So, You Want To Get Strong? – Part II

In my last post, we covered attitude adjustment, understanding of max effort, and programs. Moving on, we have the next steps I feel that everyone needs to take when first beginning weight training. A lot of this can also be used as reminders for those of us intermediate or advanced lifters that need an extra nudge in some areas.

STRETCHING, WARM-UPS, FOAM ROLLING, AND MOBILITY WORK:

Never, NEVER neglect any of these. Why?

Because if not, you will end up developing over-tight muscles which can lead to tears and other injuries, and you will also develop scar tissue, which can inhibit pain-free movement and overall mobility.

Mobility work is one of the most important things you can do for musculoskeletal health. It’ll help loosen and warm up your muscles, joints, and ligaments before training, or if done at any other time of the day can help support recovery and free movement, as well as flexibility. Trying to train without properly warming up is detrimental and is one of the easiest ways to injure yourself. It’s very easy to neglect warm-ups or to forget them, so you must make a conscious effort from the beginning to make mobility work, flexibility work, and foam rolling a habit in your training regimen. It’s just as important for getting stronger as eating and sleeping.

The areas that need the most flexibility/mobility work would be the hip flexors and the shoulders. I think that regardless of whether you’re training upper body or lower body, both hip and shoulder mobility drills should be done as part of a warm-up. Shoulder discomfort can be developed by squatting without properly warming up the upper body as well. And tight hips are extremely uncomfortable to bench with.

Some of the best hip mobility drills you can do are demonstrated in the video below:

A great shoulder mobility movement that I do before any training session are shoulder “dislocations”, or rotations:

For the shoulder movement, you can use a towel, band, or plastic bar. Begin with arms very wide apart, and keep the elbows locked. Attempt to bring it all the way around (like in the video). When you reach your limit, which would be when you can’t go any further without serious discomfort or moving your elbows, hold the position for a few seconds and return to the starting position. Do several of these rotations, and you’ll notice you can go a little further back every time. The point is to not do a static stretch, but to do short dynamic stretches to warm up the shoulders. The goal here being to eventually be able to rotate completely from back to front without discomfort. Once you can do it from a wide hand position, move your hands in a little more each time. By the time you can do complete rotations with hands only shoulder-width apart, you basically have perfect shoulder flexibility.

Hip mobility work is essential for improving your squat and deadlift. It’ll allow you to get lower in squats and prevent hip pain and injury. Do hip mobility drills every time you are about to begin a lower body training session. No static stretching though.

As for flexibility work, I am a strong believer that flexibility is conductive to a well-rounded athlete. Neglect stretching, and not only do your muscles get too tight, you will not be able to develop your muscles and mobility as well as you could if you stretched regularly. Making it a habit and sticking to your stretch sessions is only a few minutes sacrificed for a lifetime of save and effective lifting. Your hamstrings especially are very tight, and by not stretching the fascia you are limiting growth in your hamstrings. Also a lot of strains, tears, and aches can be prevented if proper stretching was made a priority.

I would say that full stretching sessions should be a part of any training program, and done from 2-3x per week. And that doesn’t mean two or three stretches held for 20 seconds each. I mean all-out stretch sessions, where the stretch is held for a minute or more. Lower body stretching is the priority, especially if you plan on doing a lot of squats and deadlifts. Calves, hamstrings, quads, hips, glutes, ankles, and the groin area all need to be stretched on a regular basis.

Foam rolling will help roll out kinks you may have in your muscles, and will help prevent scar tissue from developing, as well as breaking down existing scar tissue. It’ll loosen up the muscles, since as stated, tight muscles can promote injury. It’s basically a soft tissue massage that you can do yourself. You’ll notice less aches and pains and better recovery once you start making foam rolling a priority as well.

A pain-free body is a happy, strong, and healthy body.

CARDIO/CONDITIONING:

Conditioning is another important part of any training program. Other than helping with recovery, circulation, and cardiovascular health, conditioning will help you perform better and improve your workload capacity. If you are trying to gain weight, keep the conditioning sessions a little less frequent, but still included once a week or so. Those who aren’t trying to gain weight can afford and extra session in their schedule.

