Saturday, January 25, 2014

Strongman Muscle

     What follows is the original, "uncut" version of an article of mine that was published a few months ago in Planet Muscle magazine.  This is a form of training that I enjoy occasionally doing.  If you're the kind of lifter that actually enjoys more Crossfit-style training—as opposed to the more conventional training I typically recommend—this should be right up your alley.


Strongman Muscle
Using Strongman-style Training for Maximum Muscle Gains

     Watch the “World’s Strongest Man” competition and you’ll see some of the most massively muscled men on the planet.  And they didn’t get that way by training like your average bodybuilder.  They got big, strong, and muscular by training on core lifts (squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, etc.) and utilizing a lot of odd lifts such as the farmer’s walk, log presses, sand-bag carries, and the tire flip—to name just a few.
     Most of you reading this will probably never compete in a strongman competition, but the kind of lifting they utilize can be a great way of training for any bodybuilder looking to pack on some muscle mass.
     The program presented here allows you to train as if you were preparing for—or even competing in—a strongman competition.  First, I am going to lay out the parameters of the program.  Second, I will discuss the benefits of training in such a manner.  And third, I will offer an example of what a couple weeks of training should look like.
The Nuts and Bolts of Strongman Muscle
     This program has you training 2 days-per-week.  (No, you did not read that incorrectly.   You will only need 2 “primary” training days each week, though it’s perfectly fine to have 1 or 2 “extra” workouts to aid in recovery and to promote growth—but we’ll get around to that in a little bit.)  The most popular days for lifters is usually Monday and Thursday, but any 2 non-consecutive days will work.
     Each training session will have you performing (at the minimum) 4 exercises.  You will perform a lower body “pushing” movement, a lower body “pulling” movement, an upper body “pushing” movement, and an odd lift at each session.
     On each day, you will pick one of the exercises as your “max effort” movement.  For this exercise, you will work up to a max single.  This exercise will be rotated from at each workout.
     On each day, you will select one exercise as your “max for reps” movement.  After a thorough warm-up, you will select a heavy weight where you would expect to reach failure somewhere between the 5th and the 10th repetition.  (The repetition range doesn’t have to be exact.)  You will take this set to the point of momentary muscular failure.
     On each day, you will select one exercise as your “max for sets” movement.  On this exercise, you will select a weight that is somewhere between 80%-90% of your one-rep maximum.  You will then select a certain number of reps (be it 2, 3, 4, or 5 reps) and you will perform as many sets as possible for the prescribed number of reps that you choose.
     Your last exercise for each day will be an “odd lift.”  This exercise will be either a “distance” exercise while carrying or holding an object, or it will be a “timed” exercise, in which you have to see how long you can hold or carry an object.
     Each workout will be different.  You will constantly rotate exercises for each “event” above.
The Benefits of Strongman Muscle Training
     Workouts performed in this manner have several different benefits.
     For myself (and the two workout partners I currently train with), the most important benefit is that this kind of training is fun.  Every training session—especially when you have more than one training partner—is like a mini-strongman competition.  You want to “win” each exercise by doing more reps, lifting more weight, or doing more sets than any of your partners.
     If a workout isn’t interesting and enjoyable to perform, then I have no use for it.  This training, however, is highly enjoyable.
     Another benefit is that your body never grows “stale” on this program.  Nothing about the workout is set in stone.  You are constantly changing exercises.  This means that even though you are always lifting heavy, your body—not to mention mind—doesn’t get “burned out.”  Training plateaus become a thing of the past.
     The workout is also highly adaptable.  As you get more advanced, you can add exercises for either max rep, max set, or max weight movements.  Also, if you are short on time—or just don’t feel like training as much as usual—then you can just drop one of the exercises from your arsenal.
     With only 2 training sessions each week, the program is not that hard to stick with.  Almost anyone can make time for 2 sessions-per-week.
An Example “Strongman Muscle” Program
     What follows is a template for what your program should look like.  You will notice that I have provided plenty of variety as far as what exercises to perform on each day.  Perform the exercises that work best for you, but don’t necessarily perform the exercises that you enjoy doing.  Chances are if you dislike a certain exercise, then you should do it.
