Let’s Talk About Pain

Brilliant Friends,

I was talking with a buddy yesterday and we came to the subject of his tendonitis that was flaring up and preventing him from training at full capacity.

So I want to take a quick tangent off of powerlifting and talk about pain.

It’s not always from overwork. Yes we all have pushed it a little too hard on the reps or the sets, gotten a little too excited at the gym, and maybe added too much weight to the bar. Tendons, ligaments, muscles do get wear and tear every now and then, causing discomfort, immobility, and sometimes just unbearable pain.

I would know. I’ve had my fair share of lower back tweaks, shoulder impingements, and hamstring strains. These suck, and usually happen from not being prepared for training.

But there’s another kind of pain. The recurring joint pain, the aches, the knots, the stuff that seems to keep coming back and lasting for days or even weeks at a time. The ghosts of injuries past that don’t seem to leave you alone.

I had been suffering from lower back pain for years, ever since a tweak at the gym in high school. The thing was, the pain wasn’t consistent.

Sometimes it would disappear for months on end, and then come crashing down on me one morning. There were days where I had to pace my kitchen for half an hour after waking up to walk out the pain.

My right knee constantly bothered me as well. Sometimes simply walking around was a laborious task. I had banged it up pretty badly in rugby, and after a few months it was completely functional. However, on some days the pain just seared through my knee and prevented me from training.

I didn’t know why these pains were coming and going. I just chalked it up to good days and bad days, and hoped that continuing powerlifting would resolve them for good. When I started powerlifting there was marked improvement in my knee pain. But the bad days kept coming back.

Until I figured out that these pains are due, in large part, to food. That’s right. I think some pain is caused simply by the food we eat,  rather than some muscular or soft tissue damage. When I heard Dave Asprey, the Bulletproof Executive, talking about this, I wanted to test it immediately.

It took me a while to figure out what to eat, but the number one suggestion Asprey gave was to avoid wheat.

I thought this was crazy at first. Half the calories I ate came from wheat. No joke. Toast with breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, PB&J for snacks, and pasta, pizza, or some other type of bread for dinner.

But I gave it a shot, because my pain was bad. I started eating rice more, and had to adjust meals to leave out pastas and bread. It was a little weird at first, but I got the hang of it. And what do you know, things changed quickly.

The first thing I noticed after getting wheat out of my diet for a few weeks was clear headedness. I could literally think better and was less emotional and moody. I used to have minor depression episodes, getting into dips every once in a while. This pretty much disappeared.

I stopped getting food comas. I no longer fell into unplanned naps, waking up with blind rage and frustration that terrified my family and girlfriend. I was calmer, and could be more patient. I was actually nicer.

The craziest part was the physical changes. My joint pain went away. I still got sore and achy after hard training sessions, but the recurring and random pains stopped.

What gives? Apparently, the gluten protein in wheat embeds into the gut wall and allows bacteria to seep out into the blood. Reaching the brain, this contamination causes poor cognitive function and eventually complications. It’s called “brain fog” in the citizen scientist world.

I don’t know how much of the mechanisms are true, but the result seems quite accurate to me.

Gluten also binds to the glucosamine in our joints. This embedding in the molecules that help to cushion joints causes inflammation throughout the body.

After extensive testing and observation, I noticed that for some reason eating wheat caused me pain in the areas that were previously injured. Because of this, I suspect there is a neurological aspect to all of it. Hence, the amplified pain.

The longer I go without wheat, the less believable it is to me that I have ever had joint pain. And then comes the night of pizza or dim sum with friends, and the symptoms return.

Avoiding wheat helped me reach and surpass the peak of my strength. If I had to deal with knee, lower back, and shoulder pain for my heaviest lifts, I would not have been able to focus enough to reach that strength.

Other foods that I find cause inflammation and exacerbate or create pain:

  • Dairy (except grass fed butter, which I eat every day and have no problem with. Butter doesn’t have as many of the milk solids that cause inflammation, plus since it’s grass fed it also lacks the poor quality fats of normal grain based butter.)
  • Fried foods and damaged fats. Fries, chicken, chips and crackers.
  • Cooked vegetable or seed oil, including olive oil. They get damaged so easily that any heat turns them into pain-inducing free radicals.

Try avoiding any one of these for a couple weeks, then splurge again for a day. Observe if there are any improvements, and if you feel any symptoms. Things like sleepiness, low cognitive ability, joint or muscle pain and weakness are symptoms we take for granted. Pay attention and see if they are present.

Be your own judge of what affects you. If it feels crappy to eat something, get rid of it. As much as you can, at least.

I’m curious about whether it’s just me that is experiencing all of the benefits of these habits.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Tell me if you’re having joint pains and if you try eliminating certain foods. I will definitely give you more tips along the way.

To powerful living,

Steve

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Brilliant Friends,

I’m writing about strength. Mobility. Mind cultivation, meditation, focus. Good eating of real food. Earthing and connecting with nature.

Meditate with me, go deep on strength training, throw off your shoes and have the earth’s energy. Eat well, sleep better, be stronger through exploration of food, thought, and form.

Change the world with me. We are each a part of the universe, and as we become better, the universe becomes better. Realize your power. I’m seeking to release my true potential, and I ask you to do the same.

Live powerfully!

Steve

The Brilliant Beast Blog Daily

Recover from Food Poisoning in a Day

Brilliant Friends,

I got sick last night. Super sick.

After dinner, I grabbed some oranges to slice up and found one of them covered in mold. It was sitting on the edge of the fruit basket and didn’t seem to affect the other ones, so I tossed it, cleaned a couple other good-looking oranges, and didn’t think much of it.

At about 5 a.m., I woke up from an unbearable leg ache. I had a training session with squats yesterday, so I thought that was the cause. After about ten to fifteen minutes of squirming around, though, I knew something was wrong. This wasn’t normal aching from lifting. It was really pronounced, and I thought maybe I had gotten a poisonous spider bite or something. A few minutes later, I started getting the chills and shakes. Damn. I was dealing with a full on infection.

The shakes quickly became shudders and uncontrollable, and I was whimpering like a baby. What the hell? Was it really that orange mold that was killing me right now? I finally got the courage to get out of bed, stumble through the dark, and grab my bottle of vitamin C. I took 4g with some water, and crawled shivering back into bed.

