Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Your Baseline

Working out without rest days changed how I view training. At one point, my physical fitness was about being better at my job. At another point, it was simply about being better at lifting. Now, after 14 years of serious training, my training has become a way of life – instead of being a means to an end, it is the end.

Because of this change in perspective I have grown to value my minimums more than my maxes. Before, my one rep maxes were the most valuable things in my training. It is easy to look at training that way. It is the mentality of the mountaineer. Summit the peak, then off to climb the next. Popular weight training culture is the same. Hit a one rep max. Next week, add more weight and hit a new max.

This simplified way of observing progress is helpful and motivating, especially for the novice. I am not diminishing its value. However, as my years of training have increased, so too has my vision – the horizon is not the end. There is something beyond. With the experience of daily training I have learned how to see beyond.

No longer are my peaks the purpose for training.

What can you do today?

This is the purpose of my training: today.

Most days, I’m bushwhacking in the valley. Not summiting a peak.

Me and a Sorinex pack frame with 45 pounds of added weight
at about 12,000 feet enjoying the views of peaks high above in the distance.

Any seasoned lifter knows their maxes. When asked, “what’s your max?” The lifter will respond with do you mean today, or my best ever? This gets to the heart of training for today.

What can you do today? (Not what a calculator estimates – what do you know?)

Today’s ability depends more on our baseline, our valleys, rather than our peaks. My best bench press ever is 380 but I can only lift 315 today. But when I benched 380 could I have also hiked like I can today? Absolutely not. Because of the specialization it took for me to lift that all-time PR of 380 on the bench press I was unable to train for day-long hikes up steep terrain above 13,000 feet. Today however, I can lift about 82.5% of my best bench while also being able to do a whole lot more.

My general physical preparedness (GPP) has improved. My baseline is now at a higher elevation than when I was in peaking in powerlifting. No lifter can be at their peak strength day-in day-out, and expect that height to rise beneath them, so why view your training with that mindset and base your training upon that false notion? To do so is self-limiting and shortsighted.

Today’s baseline is different than my baseline when I was solely focused on powerlifting. Nevertheless, if I can raise my baseline now, I am that much closer to being as strong as I’ve ever been. Or stronger. Despite not training specifically for powerlifting. Increasing the elevation of my valleys results in potentially higher peaks. That’s the essence of improving your baseline.

I am not saying that specialization is bad. Instead, think of it as being the route to summit that next higher peak. Specialization requires technical skills, things focused on when preparing for a powerlifting meet in the near future. In the valleys, where the approach is being made, our baseline is most important; here technical skills are not the focus, work capacity is. The higher elevation of the valley the higher the elevation of the peak towering above. As I’ve said before, if a one rep max is the top of a pyramid, everything below that apex are the variety of movements and all the reps completed; work capacity is the foundation of your pyramid.

That’s the original analogy I used to describe my training method about 12 years ago. It hasn’t changed much. Rather than an object to be built, the analogy has changed to being akin to a lifetime adventure. (Clearly influenced by these last six years of living in the shadows of 14,000-foot peaks.) Failure to reach your peak strength is more often caused by not being able to train enough, rather than some technical fault in your lift.

Most of your training should be in the thicket. Hacking away wildly as you blaze the trail to your next peak. Be content working in its shadow, for a rush to the summit cheats yourself out of the work needed to make the ascent.

In terms of traditional descriptions, the valleys are off-season training, and the peaks are in-season. Or, for the powerlifter, high variety high volume in the offseason versus peaking with high specificity; both in movements and intensity. Moving between these is, in a word, periodization. I find the visualization of hiking through a mountain range more appealing and descriptive of the process. Adventure is inherent to the process. If your training lacks adventure, force yourself off the beaten path, and work hard creating a new one. In doing so you will develop work capacity.  

Adventuring is fun. Training can be to. Adventuring can be challenging. Training should be also. Never let a program bore you death in the process of being ground into dust. Accepting that fate is how the adventure ends. You will never summit another peak when you resign yourself to dying on the slope of the final ascent.

By adding more exercise to your life you will be increasing your work capacity; increasing the elevation of your valleys; thereby increasing the elevation of those peaks towering in the distance. Do more now – today – because you can, so you should.

Am I encouraging you to not have a training plan when I say, “blaze your trail wildly”? No. Am I saying you need to push to failure every day? Absolutely not. What I am encouraging you to do is ask yourself if you could do more. If you can, then do. It is very difficult to make your way without a map and compass, especially in the dense undergrowth of your valleys. It is impossible to make your way if you do not have the fitness to sustain effort. The triumvirate of progress are these: Consistency, Patience, and Effort. Those three govern results.

On the steep craggy ascent up
the north face of Pennsylvania mountain.

Establishing a baseline

To clear things up: baseline training doesn’t have to be in a separate phase of your annual training schedule. If you are peaking for a meet, do a little less. That is all. What baseline training should be, is what you can do often, so that you develop work capacity gradually.

