Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Heavy Weight as Anger Management

First, a disclaimer: I'm not angry. But I have a friend who's in a crappy situation right now, and that made me think of how I've handled similar situations in the past.

In my sophomore year of college, I punched a door. I was in a frustrating situation and I felt helpless to resolve it. Sometimes you just need to do something stupid to release all that frustration/irritation/anger, and in my case I chose to punch a metal door. Of course, I didn't realize at the time that the door was metal, and the third knuckle of the middle finger of my right hand is now about 1.5 times as big as the one on my left hand as a result of that particular little outburst.

That was the last time I chose to punch something in frustration. I found a better way of coping: full body self-abuse in the form of a ridiculously intense training session.

Whenever I'm mad -- shallow breathing, clenched fists, tunnel vision MAD -- I head to the gym. I channel the anger and the frustration into my workout. Anger makes heavy squats go up faster, and adds a nice edge to that light-headed feeling of accomplishment after a particularly challenging deadlift.

No matter how the workout goes -- whether I crush the weights I was going for or fall short on every single exercise, I always feel better after I've lifted. I've gotten the raw emotion out of the way at least a bit and can think more clearly about the problem that caused my distress in the first place.

Besides, it's impossible to feel angry when all you're focused on is trying to make sure your rubbery legs don't give out on you and make you collapse in a heap just outside the gym doors.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fitness and the Traveling Salesman

Ok, so I'm not really a traveling salesman, but I am traveling for 3 of the 4 weeks in September for my super-cool new job. I'm halfway through week one, and I just got done paying $16.23 ($15 plus tax!) for the privilege of working out in a Gold's Gym down the road from my hotel. That's highway robbery!

But I'll probably continue to pay similar fees in my travels, since hotels don't really quite understand the concept of a "fitness room." See, cardio is but one aspect of fitness. And, in my semi-informed opinion, it's the aspect of fitness that it most easily taken care of by paying attention to the other aspects of fitness, such as strength, speed, agility, endurance, etc.

But the wonderful folks at Holiday Inn and Hilton (yeah, I stay classy on the road!) seem to believe that all of their patrons' fitness needs can be met by stuffing two treadmills and an upright exercise bike into a converted guest room. If they're feeling particularly generous, they might throw in a nice big swiss ball to do crunches on.

But I'm traveling, sleeping and eating on the company dime, so it's definitely worth shelling out $15 every couple of days for a decent workout.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Doing stuff I previously couldn't

Hey Miz -- I'm alive! The new job is great, but keeping me quite busy. Thanks for checking up on me, it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside!

The biggest difference in my training now and my work outs of a year ago stem from one simple shift in thinking. I stopped thinking about exercising as a way to lose fat and build muscle and get "healthier," and started thinking of training in terms of improving my performance.

It's a paradigm shift that came about largely due to my exposure to Crossfit and Mark Rippetoe. They're smart folks with great ideas, and I owe my renewed enthusiasm for training to them.

The really cool thing about this is that by focusing on improving the amount of weight I can lift or how fast I can run, I'm actually doing a better job of increasing muscle mass and improving my physical appearance than I was when those things were my goals. There's also a bit of an ego boost from the knowledge that I'm stronger and faster than I've ever been, and improving constantly.

Also, as mentioned earlier, I've rediscovered my passion for lifting. I get excited every time I go to the gym, because I'm always trying to do something I haven't done before. Pushing myself like that is a great feeling. It's an adrenaline rush. It can be scary, too, trying something you're not sure you're going to be able to do. But the feeling of accomplishment when you do that thing you weren't sure you could do is amazing

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Stress & Training

It's an interesting conundrum: the more stressed you are, the less you feel like you have the time and energy necessary to train. But at the same time, the more stressed you are, the more you'd benefit from setting aside a bit of time to get in the gym and work your ass off.

Exercise relieves stress. Even better news for the lifters, Crossfitters and LSD-haters among us, high-intensity exercise is better at relieving stress than low-intensity exercise.

I don't really have any mind-blowing analysis or earth-shattering ideas to present here. This is one of the few cases in exercise science where the experts all agree, and conventional wisdom is actually wise.

This post is just a reminder to myself and anybody else out there who may have been feeling a bit overhwelmed lately and hasn't gotten into the gym: Do it. As soon as possible. As in right now, unless you're a heart surgeon in mid-operation or a pilot in command of a transatlantic flight. (In which case you probably shouldn't be reading this, anyway.)

Get your gym shorts on, go kick your own butt and forget your worries for a while. It'll do you a world of good.

P.S. I googled the word "necessary" to make sure I'd spelled it right in this post. The very first result turned out to be quite an interesting read. Good times.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

My couch fixation

At dinner tonight, my mother mentioned in passing that I use the example of moving a couch a lot on this blog. (No, I don't live with my parents. They're in town for the July 4 weekend. Although free meals and laundry do sound pretty good...)

I don't have an obsession with moving multi-person seating units. I didn't even realize I was using the couch example so often until Mom called me out on it.

Moving couches just usually jumps to mind when I try to think of an example of my definition of fitness: the ability to perform daily physical activities with ease, and the ability to perform difficult but useful physical activities, period.

So I squat, deadlift and press while most other people head to the elliptical or bust out another set of bicep curls. And that's fine. Thier definition of fitness has more to do with BMI and calories burned, while mine has more to do with performance improvements and pounds lifted.

Neither is the "right" definition of fitness. I think mine's a healthier, more practical approach than the BMI crowd, but they think their definition is superior to mine. Each camp has the scientific and anecdotal evidence to back up their claims.

But I won't be asking any of those guys I see in the gym spending hours on the treadmill to help me move my couch. They'd scuff the upholstery when they dropped it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Moving on

This isn't really fitness-related, but what the hey. It's my blog and I'll go off-topic if I want to!

I accepted a new job at my alma mater today and gave my two weeks notice at my current job. I'm very excited about this move -- it's actually a minor decrease in take-home pay, but the benefits are much better and there's a strong possibility for advancement (compared to my current job, which has offers basically zero advancement opportunity).

On a fitness-related note, my new job is much closer to my current abode, so I'll be able to bike to work whenever the weather is nice. That's not nearly strenuous enough to replace picking up heavy things as my daily exercise, but it's always good whenever you're able to add a little more physical activity into your day.

Oh, and the new job also includes a membership at the campus gym. The current gym is no worse than your average Globogym, but a new and improved facility will open in about a year. From what I can tell, the new facility will be open to everyone from varsity athletes to students to staff, so I should have access to fancy things like bumper plates and maybe even o-lifting platforms!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Squat. And don't die.

After my squat rant the other day, Charlotte asks:

I love lower body work. I really do. But please tell me how to do heavy squats without getting hemorrhoids. Not trying to be gross. Just saying it took a good six weeks to recover from my last 1-rep max.

She raises an excellent point. Squatting is one of the best things you can do for your body because it involves so many muscles working together to do so many things all at once. Unfortunately, this also means that if you're doing something wrong, you have the opportunity to mess yourself up in so many different ways.

So how do you squat safely? Follow my simple, patent-pending 4-step program:

1 - Learn technique.

The squat is the most technically complex of the "slow lifts." It's worth taking some time to understand exactly what you should be doing before loading up a bar and putting it on your back.

If you can afford it and can find a good coach in your area, in-person training is the best way to learn. If you can't get one-on-one training, then there are plenty of resources out there. Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe is generally regarded as the Holy Gospel of Strength Training and will tell you everything you need to know about the squat, deadlift, bench press, press, power clean and other lifts. There are plenty of useful videos out there in the inter-webs, too. I'd recommend the Squat Rx videos.

2 - Practice.

As with any physical skill, learning to squat takes practice. Use a light weight -- the empty bar works just fine -- and practice doing all the things you learned to do from your extensive study of technique.

If you have access to a video camera, tape yourself squatting and then watch it to make sure your body is really doing what you think it's doing. You can even post the video online and ask for people to critique your form -- the Crossfit Message Boards and Rippetoe's thread over at Strength Mill are two great places for this.

3 - Take it slow

Once you feel comfortable with the movement and have a reasonable degree of certainty that you're doing it correctly, increase the weight in a CONTROLLED, GRADUAL and METHODICAL way. Increase your weight by a set increment between workouts: 10 pounds at the beginning, moving down to 5 pound or even 2.5 pound increases once the weight starts getting heavier. Making big jumps in weight that your body isn't prepared for (even though you think it is) is a great way to injure yourself.

4 - Rinse and repeat

Tiger Woods is possibly the greatest golfer ever, and his swing causes golf aficionados to drool all over their Nike Dri-Fit polos. But no two swings he's ever taken were identical, and he's completely re-tooled his swing more than once.

