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Benching: A Major Cause of Shoulder Problems

Shoulder Joint Stabilization

There is some confusion between the idea of the role of stabilizers an airplane and a stabilizer for a joint. The stabilizer muscles for the shoulder joint, for example, are not designed to keep a barbell from wobbling. That is more a function of balance, kinesthetics and proprioception.

The stabilizers are the muscles that help hold the joint together. The glenohumeral shoulder joint is the most mobile, and the least stable joint in the body. The structure of the ball and socket joint isn’t what you might picture; it’s more like a golf ball resting on a tee. The connective tissue of the shoulder joint is aided by the muscles that surround the joint to achieve stability.

Now for the gym rats we get to the important issue: When doing a bench press, the muscles of the rotator cuff must work very hard to hold the joint together as if to keep the golf ball on the tee… and it’s working under duress.

A Big Cause of Shoulder Problems

The supraspinatus is often what takes the beating when shoulder function is off in any way. However, just doing an exercise for the supraspanitus would be missing the point, and possibly exacerbating a tear. The cause of a shoulder problem could be any combination of—

Tight wrists
Tight pecs
Tight lats
Tight traps
Excessive kyphosis
Weak lower traps
Tight rhomboids
Weak serratus
Weak external rotators
Tight subscapularis
Tight scalenes

… or, just doing exercises that put the joint in an impingement position. For example, upright rows basically chop and saw away at the tendon in the top position.

An unbalanced shoulder will be an unhealthy shoulder before long, and that will hold you back in any sport, bodybuilding, powerlifting… everything.

Reducing Tightness

For the whole imbalance issue, stretching the pecs is fully half the answer. Tightness in the pecs will hold back your efforts to strengthen the upper back.

Foam rolling the upper back will help loosen up the thoracic spine.

Developing the muscles that extend the upper spine will help, too. Do a good amount of overhead work, and work hard on your horizontal rows. Not all types of rowing will help; you want to do it as a whole-back exercise, not a lat exercise. This doesn’t mean cheat your rows, quite the contrary. The best thing you can do is probably strict barbell rows. Pendlay-style rows are especially good and emphasize the extension of the upper back.

The overhead position is going to be really rough on the joint if you don’t let the shoulder blade move forward as the serratus contracts, which creates some space for the tendon when as the arm rises. This is going to be bad if a lack of thoracic extension has you hunched forward.

Movement Sequencing

Physical therapists refer to scapulo-humeral rhythm, which is the coordinated movement of the shoulder blade and arm, an important part of healthy shoulder function. It helps ensure the joint space isn’t closed at certain points in the range of motion; that is, it prevents impingement, which we’ll talk about next week.

In a natural athlete with no issues or problems, it’s something that just happens, nothing to think about it. If an injury or imbalance has corrupted that pattern, or you’ve worked a movement that undoes that pattern, it’s going to take some re-learning to restore it.

Bench pressing is one of the things that really turns that pattern off, especially if you do a lot of benching and not much overhead work, or maybe push-ups or general athletics or even physical labor that keeps the pattern alive.

In bench pressing your shoulder blades are squashed against a bench and they aren’t going to move much whatever you do. You can bench more if you immobilize the shoulder blades, but the idea there isn’t to make your shoulder healthy, it’s to bench more.

As you can see, bench pressing is an example of how we take a powerful exercise too far, and over time it causes systemic problems in how we move. There are other examples of sequencing that we’ll discuss later, but it’s hard to beat the image of immobile shoulder blades when benching.

The lesson this week is simple: Limit bench pressing, as much as you love it, or at the very least, offset the bench work with horizontal rows (basically the opposite of the bench), and overhead pressing. Next, let’s cover shoulder impingements.

The Pendlay Barbell Row

The dangerous point in the exercise is the turnaround point at the bottom. If you start every row from at-rest on the floor (aka Pendlay Rows, named for strength coach Glenn Pendlay) and drop them rather than lower them, they are pretty mild on the low back. This style is called row pulls, and with them bumper plates are helpful.

Here are two variations of the Pendlay row—

  • One, arch and extend your upper back; this might take some experimenting to figure out, but it makes a big difference.


  • Two, pull dynamically from a dead stop on the floor, kind of like a clean, not ripping it off the floor, but accelerating. Pull hard into the chest, then let the weight drop at a free fall, using no eccentric effort in the lowering of the weight. This is mainly to spare the low back. This style lends itself to low reps and heavy weights.

Pendlay-style barbell rows teach the whole back to work in concert. The lats act not only on the arm; they also stabilize the spine. The motion of the scapulae is synchronized with the movement of the arm, an important motor pattern to reinforce for shoulder health. It’s another example where the ground-based, closed-chain, natural movement wins every time. It restores mobility to the thoracic spine.

Squeeze at the midpoint means to really pull the bar hard into your chest at the top of the barbell row. Don’t just sit back let momentum carry it from the midpoint to graze you at the top, keep pulling!

Do bentover rows totally strict, bent over so the torso is parallel to the floor, knees unlocked, keeping everything still but the arms, back perfectly flat, weight on the heels. You have to have a surprising degree of hamstring flexibility to do them flat-backed. It will help to warm up and stretch the hamstrings good before you begin.

If you’re too tight for good form, develop the necessary flexibility before working this exercise.

Barbell Rowing Form

Form is extremely important with barbell rows. The most important form point is to keep a flat lower back. This will require quite a bit of flexibility in the hamstrings, and good core strength and stability in the bentover position. You must develop these prerequisites before attempting barbell rows… or T-bar rows, or seated pulley rows.

There are a lot of don’ts with barbell rows.

  • Don’t try to modify your form so the exercise will emphasize lat development. It will develop the lats without any fiddling.
  • Don’t emulate the form some of the monsters use in photo shoots for bodybuilding magazines. You’ll typically see these guys with five hundred pounds, barely bent over, with very little range of motion. Stick to the truly bentover form.
  • Don’t use too narrow of a grip. Use a fairly wide grip, keep your trunk pretty much parallel to the ground, and pull the bar to the lower chest.
  • Don’t use too much thrust. With heavy weights, a little thrust might be okay.
  • Don’t cut the rep range short. Start each rep with the bar resting on the ground, with acceleration, and emphasizing arching your upper back.

The number one thing to consider in bentover barbell rows is putting the bar down between reps. This is much like resetting between reps of the deadlift, but has even more of a back-sparing effect.

The physics are simple: The weight on the bar is the force required to move it when it is sitting still on the floor. Once it starts moving, it is a different story. When doing rows the usual way, the forces involved are highest at the bottom, at the turnaround point. The force required to stop the downward motion of the weight and reverse it is much more than the weight on the bar. This is exactly why the needle on a scale goes well past your weight when you first step on the scale. This is also the most vulnerable position for the lumbar spine. It is mainly an eccentric action, where our muscle soreness comes from,  that has to brake the fall of the weight.

