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13 Jan

Do you remember your high school English class? When your teacher first taught you how to write an essay, they probably began first with how to create an outline. Once you format your outline, it will be easier to organize and fill in the details. With a framework to guide your thought process, you can write an entire essay from beginning to end. 

 

If your teacher asks you to write an essay or a thesis, they want you to show a clear intro, body, and conclusion with a resolution to the question you are trying to answer or the point you are trying to make. If a teacher tells you to write a short story, you are required to show a clear plot with a conflict or a struggle for the character to overcome, and a climax followed by a resolution. 

 

 

Many students strongly dislike being told they have to go through all these steps. I know I wasn’t too fond of it when I was in high school. But there’s a good reason for it. It helps most people stay focused and narrow in on what they want to include in their writing. When you’re designing something complex or creative, you need a structure to organize the contents and decide what to include in the story or essay.  

 

Lately, I’ve been comparing the structure and form of writing training programs to the formation of writing essays or stories. Even if trainers, coaches, and lifters are competent with planning the details of training cycles, they may never learn how to think about organizing and structuring a framework or outline so that the contents of the training cycle can be made useful and adjusted as needed. 

 

Don’t Start In the Middle 

When talking with coaches and lifters who write training programs for others and themselves, I’ve seen something pretty standard. More often than not, they begin writing their programs by listing out what exercises they’re going to do on day one and selecting the sets, reps, and planned weight. They’ll do this for each day using the same sequence. Sometimes they’ll plan what each training cycle will prioritize and what attributes are to be stressed to improve, but sometimes they won’t.

 

Putting your training program together is like starting your book in chapter four without any forethought as to what the plot is or where the story should begin, how it will develop, and where it will end. The likelihood that you or your athlete continues to improve and develop over time without this forethought is slim. 

 

There’s an overwhelming amount of information about methods for strength training. Without an outline to guide your decision making, there’s no way of discerning what to include in a training cycle and what will instead be a competing demand that will make it difficult to improve in one or two qualities. If you do everything, nothing will improve over time. If you use every big word in the dictionary, but the story has no plot, it won’t make any sense. 

 

Determine Your Training Emphasis

Before you begin filling in daily exercises and figuring how many sets and reps to do for each, you must first decide what the emphasis of the training cycle will be and how it fits into the bigger picture of your training over the year or multiple years. 

 

You can think of a singular four to twelve-week training cycle as one chapter in a book or a particular sub-point that supports the thesis of an essay. Arrange and organize your thoughts, so they make sense.

 

The emphasis of the one training cycle could be:

 

 

 

But each cycle’s emphasis has to feed into the next one to form cohesive and intelligent long-term training.  

 

Once you’ve outlined the theme of the training cycle, you can decide what to include in the weekly progressions. A training cycle, like a story, has a beginning, middle, and end, and each has elements that are necessary for it to work. 

 

The outline is necessary because it shows us where we start and where we end up. As we create the overview, we can take a birds-eye view in deciding to begin a mesocycle with higher volume but lighter weights or vice versa. Maybe you choose to vary the load and intensity each week. That’s fine as long as you plan this in your outline so that training follows a clear progression and makes sense. Week six of a training cycle should not be the same as week one, which is why creating a blueprint with planned volumes and variations is invaluable. 

 

This progression doesn’t need to be complicated or plotted out on some elaborate spreadsheet, as when you write an article, you don’t necessarily need to make a two-page outline that includes six roman numerals with six supporting details under each bullet point. It doesn’t need to be so extravagant or formal. A simple skeleton with the primary specifics will do.

 

I like to take out a big sheet of paper or open a blank Word doc on my laptop and write weeks one through six out across the top of it. Then I calculate the overall volume and average intensity that I’m aiming for in the training cycle and then start plugging in the distribution of this volume and load over the weeks. From here, I can create a skeleton of which exercises to emphasize each day and the variation of volume over the different workouts. 

 

After this, it’s much easier to fill in the details and punch all of it into a spreadsheet to see the finished product and read the program out in its entirety. 

