5 Tips for Cooking at Home

One of the most important components to losing fat and building muscle is the food you eat, and the commitment to preparing a significant amount of what you eat yourself. However, if you’re not accustomed to spending much time in the kitchen, here are five things that you will need to know.

#1: Faster is not always better.

It seems logical enough – turn on the burner, throw your food in the pan, and keep the heat cranked as high as possible so you can be done as quick as you can.  It turns out that’s not such a good idea, both for the flavor of the food and the nutritional quality.

Certain foods in general are best cooked slower and with a lower heat setting because they dry out very easily – most wild game (bison, elk, and ostrich for example) are this way.  Otherwise you will wonder why the $15 bison steak you just bought tastes as dry as the package that it came in.  Medium or medium-high cooking temps will heat everything evenly without drying it out.

High heat also has a tendency to overcook the outside and undercook the inside, damaging the nutritional profile of the meat (or vegetable, or whatever you’re making).  Excessive heat can kill the protein and digestive enzymes in the food, which can lead to poor digestion and an upset stomach.

There are occasions where high heat is useful – searing a couple of steaks for a few minutes on each side before transferring to the oven, for example – but in general opt for more moderate temps.

#2.  Get a Spice Rack.

If you’re going to be making a lot of your own food, it is critical that you have enough variety that you don’t get bored, because if you do, it’s going to be a hell of an uphill battle to stay consistent with your choices.  I have seen more than my fair share of clients who begin a diet very gung-ho, saying “I can eat boiled chicken and broccoli five times a day no problem if it’ll help me lose weight!”  And for a few days, that will be true.  You’ll lose a couple of pounds a week and you’ll have the willpower to skip the invitation to hit the buffet with your friends after work.

But as the weeks go by and progress slows down a bit, then willpower starts to diminish and you start thinking, “if I have to look at one more piece of chicken I swear I will kick a puppy!”  And before you know it you’re covered in Cheetos dust and surrounded by enough take-out food to satisfy the Chicago Bears defensive line.

So learn your options.  Lots of sauces and marinades will be tossed out because of all of the added sugar and chemicals, but you’d be amazed what you can do with a dozen options for herbs, some olive oil and a little vinegar.  At the very least, get yourself some paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, rosemary and sage.  Be creative and seek out recipes – there are hundreds of “Paleo-approved” websites devoted solely to cooking.

#3.  Use the right tool.

Like anything else, preparing healthy food that you’ll actually want to eat requires the right tools for the right job.  If you’re somebody who’s tried to brown ground beef in a saucepan or tried to dice carrots with a butter knife, you will not enjoy your time in the kitchen.  Learn the basics and keep things simple.  Get a book on cooking for beginners – a simple search on Amazon gives you dozens of options.

Also, don’t go cheap – poor quality cookware will give you poor quality cooking.  You don’t have to spend $600 on a set of pots and pans, but you also shouldn’t be buying your skillets from the dollar store.  You can go far with a good quality cast-iron skillet, a saucepan, a grill, a slow-cooker and a couple of good knives (chef’s knife and paring knife are a must).  Buy things a little at a time as you get better and can be more creative.

#4.  Read the recipe BEFORE you start cooking.

We’re even guilty of this one at home – we’ll pull out everything we need for a recipe, skim the directions and before you know it, you’ll hear “#@!$, we weren’t supposed to put that in yet!”  If you’re lucky, you might be able to salvage what you’ve got, but the recipe is there for a reason.  Take your time and do it the way the writer intended.  It will make a difference.

#5.  Plan ahead.

This is particularly important if you plan on taking your food to work with you each day, or if you live alone (or both!).  If your schedule is busy where it’s difficult to prepare your food as you need it, cut down the total time you spend in the kitchen by making more than one dish at a time, or by making double servings.  Instead of cooking 6-7 times a week, you may only have to spend an hour twice a week.  Refrigerate what you’ll use in the next 48 hours and freeze the rest.  Then, when you start to run low, transfer dishes from the freezer to the fridge and you’re ready to go.

Your best chance for success with your nutrition is going to come from knowing what you’re eating, and the best way to do that is to do it yourself.  Invest the time and the effort into taking care of your body with good nutrition, but don’t forget that you don’t have to sacrifice quality to do it.

