More on the Thorny Issue of “Strong Enough”

Patrick Ward, who maintains what is, in my opinion, one of the better training-related blogs on the net (Check out Patrick’s work, here),  wrote this piece recently, which I thought was a fantastic compare-and-contrast/food-for-thought companion to my own recent Of “Failure”, “Intensity”, “Inroad” and “Frequency” post, and, too, to an older piece that I wrote, What, Exactly, Constitutes ‘Strong Enough’?.  This particular offering from Patrick’s site is an interesting and insightful interview with British sprints coach and biomechanics researcher, Jon Goodwin.  In this interview, coach/researcher Goodwin speaks to strength as it relates to sprint speed; and it’s interesting stuff, indeed.

Now as I’ve stated before, issues of increasing athletic prowess are applicable to only a fractional subset of trainees or potential trainees; yet I do thoroughly enjoy the “geek factor” involved  in locating an athlete’s weak-link, attenuating that weakness, then witnessing that “applied theory and practice” manifest in an improved athletic performance.

But then again, there’s a huge satisfaction to be had in seeing your “average Joe/Jane” reap the rewards of adopting tenants of properly applied Physical Culture.  Both scenarios are special in their own way; it’s all good.

Anyway, I do encourage you to check out the full piece over at Patrick’s site.  Below, however, is a snippet of the interview that I’d like to highlight, as it does directly relate to ideas that have been kicked around a bit here at TTP as of late.

Bold portions = emphasis mine.

Patrick asks:

In your opinion, how strong is strong enough?  We have seen some great sprinters who do very little resistance training.  How much lifting do sprinters need to do, volume or frequency wise?  While every athlete is different and has different needs, do you have a basic template that you follow for programming training for your sprinters that you can speak a little bit about?

Jon Goodwin replies:

There is no ‘strong enough’. Providing they don’t break, you can never have a sprinter that wouldn’t benefit from being able to express more force more quickly when they hit the ground. However there are some caveats to this statement.

One is that there certainly is a point of ‘muscular enough’. More muscle mass enables sprinters to run faster through the application of higher ground forces. However for all athletes there is a threshold where this relationships flips; where the strength pay off is outweighed by the additional resistance you have to overcome to accelerate your bodyweight vertically. We don’t have any numbers to say what this point is for individual athletes so coaches have to make a judgment call. I certainly think there are some 10.0 sprinters around that would run a bit quicker if they weighed a few lbs less. Perhaps dropping some of the pecs and guns and even a bit more body fat in some cases would help!

*TTP insert – Hello?  Paleo nutrition, anyone??  😉   Sorry, couldn’t help it…*

The second is that with a finite limit on optimal muscle mass there is then a ceiling on how strong we can get a sprinter. Our general training is designed to educate the athlete to rapidly activate all of their big, high threshold, fast twitch motor units in a coordinated fashion. Well once they can do this maximally and with sound steering/control, since we can’t get them bigger to get further strength increases, then general training ceases to be effective in pushing the athlete forward in terms of force production (not to say there aren’t other benefits).

As strength coaches we need to accept that the closer athletes get to their optimal muscle mass, and rapid maximal activation of that mass, then our general training methods become progressively less effective. Eventually all that is left is becoming more skillful in expressing that force in the specifics of our sports task, in this case sprinting.

The sprinters we see excel without strength training are the rare and lucky breeds who are naturally able to achieve many of the outcomes that our general training is directed at. Perhaps they are gifted with a level of hypertrophy that is optimal without any resistance training, perhaps they naturally are able to recruit all of their big fast twitch motor units in a skillful manner upon ground contact. I’m sure we can often still improve these athletes further, but certainly the gains are likely to be a lot smaller.

Having said all that, most of us aren’t lucky enough to work with animals like that, and generally have big gains to be made. In those cases then typically gym based work takes precedence for me in the first 3 months of a winter off season. 3 gym based sessions, and possibly 4 will be in place where we think the athletes structure and general force producing capabilities are a limiting factor. Progressively running reclaims the front seat through mid winter and by the time May/June comes round then general strength training gets dropped almost completely, about 8-12 weeks before key races of the season. In this period all training efforts are in refining the way forces are applied in running specifically. It’s another common mistake that I think is made, people wanting to hang on to their big general strength training exercises for too long into a season. General strength gains built over months or years don’t disappear when we stop lifting. Our squat score goes down but that’s more a skill issue than an underlying strength issue, and the skill we are concerned with is running, not squatting. The fatigue from continuing heavy lifting far outweighs any benefit from continuing strength work. Squatting a 190kg PB 2 weeks before a race will not likely enhance performance as that strength is only being expressed in a squat action and we haven’t had any time to transfer that to force production in our running action. Squatting 180kg 2 months before and then practicing running with that strength, in a more rested state, is what is likely to improve performance.

So, some fantastic stuff here for sure; and that’s just a teaser.  Like I said, be sure and check out the rest of the interview at Patrick’s site; you won’t be disappointed. Also, If you happen to be a member of the Crossfit Journal, check out this; Nicholas Romanov (of POSE method fame) speaking to how the maintenance of proper forward lean correlates to record sprint times – or record times for any running distance, for that matter.  Now it’s my belief that Dr. Romanov has the cart before the ox here (I believe that strength and athleticism allow for the maintenance of proper lean angles, not the other way around – see my comments on the site), but nonetheless Dr. Romanov’s ideas are fantastic food for thought.