Some of the best conditioning workouts are done with a prowler, sled, tire, or sledge hammer. If you don’t have access to any of these, you could also do bodyweight drills, skipping, light barbell complexes, sprints, or kettlebell work. Keep the sessions short but intense.

CHOOSING ACCESSORY WORK:

When it comes to choosing exercises to help assist your main lifts (squat/bench/deadlift), you want to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck. You don’t want to overdo the accessory movements, but you also don’t want to skimp out either because they’re going to have a large influence on getting you stronger.

Depending on the program you’re on, it’ll call for more or less accessory movements. For a fresh beginner on a 5×5 program, keep it simple and aim for movements such as hyperextensions, front squats, straight-leg deadlifts, close-grip bench press, incline press, seated rows, DB shoulder press, glute-ham raises, one-arm DB rows, and curls.

Yes, curls.

I have a love/hate relationship with these. Even though I feel tool-ish standing around curling, you should never exclude them from any strength program. They’re important in developing and maintaining strength in your biceps and from preventing tears. I’ve seen WAY too many people neglect proper bicep training because they feel as though they don’t need it since they’re “not a bodybuilder”. The moment you neglect training a body part, you either get weaker or you get injured…or both.

The exercises stated are good movements regardless of what program you’re on. If you’re doing something more along the lines of WSB4SB, you have more freedom to add in different exercises such as leg curls, lunges, box squats, flat presses, pulldowns, etc.

And what I mean by getting the biggest bang for you buck, is choosing movements that are tried and true to get you stronger and assist your main lifts in a big way. The smaller accessory exercises can be saved for when you are on a more advanced program when you need to think about specialization. For now, focus on less is more, and just put in your whole effort when performing these movements. You don’t need much more for now.
You never want to waste your time with exercises that aren’t conductive to your goals. You might really like leg extensions, but they’re not really going to get you strong.

TRAINING DIFFERENT BODY PARTS (REPS, SETS, etc.):

Understand that this section is a personal opinion, and keep in mind that different things will work differently for different people. Based on my own observations of myself and others, this is what I have found to be most effective, so take it as you will. Note that these are not meant to be recommendations for size gain, but solely for strength purposes. However, that doesn’t mean one cannot gain size/muscle using these recommendations if their nutrition is on point.

Remember never to train to failure on accessory movements. You want the weight to be heavy, but you also want there to be a rep or two left in the tank by the time you put down the weights. Higher reps have their time and place, but I think for most movements, the best strength gains are going to happen when training in the 5-8 rep range. Keep in mind this is regarding accessory movements only, so that excludes your main movements. Even 3-4 reps for certain movements can also be beneficial for strength gain, and can be used for some heavier sets, just not over-done. You don’t want to burn yourself out by trying to max-out on accessory work, but you don’t want to go too light either. Keeping the reps mostly between 5 and 8 will allow you to use a heavy enough weight that you can get stronger off of, but not so heavy that you’re working until failure, breaking down form, and sacrificing performance from your main movements. For those of you who do want to have hypertrophy in addition to strength gain, these rep ranges still work well providing your nutrition is on point as well.

Working sets can range from 2-4. I don’t suggest going too much beyond that, unless you are on a particularly high volume program. You can see plenty of results off of this kind of set range.

Also, here’s a great article by Jason Ferruggia regarding rep ranges:

“Are You Sabotaging Your Gains with the Wrong Rep Range?”

Tip: Kai Greene once mentioned in a video that while he is performing a movement and he wants to focus on a particular body part, he consciously thinks about lifting with THAT particular muscle. It’s called a “mind-to-muscle connection”. And believe it or not, this really works. You’ll notice a hell of a difference when you start to really think about moving the weight with the muscle you are concentrating on, rather than just thinking about the movement itself and nothing else. You’ll be able tou activate and incorporate that muscle/group a lot more if you concentrate enough on it.

 

FORM:

We could all learn a thing or two from a baby's squat form!

We could all learn a thing or two from a baby’s squat form!

It’s best to establish good habits from the very beginning. When I first started my programs, I wasn’t focusing on my form or technique. That actually set me back pretty far when I got to working with a coach that had higher standards for my technique than I had initially set for myself. So I could have actually been a lot farther along than I am now, had I known what I know now back then.

