Get Sunlight

Brilliant Friends,

Get sunlight every day as soon as you wake up, or as early as possible in the day.

Sun touching your skin induces production of vitamin D, essential to thousands of gene expressions.

Sunlight causes production of sulphur, also essential to your body’s functions. It gives you the sort of “high” that you might have noticed from being outside.

So being in the sun helps your body function and literally makes you fell better.

It can will help set the circadian rhythm in you, if you’re having trouble sleeping early. This also helps you get up earlier, feeling ready to go sooner after waking.

If you can’t get outside first thing in the morning, or you have to push it off because you’re running late, do it later. Just try to get a little every day. Start somewhere. You’ll find that you want more and more of it, and it’s a habit that gets easier and easier to do.

To powerful living,

Steve Ko

Why do you do it?

Brilliant Friends,
What’s your motivation for building strength?
Do you do it for the physique? Competition? A sport or job? Or for your general health and well being?
Any of these can be a great reason.
Just remember that whatever the reason is, be able to point to it and say this is why I train hard. This is why I eat well. And sometimes, this is why I’m not going to train today, because I’m tired and going to the gym isn’t going to get me closer to why I’m doing it.
Orienting your training around a goal or purpose allows you to make better decisions about how to train, when, and whether you need to take more or less of a break in between sessions. Don’t get trapped in the cycle of aimless gym sessions.
Know that you can tailor your training, hit it hard when the frying pan’s hot, and on days when you aren’t getting anywhere, either too tired or distracted, just walk out of the gym. I’ve done that plenty of times. I’ll cross out whole exercises in my notebook when I was supposed to be hitting PR’s, because I knew that I wouldn’t benefit from pushing myself that day.
Be effective in the long game. Holding back is sometimes harder than giving it your all. Know that holding back can be just as much an exercise in getting stronger as completing a session.
To powerful living.
Steve

Torque and Getting Deeper on the Squat

Brilliant Friends,

If you’re just joining this newsletter, welcome. This newsletter is here to bring you unusual yet effective techniques to learn powerlifting. You can find the first newsletter about learning the squat in the archives above. I suggest you go over the mental imagery and cues in that one first before proceeding with the tips in this letter. Practice them and become comfortable with them.

Torque: The Core of all Human Movement

Let’s get deeper on the squat, now that we’ve covered the basics. Continue to practice sets of five squats, body weight, and deepen your understanding of the importance of Torque. For those of you who did not pass physics, torque is rotational force. Squeeze a towel dry and you are creating torque by twisting it.

Every human movement and power output is generated by torque. Our bodies, our skeletal systems, are designed to create force by rotation. This is true for walking, where our back foot propels us through inward rotation of the hip, translating frictional force from the ground up through the abdomen to the shoulders.

It’s true for a simple bicep curl, where our wrist, elbow, and shoulder all pull against each other in rotational motions to bring up an object that is gripped in our hands. Gripping things is also a work of torque, where each finger joint is pulling with rotational force against the next finger joint, and the bones of the hand pull in rotationally against the muscles that lead to the forearms, to secure an object within our grasp.

To understand that torque defines all human movement will give you a better mastery of your body mechanics. The squat is no different as a combination of several systems of torque.

Feet Spread the Floor: Revisiting the Starting Stance with Torque

The well-established starting stance of the squat (see first post for more details) begins with flexing your butt, which creates outward rotational force on your thighs. Your femurs rotating outward place torque on your shins, and this creates torque on your ankles. When your ankles are being pulled outward, your feet, pointed forward, are creating torque against the ground by rotating outwards as well. They are not actually moving outwards, but the force created from your hips allows you to grip the ground through your feet.

This is why thinking of “feet spreading the floor” gives you a good cue to create that rotational force as you prepare to squat.

Creating “the Pillar” out of your abdomen, or taking in a breath to your belly and tightening the abs against it, allows the force from the ground to travel through your torso to the bar or weight without getting lost in bending or twisting motions. If your torso is soft, or extending, or otherwise not rigid through the squat, you will lose the torque created at the ground along the path through your body to the weight on your upper back.

So, before loading weight or a heavy bar for squats, familiarize yourself with performing the exercise with a rigid Pillar of a torso. This is where mobility of the hips, knees, and ankles is essential for allowing your torso to remain upright and solid through the movement. Limitations on joint mobility will tempt you to compromise your torso stability in an effort to get lower in the squat. We’ll talk more about mobility in a bit.