The Guacamole, Ham and Cheese Omelet, and Givin’ Up a Little Strength to Get a Little Endurance

First up, the guacamole, ham and cheese omelet.  Nothing special here, except for the use of duck eggs — if you can get your hands on these things, by all means do so!  Big, beautiful yokes — and so tasty!  The photos below are pre and post fold; free-range ham steak strips, your favorite guacamole recipe, and Trader Joe’s raw milk cheese.

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I’ve been spending A LOT of time in the fixie saddle lately, and one thing’s for sure as a result — my front squat strength has taken a hit.  This is both a cumulative result (due to the total “saddle time” miles put in), and an acute issue — riding long, hard and fast prior to a front squat workout  doesn’t bode well for pushing big numbers — relative to my winter, low mileage, front squat numbers, that is.   The thing is, you can’t constantly dose the body with endurance demands AND expect it to maintain huge strength numbers.  And, hey, I’m cool with that; it’s an accepted compensation, and I don’t obsess over it.  The flip-side of this is that back when we rolled into the early spring, my front squat numbers were great, yet I couldn’t sprint (bike) around the block without my quads falling into lactate paralysis.  The take-home point here is that my “strength with which to endure” is still way high relative to the demands of cycling — which makes me a much more proficient cyclist — it’s just not “high” with respect to wintertime lifting highs.  The other point to consider here is that I’m an athletic generalist — if I were a competitive Oly lifter of course, this wouldn’t at all do, and all that fixie riding would have to come to an abrupt end.  In the end, we all have to choose our loves, and our poisons.

The other issue here is time.  I’ve only got so much time to devote to working out, and since my quads absorb the bulk of my riding punishment, it just doesn’t make much sense for me to batter them again (at the expense of under-working the rest of my body) in the gym.  This is where having access to an Efficient Exercise-like facility would be oh so nice.  In such a facility, the time cost involved with maintaining (and more likely, even bettering) my quad strength during the riding season would be minuscule.  But you gotta roll with the tools you have on hand, and not look back, right?  Right.  Hey, I’m just sayin’…or bitchin’, however you want to look at it  🙂

You’ll notice that I worked some power cleans into the Friday evening session   I haven’t done these in quite a long time — so long that my thumbs got hammered from the hook grip — and so I thought I’d begin feathering them back in by starting off very, very light and working out all the technical issues.  I  don’t have access to bumper plates, or even a good place to do the Oly derivatives, but I make do as best I can.  So if you’re keeping score at home, I need access to (1) an Efficient Exercise-like facility, (2) a nice lifting platform with bumper plates, and (3) a city with a rich fixie culture.  Sounds like I need to figure out a way to get down to Austin, huh?

Friday Evening’s Iron Session –

front squats: 135 x 5; 165 x 3; 185 x 3; 205 x 2; 215 x 1, 1, 1, 1, 1
followed by,
power cleans: 135 x 5 sets of 5

then a superset of,

explosive rack pulls: 225 x 3; 315 x 3, 3, 3, 3
weighted parallel-grip pull-ups: 45 x 5; 70 x 3, 3, 3, 3

Explosive rack pulls: I set the rack pins so that the bar sat right about knee level, took a clean grip (with straps), and ripped off 3 full and explosive triple extensions.  The difference between this and low pulls is that the elbows remain straight — in other words, the bar doesn’t travel any higher than “full shrug” level.

Saturday’s Gym Session –

This following a long hard stint in the saddle:

As a superset –
incline single-arm dumbbell press (on a Swiss ball): 75 x 10; 85 x 7, 7; 90 x 7
single-arm dumbbell row: 125 x 5; 130 x 5, 5, 5

Single-arm db presses on a Swiss ball allow for proper scapular movement.  Remember from this post that this is a big reason that I prefer push-up variations to pressing from a bench for the horizontal push motion.  I like to do these in a power rack, or near some piece of equipment that I can grab with my off hand.  At the top of the press I twist slightly to the off-side so as to bring the weighted-side scapula off the Swiss ball — imagine attempting to eek-out an extra inch or so in height out of the movement.  This also taxes the core quite nicely.

I’ll be huckin’ it around downtown Raleigh today (after brunch with my darling daughter at the Irregardless Cafe), so if you see a big guy on a black Biachi fixie, give me a shout.  Better yet, join in on the ride!

