Sunday, June 5, 2016

Everybody knows all there is to know about lifting

I was out on a fine Illinois morning lifting in my garage when a young guy came by selling bug extermination services. He saw that I was lifting weights.

"So, getting a workout in?" he says.

"Yes," say I, always charming and ready to talk to strangers.

"Do you compete?"

"Yes. Powerlifting." I hope my taciturnity will get him to leave.

"Cool," he says, nodding. "I used to do a bunch of that powerlifting stuff myself."

"Is that right?"

"Yeah. What lifts do you guys do?"

At this point it's clear that he doesn't know what he's talking about. He is like many other people who think that they know all about weightlifting, because they used to go to the gym, or they've read an issue of Muscle and Fitness, or they've got a buddy who taught them how to bench press once.

I've met lots of people who dismiss my chosen avocation with an airy wave of the hand and an "I used to do that. Heck, I squatted 300 once!" Often this is followed with a "Be careful! You'll hurt your knees/back! I know a guy who blew out his knee squatting!"

Never mind that I've done quite a bit of study and logged many hours coaching the barbell lifts, or that I've been on staff for Starting Strength seminars: they've got knowledge to equal mine!

Consider whether you would do this with your doctor or lawyer. "Yeah, I know all about medicine. I once had a cut and closed it with super glue!" "Oh, I know all about the law. I read a contract once. Even signed it in the right places!"

In medicine and law you seek competence. In strength training, most people are content to rely on a few tips from their buddy. Is it any surprise that most people don't get good results?

Find a competent coach and pay what it takes to get the coaching. You can find a Starting Strength coach at

Monday, April 25, 2016

Forth Eorlingas! Get under the bar!


Indulge a lengthy quote from The Lord of the Rings:

“Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?” said Gandalf. “Do you ask for help?” He lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear, and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. “Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.

Théoden was an old king, sitting in his hall, despairing of the world. He was easy prey to evil advice, and thought that all hope was gone. A convenient counselor told him that all hope was gone. He sat in the dark waiting to die.

There is an old man, well-loved by me, who has been sitting on his couch despairing of his health. He has avoided exercise because “it hurts”, and resisted my arguments that he needed to get stronger because he was worried about getting hurt. A convenient doctor told him not to lift. He preferred to sit and decay.

Now he has fallen and broken his arm, and I’m angry. Broken bones in the elderly are quite often the prelude to the spiral of morbidity, and this could be it. But it didn’t need to be this way! His weakness is entirely self-chosen. Sarcopenia and osteoperosis, the loss of muscle and bone, are not inevitable, but happen because we get old and quit doing things that require muscle and bone. We tell ourselves or let our own Gríma Wormtongues tell us that we are too old, that days of vigorous physical activity are behind us, that we might break or get hurt. Fear then makes us weak.

In the book, Théoden is nearly overwhelmed by the darkness of the world, but Gandalf says “Your fingers would remember their old strength better, if they grasped a sword-hilt.” The king then ends his life in strength and glory rather than in darkness. May I suggest you could be the same, if your fingers grasped a barbell?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Wasting Time in Kentucky

A sweet lamp at the entrance of the gym
My family and I recently took a short vacation in Kentucky. It's a favorite getaway of ours, close enough to drive in a day and far enough south that we can taste an early spring. This year was no exception. It was a delightful trip.

I'm preparing for a meet in a few weeks, and I had to find a place to train. I found a place not too far away that was kind enough to give me a week's pass. I got two good sessions in. In the process, I got to see what goes on in a commercial gym.

On two beautiful Kentucky spring afternoons, I saw lots of people come to the gym. This is good and shows dedication. These are people who are serious about exercise, at least serious enough to get in the car and come to the gym. Once there, they proceeded to waste all of their time.

I saw the following:

  • Biceps curls
  • Preacher curls
  • Bench presses (partial ROM)
  • Incline bench presses (partial ROM)
  • Lateral dumbbell raises
  • Long, slow cardio
  • Behind the back forearm curls
What I did not see:
  • Squats, deadlifts
(Full disclosure: three people did reasonable attempts at squats, but they were a rare exception.)

All of the lifters were weak. Most of them were skinny. One poor boy had his father instructing him. Dad gave him a series of biceps curl variations to do. For two hours! 

Gym time is precious. Most of us can't spend all day there. Wouldn't you like to get the biggest bang for your buck? You get bigger and stronger faster if you do full-body moves with lots of weight. In other words, squats, deadlifts, presses, bench presses, and power cleans. The curling kid could have done 3x5 on the squat, 3x5 on a press, a set of deadlifts, and then stopped for a gallon of milk on the way home in half the time he spent curling. He would have gotten much more benefit as well. 