The shaking wouldn’t stop, and after a few more minutes I started to feel gas. I thought maybe I would stool and all this craziness would end. Long story short, nothing got better, I ended up puking up dinner and all my vitamin C. I had a fever at this point. I downed four more grams of vitamin C, some coconut charcoal pills, and sea salt, and thankfully got to sleep after a while.

Waking up at about 8:30 a.m., I felt much better. I had a throbbing headache, but the chills and fever were gone. The beauty of vitamin C and charcoal. Ear plugs helped with the headache, and I resorted to taking two small ibuprofen pills. These are a last resort for me, since I rarely get headaches, but today was pretty intense. I got out of bed, made some butter coffee for my sweetie and stored some away for myself for later, and went back to sleep.

At 1:30 p.m. I got out of bed, a little shaky, but okay. The headache was still there, but aside from weakness, the other symptoms had gone. I busted out my thermos full of butter coffee, sat down to read a book, and started feeling better and better. The headache was subsiding as I nourished my swollen brain with gracious amounts of ketones.

By 3p.m. I felt like 75% of my best self, and I had some food to replenish my stolen dinner. This week I’ve been enjoying sweet potato with salted butter, just laying the butter on top cold. I had that with some olives and eggs, and of course a few more grams of vitamin C. All told, I took 10g vitamin C, 6g of which I held down. I’ll probably take about 8g more by the end of the night.

At 5:30p.m. as I write this I am at about 90%. Might even be able to hit a PR later tonight if I had to. Just kidding. But damn it feels good to be back from that hell hole.

I navigated past a similar episode of infection last year, where I caught a pretty bad flu from work and fought it off by the next day. Random infections like food poisoning or the flu don’t have to last longer than a day. Do the effective things, pound the vitamin C, charcoal, and whatever else can counteract the source, and get good fats as quickly as you can keep them down. Salvation is often in your trembling hands.

All told, from 5a.m. to 4p.m.:

  • 10 g vitamin C
  • 2g coconut charcoal
  • 400mg ibuprofen
  • 24oz butter coffee
    • 4tbsp grassfed butter
    • 1tbsp C-8 MCT oil
    • 1tsp cacao butter
    • 1tbsp grassfed collagen powder
    • 1tsp creatine
    • 1/2 stick vanilla beans
    • 2 cups single origin coffee
  • 1 small sweet potato
  • 2 tbsp grassfed butter
  • 3 olives
  • 1/2 cup scrambled eggs (totally random, didn’t have any soft-boiled eggs left but found fiancee’s leftovers)

To powerful living,

Steve

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Meditation and Powerlifting

My Brilliant Friends,

I used to think meditation was for religious people, or Buddhist monks. I first tried it in high school though and noticed some very real benefits to sitting, breathing, and focused mind exercising.

More than just “clearing” the mind, it’s a practice of setting yourself back to zero. Equilibrium.

Meditation helps me to take root in myself and come from a place of solid foundation. I’m aware of myself, who I am, why I think and feel what I do in specific situations, and how I react to cues. Knowing this through quiet breathing and awareness of the things that live in my mind allows me to let it go and just be myself.

During my first powerlifting meet, breathing and awareness helped me to stay calm and focused. More than the amount of weight I was attempting, the newness of everything, the nervousness of being there for the first time, and being in front of the judges and spectators could have been an overwhelming wave of stimuli. I warmed up a bit and went to my car to turn on the emWave2, for some breathing, calming down, and focusing. This substantially leveled me out and positioned me to utilize all my skill and strength that I had built up during training. I successfully achieved my goals for squat and deadlift. Bench press wasn’t a great concern, but I did hit a PR as well.

EmWave Powerlifting Meditation

Some short and long term benefits of meditation that I experience:

  • Calms nerves
  • Self awareness. Seeing where thoughts come from, identifying fears.
  • Letting things go that are necessary baggage
  • Reduces effects of lack of sleep
  • Focus and concentration improve
  • Ability to be clear minded in the middle of stressful situations
  • increases oxygen to the brain and rest of body
  • Happiness
  • Pure joy and bursts of laughter, if you get deep enough long enough
  • Helps relationships, from increased self-understanding
  • Mind healing. You become aware of traumas, sources of stress, and become empowered to work through them.

For powerlifting, it’s invaluable. Anything that requires a high level of performance can benefit from focused breathing and mental equilibrium.

At the 2014 California State Championships in Irvine, I pulled my first “official” deadlift of 391 lb. Watch me take a deep breath in and out before grabbing the bar, in front of the judges and everyone.

I didn’t really know if that was gonna come across as weird, but I wanted to give it a try because it’s something I do at the gym before challenging sets. Most often, at the peak of our performance demands, the challenge isn’t in our musculoskeletal capabilities, but in our minds’ ability to allow that power to be released in full.

On my hardest training days, when I had trouble getting myself to put on my shoes and get out the door, it was a battle of my mind. I didn’t want to face the heavy weight on the bar, for fear of failing, fear of getting injured, fear of being weak. I dragged myself many times to the gym when I did not want to go. And when I got there, most of those days I performed better than ever once I tucked my head under the bar and lifted it off the rack. The key was to jump through the fear, grip the bar, and do what I knew I could do.

Tim Ferriss encouraged me through his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, to “feel the fear and do it anyways.” He challenges his readers to identify the worst case scenario, the thing we feel most afraid of, and when we do that, we realize it’s not so bad after all.

To do this, especially in the moments of paralyzation from our greatest fears, it helps to have trained yourself to go the route of courage. I’m more able to face challenges now if I am meditating regularly and identifying my weaknesses, my kryptonites, and simply knowing that they exist. I recognize my weaknesses in real time because I know them. I practice pausing before I react, focus on the problem at hand, and harness my resources and skills to effectively address the problem.

When the problem is a heavy weight in front of me, and fear of getting crushed by it, getting injured, or embarrassed, it’s in the mind that I first address all of this. I take a moment away from the bar, close my eyes, and take a deep breath or two or three. I concentrate on the breath going out, revel in my brain’s love of oxygen, and come back to my core self. I become me again, let go of the thoughts and nagging possibilities, and when I’m clear and strong, I open my eyes and step up to the bar.

