical and chemical signals in your body are generated in response to heavy resistance, and experiencing that on a regular basis builds the skill we’re talking about.

And three, Henneman’s Size Principle states that motor units are generally recruited in order of smallest to largest (fewest fibers to most fibers, as well as slowest-contraction to fastest-contraction fibers) as contraction increases. And this is in response to greater and greater resistance.

You might see that these three reasons overlap. Regardless, they build a strong case for using heavy weights when you’re training for the skill of strength.

Minimizing fatigue
Fatigue is your friend when you’re training for size, and we’ll get to that. For the neural part of the equation, though, it’s your enemy. Don’t worry; there’s a simple way of both avoiding it and using it in the same workout, and that’s coming up.

Next, I’ll talk about minimizing fatigue.

Using specific techniques
Power breathing: Hold your breath as the weight’s coming down and going back up again, until the last part of the concentric, when you blow roughly half of it out. Or blow it out after the rep is completed. If, for some reason, you’ve been advised not to hold your breath under the load of a barbell, try this alternative: Instead of holding your breath, blow out through pursed lips at the beginning of the concentric and whoosh it out hard on the last part. Don’t completely empty the lungs; keep enough air in there to stabilize the spine. In other words, keep abdominal pressure high. Make your ab wall hard but not bulgy.

Hyperirradiation, in a nutshell: HI is purposeful tensing of muscles other than the ones directly responsible for the task you’re doing. Although we’re really talking about tensing the whole body during any one lift, there are three key points: the grip, the abs, and the glutes. If you grip the bar as if to squeeze juice out of it (on upper body drills) and you make a shield of your ab wall and you mentally try to grip a coin with your butt muscles, you’ll generate more strength in your lift. There’s a big neural stimulus sent to your working muscles when you simultaneously tense the ones here. As an added benefit, you create a safer foundation for exercising, preventing hyperflexion or hyperextension in your joints and properly aligning your body in the process.

Pre-tension: Stay tight. Keep in mind the high correlation between tension and strength. Tensing up before unracking the bar has a strong effect on creating tension and strength.

This might be one reason why walk-outs are so effective. If you load a squat bar with weights you can’t actually squat with, unrack it and walk backward a step or two, as though you’re going to squat, and then, after standing there a sec, walking back and re-racking it, your squat workout a few minutes later can noticeably improve. Part of that is psychological: You’re less scared now. But I think you’ve also disinhibited a bunch of your neural protective mechanisms, too.

Successive induction: What this means is when you’re doing the negative part of a press, for example, you’re not just lowering the weight (or dropping it). You’re actively pulling it down with your biceps and lats, as though doing a pulldown. This is actually an extension of pre-tension. You start by tensing before unracking; you finish by pulling down on the bar during the eccentric contraction with the muscles that oppose those that do the concentric part. The power of this technique probably has to do with the body saying to itself, “Hey, I don’t have to protect this guy by inhibiting his power; he’s protecting himself.”

Again, there’s a safety windfall: Your joints are stabilized way beyond what they’d be if you made it a habit to drop the bar on the eccentric or swing the bar up and down. A lot of us old-timers have joint problems. Maybe the young turks among us won’t be dazzled by the safety promises of a lot of this material, but if they see immediate and long-term strength gains by following the principles, they’ll appreciate the safety aspect in the years to come.

Your strength dance is your safety dance.

We’re going to talk about minimizing fatigue in neural training, but I swear to you the very next part will get to the size-building part of this equation. I wanted to go through neural training first, because it really is foundational.

Why minimizing fatigue? Because, as Pavel puts it,

“Fatigue and strength/tension are mutually exclusive! Metabolic waste products like lactic acid hamper further powerful contractions. Cardiovascular insufficiency forces you to prematurely terminate your set. Mental fatigue from doing too many reps or sets prevents you from generating required intensity. The ‘communication lines’ between your brain and your muscles get overworked and no longer conduct your orders effectively.” – p 18, Power to the People!

Those weaned on the writings of Arthur Jones and Ell Darden will see what looks like a big departure of opinion here. It starts with definitions, specifically of the term intensity. For Jones, it was perceived effort. For Pavel and the researchers he cites, it’s percentage of 1RM. This is something I brought up with Darden a long time ago. First of all, percentage of 1RM is much more friendly to accurate measurement than is perceived effort, and measurement is foundational to science. Perceived effort changes daily and even hourly. One-rep max also changes, but it’s not as subject to emotional and psychological states as is the perception of effort.

I asked Darden about something he wrote in one of his books, a variation on a theme running through just about everything he’s written. My question concerned what Jones called “the rush factor.” I understood its role in metabolic conditioning, but I questioned its efficacy in creating strength gains. I pointed out the importance of overload, one of the very principles Darden himself said was essential for effective strength training (the other being progression). I asked him how a person could overload in a given exercise when he’s gasping for air after doing several exercises full-bore and back-to-back. He said that it didn’t matter that a person could only press, say, 80 pounds for 8 in the middle of this fast-paced workout, when normally he could do 100 for 8. What mattered was that he hit failure with that 80.

Then he added, “Besides, you’re going to meet and exceed your old numbers soon enough.” He offered, I should add, abundant proof, including the results of the West Point study in 1975, in which the participating members of the football team really did exceed their old PRs by a long shot, and they did this working out with fifteen seconds max between exercises.

Another apparent wrinkle here is that Pavel himself cites a couple of studies in his first kettlebell book, showing how the use of moderate poundages in the competitive KB lifts yielded tremendous performance results. In a 1983 (I think) study, comparing a KB-only group with a control group using more traditional exercises, the KB guys outperformed the control group in the very exercises the control group had been working on the whole time.

