The Benefit of Less-Extreme Views

True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body; the two are united

~ Alexander von Humboldt

George Church (Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School) argues, in this Big Think piece, that the age-old divide between science and religion is solvable. “We can bring them together,” he says, “but it requires less extreme views, or what would benefit from less extreme views.”

And it’s my belief that the same idea holds true for Physical Culture’s role in taming the beast that is the American healthcare crisis.

As it currently stands, there is no credible entity that acts as a non-dogmatic, “non-partisan”  clearing house, of sorts, in which the various tools and techniques of Physical Culture can be explored in relation to the seeker’s desired outcome (along the health-performance continuum) — especially for those who’s desire it is to use a Paleo-like diet, coupled with resistance exercise, as a tools for achieving superior overall health.  My hope is that this summer’s Ancestral Health Symposium (and the symposium’s parent organization, the Ancestral Health Society) will become just that entity.  I am at the same time thrilled — and humbled! — to be one of the presenters at the symposium, where I will discuss resistance training’s role in achieving optimum health, the difference between “superior health” and “superior performance”, and the emergence of the Physical Culturalist (i.e., the new breed of personal trainer) and his role as “swim coach” as opposed to the healthcare professional’s role as “lifeguard”.  Hat tip to Greg Glassman, of CrossFit, for that fine analogy.  As medicine’s role in this new paradigm must change, so must the Physical Culturalist’s.

~

Of Autoregulation and overtraining

TTP reader Jeff Erno asks the following (via Facebook), in reference to EETV, episode 6:

Really enjoyed the episode, thanks for recording. The auto regulation stuff sounds interesting. Is there somewhere I can go to read more about it? Also, my experience is with HIT the last 2+ years and if I only workout once per week I have steadily gained week over week. At twice a week I can have what can look like a stall or retrogression. Do you think it is possible that my situation is more common and most people don’t know it since they never tried backing off? Curious what your take is. Love the episodes, please keep then coming.

And here’s my answer — expanded a bit, from my original Facebook response:

I’ve written about Autoregulation a few times in Theory to Practice, Jeff — see, especially, this post — and actually the subject is in our EETV bucketlist of topics to cover in more detail.  As well (and as I alluded to in this post), I’ll be talking more about the tenants of Autoregulation and it’s practical applications at the Orlando 21 Convention this summer — so stay tuned for that! 😉

As for the second question: a regression/stall at 2x/week is certainly not unheard of *if you are engaged in the same “type” of workout (rep tempo, exercise selection, rep/TUL scheme, etc…), workout to workout*  This is one reason why I shift things up in a conjugate-like fashion, both in my own workouts and in those of my clients.  You simply have to give the body a reason to overcompensate, otherwise, homeostasis will rule the day.  I really don’t want to get into a flame war over what I consider to be the (substantial) drawbacks of single-set-to-failure routines for performance enhancement, but let’s just say that it’s my humble opinion that these routines just don’t give the body much (or enough) stimulus to have to fight against.  Why should the body continue to adapt when it is not up against novel angles, cadences, tempos, volumes, intensities, etc.?  Ask any strength and conditioning coach what happens to 40 times when all you have your athletes do for speed/conditioning work is to run repeat 40’s — they digress — and not insubstantially, either.  This is similar to the problem you’re running up against here.

I really wish you could have been in Wimberley, Texas this weekend, at the home of Ken O’Neill, where Dr. Frank Wyatt spoke to us of “the Body Chaotic”, pushing physiological threshold limits, the nature of physiological fatigue/failure, and what it takes to force the body to overcompensate.  I’ll just say this: the early stages of training are relatively easy going, as just about any stimulus will force the body to overcompensate.  The longer one stays in the game, however, the harder it becomes to push up to and beyond the fatigue threshold required to elicit an overcompensation response.  In laymen’s terms, it’s friggin’ hard work.  It’s painful, even.  It requires a mental toughness that most trainees are simply not prepared for, or willing to offer-up, in exchange for results.

Now I’m by all means not an advocate of training unintelligently or in a shotgun, willy-nilly manner.  I do believe, though that doggedness, intensity, and the ability to repeatedly push beyond the brain’s “shut ‘er down” response are crucial for achieving optimal gains (note: striving for optimal health is another issue — related, but certainly not the same).  I do believe, as well, that the body’s ability to recover (another topic discussed by Dr. Wyatt) can be “trained” as well via periodic forays into an overtrained state.  Chronic overtraining ought to be avoided, of course; acute bouts though are, in my opinion, necessary if one’s quest is enhanced performance.  Remember, performance enhancement (which includes the chase for hypertrophy) is an emergent phenomena — akin to the study cloud formation, weather patterns even — not a more easily described, step-by-step process, akin to the operations of a clock, say.

If at all possible, get your hands on Brad Schoenfel’d study “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training” (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Vol 24, #10; Oct 2010).  The chase for hypertrophy and/or realizing one’s ultimate genetic potential is not nearly as easy as simply tracking linear load/TUL progressions in a handful of exercises.

~

Workouts?  Oh yeah, you know it!  Here we go –

Tuesday, 5/31/11

(A1) Dips: bw/10; 45/10; 55/6; 90/4, 5; 45/11

(A2) ARX neutral-grip pull-down: HR/3, 3, 3

Thursday, 6/2/11

(A1) BTN push-press: 135/10; 155/6; 185/5, 7 (slight spot); 155/6

(A2) chins: bw/12; 45/7; 65/6, 6, bw/whoops!

(A3) RLC: bw/10, each of 4 rounds

then, 2 rounds of :
(B1) ARX negative only chin x 2

(B2) ARX negative only overhead press x 2

Saturday, 6/4

Sprints!  Bars!  Ropes!

Tuesday, 6/7
GVT volume work, 10 rounds

(A1) high bar squats: 165/10

(A2) seated DB clean & press: 40/10

Prior fixie riding made 10 rounds of squats a real bi-atch for sure!

Wednesday, 6/8

(A1) ARX close-grip bench: HR/3, 3, 3

(A2) dips: BW/15, 15, 15

(A3) T-Bar row: 125/10; 200/10; 245/8, 8 (Autoreg)

Friday, 6/10

(A1) Powermax 360 Tabata intervals (30 seconds on, 15 seconds off), 8 different movements.

(B1) long, fast, fixie ride

(C1) ARX RDL: HR x 3; 3 sets

Sunday, 6/12

Sprints and jumps

Physical Culture as an Emergent Phenomena

Should Physical Culture be studied and understood more like a clock or a cloud?

Borrowing from an analogy put forward by the philosopher Karl Popper, NYT writer David Brooks posits that we tend to think of problems or phenomena as either a “clock” or a “cloud”. Unlike a clock, which can be taken apart and studied as individual, constituent systems/mechanisms, a cloud is a dynamic (or “emergent”) system that can only be studied as a whole.

An emergent system, therefore, is a phenomena/entity that cannot be defined by a straight, lock-step, causal relationship. Instead, it must be understood as a whole, by studying the interplay between its parts.  An interplay that, itself, is continually in flux.

One problem we run into when attempting to deconstruct superior health, athletic performance, or some desired physical attribute (such as hypertrophy), is treating each of these phenomena as if they could be broken-down and studied like the mechanical constituents of a clock.  If A, then B; a very clockwork universe, Newtonian way of thinking.  This is simply wrong-minded (in my humble opinion), and leads to faulty conclusions.

For instance, that true, single-set-to-failure and/or super-slow protocols could be utilized as a sole means of eliciting an individual’s maximum hypertrophy potential is a result of treating hypertrophy as a “clockwork” phenomenon.  That is not to say that there is not a place for these protocols in the larger Physical Culture landscape — far from it — every tool, though, has its appropriate applications and limitations, and these must be thoroughly understood vis-a-vis the cloud-like aspect of (in this case) maximizing the body’s hypertrophy response.

Check out the two following hypertrophy-themed TNation articles, and ask yourself if the study and/or pursuit of maximized muscle growth is a “clock” or “cloud” phenomena.  For now, suspend judgement as to whether the actual pursuit of n=1 maximized hypertrophy is necessarily a “healthy” endeavor, or a good use of one’s allotted time on this earth — focus, instead here, simply on the art and science of gettin’ swole  😉

The Hypertrophy Specialist

Why Bodybuilders are More Jacked Than Powerlifters

And by the way, if you’re looking to delve a little deeper into emergent systems, Raima Larter’s blog, Complexity Simplified, is an excellent read.

~

Questions?  Answers!

TTP reader Brendon asks the following:

Keith,

I have begun following your blog and I find your entries informative and helpful.  I have begun to delve into the archives because I am very impressed with the information you provide.  I have switched over to a Paleo/Primal style of eating and do some I.F. on occasion, as well.