By letting the bar rest on the floor, you are letting the downward momentum of the weight dissipate into the floor, sparing the low back. You don’t have to drop the weight in a free fall to get the benefit. You also have a second to re-set the core, which is a big help.

Beyond that, the spinal motion is to have no motion in the lumbar spine, but some flexion and extension of the thoracic spine. In the bottom position, you can let the upper back round over some; in the top position, you actively extend and arch the thoracic spine. In this respect, Glenn Pendlay was ahead of the crowd on the idea of lumbar stability and thoracic mobility.

There is a lot to be aware of here. First you’re picking it off the floor and paying attention to the weight and how it’s transferred through the back and legs and feet, to the floor; then you’re paying attention to the shoulder blades and thoracic spine. This is a lot of attention.

The height of the bar is important. Bumpers, which are 17 inches in diameter,  will work fine. Don’t jerk it off the ground; that’s not necessary. Just keep pulling harder and harder, so the bar accelerates.

Do bentover rows totally strict, bent over so the torso is parallel to the floor, knees unlocked, keeping everything still but the arms, back perfectly flat, weight on the heels. You need a surprising degree of hamstring flexibility to do them flat-backed. It will help to warm up and stretch the hamstrings well before you begin. If you’re too tight for good form, develop the necessary flexibility before working that exercise.

The underhand grip for the bentover barbell row will probably force you to keep your elbows tucked in close. This will lead to more lat work and less middle and upper back work. If you rely on rowing more for upper back work, do them more Draper-style, overhand, wider grip, elbows out a bit. If you’re hoping rows will keep your shoulders healthy, you probably want the Draper method.

The looser you row, the harder it is going to be on the lower back. If you use a lot of hip thrust, you’re going to use more weight. The low back is involved with the hip thrust, so there’s more strain on the low back.

If you just stay more upright, with no thrust, you’re still going to use more weigh. Whether the easier angle and less momentum is cancelled out by the heavier weight, it’s hard to say. Those stooped-over rows, where your trunk is barely past 45 degrees as you pull into your stomach, are just a partial movement, and there’s not much going for them.

The hardest part of rows for the lower back is the turnaround at the bottom. If you can drop your weights rather than lowering them under control, it makes the movement much easier on the low back, yet another good reason to train somewhere with bumpers.

The Pendlay Row reduces the low back strain considerably. The hardest part for the low back is the turnaround point, where you stop lowering and start lifting. By letting it down on the floor, you deload the turnaround.

There are a lot of exercises that can strengthen your low back for rows, but arguably none is better than doing the rows with the core locked and using a weight you can handle. If you lock your core properly, keep it that way, and don’t use more weight than you can with the core locked, your back will be fine.

The way Dave does barbell rows is pretty similar to the row Glenn Pendlay teaches. You may not have seen his rowing description, so here’s a simple overview of the two Pendlay variations.

Bentover Barbell Rows

Chins develop the lats, which are the largest single muscle in the back and create the dramatic wing-like appearance. Rows develop the whole back. There are dozens of muscles on the backside.

Developing all these muscles rather than just lats is of interest to bodybuilders; it’s what separates a thick, beefy back from a broad, flat back. More importantly, developing all these muscles is crucial for athletes and for general fitness. It balances the shoulder joint in ways that chins or pulldowns do not.

The bentover row will help the shoulders by developing the upper back, especially if you don’t try to emphasize the lats. Instead, emphasize arching your upper back. There is no real ratio with the bentover row, just get as strong as possible, and make it your main pull. Not cable rows, not dumbbell rows… accept no substitutes: the barbell bentover row.

In bentover rows, your torso should be horizontal. A medium-width grip is about right for making the lats do a lot of the work. Retracting the scapulae will probably make the lats work harder, but it will do so at the expense of shoulder health over the long term.

The natural movement of the shoulder involves a rhythm of motion; the shoulder blade moves in relation to the ribcage and torso in concert with the movement of the arm. By deliberately retracting the scapulae, you’re turning off this natural rhythm and eventually you’ll train yourself out of it. This is basically what frozen shoulder is all about.

Keeping the elbows tucked into your sides with a closer grip and pulling to the abdomen makes them mostly a lat exercise. Doing them with a barbell, shoulder-width grip or wider, and pulling to the sternum and arching the upper back is a whole back exercise.

Trying to turn rows into a lat exercise and less of an overall back exercise is a big mistake. Rows can make your whole back complete. Never mind appearance, it’s important for overall strength and healthy shoulders.

Click here to learn about barbell row form.

Gray Cook on Squat Devices

There are a variety of assistive squat devices on the market, and I thought it would be interesting to get Gray Cook’s take on how each of them work. Here’s his response to my request. ~Laree


GRAY: Sure, Laree, I have some thoughts on these devices, but first, you better than most know I have to open with the following statement: We don’t load the squat without screening it first.

These devices miss a key aspect of squatting—we need to make sure there’s no dysfunction first. If a person gets a ‘1’ on the squat screen, there’s a potential for injury…with or without a squat assistance device. We have to help the person fit the squat motion before we try to make the squat motion fit the person.

Unfortunately, the individual with the ‘1’ on the squat movement pattern will disregard this information and migrate to any and all tricks and devices that make the squat feel less awkward. The thinking behind this person’s action is that more must be better—more sets, more reps, more weight.

Another thing to remember is this odd thought: Even the absence of dysfunction doesn’t mean we need perfection.

I know you’ve learned a lot about screening from our conversations, and I’ll bet your readers will benefit from it too. They can go to functionalmovement.com to learn more or to find a local certified FMS specialist.

Now then, here’s how these devices help make the squat fit the person.

Manta Ray, $44.95
The main idea behind the manta ray is to spread the weight across more surface area than the bar does alone. It also raises the bar higher off the back, higher even than a high-bar squat, which changes the weight distribution, shifting the load slightly forward toward a more upright, quad-dominant squat.

Top Squat, $199
The top squat spreads the weight similar to the manta ray, but the real purpose of this unit is simply to get the hands in front of the body, mainly for people with shoulder problems.  Because you’re attaching something to a bar, the weight again sits a little higher than a plain bar. However, when letting the handles move as designed, the bar is in a lower position during the squat. This keeps the body more upright than a low-bar powerlifting squat.

Westside Cambered Squat Bar, $380
A favorite among powerlifters, a cambered bar can be used for squatting and good mornings—some cambered bars are even used for bench pressing. The benefit of this bar in squatting is the ability to grip about a foot lower than the bar.

Safety Squat Bar, $395
The Safety Squat Bar is also mostly used by powerlifters, usually in a special power rack that has handles. The idea here is to get the hands off the bar and onto the handles, to help keep the back straight by putting pressure against the rack. This also provides a sort of self-spotting ability to self-correct during the movement—you can use your hands to help position yourself.