So, is Pavel contradicting himself, and has Arthur Jones been right all along? Well, the contradiction is only apparent. The KB observations and the Nautilus studies noted improvements in muscular strength. Growth in that area has a neural component (through motor skill refinement), but the improvement is essentially made through growth of muscle. On the continuum that joins strength-through-purely-neural-means and strength-through-growth-o f-tissue, neural strength training really does prefer a low-fatigue environment. It might even require it.

The advantages of working for metabolic conditioning (something we can talk about at another time) include physical improvement across the board (e.g., various types of strength, systemic endurance, and local muscular endurance). The advantages of a slower, low-fatigue approach to strength include being able to stick with a routine that doesn’t threaten to kill you every time you follow it.

Now, I’ll get to the promised nuts and bolts of minimizing fatigue in order to build neural strength.

Part of the challenge of reporting on Power to the People! is the fact that it’s not a well-organized book. It jumps around a bit. But Pavel does organize some things well, and this is one of them. He lists 5 ways to minimize “various types of fatigue.” Here they are.

1. Keep your reps low

Pavel advises reps in the same range Bill Starr does, up to 6. Both simplify by saying, “Five.” Although he spells out why he likes low reps better in other writings, essentially it’s for a couple of reasons:

a. You don’t exhaust the stabilizer muscles, which — in a high-rep set — tend to give out before prime movers, making an exercise more dangerous. This was a point made by a chiropractor friend who was also a muscle-head way back in the early 1990s. When I made mention of 20-rep squats, he said, “I wouldn’t do more than 10, and even that’s high.” His reasoning was that the lower back muscles, which are held in isometric contraction during the set, fatigue faster than the muscles of the thighs — and that they tire unevenly. So, when one side of your spinal erectors begins to fail before the other, your spine begins to tilt. This is dangerous under a heavy load. For his part, Pavel recognizes the usefulness of 20-rep squats but says not to stay on such a routine for long.

b. Doing five reps prevents the possibility of overdoing sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Pavel calls such growth fake. While some of such growth will occur, especially in the Bear-style training I’ll get to, myofibrillar growth is responsible for the greatest growth. Why? Because Bear-style training emphasizes heavy weights and low reps, even while going for a pump.

2. Keep rest intervals up around 3-5 minutes
ATP stores are depleted during exercise, and, while short rest periods are good for creating a cumulative breakdown of muscle tissue, longer ones are better for doing consistently heavy work for several sets of an exercise.

3. Keep the number of sets low
Fatigue will eventually set in, even when your reps are low and your rest intervals are longish. So, for neural strength training, don’t do a high volume of work. Hit it fairly hard and heavy, and then go home. The PTP! template involves two work sets per exercise: The first one conforms to the overall cycle, and the second one is 90 percent of that first set.

Pavel’s caveat is that such a percentage is not precise. Just take some plates off and do a second set. Bam, that’s it.

4. Pause and relax between reps

This is something I remember reading Larry Scott did when working his biceps. Each rep was its own thing: He’d rest for a moment at the top of preacher bench curls before lowering the weight for another rep. That short rest allows you to “generate higher values of muscular tension” as your set progresses. The ATP thing mentioned above is a big reason why.

5. Lift frequently but not too frequently

Tsatsouline likens exercising to practicing. And practicing any skill requires repetition. He cites numerous studies and lots of historical examples for practically everything he writes, and for this principle, he tells about Bob Peoples, the great deadlifter, who practiced his pet lift 4 to 5 times a week. You can be assured that these sessions were heavy but not intense the way Arthur Jones described intense. Peoples didn’t carry a lot of muscle, and his training style shows one reason why. He didn’t try to exhaust muscle; he just practiced lifting progressively heavier weights.

How Pavel combines neural training with higher volume, fatigue-oriented work to yield an effective size-building approach: Get a pump with heavy weights.

That’s the gist of size building, according to the Energetic Theory of Muscle Hypertrophy. It rings true for me. Although I tried lots of set/rep protocols when I was a pup, that’s the one that delivered the most for me.

How does it work? There are two main things going on when you train heavy, using multiple sets and comparatively brief rest periods (compared, that is, to the intervals I described for neural training): tension and fatigue.

You get tension by using heavy weights. By using five reps per set with weights that’ll allow 6 or 7 reps (if you went to failure), you can use heavy loads. Also, there are the tension producing techniques mentioned above.

You get fatigue by doing multiple sets and keeping rest intervals brief. Forget all the chemical things going on in your muscle cells; you’re getting a pump. Ted Arcidi called a high-rep pump a “suck pump.” I don’t know how he came up with such an interesting term, but it reveals his attitude. Arcidi was a very strong, very big man. Whether his size was pure accident or intentional, I don’t know. I do know that a low-rep pump, one utilizing heavy weights, is one even that power man would respect.

Combine the previous principles
Remember when we talked about creating high levels of muscular tension? Well, doing that over several sets creates a real nice growth stimulus. It’s almost like posing with a barbell. Employ all the performance principles mentioned in my above posts for multiple sets.

Here’s how the set/rep approach is done.
You’ve set up your cycle already. Let’s say you’re going to follow the HLM weekly mini-cycle. Also, you’re going to go increasingly heavy for 3 weeks, back off somewhat for one, then hit that pattern again. That’s a good, solid approach, time-honored and proven.

So, let’s say today’s first set is 92 percent of your 5RM. Never mind that it’s 92 percent of what you can do… today, it’s your “money set.” You do one set of 5 with it. Rest for 3 minutes or 5 minutes or anything in between: your call. Now, take 10 percent off the bar and do another set of 5. That’s 90 percent of today’s heavy set, not of your 5RM.

If you were going for strength without size, you’d leave it at that. Instead of going for workout volume, you’d go for frequency throughout the week. You could get away with training the lift 5 times a week, if you cycled properly. None of those sets would be limit sets. You’re training a skill, remember: the skill of being strong.

