Thursday, May 31, 2012

School's (Nearly) Out For The Summer!!!

Well, it is almost that glorious time of year when school ends and summer begins, and I could not be more excited. Other than the awesomeness of not having any tests or projects to worry about, there are a number of strength and conditioning-related things that I cannot wait for. Here are the highlights:

1. New Equipment: I am going to open, own, and operate a successful strength and conditioning facility someday. This has been my goal for quite some time now. In the past six months, I have continually been struck by the realization that I will soon be done with school and it will be time for me to make my dream a reality. With this in mind, I decided to make a (relatively) substantial investment in equipment for my future gym. I figured that the price of materials will only increase in the next few years; buying some stuff now should save me some money down the line. So, I went ahead and purchased a high-quality rack, some great bars, a prowler, a couple of sets of bumper plates, and some other accessories. Not only does this equipment make starting my gym more feasible, but my family, my friends, and I will all be able to use it in the meantime. Fun times ahead!

You see those racks behind Eric Cressey? Mine is the same, except it is black.
2. The Olympics: I love the Olympics. Growing up, my family and I always enjoyed watching the drama unfold and cheering on Team USA. This year, I am looking forward to watching the games more than ever, especially the weightlifting. The men's Olympic weightlifting competition will begin Sunday July 29th, and various weight classes will compete in the 10 days to follow. Kendrick Farris will be the lone American male to lift in London, but there will be plenty of amazing athletes on the platforms that are worth watching (Klokov, Ilin, etc.). If you want to see some muscular dudes throw weights up over their heads that most people cannot even pick up off of the ground, then don't miss this event!

Donny Shankle. Unfortunately, not on Team USA. But, a true American hero nonetheless.
3. Training: This summer I am going to squat, bench, and deadlift. I am going to lift heavy and I am going to lift often. While I do not have a specific template outlined yet, I do know that I will be sticking to the basics and working towards getting stronger. I have learned a great deal about training throughout this school year, and I look forward to putting both my knowledge and my new equipment to good use. Rest assured that there will be plenty of great ideas and a number of blog posts generated while I hang out in my garage this summer. The best of Strength Musings has yet to come!

I just might squat in my underwear this summer.

Have a great week, everyone! If you have any questions, don't hesitate to shoot me an email at

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The 3/1/5 High-Frequency Deadlift Program

The more I lift and the more I learn, the more I move away from the standard, low-frequency splits that are recommended by the majority of coaches and lifters on the interwebz. Instead of doing each of the big lifts once or twice a week and following them up with a boatload of assistance movements, I would rather do more of the big lifts and less of all the other crap. When I get away from doing the basic lifts and start adding in a variety of assistance exercises, I feel like I am forced to juggle too many variables. I would rather direct my efforts towards doing a few things well and know exactly where my gains are coming from instead of doing a bunch of different things and hoping for the fabled "carry-over effect". Sure, assistance exercises have their place in a program. However, I take issue with relying on them to get results. Instead of doing a million different exercises in an effort to build your lifts, focus on the lifts themselves and guarantee your progress. I realize I am taking a hard, black-and-white stance on this issue. In reality, the answer is probably in the grey area. However, I hope that you understand the point I am trying to make. If you don't get it, then read about the following program and try it out. After a solid couple of months doing this program, you will be in the know.      

The 3/1/5 High-Frequency Deadlift Program:
Work up to 3 sets of 3 reps (sets across)

Work up to 5 sets of 1 rep (sets across)

Work up to 1 set of 5 reps

-Start on Monday and use a weight that is fairly easy for 3 sets of 3 reps (~8 RPE). Every Monday, rest as long as you need to rest in between sets in order to complete all 9 reps.

-On Wednesday of the first week, add 5-10 pounds to the weight you used on Monday and lift that weight for 5 easy singles. Focus on nailing your set-up and lifting explosively.

-On Friday of the first week, add 5-10 pounds to the weight you used on Wednesday and work up to one top set of 5 reps with that weight.

