Friday, June 26, 2009

Strength Training for the Mind

     For those of us who both meditate seriously and take physical training serious, the below article by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (a Theravadin monk from the Thai Forest Tradition) can be very helpful when trying to establish a disciplined meditation practice.
     By the way, I would also recommend spending some time at the website "Access to Insight" (where you can read the complete article) and read some more of Thanissaro's pieces.  They are down to earth, and helpful (especially so?) for us Integral practitioners, reminding us that some of the basics—such as a following the precepts—are as important as ever.

Strength Training for the Mind
byThanissaro Bhikkhu© 2007–2009
     Meditation is the most useful skill you can master. It can bring the mind to the end of suffering, something no other skill can do. But it's also the most subtle and demanding skill there is. It requires all the mental qualities ordinarily involved in mastering a physical skill — mindfulness and alertness, persistence and patience, discipline and ingenuity — but to an extraordinary degree. This is why, when you come to meditation, it's good to reflect on any skills, crafts, or disciplines you've already mastered so that you can apply the lessons they've taught you to the training of the mind.
     As a meditation teacher, I've often found it helpful to illustrate my points with analogies drawn from physical skills. And, given the particular range of skills and disciplines currently popular in America, I've found that one useful source of analogies is strength training. Meditation is more like a good workout than you might have thought.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

High-Set, Low-Rep Training: Massive Arms

     Anyone who has read many of my article for Iron Man magazine knows that I'm a big fan of heavy weight, high-set, low-rep weight training.  If you're going to follow any kind of "split" training program then high-set, low-rep training (HS,LR training from henceforth in this post) is—I think—the way to go for a great majority of lifters.
     In an article I wrote for Iron Man a few years ago entitled "Big Weights, Big Sets" (at least, I think that was the title of the article; I've lost the magazine, but I still have my original draft of it on file), here are some of the reasons—and people—that I gave for this kind of training to be so effective:

     As for high-set, low rep training it is something quite different.  This type of training, like no other, can produce phenomenal strength and size gains.
     If you doubt it, then consider some of these examples of bodybuilders, powerlifters and strength athletes who achieved awesome results with this type of training.
Charles Poliquin.  Strength-coach extraordinare Charles Poliquin has said that he never really got his arms to grow (that's right, his arms) until he began to use a regimen of low-rep and high-set training.  He says that the key is the numerous sets.  In fact, Poliquin (who has a very large pair of guns) says that he averages 3 reps per sets.
Brooks Kubik.  Author of the popular strength training book "Dinosaur Training" (see the article by the same name in Ironman's Ultimate Guide To Building Muscle Mass), Kubik, a past national champion in the bench press, says that he got the best results in terms of both size and strength when he performed numerous singles on one exercise.  For example, he would often perform 20 sets of singles in the bench press with about 85% of his one-rep max.  He also likes the same type of training for the squat.
Doug Hepburn.  Considered by many, including himself, to be the strongest man who ever lived (due to the fact that he never used any anabolic steroids), Hepburn was a collosus whose specialty was the bench press.  For training the major lifts, Hepburn would work up in singles until he reached a weight he could handle for 3 to 8 singles.  Once he could acheive 8 singles with the weight, he would add poundage at the next workout.  After the singles, he would perform 5 sets of 5 reps on the same exercise.  His reps never got higher than 5 and he had tremendous strength and mass combined.
Pat Casey.  The Babe Ruth of powerlifting, Pat Casey was the first lifter to bench press 600 pounds, the first to squat 800 pounds and the first powerlifter to total 2000 pounds.  Casey enjoyed training the bench press with lots of singles (in either flat bench presses, bottom-position benches or midrange partials), followed by heavy sets of threes.  Afterwards, Casey would perform more reps for a pump but the foundation of his training was based on high-set, very low-rep work.
Magnus Samuelson.  The World's Strongest Man winner for 1998, Magnus's approach to strength training is "old school" in that he trains much like Hepburn and Casey.  On all his major lifts (squats, deadlifts, benches, and overhead presses), Samuelson performs five sets of singles, starting with something "heavy" but not too heavy and works up over his five singles until he reaches about 95% of his max.  After this, he performs three progressively heavier sets of 5s until he reaches a near max set of five reps.
Lee Priest.  Probably more familiar to Ironman readers than the above men, Priest is one of the few modern-day bodybuilders who still adheres to this type of effective training in that he believes in both extremely heavy weights and lots of sets.  Priest averages about twenty sets per bodypart and an average of 4 to 6 reps for each set.

     With that out of the way, let's get right down to a couple of routines that produce massive muscle growth in the arms through this form of lifting.

