Simple Programming Strategies to Increase Your Training Efficiency

Over thinking things used to be a bad habit of mine.

I still catch myself doing it sometimes, but it’s not nearly as prevalent as it once was.

I used to think I needed to include every possible exercise variation and training methodology in order to make a great program for myself.  My workouts would typically include more than five exercises, usually in the 6-10 range.  I would spend too much time doing corrective type exercises that I didn’t really need at the time.  I would get really random sometimes and spend an entire workout messing around on a TRX.

In my observation, simplicity seems to thrive over complexity in many situations, especially in regards to exercise programming.  I’ve found that I’m much more productive when I focus on what’s really important in a good program.

Rather than picking too many exercises to get through, I now pick 2-3 key movements to concentrate on for the day and put almost all of my energy toward them.  This way, I’m able to get much more work done on the lifts that benefit me the most and I avoid putting a lackluster effort into anything.

Rather than wasting time doing a bunch of different activation drills and corrective movements, I only do what I need to do on that particular day.  Assuming I’m not feeling especially sore/tight in any areas, some foam rolling, joint mobilizations, and a quick barbell complex is usually enough.  I try not to spend any more than 15 minutes tops on a complete warm-up.

Rather than getting too attached to one particular piece of equipment, I now realize that things like TRX’s, kettlebells, bands, ropes, and plyo boxes are all nothing more than tools in the toolbox. They all have value, but none of them have magical fitness powers, and they should be treated accordingly.

Long story short, I’ve learned to simplify things in regards to lifting.  Doing this has helped me tremendously.  Here’s how you can do it too 🙂

The Basics

With so much unique equipment and training styles, designing a program can become very easy to overcomplicate.  Don’t get caught up in trying to include everything you can possibly fit.

First and foremost, you must move well.  Possessing the ability to perform the fundamental human movements correctly is critical.  By addressing the various mobility and stability needs throughout the body before loading the basic movements you will be setting yourself up for great success down the road.

The foundation of your program should be made up of the biggest movements that hit the most amount of muscle.  Performed properly, the squat and the deadlift are the head honchos.  Becoming strong in these two exercises alone is going to work wonders for your body.

It’s important to include pushing and pulling motions too.  In my experience overhead pressing, pull-ups done from straps or rings, advanced pushup variations, and all different types of rows pretty much cover all the bases.

For core training, include loaded carries or some type of anti-extension/anti-rotation exercise.  Just a few sets here should be sufficient unless you have a glaring weakness.

Creating a program from just the basics is easy and effective.  Here’s a simple 4 day/week upper-lower split that only uses two exercises each workout.

  • Day 1:  Bilateral knee dominant + unilateral hip dominant + core/loaded carries
  • Day 2:  Bilateral vertical push/pull + unilateral horizontal push/pull + core/loaded carries
  • Day 3:  Bilateral hip dominant + unilateral knee dominant + core/loaded carries
  • Day 4:  Bilateral horizontal push/pull + unilateral vertical push/pull + core/loaded carries

If we fill this template in with actual exercises, it might look something like this:

  • Day 1:  Front squat + Single-Leg RDL + Barbell rollout
  • Day 2:  Push press + Single-arm dumbbell row + Trap bar farmers walk
  • Day 3:  Conventional deadlift + Anterior loaded reverse lunge + Banded pallof  press
  • Day 4:  TRX/Ring pull-up + Single-arm dumbbell bench + Dumbbell suitcase carry

Provided that you follow the principles of progressive overload and recover well, you can get pretty damn strong on these 12 exercises alone.

Don’t think that the workouts are going to be easy just because of the low amount of exercises.  If you choose to train this way, you shouldn’t be following the novice 3 sets of 10 approach.

I’m encouraging you to really get after those first two movements. Lots of sets, lots of quality reps, and zero missed lifts! Remember there is no shame in reducing your training loads to focus on movement skill and technique.

Beyond the Basics

The basic template is a great starting point.  If you don’t have a ton of time to train, it will definitely produce results if you’re consistent with it.

Going beyond the basic template can take your training efforts a step further.  Your first order of business should be to include something more than just the standard strength exercises.  This opens up some more options depending on your goals.

For power development, include some explosive type movements into your workouts 3-4 times per week.  This could include any type of olympic lift variation, sprint work, or plyo’s.  It’s as simple as starting a training session with a few sets of hang snatches or ending a session with some short sprints.  Here’s a sample:

  • Day 1:  Hang clean + Back squat + Single leg hip bridge + RKC plank
  • Day 2:  Hang snatch high pull + Single-arm DB push press + TRX inverted row + KB waiter walk
  • Day 3:  Box jump + Snatch grip deadlift + Bulgarian split squat + Turkish get-up
  • Day 4:  Band resisted KB swing + Plyo pushup + TRX/Ring pull-up + Sprints

For conditioning, try implementing some type of metabolic finisher at the end of each workout.  There are a ton of options for this.  Some good examples would be Airdyne tabatas, sled drags, prowler pushes, or high-rep kettlebell swings.  For example:

  • Day 1:  Back squat + Single-leg back extension + Hanging leg raise + 500 – 1000 m row
  • Day 2:  Barbell OHP + Single-arm DB row + OH barbell carry + KB swing 30:30 interval for 5 rounds
  • Day 3:  Jefferson deadlift + Single-leg squat + TRX fallouts + Prowler push x 100′ for 5 rounds
  • Day 4:  Flat bench press + Pull-up + DB farmers walk + Airdyne tabata (20/10 x8 rounds)

For increased work capacity, you should be focusing on one thing:  Doing more work in less time.  Complexes are going to be your best friend here.  Experiment with barbell, bodyweight, dumbbell, and kettlebell complexes with both lower and higher rep ranges.  And for another example:

  • Day 1:  Safety bar squats + DB single-leg RDL + Hollow body iso hold + Barbell complex for lower reps
  • Day 2:  Push jerk + Face pull + DB goblet carry + 8 minute max pull-ups
  • Day 3:  Pull through + Walking lunge + Plank row + Body weight complex for higher reps
  • Day 4:  DB bench press + TRX wide grip pull-ups + KB offset carry + 4 minute max pushups

The key here is to realize you can’t get better at everything at the same time.  Don’t expect to truly address power, strength, conditioning, and work capacity all in the same workout.  Sure, you could technically cover each area, but it’s going to be extremely difficult to recover from and more than likely not optimal.

Everything Else (but not really)

We’ve covered the basics, which is your barebones approach to strength training.

We’ve also gone a little bit beyond the basics, which takes your minimalist strength program and adds in an extra focus area.

So what’s left?  Well, a lot.  Way too much to cover in a short blog post.  And honestly, introducing too many new methods too soon often leads to training inconsistencies.  This is a problem because the number one factor that is going to determine your results from training is consistency.

Therefore, stick to the basics until you’ve become proficient.  And when you do introduce something new to the routine, ease into it! Chances are you’ll probably have to take something out when you add something in.  Again, don’t try to improve everything at once, because it will not work optimally.

Master the basic movement patterns first.

Then strengthen those patterns.

Then start to add some more variety based on your specific training goals.

And when your training doesn’t seem to be going as great as originally planned, just keep training! 

Your persistence will undoubtedly be rewarded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Time to Get Your Priorities Straight: Back, Glutes, and Abz

Back, glutes, abdominals.

These are important.  You must maintain strength in these areas.

If you train and you’re a gentleman, it’s likely that you do too much pushing without enough pulling to balance.  You love to bench, you do lots of chest flies, and you probably military press too.  Sure you also do some rowing variations and pull-ups, but they probably don’t get as much attention as your pressing movements.  It’s also common for men to neglect their legs to an extent, creating lower body instability and weakness.

If you train and you’re a lady, it’s likely that you spend the majority of your time on your favorite cardio machine, usually the elliptical.  You might also go through the machines sometimes, or occasionally experiment with the free weights.  That’s a good habit, especially if you use a full-body approach, but unfortunately a lot of women fear anything moderately heavy, so the resistance training isn’t producing as much as it should be.

In both situations, some special muscles tend to get neglected entirely.  People struggle to consciously activate their glutes to help with hip extension.  People tend to acquire shoulder pain after a few years of lifting because they don’t pull enough.  People tend to acquire back pain, not only from improper movement skills, but simply because of a weak back.  Core training just isn’t that appealing to everybody, and as a result it is often skipped or done haphazardly and results in wobbly, unstable individuals.

These are all issues, but they are all very fixable issues.  If you address your weaknesses and work to maintain strength throughout your entire body, you will undoubtedly feel better and look more appealing.

Tonic vs. Phasic Muscles

This is a concept that was originally founded by Dr. Vladimir Janda that I learned through reading a lot of work from Dan John.  You can see an article covering Janda’s philosophy and the chart I’m referring to HERE.

The difference between these muscles is that they are susceptible to unique changes as we get older.  Tonic muscles are prone to tightness or shortness, and phasic muscles are prone to weakness or inhibition.

Therefore, we should stretch the tonic muscles, and strengthen the phasic muscles.  It’s certainly not hard to understand, but it’s a little more difficult to put it into practice, especially if you’re a sedentary person.

In this post I’m only going to focus on the phasic muscles, the ones we want stronger.  I don’t have anything against stretching, and I think there are some benefits to doing so, but it shouldn’t be a priority over strength.

In my experience and observation, strengthening what is weak brings much better results than stretching what “feels tight.”  Strength is much more measurable than flexibility and has much more carryover to enhanced performance.

A Practical Example

If you tell me that your hamstrings feel tight and I tell you to stretch them for X amount of time for X amount of sets, we may or may not be accomplishing anything.  Unless we’re measuring how far you can go in the sit-and-reach test, we cannot easily measure whether or not your hamstrings are still “tight,” or if they were even “tight” in the first place.  As a coach I am not able to physically see if you have a “tight” or a “stiff” muscle.

However, if I were to ask a beginner to do a romanian deadlift and they fail to complete one good looking rep, I can instantly spot some areas where they are lacking strength and joint mobility without measure anything.  Their heels are probably coming off the ground, their lower back is probably rounding, and their hips are probably not moving much at all.  These tendencies expose mobility restrictions and weaknesses in several areas including the core, back, and much of the lower body.

Eventually, after said client has adequate mobility and has learned how to do the exercise with proper form, I can now load the movement and get them as strong as possible in it.  In the example of a nicely executed RDL, the client has now targeted their entire posterior chain and stimulated positive adaptions.

