As I was preparing to write an article summarizing my philosophy on strength training I came across an old email where I included an article from one of my strength training heroes, Dr. Ken Leistner. Dr. Ken passed away a few months ago and although I had read many of his articles I only had the opportunity to meet him in person once. I am thankful for that opportunity because it was a memorable experience. When I heard of his passing I was deeply saddened. It reminds me of how powerful an influence we can have on others.
Over the next several weeks we are taking a step back in time, in regards to our strength training, and training using some old school strength workouts. This training is a form of High Intensity Training or H.I.T. These are total body workouts utilizing predominantly multi joint movements trained through a full range of motion at and taken to momentary muscular failure. These old school workouts were our primary means of training several years ago and yielded excellent results. There are several reasons why we no longer use them as our primary method of training but that does not mean they can not yield great results especially, when used sparingly.
Here is a great article from a legendary old school strength coach Dr. Ken Leistner. I used to look forward to reading Dr. Ken’s articles, as they were both informational and inspiring. I had the pleasure and honor to meet Dr. Ken about a year ago thanks to Sam Kelly. The article is quite long and geared mostly to men but is very interesting if you would like to understand more about the strength training we will be doing over the next month.
To Your Strength,
Sensible Training – A Logical Approach to Size and Strength
by Dr. Ken E. Leistner
With all the numerous changes that have taken place in the field of weight training over the years it has never been truer that “the more things change the more they remain the same”. Armed with the accurate information collected over the years it is possible for anyone to improve their strength, their muscular endurance (to a certain extent), their cardiovascular endurance, and their appearance (a subjective evaluation) if the interested party is willing to take the brief time necessary to analyze the conditions necessary for inducing muscular growth stimulation.
The requirements haven’t changed over the years, and the nonsense put forth by the commercially interested and biased parties hasn’t changed either. But most importantly, the irrational approach taken towards training hasn’t changed a great deal either, and has prevented the vast majority of weight trainees from reaping even a small portion of the possible benefits made available by the use of the barbell.
Robert Sizer, a former pro-football player, All-American at Richmond University and at one time the most outstanding high school football player in the state of Virginia, was perhaps the first successful athlete in the area to pursue weight training in an attempt to improve his athletic ability at a time that this was believed to make one “musclebound”, slow and uncoordinated.
Sizer was an 180lb offensive lineman, that by accounts was stronger and faster than most men weighing 250lbs at the time. At 15 YEARS OF AGE he could squat with 450 lbs (for reps), and bench press 420 lbs.
Sizer trained with a barbell fashioned out of concrete wheels that his father made for him. In the beginning he admitted he didn’t really know what he was doing. “All” he did was train hard and brief with heavy weights on the major exercises.
“Unfortunately, as I became exposed to more people who were involved with training, I left my old methods behind and became bogged down in a progress- stifling method, or more accurately, methods of training…No one showed me how to train; I just went at it like I did everything else, and the hard work on each and every set brought results. But when I saw the other fellows doing things a bit differently, I adopted many of their techniques, not to my benefit”.
The point? There are basic considerations one has to take into account when inducing muscular growth stimulation, and this, of course, is the whole point of utilizing weights. Some of the necessary conditions that must be met for optimal results are:
– using heavy movements over a full range of motion – continuing every set of every exercise to a point of momentary but complete muscular failure – using “basic” exercises, i.e, compound movements that work the major muscular structures of the body, like the squat – training at a level of maximum intensity – limiting the amount of work done – providing the necessary requirements for growth to occur – ensuring that the exercise is truly progressive
Much of this is so obvious that it needs no further explanation, but considering the almost unbelievable amount of false information available, without such a basic understanding the trainee will not be able to formulate a program that will bring results in a manner that is proportionate with the effort expended.
The only way to produce maximum possible increases in muscle tissue mass is by the production of maximum power. This can only be done by utilizing exercises that engage as much of the particular mass as is possible, and only when working over a full range of possible motion. And while it is almost impossilbe to engage 100% of the available fibers, much more growth stimulation will occur if the exercise is carried out over as great a range as is possible. This also assists in the development of increased flexibility, as a heavy weight will pull the involved bodyparts into a fully extended position at the beginning of the movement and will also provide “prestretching” of that involved muscle. It is now apparent that the most important requirement for inducing maximum growth is intensity.
