Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hard Work and Proper Programming

Nothing is Worth Having in Life that Doesn’t Require Hard Work, but it Has to be Performed Correctly

“By nature, men are nearly the same.  By practice, they become vastly different.”

     I have two teenage boys.  When they were younger—around 5 and 6, I think—I wanted them to become involved in martial arts.  The town where we lived didn’t seem to have much, nothing like the traditional karate-do that I practiced religiously, diligently for thirteen years, and have practiced less formally ever since.  They decided they wanted to take Tae Kwon Do—which, to be honest, I thought was a rather horrid idea; I never thought very highly of the Korean-inspired dojangs that I had encountered up to that point[1].
     But I relented.
     And was quite horrified by what I encountered.  Here was a martial arts “school” where you could get a “black belt” in a year or less, where kids only a few years older than mine were walking around with 4th or even 5th degree black belts.  And here was a place—and this was the scary part—where hard work, truly hard work seemed to be optional.  Minimal contact was required when “sparring”—after all, you didn’t want to end up hurting yourself or other people.  And a couple of days of attendance each week seemed to be perfectly acceptable.
     It took me five years of hard training to receive my black belt.  (Unfortunately, schools like the one I described above—which, now, are all too prevalent—make my black belt seem worthless.  Black belts no longer mean what they once did.)  At the end of my three-hour long test to receive it, I was covered in sweat.  And blood.  Bloodied knuckles and a bloodied lip—blood trickling from my nose and needing to be wiped occasionally.  My black belt was handed to my while seated seiza (正座, literally translated as "proper sitting").  My hands and arms were trembling so much that I could hardly manage to tie it around my waist.  And my sensei—my master—explained to me that if it touched the floor, I would no longer be a black belt; I would have to take the entire test all over again.
     All of my training—the hard work, the sweat, the blood, the hours of training 5 days each week—was worth it.  At that moment, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.  In a good deal of pain, I tied my black belt to my waist.  It didn’t touch the floor.

     If you want to get really good at something—if you want to excel at the martial arts or lifting; if you want to be really big or really strong, or a combination of both—then only a couple of things are required.  First, you have to put in the hard work, as in damn hard work.  Second, you have to work really hard at the right things.  In other words, the programming has to be good.
     I have no doubt that those who engage in Crossfit work hard, for instance, but, for the most part, I think the programming sucks.  They are simply working hard on the wrong things.  (In the example of the Tae Kwon Do “school” that my boys attended, they neither worked hard nor had the right programming.)
     Working hard on the right things often means working hard on the simple things.
     In the five years of training that led up to my black belt—and in what I performed afterward—it was essentially minimalistic.  I was trained to work hard on a dozen or so punches and kicks, and we did them each and every training session, from the first day you walked into the dojo until the day you either left, stopped training, or died.  You did a lot of basic conditioning work: running, push-ups, and bodyweight squats, and you did this every time you trained.  After that, you fought others at the dojo.  A lot.
     Lifting’s not much different.  You do the basics.  You work them fairly frequently and you work them hard.  If you do this week after week, month after month, year after year, you will attain your goals.
     I will probably get emails asking what minimalist, hard training actually looks like, even though I’ve written about it many times before, but, once again, here are some of the basic things you can do:
  1. Stick with the “two-barbell rule”: At the start of every workout session, perform at least two basic barbell exercises.
  2. Squat heavy stuff.
  3. Press heavy stuff over your head.
  4. Pick heavy stuff off the floor.
  5. Drag or carry heavy stuff for either time or distance.
     It’s incredibly simple and highly effective, but also hard, and it’s been my experience that most people don’t excel—at lifting, at martial arts, at life—because they don’t enjoy doing hard work, and doing it for the rest of their lives.

