Wednesday, June 26, 2013

New Planet Muscle Article on "the Bulgarian Method"

In the latest issue of Planet Muscle (July, 2013), I have an article that deals with what is commonly called the "Bulgarian method" of high-frequency training.  To be honest, it's probably one of the most "non-bodybuilding" pieces I've ever written for any of the major muscle magazines.  I'm glad Jeff Everson actually printed it (I had my doubts when I sent it to him.)

To whet your appetite, here's a portion of the article where I discuss the three factors of frequency, intensity and volume:

     "Any well-designed program must take into account three important variables: frequency, intensity, and volume.  Programs that fail are ones that don’t properly manipulate and control these variables.  For instance, if you were to perform a program for lots of sets, lots of reps, and lots of intensity multiple times per week, you would be setting yourself up to fail – and would surely do so.  If any two of the variables are high, then the other variable must be low.  (But I’m getting ahead of myself; we’ll get around to that shortly.)  First, a brief discussion of each variable.
     Frequency is the number of times that you train a muscle.  A lot of programs will take into account how often you train each muscle on a monthly (or even yearly) basis.  But I don’t think all of that’s necessary.  What is necessary is that you monitor what you are doing on a weekly basis.  (Obviously, the more frequently that you train a muscle group each week, less volume and intensity should be used.)
     Intensity is a bit more confusing for a lot of readers.  In bodybuilding circles, intensity tends to refer to how hard you train each muscle group.  Such is the case with Mike Mentzer’s “heavy duty” training or Eric Broser’s articles for Planet Muscle.  However, in this article, I’m going to be using intensity as its referred to by most powerlifters and Olympic lifters.  In this case, intensity refers to % of your one-rep maximum—basically, the heavier that you train, the higher your intensity.
     Volume refers to the amount of total work you do in each workout session, and then in the course of a week of training.  Volume is the one variable that a lot of bodybuilders have the hardest time controlling.  It’s easy to add sets and reps during a workout, and let your total volume exceed what your body is capable of recovering from.
     As I was saying earlier, two of your variables can (and should) be fairly high, which means that the other variable must be relatively low.  Take the traditional bodybuilding program (the kind that you typically see in the pages of PM).  It is relatively high in volume and intensity, and low in frequency.  I think this kind of program is most common because it’s easy to design, control, and understand – it doesn’t take a lot of thought, and (of course) it’s effective for a lot of lifters.  Basically, you just “bomb and blitz” a muscle with a lot of sets, reps, and plenty of heavy weight, then you give it a week to recover.  But it doesn’t mean that this is the only way you can train.  (And it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s even the best way to train—although this kind of training should be used at times during a training year.)
     In Europe and in countries from the former Soviet empire, powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and (yes) even bodybuilders take a different approach.  Russian lifters (and those lifters inspired by Russian-style training), for example, tend to keep volume and frequency high, while intensity is low.  Whereas lifters who use the Bulgarian approach tend to favor high intensity and frequency, with fairly low volume.  Of the two, the Bulgarian method is the easiest to control – and thus it’s more ideal for the average lifter.  Which brings us around to the training program in this article..."

