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.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Deadlifting and Shoulder Stability

I was preparing for a Starting Strength Press Camp last month, and in the process of reviewing anatomy, was reminded of how unstable the shoulder joint is. In order to provide us bipedal humans with useful upper extremities, the glenohumeral joint allows lots of movement. In order to allow lots of movement, it is a ball-and-socket joint, but the socket is so shallow it might as well be called a ball-and-saucer joint.

Looking straight into the shoulder joint

Looking straight into the shoulder joint

Imagine a wooden dowel articulating with a teacup saucer. Not very sturdy, is it? It's very mobile, but also very easy to dislocate. How is this prevented? First, through a sheath of connective tissue connecting the humerus to the scapula:

Ligaments and tendons of the shoulder

Ligaments and tendons of the shoulder

Then, through the muscles of the "rotator cuff", which do not really do much to rotate the shoulder, since their moment arm on the humerus is too short, but mostly serve to provide joint stability. You can see them quite well in this illustration:

Muscles of the rotator cuff

Muscles of the rotator cuff

See the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor? You can't see the subscapularis, since it's under the scapula. Note how they attach right on the head of the humerus. They can't really move the humerus much, but they can keep the humerus firmly seated in the socket of the glenoid fossa (the socket of the ball-and-socket joint).

My epiphany happened as I gazed at figure 4-20 in Starting Strength:Basic Barbell Training. It's on page 116. Go ahead and get out your copy. (You don't have a copy?) When you deadlift, the barbell tends to want to pull your humerus down in the direction of gravity, out of the glenoid fossa. What prevents this? The muscles of the rotator cuff, as well as the ligaments and tendons of the joint, which contract isometrically to stabilize the joint that the barbell is trying to pull apart.

The second part of my epiphany is considering the nature of the force in a joint under tension. In such a situation, 100% of the force is transmitted through the connective tissue. The bones are just links in a chain, and every link in a chain bears the complete force of the load. Consider a series of blocks connected by cables. If you stack the blocks one on top the other, the blocks carry the load, and the cables are unused. If, however, you hang the blocks from a hook, the blocks and the cables both carry the entire load. This means that when you deadlift 500lbs, the entire load is transmitted through the ligaments and tendons, and thereby to the muscles of the rotator cuff, as well as the biceps and triceps, which also traverse the shoulder joint. Your bones are not hooked together. They are chained together, and under tension the chain gets all of the load.

The third part of the epiphany is an article by Hartmann: "Analysis of the Load on the Knee Joint and Vertebral Column with Changes in Squatting Depth and Weight Load." What does an article on squats have to do with the shoulder? He points out various studies which have shown that the patellar tendon in olympic weightlifters is larger and stronger. The ACL of professional weightlifters also are bigger and stronger. The connective tissues adapt, just like muscles. What is true of the knee joint should be true also of the shoulder joint.

In other words, if you want a strong and stable shoulder joint, you need to lift heavy stuff. Of course, you need to press overhead, but I argue that you also need to deadlift. The deadlift provides tensile stress pulling the joint apart, thus provoking adaptations that keep the joint together. If you deadlift, your rotator cuff muscles will get stronger doing their proper job of isometrically contracting to protect the shoulder, and the ligaments and tendons of the joint will adapt to the load by getting stronger.

If I'm right, you need to deadlift. How can you learn to do it? You can buy The Book (SS:BBT), but you can also look at this video on the basic setup for the deadlift. Follow the steps exactly, and you'll be on your way.