Daily workouts do not have to be grueling and soul crushing. Not every set needs to be performed to failure, or a max effort. Sustained effort is key here. Consistency breeds results through accumulated effort, not a single vein popping set. This is where having a baseline is helpful.

What can you do today? Are you sure? Did you do it, or are you just estimating?

A baseline workout could consist of a variety of exercises in a short workout or a single set with one lift. This is up to you (and there are more options and ideas than I lay out here; so be adventurous). In any form, what a baseline is, is a means to determine actual performance – not merely an estimation. A baseline workout can itself be progressed, either by adding weight, or reps, or decreasing time, or modifying the movements. With any of those progressions your baseline improves.

Here are two example baselines:

1.     Deadlifting up to a certain weight for a single. Keeping the set easy and trying to make it easier each day. This should not be a max. What it should be is a weight that begins to challenge your technique. Doing a single set at this effort, of perhaps just one rep per day, is not going to do anything to your central nervous system (so calm down you geek-necked skeletons). Perhaps after several sessions this goes from a single, to a double, to a triple, and eventually, a set of five reps. In that process, your baseline has improved.

2.     A circuit of several exercises kept light and performed quickly, with the goal of completing the circuit faster. Once a certain time has been reached, then add weight or add reps to the circuit. You could increase those on one, two, or all the exercises in the circuit. That depends on what your goals and abilities are (both performance and recovery ability).

There are other options out there, but I’ll leave those for you to explore and discover. Such is the adventure of training, where fun in the gym is found.

225x51 Squat. Fun.
Fleshing out the examples

Example 1: A daily set

The first, a daily deadlift set, is one that I am borrowing from someone else (Who? I cannot remember). At a gym there was a bar loaded with 500 pounds. The goal was to be able to easily hit that weight without a warmup each day. It didn’t start off with 500 pounds always on the bar, but after many months that became many of the gym goer’s baseline. Simple enough. You could do the same.

“What’s your deadlift?” Well today I hit 500 without a warmup, in street clothes, because I knew I could.

            This kind of baseline training has the benefit of being focused on skill development. Pavel Tsatsouline calls this “greasing the groove” (though he applied it to bodyweight training, all lifts can benefit from this approach). The deadlift can be replaced with press, or squat, or bench, or any other lift you want to see improvement with. Frequency tends to improve performance, so long as recovery is accounted for. A single set performed to the edge of technical failure incurs little recovery debt. A baseline set in this manner may not necessarily be considered a “full workout” but could easily serve as the buy-in or cash-out of a workout as part of a larger program. Perhaps it is just one rep, maybe it is a set of five reps. Where it starts and ends is up to you.

Before I start my workout, I must deadlift my baseline.

If you are not training daily, maybe your current rest days change into lifting days simply by doing one set with one movement. Once you’re comfortable there, try pairing that baseline set with a second movement. Over time this may develop into a workout like the second example (not that it must, but the option is there).

The single deadlift set of one rep, or a multi-rep set, is just an example. If you wanted to get better squatting, then squat. Same for pressing or bench; or any other lift you want to get better at. That is partly why such an approach to baseline training is so fantastic: it gives you an opportunity to practice a lift without forcing a quantitative progression (like adding weight or reps each workout). Instead the focus could be qualitative (improving the look and feel of the lift).

Maybe your deadlift doesn’t need a half-dozen accessory exercises afterwards to improve. Perhaps you just need to deadlift a little more. Doing one set a day at the limit of your technique could bring better results with less fatigue and in less time. Don’t believe me? Try it and see.

“But Cody, I don’t want to go to the gym to just do a single set on my worst lift.”

Try walking on the treadmill after.

You probably need the cardio.

Or try example two.

Or you could try this kind of endurance work.
Not for the weak willed.

Example 2: A daily workout

This should be kept simple. Choose between two and four exercises that you can easily pair together. I would start with just two exercises and have a total rep goal. Keep the weights light and the pace quick – but not soul crushing. Time your work. Try decreasing that time when you repeat this workout while keeping the same two exercises with the same weight and reps. You could do this on your current rest days to ease into training daily. The goal is to introduce work that is easily recoverable while also serving to improve other aspects of your physicality. Maybe that is simply improving your stamina while also making you better at a lift you want to improve.

Carrying forward the previous example with deadlift, a couplet to improve that lift would be something like deadlifts and pull-ups, or sit-ups (or another upper back or ab exercise). If you are already decently fit and your recovery habits are solid, then start with a triplet (three exercises together). One I like doing is all three: Deadlift, pull-ups, sit-ups. Maybe after several weeks you turn this into four exercises together by adding the press.