The strength gained in this one exercise is completely measurable and can be progressively overloaded throughout the program.  This can be done by varying the load, number of reps per set, number of sets, amount of rest in between sets, etc.

And also, since the RDL loads the hip hinge pattern, we are now stretching the hamstrings while holding a barbell!  A 135 lb RDL is a heck of a lot more effective at both stretching (building eccentric strength, which is very important for the hamstrings in particular) and contracting (building concentric strength) the hamstrings than holding an unloaded static stretch for 30 seconds.

Hopefully you understand that strength is important.  You always want more of it, whether you think you do or not.  It makes your life easier and longer, and attaining more of it should always be a priority even if your goals don’t include more absolute strength.

 

Glutes

Specifically:  All of them.  The gluteus maximus, minimus, and medius.

Solution:  Hip thrusts and full squats.

Your butt has a ton of potential, but it’s probably very sad.  It’s sad because it’s weak and not appreciated.  This is backwards because your butt is capable of producing massive amounts of power.  It’s also very good at protecting your spine.  Weak, inhibited glutes are common in people with excessive anterior pelvic tilt (especially common within the athletic population).  When the pelvis tilts forward, it creates a pretty large arch in the low back, which stresses the lumbar vertebrae.

Increased glute recruitment and strength will help to bring the pelvis closer to neutral.  It will also aid just about everything else you do in the weight room, such as locking out a heavy deadlift or keeping your hips in solid alignment during a heavy overhead press.

Hip thrusts are probably the best exercise for pure glute activation and strength.  Full squats (deep, below parallel) are also good for increasing glute recruitment.  Other exercises such as single-leg glute bridges, pull-throughs, and reverse hyperextensions are awesome for your butt.

Back

Specifically:  Lower trapezius and rhomboids.

Solution:  Band pull-aparts and batwing rows.

A strong back usually indicates a strong body.  Heavy deadlifts, lots of rows and lots of chin ups will waste no time getting your back strength up to speed.  However, band pull-aparts and batwing rows are especially good at targeting the mid back and will certainly supplement the rest of your training efforts.

When performing band pull-aparts, keep tension on the band at all times.  Don’t allow it to gain any slack as you bring your arms together.  You should be pulling your arms back far enough to where the band touches your sternum on every rep.

During the batwing rows, you should be pulling your elbows up as high as possible behind you.  Retract your scapulae and squeeze them tight at the top of each rep.  Use lighter dumbbells here and focus on really feeling that contraction in the muscles of your mid and upper back.

This increased back strength will do wonders for your posture, physique, and spine health.

Anterior Core

Specifically:  Rectus abdominus.

Solution:  RKC planks and loaded carries.

Stronger core = stronger everything.  I can’t stress it enough, but taking time to address the stability and rigidity of your midsection is always going to benefit you.

RKC planks are more effective than standard planks.  The lever is lengthened, the glutes are forcefully contracted, and the elbows and toes are simultaneously pulled toward each other.  These minor changes create tension all over the body resulting in more muscle activation and a much larger challenge.  When performing this type of plank, you want to squeeze your butt and tuck your pelvis under you into posterior pelvic tilt.  At the same time, try to keep your ribcage “locked down” into your pelvis, which will feel like setting your abdominals on fire.  Pulling your elbows and toes inward will also create huge contractions in the lats and quads.

Loaded carries are another game-changer.  It may seem silly to hold heavy things and simply walk with them, but it is actually very challenging and stresses the entire body.  If you don’t believe it, think about how difficult it can be to walk with a suitcase or heavy bag at your side for a considerable distance.  Or to hold multiple grocery bags in each hand as you walk through the parking lot to your car.  Wouldn’t it make sense that if you were to frequently walk with things heavier than you’re used to carrying in everyday life, that carrying everyday things would become much easier?

Simply put, loaded carries effectively build stability and isometric strength over your whole body. Beyond that, anybody can do them because there is no form or technique involved.  Get something heavy to hold, walk with good posture (chest up, shoulders slightly back), and you’re doing yourself a big favor.

Other exercises such as valslide fallouts, banded pallof presses, and hollow body holds are also good options.

Putting It Into Practice

Take pride in training these muscles. Most people ignore them, and that is why so many have muscle imbalances, poor movement patterns, and pain at numerous joints. Incorporate more exercises that specifically target the back, butt, and core and good things will happen.

Light Weights and Big Gains, Building Hardcore Athleticism, and Exposing Weaknesses

I’ve got a few awesome reads to share today because I feel that they’re some of the best material I’ve come across in the past month or so.

It just so happens that they’re all T-Nation articles as well, so it’s likely that they’ve already been shared all over the place. Regardless, T-Nation is a phenomenal resource for anyone interested in getting stronger, increasing hypertrophy, moving better, and coaching more effectively.  This is a free website that releases one article per business day from some of the most successful fitness professionals around the world.

Use your filter when analyzing information and don’t hesitate to experiment with new methods.  Bring an open mind and a positive attitude to your pursuit of optimal performance and you’ll be very successful.

With that said, enjoy the articles!

