I write this as I’m taking a break from putting the finishing touches on my upcoming 21 Convention presentation and, concurrently, reading Rebecca Costa’s The Watchman’s Rattle (heh, who says old-schoolers can’t multitask, huh?). The Watchman’s Rattle is just a fantastic read; really tough to put down. Just as Peter McAllister’s Manthropology reaffirmed my contention that any serious foray into pushed-limits Physical Culture must be made from a well-established, rock-solid base of GPP (General Physical Preparedness), and that we as a species are capable of acclimating to and/or developing — and even thriving under — a tremendous work capacity, so does Ms. Costa’s work remind me that any step toward singularity is a step toward extinction. This is true whether we’re speaking of an eco-system, a species as a whole, or an individual within a species. Also, being that (1) nature is a hell of a lot smarter than we are, and (2) we are an uber-successful species precisely because of our collective differences, opportunistic abilities, and individual variability, it stands to reason that, for a training program and diet regimen to be successful, it must (1) be n=1 compensated/continually adjusted, and (2) that no individual training program will be successful across a broad spectrum of trainees, nor will a single program/methodology/modality be the single “silver bullet”, be-all, end-all for an individual trainee. No, not even P90X 😉
Whew…now that was a mouthful!
That said, when we consider the absolute necessity for diversity within a species as an indicator of that species’ potential for success, is it any wonder, then, that we have so many paths to obtaining optimum health and longevity — not to mention performance prowess?
For example, check-out Carl Lanore’s interview (#771) of Brooks Kubic regarding old-time strongman Joe Rollino, who lived to be a vibrant 104 years old and who died, not of disease, but by being run-over by a friggin’ minivan. Joe was also a devout vegetarian his entire life. Runs counter to our Paleo sensibilities, huh? I don’t mention this as a slam to the Paleo lifestyle (which, of course, I adhere to myself, and evangelize about to anyone who will listen), or to kick-up any Vegetarian vs Paleo shit-storm, but more as a call to, above all else, know thyself.
…and Know Your “Basecamp”
Elemental to establishing one’s self firm-footedly within the Physical Culture scene — not to mention staying in the game for the long run — is knowing just who you are as a unique, total package (physical, mental, spiritual) genotypical and phenotypical expression. This goes way beyond somatyping, though that is as good a place as any to begin this ongoing journey of self-discovery.
I’ve written about Charles Poliquin’s take on this in a previous post, but the idea needs to be driven home, as it is absolutely essential to on-going success in the Physical Culture game. The key is to find, then operate, for the most part out of, that “basecamp”. This is not to say that you should never venture away from that — on the contrary! You should make frequent forays/”scouting missions” out from camp so as to (1) extend and push yourself and, (2) make yourself stronger via diversification.
Using myself as a quick example, I know that I’m mostly mesomorph in build, and that I thrive under a higher-than-normal intensity/volume/frequency mix. I also flourish under much variety, and will get vary stale with a lack thereof. As an athlete, I was neither the fastest of the fast, nor strongest of the strong, but I could perform repeat bursts of near-max intensity forever with very little drop-off in speed and/or strength and power. What absolutely crushes me, though are powerlifting-like, raw, grind-it-out workouts in the 1-3 rep range. Move me back down into the middle (power zone) speed-strength and strength-speed portion of the speed/strength continuum, though, and I’m right back in my element — and a happy camper! This is not to say, though, that I avoid at all costs doing raw strength work — on the contrary, I do — I just know my limitations, and know that I can’t handle too much of it. On the exact opposite side of the spectrum, I can better handle high volume work — classic GVT or Gironda-like protocols, much better, though still not as good as intense bouts of power-oriented work. Each individual, though, has to find his own basecamp, and set-up operations accordingly.
More on this at the 21 Convention.
One more thing, though, as it relates to the on-going practice of self-discovery. It seems to me that many people attack this problem with too much left-brain empasis. In other words, from a Quant-centered, science-obsessive, numbers-driven prospective. This has much to do with the Western tendency to poo-poo the creative, intuitive process. But know this: you cannot be broken down into a simple (or even highly complex) mathematical schema of any sort, and if you’re waiting for science to hand you the best workout and/or diet protocol for your particular situation, you’re going to be waiting for one hellova long time. From the recent and most excellent Big Think post, You Are Not an Equation:
…Faced with the undeniable global and personal anxieties that characterize our age, we should be deeply skeptical of premature solutions based on science that cannot yet deliver what its sales representatives promise.
