Monday, November 17, 2014

Journal of Strength: Training the Ageless Athlete (aka: High-Frequency, High-Volume Lifting)

Journal of Strength
Monday, November 17, 2014

     Today I did something that—to some lifters, at least—might seem rather odd.  I performed a full-body workout of whatever I felt like doing, for relatively moderate to high reps.  I had no idea what I was going to do, with the lone exception of the first exercise, until I actually started training.
     This might seem even more odd for those of you who read this blog regularly, which includes me often praising—rather highly, I might add—the benefits of high-frequency training for multiple sets of low reps.
     And here’s the thing: I actually think the kind of workout I did today can be highly effective, for a certain segment of the lifting population, at least.
     First, a little backtracking is in order.
     Last week I mentioned that I have been training using a regular program of high-set singles for the past few weeks.  I also mentioned in a previous post that I have been having some pain and numbness in my left hand and arm from a pinched nerve in my neck.  Well, the last few days—in addition to being sick—the pain in my arm and neck had increased dramatically, so I knew that it was time for a change[1].
     I decided for the next several weeks I would perform a high-frequency, high-volume, low-intensity training program where I will train my entire body every day at each training session.  I will work out 5 to 6 days each week, basically just taking a day off whenever I feel as if I need it.
     I first discovered how beneficial this program could be about 8 years ago from the strength-training guru—and my mentor, though I have never met him—Bill Starr.  At the time, I was coming off of neck surgery for a couple of herniated disks.  It was almost six months after the surgery before I could train, and when I did train, I couldn’t resume my ultra-heavy training that I had done for the decade previously.  (Now, let me add that, unfortunately, I attempted some very heavy training at first, which only resulted in unnecessary injuries, because I trained too heavy, too quickly.)  I was familiar with Starr’s theories on training for the older athlete, which basically involves full-body workouts performed 5 to 6 days each week for fairly high reps, and, so, I thought I would give it a shot.  Although not “old” by any stretch of the imagination, my body needed the break until I could recover more fully.  (I must add that during this time I first started experimenting with bodyweight-only training during some sessions, as well, and found that it could be quite effective.)
     I was surprised with the results I was getting at the time, and it cemented my belief that high-frequency training was the most effective all-around way to train, but that it didn’t have to necessarily be performed for multiple sets of high-reps.   It could, in fact, work well with both high-volume and high-frequency.
     I must caution something here: this training is probably best done by those who have trained for many years, and have a keen understanding of how training affects their bodies.  This is one reason that this kind of training works well for the older athlete—the older athlete understands his body very well.
     The fact is that it’s simply harder for novice or intermediate lifters—or even some advanced lifters—to train using high-volume and high-frequency.  High-frequency, high-intensity programs (with low volume) and high-volume, high-intensity programs (with low frequency) are simply much easier for the average lifter to understand/control.
     I will perform this new program for the next 4 to 6 weeks, at which time I will go back to heavier training—assuming the pain I’m having abates.  I am also fully aware that, at some point, I will need to perform this kind of training for the remainder of my life—which may not be for another 10 or even 20 years down the road—because this is the best form of lifting for the older athlete.  It’s great for focusing on the muscles without overloading the joints, tendons, and ligaments.
     Tonight, here’s the workout I ended up performing:
  • Deadlifts: 4 sets of 20 to 30 reps with 135 pounds
  • Bench Presses: 1 set of 50 reps with 110 pounds (warm-up)
  • Dumbbell Bench Presses: 3 sets of 20 to 25 reps with 50 pounds
  • Dumbbell Pullovers: 3 sets of 15 reps with 40 pounds
  • Dumbbell Shrugs (seated): 3 sets of 20 reps with 50 pounds
  • Barbell Curls: 3 sets of 20 reps with 55 pounds
  • 2 sets of Hanging Leg Raises for 10 reps
     One of the keys is to not feel overly tired at the end of each session.  This will allow you to train with the frequency you need.  You may (or perhaps should) be a little sore the day following each workout, but it should be slight.
     The workout I did may not seem as if it was much[2], but the key is to string a lot of workouts such as this one back-to-back-to-back.  Tomorrow I will probably perform something along the lines of lunges, overhead presses, dips, forearm curls, and calf raises.  The day after that it may be squats, chins, dumbbell rows, pullovers and presses, and push-ups.
     When I feel tired, I’ll take the day off.
     And when I feel like pushing it “balls-to-the-wall”, I’ll do that, too.
     You get the drift.  Doing this consistently, day-after-day, not missing a workout, can add up to some nice gains in the course of a couple of months.
     Now, about that doing whatever you feel like thing: for guys such as myself who have been training for 20-plus years (and have spent much of that time doing full-body workouts), this kind of training is ideal.  I know my body.  It tells me what I should—and shouldn’t—do during training.  I know when to back-off, and I know when to push it harder.  I know when I can do 5 sets of high-rep deadlifts, and when I should only do 1 set, but this isn’t for everyone.  Most of you need to be on a specific program, knowing exactly what exercises you will do on each training day.