For size, though, you don’t stop at those two sets (and you don’t train the exercise 5 times per week; stick with 3, when you’re using this kind of workout volume). After you finish the second set, you strip another 10 percent off the bar and start doing sets of 5. Rest 30-90 seconds between these sets and do as many as you can. This means you keep doing sets until 5 reps won’t go up anymore. That’s when you call it quits.

So, it’s:
Set 1: poundage indexed to your cycle.
Set 2: 90 percent of Set 1
Remaining sets: 80 percent of Set 1

Some people end up able to do a lot more of the 80 percent sets than others can do. A lot of that has to do with the muscle fiber types making up the involved muscles. The more fast-twitch fibers you’ve got, the fewer sets you’ll be able to do (all other things, like rest intervals, being equal). They’re strong, but they have little endurance.

The reason Pavel has you doing 2 – or at most, 3 – exercises in this approach is that you’ve got to account for recovery factors. His recommendation for exercises is the deadlift and the side press. I’d do rows, too, but I wouldn’t do Bear-style sets (all those 80 percenters) on all 3 exercises. I’d do them with 2 movements at most, doing just the 2 strength sets (Set 1 and Set 2) for the third. After a cycle or two, change out which 2 you do Bear-style.

Pavel’s simple advice is to pound protein. Remember when I wrote above that using heavy weights increases tension? That’s because, as Pavel writes, tension increases amino acid uptake by the muscles. The more tension there is and the longer the muscles stay under tension (always balanced by adequate recovery), the better, for the purposes of getting big muscles. He likens it to throwing scoops of protein into your muscles with every rep… and bigger weights make bigger scoops.

Well, combine that with actual, literal protein. According to PTP!, to build muscle, you need extra protein and a lot of it. I remember Bob Simpson writing essentially the same thing in Iron Man many years ago. Neither Pavel nor Bob sells protein (to my knowledge), so their words aren’t backed by a profit motive. Pavel urges the reader to experiment both with sources and amounts of protein to find what works best.

Adequate rest is the last — but not the least important –- leg of the stool. Train to be calm when you’re awake, and rest well when you’re asleep. By resting well, I mean for example that you can knock yourself out with a lot of booze, but it isn’t a restful sleep. Be healthy. There are lots of quality-of-life reasons for that, and one of them is building a big, strong body.

Not just one way
The point should be made here that this is not Pavel’s only recommendation for gaining size. He’s got a whole book out there called Beyond Bodybuilding, which describes many approaches toward building size. What they all have in common, though, is that they also build strength. He even goes on to say in an interview that an advanced bodybuilder can use any routine he likes; just add the breathing and high-tension techniques described above (if you don’t already do them), and you’ll have a greatly improved routine.

My addendum is that the minimalist approach (3 exercises) described in PTP! is a valuable one to consider, due to stress-and-recovery balance issues. Too often, we drive too hard for too long, and we defeat ourselves, because we’re not recovering enough. You don’t have to fully recover, I don’t believe (anymore), but you have to recover enough over time to make progress. If you measure progress on, say, a monthly schedule (rather than a workout-to-workout schedule), you might end up doing better. There will be some over-reaching, and there will be a nice overcompensation as a reward.

Praise for the Clean & Press and Shrug Bar Deadlift

Have you no time for a full workout? Do you want real lifting efficiency? Are you a fan of “Old School” lifting? If you answered “yes” to any one or all of those three questions…The Clean and Press is for you.

You don’t often see the clean and press being performed in many gyms and there are a few good reasons for this. First and foremost, the movement is hard. When it is done in sufficient sets and reps with even moderate weight, it can provide a whole body workout that will tax the most of the body. It doesn’t take much examination to see that the legs, lower and upper back, biceps, triceps and deltoids, as well as the cardiovascular system will be worked quite well by the movement, especially if you are doing the movement “full cycle.” (This means that you clean and press for each repetition.) The movement requires (and develops) strength and balance. You can’t sit comfortably in a seat and do the movement.

Second, it is not a glamorous movement. Rather, it is basic and primitive. Pull the weight to your shoulders and shove it overhead. Repeat. You can’t be casual while you clean and press. You can’t hold a conversation, talk on your cell phone, nor can you check the gym’s “eye candy.” You have to devote your full attention to struggling to overcome gravity. Simple, basic and demanding equals “not popular.”

Third and finally, the movement is perceived as dangerous. The lower back is at risk when you bend over to clean. The clean subjects your attachments to “unnatural” forces. Your shoulders and lower back are dangerously loaded while the weight is overhead. Why would anyone want to do such a dangerous movement?


Because you will be in danger of developing coordinated bodily effort and a strong, muscular physique if you devote honest effort to the clean and press. That’s why.

I recommend that you do the movement “full cycle” as mentioned above. However, that may be too taxing for a beginner so feel free to clean every second or third press if you wish. Once you’ve built up some conditioning, you can do the movement full cycle. You should start with moderate weight, especially if you haven’t done the movement before. You can use a barbell or dumbbells – though the beginner will be better served by the barbell initially. A barbell is a little easier to control than are dumbbells – which require that you divide your concentration and control each ‘bell. If using dumbbells, a good starting weight is the same weight that you use for standing lateral or front raises. (Yup, you heard me…start that lightly!)

It’s not necessary (nor even desirable) to completely lock out the elbows and shoulders each rep, since by doing so you transfer the loading from the muscles to the bones and joints. Just ensure that you completely lock out a few reps of each set, to guarantee full range of motion and to make a “complete” lift.

Give the clean and press and honest try…the movement will surprise and reward you.