Organic or Not? The Dirty Dozen

Each year, the Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the produce with both the highest and lowest amount of pesticide residue to allow consumers to make better choices when they go to the grocery store.  Not all produce needs to be purchased organic, so use this list to keep your toxic exposure as low as possible without it breaking the bank.

The Dirty Dozen

The items on these list contain the most pesticide residue and therefore are recommended to be purchased organic.  The higher the ranking, the worse the item is (i.e. #1 is more toxic than #10):

1. apples
2. celery
3. sweet bell peppers
4. peaches
5. strawberries
6. nectarines (imported)
7. grapes
8. spinach
9. lettuce
10. cucumbers
11. blueberries (domestic)
12. potatoes

The Clean Fifteen

These foods are less likely to contain pesticides and can be purchased conventionally.

1. onions
2. sweet corn
3. pineapples
4. avocado
5. cabbage
6. sweet peas
7. asparagus
8. mangoes
9. eggplant
10. kiwi
11. cantaloupe (domestic)
12. sweet potatoes
13. grapefruit
14. watermelon
15. mushrooms

Can’t Afford Organic?

If your budget is such that even buying the twelve foods on this list organic still isn’t feasible, there is a way to reduce your exposure. It’s not as good as organic, but it’s better than not doing anything.

Simply fill your sink with cold water and add roughly a teaspoon of liquid dish soap (DO NOT use dishwasher detergent). Then wash all of your vegetables and fruits from the Dirty Dozen in the soapy water. Rinse with cold water, dry, and place in the refrigerator (or wherever it’s going to end up). You should remove a significant amount of harmful residue from your food this way.

Washing your fruits and vegetables, however, obviously won’t change whether that food has been genetically modified, so if you’re trying to avoid GMO’s, you’re probably going to have to spring for the organic versions.

For more info, check out the original list from the EWG here: EWG’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

Balance Means Failure

Many a self-help book has been published and a motivational speaker has lectured on the notion of leading a “balanced” life, integrating family, work, friends, hobbies, etc., into one harmonious existence where every aspect of your existence gets equal treatment, and everything is wonderful and perfect, and you become a better, more “enlightened” person because of it.

Well guess what? That’s all bullshit.

If your goal is to be a success in any aspect of your life, you need to be very unbalanced. Are you an entrepreneur looking to start or grow a successful company? Prepare to kiss your personal life goodbye for a few years and get ready for 4 or 5 years (if you’re lucky) of working 60, 70, maybe 80 or more hours a week. Hobbies? Good luck with that – most every spare cent you have will be funneled back into your business so it can turn a profit as fast as possible – then maybe you can start thinking about that Harley you’ve always wanted.

The same goes for anybody who has ever been successful at transforming their body. I cannot count the number of excuses I have heard over the years about why somebody wasn’t able to make their training sessions, or why they didn’t have money for their supplements, or why they were unable to eat the way they were supposed to. Maybe some of these sound familiar:

“It was my cousin’s friend’s roommate’s birthday – we HAD to go out drinking on Saturday!”

“Thirty bucks for a multivitamin? I need that money for my life-sized Lego statue of Darth Vader that I’m building in my garage!”

“You want me to stretch for 20 minutes a day? I don’t have the time – Netflix now has every episode of The Golden Girls and that takes up 5 hours of my night, every night.”

“Sorry, I can’t train for three weeks. I got stupid-ass drunk this weekend and walked in front of a bus.”

“You want me to diet? On a Sunday? That sounds like work, and my religion doesn’t allow working on Sundays.”

It boggles the mind how many times I have encountered people who walk in the door, credit card in hand, highly motivated to start working with a coach. “I want to drop 12 dress sizes by this time next year.” Then, after their first nutritional consultation, the excuses start pouring out. “There is no way I can give up my morning latte. And I’m addicted – ADDICTED – to bread. I can’t get rid of it.”

I have some very unpleasant, yet very accurate, news for those people – you are going to fail. If you want to look like a cover model, yet still go out with friends two or three nights a week, only train twice a week, and have an “easy” diet, guess what? It’s not possible. It doesn’t matter what ad you heard on the television, or what Oprah said, it’s all bullshit. Success in any area of life – parenting, starting a new business, trying to go pro in a sport, or having a six-pack – it all requires that you discard and reduce things that get in the way. Sometimes it isn’t pleasant – in fact, it’s almost NEVER pleasant – but it has to be done.