     After I lay out the program, I’ll give you a few extra tips to make sure your workouts are as effective as possible.
Week One/Day One
A. Max Effort for Lower Body Pushing Exercise – work up to a max single.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Squats
  • Front Squats
  • Box Squats
  • Bottom Position Squats
  • Squat Lockouts
B. Max Reps for Lower Body Pulling Exercise – perform one set (after warm-ups) to momentary muscular failure, using a rep range between 5 and 10 reps.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Sumo Deadlifts
  • Deadlifts
  • Deadlift lockouts
  • Stiff-Legged Deadlifts
  • Snatch-Grip Deadlifts
C. Max Sets for Upper Body Pushing Exercise – Using 85% of your one-rep maximum, perform as many sets of 3 reps as possible.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Flat Bench Presses
  • Incline Bench Presses
  • Dumbbell Bench Presses
  • Bottom Position Bench Presses
  • Board Presses
  • Floor Presses
D. Odd Lift for Distance Exercise.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Farmer’s Walk (with dumbbells)
  • Sandbag Carry
  • Sled Drag
Week One/Day Two
A. Max Effort for Lower Body Pulling Exercise – work up to a max single.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Sumo Deadlifts
  • Deadlifts
  • Deadlift Lockouts
  • Snatch-Grip Deadlifts
  • Deficit Deadlifts (these are performed while standing on a box or Olympic plates)
B.  Max Reps for Upper Body Pushing Exercise – perform one set (after warm-ups) to momentary muscular failure, using a rep range between 5 and 10 reps.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Flat Bench Presses
  • Incline Bench Presses
  • Dumbbell Bench Presses
  • Incline Dumbbell Bench Presses
  • Weighted Dips
C. Max Sets for Lower Body Pushing Exercise – Using 90% of your one-rep maximum, perform as many sets of 2 reps as possible.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Squats
  • Box Squats
  • Bottom Position Squats
  • Squat Lockouts
  • High-Bar, Close-Stance Olympic Style Squats
D.  Odd Lift for Time Exercise.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Deadlift Hold (this exercise is done by holding a barbell as long as possible in the top position of the deadlift; use an over/over grip)
  • Crucifix Hold (this exercise is done by holding a dumbbell in each hand, with both arms being held up straight as in a crucifix )
Week Two/ Day One
A.  Max Effort for Upper Body Pushing Exercise – work up to a max single.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Flat Bench Presses
  • Bottom Position Bench Presses
  • Rack Lockouts
  • Board Presses
  • Floor Presses
B.  Max Reps for Lower Body Pushing Exercise – perform one set (after warm-ups) to momentary muscular failure, using a rep range between 5 and 10 reps.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Squats
  • Bottom Position Squats
  • High-Bar, Close-Stance Olympic Style Squats
  • Box Squats
C.  Max Sets for Lower Body Pulling Exercise – Using 90% of your one-rep maximum, perform as many sets of 2 reps as possible.  Choose one of the following exercises:
  • Deadlifts
  • Sumo Deadlifts
  • Deadlift Lockouts
  • Snatch-Grip Deadlifts
  • Deficit Deadlifts
D.  Odd Lift for “Race” Exercise.  Competing against one or more training partners, choose one of the following exercises:
  • Farmer’s Walk
  • Deadlift Hold
  • Sled Drag
Week Two/Day Two
     On this day, repeat the Week One/Day One workout, rotating from exercises per your level of strength (see below).
Tips and Tricks for Getting the Most Out of the Program
     The first thing a lot of you will notice—and probably complain about—is that there is no direct arm work, calf work, ab work, and whatnot.  Good; most of you reading this probably only need a few core exercises in order to pack on as much muscle as possible.  And the exercises that I included in this program are the best of the best, the crème de la crème, so to speak.
     Having said the above, if you still insist on doing some “extra stuff” then you have a couple of options.  The first is to simply add a couple of “pumping” exercises at the end of the sessions (assuming you have the energy).  A few sets of curls, crunches, and calf raises wouldn’t hurt.  The second option—and I like this one better—is to add an extra workout.  Let’s say that you pick Monday and Friday as your two “Strongman Muscle” days; just add an extra session on Wednesdays.  This third session shouldn’t be too intense.  A few sets each of chins, barbell curls, skullcrushers, standing calf raises, and sit-ups should do the trick.