At the same time, I was extremely stubborn back then, so even when I was being corrected, I didn’t take the advice to heart as much as I should have. It’s crucial that in the beginning you take constructive criticism from others when warranted. Many times other more experienced people see things that you may not see, and it’s not that they’re trying to be hard on you, it’s that they’re trying to help you improve.

My best piece of advice is to acquire a camera, and video yourself as much as you need to in the beginning. Then, get it critiqued by someone who knows what to look for and who can spot out weaknesses and how to fix them. The lift will always feel different than it looks, so it’s important to know how the lift feels AND how it looks. How else can you fix your form if you don’t know what you need to fix?

I had written two posts on deadlift form and squat form which can be beneficial to read. One thing that really helped me was to go over certain steps quickly in my head before performing the lift so that I could remember. You don’t want the movement to be robotic, but you also don’t want to just let everything out and have the movement go to shit because you stopped focusing on keeping your form tight. It really is crucial for developing overall strength and preventing injuries. If you don’t get injured right away from poor lifting form, that doesn’t mean what you’re doing doesn’t need to be changed, it means that you are lucky enough to have not gotten injured…yet. But just because you’re new to training, doesn’t make you invincible. Take precautions and do things right from the start, and you will have much less to correct down the road.

DIET:

You can’t build a house without bricks. You also can’t build a body without calories. this doesn’t mean that because you are on a strength program is it a free-for-all (unless you are deathly thin and really want to put on some weight). It means that you eat for performance. If you have physique-specific goals as well, just keep it simple. If you need to gain some weight, eat a little more. If you need to lose some, eat a little less. If you’re a good weight, eat at maintenance but perhaps switch up your macros slightly so that it is performance-driven nutrition. You might even experience a recomp this way. The important thing to keep in mind is that you’re not going to build strength and muscle off of a big calorie deficit.

I say that if you are not very overweight, save the fat loss for a little later, OR keep a very small deficit. Another option would be to lose the fat first, and begin the program after you have taken a few weeks off from dieting and are back to maintenance calories. Prioritize a goal before moving on to the next one, as it is very difficult to achieve two things at once and get the most out of both.

Protein is a big staple, of course, but there is no reason to eat over 1.5g per lb. of bodyweight in my opinion. Higher carbs on training days can be beneficial, with lower carbs on conditioning/off days. You’ll want to play around with your carb levels to see what works best for you, but most people like cycling carbs. Keep fats in your diet always, as they’re very important for maintaining healthy hormone levels.

SUPPLEMENTATION:

While I don’t believe sports and health supplements are necessarily ESSENTIAL, I feel as though 95% of people don’t get all the nutrients they need from their diet already, so supplementation can be very beneficial.

What I would consider staple supplements would be:

  • Fish oil (important for reducing inflammation, lubricating the joints, promoting insulin sensitivity, and improving cognitive function)
  • Multi Vitamin (provides all the daily nutrients that you need for proper overall health and performance; will improve energy levels)
  • Creatine (great for improving recovery, muscle endurance, and strength)

Optional supplements:

  • Pre-workout drinks
  • BCAA
  • L-Carnitine

PATIENCE:

Results don’t always happen over night. Everything takes work, and you’ll have days where things feel heavy and off. Just don’t give up! Stick to the program and keep your goal in mind, always. It’s a journey, not a race, and if you try to rush bodily changes your body is going to fight against you. It’s just like trying to lose weight. You have to expect that it’s not all black and white, and you will need a lot of experimenting, trial and error, and time to find exactly what works for you.

Above all, keep a good outlook with your training. A positive attitude is a winning attitude, and in the end, the most successful person is the one who believes in himself enough to keep pushing despite difficulties he faces. And believe me, you will face them. Just be stronger than whatever life throws at you and you will come out on the other side triumphant rather than defeated.

Happy training!!

So, You Wanna Get Strong? – Part 1

Daniel Remulla. Badass.

