Saturday, 16 December 2017

Top 3 Improvements You Can Make To Your Exercise Program

It's the toughest question ever to answer.

"Tell Me Just One thing I can do to reduce my love handles"

"Tell Me Only one exercise I have to do"

"That One Food..."

"That One Investment Portfolio.."

We love simplicity. We may at times love options, but in the end, when life happens and the rubber hits the road, all we need is the final answer to altering our lifestyles to achieve any particular goal: Getting Leaner, Fighting Disease, losing weight or looking better in any form.

Bad News: Most of the real stuff in fitness sciences is monotonous, repetitive and boring.

Now, I could come up with a 100 point list as a presentation and bore you to death walking you through all of them and trust me, it would be the most effective set of things you could do to the way you exercise. But let's face it, who really gives a damn to miles long articles, and that too, written on something as low in our priorities as exercise, strength and health? Come on, it's 2017 (actually, already 2018) and we're, you know, Busy, right?

Well, never mind, I have you here, cut to the chase. Presented here are three of the essences of what I have learned to be the top three changes that almost all of them can make to our exercise programs or training styles and start experiencing dramatic changes in the way we look, feel or perform. Getting us closer to our goals faster? Hell Yeah, that's all we need right? Good, we're in business then. Here, you go:

1. Do Not Follow The Majority

Heard that age old cliche ? Well, here's the new and a more correct one. Memorize it.

The Majority Is Always Wrong!

You read it correct. When was the last time you saw all those epileptic zealots doing the usual crazy stuff like curling while standing on top of Bosu Balls, running countless miles on a treadmill, doing countless repetitions with a tiny weight in hopes to get 'toned' actually getting any results?

Yeah, now that we just said it, it dawns upon us. Turns out that people in gyms usually follow the most pursued trend. As human beings, we have the natural tendencies to blend in.

What's the first thing many women do when they enter the gym for the first time in their life? They will either be put on a program by a trainer that most of his other clients are following without any consideration given to her physiology, pathology or other personal constraints. Otherwise, she may look upon her friends or peers who may have spent a few more days doing stuff in the gym and blindly start mimicking them and doing the exact same movements that they have been doing.

In fact, men do it too. The moment one sees the most jacked up dude in the gym perform a Space Age Exotic Barbell Curl Variation, oh boy, we are so hooked. We might immediately leave all the good stuff we are doing and start following what the majority thinks is the right thing to do, because, guns matter.

Ask yourself: Does Majority ever look good? If the answer to how we should really train was as simple as "Simply Follow The Majority", almost everyone who has been a gym member for more than six months would have resembled a fitness model or a bodybuilder. The reason is that effective exercise , though simple, is not exactly easy. It needs one to leave his or her comfort zone behind, something the majority would be dead scared to do. It needs one to change one's convenient choices, like letting go of the daily dose of bagel and cookies. Again, the majority would scoff at the idea of doing that. Finally, effective exercise often also needs one to stop doing what is conventionally popular form of exercise (like unlimited Cardio) and start pursuing the forgotten old basics (Barbell Squats, Deadlifts, Presses, old school exercises) and this places us in a spotlight of criticism. We are afraid to death to answer questions and arguments of people. Because other people's notions and dogmas about what they read about in fitness magazines till ages get disturbed. It eventually becomes a decision of becoming socially accepted than to actually reach our fitness goals.

What John Grimek Did would certainly not be what the majority does today.

The bottomline is that if you are seeing a vast majority of the populace following a certain exercise technique or method almost like a culture in today's age, you can almost be certain that it might not be a good idea to make it a part of your exercise program. Instead, keep pursuing the tried and tested basics fearlessly.

2. Walk The Longest Road Home

Both fat loss and muscle gain are such pursuits that are really rapid in the beginning and get super slow as we advance. In fact, so slow that at one point we may get impressioned to believe that nothing is happening at all.

This might resonate with trainees who might have spent close to an year at least, training seriously. As our bodies adapt to training stresses, they are intelligent enough to start expending lesser resources on managing that stress. Lesser resources spent can mean lesser muscles involved in exercises or lesser taxes put on cardiovascular or anaerobic/aerobic energy systems. Lesser demands mean lesser needs for gains.

In the long run, things will get slower. And in light of this, it is okay that your exercise program or dietary program has started showing very slow results. In fact, if in principle, all that you are doing is technically correct: You are following big compound exercises, taking enough recovery days, following a clean and complete diet, managing stress; and still not getting the gains that you need, I would say, just relax and understand that you are trying to go against the body's principle of homeostasis. This will be met with immense resistance by your body. If your force of perseverance is strong enough, you will eventually be able to push past these sticking points.

To sum up, as you progress, start looking at your gains in a broader perspective. Instead of measuring your waistline every other week, start measuring it every month or so. Take a measure of your one rep maxes in major lifts, after months and not weeks. Look at how much progress you have made in your weight loss program after one year and not after every few weeks. Yes, you get the idea now.

3. Be Prepared To Be Bored

This is an immediate corollary from the above points. If there is this most invaluable lesson I have learned in the school of strength, it is that before it's late, we must develop the mindset to accept getting bored as one of the outcomes of training.

Yes, long term successful training is an act that can be really pathetically boring. After all, we are doing the same set of movements, again and again, week after week, year after year in hopes of improving our range of motion, movement pattern quality, the weight lifted, the breathing pattern, the number of repetitions etc. Hell that can just drill a hole in our minds.

And that is what the cost of success is. World class athletes in all athletic endeavors have been doing this. It doesn't show up directly. But in the shadows, they have all been toiling away hard for years without us knowing it, in order to finally produce the medal winning performance we see in the field, the court or the ring.

Same goes with training. We have to keep grinding and pushing when our mind wants to just stop and get more comfortable,

You desire to want to do it has to be greater than your desire to not want to do it.

Apply these three potent method to whatever you are doing and I can assure you to experience breakthroughs in your personal training records.

If you liked this blog, hit the share button.

Questions? Drop them in the comments. I would love to talk to you.