Recently, I purchased a shrug bar. I’ve worked with it a number of months now and I consider it one of the more intelligent purchases I’ve made. Simply put, it allows me to squat and deadlift in greater safety and comfort than does a conventional bar. There are a couple of reasons why this is so. First, during the lift, your hands and arms are in a more natural position, just like when they are hanging relaxed by your side. Second, as you lift, the weight is free to move to the centerline of the body, rather than remaining in front of the body…lessening the stress on the lower back and making the lift more mechanically efficient. Also, since the weight is lower, there is less stress to the lower back, because the distance to the fulcrum or the movement arm is shorter. Third, the lift is safer to perform with the weight held in the hands. It is much easier to “dump” a bad lift, when the weight is near the hips and hand held, than it is when supported across the upper back. With the low center of gravity, balance is easier for me, also. The grip work is a nice bonus that goes almost unnoticed…until the latter reps of the set!

With the use of this bar, I’ve been able to incorporate into my workout what is a fairly intensive compound movement, without the disadvantages of the conventional squat and deadlift. It’s a “win, win” situation for me. Purists will decry that this is neither a “true” squat or deadlift…but there is a simple answer to those objections:

I don’t care.

The above movements are a good fit for me. I often find myself constructing “quickie” workouts using these two movements and find that they work nearly the entire body in a most pleasing fashion. Give these two movements a try and enjoy your training.

Trigger Point Therapy, Miracle Tendinitis Cure

Tendons take forever to heal, and after waiting patiently with intolerance all summer for an Achilles tendon to normalize (shoe inserts, regular icing, attention to Joint Connection and fish oil supplements), by accident I stumbled upon what feels like a miracle.

Pulling out Clair Davies’ Triggerpoint Therapy Workbook to look up referred pain sites for thumb soreness for a friend, I stumbled over a triggerpoint for Achilles tendinitis located deep in the middle of the calf. Gouging away at it — hurt like the dickens! — the pain lessened over a period of a few minutes as the triggerpoint eased.

The next day, my long-suffering Achilles tendon was healed.

Now I know that sounds ridiculous and that only the triggerpoint faithful will believe it.

And to the scoffers, let me dig a bit: You *have* triggerpoints. This isn’t some hocus pocus voodoo. They may not be causing you any trouble… or maybe they are. That tendinitis you’ve been anxiously waiting out could possibly be cured today. I’m really not kidding.

Quoting Clair Davies, author of the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, “The defining symptom of a trigger point is referred pain; that is, trigger points usually send their pain to some other site. This is an extremely misleading phenomenon and is the reason conventional treatments for pain so often fail. It’s a mistake to assume that the problem is at the place that hurts!”

And from the painful conditions list on the triggerpointbook.com website, it’s no joke; from tendinitis, ankle sprains and back pain, to carpal tunnel, tennis elbow, rotator cuff, runner’s knee and sciatica, the list of potential favorable treatments by triggerpoint therapy is long.

Aside from how quick and miraculous this is, the second-best thing? You can perform this on yourself. There’s no need to find a therapist, wait for an appointment and hope the attendant knows his or her stuff, then line up to pay the big bucks. Using your ingenuity and a tool or two, you can hit every part of your body. I’m not saying a visit to a practitioner for an initial treatment wouldn’t be a good idea, quite the opposite. But in many areas, you simply won’t find a knowledgeable therapist, and heck, for the cost of a couple visits, you can stock up on all those choice therapy tools.

In fact, I broke down and sprung for the full triggerpoint therapy kit, and am using it faithfully, daily. This is one outstanding toolkit, highly recommended, and at least until they run out, you can get a set from Elite Fitness for $119. Or you can pick up individual parts of the set at the manufacturer’s site, TPTherapy.com.

trigger point kit

Surprise! Rolling my foot over the smaller unit fixed the dropped metatarsal problem I was griping about all summer. Bodyparts aren’t working fully optimally yet, but things are a whole lot better. If you’re aching all over, check this stuff out. And if you aren’t — you lucky dog — check it out anyway and save yourself some future trauma.

Mobile Home Dipping Bars

One negative aspect of home training: equipment limitations. The fact is, there are a few exercises that are hard to do. We makeshift all the time, but at my great pal Mindy Mylrea’s FitFest a couple weeks ago, I came across a simple tool that provides a lot of options for bodyweight exercises: a pair of mobile but stable dipping bars called the Lebert Equalizer.

dipping bars

Here’s a quick video of Mark Lebert, the designer, running through a variety of exercise possibilities; here’s the same guy doing some playful and extremely difficult over and unders.

Another trip over to YouTube will get you running woman (what looks to be an pretty intense gut effort), leg up vertical rows, and an example of circuit training using the Lebert bars.

dipping bars

You’ll find a listing of some of the exercises you can do with the Equalizers here, and this pdf combines the exercise suggestions and photos into a simple, printable format.

dipping bars

At *$99 ($117 including freight) for a pair of bars that you can do a whole slew of exercises with, that price is not too bad. Some of you can make a set of your own certainly, but when you get done, will they work that well and be significantly cheaper? I’m not so sure about that part.

*Update* Marc has offered davedraper.com readers a $10 discount;  when ordering from their site, enter the coupon code 0807LD.

Top 20 Exercise and Workout Database Pages

We’ve got a bit of an anniversary to celebrate this week: Our blog rolled over its one-year calendar. It’s clearly been a lot of fun and has provided an outstanding and wide-ranging collection of material; still, without a specific purpose in mind at the outset, it’s hard to say we met any goals here. Next year we simply promise more of the same un-planned randomness to educate and entertain.

Snooping around the thousands of pages of the forum looking for the highlights to point out in a blog post a couple weeks ago reminded me of the kazillion other pages in this 3,000-page website you’re unlikely to have accidentally stumbled upon. A quick glance at our server logs gives a picture of our wiki health and fitness database, and I thought you might like a look at what pages are drawing the most reader attention, see what you’re missing.