-On Monday of the second week, add 5 pounds to the weight you used on Friday and complete 3 sets of 3 reps.

-Continue to add 5 pounds every session. If you start to miss reps on your set of 5 on Fridays, then either, 1) Begin to micro-load with 1.25 pound plates, or 2) Only add 5 pounds on Wednesdays and use that weight for both your Wednesday and Friday sessions.

-"Sets across" means that you will be using the same weight for all of the working sets that you do in that session. So, you work up to the prescribed weight, then you use that same weight for all of the prescribed sets.

-When you are doing your warm-up sets, you don't have to do a bunch of reps. On Fridays, especially, don't wear yourself out doing sets of 5 as you work up to your top set. Do singles, doubles, or triples as you make reasonable jumps up towards your working set(s).

-Do you have to lift on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday? No. However, you should have at least one day of rest between your deadlift sessions when doing this program.

-As far as your other lifts are concerned, just do whatever makes the most sense. If you really want to focus on your deadlift, then scale your other lifts back. While this program can become difficult, it is not ridiculously demanding. Most lifters should have no problem squatting at least twice a week and benching and/or pressing twice a week in conjunction with this deadlift program.

(Day, Week: weight x reps x sets)

Monday, Week 1: 275x3x3
Wednesday, Week 1: 285x1x5
Friday, Week 1: 295x5x1

Monday, Week 2: 300x3x3
Wednesday, Week 2: 305x1x5
Friday, Week 2: 310x5x1

Monday, Week 3: 315x3x3
Wednesday, Week 3: 320x1x5
Friday, Week 3: 325x5x1

Monday, Week 4: 330x3x3
Wednesday, Week 4: 335x1x5
Friday, Week 4: 340x4x1 (Missed last rep.) 

Monday, Week 5: 345x3x3
Wednesday, Week 5: 350x1x5
Friday, Week 5: 350x5x5

Monday, Week 6: 355x3x3
Wednesday, Week 6: 360x1x5
Friday, Week 6: 360x5x1

-3 sets of 3 is a fairly standard workload. It is a protocol that should be manageable from week to week; especially if you start the program with a weight that allows room for improvement.

-The 5 sets of 1 allow you to practice your set-up, recover, and prepare for the set of 5 on Friday. These sets should all be fairly easy, especially during the first few weeks.

-Friday is the do-or-die day, as you only have one set that you need to dominate. Deadlifting for sets of 5 can be very taxing, both physically and mentally. Having to complete just one all-out set every week is very manageable.

-The program assumes that the training is working, and it forces you to add weight and do the work every session. When you lift heavy weights, your body should adapt and get stronger. As long as you are eating enough,  getting adequate sleep in between sessions, and you are not already nearing the limits of your lifting potential, then you should be able to lift a little more every session. Increasing the weight in standard, manageable increments ensures that you do not succumb to backing down on the days when you are not there mentally.

-Plans like this hold you accountable, allow you to look forward to the progress you will make, and exploit the skill improvements that accompany high-frequency training.

-This program doesn’t rely on other variables (such as assistance work); your deadlifting is what will build your deadlift. No guesswork. No wondering about whether or not you are improving your deadlift. Just do the work and watch your deadlift numbers increase.

In Conclusion...
Deadlifting more than once or twice a week can done, especially if you put together an intelligent program that allows you to recover from session to session. If you want to build your deadlift, then give this program a shot. Best-case scenario is you add 60-70 pounds to your 3-rep and 5-rep deadlifts and put yourself in position to hit a big 1-rep PR in only six weeks. (You can do the program for as long as you like, though. Or, more specifically, as long as it continues to work.) Worst-case scenario is that you die.

Just kidding. You won't die due to deadlifts. Just do the program.    