[1] Also, the Nativity Fast has just begun for us “Eastern Christians”, which means that, until Christmas, I will primarily subside on a vegan diet of relatively low calories.  This will necessitate some lighter training, as well.
[2] For some lifters—those of you who I have referred to in the past as “low-volume lifters”—this may actually be too much.  My ex-training partner—and dear ol’ friend—Puddin’ (search for past blog posts if you would like to read some exploits) would do just fine, for instance, with about half of this volume.  In fact, I have a feeling that he would gain muscle rapidly.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Lifter's Bushido

     While reading Nick Horton’s good blog “The Iron Samurai” the other day[1], I came across this quote by the samurai Yamaoku Tesshu: “In order to learn about the Way, forget about self and awaken to the truth… Exerting self is a mistake… We should not say “myself” — in truth there is no such thing… When there is no thought of self, true Bushido develops.”
the samurai, and Zen master, Yamaoku Tesshu

     The essence of Bushido is summed up in the last sentence.
     When there is no thought of self, true Bushido develops.
     Bushido—for those of you who are unaware—is often translated as “the way of the warrior” or, a more literal definition, “the samurai’s way.”  It is the way of one who practices Budo.  (Budo means “martial path”.)
     I have often thought of lifting as a form of Budo, and my gym as the dojo.  (This is one reason that I enjoy lifting at home, in my garage dungeon gym.  It is not commercial, and, therefore, becomes more of a dojo than anything commercialized.  The furthest thing from a dojo, for instance, would be Planet Fitness.)
     Lifting as Budo becomes even more true when performing only one or two exercises at each workout for multiple sets each.  A lot of lifters who train in both martial arts and Olympic lifting understand this the best—martial arts training (particularly the Japanese martial arts, which I’m partial to) and Olympic lifting allow one to lose thought of self—what my sensei would refer to as “mushin”—and, thus, attain true Bushido.
     I don’t think this can really be explained adequately in a blog post—or in any writing, for that matter—so I’m not going to even try to do so.  As my sensei was also fond of saying throughout the course of a training session: “Fight without fighting and think without thinking.”  He never attempted to explain this to anyone.  If you didn’t “get it”, or if it didn’t dawn on you at some point during your Budo practice, I doubt he thought there would be much point.
     The only way for any of us to develop true Bushido, and experience this directly, is to train.  Training is the path.  The path is the goal.
     When there is no thought of self, true Bushido develops.

[1] I read his blog once every two weeks or so—I would read it more but, to be honest, I’m afraid I simply don’t peruse the internet enough, which I think is a better trade-off than perusing it too damn much

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Journal of Strength: Benefits of High-Set Singles