Until then !

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Designing Training Programs That Handle The Menstrual Cycle

Touching upon a finer subject that might make or break the long term success of any female weight trainee.

More and more women are now a part of the lifting and weight training fraternity. Cults such as Crossfit have actually done an invaluable favour by letting the females partake in progressively stressing resistance training that they had rarely been exposed to during their lives. Needless to say, all of this has resulted in the evolution of the feminine physique as a very mesmerising development in the annals of strength, health and fitness Women now have better role models to look up to. They now have better and more scientifically designed programs to follow. The days of mindlessly hogging on the treadmills or other cool new cardio gimmick in the gym are now over.

The growing participation of female athletes in the sport has given women great role models to look up to, just like Bella Falconi here

Our take on female exercise programming needs to improve

I used to believe that the exact same programming strategies that I use for my male clients would work equally well to deliver results with the females. For a long time I have been overlooking one most inherent and fundamental feature of the female anatomy: the menstrual cycle.

As perpetual as it is, trying to fit the conventional programs into a month long physiological dilemma would once again be, fitting square pegs in round holes. 

Not until recently did it dawn upon me about how several females actually are having a tough time dealing with the undulating stresses that a linearly programmed workout can create. No matter how much the general narrative might try to hammer the facts otherwise, when it comes to training, men and women can seldom be equal and will always have differences in the ways their bodies respond to exercise stress.

The Outlawed Territory of PMS and Related Issues

Often in a zeal to make effective programs quickly, Several coaches might resort to completely ignoring these phases and how women respond to exercise during them. This ultimately results in the missed training sessions. Female trainees hence get demotivated from training and eventually fail to get connected to the ideology of getting stronger and fitter to reach all their fitness goals. At best, another TV commercial fitness expert might make her believe that cardio is the only solution to all the problems of her life.

It thus makes sense that coaches should make a constant effort to observe patterns in female training and take notes. This information is a deadly input for designing a fool-proof and automated approach to bring down the level of woes faced by them and ultimately coming up with a program that never surrenders to Menstrual pain.

Often male trainers are also advised with practising a touch of sensitivity while discussing this subject with an incoming female client. However, with experience, this should definitely be included in an interview/inquiry with the client, since I feel there can be nothing that can benefit the weight training woman more than a coach who knows how she is going to perform during a said week.

This post is also intended to serve as a thought provoking article and I encourage the female audience to keep contributing to the content to make it a good reference point to help design women's exercise programs.

This becomes of enormous importance during the phases when the insufferable pain and menstrual cramps result during Premenstrual syndrome (PMS), especially among women aged between their late 20s and their early 40s. This is one of the most devastating aspects of designing a female training program and forms the centrepiece of an approach like this.

Now why would that be? To understand that, let's take a brief sneak peak at how the female menstrual cycle's basic structure.

Phases of Periods at a glance

Now, to the average female reader, this might come as no surprise, but to the uninitiated, let's just start by stating that  the day count for menstrual cycle begins on the first day of menstruation when blood discharge starts. For the sake of this blog, the length of menstrual cycle has been assumed to be 28 days (an average among women). The entire duration of a Menstrual cycle can be divided into four main phases:

1. Menstrual phase (From day 1 to 5): Since blood discharge is comparatively nominal during this phase, significant strength training can be done here. Be wary of the occasional abdominal cramps though and avoid direct ab work that can severely aggravate intra-abdominal pressure.

2. Follicular phase (From day 1 to 13): Day 5 onward, till 13, it's predominantly a time when the pituitary gland secretes a hormone that stimulates the egg cells in the ovaries to grow. Here's the phase where maximum strength training can be incorporated since the situation with blood discharge and cramps is marginally under control here. This gives us a good week long window to have a controlled training phase where we can stop at any time discomfort is experienced.

3. Ovulation phase (Day 14) - This one's the key. Oestrogen secretion can peak here and needs to be tapped. Now, this is not writ in stone to be the 14th day only, but this is more like a ballpark figure looking at the average cycles of women.

4. Luteal phase
(From day 15 to 28): While oestrogen release peaked during the previous phase, this phase is marked by a simultaneous rise in progesterone levels.

The Movements

An effective scheme that any female trainee might prefer to indulge in is to plan their training programs in the form of micro cycles. A micro cycle is a duration that can be imagined as roughly a week long period during a training block. Although a week can be a very small period when it comes to developing a new skill, physical quality or fitness results, still, looking at the bigger picture, from month to month, a consistent approach with repetitive occurrence of a particular micro cycle every month can lead to specific adaptations based on most women's goals.

Now, I am so sure that the majority of women reading this blog have the goal of long lasting fat loss. As such a program to tackle that goal becomes incomplete without inclusion of a healthy mix of progressive weight training and steady state cardio (yes, there's pace for that on a program where we are dealing around the menstrual cycle).

So, when it comes to designing a progressive weight training program, we are left with the following categories of basic building blocks:

1. A Squat: Back Squat, Front Squat, Goblet Squats, Belt Squats, One-legged squats or pistols

2. A Hip Hinge: Deadlift, Straight legged DL variations, Kettlebell Swings, cleans, snatches

3. A Push: Bench Press, Overhead Press, Narrow grip presses to target the triceps

4 A pull: Pull Ups, Bent-Rows, Machine Rows, Lat Pull Downs, Bicep Curls

5. Some Form of core activation/ Loaded Carry: Remember, this is the tricky part. Although sufficient core activation is necessary to hit the mid section properly, we should refrain from overemphasising high tension exercises. Planks, Paloff Presses or farmer's walks should be alright. Basically we try to train the anti-rotation and anti-extension capability of the core musculature here. 

And a steady state cardio activity that can be included and excluded based on the degree of discomfort or pain being felt during a week.

