Russian Style General Strength Training

If you are looking for serious long term strength training that you can do every day, with minimal equipment, in less than thirty minutes, take a look at Kettlebell Simple & Sinister.

Simple & Sinister is a strength endurance program of 100 kettlebell swings and 10 getups every day. It is meant to condition a person to always be ready for life, and to “store energy in the body rather than exhaust it” (Kettlebell Simple & Sinister). By training day after day, you adapt to a higher level of strength and endurance. You start with a small weight, develop solid form, and progress to the next weight. Rest days are fewer because the weight is relatively small.

Unlike powerlifting, kettlebell training does not aim for the highest possible weight lifted. Rather, it focuses on total body acceleration, and stable coordination of all parts of your body. It won’t directly add tons of weight to your barbell max. There is, however, ample evidence that there is unexpected improvement in bigger lifts.

The grass is always greener on the other side. If you don’t believe it, go to a park and find the greenest patch of grass and sit. Then look around and see if there’s greener. I assure you there is.

My powerlifting background taught me that training every day was not healthy. When I was squatting twice my body weight for sets of five, I needed at least a day of rest, if not three, for any benefit. So naturally I doubted the S&S protocol of daily training.

However, swings and getups were filling gaps in powerlifting training. For example, I’m building all-around shoulder stability in connection with the rest of my body. I’m also balancing the strength between the two sides of my body. These can easily be overlooked in basic powerlifting exercises. Back to the issue of daily training.

At first I was constantly sore, and it was certainly difficult to train every day. I would wake up to find my whole body tight and achy. Rather than decide not to train at that moment, I would put off the judgment call. Instead, I went through my morning routine. I drank butter coffee and journaled, basically enjoying life as I woke up. When training time came, I felt better and went for it.

It’s been about two and half months as of this writing, and my recovery time is shortening. I’ve managed to take just one day off in the last eight weeks. I’m doing all sets now with the 24kg, and my swings and getups are getting stronger. My callouses are smooth and my mind feels sharp. I look forward to training most days. Just like Tsatsouline says in Kettlebell Simple & Sinister, the exercise has become a “recharge” instead of a “workout”.

After the initial struggle, I started to look forward to the training. S&S is remarkably effortless compared to other strength programs.

First, the only equipment needed is the kettlebell. No gym, no shoes, no machines, no bars nor weights. S&S prescribes 8kg for average strength women and 16kg for average strength men.

Second, the exercise leaves me with plenty of energy for the rest of my day. I gradually adapted to the training, and became more efficient in the movements.

Finally, it’s convenient and accessible. Because it’s a small weight, I can keep it at home. This saves time and eliminates the ill effects of sitting in a car on the way to a gym. It also leaves little excuse for not training.

NL161 two kettlebells the brilliant beast blog

As I transitioned from 16kg to the 24kg kettlebell, I felt much more tired at night and needed more food. But I stuck with it, ate a little more, and managed to train every day. The jumps in weight by proportion are much greater than with progression barbell training. I imagine the next transition to 32kg will be even harder. I look forward to that too.

Do some digging in the StrongFirst website to see if this is for you. If you decide to take on the kettlebell, I strongly recommend that you read the book first. Mind before matter.

Live powerfully.

Steve

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Copyright © 2017 Steve Ko, All rights reserved.

Pillar of Strength

I was back in the gym this month for the first time in four months.

Something was funky about my squats. I kept wondering why it felt so tricky to keep my back firmly aligned. Things felt a little wobbly once I had loaded weight on the bar.

I was using torque from my feet, spreading the floor. I was pulling out on my knees. I was keeping my butt engaged. And my shoulders were back and down, tight. But I felt like the torque from my legs was bleeding out somewhere, not making it all the way up to the bar.

What was going on?

Then I got a gut feeling. Literally. My gut. I had forgotten all about belly pressure.

Abdomen Pressure

Your belly is a powerful element for exertion. It provides structure for the most strenuous power outputs in life. Lifting a heavy load on your shoulders, hauling something off the ground, and pushing a dead car down the road all require you to keep your belly tight for maximal effort.

