Stop Knee Pain Before It Starts

At some time or another, almost every serious athlete is going to experience periods of knee pain.  Whether it’s a runner who is feeling the effects of running on concrete, the football player who’s made one too many quick direction changes, or just your average gym rat whose knees are starting to bark at them from too much squatting, odds are pretty good it’ll happen at some point.  That is, unless you take a few steps to prevent it.

Prehabilitation vs. Rehabilitation

Many people are familiar with the idea of rehabilitating an injury – fixing something that’s already broken (injured).  But very few people know much about prehabilitation – stopping an injury from ever developing in the first place.  Granted, it can be pretty boring and can feel like a waste of time when you’re already healthy, but trust me, it’s better than having to see all of your progress come to a screeching halt because you got sidelined for 3 months with a strained ligament, or even worse a muscle or ligament tear.  At that point you’d be kicking yourself for not taking a few extra minutes for prehab – except you can’t bend your knee enough to do it.

It’s important to note that prehab movements to prevent an injury to one area are not always the same movements that you would use to rehab an existing injury.  So I just want to point out that this article is not intended to replace physical therapy or any other rehab protocols, it’s merely a breakdown of an easy 5-minute workout to keep already healthy knees just as healthy.

The Movements

  • Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) – Iliotibial (IT) Band
  • SMR – Adductors
  • SMR – Calves
  • Terminal Knee Extensions (TKE’s)

Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)

SMR is to your muscles what a rolling pin is to a lump of bread dough.  You basically take a hard object (usually a foam roller, which come in various densities) and roll up and down the muscle, stopping to apply pressure to the tight spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on to the next tight area.  The pressure from the roller stimulates the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) reflex, which triggers the muscle to relax and release tension.  It can take several weeks up to several months to fully release the pressure on an area, depending on how severe the problem is.

SMR – IT Band

IT band foam rolling

The IT band is a length of connective tissue that originates at the hip and runs down the side of the thigh, inserting into the lower leg just below the kneecap.  When tightened, the IT band can pull both the pelvis and the knee joint out of alignment, leading to pain in the front (anterior) side of the knee, an ailment commonly diagnosed as “runner’s knee syndrome”, as the repetitive impact of running or jumping (volleyball, basketball) tends to contribute highly to the buildup of tension.

To roll the IT band, lie on one side with the roller just below the hip bone, with the bottom leg straight out and the top leg on the floor in front.  Use the front foot to push so that the roller moves down the thigh, stopping just below the knee joint.  Be careful not to roll directly on the hip or knee joints, instead staying only on the muscles of the side of the thigh.  Remember to apply continuous pressure to affected spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on.

If you need to apply more pressure to get at tight spots, try stacking the front foot on top of the bottom so that both legs are straight out, and use the top leg to push down to add more pressure.  Note: this is not for beginners and can be extremely painful, so try to get as much release as you can from the first variation as you can before trying this adjustment.

You can also try slightly turning the shoulders and hips as you roll to get more surface area, so that you’re rolling the side, slightly off to the front toward the quads, and slightly off to the back toward the hamstrings.

SMR – Adductors

Adductor foam rolling

The adductors are basically the antagonistic muscles to the IT band – they still pull on the knee and the hip, just in different directions.  They tend to get tight with increased quad training, as well as movement patterns that involve a wider stance.

To roll the adductors, lie face down on the floor with the roller parallel to your torso.  You’ll want to keep the shoulders and hips squared to the floor as you move, and you want the knee to be straight out from the hip with the lower leg bent at about 90 degrees.  Start with the roller positioned higher on the thigh up near the groin muscles, and roll down toward the top of the knee.  The adductors extend down the leg a little lower than the IT band does so you can go down just a bit farther.  Make sure that your knee stays in line with the hip, it’s easy for it to start dropping low as you roll.  Find those tight spots and hit them each for 15-20 seconds before moving on.