Being Instinctive and Observing Patterns

In a scenario like this, the most useful technique is autocoregulation or the practice of instinctively cycling the intensity of difficulty levels of an exercise session based on the physiological and psychological readiness the trainee is experiencing on that day. Although with a sound plan like the one outlined below, it is tough to often fall out of place and miss sessions, there might still be weeks when the period cycles shift for a female or a phase eventually gets prolonged. Certain female trainees might also experience symptoms such as Polly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome and must definitely consult qualified gynaecologists (preferably someone who also has a fair bit of exposure to exercise sciences since I feel this is one territory that is still not stepped upon too much by medicos and clinicians even today) 

Planning the Micro Cycles

Since each of the four phases of the menstrual cycle lasts roughly about 7 to 15 days,  with the luteal phase being the longest one, the smartest approach to tame this problem is to plan our microcycles based on the individual length of these periods. 

Remember, since the duration of the menstrual phases vary very much from female to female, it is thus a subject of heavy individualisation and tailoring.

Let's assume three Total-Body weight training sessions every week. In other words:

Day 1: Workout A
Day 2: Off
Day 3: Workout B
Day 4: Off
Day 5: Workout C
Day 6: Off
Day 7: Off

For more enthusiastic women, Training 4 days a week is also an option subject to, again, autocoregulation.

Day 1: Lower Body
Day 2: Upper Body
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Upper Body
Day 5: Lower Body
Day 6: Off
Day 7: Off

Every training schedule can be ended with 10 to 15 minutes of light cardio activity to aid recovery. You can be creative as long as you stick to the idea of dialling down the intensity based on instinct during a given day, especially during the later days of the follicular phase or during the ovulation phase. So, for a hypothetical female having her phases as long as the one suggested in the description at the start of this article, a sample programs with microcycles may look like:

1. Micro cycle 1: (Day 1 to Day 5). The Menstrual Phase

There is a comparatively little level of discomfort during this phase. The overall intensity should be moderate at best during this week and volume must be emphasised.
For example 3 sets of squats for 10 repetitions each done with a moderately heavy weight can help generate a productive training effect. The trainees can have a minor blood discharge during the later days, ie days 4,5, 6 or 7. On such days, if need be, a regular training session can also be substituted with a minor one. This can be done by cutting the total number of repetitions to half on all exercises. You can also include a steady state cardio activity such as neighbourhood runs or brisk walks on such days to prevent metabolic damage.

Due to sudden abdominal cramps experienced during the later days of this phase, try to keep all your core strengthening moves only during the first one or two training days here.

2. Micro cycle 2: (Day 8 to Day 13): The Follicular Phase. 

Since there are sudden increases in Oestrogen levels during this phase. There is also a rise in the neurotransmitter called Serotonin. There is also a slight elevation in the mood. As such forming new habits or acquiring newer skills is easier in this phase. Hence during this phase, trainees can experiment with minor increases in poundages. Remember, at all points of time, an eye should be kept upon any kind red flags. The rule of substituting a training session with a light activity such as cardio still stands during this phase.

By the way, if you intend to start a new diet program, this phase is also a good time to give it a start. 

The later days of Follicular Phase can have PMS symptoms ranging from excessive mood swings to painful cramps that can severely hamper performance.

Day 14 to 15 are expected to have ovulation occur ideally Oestrogen levels are usually rising here. 

3. Micro cycle 3: (Day 16 to Day 28): The Luteal Phase

The starting day of this micro cycles is based on the day roughly when ovulation occurs. By now, you can steadily start upping the intensity of your program. 

During the late luteal phases a lot of binging can happen. Mood swings can be quite higher during these weeks. 

To prevent the cravings to damage your hard earned gains during this period, try to get in more sugar around your workout timings. Inclusion of sugars in the form of pre and post workout meals can also protect you from getting lethargic. Chocolate is said to be one of the strongest mood alleviating substances. During the rest of the day, a little consumption of dark chocolate can help with some antioxidant boost to fight free radical formation as well. It can also help resist the temptation to eat something far more dangerous to your fat loss goals.

Now, coming back to the original goal of fat loss, it is expected that you are actively trying to create some form of caloric deficit in your diet to achieve fat loss/weight loss. Due to the aforementioned symptoms of cravings and mood swings, Calorie deficit may not be on mark during the fourth week of your training block. At this point, you can go back to you maintenance number of calories, maybe even a little above it, for a week as a strategy. Many women might have a tough time accepting this but this slight increase in the calories is actually better than an unplanned binge disaster that can turn the entire program into a shipwreck. Remember, one bad eating day can devastate an entire week's progress in many cases.

Tame The Periods

I hope this little piece serves as a starting point to countless evolutionary programming patterns in the times to come and can help women design efficient strength training programs that can help them train through PMS pain and never let them miss sessions. Remember that this is only an outline and can be used as a gound for designing even better strength training programs for female athletes and even general pop females. If you are awestruck with this blog, do share it with as many female athletes and fitness enthusiasts that you know as possible. Who knows this can get you another step closer to becoming the Atomic Blonde.

ReferenceL Davidsen et. al. Impact of the menstrual cycle on determinants of energy balance: a putative role in weight loss attempts. International Journal of Obesity (2007) 31, 887-890

Monday, 31 July 2017

How to Deal With Monotony and Boredom in Training

Successful strength training is based around progress. Measurable progress. The markers of progress include how heavier a weight are you able to lift in the Squat, the Deadlift, the Bench Press, the Overhead Press and other big movements of the like. You can play around with the derivative variations of the big lifts such as the Lunges, the flies, the straight legged deadlift variations or the good mornings. But the true marker of progress in the gym are always going to be the select few, basic lifts.

As such, your metrics for measuring your success rate are a little lesser. You are expected to be hitting and grinding these money-movements almost every training session. Of course, you will be doing direct arm and ab work in the form of decorative bicep-curls, tricep extensions, crunches, ab-wheel rollouts etc, but you may always need to keep an eye on how heavier is your squat than the previous week, how bigger is the bench press right now or if the deadlift today is beating the deadlift that was about a month ago.

And in an age both blessed and obsessed with hand-held mobile devices and an app for everything under the sun, focusing on just a few basic movements becomes, well, boring. And of course, it is boring. There is absolutely no other way to state it. Even for the most passionate trainees and professional lifters, hammering the same basic and primal moves can become extremely stagnating and monotonous at one point of time.