3/10/10; Barefooted Sprints, and Strength-Speed Endurance Iron Work

After an extended warm-up this morning, I performed a round of 8 x 70 yard sprints at approximately 90% effort, approximately 1 minute rest between sprints.  It’s been a couple of months since I’ve done any significant sprinting, and that, coupled with the fact that I’ve been hitting the single-leg work pretty hard, prompted my taking the rather cautious “re-introduction” route today.  Also, I’ve been hitting fixie sprints pretty hard lately without mixing in much in the way of running/sprinting.  I know from past experience that biking and running/sprinting aren’t exactly synergistic endeavors — emphasis on one naturally degrades performance in the other, with biking being a quad-dominant affair, versus sprinting’s required PC-dominance.  We’ve also got a completely different set of neurological firing patterns to contend with in each of the two endeavors.  Now, since I’m not competing in either, this is no big deal; actually, I rather prefer being multi-dimensional at this point in my life vs being a “specific-endeavor” athlete.  If I were competing in one of these disciplines, though, I’d have to let the other discipline go (at least during the competitive season/phase).  This is the eternal juggle of, and between, overall health, functional physical ability (think Greg Glassman’s 10 attributes of physical fitness), and sporting specificity.  Much as we’d like — and much as we trick ourselves into believing — we can’t have it all/be a master of all.  An increase in sport specificity will necessitate a decrease in overall functionality.  It’s just the way of the world.  It’s also why multi-sport athletes are so uncommon these days, even at the high school level.  It’s just tough for a great all-round athlete to compete against even a good single/sport-specific athlete.

After the sprint session, I headed into the gym to toss a little iron, and did the following complex in superset fashion:

Jump Squats + BTN Jerk*: 135 x 5; 155 x 5, 5, 5

Straight Bar Muscle-Ups: 3, 3, 3, 3

Couldn’t ask for a better start to the day.

Head’s-up on a fantastic series of posts over at  A 3-part series covering the ins, outs and nuances of the relationship of strength and speed.  Some seriously good work by Jim Hiserman, author of the books Program Design Method for Sprints & Hurdle Training and Strength and Power for Maximum Speed.

Embedded in part 3 of the series are some good lifting demonstrations of some of the more common strength-speed oriented exercises. *In particular, watch the fine jump squat form exhibited by lilledritt (I’ve embedded it below as well, by way of  Immediately following the final jump squat, you’ll see a nicely-performed btn jerk.   I performed each of my btn jerks, however, immediately following each jump squat (jump squat, jerk; jump squat, jerk; etc…)

And then I ran across this today, from Voice of America News video.  Good stuff for the masses to see, to be sure.  Though I’m still not convinced that saturated fat from free range/grass-fed animals is bad in any way.

Strong Enough, Part III

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Rudyard Kipling

There’s an old proverb floating about somewhere (that I can’t seem to put my hands on at the moment), that says something to the effect of agreement to one’s own notions being the most intoxicating form of flattery.  That being the case, check out this recent post by Mike Young for the EliteTrack site.  In it you’ll find that renown track and field coach Loren Seagrave’s take on the value of, and the eventual diminished cost-to-benefit returns on, the acquisition of additional absolute strength over-and-above what is essential mirrors my own thoughts on the subject.

Of course, the definition of exactly what is essential differs from person to person, and requires a true goals-vs.-skills, n=1 evaluation.  It’s also a major rub, as it were, because it is truly subjective in nature.  We’ve discussed this recently in the What, Exactly, Constitutes “Strong Enough” post, and in that post’s follow-up, More on the Acquisition of Baseline Strength.  Essentially – and when all the armchair coaching is done, and it’s time for the rubber to meet the road – what we wind up with is a purely subjective strength value for a particular movement, and at this point in the game, all the nifty linear progression spreadsheets, percentage of 1RM calculations and mounds of “textbook knowledge” have to take a back-of-the-bus seat to a (hopefully, fairly astute) coach’s wisdom, experience and gut feeling.  All is not lost, though.  For all that one must really do is to continually ask – every day, every workout and every rep – where is the deficiency, and what can be done to rectify that lack? We all wish it was so simple as saying, “the athlete needs to be stronger, throw some more weight on the bar”; the truth of the matter is, though, that with decently trained athletes, this is rarely the case – and if it is, it certainly should not be the case for long, as absolute strength is by far the easiest of all deficiencies to rectify.

And don’t think that you have to be an elite or professional-level athlete to benefit from knowing when you’re ready to graduate from the school of “absolute strength acquisition”.  A proper n=1 evaluation may prove that you’re ready to pursue other, more challenging modalities.  This is usually not the problem among young (in training age) iron game practitioners, though, most of whom are all too eager to “skip a few grades”.  Train true to an honest n=1 evaluation, fix what needs fixin’, and all else will take care of itself.

In health,

More on the “How Strong is Strong Enough” Theme

“Where there is great love there are always miracles.”

Willa Cather

I keep an eye out this time of year as the college football coaching community goes through the initial phase of its annual “shaking out” pangs; I’m not much for the Biggest Looser, or Survivor, but the college coaching merry-go-’round does hold a certain interest for me.  Odd, I know.  Now, unless you happen to be a die-hard Florida State fan, this hire, I’m sure, went completely unnoticed by you.  I’ll just say two quick things about this – watch out for FSU in the next few years.   And SMU, how could y’all let this guy get away?

In keeping with the How Strong is Strong Enough theme that we covered here and here, check out this post on FSU’s hiring away of S & C coach Vic Viloria from SMU.   Coach Vic is definitely a believer in the notion that sports (in this case, football) is all about the transfer and absorption of power.   He’s my kind of guy – a Gayle Hatch disciple.   Check out the post and watch the short video clip near the bottom.  Try not to wince at the “weight room footage” though, 95% of which is decidedly not Hatch (or Vic)-like.  I’m sure coach Vic blew a gasket when he saw the footage his interview was pasted over.  Anyway, two thumbs-up here for coach Vic’s methods and the Hatch system in general.  Good stuff.