You could start with a deadlift single at a weight that challenges your technique, followed by a set of half your max reps of pull ups (perhaps you can do 20 reps; this set should be just 10 reps), followed by a half-set of sit-ups (half of your sit-up max reps; maybe that’s 25 reps.) The half-sets follow General Gainz perimeters and as a result create little fatigue because the number of sets isn’t too high while also being enough to generate training adaptation. Start with just two or three sets and scale up each time the workout is repeated. Remember, this work isn’t to bury yourself in recovery debt. As such, it should be easily recoverable. Baseline training in this manner will make your regular workouts easier and allow you the opportunity to make them harder in a more sustainable way.

Another kind of daily workout is one that I’ve done often. It is a triplet of pull-ups, sit-ups, and kettlebell swings. For this I would set a limit of 10 to 20 minutes (depending on how much time I had) and complete as many rounds as I could doing sets of 5 to 10 reps each; fewer reps per set allows for a faster pace between exercises, therefore quicker split times; a quantitative value worth tracking.

Alternatively, instead of fixed time (10 to 20 minutes) I would do a certain number of sets as fast as I could. For me, a good breakdown that allowed for decent speed between exercises was 3 pull-ups with 10 sit-ups and 10 swings for 10 rounds (fixed work). This allowed for a fast pace and just enough recovery between exercises that I was challenging my stamina (but not getting sloppy with my technique, or nauseas – and create a different kind of slop).

At my gym all my clients do the same warm up for this reason. It develops their baseline. They do three rounds of 20 reps with my banded leg press, then 20 TRX rows, followed by 30 seconds on the ab roller and 30 seconds with the glute ham raise on the roller. As they improve, I add a band to the leg press, increase the angle on the TRX, and make them reach further or go for longer, or start to do reps with the roller.

Over the course of many workouts this basic warm up has developed their legs, back, and trunk to the point that the most common weaknesses quickly become their strength. While adding tension or time to a movement I also challenge them to move faster between exercises and to complete the reps faster. As a result, not only are they getting better with these exercises, but their stamina begins to improve because the density of the warm-up (their baseline) increases. A stronger baseline makes their daily lives that much easier.

Trying guarantees Popeye forearms.

Finding and Improving Your Baseline

            I encourage you to devise a workout that you can commit to doing daily, or at least on your current rest days. This shouldn’t be something that leaves you feeling beat up and broken (I hope I made that clear in the previous examples). If you are averse to this idea, try making your baseline something fun. Maybe pistol squats or bottoms up kettlebell presses because they’re unusual lifts that make you feel like a circus performer. Ultimately, commit to something you can do frequently and recover from easily, while also having a clear-cut progression (adding reps, or weight, or decreasing rest times are the easiest to track; alternatively, aim for a qualitative progression – look and feel). Once you have the exercise(s) and progression figured out, do it.

Record your results. Then do it again, and again, and again…

Do that workout until you stop improving.

By doing so, you will increase your baseline and in the future be capable enough to reach higher peaks (when you’re ready to summit them) because your work capacity (and perhaps also your skill with a particular lift) has improved.

Remember, baseline training is not about going hard as often as possible. It is about enjoying the process – the adventure – that is physical development. Explore your abilities as frequently as you can, and you will surely achieve a general level of strength and stamina that characterizes the very fit (your future self).

What I’ve described in this post is just the tip of the iceberg. It hardly scratches the surface of this concept. Having worked out every day without a rest day for nearly four years I have thought a lot about what baseline training is. I feel that if I were to write out every little detail and idea it would be excruciatingly complicated and far too longwinded of a post (like this one is already). Take these concepts as inspiration and choose your own adventure.

Start training every day, today.

To see if you can.

Because you must.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

1,300 Days: The Process is the Goal

            My 1,300th workout without a rest day came and went. The workout was straightforward and demanding. It was:

Hit a 1RM bench. I had been training for 300 pounds. I got it. Though this is 80 pounds less than my all-time best, it is more than I have benched in several years; for two reasons: injury and liking the press more. However, my bench is again heading in the right direction.

After that, I deadlifted 300 pounds for five reps for sixty sets. That totals 300 reps. On the 60th set, just in case I forgot to count somewhere along the way, I repped out the weight and got 12 reps. Totaling 92,100 pounds of deadlift volume.

Then I hopped on the rower for 1,000 meters, finishing in 4 minutes and 27 seconds.

It was a tough workout. But I recovered well and trained the next day, and the next, and every day thereafter. I’ll train today, tomorrow, the next day and every day thereafter. God willing.

In these three and a half years I’ve begun to see training in a new light. When I was new to lifting and fitness in general, the goals were specific weights and reps, often attached to a specific date.

“I’m going to bench two plates.”

“I’m going to deadlift four plates in six months.”

“I’m going to squat 500 pounds November 11th.”

There’s nothing wrong with this. I just don’t see my training the same way anymore. No longer do I see these individual goals as the reason to train. Instead, training is the goal. New bests are sure to come in due time, so long as I keep the goal the goal.