“Where do I start?” is a commonly shared question for a lot of beginning strength trainees. I asked it myself at one point. It can get a little overwhelming, especially if you’re the kind of person who becomes intimidated by the idea of lifting heavy weights right off the bat. Hard to know where to begin.

That is why I decided I’d put something together for those who would like to get more involved with strength training/powerlifting, and need to get their basics covered. This will be the first part of a 2-3 part series dedicated specifically to beginners. It’ll be broken down according to priority.

The first section being…

STEP ONE: ADJUST YOUR MENTALITY

Before understanding anything else about strength training, you must first understand the mental aspect.

I myself started out by watching people squat and deadlift large amounts of weight and thinking “Psh, I can do that!” I remember boasting to my friend that I could squat 225 no problem. I had barely begun weight training at this point but was pretty convinced it was no difficult feat. Needless to say, I was put in my place very fast and I learned that nothing is going to come that easily to me. However, regardless of my initial pride, it was that attitude that got me as far as I am today. It ignited some sort of spark, and since then I’ve always wanted to keep getting stronger. And here I am, 2.5 years later, nearly at a 300 lb. squat; and yet, first hitting that 225 was the biggest mental milestone for me ever. Because it was what made me realize that although I may not be capable of doing something at the time I said I would do it, with enough training anything is possible for me. It was at that point that I really realized that hard work can pay off. Now I can look at a 350 lb. squat and think to myself, “Psh…I can do that!” and hey…someday I will!

I think that if you can adopt that sort of mindset that anything is possible, it will get you much further in your strength goals (and anywhere in life, for that matter). You have to be determined to lift the weight, and you have to know that you are capable of doing it with enough training. Doesn’t matter how old you are, what you weigh, if you’re male or female, if you had an injury at one point or not, etc. All of that is irrelevant. You can and will get stronger if you are determined to. And more than 80% of lifting is mental anyway. That being said, if you’re not in the right place mentally, chances are you won’t be training to your fullest capacity, nor will you be reaching your full potential.

(If she can do it, you can too ^^)

So above all else, make sure that you approach strength training with the right attitude. Don’t approach the idea in fear or uneasiness. Go all the way! Even if you’re starting out very light, don’t worry about other people around you and what they’re doing. Do the best that you can do. It’s  a lot more than 90% of people in the gym are doing right now.

 

STEP TWO: PROGRAM PICKING

Generally speaking, cookie cutter is something you should stay away from especially when it comes to diet and if you are a more advanced athlete. But cookie cutter programs, believe it or not, can work well for those who are just starting out. Seeing as you are a beginner, you want to stay away from programs that focus solely on percentages. This means you can scratch the idea of 5/3/1, as in my opinion it’s not that great of a program and there are much better options to choose from. I am much more partial to programs such as Madcows, Starting Strength, WS4SB (Westside For Skinny Bastards), and Stronglifts.

 

MADCOWS INFO:

http://www.wackyhq.com/madcow5x5/geocities/5x5_Program/Linear_5x5.htm

http://www.vicjg.com/aspx/madcowint.aspx

http://startingstrength.wikia.com/wiki/Bill_Starr_5x5

STARTING STRENGTH:

http://startingstrength.wikia.com/wiki/The_Starting_Strength_Novice/Beginner_Programs

WESTSIDE FOR SKINNY BASTARDS:

http://startingstrength.wikia.com/wiki/Westside_for_Skinny_Bastards

STRONGLIFTS:

http://stronglifts.com/stronglifts-5×5-beginner-strength-training-program/

And remember, these are cookie cutter programs (namely the 5×5 templates), but they really do work. Try to follow the program exactly for the best results. It’s when you tamper too much with these kinds of programs that things get messy. Follow it because it was designed for progress, period.

The biggest piece of advice I have to give before starting any program is to START LIGHT. Don’t assume your max is something when it isn’t. Even if you start out the first 2 weeks lifting very light, almost all of these are linear progression programs, which means that every week you are going to be progressing and adding more weight to the bar. So it’s better to start out light and slow then to start out too heavy and risk stalling too early and having to reset. That’s no fun at all!

I have never seen anyone who did not progress with one of the following programs, so give everything a read and see which one would better suit you and your goals.