However, my question pertains to training not nutrition.  I am soccer goalkeeper playing in college.  I am looking to improve on my performance from a physical aspect during my training this summer.  However, training books and programs from my coaches all seem to tout the mantra of high reps weight training and long distance runs for endurance.  As a goalkeeper, I feel that would be detrimental to my performace since the movements I make in a game involve jumping, diving, and short, quick, and explosive movements in all directions.  The longest run I might make in a game probably won’t exceed 20 yards so I don’t see how a five mile run will help me get any better at those!

So I guess I am asking for advice on how you would approach training a goalkeeper.  I’m certainly not asking for a program since that is what people pay you for!  I was just hoping you could point me in the right direction towards methods you feel would be the most beneficial.  Sorry for the long question and I appreciate any advice you provide!

Thanks,
Brendon

Brendon,

Your gut instinct is spot-on; you ought to focus on training for power, explosiveness and quickness — long/slow runs and higher rep lifting schemes are a poor utilization of your available training time, and will do nothing to improve these aspects of your physicality, not to mention will they do anything  improve the condition/efficiency of your anaerobic energy systems.   Unfortunately, most collegiate strength and conditioning programs are focused on the “money sports” — football and basketball, and to some extent, baseball — which leaves very little time and available effort to put towards the “lesser” (in terms of money-making potential) sports.  This isn’t an indictment of collegiate S&C staffs, it’s just, unfortunately, the economies of scale at work.  It’s just much easier to tell a kid to run for 5 miles and/or hit a higher-rep, bodybuilding-like resistance program, as it involves little in the way of programming and supervision, and the potential for injury is pretty low compared to having these same kids perform unsupervised ballistic/power-intensive work.  Also, I’m quite sure that there is plenty of “old school” training thought permeating the sport of soccer — i.e., to be “in shape”, you gotta log the miles.  The Tabata studies, and subsequent empirical demonstrations of the efficacy of such programs, out to have put that old notion to bed.  Unfortunately, that’s not yet the case.    You’re probably better off cobbling together and implementing your own power/explosiveness-themed S&C plan, if that’s at all possible.  Changing tides and minds takes time that you don’t currently have.  Sporting careers are short-lived.  Endeavor to make yourself better now, and work to change the system later.  You may, in fact, become a role model for the new power-based soccer training paradigm at your school.

~

Efficient Exercise in the media:

Check out Efficient Exercise’s “Philosophers of Physical Culture”, Skyler Tanner and I, talking shop with Jimmy Moore in episode 475 of the Livin’ la Vida Low Carb Show.  Jimmy is a true professional and a master at guiding one through an interview.  A funny aside here is that I had an unexpected, drop-in consultation just prior to the taping, and I could see Skyler through the studio office window giving me the ol’ wrist-tap as Jimmy, on the other end of our Skype connection, waited patiently for me to finish with the would-be client.  So much for any pre-interview prep!  Skyler and I truly worked this one off-the-cuff.  I guess it helps that, like an old married couple, we can finish each others thoughts and sentences 😉

…and speaking of off-the-cuff shop talk, here’s another episode of EETV; Physical Culture performance art, at its best 😉  –

~

Workouts for the past couple of weeks –

You’ll notice that most of my workouts incorporate some form or fashion of Autoregulation.  To the extent that a trainee learns to fully incorporate the tenants of Autoregulation within his own training regimen will go a long way toward determining just how accomplished that trainee will become as a Physical Culturalist.  In fact, this “Autoregulation” theme will be the basis of my talk at this summer’s 21 Convention in Orlando.

Think of written training programs as cookbooks, or maybe the old woodcut plans of your 7th-grade shop class.  A true Physical Culturalist is on par with the acclaimed chef or the master woodworker, and a program, recipe or woodworking instructions written by any of these professionals can only hint at a particular theme — the theme, maybe, of a great marinade, crafting a particular piece of furniture or, in the case of Physical Culture, a training program.  Learning the true essence of each endeavor, though, takes years of trial and error, or — and if you’re extremely lucky — an apprenticeship under a master.  Training programs — like cookbooks — are guides, nothing more.  To make a recipe — or a training regimen — truly your own, you have to breathe life, love and art into it.  In the game of Physical Culture, autoregulation is that life, love and art.

5/16/11, Monday
Autoreg each exercise
(A1) deadlift (Oly bar): 135/10; 225/10; 325/6; 415/6, 5

(A2) seated (floor) barbell front press: 95/15; 135/10; 155/7; 175/4, 4

5/18/11, Wednesday

(A1) BOR, Oly bar: 135/12; 225/6; 275/10; 305/7  (Autoreg)

(A2) LM single-arm press: 75/12; 95/10, 10, 10

(A3) RLC: bw/10, 10, 10, 10

Friday, 5/20/11

(A1) Oly bar creds (single-arm power snatch):
65/7; 85/7; 105/3; 115/4 singles, each arm

– three hours later –

(A1) ARX horizontal chest press: hyper-reps/5, 5
(A2) flat DB flyes: 45 x 15, 15
(A3) feet-elevated push-ups to failure: 25, 15

Tuesday, 5/24/11

(A1) barbell muscle-ups: 95/10; 115/6; 165/5, (4, 2, 2, 3, 2, 3, 3)

(A2) ring pull-ups: bw: 12, 15, 14+

(A3) Russian leg curl: bw/10, 10, 10

Autoreg’d muscle-ups.  After the initial 4 reps of the second 6RM set, I just felt primed to continue into a lower-rep extended set.

Wednesday, 5/25/11

(A1) hip press (H2): 445/15; 545/8 (note: increase 25# on each)

(A2) ARX horizontal leg press: HR/3

(A3) blast strap pike: 15

2 rounds; A1 and A2 paired as a hierarchal set.

Thursday, 5/26/11

(A1) feet-elevated drop, stick, rebound push-ups: bw/7 each of 4 rounds

(A2) 45-degree incline press (leverage piece): ballistic reps; +20/7; +30/6; +35/6, 6.  Curtailed set when bar failed to leave hands.

(A3) T-bar row (underhand grip): 100/10; 145/6; 190/12; 215/8  — autoreg’d

Saturday, 5/28/11

(A1) trap bar deadlifts (low grip): 265/10, 10, 10; 355/6, 445/4, 4; 355/12, 12 — autoreg’d

In health,

Keith

The Hypertrophy Response — Stimulus or Fuel Dependent?

“We do not rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
– Archilochus

A spot-on observation of human nature, I think.  Even so, within those of us who think more highly of ourselves, that it should be otherwise.  So much so a true observation, in fact, that I use this quote as my email signature, so that I see it daily.

The following is related to a question I fielded recently from a client, and it’s not unlike the multitude of diet-vs-hypertrophy-related questions I field on a regular basis.  The answer to this particular question, of course — like just about every every question related to Physical Culture — is analigous to attempting to tame the ol’ State Fair favorite, the Zipper.

There are just so many moving variables to this question that it’s impossible to give a pat answer here without really taking the time to stop and dismantle each of these whirly-gig cars.  I think this “problem of complexity” is a big reason why the majority of folks fall for fads and easy-outs (in diet and in training) — getting to the right answers takes due diligence and, in most cases, it means letting go of previously-taken-to-be-iron-clad-correct “knowledge” — not exactly a feel-good position for many.

And, too (and as always), we need to know the goals of the individual asking the question.  And, in this case, we need to define what we even mean by “hypertrophy” — because one person’s “lean mass gain” is another’s “bulk”.  Just as an example, look at the difference in Brad Pitt’s physique between his appearance in Fight Club…


and then in Troy…

No doubt Brad is bulkier in Troy — but what of the difference in lean mass between the two appearances?   Hard to say.  And truth be told, few care.  Even if that bulk were 95% intramuscular fat, most (guys, at least) would be more than happy with that.

Now I’m certainly not here to say that intra-muscular fat deposition (bulk) is necessarily a bad thing — I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to defining lean mass hypertrophy vs. all-encompassing bulk.

But back to my client’s actual question; what he wants to know is this:

what, if any, body recomposition changes occur over time if one engages in sound hypertrophy-focused training BUT were to limit the diet to maintenance-level calories? Let’s also assume we are talking about someone who is more toward the ectomorph side of the body-type continuum.

Oy vey!  Where to begin with this one, huh?  Well, first off let’s assume “maintenance calories” to mean “eating to satiation”, because, in  reality, anything else would simply give credence to the now debunked (at least within normal parameters, i.e., between starvation and wanton gluttony) calories-in/calories-out theory.  So, what we’re talking about here is simply eating a decent, Paleo-ish diet, to satiation, and absolutely not obsessing about such things as, oh… maintaining a positive nitrogen balance, or some other such lunacy — i.e., living a real, non-OCD life outside of the gym.  Now, that said, what I’ve observed during my 30+ years in the iron game is this: given proper stimulus (and favorable genetic/hormonal underpinning), hypertrophy “happens” even in an environment of less-than-adequate nutritional support.