It’s because your belly is critical in transferring power from the feet to the point of push or pull. How, when it’s the softest part of the body?

The softness is actually the key. Because your abdomen is flexible, it can act like a balloon. Suck in a deep breath, down to the diaphragm, and you find that you can tighten your belly down around that air. Now feel it. Rock hard.

Ever had your head bonked against your dad’s belly and wondered why it felt like a bowling ball? Well, he was utilizing abdominal pressure.

This balloon of pressure is the pillar through which power can transfer most efficiently from your hips up to your shoulders. When you have it firm, your belly is the connecting structure that keeps your torso sturdy.

With a deflated belly, you put most of the power transfer back on your spine. Not as rigid, not as effective.

NL 134 Weight Belt TBBB.JPG

The Weight Belt

Now you might see the value in using a belt during your heaviest powerlifting reps. Wrap a normal belt around your midsection, just above the navel. Breathe in, down against your diaphragm, and push with your belly against the belt. Feel some power there?

I don’t think it’s advantageous to use the belt for lighter lifts. There is value in squatting and deadlifting without a belt. It helps you engage your core by itself, and you learn proper technique. Having a belt through all training, from the lightest weights, can make you depend on it and have a false sense of security.

On your heaviest lifts, though, it can be a powerful tool to scale your well-developed technique. It also helps you build your belly muscles by enabling a greater output from them.

Training Belly Pressure Without a Belt

Start without a belt, using the principle of abdominal pressure in training. Try it first without any weight on your shoulders. Do body weight squats, taking in a deep breath and pressing your belly against it, and hold it in until you squat and stand back up. Then release the breath.

Hold and release your breath for each rep. You may need to take a little breather in between. Don’t pass out. You need oxygen to stay conscious and to stay healthy.

By the way this is great training for low back issues as well. The stability from your belly pressure will help you maintain spinal alignment. Use the principle for daily activities, like lifting things off the floor, picking up grocery backs, and taking out the trash.

Ask me something. I’ll answer.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Long Term Knee Protection

I’m excited about tapping into my strength training again. I’m getting back into the gym this week. My priority is the squat.

It’s been over four months since I’ve trained at full capacity with the weighted squat. So I’m curious as to how I’m going to feel at this next session.

First thing I’m going to establish is whether or not I still have the mobility in my hips, knees, and ankles for proper squat position. This is my first step when returning to training after a long pause.

Feet forward, knees pulling out, and hips open enough for all of this is critical to healthy squatting. It protects the knee tendons and ligaments from opening into an exposed position and tearing.

I’m going to sit in a full squat and check out the angle of my feet. If they’re pointed too far out to the sides, I’m going to try a couple of different things to see where the tightness is. I should be able to sit in a squat with feet forward.

It could be the ankles, which can be fixed by ankle mobility. Or the hips, which can be remedied with hip mobility. After each mobility exercise, I’ll retest my squat and figure out how I’m going to get down in the squat with proper alignment.

With proper mechanics I’m going to be able to make a smoother transition into building strength. Recovery is going to be better without unnecessary twists and pulls from bad form. And the movement patterns that are established with good technique are going to carry through to higher levels of training in the near future.

Watch me go through squat testing and mobility on snapchat: brilliant_beast

Live powerfully,

Steve

Squat Test

The Brilliant Beast Blog Daily

Chest Tightness on Squats

I had my first strength training session in almost three weeks. A wonderful trip through Arizona kept me out of the gym for one of the weeks. Planning for more travel has preoccupied me the rest of the time. So this past Friday was a long-awaited return to the barbell. I was rusty, to say the least.

First and foremost, I should have tuned in to my warmup sets. Something was not quite right as I did my empty barbell squats. I was distracted and didn’t make the effort to nail it down.

When I watched my sets at home, I realized that my upper torso was tight from the start. I could see it in my warm up sets. My chest was tight and pulled the bar forward. That caused my torso to arch in an effort to keep the weight balanced.