Light Weights for Big Gains by Brad Schoenfield and Dan Ogborn

Building Hardcore Athleticism by Max Shank

Expose Your Weaknesses to Get Strong by Bret Contreras

Simple Strategies to Enhance a Variety of Strength Qualities

One mistake that I see a lot of people make in their training is specializing too much in a particular strength quality and ignoring other things that can help build a more well-rounded and balanced body.

I get into this habit sometimes too.  Personally, I’m addicted to going heavy all the time.  I love to work up to high intensity singles, doubles, and triples.  Occasionally I’ll throw some 5×5 work into my workouts too.

The problem is that if I completely ignore other rep ranges, I start to lose other abilities; endurance is a good example.  If I haven’t done any decent amount of work above 8 reps for 2 months straight, it’s likely that I’ll burn out very quickly if I implement some higher rep work.

If brute strength is my only interest, or if my sport relies solely on that brute strength (powerlifting, for example), this isn’t much of an issue.  However, that’s not to say that some quality sets in the 12-15 rep range wouldn’t help a powerlifter.  And for somebody who trains exclusively to look and feel better, it’s reasonable to believe they might appreciate frequent variation in their training.  This is one of the many reasons CrossFit has become so popular.

I think everybody could benefit by getting strong in ALL rep ranges.  If you’re putting up decent weight for low, medium, and high reps, it’s likely that you’re more balanced and well-rounded than somebody who only uses a particular max-effort (at or above 90% 1RM) method or than somebody who only does high-rep drop sets and tons of volume.

Finding Your Weaknesses

Start experimenting with some styles of training that you don’t normally do.

If you never max out on the big lifts, find a safe way to test your 1RM in the squat, bench, overhead press, and deadlift.

If you’re always training at a high intensity with low volume, switch things up.  Try to focus on higher volume sessions and drop the weights down a bit.

If you use a body-part split, try using a full-body routine three days a week and see how your body responds.  If you currently train with a full-body routine, try an upper-lower split for a couple months and see how that goes.

Maybe you’ve never done anything else except 3×10 or 5×5.  Although these are good methods, you can only make so much progress on them once you have a decent amount of strength and training experience.  Try getting heavier and playing around with 3×3 or 5×2.  Follow up those heavy sets with a back-off of 6-12 reps, or higher!

I think experimenting with many different set and rep schemes is the best way to become well-rounded and prepared with the necessary strength for any type of physical challenge.

Exercise Variation

Take advantage of the most challenging variations of the squat, hinge, push, and pull.

Squat

  • Front squats
  • High-bar back squats
  • Low-bar back squats
  • Overhead squats
  • Box squats
  • Zercher squats
  • Koji squats
  • Dead-stop squats
  • Chain squats
  • Banded squats
  • Pause squats
  • Jump squats
  • Goblet squats
  • Reverse lunges
  • Walking lunges
  • Bulgarian split squats
  • Single-leg squats

Hinge

  • Snatch grip deadlifts
  • Deficit deadlifts
  • Snatch grip deficit deadlifts
  • Sumo or “psuedo-sumo” stance deadlifts
  • Jefferson deadlifts
  • Rack pulls
  • Trap-bar deadlifts (from both handle heights)
  • Suitcase deadlifts
  • Romanian deadlifts
  • Split-stance RDL’s
  • Pause deadlifts
  • Chain deadlifts
  • Banded deadlifts
  • Pull-throughs
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Hip thrusts
  • Barbell glute bridges
  • Horizontal and 45 degree back extensions
  • Good mornings
  • Reverse hyperextensions
  • Glute-ham raises

Push

  • Push presses
  • Military presses
  • Bench presses
  • Push jerks
  • Floor presses
  • Board presses
  • Dead stop presses
  • Behind the neck presses or the “Klokov Press”
  • Incline presses
  • Decline presses
  • Landmine presses
  • Dumbbell presses
  • Pushups
  • Handstand pushups
  • Dips

Pull

  • Bent over rows
  • Cable rows
  • Inverted rows
  • Chin-ups/Pull-ups (preferably from rings, TRX, or other straps)
  • Banded pull-ups
  • Batwing rows
  • Face pulls
  • Band pull-aparts
  • Landmine rows
  • Reeves rows
  • Kroc rows
  • Front levers
  • Muscle-ups

All of these variations have different benefits.  Front squats are quad killers, while a low bar back squat will recruit more posterior chain.  Snatch grip deadlifts increase the demand on your upper back, lats, and grip, while banded deadlifts with a light load teach good bar acceleration and rate of force development.

Landmine presses are great for those with shoulder issues, while benching from a dead-stop and shortened range of motion can focus on eliminating that sticking point we’ve all felt before.  Chins done from rings or straps are easier on the elbows and wrists and harder to stabilize, but face pulls are awesome to hammer the upper back and keep your shoulders happy.

As you can see, all these exercises have applications, you just have to know where to use them.

Anterior core weakness?  Front squats and zerchers.

Hard time locking out deadlifts?  Hip thrusts and glute bridges.

Barbell pressing bothers your shoulders?  Landmine, dumbbell, and bodyweight pressing patterns.

Want wider lats?  TRX wide-grip pull-ups and reeves rows.

Start experimenting with some more challenging variations of the fundamental movements.  Try something you’ve never done before.  Chances are, it’s probably going to challenge you in a different way than you’re used to. If you suck at something, get better at it! Spend some time getting better at that particular exercise, and then go back to a more traditional variation (zercher squat to back squat) for some possible new strength gains.