Monday, June 24, 2013

High Frequency Training for Strength and Power, Part One

High Frequency Training for Strength and Power
Part One: The Basics

     This is the first of what will be a multi-part series on “high frequency training” geared specifically for building strength and power.  High frequency training – training not just multiple times per week, but training each muscle group multiple times per week – has become more popular in recent years.  I’ve been touting its benefits for almost a decade, but so have other strength trainers/writers such as Pavel Tsatsouline and Dan John.
     High frequency training (henceforth just “HFT”), however, is nothing recent nor is it particularly innovative.  If you read my last couple articles on the training of Anthony Ditillo you should know that.  Before Ditillo there was “Big” Jim Williams.  (My first post on this blog a few years ago was related to Jim Williams training.  If you haven’t done so, please read it.)  And before either Ditillo or Williams, there were the original “old-timers” – men such as Harry Paschal, Arthur Saxon, George Hackenshmidt, and Hermann Goerner – who trained in the early years of the 20th century.
     Most of those early lifters – many of whom trained in a manner that we would now consider to be “strongman” – trained very similar to the method Ditillo wrote about in “Adaptability” and that I expounded upon in the following post.  They didn’t train in such a manner (and here’s the important part), because they simply didn’t know any better.  (Unfortunately, this is the point of view of many high intensity “pundits” – the truly unfortunate thing is it’s these pundits that don’t know any better.  And they don’t know any better because they’ve never given serious, heavy, frequent training a try.)  The old-timers trained this way because, through trial and error, they learned that this was the best way to train.
     But “old-timers” and left over remnants from the ‘70s weren’t the only lifters to train in such a manner.  There are another set of lifters – Olympic lifters, to be precise – who trained in this manner, and these guys absolutely dominated the world Olympic-lifting stage once upon a time: the Bulgarians.  “Bulgarian training” became something of a myth wrapped in a riddle, trapped inside an enigma (or something such as that) for many years.  And while it’s true that many people don’t “really” know how they trained, this much is for certain: the Bulgarian “method” was/is comprised of training with high intensity very frequently.[1]  You picked a few lifts (primarily the Olympic lifts along with heavy squatting) and you trained heavy on a daily basis while slowly building up the work capacity to handle more and more volume.
     I like Bulgarian-style training, but this article will focus primarily on the kind of training that Ditillo and the original “old-time” lifters performed.  Most of you who are reading this are not interested in competitive Olympic-lifting; you just want to know the best way to get massively strong and powerful – along with achieving a good deal of muscle size to boot.
     Let us begin.
     For starters, if you are new to serious strength training, you need to lift weights using full-body workouts for at least a few months before attempting this stuff.  On top of that, you need to have trained with full-body workouts for several months and achieved some good strength gains before beginning these workouts.  This form of training is not for the rank beginner.[2]
     Start out your training by lifting 4 to 5 days per week.  As you advance – and by “advance” I mean as you get stronger – you can then add another day or two to your program, eventually training 6 days in a row before taking a day off.
     I think the best way to begin is by training 2 days in a row, then taking a day off.  Repeat this 2 on/1 off scheme for a few weeks.  After that, go to a 3 on/1 off followed by a 2 on/one off scheme, which means that you will be training 5 days per week.  I like this schedule, and use it quite frequently.  When I’m feeling strong, then I train for 6 days straight, then take a day off, and, yes, there are still weeks when I feel as if 3 days is plenty for one week of training.  Remember – and I know I’ve stressed this over and over throughout many articles, but it bears repeating – strength training is an art, not a science, and it’s an art where you must learn to listen to the signals your body gives you.
     Each day that you train, pick at least two exercises, sometimes three.  On days that you utilize three exercises, perform one squatting movement, one pulling movement, and one pressing movement.  On days that you use two exercises, pick a squatting and pressing movement, a squatting and pulling movement, or a pressing and pulling movement.
     As for sets of reps, utilize sets of 5, 3 and/or 2 reps for the majority of your training.  Occasionally, you want to perform singles, especially (and obviously) if you’re testing your strength on an exercise after a few weeks.  And occasionally you want to perform higher rep sets somewhere between the 6 and 10 rep range.
     The more reps you use on an exercise, the less sets you need to perform.  If you stick with 5s, for instance, on one exercise, then you needn’t do more than 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps.  If you work up to sets of 3 or 2 reps, then you will need between 5 and 8 sets before reaching your max weight for the day – the number of sets will depend on both your strength level and the exercise.  Squats will take more progressive sets to reach a heavy double than will power cleans, for instance.
     To give you an example of what a workout might look like, here’s a typical session I might perform:
  1. Squats: 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, using 135, 225, 315, 375, and 405.
  2. Power Cleans: 135x5x2 sets, 185x5, 205x3, 225x3x2 sets
     If I feel “good” after those two exercises, then I will add a pressing movement, maybe bench presses, overhead presses, weighted dips, or one-arm dumbbell overhead presses (those are 4 of my favorite).  If I feel a bit tired, then I will simple stop there.
     If you want to add a third exercise, but you’re not feeling as “up to it” as usual, you can perform straight sets.  Use a lighter weight on the 3rd exercise, and train for 5 “straight” sets of 5, 3, or 2 reps.