In health,


More on The Acquisition of Baseline Strength

“The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be.”
Marcel Pagnol


To address a common theme that germinated from the What, Exactly, Constitutes “Strong Enough” post, let’s consider how best to go about acquiring adequate strength.  This note was representative of the questions I received on this subject:

“…How would you suggest attaining these minimums? 5×5, 5/3/1, De Vany’s alactic workout, negatives, or something else?…”

The truth of the matter is, all of these schemes can (and do) work.  As the Dali Lama says of religion, though, you can only ride one pony at a time, so just pick the one favorable to your inclinations and ride it.  The implication here being, of course, that all paths lead to the same “destination” (for lack of a better term).  In my experience, the set/rep framework is not nearly as important as is the execution of the individual repetitions therein (discussed in this post).

And remember, too, that there are some subtle differences between acquiring a base level of strength and maintaining that strength once you’ve moved beyond baseline needs.  I’m currently emphasizing the strength end of the modality continuum in my weight room workouts, utilizing a 21-rep, extended-set, rest-pause framework.  That framework, though, is not nearly as important to my goals as is the execution of each individual repetition; just look back over the last week’s worth of strength-endurance emphasis work for an idea of how I go about this.  I choose to add an element of endurance (via the reduction of recovery time between reps) to my strength work, which is consistent with my goals (I’ve little need to increase raw-end strength at this point in my career).  Would this same organization work for someone just starting out?  No doubt it would; pick a pony and ride.  Really, building a baseline level of strength is the easiest part of the iron game.  Don’t try to over-think it.  Pick 5 or so compound movements covering the entire spectrum of movement patterns (push, pull, squat, pick up from the ground…) and pick a set-rep scheme that feels comfortable – a 5 x 5 scheme is as good as any a place to start – just remember to apply the proper rep execution to your chosen framework.  Use a simple push-pull split over a three or four-day per week schedule.  Now, as one progresses, the n=1 questioning/reassessing must ensue.  This becomes the deal breaker, one’s ability to progress beyond the basics.  What better suits the trainee?  Raw-end strength?  Strength-endurance?  Is the trainee better suited (built) for squats, say, or deadlifts?

Pick a pony and ride, reassess, adjust, and carry on.  Want to emphasize raw-end strength?  Drop the reps to the 1 – 3 range, and increase the between-set recovery time – push it all the way out to the 3-minute range.  Want to work-in more endurance?  Follow the template I’m currently using, that is to say, decrease the between “set” recovery time.  And remember, there is no cure-all permeation of this theme – there is only a better-fit, right now, for a particular trainee.  Bust ass, and let n=1 rule the day.

And I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t plug the Paleo diet/lifestyle here.  There simply is no better diet for building strength and muscle, and shedding fat.

Oh, and by the way, here’s a very good article on the importance of the pull variations of the Olympic lifts in the building of overall power output.  The benefits of these movements are obvious for the more athletically inclined out there.  This is just as important, though, for the bodybuilder-minded – hypertrophy being built upon a foundation of strength and power.  Thanks to Mike Young, of Athletic Lab, for the heads-up on this one.

In health,

What, Exactly, Constitutes “Strong Enough”?

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.”
John Dewey

Franco Columbu, movin’ some serious iron…

I receive something like the following, or a close variant of this type question, quite often – it’s probably the second most common (right behind, “dude, how do I get swole?”) training-related question I field – and it’s a legitimate concern for those just getting into the iron game.  In fact it’s of concern – or should be – for anyone in the iron game, regardless of whether the goal is performance-related, or just lookin’ good nekkid.  But before we travel too far down the rabbit hole, let’s check out TTP reader Paul’s question:


I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog and learning more about your application of Evolutionary Fitness. I find myself constantly on your blog, Mark Sisson’s blog, Richard Nikoley’s blog (great for health information and recipes!) and, of course, Art De Vany’s website.

I have a question for you…would you have a recommendation for minimal strength requirements, i.e., something to shoot for on the strength end of the spectrum? For example, I think I read on your site that you think anything more than 2x bodyweight for squats is not very useful. Any other guidelines for pullups, chins, dips, muscle-ups, etc?

The reason that I ask is that I have good lower body strength, but struggle with upper body strength. Should I spend more time working on strength-focused workouts until I can do, say 10 bw pullups, before focusing on speed workouts? Thank you for your help and for your great website..

First off let me say that just asking the question indicates a high degree of sophistication, especially from what I gather to be someone of a fairly young training age (i.e., someone who hasn’t been in the iron game long – nothing to do with chronological age).  Because the truth of the matter is that strength (and relative strength) are the kingpin about which everything weight room related ought to hinge.  Now, why in the world would I make a statement like that, when I’m known to drone on and on about the power-to-bodyweight ratio, and about how speed and agility are what ought to be coveted as far as athletic parameters are concerned?  Quite simply, because strength is by far the easiest of all parameters to train.  It’s also the easiest parameter to manipulate, and – (and this can’t be stressed enough) – it’s also the one parameter that’s most often overdone.