SMR – Calves

Calves foam rolling

If the calves are tight, then the weight will tend to shift to the ball of the foot when squatting or deadlifting, causing a lot of shearing stress on the patella tendon.  A big red flag is when the heels pop up off of the ground during squats, deadlifts or lunging movements.  The pressure should always stay on the heel or mid-foot, never the ball of the foot (with the lunge, I’m referencing the back foot; with the rear foot it’s impossible to keep the heel down and you shouldn’t try).

To get the calves, I recommend focusing on rolling the top of the calf (the gastrocnemius) and the bottom (the soleus) seperately, if only because of how difficult it is to keep your body held up by your arms if you try and roll everything at once.  You’ll sit on the ground with both legs straight out and the roller positioned just underneath the knee at the very top of the calf.  Start with both feet side by side on the roller and the toes pointing up toward the ceiling.  Lift the hips up so that all of the pressure is now applied into the foam roller, and pull the hips back under your shoulders so that the roller moves down toward the middle of the lower leg, and then roll back up.  Again, you’ll want to focus on the tight spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on.  After you’ve done all of your rolling for the upper calf, readjust so that the roller starts at the mid-calf and roll down to just above the Achilles tendon and back, being careful not to apply pressure to the tendon itself.

As pictured, you can increase the pressure by crossing one leg over another and using the top leg to press down into the roller.  You can also try doing some rolls with the toes up, some with the toes pointing off to the left, and some with them pointed off to the right to get all of the calf surface.

Terminal Knee Extensions (TKE’s)

TKE’s are a great strengthening movement for the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO), which is responsible for stabalizing the patella (kneecap).  The muscle recruitment is similar to a conventional leg extension movement, with one big difference – a leg extension machine braces the thigh in place, eliminating movement at the hip, which in turn, combined with the downward pull of the weight, results in a huge amount of compressive force on the knee.  The TKE allows the knee and hip to move freely together and eliminates the compression because the weight pulls front to back.

I use JumpStretch bands, and use either a light (purple) band or an average (green) band.  Other bands work just fine, just figure out a comparable tension.  Choke the band to a power rack or something stable at about knee height.

Make sure to keep the heel of the working foot on the ground so that you’re not using momentum to get through your reps, and make sure that you’re not moving your hips and butt forward and backward for the same reason.  I like to pause for 1-2 seconds at the top of each rep to keep things extra strict.  Just remember nobody cares how thick of a band you use for TKE’s.

The Workout

  1. SMR – IT Band – 2-3 slow rolls, focusing on each tight spot, followed by 10 brisk rolls up and down the leg
  2. SMR – Adductors – 2-3 slow rolls, focusing on each tight spot, followed by 10 brisk rolls up and down the leg
  3. SMR – Calves – 2-3 slow rolls, focusing on each tight spot, followed by 10 brisk rolls up and down the leg
  4. TKE’s – 3 sets of 10-20 reps per leg

Do this at least before every lower body training session, but it can be done 4-5 times a week if necessary.  Just be consistent, and it’ll go a long way toward keeping your knees healthy and happy, and your performance will thank you.

Book Review: Enter the Kettlebell!

Enter the Kettlebell!

About two years ago, I decided that I needed to learn how to train with kettlebells.  I didn’t necessarily feel like I had to drop a couple thousand dollars to go through the certification process, but I at least needed to know how to perform the basic movements without killing myself.  Having known a few RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) instructors already, I knew exactly where to go to learn: Pavel Tsatsouline, the godfather of kettlebell training in America.

Pavel has released probably close to a dozen books on various subjects, from abdominal training to bodyweight training to his idea of what bodybuilding programs should look like, but if there’s one thing he knows, it’s kettlebell training.  He developed the Russian Kettlebell Challenge certification for trainers and instructors and initiated the production of the first kettlebells made in America through Dragon Door.