     In “Part Two” we’ll cover more set/rep options, and we’ll look at an example of a few weeks of training.

[1] As with my post on Ditillo-inspired training, “intensity” here refers to how “heavy” you train, not how close you take a set to the point of momentary muscular failure.  For a training program to succeed, it must manipulate three variables: intensity, frequency, and volume.  When embarking on a program, two variables must be high, and one variable must be low.  As the lifter advances in a program, he/she can slowly raise the “low” variable until it’s more of a moderate to high variable.  Programs that fail are ones that – when starting out – make the mistake of either (a) having all three variable high or (b) having one variable high while the other two are low.  The reason Menzterian-style “H.I.T.” training absolutely sucks is because it has one variable high (intensity), while the other two variables (frequency and volume) are low.
     The Bulgarians were of the mind that it’s best to train with high-intensity and high frequency.
[2] If you are new to training, please take the time to read over my blog.  My many posts on “heavy-light-medium” training are the best places to start.  Full-body, H-L-M workouts will give you the most gains in the shortest amount of time if you are a beginner.  And remember to leave your ego at home when taking up strength training.  You don’t need to rush things.  And the only person you are competing against is yourself.
     Having said all of that, please go ahead and read this series on HFT – it should have some tips and pointers that will help your H-L-M training.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Flow of Lifting Weights... and Life

     I’ve always enjoyed activities that had a sparse, Zen-like quality to them.  My first love of this kind was martial arts.  I was nine or ten when my father agreed to let me take Karate – Okinawan karate-do to be precise (Isshin-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, Goju-Ryu).[1]  At first, I think he was reluctant.  This was probably on account of the fact that I had quit other “sport” activities that I was involved in.  I could hit a baseball hard, and had a good arm, but I hated the monotony of America’s pastime.  I played football some, but didn’t care much for it either.  But when I encountered martial arts, I encountered something entirely different.  Although I trained with others, and fought with others, the only real competition was with myself.  Okinawan karate-do focuses on very basic movements, but they must be done with precision, perfect technique, and impeccable timing.  And the only way to achieve that is with a lot of practice.  And the practice allows you to enter into flow, what I would best describe as a present moment thisness, where there is only the movement(s) being done, and you lose (to a certain extent) sense of time and space.
     A few years later, when I was a teenager, I was an avid skateboarder for several years.  At first, perhaps I was drawn to the world of skateboarding because it seemed something of a rebellious activity.  But you don’t stick with an activity just for the sake of being a rebel.  It didn’t take me long to realize that skateboarding often had the same quality as martial arts.  You practice the basic moves over and over, and then you just let go – there really isn’t any thinking involved.  There is only flow.
     Which brings me around to the third love[2] of my active life: lifting.  Lifting – and primarily Olympic lifting and powerlifting, but I suppose bodybuilding, as well – is the most “Zen” of all activities I can think of outside of martial arts.[3]  When you lift properly, you don’t need a whole lot of exercises.  A few movements will suffice: squats, deads, benches, power cleans, power snatches, high pulls, overhead presses, and barbell curls can pretty much cover it.  You “practice” these movements frequently, which not only makes you stronger and bigger, but it also allows you to reach the point where there is no point of thinking – in fact, “thinking” can get you in plenty of trouble, allowing you to miss a lift by over analyzing or by intimidation.
     And here’s the thing – the whole crux of the matter, if you will – as you repeatedly practice lifting weights (and martial arts and skateboarding, if you are at all interested in either of those things), the flow you experience and that you encounter while under the bar becomes a part of the rest of your life.  Even the mundane – washing dishes, folding the laundry, driving back and forth to your place of work – begin to have a certain flow to them, a certain of ease of being.  But it’s more than the mundane.  You will probably notice it first – if you are aware enough – in your relationships; with co-workers, with parents, siblings, and children, with spouses.  As you learn to let things simply be in your training, and as you begin to see great results from this being, you realize – whether consciously or not – that you can let the people and the things in your life just be too.
     One thing does need to be done, and that’s the simple cognition that you need to take your training, your practice, and bring it into the rest of your life.  (Because, probably at this point you are thinking to yourself that you don’t exactly see a lot of lifters behaving as if they’re Zen masters[4].)
     I could at this point, I suppose, explain to you just what I mean by “bringing it into the rest of your life” but I don’t think I will.  Part of the joy of lifting and practice is discovering it for yourself.[5]