Squatting is no different -- even when you've been doing it for years, your squat is constantly changing and you need to be constantly monitoring your form to make sure everything is going well. Once you think you've gotten the squat down pat, take occasional form check videos to make sure you're really still on track, or ask a knowledgeable coach or friend to watch you squat. "Form creep" happens to everyone, and the earlier you spot and correct the little things that start to go wrong, the better off you'll be.

5 - BONUS! A few assorted tips

Some tips for safe & fun squatting for the entire family:

  • Always warm up before squatting. A general warm-up to break a light sweat plus a set or two of light squats before your "work sets" will go a long way to keep you safe.

  • No 1 rep maxes for beginners! Hate to call Charlotte out like this, but she probably shouldn't have been doing a 1 rep max in the first place. Things WILL go wrong in a 1 rep max attempt, and you should have a good deal of experience under the bar before even attempting one. Unless you're training to compete in a strength sport, 1 rep maxes aren't really ever necessary in your training. And many competitive lifters don't attempt a true 1 rep max outside of meets, anyway.

  • Always have some sort of spotter handy. This can mean that you have the safety bars in a power rack or squat rack set to a height that will catch the bar if you get stuck at the bottom of a squat, or just that you have a friend who knows how to safely spot you standing by watching you in case things get out of hand.

Take the time to learn to squat safely and correctly, and you'll reap the benefits for years. Try to do too much weight too soon without learning proper form, and you might end up like this guy.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Squat, dammit!

I've discussed the value of the squat before. But it's frustrating to see so many guys in the gym doing nothing but 17 variations of bicep curls and then a set or two of "bench," so please indulge me as I rant a little more about the value of the squat, and lower-body training in general.

For some reason, the American male thinks of strength as an upper-body phenomenon. If a guy wants to get an idea of how strong another guy is, he asks how much he can bench press. Or, if he's not the "interact directly with others" type, he just sizes up the guy's biceps.

But WHY? If your idea of strength can be entirely contained between the elbows and the rib cage, then you're leaving out a significant portion of the human body.

In the real world, if your legs can't support it, you can't lift it. You may be able to bench press 300 pounds, but if you've never squatted or deadlifted, you'll be exactly as useful as your 95 pound niece when it comes to moving a couch or pushing a stalled car.

And please don't try to tell me that you don't need to squat because you run, and running is all the work your legs need. That's just silly. Is 500 dumbbell bench presses with 5 pounds in each hand the same as a heavy set of 5 with 200 pounds? No. Lifting heavy weights builds strength, endless repetition of a motion that is easy when done once does not.

For those of you who don't train for strength, but just want to "look muscular," all I can do is slap you upside the head and tell you to go read up on exercise: if you want to look like an athlete, you have to train like an athlete. And that includes squats, Sonny Jim.

So, please, if you're lifting weights to get stronger, SQUAT. Or deadlift. Heck, do dumbbell lunges if you can't stand the thought of putting a bar on your back. But strengthen your legs with heavy weights, or all you're doing is trying to build a brick house on a foundation made of toothpicks.


I've sucked at this blog thing. To be fair, I was on vacation in China for pretty much the entire month of May, but I logged back on this blog and saw that my most recent post was on April 8!

A quick update on where I've been since then: I started modeling my programming after Crossfit's 3 on, 1 off schedule. I'd lift on the 1st day, do the workout posted to the Crossfit website on days 2 and 3, take a rest day, and repeat. This only lasted for about 2.5 weeks before I headed off to China, but it seemed to be greatly improving my general conditioning while still helping me build strength.

But then I went to China, and had nothing but myself and occasionally some playground equipment to work out with. I did a pretty good job of working out, averaging about 2 workouts for every 3 days I was there. But it was all bodyweight stuff and sprints, so while my conditioning improved a little, my strength definitely went downhill.

So now I'm working on building my strength back up, although I still haven't really gotten back into a steady schedule. I was intending to go with a lift-rest-lift-rest, rinse, repeat, schedule until my strength returned to previous levels, but I've let other things get in the way of that. I'll have to tinker and find a schedule that fits both my goals (get strength back!) and my life.

I generally use squats as a measure of my overall strength, and I'm scheduled to attempt 5 sets of 5 with 245 pounds for my next workout, compared to 275 pounds before I left. It's a little frustrating working with what I previously considered "light" weights but I know it'll come back quickly, provided I can actually get my rear in gear and re-establish the habit of getting in the gym.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Strangers with candy

Today was a tough day at the gym. I missed or skipped 25 reps out of a possible 65 with my target weights over 3 exercises. It was absolutely brutal. It was my own fault -- I only got about 5 hours of sleep last night and I'd eaten very little all day, but it was still rough.

But it was also one of the best days I've had at the gym in a long time.

When I arrived at the gym, a middle-aged couple was using the only squat rack. I asked how much longer they had, then went and warmed up while they were finishing. They let me know when they were done, I started squatting and they went over to do some other exercises.

The squats were brutal. I only got 4 reps on my first set, then another 4, and then only 2 on my third. I was furious at myself, but I calmed down and realized that today was obviously an off day, so I dropped the weight by 50 lbs and started doing sets of 10.

After my first set of 10, the wife who had been using the squat rack before me came over and complimented me on my squats. She was impressed with the amount of weight I was squatting and the fact that I was squatting below parallel. We talked for a while about lifting -- she and her husband have been lifting weights together for over 20 years!

That little conversation was the boost I needed to get through what was, up to that point, an extremely frustrating workout. While I was busy berating myself about my poor performance, that couple was watching me work out and saw me working hard and moving a respectable amount of weight.

It's a reminder that we're always our own harshest critics. Sure, I didn't do as well as I'd hoped to do today. I failed miserably by the standards I set for myself. But the important part, the part that that nice couple saw, was that I kept working hard despite the frustration and turned what could have been a completely wasted workout into something productive, at least.

Sometimes it's nice to be able to get a glimpse of yourself from a stranger's point of view. It's even better when that glimpse shows you something better than you expected.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Exercise Crack

Inspired by Mac's post today at Get Fit Slowly.

Everybody knows that they should exercise, but it seems that only a small percentage of the world population acts on this knowledge. If you're one of those who knows you need to start but just can't seem to drag yourself into the gym, try a few of these ideas to motivate yourself:

1 - Write down every reason you can think of that you should exercise. Fitness reasons, health reasons, body image reasons, social reasons, family reasons, mental health reasons, etc. You'll be surprised how long the list gets. Then write down every reason you can think of that you shouldn't exercise. When you compare these two lists, you'll see that the "should" list will be much longer. And the "shouldn't" list will consist mainly of variations on "I don't want to."

3 - Find an exercise buddy. It can be a neighbor, coworker, friend or dog, but if you have somebody who you know is depending on you to show up, lots of excuses go away.

4 - Tell people you're starting an exercise program. That way you'll be motivated because you know they'll ask you how the program is going.

5 - Read health studies. Seriously. If you keep on reading about how good exercise is for you and how eating crap and sitting on your butt will kill you, you'll want to act on that information. Charlotte at The Great Fitness Experiment will hook you up with more studies than you can shake a stick at.

6 - Give yourself a "carrot." Do you love lattes? Make it a rule that you can only get one after your workout. Had your eye on a new pair of shoes, video game, etc.? Tell yourself you can buy it if you work out 3 times a week for a month.

Once you've started exercising, tracking your progress will help keep you motivated to exercise for the long haul. Mark every day that you exercise with a big X on the calendar and keep a written record of how far you walk/jog or how much weight you lift. Seeing your progress over time can be a powerful motivator to keep on exercising!

DON'T TRACK YOUR BODY WEIGHT. Weight fluctuates from day to day and hour to hour based on a whole schmorgasboard of variables, and is a very inaccurate way of measuring fitness and health. If you must track a physical attribute, track body fat percentage. Even better, take a picture of yourself in your favorite outfit every week or so to see how much better you start looking after a few weeks/months of regular exercise.

Everybody should exercise. That includes you. So go do it.

Friday, March 28, 2008


I'm saddened by what's going on over at StrongLifts. Mehdi, the author, is changing the entire forum over to paid membership. The hundreds of people who contributed to make that forum a great place for lifters, especially beginners, to go for information, help and support are now being shut out of the community they've created.

I understand that Mehdi needs to make a little cash to pay for hosting, etc. and that he eventually wants to make a living from the site. Many readers suggested adding advertisements, a donation button or a "premium" section of the website as alternatives to closing off the message board community in this way, but Mehdi summarily dismissed all of these ideas. By doing so, he's choosing short-term cash flow over the long-term growth of his site and over the interests of his customers.