I’ve mentioned my good friend (and Physical Culturalist extraordinaire) Ken O’Neill numerous times in this blog, and now Ken has a blog of his own — Trans-Evolutionary Fitness. Ken is an erudite elder in the Physical Culture game — more a contemporary of Art DeVany than a young whipper-snapper like me 😉 Just a tremendous resource to have here in central Texas, the epicenter of the new Physical Culture.
Anyway, be sure to check out Ken’s work — as well as the numerous articles he’s written for Iron Man magazine; I can assure you the content of his blog will be deep and thought-provoking. Here’s an example snippet from his July 15th post:
…Physician Jonas Salk, developer of polio vaccine, held that we should be entering a new stage of evolution – one he called meta-biological evolution – and that the direction of evolution must become survival of the wisest. Our genius untempered by wisdom has created myriad tools threatening survival of the species, indeed of the living planet. While evolution has created an embodied human mind of incomprehensible potential, we have barely scratched the surface regarding its nature, uses, and directions for development as the humans we might become…
Let’s look at some workouts from the past week, shall we?
(A1) BTN split jerk (alternate lead foot): 95/6; 135/6; 155/6; 185/4; 205/4; 215/2, 2, 2
(A2) alternating grip pull-ups (trapeze bar): bw/12 each round
(A1) Oly curl: 115/10
(A2) EZ tri extension: 105/10
*Lots* of saddle time, then:
(A1) Med Ex back extension: 320/10, 10, 8 (6010)
(A^) Nautilus lateral raise: 149/12; 160/10; 180/7+, 5+ (60×0)
(A2) reverse hyper: 95/12, 12, 12
Then even more saddle time immediately following. Holy smoked legs, Batman 🙂
(A1) Bent-over row, Oly bar: 135/12; 155/10; 275/6; 305/6, 6
(A2) XC incline press (10×2 tempo): +0/3; +20/3; +40/3; +50/3; +90/5 negatives (8 sec eccentric)
(A1) front squat: 135/6; 185/6; 205/6; 225/4
(A2) landmine single-arm press: 60/10; 85/10; 95/10, 10 (each arm)
Tire flips, sprints and hops circuit –
(A1) tire flips x 10 (covers about 25 yards), then immediately sprint the long balance of the football field.
(A2) High hurdle hops x 7
(A3) dual-leg hop sprints with interspersed tire hops x 50 yards.
Four rounds of this. Found that it takes a total of 42 tire flips to cover 100 yards, ergo, the last round consisted of 12 flips. Thought I was going to heave a lung following 12 flips + a 100 yard sprint 🙂 Followed this with monkey bar and parallel bar work, all in the 100 + degree central Texas heat. Sane? I dunno, but it was fun! Yee-haw!
See you all in Orlando!
What a wonderfully thorough yet concise statement echoing the sage wisdom of the Oracle at Delphi: Mankind, know thyself.
And what a monumental task coming to know oneself can be. As a nation, we barely have a system of health education (including physical education): to the extent we do, our exposure is to external facts and not learning to monitor our internal condition. Rarely do physical culture instructions call attention to internal monitoring: why should they when such an orientation seems entirely foreign to our culture. Yet to earn the kind of wisdom implied by Keith’s article, that’s exactly the kind of self-knowing mandatory for cultivation.
What am I talking about? Read any of the muscle mags or online articles: sets, reps, intensity are the measure of training. And that just doesn’t personalize how to do it. In recent years I’ve read exactly three fitness authors whose work points us to recognition of our internal physiological states: Scott Abel, Dr. Ron Laura, and Brian Johnston. While all three present rather divergent ways of training, all three underscore making your workout count by becoming awake and aware to your inner workout. That can be as simple as shifting attention from moving resistance as an external effort to focusing attention on contracting target muscles as the weight is moved by them. For bodybuilders, such a shift in attention results in a shift in intensity.
Both Dr Laura and Mr Johnston offer unique and very different forms of training which have in common use of somewhat lighter resistance moved through full and partial zones of movement within a set. Laura developed his system in 1991-1996, refining it somewhat of late (we haven’t heard much of his since his books were published in Australian & never distributed in North America despite him being American by birth & upbringing): his Matrix Principle training is based on 48 patterns of full & partial reps, often including reps of 3-6 second killer static holds throughout a set. Matrix has one advantage: because patterns are changed monthly, there’s less chance of hitting a plateau due to psychological boredom. Johnston’s J-reps/Zone training breaks movements into 2-3 zones in the main, with patterns of reps emphasizing hardest to easiest portions of a movement. Both accelerate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy – you get bigger muscles faster.