Then, when you have succeeded, you can begin to think about “balance” again.

What’s On Your Playlist?


Looking for something new to add to your workout playlist? We’re asking the AST staff and clients what they’re listening to, and we’re kicking things off with AST head coach and co-owner, Zach Trowbridge.

Tremonti – Wish You Well

Prepare for a theme – I tend to listen to mostly guitar-driven rock and metal when I train (Sergio would refer to it as “Zach’s angry music”). While you could pull any song off of Tremonti’s new release All I Was and it would work just fine, this is probably my most played.

Bullet for My Valentine – No Easy Way Out

A non-keyboarded cover of a Rocky soundtrack song? I’m in. And it’s awesome.

AC/DC – Thunderstruck

Needs no explanation. You could just pick an AC/DC track at random and drop it in here, but the intro riff here gets your head right, every time.

Black Label Society – Demise of Sanity

The musical equivalent of a kick to the skull. This one probably is not for everybody.

Kanye West – Power

A little deviation from the rock and metal stuff, but a great training song nonetheless.

Have a favorite track right now? Leave a comment and tell us what you’re listening to!

Fat Loss Fast Track: Addition, Not Subtraction

While we see a wide variety of clients with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests at AST, there is always one common denominator: everybody who comes in wants to lose fat and look better, but to be perfectly frank, they want to do it with as little sacrifice as possible. There’s no shame in that – it’s simply human nature. And fortunately, if you know what you’re doing, you can be successful with it, and when your friends come over for dinner and complain about how their dietitian has them eating bland fish and less than 1200 calories a day, you can tell them about how you have no idea how many calories you eat as you politely carve up your tri tip and sauteed veggies (cooked in real butter!) and polish off a pint of coconut ice cream for desert. Then you can show them your abs as they leave.

It’s About Math (But Not Like You Think)

Quick, let’s play some word association. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the word diet? Starvation? Low calorie? Weighing your food? Sacrifice? Unfortunately, this is the state of the weight loss industry in America today. Count your calories, count your points, make sure you only eat 3 ounces of chicken, because everybody knows that 4 ounces will make you a fatass. And if it tastes good, there’s no way it’s good for you, so throw away butter, high-quality oils, and marinades; it’s boiled chicken and steamed broccoli for you, my friend – six times a day for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Or not. Why does it always have to be about what you need to take away? Cut this, cut that; low fat, low carb, low calorie, low sodium, get rid of it, I can’t have that, this thing is forbidden. Deserts? Get the hell out of here with that desert menu, waiter man. And guys, I’m sure your date is going to love watching you pick the cheese off of your salad and skip on the strawberry cheesecake.

What if I told you there was a better way, and it didn’t involve any complicated math, and it might even let you keep eating that cookie you like to get every morning with your coffee? It’s simple.

The body has a particular set of needs, and any time it’s deprived of one of those needs, one of its systems suffers. Those needs can be physical, emotional, or nutritional; let’s just focus on the nutritional. When your body is deprived of a particular nutrient or mineral, it has to find an alternative to sustain normal function; if an alternative can’t be found, things start shutting down. So deprivation is oftentimes one of the worst things you could possibly do to your body, and is why so many diets prove to be ultimately unsuccessful in the long run. Your body simply can’t keep up function in a nutrient-deprived state and the results can be damaging – fat gain, hormonal changes, immune system complications, the list goes on and on.

Does this sound familiar to you?

However, when all of your body’s needs are being met, things function well. Sometimes so well that those little mistakes you might make along the way (that daily cookie, for example) prove to be not that damaging in the scheme of things.

Setting Daily Targets

What we have found to be most successful at AST is to give clients daily goals for certain key food groups or nutrients. While one of the ultimate goals may be to remove poor quality food or unnecessary items, the difference is that we very seldom specifically request that something be omitted entirely (obviously, when extreme results in a short timespan are desired, it’s a bit of a different story). Instead, we keep adding and adding until the offending foods naturally get reduced, because there’s only so much room for food to go. In fact, many clients end up eating two or three times the amount of food they were before they came to us, while still losing fat and feeling better.

