The Value of Machines — a Pre-Exhaust Example, and a Couple of Days of Training

Dave Durrell, of High Intensity Nation, recently posted on a very effective, isolation + compound movement shoulder training technique, utilizing a good ol’ weightlifting standby — the pre-exhaust method.  This is a fine example, in my opinion, of employing the right tool for the job.

Let’s take a step back and consider the various ways in which a body can be “strong”.  On its face, this seems an odd notion – you’re either strong or you’re not, right?  Well, not exactly.  We’ve all seen examples of someone who’s quick as a cat – super explosive, say — yet who’s lacking in absolute strength (the classic Allyson Felix scenario).  Conversely, there’s the super-strong powerlifter for whom you’ll have to break out a sundial to clock their 40 time.  Power, then (what we’re really ultimately looking at) is a combination of different finely trained strength attributes appropriated and expressed over a given duration; the fine-tuned execution of which is a type of kinesthetic “genius” in its own right.  Of course, the predominant strength attributes required of a 2 second duration snatch are undoubtedly different than those required of a 3-and-a-half second deadlift, a 100 meter sprint, a wrestling match, or the full duration of a football game.  The best athletes in each of these endeavors, though, will undoubtedly excel at not only the predominant required strength capability, but in all strength capabilities.  This is what Louie Simmons is getting at when he trains his athletes to be proficient in all “strengths” (I wrote a little about this most recently, here).  A proficiency in all strength attributes is, in fact, what separates the “contenders” from the mere “competitors”.

But back to Dave’s post.  It’s been fashionable within the free-weight community these days – hell, actually ever since the emergence of Arthur Jones, and advent of Nautilus equipment upon the physical culture scene – to bash machine-based work.  The thing is, though, machines are just another tool.  And for pre-exhaust work, isolation purposes, repeated-effort method work and the like, they’re a damn good choice.  Again, it’s all a matter of determining what your immediate training needs are, and choosing the right tool from among your available options to satisfy your needs.  Whenever I’m asked the old “machines or free weights” question, my answer is always “yes”…and bodyweight exercises, and sprinting, and climbing, and gymnastics… Why would anyone choose to voluntarily limit their available options?

Late revision (6/25/10) – I just ran across this, via Seth Godin’s fine blog (hat tip to Mike Robertson).  In my mind,  Ism Schism pretty much sums-ups the whole machine/free weight debate.

Tuesday’s Training –

front squat: 135 x 3; 165 x 3; 185 x 3; 205 x 2; 215 x 7 rest-pause singles


hang cleans (light; workin’ the groove again): 135 x 5; 155 x 5; 165 x 6 – very fast, perfectly executed reps.  Fat bar.


Jump squat + BTN jerk: 135 x 3; 155 x 3; 175 x 3, 3, 3

then a superset of-

db tricept extensions (lying flat): 45 x 12, 12, 12 (rest-pause last 5 reps of last set)

EZ bar bicep curl: bar +70 lbs x 12, 12, 12 (rest-pause last 3 reps of last set)

Wednesday’s Training –

clean grip pull jumps: 135 x 3; 185 x 3; 205 x 3; 225 x 3; 245 x 3, 3, 3

then, a superset of –

kneeling db clean and press: 40 x 15, 15, 15

ghr: bodyweight x 15, 15, 15


Nautilus 4-way neck: 50 lbs front, side, side; 60 lbs to the rear

Took Thursday completely off – no lifting, riding or anything.  Felt kinda strange.