Buffalo Bar, $589.95
The Buffalo Bar is the modern version of the slightly bent squat bar, popular among squatters for decades. The IronMind bar is slightly heavier, slightly longer and slightly thicker than a regular Olympic bar. This makes it a favorite among bigger guys because there’s more space between the collars.

Frank Zane Leg Blaster, $650
Frank Zane’s Leg Blaster is more similar to a front squat or even Dan John’s goblet squat than a traditional back squat. This harness unit brings the load both forward and down, and  allows a hands-free or assisted squat, and would be useful for bodybuilders to isolate the quads more than the regular squat motion.

Additional Thoughts

Supplementation with squat patterning on ‘off’ days will actually provide an advantage. Here we get the benefit of a rest and recovery day, with the refinement and efficiency of patterning work. All these can offer rest to a cranky shoulder and refinement to everything under the shoulder. And before we get too complicated, don’t forget Dan John’s simple goblet squat, or partner squats if you happen to have a partner like one of these guys around.


Drill 1—Work on The Pistol

Pavel Tsatsouline’s book The Naked Warrior discusses the development of a pistol or single-leg squat to demonstrate fundamental strength, balance and symmetry between the left and right sides of the body. He employs many tricks to help develop the pistol; common examples are a heel lift to move the weight forward and a box to limit depth.

I recommend doing a pistol on a hill. To begin, lie with your feet downhill. Bring your legs up—knees to chest—and quickly sit up into a pistol stance, one foot down and one foot out, and then use the momentum to stand. You will gain a heavy-day advantage over your competition because you will own more alignment, symmetry and core control.


Drill 2—Log Squat

This is not across-the-shoulders Rocky Balboa style, but instead the log is balanced on one shoulder. The feedback is amazing and the self-limiting aspect is huge. This teaches the squatter that sometimes the body is aligned in such a way that the shoulder is out of position. The drill should be done on the left and right sides. Half to two-thirds body weight is a good starting point, but don’t be afraid to go heavy.

Here, let me show you what it looks like in this clip the Exploring Functional Movement DVD, where Erwan Le Corre and I discuss unbalanced squatting.

Drill 3—Wide-Stance Deadlift

For this we use a really wide stance, with the hands shoulder-width apart, inside the knees. From the side this deadlift almost looks like a squat. Pull your shoulders back; your lats are engaged and your knees should be out—don’t let them cave in; they will if you don’t pay attention. This has all the benefits of a parallel back squat with no pressure on the shoulders. The bonus here is the traction on the shoulders has a rehab effect on the shoulder stabilizers and shoulder-girdle posture.

Thanks again for inviting me in on this discussion, Laree. See you at Perform Better Long Beach in August!







Dan John: Intervention Excerpt

Chapter 21
The Secrets of the Toolkit
Excerpted from Intervention: Course Corrections for the Athlete and Trainer
by Dan John
Available in print, ebook and audio book.

Listen along!

As I have given the basics of Intervention to my fellow coaches, a few reoccurring themes have emerged as they take back the key points to try them on themselves and their athletes. I refer to these as the secrets, in the same way ‘buy low, sell high’ is a secret.

This list represents a year or so of insights, follow up discussions and breakthroughs.

  • Get stronger in the fundamental human movements.
  • This is the Atkins Diet of lifting—by deliberately being imbalanced for a while in training, you balance the real imbalances.
  • There is no punishment in doing patterns—learning and coming back to patterns is never wrong.
  • It’s okay to get gassed at the patterns and grind movements.
  • Symmetry workouts are undervalued for their metabolic hit.
  • If you need explosive movements, check patterns, grinds and symmetry. Look at the triads.
  • The 80/10/10 rule is a valuable tool. Spend the bulk of your time on what your goal is all about—throwing, cooking and eating.
  • As you go on this path, make sure it expands you out—think about the spiral.
  • The goal is to keep the goal, the goal! Focus on it, don’t get caught up in a bunch of other things.

Remember the toolkit and put the following to memory—

Most people will be in Quadrant Three, so just because you can do everything, doesn’t mean you should. If you’re a trainer or coach, learn to push people to Quadrant Three. You may spend your life convincing people they’re not elite Special Forces or NFL players.

Get stronger in the fundamental human movements.
This is so obvious you might miss this important point, so pay attention: Almost universally, getting stronger is going to help you with your goals. Enough is enough when it comes to strength, but most people never even get close to the low-hanging fruit of strength training.

I work with men who gasp at my suggestion to bench bodyweight for 15 since they’ve never seen anyone that strong. Trust me, there are plenty of strong people on the planet. For fat loss, getting stronger is like the one-stop shop for turning yourself into a fat-loss machine.

Get in the weightroom and strive to add plates or move the pin down or slide over to a heavier dumbbell. It is the simplest thing I can teach you.

This is the Atkins Diet of lifting—by deliberately being imbalanced for a while in training, you balance the real imbalances.
One of the things that made the most sense about the original Atkins Diet was the two-week induction program to completely remove every carbohydrate from the diet. The thinking was this: If I’ve been imbalanced with carbs, let’s swing all the way to the opposite towards fat and protein to achieve that balance. It worked for many in his diet and it works in exercise.

There’s a chance that for a few weeks, you will do lots of goblet squats, farmer walking and rolling on the ground. You may ignore some things from the normal way you usually do things. But this imbalance in one direction is going to balance things out. It also happens very quickly.

If you don’t have an authentic squat pattern and you ignore your rhomboids, for example, it’s going to catch up in sports and in the process of aging. My orthopedic surgeon told me that nothing makes him sadder than when the decision to perform hip replacement is based on being able to relieve oneself. Losing the squat pattern through disuse or disease can be addressed by either the trainer and the surgeon, depending on the severity.

Let’s be a bit imbalanced for a few weeks to bring the glaring weaknesses up to some standard.

There is no punishment in doing patterns—learning and coming back to patterns is never wrong.
Many people consider the patterns—planks, batwings, HATs, goblet squats, farmer walks and basic rolling—to be beginner moves. True, we should teach these early and often, but advanced trainers often benefit more from the simple stuff than anything fancy I can dream up.

Pattern work can be fat burning. Pattern work can be correctives. Pattern work can make you stronger. Don’t consider pattern work to be sinful, punishment, regressive or embarrassing. These moves might be the answer to your issues and questions.

It’s okay to get gassed at the pattern and grind movements.
I’m never sure how to handle people who just want to feel ‘worked out.’ I like to train people to be and do better. If your sport, or your ego, demands some workouts that curl you over, vomiting into a flower pot, you can get there with patterns and grinds. Front squats followed by a truck push for a mile will get you all you need no matter what your needs are today.