They could all have trained more efficiently, gotten more benefit, and then could have enjoyed the rest of what their fair state has to offer:

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year's Resolutions and the Cheshire Cat

So the New Year is here. What are you going to do about it?

If you are anything like me, you have a history of failed resolutions. Anything from losing weight, to learning Greek, to being a nicer person--I've failed at lots of things. I think the reason was that I went about it in the wrong way. I didn't think clearly about where I wanted to go.

Do you remember Alice in Wonderland? Alice meets the Cheshire cat, and asks for directions.

'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
'I don't much care where--' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
If you don't have a clear idea of where you are going, you won't get there. A vague resolution is easy to make and easy to abandon, because there aren't any real metrics to know how well you are doing. Lose some weight? Ok. Eat this donut? I can have one donut, can't I? It won't bust my vague goal to lose some weight. A specific goal, on the other hand, allows you to formulate specific steps to reach it. Rather than "learn Greek" or "be nicer", I should pick something like "read Iliad Book 9 in Greek" or "volunteer at the local charity three days a month." Now that there are steps, I can do what I need to do to get there. This works in fitness, too. "Get in better shape" is so vague as to be useless. So is "Lose some weight." In addition, a performance-based goal gives you some incentive to do it, since there will be a reward at the end.

I suggest you make clear resolutions this year. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Finish the Starting Strength Linear Progression. DTFP! 
  2. Compete in a meet at a particular weight-class.  
  3. Add 100lbs to your conventional deadlift. 

My goal is to set the Illinois record in 100% Raw Powerlifting for ages 40-44 in the 242 weight class. I've already got the record in 275lb class. I have to do this before my birthday in May. So, when I think of skipping training or eating poorly, I can think of how my goals would be affected, and I'm able to be better motivated.

I've done much better the more specific my goals are. You should give it a try.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dungeons and Dragons and Deadlifts

I was a nerd. I admit it. I would rather read a novel about wizards and fell beasts than some sort of brilliant and witty commentary on modern society. When swords are crossed, I'm there. Game of Thrones is better than Downton Abbey, no matter how intriguing the whispering and folding of the servants. When I was a kid, I played a game called Dungeons and Dragons, in which players create characters and pretend to be wizards, thieves, clerics, and fighters. I always played a fighter, preferring to bash down doors and confront the enemy. The direct approach was best, I thought. But what does this have to do with barbell training?

Each character had attribute scores that ran from 3 to 18 (the values from three rolls of a 6-sided die). Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma each had scores, the higher the better. Take Strength: as a fighter, I needed to be able to hit things hard with axes, swords, and clubs. The higher strength gave you bonuses, making the orcs easier to hit, and making the weapon do substantially more damage. I always wanted a higher strength, and would love it when we found potions or tomes to increase it. Such mighty artifacts were rare. You were generally stuck with the strength you rolled when the character was created.

Nerd confession: I remember Gary Gygax writing somewhere that an 18 Strength meant a military press of 180lbs. When I got to 180lbs on the press, I celebrated having an 18 in D&D strength.

But what if you could improve your strength? What if you could add substantially to your strength and gain all the bonuses to your dice rolls? What if there was an artifact somewhere in the dungeon that could do this, not just once, but for a long period of time? There is: The +9 Barbell of Strength!

I have a number of trainees who have doubled their strength, usually within two months of starting. They may have started with strength 3 or 4 (former marathon runners--elves, probably), but now they are up to D&D Strength 7 or 8, which is a big improvement. Should they encounter orcs, they will be much better prepared. Thus are the effects of the magical Barbell of Strength.

Except that it's not magic. It's also not rare. Barbells are common, not that expensive, and can easily more than double your strength. It only seems like magic.

Get in touch with my guild-hall--er, with Schudt Strength Training, or go to to find a coach near you, and you too can level up!

Don't you wish you'd leveled up?

Don't you wish you'd leveled up?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

You want to be a novice


Starting Strength is a systematic approach to barbell training. The methods in it are not particularly original, since lifters have used the basic barbell lifts for years, although the explanations of the lifts are unparallelled in their accuracy and reliance on physics. The teaching progressions for the lifts are works of genius. Mark Rippetoe has become a public figure of sorts, and thus is caricatured, but if you’ve ever watched him coach, he’s brilliant. Get The Book to read more. In my opinion, however, one of the greatest contributions Rip has made is to distinguish between Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced trainees.

Take a look at the cover of Practical Programming:

Practical Programming

The graph shows the increasing strength, the rate of adaptation, and the program complexity. As a novice, your rate of adaptation is very high, and you can get stronger very quickly. As a result, you can put more weight on the bar every time you go to the gym. Let me put it more strongly: Every time you go the gym, you must put more weight on the bar.