What?  Are you saying that a trainee can be too strong?  Well, not exactly.  What I am saying is that a trainee can easily overtrain strength to the detriment of speed – and yes, if this is the case, then any added strength past the point of speed detriment is, in most cases, useless (strongman-like trainees notwithstanding) .  And even within the power lifting community, the need to maintain speed (and by extension, power) while increasing strength is realized – this is the basis behind Louie Simmons’ Conjugate method of training.  Vern Gambetta recently posted about the phenomena of the wrong-minded pursuit of strength to the detriment of speed over at Elite Track.  And for some good follow-up on that particular post, check out this related discussion thread.  Lots of interesting comments.

So this is just one example of what makes training as much (and more, in my opinion) art as it is science.  All methods work for the trainee who happens to be weak in the area the particular method is designed to address.  No method, however, works in perpetuity.  NONE.  And the greater the training age, the greater the sophistication required to further adequate progression – and the easier it is to do more harm than good.  There is only the right answer for a particular trainee at a particular point in that trainee’s development.  Two weeks from now, a new relative weakness will appear, and that will need to be addressed.  And so it goes, with this “flux” being the only condition that remains in perpetuity.  Adjust, adapt, reassess, change…in training (as in life itself?), there truly is no destination – there is only the ride.

But if that is the danger of the far end of the strength spectrum, what of the other end?  What of the trainee who is truly “not strong enough”?

Meet Allyson Felix

To quickly summarize Allyson’s bio, what we have here is an immensely talented young sprinter (Allyson in her high school years) who was weak relative to both her cns/RFD capabilities and (an educated guess here) to her fast/slow twitch fiber ratio.  Coach Barry Ross put Allyson on a steady diet of basic strength training and, as a result (and not at all surprising), her sprint times plummeted even further.  The ability to transfer a greater force at a given speed (and at a given bodyweight – a very important, yet often overlooked factor) equates to an increased power output.  Easy enough.  The danger here though, of course, lay in the pushing of the strength focus up to (and, in many instances, past) the point of diminished returns.  The magic, if there is any, lay in finding the smallest (training) dose required to elicit a progressive response, not in dishing out the most work that an athlete/trainee can tolerate.  Anyone can beat the dog piss out of a trainee; a true professional doses appropriately, and utilizes recovery to to the maximum.With all of that said, though, what of our friend Paul and his original question?  How much strength should Paul be looking for?

This is a dicey, dicey question, and I almost hate to engage it without a list of caveats as long as my arm.  It’s so very easy to dispense with the ol’ 2x bodyweight squat, 1.5 x bodyweight bench press, blather – the truth is, though, that it depends.  It depends on so many factors (and the context surrounding those factors), in fact, as to make blanket thumb rules just about useless. And what manner of factors are we talking about, here?  Well, things like age, sex, build, training age, natural strengths and weaknesses, stated ultimate goals…and the list goes on.  Without knowing too much about Paul, though, I can toss out these ideas for what he might shoot for.  I think they represent a realistic strength base from which the average guy might then diverge into athletic betterment or more bodybuilding-type pursuits:

  • 2xBW deadlift (primary) or 2xbw squat (secondary) – depending upon the trainee’s build (i.e., short & squat vs tall & lean…or somewhere in between)
  • 1xbw military (or btn) press with minimum jerk/push
  • Approx. 7 bw+ 10% chin-ups (hands supinated)
  • Approx 7 bw+15% full dips

The dips and chins also account for someone who might need to shed fat (thereby decreasing the exercise loading, while gaining strength) in order to meet the “standard”.

I’ll delve more deeply into the deadlift vs squat, and why I prefer the deadlift in most instances as a vehicle for both increasing and gauging overall strength, and how this relates to the Allyson Felix scenario, in an upcoming post.  In the meantime, if you have differing ideas on “base strength” standards, please post them.  All I ask is that you qualify your standard by way of trainee goal and “bio” so we can establish some context to the scenario.

7/15/10 Edit: I came across this post from TCU strength & conditioning coach Zach Dechant, keeper of the fine blog, Sports Performance Training.  I wanted to link to it here, as it offers a fine observation on the comparison and correlation of strength and speed.  It’s an interesting read from someone who has to wrestle with this puzzle on a daily basis.

In health,

Different Shades of Power

“It is not a measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

courtesy of graphistolage

courtesy of graphistolage

If you’ve followed this blog for long, you’ve probably noticed that my physical performance emphasis centers around improving short burst, peak power output in various movements, with “short-burst” being defined as between instantaneous and 9 seconds or so in duration (emphasis being on the anaerobic energy system, primarily).  If this sounds as if it were an idea culled straight from Greg Glassman’s Crossfit manual, there’s a good reason for it.  I’d consider my “3,000-foot view” training methodology as being “Crossfit for sprinters”.  In fact, my training philosophy centers around tweeking Greg’s idea of “fitness” — maximizing work capacity across broad time and modal domains” — to fit my own, personalized performance goals of maximizing anaerobic energy cycle power production across broad modal domains. It doesn’t have quite the same poetic ring, but that’s my goal nonetheless.   This doesn’t mean that I eschew other training methodologies, or that I think they are of no benefit — it just means that it’s my opinion that the more pronounced and positive outward (physical) and inward (healthy) results can be had by narrowing one’s the fitness scope to seeking improvements in short duration power output.