Patterns and grinds are where you want to light things up, not on the Olympic lifts.

Symmetry workouts are undervalued for their metabolic hit.
When I travel, I often use the hotel gym to one-arm work. What I find amazing is that symmetry work, like basic correctives, seems to wear me out as much as a tough workout. There is a great conversation going on right now about why this happens, but many fitness experts have been finding their fat-loss clients get leaner doing corrective work and symmetry movements as opposed to more common movements like treadmills or cycles. It’s worth keeping an eye on in the future.

Moreover, as I learned from my multiple wrist surgeries, training a healthy limb seems to spark the rehab in the limb that is in a cast. It is bizarre, but true. My return to normal was half the time of a normal patient according to my doctor and he thinks that my insistence on continuing to train around the injury and sling was a major factor. The body is one piece, one marvelous piece, and perhaps symmetry training reminds us that you may have two limbs, but one heart and one brain.


If an athlete needs explosive movements, check patterns, grinds and symmetry. Look at the triads.

Don’t ignore that ‘if.’ Throwers, collision athletes and jumpers might need to snatch and clean & jerk. Grandma probably doesn’t. Take the time to really search and deal with gaps, asymmetries and poor movement patterns before tossing bodyweight overhead at an Olympic lifting meet. The injuries come fast and hard in the quick lifts.

Spend quality time mastering the push press, the swing and the Litvinov family. For many of us, these three will be enough to break through any physical barriers or limitations. The O lifts changed my career, but I was physically, mentally and emotionally ready for the challenge. I also had months to master the movements before I had to compete in my main sport, too.

You may not have the years it takes to walk up the path to explosive movements in the weightroom.

If you do, get going.

The 80/10/10 rule is a valuable tool. Spend the bulk of your time on what your goal is all about—throwing, cooking and eating
Time is the key here. If you have 40 hours a week to spend on your goal, we get to have you in the weightroom for four hours of lifting and four hours of corrective work. My math is fuzzy, but that looks like about eight hours. The rest of the time should be working on your goal.

For fat loss, you would spend 32 hours a week shopping, cooking, measuring, weighing, and proactively dealing with eating and food. If you are a thrower…throw! If you are a hurdler, hurdle! If you are a sprinter, sprint! If you are a jumper, jump!

Now I have given away all my secrets as a track coach too.

As you go on this path, make sure it expands you out—the spiral.
There are dozens of authors who have said this better, but here it is: Be wary of getting your goal and discovering it wasn’t worth it. Proper goal-setting should include expanding your life in every quadrant. Remember, the word ‘fit’ comes from the Old Norse word ‘to knit.’ Your life is your tapestry and it should have a great pictures, rich colors and a tight weave.

As I used to tell my students, “Your life is your message!”

The goal is to keep the goal, the goal! Focus on it, don’t get caught up in a bunch of other things.
Although this point seems to contradict the previous point, remember this: As Chris Long points out to me all the time, “When you’re up to your butt in alligators, it’s too late to ask why you drained the swamp.”

The best thing a personal trainer, life coach or good friend can do for you is to keep reminding you about your goal.

Excerpted from Intervention: Course Corrections for the Athlete and Trainer
Available in print, ebook and audio book

Learn How to Read Fitness and Health Research

I must be the last person alive who should be writing about training or nutrition research, but because of that, I’ve been collecting resources. My daily work involves typesetting, editing, coding or graphics (actually, it’s mostly email), so the studying I do is of software tech manuals. That makes my excuse for science inadequacy better than yours.

I never trained my brain to stay focused when reading about research. This works for me, but for those of you who work with clients and patients on health, fitness and strength issues, you don’t really get that freedom. These days, if you don’t stay aware of the latest science and can’t explain to your clients why you’re using the exercises you choose or how the news media got the latest research wrong, your clients are likely to trust you less. Unless your personality is the most contagious one in the gym, if you continue to let your eyes glaze over when science comes into play, as a personal trainer or strength coach you’re probably going to need a new retirement plan.

Jonathan Fass is working on a research lecture for us on the movementlectures.com site, and I’m sure the topic will get a mention often in future lectures. In the meantime I have a couple of suggestions for you… even as I sit here at my desk practicing audio editing techniques with no science involved at the level I work with the waveforms.

From PubMed: How to Read Health News:

Your first concern should be the research behind the news article. If an article touts a treatment or some aspect of your lifestyle that is supposed to prevent or cause a disease, but doesn’t give any information about the scientific research behind it, then treat it with a lot of caution. The same applies to research that has yet to be published.

From Bret Contreras: Evidence-Based Coaching:

Some types of articles are better than others. A meta-analysis showing strong results or a review paper citing multiple studies leading to the same conclusion would hold a lot of weight. In contrast, an in vitro study or an animal study might not. A specific study that carefully examines the topic at hand is ideal, but many times specific studies are lacking, causing us to extrapolate or piece information together, which isn’t quite as sound of a practice.

From Tim Huntley’s Scientific Research 101: Bad Science, Common Problems in Research Articles:

This problem typically occurs when the results of a study from a specific sample are extrapolated to what is believed to be a similar group.  An example would be research where a new cholesterol drug was tested on females aged 30-50.  Can we, or should we make assumptions on what the drug might do for males or 65 year old women?  Absolutely not.

From Mark Young’s How to Read Fitness Research:


Here’s a tutorial on how to get full text articles for PubMed citations, both free and for a fee.


Bret explains here:


And, of course, like me you can stick your head in the sand, because as Dr. Ferric Fang discovered, researchers doctor papers. Whatever you do, ignore mainstream headlines and double-check the wording. Oh, and be sure to sort out the quality from the flawed studies.

Late addition—Chris Kresser: How to Read and Understand Scientific Research



Why NOT to do Pistol Squats

Nick Tumminello

Although the pistol squat is a trendy, cool-looking old-time exercise, it’s not something we use with our clients and athletes at Performance U.

We don’t feel the pistol squat exercise is “bad,” nor do we feel it’s dangerous. And, we don’t get caught up arguing against pistols, nor will we try to convince anyone to stop doing them.   All we can do is share the training methodologies that make the most sense to us, along with the exercise applications we’ve found to work best for us.

That said, in our training with individuals of all levels from pro athletes to active seniors, we haven’t found the body positions and force production patterns involved in the pistol squat exercise to have as much value and functional carryover as some of the other creative, hybrid single-leg squat variations we use, which I’ve displayed in this new Secrets of Single Leg Training 2-DVD set.

You can see more about why we don’t use the pistol squat in this video:


Sure the pistol squat can make you stronger!  It’s also very challenging exercise. And, if you enjoy doing them, then great! But we’ve found other single-leg squat training optionsto be more beneficial because they more accurately match the body postures we see in sports and daily living. And they more closely replicate the force production patterns we are looking to improve with the clients and athlete we train.