12/8/09, Strength-Speed (Ham/Glute Intensive)

If anyone is dubious of the notion that the glutes/hamstrings are engaged in the bottom-most of a front squat, try this little combo on for size:

  • cns prime: Russian scissor jump for height x 6 total
  • front squat: 135 x 5, 5, 185 x 3; 205 x 3, 2
  • snatch grip RDL: 135 x 5, 5; 185 x 5; 205 x 5, 4
  • cns prime: muscle-ups x 3
  • bent-over row (barbell): 205 x 5, 5; 255 x 5; 275 x 3, 3

Total of 5 rounds.  Auto-regulated for load/rep speed (power) drop-off.  Doesn’t really look like much, but when you reach the point to where you can be surgically precise with maximizing the effectiveness of each and every repetition, it doesn’t take much per-workout quantity and/or variety.  Notice how each exercise (except for the muscle-up cns prime) put the glutes/hams under duress; even the BOR stresses the glutes/hams in holding a proper, bent-over position.  This was by design.  Went well below parallel in the front squats to accentuate the glute/ham involvement in and out of  “the hole”; working weight used suffered as a result.

Specific to the execution of the RDLs: with an empty bar in a snatch grip, stand with your backside to a solid, immovable surface or wall.  Bend at the hips as if performing a power snatch from the low hang, and then ease lower so that the bar clears the knees.  Push what your mama gave ya (your boo-tay) back as far as humanly possible while pushing as much as possible (think “push the floor away”) from the heels. Now scootch your feet appropriately so that your butt just does touch that object/wall behind you.  Feel that hamstring stretch?  Yeah, baby, that’s what we’re looking for!  Now mark your foot position (I use a piece of athletic tape.  You do have some with you, right?  It’s a gym bag staple.); also mark the width of your foot placement, as this matters as well (remember 9th grade geometry, kids!).  Load up the bar and rock on.  And remember two things: (1) push the floor away with the heels on every rep, and (2) touch that wall with your boo-tay on every rep.  Don’t cheat yourself, though the urge will surely arise.  As the weight gets heavier, you’ll feel as if you’re going to topple over backwards – you won’t; remember that wall?  You’re not going anywhere.  And keep the rep speed up.  Power production is the name of the game.

11/19/09, Speed Endurance Emphasis

6+ hours deep sleep.  Up @ 4:30 AM, start workout at 6:20 AM, end @ 7:15 AM.  Post workout meal at 8:15 (2 eggs, cheese, spinach & veggie scramble).

More of a CrossFit-esk type of a workout this AM.  Setting up for a heavy(er) deadlift and weighted dip workout on Friday (11/20) evening – due to be out of town on Saturday (and possibly Sunday) ==> no workout.  That’s the plan as of  the time being, anyway.

Warm-up w/sprint starts, skips, ballistic stretching, push-ups, pull-ups, etc.  Then the following:

  • 200 meter run; sprint 60 meters, stride 40 meters, sprint 60 meters, stride 40 meters.  Vibrams, indoor track.
  • Front Squat: 135 x 5; 165 x 5; 185 x 5, 5
  • BTN Push Press: 135 x 5; 165 x 5; 185 x 4, 4
  • Weighted reverse grip pull-ups: 45 x 5; 80 x 5, 5, 5

4 total rounds.  Plyo squat drops x 3 prior to each round of Front Squats; straight bar reverse grip muscle-ups x 3 prior to each round of pull-ups.

Not so much concerned with the overall time of completion, but limited rest b/t sets as much as tolerable.  Emphasis still on each individual concentric rep completion as fast as possible.  No grind sets.  Power emphasis in the 5(+/-1) rep range.

11/12/09, Strength-Speed Emphasis

Last meal @ 6:30 PM (egg, spinach, cheese, bacon omelet).  7+ hours sleep.  Up at 6 AM, gym 10 – 11AM (fasted + coffee).  Odd work schedule today.

warm-up: 15 minutes sprint work-ups, bounds, ballistic stretching, burpees, push-ups, pull-ups.

Front Squats: Explode with heels out of the hole with enough speed to end on tip-toes in one fluid motion (full triple extension).  135 x 5, 5  185 x 3, 195 x 3, 205 x 2, 210 x 2, (2, 1, 2, 2).  Last set in rest-pause fashion.

Reverse grip Pull-ups: 45 x 5, 75 x 3, 80 x 3, 85 x 3, 3, 2, 2, 2 (fast as possible concentric, 4 count eccentric)

Clean-Grip low pull from high hang: 135 x 5, 5, 225 x 5 (rest-pause), 245 x 5 (rest-pause).  Feet completely clear of the floor on each rep, land rear of toe-off point.