Dragon Door kettlebells

Back in 2001 Pavel released The Russian Kettlebell Challenge in book form and with a companion DVD, and about the same time began offering his RKC certification courses.  Kettlebell training took off in America, and in the next few years they started popping up in every training studio and commercial gym you can think off.  Hell, even Wal-Mart sells them now, and you can thank (or blame) Pavel for that.

A few years later, Enter the Kettlebell! was released as essentially an updated version of The Russian Kettlebell Challenge, and it too has a companion DVD to take you through all of the technical details that are hard to convey in print.  It’s noted in the book that Pavel has changed some things since the original text, and that the new book takes precedence over the old one.  So bear that in mind if you’re thinking of picking up both books.

Through the book, Pavel covers the basic kettlebell movements: the swing, the snatch, the clean and press, and the getup.  These four movements are the foundation of kettlebell training, and are most likely the biggest “bang for your buck” movements as well.  The technical details are covered quite well, with a ton of pictures on how to perform the various stages of the lifts, as well as some great pics of how NOT to do them as well.  Pavel also has a great sense of humor that is spread throughout the text and photos, which makes it a much easier read than some training books.

One caveat: I’ve heard complaints from beginners that the book is hard to comprehend without the DVD to go with it.  I picked up on the text descriptions just fine with help from the photos, but then again, I have several years of training under my belt so I probably pick up on the little stuff quicker than a newer lifter.  So you may want to dish out a few extra bucks and get the DVD to be safe.  It can’t hurt, it’s just as entertaining as the book, if not a bit more.

One last thing: the warmup movements that Pavel recommends before workouts are worth the price of the book alone.  They’re pretty simple, but amazingly effective.

Rating: 8.5/10
Price: $34.95 from Dragon Door Publications

Book Review: 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength

Like most of you out there who have been training for more than a few years, I’ve tried dozens (and I mean dozens) of different programs and workout splits, all promising to “Add 50lbs to Your Squat in 7 Days!” or “Add 1 Inch to Your Arms in 12 Hours!” or whatever other ridiculous claim you can think of.  And, like most of you, I have nothing to show for it except for a bunch of training logs that hop around more than a rabbit on a pogo stick.

That was, until I began training for powerlifting.  When I first began, I discovered conjugate (or Westside) training.  Through Westside training I discovered Dave Tate.  Through Dave Tate I discovered Elite Fitness Ssytems.  And through Elite Fitness Systems I discovered Jim Wendler.

Wendler is a retired elite level powerlifter who also used to train with the Westside Barbell Club, and in the process squatted 1,000lbs, deadlifted 700lbs and benched over 600lbs.  He knows a lot about the system, and answered a lot of questions I had on the EliteFTS Q&A about it, including what he found didn’t work very well for him.  He found that a lot of the notable elements of Westside training don’t work very well for powerlifters who compete raw (that is, without the aid of bench shirts and squat/deadlift suits), including the box squat, bands, chains, and tons of accessory work.  When he retired from powerlifting he began working on a system of training that trimmed out much of what he deemed unnecessary and left in a foundation of a few very basic movements, with a focus on small, continuous improvement over many months and years.  Jim dubbed this system 5/3/1 (named as such because of the simple adjustment in rep ranges from week to week).

Jim Wendler deadlift

In the year or so that I was training using the Westside method, I was, indeed, a raw lifter.  And in that time, I began to notice that, just like Jim said, a lot of the things in the Westside method that work very well for equipped lifters don’t carry over as well to the raw lifter.  I saw many of the testimonials on the EliteFTS website talking about some amazing success stories with 5/3/1, and at the same time I had begun to stall in my own training and was looking for something simple to get me back on track.

I began my experiment with 5/3/1 at the end of September 2009 after having just strained my rotator cuff, so I started with some very conservative “maxes” for the big 4 lifts – military press, deadlift, bench press and squat.  Jim recommends taking 90% of what your best lift is and using that number to base all of your percentages on.  His logic is, it’s better to start too light than too heavy.