Yet another adventure from the “Squat-Challenged” lifter

If you’ve followed the other “squat-challenged” posts (here, then here, and finally, here), you’re familiar with the many and varied approaches I’ve taken over the years to find a reasonable substitute for the squat.  Free squats, Zane styled squats, dumbbell squats, hip  belt squats, leverage machine squats, shrug bar squats and the lengthy “let’s forget about it altogether” squat…they all found their way into my workouts from time to time.  All had their time and place, their advantages and disadvantages…but none completely satisfied.  None filled that nagging little “squat sized” hole in my psyche.  None.

This past Tuesday night saw a victory of sorts take place in the WWGG.  (The Wicked Willie Garage Gym for the uninitiated.)  I actually did squats.  No tricks, no assistance, no machines – “just put the barbell on my back and squat” squats.

Granted, the weight was embarassingly light.  (Somewhere, a ten year old girl has just warmed up with a heavier weight.)  Granted, it was only to just parallel and not the most upright of squats.  Granted, I didn’t always push through my heels and my lower back may have lost its arch a time or two…BUT THEY WERE SQUATS!  Without falling and without losing balance, standing on my own two feet with my heels flat on the floor, I squatted.  Felt good, it did.

How and why did this happen?  I have a theory.

All of the various movements I used over the years helped to build quad strength but lacked in the balance department.  Looking back, I can see an unconscious progression from movements that addressed the balance issue by eliminating it, to movements that assumed increasingly greater amounts of free movement.  I went from movements that utilized various means of assisting balance (hip belt squats holding a tether, Zane “Leg Blaster” styled squats in the same manner) to movements where I stood on my feet without the benefit of assistance – i.e. shrug bar “lifts,” dumbbell squats  and free squats.  Albeit slowly and without conscious thought, I was progressively developing the strength in the ancillary muscles and the neural pathways that would allow me to make the necessary corrections to squat without losing balance.  Call it serendipity or pure dumb luck…the end result was the same.  I squatted.

Tempering my joy is the knowledge that I have a long way to go to reach a matured form.  Flexibilities will have to be developed and movement patterns will have to be addressed, isolated and fixed.  All of that seems a little less onerous and a little more possible now.

I sincerely doubt that I’ll squat three wheels.  Two wheels may be a lofty goal.  In truth, ONE wheel on each side may be enough to satisfy me for a long time.  It doesn’t really matter…the journey has begun.  Am I still “squat-challenged?”  Yes.  Does it matter?

No…not now.

Getting Under the Bar

Boris Bachmann, of Squat RX

I often talk to people who have a hard time properly racking the bar on their backs for barbell squatting. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of knowing how and where to place the bar on your back. For others, compromised shoulder and thoracic flexibility, often due to a combination of injury and poor posture, make it difficult to get under an empty bar, let alone maintain proper positioning under load. In this article, I’ll suggest a few tips and stretches that might help you get back under bar and stay there with less discomfort. If you have neck or shoulder girdle issues that go beyond simple inflexibility, and extend into pain and injury, be sure to work with a medical professional to determine if these drills would be appropriate for you and your issues.

In the first two pictures below of high bar and low bar positioning, notice how inattention to form and/or lack of flexibility has hindered proper back extension even before the lifter has taken the first step out of the racks.

High and low bar positions – hollowing upper body and the resulting spinal flexion

In the following pictures, notice how proper extension engages the posterior chain musculature, reducing stress on your body’s “hardware”, effectively “spreading the load.”

“Proud chest” = chest out, tight upper back, elbows driven downward, lats engaged

You might be thinking, “I can’t get into those proper positions because I’ve been sitting at my computer and in my lazyboy for too long–I’m not Mr. Bendy-Man like you.” Then I’m going to suggest you add the following stretches, drills and exercises to your training diet for a while.


Most people are familiar with this drill. Using a dowel, broomstick, or PVC, bring the arms overhead into a stretch. If you are flexible enough, you can bring your arms all the way over your body. Take a wide grip and start slowly. As you gain flexibility, you can bring the hands closer, however don’t rush this as because a grip that is too narrow can crank your shoulders and elbows.

Barbell Stretches

With this stretch, which can be done on a fireplace mantel or railing just as easily as with a barbell in a rack, a key is to hinge at the hips and keep the chest out while allowing the head to sink between the arms. You should feel a stretch throughout the lats and upper back. Allowing one shoulder to dip will deepen the lat stretch on that side.

Skin The Cat

Turning away from the barbell (or mantel, railing, etc), hands palm down, you should feel a gentle stretch across the pectoral region through the biceps. Move the hands closer and lower your upper body to feel a greater stretch.

Bent Over Laterals & Cross Bench Pullovers

Bent over laterals and cross bench pullovers are two exercises that you rarely see performed in gyms these days, but are excellent for building and maintaining upper body suppleness. Add them to your routine. There’s no need to go heavy on them – these should not be “ego-exercises.” Most people would be fine starting with a pair of 5-20lb dumbbells for their bent-over laterals, and a 10-20lb dumbbell on their cross-bench pullovers. Focus on getting a full range of motion. Build into them, gradually adding range of motion and weight.

Doorway Stretches

Bracing the forearm against a door (or power rack) frame, stick your chest out (remember “proud chest”), draw your shoulder blades together, and lean forward to feel a stretch across the pectoral and anterior delt region. You can do this unilaterally, or both arms at once. Vary the height of the elbow relative to the upper body to shift emphasis of the stretch.

Foam Roller

With a foam roller, you can do stretching positions as shown in the pictures above. Do as tolerated and position yourself by pulling or pushing your body forward and backward with the legs over the roller. A small cushion for your head and neck can be added if the positions cause discomfort.

Adding The Drills

  • Add the barbell stretches, skin-the-cat, dislocates, light cross-bench dumbbell pullovers and light bent-over laterals to your squat session warm-up.  Two or three “sets” of each should suffice and take no more than five minutes total. Seek a light stretch—the goal is to feel better and more comfortable under the bar.
  • When you’re relaxing in front of the television or at home killing time, add the foam roller work, doorway stretches, and skin-the-cat drill to your daily routine.

After incorporating these drills into your warm-ups and daily routine for a couple of weeks, you should feel a marked difference in your ability to maintain proper positioning under the bar.

Boris is in the middle of a Japanese Disaster Relief Squat-a-thon: One Million Pounds. He’d love to have your participation in building his squat support team, or in cash contributions or just to check in on his work. To join the party, here’s a link to the forum thread, and here’s one to his blog updates.

Visit Boris’ Squat RX site for more of his fabulous tutorials.

Dan John: Mass Made Simple

This is Dan John’s new bulking guidebook for those who need to build strength and size. This is a 7×9 inch, spiral-bound lay-flat book consisting of 119 pages of text, followed by a 42-page, 6-week training log.