The problem pervaded through the rest of my squats. The whole time during the session, I just didn’t feel like I was fully functional. Nothing hurt, nothing really stood out, but my motions didn’t seem fluid. The tricky thing was that my hips felt great.

I had started with hip mobility stretches, really getting loose and warm. Body weight squats felt smooth. But once I had the bar on my back, things got funky. I should have been aware of this and investigated. I would have realized that I left out upper body mobility. This matters as much as the lower body in squats.

My abdomen, thoracic spine, pecs, and shoulders were tight from constant sitting in the car and at home. Even my biceps were shortened. The pulling inward and downward of all these muscles made it awkward for me to hold up the bar.

Shoulder dislocations are magical for this area. This is an exercise, not a mutilation, don’t worry. I would suggest doing it slower than Mehdi Hadim does in this video, though. Start wide with the hands.

Squats involve mobility of the lower body and upper body. I failed to diagnose my limited mobility this time around, and paid for it in overall functionality. Next time I’ll be wiser.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Peter Lee Squat Form Check 3/6/16

Brilliant Friends,

I’m sharing a squat form check with you. Peter started lifting last year with a progression powerlifting program. He taped himself and graciously sent me a clip for a form check. This is a set of comments on technique and form based on video of his squat set. I suggest watching the video first on YouTube and then coming back to see my comments.

Peter’s Squat Set

Initial thoughts:

  • Depth is good!
  • Grip and loading bar good!
  • Need front or back camera angle to check knees, spine, and hips.
  • Breathing. Big breath into abdomen, hold until end of squat. Keeps spine aligned!
  • Butt wink. Bottom of squat, pelvis rolls in under body. Makes spine vulnerable under weight. Prevent this by keeping knees pulling out, spreading floor with feet. May be going too low for the amount of hip mobility you have here.

Squat One

Starting Stance

  • Knee looks bent at start. Is this fully extended? See ankle-knee-hip line. Should be as straight as possible. If this is extended, then that’s fine.
  • Feet pointed out at the angle below reduces torque. Keep them pointed forward as straight as possible. You may have trouble keeping spine neutral in the hole with feet forward, but it just takes some warming up of the hips. This adjustment will give you a lot more torque for strength and control.

Peter Lee Squat Form Check 3-6-16 Image 1 The Brilliant Beast Blog.png

Descent

  • Control the start. You drop in free fall, sort of crunching at the bottom. Go slow the very first part.
  • Spread the floor with feet.
  • Pull knees out for torque. Maintain these points of tension for control.
  • After the initial descent, rather than “dropping” down into the hole, start “pulling” yourself down into it.

Hole (Bottom)

  • Maintain torque, spreading floor with feet and pulling knees out.
  • Keep head in line with spine. You’re looking straight ahead which pulls your neck up and distracts you.

Ascent

  • You have really good speed going up. Saw the bar bounce!
  • Looks like you’re keeping knees out, which is great.

Squat Two

  • Bar comes forward on the bounce out of the hole. This pulls your center forward and decreases strength. Mentally keep yourself under the bar.
  • Getting more torque from feet, ankle, knee adjusments will help to keep the bar going straight up and down.
  • See squat three, where the opposite happens.

Squat Three

  • Here the bar stayed straight, but your hips moved forward in the hole. This happens when you lose torque to stabilize.
  • Keep torque through knees, ankles, and feet. Keep spreading the floor. Keep the torque system tight, and you’ll be able to resist the forward slide at the bottom of the squat. You can then use the force of the weight to your advantage going up.

Squat Four

Awesome grind on this one! You maintained form through the struggle.

Squat Five

  • Try pushing back a bit more with your butt/hamstrings as you descend from the start. Looks like you need more of an angle in your hips.

Peter Lee Squat Form Check 3-6-16 Image 2 The Brilliant Beast Blog.jpg

  • Great grind on this rep as well. The twisting on the way up happens when you lose focus. Keep your breath in tight against your abdomen through the whole rep, concentrate on thrusting the hips forward, and keeping the knees pulling out. You’ll maintain a neutral spine this way through the grind (the upward struggle).

