Wednesday, December 27, 2023

1700 Days: Kill the Bear

          On the 1,729th workout without a rest day I completed a personal record squat set of 185 pounds for 76 reps. This post describes the process I employed to achieve that set and many others along the way. I hope you find this post helpful so that you too can achieve rep max personal records in any lift of your choosing. 

Watch it now if you haven't seen it.

            One of my favorite movies is "The Edge.” Released in 1997, it is a thrilling tale of survival starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin. The story revolves around two men, Charles Morse (played by Anthony Hopkins) and Bob Green (played by Alec Baldwin), who find themselves stranded in the remote wilderness of Alaska after their plane crashes. Charles is a wealthy and intelligent billionaire, while Bob is a young and charismatic fashion photographer. The opening scenes portray Charles as reserved and intellectual, while Bob is impulsive and superficial.

The men struggle to survive in the harsh and unforgiving Alaskan wilderness as tensions between them rise. They soon discover that they are not alone. A massive and cunning grizzly bear begins stalking them, pushing them to their limits.

The movie explores themes of human instinct, the will to survive, and the thin line between the comforts of civilization and savage nature.

As Bob's will is fading, Charles provides one of the most powerful quotes of any movie. In this most memorable scene he is convincing the younger Bob that they will kill the bear and live.

Charles: “Do you believe it, Bob? Believe it?”

Bob: “I don’t know Charles.”

Charles: “Ah?”

Bob: “I don’t think it’ll work Charles.”

Charles: “It will work!”

Bob: “No.”

Charles: “It will work! What one man can do another can do.”

Bob: “We can’t kill the bear, Charles. He’s ahead of us all the time. It is like he is reading our minds. He’s stalking us for God’s sakes! He’s…”

Charles: “You want to die, don’t you? Well, then die. I’ll tell you what. I’m not going to die. I’m not going to die. I’m going to kill the bear. Say it, I’m going to kill the bear. Say it, I’m going to kill the bear. Say it. Say it! I’m going to kill the bear! Say it!”

Bob: meekly “I’m going to kill the bear.”

Charles: “Say it again!”

Bob: “I’m going to kill the bear.”

Charles: “And again!”

Bob: “I’m going to kill the bear!”

Charles: “Good! What one man can do another can do!”

Bob: “What one man can do another can do.”

Charles: “Say it again!”

Bob: “What one man can do another can do.”

Charles: “And again!”

Bob: yelling “What one man can do another can do!”

Charles: “Yeah. You’re goddamned right. Cause today, I’m going to kill the motherfucker.”

The quotes Charles provides in this scene are mantras I have used repeatedly. I’ve said these things to myself countless times, quoted this scene in previous blogs, and during my time as an active-duty Marine, I would recite “What one man can do another can do” to those I led.

Today, I’m telling you to kill the bear.  

What seems impossible, what seems like it might kill you, is exactly what you need to do. By facing such challenges you will grow because we are what we do. Therefore, if you are always doing what you know you can do, then you are choosing stagnation and ultimately, death. Prevent the most common quagmire found in the gym by choosing risk and facing defeat. Get so close to destruction that you can smell the bear. Then, when your inside voice cries quit! Persevere and kill the bear.

Know that you will fail many times before you succeed. Know that success is one fleeting moment in the process, and that the process itself is the goal – not the momentary gratification of killing the bear; a single yet rewarding event that develops the way forward. Instead, be gratified every second you are in the process, even when failure guts you, rejoice. Strive for that next rep. 

See the bear. Prepare to kill it.

Enter: The Bear

What is this bear I speak of? The bear is the next rep.

The bear shows its face when you near a personal record. Its growl steals your breath on that fourth rep when five is the goal. On the 19th when you want 20. When the weight feels heavier than ever before, the bear is standing over you, ready to eat.

To harden yourself against the bear, seek its teeth. There is no other way to kill a bear than to hunt it down, rep after rep, forever reaching for more bear skins with which to adorn your gym.

We are created at the edge of destruction. The bear will maul you. But you will live another day, pushing forth, taking with you the hides of one bear after another. Not every hunt will be successful, but hunt you must, otherwise the bear wins. From a broken heap, rise anew.

Kill the bear.

I say this to myself now as much as I say it to you.

When I am a rep away and my heart is beating out of my chest, I say kill the bear, and squat one more rep. However, not every set is a successful hunt. Sometimes I rack the bar early. Defeated. Eaten up. Knowing that I sought the bear as a fool, underprepared in mind and body.