 

Take Home Points

  • Get outside your comfort zone.  It will make you better.
  • Don’t forget to make steady gains in the basic lifts, but don’t ignore the many variations of those lifts.
  • Learn to appreciate the most challenging exercises.  Don’t dread them, but embrace them!  Think of how they’re going to help you in the future.
  • Constantly analyze your specific strengths and weaknesses.  Maintain the strengths, and hammer the weaknesses.
  • The more well-rounded you are, the more resilient you’ll be to injuries because of your effort to address muscle weaknesses and imbalances.
  • Building all-around strength will help lead to building all-around muscle.  Becoming balanced can greatly improve the symmetry and shape of your physique.

 

 

 

Published Articles and a Quick Training Tip

Haven’t posted in awhile, but I have a few things to share today.

I recently became an expert contributor for STACK, and so far I have two articles up!

8 Exercises to Improve Lower Body Strength

Try This: Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Landmine Overhead Press

 

Also, I submitted a training tip to YourWorkoutBook.com that I think is important for all athletes and fitness enthusiasts to read!  Check it out HERE.

 

Hope you like what you see!

 

Three Training Tips You Probably Aren’t Accustomed To

Three tips.  Nothing crazy.  Give these a shot!

 

1.  Squeeze your butt cheeks together, all the time

It seems silly, but flexing your gluteals while training is awesome.

The real benefit is that it keeps your pelvis in a neutral and stable position that helps to spare the lumbar spine.

But also, it feels amazing!

Whenever you’re performing exercises in a standing position, flex your glutes hard.

Whenever you’re in a half-kneeling stance, flex the glute of the back leg hard.

When you bench or overhead press, squeeze ’em.  When you lock a deadlift or RDL, squeeze ’em.  When you plank, keep ’em squeezed!

By engaging your glutes during these and many other movements, you’re stabilizing your entire trunk area.  The abs stay tight, the whole core is rigid, and you have overall better tension throughout the body.  This tension translates to more efficient force production and a decreased chance of acute injury.

 

2.  If you want to sprint, ease into it, but make sure you’re actually sprinting

Sprinting is the pinnacle of athletic development.  The problem is that many people get sprinting confused with “really fast running.”

When you think about the amount of energy you expend during an all-out sprint, it’s pretty massive.  Obviously it is not an activity that you’re going to be able to perform effectively for even a short amount of time.  I’m talking 15-20 seconds MAX, depending on what type of condition you’re in.  So just to be clear, if you’re programming “sprint intervals” into your training and they call for 30+ second bouts of running, you are not doing sprint intervals!

So, the two important points to remember:

  • Sprint like you mean it, and keep the duration short
  • Don’t overdo things as sprinting is extremely taxing

Dedicating one or two days per week to some good old fashioned sprint training is plenty.  Keep the reps low and the distance consistent.  6-10 40 yard dashes will get the job done just fine, as long as the effort is there.  Allow yourself to fully recover before you start the next sprint.

And again, if you haven’t ran at your maximum speed in years, be careful!  Start out small and gradually build up your work capacity.  Your hamstrings will thank you.

 

3.  Give your upper back the volume it deserves

If you’ve been lifting for awhile you probably understand this, but your upper back musculature can handle an obscene amount of workload.  Since it’s capable of withstanding a constant beating, why don’t we train it more frequently?

Well, it’s never too late to start.  Try doing some extra upper back work at the end of workouts or throwing on some extra sets and reps during dumbbell rows, chin-ups, face pulls, band pull-aparts, etc.

Increasing the strength of these muscles is essential to improving your deadlift performance, as the upper back is a common limiting factor during super heavy pulls.  And also, a strong, ripped back looks pretty damn impressive.

 

Take home points

  • Squeezing your glutes together gives you a strong, stable foundation to work with during heavy lifting (and it feels great)
  • Sprinting is tremendously effective and empowering, just be careful with it and give it your all
  • It’s very difficult to overtrain your upper back, so hit it hard

 

 

 

Autoregulation Rules!

In a perfect world, we could use our preferred choice of periodization (systematic planning of training) forever and consistently get stronger week in and week out.  Just follow the program, and we’ll reach our goals at the end, right?  Unfortunately, unless you’re a beginner, things don’t actually work this way.  Why not?

Because we’re people… I think?

Many hard working citizens live very busy lives.  Work, nutrition, sleep, and time spent with family and friends can vary from day to day, and they can all have a significant effect on our training efforts.

If you’re like most people, you’re probably not getting paid to be in superb condition all year round.  Sure, many will still take their fitness seriously and might be better at sticking to a program, but usually there are other priorities to take care of before getting to the gym.

This is where autoregulatory training can really shine.  But before I get started, there are a few prerequisites that must be covered before you can truly reap the benefits of this method.