I'm further disappointed by today's post on the StrongLifts blog. In it, he calls everyone who voiced their dissatisfaction with his decision "crabs":

The Crabs story.

The thing about AFCs are that they’re a bunch of crabs in a barrel. Just as one starts to lift himself out of the barrel, the other crabs will grab him and pull him back in.

AFCs are Average Frustrated Chumps. Guys who don’t get the girls and whine about it. If this sounds familiar, don’t worry it’s curable.

The people he's calling "crabs" are people who, for the most part, voiced their concern that this move would damage the viability of the blog as both a place for people to learn about strength training and as a profitable business venture for Mehdi. I'm included in this group. I'm shocked and disappointed that Mehdi chose to respond like this to expressions of genuine concern from people who really want StrongLifts to succeed.

It boils down to this: Mehdi's actions tell me that his number 1 priority is making money from his blog. Spreading good information about strength training, helping people learn and creating a supportive community are obviously second-tier goals for him.

For this reason, I am removing StrongLifts from my blogroll and will no longer be linking to any of his posts. He could care less, since I probably get something like a whopping 7 readers a month, but I'm not comfortable with promoting the site of someone who is comfortable making a move like this.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Iron Zen

I'm not a very spiritual person. It's not that I don't believe we humans have a spiritual side -- it's just that I don't think about it that much. But sometimes I do.

I've heard meditation described as entering a state in which the ego is dissolved. The line between you and the world dissolves and you feel the energy of the universe flow through you.

I don't meditate, but I get that feeling sometimes, too. I get it through lifting. When you've pushed your body to its absolute limit on an especially heavy lift, or on the last rep of a particularly tough set, sometimes you push so hard that all you can see is a mass of color, and all you can hear is a high-pitched whine.

Your feet feel like roots, planted into the earth, immobile. Your body feels simultaneously like it's dissolving into the world around it and like it's permanent, immobile, legs and back and shoulders forever locked in support of the weight on the bar.

That feeling -- the complete unconsciousness of anything but the energy flowing from the world through you and into the bar, and the way that flow of energy negates your normal sense of yourself as a being independent of and distinguishable from the universe around you -- is, as the kids say these days, freakin' sweet.

I'm sure that the more scientific among us would (accurately) describe this feeling as nothing more than a brief period of semi-consciousness caused by momentarily interrupted blood flow to the brain due to extreme exertion. But those people are just killjoys. I call it iron zen.

It's why I love deadlifts and power cleans. For some reason, the heavy movements from the floor produce the intensity necessary to get this feeling much more often than squats or presses. I think that presses just aren't strong enough movements to produce the intensity necessary to reach iron zen, and I'm not yet proficient enough at squats -- during heavy squats I'm usually focusing too hard on keeping my form to give the all-out effort necessary for iron zen.

But however you reach it, it's a great feeling, it's a sign of a damn good training session (excuse my French), and it's a perfectly valid excuse for we non-spiritual folk to take a minute to think about the connection between mind and matter.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"I'm doing arms"

It happened to me today. I was in the one and only squat rack at the gym (squatting, of course), when a 30-something guy in a sleveless t-shirt came up to me between sets.

"How many sets do you have left?"


"You mean you have 3 sets left to go?"

Yeah, you can work in if you'd like.

"Nah, thanks, I'm doing arms."

As he wandered off in search of a more bicep-friendly environment, I was left shaking my head. Besides the fact that this guy wanted to do bicep curls in the squat rack (don't get me started), the phrase "I'm doing arms" just annoys the dickens out of me.

Training only your arms is pointless. In the real world, your arms never work in isolation. Training movement patterns, not body parts, is the way to get stronger.

Instead of "arms," train pulls: pullups, chinups, rows. Instead of "chest," train pushes: bench press, overhead press, pushups, dips. Instead of "legs," train... well... legs, but use functional compound exercises: squats, deadlifts, cleans.

The phrase "I'm doing arms" aggrivates me because it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of this basic concept of strength training. To get strong, you must move heavy things in a way that closely mimics the movements you'd use to move heavy things in real-life scenarios outside of the gym.

Maybe I should be more understanding. Maybe I should try to offer a tidbit of friendly advice next time this happens. Or maybe I'm just a crotchety old man in training. But at least I'll be a crotchety old man capable of physically throwing those young bicep-curling whippersnappers off of my lawn instead of meekly shaking my cane at them.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I've been bad about blogging lately. But, fortunately, I've been good about working out. So all is not lost.

Also, reading over some posts, I think I need to change my "voice" on this blog. I'm coming off as if I'm trying to be an expert or an authority here, which I'm not. I'm a guy who loves lifting and wants to write about stuff I learn or find interesting while doing it. So I'll stick to that.

Anyhoozle, Nick at Beyond Strong recently posted a couple of videos of interviews with strongmen Andrus Murumets and Zydrunas Savickas. The interviews are great.

One thing I found to be interesting was Andrus' statement that he trained his grip by hanging from a thick bar for as long as he could. This seems brilliantly simple. Grip is one place where static strength and muscular endurance is hugely useful, and this is a simple, straight-forward way to develop that.

So I decided to implement it at the gym today. Since I train at a typical commercial gym, there are no fat bars in the gym. In fact, there's only one true pull-up bar. But I improvised a thicker bar by taking the neck pad that some folks (who I like to call "pansies") use for squats and put it over the pull-up bar.

I think it worked very well. I did sets of hanging for about 45 seconds, and my forearms were definitely working hard. The pad makes the exercise harder by increasing the diameter of the bar, and I think the fact that the pad is soft and can spin around the bar if you end up inadvertently twisting adds to the difficulty, as well. The best part was that it gave people another reason to give me those "what the hell?" looks I have come to know and love.

Grip strength is useful for everything from deadlifts to pullups to holding grocery bags and, if you're male, the all-important handshake intimidation ritual. It's also something to which I've never really devoted enough attention to, so I'll be doing these hangs and some gripper work a couple of times a week.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Everybody fails. It happens. At some point, everyone will fail a class, drop a touchdown pass, get dumped, get fired or fail in some other way.

Failure happens in the weight room, too. You miss reps. You can't lift a weight that felt easy last week. You get busy and end up missing a few weeks of training. But failure is not permanent, and you can always bounce back and move past failure. Here's a few things I do to bounce back after a failure:

1 - Think about why you failed. Don't dwell on the negative or wallow in self-pity, but spend a little time trying to think logically about why you failed and what you can do in the future to succeed.

2 - Stay positive. If you let something get under your skin, it can start a downward spiral. In the weight room, you can get preoccupied with thinking about your missed reps on one exercise instead of focusing on the next one, and then end up missing reps there, too. Keeping a positive mindset prevents one failure from turning into multiple failures!

3 - Immediately take one small step to ensure future success. It doesn't matter how small a step it is -- doing something immediately that will help you overcome this failure changes your mindset and gives you a huge psychological boost. If you get fired, this small step can be anything from getting a nice tie for your upcoming job interviews to signing up for a night class that will help you with skills you need in your career. If you miss reps, it can be anything from doing a few sets of an assistance exercise to finding a coach who can help you with your form.

If all else fails, walk away on your own terms. It may just not be your day. Maybe you slept poorly or are distracted by stress at work and you just can't seem to do anything in the weight room. If nothing is going well, then admit to yourself that it's not your day and deal with it accordingly. Change a heavy day to a light day if you're missing your weights, or just wrap it up and head home to try again tomorrow. Don't ram your metaphorical head into a metaphorical wall (or your real head into a real wall) over and over if it's obviously doing no good.

Remember: failures are going to happen, they're temporary, and they're a great way to learn and improve yourself even more.

Want evidence? Check out my craptastic squat workout below, then watch this blog as I blow past these numbers over the next few months...

Training 2-25-08

F x 285
F x 285
2 x 275
F x 285

3 x 155

Push Press
2 x 175

2 x 360

2 x 5 x 62.5
4 x 62.5

2 x 5 x 102.5
4 x 102.5

Comments: From here on out, to minimize guesswork, I'm going to focus on improving doubles until I stall on a few lifts, then switch to singles, then to triples, etc. No more skipping around. Squats kicked my butt. I actually got a double with 285 two weeks ago and was looking for a triple here, but couldn't even get one. Drat and Blast! There's Crossfit Total meet coming up that I want to participate in, so heavy Presses are in the mix for that. New PR on Deadlift! Missed reps on Chinups & Dips, but don't foresee problems getting them back next time.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

And now, a word from the experts

This post is about 3 days late, and anything I wrote right now would just be a slapped-together mockery of my already questionable standards for content on this blog. So, in the true spirit of the internet, I'll just steal other people's work and post it here, thus claiming credit by proximity. Brilliant!

