Friday, November 22, 2013

What's the Problem 2.0!

By Andrew McGunagle

Back in June, I created a training questionnaire and posted it here on my blog. This tool spawned from my realization of the importance of accurately identifying issues at the outset of the problem solving process. All too often, we seem to allow our biases to guide our thinking and subsequently direct our efforts in the wrong directions. With concrete and objective tools, we can get a bit closer to diminishing our flawed tendencies and we may begin to focus our limited time and attention appropriately.

While the assortment of queries posed in the original questionnaire remain valid, I knew I could improve the utility of the tool for my lifting brethren. Also, on a related note, I've begun to realize that, when it comes to the strength training community and our use of technology to improve the training process, we have only just begun to scratch the surface. While there are bright young entrepreneurs - such as the dudes at Strength Portal - creating innovative new software, there is so much progress to be made on the digital front of our iron obsession. So, with these thoughts in mind, I transformed my questionnaire into a well-organized spreadsheet:

(Note: To use/edit this version of the questionnaire, log into your Google account, then go to "File" > "Make a Copy...")

After you make a copy of the sheet and begin to scroll through the updated questionnaire, quickly ponder each question and type a value between 1 ("No Problem") and 10 ("Problem") in the middle column, along with any notes that come to mind in the column to the right. These values will be averaged at the bottom of each section in the yellow rows, and the average of all the issues will be displayed at the bottom of the page in the blue row. Spend a few minutes filling out the spreadsheet, figure out what you need to fix, and think of a few feasible solutions to the problems that are presented.

You might be surprised what is holding you back. Or, your existing inklings may simply be confirmed. Either way, your obstacles will be staring you in the face, and now all you need to do is make some changes and get moving towards your goals. Cool, huh?

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Roll With the Punches, Manage the Chaos

By Andrew McGunagle

If only your ankles were a bit more mobile, right? What would you deadlift if you didn't have to sit so much at work? Imagine how big and strong you'd be if you could afford that ridiculously expensive protein powder that is biochemically engineered to INCREASE MUSCLE PROTEIN SYNTHESIS BY 5000%!!! As soon as you figure everything out and get everything under control, then you'll start making real progress, huh? "My training, my diet, and my life would be all perfect if only I could..."

Stop it.

Perfection is a pipe dream in the world of strength and conditioning. Fix one problem, and you'll be confronted with a new one just a few reps later. Knowing the science behind size and strength can certainly be advantageous, but the human body can be a finicky bastard. There are simply too many variables involved in the undertaking for you to ever be in complete control, and you know what?

Perfection isn't necessary, and waiting until every detail is pinned under your thumb to begin working hard all but guarantees your progress will be unspectacular.

You see, success in strength training depends on a lifter's ability to consistently create a specific, stimulating training effect. If you don't regularly lift in a manner that influences your muscles to grow or forces your nervous system to become more efficient, then you aren't going to get bigger and stronger. Lots of people brood over their lack of progress and search high and low for answers, and they forget to simply do enough of the right things at the right times. If you want to start making legitimate, continual progress, you must quit kidding yourself with complex solutions and begin doing the work you know you cannot avoid.

The lifters who can consistently maintain the proper frame of mind - a state of unrelenting problem solving - and pair it with a unique ability to put the blinders on and lift with a logical, controlled recklessness are the ones who get closest to discovering their potential. You need to constantly be assessing your movement capacity and addressing deficits with targeted mobilization. You need to monitor your technique and perceive and rectify flaws before they become bad habits. You need to be mindful of the foods you ingest and adjust your intake when you aren't performing well or making the body composition improvements you expect. You need to be tracking your training and thoughtfully manipulating your training variables if you are not getting closer to your goals.

However, at the same time, you must also turn a (relatively) blind eye to all of your issues when it comes time to get after it in the gym. Your hips may be a bit tight, but you can still squat to depth pain-free, right? You're having a little trouble maintaining a perfect neutral spine position during your deadlift session, but is the deviation excessive enough to be dangerous? Obviously there are certain problems that should never be ignored. But all of those tiny issues you've allowed to build up in your head? Those aren't urgent. They may not even be worth a single second of stress.

You should strive for perfection and figure out how to overcome any obstacles you encounter, but you also need to be realistic. Know that you can function and make progress despite a less-than-ideal training, eating, or living situation. Frame the process correctly: set short-term goals, address issues, and train hard. Stop holding yourself back and you'll begin to see what you're capable of.

Thanks for reading!  