 

Identify What Your Training Plan Needs  

The purpose of the outline is to zoom out and acutely think through what you want to produce in the training cycle. You have a specific target to hit with each training cycle, so you need to carefully calculate what means will genuinely get you to your end

 

After you’ve planned the focus and progression of the training cycle, you can decide what methods you’ve found to work best in developing the qualities you’ve designed.

 

There are general principles that work for everyone and firm guidelines for each particular training cycle or stage of development. Still, you’ll also learn that specific approaches to training within the standards of the set of principles will benefit you or your athletes better than others. How you’ll use the methods needs to be mapped out before you can complete the minor details of the training program

 

Play With the Rest 

After you’ve decided how you will use the methods you know to work, you can make minimal adjustments to the training cycle using the ideas with which you want to experiment. These are the ideas, methods, and modifications that you’re not entirely sure of but want to test. The experimental part should account for five percent or less of the contents of the training cycle.

 

This way, it won’t negatively affect your training/development to any significant degree, and you can evaluate if it’s useful or not. If you change too much or introduce too many new factors, it’s difficult to discern which method is helping or hurting

 

Finishing Details 

When your outline is complete, you should have the focus, the methods, and even the progression and weekly/monthly volumes decided. Now, you can lay out other exercises to use, when to do them, and how the already planned capacity will be assigned to each activity each day. This is where specific sets, reps, and prescribed loads are written for the weekly training. 

 

After all of the front-end work, this becomes much easier and much clearer. You can use this guiding outline to plug in how the daily volume is distributed over lifts as well as sets and reps. And from here, the daily plan is written and fit into the larger project. The chapters are written out and edited, and it makes sense as part of the whole book. 

 

Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.

 


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12 Jan

The deadlift is an essential human skill. Learn to deadlift well, and you’ll save yourself years of back pain from lifting babies and groceries off the floor wrong. Better still, learn to hinge and then deadlift, and you’ll open up a tremendous world of strength, power, and higher quality movement. 

 

The deadlift is a phenomenal total body lift, built on a strong foundation of hip hinges and RDLs. I believe you should master that hinge pattern before trying to lift from the ground. Properly executed, the deadlift will greatly increase strength and power, while setting a great framework for many other hinge related lifts. It will give you a vice-like grip, and an iron posterior chain. Whether you’re an athlete, a bodybuilder, a strength competitor, or just someone wanting a more quality lifestyle, the deadlift is as good as it gets. 

 

 

Unfortunately, not everyone is taught how to deadlift correctly. Simply mimicking what you think you see is a recipe for disaster. For most people, the deadlift looks like someone just walks up and pulls a bar off the floor, but that is already a misconception: it is a push, not a pull. The arms should be locked, connecting you to the bar. From there, the work is done by the legs pushing and the hamstrings and glutes contracting to extend the hip.

 

To clear up common faults and help teach this pattern I use the deadlift checklist. It breaks down the steps of the deadlift to promote optimal execution that ensures both safety and consistent progression. I use the checklist to teach the deadlift to my athletes in groups, with two athletes per bar. This serves as a great opportunity to teach responsibilities as a partner, and teach your athletes to be coaches on the floor. 

 

The Deadlift Checklist

Like a pilot’s checklist, we must be ready for takeoff and focused on specific objectives throughout flight:

 

Part 1: Before Takeoff

  1. Bar over laces
  2. Bend into an athletic position, with your chest over knees over toes
  3. Grab the bar with an alternated grip
  4. Retract your shoulder blades, taking the slack out of the bar
  5. Push your knees out against your elbows

 

Part 2: During Flight (Performance Cues)

  1. Push through your heels, rather than pull through your arms and back
  2. Drag the bar tight along the body. The bar path is vertical.
  3. Knees extend, then hips extend while shoulders and torso keep pace

 

 

As I explained in the video, I’ve found two-inch pause deadlifts to be a useful addition to the deadlift checklist. Even with experienced deadlifters, I program a warm-up set of pause deadlifts, during which the partner cues each line of the checklist. This helps increase engagement and focus from all parties and makes the cues fresh in their minds.