Last year I set out to achieve a series of squat rep max personal records. For twelve months I steadily worked towards these goals. Week after week I hunted one bear after another. These are the bears I killed. Many times I lost the fight against them, only to pursue them and later taste victory. One by one they fell.











Last year when I listed those squat sets, I forgot that I once had done 500x2. I updated that to a new goal of three reps, making each set a personal record. Some by many reps, others by one rep, and in the case of the 1-rep max, less than two pounds. My previous 1RM was set in 2016. Now older, I am stronger, due in large part to me growing more cunning than the bear.

Face the bear or run from it, killing your spirit instead.

Hunter / Killer

“Training and testing are two different things.”

-Every strength coach ever

My previous best with 315 was 20 reps. In stalking that bear, I managed to get 315x22 reps, just three shy of my goal. That day, despite setting a new personal record, the bear won. I died after watching the video and realizing that I quit mentally well before my body was exhausted physically. The last rep was fast, the position was good, yet I didn’t push for that next rep, and because of that, the bear won.

The same happened with 365 when I got it for 12 reps and doubted myself getting the next three. The bear won again that day. It won several times more. The same was true when hunting 405x10. Though, by then I was more cautious, having learned from my many failed attempts with 315 and 365, so I pursued my 10RM personal record one week at a time, one rep at a time, being eaten up only once when hunting that 10RM@405.

First, I got 405x6. The next week it was 405x7. Then 405x8 the week after. But the next week I succumbed, and the bear won… just 8 reps again. I should have pushed for the 9th rep. I quit instead and racked the bar. The following week I got 405x9 and much needed revenge. One week later and well prepared mentally and physically, 405x10 was mine.

The more the bear escapes me, the more I want it. And though I die a little when I see that I quit a set early, I am encouraged, for one day the bear will be mine. Rep after rep I temper myself against the bear, and rep after rep I get strong enough – both physically and mentally – to one day kill the bear.

Hunting is training. Killing is testing. Therefore, not every time I squat am I trying to kill the bear. Most of the time I am training myself in preparation for that moment when I can be successful. To be successful, most of the training should be more difficult than the testing. Because then, when you kill the bear, it will come easier, and you will be more prepared for the next one.

For example, the final workout with 315 pounds the week before I finally hit 315x26 and killed the bear was among the most difficult squat sessions I have ever completed. It was a simple 15 down with 315 pounds: 15 reps, 14 reps, 13 reps… 12… 11… 11 (contemplate quitting because I forgot how to count and did an extra rep)… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… done, and nearly dead. Such workouts were also completed, but on separate days than the kinds of accumulation phase progression that is detailed below. These kinds of workouts served to build capacity by limiting rest and providing novel stimulus that helped me develop specific conditioning and grow mentally sharp (read: practice counting lots of reps while under a bar). 

Another example of conditioning focused training would be doing every minute on the minute (EMOM) workouts where I might try to squat half- or quarter-sets of my previous week’s RM for a predetermined length of time. For example, if last week I squatted 315 pounds for a 10RM, then in my EMOM workout the following week I would do a 15-minute EMOM of 3 rep sets: thus completing 45 reps with 315 pounds. These had the added benefit of training my breath control and keeping my heart rate in check. Though each set is not very fatiguing, the limited rest helped build capacity so that I can push rest lower between those sets in the kinds of workouts detailed in the following section.

Be cunning and daring and you will be victorious.

Find/Hold/Push/Extend (FHPE)

What follows describes an accumulation phase. This is a period in your training where volume progression is the priority. I used this process for squats, as I accumulated reps weekly, stalking my bears. A similar approach can be applied to any lift. Use this approach to hunt and kill your bears.

Below is an example strategy of how to push 365 pounds from a 6 Rep Max (RM) to a 15RM. Doing so more than doubles the volume one is capable of with a weight. This is how I’ve been pushing for the high rep squat goals I have. Let this example serve as a guide for your efforts. I applied these same concepts and similar progression patterns to 405 pounds, as I pushed it from a 5RM to a 10RM, and likewise for my 455-pound and 500-pound rep max goals. The methodical approach detailed in the following section is, more or less, how I achieved every squat set I determined to do this year. Simply take these concepts and apply them to your weights, abilities, and the movement of your choice. 

Week 1: Find 6RM at an easy effort (leaving 2 or more reps of the same quality in the tank.) Then follow that RM with half-sets. These are additional sets with rep values that are half of the RM. Perform a minimum of four and a maximum of six half-sets after the RM, all at the same weight as the RM. If the half-sets are moving with good quality (consistent posture and speed) then you should extend to five to six follow-up half-sets after the RM.

