Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Getting Bigger and Stronger: A Summary

By Andrew McGunagle

My mental model of the strength training process always seems to be much clearer than it was just six months before. I lift, I study, and I think, and then I do my best to synthesize what I have learned into a framework that will improve my training and the training of the people that I help. My ideas are never perfect or complete, as I always look back on my prior knowledge and laugh at how thoroughly incomplete my views were. However, I realize that I am a bit further along in the process than a lot of people due to the time that I have dedicated to this endeavor, and relaying what I have learned can help them in their quest to understand the strength training process. So, here is a summary of what I think I know so far. Surely my views will evolve as I educate myself, but I do believe there are some "truths" inherent in what I have learned up to this point. My summary is fairly simple and will seem very basic to many of you. If you already know all of this, then ask yourself how you can employ it more effectively. Here it goes:

How to Get Bigger and Stronger

Squat, press, deadlift, and bench press with the barbell using technique that is mechanically efficient. When your technique feels off, think about how to make it conform to the biomechanical ideal rather than customizing it with strange permutations. Do the mobility work necessary to allow your body to adopt the positions that you want it to adopt, using drills that are specific to the lifts that you do. If you are skinny and weak, then focus on sets of five to build both strength and size. Use a workload that induces adaptations, structure your training to recover from that workload, then lift again in the optimal time frame and increase your workload for further progress. Eat a lot of quality food, focusing on meat and vegetables. If you can tolerate it, add in large quantities of milk in addition to your high calorie meals when you want (need) to gain weight. Rest and recover on your off days, making sure to take in the calories needed to recover from your last session and prepare for the next one. Maintain good sleeping habits, consistently getting around 8 hours of sleep while doing your best to go to bed and wake up at standard times. Occupy yourself with quality activities, such as reading, between sessions rather than worrying about your training program. When you have a bad session, diagnose the problem as simply as possible and then determine whether or not you need to make (minor) adjustments to your plan. Account for periods of substandard recovery and layoffs from lifting by being conservative and, potentially, backing off slightly. Always be in control of your training plan and do the things outside of the gym that are necessary to make it work. Thoughtfully adjust your plan as you progress, or when you run into trouble/life. Be consistent.

To be continued...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

How to Start a Warehouse Gym: An Interview With John Cortese

By Andrew McGunagle

A few years ago, during my freshman year at Cal Poly, I got in touch with a bright young strength coach named John Cortese. John was close to graduating from Cal Poly at the time, and he was working towards opening a gym in his hometown of Napa, California. During the past couple of years, John and I have kept in touch, and, through Facebook, I have watched him build his business into what is now an awesome warehouse gym.

Last week I drove out to John's facility to talk to him about starting a warehouse gym. I am hoping to open my own facility soon after I graduate, and I knew that John could offer me a lot of great information about the process. The insights that John provided me were excellent, and his advice made me much more confident in the direction that I am heading.

Also, John thought it would be helpful to other individuals who are in a similar situation that I am in to videotape our conversation. This was a great idea, as it resulted in an excellent six-part interview that we can share with everyone who is interested. So, here are all six parts of the interview I did with John. If you are interested in starting a warehouse gym, then it is well worth your time to watch this fifty-minute video series.

(Thank you, John, for taking the time to meet with me and provide me with so much great advice. I truly appreciate all the help you have given me throughout the past few years, and I am glad other future strength coaches will be able to benefit from out talk!)

Thanks for reading and watching! If you live in, or near, Napa, then be sure to check out CTS Strength & Conditioning. Find out more about John and his gym at http://ctsgym.com/

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The "IPF-Style" Bench Press Set-Up

By Andrew McGunagle

The International Powerlifting Federation, more commonly known as the IPF, is one of the premiere powerlifting federations in the world. While the politics that accompany the litany of contemporary powerlifting federations can be irritating, I am consistently awed by the strength and the skill of the lifters that compete in the IPF. While I respect the amount of discomfort that multi-ply lifters endure while lifting insane poundages, I am much more impressed by a big single-ply or raw lift. I do not mean to insult anybody who chooses to do multi-ply lifting; I am simply stating my personal preference. Quite simply, a monolift-assisted wide-stance multi-ply squat is not my cup of tea.

Beyond my partiality as a powerlifting fan, I find that examining the lifting styles of IPF athletes rather than multi-ply lifters is much more conducive to my own lifting success. I want to lift some big weights in the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift, and I want to do so with as little help from equipment as possible. Given these goals, footage from IPF meets can be incredibly instructive. The commonalities I have noticed between IPF lifters' technique in each of the three powerlifts has enabled me to make my lifting more precise and more efficient. In the piece that follows, I will outline a bench press set-up style that I learned while watching IPF competitions. This set-up is by no means an IPF standard, but it does characterize how many of these lifters prepare to bench big weights while adhering to the strict standards of their federation.