Knees Out: Torque Preservation Throughout the Squat

“Knees out” is also a mental cue that encourages preservation of torque through the squat. As you pull yourself down into the hole, and up out of it, keeping your knees pulled outward maintains torque and a stable transfer of power from the ground through your body.

You absolutely must not allow your knees to buckle in. This is the most important rule for the knees in the squat and all other strength building exercises. The structure of your ligaments keeping your knee together can be replicated by crossing your middle finger over your index finger. Do this with your right hand. Now grab this structure with your left hand, and twist your right hand out, or to the right. This is similar to your right knee pulling out to the right during the squatting motion.

You’ll notice that your twisted fingers, representing the ACL and PCL in your knee, tighten up and become stronger when rotated out to the side. Now, as you maintain your hold with your left hand, twist your right hand the other way, inwards to the left. You’ll notice that your fingers untwist from each other, much in the same way that your knee ligaments become unstable and lose torque.

When you’re squatting, with or without weight, getting up from the ground or the chair or out of the car, you’re using torque to do so. Depending on how your knee is positioned, you are either creating stability in the knee or you are exposing it to an unstable position. Under weight, it is crucial that you maintain “knees out” for the most stable mechanics.

Pulling Down, and Butt Back vs. Hamstrings Back: Getting Deeper on the Squat

“Pulling down” is the best way to think of the descent on the squat. Rather than letting yourself down, or dropping as free weight, thinking of “pulling down” on yourself helps to keep yourself in a stable, torque-locked state.

If you are finding it hard to pull down near the top or the beginning of the squat motion, think of “sitting back into a low chair” or “bending down to pick up a corgi running towards you”. The backwards pull from this imagery may allow for release downwards.

Do you find it hard to pull down near the bottom or the hole, or notice from video of yourself that you are “butt winking”? By butt wink I mean that right at the bottom of the squat, your lower back curves and your butt tucks in. This is a very unstable position of the spine and breaks the solid pillar that you are trying to maintain.

Remedy by thinking of “hamstrings back” rather than butt back. Shoving your butt back too far at the beginning of the squat can tilt your hips too far forward, and prevent your femurs from fully rotating out towards the bottom of the squat. That forces your pelvis to tilt back down, to allow your femurs to rotate out and your body to lower into the hole. Thus, your pillar is broken.

You need your hips at a constant angle, keeping that pocket of motion open for your thighs. This also may require some mobility work. For now, practice the squat as far down as you can go, without compromising your pillar. Think “hamstrings back” and “pull down”.

Practice the Bar Position

At this point, if you feel comfortable with the mechanics of the squat, you can practice gripping and holding the bar during the squat with a light wooden pole or broomstick (remove the broom part if you can).

Even if you are intermediate or advanced on the squat, it is always good to know your mechanics at body weight. Can you get down to the correct position? Are you able to create torque without weight on your back?

Grip the pole at just outside shoulder width. Pull the pole up above your head, arms straight. Get into the stable starting stance, and once you’ve created the pillar, bring the pole down behind your head.

Let the pole rest just below your cervical vertebrae, the pointy neck bone at the top of your spine. With your arms flexed in a bent position, you will create a muscular “shelf” between the rear shoulder muscles and the trapezius muscles just above them. Keep the pole snug in this groove.

Flex your shoulder blades tight, back and down. Grip hard on the pole. Tighten your Pillar, feel the torque as your feet spread the floor. You are in the ready stance with a bar, now.

Establish the bar position. Your wrists may not be mobile enough today to get into a full gripped, just outside shoulder width, bar position. If so, move your hands out a little further, and try bringing the pole down into position. Hold it there, allow your joints to loosen up and adjust, and progressively work on moving your hands to just outside shoulder width.

None of the three-finger grip nonsense that is going around, or the gripping the ends of the bar, or the plates. Having correct bar grip and position is critical to stability and joint health down the road.

I’m open to your thoughts.

To powerful living,

Steve

The Body Weight Squat

Brilliant Friends!

I’m glad you joined me.

If you’re new to powerlifting, these tips will give you the long-lasting tools I’ve used to exercise with good form. The beauty of powerlifting is that the basics are important from beginning levels to the most elite. If you’ve already been lifting, use the things here and see if they enhance your power.

Powerlifting involves five exercises: the squat, the deadlift, the bench press, the row, and the overhead press.

Most people start off weightlifting without learning good habits and techniques that establish good form. At first, they might find it easy to perform the exercises with poor form, but later they run into injuries because they haven’t prepared themselves to handle heavy weights.

I want to teach you the unusual, lesser known techniques, mental cues, and imagery that allowed me to execute good form and get past the frustrating beginning stages of learning powerlifting quickly. It also kept me from getting injured, even under the heaviest weight.