Shortened as: 6RM@365(E)+3 reps x 4 to 6 sets

Week 2: Holding 365 pounds until it becomes a 15RM, this week push for a higher RM. Follow-up volume is performed via half-sets that are adjusted on account of the effort rating of the RM.

            Example: 7RM@365

Assume that the push effort for the RM resulted in a moderate effort (meaning only one rep of the same quality left in the tank) or a hard effort (no reps remaining). In this case, accounting for the higher effort, rounding down the half-sets would be an appropriate call.

            Example: 7RM@365(M or H)+3 reps

This is because by having fewer reps per set in the follow up volume you are more likely going to be able to extend the follow up sets to five or six total after the RM. I have found that a half-set rounded up after a moderate or hard RM results in greater fatigue and more rapid decline in rep quality. By rounding down and doing more sets instead, fatigue is limited while also accumulating the necessary volume to push the weight to a higher RM the next week.

            Example: 7RM@365(M or H)+3 reps x 5 sets

In this example, the sets ended because the last rep of the fifth set reached a moderate to hard rating and the minimum additional volume after the RM had been achieved. Therefore, there was no extra benefit of grinding out a 6th half-set. The goal for the follow up volume is to double RM value. So, if you hit a 7RM you want to get at least 14 total reps via the follow up half-sets. In the above example, 15 reps were completed after the 7RM.

The beauty of doing half-sets after the RM is that they start easy, which results in less fatigue, while also allowing us to get more high-quality volume with a weight. The follow up sets should stop when they become a moderate or hard effort. Should the minimum additional volume not be achieved then I suggest you reduce the half-set value by one or two reps and complete more total sets. In this case, doing singles or doubles once the triples become too difficult, extending those singles or doubles until the minimum volume is achieved; typically just one or two additional sets.

Week 3: Push 365 pounds for a higher RM. Follow-up volume is performed via half-sets that are adjusted on account of the effort rating of the RM.

            Example: 8RM@365(H)

Here only one rep was added but it came at a hard effort (meaning no reps of the same quality were remaining). In this case, the wise choice would be to round down the half-sets, thereby opening the effort gap (the difference between the RM value and the half-sets after) thus allowing for more total sets to be completed without incurring too much fatigue.

Since adding reps each week is the goal, mitigating fatigue is a top priority. When rounding down the half-sets try to do more of them. In this case, if necessary, it is okay to exceed the usual limit of six follow-up sets because each set has fewer reps. Again, the goal here is to at a minimum have the total value of the follow-up half-sets reach twice the value of the RM.

            Example: 8RM@365(H)+3 reps x 4 sets (12 reps) + 2 reps x 2 sets (4 reps) (16 reps total)

The triples worked well until the fourth set, which was again a hard effort. Because of that, a fifth and sixth set of two reps were performed. This way the minimum follow-up set volume was achieved; the lifter completed 16 total reps after the 8RM.

If however the follow up set volume does not reach the minimum amount of doubling the RM, it is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Account for this training fatigue in the next session where this weight will be lifted for even more volume. But to do so, while also limiting fatigue, the RM set can be skipped and only the half-sets will be performed. This way, the most fatiguing set of the workout is removed, resulting in less training fatigue, achieving a kind of deload while also using the same weight and getting more reps in than the week before.

Week 4: Lift 365 pounds for half-sets only. No RM is performed this week because the minimum follow-up set volume was barely achieved the week prior or was not achieved at all.

Here in week four the RM set is skipped to allow for more training volume while mitigating overall fatigue. Because the RM set causes the most fatigue due to greater time under tension, when training fatigue is limiting training volume (as it was in week three), simply remove the one set that causes the most fatigue – the RM set. By doing so, more total volume can be completed.

Example: 365 x 4 reps x 7 sets

The total volume is 28 reps, four more reps than week three which had 8RM+3x4+2x2 (24 reps). Because no RM was performed, the half-sets were pushed from 3 reps to 4 reps and those half-sets were extended to 7 sets.

When skipping the RM set, more half-sets will be needed to beat the volume of the week prior. Should the sixth set of four reps go up smooth and still be easy (meaning two or more reps left in the tank) then attempt a seventh half-set. However, if even one more rep is completed over the training volume in week three, you have still made progress. If you need one more rep, then do it via a single rep set. Like with week 3, the last two or three sets could decrease in value, perhaps going to triples, doubles, singles, or any mix of the three needed to beat the total volume of the week prior.

