Progression Obsession Part 2: Even More Ways To Progress

Muscle Monday all you Iron Addicts! The So Alpha Crew is back with some more tips with the  to make sure the gains keep on keepin’ on.

Last week we started touching on the important of using other methods to make progress besides just increasing the load, and we outlined three such methods. This week we are gonna keep the gains train chugging along with 3 more progression methods you can use when the weight refuses to budge.

Rep Consistency

We’ve all seen the lifter that nails all the reps of the set, but the last rep looks nothing like the first rep. The first rep is solid, fast, and the body stays tight… Then the last rep looks like he came down with a sudden onset case of seizures, the left side of the bar goes up at half the speed of the right side, and his spotter is lifting half the weight for him.

 

So yes, they lifted the weight for all the reps, but that doesn’t mean its time to increase the weight.

Instead of patting yourself on the back for getting all the reps in, raise your standards and accept nothing less than perfect execution on each and every rep. The last rep of your set should be hard, but there is no reason your technique should completely fall apart. If that does happen, you don’t count the rep and you work hard to get it right the next week.

Rep Speedbad-bench-form

Once you have the technique and rep consistency down you should next focus on the speed of the reps. Focus on getting all of the reps to launch like a rocket, no grinders.

You use this method when you can get all the reps in and the technique is good, but the rep speed slows down considerably towards the end of the set.

This may make it seem like every rep is “easy”, and you don’t make gains lifting easy ass weights, but the whole point of these techniques is to blast through sticking points so that you can handle more weight. So once you can launch all those reps like you’re commissioned by NASA it’s time to grab some dimes and add ’em on.

Total Confidence

This one may sound a bit nebulous, but as we all know half of the iron game is the mental aspect. It’s no secret Mike Rashid is all about those Mental Jewels, and you should be too… Which is why you can’t discount the power of confidence in the weight room. You could argue that a large part of the reason to train is to build confidence in yourself in the first place.
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We all have that weight that we “know” is heavy, that scares us a bit when we get under it, that we fear might snap or break something if shit doesn’t go exactly right…

Right under that is the weight that we know we can handle… But damn is it heavy. And increasing the weight? Forget about it. You load up the bar and you want to get 3, or 5, or 10, but you’re just not quite sure you can. That little voice in your head is starting up, telling you 100 reasons why you should just try for 2, or 4, or 9… You know, its all the same anyway. Don’t want to risk getting injured, you know? Plus you have to hike tomorrow and you don’t want your legs to be too sore…

Well this method is to lift that shit until that voice is dominated. Stay with that weight for a few weeks until you can handle the weight so easily that that voice goes from doubting you to asking you why you were ever scared of such easy ass weight. That little voice will go from telling you to “keep a rep in the tank” to “Fuck it, lift it 3 more times, and add 10 pounds next set.”

As I said this “method” is a bit nebulous and it’s not really something you can measure, but sticking with a weight for a few weeks and just hitting the reps over and over and over will build supreme confidence, and then adding 5 pounds to that won’t seem like a daunting task but an inevitability.

Go Get Greater Gains

That’s enough info for one week. Tackle your problems this week with this info and come back next week for more. If that’s too long check out the other articles on here and even the books if you are looking for some deeper writing and programs.

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Progression Obsession: Novel Ways To Makes New Gains

Progressive Overload… It’s the name of game when it comes to the Gains!

 

There’s simply no way around it, you must progressively overload the muscles to keep the gains coming. When most people talk about progressive overload, they almost universally speak of lifting more and more weight every time you do the same exercise.

 

As every trainee on the planet has found out to their dismay, you can’t just keep lifting heavier and heavier loads week in and week out. “Add 5 pounds to your bench every week and in 4 years you’ll be benching 1,000” has been a time honored way of pointing out how absurd it is to expect continuous improvement in how much you can lift every time you set foot back in the gym.

 

How then do we continue to progress if it isn’t by lifting more and more weight? Read on my fellow lifters, for great rewards await.

 

The “Heavy Set” Method

No, this doesn’t mean you gain weight until its easier to lift the weight… Although that can work sometimes. This method means that you add weight to the beginning sets of a sequence until you can finally add the weight to all of them. Example:

 

Just The First Set
Just The First Set

 

 

Week 1

 

230×5, 225×5 x 4 sets

 

Week 2

 

230×5 x 2 sets, 225×5 x 3 sets

.

.

.

Week 6

 

230x5x5

 

This is a way of increasing the weight without making it impossible to finish enough work to actually create a stimulus. 225 still represents a high percentage load for this lifter, so by increasing just one set per week we can eventually get to where we want to be without taxing the recovery of the lifter too much.

Volume Progression

 

Turn It To The Max
Turn It To The Max

Progressing on the amount of volume lifted is the most intuitive right after lifting more weight, and can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Let’s say you get stuck at 225 on the bench and just can’t quite seem to lift any more no matter how much you strain and fight against it. To make sure the gains train doesn’t come to a screeching halt one thing we can do is increase volume by either adding sets, or adding reps to our current sets.

 

So if you get stuck at 5×5 @ 225lbs, and when you try 235 your number plummet to reps of 3,2,2,1,0 you could back up back to 225 and build up to 5×6-8, or even add sets of 5 so you are doing 7×5 or 8×5. Now you have really given the body a huge stimulus to adapt to compared to your previous 5×5 scheme.