Journal of Strength
Wednesday, November 12, 2014

     My current workout program is a bit haphazard.  But it’s also enjoyable and effective for my current goals.
     It’s haphazard in the fact that I pretty much do whatever I feel like on whatever days I feel like training.  Of course, to be honest, that’s not entirely the case, but it’s close to it.  There is some structure—I always begin each workout with high-set singles of one exercise.  I rotate between a few different exercises.  Deadlifts, power cleans, power snatches, full snatches, clean and presses, or one-arm dumbbell presses are the typical exercises, although occasionally I will do flat bench presses or squats.  Also, I sometimes do two exercises for high-set singles instead of just one, and I always finish the workout with two or three additional exercises of whatever I feel as if I should do, for two or three sets each of whatever rep range I feel like doing.
     There is structure, true.  But there’s also chaos—or what seems to be chaos to someone who witnesses my training on a regular basis.  Truth be told, there’s really nothing too chaotic about it, for the structure of the high-set singles—the single-pointedness of such a technique—leads, often, to something akin to flow states, and, so, what seems as if it’s nothing more than chaos is really the flow of what my auto-regulated body-mind knows that it should be doing.
     (Typically, I would write this journal entry immediately after training, when the training is fresh on my mind, but I’m rather tired this afternoon, and may be that much more tired once my evening’s session is finished, and I’ve consumed my fair share of grilled salmon and red wine—a pinot, perhaps, or maybe several glasses of a cabernet sauvignon.  So, be that as it may, this entry comes before the actual workout.  But I digress…)
     Tonight I will be doing one-arm dumbbell overhead presses for 15 to 20 sets of 1 repetition—at least, that’s the plan.  And since I haven’t done this workout yet, I have no way of knowing exactly what my auxiliary movements will be, although I suspect something along the line of chins, bench presses of one sort or another, a curl of some sort, and maybe some thick-bar dumbbell deadlifts.
     Last night I did power cleans with a relatively light weight—only 205 pounds—for 10 singles, and then I followed this with some Bulgarian split squats for 4 sets of 10 to 15 reps (each leg), some walking lunges, and some dips.
     My weight was light because I currently have a herniated disk which is pinching a nerve, and causing some pain and numbness in my right arm.  Eight or nine years ago, I had surgery to repair two herniated disks in my neck, and I don’t really want to repeat that, which brings me around to the subject of this entry: the benefits of performing high-set singles.  (My herniated disk is also one reason that good ol’ barbell squats are not on my list of “regular” high-set single exercises.  For everyone else reading this thing, they should be on your list.)
     I enjoy workouts of high-set singles, and I have for some time.   I also think they are, hands down, one of the most effective ways to train (along with high-set doubles and triples, to be fair).
     One of the greatest benefits is that they allow you to get a relatively high amount of work done in a short period of time—without suffering form degradation.  In my workout last night, I was able to perform all 10 singles in less than 10 minutes, and every rep was fast and explosive.
     When performed with heavy weight—90-95% of your one-rep maximum—this becomes even more evident.  For instance, my current max in the deadlift is probably around 500 pounds (I have not done these very heavy lately, due to the pinched nerve, so I’m not entirely sure.)  If I was to put 450 pounds on the bar—90% of my max—and perform 2 or 3 rep sets, I would not be able to do many.  Fatigue would set in fairly fast.  If, however, I elected to perform multiple singles, I would be able to get 8 to 10 reps in without too much of a drop in speed and power with each ensuing set.
     But even when not performed with heavy weights, the workouts are still effective.  This is especially true when doing the various quick lifts.  Cleans and snatches in all of their varieties should not be done for sets of high reps, no matter how many times Crossfit “lifters” do such a thing.  Form degradation quickly breaks down when you exceed 3 reps per set on these lifts.
     But I don’t think it’s just the quick lifts that multiple sets of singles (or low reps) should apply to—I also like them (obviously) with bench presses, squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses.  When you are only doing 1 rep on all of these exercises, technique remains perfect and speed and power quickly escalate over only a few weeks of training.
     When I was teaching martial arts, I never let any of my students perform more than 5 consecutive repetitions of a single movement before taking a short (albeit, sometimes a very short) break.  After a few reps, speed and power are reduced, and form breaks down—even though it’s only slight in advanced practitioners, I’ll admit—this despite the fact that most people would be able to continue with hundreds of reps of each movement if they so chose to.  Obviously, the load is very low when punching air, but form breakdown occurs nonetheless.
     Here’s the thing: when practicing karate-do this way, I would still do hundreds upon hundreds of punches and kicks in each session, just not consecutively.  If I had tried to do them consecutively, then I simply wouldn’t have been able to do enough in each workout compared to doing them non-consecutively.
     Do less early so that you can do more later.
     That’s another benefit.  High-set singles—and their siblings: multiple sets of doubles and multiple sets of triples—allow you to do a lot of work in each session.  If you don’t believe me, then load your bench press barbell with 80% of your one-rep maximum and see how many sets of 5 to 6 reps you can do.  At the session after that one, load it with 80% of your max and see how many singles you can perform—you might be a little surprised when you crank out 50 singles, whereas I doubt you could manage 10 sets of 5 reps[1].
     Another benefit—and this is one my favorite—is that you can recover quicker from high-set singles than you can with sets of multiple reps.  And the quicker you can recover, the quicker you can train again.  And the more you can train, the faster are your gains going to be.
     If you want to get really strong on just a couple of lifts—the power clean and the bench press, for instance—then perform those exercises almost daily for high-set singles.   You may be shocked just how quickly you get really strong.
     But you don’t have to only pick a couple of exercises.  You can certainly do as I’m currently doing and have a lot of exercises at your disposal.  You could even do just one lift per-day using this technique, and train each lift only once-per-week, without adding any auxiliary movements.  Here is what 5 days of training may look like:
Monday: Squats
Tuesday: Power Cleans
Wednesday: Bench Presses
Thursday: Power Snatches
Friday: Deadlifts
Saturday and Sunday: Rest a lot.  Eat a lot.
Next week: Repeat