Only then can I grip the bar, suck in air, and crush it.

To powerful living,

Steve

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Steve EmWave2 Meditation Powerlifting

Note: the links to the EmWave2, which is a heart-rate variability device used to aid in meditation, and the book The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, are affiliate links with Amazon.com. I get a percentage of their sale if you use the link to make a purchase. I only share things that have made a significant impact on my life in this blog. Hope you check them out and enjoy!

Powerlifting and Progression Strength Training

Building Sustained and Undeniable Strength

My breakthrough in strength was unexpected after football in high school and rugby in my college years. I didn’t expect to get much stronger than my prime sporting days in my early twenties.

At the peak of my strength, I hit a maximum squat of 315 lb. for three reps. This was 1.85x my body weight. At age 24 I knew I was pretty strong for my size, but I measured myself mostly by what I looked like. I kept lifting heavy weights with flawed mechanics, enough to repeatedly agitate old sports injuries. I didn’t know what to do after reaching plateaus, so if I couldn’t hit a weight that I had lifted previously I would try it again next time until I either got a muscle or tendon tweaked, or until I just got tired of trying.

My workouts became oscillating cycles of programming, with no measurable progress. I rarely allowed myself to recover. I didn’t really believe in recovery. I thought that if I took a break in my workouts I would get skinny and weak, which actually was true back then. Eventually I realized I was getting nowhere. Although I looked ripped, I was miserable with pain, fatigue, and lack of purpose.

In the spring of 2012 I got busy finding answers to these problems. I’m going to talk here about how progression strength training completely changed my outlook on exercise and solved many of the problems that came from the aimless upkeep of workouts and body building programs.

Progression Strength Training

After years and years of intense physical training on the field and in the gym, my top squat was 315lb. for three reps. After just 36 weeks of progression strength training, though, I squatted 340lb. for 3 sets of 5 reps. How is that possible? I used a 5×5 method described by Mehdi Hadim at Stronglifts.com. It is a powerlifting program specifically geared for gaining strength, and I produced enormous results from it using three key tenets: form, consistency, and progression.

Form: start from zero

I listened to Mehdi, scrapped my old ways, and implemented better habits of technique. I learned to back squat at parallel, knees out, and back straight. I recorded video of myself from the side and back to ensure I was nailing down form. I thought I knew how to squat properly until I actually taped myself and watched. It took several days of practice for me to get myself in the correct positions with a broomstick. I did this at home, barefoot without weights.

You must ingrain form starting with very light or no weights in order to prepare for the immense challenges that will come. It is my belief that the only way to do this is to practice until you can do the movements correctly without thinking. When you are at the peak of your abilities, every ounce of mind strength will be needed just to pack your gym bag and get yourself in front of the loaded bar. At this point, it will be too late to think about each body part and mechanism. You won’t have the mental capacity to overcome your fear under the bar. You must do the hard stuff and master form early so that on your heaviest sets ever, every watt of brain power is spent on telling yourself you can do it. This is absolutely crucial to progress.

Start with the end in mind and commit yourself to mastering form.

Consistency: do what is effective over and over

There are just five powerlifting movements. The Squat, Deadlift, Overhead Press (OHP), Bench Press, and Pendlay Row. Kelly Starrett would define these as “Category One” movements in his book, Becoming a Supple Leopard. It means there is no disconnection of tension throughout the movement. You pick up the weight in a static starting position and do the movement without any tosses or sudden position changes. They are simple exercises and do not require complicated speed and timing.

They are each done for 5×5, meaning five sets of five repetitions. The squat is done every session, and all five exercises are grouped into two sessions:

Day A: Squat, Bench, Row

Day B: Squat, OHP, Deadlift

I used no other exercises in trying to build strength. No accessory lifts, no machines, no pushups or pullups. Just these five. I did utilize mobility techniques and warm ups for almost every session, but there was no need for the bells and whistles.

Three days a week with two days of rest between each week. As the weight becomes intermediate and then advanced, the periods of rest will lengthen and a “week” will be more than seven days long. This is why I use the term “cycle” instead of “week”, because it often took me longer than a seven day stretch to complete three sessions. It took me a while to accept that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Cycle One: A, B, A

Cycle Two: B, A, B

And so forth, until you reach plateaus and move on to the next training program.

I am only giving you my specific experience with the program here. See Stronglifts 5×5 for more details on the program, and scroll to the bottom for a helpful spreadsheet that maps out a plan for you.

Progression: beauty and monstrosity

The weight you lift on each exercise is increased by 5lb. every session. So the squat progression, if started at 45lb. (an unloaded barbell) would look like:

Week 1

Day 1: 45lb.

Day 2: 50lb.

Day 3: 55lb.

Skip ahead to Week 4

Day 1:  90lb.

Day 2: 95lb.

Day 3: 100lb.

The weight quickly increases. This is the beauty and the monstrosity of progression. I suggest you start at a much lower weight than you normally lift. If you can conquer your ego, start with the bar, a kettle bell, or just your body weight. It is crucial that you lift with only the best form and that you are ready for the immense challenges down the road. Plus you are going to get your ass kicked much sooner if you start too heavy.

This is the progression that I went through:

Start Date 3/19/12

Week 1 Day 1: 95lb.

Week 3 Day 2: 135lb.

Week 8 Day 1: 200lb.

Week 14 Day 1: 285lb.

Week 15 Day 1: 300lb.

I’m not going to lie, things got scary quick. Remember this is at 5×5. I was glad I had prepared myself with decent form at the beginning, so that all I had to deal with was my scared little mind. Start with the end in mind and prepare yourself well for that end.

De-loading: the magic of progression

Each of the five exercises will challenge you at different rates. I started my squat at 95lb. (because I couldn’t get past my ego) and progressed to 315lb. at week 16 before hitting a plateau. This means that I was not able to squat 315lb. for five sets of five reps on my first try. Below are my actual repetitions:

(315lb.) Week 16, Day One: 5, 4, 4, 4, 4

(315lb.) Week 16, Day Two: 5, 5, 4, 5, 4

(315lb.) Week 16, Day Three: 4, 3, 4, 4, 2

My mind crapped out by that third session, and I could not go any further. That was okay. This, too, is the beauty of progression. When you reach a plateau, or a stalling point, in your progression, you “de-load” the weight for that specific exercise.