Tried and true, Dan describes exactly what’s to be done to add mass — what, when and why. Each week’s workout plan is laid out, and each day’s workout is preplanned, every rep scheduled, later to be documented in the fill-in-the-blanks log pages. Here’s an example of one of the log pages:

Dan has adjusted menu and supplement tweaks weekly to match the needs of the week. Once you read this short, clear manual, you’ll know exactly what to do and when to do it. All that’s left is for you to faithfully fill in the blanks of the log sheets and watch the scale climb.

Carefully priced at $19.95, this new guidebook is just what you need to pack an extra ten pounds of muscle on your meaty or not-so-meaty physique. Click here to order Dan John’s Mass Made Simple today.

Deadlift Stud, Squatting Dud

This is a guest blog post from Boris Bachmann, the creator of the terrific Squat RX video series.

As the Squat RX guy, I get a lot of questions from people struggling to bring their squat up to the level of their deadlifts. Many of them are pretty strong guys frustrated at their relatively paltry squat numbers. Understandably, they have a tough time stomaching the idea that squatting half of their deadlift is a herculean effort.

I have no secret technique or protocol that will magically transform your squat numbers, but I do have some observations that may put you on the path to some degree of parity for your squat and deadlift. If you are deadlift stud, squatting dud, perhaps one of the following tips help you.

#1) You may be built to deadlift

Have long arms and a relatively short torso? You’re probably built to deadlift. Your deadlift is always going to run ahead of your squat. This is not something to get upset about, however — when you come from behind to destroy the competition in a powerlifting event with your stellar deadlift, you’ll be glad you have the build you have.

Nature just doesn’t deal us what we want sometimes. Tall and lanky might not be ideal for squatting, but take it from someone who’s short and stocky: Long arms are nice when you are lifting big and heavy things off the floor.

Okay. Great. That’s constructive: your build is great for deadlifting, so are you stuck with a bad squat? No, of course not, but there’s no sense in losing sleep over something that can be looked at as a positive.

#2) You haven’t given the squat enough time to develop

Beginners typically have much better deadlift numbers compared to their squat.

The extreme hip angle the squat puts you in is a position most people aren’t used to loading. As a result, it’s not uncommon for a beginner’s squat to lag behind his deadlift by one or two hundred pounds. With time, the numbers tend to even themselves out. If you haven’t been training consistently for a couple of years,  give your squat time and effort to catch up. And, if you are a powerlifter and use supportive equipment such as wraps and a squat suit, which assist the lifter in those extreme positions, it is very likely your squat numbers will soon far exceed your deadlift.

#3) You need to prioritize your squat

Almost every time someone asks me how to bring up his squat, he’s surprised when I suggest he isn’t squatting often enough. If squatting is a skill that has not been developed, practice is what is needed. Every training session does not have to be a high-intensity, high-volume Smolov hell, but more frequent sessions with greater focus on technique and tension can’t hurt.

For most beginner and intermediate lifters, it is a truism that squat training will help their deadlift numbers. The converse of this is not true, however; most people will NOT experience a commensurate rise in their squat numbers as their deadlift improves. I’m not saying anyone should slack in their deadlift training, but you have to work your weaknesses harder than your strengths if you want your weaknesses to become strengths.

If you are doing both the squat and deadlift in the same session, do your squats first. If you are doing both squat and deadlift work during the week, make sure squats come early in the week and before deadlifts. Prioritize your squat by doing squats and assistance exercises and drills early in the week. I call this ‘front-loading’ your work week; by putting your ‘money sets’ in early and getting them over with, you avoid the tendency to slack off as the week marches on.

#4) You may need to work on your set-up

Except for lining up too far away from the bar, most people know how to set up for a deadlift. “Grip and Rip” seems to be almost instinctual. Setting up for a heavy squat requires more direct instruction for many, and if there was one secret to squatting that seems to be lost on most lifters, it is that without a superb set-up, you are leaving a lot of potential pounds in the squat rack. A good set-up means setting the starting bar height in the racks appropriately, taking as few steps as possible out of the rack, and being as tight as possible before initiating the descent.

Proper bar positioning is essential to a strong squat. If the bar is not securely anchored to your back, injury to yourself and others is a very real possibility. As you position yourself under the bar, drive the head backward and stick the chest out — be proud. The Bigger, Faster, Stronger program uses the cue spread the chest, and it’s a good one — a sunken chest will quickly put you into a compromised position.

At the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) instructor certification, there was a short discussion about neural potentiators; key areas that, when active, serve to rev up the central nervous system. The grip is one of these neural potentiators.

My father was always fond of talking about research showing high correlation between an Olympic weightlifter’s grip strength shown on a dynometer and his success or failure on the platform a short time later. When the grip is weak or inactive, performance can suffer.

With deadlifts, the grip is active… squatting, not so much. So, what can a squatter do to maximize this? Grip the bar tightly. Even though it is not directly applying force to the bar in a way that seems meaningful, it is priming the central nervous system for heavy lifting and activating synergists to stabilize and assist the prime movers.

#5) You may need to learn how to build tension as you descend into the hole

When I was much younger, I believed that a full range of motion was advantageous, even when it came at the expense of muscle tension. I relaxed at extreme positions, placing loads squarely on the joints and connective tissues. It’s a wonder I didn’t suffer greater injuries than I did, but as you might expect, I suffered from more than a few lumbar and shoulder issues from my squat and bench press training.

A common cause of injuries and unnecessary aches and pains associated with squatting is failure to maintain proper tension as you descend into and rise out of the hole. I see kids all the time squatting who go loosey-goosey at the bottom of their squat to get another inch or two of depth. This is probably because they were told squatting ass-to-grass was the only way to squat, or some such nonsense.

In this photo, notice how the entire structure is leaking power through the lumbar, knees, and ankles.

The bottom line (pun intended) is if you are sacrificing tension for depth, you are asking for trouble.

Conduct the following experiment: With no weight, relax into as deep a bodyweight squat as you can manage; use a dowel or pvc to mimic a barbell back squat. While in the bottom position, shift gravity to your heels, tighten up your upper back and abs, externally rotate the legs at the hip by shoving the knees outward and engage the glutes and hamstrings. If you do this properly, you should involuntarily rise out of your deepest position by an inch or two. This is the depth you should strive for with your squats, and no deeper.

Notice how tension has spread the load, shifting stress away from the lumbar, knees, and ankles to the musculature of the hips, hamstrings, and the entire posterior chain and synergists.

There should be no loss of tension as a competent squatter descends into the hole. In fact, tension should be building throughout the torso and posterior chain. Dan John uses the bow analogy and I think it is very appropriate for squatters. Visualize your body as a bow with the string being pulled back to fire an arrow as you descend into the bottom of your squat. When you reach depth, release the string and fire booster rockets to escape gravity’s pull and don’t let up until the bar is securely back in the racks.