The kicker, of course, being proper stimulus.  To put it another way, busting ass in the gym trumps anything that one does, or does not, shove down the ol’ pie-hole.  I would even go further to say that busting ass trumps the use of fine pharmaceuticals, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Taubes gives a great example in Why We Get Fat (though geared toward fat gain — the same applies here) of a teen going through a growth spurt.  Assuming decent nutritional support (i.e., no starvation), growth is a function of the hormonal environment within the body, not a function of forced intake of excess calories.  In other words, a growing teen eats like he has a friggin’ hollow leg, and/or is (by his parent’s definition), a “lazy”, never-gonna-get-a-job-and-get-out-of-the-frackin’-house bum, *because* he is growing, not so as to *induce* said growth.  Hypertrophy is much the same, though on a lesser (caloric requirement wise) scale.  Think of it this way: stimulus drives the hypertrophy train, nutrition simply supports, to a very limited degree, the effort.  And hey, I’m all for adequate support, but let’s just not forget what the real driver is here.

Now, I do concede a certain credence, if you will, to the other side of the argument (of which, this Dr. Lonnie Lowery/Rob “Fortress” Fortney-penned T-Nation article is the best I’ve come across in a long while) — that is to say, that properly administered overeating will establish a more favorable anabolic environment within the body, and therefore promote (better?  Faster?) hypertrophy gains.  What we’re talking about here, though, is a matter of degree — and, again, the difference between bulk and lean-mass hypertrophy must be vetted.  And, too, we’re speaking again of multiple variables.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across and individual who’s gone headlong into a “mass gain” phase, who didn’t also jack his/her gym intensity into the stratusphere concurrent with devouring everything they could get their hands on.  Did they put on mass/bulk?  You bet they did.  But what really drove the train here, the newly-heightened input stimulus or surplus calories?  I’ll put my money on the stimulus side of things, every time.

Another “eat your way big” argument that has some merit (in my observation, at least), is the “improved lever” argument.  That is to say, increased bulk provides for better about-the-joint lever advantages, which allows one to push heavier weights, which promotes additional hypertrophy.  I also believe there’s some merit to the point-of-origin energy supply argument.  All fine and well.  Until, that is, Johnny Bulk-Up decides that he’s now ready to diet-down to reach his original goal of being lean and muscular.  Rut-Ro…

As the Dalia Lama says, many paths lead to the same destination  🙂

And I won’t even begin to delve into the fool’s errand of even attempting to second-guess the body’s caloric requirements with any measure of accuracy.  Weigh and measure? Meh.  Let us, instead, focus on the things that are, at least somewhat, within our control.  Things like consuming a proper Paleo diet, a diet of a favorable macro-nutrient disposition dependent upon our own (smartly conducted) n=1 determination.  Things like busting ass in the gym in an intelligently programmed way (which includes being mindful of spinning into the overtraining pit).  Things like eating when you’re truly hungry, getting adequate ZZzzzzz’s, ditching chronic stress where possible — and not stressing about the chronic stresses that you can’t avoid.

Whew!

So does proper diet matter in the hunt for hypertrophy?  Sure it does.  It just pales in comparison, though, to those gut-wrenching gym sessions.  Look at it this way: if eating one’s way big had merit, Arnold’s physique would be the norm.  My take is that time spent obsessing over caloric intake would be much better spent learning meditative/awareness practices that allow one to push past the mind’s “shutdown” threshold.  Become a student of focus, intensity and self awareness, and let the body mind it’s own caloric needs.  It does so brilliantly, thank you very much — and much better than you (your mind, ego) could ever hope to, so long as you provide it access to the proper raw staples.

So there you have it.  Is your goal to attain (in accordance with your genetic limitations) 70s Big status, or the raw, lean and muscular look?  The truth of the matter is, my friend, that you can’t have it both ways.

~

A muse for Physical Culture?

My good friend, and uber-talented artist, Jeanne Hospod, has an interesting project going on here:

Let’s just say she’s doin’ the best she can with the block-head muse she has to work with 🙂  Seriously, though, Jeanne is an exceptional Austin-area artist — and a kind, kind soul to boot.  Check out her work; you’ll be glad you did.  Very cool stuff indeed.  And the process is simply amazing.  I had no idea of the complexity…

~

Want to begin your PhD in Physical Culture?  Start with this lecture from my good friend Ken O’Neill.  Brilliant insights from an erudite champion of Physical Culture.  Pull up a chair, put on a pot of Joe, and dive deep into the very essence of the “new” Physical Culture movement.  Well done, Ken.

~

Workouts for the last couple of weeks.  Now you may have noticed that my blogging has been a bit sporadic since my move here to Austin.  And it’s for good reason — I’m busy as all hell!  Seriously, though, many of the “quick hit” topics I generally now cover over at the Efficient Exercise Facebook page.  Topics I choose to flesh-out a bit more will find their way here.  And so it goes.  Anyway, so friend us up over at our Facebook page, where Skyler, Mark Alexander and I go “around the horn” with many current health, fitness, and all-encompassing topics related to our favorite subject — Physical Culture.

Sunday, 4/3/11

OK, so a couple of short clips are worth a thousand words 🙂  A little 21st century technology paired with a smattering of old school favorites add up to a total upper-body thrashing.  Sweet!

Tuesday, 4/5/11

(A1) CZT/ARX Leg press: 3, 3, 3, 3

(A2) trap bar DL: (black bands, speed emphasis) – 155/5, 245/5, 5; 295/3

Wednesday, 4/6/11

(A1) Nautilus pec dec: 110/12, 12 (working the later reps…partials, rest-pause, etc.)

(A2) XC incline press: (-90, mid 25)/7, 6 rest-pause

(A3) Nautilus pull-over: stack/13, 12+(3, 2 rest pause)

Thursday, 4/7/11

(A1) power snatch (close grip): 115/5, 5, 5, 135/4

(A2) hanging L-raise: 15, 15, 15, 15

(B1) hip press: (setting @ H2), 200lbs+ 1 grey and 1 black band, 8 sets of 3

Saturday, 4/9/11

(A1) trap bar DL (low grip): 265/7, 355/7, 405/5, 5

(A2) chins: 45/7, 55/5, 5, 4+

(A3) dips: 45/7, 70/5, 6, 7

Here’s a look at how the final round went down…

…dude!  What happened to your hair??  Yeah, so I went all Duke Nukem.  Summers are friggin’ hot here in the ATX, gimme a break.  And I’m down with the minimalist upkeep.  Metro-sexual man I am not 🙂  Gimme chalk on my hands, a fixed-speed bike, and a doo I don’t have to f&%# with, thank you very much!

Sunday, 4/10/11

Sprints!  And climbing ropes, parallel bars, a 40-rung, super-wide set of monkey bars, a scaling wall and a waist to chest-high retaining wall for jumps.  Big, big fun!

Tuesday, 4/12/11

2 rounds of the following:
(A1) hip press (H2 setting): 400/12, 500/6, 600/3 (hierarchical sets)
(A2) standing roll-outs: 15

Wednesday, 4/13/11

2 rounds of the following:
 (A1) Naut pec dec: 95/12, 105/6, 115/3 (hierarchical sets)
(A2) XC flat press: (+50) 4, 3+ ( 80X0 tempo; X=fast as possible)

Thursday, 4/14/11

(A1) front squats: 135/7, 185/5, 205/5, 225/3, 245/2, 2, 2, 2

(A2) Power cleans (high catch): 135/8, 155/6, 175/3, 3, 3

Friday, 4/15/11

(A1) BTN push-press: 135/7, 155/7, 175/5, 195/3, 3, 2, 2, 2

And by the way, a big shout-out to Kris, who sent me the most killer “Manimal” T’s — hit me with an email, brother — I’ve lost your addy!

In health,

Keith

What They Want vs What They Need

“…Can’t we at least give one another the benefit of the doubt?  I can be somewhat patient with people who think they have the truth, the problem is those who think they have the whole truth.

It seems to me that too quickly categorizing others as wrong or mistaken is consummate arrogance and is not honoring the mystic’s journey.  The mystic always knows it can’t easily be talked about.  It’s beyond words.  It’s ineffable.  It will always be mystery; and this experience of something that is always mystery and is always bigger than our ability to understand it, is, in fact, what makes one into a mystic.  It allows us to use the old shibboleth, but with a new twist: “Those who really know don’t talk too easily.  Those who talk too easily don’t really know…”

– Fr. Richard Rohr

Okay, so here’s a philosophical question for you; one with a strength and conditioning flavor: in any given situation, and with all other things being equal, is it better to perform the best exercise selection half-heartedly, or a lackluster selection with all-out intensity?

Things that make ya go hmmmmm….