And to that end, training with an eye toward improving short-burst power production is a slightly different animal than most other training regimens.  TTP reader Bryce Lee of the blog,  A student of Fitness, posted a few questions on the subject, and it occurred to me that I might need to dedicate a full post to the idea.

First off, we need to define exactly what power is, mathematically.  Don’t run off — we’ll just use the simple equation, as it will more than fit our needs:

One’s power output (in Watts) = Force (or external load) x distance/time

Another way to think of this, for real-world applications, is work performed (force x distance) per unit of time.  For some reason, most are more comfortable with that definition; maybe it’s the more tangible terms, I don’t know.  Anyway, let’s take a step back for just a moment and see what an incredible production of  short-duration power looks like in real life; Dmitry Klokov here, with a little demonstration of instantaneous power production for you:

Makes it look easy, huh?  Had Dmitry grown up in the States, he’d probably have become a damn good linebacker.  If location, location, location is the mantra of real-estate, circumstance, circumstance, circumstance might just be considered the mantra of an individual’s successful sporting life.  But I digress.  Here’s another example of extreme power production with an emphasis on the anaerobic (primarily) energy cycle; from the recent Jamaican Women’s Senior Trials:

Anyone care to guess what Shelly Ann Frazier’s power/bodyweight ratio was over that 10 second or so span?

And here’s an example of a girl with incredibly high power/bodyweight ratio, Shawn Johnson:

Now, before we go too much further, we need to define, for our purposes as well, the difference between strength and power; two totally different animals, here.  This is by far the best side-by-side comparison I’ve seen, and it really puts things into perspective for most; an excerpt from Pat O’Shea’s book, Quantum Strength and Power Training, provided here. Check that out, come right back and we’ll discuss what all of this means in a practical sense.

Why train to achieve a high anaerobic, power-to-bodyweight ratio?

The bottom line is this: because the very act of training to achieve this goal, and the maintenance of the required lean musculature to to enable sufficient proficiency (or a decent ratio) therein, is highly, highly, costly in  metabolic terms.   Fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are preferred and proliferate under this manner of training/expression, are energy hogs.  Couple this kind of training regimen this with a Paleo lifestyle and you’ve just put together the most lethal one-two combination known to physical culture.

The sweet spot, and progressing that sweetspot forward

The clips provided above are demonstrations of each athlete’s having perfectly balanced force application against the required distance and/or time period.  Throw an extra 5 kilos on the bar, and Dmitry wouldn’t have been able to generate the speed required (and thus, the power required) to complete the snatch.  All variables having been kept the same, had Shelly Ann come into the race carrying a pound or so less body fat, would she have been able to shave some time off her sprint?  Same power output at a reduced bodyweight — so yes, most definitely.   Remember the power equation, then think of Shawn Johnson’s vault — more speed down the ramp, more force off the vault, a reduced bodyfat level — all would equate to more height off the vault (resulting from a greater power output) and consequently the possibility of an additional (or in the above case, completed) mid-air maneuver.   Note when I mention a reduced bodyfat level, I am in no way implying that Shawn has any additional fat that needs to be shed — far from it, she’s tight as a drum — I only mention this in a manner of mathematical fact.  Of course, these are all world-class athletes. we’re talking about here; the same is true, though — and the power principles are applicable — for for every trainee, and for any modality you can conjure. All one has to do is ask the question, what can I do to positively affect the power output of this movement, and where is the weak link in the chain that prevents me from getting there?

Let’s consider a quick example…

Consider for a moment the possible variations of the regular-grip pull-up; everything from the super-heavy, weighted, grind-it-out single (emphasis being on strength), to it’s power-emphasis cousin, the straight bar muscle-up, as demonstrated here:

Now, let’s assume that I generate the most power in the pull-up movement in that portion of the muscle-up from the hang to just prior to the press-out (remember the variables involved in the power equation — force, distance, time).  Let’s also assume that I can perform this movement for a single rep with 15 additional pounds held between my legs, and that this movement, and with this additional weight, translates to my greatest power production in the pull-up movement — the sweetspot for me, in this particular movement.  What kinds of modalities can I now employ, over time, to bring about an increase in power production in this movement, characterized here by the ability to (1) perform the movement with something greater than 15 lbs between my legs (assuming rep time remains constant), (2) perform the movement quicker, at the same weight, or (3) propel my body higher at the same given weight, i.e., lessen the amount of “press-out” needed to complete the movement?   Well, basically I can work on getting stronger in this particular movement (an increase in raw strength and/or additional hypertrophy, i.e., a bigger engine) or I can work the strength-speed aspect of power production by doing a fast-as-possible chin-up with heavy weight, or I can work speed-strength by doing such things as a jumping pull-up to muscle-up movement.  And it all depends upon where  I consider my wink-link to be.  Am I fast, but relatively weak, or am I strong as hell, but relatively slow?  You’ll become a much better athlete by locating and improving your weaknesses than you ever will by polishing your strengths.  But, hey, that’s true in life as well, is it not?

Sometimes this takes a bit to sink in and make sense.  Give it time; come back, re-consider, ponder, and feel free to ask questions.  Remember the overall power equation, and how it fits into this continuum:

Raw Strength –>Strength-Speed –>{Sweet Spot} –>Speed-Strength –> Overspeed

This would then graph-out as somewhat of a bell curve, with the “sweet spot” as the apex, on a power-to-speed chart.