What sort of additions are we talking about? While it depends on the individual, we usually begin with a combination of the following: a protein target, a water target, and a meal frequency target. It’s much harder to complain about eating more steak, drinking more water, and eating more often. Combine that with a focus on nutrient-rich foods; i.e. a sweet potato cooked in butter over a bag of potato chips may be very similar in carbohydrates and calories, but radically different in nutritional value.

These targets are variable but not rocket science – most females we have shoot for 3-4 significant servings of protein per day (a serving being roughly the size of the palm of your hand), 3-4 liters of water a day, and eating something every 2-4 hours. Males usually shoot for 4-5 slightly larger servings of protein, 5-6 liters of water, and a similar meal frequency. These are, again, variable, but provide a reasonable starting point to work from.

Am I saying that you never need to cut out junk food to lose fat? Of course not – the closer you get to your goal, the more diligent you have to be and the less room there is for error. The difference is that when you build a solid nutritional base, meeting all of the important things and keeping foods high-quality and nutrient-rich, you have a foundation to work from and can easily transition from an aggressive diet into a moderate lifestyle adjustment and back, depending on your goals.

The takeaway? If you’re tired of being constantly limited and take a food scale and calculator with you everywhere you go, maybe it’s time to take a different mindset and concentrate on the things you’re missing out on, not what you’re getting too much of. Your body will thank you by functioning better and looking better, too.

Is Diet A Four-Letter Word?

Woman #1:  Hey, I’m trying a new diet!

Woman #2:  Oh yeah?  What’s it called?

Woman #1:  The Hollywood Sit & Scream 48-Hour Diet.  The ads guarantee losing 30 or more pounds in 2 days.

Woman #2: Wow!  What do you have to do?

Woman #1:  Well, for 48 hours I have nothing but coffee, Polish sausage and saurkraut 6 times a day, and then I have three beers for breakfast.  I also take something called X-Treme Herbalax 5 times a day between meals.  Then I wake up the morning of the third day and all of my insides end up in the toilet.  Did you know that your colon can weigh up to 4 pounds?

If the above conversation sounds at all familiar to you, you’re familiar with the modern state of the fad diet industry (also, you should see a doctor, as you need your insides to be inside of you).  There are dozens upon dozens of short (usually 7 days or less) diets that promise incredible results by using some insanely limited combination of foods and supplements in high amounts.  However, if you’re reading this site, I probably don’t have to tell you that those diets do more harm than good, and often lead to increased weight gain after the fact.  How did we get to the point where diets are defined by how unhealthy they are?

It doesn’t have to be that way.  A diet, in its simplest definition, is simply a specific plan to achieve a particular result by a certain deadline.  That’s it.  Want to lose 20lbs in 12 weeks for a wedding?  You’ll be dieting.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Will you keep up the same level of adherence and commitment after the wedding?  Probably not, because the deadline has been removed.  Did you cut out soda and start drinking tea?  Did you continue that habit after your goal was achieved?  Then you’ve made a lifestyle change.  It’s an open-ended adjustment with a broader focus – your long-term health.

The difference between a diet and a lifestyle change might seem inconsequential, but it’s actually pretty dramatic.  If I measure somebody’s body composition and they’re 30% bodyfat, and they set upon a target of 10% bodyfat, the steps they will take to get there are going to be dramatically different depending on the sense of urgency.  If I have 6 months, the room for error is reduced if not eliminated altogether, whereas if I have 2 years, there is room for mistakes and the inevitable lapse in dedication.

I think that as a society, we have come to expect that we can get what we want with very little sacrifice, in a short window of time.  How many ads have you heard on the radio promising some little pill that will let you drop 30lbs in a month with no needed exercise or dietary change?  And people are surprised when it doesn’t work?  Come on.

Again, I am not against somebody choosing to use a series of small changes to reach their goal over a long period of time.  If that’s what fits your level of priority, that’s totally fine – not everybody is physically or mentally able to go “all in” right away, if ever.  But it’s important to get the advice of a qualified professional to help you reconcile your goal with your ability to make the big changes.  You may want to lose 10 pounds a week, but if you refuse to cut out starch and think supplements are a scam, you’re in for a rude awakening when the scale won’t budge and your clothing won’t fit any looser.