 

After you can get 8×5 or 5×8, you will surely be able to better handle the increase in weight next time around.

 

Density Progression

For More Methods, Click The Picture

 

This technique was made popular by Charles Staley under his “escalating density training” method. I won’t get into the specifics of that particular method, but suffice to say that increasing the Density of work done is another way to progress.

 

Sticking with out 225x5x5 example above, you would note how long it takes you to complete the entire exercise including sets and rest periods, and the next time around you would try and beat that time. If you used 3 minute rest period you might complete it in around 15 minutes. Try and shave 30-60 seconds off per week until you can get it to around 10 minutes, and you will have progressed quite nicely.

 

The idea here is that by giving your body incomplete rest you are managing fatigue in a different way. The extreme end of this example would be to rest so little that you are able to do all 25 reps of a 5×5 scheme with no rest in between the “sets” and just bang out 25 reps at the old weight … A bit extreme as I said, and unnecessary. If you can shrink the amount of time down 30-50% you will no doubt have progressed to a point where you can up the weight and be more comfortable there.

 

That’s enough to digest for this week, next week we will go over 3 more methods for progressing on a stuck exercise.

 

A Double Dose of Dogma Death

Back in the year 2000 the internet was in its infancy, there wasn’t the massive abundance of information there is now… Most of the lifting information you were getting was from only a few select sources. Luckily most of it was quite legit, as those sources were usually hard core body builders and fitness pros who did this stuff for a living, and their livelihood depended on results. Back then there wasn’t the “I placed 14th in the novice class at my first show and now I’m a diet guru” crowd that seems to be so vocal now a days.

However, that doesn’t mean some of the ideas that came out of that time period were absolutely correct, in fact some of it was down right wrong and can make your life needlessly complex, miserable, and socially difficult. Lets discuss a few of them this week.

  • Eating Every 3 Hours

I’m gonna start out with a big one here, maybe even the grand-daddy of them all. Before I begin though, let me clarify. I’m not, by any stretch, saying that meal frequency and timing isn’t important and doesn’t make any difference, but back in the day it was literally written that you should set a timer (and I even heard people say to carry one around with you … this was before cell phones were in every pocket in the world, remember) and eat every 3 hours, on the dot… And if that if you waited any longer than that buzzer going off at the 3 hour mark your body was literally cannibalizing itself to get a hold of the sweet, sweet nitrogen stores in your lean body mass.

The idea, as I remember it, was that you wanted a nice, steady stream of insulin instead of huge peaks and valleys. Along with that you wanted a constant stream of protein to keep blood nitrogen levels elevated so your body wouldn’t “tap into its own stores” and eat your muscle away for it.

Real Men Eat Every 2 Hours!
Real Men Eat Every 2 Hours!

While it is very likely true that the largest of us land mammals probably benefit from this strategy, I think with the rise of things like Intermittent Fasting (of which I am not advocating) and other alternative eating styles, it’s safe to say that you don’t need to bring that tupperware container to work and school to make sure you get your protein and insulin spike at the dead on 3 hour mark… For those of us looking to simply look great and perform well, you can very easily go 4-6 hours without anything incoming, especially if you ate a large meal prior to that time period.

  • Drinking at least A Gallon of Water a Day

I don’t know if you have noticed this or not… But lifters and body builders can be kind of nuts.This was another one of those things that the body building took a hold of and ran with it. I think it took hold because the recommendation for “a normal person” was to drink 8 eight ounce glasses of water a day… And hell, “If a normal person needs 8, I damn sure need at least twice that!”

The guideline I remember seeing often was to drink an ounce of water for every pound of body weight. For your average 200lb body builder, you’re talking a gallon and a half, minimum.

That Should Get Me Through Lunch Time
That Should Get Me Through Lunch Time

Never mind that the whole eight glasses thing was largely arbitrary, and has been debunked. The fact is that most people who take up lifting just don’t lift in a manner that requires a massive increase in water intake above and beyond their regular habits. Training a single body part in an air conditioned gym just isn’t that taxing on the bodies hydration status. Sorry, you didn’t lose a gallon of sweat during that arm day.

Dehydration is a real thing, and even a small amount of it can impact your performance… But you really don’t need to carry that milk jug of water with you EVERY WHERE YOU GO. Seriously. Drink a few glasses during the day, hit the drinking fountain in between a few sets, and you’re covered.

Let The Dogma Die

The last decade has shown us that not everything you heard back in the day was the gospel and needed to be followed 100% to the letter. Plenty of people have had success deviating from these must-follow rules. You should always strive to practice best habits, but if you find yourself alienating yourself and stressing out over eating every 3 hours versus every 4… Let the dogma die and wait an hour. It wont kill you.

Sneaking In The Shred

There have been times in my life where I have been fortunate enough to have ample luxury time to make training and recovery a high priority. 2 hours a day, 5 days a week… No problem.

There have also been times when life got so busy I had to find ways to make the training happen around it… Times when you have to make the choice between sleep and the gym. But if you have a goal and the passion, you find a way.

This article is about how I found that way when it came to shedding the pounds I needed to when I had almost no time to add to my gym activities.

Oh… And I hate doing cardio, so I needed to figure out a way to make it fun and worth my time.

Obviously getting and staying lean is a byproduct of a great diet, a brutal weight training program, and on top of that most of us non genetic freaks will have to incorporate some kind of cardio training to get those lower ab veins popping out.