Carrying an exercise to the point of momentary but complete failure ensures that one is training at a point of greatest possible intensity (assuming that the trainee is putting forth effort and “not going through the motions” and thus “failing” long before reaching a point of actual muscular failure). There is no way to gauge the amount of effort being put forth unless one goes to the point of failure. That implies, simply, that 100% of momentary possible effort was put forth.
Also, it is only by working this hard that one can engage the maximum possible amount of muscle fibers. And unless this maximum amount of fibers is worked, growth will be retarded, if not impossible. Many trainees fear this. They are afraid of working as hard as is actually required, and thus they often return to their prior methods of training improperly. It is much easire to perform 4 sets of 8 reps of a particular movement than it is to complete one set *correctly*; for example, doing 15 reps in proper form to a point where it is momentarily impossible to move the barbell with the involved bodypart.
I recently had the “pleasure” of training (for only one session, thankfully) with one of the leading bodybuilders in the United States. I convinced him to try “my way” of doing things, and he finally consented. I coaxed him through a set of leg presses, using approximately 300lbs, and he completed 18 reps. This was followed by a set of full squats, using a fairly light weight (approx. 185 lbs), and he terminated the set long before his strength had been taxed. We then did standing presses and chins, and he did manage to go to a point of failure, although he did take momentary “breaks” during the sets to complain that the “weight is just too light to feel so heavy” and other such gems of wisdom.
The result? He called me the next day to tell me that he was very sore but that he was going to return to his prior method of training because “your way is just too hard”. He further admitted that he thought that I was correct – trainng to failure, using a weight, any weight that would allow a reasonable number of repetitions, was the proper way to train – but that he preferred an admittedly improper training method because it was “easier”. I explained that while the human body could be damaged by doing “too much work,” the body’s defense mechanisms made it almost impossible to bring about injury by training “too hard. You’ll regurgitate or faint before you cause any real damage to the body, *if* you trained even that hard,” I said.
“Well, I’ll just stick to what I’m doing,” he said. “But, hey, thanks for the time you gave me.” Indeed. (And I should of course point out that “my way” of training is not really *my* way. I had nothing whatsoever to do with the development of such common sense principles. I’ve just had the sense to utilize what is rational, correct, and result-producing).
Common sense would indicate that if one is training at the proper level of intensity, an increased amount of work would be neither desirable nor possible. ONE set of 15-20 reps in the full squat, performed with proper form and done until the trainee can no longer rise from the full squat position, will do more for building the strength and size of the involved muscles than any such number of improperly performed sets of any other leg exercises, including the full squat. And how many sets of full squats, done as described, do you think you could perform in a single workout? How many such sets would you *want* to perform? Thus it becomes obvious that the amount of work must be limited.
One also walks a very thin line in inducing muscular growth. You must work hard enough to induce growth, but not so extensively as to deplete a very definite (but unknown) amount of recovery ability. One can train properly in that all exercises are performed in correct style, taken to a point of momentary failure, etc., but if too much work is done, the system will not be able to provide the necessary factors for growth. Yet many trainees train four, five, six and sometimes even more per week.
Athletes who are preparing for a season of activity will express surprise that they progressed little while lifting weights three or four days per week, running distance and sprints on their “off” days and practicing the skills needed for their particular activity an additional two or three times per week. Their ability to recover has been depleted, and until that ability is restored, no amount of additional work will induce muscular increases. Thus training must be limited to no more than three days/week and in some cases only two/week. And for some extreme cases, training once per week will serve to induce maximal amounts of growth.
Why so-called compound movements? Before I actually knew anything about proper training (and this is not to imply that I know even a fraction of what there is to know now), I realized that there was something, an indefinable something, that wasn’t “right” about a number of bodybuilders who trained in the gym where I also trained. (This is not to be misconstrued as a criticism of all bodybuilders. Many have a great deal of athletic ability and fine, athletic-appearing physiques.)