You will have better results, and sustain strength for a long time, if you have correct form.

The Squat

The powerlifting squat is also known as the “low bar back squat”, but that’s not too important at this moment.

There are a few key principles that define a correct squat.

  • Maintain natural curvature of the back, or a straight back, throughout the movement.
  • Feet about shoulder width apart, toes pointed forward, and stationary.
  • The hip joint dipping below the horizontal plane of the knee joint at the bottom of the movement, also known as a “parallel” position.

Most of us won’t be able to do this correctly at first. It takes time to mobilize your ankles, knees, hips, and lower back fully, so for now let’s use the following cues to work toward better form. We’re getting started on the road to mastering it.

Basics for the Body Weight Squat 

Learn to squat first without loading weight on your back. Do five correctly every day for the first week.

Starting stance

  1. Feet shoulder width apart, toes forward
  2. Squeeze your butt
  3. Put your arms out in front and grab your hands together
  4. Breathe in and hold, tighten belly against breath

This is the start position. You should feel tight and solid.

Squat

  1. Keeping your torso tight and arms out in front, lower yourself by pushing your hamstrings (back of your thighs) back and your knees out.
  2. When the tops of your thighs are below the tops of your knees, this is called “parallel”. It’s far down enough and you don’t have to go further.
  3. Bounce out of the bottom position and stand up again, into the starting stance.
  4. Do this a few times to warm up. If you can’t reach parallel, keep doing the squats and gently bounce back up, until you are able to get lower. Don’t force it, though. It takes time.

If you can’t squat from standing, just get down into a squat position and hold it there for a minute. After doing this a couple of times, get in the starting position and try the squat again.

What to Think During the Squat

Now that you have the feel for the squat, use these mental tricks to ensure that you do it correctly each time. It gets tough, so try accomplishing one aspect per day.

Starting Stance Imagery

1. “Feet spreading the floor”

  • Imagine that your feet are trying to spread apart the floor. Point your toes straight forward, get in the butt-flexed and belly-tight position, arms forward, and allow your butt to pull your thighs outward, as if trying to rotate them out.
  • Your feet should remain stationary, pointed forward. You will feel them “gripping” the ground as your butt pulls them outward against the ground.
  • Your foot arches will also pull up as a result of the butt pulling, giving you better support in the foot.
  • Allow your toes to splay, or spread, so they can maximize grip. This is why they are attached to your feet – to grip the ground.
  • You are ready to squat. You should find that from this reinforced starting position, you will be secured to the ground and ready to pull yourself down stronger.

2. “The Pillar”

  • Arms forward, turn palms face up and twist your arms out, squeeze your shoulder blades, and then rotate just your hands face down keeping your upper arms and shoulders locked. Grab one hand with the other, tight.
  • Take in a breath and tighten your belly against it, creating a solid pillar out of your torso. You will be holding the breath until the end of each squat.

The Squat Imagery

3. Use whichever suits you best:

  • I’m pulling myself down through my legs
  • I’m sitting down in a low chair
  • I’m bending down to scoop up a corgi running toward me
  1. With the image of choice in mind, start the descent by pulling knees out to the side and creating an outward rotational force on your ankles. Feet should stay glued to the ground.
  2. Hamstrings pull back, as if you’re sitting down on that low chair.
  3. Try to not lose tension in the knees. Keep them pulled outward.
  4. Torso: Keep your chest out without letting your ribcage come up. Torso straight, spine neutral. It should feel like you’re maintaining torso position and not really moving or doing anything with it.

4. “Pull down into the hole”

  • Think of the bottom position of the squat as “the hole”, and you are bouncing into and out of it.
  • “Pulling down” is stronger then simply “lowering” yourself into the bottom position.
  • Pull yourself down until you’re at parallel, slightly bounce at the bottom and come back up.

5. “Squeeze butt”

  • Now that you’ve scooped the corgi into your arms, or touched down on the low chair, or pulled yourself down through your legs, come out of the bounce by squeezing your butt.
  • Squeeze your butt from bottom to top, and straighten up into the starting stance.
  • Let out your breath, tighten everything up again, and prepare for the next squat.

That’s it.

Next, we’ll get into how to use these concepts when you have a bar, or a broomstick, at first, on your back.

Thanks for reading! What problems have you had with squat form that I haven’t addressed? Hit reply and send me your thoughts!

To powerful living,

Steve

The Brilliant Beast Blog by email

Copyright © 2016 Steve Ko, All rights reserved.

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

Join My Newsletter

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