Bored of performing the same lifts since times immemorial in the gym? Well, bad news: those lifts are actually necessary

What then does the lifetime lifter need to do to bring her or him out of the situation and still ensure that the major money lifts are growing. As the old-school terminology of 'plateau-busters' suggest, the answer might lie in training the 'same but different' exercises. Here's how some of the helpful short-term substitutions can help entertain a bored lifter while not sabotaging any of the strength gains on the primary lifts.

Now, hold on. Before we do delve into these, please note that in no way can the big primary compound lifts be substituted. Hip dominant(as against knee dominant) individuals will often experience a higher degree of upper leg hypertrophy training on a good dose of front squats compared to back squats. However back squats still have a higher potential of adding a 'WOW' amount of solid muscle to the entire body, which reclaims its king status. Same goes for the regular deadlift as against extension based exercises like back-extensions, straight legged deadlifts etc. Bench press whether with a dumbbell or a barbell will be a better muscle builder than the fashionable pec-dec flies.

1. Short term substitution for the back squat: Although I seldom find squats to be boring me as long as I am progressing on them in some way or the other, especially when I am trying out novel ways to make barbell squats more and more available everywhere, there are times when we just need to distance ourselves from the manly leg exercise. These are times when front squats come as the next best thing. Holding the barbell across your clavicles using either the classic clean grip or the bodybuilder cross grip, the placement of the load ensures a more upright spine and loads the quadriceps and other knee extensors more than the gluteal complex responsible for generating hip extension.

A training block lasting a few weeks where the primary leg exercise is chosen as the front squat effectively shakes things up and restores focus owing to the novelty that comes in. At the same time, the added focused strength helps making your back squats more stable out of the hole once you return to them.

2. Floor Presses substituting conventional Bench presses. Much like making the barbell squat available virtually anywhere, another of my similar pursuits covered the bench press. The gym I train at has the barbell stands situated too close to each other making it a very dangerous assembly to unrack your bar from before pressing it.

Franco Might be cool hoisting a house from such narrow stands; you and me possibly might need an expert spotter.
Image Courtesy:

In other words, a spotter becomes necessary for every time the weights need to be loaded, unloaded as well as the bar is racked or unracked to safeguard that I do not end up crushing my skull. Again, my quest for training with minimal assistance on spotters brought me to explore the floor press.

While floor pressing a barbell, you need to get under the parked barbell on the floor and perform a barbell hip bridge until the bar rests on your abdomen and your hands with the elbows braced on the ground and the forearms hinged vertically between the bar and the ground. From here, you gradually lower your abdomen and your back is now flat on the floor with your knees bent at about 90 degrees and feet flat on the floor. This is the beginning of the floor press. Now, press the bar up like a conventional bench press and then bring it down till your elbows rest on the ground. Repeat. The movement when executed correctly should look like this:

Above is a great video from the youtube channel of ATHLEAN-X showing in great detail how this lost gem can be tapped into for some good upper body push strength workouts.

3. The Several methods of manipulating the pull ups: The Pull can very correctly be termed as the squat for the upper body. Its obvious back muscle recruitment benefits aside, the exercise also challenges your abdominal musculature in a novel way, provided you employ lesser of momentum and are as strict as possible during your pull.

Reversing the grip on the pull ups and doing chin ups can be a great change of pace

However, if you are doing the pull ups as a part of something much bigger, such as a program having 6 to 7 big basic movements, using the conventional methods to improve pull up performance such as ladders may rob the available bandwidth from the rest of the exercises. Such cases demand trying variations such as the chin ups instead of the pull ups or vice versa. In fact, if your gym does have a decently weight-stacked machine, training the lat-pull down for a few weeks isn't a bad idea too to mix things up positively. This, especially when hypertrophy is your primary concern.

4. Carry heavy things to replace the conventional ab training. Exercises such as different forms of loaded carries like farmer walks, waiter walks etc are deceptively tough inclusions but can be real game changers. Most people might look at a farmer walk as a grip or trap strengthener, while in fact, if utilised correctly, it can leave your midsection really fried,

A similar approach can be trying the suitcase deadlift. You may not be able to lift really appreciable weights in this formidable exercise at first, but as you progress through it and the weights rise up, you may slowly start to appreciate the benefits which include the stabilisation strength development throughout the core.

The Suitcase Deadlift

5. Use Fat Gripz or similar products to augment conventional arm training. I utilised a rubber based grip thickening pair recently. Although my poundage on exercises such as the barbell curls did not shoot up as much as they did for the conventional width bars, I experienced unprecedented arm growth. The increased width of the bar does challenge the grip in ways that go beyond just the weight on the bar. Moreover, the increased circumference of the bar in use also placed the elbow and wrist joints at much lesser risks of injury compared to conventional width bars.

The Fat Gripz or similar bar-thickening sleeves can add that much needed grip and arm strengthening brutality to your lifts while making them safer.

Training modalities such as these rubber based sleeves that increase the bar circumference to up to 3 inches are a very economical investment that go a long way in developing an uncommon rugged muscularity in your arms while safeguarding your joints. Try them for a thrilling jolt to your training.

Keep Spicing it up

Variety is absolutely needed to mix things up. Do not let boredom halt your consistent training experience. Try these novel substitutions and let the newfound refreshment give you a mileage in taking your game towards the far end of your lifetime fitness spectrum. Enjoy them.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

No Squat Rack? No Problem

Do you know what is the common link between all the ill-equipped gyms I have been to during travelling? Apart from absence of a sufficient heavy weight plates and kettlebells, it is often the squat rack. Worse than this is the fact that most gyms opt for replacing the squat rack with a smith machine. Now for those of you who do not already know of it, a Smith machine only delivers movement capability in a linear vector, which is not how your body moves in the real world. A bad deal.