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Well, I dont have the solution, but I have discovered some good ways to “sneak in” some extra work into your current plan, almost “time-free” … Most of the tips here will leave your workouts almost the exact same length.

 

It starts with the warm up

 

Back in my younger days I actually never used to have a warm up so this one might not be for everyone. But some of us older lifters need to get some blood flowing before we start clangin’ and bangin’

I developed this during a contest prep when I had 2 issues I needed to address; A nagging shoulder injury and I needed to shed that last little bit of fat.

To help with the shoulder I started doing “shoulder dislocates” as described by Dante Trudel, and to help with the fat loss I was doing a 10 minute, fairly low intensity treadmill warm up to all my workout… I noticed the shoulder dislocates took about 10 minutes as well and tried to combine them both one day.

Lo and behold it worked! The key is to keep the treadmill speed relatively slow, you don’t want to compromise the integrity of the shoulder dislocates. I found that by doing a high incline at a speed of about 2.5 – 3.0 I got a good mix of a cardio effect and I was able to do the shoulder dislocates without compromise!

shoulder-dislocation-stretch

 

Those of you without shoulder issues can use the technique for a variety of other things before a workout, while getting the bonus effect that the extra cardio gives you.

  • General arm / shoulder / chest stretching
  • “High Knees” and “Butt Heel Kicks” to get the joints and muscles in the legs ready
  • Bicep / Tricep stretching

 

Again, this technique is quite specific and not for everyone, but those of you who need it can benefit from it quite nicely.

 

Death To Rest Periods

Another concession I had to make was the post weight training cardio I was doing. I had been doing 15 minutes of HIIT on the Stair Mill, and knew that losing that activity 5 days a week simply couldn’t happen.

I also noticed that the time spent resting between sets during the later portions of my workout was essentially “waste” and could probably fit something in there. Recovering from cable flies just isnt a full body affair.

What I ended up doing was “supersetting” my isolation exercises at the end of my workouts with 60 second “sets” on the stair mill. This allowed me to do 3 exercises for 5 sets, AND get my cardio in. A workout would look like this:

A – Big Money Exercises ( Bench, Squat, Press, Dead)

B – 2nd Big Money Exercise ( Incline, Front Squat / Leg Press, Romanian Deads, BTN Press)

C1 – Isolation / Less Taxing Exercises (Curls, delt raise, flies, lat pull downs, machine work)

C2 – 30-60 seconds Cardio sprints

The caveat is that these have to be “low impact” exercises. Obviously you don’t want to superset Squats and Stair Mill sprints… Bad times. But almost anything else except for the heaviest of the heavy stuff can work pretty well actually.

LEGS BARBELL SQUAT on Vimeo

If your gym isn’t set up so great, or you train at home and don’t have a treadmill / step-mill, these other things work as well:

  • Med Ball Slams
  • Jump rope
  • Burpees
  • Jumping Jacks

 

So if your gym is set up in a way that this can work, I really recommend it. Its a great way to keep your heart rate up, get your cardio in, shed some weight, and it doesn’t add any time since you are doing it during the rest periods you would already be taking.

Outside The Gym

This gets a little extreme here, but remember I was in contest prep mode so sometimes getting a little extreme is necessary.

One of the other things I used to do was sneak in “mini workouts” that were just enough to get my heart rate up throughout the day. We are talking literally doing 10 squats, jumping jacks and pushups and then getting on with your life. I would pepper these in throughout the day just to stay active and keep my overall activity up. A single set doesn’t look like much, but if you do it at the top of every hour it comes out to several hundred reps at the end of the day.

Just like starting with a penny and doubling it every day for a month, it really does come out to some huge numbers.

Put In The Work

There you have it. Several strategies you can use to add in some bonus work for those of you with a busy schedule… Or those of you who just want to add it in because you hate doing cardio the traditional way. Either way, implement these strategies to get those pounds shedding with out running up the clock.

5-10-20 Protocol For Hypertrophy

As the Iron Game has progressed it has generally become accepted that in hypertrophy focused trainee’s you generally benefit from exposure to multiple different rep ranges. Sets of heavy singles, doubles, triples, fives, tens, twenties… Hell I’ve done and seen crazy stuff like 100 rep sets even.

As I’ve mentioned before, hard training is good training. If you are busting your ass your work will be rewarded. Bigger muscles, leaner physique, and most importantly we are tempering our minds to be able to withstand any hardships that come our way. These kinds of sets teach us that we CAN push through when it feels like we can’t go on and when our brain is telling us how easy it would be to “just stop already!”

I have come up with a “brainless” way of making sure you get exposed to varying rep ranges, which will help you build not only a great physique, but stay healthy as hitting higher reps helps to build up the smaller, stabilizing muscles and helps to bring more blood flow through the joints you train. This isn’t a “Program” as it doesn’t lay out specific lifts and progression, but it is a good way to layout an individual workout should you find you just wanting to go in a smash it.

5-10-20 Protocol

This really is a protocol you could take into nearly any Body Part workout. It has guidelines but in reality is quite flexible. The guidelines are as follows:

  • You will do sets consisting of 5 reps, 10 reps, and 20 reps
  • 5 sets in each rep range
  • Start With a Heavy Compound Movement, Progress to a medium weight Assistance movement, and finish with a Single Limb or DB movement

5 Rep Sets

Sets of 5 are generally regarded as being that good blend of size and strength training. Heavy enough to force you get stronger, but still getting enough reps in to tear some muscle down and get some growth benefits out of it. Because you are going to be lifting heavy here, you want to use a stable, compound movement that distributes the load across as many muscles as possible.