Here are 3 videos that I officially designate as "good stuff:"

First, Mark Rippetoe explains the bench press. The bench press is kind of a polarizing exercise among the strength training folk: some believe it's the holy grail of upper body strength, while others think it's a complete waste of time. Mark offers a good explanation of the functional utility of the bench press, as well as its limitations.

The next two come from Nash Jocic, a guy I'd never heard of until I found two excellent clips of his on YouTube the other day. In the first, he explains why the "older generation" should lift weights. In the second, he explains why women should lift. I wholeheartedly agree with his points, and the fact that he has an Eastern European accent serves to solidify his credibility.

Training 2-23-08

3 x 3 x 240

3 x 3 x 125
Power Clean
3 x 2 x 150

12, 10, 10

Comments: Light squats felt hard last week, easy this week. Also I realized that I used too light of a weight on Power Clean last week. D'oh! Pullups are progressing nicely -- bump the 1st set up to 13 next time.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Why you should squat

Many people hate the squat. They're scared of it. It hurts. It's hard. They avoid it at all costs, with excuses like, "it hurts my knees," "I don't want to screw up my back" and "I like the leg press better."

But the truth is, you should squat. Are you old? Squat. Overweight? Squat. Young and still growing? Squat. Do you have bad knees? Squat. Unless you have some sort of terrible spinal condition that precludes any and all weight-bearing activities, you should be squatting in some way, shape or form.

The squat is often called the King of Exercises. This is because the squat develops strength throughout the entire body like no other exercise can. Squatting with a barbell on your back not only works your legs, but also your torso and upper body (shoulders, chest, back and arms). The muscles of your legs are the prime movers. The muscles of your torso must contract strongly to support your spine during the movement. The muscles of your upper body are used isometrically to keep the bar in position on your shoulders. This kind of large-scale muscle recruitment isn't achieved with any other exercise, with the possible exception of the deadlift.

Strength training causes your body to release testosterone and human growth hormone (among others), which help in building stronger muscle, bone and connective tissue. Generally speaking, the more muscle you use in an exercise, the more hormones are released by your body. Because the squat works so many muscles, it elicits a very high hormonal response, and thus is extremely useful in building total-body strength. If you don't squat and your bench press is stuck, try adding squats in to your routine!

There is no substitute for squatting. Leg extensions and leg curls don't even work your entire leg. Leg presses look similar to the squat at first glance, but completely remove the torso and upper body involvement, as well as minimizing the use of the hamstrings and glutes. These exercises also eliminate the flexibility and balance needed for and developed by the squat. Balancing a heavy object on your back teaches you to stabilize yourself in a way that can't be replicated on machines.

And, wonder of wonder, squats can actually help people with limited flexibility or joint problems. As briefly mentioned above, it takes a certain amount of flexibility to perform a full squat. People who are inflexible can become more flexible simply by squatting as well as they can, which will stretch out and strengthen your muscles. Flexibility and strength will quickly improve as squat form improves.

Often, people with "bad knees" or a "bad back" simply have weak knees or a weak back. These areas hurt because they don't have the muscle or ligament strength necessary to perform daily tasks (lifting, climbing stairs, etc.). Squats, correctly performed, strengthen both of these areas. Krista at Stumptous has an excellent explanation here.

Of course, the one caveat that goes with any exercise recommendation is that the exercise must be done with proper form. If you've never squatted before, start with an empty barbell and learn the technique before adding weight. There are plenty of online resources detailing proper squat form. Here's a quick rundown:

  • Start with the barbell securely positioned on your shoulders and kept in place by your hands, your back straight and your feet shoulder-width apart with toes pointed slightly out.
  • Sit back like you're descending into a chair behind you. Your back should remain straight and your knees should stay pointing out in the same direction as your toes as you sit back.
  • Descend until the line between your hip and knee is parallel to the floor or lower. This means that the TOP of your thigh should be parallel to the floor.
  • Push evenly through the heels of your feet to stand back up, being sure to raise your hips and your chest at the same rate. Raising your hips first and then your chest can lead to injury.
Squatting is hard, both mentally and physically. But make squats a staple of your routine and you'll reap the rewards.

Training 2-21-08

3 x 5 x 270
2 x 3 x 270
10 x 225

Push Press
4 x 155
2 x 5 x 155
2 x 4 x 155

5 x 115

Power Clean
5 x 3 x 170

3 x 5 x 52.5

3 x 5 x 100

Comments: Missed 4th rep on 4th set of Squats by just losing tension at the bottom. I think form is getting better, though (sitting back into the hole and using rebound in hams & glutes). And don't have Push Press down yet. Added sets on to make up for sucking on Squat & Push Press, which is ok to do occasionally, but don't let it develop into an excuse for missing reps. Power Clean tweaked my left hamstring again, but got through and it should be fine. Pullups were tough, but all legit deadhang to chin over bar. 100 pound Dips!

Monday, February 18, 2008

24 Hour Fitness - an object lession in crappy customer service.

What is it with the modern corporate gym and crappy customer service? A friend of mine recently joined 24 Hour Fitness and has had a less-than-spectacular experience there.

When she joined, my friend purchased a package of 10 personal training sessions. She was assigned a trainer without having the opportunity to talk to the available trainers and get a feel for who she'd like to work with. But the trainer she was assigned to was the head trainer for that club, which must be a good sign, right?

Wrong. The guy canceled one training session only a couple of hours beforehand (24 Hour Fitness' stated policy is that sessions must be canceled 24 hours or more in advance), and just flat didn't show up for 2 other sessions. When he did show up, he sometimes had a "trainee" with him, and the two would carry on off-topic and inappropriate conversations during the session.

The final straw came when my friend tried to schedule an appointment with the trainer. She was busy with work all week, but told the trainer she'd like an appointment for Friday. The trainer responded that he was available now. My friend responded that she wasn't available now, but was available Friday or over the weekend. She never heard back.

So, extremely frustrated, my friend decided to go to another 24 Hour Fitness location. The other location said they would honor her sessions, and set her up with an appointment for her next workout.

But the new trainer at the new location didn't show! So, now completely dissatisfied with 24 Hour Fitness, my friend decided to try to get her money back for her unused training sessions.

Now the real fun begins. My friend called the original location and explained the situation to the manager. The manager said he would look into the situation and call her back. The next day, nothing. Day after, nothing. My friend called back to check in, and the manager wasn't in the office. She left a message for the manager to call her back. Surprise, surprise, she didn't hear back.

Now my friend is really pissed. So, since phone calls obviously aren't working, she decides to send a letter. She calls the gym to ask for the manager's last name (to address the envelope) and the gym's mailing address (again, to address the envelope). But she's told that they can't give out the manager's last name, and when she asks for the mailing address, the person on the phone says "I can't give you that because you asked for something else first." Are you kidding me?!

So that's where the story stands right now. My friend has left yet another message for the manager, and if she doesn't hear soon she'll have to send a letter to 24 Hour Fitness' corporate headquarters, which is kind enough to list a mailing address online.

The whole situation is absolutely ridiculous. She paid for a service, the service was not provided (or if you want to be generous, it was provided in a completely unacceptable way), and now 24 Hour Fitness is basically doing everything possible to prevent her from even finding out what her options are to resolve the situation.

It's amazing to me that these places can be as successful as they are with such poor customer service. (And don't even get me started about the equipment available in your average corporate gym. That's a whole 'nother post.) One of my secret dreams has been to open my own gym (can it still be a secret dream if I write about it on the internet?), and stories like this make me think that it can't be too hard to compete with the huge gyms. All I'd have to do is make sure the front desk employees smile at people and the trainers show up on time, and I'll be light years ahead of the competition!

Has anybody else had a bad experience with a big brand-name gym? Or a great experience? I'd be interested to know if this complete lack of interest in the customer's satisfaction is mainly a local thing or if the malaise has spread across the nation.


1 x 295

Push Press
2 x 175

3 x 350

3 x 5 x 60

3 x 5 x 97.5

Comments: I have a tendency to go a bit straight down on Squats, letting my knees drift forward and decreasing the ability of my hamstrings and glutes to contribute. Fix it! I feel like I'm starting to get Push Press a bit better, specifically the transition from leg drive to shoulder drive. Deadlift was nice after my grip failed me last week. (Grippers are on the way, so that should help!) Accidentally moved up by 5 lbs instead of 2.5 on Chinups, but got all the reps. Dips a bit lopsided -- work on even grip and shoulders straight ahead.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Stop me before I curl again!

Ah, the bicep curl. According to my extremely un-scientific observation, it's probably single most commonly performed weight training exercise in America. The devotees of the curl have come up with dozens and dozens of variations on the basic barbell curl: ez bar curls, dumbbell curls, hammer curls, isolation curls, preacher curls, reverse curls... the list goes on and on.