As a coach/personal trainer, I run up against this dilemma on a daily basis.  But here’s the thing — it’s not enough that I know that the trainee ought to concentrate on the bang-for-the-buck lifts — things like deadlifts, dips, pull-ups and sprints — it’s my job to sell them on that fact.  But here’s the rub: if I can’t coax a full-on, Dorian Yates-like intensity from a client on a set of trap-bar deadlifts, am I better off opting for a better buy-in for a flashier move; single-leg RDLs, say?  Some form or fashion of glute bridge?  Yeah, I know the purists out there would scoff at the idea of compromise (God forbid!), but in most cases these “purists” don’t interact where the rubber meets the real-world road.  My take?  I’ll settle for a good dose of intensity in the lackluster vs “going through the motions” on the money moves; I’ll concede the battle and live to fight another day.  The pursuit of optimum Physical Culture is a lifelong chase and, like smoke, it cannot ever be completely grasped, only approached; never be completely known, but only hinted at.  My job is to keep my charges healthy, progressing, and above all, on the path.  This is just another instance of not allowing the perfect to be the detriment of the good.  The fact of the matter is that I do win this battle more times than not, and that’s something I can feel good about.  Is the client progressing overall?  Are their goals being met?  Do I have them in the game, spirited, optimistic and enthusiastic in their pursuit of optimum Physical Culture?  If I can answer yes to all of these, then what’s the harm in doing some vanity curls now and again in lieu of some hard -and-heavy chins?  None that I can see.

~

And speaking of not allowing the perfect to be the detriment of the good, we have a recent episode of  The People’s Pharmacy, Sugar Hazards, featuring Dr. Robbert Lustig.  Now many Paleo camp purists out there will lambaste Dr. Lustig for his speaking of “healthy whole grains”, but for the most part, this is a good interview for mainstream consumption.  Let’s face it, the vast majority will have to be won over to the Paleo/EvFit/Ancestral Fitness movement in a piecemeal fashion — a little here, a little there — and “a little here” is much better in my book than a deaf ear and a “not at all”.

~

Hmmm, does the following sound familiar or what?

“…To neurophysiologists, who research cognitive functions, the emotionally driven appear to suffer from cognitive deficits that mimic certain types of brain injuries. Not just partisan political junkies, but ardent sports fans, the devout, even hobbyists. Anyone with an intense emotional interest in a subject loses the ability to observe it objectively: You selectively perceive events. You ignore data and facts that disagree with your main philosophy. Even your memory works to fool you, as you selectively retain what you believe in, and subtly mask any memories that might conflict.

Studies have shown that we are actually biased in our visual perception – literally, how we see the world – because of our belief systems…”

– Barry Ritholtz, from his recent Washington Post article, “Why politics and investing don’t mix”

I treat the pursuit of optimum Physical Culture the same way that Meesus TTP treats her pursuit of the culinary arts; as just that — an open-ended art — an art which has an underpinning in basic, solid science, yes — but an ever-shifting art nonetheless.  I don’t wish to alienate either camp, but walk and talk effortlessly between each side of the divide.  And there does exist just such a divide — a divide that needs to be bridged for the better of each discipline.  Check out what John Brockman has to say on the subject, from the recent Wired article, Matchmaking with science and art:

What is it that gets you interested in a person or their work?

“…I am interested in people who can take the materials of the culture in the arts, literature and science and put them together in their own way. We live in a mass-produced culture where many people, even many established cultural arbiters, limit themselves to secondhand ideas. Show me people who create their own reality, who don’t accept an ersatz, appropriated reality. Show me the empiricists (and not just in the sciences) who are out there doing it, rather than talking about and analysing the people who are doing it…”

Yes, exactly.  Show me the Physical Culturalists with this mindset; follow these people closely, for here is where the future of Physical Culture is headed.

~

Okay, reader’s letters time.  The first one here is rather long, but I decided to include the whole thing because it demonstrates a thorough self-evaluation; the type of self-evaluation required for accurate n=1 investigation.  My comments/answers will be interspersed here in blue.

Keith,

First and foremost thank you for taking the time to respond to my email.  I’ve been following your blog and Facebook posts since last July and find them both to be very enlightening, well written, informative, and very much in line with my own beliefs and objectives to fitness and health.  I found you via a reference on freetheanimal which I faithfully follow, as well.

I apologize in advance for the length of this email, but I want to provide you with enough information to hopefully leave you with a relatively good understand of my approach and the challenges that I face and would like to overcome.

Here’s just a short summary to begin with details subsequently in the email.  I acknowledging that there are genetic limitations and age factors to consider, I’m just not convinced that I am incapable of making some further progress.

My Story (summary)

I just turned 58.  While, my age may be somewhat of a factor I don’t consider it the reason I have difficulty putting on lean mass.  I couldn’t do it at 25 either, but by my estimation that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep trying.

I’m 5’9″ and presently around 146 pounds.  Extremely small frame and bone structure; most women probably have thicker wrists than I do.  At my present weight I’m still around 13% body fat; most all of it around my lower mid section (navel area).  By my calculations I would still need to drop another 7-9 lbs to get to single digit body fat.  While I could easily do that, I just can’t bring myself to let my weight get that low.  Therefore, I eat…and eat.

Don’t misunderstand.  I can gain weight by eating processed foods and sugar and watch it turn to belly fat.  I just can’t seem to put on lean muscle.

I’ve done resistance training on and off since I was in my mid to late 20’s.  My approach up until about 2 years ago was always the standard multiple set approach 3 to 4 times a week.  I’d plateau after about 3 months end up either hurting myself trying to lift more weight than I could handle, or else just get frustrated at the lack of progress and quit. This would typically go 1-2 years on; 3-4 years off cycles and repeat.

About 2 years ago a little voice inside my head told me to get fit once and for all and find an approach that works for me; since the convention wisdom approach certainly does not.  I went on a quest of such a program.  I stumbled upon Body By Science and began Doug McGuff’s and John LIttle’s program/recommendations which I’m still following today.  I’ve had more success with this approach than anything else I’ve tried, but I’m far from where I’d like to be. They also have some sort of technical issue that will not allow me to post questions to their blog which precludes me from seeking advice via that venue.

My diet is very Paleo’ish.  I began eating that way coincidentally just before reading BBS — not as a result of BBS. Interesting, I discovered both Paleo and BBS about the same time and through different avenues.

My health is good.  I’m on no medications presently and most all my health issues went away almost immediately following the Paleo approach.  My weight dropped considerably at the same time.  I was around 178 lbs when I started Paleo.

Dietary Details

As stated above I am very strict regarding the Paleo approach to food.  I’m reluctant to say Paleo diet, because that implies food restriction, which I do not do.

I’m not dogmatic about what is considered Paleo.  For instance, I do eat potatoes, salt, dairy, but abstain from grains (wheat, rice, oats, bread, pasta, etc.), sugar, vegetable oils and such.  I do not drink milk, but consume a considerable amount of cream, butter and cheese.  I easily go through a pint of cream a week in my coffee and frequently with berries as a dessert.

Meats and eggs are my staples.  I rotate through an assortment of vegetables, maybe not with every meal, but several through out the week.  I go out of my way to add good fats to my diet (read: animal fats, coconut oil, olive oil, etc.).

I travel a lot and eat out most meals through the week.  I’ve found that by being selective on a menu I can usually find something that works.  The downside is you don’t always know what you’re getting when eating out.  On weekends I typically cook for myself.

I eat well and I eat a lot.  Here’s an example:  Wednesday for breakfast I had approximately 1/2 dozen eggs, 5 slices of bacon, 2 sausage and coffee for breakfast.  Lunch was Fajitas (minus the tortillas’) with sour cream and guacamole.  Dinner:  Caesar Salad (no croutons) , A 20 oz bone-in rib eye, baked potato with butter and sour cream.

A couple dozen eggs and 2-3 steaks a week are the norm for me.  I try to go organic when the choice is available.  I work in some fish, but I’m not a huge sea food lover.  Salads when I can’t find anything else on the menu that works, but it has to have meat.  I supplement with cod liver oil to try and balance my Omega 3 a bit.

I am sensitive to most all other supplements, though.  For reasons, I have never understood, vitamin and mineral supplements put me in a complete brain fog.  With the exception of CLA and chromium I’ve never found anything I can tolerate.  The high potency CLO has a similar effect, as well.  I can take the regular Carlson CLO, but not the high potency and never more than one teaspoon per day.  Strange, but true.  Oh, I just bought a container of whey to try.  I seem to tolerate it well.  I cannot do creatine, either

I experimented for 3 weeks over the recent holidays with Intermittent Fasting and my weight started dropping like a rock.  I dropped about 6 lbs with that approach over 3 weeks.  Essentially, I would go 14-16 hours without eating then re-feed for 8.  The easiest approach for me was to just skip breakfast and start my re-feed around noon each day.  No problems with this approach and I certainly leaned out quickly, but I didn’t feel comfortable letting my weight get that low.  I went off this approach the past week and put 3 lbs back on.  I was 146 this morning on the scale.  No visible muscle loss with that approach that I ascertain, though.

This, by the way, is essentially what I do each day as well, though the bulk of my eating is done during an approximate 6-hour window, beginning (again, usually) approximately 1-2 hours post workout.  Ergo, my workouts are nearly always performed in a well-fasted (approximately 15-hours) state.  This has more to do with my work schedule/client load more so than any active/on-going attempt to loose weight (which I’m not trying to do).  This method does keep me fairly ripped, though, year round.