     In 1995-’96 I was the largest I have ever been in my training life.  I got that way from devoting every bit of my thought and effort—every waking hour of my life—toward building muscle.  And from hard work, a whole heaping lot of hard work!  (Of course, I realize that not everyone has this luxury.  Part of my success at the time was not just my thought and effort, but the fact that I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, and worked as a personal trainer and taught weight training classes at a local university—every waking hour of my day had something to do with training.)
     My workout partner at the time—and best friend, who later died from a drug overdose, but that’s for another blog post about steroids, and how they can possibly lead to other drugs for those who have an OCD personality—Dusty and I would train each bodypart once-per-week.  We generally favored a 5-way split, training Monday through Friday, then taking the weekends off, so we could devote that part of our life to parties and women.  The split would look something like this: Monday – chest, Tuesday – legs, Wednesday – shoulders, Thursday – back, Friday – arms.  We would train with as many sets as possible, and each “work” set was taken to the limit and beyond.  The training was so tough that no matter what bodypart we were training—even if it was arms—we would carry around a small bucket to vomit into.
     On leg day, vomiting was inevitable.  Here was a typical “quad” workout:
  1. Squats: 6 sets of 20, 16, 12, 10, 8, and 6 reps, working up progressively.
  2. Leg presses supersetted with smith machine squats: 4 to 5 supersets of 25 to 50 reps.
  3. Walking lunges: We would take 135 to 175 pounds out into the parking lot of the gym, put it across our shoulder and lunge as far as possible—which typically meant until we puked.  Then repeat for 3 or 4 sets.
  4. Leg extensions: 3 to 4 sets of 30 to 50 reps.
     I’m not sure if the programming is great in the above scenario—I would do things different these days—but it was definitely good.
     Which brings us around to another point about programming: you have to properly manipulate frequency, intensity, and volume.  Two of these factors should always be high, and the other should always be low.  In my ‘90s training, the intensity and volume were through the roof, while the frequency was rather low.
     Here is what I wrote about manipulating these variables in a post about Bulgarian training:
     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.
     It would appear, then, that my quad workout was a bit excessive when it comes to volume, but I think that’s only partly true.  One thing I didn’t mention in the Bulgarian article was the fact that the legs can tolerate significantly more work than any other bodyparts.  When Dusty and I trained chest, shoulders, or arms, for instance, we were never quite as extreme as on leg day.

     These days, I prefer more Bulgarian or “Russian” styles of training.  Perhaps it’s because the programming is much closer to the martial arts of my younger days.  You show up, you do the hard work, you go home, and then you repeat, day after day after day.  Ad nauseam.  As I age, I appreciate the simplicity of it.
     But no matter what kind of program you choose, make sure it’s well thought-out, make sure it accomplishes the goals you are after, and make sure plenty of hard work is involved.

[1] Let me be perfectly clear: I have met Tae Kwon Do practitioners who were very good.  I attended many martial arts tournaments in the late 1980s through the early ‘90s, and several times I got my ass handed to me by a good, advanced TKD student.  But every time that I’ve entered a dojang in towns that I either lived in or was passing through, I have been sorely disappointed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Thoughts on Intermittent Fasting for Lifters