The curls is so popular because many young men have the "Curls for girls" mentality. They think that building big biceps will make them look strong and attractive, and they think that curls will achieve this goal.

I won't debate the "big biceps" point. If you think that huge biceps and teensy weensy shoulders, chest, legs and back make you look great, then go for it. However, curls are not the best way to build biceps.

Why aren't curls the best bicep builders, you ask? Because they don't stimulate the bicep through its entire range of motion, they don't use heavy loads and they don't use the bicep in a functional way.

Range of Motion

The curl involves holding a weight your hands with your arms extended straight down, and then moving your forearm up until the weight comes to your shoulders. In a curl, the elbow is moved through the entire range of motion and the shoulder moves very little. This movement does not use the bicep to the fullest possible extent, since the bicep is involved in both elbow flexion and shoulder flexion (shoulder flexion is when you move your upper arm upwards and in front of you). For an exercise to work the bicep through its full range of motion, it should involve movement around both the elbow and the shoulder.

Heavy Loads

Most people can't handle much weight on curls. Even if someone does curl a lot of weight, that amount of weight is much less than that person could handle on other exercises that work the biceps. (see the list below!) In strength training, more weight lifted = more muscle built, so if we are to stimulate bicep growth, we need to use exercises with which we can use the biceps to move heavy loads.


The curl is also not a very functional exercise. A functional exercise is an exercise that is very similar to a real-life movement and helps to strengthen and/or improve that movement. Functional movements are the most useful for adding on muscle mass and strength. Deadlifting, for example, is an awful lot like picking up something heavy off of the ground. Outside of the gym, however, you will hardly ever perform a curling motion.

So, what are some bicep exercises that work the bicep through its entire range of motion, use heavy loads and are functional? I'm glad you asked!


Grab a pullup bar or other sturdy overhead support with a supine grip (palms towards you). Pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Lower yourself until your arms are completely straight. Repeat.

With a chinup, you're using the bicep to flex both the elbow and the shoulder, you're moving your bodyweight (or more, if you add weights!), and your arms are doing exactly what they'd do if you had to climb up or over something.

Bent Over Barbell Row

Keeping your back straight and your knees slightly flexed, bend over at the waist and grab the bar on the floor in front of you. Grab the bar in an overhand grip and pull it straight up towards your Xiphoid Process (that spot right above your abs, at the bottom of the sternum).

Once again, you're moving both the elbow and shoulder joints, you're using a load much heavier than you would curl, and you're performing an action that looks a lot like picking something up off of the ground.

There are a couple of other exercises that are also very helpful in building the biceps, even though they don't involve all 3 aspects mentioned above (full range of motion, heavy loads, functionality):


With a bar at mid-shin level, place your feet slightly narrower than shoulder width apart with the middle of the foot directly under the bar. Keeping your back straight, bend at the knees and hips to grab the bar. Your shoulder blades should be directly over the bar and your back straight. Extend your knees until the bar is above them, and then extend at the hips until you are standing completely upright.

This exercise doesn't involve any movement around the elbows and very little around the shoulders, but it works your biceps isometrically under an extremely heavy load. And exercises don't get any more functional than a good heavy Deadlift.


Hold a bar on your front shoulder and chest, with your chest up and your elbows slightly in front of the bar. Press the bar directly over your head until your arms are fully extended, then return the bar to the starting position.

Yes, the press hits the triceps much harder than the biceps, but remember that the bicep is involved in shoulder flexion, which occurs rapidly in the early part of the press. Again, weights used on the press are much heavier than weights used for curls, and the Press works specifically on the shoulder flexion use of the biceps, which is usually the least-trained aspect of the bicep.

Sure, if you're big into bodybuilding, you'll need to do a few curls for that "pump." But if curls and curl variations are your only bicep exercises, your "guns" will always be more like Noisy Crickets.

For those of you who don't know what the Noisy Cricket is.

Training 2-16-08

3 x 3 x 240

3 x 3 x 125

Power Clean
3 x 2 x 135

12, 9, 9

Comments: A little stiff from sprints yesterday, especially in the left hamstring. Squats felt a bit tough for a light day -- apparently those suckers are hard no matter what. Did 80% of Push Press weight for strict Press, and it felt about right. I'm starting to really like Power Cleans. Aiming for 12, 10, 9 on Pullups next week.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Leave the gym a little crazier than when you arrived.

Most trainees think like Arnold. The bodybuilder/movie star/governor was famous for his exhausting workouts. He'd go to the gym, destroy himself for a couple of hours, then have to call a friend to pick him up because he was too weak to drive home.

That kind of work ethic and willingness to push yourself to the limit of your physical capabilities is admirable. But it's not the best way to train if you're looking to gain strength.

Want supporting evidence from a dead guy? Here's a quote from "Modern Weightlifting," written by British strongman Edward Aston in 1935 (read the full text here):
In training for a weight-lifting match it must be borne in mind that hard work does not necessarily mean success (...) therefore his work requires to be chosen with care, and only those exercises given him which will fit him for his contest, without over-taxing and drawing on his reserve energy.
Translated from the old-school, this means that your exercise selection and volume should be such that you don't run yourself down. Keep the volume low enough that you can fully recover between workouts. Don't clutter your workouts with frivolous exercises -- keep them short enough that you don't run yourself down. (But make sure they're intense enough to actually do some good!)

My personal marker for a workout that hits the sweet spot between too little work and too much work is when I feel more psyched up and crazy leaving the gym than I did going in.

It sounds a little weird, but some of you will know the feeling. When your volume and weight selection are right, when you've selected the right exercises, and when you push yourself as hard as you can on every rep, you leave the gym feeling stronger than when you went in. Of course, we all know that this isn't really the case -- you are always weaker immediately after exercise than before -- but that rush you get after finishing the last heavy rep of a good workout is one of the best feelings in the world.

Training 2-14-08

5 x 5 x 265

Push Press
2 x 5 x 155
3 x 4 x 155

Power Clean
5 x 3 x 165

3 x 5 x 50

3 x 5 x 95

Comments: The music in my gym SUCKS. It consists primarily of dance remixes of early-90's pop music. Squats felt much better today because I brought my iPod and cranked up my own music loud enough to drown out the crap. Push Press was disappointing, but I'm hoping it'll come up quickly as I get the movement down. Power Cleans felt really good. Pullups were a bit tough, but ok. Dips, as always, made me feel like a badass.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Lucas Goes to Texas!

After Friday's post, I re-thought my approach to my strength training for the next couple of weeks. Per Andrew's advice, I'm ditching the timed sets idea and using my general conditioning workouts to work on my speed and power.

So what am I doing instead? I'll be using the Texas Method. Each week is basically one day of 5x5, one day of 3x3 with 90% of your 5x5 weight, and one day of heavy singles, doubles or triples.

This should be good for 2 reasons:

1 - The heavy 5x5 three times a week was starting to take a bit of a toll physically. The Texas Method should give me a bit more rest and leave me fresh enough to work hard on conditioning.

2 - Maybe I'm just a pansy, but I feel that stalling is close or has arrived for my 3 main lifts: Squat, Press and Deadlift. Texas Method should help maintain progress, albiet at a slower pace than plain ol' linear progress would.

So that's that. Today (Monday) was the first heavy workout, Thursdays will be 5x5 and Saturdays will be 3x3.

And I promise, this is the last post about my own personal workout choices for a while. On Thursday it's back to our regularly-scheduled program.

Training 2-11-08

3 x 275
2 x 285

Push Press
3 x 165

2 x 345

3 x 5 x 55

3 x 5 x 92.5

Comments: Finding weights for heavy triples. I was surprised how close the weights were to my 5x5 weights. Squats were ok, and I know I'll get stronger at Push Press as I get more practice with it. Leg and back strength weren't the problem on Deadlift; my grip gave out on the 3rd rep. Chinups were a close thing, but Dips felt strong and were a good note to end on.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A question: timed sets & training for power

I'm in the midst of re-thinking my training program for 2 reasons:

1 - I've been on this program since November, and it's probably about time to mix things up a bit.

2 - I have an outside shot at being a contestant on American Gladiators (!), and if that happens, I want to be as physically prepared as possible.

I've already determined that I'm going to switch to lifting on Monday, Thursday and Saturday with conditioning work on Tuesday and Friday. What I'm thinking about now is keeping Monday and Thursday as high intensity, low volume strength days but switching Saturday to be a lower intensity, higher volume, power-based workout.