The goal now, is to remain in the process as frequently as I can, for as long as I can because I have learned that although hitting a new personal record is exciting and temporarily fulfilling, no individual set is more enjoyable than training daily. No powerlifting meet, no specific weight, nor date, is tied to the process. Those things are but events serving as highlights. They are datapoints in a system. Without the latter the former ceases to exist. Therefore, it is the process that matters most – not the workouts where new weights and reps were achieved – for those would not occur without the cumulative effects of many, perhaps hundreds of seemingly inconsequential workouts.

Though they may seem inconsequential by their data, for a workout without a PR fades into the shadows of our training history; such workouts are the unsung heroes of progress. They amount to something. That something is the process from which progress is derived. While progress is measured by data, the process is understood in simpler terms: consistency.

What are you training today?

That’s the question I ask myself. I suggest you do it too. Not whether you should workout, or rest… you already know the answer. Train today. Do something. You recognize that you can, and that you should. Perhaps you were waiting for permission to exercise daily.

This is it.

But that’s not doing the program! Exclaims the weaker us.

Guess what. That program, it isn’t perfect. And it is probably keeping you from doing as much as you would benefit from. So, do more. Go beyond the program.

The Process REQUIRES Conditioning

Reflecting on my training history, I see that my strength was only as good as my conditioning was. Before I started lifting, my physical training was the traditional Marine Corps method: calisthenics, running, and swimming. I was pretty good at each. Though I never got a 300 physical fitness or combat fitness test score, I was always above 270, often in the 280’s, and a few times in the 290’s (the CFT, being easier for me, was frequently in the 290’s). So, it was not like I started hitting the gym totally untrained. I had a great foundation of physicality. This, I believe, is why I was able to deadlift 405 pounds within the first nine months of training and bench 225. I weighed about 142 pounds at the time.

Swim qual. Fun.

Where then should you begin? Assuming you are already going to the gym regularly, focusing mostly on big compounds lifts like squats, bench, deadlift, and press, the last thing you want me to tell you to do is this: do cardio. Go out and run, swim, bike, and hike. Get your heart rate up and keep it there. This doesn’t mean you have to like it. I don’t. I don’t like 20-rep squats, but I do them. So should you.

In addition to basic cardio (start with 30 minutes per week, gradually ramping up the distance and speed) you should also be doing more reps, with a variety of exercises, against the clock.

But that sounds like CrossFit.

Only because we live in the age of CrossFit. The concept existed before it was ever branded. It was only branded because similar concepts worked for athletes. CrossFit came into existence because hard training was neatly packaged for the masses. Now we have computer geeks and soccer moms lifting barbells. Good.

So you're going to try CrossFit but call it conditioning?

Having my physical training background consist of the usual Marine fare, and a fair bit of CrossFit coaching, it may seem odd that I would forget the importance of conditioning. But, despite having learned and experienced it firsthand, I did. For years I would only do conditioning work when I felt like it, or when the Corps made me. I also bought into the lie that it would detract from my maximal strength.

The lie that doing more was in fact giving me less.

The lie is that I would only get weaker if my general fitness was stronger. While true if poorly implemented, for most the implementation is the easiest part. Poor implementation, in the case of conditioning, means poor periodization. For most people reading this, you’re not competing at such a high level in strength sports (meaning weightlifting or powerlifting) that serious conditioning year-round will be deleterious.

I can almost guarantee that you are not as conditioned as you could be and that is what is holding back your maximal strength – not the lack of specificity, or some perfect selection of accessory exercises. Dear reader, I am not asking you to become CrossFit Games ready. Or expecting Marine Raider levels of fitness. I am asking you to just do a little more on those days where you are currently doing nothing.

Stop taking “rest days.”

880 pounds.

But How?

The first step is accepting that you have been lied to about needing to avoid physical activity to recover from weight training. When it comes to recovery, there is nothing magical about staying out of the gym, sitting on the couch, and cosplaying as a sloth. That is not recovery. That is you treating lifting weights as a get-out-of-jail-free pass for being weak and lazy 164 of the 168 hours each week.

Once you realize that a few more workouts each week will benefit you, start small and work your way towards the frequent baptism of sweat that awaits. Begin easy, with time ramp up the difficulty. Soft now. Hard later. As you are yet will be.  

I have a hard time believing that a person, whether someone new to training or an experienced lifter, would suffer overtraining from the gradual process of adding reps to bodyweight exercises performed on those days where their program demands nothing of them.

Demand something of yourself instead.

Short conditioning workouts will develop your work capacity, thereby improving your recovery ability. As counterintuitive as it seems to the uninitiated, lounging around and playing video games for 8 hours a day is not a good method of recovery. Work capacity is severely lacking in most lifters, despite it being the foundation of recovery.

The kind of workouts described below are avoided because they are hard. They are hard because they produce results. For some, those results are not as gratifying as grinding out that five-pound deadlift personal record. However, once the benefits are realized (after about three weeks) the proof is in the puddle of sweat on your gym floor.

