Saturday, May 25, 2013

Training Through Adversity

Recently I've been reading and hearing from guys complaining about how they're not where they "should be" in regards to lifting. This kind of talk is demoralizing to themselves and if done habitually will result in being trapped in a permanent quagmire. Many times it sounds like this:

"If I only had a equipment-x."

"If I only hadn't been injured."

"I wish I had a team to train with."

"My gym sucks."

If, wish, and a whole lot of boohooing. Those are hurdles to progress and eventually they'll get higher and higher- until you're either physically or emotionally incapable of overcoming them.

Now, I'm about to get real on you, life stories, and all that crap. So if you don't want to read it, turn back now. But what follows are some examples of of things I've trained through, and if you're not a close friend or family- you've likely never heard me talk about this stuff. If just one person reads this and realizes they've been throwing themselves in quicksand and then pulls themselves out of it and refuses to get back in, then it's worth it.

From the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2011 I was in Afghanistan. My gyms were decent most of the time, but about 30% of my life out there was spent driving around and hopping from outpost to outpost. Many times the gyms looked like this:

This was by far one of the worst though.

And guess what? I still trained. A large part of my training was spent outside in the winter of Afghanistan training with old bars, plates, and the basic equipment- squat racks, benches, and pull up bars. Towards the end though, I did get access to newer bars and plates- still no fancy monolifts, specialty bars, or bands. Although, we did get some heavy duty chains out of the junkyard. That was nice. While in Afghanistan I trained as much as I could, as hard as I could. Why? Because I didn't know whether or not it would be the last day I could squat... for the rest of my life. While there my conventional deadlift when from 405 to 455 and my bodyweight dropped from 185 to 160; got stronger while getting leaner- all before I truly became interested in powerlifting. Here's one video from the best gym I had access to.

"Well I cannot afford quality nutrition." I'm sure many times you have heard people talk about this. Hell maybe even you yourself has used this excuse. Well, many times I ate MRE's and guess what- I still got leaner and stronger.

Not exactly "quality" nutrition. But damn are those peanut M&M's a lifesaver. 

Once I got back from Afghanistan in May-ish of 2011 I started to become interested in competing in powerlifting. At this time I began using 5/3/1 more or less and had access to a "normal" military gym (AKA pretty much a 24-Hour Fitness) which I soon decided was stupid and so I bought a power rack, a bar, and enough weight to get me stronger. This was in the summer, in 29 Palms, California, with no A/C or swamp cooler in my garage. Needless to say, it was damn hot. Here's me failing a sled push on my home made Prowler. I had to wear gloves otherwise the metal handles would have burned my hands. 

Guess what happened? I got stronger. 

Then came a dark time in my life. On September 10th, 2011 my grand mother passed away. I drove back to Colorado to be with my family and say my good byes. But guess what else I did? I signed up at a gym in my neighborhood and continued to train. Some people were hurt by this and I had to explain to my family that training is like my meditation. That's how I release. That's how I focus. That's where I go to think. After that, they understood. 

Then just one month and twelve days later my mother passed away. Again I drove back to Colorado to be with my family. And again I went back to the gym in my old neighborhood to train. And again I had to explain why I do what I do, because it is who I am. While in Colorado for my mother's funeral I hit my very first 3x bodyweight deadlift. Not because I had it planned, but because I had been training hard, consistently, and frequently- regardless of obstacles.

I was taught to get through obstacles, not to let them stop me.

That next month I signed up for my first powerlifting meet. If Afghanistan and the passing of two very influential matriarchs in my family couldn't stop me from training and getting stronger I was damned sure the devil himself couldn't either. 

Well, lucky for me the gym on base went through a major remodel and I started training there for the last two months leading up to my first meet. Video sampling here. I also had an on-and-off training partner who also signed up for that meet. 

I was hooked and continued to train. 

Shortly after my first meet I had to go to a military leadership academy; which essentially was "Running Summer Fun Day Camp." After being there for two weeks and doing a gratuitous amount of running I hit my first 500 lb deadlift, literally the day after a run through the sands and hills of Mordor itself. Even then, the devil and all his running and desert heat couldn't stop me from training. I'd go to the gym at 0430 only to go to "school" and run, study, and do more studying. I ended up the Honor Graduate of my course.

After leaving that Academy I continued to train. My off-and-on training partner moved across the country and in turn I picked up another off-and-on training parter. It wasn't their presence in the gym that made me stronger- it was the fact that we, as Marines, talk shit to each other constantly. Whether that be in person, over the phone, or online. I didn't need a spotter to squat or bench heavy, I just went heavy in a power rack. If I did want a spotter I didn't get shy either, I would ask a stranger. No big deal. That's not a reason to not train with intensity. Then, eight months after my first powerlifting meet I put nearly 100 pounds on my total in my second meet. 

There, that's enough story time for now. I'm not one to get "inspirational" or any of that bullshit- as I hardly ever do. Hell, there are thousands of people out there who have done much more than me, with far greater obstacles to overcome. There are probably hundreds of other lifters who still have done more than me in worse circumstances; here's just one. I just wanted to spread some light on how training circumstances, tragic events, and of all things equipment have very little impact on whether or not you can get to where you want to be, not where you "should be." 

Because in life, all that truly matters is your character. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Workout Density and Work Capacity: Drivers of Strength and Conditioning

Before I get too far into this I’ll lay down some brief personal definitions of these terms “work capacity” and “workout density.”

Workout Density: The amount of exercises, reps, and sets that are performed per workout. Think super-sets.