I think that timed sets might be appropriate for this power workout. I'd select a weight and amount of time for each exercise, then see how many reps I could get done with the weight in the alloted time. For example, instead of doing 5 sets of 5 reps, I'd do 4 sets of max reps in 30 seconds. I'd make progress by trying to beat my total reps from last time. Since Power = Work/Time, I'd be increasing my power output by keeping the time the same and increasing the number of reps performed from workout to workout.

So my question is this: has anybody out there had experience with timed sets? If you have advice on the best way to use them or other ideas on training for power as opposed to strength, I'd love to hear about it!

Training 2-9-08

I did sets of 10 on Squat and Press today, partially to switch things up and partially because I just wasn't really "feeling it" today.

4 x 10 x 205
4 x 205

4 x 10 x 95
9 x 95

Power Clean
5 x 3 x 160

3 x 5 x 52.5

2 x 5 x 92.5
4 x 92.5

Comments: Lack of sleep, eating like crap and stress have been screwing with my recovery lately. I went in planning to do 5x5 on Squat, but only got 2 of my first work set, so I switched to sets of 10 with less weight. They were tough! Press was supposed to be 5x10 anyway, since I'm now rotating between sets of 10, 5 and 3 as part of the Timed Total Tonnage approach. Power Cleans felt good -- I'm getting the whole jump thing down by concentrating on stomping my feet back down after the jump. Chinups were easy. Dips felt lopsided -- I need to finish the Egoscue Method and get to work fixing my posture.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Train Movements, Not Muscles

The human body is a complex machine. I'd go so far as to say that no one in the world really has a full understanding of how it works. So it's understandable that many people are confused when it comes to the best ways to exercise in order to improve the body.

One problem is that beginning lifters tend to think in terms of muscles instead of movements. They walk into the gym thinking that they need to build stronger triceps or quads or focus on some other specific muscle group. But that's not how your body works.

Your body works as a unit. No single muscle or muscle group works independently of the others, so it makes little sense to train a specific muscle or group independently.

Instead of focusing on muscles, training should focus on movements: pushing, pulling, squatting, etc. Training movements will exercise your body in the way that it works in real-life scenarios: as a complete unit working to exert force on an exterior object. This will lead to better strength gains and will actually prevent or correct many of the strength and physique imbalances that lifters typically try to fix by focusing on a specific muscle.

So what does that mean for your workout? It means forget the exercises that isolate one muscle (bicep curls, tricep pull-downs, etc.) and instead focus on the exercises that use a large number of muscles in a coordinated fashion (Squat, Deadlift, Press, etc.). These large-scaled coordinated exercises are called compound movements.

If you took two people whose muscles were capable of exactly equal amounts of force production, but one trained with isolation exercises while the other trained with compound movements, the person who used compound movements would be able to move more weight around in real-life scenarios.

Think of it this way: if you're trying to lift a couch (my favorite example!), it doesn't matter how strong your hamstrings, glutes, quads, back, shoulders and grip muscles are. What matters is how strong your Deadlift is. Why? Because the Deadlift is a coordinated movement involving all of the muscles that you'd use to pick up a couch. Not only does the Deadlift increase the strength of all the muscles used, but it also trains them to work together. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts!

Training 2-7-08

3 x 5 x 265
2 x 4 x 265

Bench Press
2 x 5 x 235
4 x 235
3 x 235
4 x 235

5 x 335

0 x 100
1 x 100
6 x 50

5 x 100

Comments: My past few workouts have been too slow. Today we were filming for my American Gladiators audition stuff, which slowed it down. But overall I need to work on keeping my focus and blowing through the work with intensity. Lost reps on Squats and Bench, losing reps on Deadlift feels close. Chinups and Dips were mainly to get video for AG.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

American Gladiators, Part Deux

So when we last left our hero (me!), he was going to try out to be a contestant on American Gladiators. Well, here's what happened:

On Saturday I arrived at the tryout location at 8:00 a.m., as instructed. I was the 172nd person in line. I got in the building to try out at 2:30 p.m., did 19 pullups on the pullup test (max pullups in 30 seconds), then did the 30 seconds of up-downs (burpees without the jump), an agility ladder drill and 10 shuttle runs.

While I was still out of breath from all that shuttling, they ushered me into the interview. I sat down across from a casting director who asked me questions about myself and why I wanted to be on the show. Afterwards, I realized that the main point of all those silly shuttle runs was to get me out of breath right before the interview, so they could see how I'd handle answering questions when tired and out of breath.

Anyway, the interview went well and they said they'd call me back. And they did! The very next day, I got a call asking me to go in for a second interview on Tuesday.

So this morning I went to the second interview. I sat in front of a camera and answered questions based on the application I'd filled out earlier. It went pretty well, and now they want me to make a 10 minute video of my life: me at work, me working out, me chilling at home with my psychopathic cat, etc.

So that's the story thus far. I'll be feverishly working to get my home video put together before Friday of this week, so wish me luck!

Training 2-4-08

5 x 5 x 260

4 x 145
4 x 3 x 145

Power Clean
4 x 3 x 160
2 x 160

Bent Over Row
5 x 5 x 175

Comments: Squat form a bit shady sometimes. Press was extremely frustrating. Had 2 attempts at last rep of Power Cleans, but missed both. Bent Over Row was the highlight of the workout!

I'll now be officially switching into "training for American Gladiators" mode, which means lifting Monday, Thursday and Saturday with general conditioning and "skill" work on Tuesday and Friday. I put quotes around "skill" work because it'll mainly be figuring out ways to practice for the silly stuff they do on the show. Should be entertaining!

Friday, February 1, 2008

American Gladiators

Last Tuesday, two of my roommates and I were sitting around watching TV and shooting the breeze. Long story short, they suggested that I should try out to be a contestant on American Gladiators, we did some research, and we found out that there's a tryout nearby on Saturday. That's tomorrow!

So today I cut my workout volume pretty substantially so that I could get in the gym and move heavy stuff around without wearing myself out before tomorrow's big tryout!

From what I understand, there'll be a max rep pullups in 30 seconds test, an agility drill course, and a 40 yard dash. I have trained specifically for none of these events, but the most important aspect of the "casting call" is probably the on-screen interview with the producers.

In any event, I'm excited and I'll let you know how it goes when I get back to computer-land, probably on Sunday. In the meantime, wish me luck!

Training 2-1-08

3 x 3 x 255

3 x 3 x 145

Power Clean
3 x 2 x 155

5 x 50

5 x 90

Comments: I went in thinking that cutting the volume meant this would be a breeze. The first set of Squats convinced me otherwise. Power Cleans felt a lot better than last time. Tried to be as explosive as possible on the Pullups and Dips, as a last-minute bit of preparation for tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Step Away from the Machines

Let's get one thing straight from the very beginning: lifting weights and exercising on machines are two completely different activities. The Nautilus Bench Press machine is not equivalent to the plain ol' barbell Bench Press. If the exercise involves a stack of weights and a pin, or any sort of lever, gear or pulley, then it's NOT WEIGHTLIFTING.
I've posted once already about why free weights are superior to machines, so I won't rehash it all here. The short version: machines control the way you move, enable you to lift more weight without being stronger, increase your risk of injury, and do not build strength that is applicable in the real world.
So why do people continue to use machines? Ego. People want to be able to claim that they can "Bench" an impressive-sounding amount of weight, so they use machines for the simple reason that machines do some of the work for you, thus allowing you to lift more weight than if you used free weights.

I bring this up because Token Asian Roommate was a bit annoyed that a mutual friend claimed to have lifted more weight than TAR can. Of course, this friend was using machines. I told TAR not to worry about it, that the person used machines and that his inflated numbers were just that: inflated.

To drive the point home, we did a little experiment after our workout. We had already Bench Pressed for 5 sets of 5, but I took him over to our gym's Bench Press machine. He got on the machine, and I loaded it up with 140 pounds. He did 2 reps. I moved it up to 160 and he got 1 rep. Not too bad for a guy whose max on the barbell Bench Press stands at 115 pounds.

To further prove my point, I loaded the machine up to its maximum weight of 400 pounds and proceeded to do 5 reps. If I had 400 pounds above me on a barbell, it would crash to my chest the instant I unlocked my elbows, and I'd be headed to the hospital.

So, to conclude: working out on machines is not the same as lifting weights. The "strength" you build on machines will not translate to free weights or to real-life movements. If you're using machines now, switch to free weights. You might have to check the ego at the door and use less weight at first, but stick to free weights and you'll get stronger than you ever could by using machines.

Training 1-30-08

5 x 5 x 255

5 x 5 x 230

5 x 330

12, 9, 7

1 Arm DB Snatch
3 x 5 x 70

Comments: Morning Squats again. Bleh. 4 and 5 were ugly on most sets, but they got done. Bench Press 5x5 felt easy! Solid Deadlifts, the weight came up easy. Glad to continue progressing on Pullups. Again, DB Snatch for torso strength and overhead stabilization.