[1] This is especially true if you’re a power athlete who is “built” for power, for lack of a better word.  If you’re one of those lifters who finds that you can only get about 5 to 6 reps with 80% of your one-rep max before reaching momentary muscular failure, then there’s no way you would be able to manage 10 sets of 5 reps.  This is not entirely true for those of you who have more “endurance” fibers, and can manage to crank out 10 reps—or more—with 80% of your max.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Journal of Strength: Teenage Muscle-Building

     As of late, I have—for multitudinous reasons—found it hard to write very much.  (Please forgive me, in fact, if I have yet to respond to anyone’s email questions—I will as soon as possible.)  Not that writing itself, per se, is hard.  Once I sit down to my computer, open up Word, or once I sit down on my couch, notebook in hand, I find writing to be—while not the easiest thing—not much of a chore.  No, I have been busy with so many other things that, unfortunately, I just haven’t found the time to write much on my blog.  And when I have found the time, I have attempted to work on some articles, or some other stuff that actually makes me money writing—or, at least, has the potential to make money.
     Despite my inability to write as much as I need to, I would really like to write on this blog more, despite the fact that I don’t know if I always have something very important to write about.  (Most of my writing here, in fact, is very much the same stuff said different ways, but, I suppose, that’s how it is with most muscle magazines, power training articles, and the like.)
     Until now, I had not found a solution out of my dilemma—my dilemma being how in the world do I post multiple writings each week, as opposed to a few times a month, or maybe just once every month or two?
     The solution is what you are currently reading: a “journal” of sorts, where I will write my various thoughts for the day involving workout principles, diet strategies, or—when the mood strikes me—musings of a more philosophical bent.
     My goal is write a couple “journals” each week, along with my usual stuff.  I hope you will find the result at least somewhat interesting.
Journal of Strength
Tuesday, November 4, 2014
     On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my sons walk over to my house from their high school, and we (of course) lift.  (They stay with me on the weekends, and we train every Saturday, and Sunday, as well.)
     My youngest, Garrett, who is 14, wants to compete in a powerlifting meet soon.  He’s small—only weighs 105 lbs—but he bench presses 165 lbs.  Not shabby.  He alternates between days when he squats, days when he deadlifts, and days when he just bench presses.  His goal is to be as strong as possible for his bodyweight, and so far the workouts are paying off.
     Typically, when training someone Garrett’s age, I wouldn’t allow him or her to train with such a “split” routine unless the sole goal is strength, so this kind of workout is fine for Garrett.  It would also be fine for any teenagers who need strength—but not necessarily more muscle mass—in their chosen sport.  An example would be a teenager who wrestles or competes in martial arts.
     My oldest son, Matthew, 15, simply wants to be as big as humanly possible for a teenager his age.  I would, in fact, say that he’s a bit obsessed with it.  Here’s his current program:
Saturday: Upper body “density” day
Sunday: Lower body “density” day
Tuesday: Full body “high rep” day
Thursday: Full body “maximal strength” day
     The two density days are performed with multiple exercises, using multiple sets of low to moderate reps.  The goal is to get as many reps as possible in a relatively short period of time with relatively heavy—or at least moderate—weights.  Typically, for instance, Matthew begins Saturday’s workouts with chins, performing multiple sets of 3 reps with very little rest between sets.  He usually gets 20 to 30 reps done in ten to fifteen minutes.  He then follows—hypothetically; the exercises change—with something such as bench presses, overhead presses, power cleans, power snatches, and curls.
     Sundays it’s more of the same for the lower body.
     Tuesday is a full-body workout using such things as squats, benches, overheads, lunges, curls, farmer’s walks, and sled drags.  The sets are about 3 to 4 per exercise with relatively high reps in the 15 to 25 rep range.
     “Maximal strength” Thursday means that he will pick two—maybe three— exercises and work up to a heavy set of 5 reps (typically).  Bench presses and deadlifts are good choices, as are overhead presses and squats.

     This program, by the way, is a sound way for any teenager to train—so long as he or she has cut their teeth on full-body workouts.  Matthew, for instance, put in his share of full-body workouts centered on nothing but squats, bench presses, and (either) deadlits or heavy overhead presses for a long time before he switched over to this workout.  (And, I must admit, I let him perform an even more “bodybuilding-friendly” program before this one.)
     The program is, for the most part, still centered on full-body workouts—a “must” for teenage lifters—but, because the weekends are “split” workouts, it also allows the teenage lifter to do stuff that I might not always be that fond of—such as lots and lots of dumbbell curls—but that most teenage boys seem to love.