Some Good Exercises For Sets of Five:

  • Bench Press
  • Shoulder Press
  • Dead Lifts
  • Squats
  • Pull Ups
  • Rows

As you can see, this is where most of the heavy, basic, bread and butter lifts are put, and for good reason. They hit the most muscles and set the stage for the rest of the workout. After you hit the main work with enough weight and volume, you can focus on a bit more “detail” with the 10 rep sets

10 Rep Sets

With the 10 rep sets we are still going to stick with big, compound lifts, but this is where we get to use a little bit of variety to help up bring up our weak points and work on building targeted mass a bit more effectively that with the 5 rep sets. In many programs this is what would be called “assistance lifts,” or lifts that help build the lifts we use in the sets of 5.

Some good examples:

  • Incline / Decline Bench
  • Seated Shoulder Press / Behind The Neck Presses
  • Front Squat
  • Leg Press
  • Romanian Dead Lift
  • Shoulder / Chest Machine Press
  • T Bar Rows / Hammer Strength Rows / Lat Pull Downs

So as you can see its generally another big lift, but not something you would want to go super heavy on. Pick lifts that help to build the lifts you are trying to get stronger in the sets of 5.

20 Rep Sets

These are the higher rep sets we are going to be using the really finish off the chosen muscle group. As alluded to earlier these are more than just about building big muscles, these are the sets that will challenge your mind.

These aren’t the brutal sets of 20 rep squats or Fatality Sets that we do sometimes at the end of the main work, but rather a way to target the smaller muscles safely and effectively, while sparing the joints and small ligaments/tendons that are also important to train up.

I like to keep the isolation and unilateral exercises in this group, as they generally benefit from a higher rep range due to their nature as being single joint, “small muscle” exercises. There are tons of exercises to use in this category, and you can mix and match as you see fit on weekly basis if you want.

Some Good Choices For 20 Rep Sets:

  • Front / Side / Rear Delt Raises
  • DB Bench or Shoulder Press ( even unilateral )
  • Walking / Side / Reverse Lunges
  • One Arm Row or Lat Pull Down
  • Single Leg DB Dead Lift
  • DB Curls / Tricep Extensions

Of course nothing is set in stone, and if you want to do more than 20 go right ahead. Here is a short clip of Mike Rashid doing “Dirty Thirty” side laterals to finish up a brutal Shoulder workout.

Feel free to take this 20 rep recommendation and increase it to 30, 50, or even 100 every once in a while. Its not the number that’s important, its the training and mental effects that we are after.

Putting It All Together

Doing this Protocol will expose your body to 15 hard sets, 175 productive reps (not including warm ups), hit a variety of rep ranges, and even challenge your mind there towards the end.

As I mentioned in the beginning this isn’t a hard and fast template to follow for the rest of your days, but rather a “brainless” way of what to do in the gym that day should you find yourself asking that question.

So the next time you want to hit the gym and don’t know exactly what to do for the day, try this layout and you will hit everything you need to hit.

For those looking for a bit more guidance, and want to know exactly what it takes to train like Mike Rashid and the Alpha Crew, check out the eBooks section of the website. A single session with a personal trainer can run 100 bucks, and these books give you months of instruction and less than half of that.

Just The Tip: Twin Tips For Hypertrophy Training

Lets face it… Training just ain’t that complicated. 90% of the results truly do come from picking the (heavy ass) weights up and putting them down. Having said that, there ARE things you can do to make training more effective for your chosen goal and body part. Hypertrophy training has some unique caveats to it that you don’t have to worry about with pure strength training. Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way, and I’m confident they can help you too.

This article series is designed to give you quick tips that you can go and use in the gym today. So check these out and then go out and get that EASY MONEY!

 

  • A Tip For Lat Pull Down Mind-Muscle Engagement

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If you are having trouble getting your back to grow, A tip I have found to work rather well for engaging the lats is to “Pull with the pinky” when you are doing lat pull downs, and even some machine based rows. I’m not entirely sure of the neurological reasons this works, but truly when you do this you can just feel the lats working more.

Now, when I said “pull with the pinky” I don’t literally mean only hook your pinky around the bar and pull. You will have your hand just like normal, but focus the downward force you are using the pull on the outside of the hand where the pinky is. You can actually test this just as you are sitting in your chair and do an “air lat pull down,” you will feel your lats.

So for those of you seeking hypertrophy and want to make sure the pull downs are really hitting your lats, keep this tip in mind next Back Day.

  • Turn A Negative Into A Positive

This is a “Just the Tip” kind of article so I’m not going to go deep into the physiology or mechanics here, but suffice it to say that lowering the weight is quite important to the hypertrophy process. Some experts online consider it actually quite a bit more important. The venerable (and huge) Dante Trudel from DoggCrapp training fame, a system which incorporates controlled 3-5 second lowering phases, has even stated that the whole point of lifting a weight is so that you get another opportunity to lower it again (paraphrased).