So, do more. Because you can and should.  

What one man can do another can do.
Say it!

Not sure where to start?

Some ideas:

1.     Very unfit? Start with one set of a bodyweight or isolation exercise on your rest days. Complete the work as quickly as possible. Squats, push-ups, sit-ups, curls, etcetera. Do ten reps. If you cannot do ten reps, then do as many as you are able. If that’s five reps, no problem. You must start somewhere. Add a set each week for four weeks, trying to make each ten reps or so. Rest as little as able. Congratulations. You are now doing four sets of ten reps on your former rest days.

On the fifth week, do two exercises, each for one set. Again adding a set to both for four weeks. That would be two months of “no rest days.” Granted, not a whole lot of work on these training days, but at least you are doing something and working towards doing more. The second month ends with two exercises each performed for 4x10. Completed with as little rest between sets as possible.

On the ninth week, the start of the third month, add a third exercise and again repeat the process of adding a set for four weeks. Week twelve ends with three exercises completed for 4x10 for a total of 120 reps (completed as quickly as you can). In these three months you will go from one set on one exercise to four sets on three exercises in a single workout that would otherwise be a day spent lounging around (which is misunderstood as recovery). For each former rest day, do different movements. Develop variety.

For those who are just starting out, this process of gradual development is sustainable and easy to recover from. In fact, doing more will improve your work capacity faster, which means that your recovery ability in general will improve. A small workout when feeling sore is better medicine than a pity party.

This guy skipped rest days and all his muscles literally disappeared.

2.     Trained but have a small engine? Try the above development process, and/or try working against the clock on those days where you’re not weight training. Start with a five-minute workout for as many rounds as possible with two exercises doing ten reps each. Then, on a separate rest day, turn it into a training day by doing five rounds as fast as possible with two different exercises, each for ten reps.

In these two workouts, you have one where you are working with fixed time (the 5-minute AMRAP) and fixed work (five rounds as fast as possible). The variables are volume in the former and time in the latter. This matters because for some one or the other will be more motivating. Additionally, to each you will add more work in a different way every week.

For the fixed time workout, add one minute each week. That turns into eight minutes at the end of the first month. Eight minutes, as fast as possible, of two exercises for ten reps each is tough. Maybe it is just squats and push-ups. Sounds easy? Wrong. Have fun doing it. For the fixed work session, keep those same five rounds but add two reps per exercise. The fourth week is then five rounds of two exercises performed for 16 reps each (Wk1: 10 reps, Wk2: 12 reps, Wk3: 14 reps, Wk4: 16 reps).

For both workouts you will likely find yourself getting more reps done per minute. That is an increase in training density, a function of developing your work capacity. Once you grow bored with this progression, or these exercises, change the movements being performed or change the progression by starting with more time, rounds, or reps per set.

A third option is to have a fixed amount of work, perhaps five sets of ten reps on two exercises (so 100 reps total). Perform them as fast as possible the first week. Then, for the next three weeks, try shaving off time from that same amount of work. This keeps the movement, load, and volume the same but by doing it in less time you are again improving training density. Shaving off one second from the week prior is progress.

These three options are great for those who are already training and for those new lifters who feel up to the challenge. I don’t want it to seem too difficult. These are demanding workout progressions but are easily individualized by working at your own pace and choosing exercises you are already confident with. It doesn’t have to be squats and deadlifts. It could be as simple as push-ups (elevating your hands if needed) and leg lifts, or triceps extensions and biceps curls, or dips and pull-ups. Most people already lifting weights are on a three- or four-day training program, thus, these three options can replace “rest days” and make them productive training sessions.

If Starting Strength was a car.
Big wheels, a tiny body, and dinky engine.

3.     Experienced but want to do more and not sure how? Take any of the options above, scale it up by adding a bit more time, another exercise, or a few more sets, more weight – you get the idea. Just be sensible. Start small and scale your way up the same way a novice would. You would just start with a greater initial demand.

Another option for lifters of this caliber is to do an every minute on the minute (EMOM) workout with a compound lift of your choosing and one or two other accessory exercises. For example: Deadlifts and push-ups. Starting with just ten minutes, add a minute or two each week. Over the course of four weeks this can grow to 16 minutes or more, depending on the development of the lifter.

For EMOM workouts, to make them easier, do fewer reps per set, thereby allowing for more rest before that next minute. To make them harder, do more reps per set, which will have the opposite effect because it will take longer, meaning less rest each minute. Likewise for doing more exercises each round. The more you do every minute, the less rest you get before the next minute starts, and you again must begin repping out the weight.

What I like about EMOM’s for more experienced lifters (meaning those who are confident with their technique; not necessarily having achieved an earthshattering deadlift, for example) is that it allows for more reps to get done with a foundational movement, such as squat, bench, deadlift, etc., while also serving as conditioning. Now, this could be done with the above options, but with EMOM workouts you are afforded a rest period. Something that benefits those major barbell lifts because they can take 10 to 30 seconds to set up for.