If you complete, or plan on competing, in a powerlifting federation that requires all lifters to keep their feet flat on the floor while benching, then this method of setting up to bench can be very helpful. Or, if you employ a standard bench press style similar to the one outlined in Starting Strength, then this strategy can improve your consistency. Let's start with a video as a reference point, and then follow that demonstration by outlining each step in the process below.

(Note: Rather than rationalizing every step of the process again, I am going to refer you to my previous bench press set-up article. Each step has a purpose, and it is important to understand why you should take the time to set up correctly every time you bench. Be sure to read my previous article, if you have not done so already, in order to get some context.)    

1. Set The Bar: Begin the set-up process by lying down on the bench and rolling the bar to either the front or the back of the j-hooks. Doing so ensures that the bar can be used as a reliable visual marker during every set-up. Where you choose to set the bar will impact the next stage of the set-up, so be sure to move it to the same spot before every set. 

2. Eyes Under: This step in the set-up should be individualized by every lifter. I, personally, scoot back on the bench until my eyes are approximately underneath the barbell. Because I have been benching by myself in my rack, I need to press the bar out of the rack rather than "pulling" it out. This eyes-under orientation allows me to press the bar out of the rack and bring it to the starting position most effectively. While "pulling" the bar out of the rack with locked elbows is ideal, it is difficult to do so without the aid of a spotter. If you do have spotters available to give you hand-offs, then you might decide not to move as far back towards the head of the bench. 

3. Set Your Grip: Once the bar and your body are positioned correctly, begin to get your grip on the barbell. If you do not already make a point of doing so, then be sure to get the bar deep into your palms as opposed to gripping the bar up near your fingers.

4. Upper Back Tight: After setting the grip, squeeze your shoulder blades together. Make sure the muscles of your upper back are tight, as these muscles must form a stable base to bench press from.

5. Bridge Up: Now that your upper body is locked into position, place your heels on the end of the bench and raise your hips up as high as possible. Use this bridge position to enhance your arch and drive your weight down through your upper back and into the bench pad.

Bridging up.
6. Drop Your Butt: Doing your best to keep your arch and the pressure on your upper back, drop your butt back down to the bench pad.

7. Set Your Feet: Dropping only one leg at a time, move your feet from the bench pad down to the floor. The sole of each foot should be flat on the floor and the toes will, usually, be angled out. Optimal stance width will be determined by each individual lifter, but it is advisable to avoid extremely narrow and extremely wide foot positions.   

8. Flex Your Butt: With the feet set, flex the glutes and keep them flexed until the end of the set. If you are wondering why this is important, then refer to step number three in this article.

9. Drive and Tighten: Without allowing your feet to slide out from their set positions, drive your feet into the floor in a way that reinforces your arch and drives your stable upper back down into the bench pad. The pressure felt at the upper back should feel similar to the pressure that was created when you lifted your hips up into a bridge position earlier in the set-up.

10. Big Breath, Un-rack The Bar: With everything positioned correctly and set in a solid position, inflate your stomach by taking in a large breath, and then un-rack the barbell. Move the bar out until it is positioned directly over your shoulder joints.

A Few Notes:
-Lots of lifters in the IPF, and other powerlifting federations that require competitors to keep their feet flat on the floor while benching, prefer to wear squat shoes while they bench. Squat shoes are extremely stable and feature elevated heels, which many lifters find enhances their leg drive. If you own a pair of squat shoes, then throw them on for your next bench press session and see how you like them.

-The heels-elevated set-up that I outlined in my past article does have some advantages when compared to this "IPF-style" set-up. I, personally, find that I can arch a bit higher and get better leg drive when using a heels-elevated set-up. However, the "IPF-style" set-up offers a bit more lower body stability due to the enhanced base of support on the floor. Also, I find the "IPF-style" set-up much less taxing than the heels-elevated set-up, which is a factor worthy of consideration. The fatigue accumulated during, and from, a bench session with the heels-elevated set-up seems to require more recovery time. Conversely, the "IPF-style" set-up seems to be more conducive to higher frequency bench press training.

-The set-up styles that I have outlined are just two of many different bench press set-up methods. The underlying message is to figure out what works best for you and your goals. Think about the pros and the cons of each style, and then test them in the gym. Make your set-up your own, and then do it the same every time you bench. You will be amazed at how much more consistent you lifting, not to mention your lifting progress, will become once you lock down your set-up.