The second best piece of advice is to STICK TO THE FUCKING PROGRAM. So many people are “program hoppers” and they jump around  from one to the other on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. You will need to stick with these for awhile before deciding that you can move onto something different. In the beginning you get things which we like to call “noob gains”. It’s that point in your training where you can keep excelling every workout, and get stronger on a linear basis without anything plateauing too drastically.

After awhile once you are past that point, you will need to get on a template (or make your own) that is adjustable, which you can constantly tweak depending on your weaknesses and what areas you need to bring up. As a beginner though, you don’t need to be concerned with specialization or anything like that. You just need to get a solid strength base going and you can think about the other stuff later.

It’s kind of like with fat loss. In the beginning things may be linear, but as you get down to those last stubborn pounds, it takes a lot more manipulation and tricks to get your body to lose that fat. Same with strength gain, and when you get to that point, you’re fighting for those extra 10 lbs. on your squat/deadlift. Whereas awhile ago when you first started, you probably would have put it on in the first week or two!

 

STEP THREE: UNDERSTANDING MAX EFFORT

The biggest difference between an advanced strength trainee and a novice trainee, is their ability to exert maximal output on a given exercise.

An advanced athlete has learned to fire his muscles properly in a movement, and has learned how to incorporate strength from every area to work together and heave the weight. Everything works together as a unit because it has been trained to do so. A novice trainee however, has not yet learned how to use all of his muscles correctly and have them fire at the same time to generate proper force for the movement. What happens then is that the body compensates and tends to shift the load onto areas of the body that are strongest to try and muscle the weight up, rather than everything working together with equal effort. So while the advanced athlete can go for a max effort squat attempt and give at least 95% of his true max, chances are a novice trainee is only using 70-75% of his or her maximal effort. This is partially mental, and partially physical. It is not always that the trainee is not strong enough to move the weight. A lot of it is that he or she has not yet learned proper form and/or mental strength, and hasn’t yet learned to make the body work together as a unit.

So as an example, if your max bench press is 135 BEFORE you learned proper technique and before you learned how to work your muscles correctly, it’s probable that your true max is quite a lot higher, you just needed to learn how to correctly perform the exercise.

On the other hand, things could swing the other direction and you could be cheating so heavily on the movement that you are lifting a lot more (body swing bicep curls anyone?), and when you learn better technique you are a lot weaker than you thought. That is when you take some humility lessons, lighten up, and do it right.

Another note regarding max effort: most novice trainees don’t know what it actually feels like to give maximal effort. One reason being their CNS is not yet properly conditioned to take on that sort of load. Another thing that could prevent a novice from using maximal effort on an attempt is their mental approach.

Believe it or not, one of the hardest things to develop is mental strength. A weak mind equates a weak body. A strong mind delivers a strong body. If you don’t believe it now, you better start believing it soon, because it’s what is going to get you the furthest, and it’s what is going to help you reach your highest potential with training.

 

MORE ON MENTAL TRAINING…

I very highly recommend the book “Striking Thoughts” by Bruce Lee. This book has been the single best thing to ever come into my life regarding mental focus and thought power. Who better to learn from than the king himself? Bruce Lee still is, and always will be one of the most amazing athletes to ever grace the earth, in my opinion. And I have to say that his musings have helped me through pretty much everything.

I’ll close that thought off with an excerpt from his book regarding athletes and thought power:

The attitude “that you can win if you want it badly enough” means that the will to win is constant and no amount of punishment, no amount of effort, or no condition is too “tough” to take in order to win. Such an attitude can be developed only if winning is closely tied to the practitioner’s ideals and dreams. Experience shows that an athlete who forces himself to the limit can keep going as long as necessary. It means that ordinary effort will not top or release the tremendous store or reserve power latent in the human body. Extraordinary effort, highly emotionalized conditions, or a true determination to win at all costs will release this extra energy. Therefore an athlete is actually as tired as he feels, and if he is determined to win he can keep on almost indefinitely in order to achieve his objective.

 

Get the book. Do it. Seriously.

And remember guys, the world is your oyster. Anything is possible. You just have to believe it.

Will have the follow-up for this post on here shortly – Stay tuned and train hard! :D