     One of the more popular forms of “dieting” these days is “intermittent fasting.”  The term refers – rather loosely, I might add – to a wide range of different eating plans.  The premise, however, is rather simple:  You go for an extended period of time with little or no calories (the “fasting” period) and then you follow this up with a “feeding” period, which comprise either one meal, multiple meals, or possibly even an entire day of eating.
     Opinions surrounding intermittent fasting are vast and, well, quite opinionated as to whether it’s good or bad.  The opinions run the gamut from “the best friggin’ diet on the planet” to “absolutely sucks, and has to be the worst diet ever; you’ll be starving all the time, and you’ll probably lose all of your muscle to boot!”
     But I think the truth is somewhere in between.
     Intermittent fasting can be a good way to lose bodyfat while also maintaining – or even gaining – strength.  But you need to listen to someone who actually uses one of the forms of IF –or has used it in the past – before you either write it off as bogus or decide that it’s good.
     I first read about this form of dieting from an article on “T-Nation” back in 1999.  The article was about the Warrior Diet, and it was an interview with the diet’s originator Ori Hofmekler (who was, at that time, the editor of Penthouse Magazine).  Since then, the Warrior Diet, and other forms of IF, have become fairly well known and generally well-accepted, but at the time, that just wasn’t the case.  In the ‘90s, such a form of dieting flew in the face of everything that was thought to be effective for building muscle and burning bodyfat.  Only out-of-shape, non-athletes were thought to do something so foolish as eat only one meal per day.
     But the diet fascinated me.  Despite the fact that it was decidedly not what I was doing at the time – which was eating six small meals per day, as I had been doing for more than a decade – so much of what Ori said made sense, and so I wanted to give it an honest try.  (My workout partners, by the way, who subsisted on diets of burgers, steaks, milkshakes, lots of beer, and a minimum of 5 meals per day, thought I was absolutely crazy.  They were all pretty sure that I would soon shrivel into a shell of my former self, and not a very strong one at that.)
     A few months after reading about the diet, I was scheduled to do a “raw” powerlifting meet.  (Raw powerlifting was actually kind of rare at the time, but that’s for another article.)  I had always competed in the 181-pound class – and always had to lose a few pounds to do so – but I thought for this meet I would use the Warrior Diet to see if I could get down to the 165-pound class while at least maintaining my strength.  About three months later, at the meet, I weighed 163 pounds – down from around my starting weight at around 185 – and squatted 510 raw.  Not bad considering the fact that I was fasting between 18 and 20 hours each day, and getting most of my calories (which weren’t very high) in a small 4 to 6 hour window.
     What follows are some of my thoughts – rather random, mind you – on intermittent fasting.
·         There are basically two forms of IF.   The first, which the Warrior Diet falls under, is where you eat every day (a “feeding”) after going for an extended period of time without food.  The feeding could be one meal per day, or it could be multiple meals crammed into a “window” of time.  The second, which I haven’t tried but still wouldn’t recommend for lifters, is where you fast almost entirely from food for one day – maybe even two – and then follow this with a day of eating.  The 2nd option may actually be good for health reasons, but for those of us who need to train frequently, it could be a nightmare.
·         I have performed all of my IF experiments with something similar to the Warrior Diet, so that is the kind of IF that most of these thoughts apply to – keep that in mind.
·         After a few days of eating this way – which I have done several times since my initial experiment 15 years ago – my body always adjusts to the lack of food during the day.  In fact, I find that I’m rarely hungry, and the hardest thing is getting enough calories and macronutrients in my body during the feeding period.  This is especially tough considering the fact that I would still try to get in close to my bodyweight in protein grams each day.
·         Several proponents of IF recommend training during a “fasted” state, followed by a post-workout meal to optimize fat loss and muscle growth.  I never found this conducive to building strength.  Since I always lifted in the evening – and still do – I found it best to eat a small meal (or a protein shake) immediately prior to training.  I would then have another meal as soon as my workout was finished.  Once my body adjusted to the diet, I had no problem eating this way and staying strong throughout the workouts.
·         Intermittent fasting is not particularly good for building muscle.
·         IF is good for losing bodyfat.
·         IF can be good for building strength while simultaneously losing weight.  I say can because often strength development – at least the kind of strength need for powerlifting or Olympic lifting – is more a product of training than diet.  The reverse is not necessarily true, which is why you often hear from bodybuilders that 80% of building muscle is nutrition.  If you are a powerlifter or Olympic lifter who is trying to stay in his/her weight class, then IF is probably a very good selection, as long as the training is not too frequent and/or intense.
·         I don’t think this diet would be as good for people who train with a lot of “metabolic conditioning” – you simply wouldn’t have the energy to make it through a lot of tough met-con workouts.  But it’s fine for lifters who train with heavy weights and low reps.
·         IF tends to work much better for men than it does women.  I don’t know why this is.  It just is.
·         This is the best diet to follow if you don’t want to actually think or plan your diet much in advance.  It’s incredibly simple: go a long time without eating, and then eat as much as possible during the feeding window.  Although I still try to eat a “training friendly” diet – lots of green stuff, lean protein, and good fats – I find that you don’t have to be all that strict with what you eat and you can still lose bodyfat with relative ease.
·         IF is probably even better as a “health” diet than one focused on changing body composition.
·          Several times, toward the end of my IF diet cycles, people have remarked to me about how young I look.  And I’m not the only one who has said this.  Nick Horton, over at his blog, has expressed a similar sentiment.   Some proponents of IF claim this is because of the growth hormone released during the fasting states.  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I guess I could partly buy it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