Remember, you don’t have to diet – many people do wonderfully off of small, progressive adjustments with the intent of changing their lifestyle, but when your old college roommate invites you to go to Maui in two months and you’d prefer to not be able to use your stomach as a shelf, you, my friend, are going to need to diet.  Just please, stay away from the saurkraut.

My Advice to New Personal Trainers

The personal training and coaching industry has exploded in the last several years, and there are many poorly educated, albeit well-meaning, trainers who got into the job just because they love working out and “talking shop,” but without really having an understanding of what’s expected of you.  After all, most popular certifications do an awful job of preparing you for the reality of the fitness industry.  It’s extremely competitive, full of people promising things they can’t deliver.  Here’s how to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack.

#1. Look the Part.

You don’t have to look like you just stepped off of the cover of a muscle magazine year-round, but it’s impossible to deny that personal training is a visual industry. People who hire a trainer will, 9 times out of 10, go with the guy who looks the way they want to look over the guy who has a wall full of diplomas and certifications. It doesn’t matter how good of a trainer you are, if the prospective client doesn’t choose you, you’ll never get to show it.

Would you let him teach you how to get in shape?

This is where things like before and after pictures are extremely helpful. Let’s say you’re 250lbs, but you used to be 400. If I walk into your studio, I’m going to have some doubts about hiring you for fat loss, but if you show me that before picture, it gives you instant credibility. Who knows more about fat loss than somebody who’s dropped 150lbs?

This makes me qualified to talk about fat loss.

Bottom line: part of the sale is your appearance. If you won’t accept it, you may be in the wrong profession.

#2. Your Client’s Goals May Not Be Your Goals.

I used to see this a lot when I was a trainer at Gold’s Gym in California – wannabe bodybuilders who call everybody “Bro” having their female clients who want to lose fat do an entire workout of just arms. Or powerlifters who have their executive clients doing speed squats onto a box with chains on the bar, worrying about whether they’re using 62% or 63% of their max squat.

This is very easy to do as a trainer, and it’s also one of the easiest ways to lose clients. It doesn’t matter if circuit-style fat loss training with high reps and short rest intervals bores you to tears – either learn to deal with it, or don’t take fat loss clients.  Just remember – they’re paying you, not the other way around.

On a similar but slightly different note – there’s no need to impress your client with fancy gimmicks and tricks.  While squatting on top of a stability ball may look impressive, it’s also stupid.  Ditch the fancy balls and ladders and learn the basics.  Because the fastest way to impress a client is to make them look awesome, not to get a second job at the traveling circus.

... No.

#3. Know Your Value.

How much do you charge? Is it competitive? Are you trying to be the lowest price in town, or selling yourself as “the best of the best”? What’s your education? How many testimonials and success stories do you have? These things all impact how much you charge. Here are a few things to remember when setting rates:

– If you’re just starting out, you have no business charging what the pros do – you haven’t proven your ability to deliver results yet. If I have a 50-client portfolio full of impressive transformations, I might be able to demand $100 or more per training session. If I’m a 19-year-old kid still in college who hasn’t even finished his weekend certification, an hour session should cost $20-30. As you get better, you raise your rates. As you increase your credentials, you raise your rates. My first few clients paid me $10-15 an hour to essentially hold their hand during their workouts. I didn’t know much other than what I learned from fitness mags and from my own personal experience. Now I can command a significantly higher price point because I have the ability to deliver results.

#4. Understand Nutrition.

You have to include nutritional counseling as part of your training package. You have to. If you want your clients to have any hope of reaching their goals, you have to get into their diets. You have to not be afraid to tell people what they’re doing wrong and guiding them through the process. You don’t have to deliver a 7-day customized meal plan with nutrient breakdowns, but you need to know when to adjust protein intake, meal timing, supplements, etc. And you’d better practice what you preach – don’t tell all of your clients to avoid gluten like the plague if you’re going to eat Wheaties every morning and hit the local pizza spot during a break.

#5. Keep Records.

Without record keeping, you can’t show your clients, or yourself, how successful or unsuccessful your training is. Lots of new trainers, and far too many experienced trainers, never take bodyfat measurements, or pictures, or tape measurements, or keep track of training programs or weights used. A lot of guys on bodybuilding forums like to make fun of the “clipboard holding trainers” they see, but I’d rather see my coach holding a clipboard or a notebook than nothing at all. If you’re not taking notes and keeping records, it shows your clients that you don’t really care about that information, so why should they?