Friday's a light day -- I'll keep the weight the same and go 3x3 instead of 5x5. Why, you ask? Find out on Friday!

Monday, January 28, 2008

You're in Control!

When you're lifting weights, it's easy to think of it as you vs. the bar. You're trying to get an exercise done, and the bar is your enemy, trying to drag you down and stop you. But this isn't the case.

The bar (and the weight on it) does nothing. Absolutely nothing. It is not a force trying to oppose you in the completion of your movement. It's simply a piece of metal that you push and pull around in an effort to get stronger.

This may seem blindingly obvious to some of you, but the revelation that I'm not fighting against the bar when I work out came to me almost like an epiphany in the middle of a hard set of Squats the other day.

As I struggled to stand up with the bar on my back, my first thought was along the lines of "I'm not going to let this bar beat me." Then I suddenly realized that there's no way the bar can beat me. I'm not competing against it. I'm the one who put it on my back. I'm the one who controls where it goes. I'm the only active agent in the me-bar system. I'm not struggling against the bar, I'm struggling against myself. I'm fighting against the fatigue in my legs. I'm fighting against the pain in my shoulders. I'm fighting against the part of my brain that says "Heavy thing on your back! Drop it! Drop it!" I'm fighting against the ever-present temptation to just give up on a rep or a set or a workout because I'm tired or I'd rather watch TV or I just don't feel like it.

In other words, working out isn't a test of me vs. the bar. It's a test of me vs. me. Just as the workout tests my muscles, it also tests my fortitude, discipline, concentration and determination. If I fail on a rep, it's not because the bar beat me. The bar can't beat me. If I fail, it's because I let myself fail.

Of course, this philosophy can't be taken to extremes. If I went to the gym and loaded up a bar with 900 pounds, there would be no way that I could Squat that weight. That's not due to a lack of determination or a lapse in concentration. That's because I was stupid enough to load up a weight I couldn't handle.

This shift from thinking in terms of me vs the bar to thinking in terms of me being in complete control of my workout helped me finish that set, and it helps me to keep my focus on the task at hand in the gym. It brings home the fact that I'm responsible for my own workout, and that "having an off day" doesn't happen unless I let it happen.

Training 1-28-08

5 x 5 x 250

2 x 5 x 145
2 x 4 x 145
3 x 145

Power Clean
5 x 3 x 155

Bent Over Row
5 x 5 x 170

Overhead Delcine Situps
3 x 8 x 45

Comments: Squats felt almost easy, probably because my previous 2 sessions were in the early AM. Lifting in the afternoon is so much better! Nothing wrong with Press, weight is just getting heavy. Power Clean form was problematic at times: I tended to want to pull with the arms when I got tired. Focusing on keeping the back locked and driving up off of the floor helps on Rows. Couldn't quite hold the top position on the last situp like I'd wanted to.

Friday, January 25, 2008


When you lift weights, you're making yourself weaker. The act of lifting weights results in tiny tears in the muscle and a good deal of systematic fatigue, meaning that you're weaker immediately after a workout than you were immediately before. You know the feeling -- you walk into the gym feeling like you could lift an elephant, and you're barely able to hold yourself upright when you walk out.

So how, then, do you get stronger? The damage done to your muscles while working out is repaired by your body's recovery systems. And since your body is smart, it knows that it needs to repair the damage and also add a little extra muscle, since you, being dumber than your body, are going to just go back to the gym and try to tear your muscles up again in a day or two.

It follows, then, that proper recovery is as important to strength training as working hard in the gym. Yet, for some reason, it's completely overlooked by many lifters. So here's what everyone should know about recovery:


The most basic tenet of recovery is that you need enough time between workouts for your body to recover. For most folks, this means taking at least 36 hours between every session.

Think of working out as giving your body homework. After the workout, your body starts doing the homework you've assigned to it by repairing and building muscle. If you only let your body get halfway done with the homework you've already given it before assigning more, then the homework piles up and your body can't keep up. Assignments are forgotten and never turned in, and you don't get stronger or maybe even get weaker because your body can't keep up with your break-neck pace. But if you give your body ample time to complete the homework before assigning more, you get stronger.


The rebuilding "homework" you give your body by working out is best done while sleeping. Ideally, you'd get 8-9 hours of sleep every night. This isn't possible for many people, but you should try to get as much sleep as you can.

You can also improve the quality of your sleep, and therefore the quality of your recovery, by making a few changes in your bedroom. Keep the room as dark as possible at night by covering windows and removing any devices that give off light. Unplug electronics and keep battery-powered devices out of the room. The radiation given off by TV's, cell phones, radios, and all electronic devices can negatively impact your sleep. Try to establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Turn off the TV and dim or turn off as many lights as possible half an hour before bedtime. Don't eat foods with a high glycemic index before bed, as the blood sugar spike will keep you up.


Your body uses the building blocks in food to build muscle, bone and connective tissue. So if you don't eat (and eat well), your body doesn't have the materials necessary to make itself stronger.

There are lots of different theories on the best foods to eat. You might need to do some research on your own to find the plan or theory that works best for you. As a starting point, here are the basic rules I eat by:

- Get at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. Protein is the basic building block of muscle, so if you want to get stronger, you have to make sure your body has enough protein. Some protein sources are better than others, because they are more similar to the proteins found and used in the human body. In general, protein from meat is better than protein from dairy products, which is in turn better than protein from vegetables.

- Drink milk. Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength, says that beginners should drink 1 gallon of milk a day to gain size and muscle. I don't drink a gallon a day, but I drink milk with every meal. Milk has a good balance of carbohydrates, fat and protein. It also contains something called Insulin-like growth factor, which has been linked to strength gains.

- Eat enough. Throw that silly old 2000 calories a day rule out the window. A better rule of thumb for active people (such as those undertaking a strength training program) would be to aim for a caloric intake somewhere between your bodyweight times 15 and your bodyweight times 18. For example, I weigh 198 pounds and I aim to eat between 3000 and 3500 calories a day to fuel my body while maintaining my weight. Track your eating habits with a tool like fitday. If you find that your weight is moving in a direction you don't like, modify your caloric intake in small steps until you get to where you want to be.

- Avoid processed foods. Processed foods have much lower nutritional value than the whole foods from which they are derived. My personal rule is based on the paleo diet: if I couldn't, in theory, walk outside, pick it up and eat it, then I shouldn't eat it at all. If you don't want to go to that extreme, just do what you can to replace processed foods with whole foods in your everyday diet. Instead of chicken nuggets, eat chicken breast. Instead of V8, eat veggies. Instead of applesauce, eat apples. Instead of twinkies, eat more apples. You get the drift.


You might have heard the term "active recovery." The idea is that you move around enough to get blood pumping through your muscles and loosen up your joints, but not enough to assign further recovery "homework" to your body's recovery systems. Getting your heart rate up and moving your muscles through a full range of motion on your "off" days helps your body recover more efficiently.

Your active recovery could be anything from taking a walk to an easy 20 minutes on the exercise bike or a heavily scaled-down Crossfit workout. The point is not to let yourself be a couch potato on your off days -- get up and do something!

Proper recovery is essential to gaining strength. You can overcome a couple of days of insufficient sleep and poor nutrition by just gritting your teeth and forcing yourself through a workout, but you need to establish good recovery habits if you want to have long-term success.

Training 1-25-08

5 x 5 x 245

5 x 5 x 140

Power Clean
5 x 3 x 150

3 x 5 x 50

3 x 5 x 90

Comments: Squats were only decent, form-wise. Today's convenient excuse is that it's hard to focus first thing in the morning. Press was much better, because I had more recovery time between sets and because Token Asian Roommate was finally back in the gym and I had the "oh crap, my friend's watching so I have to do well" thing going on. Need to go into a deeper squat for the rack on Power Cleans. Chinups were easy. Dips were long overdue and felt great as a finisher.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tone Without Bulk

(Mad props to Charlotte, who asked the question that inspired this post in the comments on Monday's post.)

The common wisdom on how to achieve muscle "tone" is doing high volume work (lots of reps) at low intensity (light weight). This appears to work because, immediately after doing a workout of this nature, your muscles feel firm, even stiff.

But this immediate feeling of firmness isn't a sign that your muscles are becoming "toned." It's a sign that your muscles have used up all of their energy supply. These high-rep workouts literally tire out your muscles to the extent that they don't have enough energy to relax! The firmness you feel immediately afterwards is basically the same as rigor mortis in a corpse. That's not a good thing, and the "tone" from these workouts only lasts as long as it takes for your body to replenish the muscle's energy stores.