The standard de-load is 20%. From 315lb. I de-loaded to 285lb. on my next session.

(285 lb.) Week 17 Day One: 5, 5, 5, 5, 5

The next time I hit the same weight would have been at least a couple of weeks later, after some recovery. This is not just physical recovery, but more importantly, mental recovery. At the highest level of training, my mind started to discourage me from doing something that it perceived as dangerous. De-loading helped to reset my reference point, letting me “start over” and feel some confidence with easier sessions.

Undeniable Strength

When I reached that same training weight the second time, it felt easier and more doable. I succeeded in completing all the sets. I surpassed my first plateau, and I knew I was significantly stronger.  I continued with the training sessions until I reached my next plateau. This came much sooner than the first one, since I was pushing the envelope now.

I started the 5×5 program on March 19, 2012 with a 95lb. squat. I progressed to a 320lb. squat in 26 weeks and reached three plateaus. At that point I lowered the number of sets to three instead of five. 3×5 is the next step after 5×5 that is suggested by Stronglifts, and it helped to continue my strength improvement. On November 17, 2012 I completed three sets of five reps at 340 lb.

(340 lb.) Week 35, Day Two 11/15/12: 5, 3, 4

(340 lb.) Week 35, Day Three 11/17/12: 5, 5, 5

(342.5 lb.) Week 36, Day One (Date not recorded): 4, 4, 4

Obviously, I already had a low to intermediate level of strength which allowed me to get pretty far before my first plateau. However, this program ingrained form and provided a consistent mechanism through which I reached a higher level of strength. I wasn’t just doing a one-rep max of 320lb. I was doing five sets of five reps at 320lb.

I can’t tell you how far you will go on the 5×5 program. But I do know that it can bring you deep into your potential for strength. Progression strength training will challenge you in a way that other programs won’t. It is an effective starting point for building strength beyond your belief.

Get the 5×5 spreadsheet from Stronglifts.com here. It’s free and this is not an affiliate link. I just want to you try it and find results that you did not think possible. Let me know in the comments section if you have any questions or if you want to share your own results from using 5×5 training!

Live powerfully,

Steve

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Strength Training Session: Madcow Cycle Six, Day Two

My Brilliant Friends,

I want to share some clips and details of my training this past Friday. I’m on my second run of a training program called Madcow, which you can read about here.

Training looked like this for me on day 2 of cycle 6:
Day Two: 5 repetitions each set
  • Squat 142, 177, 212, 212 – completed
  • Overhead Press (OHP) 84, 101, 117, 134 – completed only three reps
  • Deadlift 208, 249, 291, 332 – completed
Next session will look like this:
Day Three: 4×5, 1×3, 1×8 six sets
  • Squat 5x(142, 177, 212, 248), 3x 290, 8x 212
  • Bench 5x(91, 113, 136, 158), 3x 185, 8x 136
  • Row 5x(72, 89, 107, 125), 3x 147, 8x 107

The bolded numbers are the work sets, and the rest are warm up and warm down sets.

More on Day Two

Day Two is a fun session with OHP and Deadlifts. These two exercises only occur once per cycle, so each time I do them I’m trying to hit a new max. On Day Two, the squat is a lighter session with no maximum to hit.

Squat and Warm Ups

Since squats are light on Day Two, there’s not too much stress. However, I use this down time to focus on form and mobility. A few points about my squats on this session:

  • Hip mobility – I always start with this exercise on both sides of the hips to expand mobility and get my hips rotating outward after all that sitting at work.
  • Warm up sets are key to powerful lifting without injury. There’s no way I can load maximum weight and squat it first thing. I start with an empty bar and work my way up. The Madcow program has the warm up built into it, with progressively heavier weights until the work set.
  • Proper depth means that the hip joint goes below the knee joint. Period.
  • You can see that my rib cage is slightly opening up as I go down. This is caused by a couple factors: stiff knees and ankles, and tight hips. I had a two week break since my last session, and was sitting a lot at work. Killed my mobility! To compensate for stiff knees and ankles, my torso extended in order for me to get into the “hole”, or the bottom of the squat. Not good. Supple ankles and knees allow for more outward movement of the knees, allowing the torso to remain upright and straight as it moves down into the hole. Homework for me.
  • Tight hips also contributed to my torso bending. Hip tightness impedes the natural outward rotation of the upper legs as you pull yourself down into the hole. In addition to the knees and ankels, outward rotation of your thighs allows your abdomen and torso to descend upright and aligned, without bending and losing tension.

I’ve been working on keeping my torso a rock solid pillar throughout the squat, to stabilize my spine and allow more effective power transfer from my legs and hips. Any bending in the torso absorbs power and steals it away from upward push. It also puts my back at risk of injury. So I’ve got to work on keeping my legs supple because by the next session, I’m going to have trouble hitting my next 3-rep set if I can’t keep a rock solid torso!

Overhead Press (OHP)

OHP adds some fun to the mix, because it requires a bit more finesse. I have been focusing on keeping my torso solid throughout this lift as well, and it gets tricky for a different reason from the squat. I noticed that when the weight got heavy my ribcage would lift, to allow my pecs to engage the weight.

Keeping my ribcage down

  • minimizes pectoral involvement
  • requires greater mobility of the shoulders, and
  • allows for an even distribution of deltoid engagement front to back.

The OHP requires some animal strength, but more focus and attention. I couldn’t muster the mental focus needed to hit all five reps. Next time!

Deadlift

I try to put out 400% effort on the deadlift, at the end of the session. You can see me taking a pause the top before my last set, and I’m actually taking in a breath before I lower into the last pull. Why do I do this? First of all, I’m spent and needed a pause. It’s better to rest at the top of the deadlift, rather than at the bottom, even though it’s counterintuitive. When you’re standing, you have skeletal support. In the lowered position, you’re flexing just to be there.