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Find Your Passion and Live Your Dream

By Andrew McGunagle

My Dad is a math whiz. He is the guy who gives you the answer to a math problem while you are still trying to arrange all of the numbers in your head. With his talents, he could have been wildly successful as an accountant or a financial analyst. However, he didn't want to be stuck behind a desk all day. Instead, he wanted to do something that he loved, which was woodworking. For my Dad, a fat paycheck was secondary to having a job that is engaging.

Growing up and seeing his example, I always believed that a person's career and a person's passion were one in the same. While I have since realized that this is not universally true, I am continually guided by the conviction that a person should love their work. In my mind, once a person finds their true passion, they should dedicate their life to it without hesitation.

Find it.
Now and again, I am struck with the realities that deter individuals from finding and doing what they love. The first thing I recognize is that not everyone has discovered their passion. While I wish I could put this process into words, I simply cannot. I don't know why I love strength and conditioning, why my Dad loves to build furniture, or why my brother loves entrepreneurship. I know passion when I see it, but I don't know how to unearth it.

The second thing I realize is that many people are afraid that they would not be successful following their passion. I believe this fear is simply a mental hurdle that is encountered by everyone early in the process of discovering their passion. The size of this obstacle varies depending on what the individual's passion is for and how strong their passion is at that point. For the individuals that are stuck in front of this hurdle, I offer the following two points. In my experience, these two elements separate the idle dreamers from the people who are currently, or well on their way to, living their dream.     

1. Obsess Over It: For the past six years, I have been absolutely obsessed with learning about and practicing strength and conditioning. In this time, I have read many books and countless articles, watched thousands of lifting videos, and talked with a number of people about strength and conditioning. More importantly, I have spent many of my days in the gym training both myself and others. Additionally, I have spent the majority of my waking hours simply thinking about strength and conditioning and other related topics. There are nights when this thinking about strength and conditioning extends my waking hours, and I lie in bed turning various ideas over in my mind.

Sure, this behavior is obsessive, but I don't believe it is excessive. I have encountered many fitness professionals who are doing very well for themselves, yet I can tell they have not spent the same amount of time building their mental model of the training process that I have. Given the time that I have dedicated to mastering my craft, I know that I will be successful in my field. I understand that sounds arrogant, but I truly believe that I have done, and will continue to do, the work it takes to be a success.

Now, I am not telling you this to make myself feel good. I am sharing my story because I believe it demonstrates the dedication that pursuing your passion demands. If you know what your passion is, then quit lollygagging and get to work. The effectiveness of obsession is, in my opinion, best encapsulated by the following quote:
"The world has a way of making room for the man who knows exactly what he wants."
2. Become Emotional Invested: While my passion is strength and conditioning, my older brother's passion is entrepreneurship. Over the past few years, I have thoroughly enjoyed watching his love for entrepreneurship develop and I have admired all of the work he has done to improve his entrepreneurial knowledge and skills. During the past few months, my brother has been working towards winning a business development competition that would allow him to obtain some funding for one of his projects. This would enable him and his business partner to work on their idea throughout the summer, and it would help them get that much closer to having a product they could sell. Unfortunately, last week my brother was informed that his project was not one of the ideas that would receive funding. This hit my brother hard, as he had invested so much time and effort in his proposal. In the days following his rejection, my brother was visibly depressed.

While some people may view that sort of sulking negatively, I saw it as a sure sign that my brother is going to be an incredibly successful entrepreneur in the future. The more an individual cares about something, the harder it is for them to accept failure. The harder it is for a person to accept failure, the harder they are going to work to be successful. I cannot imagine dedicating my life to something that wouldn't cause me to experience emotional pain if I failed at it. If you could spend twenty years doing something, and then simply shrug off a catastrophe, then you might as well shrug off your life. While I am not advocating getting all emotional over every bump in the road, I am telling you to find something that you love so much it could hurt you.