 

When working with absolute newbies, I’ll have them reverse the movement on my command. This way, they learn to hinge to bring the bar to their knees, and then flex their knees as they bring the bar to the ground. 

 

Deadlifts Are for Everyone

While I believe everyone should know how to deadlift, not everyone must do it the same way. I have a handful of athletes who only deadlift with a sumo-stance or hex bar, due to mobility issues. Athletes with a history of pars fractures or recurring back pain move to single-leg deadlifts and GHD work. 

 

 

For these exercises, the foundation and steps are basically the same. In many cases, I’m able to use an injury or restriction to an athlete’s advantage, correcting movement faults or strength imbalances. 

 

Execution is paramount for performance gains and safe training. The deadlift checklist ensures that you focus on the essential elements of the lift, so you can get the most carry over with the least time invested. The deadlift is one of those foundational skills that are worth the time invested to learn. It lays a framework for all future Olympic lifts and kettlebell movements. It creates awareness and strength from the athletic position, and most of all, it’s a skill that is used throughout life in some form or fashion. Take the time to learn and perform it with skill and precision. 

 


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11 Jan

“For a competitive athlete to continuously improve in any sport, he must test himself against others on a regular basis. Not just at contests, but in training sessions as well…The small weight room had a record board where the top lifts in all the classes were recorded plus one column for the best overall lifter according to the Hoffman formula. The bets were for cartons of milk, which could be purchased from a vending machine in the lobby of the Y for a dime.”

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09 Jan

It’s one thing to proclaim bold new goals for 2020, it’s quite another to jump out of bed every day and do the grunt work necessary to make them a reality: prepping meals, going to the gym, and doing the rehab and prehab work to keep your body in fighting shape. Having the right tools in your belt can make a big difference between getting it done and falling off the wagon by February. Here’s what we’re using to hit our own resolutions head-on!

BodyFit by Bodybuilding.com

Recommended by Jeff O’Connell, editor-in-chief

What better time to embark on a fitness journey than the beginning of a new year that also happens to be the beginning of a new decade? If you’re ready to take your fitness to the next level, BodyFit can help you get there. While it won’t actually lift your weights or cook your healthy meals, it does just about everything else imaginable.

The BodyFit Elite tier is like having a personal trainer in your pocket, with workout programs, meal plans, and everything else you need to transform your body and life. The BodyFit Plus tier provides access to enough individual workouts to last you a lifetime, as well as entry to our new and improved exercise database of over 3,500 exercises. BodyFit is brought to you by Bodybuilding.com and backed by 20 years’ worth of expertise in changing lives. Are you next?

Brooks Launch 6

Recommended by Shoshanna Cohen, content editor

Brooks Launch 6Brooks Launch 6

Two of my New Year’s resolutions are to declutter my house and to balance running (which I love) with gym training (which is good for you). These awesome shoes are going to help me accomplish all of that. Technically running shoes, they’re still lightweight enough for strength training and mobility work, so I can get away with having only one pair of workout shoes in lieu of the usual heap that takes over my mudroom.

The Launch 6’s firm, responsive cushioning infuses energy into runs, plyometrics, and other dynamic exercises. I love the fit, too, with a secure, locked-down feel but still plenty of toe room. They even have decent enough traction for trails, so I don’t need a separate pair of trail shoes either. Basically, they’re the perfect shoe and I want them in every color—except, oh right. Decluttering.

CanDo Full Body Massager

Recommended by Frieda Johnson, copy editor

CanDo Full Body MassagerCanDo Full Body Massager

Getting a massage is wonderful and can be an incredibly beneficial addition to your recovery routine, but sometimes you don’t have the time or money, or you have a knot you need relief from now and you don’t want to wait until you can schedule a massage.