To incorporate this into your training easily, you can simply take your 2nd or 3rd exercise of the day and count an honest 1 – 2 – 3 while you are lowering every single rep. I don’t necessarily like this on the main movements like Bench Press or Squat (and certainly NOT regular dead lifts) because, while it can definitely work on these movements, we tend to like to use those are a heavier weight movement and this technique limits the amount of weight you can use quite severely in some cases. Another reason is because these are often the exercises we use for our fatality sets, which require a bit more “shut the mind off and just grind” and this technique requires you be quite focused on every rep.

Open The Book, Shut The Mind Off... And Grind it Out
Open The Book, Shut The Mind Off… And Grind it Out

 

There you have it, two battle tested tips to get you growing. Now get out there and try these out this week and let us know how they work for you in the comments.

Anabolic Reflections

A few weeks ago Mike posted a video about one of the most controversial, heated, and talked about subjects in all of weight training… Anabolics.

 

I wanted to address the topic a bit on the blog here too, and elaborate on some of the conclusions Mike and I have both reached after more than 10 years of training, being in the gym, and training around some of the most serious lifters you can imagine.

  • Your Physique is Not Affected By Those Who Use Steroids

Coming up in the era I did, the internet was just getting started. I still relied on books like Arnolds Encyclopedia and old magazines… Steroids just weren’t talked about all that much. Sure the idea was there, but the prevalence of talk was no where on the level it is today where almost every single thread on every forum, and every comment on every YouTube video has the word in it.

I must admit I was a bit disheartened when I found out the idols of my youth had almost all taken something. “You mean I’ll never actually get to look like Arnold unless I use drugs?” was a feeling that very much hit me like a mack truck back in the day.

But the more I thought about it the less I cared… I was going to train regardless, and whatever potential I had locked away in my genes was going to get realized no matter what. Maybe one day I would decide to go that road, maybe not… But I was going to train my ass off no matter what and whatever body I ended up with was one that I had earned.

  • Your Self Worth Is Not Determined By Your Physique

In my youth so much of my identity was wrapped up in my physique. My entire life revolved around it in fact. Getting to the gym… Eating 6 times a day… Sleeping 8 hours. It all had to get done because it was who I was. It was the outward appearance of what I thought my inner self was. If I could project an image of Power and Discipline with my body, others would respect me because that simply showed them what I was like on the inside.

I now know this isn’t true. Your self worth isn’t determined by your physique, but by your actions and how you enrich the lives of those around you. You have a six-pack? Great. What have you done to better the world in even the smallest of ways? If all you can say about your life is that you made it to the gym 5 times and ate 49 meals this week, no amount of steroids are going to make you a better person.

  • Steroids Might Not Get You Closer To Your Goal

This one might sound counter intuitive but I really don’t think it is. When I started training I was 150 pounds and had ribs you could count from 20 feet away. I thought that when I got to 170 I would be as happy as I can be… Then I got to 170 and I felt the same as I did at 150. Maybe 185 was that magic number? Nope, same thing. After many years of training my natural gains seem to come to a halt, and any extra weight gain came in the form of fat… Then my mind got to thinking of doing a cycle.

I thought that maybe if I did just one cycle (like that ever happens…) I could gain that extra 20 pounds that would make me happy with my physique finally. That if I could just be a bit stronger, bigger, and leaner I would finally be done crafting the body I was working on.

Then I thought back on the body I had 50 pounds ago and how I thought I’d be happy at 170…180…190. The truth is for guys like us its probably never enough. Sure, I could do that cycle and get up to 220 lean, but then I’d want to be 230…240…250 and onward it would go. Then instead of that one cycle I’d be doing steroids for my entire 20’s and 30’s and maybe shut down my hormonal system for good, leading me to be “on” for the rest of my life.

I cant make the decision for anyone else, but as I thought about that proposition I decided that it wasn’t for me.

  • Figure out why you train, and train away!

The bottom line is that steroids are a personal decision, and the only one who can determine if they are right to use is you. If the entire rest of the world was on them it wouldn’t change your physique or training in any way.

If you train to test yourself, to better yourself, to gain health, to be stronger, to look a certain way, only you can determine if using certain compounds can get you closer to those goals. Maybe your goal is to be Mr O… I think at that point the decision has been made for you.

I think the hyper focus on steroids the last 5-7 years was a back lack from the last 50 years of hush-hush … But the time is now to get over it, and just focus on your own training and your own gains.

Have You Mastered The Basics?

Mastering the basics… Laying the foundation… Learning the Big Lifts.

If you have been around the iron game for any amount of time, you have heard that these are the most important principles for any beginning lifter, and many advanced guys and gals say they stray from these and have to “get back to it.” It seems that beginners don’t know how to do it, Intermediates may know them but try to complicate things to much and stray from them, and advanced lifters are the ones who recognize their benefit and rely on them.

So important is the idea of “Mastering The Basics” that it’s not just part of lifting culture, it literally permeates every endeavor that humans take part in. Painting, carpentry, and hell I’m even sure Lumberjacks have their basics that need mastered. Martial arts are a prime example of this, and I think Bruce Lee said it best when he said:

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity.

bruce-lee-one-inch-punchWhen it comes to lifting this poses two questions… Just what exactly are “the basics” and how the heck do you know if you have them mastered.