Prerequisites

  • You’re at least at an intermediate level of fitness.  Autoregulation requires you to be very in touch with your own body.  In order to have this ability, you should have at least a year of smart and reasonably successful training under your belt.  By “smart” I mean you’ve been following a well-designed regimen that includes knee dominant, hip dominant, vertical push/pull, horizontal push/pull, and core stability exercises.  By “reasonably successful” I mean that you’ve gotten stronger in these movements, you’ve improved your physique, and that you’re movement skills are up to par.  You should have decent joint mobility and be able to comfortably perform compound lifts through a full range of motion.
  • You’re disciplined.  This means you’ve achieved a good level of consistency with your training.  You don’t skip sessions unless you have a good reason for doing so and you put real effort into your workouts every time you show up.
  • You’re patient.  Autoregulation is all about patience.  You must be able to take it easy when things aren’t going the way you expected. Progress is progress, let it come to you rather than forcing yourself to do things you might not be capable of on that particular day.

The Basics

To define, autoregulation (also called cybernetic periodization) is a method in which the intensity of training is self-regulated by the trainee based on variations in performance.  In other words, you base your effort and intensity throughout the workout on biofeedback from each previous rep and set.

Therefore, when you feel great and the weights are easy, get after it!  These are the days when you’ll be able to handle more volume and heavier loads, and possibly shoot for some type of personal record.

But on the days when you just don’t have “it,” you take it down a notch and don’t push yourself to the limit.  This isn’t an excuse to not work hard, as you should still be getting quality work done.  However, know when to take it easy and avoid missing any reps or getting through reps with poor form.

Let’s say your best deadlift is 315 pounds.  You get to the gym feeling pretty normal and proceed with your warmup, foam rolling and mobility work for example.  Expecting to work up to some heavy sets around 85-90%, you’re feeling loose and energized and do your first few sets of deadlifts with 135, 185, and 225 pounds.  The bar is feeling lighter than usual and moving fast.

You begin your working sets at 255 and pull it for 5, still feeling great.  Next set, 275 for 4 and it’s not difficult.  Now 275 is already more than 87% of your max, but you’re not fatigued at all so you move up to 295 and pull it for 3 with a rep left in the tank.  At 295, you’re nearing 94% of your max, so this is heavy shit!  But hey, the bar’s moving and you’re building confidence, why not move up to 315 and match your max?  You pull it for 3 reps and set a new PR, even though you weren’t planning or expecting to even work up to 300 today.  Well, my friend, you just autoregulated your training.

From this point on, it’s up to you to make the right decision and either add more weight to the bar, perform a back-off set or two, or move on to your next exercise.  It all depends on how you feel.  The beauty of this method is you can literally adjust your training on a set-to-set and even rep-to-rep basis.

To illustrate a not so fortunate workout, picture the opposite.  You might get the gym feeling stiff, tired, or lethargic.  Your warm-up sets don’t have the energy you’re used to, and your concentration just isn’t where it needs to be.

In this type of scenario, it would be a good idea to keep the weight light and really focus on technique.  You might not be satisfied with your lack of production, but these sessions are just as important as the great ones.  Honing in on form with lighter loads is still very valuable and will help reinforce good technique the next time you go heavy.  Remember when I discussed patience?  This is why it matters.  Don’t let yourself get discouraged, you still accomplished some quality work.

Why is it effective?

When you autoregulate, you’re making yourself more efficient.  By understanding and listening to your body as well as observing your own performance, you can then make the right decisions at the right time to get the most out of every training session.

Say you follow a strict program and complete every prescribed set and rep with the prescribed loads each and every training session.  Your workout on Monday calls for 4 sets of 6 with 185 pounds on push presses.

However, you had trouble sleeping sunday night and followed that up with a stressful day of work and poor nutrition throughout the day.  But the program calls for it, so no matter what it takes, you’re gonna complete 4 sets of 6 with 185.

This is asking for trouble.  You might be fine on the first set or two, but you soon find that there’s no way you’re hitting 6 reps on the next two sets.  If you push it too hard, your form might break down on one of the two next sets and you could tweak a shoulder or hyperextend your low back with 185 pounds over your head, resulting in pain and discomfort that could keep you out of the gym for days.

Another possibility?  You stick with 185 but only get 4 on the third set and 3 on the fourth.  A little bit better than a minor injury, but now you’re bummed because you didn’t accomplish what you planned, leaving you frustrated and stressed.

On the other hand, autoregulating could have avoided these problems.  If the first set felt way heavy, you understand that you need to adjust accordingly.  So maybe you knock off 10-15 pounds but still hit 6 reps on the second set while keeping good form.  From there, you keep autoregulating.  The whole time you’re monitoring your energy levels and fatigue, and because of that you can make better decisions that result in a more successful (and enjoyable) training session.

The same goes for the opposite side of the spectrum.  You might be feeling especially good that day, and by the time you complete 4 sets of 6 with 185, you have more left in the tank!  But if you follow the program to strictly you’ll end up stopping there, leaving some valuable reps on the table.  In this case, you undertrained when there was more potential to get better.

Essentially this method allows you to perform to your maximum potential at all times.  You avoid overtraining, you avoid undertraining, and you finish your workouts knowing that you did the most you were capable of that day, which builds confidence and keeps you satisfied with your effort.