[1] On a side note, I am glad that I chose karate-do over the other offerings in our town, primarily tae kwon do.  Good, true karate-do (besides simply being tougher) allows one to enter into a freedom of mind because it’s direct, relatively simple (although this doesn’t mean easy), and to the point.  (For more on why karate is the most Zen of the martial arts, I recommend the book “Rhinoceros Zen.  Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom” by Sensei Jeffrey Brooks.  Awesome read.)  Also, I was lucky in that at the dojo I selected, our sensei always made us sit zazen for 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each session.
[2] I still love authentic, traditional martial arts, but I hung up my skateboard many years ago.
[3] I realize that there are a lot of surfers who would disagree with this statement, but I’ve never been a surfer, so I’m sticking to my guns.
[4] Of course, I’m not sure what a “Zen master” even is, or if such a person actually exists – at least, not the ones that behave as if they are Yoda.  Besides, all you have to do is google some such thing as “Zen behaving badly” and you will find plenty of examples of sorry-excuses-for-Zen-masters in the world.  But maybe that’s for another piece.  (And on another, albeit slightly separate note, I think there are higher forms of “spiritual” practice than Zen, but where Zen excels is in the mundane, the simple act of living your life from day to day.)
[5] I will say this: It helps to have some form of “spiritual” practice.  Your spirituality, your lifting, and your life must settle into one seamless whole.  At least, that’s the goal.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ditillo-Inspired Training Program

     After yesterday’s post – Anthony Ditillo on Adaptability – I received an email from a reader.  The reader – new to this idea of frequent, intense[1] training – wanted to know what a program would actually look like if he were to follow Ditillo’s advice.  At first, I thought, “Well, I would rather not give a more detailed plan.  Part of what makes someone a successful lifter is actually learning how to lift.”  But then I thought better of it, and decided to write this post.
     What follows is some advice and a week of sample training.  Keep in mind that this is just an example program.  If you are going to become a skilled lifter – and lifting, bulk-building, power training are skills – then you need to practice, you need to experiment, and you don’t need everything laid out for you in complete detail – hence, my initial reluctance at wring this piece.
     First off, I recommend 5 days per week of training.  You can train 5 days straight, then take a couple of days off before repeating.  This is a good schedule if you enjoy working out Monday through Friday, and then taking the weekends off.  Myself, I prefer to train 3 days in a row, take a day off, train two days in a row, take a day off, then repeat the schedule.  If you need an extra day off here or there, don’t be afraid to take it.  At the same time, you want to make sure that you are training frequently enough so that your body is forced to adapt to the increased weekly volume.  If you’re taking every other day off, obviously your body’s not going to adapt as it needs to.  So, for the first few weeks of this program, don’t skip any training days.  Once you have adapted to the increased volume, then and only then should you start to add extra recovery days off.
     Here’s an example of a week of training:
Workout One:
·         Squats: 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, followed by a set of 3 reps, and then an even heavier double.
·         Snatch-grip High Pulls: 3 progressively heavier triples, followed by two progressively heavier doubles.
·         Overhead Presses: 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, followed by two progressively heavier triples.
Workout Two:
·         Deadlifts: 3 progressively heavier triples, followed by two progressively heavier doubles.
·         Power Snatches: 5 progressively heavier doubles.
·         Bench Presses: 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, followed by two progressively heavier triples.
Workout Three:
·         Front Squats: 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, followed by two progressively heavier triples.
·         Power Cleans: 3 progressively heavier triples, followed by two progressively heavier doubles.
·         One-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Presses: 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, followed by two progressively heavier triples (each arm).
Workout Four:
·         Squats: 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, followed by a set of 3 reps, and then an even heavier double.
·         Barbell Curls: 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, followed by two progressively heavier triples.
·         Incline Dumbbell Bench Presses: 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, followed by two progressively heavier triples.
Workout Five:
·         Pull Shrugs: 3 progressively heavier triples, followed by two progressively heavier doubles.
·         Deficit Deadlifts: 3 progressively heavier triples, followed by two progressively heavier doubles.
·         Behind-the-Neck Presses: 3 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, followed by two progressively heavier triples.