Week 5: Because no RM set was attempted last week, but the total volume had improved, the RM will attempt to be pushed higher. To account for accumulated fatigue, the effort will be kept at an easy or moderate target.

            Example: 9RM@365(M)+4 reps x5 sets

            The push effort was successful, adding one rep over the week 3 rep max while keeping it within the target effort range. Because the RM was at a moderate effort and training fatigue is still a factor to be mitigated, the half-sets were rounded down. This allowed the follow-up volume to be extended to five sets, for a total of 29 reps in this workout. This added +1 rep over week 4’s total volume.

            Week 6: The RM push will be attempted again, trying to add another rep. A hard effort is allowed for this since it had been two weeks since the last hard effort set. Remember, a hard effort is one in which another rep at the same quality is unlikely. Perhaps another rep could be performed, but it would greatly sacrifice rep quality and incur far too much fatigue, ultimately limiting the accumulation phase. The goal is to sustainably add reps to each training session. To do so, you must be mindful of fatigue as you continue to accumulate training volume with the same weight week in, week out.  

            Example: 10RM@365(H)+5 reps x4 sets

            A total of 30 reps was completed. The RM was at a hard effort, confirming that last week was likely a genuine moderate effort. In this way such weekly push efforts of the same weight serve as a check and balance, informing you of your effort rating accuracy, as well as informing you of how many reps and sets to complete after the RM.

            The half-sets are now pushed from sets of four reps to sets of five reps. This is a minor increase in time under tension through the follow-up volume. A considerable factor when it comes to developing the ability to push the RM higher. For this reason, the half-sets are limited to just four total, thereby matching the half-set volume of the week prior. The one added rep came via the RM being successfully pushed to ten reps. Next week, the RM target will be held at 10RM with the goal that the effort decreases. If so, the half-sets will be extended to five or six sets.

            Week 7: The RM is held to 10 reps with the goal of it being easier. The half-set volume is extended, thus adding to your total training volume.

            Example:  10RM@365(M)+5 reps x5 sets

            The RM got a little easier, but not much. The total volume was beaten by one half-set, making it 35 reps: a gain of +5 reps over last week. The goal for next week will be to again hold the RM target at 10 reps, hoping it is then an easy effort, and if so the half-sets will again be extended to a sixth set.

            Week 8: 10RM remains the target, with easy being the ideal effort. More half-set volume will be added by attempting a sixth set after the RM.

            Example: 10RM@365(E)+5 reps x6 sets

            Because the effort reduced further, the amount of follow-up volume could be fully extended. The sixth set went up at a moderate effort, perhaps allowing for a seventh rep on that final half-set. The RM effort being easy and the half-sets being fully extended indicates that the RM could very likely be pushed next week, which will be the goal.

            Week 9: The RM will be pushed to a hard effort and the half-sets adjusted depending on the effort of the RM set and the resulting fatigue.

            Example: 12RM@365(H)+6 reps x4 sets

            The effort last week was easy, indicating that an RM push this week could result in a gain of +2 reps to the RM. That ended up being the case. The half-sets were completed for six reps each, limiting those to just four sets so as mitigate accumulated training fatigue. Again, the time under tension for each half-set increased, developing the ability to further push the RM in later workouts.

Although the time under tension increased the effort gap decreased, going from a difference of 5 reps in week 8 to a difference of 6 reps in week 8. This means that most of the follow-up volume was very easy, or easy, as the later sets (4 through 6) will get more difficult due to fatigue. Next week, the goal will be to hold the 12RM@365 but hopefully it becomes a moderate or easy effort. If so, then the half-sets will be extended to five or six sets total.

Week 10: The same weight is again repeated for a 12RM with the goal of getting in more follow-up volume via extending the half-sets to five or six sets.

Example: 12RM@365(M)+6 reps x4 sets +3 reps

The RM effort improved, it got a little easier, but the follow-up volume proved to be more taxing. This could be due to bad recovery the days before, or just an inevitable off day. Regardless as to why, the follow-up volume was increased barely by doing a 5th set of just three reps. Such would be a quarter set. Should next week have a similar result, then that 5th set will be pushed for more reps, hopefully then at least getting it for 4 reps, but ideally it will be another half-set of 6 reps next week.

In addition to getting +3 reps over the week prior, the rest was pushed lower. This increased the density of the training session. This was also likely a factor as to why that 5th set couldn’t be completed for six reps. Being mindful of rest will help you improve your work capacity with a weight. So as you are trying to add reps to the workouts, you may also attempt to reduce the rest between each set. However, do not be eager to limit rest too much. Just five to ten seconds less still gets the work done faster.