A career as a personal trainer or strength coach can be extremely rewarding, and it can also be the most stressful thing you’ve ever dealt with in your life, sometimes both at the exact same time.  But if you set yourself up for success from the start, you can make it a lifelong pursuit.

10 Mass Building Tips for Hardgainers

#1.  Get lean first.

It’s much easier to do the things you need to do to gain muscle when your bodyfat is low.  For example, carbs are protein-sparing, meaning they serve the function of providing energy to the body so that protein can be directed toward muscle growth and repair.  However, if your bodyfat percentage is high, you’re likely more insulin resistant, which means those additional carbs will be turned to bodyfat.

It’s not necessary to be stage-ready 365 days a year, but trying to maintain near single digits is a good idea.

#2.  Use BCAA’s during your workout.

The first month I added 20-30 grams of BCAA’s during each training session, I gained 6lbs of lean mass.  Clients that I’ve worked with rave about diminished recovery time and being able to get a few extra reps out of each workout.

Branched chain amino acids, made of leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are essential amino acids and have a preference toward being used for muscle growth, and have been shown to increase protein synthesis and raise insulin sensitivity.  In clinical settings, they have also been used to treat severe burns as well as side effects from liver failure.

Males should use at least 20 grams per workout, and females should use at least 10.  I recommend using capsules instead of powder as the taste of the powder tends to be awful, so some companies add artificial sweeteners or sugars to mask the taste.

#3.  Keep a food journal.

While I’m not a fan of lifelong food tracking, food logs are good for one thing: perspective.  It’s easy to think you’re eating a lot of food, but handing over your journal to somebody who’s skilled in nutrition for hypertrophy can expose a lot of holes in your habits.  Pick 1 or 2 habits to fix at a time, and continue to log so that you can see (or not see) improvement.  Once the changes become more or less permanent, then a journal may not be as necessary.  Or, if you’re tech-savvy, take a picture of everything you eat and drink for a week and have a qualified coach review it with you.

#4.  Keep a training log.

This goes with point #3, but I would consider it even more important.  I’ve worked with some guys who claim to train extremely hard, but when asked about details in their program, they often can’t remember something as simple as the exercises in their prior training session.

Keep a detailed log with the exercises, number of sets, reps, exercise tempo, and rest periods, as well as the time of day of your session and any relevant notes (illness, muscle stiffness, joint pain, etc.)

#5.  Take care of your fascia.

In recent years there has been speculation that one of the limiting factors in a muscle’s ability to grow is the quality of the soft tissue, or fascia, surrounding it.  When there are adhesions or scar tissue in the muscle fibers, it limits the muscle’s ability to grow “out”.  Getting treatment in the form of deep tissue massage or Active Release Technique can be extremely beneficial, as can performing self-myofascial release techniques such as foam rolling or lacrosse ball rolling.

IT band foam rolling

In addition, a new line of topical products from Zanagen are gaining popularity both in their ability to aid in muscle growth as well as relieving delayed onset muscle soreness, allowing a greater training frequency, which could lead to better gains.

#6.  Ditch the muscle magazines.

While I’m familiar with the feeling of flipping through the pages of Flex Magazine or MuscleMag International and aspiring to the physiques of some of the pros, there are several dangers to getting the majority of your training advice from those types of publications.

First, the majority of pro bodybuilders are very genetically gifted.  Sometimes you can see from very early on pictures that they carry muscle very naturally, and in some cases it’s simply a “just add water” situation – while they never were very impressive without training, as soon as they hit the gym with some level of seriousness the gains come relatively easily.  If you’re a hardgainer, that’s likely not you.  Even if you’re seriously underweight, your first year of training you may have only put on 10-12lbs, whereas some pros describe their first years adding 30, 40, or 50lbs within the first 12 months.

Second, assuming that the programs are actually used by the competitors you see (many times the workouts are just ghost-written), you have to remember that those programs are written by genetically gifted, pharmaceutically enhanced individuals who can get away with training their arms for an hour and a half at a time, once a week.  The average lifter will likely overtrain in volume, and undertrain in frequency.

Mr. Olympia Phil Heath, who is not a hardgainer.