But more importantly, I’m getting air into my torso while standing, where there’s not as much pressure, instead of at the bottom, where it’s too late to try to create abdominal pressure. It’s a trick that comes in handy for heavy multi-rep sets, especially when you’re tired and need to rest for a second.

At the top of my last pull, I hold the bar for a count of ten (fast count this time, I was spent!) to increase grip strength. It’s a great opportunity, with no other exercises to follow, to train the grip. If you can hold it for longer, go for it.

Next Session

Some relative max weights to come in my next session. I say relative because I’ve lifted more weight than the ones I’m going to do next session, but for this iteration of Madcow it’s the most yet.

Thanks for reading, hope you do something with this. Love to hear your thoughts below.

To powerful living,

Steve

Madcow: A Snapshot

Brilliant Friends!

If you have reached a couple plateaus on a basic 5×5 strength training program, move on to Madcow.

Mehdi Hadim of Stronglifts 5×5 advises using this program after the basic 5×5 program, and I agree. It’s a bit more advanced than an integral progression, and the jumps in weight from cycle to cycle are larger. So in other words, you’re increasing each week by percentages, rather than by specific weight increments like 2.5 or 5 lb.  Some basic tenets of the program are:

  • Exercises start light and progress to a heavy work set.
  • Most sets consist of five repetitions.
  • Three training sessions in a cycle, with squats on every session.
  • The last session, or Day Three, of each cycle presents a 3-rep max on the squat, bench, and row. This max becomes the next work set for Day One of the new cycle.
  • Do the basic 5×5 first, then move on to Madcow. Don’t skip the basics, if you’re not squatting at least 200 lb. with form.
The program looks like this for me on cycle 6:
Day One: 5×5 each set
  • Squat 142, 177, 212, 248, 283
  • Bench 91, 113, 136, 158, 181
  • Pendlay Row 72, 89, 107, 125, 143
Day Two: 4×5 each set
  • Squat 142, 177, 212, 212
  • Overhead Press (OHP) 84, 101, 117, 134
  • Deadlift 208, 249, 291, 332
Day Three: 4×5, 1×3, 1×8 six sets
  • Squat 5x(142, 177, 212, 248), 3x 290, 8x 212
  • Bench 5x(91, 113, 136, 158), 3x 185, 8x 136
  • Row 5x(72, 89, 107, 125), 3x 147, 8x 107
Cycle 7, Day One: 5×5 each set
  • Squat 145, 181, 218, 254, 290
  • Bench 93, 116, 139, 162, 185
  • Pendlay Row 74, 92, 110, 129, 147

Click here to see the spreadsheet. You can plug in your own numbers and get weeks of programming laid out for you.

To powerful living,

Steve

Overhead Press Madcow Training Session One

No More Protein Shakes: How to  Eat Like a Human and Still Be Strong

My Brilliant Friends,

Last March I hit a squat of 370 lb. and a deadlift of 391 lb. without protein shakes. That’s a squat of 2.2x my body weight of 168 lb. That may seem like a lot, but I’m a normal guy and I just learned to do a few things right.

My strength results came after a year of effective eating paired with progression strength training. I was able to take the 5×5 powerlifting system much further than most people, because I adopted an unusual nutritional philosophy. If your primary focus is getting strong and lean, you don’t have to go the route of whey protein and chicken breast. Also, the prescription of six meals a day is overkill.

In fact, I ate less food and skipped the protein shakes for a 65 lb. increase in my squat. I did two things with food that changed everything: I started the day with healthy fats, and ate carbs at night. These simple adjustments took my strength to a new level. It wasn’t easy to change my habits, but the results came fast.

Effective Eating

By changing when I ate certain foods, I effected greater focus and strength output during training sessions and physical activities. My energy level multiplied, and my strength surpassed my expectations.

Carbohydrates at Night

This sounds crazy to some of you, because most people say that carbs at night make you fat. That’s conventional wisdom. Here’s my secret: I usually only eat carbs at night, and never in the morning. Why?

Think of your energy on a scale of zero to five, five being razor-focused and kicking ass, zero being non-functional and getting your ass kicked. Then think of your hunger on a scale of zero to five, zero being starved and five being completely satiated. My perceived energy and hunger levels after eating carbs for breakfast:

Energy Vs Hunger Graph

With the effects shown above, it didn’t make sense for me to eat carbs first thing in the morning. I may have felt lively as I was eating, but by the time I was ready to get work done my focus was crashing. Soon after that my stomach would grumble, and then I would get moody and just want people out of my way so I could hurry up and eat again. It didn’t work for me.

The same was true for strength training. I would get an energy crash just as I got to the gym, and it sucked. Suddenly the motivation I was feeling an hour before disappeared, and I would have a sober time getting warmed up and lifting. I would be tired during my training session and unfocused, and this often led to small injuries from bad form and overworking myself.

So if I didn’t eat carbs in the morning, what did I eat?

Fat in the Morning

Two years ago, my gym buddy introduced me to BULLETPROOF® Coffee. It’s a strange recipe consisting of grass fed butter, MCT oil, and coffee, from the Silicon Valley biohacker named Dave Asprey, at The Bulletproof Executive. From the first time I drank this butter coffee concoction in the mornings, I met incredible results: my energy level shot through the roof, it was sustained throughout the day without any other food, and I was rock-steady focused.

Using the same scale of zero to five from our carb-heavy breakfast graph, here are my perceived energy and hunger levels on nothing but good fats in the morning:

Energy Vs Hunger Fat Graph

I found that I could go eight to twelve hour days without lunch. And I was not crawling, either. I managed staff of a busy call center, I was reading, writing, and meditating, and I took pride in doing these things with focus and attention.

So I flipped my eating. I had carbs only toward the end of the day, and only good fats in the morning. This gave me access to unparalleled energy from morning to night, and allowed me to restore my need for energy without interfering with activities during the day. For dinner, I went all out. I ate multiple servings of rice if I felt the hunger, and I had fruits and desserts. Then, I would relax and go to bed feeling good. The best part was, in the morning, I was not fat.

Sure, this is my own perception of energy and hunger. There are obviously a lot of complex things going on with hormones, catabolism and anabolism, and I’m not going to say that I have measured or understand all of those mechanisms. I do know that fat works better for me than carbs by orders of magnitude in the morning.