One such man was an advanced trainee (in the sense that he had been training a number of years and had won a number of local physique titles). However, he was missing a certain athletic quality, a harmonious look. My brother put the finger on it when he observed, “He looks like a bunch of bodyparts pasted together. He’s all there, big and all, but the total picture looks awkward-no grace, no glow, no…” The point had been made.
The human body’s muscular structures are such that I was amazed at the first autopsy I witnessed. After reading GRAY’S ANATOMY and seeing a number of anatomy charts, I had assumed that one could discern individual muscles. This isn’t the case. They are so interbound and interwoven, it becomes obvious why so many years of medical training are necessary to figure the entire mystery out. Muscles work in conjunction with each other. Furthermore, greatest growth stimulation will come by working the largest muscles in the body. A secondary growth effect occurs when the major muscle masses are worked, and the statement that the “small muscles will take care of themselves if you work the big ones” is true because of this effect. Thus the greatest possible growth will occur if movements are employed that will engage the major muscular structures of the body. (More on the selection of exact exercises, later).
In addition to inducing growth stimulation, other factors are necessary for increasing the amount of muscle tissue mass. These include sleep, nutrition, and a number of psychological variables such as motivation, resistance to pain and “psyching up”, amoung others. Each of these factors is important.
Though the term “progressive exercise” has been used as a catchall to describe weight training activities, most trainees rarely make any attempt to actually have progressive and productive workouts. The “theory” is so logical as to be almost ridiculous, yet it is so often, if not always overlooked. If one were to add 5 lbs to the barbell every two or three workouts, or add another repetition, performed in proper style, with the same weight one used in the preceding workout, growth would occur (assuming that all other previously mentioned factors were taken into consideration and those considerations met), as the system would be constantly exposed to an ever-increasing load. This is progression.
Arthur Jones stated that, with curls as the example when it is possible for a trainee to curl 200 lbs in good form *without* body swing, “then his arms will be as large as they need to be for any possible purpose connected with any sport just short of wrestling bears”. This sums up progression pretty well.
I am fond of telling doubting trainees that it’s just a matter of always adding weight to the bar, adding another repetition, “If you could get to the point where you’re squatting 400lbs for 20 reps, stiff-legged deadlifting 400 lbs for 15 reps, curling 200 for 10 reps, pressing 200 for 10 resp, doing 10 dips with 300 lbs around your waist, and chinning with 100 pounds, don’t you think you would be big – I mean awfully big? And strong?” Obviously!
Knowing the basic considerations, it is possible to construct a sensible weight-training program, one that will serve almost anyone’s purpose. However, to further clarify matters, I will discuss the choice of the actual exercises. Some are more result-producing than others, and some are also less dangerous.
The available equipment should include a barbell, a squat rack (or some type of high stand that can be used to support a barbell), an overhead bar (or pipe) for the purpose of chinning and two pipes, heavy chairs or parallel bars for the purpose of performing parallel bar dips. If more equipment is available, fine; it will add variety to the program. But more equipment is not necessary to build one to his maximum possible size and strength. The best exercises for the major musculature structures of the body are full squats, stiff-legged deadlifts, standing presses, chins with the palms facing you, parallel bar dips, barbell curls, bent- over rowing motions, pullovers on a bench, shrugs and situps. (I include this exercise only as a means of covering the entire body. The abdominals will receive quite enough work during the performance of other exercises.)
A very productive program would look like this: W
Strength has long been a cornerstone of Alliances’s physical training program. We have for a number of years had strength programmed into our weekly training template twice a week. Over the years we have utilized many different methods for our strength training, all of which, have proven to be successful in building strength. Although these methods have been varied ,the principles behind these methods have remained the same. each time we utilize a new method the goal is to make the training as safe, effective, and efficient as possible. I want to introduce a new approach to strength training that is a combination of some of our old proven methods combined with some new things we have been experimenting with. We are calling this new method, “Master Strength”.