Exercises and Workout Routines

  1. Exercise Descriptions
  2. Bodypart Exercise Suggestions
  3. Workout Routines
  4. Overhead Squat Instruction
  5. Bench Press Instruction
  6. Byron’s 5×5 Workout Guide
  7. Bentover Barbell Row
  8. Abdominals

Training Styles and Home Gyms

  1. Powerlifting
  2. Cardiovascular Fitness
  3. Homemade Gym Equipment Ideas
  4. Home Gym Set-up
  5. Kettlebells
  6. Sandbag Training

Health and Wellness

  1. Dealing with Back Pain
  2. Male and Female Hormones
  3. Menopause
  4. Cholesterol

Food and Diet

  1. Intermittent Fasting
  2. Protein Shake Recipes
  3. Weight Gain

I was surprised to discover the weight loss page wasn’t even in the top 20. Who *are* you guys?

Heart Rate Monitor — Precision Heart Rate Training

Ages ago, last winter when we were discussing spin bike training, I promised to write about heart rate training for the benefit of those who bought a heart rate monitor but never learned how to use it. Aside from being the most affective method of cardiovascular training, it’s also a way to spice up aerobic training for those who find cardio more boring than waiting for the spouse outside a Macy’s fitting room.

For years we’ve been encouraging high intensity interval training (HIIT), more work gets done… faster. So, now that you know what high intensity is, how do you measure it?

A heart rate monitor.

You already know I consider the spin bike the way to go for measured, planned cardio because it allows total concentration on technique (unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to have the structure for sprints and easy access to a cinder track, in which case all spin bike recommendations are nixed pronto). And as most of us are heading into winter, indoor cycling with a HR monitor is the order of the day. Let’s figure out how to do that, and slide into a simple heart rate training ride so you can learn how to use your new monitor.

Your monitor is a feedback tool; it’s going to take the guesswork out of your cardio training. Once you learn how to use it, you’ll have precise control over your training; your resting and intensity intervals will be planned in advance and each workout will end as intended, lightly worked, completely wiped out or a selected range between the two.

Most people use what are called training zones, the five training zones from the Zone 1 range of 50-60% of maximum heart rate to the red-line zone at 90%, Zone 5. Usually the initial suggestion is to calculate from a max heart rate of 220 minus age, yet what’s not commonly known is how wide a variance there is of max heart rate per person, per activity, heredity, fitness and more. Here’s a better method to calculate your maximum heart rate.

Not many people fit into “average” when it comes to max heart rate, so for today, let’s just take a little test ride and see what we learn. What we’d like to know at the end of this ride is our anaerobic threshold, that is, at what heart rate do we go from breathing comfortably through the nose, to the slightly uncomfortable anaerobic work that calls on us to breathe through the mouth, the place where nose breathing doesn’t provide enough oxygen.

Let’s hold up a sec for the cautionary note: If your cardiovascular fitness is low, that is, you’re unfit, this point may be low, quite low, and if you discover you hit that point too quickly, back off. Stay in your aerobic zone, a more low-key and comfortable place while you condition yourself, and simply use your heart rate monitor to coach yourself to that calm yet challenging place.

A reader, Susanna Hutcheson, reminds me to tell you that some medications, especially beta blockers, will blunt the natural heart rate numbers. Take your time, learn *your* numbers and work from there. How your heart rate numbers compare with another’s is fully unimportant and may not be a reflection of conditioning in any event. What’s important is to learn to use the heart rate as a training tool… that’s it.

You know what? Before we get into the nitty gritty of heart rate training, which we’ll do next week, let’s go for that test ride. Put on your monitor, grab a bottle of water and a music player and get on your ride.

This is a 60-minute ride I took recently to plot this out for you. If you want to go for a half-hour instead, that’s fine; it’s just a test run to see what the monitor has to offer.

Ready? Okay, let’s ride.

Pedal one minute to activate your monitor, where you’ll maybe see 80 or 90, something like that. Then, increase 5 beats per minute (BPM) per song. That’s it… hold your heart rate as steady as possible during each song and increase 5 beats per song until you get to the top of your aerobic zone, the spot where your mouth opens to breathe.

Make note of the number on your heart rate monitor, perhaps it will be 120, maybe 140, could be higher… just note it and we’ll use it another day to figure out an interval training ride.

If your songs are longer than average, more than four minutes, say, use the clock instead, and increase 5 BPM every four minutes.

Now make your way back down, easing off by 10 BPM per song to finish the ride at around 90 BPM.

Very simple, nothing tricky, just a learning tool to find your aerobic/anaerobic threshold, where it is currently on this particular cardio machine, hopefully we’re talking about your spin bike, but whatever you have access to is fine.

Watch your heart rate jump when you sit upright, balancing with your torso, all your weight on the seat and pedals instead of partially on the handlebars. Raise your hands overhead and watch your heart rate jump again. Your monitor may take 5-15 seconds to register the changing numbers.

Keep hydrated. Heart rate goes up without regular water intake during training. Make your muscles earn the rising numbers.

You’ll find this interesting: 10-point jumps are easier; 5 points take more attention, more finesse.

Also interesting, the way back down is harder to control. If you’ve been riding regularly, your heart rate will drop faster than your planned goal, which is a good thing since your conditioning is better than expected. If long rides are new to you, your legs will feel leaden by 45 minutes and it will be difficult to get your heart rate down. Slow as a tortoise, those moving pedals.

The first time you do this monitoring, use pedal speed to make your increases. You may have to adjust the resistance up or down if you’ve guessed wrong, but for this ride, let’s just have the one variable to attend to. Next time you can bring in the harder gearing.