Things to remember

  • I’m not advocating you throw out you programming entirely.  Autoregulation doesn’t mean you wing it and randomly select what you do in the gym.  Programming is still important and you should still have a plan for each training session, just don’t be so strict about it!
  • Autoregulation is not an excuse to skip workouts because you’re not feeling 100%.  This is why I listed discipline as a prerequisite.  Get to the gym and get done what you can, just don’t be stupid.  Nobody is invincible.
  • Just because you’re feeling shitty during the day doesn’t mean that feeling is going to last.  Sometimes training is the best cure!  It is very possible you could have an amazing session on a day you feel weak and tired, or a disappointing session on a day you felt fueled and strong (rare).  You truly never know, and that’s why the feedback after every set and every rep is so important!
  • If you find that you’re consistently having those dreaded “off” days, there’s a good chance something is wrong.  Consistently feeling tightness or pain in certain areas might mean you have some type of overuse injury.  If you’ve been dead tired for a week straight, you could be overworked or overstressed, and it might be time to deload a bit.  But if you’re on a hot streak and have been putting up big weights while consistently feeling great and eating well, keep it up!  Clearly what you’re doing is working, and it’s time to take advantage.

To sum it all up

  • Programming is essential, but you must be able to adapt.
  • Autoregulation is a sustainable method of training.  It can applied to load, volume, training frequency, and even exercise selection!
  • Unless you know exactly how you’re going to feel 2-3 weeks from right now, I encourage you to have some more flexibility with your routine.
  • This is an essential skill to have if you want to consistently train to  the best of your ability while staying pain and injury free.

Further Reading

Autoregulatory Training vs. Linear Periodization [Research Review]

Texas Hold ‘Em Autoregulation by Anthony Mychal

Cybernetic Periodization: Modifying Strength Training Programs on the Fly by Eric Cressey

How You Feel is NOT a Lie by Dave Dellanave

My Problem With Autoregulation by Bojan Kostevski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Ways to Make Your Pull-Ups More Challenging

Vertical pulling is an important component to any well-rounded training program, and no exercise fits the bill better than the classic pull-up.

Rock solid pull-ups will target a ton of upper body musculature including your lats, traps, deltoids, and biceps – to name a few.

There are an unlimited number of variations with this exercise, depending on how creative you are.  By playing around with different grip positions (pronated, supinated, mixed, towels, etc) and widths (close, medium, wide) you’re able to target different areas of the back and arms.  Things get even more fun with advanced variations such as clapping pull-ups, muscle-ups, and pull-ups performed with external load.

Once you’ve acquired some decent pulling strength, it gets pretty difficult to make steady progress with pulls and chins.  Adding large amounts external weight can sometimes be a tedious process, and constantly trying to max out for reps will most likely lead to elbow or shoulder pain.

Here are two unique variations to add a fresh challenge to your training regimen.

 

Wide Grip TRX Pull-ups

This is a variation I stole from Ben Bruno that is easy to setup and that makes wide grip pull-ups much more joint friendly.  All you do is toss the TRX handles over the top of a squat rack to create a much wider distance between them.

You’ll have to keep your legs lifted off the ground, but this isn’t a major issue.  I suppose if you wanted to increase the difficulty you could hold your legs straight out in an L-sit throughout the set.

Widening your grip on a straight bar is a good way to hit the lats more effectively, but unfortunately could result in shoulder or elbow pain with a lot of folks.

The straps of the TRX are great because they allow you to rotate your wrists as you pull up, which feels a heck of a lot more natural when pulling in the vertical plane.  With a fixed bar, your wrists are locked into place, which sends the stress straight to your elbows and eventually your shoulders as well.

Using TRX straps, blast straps, or gymnastic rings are all great ways to avoid chronic pain and inflammation when performing pull-ups at a high frequency.  If you have access to any of them, take advantage!

 

Band Resisted Chin-ups with Fat Gripz

Two major benefits with this one:

  • Accommodating resistance via the band forces you to pull with more acceleration
  • Addition of the Fat Gripz creates a much greater challenge in regards to grip strength

Here’s what they look like.

I like to loop the band under a heavy dumbbell and then toss it over my shoulder because it seems to stay solid in that position.  Make sure there is tension on the band at all times and that you lower yourself under control.  This will ensure that you’re pulling explosively and it will also make the eccentric portion of the rep more difficult (because the band is pulling you down).

 

Some Important Cues…

  • Pull all the way to your sternum on every repetition.  This needs to be the standard, just getting your chin to barely cross the bar is not acceptable.
  • Using a false grip (thumbs on top, instead of wrapped around the bar) will help take the biceps out of the movement to some degree.  This is a good thing when we want our back and rear delts to do the majority of the work.
  • If you’re going to be doing pulls/chins frequently (more than twice a week, for example), avoid using a straight bar.  As mentioned earlier, TRX straps, blast straps, or rings are great alternatives.
  • Always keep muscular tension throughout the duration of each set.  Never allow yourself to simply dangle from the bar, as this can create unwanted stress on ligaments and tendons.
  • Avoid hyperextending at the elbow.  For those who have excessive joint laxity (more common in women), your elbows may tend to hyperextend at the bottom of the movement.  If this is an issue, only lower yourself until the elbow becomes neutral or has a very slight bend.

 

Give these variations a try and see how they work for you.  I hope ya like em’!

 

 

 

 

Split Stance RDL’s

Sometimes standard romanian deadlifts can get a little bit boring and stressful on the joints if you’re using them too frequently in your training.

However, making the move from bilateral to unilateral RDL’s isn’t easy because the single-leg variations require large amounts of balance, stability, and coordination.