So, what is Master Strength and why the name? First, we chose the word Master to symbolize the approach to mastery of the movements and tools used in this system. Of course, we encourage you to take this approach and apply it to all your movement. One particular method that gives us a chance to work on mastering the movement is Super Slow. Moving slow gives you an opportunity to increase your awareness of body position, movement, and possible compensation patterns. Moving slow also gives you the opportunity to make corrections to those movements if needed. The focus with slow movement is very intrinsic. You must focus on feeling the movement. As I have joked about before, it doesn’t necessarily look impressive on Instagram or Facebook. With some of our training we use work capacity to measure our improvement in strength or conditioning. For example, if you perform a workout where you do 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 squats for as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes, you are measuring the amount of physical work you can do with those exercises in that time frame. If your strength and/or conditioning improves you should be able to perform more rounds of these movements in the same time period. With slow movement the the total work appears to be less and work capacity, as a measure, is not as effective. With slow movement the stimulus for strength gains is created through muscular fatigue or strength inroads. It is important to understand that the fatigue is actually what you are seeking. Purposefully going into fatigue is against human nature but it is also what stimulates the positive adaptation of increased strength. It requires mental discipline to go towards fatigue. This is partly why I say it is more intrinsic. You cant see it from the outside but you can feel it on the inside. The slow method can also be used to train the mind and spirit. We have often used crucible training focused on pushing beyond our perceived work capacity limits. We have also used high intensity workouts to to push beyond our comfort zones to train the mind. Slow training to deep levels of muscle fatigue is another method where we can do the same. It takes a great deal of focus and mental discipline to push to true muscular exhaustion and failure especially while maintaining correct form.
The second reason for calling this method of strength training “master strength” is that it is suited for those of us who may have a few extra miles on the body. The “Master Strength” program is a form of high intensity exercise but does not place excessive low and stress on the joints.
It is important to understand that to develop strength, it is not a necessity to demonstrate that strength in every workout. I have written about “what is strength” in the past. We can choose the basic exercises such as squat, bench, and deadlift to measure strength by testing a one rep max but we can also use other methods. Strength can be very specific and although testing a one rep max is a great way test and demonstrate strength, it is not the only method. Although it has not always been my view, I now view strength in general to be the capacity to create tension. If you think in these same terms you can then determine what strength means to you.
In general, the “Master Strength program will involve several key components.
1. Slow movement- to improve movement capability and to stimulate gain in muscle strength and hypertrophy by taking the muscle to momentary muscular fatigue and thorough inroad safely and efficiently.
2. Eccentric work- using slow eccentric work to more thoroughly inroad muscles after pre fatiguing with slow concentric work. Again this allows us to exhaust the muscles without undue stress on the joints.
3. Partial range and isometric work- this allows us to load the muscle and bones with more load but it is done where the joints are in an advantageous position so again we increase safety.
4. Speed work- we will still incorporate movement with more speed but this will be done in a fatigued state where the capacity to produce high forces is reduced.
5. Functional training- sled work, rope pulls, carries, and other loaded carries- again we are able to load the structure in very functional exercises that we can push the intensity and level of exhaustion on but remain safe due to the minimal Weight bearing (spinal load), Eccentric, and Skill involved.
In the past few years I have developed a new outlook regarding the hierarchy of importance amongst movement capability, strength, and cardiorespiratory fitness, as they impact human performance and long term health.
My perspective on these three things have changed over the years. I have always had an interest in strength training. It was an area, as a teenager, I could see a direct correlation between hard work and progress. It helped me not only get stronger but gain confidence and become better in the sports I participated in. Back then there was little scientific literature on strength training. I was fortunate to have some very good high school coaches who pointed me in the right direction but most of what I learned immediately after high school came from magazines, others in the gym, and Arnold’s Encyclopedia of a Bodybuilder. Later when I began training others, the only certifications in the industry were based on cardiovascular exercise or “aerobics”. Strength training, at that time, was not considered vital for long term health and was even considered to be detrimental to sports performance in such sports as basketball, baseball, and golf. Very few women did any type of strength training. I still remember taking a health science class and being excited to read a textbook that cited that as we get older, strength becomes more important than cardiovascular fitness. To me, this validated the importance of strength training.