Essentially, high fat and real foods is my approach.  I’ll detail my health improvements later.

Fitness and Exercise

As previously mentioned, I’ve done resistance training off and on for years.  No cardio to speak of.  I hate running and look awful in biker shorts 🙂

On occasion, I’ve tried sprinting.  While I’m not  opposed, I’m not crazy about putting up with the elements preferring my workouts to be indoors. . I’ve read on your blog that this is in your regimen and I’m certainly more than willing to add to mine, if it makes sense to do so.

Sprinting is a fantastic metabolic boost, not to mention a hell of a lower body workout (see my comments on the Metabolic/T-bar swing below).  It also serves to keep one coordinated, streamlined and graceful, i.e. moving naturally, with the fluidity of a cat.   My only lament is that I can’t sprint more often than what I do.

I have had memberships in the past to some good fitness centers (at least from the equipment perspective), but opted several years back to purchase a Bowflex machine and do my resistance training at home. I am still using it.  It seems to suffice and by working out at home I can moan, groan and grunt through my BBS thing without getting strange looks.

It does have its limitations.  I’ve maxed out the amount of resistance I can use for leg presses.  I typically pre-exhaust my legs, or perform a Max Pyramid style requiring less weight (another BBS approach from John Little).

We’ll soon have a home version of our CZT equipment (that will sell under the name of ARX Fit; “ARX” for Accommodating Resistance EXercise) on the market and, in fact, we’ll be putting up some video clips soon of the equipment in action.  The ARX Fit website will be rolling out soon.  Our target demographic here is the Bowflex crowd — Bowflex being, in my opinion a decent piece of home equipment, however, I feel that the CZT home version will be both much more versatile, and one will never run into the problem of “outgrowing”  the equipment.  So keep an eye out for that.  As soon as we’re live with the website, I’ll post about it here at TTP.  I’ll also get those clips up over at the Efficient Exercise YouTube channel as soon as they’re ready.

I presently have access to a reasonably good facility where I’m currently working during the week should we decide I need to go back to free weights, or better equipment.  Or, I’m not opposed to joining a facility to use when I am at home, but would prefer not.

I am going to assume you are familiar with BBS.  I seem to recall some mention of it on your blog.  I’m currently working out once per week with that approach and have for the past 18-24  months.  I believe I do a reasonably well controlled HIT lifts.  I’ve rotated through some split routines, Max Pyramids, Big 3 and Big 5 since beginning BBS.  I’m currently back to Big 5. (Bench Press, Lat pulls, Military Press, Rows, and Leg Press on a once per week schedule.

I’m very familiar with the BBS methodology and, for the most part, I think that it’s spot-on.  As is with any methodology, though, the body will eventually acclimate and cease to progress.  Remember that strength and hypertrophy are metabolically costly, and the body’s imperative is purely survival — that’s it — not “lookin’ good nekkid”, or hoisting supra-natural poundages in arbitrary lifts, nor dropping to sub-7% bodyfat levels.  The body is simply a carrier for your DNA (I’ll leave spiritual issues aside for the moment) and so will only begrudgingly (and in the most metabolically effective way possible) respond to changes in outside stimulus.  The key here is to maintain high intensity in a constantly varied set of exercises, modalities and methodologies.  In other words, the over-arching “system” for your workouts should be conjugate in nature.  Can the BBS protocol be tweaked so as to become a more conjugate system?  Absolutely; but then again, any protocol can thus be tweaked.

After somewhat of a stalemate a few months back I discovered what I thought had been high intensity, was not truly all my best.  After working through a little more pain and discomfort I found that I could really push myself more than I had in the past.  This is my present approach.  I’ve seen my numbers go up considerably over the past few months as it relates to the amount of weight I can move with steady increases almost every week.

I don’t know if you can relate to Bowflex numbers, or not, but here are my current stats.  I’m certain they are much higher numbers than if I were to switch to free weights for the same, or equivalent movement. Here they are never-the-less as of this past week’s workout.

Seated Bench – 230   1X6

Lat pull (palms up shoulder width grip) – 260   1X8

Rows – 290 1X8

Over head military- 160 1X6

Leg Press – 410 (pre-exhausted after holding weight for 1-2 mins in mid position))  1X6

The numbers above probably represent on average a 5 lbs improvement in strength per week over the past 3 months in each movement.  Again, this is once per week routine, one set per movement, and reasonably slow and controlled (more so on the negative side).  I don’t track time under load (TULs) any longer.  I figure it is what it is. I do go to failure on all movements, though.  I don’t move from set to set quite as quickly as BBS recommends, since I have to setup the machine for each.  Also, a bit of a rest between each allows me to move more weight, perhaps a bit of a cardio trade-off I’ve been willing to forego.

Intensity trumps all other considerations.  TUL is a concern in that you want a particular set to terminate before the slow-twitch fibers have a chance to rejuvenate and join back in with the “all hands (fibers) on deck” lifting party.  Again, the body is wired for survival, and will not call upon those fast-twitch fibers until absolutely necessary.

A general observation on my part is that my weakest muscles seem to respond the best.  For instance, if I go back 30 years ago I had very weak triceps and hated to triceps work.  Consequently, I worked triceps infrequently over the years.  Now they are perhaps my most developed area.  Same with deltoids which I never worked at all until recently, but I’m seeing some good results there, as well.  Contrarily, my forearms are reasonably strong, but embarrassingly poorly developed.  Not sure if this makes sense, or not, but a source of confusion to be based upon how I respond to resistance training.

Note that hypertrophy has many genetic factors, the three biggest players being the fiber make-up of the particular muscle, the size of the muscle belly, and the lever make-up at the joint in question.  The longer the muscle, relative to the associated tendon length, the more material is present to “mold”.  Tendon attachment and the resultant lever advantage about a particular joint (s) has much to say about how much load can ultimately be placed upon a particular muscle.  Those who’ve “won the parent lottery” have a higher-than-normal concentration of fast-twitch fibers in a given muscle, a long muscle belly and advantageous lever systems throughout the body.  These are the “mechanical” factors to consider — let’s not forget that the hormonal milieu has much to say about this expression as well.  The good news is that, while you may not be able to do much to alter the scaffolding you’ve been dealt, you can most certainly positively influence the hormonal profile under which “construction” takes place.

General Health

I am most likely a Celiac although that’s a self diagnosis.  What I found by eliminating grains from my diet many life long health issues disappeared — almost immediately.  I didn’t know what a Celiac was until I got into the Paleo world and started reading.  My problems started with a complete intestinal blockage when I was 12 years old and emergency surgery to clean out a blocked intestine.  Doctors then just sent me home and essentially said, “Duh, we don’t know and good luck.”.  I had gastro problems the rest of my life.  Coincidentally, my growth also stopped very shortly thereafter.  I am essentially the same height and weight as I was then.  Up until that time I was always the tallest kid in school; even played center on the Jr. High basketball team.  By high school I was considered short.  There’s a correlation to my present size and weight, but not necessarily a causation that I can prove.

Health and Paleo Successes

GERD is no longer a problem and other gastro problems which I won’t describe are gone.  I was also in chronic pain with tendonitis in both elbows, knees, and, most severely both Achilles’ tendons.  I’d had that affliction since 14 yrs. That is now completely gone.  Allergies – gone. Even my eye sight has improved.  I could go one, but I’m sure you get the point.  The Paleo diet has been a life saver for me and I would never consider any other approach to eating.

Objectives

In two words — lean muscle.  I can’t really gain weight on Paleo, but due to the health benefits described above I wouldn’t consider going off it.  Having said that, I’m tired of people asking me if “I’m ill” and the “Oh, you’re so skinny” remarks.  Truthfully, I’ve never felt better in my life, but people just see thin.

I recognize the genetic and age limitation, but I really feel 10-15 lbs of lean weight over the next 12-18 months should be attainable with the right approach.  I’m not looking, or expecting, a body builder physique.

Lastly, I’m not looking for a free hand-out either.  I know you are in the fitness industry and if consulting fees apply here let me know.  If Austin were just a bit closer I’d drive down to your fitness for personal training advice.

Keith, I sincerely appreciate your assistance and look forward to hearing from you.