In health,


The 5/3/1 Routine for Strength (and Power, Too!)

“Once a woman has forgiven a man, she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.”

– Marlene Dietrich

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs...

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs... recently posted an interesting article by former big-time power lifter and current strength and conditioning coach (and Elite Fitness staff member) Jim Wendler, discussing Jim’s 5/3/1 routine for strength.  There’s a great amount of, no-nonsense, straight-forward information here.

What’s refreshing about this piece is (1) the program’s simplicity and (2) Jim’s honesty.  I mean, really, getting big, strong and powerful is not rocket science, much as some of the hucksters out there would have you believe.  Intense effort, proper diet, adequate recovery — really, the rest is mere commentary, hair splitting, as it were; the stuff of interesting conversation, but really, nothing more than that.  Of course the further one progresses, or if an athlete needs to pin-point training, well, that’s a different story and a more nuanced approach is definitely called for.   But for the vast majority — myself included, at this stage in my life — the iron game can be simplified to this: short-duration, intermittent, hard-assed work; eat properly, get plenty of rest (nightly, and between workouts), repeat.  Now I’ve just let you in on the secret to muscle gain and fat loss — a secret that holds true for 99% of the population.  Now, if you want to compete athletically, we’ll need to talk a bit more.  Otherwise, you can use the Dalai Lama’s approach to religion — pick a pony (religion) saddle it up, and ride the thing — and apply that theory in the weight room.  As long as you’ve got some intense TUL (time under load) goin’ on, hell, you’re way ahead of the crowd.  Couple that with a good diet and sensible recovery and you’re light years ahead.

Anyway, back to Jim’s program.  What he’s served up here is a basic, nuts-and-bolts strength (or, if you work it right, power) template — a version of which I’ve used many times in the past — and, in fact, one that I’m currently following (interspersed with versions of my favorite — 25 for a Bigger Engine).  Jim has tweeked the lift percentages a bit here in this particular program (which forces a sensible weight selection), but the guts program remain founded in ages-old, proven methods.  Jim prescribes hitting the core lifts (always multi-joint, complex movements) hard and progressively over a three or four week period.  Take a deload week so as to give your body a chance to recoup.  If the three-week “ramp-up”, one week “idle” methodology seems all-pervasive within the strength and conditioning community, there’s a simple reason — it’s been proven empirically to work.  This is where the science “rubber” meets the real world “road”.  It may be physiological or psychological or some combination thereof, but it seems as though one can push hard for about 3 weeks before the wheels begin to come off.  Now, you can either be smart and anticipate this happening and program some “deload time” in your macrocycle planning, or you can keep pushing and suffer some form of injury-induced set-back; one way or the other, though, you will be taking that deload week.

One thing Jim really didn’t cover in the article was rep speed or tempo.  The nice thing about this program, or the 25 Reps program for that matter, is that you can really snap-off the early, lighter sets and emphasize the power aspect, then, in the final reps of the final set, use a slower, consistent tempo and go on to failure — even some negative failure or forced reps, if you like.  And a quick word about failure: pick your exercises wisely.  I’m good with going to failure on complex movements where momentum is not a key factor (and the skill/technique component is low).  Squats?  Yeah, go to failure.  Jump squats?  No.  Military press?  Sure, knock yourself out.  Push press or push jerk?  Nope, simply not effective.

Anyway, if you’re looking for some structure in your next strength block, you can do a hell of a lot worse than to follow Jim’s 5/3/1 program, as he has, in my opinion, put together a good, solid and sensible program here.  And a quick word about tweeking the prescribed (or any prescribed) program:  I agree with Jim that you can’t manipulate what he’s laid-out here, and then bitch about the 5/3/1 not working for you.  On the other hand, I don’t ever follow a prescribed program to the letter; I’ve to too many variables to juggle in my life and I have a narrowly defined and very clear set of goals I aim to achieve.  Couple that with the fact that I’ve been in the game for 30+ years, and so I have base knowledge to allow a sifting-through of a program for the gems that I want.  You gotta know the rules to know when to effectively break ’em, right?

Here’s a recent example of my utilization of Jim’s 5/3/1 routine.  This is week one, and the compound exercise of choice is reverse-grip pull-ups (or chin-ups, for you purists out there).  This picks up, of course, subsequent to a thorough warm-up.

Reverse Grip Pull-Ups

Set 1: 60# x 5 reps

Set 2: 67.5# x 5 reps

Set 3: 72.5# x 7 reps, failed midway through the 8th.

Lots of pop on the reps of the first two sets — more along the lines of classic power reps.  The reps of the last set, especially as I made my way toward failure, were ground-out — classic, heavy, “strength” reps.  I took about 2 minutes rest between sets.  Then:

Bodyweight dips, 5 sets of 15 reps.  About 1 minute rest between sets with the last few reps of the last two sets done in rest-pause fashion.

Bodyweight GHR, 5 sets of 10.  1 minute between sets.  A lot tougher than it sounds.