We need a balance of strength and conditioning for long term health and success in most sports. This is a fact that is widely accepted now. What I have begun to realize is that what is ultimately more important is our ability to move. If we have good movement quality, meaning we are able to position correctly to perform basic human motions, then we will be able to produce more force and power and be more efficient in our movements all while producing less wear and tear on our body. Vice versa, if we lack the knowledge, body awareness, mobility, stability, or discipline to put our bodies in the correct positions we will be at higher risk for injury, not to mention we will be inefficient.
In Part 3 of this series on “Algorithms, Habits, Epigenetics, and Motivation”, we focused on how to install habits. In Part 4, the focus will be on how to delete habits which are holding us back form being our best. Our goal of this entire series could be summed up by saying that, “We want to use our willpower wisely to install habits that run on autopilot via algorithms.”
We have ten ideas for deleting habits.
The first five ideas are pretty much identical to the ideas covered in installing habits.For that reason we will focus on the last five.
We will refer to those habits holding us back as our Kryptonite. Deleting these habits or your your number one Kryptonite can sometimes be more powerful than installing a new habit. You can think of it like driving a car with the brakes on. Sometimes it is more effective to take the brakes off than to try and drive the car faster. For instance, if you are not making the progress you would like in regards to your training, you might think you need to train harder. However, if you are only sleeping 4 hours a night and/or eating lots of sugar you will most likely not make progress. By sleeping eight hours a night and eliminating sugar you will literally be taking the brakes off and will see progress ensue.
Pickles and Cucumbers plus Danger Zones
If we have a habit that has become an addiction it is like a cucumber becoming a pickle. The point is that once a cucumber becomes a pickle it can’t go back to being a cucumber. For example, if someone is an alcoholic, they can’t have just one drink. We all have addictions on some level. The point is to be aware of them and work to get rid of those that are holding us back. This is where we need to decide or “cut off” the option to engage in the behavior. In this case we need to have bright lines and make that decision 100%. The danger zone is where we think we have the addiction beaten and it is okay to engage in te habit again. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a good thing but if you make a mistake remember you are human and begin again with renewed vigor.
Make It Really Easy to Delete and Hard To Do
If we are trying to delete a habit it is better to make it as easy as possible to do so. One way of doing this is to try and make it difficult to engage in the habit. For example, if you are trying to improve your nutrition by eliminating sugar, vegetable oils, and processed foods, it is better not to have those foods in the house. When it comes to using your willpower wisely, it is a better strategy not to have to use it unless absolutely necessary by not putting yourself in situations where you have to.
The Fundamentals of Algorithms and the Algorithms of Fundamentals
There is an interesting relationship between the fundamentals of eating, moving, sleeping, breathing, and focusing and your willpower. The more you focus on the fundamentals the more willpower you will have. There is a synergy where the more willpower you gain by getting better at the fundamentals the more willpower you will have to strengthen your fundamentals.
We already have incredible potential within us. If you think of it in this way, it really becomes a matter of chipping away and working each day to uncover that potential.
In Part 2 of this series, we did an exercise to look at our daily algorithms and habits in general. I then asked you to take a deeper look at those which were the most empowering. In part 3, I want to introduce a strategy to help you solidify those habits you have already established as beneficial, as well as, install some new habits to help you in your journey.
There are 10 ideas in this process.
Know Your Who
This idea comes from James Clear and his book, “Atomic Habits”. James suggest that when creating new habits that it is a better strategy to focus on identity versus outcome. In other words, if you can create an identity for yourself, you are more likely to act in accordance with that vision of yourself. If you identify yourself as an athlete, you are more likely to train on a consistent basis, eat healthy, and get plenty of rest. If you want to do those things but just consider yourself an average and common non athlete, you are less likely to be committed because the common person doesn’t value or relate to your lifestyle. I recommend identifying as uncommon because you are.
Know your “Why”
We keep coming back to this concept over and over. I fear that it has become cliche but I truly believe it is one of the most powerful driving forces in our lives. I recently had someone jokingly say to me during a hard training session, “Remind me why I am doing this.” It is a fair question to ask and I think it is important to revisit that question consistently. The stronger connection you can make to your why or as Brian Johnson calls it your “soul goal” the more fuel you will have to drive you towards your goal and finding your how.