Jeff

It sounds like you’ve got all the basics well covered, Jeff.  One thing you didn’t mention though, is your overall stress level and your sleep patterns.  Undue stress and/or lack of quality sleep can really put the kibosh on any meaningful strength or hypertrophy gains.  The propensity toward “spare tire” or belly fat is a sure sign of a jacked cortisol level.  It wouldn’t hurt to look into a good nighttime ZMA or Natural Calm supplement protocol.  Personally, I use Now Foods ZMA (or an equivalent) nightly.  Also, we haven’t looked at nutrient absorption and (especially so, since you’ve had a history of some pretty gnarly gastro-intestinal problems), so my suggestion here would be to look into some digestive enzymatic help via (for instance) Now Foods super enzymes.  Check Robb Wolf’s site for more on this.  Good nutrient intake is only part of the equation — a part that, it seems, you have well under control.  Proper absorption, though, is another issue entirely.  In addition to my “conjugate” suggestion above, you might want to play with a little more volume in your overall protocol — which you can get away with if you feather it in (as I do) within an overarching, conjugate methodology.  Variety is the key to the prevention of overtraining — variety in exercise/movement pattern selection, rep speeds and loading.  And one other sure-fire tip: if you can tolerate raw dairy, I’d suggest downing a good amount post-workout.  Personally, I like to make a 50-50 mix of raw, whole milk and cream — about 12 oz total — and down this after my workout and about an hour or so before I have a “real” meal.  I wait as long as I can post workout to ingest anything, though (so as to maximize the post-workout hormonal cascade), but many times life’s practicalities intervene; still gotta live under real-world constraints, so I don’t beat myself up with timing issues — just strive to do the best you can under the circumstances you’re dealt.

Feel free to hit me up with any follow-on questions.  And by all means come on down to Austin (the epicenter of Physical Culture!) if you get a chance.  I do deal with clients that I only see once per month or so; do give that option some thought.

Hey Keith,

I’m 47 yrs old and trying to get a feel for the direction I want to go relating to exercise.  On the diet front, I’m completely sold on Paleo (at least 90% of the time).  It makes sense logically, scientifically and there is general consensus among the “experts” (at least the ones I consider).  So, I’ve been looking at Body By Science or at least HIT related approach, Starting Strength and Crossfit.  There are some strong opinions out there and I’m hoping with all your real world experience and you analytical edge you can help me weigh it out.

I appreciate any insight.  My wife also appreciates it, since I have promised her I will try like hell to get to look like the guy she married 17 yrs ago.

Thanks and keep up the great work!!

Regards,

Art M

Art, so much of your final direction here will depend upon what you have readily available.  All of these are fine systems, and all can be manipulated in a conjugate-like fashion.  The path toward optimized Physical Culture has much in common with the path toward realized spirituality, in that the “system” is not nearly so as important as is the desire, intensity and ultimate follow-through with the chosen “system”.  As the Dalai Lama says in regards to the “correct spiritual path/religion”: all lead to the same end; pick a spiritual pony and ride.   My advice is to look at what you have ready access to and go, fully invested, in that direction.  The reality is that once the initial newness wears off, the last thing you want is a ready-made excuse for not continuing on down the path.  Is the nearest, most accessible place a CrossFit affiliate, an old-school black-iron gym (you should be so lucky!!), or…well, let’s just hope the closest outfit to you isn’t a Curves…  🙂

~

Dan John waxes poetic on the Metabolic (or T-Bar) Swing in this recent T-Nation article.  I love the swing, and think of them as “indoor sprints”, as each provide for the same metabolic punch and posterior-chain hit.  Swings are a winter/bad weather staple for me.  Low-tech, for sure — but damn effective.  Even better: T-Bar swings to a blaring AC/DC mix 🙂

~

…which leads nicely into the week’s workouts, of which I only have one “documentable” effort to relay.  Throughout the week I hit many, uber-high-intensity “mini” sessions, none of which I documented, however.  Lots of T-bars swings, weighted dips, pull-ups, lunges, you name it.  Here, though, is one that I did document:

Friday, 2/18/11

(A1) dynamic trap bar deadlift (grey bands): 265 x 3; 315 x 7 sets of 3

(A2) front press: 135 x 8; 155 x 6, 6, 5, 5, 5, 5, 4

~

And finally, what do three Physical Culture geeks do when they get together — that is, besides thrash one another in the weight room?  Well, they talk about Physical Culture (and weight room thrashings!) of course!  To whit, checkout episode one of our new Efficient Exercise venture, EETV.  Mark, Skyler and I had a lot of fun with this, and I’m sure we’ll make it a staple (though progressively more refined) offering.  And yeah, this wasn’t a stretch; we really do talk like this normally.  What was our pre-shoot prep?  5 minutes (if that) of kicking around possible topics.  This is off-the-cuff and off the top of the head, folks; Physical Culture performance art, at it’s best  🙂

In health,

Keith

Of “Failure”, “Intensity”, “Inroad” and “Frequency”

TTP reader Will asked the following question, in reference to my recent “Single Set vs Multiple Set Debate” post – and just as I was beginning work on this piece; nice timing, my man  🙂  Here’s Will’s question:

A very thought-provoking post (and comments). Thanks very much from a new reader of your blog. I do have a question about how you and your readers conceive of ‘HIT”. I do a modified version (with free weights and cable exercises) but I do not go to absolute failure, stopping instead when my form begins to break down. In terms of ‘intensity’, I question whether absolute failure is necessary (and, therefore, I question whether machines – while they may have many benefits – are necessary to a HIT program. For what it’s worth, my own program usually results in two full-body routines with no more than one set per exercise (but, multiple exercises for larger muscle groups). To restate my question: what evidence is there to support the claim (and, I’m not sure you or your readers are necessarily making this claim) that ‘high intensity’ = absolute failure in a given set?

Thanks,

Thank you, Will, for the thought-provoking input.  The tough part about answering any question related to “intensity”, “failure”, “thorough inroad” and “training frequency”  definitively is that these factors are inextricably tied to highly individualistic intangibles such as training “age”, available tools, and the trainee’s personal goals.  Of course, individual genetic factors also come into play here as well, especially insofar as these factors influence each individual’s recuperative ability.  And, too, we need to keep in mind the differences between effective and efficient strength and metabolic conditioning, sport-specific training, and what I generally categorize as “play” – a catch-all phrase encompassing anything from tennis to Metro Dash, to a couple of my personal favorites, fixie riding and mountain biking.  Add cyclocross to that list as well, as this is on my “new sport to dabble in” RADAR.

So when attempting to answer a question such as yours, I first have to ask “what is your ultimate intent, or, what do you hope to achieve with this training session?”  Now this usually invokes a WTF?? look on the face of the trainee, but I assure you that it is the most important question a trainer can ask of a client, or that a trainee can ask of himself.  And the answers here can be as varied as the individuals themselves – everything from “dude, I jus’ wanna get swole” to “I wanna be a better, faster athlete”, to the stay-at-home mom (or dad) who just wants to be as fit as possible with a minimum time investment.  The thing is, these are all legitimate answers to the same question.

Now, if our ultimate intent is to strengthen and/or hypertrophy our muscles to the greatest extent possible and reap the anaerobic (and by extension, the aerobic component as well) metabolic conditioning benefits in the safest (i.e., easy on the joints, tendons, ligaments), most time-efficient manner possible, then yes – in my opinion, a machine-based, HIT/single-set-to-failure, infrequent, total body workout is the way to go; the ideal, so to speak.  The first limitation we’ll encounter, however, when attempting to realize this ideal, is access to the proper tools – in this case, machines which exhibit proper strength/force curves for each exercise movement.

A quick aside/caveat: yes, I wholeheartedly believe that free weights do indeed play a significant roll in the training of an athlete (a topic for another day).  However, even when the trainee is an athlete (or has athletic aspirations), I do believe that the individual’s strength/hypertrophy gains are best realized via the aforementioned HIT/single-set-to-failure methodology.  Sport-specific skills, including sport-specific explosiveness, proprioception, power-production, CNS efficiency and coordination, rate of force development, etc., are all entities that must be trained appropriately and in addition to strength acquisition.  Note, though, that the degree to which any (or all) of these other aspects must be trained is in direct proportion to level of importance placed on athletic achievement and the available time commitment.  That is to say, a professional athlete has much more at stake (and more available time to commit to training) than the weekend warrior.  And your average trainee, who is simply in search of maximizing his/her health and fitness in a time efficient manner, need not worry at all with these additional aspects.   First things first, though: it’s the rare (and I can’t over-emphasize the term “rare” here enough) individual indeed — from accomplished power athlete to housewife to grandma and grandpa – who wouldn’t benefit from becoming stronger and in possession of a better-conditioned, anaerobic metabolism.  In fact, the dilemma of the necessity of chasing further strength gains only really becomes an issue when available training time is at a premium; in other words, if as a coach I only have a finite amount of time to devote to improving an athlete’s performance, how best do I approach that?  What attributes do I endeavor to improve – and how do I prioritize those attributes – under a given time constraint?  For a little more about that, see this post.  One HUGE benefit, then, to HIT/single-set-to-failure protocols, performed on appropriately designed machines, is that training time then becomes as near a non-issue as can be imagined.  Hell, I can always find a half-hour every 5 days or so to devote to strength training, especially given the fact that performing strength training in this manner will substantially decrease the amount of time I need to devote to anaerobic conditioning.  Indeed, it’s a time-efficient, two-for-one special.  The problem, of course, is access to appropriate and available tools.