High Set Singles
     One of my favorite ways to train with HS,LR training is via the incorporation of many sets of singles with a weight that is 85-90% of your one-rep maximum.  For this kind of training, just pick a heavy, compound movement for your biceps and a heavy, compound movement for your triceps.  After warming up with progressively heavier sets of 5s, then 3s, use approximately 85-90% of your one-rep maximum and perform as many as 15 to 20 singles with this weight.  If you're advanced enough—or if you want massive arms bad enough—you can always add another two exercises and give yourself a workout of epic proportions, a virtual biceps/triceps workout session from hell.
     Here is what one of these workouts might look like:
Barbell Curls: 20 sets of 1 rep
Close-Grip Floor Presses: 20 sets of 1 rep
E-Z Bar Curls: 15 sets of 1 rep
Skullcrushers: 15 sets of 1 rep

Ladder Training
     This is a form of training that was made popular by Pavel Tsatsouline.  It has a few different variations, but here's the way I like to do it: Pick a weight on a compound exercise (barbell curls, let's say) where you max out on approximately the 8th rep—don't worry about being too exact, however; the volume will take care of the muscle growth.  Now, start with 1 rep.  On each successive set add a rep until you get up to 5 reps.  At this point, start going back "down the ladder" until you reach 1 rep.  Since muscle growth is our goal—and that requires volume—you will then go back "up and down the ladder" one more time.  And one more thing: rest about 30 seconds between each set.
     Here is what this workout would look like using barbell curls as an example:
1 rep, rest 30 seconds
2 reps, rest 30 seconds
3 reps, rest 30 seconds
4 reps, rest 30 seconds
5 reps, rest 30 seconds
5 reps, rest 30 seconds
4 reps, rest 30 seconds
3 reps, rest 30 seconds
2 reps, rest 30 seconds
1 rep, rest 30 seconds
repeat for another cycle

     The workouts look simple—which they are—but they are also deceptively powerful at growing massive muscles.  Give 'em a try; your bis and tris might not like it—they might just scream for bloody mercy—but they will grow larger and stronger.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Heavy-Light-Medium Training: Pain-Free Rotator Cuffs

     The other day, I was talking to a guy I used to train—but who now trains at a commercial gym—and he was complaining about some rotator cuff pain he had been experiencing.  I asked him if he was still using the heavy-light-medium system of training—he was—and then I laid out a program that I thought would be just what he needed to stay pain-free.
     I could empathize with him.  In the last couple of years, I've had more injuries—including the rotator cuff—than in all my years of training before that.  Several months ago, the rotator cuff pain became so bad that I had to completely re-vamp my style of training when it comes to the shoulder girdle.
     And I'm not the only one.  Rotator cuff injuries tend to be the most common among lifters—especially those of us who do a lot of bench pressing.
     If you have been following a heavy-light-medium style of training, this might be especially true.  A lot of guys (gals, too; I don't mean to be sexist) who follow full-body workouts (such as H-L-M training) want to be strong as hell on all of their basic lifts.  And one of the best exercises—not to mention most popular—for increasing upper body strength is the flat barbell bench press.  But the flat bench press (barbell style, at least) is one of the worst—if not the worst—exercises for damaging the rotator cuff.  Couple this with the fact that the H-L-M programs allow you to train your bench press 2, or even 3, times each week and you have a potential recipe for rotator cuff disaster.
     It doesn't have to be this way.  And this article will show you how it doesn't have to be this way.
     First I'm going to outline some tips for diminishing rotator cuff injuries, then I will give you an example routine that you can use for some wonderfully pain-free workouts.
Tip #1: Stop Bench Pressing Frequently
     After what I've already mentioned, this might seem like a no-brainer.  But, unfortunately, it's apparently not a no-brainer for a good number of lifters in gyms all across our nation.  People want a big bench press, and they're willing to get one at all costs—even if it means worthless shoulders down the road in life.
     Never fear—you can increase your bench press, and keep your shoulders pain-free, without even doing much flat bench presses.
     Until recent years, rotator cuff injuries just weren't that common.  Up until the 1970s, lifters hardly did flat bench presses.  And when they did use the flat bench press, it was done as an assistance exercise, not as the cornerstone of an upper body regimen.
     Before the bench press became the measuring stick of upper body strength, it was the overhead press that held this honor.  And overhead presses, instead of damaging your rotator cuffs, actually help to strengthen them.
     Interesting thing too about that overhead press: As your overhead pressing strength goes up, so does your bench press strength.
     Of course, there are plenty of other good exercises that tend to increase your bench press strength, and keep your rotators healthy.  Weighted dips, dumbbell bench presses (incline and flat), decline bench presses, and incline bench presses are all good for most lifters who have rotator cuff pain.  The key is to find the ones that allow you to lift without pain.  If you experience pain while doing an exercise, switch over to one that doesn't hurt.  It's often as simple as that.
     If you're worried that all of this indirect bench press work will make the strength on your regular benches suffer, just remember the Westside Barbell Club.  They hardly ever bench press heavy, and they are setting world records all the time.  Now, they do train heavy, but they use such exercises as board presses, incline presses, dumbbell presses, and floor presses.  Maybe that's one reason they don't have as many injuries as other bench pressers, as well.
Tip #2: Do Not Perform Behind-the-Neck Presses
     Bill Starr says that the worst culprit for the recent surge in rotator cuff injuries—aside from the barbell bench press—is the behind-the-neck press.  And I agree.  The shoulder muscles simply are not meant to move at the angles that a behind-the-neck press requires.
     Even as an assistance movement, you should lay off this exercise.  There are plenty of other exercises for the shoulders to choose from—exercises that actually strengthen your rotator cuff.  Dumbbell overhead presses (seated and standing), front raises (dumbbells and plate), lateral raises, and Arnold presses are all excellent shoulder builders.
Tip #3: Train the Rear of Your Body Just as Hard as the Front
     Another reason for so much shoulder pain is that modern-day lifters do far too much pressing work for their upper body while neglecting the exercises that work the rear of the physique.  You should always do an equal amount of work—if not more—for the rear of your body as for the front of it.
     If some of you don't like this ideal, then realize that (1) you will keep on experiencing pain if you don't start doing more rear-of-the-body work and (2) most true strength is derived from the rear of the body.  You want to know if a lifter has real-world strength?  Then look at the muscular development from his hamstrings on up to his traps.  That's a real determiner of whether or not a physique is built for strength and not just for show.
A Sample Workout Program
     Below is an example of a great H-L-M workout that doesn't use any flat bench presses.  If you're a beginner to intermediate, then feel free to stick with this workout for 6 to 8 weeks before changing to something new.  If you're an advanced lifter, then you will want to change to something new after 2 to 4 weeks of training.
     (As a side note, if you haven't been performing H-L-M workouts and are interested in the parameters that are involved, read some of my past blog posts.  Also, you can go to where you can find an in-depth, basic article on the subject that I wrote for them.)
     Here it is:

Monday: Heavy Day

Squat—5 sets of 5

Overhead Presses—5 sets of 5

Deadlifts or Power Cleans—5 sets of 5

Weighted Dips—3 sets of 5-8 reps

2 sets of weighted sit-ups

Wednesday: Light Day

Squat—5 sets of 5 reps

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press—5 sets of 5

Barbell Shrugs—4 sets of 5 reps

Sit-ups—3 sets

Friday: Medium Day

Squat—4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3

Overhead Presses—4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3

Deadlifts or Power Cleans—4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3

Barbell Curls—3 sets of 5-8 reps

2 sets of weighted sit-ups

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Art of Meditation and Integral Spiritual Practice (and a little something to do with MMA)

     This morning, I got out of bed and practiced what would commonly be called "insight meditation."  I followed my breath for about ten minutes.  For another ten minutes I "witnessed" whatever came into my mode of awareness—be it the birds chirping outside my window, the thoughts that came fleetingly into my mind, the sensation of my hands upon my knees, or the t.v. that could be faintly heard downstairs—without getting caught up in these things.
     Tonight during my evening meditation session, I will practice "just sitting," or "shikantaza" as it is called in Zen meditation.  When I practice this, I will just be.  No breath to follow, no Witness with which to observe the world.  Just being.  And then—at some point—not even that.  Only pure Nondual Awareness—if it has to be described as anything.
     But here's the thing:  I practice insight meditation, but I am not a Theravada buddhist.  I practice "just sitting" but I am not a Zen buddhist, either.  In fact, I love Buddhism, but I am not really what one would call a Buddhist.
     I am an integralist, if I have to be called or labeled something.  Okay, so maybe an Integral Zen Christian.  Or maybe an Integral Buddhist/Vedanta/Christian.  Or maybe even an Integral devotional nondualist.  But those are just words pointing toward what I am (and hopefully leading me toward what I Am)—but the words, as we know, are not the real thing.
     And so, I am an Integralist.
     I take what works in meditation—what really works in leading me toward One Taste, toward Nondual Awareness; what really points me toward my True Nature, my original face before the Big Bang—and I discard the rest.  And that's integral, for me.
     Perhaps some "traditionalists" are calling foul, at this point.  A lot of followers of traditional Christianity, Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and Sufism (among others) would tell you that you can't just "mix n' match" different contemplative practices and hope for some great be-all, end-all result.  And you know what?  A lot of those traditionalists are correct.
     But we're not talking about just "mixing n' matching" here.  We're talking about taking the good stuff from the traditions and only using that which makes a real difference on the cushion (or in the chair, or driving down the road; meditation, you know, doesn't just have to be done in your own personal shrine at the house).