Having just tweaked my shoulder, I went even farther and dropped my military press and bench press down to about 75-80% of what I had done recently to give it some time to heal.  I began with the following “training maxes”:

  • Military press – 110lbs
  • Deadlift – 315lbs
  • Bench press – 175lbs
  • Squat – 210lbs

It didn’t take long before I began to see dramatic differences in my numbers.  One of the key points of 5/3/1 is that, on days you feel good, you try to go above and beyond the number of reps you need for your last set (5,3, or 1 depending on the week) and just go balls out.  You shouldn’t do it all the time, but when things are good, you should take advantage.

The numbers speak for themselves.  In 3 months on 5/3/1 I sawthe following changes:

  • Military press: 95×9 to 105×10
  • Deadlift: 270×8 to 315×10
  • Bench press: 150×8 to 175×9
  • Squat: 190×3 to 185×10 and 200×6

Granted, they’re not the huge numbers you see hyped by your average newsstand article, but they’re more substantial progress than I had made in probably the last 18 months leading up to starting the program.

I’m now on my 6th month of 5/3/1, and my numbers are still climbing.  I don’t push for rep maxes as often now as I did during the first few cycles, maybe 1 or 2 training sessions out of every month, but when I do, I’m still setting personal records.  I’ve also incorporated the program with a lot of my clients, and they’ve had similar success stories.

If you find that you’re stuck in a rut with your training, or just need to simplify things a little, give 5/3/1 a try.  But take Jim’s advice and commit to giving it a chance over the long haul.  Start too light, start too slow, and keep making progress long after the guy next to you has burned out on his “Gain 20lbs of Muscle in 18 Minutes!” routine.

Rating: 10/10
Retail: $19.95 (e-book), $24.95 (paperback) from Elite Fitness Systems

Product Review: EliteFTS Blast Straps

Blast Straps, sold by Elite Fitness Systems here, are two individual D-handles attached to long, adjustable straps that attach to the top of any power rack or chinning bar.  They’re designed to add an element of instability and balance to traditional bodyweight movements (such as pushups, pullups, dips and more), as well as a few exercises that are specific to the Blast Straps (try the Abdominal Fallout for an example of what I mean).

The Blast Straps are incredibly high-quality, especially for the price.  The handles are solid metal with a chrome finish, and the straps themselves are rated at over 600 pounds per square inch.  I paid a little over $60 for mine about a year ago, well under the $200 that the TRX Suspension Trainer goes for.  The TRX gets the edge for being more versatile for lower body movements, but then again, it should for the difference in price.

As a personal trainer, one of my biggest concerns when training clients is always “man, I hope I don’t have to spend all day waiting to get on the equipment I want to use.” The less space I need, and the more movements I can do in that space, the better. Problem is, sometimes it’s not very easy to move quickly from one movement to the next when you have to constantly change plates on a barbell or swap out multiple sets of dumbbells. The beauty of the Blast Straps is that you can move quickly from one exercise to the next or quickly change the load just by adjusting your feet.  Without making a single adjustment to the strap length, I’ve run clients through the following circuit of movements using the Blast Straps with the handles set about 2 feet off of the ground:

  • Pushup
  • Row
  • Flye
  • Face pull
  • Overhead squat
  • Tricep extension
  • 1-leg squat
  • Bicep curl
  • Reverse flye
  • Abdominal fallout

And that’s just for starters.  There are all sorts of hybrid movements that you can come up with if you’re creative, which brings me to my next point: these things are fun as hell.  They do a great job of breaking up the monotony of conventional training and let you think outside of the box for a while.   This is especially refreshing if you’ve been training with the same movements for years on end.

There are very few cons that I have run into so far, but I have found a few.  The handles tend to be incredibly noisy when they’re rotating during movements.  Nothing major but it can get a little old at times.  I also wish it was a little easier to make the straps shorter for movements like dips and pullups, and a second loop to place the foot in for lower body training would have been nice (again, if you want a lot of leg work, go with the TRX).  But, like I said, you can’t beat the price.