So, anyway, the real deal is that we mostly end up without the equipment we believe is almost indispensable to developing a physique that has the lifting capacity of a Caterpillar P-5000 Work Loader:

The goal is to make training develop an exoskeleton around you

Like many, I was disheartened too by growing up among gymnasiums which had less than necessary back squatting hardware. In fact, during my childhood, the availability of a power rack in a gym was a distant possibility to say the least. I only got to train on my first power rack when I was 21 years old and moved to an entirely different city.

But eventually, the presence of sturdy squat hoist stands or power rack apparatus kept getting shadowed by presence of more and more benches and treadmills and other flashy pieces to impress the hunky dory gym princesses wrapped in spandex in whichever gyms I went to.

It was all a quest for a workable substitute to heavy squatting until I pondered upon the information contained in the manual called Power to the People, written by Pavel Tsatsouline. Contained in there, among several other gems of knowledge and experience was a minimalist hypertrophy program called The Russian Bear, which seemed too deceptively ill equipped at first, but has been a staple in my programming since I first tried it last year, in 2015. Why, you might ask? Because it worked like a deadly weapon. It seemed to be just the answer to the question, what to do when confronted with no squat racks around.

Without a speck of doubt, no amount of 'alternative' training can replace heavy squats. The kind of magnification that squatting heavy for reps gives me is phenomenal and irreplaceable. As a corollary, heavy deadlifts themselves have an anabolic coefficient unparalleled in the annals of exercise science.

There you have it: deadlifts. Coming back to the program at hand, the Russian Bear is a combination of high - tension deadlifts and presses done in multiple intensity repetition brackets: Heavy, intermediate and relatively light(well, almost, again it depends on what you choose to call light. On some days, 60 percent of my 1 rep max seemed like lifting a Buick).

The Approach

All you do is do the following exercises:

1. Deadlifts
2. Overhead Presses

in the following pattern:
 Pick a weight heavy enough to do 6 - 8 repetitions in good form. Then
Set 1: Perform a set of five repetitions with that weight
Set 2: Use 90 percent of the weight lifted in previous set and perform five repetitions with that weight
Set 3 Onwards: Pick 80 percent of the weight lifted in set 1 and perform as many sets of 5 as you can until you cannot complete a set with good technique. That would be your last set of that exercise for the day. These sets are referred to as the 'Back - Off ' sets.

The Deadlift: Your partner in strength that won't make you miss those Squats

The number of sets done with the 80 percent weight can range anywhere from 4 or 5 on your less-recovered days to all the way up till 20. The program does call for going as high as 25 sets, but looking at the crunched up timelines we are all running along, that kind of volume might require a duration of up to one and a half to two hours which becomes a big no-no for many of the office-bound deskies that are among us. I personally limit my back-off sets to a maximum of 20 on both the exercises which kind of strikes a deal between an effective volume hit and time-efficiency. That said, do go about with this program keeping in your time-wallet, enough 90 minute sessions since that is a minimum that I have found might be needed by trainees of different capabilities on this program. Those 90 minutes would however be some of the most physically rewarding ones that you have spent in your exercise career till date.

By Pressing Overhead, she is engaging the core and the entire assembly of pressing muscles in her body excellently

The principle behind the effectiveness of such a simple, high volume program is the efficient way it increases the time spend under tension managing fatigue easily. The program also calls for not increasing the rest period between sets overly, thus inciting a turbulent human growth hormone response pattern. I occasionally rest under 60 seconds on my back - off sets.

The results from such a program are terrific due to the fact that there is a continuous feed of nutrients flushing into the muscle cells and the way it builds a tremendous state of capillarity. Due to these increased pathways of nutrition, the muscle cells respond by growing alarmingly faster than most methods. These are the kind of wonders that a high volume approach can build.

So, there you have it: a barbell, sufficient heavy weight plates and two exercises, the deadlift and the overhead press. How difficult could it be to screw a program with as less moving parts as this? In my dictionary, I find this program to be fool-proof. At least as long as you keep making progress on this program.

Many gym-rats wearing the 'Squats are the King of exercises' T-Shirts might argue here about the leg-development merits of a high volume deadlift approach. My time pulling the bar from the floor has shown me enough moments of surprise when my leg development witnessed phenomenal progress and it was rather hard for me to believe that I wasn't squatting AT ALL during these times. Again, the magic of high volume and high tonnage at work .

If you belong to the community that swear by their Bench Press numbers and cannot just let go of your Bench Numbers, no matter what, this might bring a smile to your face. You can very conveniently opt for a Bench Press instead of the overhead press. Really, the Gods of hypertrophy will still bless you with equal candour. But the underlying principle remains the same. You train with two exercises and you employ these different weight classes and the volume. And life will be an ever - progressing approaching.

Now, let go of your squat-woes and get on to doing some hard work in the gym.

The sweet smile of victory might remain on your face once you reap the golden benefits of high volume, high tension training.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Strength Training: The silent suffering we all must undertake

Question: What makes us great?
Imagine a slice of life where I spend all my time getting better at my techie desk work. I'm sure the individuals involved in analytics and study of systems' behaviours will tell you that it is never going to be a linear journey upstream for me. Eventually, we are all destined to run into a state of chaos and hardships, professionally, before we even start seeing something even remotely like success and acclaim. My take on greatness exemplifies those select few who have the appetite to savour such tough times and win the fight with themselves over whether to go through such times or to sit back and stay within the comfortable confines of ordinary life.

But there's more to these tough times than just going full frontal, piercing through the snow. Have you heard many great guys singing praises of themselves going through the shitty times ever? I, for one, haven't. Much like success, greatness leaves clues as well. The secret to greatness, as my immature pursuit for it found out, lies in taking up the hard life and not speak of it broadly.

Silence builds an inner strength. A strong character is forged in peace. The hammers that produce character seldom make any sound.

And how do we, the millennial somethings, make this calculated form of hardships a part of our lives?

Here is a good news: Training for strength in any form, mostly lifting progressively heavier weights provides just the right amount of stimulus combining the pain, hard work, labour, satisfaction of creating something worthwhile and the discipline that the life of a desk jock living his twenties or early thirties in 2016 lacks.