That’s it. These are my two most effective principles of food timing, around which all other eating falls into place. Carbs at night, fats in the morning.

Starting with Fat for Strength Training

The most amazing thing was that starting with fat was optimal for strength training too. I was scared at first that I would faint during my training because I wasn’t eating any carbohydrates. When you have 200 lb. on your back you don’t want to lose consciousness. But guess what? Not only did I stay conscious, I was more focused and had more power output than if I had eaten carbs. A quick list of benefits of training with fat as fuel:

  • No heavy “digestion” slump that is typical after eating carbs, so I’m able to start my first exercise as quickly as 15 to 30 minutes after having butter coffee.
  • Absolutely razor focused during sessions. Able to control every minutiae of form at the bottom of the heaviest squats.
  • More presence and control during exercises means less fear with peak weights on my back.
  • Far less of crazy “beast mode” and just blindly tearing through exercises.
  • No injuries from squatting 3x per week for 30+ weeks on the 5×5 progression strength training program.

Here’s what a training day looks like for me:

  • Normally I have two cups of butter coffee first thing in the morning.
  • Before training sessions, I add a tablespoon of collagen powder to my coffee along with the butter and MCT oil. This gives my body the building blocks for joint and connective tissue repair.
  • When I don’t train, I omit the collagen, since it makes me hungry within about four hours. On training days, since I was going to eat after my session anyway, hunger was okay.
  • I usually read, write, meditate, stool, and then hit the gym about an hour or two after finishing my coffee.
  • After training, I usually eat white rice mixed with grass fed butter, meat, and dark green veggies like kale, broccoli, or spinach. This is usually leftovers from the night before. If I don’t have any leftovers I make eggs and bacon.

Observe your energy and focus levels in the morning. Do you eat breakfast, and if so, what does that look like? Note how long it takes for you to start to feel hungry. Pay attention to these two factors at lunch time. Did you train or exercise one or two days before? Take note of these baseline factors and your levels of energy and hunger. Then try adding good fats to your morning, and take note of any differences.

Brilliantly Effective Foods

Now for the actual foods that worked the greatest wonders for me: meat and fats from grass fed or wild animals, leafy veggies, rice, and more. Let’s start with the healthy fats.

Butter Coffee

I discovered the power of fat in my diet soon after that fateful day that my training buddy suggested I try Bulletproof Coffee. This drink serves as an amazing energy source from fats, and is unparalleled as fuel for a strength training session. See my butter coffee recipe for amazing taste and texture tips. From the Bulletproof Executive website I started my journey of learning that fats give me more energy for longer periods of time than carbs. I started by having a small cup of butter coffee with my breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, and avocado, and eventually found that the beverage alone gave me  enough energy for my training sessions.

Quick breakdown of butter coffee as the ultimate natural fuel:

  • The grass fed butter provides vitamins, saturated fats, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats, and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). It is very filling too.
  • Medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil consists of C-8 and C-10 fatty acids that pass easily from the gut to the brain and rest of the body for quickly usable energy in the form of ketones.
  • The coffee, of course, has flavonoids and antioxidants that enhance focus and drive during training and intense mental activities.

This drink is clean-burning rocket fuel that gives me maximal focus, endurance, and strength output. For my recipe and links to get ingredients for yourself, see my post on how to Hack Your Butter Coffee.

Save Money on Ineffective Lunches

Having my coffee blended with grass fed butter every morning makes sense micro-economically.  I eat no breakfast other than butter coffee. This saves me time on food prep and cleaning (blender, table knife, and measuring spoons). Because it’s so filling, I don’t eat lunch, unless I trained the day before.

Looking at a very low end of $10 per restaurant lunch in Los Angeles, that is saving me more than $40 per week. This alone makes up for the weekly cost of my butter coffee, which for me includes 1.5 cups of grass fed butter per week (less than $5), 10 tbps. of Brain Octane oil ($5.49), and 30 g of coffee ($0.54) as a baseline. I do add other elements to enhance flavor and performance, so I’m spending about $11 a week. Not taking dinner into account, and excluding the cost of breakfast that I no longer eat, I am 3-4 times more food-cost-efficient from morning to evening than I used to be. Take my previous cost of breakfast, which usually consisted of two to three eggs, bacon, and toast, I am at least 5x more food cost-efficient than I was three years ago.

This isn’t to say you’ll be able to go a whole day with just butter coffee from day one, two, three, or even day seven. It took a few weeks for me to get to a state of metabolism where I could effectively use fat alone for energy. You may need to try it a few times and see how it works for you, in addition to your regular meals. I eventually got more accustomed to the calorie profile of fats and need less food for the same amount of energy. I suggest adding it to what you already do, and adjust as you go.

The usual exception to no lunches is after strength training sessions or some physical activity the day before. For the next day, and sometimes two days later, I feel hungry midday. If I want to make time for lunch on these days I might have a salad with some wild salmon and sweet potatoes, with dressing made from MCT oil and vinegar. If I don’t eat lunch, it takes about a day longer for me to recover from training. However, my focus isn’t affected during the day.

Kill 1 p.m. Meetings and End the Day on Fire

Not only am I more efficient, I am more effective. Having butter coffee in the morning without carbs gives me razor focus that is sustained for hours and hours. I can focus on tasks and interact effectively with people as late as 10 or 11 p.m. I’m definitely not 100% at the end of the day, but I’m rarely “hangry”, moody, or in any sort of an energy crisis.

I feel great from the start of my morning through lunch hour, when most people need to go get something to eat. It saves me time, energy, and attention when I can continue on with a task and not have to stand in line for a $15 sandwich and soda. I also don’t have a post-lunch crash, because I just don’t have lunch. While others are nodding off during one o’clock meetings, I’m driven and focused.

Yes, I do have some crazy days when I am up early in the morning, skip lunch even though I trained the day before, and don’t eat dinner until 11 or 12 p.m. It doesn’t make me the happiest human on earth, but I can operate just fine. I can do this effectively because of the good fats that I eat to start my day, and butter coffee is the perfect vehicle for this nutrition.