Overall rating: 9/10
Retail price: $74.95 from Elite Fitness Systems

See more Blast Strap exercises here.

Learning to Squat

Here’s the bottom line: you need to learn how to squat. Period. No machine or fancy device is going to reproduce the physical benefits of a full free-standing squat, and there is no greater test of one’s physical prowess. So squat, and squat well.

Now, you might be saying, “I want to squat, I just can’t do it right.” Well, after reading the rest of this article you can just throw that excuse right out the window, because what follows is a series of 4 videos designed to take a rank beginner through some essential tips and tricks to make you a better squatter before you even try to climb under a barbell for the first time.

The goal here is to make sure that you’re capable of performing each step before moving on to the next. Until you’re proficient at step 1, there’s no need to work on step 2, as it’s probably just going to result in you practicing wrong and developing bad habits. So don’t do that.

Step 1: Face-the-Wall Squats

A note: I’ve seen many people who thought they knew how to squat and seen them fail miserably at the face-the-wall squat. It’s not to be underestimated.

Step 2: The Box Squat

Another note: I like to use box squats as a teaching aid, but for the most part I no longer condone using them as a replacement for the traditional squat for the general population due to the lack of carryover to the squat and due to a lesser degree of muscle hypertrophy. They’re useful for competitive powerlifters and maybe for those with extensive knee injuries, but other than that, don’t ditch free squats for box squats entirely.

Step 3: The Bodyweight Squat

There’s no point in trying to add weight to your squat until you can do it well without weight. I’d suggest being able to do 10-12 clean bodyweight squats to parallel or lower before introducing a barbell.

Step 4: The Barbell Squat

A final note: don’t be a bitch and do half-squats. Go all the way down or the weight is too heavy. Period.

5 Tips to a Stronger Midsection

Odds are, if you’ve actually taken the first step of going to the gym, one of your goals is probably to improve your midsection. You might want a nice little six-pack to take to the beach with you this summer, you might be an athlete who needs more core strength, or maybe you’re just a weekend warrior with some back problems. No matter what your goal, there are certain principles that everyone should follow when it comes to torso training:

Tip #1: Train Your Midsection.
This might sound like the most obvious thing in the world for an article about core training, but you’d be surprised how many people completely skip abdominal training altogether, let alone obliques, transverse abs, and lower back training. If you think these muscles are getting enough work in your regular workouts, you’re wrong.

Tip #2: Train Your Hip Flexors.
Somewhere in the last 30 years, it became en vogue to “isolate the abs” (thank you, Flex Magazine). Pick up a fitness magazine today and odds are it’ll have an article on how to do just that. What’s the problem with that? Everything. The abdominals and hip flexors are designed to be used together. If you try to exclude them from all your core training, then they’ll shut off, and won’t be able to fire properly when you need them most.

Here’s a simple test: Lay flat on a bench, with your feet flat on the floor slightly in front of you and your arms crossed over your chest. From this position, sit all the way up without letting your feet come up off the floor. If you can’t do it, you need to start training your hips, and you need to start yesterday. If you normally do crunches, do situps. If you normally do knee raises, do straight leg raises. There are a lot more ways to train the hip flexors than that, but those will get you started on the right track.

Tip #3: Train Your Midsection While Standing.
A lot of people miss this one, and it’s a shame. Think about it: does it make sense to practice your tennis serve while sitting in a chair? When’s the last time you saw a guy pull a 500lb deadlift while laying on his back? Practice how you play. One of the best standing ab and hip movements is the standing cable crunch. Attach a rope to a lat pulldown station and pull it down to your neck. With your legs straight, flex your abs and hips to bend over about parallel to the floor, then return to a full upright position. Wide foot placement adds more hip focus, and using a split stance (one foot in front of the other) includes the obliques to a greater degree.