     Now, if you are an advanced athlete—the kind of guy (or gal) who benches close to double his bodyweight, and squats and deadlifts 2 ½ times his bodyweight—then you actually need the extra session.  If this is you, then make sure you are doing plenty of ab work, lower-back work (good mornings should fit the bill nicely), lat work, and lots of triceps work.  (If you are benching close to double your bodyweight and not doing the triceps work, chances are that your bench press is going to go nowhere.)
     Another question that a lot of you will probably have is, “when do I rotate to a new exercise?”  In other words, if on your first Week One/Day One exercise you did squats for your max effort lift, sumo deadlifts for your max reps lift, incline benches for your max sets lift, and the farmer’s walk for your odd lift, what should you do come the Week Two/Day Two workout?  The answer is simple: it depends on your level of strength development.
     If you are a beginner (or just not very strong), then stick with the same exercise for 3 different workouts.  In other words, use the squat as your max effort lower body pushing movement 3 times before rotating to a new exercise.  If you are an intermediate lifter, then stick with the same exercises for 2 different workouts.  And if you are advanced, rotate exercises every time.
Summing It All Up
     I hope this article has offered you a new, more innovative way to train.  You don’t have to use this program all the time, but 8 to 12 weeks on it can do wonders.  After a couple of months of this training, you should be a lot stronger than before, not to mention bigger.  It also gives your mind and body a break because you only have to train 2 days per week.  Good luck and good training!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Simplicity in Training and Life

     Simplicity can be a virtuous thing.  For some reason, in our current age, we want to make things decidedly not simple.  Perhaps this is because our lives are not simple – we have made them more and more complex by a stream of never-ending texts, instant messages, YouTube videos, music streaming, and the general need to always feel as if we need to be doing something.  I might add, however, without us actually doing anything, since we are more slothful and gluttonous – not to mention pear-shaped; especially the younger generation – than ever before.
     Life should not be that way.  We were built for simplicity – in fact, the only way to enter into the complexity of things is to purposefully simplify.  If for instance, you want to enter the depths of your consciousness, the very depths of your being, you don’t do so by anything so complex as various ascetic feats of standing on your head or other odd yogic poses, or by flailing yourself in a medieval manner; you do so by the simple act of awareness, or following your breath, or learning to simply be.  In this utter simplicity, the purely complex – which is Itself Simplicity – will naturally emerge.
     If you want to excel at anything, don’t look for complexity.  Instead, pare things down to a minimum, and I assure you that your results will exceed what you hoped for even when you were engaging in less than minimalist endeavors.
     Whatever your goals are in training, the training itself should be sparse.  This doesn’t matter whether you are trying to build muscle, lose bodyfat, increase your maximal strength, increase your maximal reps on any given movement, or attempt any combination thereof.
     Here is a training session I did just last night which exemplifies simplicity:
     I began the workout with deadlifts.  After a couple warm-ups with 250 for 5 reps, I put 340 lbs on the bar and did ladders.  I started with one rep and added a rep with each subsequent set until I reached 6 reps, then worked my way back down to 1 rep.  The sets looked like this: 340x1, 340x2, 340x3, 340x4, 340x5, 340x6, 340x5, 340x4, 340x3, 340x2, 340x1.  Each rep was done with power and none of the reps were slow – I felt as if I was beginning to slow down on my set of 6 reps, which is why I didn’t add any more sets of higher reps.
     After I finished the deadlifts, I did chins.  Once again, I used ladders, working up to 6 reps, and then back down to 1 rep on the final set.
     To finish the workout, I did a total of 100 reps on push-ups.  It took only a few sets, but I didn’t count sets, instead I just counted reps until I was finished with all 100.
     Was the above workout simple?  Yes.  Was it effective?  If several workouts such as the above one are strung together throughout the course of a week, then a month, then months, then it is highly effective.