An EMOM I recently completed was the trap bar deadlift paired with push-ups. Each performed for five reps, for 60-minutes. That totaled 300 reps, setting me up for success come the 1,300th workout described at the opening of this post. I didn’t start with 60-minute EMOM workouts, but I gradually got myself there. Doing so meant that I stopped being sore after that much work, and, in fact, I could do even more work without demanding too much of my recovery – all because my work capacity has improved so significantly.

Lastly, you can try some of the ideas found here.

I thought no rest days was supposed to make you small and weak.
Credit: Ben Kuehne

4.     Other Options. Try adding a session that trains muscles and/or movements that you know are underdeveloped. This would more closely resemble how the T3 accessory exercises are performed in my programs such as Jacked & Tan 2.0, UHF, and General Gainz formatted workouts (or however you currently treat those exercises). Perhaps you are on a body part or an upper lower split. This would allow you to do something like more direct arm work in a new session on that former rest day that comes before your “leg day.” You will then have 24-hours (or more) before your next upper body session, perhaps “chest day.”

Likewise, maybe your current training model has a movement split (rather than body parts; a “bench” day, “squat” day, etc.) or is a full-body session. In such cases you could do all those ab and back exercises you’ve been skipping. More of those is likely what you need to get that next deadlift PR anyways. Just start with a few sets and scale up, much like described above.

Maybe you’re already doing abs, arms, and shoulders as part of your exercise selection and feel it is well rounded. No problem. Do something like farmer’s walks, or other carries, sled drags, or step-ups instead. This is the classic “general physical preparedness” training that was once advocated by guys like Louie Simmons, and many others, but has since been eschewed by the new age hyper-specific optimalists that pollute the information sphere with the tired lies that minimizing your training will maximize your results.

Generally prepared: 8.5 miles. 2,283.5 ft. elevation gain.
13,920 feet above elevation.

Conditioning is Optimal.

Min-maxing your physicality doesn’t work by avoiding weaknesses and maximizing your rest or doing as little as arbitrarily deemed necessary to garner a minimal response while convincing yourself that you’re maxing your genetic potential (which you truly do not know).

Chances are, you don’t know what hard is. Yet.

Especially if you have been avoiding conditioning work or have never pushed a muscle to absolute failure in both the concentric and eccentric range of motion (something that requires a very demanding and somewhat sadistic training partner).

But Mentzer and Yates did it!

I assure you, whatever it is you think you are doing it is not what they did. For as much obsession about training optimization that I see from the natty-for-life camp, those diet lettuce boys sure do like to point to two steroid using giants to rationalize their misinformed training decisions and utter lack of trying. For such optimalists, what is optimal is defined by what is easiest and quickest. Avoiding the difficult and confusing it with easy is their goal.

And no, the Pareto Principle is not going to apply to your halfhearted four hours of exercise each week. Try as you might, justifying your lack of effort by explaining a cost to benefit analysis will only lead to stagnation and eventual eviction from the process of training altogether.

But my recovery.

My central nervous system.

My fatigue.

Your excuses.

They are keeping you small, weak, and unfit.

So, do more.

            The best way to do more is to focus on training aspects that are directed towards that goal, which for most people is conditioning. That is how you can get more out of your training in less time – by doing more, faster.

            To preemptively obliterate the objections from the “aesthetic” minded 125-pound scrawny self-proclaimed bodybuilders who are always chasing “optimal”: No, conditioning doesn’t prevent hypertrophy. You can do lots of conditioning and become incredibly jacked.

Nearly 18" arms weighing about 190 pounds, without rest days.

            For most, more training is optimal, not less. If you are dissatisfied with your results, chances are you are not training enough, or eating, sleeping, destressing, and other similar means of actual recovery. So, try doing more of those things that require effort and consistency; things which simply not working out is not. Stressing over online gaming matches while surviving on Soylent and Bangs and sleeping five hours a night is not optimal. Try improving those habits before spending the next three weeks crafting a spreadsheet for the optimal training program.

            There is no “hack” to an impressive physique or physical ability. Wasting your time scouring the internet for such a one-weird-tricks is not optimal. Strength and conditioning, done frequently and with quality effort, in the traditional means I describe, is.


            I write this because I have seen this problem and can present a reasonable solution. Dismissing or deprioritizing conditioning was something that I began to do as I got more into powerlifting. That was a mistake. Partly because my sessions began to take very long. Partly because my lack of general fitness for the sake of sport specific adaptation led to recurring injuries; some of which I continue to deal with. Conditioning addresses both of those problems. I do care about your physical development, and I wish for you to not make the same mistake.