Work Capacity: The amount of work performed per given allotment of time.

Can these two terms be interchangeable? Yes. One difference I like to make between the two is that density has to do with how much different stuff you can cram in per workout whereas capacity is how much work you can do per exercise.  One example I’ll make is my work capacity for squats is far above my work capacity for deadlifts. Why? Because my density for deadlifts has always been in the basement.

Before we go any further I’ll lay this out: Density builds capacity, and capacity builds strength and conditioning, and finally, strength and conditioning continue to build greater density and capacity.

Mind melting paper heap. 

What is an easy way to add in density? Super-sets. A favorite of mine is to super-set antagonist exercises with my main movement. This would be pull-ups or rows with bench press for example. I’ve been doing this for a few years now and it has worked wonders. As of recently I’ll perform some sort of pre/re-hab exercise in between sets; band pull-aparts with bench press for example.

Have you ever done band pull aparts until you’ve broken a sweat? No? You should.

Think of it like this: Lets say doing 3x5 bench sets takes you 15 minutes you’ve done one rep per minute. If you’re super-setting in 5x10 face pulls you have now added in an additional 50 reps into that same time allotment. It keeps you active while you rest, and though it may seem like a miniscule amount of work- like saving your pocket change, it adds up.

Ballin with density like Scrooge McDuck.

Your density has increased three-fold, and a small amount of conditioning has come with it.

Can some people get strong while also lacking conditioning? Yes, yes they can. But I’d wager that had they been better conditioned they could have gotten stronger, faster. By being well conditioned, meaning both muscular and cardiovascular endurance, an athlete can last longer; train longer, more sets, more reps, more exercises- more of everything.

And more is always better; at least in this context.

What happens when a muscle begins to fatigue? Those muscles around it take up the workload to complete the movement. In return the movement pattern changes. In the squat the lower back might fatigue and in return the hips will rise faster than the chest. The lever becomes longer, the stress becomes greater, and the already fatigued muscle tires faster. And soon we are seeing squat-mornings. Not good. What we have to do to solve this is build the capacity of those muscles involved. How? Gradually implementing higher volumes. 

Some people think that conditioning means barbell complexes, sprints, circuit routines, sled pulling/pushing, etc. Well, those people are right- those things do great things for athlete conditioning. But you don’t have to do all of that, all the time, to be well conditioned. This is when you could simply start adding in more density and capacity to your workouts to gradually build conditioning.

A quick anecdote; my all-time PR for squat was done after doing 30 minutes of sprints… at the time, I was very well conditioned.

Bad things happen to novice trainees when they start believing themselves capable of adding in sprints 2x per week along with barbell complexes sometime in the middle. Ease yourself into it. Strength is a marathon- not a sprint.

This is your noob body on high volume sprints. 

Some questions and comments I’ve received about the higher volume training I prescribe could be summarized as, “How can I transition from doing a low volume (We’ll say 5x5 routine) into something like what you do?” Should you fall into this category, a person who lacks work capacity, here’s how you solve that problem- add in bodyweight variations to supplement your workouts, and add in rep-outs to your last work sets on either your Tier 1 or Tier 2 exercises.

Here’s how such a workout would look:

T1: Squat: 5 reps, 3 sets @87.5%
T2: Front Squat: 8 reps, 3 sets (Last set rep-out)
T3: Bodyweight squats: 10 reps, 5 sets (Add 10 reps per week, 4 weeks)

That rep-out on the T2: Front Squat and the T3: bodyweight squat sets, would be the work capacity driver and maintain density by adhering to workout time limits. Thus the two are the driver of your conditioning as well. After four weeks of this type of programming I would alter bodyweight squats to 20x5, and make my T1 movement the rep-out. After four or so weeks of that go ahead and add in an additional T2 or T3 movement. This same model could be used for pushups with the bench press, and I would say pull-ups for pretty much damn near anything- because well, I love the pull up. By increasing your density and your capacity you will gradually be building conditioning along with greater strength.

A note on rest periods; begin to limit them. This will ensure you’re driving density and capacity. A rule I have for myself: T1: 2-3 Minutes, T2: 1-2 Minutes, T3: <1 Minute. Is it always like that? No, but that’s my target and I try to get as close to it as possible.

Utilized correctly, this can be your greatest friend 
and worst enemy in the weight room.

Lastly, I’m going to throw a challenge out there. I’m not sure where I’ve seen it previously, but I know (or at least I think I know) that I didn’t come up with it. If I did, cool. So here it is:

20-Minute Deadlifts

Weight: 405 lb.

Perform one rep, per minute, on the minute, for 20 minutes. The clock starts on your first rep. The last rep on the 20th minute is a rep-out.

I did this on the 26th of April and got 23 reps total. It sounds easy, but it’s brutal. At least for me it was.

A point of reference- 405 is about 85% of my conventional deadlift max. Should you be stronger or weaker than me, go ahead and perform this challenge with 85% of your deadlift max. The challenge ends on time, when you start hitching the weights, or when your form is in the toilet. Conveniently 85% is where T1 begins. I averaged more than 1 rep per minute for those 20 minutes with T1 level weights. I’m thinking that’s decent capacity in that range of intensity; especially considering the fact that I’ve always neglected my deadlift workout density. Not gonna lie, I was nearly out of breath and sweating pretty good after this. I’d like to reach 25, then maybe 30+ by the end of this year.

Good luck. 

In summary, density = super-sets and capacity = bodyweight variants added and rep-outs. Also, do the challenge and let me know how it goes.