     I'm going to sidestep now and talk about a current phenomena that has a lot of carryover, I think, to Integral Spiritual Practice.  (And I'm not going to really get into integral philosophy.  I am a mystic at heart—no getting around it—and so I am always going to take the mystical angle when it comes to all things integral.  I will leave the integral philosophizing to the philosophers.)  You might not think that this phenomena has much to do with Integral Spiritual Practice, but I think it does.  (At least, in a roundabout sort of way.)
     The phenomena I'm talking about is mixed martial arts—or MMA for short.  If you haven't been into traditional martial arts for many years, as I have been, then you probably don't understand just how much of an impact MMA has had on the martial arts community.  Before MMA came along, no one (literally) had any clue which martial art was the best.  There was always a lot of debate over whether karate-do was better than tae kwon do, or jiu-jitsu better than judo.  But that is just what it was—debate.  A lot of traditional karate-do practitioners back then, for instance, really thought that they had the best martial art.  Many were positive that they could step into an alley or a ring with any other martial artist and come away victorious.  Sorry, but they can no longer think that.  No way.  No how.  MMA practitioners will—to be quite blunt—whip everyone else's ass.
     MMA has made it possible for guys (and gals) to become devastatingly powerful, fast, and knowledgeable in all aspects of the fighting game.  And it does this in a very short period of time.  Train in MMA for a year, and you will be a way better fighter than a 10 year veteran of traditional tae kwon do.
     MMA made this possible because of the kind of martial arts they train in.  MMA practitioners don't just mix n' match whatever they see fit from the traditional martial arts.  If they did this, then they would end up with a style no better—in fact, probably worse—than the traditional martial arts.  No, what they do is take the stuff that works, that really works in a combat situation.  (Are you beginning to see the correlation between this and Integral Spiritual Practice?)  They take the stand-up fighting of boxing and muay thai.  They take the ground fighting of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Greco-Roman wrestling.  And they become bona fide bad-asses.
     They don't waste their time with the practices from traditional martial arts that don't work—the hours of "traditional basics" in traditional stances or the training of katas and forms.  They know that stuff will not help them in the ring or in the cage.
     By that same token, as integral practitioners we can take meditation practices—and other contemplative practices—from the various wisdom traditions that really work, and we can discard the rest.  We can rest in formless awareness using "just sitting."  We can cultivate compassion by using the tonglen practices of Tibetan Buddhism.  We can discover our True Nature, our unborn, undying Self by practicing self-inquiry from the advaita tradition.  Or we can rest in the Divine Presence that gives birth to all these things and to which all these things return by practicing centering prayer from the Christian tradition.  And we can do all these things in a serious manner, by discarding such things as new-age narcissism or belief in a mythical sky god.
     Here's something about modern day MMA, however, and here's something that the integralists need to learn: MMA has a couple of issues.  The first is that they have thrown away the "spiritual" side of the martial arts.  And, to quote a zen swordsman, "martial arts without philosophy and spirituality is nothing more than brutality."
     In Integral Spirituality, we don't need to throw out the more "spiritual" aspects of the traditions, such as ritual and devotion toward God.  These serve their purpose very well.  (I'm talking, here, about meditation practice, where we need some ritual and some devotion when we sit down to meditate, but this applies to other aspects of Integral, as well.)
     The second issue with MMA is that many of the fighters have no background in "traditional" martial arts.  (This might seem to go against what I've been saying, but let me explain.)  When you come across a fighter in MMA who does have a long training history in a traditional martial art—such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu or muay thai—watch out!  These guys are the best of the best.
     To be truly integral, we need to do the same thing.  We need to take the practices that work, really work, and stick with them.  But we also need a firm footing in one of the traditional wisdom traditions—be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, you name it.  And, of course, there's nothing wrong with having a firm footing in more than one of the wisdom traditions.  Just don't mix n' match as you please.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What Would Buddha Bench? The Zen Path to Strength Training (the uncut version)

     Last year, I wrote an article for Dragon Door entitled "What Would Buddha Bench: The Zen Path to Strength Training."  What follows below is that same article, but in a slightly altered form.  Originally, I had more "religious" stuff in my article, but removed this material for Dragon Door.  What follows is the "uncut" version, as I had originally intended it to be.

     After you read this one—and if you find it interesting—I would suggest reading my blog entry from last month entitled "Full-Body Split Workouts, the Pump, and Awakened Training."  Reading both of them should help to clarify some questions you could potentially have.  Here goes:

     Yes, yes, I know.  The answer to the title of the article is probably, “not very much.”  The historical Buddha lived a life of asceticism and meditation over 2,500 years ago.  He wasn’t what any of us would exactly call a warrior.  However, over the centuries since the Buddha’s death, the religion he spawned has helped countless warriors develop a mindset that has aided them on the battlefield and in life—and has helped them realize their True Nature, the That which they were, which we have always been, will always be, but are all too often ignorant of that very fact.

     In China, Buddhism developed among the monks of the Shaolin Temple into a religion cum philosophy known as Chan.  When this sect of Buddhism reached Japan, it became known as Zen, and it influenced warriors, martial artists, and—most famously—samurai.

     The same principles for fighting, training, and living that helped the samurai and later martial artists of Japan can also be useful for helping martial artists, powerlifters, and strength athletes in today’s world build extra strength, muscle, and power.  (Along the way, it can also help us to realize our True Nature, as well.)

     A path is really nothing more than a series of steps.  Here are several steps that will aid you in your journey to attain what followers of Zen call “the Great Way.”  Plus, it will help you build a good deal of strength and muscle at the same time.  What you won’t find here are any specific set/rep schemes—no special routines that will allow you to unlock the muscle-building universe (or any other such nonsense).  Here, you throw away all such “keys” to training.  After all, there is really nothing to open, so no such keys exist.

Step #1: Let Go

     The Buddha taught that the cause of our dissatisfaction in life is attachment.  We are attached to our way of doing things, our way of seeing the world.  This includes our way of doing sets and reps, our way of training frequency, our way of nutrition and supplementation.  Yet, if the cause of our problems is attachment, it should be obvious that the remedy is to let go.  (To understand this more fully, I would suggest that anyone who is interested should do an internet search on the “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism.  This will help to clarify any questions that you might have after reading this paragraph.)

     A wisdom proverb from Zen says it like this: “If you cling to nothing, you can handle anything.”  Have you tried “clinging to nothing” when it comes to your workout regimen?  I believe there are two good ways to approach this step, ways that just might aid your training more than you realize.

     It seems as if we are always hearing from bodybuilders how “variety” is the spice of a good training routine.  Conversely—and somewhat paradoxically—powerlifters tend to stick with one training program, often for their entire career.  What gives?  Which one is correct?  Well, neither.  And, well, both.  It is the “clinging” to either form of training that is often the problem.

     We’ll use an example from powerlifting first.  Let’s say that Joe Dick has heard it from all of his powerlifting buddies how Louie Simmons’ Westside approach is the only way to train.  After all, Dave Tate uses it and he’s a monstrous beast.  Not to mention the fact that more champions have been trained at Westside Barbell per number of members than any other powerlifting club in the world.  Joe Dick believes all of this to be true—which it is—so he trains Westside for a few years but never really makes much progress, especially in his deadlift.

