Sunday, March 22, 2015

Expand! The Adventure of a Lifetime

By Andrew McGunagle

When the lease for my ungodly expensive room in Palo Alto finishes at the end of March, I'll be quitting my personal training job and embarking on a solo road trip across America at the end of April. I may spend as long as a year traveling. Why? Well, when I was considering my goals for 2015, I could think of only one word:


I've spent most of my life nestled in my comfort zone. Sure, most of us do to a certain extent, but I'm particularly prone to routinely avoiding risk. I'm the guy who once spent a few hours looking over the edge of a twenty foot jump into a lake while prepubescent children giggled as they jumped off the cliff multiple times. The first time I ever met a girl for a coffee date, I nearly burned a layer of skin off my tongue nervously sipping my drink as I waited for her to show up. What's more telling is that this was the first real date I ever went on, and it was my senior year of college.

While I've since jumped off that same cliff multiple times and gone on many more dates, I still feel like I'm stuck in a bubble of limiting behaviors and beliefs. I've read many self-help books over the years, but I've come to find that true self-improvement isn't enacted by words on a page. Instead, in my opinion, change stems from three things:

1) Acquire new experiences, connections, skills, and knowledge.

2) Work on your habits (one at a time).

3) Don’t sit in your room ruminating (Or, in the words of Dan John, "show up.")

So, in an effort to take my own advice and move past my perceived boundaries, I plan on exploring America, visiting successful gyms, meeting and learning from great coaches, and being open to the opportunities that arise on the road. Are the answers out there? Who knows. In the words of Social Distortion, "wherever I have gone, I was sure to find myself there." However, the novelty and challenges of the trip will surely spur growth, and that's my goal.

Join me on my journey by checking out the articles I post along the way both here and on Instagram. Also, I will be supporting myself by doing online coaching along the way. So, if you're interested in my services, shoot me an email:

Simple Strength for Busy People

By Andrew McGunagle

Most of the people I train want to get bigger, stronger, and leaner, but they don’t have much time. At most, they make it to the gym for a few workouts each week, and they don’t have hours to spare doing endless sets of a variety of exercises. However, like nearly everyone else in the gym, my clients want results, and they want them fast.

When I first began training busy professionals, I quickly realized standard strength training progressions don’t always fit the bill. Life can get in the way and what initially looked pretty on paper can quickly turn into meaningless numbers and frustrating sessions. Additionally, attempting to force progress while these stressed trainees are only a few steps down the road toward technical mastery of the basic lifts guarantees I won’t be their strength Sherpa for long.

I needed to make lifting heavy barbells easy, flexible, and fun, so I began to employ simple auto-regulation strategies that don’t demand any knowledge of RPEs. Rather than using a plethora of intensiveness ratings that would take time for my clients to grasp and intensity percentages that wouldn’t account for fluctuations in their strength and readiness, I began to make ample use of “top” sets, “AMRAP” sets, and “back-off” sets.

“Top” sets entail working up to the most weight you can lift for the designated number of reps. At times, I’ll tell my clients I want them to work up to a conservative top set, which means they’ll be leaving a few pounds on the table and a bit of energy in the tank. These top sets allow us to establish a variety of rep PRs, which helps me gauge progress and helps them stay engaged and excited about their training as these numbers creep up.

“AMRAP” sets involve doing As Many Reps As Possible with a particular weight. In my system, that weight will often be slightly below a top set done in one of the preceding weeks, which allows us to build a base of volume underneath a weight that was limiting. AMRAP sets can certainly be challenging, but they can often pay off with new rep PRs, giving me more measures of progress and my clients a greater sense of accomplishment and momentum.
“Back-off” sets require you to decrease the weight by a particular percentage after your top set or AMRAP set. These sets are meant to increase the volume of the session, which furthers neural adaptations and promotes hypertrophy processes. I’ll often drop a rep off of what we did for the top set for the back-off sets, which limits fatigue and allows us to get more high-quality volume in overall.   

The beauty of all these tools is they allow for fluctuations in my clients’ state – we still get good work done on low-energy days, and we can really push it on days they feel invincible. This strategy enables my clients to rack up a number of personal victories throughout the training process, which keeps motivation and enjoyment high and often makes it easier to stick with nutrition habits we’re focusing on.