Once you have the hang of controlling your heart rate, try this: Note your heart rate, decide your next marking point and close your eyes. See the new number in your head and pedal up to it. Open your eyes and see how you did. Amazing, isn’t it, how you can hit that new target so precisely and after just these introductory instructions?

A heart rate monitor is one of the more outstanding modern training tools, and at less than $75, an average unit will coach you into great conditioning workouts for years to come.

Weight Vest Training and Sled Dragging

Two things stuck out this week. One an experience; one was a food investigations video clip from the BBC. Both had to do with bodyweight right here at summer’s opening weekend, wouldn’t you know it?

Let’s start with the experience: I took my first hill hike wearing a 12-pound weight vest a few days ago. That’s not much weight, a nudge under 10% of bodyweight, but the difference in effort output was significant. There are no flats on this initial one-mile trial; I was surprised to discover both the downhill and the uphill were noticeably harder.

More effort required was to be expected, of course, but what was notable was that both knees and ankles hurt during a walk that I’ve become fairly accustomed to doing without even dying at the top.

The second vest work was flat and measured, on a track at the local college, two miles in 38 minutes. The extra 12 pounds adds a couple minutes per mile, maybe a bit more, but more than time, that weight added mental effort. Pretty much every trip by the gate incurred thoughts of bagging it; carrying extra weight is hard work, and a major strain on the back.

It struck me how much of a toll on the body carrying an extra 10-15 pounds of bodyfat can be. Do your back, hips, knees and ankles hurt all the time? Are you exhausted after a day’s activity? These weight vests are too pricey to pick one up to test the theory, so you’ll have to just drop 10 pounds to see what it does for you.

One incident happened during the college workout that was kinda funny. The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s outpost sits around the back turn of the track. On my third trip ‘round, heading right toward the modulars, a deputy drove up and parked, but instead of heading in to the station, she stopped and eyed me pretty closely. Aware I might have looked like a suicide bomber wearing that vest,  I started pumping my arms pretty good to show her I was really taking the workout seriously, really training hard. Eventually she went inside, leaving me to re-consider my idea of a daily weight vest hike to the post office to get the mail. Probably make a few people a little nervous.

Here’s an introduction to weight vest training; Xvest, Smartvest and WeightVest are the three manufacturers our forum members have sampled so far.

An alternative to weight vest work is sled dragging. It’s similar, but different in how the weight is carried, and how mobile you’ll feel. Sleds are also about as expensive as vests, although you can rig your own dragging implement, or you can even make yourself a sled. Byron made me a snazzy one, and offered to write up the instructions, so I’ll get after him about doing that next week.

When we start talking weight—fat weight, not vest weight—many of you probably share my thoughts about metabolism. We’re getting older, our metabolism is dropping and that’s why we can’t lose fat the same way we used to. Could be, but maybe it’s something else indeed.

In this BBC video clip, researchers compared the metabolism of two women to determine if a fast metabolism helped one of the women stay slim, and a sluggish metabolism caused the other to retain fat. As it turned out, surprisingly, the heavier woman burned more calories at rest than the thinner one. It takes more work to maintain a heavier body.

Next they snuck a look at exactly how many calories each woman ate during a test day. You know what they found? Yep, you guessed it. Even though both women—two friends who spent a lot of time together, eating most likely—thought the thinner woman ate more than the heavier, in fact she ate about half that of her weight-challenged friend.

That reminded me of a real eye-opener during a weight-loss IDEA seminar by Len Kravitz. One of his examples was a comparison of beef cuts, and the steak I favored—a boneless ribeye—was about 1,100 calories for a steak that looked kinda normal size. That was the last time I ate a whole steak; a third is about it these days.

From the BBC website, here’s where you’ll find the rest of The Truth about Food video clips.

This weight thing, it could just be a case of decreasing activity. We get a little older, maybe we start sitting things out just a touch more often. Over the course of a week or a month, that can mean the difference between a pound removed or a pound saved.

I think I’ll go take a walk and think about this.

Online Personal Training — Quality Personal Trainers

The best online personal training program will

  • have personal trainers with decades of weight training experience in both commercial and home gyms
  • be structured to consider your personal goals and your unique life circumstances
  • create a workout routine perfectly designed to suit your training experience and equipment availability

When you put those elements together, you’ll find trainees living their dreams, and that is what makes a successful online personal training program.Sounds pretty sweet, doesn’t it? That’s what we thought after discussions with IOL’s Bill Keyes, Byron Chandler, Dan Martin, Bill Peel and Chris McClinch, and with high-fives and grins all around, we set out to create the best quality personal training available online.

Today we introduce our new Online Personal Training program.

The IOL forum is terrific; the education and camaraderie can’t be beat. But let’s face it, sometimes we need a little personal attention. There isn’t enough time in the day to search through the ins and outs of a new weight training program, the latest nutrition news… and goodness knows, most of us, left to our own devices, skip a few sets or secretly slide in some pizza.

Don’t you get tired of thinking sometimes? Wouldn’t you like someone to just tell you what to do?

As I see it, there are three main benefits to an online personal trainer, assuming it’s a quality trainer like one of these IOL guys.

  • Training Motivation

  • Accountability to Your Personal Coach

  • Confidence in Your Training Program

Once your personal goals and circumstances are considered and a good workout routine prepared, those are the three things that will make a personal training program work. And that’s what we offer.

A couple of the guys are hard at work preparing small group training, 4-10 weeks of attention from a coach, just you and a few of your closest online friends. Sessions will be priced individually, depending on the workload and timeframe, and will go online this spring.

Bill Keyes. Byron Chandler. Dan Martin. Bill Peel. Chris McClinch.

Ya can’t beat that lineup, can ya?

Read the details of our new online personal training program here.

Indoor Cycling: Advanced Bike Techniques, Part 4 of 4

We’ve looked at indoor cycling as a training tool, at the various bike manufacturers and done a review of the basics of indoor cycle training. Now let’s take things up a notch as we consider the following advanced cycling techniques.