There’s an old debate in which some hold (1) train for strength and size will follow, and others (2) train for size and strength will follow. That debate rests on grounds Keith addresses: the assumption everyone’s alike. We’re not. I know from experience. My best ever gains came doing power rack based isometronic training, advancing in strength and size. These days Matrix and Jreps are working wonders for me. For too much of my life I staid in the 6-10 rep zone, one that used to be called ‘power bodybuilding’ – I kept growing stronger but plateaued with size – I trained within generally accepted standards of consensus. When Arthur Jones unleashed his Nautilus Bulletins, I trained what we now call HIT – getting stronger, not bigger. Then J ones released eccentric or negative training – and I got much stronger but no bigger.
These days we know the strength vs size debate is a phony one. Both Brad Schoenfeld and Doug Miller (Biology for Bodybuilers) take you through the complexities of metabolic pathways and their relation to specific training stimulation. Such science didn’t exist even a decade ago & they take us out of the dark, relieving guesswork. Application of either of their works to you training on a step by step experimental basis should result in the self-understanding that empowers gains and program design.
My way of training ‘surfs the curve’ of strength types – in a microcycle based on half a lunation cycle – two weeks. Some training stimulus results in longer recuperation times – up to a week for eccentrics/negatives imposing a lot of stress on connective tissue. Orchestrate that with low rep days, putting negs at the end of the session. Do those once every week/two weeks – find your level. Moderate reps are staged a little more frequently since we recover more speedily from them; along with light weights, far less connective tissue stress occurs. Lighter weights: Matrix and Johnston patterns done more frequently.
I should add my training is distinctively for my needs. As a former competitive lifter I have a few ‘battle scars’ earned over the years – I keep them from becoming injured. And at 67 I’m not especially concerned with getting stronger – just not losing it. Researchers put more emphasis on muscle density for us seniors as a measure of well being and prevention of chronic degenerative diseases. The same training that pumps and builds muscle on younger people is vital for us elders. All told, that gives me upwards of ten training sessions in two weeks. And whatever I’m doing, the baseline is intensity. Intensity of effort is not confined to HIT, and varies with rep range, rest between sets, tempo or cadence within a set. Recuperation is just fine. I can train this way because it’s my major source of physical activity, and varied enough to cover various activity/metabolic zones. Overtraining results in catabolic states associated with cortisol: cortisol modulation is one of the easiest things controllable by means of meditation and deep relaxation, and application of Dr John Ivy’s Nutrient Timing anabolic switch (http://imbodybuilding.com/articles/nutrient-timinganabolic-switch/).
Some researchers distinguish between chronological and biological age, and some add training age. Compared to normality – that greater population of sedentary folks – folks who train regularly can expect to be biologically younger than what’s average for their age group. Those who’ve pretty much trained for life long have a training age far greater than the sedentary. Training age likely incorporates the cumulative effects of training Keith talks about – gaining greater conditioned recuperation skills. And those skills are likely very developed among hunted/gathers.
Now for irony – Keith’s office at Efficient Exercise is just a few blocks down the road from where UT Professor Roger Williams, PhD, wrote his groundbreaking Biochemical Individuality in the 1950s, a work that emphasizes what Keith says in his blog! Keith, you’re in the right neighborhood!
Keith, thanks for the post! Great stuff as always.I enjoy reading your thoughts and can’t wait for your next writeup! Keep killin’ it in the gym and on your blog!
This idea of “base camp” really resonates with me, this is the first time I’ve read about it but it instantly clicks in my head as “yes, that makes so much sense”. It’s one thing I find a bit off putting about a lot of the rigidity of rep/set schemes, like this is the hypertrophy range, this is conditioning, this is strength, etc etc.
I used to think in this old paradigm so much so that I literally treated my own body like an equation, I would always look up 1rm calculators to try and predict my strength levels based on really strong 3-5 rep sets I had. But one thing I’ve realized is that it’s never that straightforward. Just because I could do a certain weight 3 times didn’t mean shit for my actual full out max.
From my own example, I learned I SUCK at high rep ranges. I can do sets of 3-6 until the cows come home in major, compound movements, but even a relatively light weight at around 8-12 reps and I just become bored and exhausted.
One exercise that really helped me realize this is the chin up. In the past few weeks I’ve gone from struggling with 10 pound chin ups to maxing out a chin up with a 40lb plate attached to my belt. But guess what? In this entire process, my body weight max for chins is still: 8-10. Right around 8 I’m just spend. But I can 10-12 sets of 5 no problem and I can continually add weight to the vest to increase my 2-3 rep max.