Everyone gets just one shot at life (as far as we know). Nearly everyone has to figure out how they are going to make enough money to support themselves and, in most cases, their family. Not enough people, it seems, have found their passion and are, or are working towards, living their dream. If this article sets just one person on the path towards living the life they want to live, then it has done its job. Now, go and find your passion and make it your job.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, May 11, 2012

10-Second Tip: Experience Level and What's Possible

I believe that a number of individuals in the strength and conditioning realm have a warped view of progress and experience level, especially when it comes to squatting. When you've seen what is possible when an "intermediate" lifter does what is supposedly a "beginner's" program, then you start to realize that a lot of the labeling that occurs in this industry is a bunch of baloney.

My brother is the perfect example. He has lifted for a couple of years and, in that time, he has deadlifted 415 pounds and benched 225 pounds. Impressive numbers? In the powerlifting world, no. Better than the average dude going to the rec center? Sure. With those lifts, some "experts" might go as far as to say he is an "intermediate" lifter.

As an "intermediate" lifter,  progress is supposed to be slower. You should not be able to add weight to the bar each and every session. Or, at least that is what the "experts" say. Well, as an "intermediate" lifter, my brother added 100 pounds to his five rep squat in just about 3 months. He squatted three times a week, doing three sets of five across, and he usually added five pounds to the bar every session. He started his progression with a relatively easy 215 pounds for three sets of five, and he ended it with 315 pounds for three sets of five.

Sure, his squat had a lot of room for improvement when he started his progression. But, a lot of "experts" would have said that progress like that is not possible unless you just started lifting. They say only "newbies" can follow linear progressions, and, after six months to a year of lifting, you have to get all fancy to get stronger.

Well, here is a guy who has been lifting for about two and a half years, and he made progress like he was just starting out:

The take home message: Experience level is not about how long you have been lifting, it is about the amount of weight you can lift. If you have been lifting for a few years and you have a lift that is lagging behind, then keep things simple and grind out a basic linear progression. You're not as advanced as you think. In fact, if you cannot squat 300 pounds as an adult male, you are probably still a beginner.

Just some food for thought.        

Friday, May 4, 2012

Teaching (and Learning) The Bench Press Efficiently

By Andrew McGunagle

I love teaching newbie trainees how to bench press. Why? Because I am great at it. Sure, benching is not all that complex; instructing someone how to do it properly does not demand a degree in biomechanics. Yet, an experienced coach with a trained eye and a systematic teaching approach can make the learning process much more efficient.

Trust me.

When I first learned how to bench properly, I was ecstatic. All throughout high school I had simply plopped down on the bench, grabbed the bar, and haphazardly pumped out ugly, often painful reps. The first time I benched correctly was heavenly. The first time I attempted to teach another person how to bench correctly was hell.

I knew every little detail about how to bench press, but I did not know how to present everything effectively. My initial coaching experience consisted of me shouting out commands until both my trainee and I were completely flustered. Honestly, the person I was trying to help would have been better off if I had not told them anything.

After that disaster, I knew I had to refine my teaching approach if I was ever going to be a successful strength and conditioning coach. I wanted to be able to teach people how to lift quickly and with as little frustration, on both their part and mine, as possible.

My problem was not a lack of knowledge about how to bench correctly, it was an organizational problem. I needed to isolate the most important aspects of the movement and then present them in a logical, sequential order. Once I did this, my trainees had a much easier time learning not only the bench press, but all exercises I showed them. As I trained more and more people, I refined each of my exercise presentations. Some of these presentations still need some fine-tuning, but I believe my bench press presentation is nearly perfect. This is how it goes...

1. Give Context: Before coaching any complex lifting maneuver, I always give my trainees a standard spiel. I inform them that learning certain lifts can be difficult, and that it may take them some time to get their technique under control. I ask them to be patient with themselves throughout the process, and I tell them that we will fix things as we go. I make sure they understand that not being perfect right away is not an issue. Essentially, I give my clients permission to make mistakes. Warning trainees of the inevitable initial imperfections seems to remove almost all of the frustration from the process. Concentration can easily be broken by magnified self-consciousness and aggravation, so framing the learning process positively from the onset is vital.            