     I realize that many people reading this – who are new to this concept of such frequent training – may not have realized just how much work Ditillo was talking about.  For the first week that you perform this program (or a program similar – I can’t stress how much this is just an example of an effective routine), you may find yourself sore and tired.  (If you had problems sleeping before beginning this program, that problem should soon be a thing of the past.)  Don’t worry.  After a few weeks, you’ll be looking forward to your daily regimen of three exercises.  Personally, I enjoy these kind of workouts, and the more that you perform them, the more that you look forward to them.
     Also, after a few weeks, you may need to add occasional days where you throw in some high-rep stuff.  If your back – your lower back, in particular – is feeling beat up, it may be good to engage in a workout session of push-ups, bodyweight squats, and walking lunges.  This should give your body the break it needs, and renew your mind and body for throwing around some heavy iron on the subsequent workout.

[1] Here I’m using “intense” to mean % of maximum weight being lifted, not effort that is being put into each set/rep.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Anthony Ditillo on Adaptability

     A little more than ten years ago, or thereabouts, I made a change in how I trained.  I switched over from heavy, full-body infrequent routines to heavy, full-body, frequent training programs.  I’m not going to get into all of the details here as to why this happened – you can read past posts about my success with the powerlifting programs of Boris Sheiko if you desire to know more.
     Once I had success with Sheiko’s programs, however, I wanted to try more routines, so I voraciously read everything I could get my hands on from knowledgeable lifters/writers who had espoused such forms of frequent training over the years.  Some writer/trainers (whether they were bodybuilders, powerlifters, or Olympic lifters) were better than others.
     Bill Starr, of course, was one of the best.  (And he still is.)  But I had been doing Starr’s routines – or stuff similar – for quite a long time before ever attempting the insane (or so I thought) amount of volume that the Sheiko’s routines had me doing.  Starr’s programs are great to use as an intermediary between more traditional bodybuilding-oriented programs (where you train everything once every 5 to 7 days) and the prodigious volume/frequency of Sheiko.  (Let me add, here, that I also think Starr’s programs can be used year ‘round, and for years on end, and you can get great results out of them.  With Sheiko – and with Ditillo – however, you can take your strength levels to a whole other… well, level – you just have to have the courage, strength, and perseverance to adapt.)
     Enter Anthony Ditillo.  Ditillo had been around for a long time.  I had whole stacks of old Iron Man magazines with his articles in them (he wrote a lot of articles in the ‘70’s), but I had never given him enough credit.  His stuff just seemed as if it was too much volume, too frequently, and with too much intensity.  (After all, you can’t have all 3 variables high, right?)  But I had sold Ditillo short – way short.  His programs work great, assuming that (a) you have enough experience lifting, (b) you are consuming enough high-quality calories on a daily basis, and (c) you allow your body to adapt to his programs – and it will adapt assuming the a and b criteria are met.
     The following article is a great introduction to his thought when it comes to frequent, heavy, hard training:

Adaptability: A Possible Training Aid
by Anthony Ditillo
Ditillo looking cool

     Scientists tell us – given enough time and bringing in the law of survival, man will adapt to his outside environmental conditions in an attempt to accept the circumstantial changes of his environment, his aim being survival. I am positive this same law of adaptability can be incorporated into the lifter’s or bodybuilder’s routine with great gains in muscle size, strength, condition and an increase in the trainee’s workload capabilities, plus an ability to handle heavy weights without any waste of nervous energy. You will also be amazed at how easy it is to recuperate overnight from each day’s workout. After a while you will start watching other fellows train in the usual accepted manner and you’ll begin to notice all the wasted energy, the psyching, the pumping, cheating, etc., and it begins to dawn on you how advanced and scientific your training is becoming compared to theirs. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of the story. Perhaps I should start at the beginning.
     Last July (74) I began training with a good friend of mine who at one time was quite an accomplished Olympic lifter. “Dezi[1]” and I began an intensive six days a week training routine which lasted all summer long. It was during this time that he began sharing his training philosophies, experiences, etc., with me and to say he helped me tremendously is putting it mildly. “Dezi” has lifted over 20 years and when you realize what knowledge such a lifetime of work creates, you learn to listen and watch such a man carefully.
     It was during this particular time, through various conversations I learned “Dezi” had used this law of adaptability without ever consciously being aware of it. At least he didn’t make too much out of it and seemed to use it as though EVERYONE knew of its existence! He told me that when he was a competitive lifter he pressed EVERY DAY. Various pulls, squats, lunges, etc. were done every day, day after day, until unrecuperable fatigue set in and then, and only then, three days or so were taken off and the result was you were stronger AFTER the short rest than before, and this enabled you to continue with the everyday training once again until nature would once again step in and literally FORCE you to rest once more.
     For the past nine months I have trained using my coach’s advice, for the most part five days a week on the following movements: Bench Presses, High Pulls, Shrugs, and possibly sometimes Power Snatches. I also include whenever I feel like it, full, bar high on the neck, back completely straight, Olympic Squats. Most of these movements are done in sets of three or five repetitions working up to a maximum poundage for the day. It seems that after two weeks work, the limit set is able to be increased and progress is slow but steady and you are psychologically secure as to where you are strength-wise and the need to psych up for a workout or limit lift is no longer necessary. This is because your body is slowly adapting to the workload you are putting on it and it gets to the point where you can recuperate overnight. It seems far more rational to me to condition the body to accept workouts on a DAILY basis than to use the two or three times a week method of operation. Let me try to break this point down some, for easier understanding: most trainees will hit a muscle group most severely once or twice a week. In other words, each muscle group is subjected to many sets and repetitions, using medium heavy and heavy weights twice weekly. The severity of such exercise requires 72 hours rest for recuperation, removal of lactic acid, and finally, growth. Naturally, if you tried to work the same muscle group every day you would lose strength and undergo great physical and emotional trauma (by way of soreness and tiredness) at least through the first three weeks. But I guarantee, if your diet is adequate and you fully supplement your diet with additional nutrients and if you discover CORRECT TRAINING LOAD for each movement each day, you will OVERCOME the trauma and your body will recuperate more rapidly.
     For me, the correct training load is as follows: one pressing movement and either one pulling and one squatting movement; or two pulling movements daily. I use five sets per pulling or squatting movement and usually five repetitions for the first three warmup sets (jumping weight each set) and then one medium-heavy set of three repetitions and finally one heavy set of three repetitions. For example, in the Shrug Pull I usually follow the foregoing schedule: 245 x5, 335 x5, 425 x5, 515 x3, and finally 605 or 655 x 3 (depending on strength level for that day). My High Pull workout goes something like this: 205 x5, 255 x3, 295 x3, and finally 315 or 325 x3 (depending on my strength level for that day). To put it simply: if I’m tired I reduce intensity but maintain tonnage as closely as possible and if I’m energetic I go for broke on the heavy set for that day. Usually on the third or fourth training day stress comes into play and that workout would consist of relatively light weights with a low repetition scheme so the next day I am right back on course, however, I NEVER omit a prescribed movement for any reason on any day. As Jim Williams said, “Most guys do more sets and reps, but how many can hit a max weight every workout?”
     Using this training theory of every day performing the same movements but with different intensity had really helped me in both muscle growth and strength. I have grown a pair of trapezius muscles the size of a male gorilla, my entire back musculature has dramatically improved, my competition-style bench press has reached an all-time high and my pulling style and strength have also improved. I am more energetic and enthusiastic about my training, and I also never feel dragged out or overtrained and I know I am progressing just about as fast as I can. I am recuperating overnight and muscle soreness is almost a thing of the past. For me, the benefits are well worth the sacrifice of such hard daily training.

[1] For those who are interested, Ditillo is referring to the old-time Olympic lifter Dezso Ban.  Ban was something of a legend – once upon a time – for the sheer amount of volume he used in his workouts.