Final notes

Peter is looking good here and has been clearly getting stronger from progression training. Recording himself for form and technique is a huge step in making effective adjustments.

I’m grateful to him for being brave and allowing me to post his squats, and my critique, for everyone to see. We hope this motivates you in your journey of strength!

If you want a form check, send me a video link via thebrilliantbeastblog@gmail.com.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Squat with Fear

Meditation And Powerlifting

Brilliant Friends,

No matter how many times I’ve done the squat, I feel fear and hesitation as I step up to the loaded bar.

I used to try to pump myself up and shake it out of my head. Beast mode blinded me to the fear most of the time. But when I just didn’t feel psyched, I would get stuck in my fear of heavy weights.

I’ve found the most beneficial way to deal with fear is to acknowledge it.

“It is so. It cannot be otherwise.”

Dale Carnegie recalls this 15th century Flemish inscription on a cathedral wall in Amsterdam. In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, he emphasizes the importance of acknowledging that which cannot be changed. This is especially difficult for those of us who refuse to accept anything short of success.

On a miserable night in December of 2012, I moped around my apartment entryway, gym bag in hand, not wanting to go outside. For an entire week I had been dreading the upcoming squat session. I had eventually dragged myself off the couch, pulled on my shorts, and laced my Chucks.

NL 22 Stepping Into the Cold Night The Brilliant Beast Blog V2.JPG
Stepping Out Into the Cold, drawing by Steve Ko

I was due for a 3×5 squat set at 340 lbs., the heaviest ever for me at that point. Just as I had celebrated my previous week’s session at 338 lbs., I lamented that I would have to lift even more the next time. I had never lifted more than 315 lbs. prior to this new progression powerlifting program, let alone doing three sets of five reps at 340 lbs.

After days of avoiding the gym, though, I had to go.

I couldn’t think straight as I drove through traffic. My throat tightened and my jaw clenched at the thought of being stapled under the weight. What would I do if I got stuck? What if my knees blew out? I was terrified. The thoughts kept crashing down on my mind in merciless waves.

I had a heavy heart as I parked in the lot and grabbed my duffel bag from the trunk. I checked in at the front counter and started to warm up.

The work weight sat on the ends of the bar, and I stood in the power rack in front of it.

“A good supply of resignation is of the first importance in providing for the journey of life.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

 

NL 22 Arthur Schopenhauer The Brilliant Beast Blog
Arthur Schopenhauer, 19th century philosopher

Three hundred forty pounds.

I closed my eyes. I could not change the weight in front of me. I had to try to lift it. I couldn’t go back to a previous training level to ease the situation. This is where I was in my journey of strength.

I resigned myself to the challenge. I steadied myself, accepted that I was scared.

I started to breathe in and out. On the in breath, I visualized the failure of my squat, the pain of being crushed under the bar, the embarrassment in front of everyone at the gym.

Felt the fear, let it fill me, and allowed the heavy feelings soak into my mind, soul, body.

Then I let go of my breath, released the fear. Let the darkness flow out of me. Breathed it in again, then breathed it out. The tension in my gut released a little.

Three hundred forty pounds. I accepted it. I invited the fear without being overcome by it. The opposite of beast mode.

Pema Chodron describes Tonglen in The Wisdom of No Escape. It’s the Zen practice I was using in front of the bar. I was “seeing pain, seeing pleasure, seeing everything with gentleness and accuracy, without judging it, without pushing it away, becoming more open to it.”

 

NL 22 Pema Chodron The Brilliant Beast Blog.JPG
Pema Chodron, Tibetan Buddhist monk

By balancing the fear with the lighter side of things, I got comfortable with it.

“…the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply…”  – Seneca the Younger

My mind was not my own when lost in abstract fears. But I took it back as I breathed. Cut through the fog, saw the fear, saw clearly what was scary.

“… fear has to do with wanting to protect your heart.” – Pema Chodron

I realized that I didn’t have to do what I couldn’t do. The point was not to complete the set. The point was to become stronger and better for myself. I had been focused on the false requirement that every set and rep of the session had to be completed. That completing this session would prove to the world I was strong.