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dream On: Ideas for Productive Gym-Less Training

By Andrew McGunagle

Going into my junior year of high school,  one  of our summer reading assignments was Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. While Thoreau's book is widely celebrated as a one of America's premier works of literature, I recall being thoroughly uenenthusiastic about reading it. I intermittently labored through each chapter during the hot summer months, and I don't remember ever being enthralled by the man's exploits. However, the one gem that immediately grabbed my attention and made the entire ordeal worthwhile was the following quote:
"...if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."   
I scribbled that quote on a 3x5 index card and taped it to the wall by to my bed between Emily Dickinson's "Compensation" and a Winston Churchill postcard that read:

Deserve Victory!
At the time, I was amazed by how relevant the thoughts of a few esteemed deceased individuals were to an awkward teen who dreamed of one day owning his own gym. Now, I marvel at how much these assorted quotes have guided my views and actions the past 6 years. Throughout high school and college, I've been driven to continually pursue the knowledge that will eventually allow me to become a successful gym owner. I know my self-assured progression will lead me to my dream, but I've arrived at some post-graduation bumps in the road.   

If I'm going to save enough money to realize my dream of opening up my own training facility, I will probably need to work multiple jobs and be extraordinarily thrifty. For a time - and hopefully not too long, or else I might go insane - I may even have to put off paying to lift at a gym. Obviously I will want to continue to train in some capacity, so I am formulating a gym-less emergency backup plan. I figured other people might, for a variety of reasons, find themselves in a similar situation at some point in their lives, so I wanted to share some solutions for training with a minimal amount of equipment.

The list of exercises and ideas I'm putting forth is not exhaustive, and I want to make it clear these fixes are not uniquely superior to your options at a gym. Rather, these are simply some basic solutions that should enable you to maintain your movement capacities and musculature until barbells become available. Having said that, a thoughtful generalized training plan can put you in a great position to make swift progress when you return to your specific main lifts. Use your time wisely by getting into great shape to train hard, and you will realize the value in your minimalist preparations.

Gym-Less Training Basics

Without the luxury of a well-stocked gym, your exercise options are obviously limited by your equipment selection. While there are a variety of useful exercises you can do with just your body weight, your repertoire will multiply with each implement you add. If you are avoiding the gym in order to save money, then spending a large sum on equipment doesn't make much sense. However, it is often easy to find second-hand equipment from friends, neighbors, thrift stores, and Craigslist. If you foresee your thrifty training experience extending beyond a few months, then you may want to consider putting together a small, strict budget to spend on a few fitness toys.

While many articles of this nature attempt to list every variation of every exercise you could perform, I'm going to keep things simple. The exercises listed below are ones I believe are useful and will actually be doing myself during my own gym-less workouts. That's not to say that all other movements are ineffective and pointless; I'd rather be honest and straightforward about what I believe is the best way to go about this rather than trying to impress you with a voluminous array of options. Having said that, let's dive right in:
Body Weight

-Push-ups: Without a bench to lie on and a bar to press with, you're going to need to flip over and pump out reps of push-ups on the ground. Make sure you squeeze your glutes, brace your torso, and externally rotate your arms, then pump out enough reps to maintain - or perhaps build, depending on your training status - your pressing muscles.   
-Get-ups: Few movements allow you to challenge, assess, and improve the mobility and stability of your entire musculoskeletal system like get-ups. Focus on the positioning of your bodily segments and the quality of your movements rather than the completion of the exercise, and you should notice improvements in your functional state.

-Sprints: Whether you run on grass, a track, up a hill, or on a street, make sure you ease into uninhibited sprinting if it's been a while since you last kicked it into high gear. Slowly increase the intensity of your starts and practice building up to higher speeds. Progress gradually and be conservative throughout the process if you want to get faster, improve your conditioning, and remain injury-free.

Body Weight + Bands

-Banded Good Mornings: Challenge you ability to hip hinge correctly while accumulating volume for the muscles of your posterior chain by looping a band behind your neck, bracing your spine, and flexing and extending at the hips. Keep your alignment strict and cut sets off if you begin to falter. Over time, increase the amount of volume you do as much as the prolonged strictness of your positioning allows.
-Band Push-Downs: If you can find a solid spot in or near your apartment to hang the band from, then band push-downs can be a good general exercise for your triceps. Focus on fatiguing the muscles and squeezing your triceps as hard as possible at the bottom of every rep, and you may be able to put a little size on the backs of your arms.

Body Weight + Bands + Chin-up Bar

-Chin/Pull-Ups: Whether you purchase a cheap doorway chin-up bar, hang from a pipe, or go to a local park, chin-ups and pull-ups are great exercises you can do without paying gym dues. Like the push-ups, keep your legs locked straight and squeeze your glutes, brace your torso, and create external rotation torque at the shoulders. Diligently position yourself well and grind out reps in order to maintain the lats you built with heavy deadlifts.