The Basics of the Basics – Exercise Selection

Many an expert has put forth their idea of what The Basics are, be it a series of lifts or movements or goals. I tend to favor Iron Veteran and Coach Dan Johns simple list of basic human movement patterns:

1. Push
2. Pull
3. Hinge
4. Squat

Anyone who has ever set foot in a gym can look at that list and notice a problem right away… It’s a bit too simple. Does it mean horizontal push? Push Press? Row? Deadlift? So to expand on it a little bit I follow the following general rules to make up the list of “the basics”

– Include one movement from the horizontal and vertical plane for the push and pull

– The “most basic” exercise is generally the one that allows the most weight progression, and is most applicable to your goal as a lifter

Using these guiding principles as a good starting point, a list of The Basics might look like this:

1. Push: Standing or Seated Overhead Press, Bench Press
2. Pull: Bent Over Row (BB or DB), Pull Up (weighted if possible)
3. Hinge: Dead Lift (Regular, Sumo, Stiff Legged), Good Morning
4. Squat: Back Squat, Front Squat

Obviously we can be more detailed and nuanced as we individualize an exercise selection for a specific individual, but in general this is a great starting point and the closer your lifts resemble these in general the more progress you will make. I’m not saying 1 armed DB presses on a Bosu Ball are worthless… But they aren’t going to do nearly as much for you as a bench press.

How To Tell If You Have Mastered Them

This is a slightly misleading title, because any advanced lifter will tell you that they are always looking to make improvements wherever they can, so the term “mastery” doesnt mean you have no more room for improvement. It’s more of a base level of technical proficiency that lets you know you have the lift down solidly.

  • Consistent Form Throughout The Set

A telltale sign of a novice is that their form is not only bad, it’s inconsistent. When they squat their knees are pointed a different direction every rep, when they bench the bar touches a different point on their chest, when they press their elbows are all over the place, and when they dead lift their back does who knows what.

Part of mastering a lift is being able to perform your reps with consistent form throughout a set. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever struggle, or slow down as you fatigue, but imagine the bar makes a line on your shirt when you bench, you should essentially have only 1 line on your shirt after a set of 10 reps… not 10 lines at all different spots and at differing angles.

Same Spot... Every Time
Same Spot… Every Time

Newbies are so often rushing to add weight that they sacrifice form, and when you practice bad form it cements that technique in your brain. Stay at the right weight until you are consistent throughout the set, that is how you know you are ready to move up and have earned the right.

  • Getting The Desired Effect From An Exercise

In lifting circles it is generally regarded that there are various different versions of certain lifts: Power lifting bench and Body Building bench, Seated/Standing Press in front or behind the neck, Squats for BBers, Power lifters, and Oly lifters. My oh my, which one to use?

Part of having mastery over the lift is using the right form for your goal. The body builder knows that for the bench press you want to use the form that places maximum stress on the pecs and maybe even lower it slowly, while the power lifter knows to get tight, tuck the elbows a bit, distribute the load to as many muscles as possible, and explode up.

If you can pick the right movement, and adjust your form to get the desired effect you want, that’s a very good sign you are closing in on mastery of the movement.

  • Knowing When and How To Make Little Changes

The exercise list I present above is a great list, no doubt… But sometimes you have to adjust the lift to suit your personal needs, limitations, and equipment. Maybe you have a bad hip and cant do a regular back squat, so you change the form a tad bit or use a Safety Squat Bar to shift the load to the quads a bit.

Perhaps a wide grip on the bench press stresses your shoulders too much, so you move your grip in a bit more narrow.

Knowing when to make a small tweak instead of beating your head into a wall is a great sign that you are learning the lifts, learning your body, and are one step closer to mastery of the basics.

Keep it Basic, Keep it Moving

While not exhaustive, this is a great starting point and these three guide lines will provide a good rule of thumb for you to follow should you find yourself questioning your results lately. Are you using the right exercise or are you getting “too fancy?” Are you doing that exercise in the form that most advances your goals? Do you need to make a small change in form because of your unique situation?

When you find yourself deep into training and have been adding too much fluff, refer back to this article and get back on track.

Don’t know where to begin, check out the Mastering the Basics Manual right here to get started using the best exercises.

 

All the Basics Covered Right Here
All the Basics Covered Right Here

 

Finding Your 10’s Part 2: The Long Journey Begins

Last week I hoped to get the juices flowing in your brain about how one can achieve personal mastery in the area of lifting weights for whatever goal you have. Body building, Power Lifting, Oly Style, Crossfit… It doesn’t matter, to reach the heights you are capable of you have to have a way to make sure your methods are actually working.

 

This week is all about the method. The how of actually accomplishing that. As I mentioned last week this isn’t for the casual lifter who just goes in and lifts as there is some tracking and evaluating involved, and its definitely going to be a long road to travel… This is something you will likely be doing your whole life.

 

The good news is that it works, and not just with weight lifting. If you apply these principles to any area of like you can use them to excel. Lets get to it.

 

Method To The Madness

 

First, we have to pick a starting point. I’m going to assume that you are not a coach and not a program design expert, so we are going to have to pick a program. It really, truly does not matter which one you pick so long as it is generally accepted that it’s geared towards your primary goal.