Front Squat superset with Rev grip pull-ups, then supperset pull-ups with low pulls (i.e., 2 separate, superset pairings with 1 common exercise).  Load selected so as to allow for max concentric speed for indicated rep range.  CNS prime prior to each set; drop squat “stuck landings” x 3 or Russian lunge for height  x 3, rev grip ballistic p/u x 3.

Piston, Spring, or Steam Engine?

“Chaos is the score upon which reality is written.”

Henry Miller

photo: cloneofsnake

"Piston" and "Spring" represented cred: cloneofsnake

Just a little food for thought here; something to keep in mind when planing your future workouts.  Is a squat just a squat, a jump just a jump?  Well, yes…and no.  Let’s consider for just a moment, three different aspects of the same, basic “front squat” movement; first up, the pure strength end of the spectrum (i.e., the “steam engine”):

Next up, a photo sequenced example of the speed-strength (piston) version of this movement:

photo cred: CrossFit
Photo cred: CrossFit

And finally, yours truly with a demonstration of the RFD (rate of force development, spring) side of the spectrum:

Three aspects of the same movement, with lots of overlapping, gray zones, in between.  But once again, we come back full circle to the notion of power development — and, more specifically, the power-to-body weight ratio.  Each aspect of the movement profile must be optimized in order to enhance this ratio.  And there must be a proper synergy, as well; too much “steam engine” for example, at the expense of  “spring”, and the trainee’s overall power output has just been compromised.  Know your goals and know your needs relative to power output.  Train accordingly.

Vern Gambetta recently alluded to the same notion in this blog post for Elite Track, and I couldn’t agree with him more.  Effective training is not solely about pushing massive loads slowly — ultimately, it boils down to training the body to produce maximum power over a defined time period (or, more specifically, within a defined energy system), consistent with your goals.  Is raw strength a component in power development and athletic achievement?  You bet it is.  But, it’s only a single component of the overall power equation.  And so I’ve got to side with Vern on this one — I find it hard to believe that (quarter squatting, at best?) this load is lending much enhancement to this kid’s instantaneous power output.  He’s a hammer thrower, not a strongman competitor.  I’ll be a little more forgiving than Vern though, as you can’t decipher an entire training program from a single picture.  I’ll will hold this up as a metaphor, though, for what seems to be a bias (in males, anyway) toward the raw strength end of the training spectrum.  Moving big loads in the gym does turn heads, and it’s certainly an ego trip to feel the bar across your shoulders undulating due to a heavy load, and your driving of that load up through another rep.  But is grinding out slow, heavy reps helping you achieve your goal?  Would you be better served spending time developing speed, speed-strength or strength-speed aspects of the same basic movement?  I would have to say that in my experience it’s the speed of movement that is the limiting factor in a trainee’s power output in a particular movement pattern.  Not always, of course, but usually.

Oh, and one quick thing I’d like to point out from the box jump photo sequence (by the way, thanks, CrossFit, for the shot) — look at the jumper’s toe-off angle in the third frame.  See the slight forward trajectory?  That forward trajectory signals a greater degree of quad engagement in that movement than what would be the case if this guy were to be engaged in a true vertical jump, or in a (properly performed) clean or snatch (or one of their variations).   In the vertical or “jump back” version of this basic movement, the posterior chain is engaged to a greater degree.  The box jump and vertical jump, therefore, are not the same beast.  Close, perhaps — think, zebra is to horse as box jump is to vert — but not quite.  The posterior chain is the most explosive and powerful — or potentially most powerful (if not yet properly developed) — engine your body possesses.  To fully develop the posterior chain — and then to learn to fully engage that chain — is to push your jumping ability ever higher.  Squat variations are no doubt a great foundation for an explosive vert; but the pulls and Oly lift variations (think explosive triple extension) will truly put the umph in your “ups”.

In health,