Boris Bachmann is a high school teacher, RKC, and occasional strength and conditioning coach. He has coached at the age-group, masters, high school and D3 levels and has worked with variety of athletes, teams, and gyms as a strength and conditioning consultant. His Squat Rx videos can be found on YouTube and he can be contacted at boris_york@yahoo.com or on his blog at http://squatrx.blogspot.com.

Sagittal, frontal and transverse planes: Planes of human motion

What are the planes of motion and why do we care? Let’s sort this out, just between us gymrats. While it’s true that we don’t really *need* to know this stuff, it’s also true we’re going to bump into the terms more and more when reading modern training articles. It’s time we caught up with this generation of training lingo. We’ll take the simple route, I promise.

The main problem for most of us is that we weren’t introduced to the terms in our early training (today that reads: Who needs it?). Additionally, the actions along the planes don’t seem to match the describing terms; for example, the frontal plane motions are left to right, and our brains just kind of disconnect in a sort of “I can’t learn that” frustration when we see frontal associated with side to side.

At its simplest:

  • Sagittal = forward or backward
  • Frontal = side to side (definitely confusing)
  • Transverse = rotational

To picture the three planes, imagine slicing through the body, like so:

  • First through the center, dividing the body from the left to the right to make up the sagittal plane
  • Next through the body from the left side to the right, separating the front and back halves to create the frontal plane (front side and back side)
  • Finally cutting straight through the hips to divide the top of the body from the bottom, the transverse plane

That’s not so hard. It starts to get a little more complicated when we begin to sort out which motions move along the planes. You want to think of the motion as moving along the surface of the plane, rather than visualizing the sectioned off body.

Planes of motion look like this:

Sagittal plane motion would include forward and backward motions, like sit-ups, back extensions or biceps curls. The sagittal plane cuts through the center of the body, so the motion is front to back or back to front, including straight forward running. Squats involve flexion (forward motion) and extension (backwards on the way up), so would fit into the sagittal plane.

Frontal plane motion would include leaning from left to right as in sidebends and lateral raises, or perhaps you might picture jumping jacks for a good image of movement along the frontal plane.

Transverse plane motion is the hardest to picture because the plane is horizontal as it divides the top from the bottom, so it’s hard to get our heads around it being a rotating action. The main thing to remember is rotation. An example of a transverse plane exercise would be floor to overhead diagonals with a medicine ball, and a transverse activity might be swinging a golf club.

Why would an average trainee need to know this? Two reasons, really. It comes up fairly often as we read the work of our favorite writers, because these folks know this stuff and it comes out naturally for them. It’s frustrating to have to skim sections because we don’t know the lingo, and in internet reading, skimming a section often means losing interest and clicking away before we get to the vital parts.

Secondly, what’s most important about the planes is to know they exist and to make sure our training programs include exercises along each. Our most common gym exercises are on the sagittal plane, moving forward or back such as in flat pressing, pushups, crunches or even squats and lunges.

When you create your training programs, be sure to add some frontal plane and transverse plane exercises to bring up your built-in injury prevention. That’s what’s going to help ensure good balance in your muscular body. Training only on one plane will pretty much do the opposite.

This week’s top weight training discussions

Time and time again, our IOL forum discussions entertain while they educate. I can’t begin to measure all I’ve learned from my friends there, nor count the times they’ve had me giggling at my desk. Let’s take a look at some of this week’s top conversations.

Here’s a guy who’s been training for 25 years and is thinking of quitting the weight room because of back pain. The forum members gather around with re-building suggestions that most readers would do well to practice.

Over here, Andy asked for clarification on central nervous system burnout. We’ll see some interesting comments, with a real zinger from Keith Wassung that makes clear the whole CNS question.

Ever wonder why anyone would stand on a stability ball? Let alone try to do loaded squats on one? Byron begins the discussion on balance work.

Every guy I know walks around the gym rubbing his shoulders (fewer women do this, because most of us aren’t as stupid about bench pressing). John Izzo contributes his 7-phase approach to protecting the shoulders, and a good group chime in with questions and additions on this important subject.

Wondering about Smith Press or barbell, behind the neck or in front, a member from the UK asks for views on shoulder pressing.

When would you choose a full body workout; when is a split routine better? The pros and cons of both are discussed in this thread.

In the IOL Co-op Training Log this month, Dan Manor leads a team through a fat-loss quest during April. There’ll be plenty to read in here this month, me thinks.

Spend a little time clicking around the 16,152 topics. There’s a lot to learn, and we promise some grins along the way. With 422,277 posts, however, it make take you a bit to catch up. How’s the weekend looking?

IOL Training Forum Best of the Best

In a couple of blog posts earlier this fall, I listed the results of our server log reports showing the top 20 pages of our health and fitness database, and the most notable forum threads this past summer. That search uncovered some really fine forum discussions long since forgotten, and as I thought about how often I use some of the guidance and recommendations, I knew we’d have to find a way to bring them to the forefront. Hence, our new Must Reads Topic Archive, 20 of our Very Best.

What I did in many cases was dig out a selection of our best conversations on a topic, and merge the strings together into one long archive. In this way, you’ll be able to see how our learning developed as the science developed, or as we tried and tested the philosophies and training techniques.

By the time you get to the end of the topic, you’ll have a broad base of knowledge along with all the links we used to compile it. Looking for a quick way to learn what you need to know about a topic you saw mentioned in an article or forum? We gotcha covered.

Check this:

Amazing stuff, huh? And you know what? There’s a whole lot more where that came from.

It came from right here: Must Reads Topic Archive.

Once you’re done there (this is going to be awhile), try this one for your Sunday afternoon hangout: Links to other must-read archived topics. Actually, that should be our IOL forum first stop for most new visitors. Great, great stuff.

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.

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?

Rambling thoughts on High Intensity Training and Poundage Goals

If you’ve been around the Iron Game for any length of time, you’ve come to realize that there are many different theories regarding training and just as many approaches spawned by these theories. In recent years, high intensity training has become a very popular way of training. It has seen its share of use and abuse in the Iron Game…here’s an “average” lifter’s thoughts on the subject.

This style of training can rapidly increase the trainee’s strength and supposedly, his muscular hypertrophy will keep pace with the strength. In an ideal world…this happens. It tain’t so in the real world. Muscular hypertrophy requires two things (I’m greatly simplifying things here) fiber thickening and capillary perfusion. High intensity training – where you push to momentary muscular failure in a limited amounts of sets – allows for fiber thickening but doesn’t really have enough volume to stimulate capillary perfusion. So the strength can outrun the muscle size.