As it is, very few trainees have access to a well-appropriated bank of intelligently-designed machines – those designed with a proper strength/force curve.  Nautilus and MedX are the gold standard for the most widely (relatively speaking) available equipment; by far and away my favorite, though, is CZT equipment.   What a properly designed machine allows the trainee to do is reach utter muscular failure – both total (i.e., the muscle/muscle group as a whole), and of each muscle fiber type within the muscle/muscle group as a whole (slow, intermediate and fast twitch).  Free weights, irrespective of all their other benefits (and there are many), simply do not allow for reaching this level of intensity and the attainment of ultimate muscular failure safely, and while maintaining proper form.  If you look at the embedded video of me in the CZT link, you’ll realize that there is simply no way that I could approach that level of intensity, and push to that degree muscular failure (and therefore, degree of inroad) via the use of free weights.

More specific to you question, though – is the achievement of muscular failure necessary, or, is ‘high intensity’ necessarily defined as absolute failure in a given set?  Well, kinda, maybe…sort of.  I guess what really needs to be kept in mind here is the difference between the spirit and letter of the law.

My own personal feeling is that all single-set-to-failure type protocols are a subset of like-intentioned protocols that would collectively and appropriately fall under the HIT — and its fraternal twin, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) — training philosophy.  Personally, these labeling distinctions mean little to me beyond the point of facilitating ease of communication.  I much prefer to look at questions of training in a “desired outcomes”, “available time”, and “available/appropriate tools” kind of way.  This also prevents me from slipping into dogmatic mentality, or attempting to shoehorn a trainee into an existing protocol/modality.  Even through the bulk of my training is centered around a multiple-set framework, with no single set taken to the level of failure reached in (for instance) my run-in with the CZT, I’d still consider it to be HIT/HIIT-like training.

As an example, compare and contrast the RDL hyper-reps I performed on the CZT machine vs what can be approximated via the use of free weights; you can read my post-workout notes here, but the gist of the matter is that I totally wrung all that I could from this movement in a single, 5-repetition set that totaled approximately 50 seconds.  Now, how many sets of conventional RDLs would I need to perform to even come close to this level of accumulated intensity and muscular failure?  Quite a few.  And, in pursuing the conventional route, I’d have to maintain vigilance, as I approached muscular failure, against injury.  As anyone can tell you, pushing one’s self to the ultimate edge, and safeguarding against injury are two conflicting ideas and, ultimately, the safeguard against hurting your fool self will throttle-down your intensity no matter how deliberate you your attempts otherwise.  It’s simply human nature, my friend.  The machine then adds a “safety net” factor which allows for the psychological “freedom” to push further into the failure abyss.  The key, however — in each of these scenarios – is the reaching to, and tapping-out of, all available muscle fibers; especially so, the fast twitch fibers.

All easy enough you say – straightforward, even.  Ah, but there’s one other element we have to account for, and that little variable is time; specifically, Time Under Load (TUL).

So, yes, ideally we want to fatigue the fast twitch fibers in a given muscle (or group of muscles), but we also want to fatigue the slow and intermediate twitch fibers as well, as we’re looking for total bang for the buck here (note: in some instances this will not be the case [e.g., weight-class athletes], but that’s a topic for another discussion).  What machine-based protocols allow for is a specific loading, such that a specific and continuous time-under-load can be utilized until total muscular failure is realized in a single, prolonged set.  And set duration is of the essence here, with the requirement being that failure must be reached within a time span of (roughly) 40 to 90 seconds.  Why such a precise time requirement?  Because this forces the fast twitch fibers – which will not engage unless the lesser fibers have either failed, or their force production is inadequate for the task at hand — to engage and fail before the slow and intermediate fibers have had a chance to recover and re-engage in the effort.  This is tough to accomplish with free weights and thus the necessity, when free weights are the only tool available, of multi-set (and more frequently performed) protocols.  The same ends can be approximated, it’s just a much more efficient operation when utilizing proper machines.

Studies of this subject, as I alluded to in the “Single Set vs Multiple Set Debate” post, are kinda like statistics in that the same data set can be used as support to argue both sides of the debate.  The problem is that the control variables are just so damn hard to account for.  Again we get back to trying to nail down terms such as “intensity” and “failure”; add to this fact that the all-important recuperative ability is an ever-changing and highly individualistic factor.  That said, though, here are a couple of studies that seem to support the single-set-to-failure methodology:

The Effect of Weight Training Volume on Hormonal Output and Muscular Size and Function

Strength training. Single versus multiple sets

My suggestion is to use studies such as these as indicators in formulating your own, n=1 path.  My own n=1 experience leads me to believe that, given access to the proper tools, single-set-to-failure is the best method by which to gain strength and hypertrophy, with a kick-ass side benefit of improved anaerobic metabolic conditioning to boot.

Sprints and Iron; Yeah Buddy!

I hit some Vibram-shod sprints on Saturday, then took my dog-and-pony show inside the gym for a little iron tossing.  Not a bad way at all to spend a pleasant Saturday afternoon, I must say.

I set up the sprints in a 15-seconds-for-max-distance format, full recovery (about 2 minutes or so) between efforts.  As my CNS is much more cycling-specific tuned these days, I decided to pull the plug (assign a drop-off) of being when I ceased to improve, distance-wise, in a single effort.  You just can’t imagine how movement-specific your CNS becomes until you concentrate on one endeavor, at the near exclusion of another, for quite some time.  In my first few sprints I felt as clumsy as a school kid.  In attempts 4 though 7, though, I felt like I was flying.  In attempt #8 I failed to better my previous mark, and so I pulled the plug, headed inside and readied the iron.

I hit a superset of BTN push-presses and Atlantis machine pull-downs.  Not that I think the Atlantis machine necessarily offers a particularly suitable strength/force curve mind you, but because I left my friggin’ weight belt at home.  Ugh…anyway –

btn push-press: 115 x 6; 145 x 6; 165 x 3; 185 x 3, 3; 205 x 1; 215 x 1, 1, miss; 185 x 3, 3

Atlantis pull-down machine: 180 x 8; 270 x 7; 360 x 5; 410 x 4, 6 (rest-pause singles).  Each concentric was performed as fast as possible, each eccentric was at a 6-second count (6-0-x-0).

I finished –up with a round of Nautilus 4-way neck work: 55 lbs x 12 front, side, side and 65 lbs x 12 to the rear.  Total TUL for each of the 4 angles is approximately 45 seconds.

Of Routines, Ruts, and Habitual Eating

In case you missed it, TTP reader Mike asked the following in response to my “Quick and Dirty on Calorie Intake” post:

…My problem is I think I hit bottom on the lean out and was wondering if calorie restriction is in order?

I was curious about your comment “to eat more in order to go down in weight.” Sorry to bore you but I would like to lean out more but what in your opinion would I be giving up to get it, strength, stamina etc., on the calorie restricted approach? Unfortunately I can’t swing a long trip abroad to lean out.

I’m pretty pleased with where I am and don’t want to get greedy on leaning out but I liked your take on the calorie restriction issue so I thought I would ask for your opinion. Thanks for your thoughts.

This is the blah blah blah part . . .
I have been unweighed unmeasured gluten-free paleo, low carb (sub 50 per day), 1oz nuts a day, no dairy (except heavy cream in decaf coffee) keeping a food journal for 6 months. My cheats are protein style double doubles (1 x per week), chicken nachos (1x every 2 weeks). (I’m trying to be honest with what goes in my mouth per Skyler’s related blog post).


I have dropped about 40 pounds in the past six months on the strict paleo, did the water tank body fat measurement and came out at 16% in April. The BF % scale at home would seem to indicate this is going down still and my weight is staying the same at around 220 for the past month, which is good (muscle?). Activity level is strength biased xfit 3 times a week, longer outdoor activities (biking stairs etc) at least once per week, sleep good but could be better…

And what follows is my rather abbreviated answer:

Here’s the thing with calorie restriction, Mike: your metabolism will slow (thereby reducing the effectiveness of said cal. restriction), and your workouts will begin to suck. Not right off, of course, but pretty damn quick thereafter. Short bursts of slight — and in some cases large — over-eating interspersed with a few days of under-eating & IF seem to help most people punch beyond sticking points. I do this quite naturally, and in a random manner — I very rarely think “gee, I haven’t hit an IF in a while”, rather, it just comes about organically. Same with the “eat like a starved hyena” days. Until you really learn to listen to your body, though, a 5-day restricted/2-day re-fuel might be appropriate. Personally, though, I’m not good with schedules like that, preferring the more organic, fractal method.

Now, I’m still good with what I’d originally put out to Mike, however, there are a couple of things that I’d like to add to that.  First off, a 40-lb fat depletion in a 6-month span is rockin’ (though not at all unexpected), and it sounds as if Mike hasn’t actually stalled in his fat loss, but simply slowed a bit.  I don’t know exactly where Mike is on the ol’ look, feel and perform scale (maybe he can elaborate), but if “feel” and “perform” are spot-on, and what we’re wanting to come around is the “look” aspect, it may just be what we need is a tad bit more patience.  I’m not sure what another 6-ish percent bodyfat equates to (weight-wise) in Mike’s case, but it might be helpful to relate that amount of fat to where he was 6 months ago.  A little perspective sometimes works wonders.