Body Weight + Bands + Chin-up Bar + Pair of Dumbbells

-Split Squats: If you are going to spend any extended amount of time away from squats and deadlifts, then you will want to make up for that as best you can with other lower-body exercises. Split squats can be a useful way to work the hip and knee extensors while also challenging the complex of muscles that prevent the arches of your feet and your knees from collapsing inward. Fix your feet forward, keep your knees out in a neutral orientation, squeeze the glute of your trailing leg, and stand tall. If you regularly neglect single-leg training, then your hips will benefit from these split squats if you perform them correctly. 
-Curls: While many of the other areas of your body will be difficult to build without any of the multi-joint exercise stimulus you normally benefit from, your biceps may be a different story. Get a pair of dumbbells you can curl and go to town on your upper arms. Keep track of the amount of quality volume you can do, and strive to increase it with regular curling sessions. If you're like me and you tend to neglect your biceps in favor of your pressing muscles, then you will see some noticeable changes from this novel stimulus.

-Shoulder Work: You can build your shoulders without any heavy barbell pressing if you get creative and do enough work. Do raises, then press your dumbbells overhead until you are too fatigued to lock them out. Align your hips, ribcage, and spine correctly in order to give your shoulders a chance to function optimally, and these exercises will hold you over until you're back in the gym.  

Body Weight + Bands + Chin-up Bar + Pair of Dumbbells + Kettlebell

-Kettlebell Swings: Simultaneously improve the explosive power of your posterior chain and your conditioning with this single exercise. If you're a powerlifter who has shunned swings in favor of lots of deadlifts, then you may get a noticable training effect from this general exercise. Refine your technique so you can swing violently, then pick up your kettlebell and get those glutes in gear!  
-Goblet Squats: Unless you pony up the money for a gnarly kettlebell, these goblet squats are not going to do much to increase your leg strength. However, I believe it is important to squat regularly in order to assess your current movement capacity and maintain your squat patterning. Grab your kettlebell and drop into a deep squat for reps and for long holds in the crucial bottom position.

-1-arm KB rows: Rows can be a great upper back exercise in the gym, and they can be just as effective out of the gym as well. Grab your kettlebell, hip hinge, and use your non-working hand to steady yourself. Or, prop one leg up on your couch or coffee table for support. Stabilize your body and increase both the size and strength of your upper back musculature.  

Bag of Tricks

-High Volume: The tonnages amassed during sessions of multiple high-intensity barbell lifts will be nearly impossible to replicate with just your body weight and a few pieces of smaller equipment. Therefore, it will likely be necessary to drastically increase your training volume if you want to see noticeable physical changes. If your normal gym routine consists of strength-focused barbell work such as powerlifting or Olympic lifting, then tweaking your sets and reps towards bodybuilding-style protocols can be beneficial. Use a variety of high-volume general exercises to build a solid base of mobility, stability, and conditioning so you will be fully prepared to make swift progress when you return to your barbell roots.   
-High Frequency: As your gym-less training progresses, it may become difficult to accumulate enough volume to promote a notable training effect during any single session of reasonable length. Over time, you may want to work towards daily training sessions if you plan on stressing your body in the same capacity you do when you can afford a gym membership. Also, if you're working multiple jobs and don't have the time to drive to the gym and lift, then shorter daily sessions may be your most realistic training option.

-TUT Extenders: If you own only a few weight implements, then you will need to find creative ways to make those loads more challenging as you get stronger. Obviously, doing more reps and more sets are your initial avenues for progression, but there are some other tricks that can help you do more with less. Think of unique ways you can extend your time under tension (TUT), such as prolonged eccentrics, partial reps, or isometric holds at various points in the range of motion. Once the weights you possess begin to get too easy, you will need to add in a few of these wrinkles in order to make progress.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In Case You Missed It 3...

By Andrew McGunagle

...I had a third article published on EliteFTS! This article got a great response, and I'm especially pleased with all of the positive feedback the Prilepin-RPE tables have received. Check out the article here:

As an aside, Klokov has been ridiculously active on YouTube. It's been interesting to watch Russian lifters do general training when major competitions are months away. Take a look:

Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 14, 2013

What's the Problem?

By Andrew McGunagle

As a passionate and knowledgeable lifter, I’ve reached a point in my development where my training issues are rarely due to a lack of knowledge. Nowadays, the mistakes I make and the problems I run into are usually due to an absence of awareness or faulty perception. I’ve acquired all of the information I need to get bigger and stronger and achieve my fitness goals, but there are still times when I struggle to exploit my understanding and make progress in the gym.

I’m slowly learning that a vast knowledge must be intelligently organized in order to be applied effectively in the real world. I need to pare down my insights and create principles, I must design systems that guide the training process, and I have to disregard the fluff in favor of what is truly important.