Know your How
Brian Johnson recommends thinking of yourself as three types of people when coming up with a how.
Athlete– the athlete gets better and establishes habits through practice. The very “best” practice not until they get it right but until they can’t get it wrong.
Scientist– a scientist looks at data. A good scientist doesn’t have a bias towards the data nor do they judge it as good or bad. They simply use the data to learn.
Movie Maker– Rarely if ever is a movie made with out mis-takes. Very seldom is the first take the best take. Mistakes are inevitable and an integral part of making a great movie.
When we are establishing new habits we are going to mess it up. We just need to keep trying. No need to beat ourselves up, just examine the data to see what caused us to mess up and try to learn and do better.
Decide comes from the two latin words, which means to cut off. Literally, decide means that you are cutting off all other possibilities. This could also be considered being “All In”. We are sometimes too wishy washy when it comes to establishing a habit. Sometimes we need to have bright lines as in a contract. For instance, if we have an addiction we can’t say we are going to engage in that addiction only sometimes.
Think small and think smaller
Not to sound contradictory to the previous idea of deciding but sometimes to establish a habit we need to start really small. If we are attempting to establish a habit of meditating, it may be difficult to begin with 30 minutes a day. However, committing to just one minute a day is very doable for anybody. As you establish the habit you can think step by step add a little time. This is the basic philosophy of our Pro Coach nutrition program. It starts very slow and unfortunately for some they don’t understand the value of this and they get bored and quit the program early on. As the saying goes,”Inch by inch life is a cinch, yard by yard life is hard.”
Reduce the variability of behavior.
It can be very helpful when establishing a habit to try and do it at the same time everyday. I would say that I have observed this with clients over the years in regards to their training consistency. Clients who train at the same time each day overall are the most consistent. For group training in both fitness and Jiujitsu we have many opportunities to train. This sometimes can be a disadvantage if you vary your training times because you don’t establish a consistent time. It is sometimes easy to hit the snooze in the morning and tell yourself that you will go to a later class. Unfortunately, once the day gets started things get in the way and you never make to train.
Do It Daily
There are some differing opinions on how long it takes to establish something as a new habit. One thought is that you need to do something for 21 consecutive days for it to become a habit. Regardless of the number of days, there is a concensus on the fact that to establish a habit it needs to be done consistently. If the habit is something that is not conducive to be done everyday, then I would suggest getting into a routine where you can do it on the same days and preferably the same time each week. Again I use the gym as an example of this process. I would say that overall the students who come nearly everyday at the same times are the ones that tend to stick to the training. I am definitely a creature of habit when it comes to this. For instance, the recommended training for Crossfit, in the beginning, was to train for 3 days and rest for 1. I hate this format because it means your training and rest days change each week.
Just Do It
This is another big one when establishing a new habit. You need to realize you are not always going to “feel” like it. Sometimes people mistakingly think that training is easy for me because I enjoy it. It is true that I enjoy hard physical training but it is really more about how I feel afterwards and the fact that if I want to be true to my energy identity of a warrior athlete that it is the behavior that I must engage in. There are plenty of times when I don’t feel like it. I can also promise you that I rarely if ever think of training as fun. There is nothing wrong with having fun with training. I’m just saying that it is not why I do it.
Celebrations and Consequences
When you are establishing a new habit make sure you give yourself a pat on the back and acknowledge you are doing something good for yourself. ‘I think it is important to celebrate the wins. This is one that needs work for me. I have a tendency to focus on what went wrong versus what went well. On the other side, we do sometimes need to hold ourselves more accountable and one way of doing that is to establish consequences to not sticking to what we say we are going to do. To this day, the most powerful example of this was our 20X adventure with Navy SEALS Criss Smith and Brad McLeod. It was amazing to see how “no handed burpees” as a consequence of putting your hands on your hips helped break an old habit that has stuck for over 6 years now.
With all of this it is important to remember that this is all a process. It is more of a journey than a specific destination. Just remember not to be so rigid that you can’t enjoy the process. Inevitably we will screw up. When you do just get back up and try again. Remember stopping is not quitting and everybody loves a good comeback story.