This is when the CanDo Full Body Massager is a lifesaver. The ergonomic design allows you to massage your own shoulders, back, and other hard-to-reach places, and the knobs allow you to easily target knots and trigger points with as much or as little pressure as you like. It’s a great addition to your home gym but is also lightweight enough to take with you pretty much anywhere. I currently have one at my desk here in the office and it’s perfect for a little midday muscle-tension therapy while I’m working.

Fit & Fresh Lunch On The Go Container

Recommended by Heather Eastman, senior content editor

Fit & Fresh Lunch on the Go ContainerFit & Fresh Lunch on the Go Container

You can’t eat healthy if you don’t have healthy food with you, which is what makes the Fit & Fresh Lunch On The Go Container a must-have accessory to any fitness resolution. With three stackable modular containers and matching ice pack, this convenient and affordable meal prep system fits easily into a lunch bag or backpack for healthy meals on the go.

The large, 8-cup container is the perfect size for heart-healthy veggies, salads, and tasty leftovers, while the smaller 1-cup containers are ideal for high-protein snacks like jerky, cottage cheese, and nuts. Use them separately or stack everything together to store, transport, reheat, and enjoy leftovers anytime, anywhere.

Tight seals ensure smells and liquids won’t escape, and the reusable ice pack helps your food stay cool and fresh until you’re ready to eat. Buy one for lunch or a dozen for meal prep, and take control of your nutrition so you can reach your fitness goals.

Kettlebell Kings Competition Kettlebell—Fitness Version

Recommended by Nick Collias, executive editor

Kettlebell Kings Competition KettlebellKettlebell Kings Competition Kettlebell

It’s logical to think that at this point, there’s not much room for innovation in kettlebell design. The differences in most companies usually come down to things like quality of powder coating, and of course, price. But the Fitness Edition bell from Kettlebell Kings features a few subtle innovations that make it stand out even in this increasingly crowded equipment space.

It’s made in the traditional Russian competition bell style, which means that different weights are all the same size—about as big as a 70-pound cast-iron bell. But competition bells usually bring a couple of big drawbacks: narrow handles, slick grips, and discomfort when resting on the forearm.

The Fitness Edition bell addresses each problem head-on. The handles are significantly wider than other comp-style bells and even most cast-iron bells, allowing for relatively easy two-handed grips for swings. The handles are also made of pitted steel rather than slick steel, so they feel stable in the hand and take chalk well. This model also has small flat spots on four sides to help them rest comfortably on the forearm when in the rack position.

Another advantage of this bell is that is has a solid, wide base that can support your torso during push-ups or renegade rows, even with the lightweight models. Plus, you don’t have to learn how to dance with an entirely different dimension of metal coconut each time you step up or down in weight.

I’ll freely admit I’ve been a cast-iron-bell guy for years. But this high-quality steel bell is one I’ll be recommending from now on.

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08 Jan

“For real people, if something works in theory, but not in practice, it doesn’t work.

For academics, if something works in practice, but not in theory, it doesn’t exist.”

        — Nassim Nicholas Taleb @nntaleb


In his famous 2011 essay, Jonathon Sullivan MD PhD observed quite correctly that Barbell Training is Big Medicine. Other people have taken the concept and run with it, because it’s an excellent concept. But “medicine” means a couple of different things, and if we look closely at them we find that his analogy is even better than we thought it was. 

“Medicine” can mean the practice of the healing arts and sciences – the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. Barbell training can certainly be used very successfully in the treatment and prevention of disease, as Dr. Sullivan and Andy Baker describe in their important work The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After 40. The use of strength training to treat and prevent the diseases that plague affluent western societies may be the most important yet underutilized tool in the little black bag – read the book and find out why. 

“Medicine” can also mean the stuff you take to treat and prevent disease. In this sense, the proper term would be medication, although conversational English regards the terms “medication” and “medicine” as synonyms. A medication is a substance used to produce a (hopefully beneficial) change in an organism’s physiology upon administration. We commonly understand that “drugs” are medications. 