At the same time, as an aspiring strength and conditioning coach, I don’t want to sell myself - and my clients - short by engaging in excessive minimalism. I believe some lifting authorities wrongly tout overly-simple approaches to trainees who do not possess the experience that allows these coaches to succeed with a handful of straightforward tenets.

Focusing on a few key points enables these experts to get results, but they fail to recognize how much psychological processing is occurring behind their eyes. Young lifters who lack this finely-tuned gym intuition often fail when they try to copy the plain approaches that are preached. While simplification is vital, the details can still make or break a training program, so it is necessary to seek the optimal balance between over-complication and the lower limits of information and instruction.

In an effort to find this balance point, I have been developing a number of documents that will enable me to manage the training process more effectively. I’m working towards summarizing the knowledge I have acquired and the lessons I have learned in a manner that will ensure I do not continue to make crucial errors when I train myself and my clients. Many of these outlines are in the rough early stages of formulation, but they are workable, and I’m beginning to see how they can positively affect my training.

As I work on these projects, I plan to share many of them here on my blog. Individually, they might not look like much initially. However, as they come together, I'm sure they will combine to create a very potent strength training resource.

The first piece, which I put together recently, is a series of questions designed to help lifters identify where they are going wrong in the training process. Admittedly, many of these questions pertain to my personal lifting faults. In each category the inquiries are based on mistakes I have noticed negatively affected the training process in the past, and the questionnaire is meant to quickly bring awareness to issues so they can be rectified. I'm sure I will add more questions to this document as I make more errors, and other lifters will benefit from personalizing this list with their own insights.

If you are not progressing towards your goals, then you must figure out where you are going wrong. Unless you are very close to your "genetic potential" - and very few trainees are - then your training should be bringing improvements. Sure, some people don't respond as quickly and impressively to training as others, but it is highly unlikely that you are a genetic anomaly that cannot get bigger and stronger. Fix your training and keep moving forward! Start here:

Big Picture:
Do you have specific goals?
Are you actually making progress towards your goals?
Are you problem solving, planning, and executing new strategies when you become aware of issues? 

Too infrequent?
Not enough time spent?
Avoiding major issues / discomfort?
Not enough acute effort?
Ignoring joint pain / excessive stiffness / missing normal ranges of motion?
Not spending enough time in desired positions (deep squat, arms overhead)?

Consistently under-eating?
Not enough protein?
Too few post-workout carbs?
Not eating enough beforehand to fuel tough sessions?
Failing to eat until full (when attempting to gain weight)?

Not enough effort / focus?
Bad attitude?
Over-thinking the lifts?
Not focusing on and sincerely performing basic lifting cues?
Writing off lifts too early in warm-up process?
Lacking motivation and failing to work towards reclaiming it?
Not being realistic / failing to scale back training when necessary?
Missing sessions too frequently?

No concrete training plan?
Not enough work?
Misguided effort / failing to accurately identify and address weaknesses (relative to goals)?
Not actively / systematically progressing?
Failing to track training (not actively examining present numbers to guide future training)?
Not periodically systematically testing strength levels?

Poor bedtime habits?
Poor morning habits?
Not taking steps to actively manage stress?
Not periodically binging on good food to aid recovery during intense training?
Not enough time spent outdoors?

Too much sitting / poor posture / bad positioning / inactivity?
Not enough time spent doing quality reading?
Not enough quality socializing (family, close friends, new acquaintances)?
Too much ruminating?
Too much wasted time (Internet, television)?
Personal / professional stagnation?

Thanks for reading! 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

3/1/5 Deadlift Program (Keys to) Success Story

By Andrew McGunagle

Prior to the start of last summer, I outlined the 3/1/5 deadlift program for my brother. My brother and I usually lift together throughout the school year, but I was headed home for summer and he was staying at school to work on a business project. Thus, he wanted to spend his summer focusing on his deadlift, mainly because the deadlift does not require any spotting from training partners.

His best deadlift before beginning the program was 415 pounds. Near the end of his 3/1/5 progression, he lifted 405 pounds for a set of five. He also lifted 455 pounds for a 40 pound 1RM PR.

My brother began the 3/1/5 program early in June of 2012, and he used just 275 pounds for three sets of three during his first session. From there, he made a few 10 pound jumps from session to session, then he began making 5 pound jumps as the lifts became more challenging. For a little over three months, he did not do much lifting beyond the deadlift sets that were scheduled. Usually, he would warm up, deadlift like a maniac, then leave. My brother was very consistent, and he trusted the program would work its magic and enable him to move the weight he needed to move every time he went to the gym.