     If you want to know what a workout plan may look like, there are plenty of workouts that fit within this framework.  Most of my workouts on this blog fit the bill.  Anything from the likes of Pavel Tsatsouline or Dan John should suffice, as well.  One of the reasons that Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 training is so popular – not to mention effective – is its simplistic nature.
     Diet shouldn’t be any different.
     Are you trying to get lean while staying strong?  Eat plenty of protein.  Eliminate either unhealthy carbs or unhealthy fats.  Eat enough calories to add strength, but few enough calories that you can still burn bodyfat.  (About 12 times your bodyweight in calories is a good starting point for the majority of individuals.)
     Are you trying to get as big as humanly possible?  Eat at least 15 times your bodyweight in calories each day.  Drink a gallon of milk each day.  It’s an oft-repeated statement (even somewhat of a cliche), but it’s still true: KISS – keep it simple, stupid.

     One last thing that I must leave you with: Do not compartmentalize your life.  It does little good to simplify your training and to simplify your diet without simplifying the rest of your days.  When you de-clutter your mind and all of the stuff in your life, you will find it perfectly natural to de-clutter your training and your diet.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Revisiting the 20-Rep Squat Program


Revisiting the 20-Rep Squat Program
Your 2014 Mass Gaining Protocol!
“Trust me, if you do an honest 20 rep program, at some point Jesus will talk to you. On the last day of the program, he asked if he could work in.”- Mark Rippetoe
     For many of you, it’s time to get started on your New Year’s resolution.[1]  And it could be that—for some of you, at least—your resolution is a simple one: to get as big and strong as possible in the shortest amount of time.  If that’s the case, then this article is written solely for you.
     In years past, there was one routine, and one routine only, that was seen as the holy grail of mass-building protocols: the 20-rep squat program.  I first read about this program more than 20 years ago in the pages of Iron Man magazine, and then in the pages of Randall Strossen’s book “Super Squats”, which I devoured in one sitting upon receiving it in the mail.  But the nucleus of the program goes back almost 80 years ago, to the 1930s, when Mark Berry became the editor of Alan Calvert’s Strength magazine, and began to tout heavy, high-rep squats in the pages of the magazine.  Berry was a lifter himself and the coach of the American Weighlifting team.  He didn’t need much proof that heavy, flat-footed squats built serious amounts of muscle.[2]  He trained with Henry Steinborn and Sig Klein, both massive strength athletes who attributed much of their gains to the heavy barbell squat.  But the proof also stared him directly in the mirror, for he had added over 50 pounds of bodyweight to his own frame, which was not a large frame by any standards.
     “With the aid of squat racks, a number of Mark Berry’s students in the 1930s used heavy, flat-footed squats.  By working up to weights in the 300 to 500 range, they started to gain muscular bodyweight at previously unheard of rates.  The gains in this period that resulted from these methods was so conspicuous that Mark Berry was said to have ushered in a “new era” as a result of his emphasis upon intensive training of the body’s largest muscle groups.  The Milo publications were filled with dramatic success stories based on these methods.”[3]
     The formula for the 20-rep squat program is an easy one:
High Rep Squats + Milk + Lots of Food and Rest = GROWTH[4]
     Before we go any further, let me say this for any of you who may be doubting the efficacy of heavy and hard squatting: If you are not squatting, you might as well not even train.  The squat is just that good of an exercise.  So just imagine what can happen to your physique when you train the squat hard?
     “Development of the leg-hip-back structure forces growth throughout the body.  By training hard on the squat—whether for low, medium, or high reps—you will automatically experience a carryover effect elsewhere.  As your squat improves, so will your potential for growth everywhere else.  If you want big arms and shoulders, your first priority is that the leg-hip-back structure is growing and becoming powerful.”[5]
     Here are a couple of programs that will get you gaining like never before if you have yet to attempt such training.  The first program is what I would call the “traditional” version of the 20-rep squat program.  The second program is my own, more modern twist on the original.
The Original
     You perform this program 3 days per week.  At each session, you will do one—and only one—work set of squats for 20 reps.  (You will then do a few exercises for your shoulders, chest, back, and arms.)  And at each session, you will attempt to add 5 pounds to your 20-rep max.  It will not be easy, but this program should only be done for 6 weeks, and then you’ll move on to my “modern” version of the program.