     The problem is that Mr. Dick is genetically predisposed to make good gains at Russian-style volume training (lots and lots of sets of the same exercise).  It’s time for Joe to “stop his attachment” to Westside and try something else.  If he doesn’t “wake up”—as the Zen masters are fond of telling us—then he’s going to be stuck in an endless cycle of workouts (a veritable powerlifting samsara) that, for him, don’t work.

     Now, let’s take a look at a typical bodybuilder as an example.  We’ll name said bodybuilder Dick Dickson (Big D for short).  Big D has been told every time that he goes to the gym that the secret to building muscle like Ronnie Coleman is to use the Weider Muscle Confusion Principle.  Muscle confusion, as everyone in Big D’s gym knows, works by constantly changing routines, therefore “shocking” the body into more muscle growth.  Only problem is that Big D hasn’t seen muscle growth in over a year.  What he needs is a steady diet of barbell squats, bench presses, overhead presses, deadlifts, barbell rows, and very little else to start making progress again.  If he doesn’t wake up and smell the Zen, he’s in for some long years of very little progress.

     Take a long, hard look at your training and see if you have anything in common with Mr. Dick or Mr. Dickson.  Chances are, you do.  It’s time to let go.

Step #2: Just Train

     Another Buddhist saying goes something like this: “When you walk, just walk.  When you sit, just sit.  Do not wobble!”  Martial artists and Zen masters call it mindfulness.  It means practicing every moment of every day.  And the only moment you have is this moment, right now.

     There are a couple of ways to put this step to practical use, depending on what kind of training program you are using—or maybe what you’re going to be using after reading our first step.

     There’s a real good chance that a whole heapin’ lot of you who are reading this need to be doing a full-body workout.  (I’m not going to get into all the reasons for that here, just go read one of the articles on my website or read some of my past blog entries.)  If that’s the case, then I find that the biggest obstacle trainees have to overcome with full-body workouts is anticipation of all the exercises, sets, and reps they (perceive) they are going to have to do.

     Let’s say your program for the day calls for 5 sets of 5 on squats, 5 sets of 3 on bench presses (followed by a back-off set of 8 reps), and 6 sets of 2 on power cleans, followed by a few sets of curls, dips, and calf raises as accessory work.  Not a bad little workout—the problem is just getting through it.

     The first thing you need to do is just squat.  In fact, tell yourself that the only exercise you have to do is the squat.  When you do the first set, just focus on that.  One set follows another (living entirely in the moment) and you’re done with all of the squats before you know it.

     Focusing on each set of each exercise—being in the now, and only the now—makes the workout not only a lot easier than you thought, but also a heck of a lot more enjoyable.  In fact, performing the workout might just become downright fun.

     Now, my favorite way to apply this step goes something like this: pick one exercise—and just one exercise—to train for the day.  Pick just one number of repetitions to use for each set.  If you’re trying to build strength, then keep your reps really low: 1, 2, or 3 reps works fine.  If you’re trying to pack on the muscle, perform somewhere between 5 and 10 reps per set.

     Don’t even count sets.  Sets don’t matter here.  The only thing that matters: each set every time that you do it.  Followed by another set.  Then another.  Then another.  And so on.  You shouldn’t even know how many sets you actually do.  Just train until you can’t perform the prescribed number of repetitions.  Just train.

Step #3: You Are Everything You Need

     The Buddha, like many great teachers from the Wisdom Traditions, often taught through parables.  Here’s my favorite of all his parables:

     Long ago in ancient India, an important politician—wealthy beyond measure—was riding in his carriage along a stretch of road outside of town when he came upon a beggar lying in the ditch.  Feeling compassion for the poor man, the politician had his driver stop the carriage so that he could speak with the man.  (Maybe he also wanted the beggar’s vote at some point; who knows.)  Anyway, the beggar was so intoxicated that the politician couldn’t speak to him.  However, the official still wanted to help the man, so he reached into his money purse and pulled out a precious gem—worth more money than the beggar had probably ever seen.  “Although this gem is nothing more than a trifle to me,” the politician thought, “it will be enough for this man to bring himself out of poverty and begin a new life.”  Not wanting the beggar to lose the gem, the man tucked it deep inside a pocket in the beggar’s shirt.  After that he left, feeling certain that the beggar would be a new man.

     The years go by.  One day, the official is riding along the same stretch of road when he sees the beggar walking at the edge of the dusty street.  The beggar is dressed in the same filthy rags as years before, only now he looks worse.  The politician yells for his driver to stop the carriage, gets out, and has some words with the beggar.  “What the Sam hell is wrong with you?” he asks (or something like that).  “I gave you a precious jewel all those years ago.  You never had to live like this ever again.”  The beggar, startled and bewildered, says, “What are you saying?  I know of no such gem.”  The politician grabs the beggar and reaches inside his shirt.  He pulls out the gem.  “Here it is.  You have had it all these years.”

     Everything that you need for building strength, you already have.  Everything that you need to transform your body into a work of art is already inside of you.  Everything you need to discover your True Self is right before your eyes.  Many of you simply don’t realize it.  You think that the “keys” for muscle growth (or whatever it is you’re after) can be found in a new workout program, a new supplement, or by reading the latest article in the latest bodybuilding or powerlifting magazine.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Articles such as this one help to point the way, but it is you who have to seize your muscle-building, strength-gaining destiny by your own hands.  As the Chinese proverb says: “Teachers open the door; you enter yourself.”