 

The next step is the easiest and the most fun… Go to the damn gym and bust your ass! Follow your program, log your workouts, pick your spleen up off the gym room floor, and then fire up the grill and take advantage of our position atop top food chain. After several weeks of doing this it’s time to reevaluate.

grillin-safety

If we are going to venture into the world of individualized training, we have to have a method that allows us to know if our changes are working. It isn’t as simple as “walk into the gym and do whatever” (at least not yet). This is where I have taken a page from Dan John and applied my knowledge in one area (nursing) to the pursuit of weight lifting. In nursing and medicine we deal with patients in a systematic way, known as the Nursing Process, which looks like this:

 

  • Assess (what data is collected?)
  • Diagnose (what is the problem?)
  • Plan (how to manage the problem?)
  • Implement (putting plan into action)
  • Evaluate (did the plan work?)

 

It should be quite easy to see how we can use this simple process to our advantage. As an example, if it’s a bigger squat we’re after we have to:

 

  • Assess (Stuck at 405 Max Squat)
  • Diagnose the Problem (Falling forward on the way up)
  • Plan (Add in Good Mornings 2x weekly)
  • Implement (Perform Good Mornings for 8 weeks)
  • Evaluate (Retest Max Squat)

 

If your Squat went up, you know you are on the right track. If not, we have to go back to and implement a new Plan.

 

Other suggestions could be to experiment with other progression models like Frequency, Volume, Intensity, Exercise Selection, etc… Maybe you will thrive off of Squatting 2 times a week, one heavy and one Dynamic day. Maybe you desire growth and so you throw in a 20-rep Squat day once every 2-4 weeks. You might do better if you add in Front Squats instead of Back Squats one day. Do you blitz yourself Mountain Dog style, or do you Squat to Max Every Day like John Broz? Only you can figure this out for yourself.

 

Of course this doesn’t just apply to Squat numbers. It can literally apply to any problem you have on any lift, or if it’s hypertrophy you are after you could try new exercises or change what sequence you perform them in; For fat loss you could see what adding in 2-3 sessions of morning cardio does. You could potentially be running one of these assessment plans at all times during your training career.

 

All of this experimentation, documentation, and evaluation will not only be helping you on your way to your goals, it will also be helping you to build your Intuitive Training Muscle.

 

After enough of these cycles of trial and error, you will soon figure out your body to the point where you just know you are not doing enough Good Mornings, or you just know that your weak link is your abs. This takes time, lots of time, but after a while it truly does become second nature, and your body will let you know what you need to work on and what you need to back away from.

 

Tips For Customizing Your Own Training

A Good Start
A Good Start

 

 

Here are some tips and observations I have had success with in customizing my own program:

 

Change only one variable at a time: If you attempt to increase your Bench Press and add in 2 more Bench days, Wide Grip Incline Presses, and Ballistic Smith Machine Throws… Which one of these helped or hurt? It’s impossible to tell. Stick with your baseline program, change one detail, and give it at least 4-6 weeks for a proper eval.

 

The more advanced you get the longer you will have to monitor and the smaller, more specific your changes become: Newbie’s can make gains on a weekly and monthly basis, but a power lifter who has already added 500-600 pounds to his total will likely have to plan 12-16 weeks at a time to see if he can beat his previous meet numbers, often by only a few pounds. Many times power lifters are so close to their genetic ceiling of strength that what makes or breaks their total is a small change in foot position or grip width, not necessarily getting 10% stronger.

 

Listen to your body (sometimes): Have a “normal,” “easy,” and “extended” workout plan ready to account for days where you feel run down or like you could rip the gym off the foundations. Take advantage of the days you feel like Superman by lifting more weight or doing more sets. On days when your nose is stuffed up, you got 3 hours of sleep, and your dog had to go the vet, it might be a good day to just go and hit the main exercise that day then hit the door. However, there are days where you feel run down, but end up hitting a PR out of nowhere… Be on the lookout for those by gauging how you feel when you actually start your warm ups.

On a day where you feel great you might also consider just SMASHING the weights you had planned and NOT adding in extra work. The more work you do, the more you have to recover from, and going nuts on one day may come back to haunt you days later in the form of decreased performance.

 

The Best Is Yet To Come

 

As I said in the beginning, all of us are looking for the Perfect Program. The one with all “Tens” and no “Zeros.” Nothing is more frustrating than going to the gym week after week, month after month and looking the same or not getting any stronger.

 

Because of that potential frustration, many of us are afraid to veer off course from our battle-tested, tried-and-true program to try something new and risk failing.

 

But it is only through this experimentation and tracking that we develop our Intuitive Training Muscle. There simply is no other way. I know how scary it can be to experiment. To toss aside our “proven” program and venture into the unknown, coming out the other side possibly empty-handed.

 

Fear not, because the reality is that just because there are “Tens” out there, it doesn’t mean anything in weight lifting is a “Zero.” If you are picking up heavy shit and busting your ass, results are going to happen. I don’t care if you are doing 1-3 reps, 6-8 reps, or 12-15 reps. Barbell, dumbbell, kettle bell… It’s all good as long as you are working hard, so do not be afraid to experiment as you can be assured you will not regress.

 

Having said that, you do have to consider your specific goals and try to find and implement as many “Tens” as you can. This will take lots of experimentation and TIME. Lots and lots of time. Maybe your whole life.

 

Bottom line is do NOT get discouraged because results are not quick to show up, or because you think there is some other thing you could be doing that’s better. Did you just bust your ass in the gym? Then you did your job and you should be proud. But, also never stop looking to improve. Never stop developing your most important training quality: Your Mind. Your Intuitive Training Muscle.