More on Literature, Beer, and the Joy of Heavy Squats

     For some reason, one of my most popular posts of the past year was my recent short rambling on literature, beer, and the joy of heavy squats.  Quite surprisingly to me, I received more emails asking about some of my favorite books, authors, and beers than I usually get from other posts asking how to bring up numbers in the major lifts or how to gain more muscle mass.  And since I enjoy writing about things that I love, I thought I would write what it is that you are now reading.
     I’ll try not to ramble too much, but I’m not promising anything.
On Beer
     My favorite kinds of beers are stouts and porters.  I say “kinds” because, if I’m not erroneous here, I’m pretty sure they are much the same thing.  I wasn’t entirely sure, however, so I had to look it up, and here’s what Wikipedia[1] has to say about my favorite kinds of beers:
    “Porter is a dark style of beer originating in London in the 18th century, descended from brown beer, a well hopped beer made from brown malt. The name is thought to come from its popularity with street and river porters.
The history and development of stout and porter are intertwined.  The name "stout" for a dark beer is believed to have come about because a strong porter may be called "Extra Porter" or "Double Porter" or "Stout Porter". The term "Stout Porter" would later be shortened to just "Stout". For example, Guinness Extra Stout was originally called "Extra Superior Porter" and was only given the name Extra Stout in 1840.”
     As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m a fan of the “Truck Stop Honey Ale” offered by the Back 40 Brewing Company right here in my home of Alabama.[2]  Their porter, however, is equally as good.  It’s called “Kudzu”—named after the evasive species of plant that was introduced by some brilliant genius as a means of controlling erosion, and is now everywhere in Alabama—and it’s probably my current favorite porter, but there are others that I enjoy quite a damn bunch.  Samuel Adams’ “Maple Pecan Porter”—which I think you can still currently find in their seasonal collection for spring—is a bit tasty.  Sierra Nevada’s porter—simply called “Porter”—is also delicious in a chocolaty, malty sort-of-way.
     As far as stouts go, the best stout—that’s also relatively easy to find—is Sam Adams’s “Cream Stout”.  It has a hint of malt, caramel, toffee, and chocolate, and is especially good considering the fact that it comes from such a mainstream brand.
     Of course, I love beer for more than just the taste—good beer has to be the best-tasting thing on the face of God’s green earth—and I’m not talking about the alcohol content, either.  Some of the best memories of my forty years on this earth have involved drinking beer, and that’s because I’ve often drank beer with friends of mine who I love dearly and completely.  Beer should be enjoyed in community with others who understand just how great a thing a beer and friendship truly are (and who also understand good beer).
     For instance, two of my favorite Asian beers are “Singha” and “Chang” from Thailand.  They both taste good, that’s true, but I enjoy them because of the weeks I spent in Thailand a couple of years ago, and the good friendships that I formed—Grissadakorn, aka Pop, if you’re reading this, I miss you, buddy—while in the country and while sitting around drinking beer late into the evening.
     And I can’t even think about my friend Puddin’—a man who I can say without reservation that I love as deeply as anyone—without thinking about all the nights we decided to see how much beer we could drink after a heavy powerlifting session.
     Which brings us around to another point: beer and lifting weights.  There are those—they are wrong, mind you, but they are out there—who would say that drinking beer is not conducive to building a lot of strength.  I couldn’t disagree more.
     My Uncle Kirk—who is in his 7th decade on earth, and has been lifting hard since he was a teenager—once told me that the strongest he has ever been was when he was drinking at least 36 beers per week.  Since I believe in putting such statements to the test by using myself—and my fellow training partners—as guinea pigs, I decided to do just that.  Granted it was during the same time that I was using the “Sheiko” methods of powerlifting, but for several months, Puddin’ and I drank a bare minimum of 36 beers each week—most of it post-workout—and I haven’t been that strong since.
On Literature
     I know not of anything more rapturous than really good prose.
     While beer drinking will always be one of my life’s greatest joys, I have to say that the greatest pleasures of my life have involved reading really good books, novels in particular.  I can still remember the shear thrill of reading “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “Lonesome Dove,” and “The Brothers Karamazov” for the first time—which happen to be my three favorite novels.
     “The Brothers Karamazov” touches the soul, in all of its existential yearning for the Transcendent, like no theological essay or philosophical writing ever could.  And that is what great novels—particularly sacramental novels—will always do, because that’s what they have always done.
     “Love in the Time of Cholera”—my favorite of the three—has a prose that will never be matched.  It is the greatest love story ever written, by the greatest writer that is still living, with possibly the greatest last sentence of any novel.  Ever.  (If I’m gushing, then you’ll just have to get over it.   Gabriel Garcia Marquez has long been my favorite author.  His other books, especially One Hundred Years of Solitude, are all—for the most part—excellent.)
     “Lonesome Dove”—probably best known because of the popular mini-series from the 1980s—is a lesson in epic.  Despite its length at almost 900 pages, there is hardly a single page that doesn’t ring with utter truth.  (Which is another thing that great novels do: they reveal the truth of things—the truth about life, love, angst, memories, and death.  Things do not have to be factual to be true.)  It also happens to have some of the most memorable lines of any novel I have ever read, much of them spoken by my two favorite literary characters, Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae.