2. Stay Calm and Give Praise: Effective coaching demands patience. Yelling commands and getting angry usually does little more than fluster your client and bring their technical progress to a standstill. If you are having your client learn the movement with an unloaded barbell, as you should be, then learning how to bench is not a life-or-death situation. The people that are seeking your help are not looking to be treated like they are in the military, so chill out and make the process enjoyable.
Chill out, sir.
If a client is just not getting it, then it is your fault, not theirs. As a coach, you are responsible for your client's failures. Becoming noticeably irritated and blaming them is a sure-fire way to be ineffective. In order to facilitate technical success, you must maintain a standard, understanding disposition. Stay calm and introduce the movement at a comfortable pace. If your teaching process is well-designed, then the potential for frustration will be minimized. In addition to remaining relaxed, make sure you never hesitate to give your clients praise. No one enjoys feeling incapable, and the awkwardness that learning a new movement may create can make individuals anxious. Offering regular reinforcement when your client is following your commands and doing things right can ease the tension and help them to concentrate.

3. Nail The Set-up: Once you have set the stage for skill acquisition, you can begin to introduce the movement. When teaching any complex lifting maneuver, I always break the lift down to two main components: the set-up and the execution. Time after time, I have watched coaches attempt to teach exercises without showing their clients how to set-up for them properly. This method usually yields poor results, as a sound set-up is often vital to correct lifting execution. Furthermore, setting up properly increases lifting safety; it is difficult to get out of a bad position with weight in your hands, so make sure your clients don’t start lifts in bad positions!

Basic, solid set-up. Heavy weight. Spotter. Nice work.
Both the set-up and the execution components of every complex lift I teach are further broken down into sets of main technical points. When teaching clients how to bench press, the three points I focus on are:
  1. Move your feet back to a position underneath or behind your knees. Make sure your feet are flat on the floor and keep them there throughout the movement. Do not kick your feet up in the air when the weight gets heavy.
  2. Arch your back and lift your chest up high. Maintain this position throughout the set.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as tight as you possibly can. Do not allow your back to loosen up until you have completed your set and the bar is back in the rack.
As I introduce and explain these main set-up points, I demonstrate them on the bench. Even the best exercise descriptions can benefit from visual examples, so I always make sure that my clients see what I want them to do in addition to hearing it.  

4. Remember The Intermediate Points: In between showing my clients the set-up and the execution of the bench press, I always touch on a few intermediate points that I believe are important. First, I explain to my trainees how I want them to grip the bar. I tell them to dig the bar deep into their palms, and I make sure they understand that doing this will make it easier to keep their wrists in a safe, neutral alignment. I also tell them to squeeze the bar as hard as they possibly can throughout the lift, as doing so will make it easier for them to maintain their upper back tightness and it will improve their bar control. Next, I tell my clients that they must, at the start of ever set, look their spotter in the eye, count to three, and bring the bar out to the starting position with the aid of their spotter. Setting this standard from the get-go reduces the risk of lifting accidents that can result from un-racking a bar and benching without a spotter. I can only image how difficult it is to bench with a crushed windpipe, and I do not want any of my trainees to enlighten me.

5. Simplify The Execution: Some coaches make a big deal out of teaching their clients how to achieve a perfectly efficient bar path; I am not one of those coaches. If I were helping an advanced powerlifter, then I might mess around with that. But, when teaching a newbie how to bench press, I make sure that I keep things simple. To start, I give my clients just two main points to focus on:
  1. Tuck your elbows. In the bottom position, your elbows should be around 45 degrees from the sides of your torso.
  2. Keep your chest up throughout the movement; do not let it fall flat.
Benching can, and eventually should, be more complex than just those two points. However, I have found that presenting too many things at once will interfere with a client’s ability to grasp the basic movement pattern that I am trying to teach them. Over the course of several weeks I will add in new concepts, such as taking in and holding a big breath before the eccentric portion of each rep and “pulling” the bar down with their back. This is done as I observe the client become proficient with what they have already been taught.