Near the end of August, after he had worked his way up to deadlifting his old 1-rep PR for a set of five, he called me up, and we outlined a very short peaking plan for him to do before he tested his deadlift. This peaking plan entailed nothing more than taking an extra day of rest, nearly doubling the amount of food he was eating, doing an easy three sets of one with just 315 pounds, then going for a new PR after another day of rest.

The two and a half months of training and the week of peaking paid off, and in the third week of August 2012 he lifted 455 pounds for a 40 pound deadlift PR:

A 40 pound PR after just a few months of training is pretty stellar for an intermediate raw lifter. I firmly believe the 3/1/5 deadlift program can deliver similar results to any intermediate lifter who is willing to try it. However, there are a couple of keys to success that must be kept in mind: 

1. Start Light: I urged my brother to start his 3/1/5 progression with a paltry (for him) 275 pounds, and I'm glad he trusted me and took my advice. Deadlifting three times each week and deadlifting for sets of five are novel experiences for most lifters. Starting light enables individuals to gradually become accustomed to these challenges. Failing to ease into this program with light loads will likely cause the physiological and psychological stresses of this brand of training to temporarily surpass the recover abilities of the body and the coping abilities of the mind. While challenging these faculties is a desirable and necessary objective in strength training, it is important to slow things down and build the momentum necessary to prosper from a linear progression.      

2. Progress Optimally: Linear progressions rely on a few primary principles. First, you must do enough work to get stronger. Next, you must lift again in the interval in which you are ready to exploit the improved strength from that work. Lastly, the work in this second session must enable the lifter to once again get stronger and continue this stress-recover-stress-recover-etc. process. In order to do these things effectively, the workloads need to be sufficient, the intervals between sessions must be adequate, and the load increases must be reasonable.

These three factors, combined with a host of other details related to the training status of each individual lifter, all interact to determine whether or not a lifter will be able to sustain linear progress. Since many of the parameters of this program (the sets, the reps, and the frequency) are already outlined, much of the guesswork in this process is eliminated. However, there is still some room for error when it comes to the load increases, so I want to provide a couple of general guidelines that will make things even easier:
  • Slow and Steady: If you rightfully decide to start your progression with a relatively light and easy load, it will be tempting to make weight jumps larger than the recommended 5 pounds from session to session. While you can certainly get away with, say, 10 or 15 pound increases for your first few sessions, I would encourage you not to increase the weight too much too quickly. A slow and steady progression with light loads, and therefore lower intensities, enables your body to build its recovery capacities. While lifting only ~70% of your 1RM using submaximal effort protocols might not stimulate appreciable strength gains, your body is becoming accustomed to deadlifting three times per week. Building this tolerance and steadily increasing the intensity of your efforts will enable you to make more progress over the long haul.
  • Rewind and Rebuild:  One of the main problems - or advantages, depending on your perspective - of linear progressions is that they require lifters to be extremely consistent. Life sometimes gets in the way of 5 pound jumps, and continuing to grind through sets for the sake of completion can force lifters into a rut. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this issue. If stresses pile up and the weights become too challenging to make progress, all you need to do is drop the weight down a bit and begin to work your way back up. These mini-deloads provide you with a recovery buffer, as both your body and your mind get to ease up a bit. This same strategy needs to be enacted after a short lay off. If you take a vacation, you will likely lose some momentum, and starting back up where you left off will be too demanding. Instead of working yourself to a standstill, decreasing the weight and building back up should allow you to continue your progression.    
  • Manipulate for More: After doing the 3/1/5 deadlift program for a few months, you might reach a point where the session-to-session weight increases become too demanding. If you want to continue to milk the program for a bit more progress, you will need to make a few modifications. You can increase the weight once or twice each week instead of adding weight all three sessions. You can add a few sets to the first session of each week and/or drop a few sets from the mid-week singles. You can change the do-or-die set or five to a set of just three reps. There are a lot of variables you can manipulate, and managing the 3/1/5 program for a few months should provide you with the insights you need to make the correct adjustments. However, whatever you decide to change, you must keep in mind that you are going to need to do more and you are going to get less. Don't despair when progress slows; do what you must in order to keep moving forward.  
3. Don't Fear the Frequency: Throughout the past decade, deadlifting heavy more than once a week was thought to be blasphemous in most strength training circles. Some lifters believed - and countless others were led to believe - that deadlifts are too demanding to be done often. However, in the past few years there has been an exodus away from this low frequency school of thought. People are realizing that deadlifting two or more times a week will not kill them. In fact, these same individuals are seeing their deadlift numbers steadily climb as their frequency increases. Instead of being thought of as a destructive mythical beast, the deadlift is beginning to be considered as just another lift - as it should be.