Instead, look into hypertrophy programs from coaches who work with lots of “average” lifters, including Nick Mitchell, John Meadows, Shelby Starnes, Charles Poliquin, and Christian Thibadeau.  9 times out of 10, it will look nothing like the newsstand magazines.

#7.  Get enough sleep.

When you sleep, you release growth hormone.  Many so-called hardgainers are also the same people who will stay up until 2 or 3am all weekend long and then drag themselves out of bed at 5am on Monday, slam down enough caffeine to make a bull stop blinking, and wonder why they can’t grow.

Shoot for 7-9 hours of sound sleep every night.  Keep your room pitch black, don’t fall asleep watching TV, and take magnesium at night if you can’t get to sleep early enough (aim to be in bed by 11pm at the latest, ideally even before 10pm).

#8.  Train twice a day (sometimes).

If you’re in a hurry to put on some muscle, and your nutrition is already sound, then the limiting factor may be the amount of training you’re doing.  When carefully planned (and reduced appropriately when needed), training two or even three times a day can help speed up muscle growth.  For more on higher-frequency training, search out writings from Charles Poliquin and Nick Mitchell.  Keep in mind, it’s not for everybody, and your nutrition, supplementation and recovery have to be spot-on to avoid overtraining.

#9.  Take some time off.

While this may seem contradictory to #8, it’s actually just a different side of the same coin.  Training needs to be periodized, meaning there are times when lots of training is appropriate, and there are times where you’re better off focusing on rest and recovery.  If you’ve been training 2 hours a day for 3 years, and your joints are beginning to ache, your sleep patterns are terrible, and you become highly irritable, consider either switching to a low-volume, low-frequency deloading program for a couple of weeks, or just outright stay out of the gym and rest up.  You’ll come back stronger and more enthusiastic to lift than before.

#10.  Get help.

If all else fails, hire a qualified strength coach or personal trainer who has a history of getting results with his or her clients.  Ask for testimonials, look at before-and-after pictures, and do your homework.  Above all else, if your prospective coach or trainer is making promises that sound too good to be true, they probably are.

3 Deadlift Variations for MMA Fighters

With the increase in popularity of the UFC inevitably comes a flood of information from various strength coaches, trainers and other fitness professionals about “sport-specific” training for mixed martial arts competition. While there are a handful of trainers who advocate a variety of circus-like “functional” lifts, including everything from swinging chains around while standing on a stability ball (yes, this is actually a thing people do) to performing strength exercises in combat gear and altitude masks (again, yes, people do this for real), most intelligent coaches and trainers have taken basic staples of strength and tweaked them to meet the needs of a different sport.

While there will be some disagreement, it’s commonly accepted that one of the best exercises to increase MMA potential is the deadlift. There is not a fighter on the planet who can’t benefit from a stronger posterior chain (low back, glutes, and hamstrings), a better grip, and more power in the entire body. And for a lot of the offseason, the standard deadlift gets the job done. But there are a few variations that can be incorporated into your fight preparation that work either as a main lift or as an accessory lift.

The Single-Leg Deadlift

For sheer glute recruitment, the single-leg deadlift is probably the best exercise out there. It also works well for people who tend to dominate conventional deadlifts with their lower back – since you’re still using all of your lumbar muscles but only half of your glutes and hamstrings, your lower back isn’t moving enough weight to get fatigued easily.

The Zercher Deadlift

The bar position and the wide stance mimics a double-leg takedown. If you can move 300-400lbs for a few reps here you’ll have a lot less trouble taking down an angry 200-lb man who’s trying to beat you in the head.

Band-Resisted Deadlift

I like these because they force you to be fast. You’re less likely to use maximum weights, but with a healthy amount of band tension on the bar, your grip, upper back and traps will get a ton of overload because the band is going to try to yank the bar back to the floor at lockout.

There are a couple of setup options here. The first is with a single JumpStretch or EliteFTS band (light and average bands work the best for this, use more than one if necessary):

The second option is to use a couple of EliteFTS short bands, which are a little easier to set up correctly. The mini, monster mini, and light bands are the best options here, and make sure to choke the bands over the smooth part of the bar, as the knurling can tear up the bands over time:

Program Review: Giant Sets Training

I’ve seen giant sets training (3 or more exercises for the same bodypart without resting) show up in various magazines and articles on bodybuilding over the years, but never gave it much of a try. I’d occasionally with a few exercises to cut down on training time, but always for little exercises (shoulder raises, tricep extensions, etc.) and never really came into the workout planning on doing it.