For the readers who love posts with bullet points:

1. When the immovable iron is crushing you under its impossible weight, all you can think of is to be grateful to be alive. Hatred, envy, money, power and other vices seldom have a place in your thoughts.

2. There is hardly any feeling as good as the realisation that a gruelling training session just got over. I have developed a sense of thankfulness over the years, every time I am getting done with the lifting for the day.

3. If you are of the masochistic kind, step it up a bit by training alone and without any music. It's a very time-honoured way of developing a realisation within oneself of how easy the life outside the gym really is. We have luxuries we rarely notice. Some of these are the facilities like internet, entertainment, comfortable living spaces. posh transportation and many other delights that our feature-rich life is unknowingly blessed with. Trust me, all of them revolve in front of my eyes, when I am struggling through a set-after-set ordeal of repetition barbell squats in a lonely gym.

Image courtesy:
4. Hard workouts shape your thoughts. I got the idea to write this blog post exactly when I was crushing and getting crushed by double my bodyweight on the bar in a garage gym with the sound of road rollers constructing a road outside the gym as the only music available. You have nothing consoling surrounding you except cold emotionless iron bars and piles of iron plates gazing at you in hopes that you understand that you are not going to enjoy the entire experience. Sounds familiar doesn't it? Yes, life's like that too.

5. It's an almost evolutionary phenomenon how getting under a heavily loaded bar on a bench or preparing for a gigantic deadlift with our shins getting scratched by the barbell knurling forces us to empty our minds and focus only on the biggest purpose  in front of us. Purpose. It's a lovely paradox how we need an activity totally contrarian to our daily lives to remind us what the purpose of life really is. Ironically, I walk out of the gym with a better sense of the goals and purposes of my life.

Image Courtesy:
6. Being desk bound makes us lazy. I started looking at seemingly simple tasks of daily life as epic and troublesome activities. Simple grocery buying, meal preparation, household cleaning, gardening and similar essentials begin to make us tired. Taking care of children and being a worthwhile spouse all demand a substantial amount of personal calibre. Individuals who train with an eye towards progress and diligence have a surprising carryover of these virtues to the day-to-day chores of a time-crunched family living. They are near-flawless creatures that can equate the physical transformation skills to the efficiency gap that needs to be filled in their daily lives.

7. It makes us patient. There is no button available to suddenly transform life from tough to easy in the gym, sadly. There is no device to make you lift a pile of locked iron automatically. We need to make ourselves move. It takes time to master the skill of strength. And like all valued challenges of life, this silent patience built in the gym stays with you for life.

8. Hard training is a kick in the (proverbial)balls. It cautions us of how exceedingly sheltered our lives are getting. It makes sure we never forget that, in spite of us having a family, an army of friends and a circle of like minded individuals standing by our side, life is a quest one undertakes alone. Believe it or not. All the people who are there as a backing do have their role. But a man's or woman's true worth gets exhibited in those lonely dark hours when they walk alone through difficult situations. The sooner someone realises that life is a an interspersed journey of group jogging in the park and solo walk through the dark woods, the better. It's those solo walks that needs us to work on.

Image Courtesy:
Greatness has a lot to do with a daily dose of misery. Some recognise misery as a happy state of progressing. The others need to understand that not going through hard knocks frequently is the reason why they cry like a weakling at the basest, minimal calamity that life suddenly throws at them.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Rackless Squat: How far can we go with minimalism on the Barbell Squats

If there's one thing that most gyms in hotels or apartments have got a solid issues having, it's the squat rack/squat stand/power rack/anything where an Olympic bar can be set before squatting it properly.

"What if I told you there are no racks in the gym now? Good luck bringing that bar down to earth from there."

In crunched up times such as this, most trainees resort to

1. Not squatting at all
2. Using Dumbbell based variations such as the Goblet Squats
3. Attempting to reclaim their man-card on the leg press machine
4. Utilise deadlift variations as the workaround for back squats

However, there are subtle limits to all of the above approaches:

1. Not squatting at all: It could be a definitely acceptable method if the trainee under consideration already has issues with squatting and is medically advised to utilise other leg strengthening movement patterns. For the rest of us who have no business making excuses, it is serious training time and opportunity missed not squatting with a heavy bar on our backs.

2. Using DB based variations such as the Goblet Squats: Often in the middle of two training cycles which incorporate heavy squatting, some fruitful variation can be introduced in the form of Dumbbell or kettlebell loaded squats such as the very effective Goblet Squat. The Goblet squat is a very productive exercise in its own right and is a superior hip mobility and squat movement training tool. As coach Dan John might suggest, it is one of the most effective movement to train the primal squat pattern for someone really new to squatting. For the others who have had a significant history of squatting, the idea of relying solely upon Goblets might lack the degree of structural influence that regular back squats can produce.

3. Attempting to reclaim their man-card on the leg press machine: The leg press is a great training machine. It allows trainees to reach impressively high levels of muscular loading and create localised hypertrophy, especially for training in the 10 to 2 repetition range. In other words, the leg press is the Back-Squat-challenged sloth's wild card into hoisting insanely huge loads while training legs. But that entirely is its problem as well; the leg press is a non kinetic movement. Considering the fact that rarely do we encounter situations in the real world where we are stuck with a tonne of weight supported on the soles of our feet while we are braced on our backs on the ground, the leg press becomes devoid of a very big portion of the real world, usable strength that we can otherwise own. it thus stays as a great staple, secondary or ancillary move, but can seldom if ever replace it's mother, back squats. Not to mention how the tilting of the pelvis around the coccyx region during the bottom position of the leg press can raise significant questions on spinal safety considering nobody leg presses lesser than a house.

4. Utilise deadlift variations as the workaround for back squats: Programs such as Pavel's Russian Bear keep the high volume deadlift routines as a utility that can produce a dramatic hypertrophy effect in the legs which is comparable to how the back squats can bless the legs of a trainee. If there is one program which has made me never miss Back Squats when I did not have a squat rack, it has to be this one. However, all good things come to an end and there comes a time when even this magnificent Press/Deadlift combo program requires a shift of pace. The space then gets desperate to get filled up with the old fashioned squats

To summarise, just like every other big movement, the barbell squat becomes seemingly irreplaceable in its grandiose right.