In this usage, barbell training is the treatment itself, the thing we “administer” to change our organism’s physiology, hopefully for the better. It’s the medication, as well as the practice of treating and preventing the diseases which accrue from sitting on your ass while your body decays into uselessness. It’s a far more powerful way to change your physiology for the better than any chemical medication, although nothing beats cyanide for powerfully changing your physiology for the worse.


Like any medication that has the power to alter physiology, barbell training must be administered with attention paid to dosing – the amount and the schedule. It’s damned hard to kill yourself with barbell training, and you’d have to be ignoring a lot of things if you ever even got close, but it’s easy to get carried away and do too much, too often, with too much weight. The price paid is not death, but wasted time and potential. 

The Dose

In medicine, there is an important concept known as “therapeutic range” – the variation in the amount of a therapeutic agent administered and that amount’s effectiveness on the condition being treated. The range is bounded by the minimum effective dose (MED) and the maximum tolerated dose (MTD). The MED is the lowest dose level that provides a beneficial response, measurably greater than that provided by a placebo. In strength training, squats would have a MED, whereas riding a bicycle would be a placebo (riding the bicycle can improve strength in an untrained person for a very limited time, but the psychological effects of doing so may make it look like an effective intervention has taken place if not compared to squats). 

The MTD is the maximum possible dose level that produces the therapeutic effect, or a version thereof, that is not actually toxic, i.e. that doesn’t cause actual damage to the organism. Doses in excess of the MTD are immediately harmful, doses in the vicinity of the MTD may be harmful over time, and doses lower than the MED are ineffective. Obviously, we need to find the sweet spot. 

Training and Practice

First, some background. Remember our Two-Factor Model of Sports Performance Preparation – the training/practice paradigm, holds that an Accumulated Physiological Adaptation for the performance must be trained through the directed process of stress/recovery/adaptation, and skill must be developed through practice, the repetitive execution of movement patterns that are dependent on accuracy and precision, with the highest possible degree of fidelity to that which is executed in a performance. 

Barbell training makes use of repetitions of the exercises grouped in sets. Sets and reps multiplied by the weight on the bar – the tonnage – are the currency of barbell training and its dosing. Intensity refers to the percentage of 1RM the load is – how heavy the set is compared to limit strength. Taken separately, the sets and reps together are sometimes referred to as “volume,” although it doesn’t tell us anything if we don’t know how much tonnage the volume constitutes. For example, the volume of 10 sets of 3 is 30 reps, whether loaded to 40% of 1RM or 80% of 1RM, and these two different workouts would have very different dosing effects because of the difference in intensity, despite having the same volume. 

Tonnage and intensity are the two variables that comprise the dose of training. For novices, 3 sets of 5 at a 5-pound PR over the last workout are sufficient in both tonnage and intensity to drive stress up just enough that recovery and adaptation can proceed. For an intermediate lifter, tonnage and intensity get divided into separate workouts over the week, with each variable contributing to the dose. Advanced lifters require more tonnage and intensity – and consequently the ability to recover from the increased dose over the period of its administration – and the way the variables are divided between the workouts will require time periods longer than the week which worked for intermediates. Thankfully, most of the people we deal with are not advanced competitive lifters, and the level of complexity they require is fairly low. 

Why Are We Here? 

There has arisen a school of thought, that holds volume itself as a critical variable in barbell training. Lots of sets and reps are said to create the “hypertrophy” that is necessary for the development of strength at some point in the future, but right now PR-level weights for 3s and 5s are just not as important for training as getting in enough sets and reps at whatever intensity you feel like working with. Squat and pull several times a week, mix up the exercises, lots of sets across, lots of warm-up reps for the volume, bench 4 times a week, etc. In effect, titrate up to your MTD. 

This apparently comes from exercise science studies with which I am not impressed. It doesn’t comport with my 42 years of experience in this field. It does not come from the experience of satisfied clients who are setting regular PRs. It also does not come from kids squatting 70% of 315 for 5 sets of 7 with gigantic legs, arms, and traps, because none of them have gigantic legs, arms, and traps. 