Will you commit to this program?
Before committing to the 3/1/5 deadlift program, you must let go of any theories about the dangers of high frequency deadlifting you may have latched on to over the years. If deadlifting "too often" has beaten you up in the past, consider the possibility that your past training might have been poorly designed to allow any deadlift frequencies greater than once a week. Honestly ask yourself if you took the time to ease into higher frequencies and gave your body enough time to adapt to them. Dispel the opinions lifting "authorities" have forced upon you and reflect on the mistakes you might have made when experimenting in the past. Once you have done this, start the program, expect progress, and progress linearly as long as you realistically can. Enjoy the process and report back with PR's!

Thanks for reading!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Suboptimal Conditions, Programming, and Progress (Guest Post)

(Note from Andrew: The following article is the first Strength Musings guest post, and it is written by my buddy Ian Gerber. Ian is a very strong lifter, an incredibly knowledgeable coach, an astoundingly diligent student, and also one of the most amiable guys I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I am excited and honored to share his work with you here on my blog. Enjoy!)

By Ian Gerber   

The clients I deal with on a daily basis have school, work, families, and other hobbies. Their nutrition is inadequate and their recovery is suboptimal. In spite of all of these external factors, they still want to get strong. Typically, before they come to me, many of my clients have spent 3-4 months trying to get a basic linear progression (Starting Strength) to work. These clients are not dumb. They know that the fastest route from point A to point B is a straight line, and they made the intelligent decision to apply this knowledge to their programming.

Thus, they begin their progression. The first week goes well. The second gets a little harder. The third week might be when they experience their first hiccup. Maybe they have a bad day on Wednesday - perhaps due to consistently failing to eat enough food – and they miss their squats. So they repeat this session on Friday and complete it, barely.  The fourth week entails missing reps during their squats sets not once, but twice.

Consequently, they reset their progression by reducing the load by 10% and they begin to work their way back up. This process continues for 2 or 3 more months. By this time their squat may have gone from 95 pounds to 165 or from 115 pounds to 200 for three sets of five. Then, sadly, their squat just stalled, and stalled, and…stalled. Similarly, their bodyweight and muscle growth also become stagnant. Throughout this entire process, they may have gained only 3 to 5 pounds because they have not eaten enough to make significant structural changes.

At this point, frustrated with their lack of progress and looking for a way to move forward, they come to me. We do a few sessions, during which we often clear up many of the technical errors they did not notice. Their bar path is now moving in an efficient straight line, just like their linear program. However, their nutrition and recovery are not always supportive of the linear progress their plan urges.

Now, I absolutely agree that a simple linear progression, a la Starting Strength, is the best way to get strong, fast. While I would love to have a nutritional consultant work with my clients and force them to eat more dead animals and fat, this is not necessarily feasible. My subtle - or, sometimes, not so subtle - hints reminding them they need to eat more to make their linear programming work are often answered with “Yeah, I know, but….”

What, then, can be done? Some people simply cannot structure their lifestyle to meet the recovery requirements of such a demanding program. This is okay. Many critics will say it is not, but I have realized that my job is to help my clients get stronger by any means necessary.  Many times, this means deviating from “The Program” and making adjustments to help a trainee get stronger in spite of their suboptimal situation and imperfect habits. These adjustments will increase the flexibility of an individual’s program and allow for the day-to-day variation that life and a suboptimal recovery situation often necessitate. 

The tweaks described here have been used by myself and other lifters I work with during stretches of time where there is a shortage of food and sleep, debilitating stress and busyness, or a focus on other obligations and activities. Additionally, I suspect these simple changes could be very helpful to in-season athletes as well, as they are often forced to deal with similar circumstances. So, without further ado, here are a few tips that can promote progress under suboptimal conditions. They may not be groundbreaking, but they certainly work!

1. Utilize Rep Ranges Rather than Specific Numbers of Reps

Like I said, this is nothing revolutionary. Rep ranges are commonly employed, though we seem to see them more in “fluffier,” muscle mag type publications. I believe that many of us who train for strength become unreasonably tied to the idea of a specific number of reps and the effect associated with that number. Sets of five are great - nearly everyone agrees on that. Fives are known to offer a good blend of strength stimulus and metabolic stress. However, locking yourself - or a trainee - into a specific rep range can have frustrating effects if recovery is not optimal. If a linear progression is being followed, with 3x5 or even 5x5 being used, there is only one way to show progress, and that is by adding weight to the bar. Conversely, if a rep range is employed instead, then the trainee can demonstrate progress by adding weight and/or doing more reps.

I have found this to be a helpful change for trainees who have what I call “camel’s back syndrome.” These trainees are fine up to a certain load. Unfortunately, once one more proverbial “straw” is thrown on the bar, their technique breaks down. For this trainee, slowing down the progression and allowing them to accumulate more work with weights they find manageable can be helpful. However, no one wants to perform the same weight for the same number of repetitions in consecutive workouts. That’s just…boring. Rep ranges bypass this issue by adding the motivation of setting a “rep PR.”