This is where intelligent tinkering comes in, and knowing information like this about your unique body is essential to having success in a program. If I were to follow something more traditional like a 3×10 or 4×12 set/rep scheme, I would probably have disastrous results. But finding out that I’m more into Soviet style strength routines allows me to train for my body and no one eases.
I did slightly higher rep ranges for decades. Due to a fall 6 years ago, then another one last year, both times I had to go to sets of 15-20. To my utter astonishment, within weeks those lighter rep ranges resulted in two things: unprecedented growth of size and quickly moving to resistance I could only get 6-8 reps with now up to 12-15. Yet under the spell of lower reps, size follows strength, I reverted to the habitual. Since learning of jreps/zone training I’m accentuating lighter weights, higher cumulative reps, and soreness and size increase heretofore unimaginable.
One thing I think is really underrated is the concept of accumulating a massive workload over a total workout. I remember one time listening to Dorian Yates talk about taking 1-2 work sets to complete failure and leaving it at that. He had this phrase that if you rest too long or take too many sets, you’re just “pacing” yourself.
Looking back I find this reasoning unconvincing and more than a little confusing. The strategy I use now, which I stole from Soviet guys like Pavel T, is to accumulate poundage by doing anywhere from 6 to even 15 sets with reps at 1-5, using ridiculously high percentages of my one rep max. How anyone can say this is inferior to taking a single set of 75% of your 1rm to failure is beyond me. The last time I did a wave loading rep scheme I was able to get over 60 reps out of over the course of 3 waves, all within 80-97% of my one rep max. I don’t call that pacing, I call that intelligent use of ones strengths. Before, trying to advance in strength within my 6-10 rep range was damn near impossible because I would always fail with the same poundage at around 8 reps, but now my strength is basically linear with every workout.
I think the real key is constant variance; to steal a phrase from Scott Abel, surfing the force-velocity curve. One of my favorite strength-bias methods — outside of employing ARX equipment, is to employ a 21 – 25 rep rest-pause “set” at a given weight. Good stuff for sure!
That sounds brutal and fun at the same time! One thing that strikes me is that variety in strength training as really gotten a bad name as of late, and I have to say it’s mainly due to a backlash response by real trainers to guys like Tony Horton. The whole concept of “muscle confusion” kind of blew up in the public’s imagination and so a lot of real, serious Physical Cultralists rightly pointed out that muscle confusion is bullshit, program ADD is dangerous, and that the money exercises are still money exercises.
But as with anything there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way. I used to be totally anti-variance for the same reasons, thinking “variety” meant having a program with no rhyme or reason and constantly doing 50 different exercises half-assedly rather than a few properly. Rather than that I think we have to look at variety in terms of open mindedness towards rep schemes for sure, like you mentioned, almost super-setting, tri-setting, messing around with rest time, using variations of exercises rather than a variety. As an example, I love switching between conventional and sumo dead lift, or alternating grips for weighted chin ups, which I would say runs counter to the type of “mainstream” variety where you do 10-15 new exercises per workout, and you keep adding in new movement for the sake of novelty rather than for the sake of challenge.
Scott Abel’s application of the force-velocity curve goes hand in hand with his contention that around five years of training one needs to shift to very focused reps – what I’d call intensity. Actually, he shares that notion with both Ron Laura and Brian Johnston in that all three place emphasis on moving resistance by means of mindfully, intentionally contracting muscle instead of moving the weight – hope that makes sense. In old school terms, all three place emphasis on muscle-control. Both Reeves and Zane included posing in final months of peaking since it stimulated growth through muscle control.
Abel’s first breakthrough method is called Innveration training, and has basis in neuroscience (Digby Sale and Basmajian). Not only is muscle-control used but also a rich variety of movements. Many systems think full recruitment of all motor units can occur with taking one set to failure; in fact, that doesn’t happen which is where variety makes sense of John Grimek’s statement that his physique was the product of 1,001 different movements.
Since experimenting for 3-4 weeks with j-reps/zone training my perspective has changed some. All it takes is 4-5 sets per muscle group to hit fatigue – there’s a point where any more sets diminish the effect. 4-5 sets means 4-5 different movements done in sequence, and the sequence varies with each workout – as doe the movements. I’m finding doing single joint followed by compounds really does the trick. A given set runs about 25 reps through 2-4 zones, often with different amounts of resistance.
Zone training has emphasized variety for me simply because there’s a limit to what can be done in a given workout. Variety also prevents psychological boredom or habituation. What I like most of all about zone training is the constant pump and fatigue – there comes a point where counting reps is unnecessary since once you learn it, you’re training to physiological outcome states expressed in feeling.