The following training cycle is an example of how I often arrange all of these strategies. You can run this cycle for 3 lifts during 3 main sessions each week, 2 lifts during 2 main sessions per week, 1 lift during 2 main sessions per week, or 1 lift during 1 main session each week. It’s easy, flexible, and fun, and the results of my clients make me confident you’ll see the fruits of your labors in the final few sessions.
The Simple Strength for Busy People Training Cycle:
  • Session 1: Work up to a somewhat conservative top set of 3 reps, then back off 10% and do 5 sets of 2 reps 
  • Session 2: Do AMRAP with -10% Session 1’s top set of 3, then back off 5% and do 5 sets of 3 reps. 
  • Session 3: Work up to a top set of 5 reps, back off 10% and do 2 sets of 4 reps. 
  • Session 4: Do AMRAP with -5% Session 3’s top set of 5, then back off 5% and do 2 sets of 5 reps. 
  • Session 5: Work up to a somewhat conservative top set of 2 reps, back off 10% and do 6 sets of 1 rep. 
  • Session 6: Do AMRAP with -10% Session 5’s top set of 2, then back off 5% and do 6 sets of 2 reps. 
  • Session 7: Work up to a top set of 4 reps, back off 10% and do 2 sets of 3 reps. 
  • Session 8: Do AMRAP with -5% Session 7’s top set of 4, then back off 5% and do 2 sets of 4 reps. 
  • Session 9: Work up to an all-out top set of 1 rep, hit a PR, and then celebrate.
  • Session 10: Focus on movement and recovery.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Stiff-Leg Deadlifts: A Useful Variation

By Andrew McGunagle
An exercise I'm a big fan of that doesn't get much love, and is often butchered when it is implemented, is the stiff-leg deadlift. There are a few ways to do the stiff-leg deadlift, but the variation I employ most often is the stiff-leg deadlift from the floor with the bar in contact with the shins.
The name of this exercise can be a bit of a misnomer, as many people believe the knees must remain locked throughout the movement. However, locking the knees changes it to a completely different exercise - the straight-leg deadlift. The stiff-leg deadlift is done with a vertical shin position, a deep angle of the thighs, and the torso parallel to the floor. Here’s an example:

I really like this lift for a few reasons. First, it’s an excellent exercise for the posterior chain, which is a fancy term for all of the big muscles running along the backside of your body. Also, I’ve found it to be a great complement to the deadlift for lifters in the late-beginner stages, as it gives them a new appreciation for being able to use their quads to drive weights off of the floor when we cycle back to conventional deadlifts. Lastly, it’s a challenge to assume and maintain the strict shins vertical and neutral spine start position, and I believe getting my clients to the point where they have the movement capacity and movement skills to safely execute this exercise is a worthwhile pursuit.
If you want to add the stiff-leg deadlift to your training, begin by pairing RDLs with targeted mobilizations for the posterior chain and gradually work your way towards the floor. Once you’ve got enough range to safely perform the exercise, be sure to set up for the lift with your shins in close contact with the bar, perform a strict deep hip hinge to get into the start position, lock your shoulders and push your knees out, then initiate the lift by sliding the bar up your shins, pop your hips forcefully once you pass your knees, and be strict and controlled as you hinge deep and get your shoulders over the bar on the descent.
Hope this is helpful - enjoy the glute gains!
Thanks for reading!

Better Squatting with Adductor Rocking

By Andrew McGunagle
I live and train people in Palo Alto, California, and most all of my clients are busy desk-bound professionals working in tech or business. This sedentary and often stressful lifestyle leads to brutal restrictions in the hips and shoulders, and I’ve got to get my people moving better quickly so we have enough time to train hard and get results.
Over the past 6 months, I’ve become a believer in the Original Strength school of thought, which stresses the importance and use of “primitive patterns” such as rolling, rocking, and crawling to improve movement capacity. While doing things in the gym that babies do seems silly, the results I’ve witnessed have been undeniable.
One of the variations of rocking I’ve been using with my clients quite frequently is the split stance adductor mobilization. This drill has been around for a while, but a few tweaks have made this drill more effective and more valuable in my eyes. Here’s an example:
A few points of emphasis to maximize the effect of this mobilization (some of which are not perfectly demonstrated in the video):
  • Keep the outside foot flat and the toes pointed straight ahead.
  • Keep your outside leg locked in one straight line.
  • Maintain a flat/neutral spine position, but do lift your head up and look straight ahead.
  • Keep your arms straight, your palms flat, and your fingers pointed straight ahead and spread wide.
  • Smoothly rock forward over your hands and back into your hips without allowing your back position to change (don’t tuck your tail).
  • Alternate between a flat foot position and a foot up position for the foot of the bent leg. When the foot is flat, make sure it's pointed straight back. The foot up position should get a bit of stretch in the toes.
  • Stay within the range of motion where you can maintain perfect position, and strive to improve that range over time.
Do a few rounds of 6+ reps each side during your warm-up or as you’re working your way up on your main lifts, and you’ll definitely notice a decrease in the tension of the adductor complex (the inside of your leg), which often translates to better movement capacity and movement quality in your big lower body lifts. Hope this helps!

Thanks for reading!