6. Refine The Pattern: Refining the pattern concerns the positioning of the barbell and the client’s joints at both the top and the bottom of every rep. Lots of beginners will hold the barbell either too far forward or too far back at the top of every rep. When I see this, I calmly tell the client to pause and hold the bar at the top. I then guide the bar to the position that I want it to be in, and I tell them to start and finish every rep in this exact spot. This repositioning is done as many times as is necessary, as developing good habits early is much easier than breaking bad habits down the line. Furthermore, I will ask clients to pause in the bottom position of the lift, with the bar held on their chest, in order to reposition their elbows and their forearms. I do not want lifters to flare their elbows straight out to their sides, and I also do not want them to over-tuck. While I tell them to tuck to 45 degrees from their torso, I am satisfied if they can consistently find a spot between 45 and 75 degrees. Additionally, I will view the client’s bottom position from the side in order to make sure that their forearms are vertical. Most clients will have their forearms reclined back towards their shoulders in the bottom position, and it is important to notice and rectify this mistake early in the learning process. Lastly, it is worth noting that elbow position, forearm position, the location of the bar on the chest when in the bottom position of the bench press, and grip width are all intimately connected variables. Limb lengths change from lifter to lifter, so not everyone will touch to the same spot on their chest. Furthermore, sometimes all of a beginner’s bottom position issues can be fixed by either altering their grip width or pointing to a spot higher or lower on their chest that they should touch.        

7. Repeat The Main Points: Repetition and learning go hand in hand, but repetition is not excluded to simply doing a bunch of reps of the exercise being learned. As a coach, you must repeat the main points that you introduced to your client a number of times. Even if you are working with a client that picks the movement up quickly, repeating yourself is still necessary. You want to get all of the main points of the exercise ingrained in your client’s mind, as this will allow for better skill retention for subsequent sessions. Eventually, the client should have an automatic internal dialog going every time they bench:
“Feet back and kept flat, arch the back and get the chest up, squeeze the shoulder blades together. Dig and squeeze the hands. Okay, 1-2-3. Chest up, tuck the elbows. Chest up, tuck the elbows. Chest up, tuck the elbows. Rack it.” 
This dialog does not get memorized after hearing it only one time, so I make sure to repeat all of the main points to my client during every set they do in their first few sessions. Typically, we will run through this process with the unloaded barbell until they are setting up and moving correctly. This usually takes a couple of sets. Then, we will make small jumps up in weight until they reach a weight that is challenging, yet comfortable enough that they are still able to maintain their newly acquired sound technique. More weight often causes people to revert to bad habits, so it is important that you, as their coach, take control and force your clients to be conservative until they are able to maintain their form. This does not mean you should force your client to use light weights and work on their form for three months until it is absolutely flawless; being overly cautious is not conducive to getting strong. A good coach will know the difference between major, hazardous issues and minor, innocuous ones. Major issues can lead to injuries and should be dealt with before advancing, but minor issues can be addressed on the fly.

Deal with issues before they lead to injuries.
The final point I want to make concerns the number of reps that should be done while learning how to bench press. Typically, I have my clients do between three and six reps for every set while they are learning the movement. Less than three, and you are not maximizing your time with them in the gym. More than six, and their technique will usually begin to break down and get sloppy. Doing sets of five seems to be the most optimal approach, as it allows for your client to rack up a good amount of high quality volume.

In Conclusion...
Learning a new movement can be a lengthy process. Mistakes will be made, but you will eventually refine your technique to make it efficient and effective. The same can be said for coaching; it takes time and effort to learn how to do it correctly. I hope this article streamlines the learning process for both new lifters and young coaches, as it was developed in the process of making mistakes and slowly learning from them. If you found it to be helpful, be sure to pass it on to your lifting buddies or your fellow coaches. The more people available to teach this movement effectively, the more people we can get stronger, quicker.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any questions, don't hesitate to leave a comment below or email me at