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Heavy-Light-Medium Training: Building the Squat

     The purpose of this article is to show you how to boost the numbers in your squat using the heavy-light-medium system of training.  These tips and techniques can be used by powerlifters, athletes, or any of you who just want to be stronger than you currently are at the moment.
     This article also assumes that you are already familiar with heavy-light-medium training.  If you're not familiar with this form of lifting, then the first thing I suggest is reading my article on H-L-M training that I wrote for Dragon Door.  You can find it here:
     More than just being familiar with this sort of training, it's best to actually do it for an extended period of time.  If you've never done full-body workouts, much less H-L-M training, then you definitely need to perform the basic workout listed in my Dragon Door article for at least 8 weeks, minimum.  Twelve to 16 weeks would be even better.  After you have done that, then you're ready to start specializing.  Which is where an article such as this one comes in handy.
     When writing articles like this, the best way to often get your point across is through "tips" or "keys," so I guess that an alternate title of this article could have been something such as "4 Tips For Building A Massive Squat Using the Heavy-Light-Medium System."  That's a little more catchy.  I kind of like it.
 Tip #1: Know How Frequently You Need to Squat
     When you first begin the H-L-M method of training, you typically want to squat 3 days each week.  Every lifter that I have worked with has gotten good results at the beginning of their H-L-M training by training the squat on each day.
     The squat, in this regard, is different than the bench press or the deadlift.  Even when starting out, I typically have my lifters deadlift only once a week, and bench press twice each week.  It's harder to overtrain the movement pattern in the squat compared to the other lifts.
     Some lifters can get away with training the squat on all 3 days throughout their training careers.  (Of course, some—even if they could get away with this—would rather do other exercises just for the sake of variety.)  If you are built for squatting, then this would be you.  How do you know if you're built for the squat?  First off, if you haven't done squats for an extended period of time in order to increase your strength, you don't know.  If, however, you have rarely done anything other than squats to increase your squatting strength, then you're probably built for this exercise.
     When you decide to add some exercise variety to your squats, I would start by substituting a different exercise on your light day.  I like the reverse lunge on this day.  I say the reverse lunge for a couple of reasons.  One, you can do it in the squat rack in the same place that you perform your squats.  Two, it seems to have a better carryover to your squats—for whatever reason—than do forward lunges.  This probably has something to do with the fact that the movement of stepping back, instead of forward, is more natural.  Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that a reverse lunge more closely resembles a step-up.  And step-ups are a great exercise for increasing your squat.  (It also more closely resembles a one-legged squat, since your "squatting" leg stays put in the reverse lunge.)
     The reverse lunge is a natural exercise for your light day because of the weights used.  Reverse lunges just don't allow you to use very much weight.  If you squat 400 on your heavy day and 350 on your medium day, you will have a tough time achieving 275 on your reverse lunges on the light day.  This also helps to take a lot of the guesswork out of the light day.  With reverse lunges, you can train as "heavy" as you are capable of training, and it will still be "light".
     As you get more advanced, and as you discover that you really do need more variety than just lunges, you should substitute another exercise for squats on the medium day.  I think the best exercise to start with on medium day is the front squat.  If you perform 5 sets of 5 for squats on Heavy Day, 5 sets of 5 for reverse lunges on Light Day, and 5 sets of 5 for front squats on Medium Day, the front squats will be a natural medium exercise without even trying.
     As you progress even further, it could be that you will want to start rotating to some different exercises other than just these three.  First things first when doing this: Stick with squats as your core exercise on the heavy day.  In other words, never deviate from Heavy Day squats.  However, feel free to rotate to other exercises as you see fit on the light and medium days.  Although, when first doing this, I would be hesitant about rotating exercises on every light day or on every single medium day.  It's probably best to stick with an exercise for 2 to 3 weeks before rotating to something new.  For instance, here's an example of what 9 weeks of training might look like:
Weeks 1-3:
Heavy Day: squats
Light Day: reverse lunges
Medium Day: front squats
Weeks 4-6:
Heavy Day: squats
Light Day: walking lunges
Medium Day: barbell hack squats
Weeks 7-9:
Heavy Day: squats
Light Day: overhead squats
Medium Day: bottom-position squats
     One thing that I hope you're beginning to understand at this point is that variety is important.  You always need to use a system of training—which is H-L-M training in this case—but you need plenty of variety built within that system.  Which brings us to our next tip.
Tip #2: Vary Your Repetition Ranges on a Regular Basis
     The more advanced you become, the more variety you need.  This is true even for those of you who can get away with—and enjoy—squatting 3 days each week.
     As a rule of thumb, I would advise to vary your repetition ranges, on each training day, once every three weeks.  If you use the above 9 week example for changing exercises, this would mean that you would change your repetition ranges each time that you varied your exercises.
     Here is the repetition scheme that I most prefer (and it's also the one favored by Bill Starr, which is where I learned it, although his method is slightly different, but we'll get to that in a little bit): Weeks 1-3: 5 sets of 5 scheme; Weeks 4-6: 2 sets of 5, 3 sets of 3 scheme; Weeks 7-9: 4 sets of 8 scheme; Weeks 10-12: progressively heavier singles scheme.  (Note: When performing the singles, you will probably want to perform 5s, then 3s, as you work up to a heavy, near-max weight.  Take your time to work up to your maximum single, but DO NOT fatigue yourself as you do so.)