Let's look at the squat closely, It is a basic primal movement and is the chosen manoeuvre when a heavy bag of sand/cement needs to be carried for a distance or supported/hoisted over a platform by construction workers. This might be a possible hypothesis on how the squat really came into existence. When it comes to squatting without the rack, we are more concerned with the part where the bar is put on the shoulders rather than the squat itself.

Cleaning and pressing the bar will almost always be ruled out as a method of choice since we can never out-clean or out-press our squat. Especially after finishing a gruelling set of squats, we can not rely upon the strength of our shoulders to press the weight and bring it back in the front.

Enter the...

The Contrarian Approach to mounting the bar during the Squat

Not until recently did I found a picture of Andy Komorny doing a weird version of squat where the bar wasn't straight across his back but was rather at an angle to the vertical. Reading through the pages of Pavel Tsatsouline's Naked Warrior, I discovered that it was in fact a lift where you pick up a loaded barbell right from the ground and then lever it over your back until straightening it fully into the top position of a squat. How incredibly raw! At first sight, I did have my reservations as to how dangerous can this movement be, but something inside me told me that I had had my aha moment.

I researched this further and found that it is called the Steinborn Squat Lift, named after the legendary strongman credited with the discovery of the barbell back squat(the world knew only the deep knee bend before him), Henry 'Milo' Steinborn.

The exact directions for executing a Steinborn lift are as follows:

The steps below roughly collate into the above sequence
Image Courtesy: Breaking Muscle

1. Place the loaded barbell on the ground. The longer the barbell, the better. My personal experience has been training in a gym with a six feet long barbell being the longest. I am six feet tall and trust me, this becomes a real menace, while mounting the bar during the Steinborn lift. I'm an object of entertainment for those minutes for everyone in the gym.
2. Keep a rubber matting, mattress or some similar cushioning surface that has sufficient give in it under one end of the barbell. This is the end about which the barbell is very soon going to get upended.
3. Pivot the barbell about this end by picking the other end. This should look like a Landmine unit being lifted levered on the other end. By now the barbell will be standing on one end supported by you with your hands on the other end.

Peary Rader performing the Steinborn style squatImage Courtesy: Squat University

4. Plant one foot about six inches from the bottom end and get under the barbell . Place your neck approximately near the centre of the bar by transversely tilting your spine. Careful; this is the tricky part. As you lock your head near the centre of the bar, also simultaneously squat down to allow the bar to slowly descend from a vertical to a horizontal position.
5. By now, the bar is slanted across your back and you are in a near bottom squatting position. The next step is to slight pull on the upper end of the bar with your grip and push on the bottom end with your other arm, all this while allowing the back to absorb any sudden jerks resulting from the grounded end of the bar coming up form the ground.
6. Well done. the bar is now atop your back, and you are in the bottom position of the squat. Bottom. That is where you start squatting the Steinborn way.
7. While dismounting the bar, reverse the sequence of steps given above.

Looks weird but that's a Steinborn Lift unmounted correctly
Image Courtesy: Bodytribe Fitness

And here's the entire lift in action. This is a crazy Steinborn Lift done by Scott Campbell. That's 425 pounds!

So, you see, the part where you get the bar on your back from the ground is actually the most technically challenging part and not the squat itself. As such it demands utmost focus and practice before you can start lifting really big numbers in this lift. Which is in fact a blessing in surprise(as you will see shortly below). The list of positive benefits from the practice of Steinborn lift are manifold.

1. Since this is a very intimidating lift, most folks will have no business lifting their usual squat poundage in the Steinborn. This means that there is an automatic upheaval of technique and the lift becomes safer, especially for trainees who regularly overestimate their squat strength and end up with a sloppy and pain/injury inducing squat. As such several coaches even suggest using the Steinbron squat as against the squat from the racks for teaching the squats.
2. Following from the previous point, The compromised position of the bar in the beginning requires that you stay entirely tight right from the beginning, lest you risk bar slippage or tilting. A tight or stiff squat is almost always safer and more effective. These merits once again place it in a staple list of moves for learning the squat.
3. Once you have reached a respectable expertise level in the Steinborn lift, you are now equipped with the ability to squat in almost any gym that has an Olympic Barbell; no racks and stands needed. Of course you will very rarely be able to squat super heavy using this method. but that single trade-off is covered by the huge boost in the squatting technique that you experience.

The record set in the Steinborn lift is 553 pounds made by Henry Steinborn himself. It is a frequently contested lift in the All Around Weightlifting World Championships.

This lift does have many more subtle details, though I believe that the mere act of getting started with it might be the first step towards learning much more about this unexplored movement. As I keep practising it, many more ways of making it better and safer keep dawning upon me.

A lost lift which has the potential to solve your grave gym issues that can take you out of the squat-less training ruckus and enable you to reap the benefits of the capability to barbell squat in virtually any gym in the world. Use it and never leave gaps in training programs again, even when you travel to the most impossible destinations. Do expect the startled onlookers give you gazes of astonishment.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

11 Commandments of a travelling weight trainee

Travelling is inevitable, necessary and immensely enjoyable. People more travelled always tend to show a higher sense of understanding about how the world works, how people think, how different professionals operate and how that rare recipe of sushi tastes.

I know what avid readers of this blog might have started thinking by now: how can we carry our implements of training all around the world so that we can both be in our peak shape and exploit the benefits of a globetrotting lifestyle?

Though the answer to this question can be both tough and extremely detailed, it's always easier to boil thing down to a bullet pointed list. Here are some key and handy check list items you can enlist before you start packing your bags for a trip to the Caribbeans.

1. Carry enough nuts:

Nuts are a power house of nutrition. Commonly used nuts such as cashews, Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts etc should definitely be kept handy while you are off to a long trip where there is going to be no access to quality nutrition for elongated periods of time.