Tip #4: Twist & Turn.
Especially if you’re an athlete, you need to do more than just train with crunches and leg raises. There are very few sports that don’t require any torso rotation. Twisting oblique movements should make up at least one out of three core movements, if not more. Medicine ball rotational work is great if you have access to a partner or a masonry wall. If not, here’s a good replacement: take an Olympic bar and wedge it in the corner of a wall, and lift the other end up with both hands, arms extended at about face level. Let the bar drop to the side toward one hip, then, keeping the arms relatively straight and leading by twisting the waist, raise the bar back up to the starting position. You can do all reps to one side at once, or alternate side-to-side. Don’t be afraid to go heavy on these at least once in a while.

Tip #5: Don’t Neglect Your Lower Back.
Probably 2 out of every 3 clients I get describe symptoms of lower back pain when they first begin training with me. When I ask them what they’ve done to help rehab it they typically tell me that they’ve been excluding any movements that involve the lower back. This is extremely backwards. When a child has difficulty learning to walk, is your solution to carry them everywhere instead? Of course not. So why would you deliberately neglect a weak area? How will that make it any better?

One problem is that most people can’t distinguish between muscle soreness and joint injury, and general practitioners don’t take the time to help patients understand. So when someone goes to their family doc with a sore lower back from, say, helping a friend move, the doctor’s prescription is usually the same: “stay off it for a while.” It’s never “you should train your lower back so it won’t get sore the next time you help someone move.”

For every direct abdominal movement you do (crunches, leg raises, situps, etc.), I would suggest an equivalent number of movements to develop the lower back. Planks, 45-degree back raises, good mornings, bridges, Supermans, etc. are all good choices. If you don’t know the proper execution of any of these movements, consult a good trainer and learn (if you don’t know if your trainer is good, ask around. If nobody knows if he’s good or not, odds are he isn’t).

You can’t build a skyscraper without a strong foundation, and you can’t build the body you want without a strong core. Treat these muscles with the time and respect that they deserve, and they will pay you back tenfold with a healthy, strong, injury-free midsection.

5/3/1 Assistance Work: Making Progress

If you haven’t read Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Manual by now, you’re missing out. If you have, you know how effective it can be in improving stalled lifts very quickly and consistently. The program is incredibly simple and effective: follow your percentage work for the main lifts, do your accessory work, then go home. However, the manual doesn’t elaborate very much on the assistance work in the context of progressions, so I thought I’d show some of the ways that I’ve manipulated assistance work with different training clients and still managed to keep the overall simplicity of the program intact.

Example #1: Bodyweight Exercises
Bodyweight exercises play an important role in 5/3/1 – hell, Wendler has an entire assistance template devoted to them. However, figuring out how and when to progress them can be a little tricky. Here’s how I’ve gone about it with one of my older clients.

Client #1
Let’s use the 45-Degree Back Raise as our sample exercise. When we first started, he could do a single, full-effort set with his own bodyweight that had his form break down at about 14 reps in. We progressed it like this:

Cycle 1
Week 1 – 5×10
Week 2 – 5×11
Week 3 – 5×12
Week 4 – 5×5 (deload)

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 5×12
Week 2 – 5×13
Week 3 – 5×14
Week 4 – 5×5 (deload)

On occasion we would only add one extra rep each cycle, starting at 5×11 instead of 5×12 and working through. We repeated this scheme until he was hitting 5×20, then added a 5-lb plate behind his head and began back at 5×10. I know you’re basically only adding a rep or two per set per cycle, but in the long run, that’s probably better gains than 90% of gym members have made in the last 12 months.

Client #2
In another case, I had a client that could only get about 7 reps at a time on the 45-Degree Back Raise. We used a progression like this:

Cycle 1
Week 1 – 3×5
Week 2 – 4×5
Week 3 – 5×5
Week 4 – 2×5 (deload)

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 3×6
Week 2 – 4×6
Week 3 – 5×6
Week 4 – 2×6 (deload)

Once he was up to 5×10, I progressed him like Client #1.