Many of these training suggestions are well-known to outdoor cyclists. I’d like to remind them — you, perhaps — that winter indoor cycle training is optimum for serious cyclists. You can concentrate on cadence, smoothing out your pedal stroke. Weighted flywheel cycling permits total concentration on technique so you hit your spring training a better cyclist than you ended the previous season, and it can ease you through winter-month cycling withdrawal.

Advanced-beginning spinners: Practice constant pedal pressure. Use a smooth, round stroke — pedal in circles. This sounds funny, but at second look makes sense. Most beginning cyclists pedal up and down rather than around. Another way to think of this is to visualize a horizontal line at the top and bottom of the pedal stroke. This will make your strokes round instead of vertical, with a top and bottom, and will recruit more leg muscle.

Pay attention to your hips, whether in the saddle or out: Keep your hips solid, stable. Your legs should be doing the work, not your torso. The effort in the torso is reserved for balance.

Reminder: Keep your shoulders loose; keep your weight off your wrists.

Terms to consider

Pace: Pedal revolutions per minute — Increase pace to improve leg speed, pedal stroke and efficiency.

Cadence: Personal pace, based on body mechanics and cycling skills.

You can calculate your cadence by counting the downstrokes of one leg for six seconds and adding a zero to get your pedal rpms. Advanced indoor cyclists may want to invest in a pace monitor, such as a Cateye Astrale 8, although I personally suggest mastering heart rate training first if you haven’t already done that. Using RPMs in training adds another point of interest and another training tool for workout variety.

  • Read more…

Top tips for using the indoor bike as a training tool

Indoor Cycling : Part 3 of 4 (Click for part 1Click for part 2Click for part 4)

Top complaint from new cyclers: saddle soreness. As we first learn to spin, we sit deep on the saddle, causing either numbness, pain or annoyance — saddle soreness, if you will. When the bike instructors at World Gym Scotts Valley first began their bike orientation, they all complained and bought biking shorts ($50+ for one pair, in case anyone’s considering this; opt for the patience).

When we started the classes, all the participants were griping, but by then the instructors were telling them to relax, the soreness would soon go away. It takes about two weeks of 3-4 classes a week to learn the techniques of riding, which mainly include increasing the resistance on the flywheel to move the pressure from the saddle onto the legs, and then increasing leg strength to handle the workload. The annoyance goes away, if the rider doesn’t disappear first.

Other suggestions for success on an indoor bike:

  • Go to a local health club and take a couple of bike classes. The instructor will show you how to fit the bike, describing the seat and handlebar adjustments that you can then do at home, and will teach the biking techniques that will make a difference in your ride.
  • Skootch back on the seat, then do it again when you notice you’ve slipped forward
  • If you’re bouncing around on the seat, tighten the crank just a touch until you feel a hint of resistance.
  • When upright, sit high; when laid out across the bars, elongate your spine.
  • Practice: Learn to use the combination of resistance and speed to smooth out your cadence and manipulate your heart rate.
  • Use the abductor muscles to hold your knees in. No wide-open sloppy knees for this crew, please.
  • Don’t put your weight on the handlebars; don’t lean — use the handles for balance only. It’ll hurt your wrists, for one thing, but it also takes some of the load off the legs, not our purpose, is it? Try it: lean on the bars and note the legs at work. Then sit upright, leaning forward at the hips slightly. Feel it in the legs!
  • Keep shoulders loose; it takes attention to do it. This will relieve potential neck ache as it keeps the stress on the legs.
  • As you come out of the saddle for high-resistance hill work, keep your tail end back. It’s not a rest; you don’t want to be standing upright on the pedals.
  • Grind out the hills: hips back, body folded forward, with attention on hamstrings. Push back, not down, and pull up with the hams.
  • Do training segments in full-song increments, ie sprints, hill grinds, steady pace work. It’s key to finishing tough efforts for beginning cyclists.
  • On hard grinds, let yourself sway from side to side as if on a curving country road.
  • If your knees ache, check the height of the bike seat; if the bike seat slips too low, your knees don’t get fully extended during the pedal stroke.
  • If the seat’s too high, you’ll feel yourself moving slightly from side to side.

Finally, if you don’t have a heart rate monitor and are riding an indoor spin bike for cardio health, get a clue! There’s no limit to the skills and ability you’ll gain using a HR monitor, with your bike shoes clipped in to your pedals and riding with monitored precision.

Without a heart rate monitor or music, I wouldn’t work as hard. My tools in order of importance:

1) Heart rate monitor (We address heart rate training here.)
2) Music — MP3 player
3) Bike shoes — cleats fastened to the bike pedals

In part four we’ll close with some advanced cycle skills.

What is an indoor weighted flywheel cycle?

Indoor Bike Tutorial: Part 2 of 4

I’m completely amazed my declaration of the weighted flywheel cycle as the world’s top cardio training tool held up so long. I didn’t expect to get away with that for more than a few hours. Byron would surely have jumped up to yell “cross training” had he not been so busy at work, but I’m truly surprised not to have heard from a crew of Concept 2 athletes.

Well, as long as I still have the floor, let’s continue with our indoor bike discussion.

Comparing the indoor bike to an average stationery bike such as that which most have ridden at some time or another is next to impossible, they’re so different. These bikes have a weighted flywheel in the front mimicking the feel of an outdoor bike that’s actually propelled by the pedals. When you tighten the resistance and come out of the saddle, you absolutely feel like you’re cycling up a steep hill. I’ve logged a trillion hours on both a LifeCycle and a V-Bike, and can tell you, for this reason alone, it would take a major, long-term emergency to get me back on a LifeCycle.