Novices make many mistakes, the most common being that they don’t add any weight. If you don’t ask your body to adapt, it won’t. The next most common mistake is quitting their linear progression too soon. Eventually the weights get heavy, and it gets hard to squat 3x5 three times a week. It takes determination, and builds character. But building character sucks, and people tend to like easy things. They read about a fancy intermediate program that some famous lifter uses, and they get tempted. “I’m an intermediate now, and I should do program X, which is scientific and awesome, (and which allows me not to squat 3x5 three times a week).”

Resist this temptation! Novices get stronger every session. Intermediates get stronger every week. Advanced lifters get stronger every year. You want to be a novice. Being an intermediate/advanced lifter sucks. On the plus side, you’ll be really strong, but on the minus side, PRs will be few and far between. Cling to your novice gains as long as you can. Eat well, sleep, and follow the novice progression through the advanced novice stage until it stalls hard. Then, and only then, you may choose an intermediate program.

Perhaps Rip should have chosen different terms. Instead of Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced, he could have chosen Happy, Grumpy, and Desperate. Stay a happy lifter!

One more point: Novice does not refer to your strength. You can be a very strong novice. I know of lifters that have finished their squat linear progressions close to 500lbs. I have coached a lifter who is still doing a novice progression on squats, and he’s at 480x5x3. You may not get this strong as a novice, but you might. Wouldn’t it be great?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Neuromucular Efficiency and Programming: or, why I am not tougher than Nick D'Agostino.

At the recent Starting Strength Coaches' Association conference, I ran into Nick D'Agostino. It turns out that we are running the same sort of programming, DUP or Daily Undulating Periodization. It's an intermediate program where the rep ranges are varied each time you train. It's a bit like block periodization if the blocks were shuffled together. You probably don't need it. Anyway, back to the story.

I regularly run my training in the range of RPE 9, which means that I could probably get one more rep, but not two. RPE=Rate of Perceived Exertion. This can be a useful way of monitoring training intensity for experienced and mature lifters. Nick said that whenever he tried to do sets at RPE 9, it beat him up for the next week or so. I can do RPE 9 every day of the week. What's the reason for this difference? Maybe I'm just tougher than he is. If you knew Nick, you would know that this is not true. He's a very strong man who is also an accomplished athlete.

What does it mean to be an athlete? You will hear talk on the radio or television about players who display a lot of athleticism, and announcers aren't really clear on what that means. Let me propose this: Athletes jump high. But how do you jump high? Let's dig a little deeper.

Motor units (motor neurons plus the connected muscle fibers) are activated according to the size principle. Smaller Type I fibers are activated first, and then the super-strong Type II fibers are activated. Good jumpers are able to overcome this limitation, to tell more of their muscle fibers to contract right now. They aren't necessarily stronger, but they are able to display their strength faster.

There is also the matter of neuromuscular efficiency. We all know that men are stronger than women, even when adjusted for mass differences. The man is better able to use the muscle he has. Watch a powerlifting meet and you will see this demonstrated in the attempt choices, which may be quite broad for the men, but will be clustered for the women. A female lifter may blow through a 120lb bench press, but be pinned by 125. A man may struggle on a 550lb deadlift and still hit 580 on the third attempt. This is why we recommend 5 sets of 3 to women lifters, because sets of 3 will be closer to their muscle's absolute strength, and they will get a better training effect. You will also find, if you have trained women for a while, that they can tolerate volume better. My wife does lots of sets across on press at a percentage of 1RM that would bury me.

So, better athletes are better able to recruit muscle fibers fast, and are better able to use the maximum potential of those muscles. How does this relate to Nick and me? I am not a good athlete. I tested my vertical jump this weekend and came up with 20", which is average, not impressive at all. Nick has more than a 30" leap. He's a very rare individual. I suspect he is also able to work closer to his absolute limit strength. In other words, he's closer to the upper limit of masculine neuromuscular efficiency, and I'm closer to the bottom limit.

There are programming consequences. Let's take 100% as the total limit of strength, which may never actually be displayed in action. Nick is able, when he wants, to work really close to that 100%, perhaps at 95%, where I can't get above 90%, and my wife can't get above 80%. This means that when he's working at RPE 9, he's really pushing his muscles. When I work at RPE 9, it's not nearly as stressful, and I can do it pretty much every session. Nick has to reserve RPE 9+ for meets.

You may need to take this into account for your own programming, if you are a natural athlete. You'll know, if you are one of these wondrous people. If you are just average, continue as usual. But, if you are exceptional, in your intermediate and advanced programming you may need to keep some reps in the tank as a matter of self-preservation.