I would not use a progression like this if somebody was unable to get at least 5 reps of a given exercise. However, with the exception of GHR’s and pullups, I’ve never encountered a scenario where somebody couldn’t get at least a single set of 10. In those cases, we used JumpStretch bands to provide assistance (rather than resistance) and progressively worked down in band tension until 5 reps could be performed with bodyweight only. I do this with band-assisted pull-ups since I suck at them:

Band-Assisted Pullup w/ average band
Cycle 1
Week 1 – 5×10
Week 2 – 5×11
Week 3 – 5×12
Week 4 – 5×5

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 5×11
Week 2 – 5×12
Week 3 – 5×13
Week 4 – 5×5

You can try going up more than a rep per cycle, but I’ve never had any success with it with band-assisted exercises. Once you get up to 5×20, drop band tension down to a light band, then a monster mini, then a mini, then bodyweight only. Some may feel they can progress quicker than this; I would suggest against it to prevent stalling in the long run.

Example 2: Externally-loaded Exercises
Externally-loaded is a fancy way of saying “anything more than bodyweight” – i.e. everything else. I use 2 methods here, one for the Boring But Big template, and one for everything else.

Boring But Big
After performing the appropriate 5/3/1 progression for whatever week you’re using, repeat the same lift for 5×10 at 50-60% in this manner:

Week 1 – 5×10 @50%
Week 2 – 5×10 @55%
Week 3 – 5×10 @60%
Week 4 – 5×5 @50% (deload)

If your training maxes go up the next cycle on your 5/3/1 lifts, recalculate your percents using the new max. If it doesn’t, then repeat the cycle with the same weights.

Everything Else
I use this with things like rows, side bends, extensions, etc. Pretty straightforward:

DB Side Bend
Cycle 1
Week 1 – 5x55x10
Week 2 – 5x55x12
Week 3 – 5x55x15
Week 4 – 5x55x5 (deload)

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 5x60x10
Week 2 – 5x60x12
Week 3 – 5x60x15
Week 4 – 5x60x5 (deload)

How you jump your reps is up to you – I’ve used 5-8-10 as well as 15-18-20 depending on the exercise and who I’m dealing with. Bottom line is to make as small of a jump as possible and progress as consistently as you can.

There are plenty of ways to do this, you just have to be a little creative and think simple. Keep your goal simple and small, just like you would on your main lifts. Increasing your lifts by one rep or by five pounds is still progress. Have that happen 10 times over and suddenly what started as a little extra won’t seem so little anymore, and neither will you.

Strength Training 101: Training Economy

For somebody who is new at strength training, the first few months hold a significant amount of opportunity to see radical changes in the body, including increased lean mass, reduced bodyfat, increased strength, and improved cardiovascular conditioning. However, it is critical that these first few months, where the body reacts rapidly to change, are handled correctly, because once this opportunity is gone, it is gone for good.

There are many components to a sound fitness program, including resistance training, cardiovascular exercise, nutrition, flexibility, recovery, and supplementation. Because most people do not have multiple hours in a given day to devote to these components it is my job to teach someone how to get the most out of their program in the least amount of time. This is especially true for resistance training.

In my experience, the average gymgoer (this excludes gym rats who essentially live at the gym for multiple hours each day) has roughly 1-1 1/2 hours a day, 2-4 days a week to spend at the gym without it creating difficulty in other areas of their life. This means that the big in-gym activities (resistance training, cardio and flexibility) have to all be addressed in this short window. In other words, making the right choices on what to do is crucial to get the most out of your time.

In short, training economy simply means selecting movements that provide the most benefit in the shortest amount of time. A movement that recruits twenty muscles in various proportions is more economical than one that isolates a single muscle. Focus should be on compound exercises (movements that require moving more than one joint) over isolation exercises (movement at only one joint). Let me provide a few examples.

Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises

Let’s look at a common target area for a female – the legs. Usually the goal is to shape and define the legs while at the same time reducing their size. Now, we know that in general to make your body smaller you have to lose bodyfat, which means cardio and nutrition are vital to getting the results you want. However, let’s put those aside and focus solely on using the workout floor. The legs are composed of several areas – the quadriceps (front of the leg), the hamstrings (back of the leg), the glutes, the hips, and the calves.

Now let’s look at some leg exercises and compare them in terms of training economy.

Comparison #1: Leg Extension vs. Leg Press

Leg Extension – beginners, for whatever reason, tend to gravitate toward this machine for the bulk of their leg training. From an economical standpoint, however, it only targets the quadriceps. Beyond that, the majority of the stress is only on a very small portion of the quadriceps in general – the vastus lateralus, which is basically the small section of muscle just above and to the inside of the knee that looks like a big teardrop when it’s fully developed. Let’s day you do 3 sets of 15 and rest for a minute in between sets. On average, you’ll spend a minimum of five minutes to have targeted maybe what, 5% of the entire leg? This makes little sense for someone who is pressed for time.

Leg Press – this is another machine that a lot of beginners, especially guys, tend to spend a lot of time on, in this case because it allows you to pile on the plates and boost the ego by moving a weight that’s 2-3 times that of your bodyweight. In terms of training economy, this is a good choice – the entire quadriceps is active, and if you move through a full range of motion by striving to lower the weight down so that the knee is bent at less than 90 degrees, the glutes and hamstrings also become heavily recruited. The calves, hips and abdominals are also involved as stabilizers. So far so good, right? Right, as long as the movement is performed properly, through a full range of motion. The problem is that, as I stated earlier, most guys use this machine to pump their ego and not their legs, so they’ll slap 800lbs on the sled and move through a 3 inch range of motion, at best. This is useless. Full range of motion is vital in almost every instance, with few exceptions.

Comparison #2: Lying Leg Curl vs. Stiff-Leg Deadlift

Lying Leg Curl – just like the leg extension, this is a very popular piece of equipment with beginners. However, again, in terms of bang for your buck, it falls short. For starters, it works only the hamstrings with little to no support from any other muscles. Secondly, the hamstring is a muscle that requires movement at both the hip and the knee to be worked completely, and the leg curl only has movement at the knee.

Stiff-Leg Deadlift – stiff-leg deadlifts not only hit the hamstrings with hip movement, which is not possible with any leg curling variation, but it also involves the glutes and lower back as major movers, and the lats and upper back as supporting muscles. Heavier weights can also be used, which, when coupled with the need to stand when performing this movement, equals more calories burned.

Chuck Vogelpohl deadlifting

Now, there are certain instances where more isolation movements are needed: when working around an injury or rehabilitating an injury, and when there is a muscular imbalance present, either in stength or size. However, 90% of beginning trainees do not have either of these issues and should focus on compound movements done from a standing position.

Here are some of the most economical movements for the beginner and the muscles targeted (in order from most to least involvement):

  • Bench Press (chest/shoulders/triceps)
  • Pushup (chest/shoulders/triceps/core)
  • Standing Military Press (shoulders/triceps/core)
  • Deadlift (lower back/glutes/hamstrings/lats/upper back/core)
  • Squat (quadriceps/hamstrings/glutes/lower back/calves/core)
  • Lunge (quadriceps/hamstrings/glutes/hips/core)
  • Pullup/Chinup (upper back/lats/biceps/core)
  • Row (upper back/lats/biceps/core)

Weight is less important than proper technique on these movements – in fact, many can and should be done with bodyweight only until proper form is learned.

You’ll notice there are no direct movements for the biceps and triceps. This is because these movements are by nature isolation movements – all the movement is at the elbow joint only. Most beginners do not need direct arm work if the focus is on presses, rows and pullups for the upper body.

If you are struggling to get the results you are looking for, I encourage you to take a look at your own program and evaluate its training economy. I promise you’ll notice an immediate difference and spend less time in the gym to boot. And as we all know, time is money. And that’s economical.