How much of nuts should I consume? As a standard serving size, do not over-analyse, a handful is usually enough at a sitting. You can try an assorted combination of almonds, walnuts, raisins, peanuts etc. The essential fatty acid profile of nuts usually place them very high in the pyramid of energy rich foods. Acting as a slow-release energy giver, do keep your pack ready before you set off.

2. Master the art of bodyweight training :

Apart from being a primal and differently effective form of exercise, bodyweight training is also going to be your friend in strength while on the move. That is mostly due to its ready availability practically everywhere you are. Waiting for a cab/bus? How about squeezing a set of one leg calf raises. Short on time and need to catch an early morning flight to a far flung exotic holiday? How about a timed circuit of push up - bodyweight squat - vertical jump complex? The combinations of exercises and their organization seems endless. With application of sound programming principles, a lot can be done without sufficient training hardware around.

3. Strategically overtrain in the days leading to a long trip:

This is a strategy which most athletes usually use when a lot of travel is on their calendar. Often, it is not only the unavailability of a gym, but aso the unavailability of time in between frequent hops of flights, buses, cabs and stopovers at airports, which makes training a distant possibility. Your only insurance in such odd times is an overly fatigued state that is yearning for recovery all the time. This can be achieved by taking training up a notch on the days leading to the travel. Perhaps some extra volume on the deadlifts and squats without hurting yourself in the process. This does leave you with a foggy brain at times and you might lack your usual antelope like alertness during the initial few days of the journey, but this ensures that you have the training effect alive and you do not need any additional training while you are recovering.

No more searching for training options in odd, desolate placed and you might even focus more on climbing up a rock by a waterfall and get yourself photographed, in all the spirit of travel.

4. Invest in a quality suspension trainer:

Although the one I use is a TRX suspension trainer, feel free to use any brand or version of a suspension trainer, as long as it gets the job done. In fact, two long straps of durable, inflexible material with plastic handles or loops attached to them will fit the prescription pretty good too. The most important aspect is the compactness and versatility in the form of almost every human movement that can be loaded using bodyweight on a suspension training.

 In fact, many of the movements done on a suspension trainer can also be augmented using aids such as a loaded backpack or a weighted vest (More on this shortly)

5. Parallettes:

Parallettes not only reinforce your wrists while doing upper body pushes, but are also very handy and easy to store training implements. Handstand pushups on parallettes have the added benefit of increases bottom range of motion. In fact parallettes mimic the action of gripping a fixed external weight as against pushing with the palms flat on the floor while doing bodyweight pushes which can add a tangent that trains the grip too.

6. Ab Wheel:

A deceptively small looking abdominal roll out wheel can be a very formidable and evil addition to your training travel collection. In fact, very strong and jacked dudes grinding very big numbers on the bench, dead and SQ have been seen struggling doing a technically correct abdominal wheel rollout, even on their knees. Of course, graduating from a knees supported version to the one done on toes is itself going to be a futile journey, giving ample training opportunity to last for months, if not weeks. Extended training avenues such as these are big assets when training on a minimalist footprint. And we haven't even yet factored the advanced ab wheel rollout versions such as the one arm and the one arm one leg rollouts.

7. Resistance Bands :

Resistance bands offer a very space-friendly option to add compounded resistance to any bodyweight exercise. Moreover, bands have the advantage of progressively graduating the amount of resistance which an exercise utilises since the further you stretch a band, the more tension it generates and the greater challenge it places on the worked muscle groups.

Increasing resistance with bands is simple, just keep adding bands or simply use a band with higher tension rating. Initially originated as a clinical tool mostly used for therapeutic purposes by chiropractors and physical therapists, bands have come a long way to becoming a go to choice of powerlifters and general fitness enthusiasts alike for adding an accelerating resistance load to their exercises.

8. Research for gyms in and around your hotel if you are going to live in a metropolis:

While you are making the most intricate choice for your hotel and holiday plans, do make it a point to consider if the hotel you are staying with has a gym in it. In fact, I remember emailing this hotel in Jakarta that I was supposed to be staying in, repeatedly about whether they have a gym. Of course their little bothered staff did not care to ever respond which compelled me to put together this blog post on the same subject as a result.

 In most cases though, going the extra mile to determine training facilities in the vicinity of where you are going to stay will forever lend you an edge and will ease up life, without you having to search for help in new places.

9.  Have a backpack and stuff to load in it:

When you are already at a training expertise level where plain old pushups, squats, dips, pull ups etc do not present enough challenge to tickle your muscle cells, it's time to use training aids such as old backpacks loaded with plates or heavy objects to use while performing these exercises. It can transform simple push ups into a formidable exercise, which I sometimes find harder, yet safer than a heavy bench press.

Your usual luggage can also be used as a push up weight

10. Walk a lot:

This is one form of physical activity that comes as a complimentary staple anytime you are out on a long expedition. Moreover, if your holiday requires you to be on a long trek with a heavy gear on your back for seven continuous days, there is absolutely nothing left inside you that can recite the words 'e-x-e-r-c-i-s-e'. Shopping through streets and changing railway station platforms carrying luggage can leave you gassed in no time and doing it over and over for several days is an experience the legs and calves can remember for days.

11. Keep your eyes open in your hotel room:

Be ingenious and innovative in using cupboards, windows, doors, balconies, lofts, any sturdy furniture etc to serve as places to do pull ups, bodyweight rows, depth jumps etc from. However, watch out that you really do not get overzealous and break apart any of those stuff and end up paying the hotel, the cost of our muscle building ambitions. Be reasonable in your screening of the furniture and similar items guaging the strength of materials wisely, without spoiling the room's interior decoration in an attempt to do muscle ups on top of an unbalanced wooden cupboard.

Travelling shouldn't now leave you with that glitch that keeps on telling you that something better could have been done to stay in shape. The options listed above will cover most of your fitness essentials on a very economical budget. Give these sharp ideas a try and we'll be the ones bumping into each other while walking on a beach on Krabi Islands.