If this weren’t true…Olympic weightlifters would have huge muscles like bodybuilders and by extension, bodybuilders would be world class strength athletes. Again, tain’t so.

This style of training is also said to be safe – and the statement often used is that “the harder it seems, the easier it is.” Also, it has been said that “the first rep is the most dangerous rep.” The theory here (using curls as an example) is that if you’re curling 100 pounds, the first reps are accomplished quickly…because you’re producing in excess of 100 pounds of force. So they are the most dangerous, since you’re producing excessive force and subjecting the muscles, tendons and attachments to a greater force. As the set progresses, the reps slow down and you produce less force each time until movement isn’t possible…or you produce less than 100 pounds force. So your final rep (where you produce less than 100 pounds force) is actually safer and easier than your first. Sounds logical, eh?

Well, it is logical…but it’s not necessarily correct. Injury won’t usually occur in the primary muscle mover being stressed (the biceps and brachialis) but in the smaller, supporting muscles that tire even quicker.

This style of training requires a constant emphasis on progression…usually in the form of more reps and/or more weight. Progression should be fairly linear for a short time, then stall. At this point, you rest, recover and start gaining again. This is true for the most part…after all, isn’t one of the names applied to weight training “progressive resistance training?”

The problem here is that the relentless pursuit of progression often leads to poor form, with resultant soft tissue injury. The trainee pushes the poundage or the reps before they have actually mastered the previous poundage and gets sloppy. Injury usually isn’t far away.

If the trainee will strive to maintain scrupulously good form, using muscle power and not momentum, to move the weight…if the trainee will forestall progression until they have dominated a particular weight with good form…and if they will occasionally train lighter using more volume…then high intensity training should be a safe and productive form of training for them.

For a short time, anyway. We’ll leave the discussion regarding failure and central nervous system issues for another time.

Regarding poundage goals…there is an author that recommends trying to meet the following goals:

Three hundred pounds in the bench press, four hundred pounds in the full squat and five hundred pounds in the conventional, bent leg deadlift. As laudatory as these goals are, they aren’t very practical for quite a few of us. In fact, I disagree with them.

Granted, you will certainly be strong if you achieve these goals and you may develop a fairly husky, if not muscular physique – but striving for these goals doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be built like a physique competitor through their achievement or pursuit. Contrary, you may end up injured and with a thoroughly sour attitude toward training. (This author injured himself in doing 400×20 in the deadlift. It was quite a while before he recovered and was able to train effectively again.)

I found it interesting that the late Arthur Jones had this to say about squatting and effort:

“In performing power lifts, the danger comes from another source – from prolonged exposure to a force that may be more than the skeleton is capable of supporting, regardless of the strength of the muscles involved. At the moment of this writing, at least a few individuals are squatting with over 800 pounds – and since most of these men weigh at least 300 pounds, this means that they are actually supporting over 1,100 pounds on their feet, and most of that amount on their spines. In the author’s opinion, the human skeleton simply was not designed to support such loads for prolonged periods of time; for any purpose except power lifting competition, all of the benefits that can be provided by squats can be derived without using more than 400 pounds, and in most cases without using more than 300 pounds.” (bold emphasis mine) (From the Nautilus Training Bulletin Number 1)
I’ve moderated my goals to a more obtainable standard, 200, 225-250 and 300 in the three lifts mentioned. By doing this, I hope to preserve my joint integrity and avoid soft tissue injury. I’ll still train intensely but that will be achieved through other gambits, such as decreasing rest times between sets and cumulative fatigue training. Sometimes you just have to reconcile with your existence…and train so as to not hinder your enjoyment of life, which catastrophic injury or overuse injury would certainly do.

Over and out.

Top IOL Weight Training Forum Threads for August

I don’t have to tell you my favorite part of the day is a morning cup of Leo’s java and an hour clicking around our forum for a visit with my great friends there. Still, for those who haven’t been around since the beginning and don’t know the players, sometimes it’s a little daunting to jump right in. Who’s who, and do they really know what they’re talking about? Is that guy joking or is this a serious argument? Once in a while it’s hard to tell, especially for newcomers.

So how about a sweet little intro to show you around? These are a few of the notable threads from August.

In the Main Flight Deck:

  • Let’s begin with our memory thread of Arthur Jones, who, as you already know, died yesterday. Perhaps you have a memory of your own, something he wrote that triggered your training evolution back in the ’70s? Give us the scoop!
  • Do you wake up with a numb arm sometimes? What’s causing that and how do you fix it? Michelle gets us going here in “Nighttime Numbness.”
  • Up next: Quitting Smoking. Time for you to get onboard? Here’s some encouragement you can print out and tape to your carton of cigs. Getcha goin’.
Kyle and the Volkslauf
  • We talked about this last week, still it’s a notable thread going strong. Whether you’re interested in fasting or not, the discussion is intriguing: Intermittent Fasting.

In the Bodybuilding Hangar:

  • Well, heck, let’s tackle the toughest one first: Is Bodybuilding Healthy? If not, and we’re aging yet in it for the long haul, what can we change to be strong all the way into our longevity?

In the Training Logs Forum:

Now here in the training log section, I couldn’t begin to select a few favored links for you. Some of the logs have been going strong since we brought the email discussion group over to the forum board back in spring of 2004. Other people started a new log each January, or when changing training focus for a variety of reasons. What began as an exercise in accountability became, I think for nearly everyone, a private place for group camaraderie. This is where individual attention is given when times are tough, PRs are abundant — or sparse — and consistency in training is paramount.

Pick a few training logs to read through; you’re sure to find one you can either learn from or contribute to, and perhaps you’ll get the bug to start a report of your own. You’re welcome here.

In the IOL APO/FPO Military Barracks:

  • Over in the APO/FPO Barracks forum we’re happy to welcome a couple of Afghanistan-based troops to our military support space. From his plastic tent, Sgt. Clifton expands on his questions of diet and exercise; we welcome your Q&A assistance, our way of supporting these guys and gals (actually, so far it’s just gal, our Army Mom, who’s on her way home to the kids in slightly less than a month).

In the Kettlebell Training Forum:

  • In the kettlebell forum, Stella, a veteran gymrat new to kettlebell training, requests our favorite kettlebell workouts in a thread that ranges from a simple swings ladder to a Tabata-style kettlebell snatch workout on video.

In the Vince Gironda Wild Physique Forum:

  • Jack triggers a hearty discussion in, “Gironda Bench Press to Neck,” wherein, as you might expect, not too many are in favor of the exercise. The discussion, however, is illuminating, as was the rest of the study of Vince Gironda and his Wild Physique.
Sig Klein

And now, I bid you adieu. Dave is finished with his part of the newsletter, so I’m up to bat in the clean-up position. There are countless more terrific threads in the forum, so many in fact, I think I’ll dig you out more treasures next month.

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