             Lastly, because I practice what I preach, below are some recent conditioning workouts of mine (in addition to the two deadlift-based ones I described previously in this post). Take inspiration from these and build for yourself your own conditioning workouts based on the concepts described above. Mind you, I am not the most fit, or the strongest individual. But, as an example, I recently hiked the Decalibron Loop; a hike that summits four 14,000-foot mountains, has over 3,000 feet of elevation, and is about seven miles. Within two hours of finishing I completed a 1,240 pounds powerlifting total with pounds left off the bar. For context: That’s about 287 pounds less than my best powerlifting meet total. All without peaking, or training specifically for the squat, bench, and deadlift.

Atop Mt. Lincoln. 14,291 feet/4356 meters.

Examples of recent conditioning workouts from my log:

1.     Ten Rounds as fast as possible of overhead press x5 reps and Concept2 Row 250m.

My results: Press weight 105 lbs. Time: 18:18. This was at a moderate pace, and my row is not that great anyways. I have also done this for longer and heavier: 60-minute AMRAP, Row 250m + Push Press 113 lbs. x5 reps. 31 rounds total +97m row.

2.     25 Minutes, As Many Rounds As Possible, of Muscle Cleans x5 reps, Pull Ups x5 reps, and Decline Sit-Ups x10 reps.

My Results: Muscle Clean weight 95 lbs. 20 rounds completed.


3.     25 Minutes, As Many Rounds As Possible, of Bench Press and 250m Concept2 Row.


My Results: Bench weight 185 lbs. 12 rounds plus one round of bench and 157m row.


4.     10 Minutes, As Many Reps As Possible, D. Ball over Shoulder.


My Results: Ball weight 45 lbs. Total reps: 147.

      *This was one portion of a workout done the day before the Decalibron hike.


5.     50 Rounds as fast as possible of 30 (15 per leg) 15-inch step-ups and 3 pull-ups. All wearing a 20-pound pack.


My Results: 1:09:58 for a total of 150 pull ups and 1,500 step ups, equaling 1,875ft of elevation gain.

      *This sucked.

Rest days: a conspiracy of the frail.

Monday, August 15, 2022

North America’s Highest Gym

             This blog is a decade old. The name, Swole at Every Height, was not created to foreshadow the eventual opening of my new gym located in Alma, Colorado. However, that is how things fell into place – and I couldn’t be happier.

Grand opening. Friends. Family. Fitness.

Located at 10,361 feet elevation, Alma’s Gym is two hours outside of Denver, high in the Rocky Mountains. The town of Alma is the highest elevation town in North America. I’ve called it home for the last six years. Though the winters can be harsh, there is an undeniable kind of beauty that comes with a hundred and fifty inches of snow every year. The summers, well, they are incredible. The mountain air is fresh and crisp in the morning. It smells of pine and sweet aspens. Whether skiing, hiking, or mountain biking, the Rockies provide exhilaration and near asphyxiation – especially in Alma.

That is where you will find my gym. A place where locals can get stronger and develop their bodies for whatever activity they live here for. I’ve not met one neighbor who doesn’t have an outdoor hobby. It is why we live up here. Why I like living up here too, I think. People are active here. It is necessary to live. If, at the very least just chopping wood and shoveling snow, then to get out and fish, hunt, hike, camp, ski, bike, run, climb… and now lift.

Strong locals making a strong community.

North America’s Highest Gym is now a month old and doing better than I imagined. Not only are locals signing up and getting fit, but so too are many of the tourists who come here for any number of outdoors activities. They see the sign “North America’s Highest Gym” and recognize the inherent challenge of it. Do I have what it takes?

They do. And so do you.

We have an oxygen lounge for those who need it…

I am excited for the future. Both my own and for my neighbors too. We are all in this together, so why not build strength, endurance, and our bodies together, so that we may thrive for longer and achieve more in this intense yet wonderful place we call home. Then, as word spreads, more from around the world will come for the experience of training in such a place. As time has seen fit, we may all become swole at every height.

God willing, Alma’s Gym will become the greatest gym you can lift at.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Minimal is not Optimal.

"By my calculations, you're not lifting optimally."

            I encounter with increasing frequency the attitude that “less is more” when it comes to physical training. This sentiment about physicality seems to originate from two sources: time management and risk mitigation. Those with this conception of training figure backwards from their goal, but in doing so are unable to observe the process that will carry them forward to realization. Often, once the minimum is determined the optimal is defined. These “optimalists” are usually new to weight training.

            Optimalists prioritize managing time and risk. Then other factors are accounted for down to minutiae, with the most pathological concerned with the more inconsequential, or things not fully knowable (like genetic potential). Once sufficient factors at play are known, or believed to be known, then the optimal course to the finish line is planned backwards – the path of least resistance, of least energy expenditure, of least effort, of least trying.

            Why is this so?

Because, for the sake of efficiency, the optimalist does not set out to achieve until sufficient information is collected; a hoard is amassed, much of it as useless as stacks of People magazine. Optimalists act as if all factors can be accounted for in conceiving the path towards their goal. They want physical development fast with the least exertion necessary, believing that foreknowledge of the journey – before the first step is taken – guarantees the least sweat while earning the greatest reward.