And now for a bit of psychology…

I’ve always maintained that training, diet – well, all of Physical Culture, in fact – is largely mental in nature.  The best trainers, the best S&C coaches, and the most successful practitioners are not only technically proficient, but masterful motivators and – to but it bluntly – skilled shrinks…artful manipulators of the human psyche!  Wild animals left to their own devices exhibit perfect phenotypical expressions representative of their particular species.  They eat when hungry and of what is correct for their nature, move when necessary, and otherwise mindlessly attend to their survival.  Not so we humans, who are encumbered by ego, self-reflection and that ever-present self-chatter.  Our mind is constantly wanting, grasping, and left unbridled, this gets us in a world of self-made trouble.  One tiny aspect of this, as it relates to Mike’s case, may be the ol’ bug-a-boo of habitual eating.

In a way, food journals can be your best friend; or, too, they can be your worst enemy.  On the positive side, a journal allows for the exposure of what one actually consumes in a day, and in what ratios and, in some cases, this can be enlightening (i.e., the “damn!  I had no idea I ate that much [fill in the blank]! scenario).  In some cases, though, I have seen keeping a journal completely backfire.  The outward manifestations might have varied, but the causation usually boiled-down to one thing: compulsion.

Take for instance Mike’s “1oz of nuts per day”.  Now, 1oz of nuts is not going to make or break anyone’s fat loss attempts, however, it may be indicative of the larger issue of habitual eating.  That particular calorie intake may simply be a feel-good psychological crutch – something akin to, say, those who only smoke when they drink.  Situational is the key word here.  This is why I am so big on people learning to really listen to their bodies — an entity, by the way, that is in continual flux.   The body doesn’t ever “always” need 3 eggs and 2 strips of bacon for breakfast – some mornings it may want/need/require half a fatted hog, and other mornings (or days, even), it may not need anything at all.  This folds directly into the downside of routine, the downside of schedule.  Much better, I think, to learn to listen past the mind’s dictates, and for the body’s actual requests.  Where does the mind come in handy?  In the deciphering addiction as opposed to need.  The topic of another subject entirely, and beyond today’s scope.

Skyler Tanner discusses, in this recent post, the suppressive action of unusual foods upon the overall appetite, and this is certainly true.  The other aspect of this, though, is the fact that one is forced out of a set routine – a perfect, dietary, one-two punch, if you will.  In this circumstance, one may not be at the point of being able to fully listen to the body, but at least that ability to “mentally dictate” has been somewhat blunted by the unusual circumstance.  This, in fact, is the “magic” behind bootcamp-like transformations, and is a big reason behind why sporting teams hold training camps away from home base.  The real trick, then, is to learn the art of non-routine even as you navigate the work-a-day (and highly scheduled, routine oriented) world that we all must live in.

Much more on this at another time.  Now on to the physical side of things…

Friday night’s gym session –

This explosive-movement-heavy session followed a good bit of fixie riding, so my legs were good and warm (if not a wee bit zorched) by the time I hit the gym.  As it was, I dove right into this explosive superset:

kneeling DB jumps: 20lbs x 5, 25lbs x 5 sets of 3

straight bar muscle-ups: bw x 2, each round

Following that I rolled right into this superset:

military front press: 95 x 10; 135 x 6; 150 x 6, 6

snatch grip high-pull: 95 x 10; 135 x 6; 150 x 6, 6

Here’s a Joe DeFranco clip of a barbell kneeling jump demonstration.

I prefer to use DBs for this exercise, but it really doesn’t make much difference.  The key is to really engage the hips in the movement.  If you’ve got sleepy hips in the Oly movements, this exercise will help fix that.  Also, if you use DBs for this movement, be sure to explosively shrug the weight up (as you would in a normal Oly/Oly derivative lift), as opposed to “arcing” the DBs outward and forward so as to provide upward momentum.

A Quick Q & A, and an Upright Press-Centered Workout

Q & A Time –

TTP reader Tony asks the following questions in reference to my recent Autoregulation post.  A quick disclaimer, though, before we delve in: First off, I am an unabashed generalist athlete; if I were training for a specific event, my work would be much more directed and precise.  As it is, my personal training methods are more along the lines of “free-lance” than the 9-5 type work that is required of a sport-specific athlete.  I use the terms “generally”, “most times”, etc., not to be vague or flippant, but because I may very well change direction – and 180-degrees so – on a dime.  I continually self-evaluate, and may shift gears and enter a “specialized” phase that totally negates all I’ve written here.  The answers below reflect my “holding pattern” training, those times when I seem to be firing on all cylinders; no glaring chinks in the armor, as it were.  That said, here we go with a few quick questions:

“What five base movement patterns do you identify? I’m guessing push, pull, squat, lunge, and….?”

For my purposes, I roll with the following: (1) overhead push/press, (2) overhead pull/pull-up variation, (3) vertical push/dip, (4) pull from the ground/deadlift, and (5) squat variation.

“In what framework within your base patterns do you integrate your ancillary movements? In what way do you seek to compliment the base movements?”

*Most* ancillary work that I do is done under a higher repetition scheme (i.e., the repetition method) with the specific goals being (1) the development of another (of among many) aspect of strength, (2) – and this is especially so far arm work – tendon, ligament (and maybe even fascia) work, and (3) – and related to “other aspects of strength” — as a means to induce more work load without overtraing a movement pattern, via the hypothesis that the same movement pattern can be trained in close proximity, so long as the same modality (i.e., set, rep, tempo, etc. schemes) are not repeated.  See the note below Wednesday’s workout explanation for one example.

For ancillary work, I generally look back to what muscle groups were most recently worked (base-loading wise), and compare this to what I think I might do in the immediate future (i. e., the next immediate workout), then I pick my ancillary work according to what has had the least amount of directed work.  For instance, I rarely do any ancillary leg work, since I engage in so much sprinting, biking and plyos.  Most of my ancillary work is therefore upper body, push and pull centered.  To a lesser extent, I work-in arms as an ancillary-type movement.

“How do you integrate your Metcon/explosive movements within this construct?”

I engage in a good deal of MetCon work in the form of running and biking, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).  I don’t usually post on these sessions (the bulk of which take place on non-lifting days), unless I happen to engage in a dedicated, or out-of-the-ordinary, HIIT-type session that I think people may be able to get some useful information from.  I don’t ever train specifically for endurance work, however, I do engage in extended (hours-long) mountain or fixie rides now and again.  By the way, I can more than hold my own, even at a beef-a-loe hefty weight (for a cyclist), in these endurance outings, even as my conditioning training is specifically geared to mimic that of a sprinter.  That’s a topic for another time, though.

I *usually* try to perform an explosive Oly-derivative to lead-off each weight lifting session, and I’ll feather-in plyometrics work and/or other explosive elements where and when I see fit.   There are phases where I’ll concentrate on Oly work (and/or the derivatives) and/or explosives and plyos and back-off on the “traditional” weight training.  This all depends on what I see in my continual self-assessment – if I notice some lack, I’ll immediately begin to ping on it.  Right now, I seem to be pretty well centered — however, experience has taught me that that “centeredness” won’t last for long.  Maintaining good athletic balance is akin to herding cats — you’d better be on top of your game,  and ready to alter course at a moment’s notice to bring in the strays.  My last glitch was a fairly big discrepancy in single leg strength (both in the press/squat and in the pull).  I managed to clear that up in short order with dedicated unilateral work; during that period, though, my overall training plan resembled little of what my plan looks like today.  Anyway, all is cruising right on along at the moment — something else, though, is bound to crop up soon.  And this isn’t my expression of abject pessimism, it’s simply the nature of physical preparation.

On to Wednesday’s, Upright Press-Centered Workout –

power snatch: 95 x 5; 115 x 5; 135 x 4 sets of 3

~ superset both the power snatches, and then the military presses, with straight-bar muscle-ups (the pull-up variety), bw x 2, each round ~

military front press: 95 x 10; 115 x 6; 155 x 5+, 4+

Then, utilizing the repetition method, the following superset:

standing bicep curl: EZ bar + 50 x 15; bar + 70 x 12; bar + 90 x 12

laying tri extension: EZ bar + 50 x 15; bar + 70 x 12; bar + 90 x 11+

Note: as an example, one option in my next workout, for ancillary upright pressing work, might be high repetition Bradford presses.  Heavy shoulder work today, followed by more work of a differing modality in the next follow-up session.  Note that I performed btn jerks in the previous workout.  So, in very short order, I will have performed btn jerks, military presses and (most likely) Bradford presses – all upright pressing movements, but all requiring different aspects of strength.  This is my nod to Simmons’ Conjugate methodology, and its cycling, within the same training week, of max effort, speed, and repetition work.