In fact, if you're looking for firm muscles without adding bulk, high volume, low intensity workouts are the worst thing you could do! These workouts are what bodybuilders use to build bulk via a type of muscle growth called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which increases the volume of fluid (called sarcoplasm) in your muscles and therefore increases muscle size without increasing "tone". (fluid isn't exactly firm...)

The best way to "tone" your muscles is to do the exact opposite of what common wisdom says to do. (Isn't that always the case?) What is commonly described as "tone" can be better defined as residual tension in a relaxed muscle. A muscle's capacity for tension corresponds to that muscle's strength. (stronger contraction = more weight lifted) So to increase the amount of tension in a relaxed muscle, you should increase the amount of tension that muscle is capable of creating. (higher capacity for tension = more residual tension when relaxed) In other words, you should make that muscle stronger.

This means that you should use high intensity, low volume workouts that build strength without inducing lots of hypertrophy. Pavel (from whom most of the ideas presented in this post are stolen) recommends 2 sets of 5 reps, using a weight that you can lift 5 times (but not 6) for the first set and 90% of that weight for the second. Rippetoe's Starting Strength program uses 3 sets of 5 with the same weight on each set. In my opinion, as long as you stay below 20 total reps in 4 or fewer sets with weights above 80% of your 1 rep maximum, you're on the road to building strength and therefore "tone" without adding bulk.

Training 1-23-08

5 x 5 x 240

Bench Press
2 x 5 x 230
2 x 4 x 230
3 x 230

5 x 325

13, 9, 8

Overhead Decline Situps
3 x 8 x 45

Comments: Squats are actually starting to feel easier as I approach my previous workout weight, probably just because I'm getting used to them again. Bench Press regressed from last time. D'oh! If I stall, I might try switching over to 8x3 for a while to see if I can break through. Deadlift was AWESOME. It was one of those where I grinded out the 5th rep, then walked around lightheaded for half a minute before getting what I fondly think of as that "hell yeah!" feeling of accomplishment. Happy that Chinups actually improved from before the layoff. Overhead situps for torso strength and to reinforce the "head through the window" feel of Press.

Monday, January 21, 2008

New format, muscle tidbits and training

To make this blog a bit more readable, I've decided to integrate my random musings with my training log entries. That way, people who want to read my insane ramblings can do so without sifting through the training log entries. And people who want to know what I'm doing in the gym just have to scroll down to the bottom of the most recent post!

Interesting Tidbits on Muscle

I'm beginning the process of studying for my CSCS certification. Step 1 is reading a big textbook. It's kind of imposing, especially when I flip to the first page and see it chock-full of terms such as epimysium, periosteum, sarcomere, and more. I had horrifying flashbacks to high school biology class...

But, as I slowly waded through Chapter 1 in an attempt to learn all the terminology, I did glean a few very interesting tidbits that involved few enough big words for me to clearly understand:

Longer muscles can act more rapidly than shorter ones.

The basic functional unit of a muscle is called a sarcomere. Each sarcomere is a certain length, and each sarcomere is capable of roughly the same amount of contraction. Longer muscles have more sarcomeres in series. More sarcomeres in series contracting at the same time means a faster movement of the limb. (If 10 sarcomeres in series produce 2 cm of movement in a limb when firing, 20 sarcomeres would produce 4 cm of movement, and so on.) This is why long-legged people are fast: not only do they cover more ground with each stride, but they can also move their legs more quickly than someone with shorter leg muscles could.

Bigger muscles aren't necessarily stronger.

I've beaten this dead horse before, but now I more clearly understand the "why" of it: Muscles get big via hypertrophy. There are 2 kinds of hypertrophy. Kind 1 is called myofibrillar hypertrophy, and it involves the growth of more muscle fibers and therefore an increase in strength. Kind 2 is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which involves an increase in the amount of fluid in each muscle cell, called sarcoplasm, but no growth in the contractile elements of the muscle. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is why many bodybuilders are huge, but aren't as strong as you'd think.

Pre-loading a muscle makes it stronger.

It takes time for a muscle to go from relaxed to fully tensed and contracting. So pre-loading a muscle is basically putting a demand on your muscle before you actually start the exercise, giving it that split second it needs to say "oh crap, it's time to work hard!" and get its metaphorical butt in gear. This happens automatically with free weights -- when you unrack a Bench Press or a Squat, the muscles that you use to support the weight are the same as the ones you'll be using to perform the exercise, so you're pre-loaded and ready for maximal contraction throughout the entire motion. With machines, however, there is no demand placed on your muscle until you're ready to start the movement, so you're not pre-loaded and you don't get the benefit of full contractile strength in the beginning portion of the movement.

So I lied, there were a few big words in there. But now not only do you know more about muscle, but you also know some intimidating big words to use whenever you want people to think you're smart!

Training 1-21-08

5 x 5 x 235

3 x 5 x 140
4 x 140
3 x 140

Power Clean
5 x 3 x 145

Bent Over Row
5 x 5 x 165

One Arm Dumbbell Snatch
3 x 5 x 65

Comments: Still tend to Good Morning the Squats, need to watch that. One more chance to get the full 5x5 on Press before I go to Timed Total Tonnage. Power Clean was sloppier, concentrate on form. Bent Over Row felt better than before the break -- concentrating on keeping the back straight and firm helped. One Arm Dumbbell Snatch seems like a good assistance exercise to add on for both Press and Power Cleans, since it helps with overhead stabilization and hip explosion.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Training 1-18-08

How important is working out to me? After today's Squats I realized I had a choice between finishing my workout and being half an hour late to my own belated birthday celebration. I chose to finish the workout (albiet hurriedly) and piss off my friends.

I didn't try to explain it to them, because they would've just thought I was silly. But working out isn't just about improving myself physically; it's also about learning discipline, commitment, how to ignore the "you can't do this" voice that lives inside everyone's head, and, yes, setting priorities. My friends are awesome and very very important to me, but I won't use them as an excuse to slack off on something that's this important to becoming who I want to be.

If you read that and you think it is silly and I'm a jerk for making my friends wait, then you very well might be right. I should've managed my time better and gotten to the gym earlier. Lesson learned. But, for me and my priorities, a complete workout > missing 30 minutes out of an evening with good friends.

5 x 5 x 230

5 x 140
4 x 140
2 x 3 x 140
4 x 140

Power Clean
5 x 3 x 140

3 x 5 x 47.5

I'm glad I got all the way through Squats, though they were harder than I would have liked. I paid a big price for my 2 week layoff on Squats, and working back up is going to take almost 2 more weeks.

Press was disappointing because I did so well on it last time. I think I shorted my rest since I realized I was running late. But my Press has been stuck for a while now, so if this turns into a stall, I'll switch to Timed Total Tonnage and see if that works.

Power Cleans form felt good after the layoff, which is a promising sign.

Pullups were a close thing on the last few reps, but I got them. Chinups with 50 lbs next week!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Lifting fast vs lifting slow.

Back in November, I wrote about why you should always lift fast. I stand by that post, though I should have made it more clear that what's important isn't the actual act of moving the bar with lots of speed, but the intent to do so. You're trying to throw the bar up as fast as possible, but the amount of weight on the bar means that you can't throw it around and it's actually moving at a reasonable, controlled speed. But I digress.

Last night, I started reading Power to the People by Pavel Tsatsouline. (The cover is horrific -- whoever designed that should be fired.) One of the very first assertions made in the book is that in order to get stronger, you have to lift SLOW. The idea is that strength is a product of muscle tension. When you lift something, the contraction of your muscles is the driving force. Pavel contends that lifting slow allows you to concentrate on contracting your muscles throughout the entire movement, leading to greater gains in strength.

The idea seems to be very similar to the concept of "time under tension," where bodybuilders lift slowly in order to maximize the amount of time their muscles are contracting, in theory leading to more hypertrophy. But Pavel claims that lifting slowly will give you strength WITHOUT gaining lots of muscle mass.

This is diametrically opposed to what Rippetoe and the guys at Westside Barbell preach. My previous post about lifting fast and power production is based on Rippetoe's analysis in Starting Strength, and the Westside guys split their training up into Max Effort (as heavy as you can go, 1-3 reps) and Dynamic Effort (lighter weight, as fast as you can go) days. These guys are at the top of the game when it comes to Strength Training, and they advocate lifting fast.

I'm interested to hear what Pavel has to say about lifting speed later on in the book, though. I don't think I could ever be convinced that slow lifting is inherently superior to fast lifting for strength training purposes, for the reasons in my previous post, but I'm willing to be convinced that the occasional "slow lift" day could be useful or that a week or two of slow lifting could help break through a plateau.