This disregards the possibility of learning new information that benefits the process while in the process. It also fails to recognize that of the many factors at play in physical development, not all have known upper and lower limits, or are even accurately approximated, and of those factors, many cannot be reasonably determined until the training process is already underway. Some may never be known but exist merely as faithful estimates (such as genetic potential).

"What's optimal?"

Optimalists want to master their bodies as if it were a detached instrument from their minds. Like they were a disassociated omnipotent musician, and once total knowledge of their instrument is had, only then will they play, for the very first try guarantees the most beautiful song. If mastery was not achieved before trying, they risk failure. Something to be avoided at all costs, even if it means not trying at all, so thinks the optimalist. This is absurd because it is the process of learning the instrument and combining a variety of melodies, with some better than others, that develops a musician one day capable of composing a masterpiece.

Sometimes, optimalists imagine their whole story arc at the character creation screen of a role-playing game. After selecting a class, perhaps an archer, or knight, or mage, a certain number of points are given to distribute among attributes to tune their character and optimize their play style. This is silly because it combines biological determinism (character class and attribution points) within a predestined fantasy world of which the player already knows more about than the world they will experience in real life: the gym. Their live action role play of physical development is make-believe (often without the make).

The optimalist acts as if they have (or can have) total knowledge of the class and abilities of their real-life bodies while living in an equally known world that can be optimized through their character’s intrinsic qualities – all without playing a single minute of the game. Playing the game then becomes mere button pushing, with any experience in the process being frivolous. The entire act grows tedious, and when so, effort wanes (no wonder why such people never achieve much in the gym).

Any seasoned lifter knows of such people. Those who cannot figure out that it is not the lack of a perfect plan that is keeping them from making progress, it is their constant seeking of the optimal that risks keeping them at the minimal.

So, the optimalist quits or changes their program continuously, hoping that with a better class and strategy, a reset will prove more fruitful and efficient. Self-defeating and inefficiency incarnate. The antithesis to, and a surefire means out of, the pitfall of optimalism. Exactly the self that needs defeating. (Yes, that is an argument for program hopping.)

            Optimalists have never ending questions about trivial aspects because getting an answer from someone else is easier than figuring it out for themselves. While learning from others is beneficial, some things are unknowable unless one experiences it themselves. Optimal is unknowable until limits are discovered, and a litany of other factors, each of which more individual until their impact on development becomes trivial.

By mastering physical training trivia, the optimalist prioritizes collecting information that orbits achievement. They collect satellites without having a body to gravitate them. In finding their way out of optimalism, how much of those supposed facts about lifting, biology, and nutrition, becomes space junk? (Most of it.) That is the crux of the problem. Their knowledge is not anchored by experience, and it becomes the very thing that inhibits them until they try and learn what is genuinely best for them.

Someone should tell him that wide stance conventional is not optimal.

Physicality is the trying. Physical development requires doing until finding the answer that cannot be had secondhand. Such processes befuddle the optimalist because what they do not know cannot become known until they discovered it. Once they do, the answer is theirs alone; their optimal.

            The new gym goer asks, “I’m going to run XYZ-program. Is it optimal for me?”

            “Do it and see.” Replies the veteran lifter.

            There is little reason for the veteran lifter to ponder such minutiae for someone else. Perhaps they were once an optimalist too. Or, like me, they were the new guy in the gym trying hard to keep up with more experienced lifters, and therefore unconcerned with optimal. Instead, their day-to-day performance is what mattered.

            Was I very sore the next day? Sometimes.

            Did it regress my physicality? Never.

Once I was on my own, the justification for lifting this way or that became to see if I can. It has been that way for years. It is all that is required. It is my optimal.

            The optimalist, seeking knowledge over experience, hopes to prioritize efficiency over discovery. But they fail to recognize that in whatever source their energy is vested in, the optimal remains a mystery covered by faith until their own acts produce the desired outcome. Once achieved, that course is deemed optimal ex post facto.

            But was it?

            Could it have been done faster with less effort? Is that even answerable without trying something else and comparing results? Should that comparison be attempted, to truly discover optimal, doesn’t the overall process become less so (or at the very least risk it) by doing more than what may be necessary? Optimalists suffer in the purgatory between certainty and discovery because once they physically try what was thought optimal and it is found not to be, their endeavor slows to avoid risking further inefficiency. In doing so, they risk their goal, for the goal was what is optimal – not physical development.

            Preventing wasted time and undue risk is the heart of the optimalist desire. Second to that is attaining sufficient knowledge to justify their actions and results. Last comes the trying. Why not let hard work, consistency, and patience produce results that justify themselves?

            To the optimalist: Do more because less is just as risky and inefficient, and if you want to gain size and strength optimally, try trying.

Peak optimalist.