Another advantage of rep ranges when compared to a set number of reps is the ability to achieve a very simple form of auto-regulation. There are two cases in which this is useful. One is very obvious, in which a trainee has come in tired, stressed, under-recovered, and ill-prepared to lift well. In this case, rather than having to perform the workout as written and attempt to grind out pre-set numbers of reps, the trainee can simply work as hard as they can that day. This may mean sticking to the lower end of the rep range (for example, doing only four reps in a planned rep range of 4-6). The physiological benefits of this strategy come with mental benefits as well. By keeping the weight on the bar constant for a few sessions, the trainee becomes familiar with the load and better understands the effort required to move it effectively. Thus, they can call upon this experience to perform better during their next session, and they can be confident in going for more reps to promote progress.

This protocol gives a lesser feeling of defeat than completely “missing” in a sets across setup, where getting four reps often makes it feel like one shouldn’t have even come to train that day. A second psychological benefit of this setup is that it decreases pre-training stress, especially in the case of suboptimal conditions. Rather than having a daunting “5x5” or “3x5” on their mind all day, trainees can know that they have something more manageable to overcome. This serenity can sometimes result in a rep PR, as the decreased stress and increased confidence can lead to a boost in performance.

Another positive aspect of rep range training is that it can be a good introduction to handling heavier weights, while also maintaining the net physiological effect of a set of 5. For example, a trainee squat workout could entail the following:

Set 1: 2-4 repetitions
Set 2: 4-6 repetitions
Set 3: 6-8 repetitions

This approach has an overall average rep number of 5. However, it has the advantage of a contrast between the sets. For clients that are ready for heavier work, the set of 2-4 can accomplish this without making the entire workout high intensity. For the “camel’s back” trainees, I have found that limiting the rep number on truly heavy work can do wonders for the maintenance of technique. For each of the two following final sets, the weight is lowered and more volume is accumulated.

If a trainee is regularly training in suboptimal conditions, but has a particularly strong day, they can benefit from this approach as well. In a standard sets across approach, the first set has an arbitrarily lower intensity than it must, because multiple sets must be completed at the same weight. If the aforementioned trainee comes in and does a few sets across, they may have left something on the table - especially on the first set. Here is where the auto-regulation tools come in handy: the number of repetitions achieved will be reflected by the trainee’s condition that day rather than a number written on a piece of paper. In the case of the trainee who feels good, they can push as far as they can go with that weight, trying to make new ground rather than terminating the set.

2. Reduce “Grinding” Training Volume

Progressive overload is obviously a necessary component of becoming stronger. However, its application can become a serious issue for those with the aforementioned “camel’s back syndrome.” For such trainees, 200 pounds may be a good training weight that is executed solidly. However, 205 forces them out of their groove, and the five pounds that bump them up to 210 are the final straw. Here, training at a higher weight only reinforces bad habits and strengthens the musculature required to move in a mechanically unsound manner. I am a good example of this phenomena and its lingering effects. In my first meet, I squatted (a massive) 353 pounds. However, in training, I could not get my hips and shoulders to consistently rise at the same time out of the bottom of my squat with anything above 225 – which was approximately 65% of my maximum at the time. At any weight beyond two plates, the dreaded “squat-morning” came into effect. Even today, if the bar gets out of the groove in a squat, I always drift forward in a similar manner. Although I have addressed the issue and greatly improved my control, my musculature initially developed to support these poor mechanics, which has made the correction process long and arduous.

When, for the sake of progress, a trainee has been grinding away at weights that force technical errors, a similar issue arises. Therefore, one of the best adjustments I can make for them is to apply rep range training to ensure that progress is happening at more manageable weights. For a time, priority can be placed on achieving a greater number of technically sound repetitions rather than adding more weight to the bar. Typically, replacing half of the traditional sets across scheme with rep range training is effective. Additionally, the other half of this scheme can be made up of submaximal low rep training. An example would be 8x3 for the squat or 6x2 for the bench or the press with a weight that the trainee is confident handling. These protocols are often performed with strict 90 second rest periods. The points emphasized in this submaximal training approach would be perfecting set-ups, having efficient bar paths, rehearsing proper mechanics, and moving the bar quickly.