If you have been training for 6 years, and for some reason feel like exploring your MTD of junk reps, it’s fine with me. Have fun with your training, and pay your gym dues on time. But if you are a professional barbell coach or personal trainer, it’s important to retain your perspective: who do we train, and why are they training with us? 

1. They want to get stronger. You know this because you advertised your services as a strength coach, and they hired you. 

2. They don’t have 15 hours a week to spend in the gym. They’re working – that’s how they pay your exorbitant fees. They probably have families that want to see them. They need to sleep sometime. They may even want to get a beer occasionally. But you have them doing 7 sets of 4 squats today, and 7 sets of 4 deadlifts tomorrow. And some more benches. 

3. They want to feel better. This precludes being sore all the goddamn time, with creaky knees and elbows and a dull headache, and tired all the goddamn time, like they will probably feel when they’re 75, but should not feel at 45, or 35. 

The Minimum Effective Dose will be the least amount of work you can do and still set PRs on a regular basis, as frequently as possible – not once a year or once every 6 months, but as often as possible, depending entirely on your level of training advancement. This approach contrasts with the most work you can do and still set regular PRs, and is in diametric opposition to doing so much work that you cannot set regular PRs. 

So, let me tell you what you should do: find the Minimum Effective Dose of squats, benches, presses, and pulls, and do that. As a coach, you get to prove your value by helping the client find it. You, the client, should insist that this be the case. 

What’s Wrong With MTD 

If you train by yourself and you haven’t set a PR in a long time, you’re no longer training, you’re just exercising – maybe very hard but still just exercising. Maybe you paid for a training template provided by an expert, and you think you’re actually being coached – just not for strength, because you aren’t lifting heavier weights that you previously were. Maybe you think that all this volume burns calories so you’ll have slabs of abs –  except that you don’t have slabs of anything. 

You’re not growing, you’re not getting stronger, you’re just spending a lot of time in the gym, getting sore and doing lots of volume that, even though it’s not heavy enough to make you stronger, is still a stress that must be recovered from anyway. Junk reps that don’t make you stronger can still make you overtrained, because even though they are not heavy enough to drive a strength increase, they can produce inflammation if they are of sufficient quantity that their fatigue keeps more productive work from being done and recovered from. Like running 10 miles or jumping off roof of the building, it’s hard, but it’s not useful. 

If you are an advanced competitor, you may think you don’t have the luxury of this more practical MED approach. You’ve got to fight for 10kg of new total every year, you know, to keep your endorsement income up over seven figures. But honestly, are you really an advanced competitor? And if you are, have you ever tried it the other way – just training up to one properly-programmed heavy set as infrequently as possible to still make progress, in contrast to always staying just one set away from overtrained? 

Overtrained is not good. It doesn’t make you stronger, or better, or more pious and atoned and holy and forgiven. Overtraining destroys long-term progress, and prevents short-term progress. And chances are that if you’re doing a bunch of junk reps for the sake of “volume,” you’re either overtrained or headed in that direction. This is especially true if you are trying to do this on “a cut” – a caloric deficit, and even more especially true if you’re “cutting” from 175 down to 165. 

Tired all the time isn’t good either. Just plain old tired, the way you get when you can’t sleep because you’re sore and your knees hurt, is what makes people feel old. It kills your sense of humor, your libido, and your girlish laughter. Older clients don’t sleep well anyway, and near-MTD programming is an excellent way to make things worse. 

And if you are an athlete training for an actual competitive sport, this is very important: the training component of your preparation cannot be allowed to interfere with the practice component. If you are training at MTD-levels – if you are sore and tired all the time, overtrained from being a dumbass in the weight room – you are contributing to the misunderstanding sports coaches seem to universally possess about barbells and sports. You are confirming their bias by turning your practice, the only thing they really know anything about, into shit. Stop doing that. 

So, let me tell you again what you should do: find the MED – the Minimum Effective Dose – of squats, benches, presses, and pulls, and do that. For most people, this is a much more practical, productive, satisfying, and effective approach to training. You already know if I’m talking to you.


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