Grass Fed Butter

I use Kerrygold grass fed butter in just about everything I eat. It makes up the bulk of my morning energy source in butter coffee. Butter is also great when melted into almost anything, especially rice. I like to do the classic slab of butter on top of steak, and it’s also great when melted onto steamed or sauteed veggies. Broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, bok choy, spinach, collard greens, you name it, I’ve tried grass fed butter with all of them and they pass my “Damn, that’s good” taste test.

Cooking with grass fed butter:

I use butter for cooking everything from eggs to beef stew to fish to chicken curry. It’s a little more delicate than regular grain fed butter, and smokes at a lower temperature.

  1. Melt it at a very low temperature, not enough to fizzle into a brown mess.
  2. If you need to cook at slightly higher temperatures for larger meat chunks or to get that grilled effect, first heat coconut oil, pork, or beef fat, then add the butter on top. This blends the smoking points of the two fats and you get a higher smoking point from the butter than you normally would by itself.
  3. When possible, it’s better to steam food like rice or veggies first, then add butter later to melt.
  4. Add spices like garlic, shallots, or jalapeno to the butter and let brown a bit before adding meat or veggies. Gives depth to your dish.

Grass Fed Ground Beef

Some of the long term benefits I am seeing from eating grass fed beef:

  • Fuller recovery after training
  • Better sleep
  • Improved mood
  • More flexible joints and muscles
  • Better skin, hair and nails
  • No smelly burps or room-filling gas that come with normal grain fed beef

Ground beef is the most practical form for cooking:

  • Break it up in butter in a large saucepan and add broccoli, kale, or other veggie
  • Form into meatballs with cumin, chipotle, minced onion.
  • Make into a sauce for rice pasta dishes

My trusted source of grass fed beef is Alderspring Ranch in Idaho.

Wild Caught Fish

Best alternative to grass fed beef, full of vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. My favorite fish:

  • Salmon
  • Cod
  • Red Snapper
  • Pike mackerel
  • Sardines (most are wild caught!)

Easy and fast to cook:

  • In a pan, low heat, with grass fed butter
  • In a spicy soup base
  • Baked, seasoned with plenty of sea salt, maybe some dill

I get Alaskan Wild By Nature Copper River sockeye salmon, who are partnered with Alderspring Ranch.

Dark Green Leafy Veggies

These are super healthy and make me feel great the next morning. My favorites:

  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Chinese Broccoli
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Bok Choi

I have found these to be simple to cook and the easiest to find at farmer markets. It’s hard to go wrong with them if you use a few simple rules:

  • Minimal cooking
  • Proper flavoring
  • Variation

Minimal Cooking

Most green leafy veggies don’t need much heat to be edible. You can sauté kale slightly in butter over low heat for just a couple of minutes, and cover to steam for another minute or two, and it’s done. You want it to still be green and fresh looking when you eat it. The trick with veggies that have thick stems and delicate leaves is to start cooking the stems and add the leafy parts later.

Flavoring Veggies

Super easy with combinations of herbs, spices, and acids. For European and American-style dishes try:

  • Lemon or apple cider vinegar
  • Black pepper
  • Cumin
  • Chipotle
  • Jalapeno

For Asian-style dishes try:

  • Soy sauce
  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Sake
  • Green onion
  • White pepper
  • Sesame oil
  • Shiitake

Most of these veggies go supremely well with ground beef. I usually start with the beef, adding the veggies while the beef is still a bit pink to avoid overcooking it. Salt it to taste, don’t be afraid of salt. Spinach can be blanched, rinsed, and mixed with soy sauce, sesame oil, and green onions for an amazing dish that is popular with Koreans. Try it with rice and fish.

Vary what you eat day to day

Of course, you will eventually find the few things that make the most sense to you and taste the best. This makes it easy to rotate recipes so you don’t get sick of any one food.

Soft-Boiled Eggs

Boiled eggs, what a lost art. Having a stock of soft-boiled eggs is great for quick meals. The secret is to use a steamer. If you do it in this order exactly, I promise you the eggs will be delicious.

  1. Set up a steamer in a large pot. Add water to just below the bottom of the steamer.
  2. Get the water boiling.
  3. Set a timer for 7 minutes for liquid yolk, 8 minutes for firm but golden yolk.
  4. Add as many eggs as reasonably fits without stacking (try stacking them, why not).
  5. Start timer.
  6. When timer goes off, turn off heat.
  7. Fill pot with cold water, drain. Don’t worry, the eggs won’t crack. The miracle of natural architecture.
  8. Repeat. The second time, leave the eggs for a few minutes to cool down.

Rice

White rice mixed with some brown and black rice cooked in a steamer is my main source of carbohydrates at night. I love melting in grass fed butter after cooking the rice and mixing it together. It’s a great way to get more healthy fat and it tastes amazing. Rice is clean-burning fuel for me, doesn’t have any gluten and other harmful proteins found in wheat, and is always my go to.

I usually cook a bunch, store what I don’t eat in tupperware, and reheat over the stove with a little water in the pot when I need it. Simple, delicious, and effective.

Japanese Sweet Potatoes

Second to rice, I’ve found that Japanese sweet potatoes are an awesome source of easily digestible carbs. I don’t get food coma after eating these, even if it’s midday. Steam a few for 20-30 minutes, until super soft, and eat them when they’re cooled to room temperature. I eat the peel and all. Store leftovers in the fridge after cooling.

Supplements

My supplementation is based on the BULLETPROOF DIET™ created by Dave Asprey and this supplements page. These are the things I take daily.

Vitamin D

1000 IU per 25 lb. body weight, which means 7000 IU for me in the morning. If I know I’m going to be outdoors I take less. Genetic function, calcium distribution, hormone formation.

Vitamin C

6000 mg daily. Antioxidant, supports immune function. I take more if I feel an infection coming on.

Vitamin K2

2,000 mcg daily for calcium distribution to bones and away from arteries.

Methyl B12

5000 mcg daily for brain cell and nerve tissue repair and support in conjunction with methyl folate.

Methyl Folate

800 mcg daily for cardiovascular function and neurological health in conjunction with B12.