This work can be thought of as “heavy” dynamic effort work – although, as an aside, I do not believe that true DE work is appropriate for most of the individuals I work with. The repetitive, low rep sets provide a stimulus that can be effective in correcting technical faults, whether they are due to motor control issues or inadequate strength in the relevant musculature. An example of a useful application of this method could be the “old” me. I would prescribe 8x3 at 245 pounds, done every 90 seconds. As long as my focus was adequate, I could get in 24 reps where my quadriceps actively extended my knees and my hamstrings anchored my back angle. This would contribute to my understanding of the correct “feel” of the movement, as I would discern the sensation of squatting properly with a somewhat challenging weight. In addition, those 24 reps would serve as a physiological stimulus to accumulate work on my quadriceps and hamstrings as they worked properly.

An advantage of this style of submaximal training for trainees in suboptimal conditions is that it does not represent a stimulus where muscular or technical failure is inherently possible. No matter how challenging or stressful an individual’s day was, or how little they’ve eaten, they should be able to confidently perform this work. Although not maximally challenging, they will leave the gym with greater confidence in their capabilities because of the numerous repetitions they performed.

The selection of loading for each exercise is more about how the sets look and feel, rather than a specific percent. The reps of the final sets will often be slower, but the lifter should never approach failure.

3. Incorporate More Assistance Work

This recommendation is probably the most controversial of the three - at least it will be to lifters like me who stick to bare-bones barbell training. I am a firm believer that the majority of trainees should have a program centered around the basics. If someone is trying to get stronger (and bigger), they should obviously squat, bench, deadlift, press, and do chin-ups. If possible, an individual should exhaust the efficacy of these movements alone before adding any other work (again, this is why a properly done linear progression is my first choice for someone who wants to get stronger). If a trainee is eating enough, getting ample rest, and performing only these basic movements, they can make a ton of progress in a short amount of time.

Again, however, this is not possible for many individuals. Therefore, a program that utilizes rep ranges and reduces grinding training volume can be rounded out with some assistance work. I would utilize assistance work in this case for two reasons: to add overall volume and to strengthen lagging musculature.

Often, when someone transitions to an alternative approach like the one posited above, the volume on the main lifts is reduced. The biggest change is usually a decrease in squat frequency from 3x to 2x/week. On the upper body lifts, frequency is usually kept the same, while the total number of repetitions performed is reduced. In this case, it can be useful to make up some of the lost volume of the routine with a few assistance lifts. Selecting exercises in this case is as simple as picking a useful movement that works the musculature that has lost some volume. In the example of the squat, rear foot elevated split squats could be used. Again, sound mechanics can be reinforced, and the structures can accumulate more work without the stress having to come from the main lifts.

My clients often come to me with issues that go beyond how they are conceptualizing their technique. They often have a weakness in a specific area that is holding back their performance of the main lifts. These issues can be resolved over time by utilizing sound mechanics on submaximal work, but this process can be helped along by the inclusion of carefully selected assistance movements. For the trainee who has trouble maintaining a neutral spine while deadlifting, the first fix is always to cue a tight lower back. Because this is largely a motor control issue, it is vital to use any number of tricks to get them to understand the proper position during the actual movement. Beyond this, back extensions, Romanian deadlifts, or both, can be useful. These movements will teach the trainee the feel of the hamstring tension required for proper spinal position. In addition, the hip extensors and spinal erectors will be strengthened under mechanical conditions similar to the deadlift.

There you have it, three alternative approaches to aid the gains of those training in suboptimal conditions. I hope that you, the reader, attained something valuable. Even if your training is going great right now, be sure to store this info for when times inevitably get tougher. Lastly, don't hesitate to ask questions about these tips and their application in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading! 

Monday, February 25, 2013

In Case You Missed It 2...

...I had another article published on EliteFTS! I wrote this piece specifically for strength coaches and personal trainers, but I believe anybody involved in coaching or teaching can benefit from the main ideas of the article. Here is the link:

Also, I recently got an iPhone and I downloaded iMovie, so I have been posting lifting videos to my YouTube account more frequently. Here is a video from the other day when I did a 425lb belt-less deadlift using a hook grip:

Subscribe to my channel for more videos:

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

2013 Update, Prilepin's Table Meets RPEs Visuals

By Andrew McGunagle

Hey Strength Musings readers! I have been a bit inconsistent with my blogging lately, but it is not because I have been slacking off! I have a number of cool articles lined up for 2013, many of which I hope to get published on various strength training websites. Each time one gets published, I will be sure to post the link here.

Also, I am taking an awesome class this quarter called Media and Technology in Science and Human Performance. I am acquiring many useful new multimedia skills, and I am getting scores of fresh ideas for blog content. Expect to see more visuals in the near future! Here is a small sampling of what I have been working on (click on the images to make them larger and more readable):

If you are not familiar with Prilepin's Table or RPE's, do not worry. I will be posting an article explaining these incredibly useful tools and tables soon. Stay tuned!

Thanks for reading!