     Bill Starr advises—and here's the difference—that advanced lifters vary their repetition schemes on a weekly basis.  So, the first week would be 5s, the second week would be triples, the third week would be 8s, and the fourth week would be singles.
     Learn what method of variation works best for you.  Do you get the most out of weekly variation?  Or do you do better by waiting 2 to 3 weeks before changing reps?  I think that the more advanced you are, the more variation you need.  For instance, if you've been lifting hard and heavy for over ten years, you could probably use the weekly variation.  If you've been training hard for just over a year, then you will probably do better by waiting 3 weeks before changing to a new scheme.
     Keep in mind, as well, that you can use different repetition schemes than what I've recommended here.  You might want to perform a 10 sets of 3 scheme, where you take minimum rest between each set but you use the same weight on each set (as opposed to the progressively heavier sets that H-L-M training usually entails).  Or you might want to use another one of my favorites: the 5 sets of 1 method.  For this method, use a weight that you can only get 2 or 3 singles with.  Stick with this weight until you get 5 singles with it.  At the next workout, add weight and repeat the process.
Tip #3: Increase Your Workload Via Back-Off Sets and Assistance Exercises
     As you get more advanced—and as you really focus on bringing up the numbers on your squat—you will need more than just 5 sets of 5 reps, or 4 sets of 8 reps, or whatever it is that you are using for the training week.  You will need both back-off sets to increase your workload for that exercise and assistance exercises to work on any weak points that you have.
     When first performing back-off sets, I would stick with a 2 sets of 8 scheme on days where you do sets of 5, triples, or singles.  Let's say that you work up to 400 pounds for your final set of 5 reps.  Rest a few minutes, strip the weight down to around 275 to 300 lbs and perform 2 sets of 8 with this weight.  On days where you might use a 4 sets of 8 scheme, I would only perform 1 back-off set of 15 to 20 reps.
     At first, only add back-off sets to your heavy days.  After a few weeks of this, add back-off sets to your medium days.  You can probably stick with doing the back-offs on both the heavy and medium days throughout your training.  The exception is for those of you who are really advanced.  If you are squatting close to triple your bodyweight, then you will want to also add some back-off sets to your light days.
     After you start performing back-off sets, you will want to begin adding some assistance work for your squats at some point.  Some of the stuff you are already doing should naturally be assistance work.  For instance, deadlifts definitely improve your squats, as does abdominal work.  And for some of you, this will be enough to keep your squats moving upward for a long time.  For others, it won't be.
     The assistance work shouldn't be done in a haphazard manner.  It should be done knowing what your weak points are.  Now, weak points can be complex things, but we'll try to keep it simple here.
     If you are having problems coming out of the "hole" in your squats, then you need some specific work for your glute-hamstring tie-in muscles.  I like good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts in this instance.  A couple of sets at the end of the workout—but before abdominal work—should do the trick.  I would advise using the same repetition schemes as on your back-off sets.  So, 2 sets of 8 should work just fine.  But make sure that the 2 sets are hard.  Easy stuff just won't cut it.
     If your lower back is giving you problems—for instance, do you tend to "bend over" when coming out of the hole?—then good-morning squats are probably the best thing in your arsenal.  Once again, 2 sets of 8 should be sufficient.
     Assistance exercises are something you need to experiment with.  Try some different ones, and try them for several weeks.  If your squat starts moving upward again, then you're probably on the right track.  Keep in mind that you don't need them, however, if your squats are increasing steadily without them.  But you do need the back-off sets.
Tip #4: Add an Extra Light Day
     The more advanced you become, the more total workload that you need.  There's just no getting around it.  However, at some point, you will not be able to train just 3 days each week.  Not unless you want your heavy and medium days to start going over 2 hours in length.  (I must say, at this point, that I have—in the past—trained in excess of 2 hours on both my heavy and medium days and I was strong as hell while doing so.  So, the idea that your sessions should never last longer than 45 minutes—or an hour at the most—is a bunch of hogwash.  However, most people don't want to—nor do they have the time—to train this long.)
     The best thing you can do at this point is add an extra light day to your program.  If you train on Monday (heavy), Wednesday (light), and Friday (medium), then your extra light day should fall on Tuesday.  Don't worry about the fact that you are training three days in a row.  The extra light day should be a little "lighter" than the light day on Wednesday.  Also, this will—because you will now be advanced before attempting this—aid in your recovery from the heavy day of training.
     If you are still squatting 3 days each week at this point, don't squat on this extra light day.  Perform reverse lunges instead.  If you are, say, squatting on Monday, doing lunges on Wednesday, and performing front squats on Friday, then it's time to change things.  You will do better by squatting on Monday, doing reverse lunges on Tuesday, front squats on Wednesday, and bottom-position squats on Friday.
Summing Things Up
     I hope I have covered most of the things that followers of H-L-M training have been pondering when it comes to their squat training.  If not, then please feel free to e-mail me with any specific questions you might have.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Old Time Mass Tactics: 5/4/3/2/1 Training