Weighted flywheel bikes are made of stronger steel, built for the rider to come out of the saddle and grind on the pedals, which isn’t often done on a regular stationary bike, and in many cases would break the pedal cranks right off the bike.

The original indoor training bikes were designed by a racing cyclist named Johnny G, a guy who rigged this sort of funky unit in his garage for his winter training. A dozen or so years ago he designed an instructor-lead group exercise class format, which he then co-joined with Schwinn to build and sell. Johnny’s first generation bike was so superior to a normal stationary bike that it took fire. Serious cyclists lined up for his classes, mostly in the Los Angeles area at the time, and this new bike craze took off.

StarTrak then built the best second-generation bike called the V-Bike, which I have and like a lot, $1,000 new, but can be purchased reconditioned for around half that now that they’ve developed a couple of souped-up models.

One thing to look for when shopping for an indoor cycle is the seat adjustments, height and fore and aft, but also handle adjustments, again both height and fore and aft. Often the cheaper bikes only have height, but the fore and aft adjustment is an important one to compensate for torso, arm and leg length.

If I was to buy a newflywheel bike today, it would be a Greg LeMond RevMaster, runs about $1,100. Late addition:  That was true when this post was originally written, but no longer holds today if I could possibly pull together the extra bucks. Sean Harrington’s new bike, the RealRyder, with it’s side-to-side motion, has now claimed the top spot. Wow, very nice!


Reconditioned indoor cycles are a viable way to go, because the parts are either unbreakable, or are regular bike parts that when replaced make the bike ride like new — all the parts that can go south have been replaced and the bike is lubed and painted. Voila! That’s the way I’d go for a reasonably priced indoor cycle.

Many cycling subtleties are not fully notable without bike shoes. Test indoor cycling to see if it’s suitable for you, and if it is, spring for bike pedals and shoes. The difference between pedaling with regular shoes and in cleats fastened to the pedals is huge — snapping onto the pedals enables both pushing and pulling during each pedal stroke, which is both more effort as well as a whole lot more fun.

If you share a cycle with someone who doesn’t have or want bike shoes, you can buy dual-sided pedals that have the toe basket on one side and cleat mounts on the other, although you’ll probably have to order these from a bike shop because outdoor riders will rarely use a dual pedal.

You can, of course, burn more calories sprinting on the track or running hills (let’s not discuss the stress on ankles, knees and hips), but you will won’t have the training tool that comes with closing your eyes and concentrating, and it will take a live coach to get you where a heart rate monitor and cyclometer will take you independently.

In part three we’ll discuss my top 20 bike training tips. In the meantime, if you get a chance to slide onto an indoor bike, here’s what you can expect on the ride.

Indoor Biking Tutorial

Introduction to indoor bike training: Part 1 of 4

Today I declare the world’s top cardio training tool: the indoor cycle. After more than a quarter of a century spent sampling nearly every type of cardio training introduced, some wacky fitness machines to all styles of group aerobic training to running indoors and out, car pushing and sled pulling… the bottom line remains for me the weighted flywheel indoor cycle.

Of course I know you want to be outdoors, and for sure moving your body over the earth is more challenging than training on a stationary machine of any type. But the benefits of training stationary over pedaling outdoors include the ability to use the cycle fully; you’re not limited by the terrain, traffic or weather. You can close your eyes and concentrate on your pedal cadence and on the workload without crashing into the ditch; training techniques used on an indoor cycle are not possible when other concentration is necessary.

Balance, for instance.

I’m not arguing against getting outside, nor implying that moving the tires against the earth’s surface or fighting the wind isn’t harder work. I’m instead presenting a case for an indoor cycle training program where the hill doesn’t end until you decide it ends. Other tricks include spinning with one leg to balance leg strength and coordination, using music to set cadence (double time, triple time… half time), or using resistance to focus on a target heart rate. These things simply can’t be done on the street.

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The best $10 you’ll ever spend on home exercise equipment

T-HandleThis simple device is a T-Handle. Dan John calls this bad boy a Hungarian Core Blaster, a name that obviously has a lot more panache than “t-handle.” Legend has it this device was the secret of the Hungarian hammer throwers’ success years ago. I like that name, but it is so flashy I think it may give people unrealistic expectations. They may be let down when they see the simple device to the left. It just can’t compete with the dozens of core gadgets on late night infomercials for flash and glitz, and to date lacks bikini clad miracle makeover endorsements.

But for results, I’ll stack the T-handle against anything you can make in five minutes for ten bucks. Nobody is let down by the effects of the swing, the exercise for which this tool is ideally suited.

If you are considering buying kettlebells, by all means make a t-handle and swing away. The swing is one of the most basic kettlebell movements. With a t-handle, you can decide what weight kettlebell will suit you.

Even if you aren’t interested in kettlebells, just about anyone can benefit from some swings. You can do swings Tabata style – eight sets of eight with ten seconds rest between sets – for a four minute, minimum cost, minimum footprint interval workout. You can do light swings as part of your warmup.
Directions for making a T-handle (for those of you who use directions) can be found in the IOL Wiki.

What is Fitness?

A while back, I wrote about how GPP is basically just overall physical fitness. That may or may not be a helpful clarification; it leads to another question. Have you given any thought to what it means to be fit?

A dictionary definition of the word fitness may be something like, “the ability to perform tasks” and is, in my opinion, perfectly adequate. So physical fitness would by extension be nothing more than the ability to perform physical tasks. An adequate definition, but not exactly an earth shattering concept. Knowing a definition is not understanding.

The folks at Crossfit have probably thought as long and hard on this subject as anyone. They have a free issue of their Crossfit Journal, titled What is Fitness? which fleshes out that definition quite a bit. Their concept of fitness involves identifying ten key components of fitness: “cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.” You are as fit as you are competent in these categories – according to Crossfit.

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