However, over the last couple of years I’ve been seeing a lot about using very extreme giant sets for fat loss (6-10 exercises per muscle) in writing from guys like Charles Poliquin, Milos Sarcev, and Nick Mitchell.

Milos Sarcev prepping a client for competition.

I gave it a try for a 5-day cycle, during a short break from training twice a day. My training setup currently looks like this:

Day 1: Chest/Back
Day 2: Legs
Day 3: off
Day 4: Arms
Day 5: off
Day 6: repeat Day 1

When training twice a day, I do that 5 day cycle twice and then do 5 days of only training once a day, during which time I usually try out whatever ridiculous training ideas come into my head. Giant sets was one of them. Here is the entire 5-day cycle as it went:

Day 1: Chest/Back
A1. Ring Dip (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A2. Incline Barbell Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A3. 60-degree Incline DB Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A4. 30-degree Incline DB Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A5. Flat Neutral Grip DB Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A6. Flat DB Flye (3010, 2min rest) – x10

Rest is 10 seconds between exercises, then 2 minutes at the end, then repeat for 3 rounds total.

B1. Bentover Barbell Row (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B2. DB Pullover (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B3. Wide-Grip Pullup (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B4. Inverted Ring Row (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B5. Ring Face Pull (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B6. Elbows-Out Ring Row (3010, 2min rest) – x10

Repeat for 3 rounds. I really thought this was bad, but nothing compares to the leg day.

Day 2: Legs
A1. Heel-Elevated Front Squat (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A2. Close-Stance Barbell Squat (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A3. Poliquin Step-Up (3010, 10sec rest) – x10 each leg
A4. Walking DB Lunge (2010, 10sec rest) – x10 each leg
A5. Safety Bar Close-Stance Squat (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A6. Sumo-Stance Barbell Squat (3010, 2min rest) – x10

3 rounds. I wish I could say that I got all 10 reps on every exercise, every time, but that would be a lie. The first round took 7 minutes and 12 seconds, the third round took 10 minutes and 36 seconds. I’m glad I made Sergio do this workout with me, if I hadn’t, I know I would have started cutting corners on hitting all of the reps.

B1. Glute/Ham Raise (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B2. Romanian Deadlift (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B3. Hyperextension (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B4. 1-leg Kettlebell Deadlift (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B5. Reverse Hyperextension (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B6. Barbell Glute Bridge (3010, 2min rest) – x10

We had lofty aspirations of doing 3 rounds of the hamstring training, but that didn’t quite work out, as our entire legs were so cramped after round 2 that standing was nearly impossible.

Day 3: off (thank God)

Day 4: Arms
A1. Close-Grip Chinup (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A2. Fat Grip Barbell Scott Curl (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A3. Barbell Curl (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A4. 60-degree Incline Hammer Curl (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A5. 30-degree Incline Curl (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A6. Reverse Barbell Curl (3010, 2min rest) – x10

Unbelievable how light I had to go on the last few dumbbell curls. I’ll spare you the details (after all, I have a reputation to uphold…)

B1. Fat Grip Close-Grip Bench Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B2. DB California Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B3. 30-degree Lying DB Extension (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B4. Standing Overhead DB Extension (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B5. Band Pushdown (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B6. Ring Triceps Extension (3010, 2min rest) – x10

The last set of triceps work burned more than anything I can think of. I had to drop the weight down 3 different times in the same set on the last set of standing extensions just to get 10 reps, and it was definitely ugly.


Would I use this on a regular basis? Probably not. If you did, you would need to be very careful with exercise selection to make sure that you’re hammering away at the muscles without overtaxing the central nervous system. And even then, I would use it maybe 3-4 cycles though before switching out, using it at the peak end of a fat loss or hypertrophy cycle. I also feel like the hypertrophy programming would be easier as reps would be slightly lower (6-8 per exercise instead of 10-15) and it wouldn’t be done while dieting (I think the extent of my carb intake all 5 days was 40-60g of post-workout carbs). But if you’re looking for something to break you out of a rut, give it a try, if only for a short while.