     In researching old Iron Man, Strength and Health, and Muscular Development magazines from the ‘50s, the ‘60s, and even the early ‘70s, I found one of the most popular methods of training among powerlifters was the 5/4/3/2/1 method.  Most of the lifters who utilized this used either a heavy/light/medium or medium/light/heavy method of full-body workouts.  On the subject of full-body workouts, I could find hardly any lifters who didn’t use them.  (If they did use a split program, it was nothing more than an upper body/lower body split.)

     The following routine is very similar to the ones used by a majority of powerlifters during this era.  It’s also a perfect routine for any bodybuilder or recreational lifter that’s ready to make the transition to serious strength training.  On word of caution: it’s not for outright beginners.  Make sure you’ve spent several months on some type of heavy training routine before trying this one.  Also, you might want to spend a few weeks on another full-body workout in order to be properly conditioned.  If you don’t decide to do that, then remember: you’ve been warned.

     This is a three-days-a-week program.  I’ve listed the days as Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, although any three non-consecutive days will work.  Here it is:

Monday—Heavy Day

1.    Squats—Begin this exercise with 2 to 4 progressively heavier warm-up sets of 5 reps.  The number of sets will depend on your level of strength on squats.  The stronger you are, then the more sets are needed, and vice versa.  Once you are finished warming up, you will do your first “work” set of 5 reps.  Pick a weight that is tough, but one where you know you can get all 5 reps.  Once you are done, rest a few minutes (two to three is optimal) and then load the bar with another 5 to 20 pounds of weight.  Once again, how much weight you add will depend on your level of strength.  Really strong squatters will add as much as 20 pounds, while weaker squatters can only get away with as much as 5 pounds.  For this set, you will be performing 4 repetitions.  Rest, add more weight, and repeat for a set of 3 reps.  Repeat two more times for a set of 2 reps and, finally, one repetition.  Your final set of one rep should be done with approximately 95% of your one-rep maximum.

2.    Bench Presses—Use the same 5/4/3/2/1 method as the squats.

3.    Deadlifts—Use the same method as the squats and the bench presses.  The only difference here is that your back and leg muscles will be a little fatigued from all the squatting.  For this reason, you might want to be a little more conservative with the weights you pick.  Only you know your body best.

Wednesday—Light Day

1.    Squats—For the light day, you are going to use a 5x5 system of training.  Warm up in the same manner as you did on Monday, with 2 to 4 progressively heavier sets.  For your “work” sets, you will use a weight that’s 10 to 30 pounds lighter than your 5-rep set from Monday.  Stick with this weight for all 5 sets of 5 reps.

2.    Bench Presses—Use the same 5x5 method as the squats.

3.    Deadlifts—Use the same 5x5 method.

Friday—Medium Day

1.    Squats—For this day, you are going to use the same 5/4/3/2/1 method as on Monday.  Here, however, you will use 10 to 20 pounds less on all of your sets.  Make sure that you warm-up in the same manner as Monday.

2.    Bench Presses—Use the same method as the squats.

3.    Deadlifts—Use same 5/4/3/2/1 method as squats and bench presses.

Here are some tips to help you get the most out of this program:

1.    Many powerlifters in the ‘50s and ‘60s used a program like this one almost verbatim.  However, some lifters did add some extra assistance work.  If you feel like it, don’t be afraid to include some sets of overhead presses, curls, lying triceps extensions, pullovers, chins, and ab work.  Of course, you would only want to pick one or two (at the most) to add to the end of each session.  Also, if you feel at all drained, then just lay off the assistance work.

2.    Every five weeks, take a down week.  Don’t push yourself at all during this week and cut out all assistance work.  This will help your body recover better, and promote better gains in the long run.

3.    Though simple, this program is intense.  Make sure you are eating plenty of food every day and getting at least seven hours of sleep each night.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Awakening to What Is

     What Is is right before my eyes.  It's the barbell in my hands.  It's the sweat rolling down my face, dripping from my nose.
     It's the pump that fills my shirt sleeve, stretching my t-shirt, filling me with bliss.
     It's the pulled hamstring that fills my leg with pain, and drops me to the floor, that keeps me from lifting for weeks on end.
     It's utter perfect, awakening me to What Is, not that which it is not.
     It's just this, right now.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Old Time Mass Tactics: Power/Pump Training

     The debate we often see nowadays over whether you should do "power" workouts or "pump" workouts really wasn't much of a debate for the old-timers.  Most of the "classic bodybuilders" built their physiques through hard work on the basic exercises, using full-body workouts for 3 days each week.  As they reached advanced levels, they didn't give up their power training; they just learned to "supplement" the power work with pump training—or "flushing" as the old-timers often called it.  (I believe it was the term used by Larry Scott and Freddy Ortiz—whose physiques, as you can tell from above, obviously benefited from such training.)
     This kind of training is pretty simple.  First, just pick one basic exercise for whatever muscle group(s) you are going to train for the day.  After working up to some heavy sets of 5, or 3, or even less reps, rest a few minutes, then pick a couple of light, pumping exercises.
     Using the chest as an example, here's what a workout might look like:
Bench Presses: 6 sets of 10, 8, 6, 6, 4, and 4 reps.  Use an ascending set scheme.  Add weight and reduce repetitions with each set.  Take plenty of rest between each set; 2 to 3 minutes would probably be best.
Incline Flyes: 4 sets of 15 to 20 reps.  Use the same weight on these sets.  Take minimum rest between each set.
Wide-Grip Dips: 4 sets of 15 to 20 reps.
     A similar program can, obviously, be used for all of your other bodyparts.