Performing RDL’s with a split stance is a great way to reap the benefits of unilateral loading without the steep balance requirements.  Here’s what it looks like:

As you can see, the back leg is only about six inches behind the front.  It’s a small change, but it shifts the majority of the load onto the front leg and the back leg is simply there for stability.  It’s also easier to push your hips back in this position, making it easier to keep the lumbar spine flat and solid.

Even though I love single-leg training and feel that the benefits are fantastic, not everybody has enough lower body stability to start performing the variations without a lot of practice.  Because of this, the focus will tend to shift on maintaining balance rather than on the muscles and the movement itself.  When we’re training primarily for strength, we’re going to be using heavier loads and we don’t want to worry about keeping our balance.  Over time as strength and stability improve, balance will take care of itself and single leg exercises will be much more effective.

I really like this variation in particular because you can still go pretty heavy, and since your back leg stays grounded there’s no concern about losing your positioning and missing a rep.

Remember to keep a slight knee bend and keep the bar close to your body.  Just as you would with standard RDL’s, pull the bar up and finish with your glutes at the top.

Give these a try if you’re looking for a good place to start implementing unilateral lower body training.  I think you’ll really enjoy them!

Developing Explosive Power, The Strength of Evidence Podcast, and Snatch Grip Deficit Deadlifts

Developing Explosive Power

I’ve got three things to cover in this post, and I’d like to start with an important area for those seeking improvements in athletic performance and those who may be very strong, but slower than a tortoise.

If you want to be fast, you need to train fast.  Maximizing your Rate-of-Force Development (RFD) can help build this type of power.

The simplest way to do so?  Lift weights with the intention of accelerating through the range of motion as fast as you can.  Even during near-max attempts, the bar might be moving slowly but the mere intention of getting the weight up quickly can make a big difference.

Other methods, such as accommodating resistance like bands or chains, can help improve the ability to produce force at a high velocity.  Plyometrics are also very effective in this regard.

Since this topic has been written about numerous times by people who are smarter and more experienced than myself, I’m not going to dive much deeper into the deets here.  But here are some great articles to check out if you’re interested.

Build Explosive Speed by Josh Bryant

Developing Explosive Power by Kevin Neeld

10 Movements for Explosive Power by Wil Fleming

There are a couple things to keep in mind before implementing this style of training.

First, training for speed and agility is just about useless if you don’t already possess a good level of base strength relative to your bodyweight.  Make sure you’re reasonably experienced with strength training and have the skill and coordination to perform compound movements with solid technique.  If your form on the squat is shaky, how do you think it’s going to look when you attempt speed squats at maximum velocity?

Second, the idea of training for speed and power is nothing more than simple physics.  Strength coaches around the world don’t use these strategies simply because they look cool and sound smart.  Keep in mind the basic formulas for force, work, and power.

F=ma (Force = Mass * Acceleration)

W=Fs (Work = Force * Distance)

P=W/t (Power = Work/Time)

Therefore, in order to produce more force you can either increase the amount of mass you’re moving, or increase the speed at which you move the same mass.  From there, increased force output will in turn increase the amount of work being done (assuming the load is being moved over the same distance).  And continuing on, doing more work will result in a higher amount of power production (assuming that the work is being done in the same amount of time).

To conclude, training with maximal loads moved at sub-maximal speeds combined with training sub-maximal loads at maximal speeds will yield the best results in terms of strength, power, and athleticism.

 

Strength of Evidence

Jonathan Fass and Bret Contreras have put together an excellent resource for all fitness professionals called the Strength of Evidence Podcast.  If you have some spare time and want to listen to a couple of freaky smart guys talk strength and conditioning, this podcast is a great option.

Jon and Bret cover tons of research each episode and really work to clear up common misconceptions as well as offer evidence-based solutions (and expert opinions) to some very common problems.  Definitely check it out sometime!

Strength of Evidence Podcast

 

Snatch Grip Deficit Deadlifts

There’s no questioning that deadlifts are a true test of total body strength.  The demands that they place on the entire posterior chain are excellent for average folks looking to improve health and aesthetics, all the way up to elite athletes who are seeking performance enhancement and injury reduction.

One good way to improve your deadlift efficiency and strength while also improving joint mobility is to lengthen the distance of the pull.  Using a snatch grip (very wide grip) or pulling from a deficit are two simple ways to do this.  When combined, these can reap tremendous benefits.  Here’s an example of me using a wide grip (even with my T-Rex arms) and standing on a 45lb plate to create around a 1.5″ deficit.

If you don’t pull conventionally, you can always just add a deficit to sumo deadlifts (using a 25lb plate for each foot works well) or do trap bar deadlifts with the low handles or a deficit or both!  Remember that it takes a lot of mobility to perform these extreme ROM type movements.  Start off with a very small deficit or a very small change in grip width and as your mobility improves over time, increase the ROM.  Avoid pulling with a rounded lumbar spine to keep your discs safe from unnecessary shear forces and to avoid low back pain.

Try this strategy out the next time you deadlift.  Pull from a deficit for your lighter sets and then remove the deficit when things get heavy.  You should feel stronger throughout the pull and more comfortable getting into the starting position.  I’m confident you’ll find this tip to be effective and practical!