Magnesium

600 mg nightly for relaxation, enzyme function, muscle function, and calcium balance.

Iodine (Kelp)

1000 mg nightly for thyroid function, immune function, brain protection.

Avoid Non-Effective Foods

Yes, we all have splurges every once in a while. But for a routine diet, when the aim is to focus, maintain good mood, create a healthy body, and gain strength, some foods are not effective for me. Here are the foods I avoid and why:

Wheat, bread and pasta

Joint pain, brain fog and headache, energy crash, lowered immune system function.

Sugar

Energy crash, cavities, feeds “bad” gut bacteria, organs don’t feel good.

Dairy

Acne, gas, brain fog.

Vegetable Oils

Oxidation, inflammation, and fat gain. Canola, seed oils, even olive oil can be harmful if cooked.

Damaged fats

From overcooking or reuse for deep-frying: Similar to vegetable oils.

A lot of these are my kryptonite. They are tempting and addictive, especially when I’m stressed and tired and don’t have good food prepared. I have “relapses”, when I splurge on bread or sweets or fried foods. The results are always the same, and I eat knowing the consequences.

The best way for me to avoid non-effective foods is to stock up on good foods, have a solid routine for meal prep, and embrace the benefits of effective eating. This only starts with one good food or eating habit at a time, so start with small, effective steps. Observe your results, and keep using the stuff that works.

To powerful living,

Steve

Barefoot Powerlifting

Brilliant Friends,

I had a great session of strength training this past weekend and I did it all barefoot. Try it! Some things to note when powerlifting barefoot:

  • Have fun! That’s what it’s all about.
  • It’s building the arches back into my flat feet. Don’t let the fact that you have flat feet keep you from trying this, if you have the same problem I do. I have noticed an improvement from just three sessions of barefoot squats.
  • You will realize that your feet are like specialized hands to stabilize you. Use them to grip the ground.
  • If it’s not a barefoot-friendly gym, try gathering the big weights close to your squat rack before taking off your shoes. Don’t want to be wandering the gym without shoes.
  • Minimize the number of steps back you take when unracking the bar for a squat. Doing it barefoot will make you realize how important it is to plan the position of your feet. You don’t want to overdo the backwards steps with all that weight on you. I was able to take just one step back for each foot, without hitting the rack during the squats.
  • Start light. Like any major change in your strength training routine, you want to build up to it, not crash into it. I have been practicing barefoot walking outside for the past six months, and have been very careful with my form when lifting barefoot. I do my mobility and warmups barefoot as well, to get my feet accustomed. So far, so good!

Have you tried this? What differences do you find, if any, between lifting barefoot and lifting with shoes. And, what shoes do you wear for lifting?

To powerful living,

Steve

Flatfeet Arches 1

On Being Recovered

How do I know if I’m ready to train again? Recovery can be a difficult thing to measure. Rather than focus on the doing, I focus on the being. No matter how well I eat, how much sleep I get, and how hard my last training session was, I measure my recovery based on Symptoms. This is how I feel upon waking. After reading this you might think these are soft and subjective measures, and they totally are. But I trust these signs because my mind and body are connected, and I have noticed that I benefit most from training when I feel all these symptoms.

Symptoms of being recovered:

1. Waking up fresh in the morning. You open your eyes and feel

  • Calm.
  • Positive energy.
  • Positive excitement.

2. Heart Rate Variability is high with minimal effort.

  • During breathing awareness practice, or meditation, you are able to focus quickly.
  • If you have the EmWave or other HRV measuring tool: You are able to get to Green or high HRV relatively quickly and you are able to stay there relatively easily. Compare this to any other day’s mental performance.
  • You have high control of your mind, and your mind is quiet. You are excited and thinking of what you can do or accomplish as you wake up and get your day started.
  • You have easy control of your breath, and breathing feels good and your lungs feel strong. You can breathe deep, both in and out.

    Taking a quiet moment in my car to breathe and get my HRV higher before my powerlifting meet. This helped me to stay focused throughout that tense, crazy day and hit two PR's.
    Taking a quiet moment in my car to breathe and get my HRV higher before my powerlifting meet. This helped me to stay focused throughout that tense, crazy day and hit two PR’s.

3. Joints and muscles are happy

  • You have good control of your body and legs feel strong under you as you get up and take your first steps.
  • They are willing to do the work you want them to do.
  • Your body may still feel a little tight or crusty from previous training, but it is quite responsive and good to go.

That’s it.

If I wake up and feel these symptoms, I train.

Symptoms of not being recovered:

1. Waking up stale in the morning. You open your eyes and feel

  • Tender
  • Low Energy
  • Negative

2. Heart Rate Variability is low and takes a lot of effort to raise.

  • Or just never gets to a high state, if you are using a device to measure it.
  • You have trouble taking deep breaths in and out.
  • You cannot get negative, repeating thoughts and emotions out of your head – even when you sit down to meditate.
  • You cannot focus.

3. Joints and muscles are like cement that hasn’t dried.

  • They feel like yesterday’s joints.
  • Rather than sore, you feel achy.
  • They don’t want to work for you.

If I wake up and have these symptoms, I know I’m not recovered. I refrain from training, even if it’s been two days, even if it’s been two weeks. I don’t care, I know that no good will come of it.

If you’re not recovered, don’t worry. Just realize that you are in a state of getting stronger or more resilient, and you just need to take more time to get there. Don’t push it. Look into meditating or deep breathing upon waking, journaling, getting some sun, and eating well. Supplements help too. Above all else, sleep until you awake fresh and feeling the positive symptoms described above.

I don’t have much time now to lift, and have been taking up to two weeks off between training sessions. That’s why I make the most of each session. I don’t go unless I know I am ready to take on the cost of growth. Nutrition helps to maintain muscle mass and strength, and allows me to go on these long stretches and still come back to train at where I left off. With late nights at work and then early mornings the following days, I refrain from training even if I had the two or three hours free. There is a biological cost to training that we must pay in order to benefit. Training while not fully recovered is like taking out a loan while already deep in debt. You just end up deeper in biological debt.

Stay wealthy. Cook while the frying pan is hot, let your body and mind tell you when that is, and do everything you can to recover.

To powerful recovery,

Steve