     I could describe how to do the 20-rep squats myself, but instead, perhaps it’s best that you read it from the original master, John McCallum.  Here’s McCallum explaining it to a tall and skinny firefighter who wanted to follow the program and came seeking McCallum’s advice:
     “You’re gonna do one set of twenty reps,” McCallum said.  “And it’s gotta be the hardest work you’ve ever done.  You gotta be absolutely annihilated when you’re finished.  If you can even think of a second set, then you’re loafing.  All the muscle you’ll ever build depends on how hard you work this one set of squats.”
     “How much weight should I use?” the kid asked.
     “You pick a weight you can do ten reps with,” the gym owner said, “and then you do twenty.”
     The kid stared at him.  “You’re putting me on.”
     “No way,” McCallum said.  “Each rep from ten on should feel like the end.  But you use your mind.  You grit your teeth and blank out everything else, and you take the reps one by one, until you’ve done all twenty.
     “Then, when you finish, do one set of light pullovers to stretch your rib cage.  Do twenty reps with about twenty pounds.”[6]
     When you are finished with the pullovers, perform a couple sets of overhead presses, bench presses, stiff-legged deadlifts, and barbell curls.  The entire program should look as simple as this:
  1. Squats: 1 set of 20 reps
  2. Pullovers: 1 set of 20 reps
  3. Standing Overhead Presses: 2 sets of 5 to 8 reps
  4. Bench Presses: 2 sets of 5 to 8 reps
  5. Stiff-legged Deadlifts: 2 sets of 5 to 8 reps
  6. Barbell Curls: 1 set of 8 reps
     Work the other exercises hard, but there should always be something in the tank after each set.
My Version
     After 6 weeks of the above routine, it’s time for a change of pace.  Once again, you’re going to do 20 reps of squats, but instead of doing 1 set of 20 reps, you’re going to do 10 sets of 2 reps, albeit you’re going to do all 10 sets as fast as you reasonably can.  Also, in between each session of squats, in the middle of the week, you’re going to do a 20-rep deadlift workout.
     What I like with this more updated version is that you’re able to train very heavy while still getting a lot of work in.  For instance, at the end of the 6 weeks of the traditional workout, if you’re squatting around 300 pounds for 1 set of 20 reps, you should be able to do around 400 pounds for your 10 sets of 2 reps.  Just make sure you move quickly between each set.  In fact, it helps if you have a workout partner.  As soon as one person does his set, the next person goes, and so on and so forth.
     As with the original program, you’ll also do a few other exercises for your entire physique.  Here’s the program:
Day One:
  1. Squats: 10 sets of 2 reps
  2. Dips: 5 sets of 5 reps
  3. Chins: 5 sets of max reps
Day Two:
  1. Deadlifts: 10 sets of 2 reps
  2. Overhead Presses: 5 sets of 5 reps
  3. Barbell Curls: 5 sets of 5 reps
Day Three:
     Repeat Day One workout
Concluding Thoughts
     Remember that as good as these programs are, they don’t work without plenty of rest and plenty of calories.  Drink a gallon a milk a day if you’re incredibly skinny.  Do that for 12 weeks along with 12 weeks of these workouts and not gaining will be a thing of the past.


[1] I must be quite clear on this point: I do not make New Year’s resolutions, and am – on the whole – rather opposed to the entire enterprise.  If I want to do something, then I just do it, by God!  I don’t need some “resolution” to steel my resolve.  That being said, I also realize that for some people it’s that time of year when they “buckle down” and train their asses off.  So, if you think of it as your “bus bench” time of year – to use Dan John’s assessment of how you should train and eat at least a couple times each year – then I also think there can be some merit to it.
[2] I say “flat-footed” because, before the 1930s, the most common way for lifters to squat was on their toes.
[3] “Super Squats,” pg. 29
[4] The formula exactly was it was written by Stuart McRobert in the October, ’92 issue of Iron Man.
[5] “Squats: The Mass Miracle Worker” by Stuart McRobert, October, ’92 issue of Iron Man.
[6] “Super Squats”, pg. 51