Thus I opened up my heart to growth. I breathed in the fear, burden, failure, the chance that the weight crush me or that I drop it. I let it all come.

And I breathed it out! I relaxed. I felt the ease and self control in my out breath. Created space for myself.

Fear can suffocate, stifle us into paralysis. And this is how we develop fearlessness and move again. Tonglen. Take in the fear, then let it go. Walk the line on the edge of danger. Look death in the eye.

The fear lost its power as I finally became sober in mind. I opened my eyes and grabbed the bar. Ducking under, I set my shoulders against the bar and prepared to lift it off the rack. I still felt the fear, but I knew what it was and moved ahead with calm and focus.

I didn’t finish all the reps that night, but I did most. On the next session a couple of days later, I completed the sets! And yes, it was on to the next weight. Growth!

Months earlier, I had breezed through the weight progressions. But then the fear became heavier than the weight, and it became essential that I familiarize myself with it.

This was growth. It was real training.

Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations “… for he who has preferred to everything else his own intelligence and daimon and the worship of its excellence… will live without either pursuing or flying from death”.

I’m learning to focus not on the standards of the world, but on the development of my own excellence. The more I pay attention to my own self, the less I worry about comparing myself to everyone else. Consequently, I keep control of my own trajectory.

As Seneca puts it, “None of [the mind] lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another’s control…”

To powerful living!

Steve

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NL 22 Seneca The Brilliant Beast Blog.JPG
Seneca the Younger, 1st century philosopher
Continue reading “Squat with Fear”

Get Rid of Slack on the Deadlift

Brilliant Friends,

Here are a couple of thoughts on a more effective deadlift.

A common point of energy waste in the deadlift is the initial lift of the weight from the ground. That exact moment the weight comes off the ground should be the first upward movement of your body as well.

You would think this is intuitive. But if you watch deadlift videos on Instagram and Youtube, you’ll notice that a lot of people start their lift with their butts. Before the weight lifts off the ground, their hips have already moved up a few inches. You might notice this about yourself, too.

This is inefficient channeling of energy through the legs, and takes away from upward movement of the weight.

You can develop a better deadlift by minimizing this power leakage from the start. The aim is absolute tension and rigidity before the “pull” (what we call the lifting portion of the deadlift). By doing this, you will be able to maintain good form throughout the lift, keeping your back neutral, knees out, and head aligned. This will minimize and even prevent your upper back from curving forward into a slouch.

Start Position

To create the most effective output, focus on the setup. Once you grab the bar:

  • Straighten your arms
  • Push your feet into the ground
  • Pull up against the bar just short of lifting it to anchor yourself into the ground.
  • Pull back on your shoulder blades, like the wings of a jet folding in after take-off.
  • Flex your butt, think of squeezing your sphincter
  • Spread the floor with your feet (see my squat newsletter  for description)

If someone came by from any direction and pushed you, you would not be budged. No looseness in any part of your body, upward, downward, or sideways. Everything should be rock solid and ready for take off.

Back

Your back should have a straight arrow pointing through it from top of the head through the end of your butt.

Eyes

As you take hold of the bar, focus on one spot on the ground in front of you and do not look away. This helps with keeping the head in a neutral alignment with the rest of your spine.

The Pull

And here goes. I like Mehdi Hadim‘s two-part cue the best:

  1. Push the ground away from you
  2. When bar passes knees, slam your hips forward into the bar

Descent

You now stand upright with bar held at arms length.

  1. Pull in a belly breath and lock it into your lungs for abdominal pressure.
  2. Let down the weight in the exact reverse way. Start with hips moving back, keeping tension in butt, hamstrings, knees and feet.
  3. When the bar reaches your knees, allow them to start parting and bending, maintaining full tension.
  4. Do not drop the weight. It’s sloppy and rude, and it will mess up your back and everyone’s eardrums. Think Batman. Be quiet, be swift, and be gone.

I’ll send one on grip next. Try these with minimal weight first. As in, just the bar. Or a broomstick.

To powerful living,

Steve

 
Copyright © 2016 Steve Ko, All rights reserved.

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

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