Week 11: The 12RM will be held, hopefully then landing at an easy effort. If so, more follow-up volume will be completed. Because the effort gap has widened substantially in the last few workouts, limiting rest between the sets has become a more important progression factor. To improve training density, the rest between sets will be limited by a conservative 5 sets less than last week’s training session.

Example: 12RM@365(E)+6 reps x5 sets

The fifth follow-up set was successfully pushed to six reps. That added three reps over the total volume last week. So progress was made. However, the rest was limited further, decreasing it by 5 seconds less between all half-set compared to the week prior. This way, training density increased as the effort gap widened due to the RM effort getting easier and thus the half-sets too becoming easier as well. Next week, the RM will be pushed.  At this point, the bear is within striking distance. It may prove a dreadfully difficult set, but if achieved, you have killed the bear.

Week 12: Because last week’s RM effort was easy and the half-sets were extended to five sets after the RM, while also further limiting rest, the RM will be pushed. The reach goal is to achieve the 15RM target, killing the bear you’ve been hunting for the last three months.

Example: 14RM@365(H)+7 reps x4 sets

The bear killed you. You racked the bar a rep early, believing it to be the hardest set of your life. Maybe it was. Nevertheless, you picked yourself off the floor of the gym and stepped back into the squat rack for the follow-up half-sets. These were not extended and kept for the minimum goal of four sets. The overall volume went up by several reps, which is progress. In addition to adding volume, rest was again pushed down by 5 seconds less between each half-set.

Next week, you will again push the RM, trying to then kill the bear.

Week 13: The RM was hard last week; it will be hard again this week. However, because last week had just four follow-up sets, the total volume did not increase, it remained the same from week 11 to week 12. Such is how the weeks may go when the follow-up set volume is extended as it was in week 11. The volume may even go down after a successful RM push effort, which is often followed by four half-sets or perhaps just two or three, depending on the effort of the RM, how many reps were gained during the push effort, and the level of fatigue.

Because the follow-up sets last week were limited to just four, the result was effectively a time under tension deload, which promoted better recovery and less fatigue heading into this workout. That makes the RM push effort more likely able to reach the 15RM goal.

Example: 15RM@365(H)

You killed the bear. It was hard. Harder than last week. However, that final rep was reached for and grinded out. You learned a valuable lesson: sometimes when you think you don’t have another rep in the tank, you might. Your mind may be fearful and tell you to quit, but you’ve developed the ability to ignore that voice of doubt. This is a different kind of progression, something that is developed in these accumulation phases. When all is needed to progress is just one more rep than last week, you will learn how to make that rep happen, whether that means digging deep and pushing the RM for one more or extending the follow-up volume.


            Keep in mind that the above progression does not perfectly mirror my own. It is close though. All I did was make neater my actual workouts so that the concept could be more easily understood. It took me about 3-months (beginning of March to end of May) to push 365 pounds from a 6RM weight to a 15RM weight. However, that weight hovered around a 5RM to 6RM for two months prior, as I was not actively working with it. Also, while I was trying to gain volume each week with 365 pounds, I was doing other squat workouts during the week to build my strength and/or endurance with another weight. For example, I would be working with 405 or more, developing heavier RM strength as I pushed that weight towards my goal RM sets, listed earlier in this blog. Doing so built my maximal strength in one session while in another session I was developing my squat strength-endurance. These things worked together to develop the long list of squat sets I competed in 2023. 

Likewise, I would be doing workouts where my specific work capacity was the goal, achieving that by limiting rest such as during EMOM workouts as previously mentioned, or an AMRAP (As Many Reps (or Rounds) As Possible). An example workout was a 20-minute AMRAP of 135-pound squats x5 reps, completing as many sets of 5 reps in 20 minutes as possible. I did this workout in early March when I began pushing 365-pounds toward the 15RM goal. This was by far the hardest workout I did in 2023. Because of it I learned just how much I could push mentally, a skill needed when training to kill bears.

Though not necessary, that kind of grueling and terribly painful workout benefited me. It may not be needed for you! Do what work you determine needs to be done. Some of that will be improving your heavier maxes, some of it will be improving your lighter rep maxes, some of it will be focused on specific conditioning (such as that 20-minute AMRAP death squat session), and some of it will be focused on general physical preparedness (GPP) such as sled work or time dedicated to cardio like running, rowing, or cycling. Develop your training plan according to your strengths and weaknesses, be patient while applying consistent effort, and before long you will also have trophy bears.

Train now. Prepare to kill the bear.

The ideal gym fit. Haters will act unimpressed.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.