 

Finding Your 10’s: A Practical Guide To Customizing Your Own Program For Max Results

In the Beginning…

 

Do you ever wonder how people learned to train before the internet? How they knew what to do without the latest and greatest training routine eBook or YouTube Videos? These are great resources… But honestly, what type of training would you do if none of it existed?

Just you and the weights... What do you do?
Just you and the weights… What do you do?

 

Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Imagine you are a brand new lifter and you just stumble into a room full of bars and weights with no one around to tell you what to do. No preconceived notion of body part splits versus full body routines, of isolation versus compound movements, no fear of over training – just the pure, unadulterated desire to lift metal plates up off the ground.

 

What would you do? Seriously think about this question for a few minutes before you continue on.

 

The Big Assumption

 

I’m going to make a big assumption to start this off. I’m going to assume most of you are just like me.

 

Just like me you were bit by the lifting bug and from that day on it’s been a major part of your life. Sometimes too much if we are being honest… And sometimes WAY too much if our girlfriends and wives are being honest.

 

Just like me you dove in whole hog and got your hands on as much info as you possibly could. There isn’t an article you haven’t read by Dave Tate, Dan John, Louis Simmons, Christian Thibaudeau, or countless other author-athletes who speak to our hearts, minds, and bulging biceps.

 

And just like me you are always in search of that perfect program. The one that has the perfect number of reps, the perfect number of sets, and the perfect exercise selection in the perfect order. The program that is going to have you hoisting tons of iron, shredding the sleeves off your shirts, and keeping you lean while doing it.

 

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that I’m not going to be giving you any such program because the bottom line is that is just doesn’t exist. The good news is that you can get pretty damn close, but it’s going to be a long road and it’s going to take some work on your part.

 

My goal is to help you start down the road to develop what I now feel is the most important muscle of all, your “Intuitive Training Muscle.” Don’t worry. I know it sounds like a gimmick, but I assure you there is no special deal on my brand new, e-book only, complete system, now with special bonus offers but only if you act this month WHILE SUPPLIES LAST! It’s just the term I use to describe that feeling we all get when we have those moments in the gym when things seem to “click,” or when we figure out which exercises work or don’t work, or we tweak something to make it better for ourselves.

 

Develop this quality enough and you will eventually just know what to do in the gym for your unique goals on any given day. You will know when to add in an extra set, you will know when to take a deload week, and you will know when to just stay the hell home and watch reruns of Greys Anat… I mean Rambo and Conan.

My Test levels dropped just typing Greys Anatomy... This should bring them up a bit.
My Test levels dropped just typing Greys Anatomy… This should bring them up a bit.

 

Intuitive Training: How The Best Just “Know” What To Do

 

Did you ever see some big, strong guy doing a really weird exercise, or doing a regular exercise a really weird way? Or maybe you know guys who never do certain exercises that everyone just knows have to be done… right?

 

Have you ever run across a fellow lifter who says something like, “I pulled up to the gym that day and knew it wasn’t happening, so I just went home. Came back the next day and hit a PR deadlift.” Or it might have been, “I just go to the gym and train whatever needs to be trained that day. Today it’s legs, tomorrow we’ll see”?

 

As a young lifter who was usually following some kind of template or program, these kinds of statements used to shock me. Wait? You mean you didn’t train chest today? BUT IT’S MONDAY! KILL THE HERETIC!

 

Well, it’s no coincidence that these lifters are usually the most advanced, the strongest, and the most impressive specimens in the gym, even if it seems like they aren’t following a plan.

 

As it turns out, many of these lifters are following a plan. Their plan. It’s a plan that they have honed after years and years under the bar. They have eliminated the exercises and variables that don’t work for them (“Zeros”) and found the exercises that give them the best results (“Tens”)

 

Years ago these guys and girls may have started out with a cookie cutter program, but more than likely it now bears no resemblance as they have tweaked it one step at a time so it’s now a program all their own. You can get there too, and in fact you will need to if you want to reach your highest potential in the Iron Game.

 

The Pitfalls Of Public Programming

 

Let’s face it, everyone has to start somewhere. Unlike the hapless newbie who stumbled into our thought experiment weight room, all of us have the advantage of having access to tons of training info from the best minds to ever lift a barbell. It makes sense to look at what other successful lifters have done and to follow in those footsteps, and that is where coaches and programs come in.

 

There are many, many great programs out there. Anyone who has been around long enough has heard of Starting Strength, 5/3/1, German Volume Training, or better yet our Very Own Mike Rashid programs like Conan Leg Training and Chest Assault.

conan_nologo_large

These are all good places to start, but the major problem with any of these programs is that they are not written for you, they are written for everyone. That doesn’t mean we can’t use them as a starting point, but eventually we will have to tailor them to our abilities, needs, and knowledge of ourselves.


Any lifter who hopes to be the best that they can possibly be can’t do a routine that has everyone in mind; The program has to be specific. It has to take into account your specific goals, body mechanics, injuries, psychology, work capacity, and a host of other qualities that make you the lifter you are… And that is where you come in.

Next week we are going to cover the details about how to slowly work our way towards that perfect program. But until then I want you to be thinking about your own program, your own body, your own results and starting to piece all of this together for yourself. 

What improvements have you made to a cookie cutter routine? What tweaks have you made to an exercise to spur new progress along? Share in the comments so we can check it out.