Now, my next time in the gym, I may hit a 5/3/1 routine with front squats as the primary exercise, or I my opt for a 25 FBE routine; it all depends on how I feel and what kind of time I have.  But for this particular primary exercise, though (the reverse grip pull-up), I’ll follow the 5/3/1 schedule (3 weeks ramping, 1 deload week) on through.

This was a fantastic workout.  Nothing fancy — but then again, it doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective.

In health,


Workouts for the Week of February 1st, 2009

The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”

~ Patrick Henry

Super Bowl Sunday afternoon: The perfect time to hit some pregame fixie intervals, barefooted sprints and ballistic decline push-ups.  Add to that some fairly warm weather, and the sweet sounds of baseballs heard pinging off of aluminum bats and twacking into gloves from the confines of Clark-LeClair stadium, and one would get the feeling that spring cannot be too far away!

I began and ended this session with some fixie interval sprints around G-Vegas and the ECU campus. While at the ECU soccer complex, I hit some barefooted sprints, and ballistic, decline push-ups.  The arrangement looked like this:

1. 5-second, all-out sprint (approx. 44 yards)

2. Decline Ballistic Push-ups x 10

3. 5-second all-out sprint (approx 44 yards)

I completed 6 rounds of that complex until I hit my pre-established drop-off in the sprints (on sprint 11 and 12). So, why a 5-second sprint? Good question.  And the not-so scientific answer is that it just so happens to work out nicely with the pre-measured and marked, 44-yard width the regulation soccer field penalty box.  It also falls well within the <10 second ATP-PC energy system I wanted to work.  I fall about one stride shy of hitting the 44-yard mark when fresh, so it really gives me a good goal to shoot for. This workout fell in the middle another inadvertent IF day; also notice that this was the second of two day’s worth of back-to-back sprint workouts as well. I don’t usually perform back-to-back, high intensity work, but I just couldn’t let the day slip by unappreciated, sprints and fixie riding being my sacrifice to the Gods of fantastically good weather 🙂

Tuesday morning at the Y, and my “normal”, workday morning routine; up at 4;30 AM, coffeed-up and at the gym by 6:15, throwing serious iron by 6:30.  Here’s what ensued:

  1. Whip-Snatch + Overhead Squat, (1 WS + 4 OHS) x 2
  2. Regular Grip, “Power” Pull-ups x 7

4 full rounds of that, followed by:

Snatch Grip High Pulls, 2 sets of 3 reps.

So, what exactly is a “Whip Snatch”?   Well, I think you’ll be rather disappointed in any explanation I can conjure in regard this movement.  Think of it as a high, high, friggin’ high, Power Snatch.  Think, “hip it and whip it”.  With a wide snatch grip, stand all the way up with the bar.  Then, dip down (or, more precisely, push the butt out and back), so the bar just hits the crotch — or, more to the point, in the nook between your hip and upper thigh formed via pushing your butt out and back — explode into the jump and snap it out.  Now, pair this with 4 overhead squats.  Reset (just long enough to re-establish proper grip) and repeat.   By the way, the girl in the OHS demo, Nicole Carrol, is a flat-out fire-breathing, bad-ass.  All of her exercise demos are spot-on.  Now, there’s no magic to the 1-4 rep combo, in my execution here.  Quite simply, I can hit about 4 OHS reps in good form with my near-max whip snatch weight.  Two back-to-back bursts of that is quite a load.  One thing, technique wise, about the WS and OHS is this: you’ve really got to concentrate on pushing the butt out and back.  Be proud of what your mama gave ya!  Seriously, though, it is essential to the proper execution of the exercise, forcing both engagement of the hams and glutes, and ensuring balance and a full range of motion.

Now, you’re probably wondering just what the hell a “power pull-up” is.  Check out this video from Tyler Southwick, clips of him performing some various forms of “power pull-ups”.  Now Tyler makes these look effortless; I can assure you, however, they are not.  And although the grip is not as wide, you can think of the power pull-up as a pretty close approximation of a reverse whip snatch.

Let’s move on, then, to Thursday morning, again at the YMCA.  Here’s what was on tap:

  1. Clean Grip Low Pulls (from the floor) x 3’s
  2. Russian Lunge Scissor Jumps x 3’s, each leg
  3. Weighted, “Kipping” Dips x 6’s

I wanted 4 rounds of this, but ran short on time and only managed 3.  About 25 minutes worth of work, once I reached my working weights.  I talked a little about kipping dips, here.  The Russian Lunge Scissor jump is demonstrated here, at the :34 second mark.  I use a heavy dumbbell, and attempt to achieve maximum height on each jump — which is to say, I use a weight heavy enough so that my max effort only allows me enough height to just complete a good scissor.  Also, I stick the landing in an extreme low position.

I had a nice day of sprints planned for Saturday, but had to battle plumbing problems at home instead.  Ah, the joys of home ownership.  I tried to console myself with self-talk of “randomness” in workout scheduling being a good thing, but it didn’t do much to alleviate the pain of screwing around with household plumbing issues with the beautiful weather on hand.  Oh well, there’s always tomorrow.  On the bright side, the plumbing issues have been resolved once and for all <crosses fingers>, and I’m not too much worse for the wear.

As an aside, I fasted from Friday night to Saturday night; too busy being “Joe the plumber” to think about food.

In Health,