     Of course, these three novels are, well, just three novels among what seems to be an infinite sea of great literature.  I have probably read a thousand books in the course of my relatively brief life—some close to being as good as these three, some not anywhere near as close—but these three books are, more than anything, simply the three that I have enjoyed the most.  There are quite a few other novels that I’ve read that I would list as great.  Here’s a short sampling of my other “best of” picks[3] (and if I forget any, or if there are some that you think I’ve done an injustice by leaving off the list, keep in mind that these are just from the top of my head, and it may be that I’ve never read what you believe to be the greatest out there):
“Crime and Punishment,” also by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“Silence,” by Shusaku Endo
“Cold Mountain,” by Charles Frazier
“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” by Michael Chabon
“Lolita,” by Vladimir Nabokov
“Franny and Zooey,” by J.D. Salinger
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain
“Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell,” by Susanna Clarke
“The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The Once and Future King” by T.H. White
“The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck
“Animal Farm” by George Orwell
“At the Back of the North Wind,” by George McDonald
     I must add, also, that there are, of course, great things to read other than just literature.  I particularly enjoy philosophy, theology, and—not much surprise here—well written strength-training articles.  So, who are the best writers in the field of strength training?  Hands down, there are two writers that come to mind as being the best: Bill Starr and Dan John.  I may not always agree with everything that Dan John writes with regards to methodology, but his writing is second-to-none.  As for Starr, here’s what I wrote about his influence on me in a previous post:
     For those of you who don't know—and most of you who have read my training articles do know—my primary inspiration in training and writing has always been Bill Starr.  Perhaps nowadays people—powerlifters, strength athletes, readers of the major bodybuilding magazines—think that Starr is too "old-school."  Well, old school in my book is just fine.  Bill Starr still is, and always will be, one of the best-of-the-best.
     When I grow tired of writing training articles, I return to Bill Starr.  (Who writes damn good, by the way.)
     When I grow tired of my current training program, I return to Bill Starr.
     When I grow weary of all the modern gadgets—stuff like training balls, chains, bands, and one-legged whatever—I return to Bill Starr.
     When I grow weary of all the modern "trainers" and all of their methods (like everyone that writes for T-Nation, for instance—as much as I like that magazine), I return to Bill Starr.
     And when I just need a reminder of why I love to write and love to lift in the first place, I return to Bill Starr.
On the Joy of Heavy Squats
     And now, at the end, we get to our third and our last—though certainly not our least by any stretch of the imagination—subject: the joy found in heavy squats.
     There is joy found in lifting a lot of heavy stuff, I must admit.
     I enjoy heavy bench-pressing, as much as I may not be good at it.  But heavy bench presses are still toward the bottom of my “favorite heavy stuff to lift” list.  (Although, it must be said, anything at the bottom of the “heavy lifting” list is still going to be head and shoulders above most others things in life.)
     I enjoy pressing other heavy stuff even better than the flat bench press.  Heavy overhead presses—military or push press—are enjoyable, as are heavy one-arm overhead presses.
     I enjoy heavy “quick lifts,” such as power cleans and power snatches.
     I enjoy the primal feel of heavy deadlifts.  There is something raw and primeval about the deadlift, after all, since it requires the least technique and is more of a barometer of just natural lifting strength.
     But then there’s the heavy squat.  And nothing—I mean nothing—can compare to the heavy squat.  Heavy squats probably do more for building muscle than any lift—and I mean any lift ever—throughout the course of the lifting world.
     You should do more than just regular squats, mind you, but in whatever variety you choose to do them, they simply can’t be beat.  In addition to the regular, heavy, flat-footed barbell back squat, I also recommend front squats, zercher squats, overhead squats, and—my favorite of them all—the bottom-position squat.
     But no matter which one you choose, do them heavy.  Heavy squats are still the king!

[1] To be honest, I don’t care much for anything “Wiki” and I hate to “Google” stuff.  I think it’s rather obvious that the wealth of information we have at our fingertips is making us an uneducated, ignorant culture.  After all, why the hell do you ever need to internalize information if all you need to do is “Google” it?
[2] I list Back 40 Beer Company here just because I drink so much of their beer, but for the most part I’ll try to stick with mainstream beer brands, just so they will be easier to find, if you so choose to drink one of my recommendations.  Wherever you live, however, please support your local breweries and brewpubs.  For instance, I also enjoy beers from other local Alabama breweries such as “Good People,” “Black Warrior Brewing Company,” and “Yellowhammer Brewery.”
[3] Please forgive the number of fantasy novels on this list.  I read a lot of fantasy at one point in my life.  In fact, for the longest time I wanted to be a fantasy novelist.  At one point, I even quit writing strength training articles in order to focus on writing fantasy.  I had a number of short stories published, and even had a novel published by a small press publisher, but I could never make any money writing fiction, and so returned to non-fiction, my original love.