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Archive for the 'Training' Category

Less Can Be More

In a recent post, I shared the story of a 45 year old man who has made tremendous progress in less than two years of calisthenic training. He has already achieved several advanced movements and is not far from performing many others. Clearly, this man’s approach to exercise has worked well for him. He is obviously working hard and has been consistent with his efforts. The results are impossible to deny.

Ironically, since sharing his story, I noticed several comments that suggested the man would make faster progress if he was weight training as well. And while I don’t wish to call out anyone specifically, I believe the general assumption that more work leads to more results is worthy of a discussion.

One of the problems with the online era is that we have access to more information than we will ever need. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of exercise variations that can be found with a quick search of the web. Therefore, it is not difficult or unusual to find movements that could potentially be useful.

Acquiring such knowledge is not problematic by itself. Potential problems can arise however as many athletes are already training to maximum capacity. Athletes who are training to be the best do not budget in extra reserves just in case they find a new routine that could be useful. The athlete is already pushing himself to the max. To stack pieces on top of a puzzle that is already full does not add value. Successful additions often require subtractions. If it is not feasible to subtract from your current workload, additions must be made in very small doses. Anything more will likely hinder, not enhance, the existing routine.

For instance, the man seen in the previous entry has obviously worked hard to achieve such fast and significant results. If he was to add a weight training program on top of his existing routine, something would need to give. Once again, it is not as if this man has budgeted in extra time to not only perform an additional routine, but also to recover from it.

And I say this not to suggest that weight training isn’t useful or to suggest that all hard working athletes follow a perfect program. Often times, there are additions or modifications that can be made to benefit the athlete. Such additions must be made carefully however. Just because an exercise or routine is potentially beneficial does not mean it will make sense for an already busy athlete.

Athletes and trainers must recognize that there will always be useful exercises that do not make sense to perform at a given time. To drive home this point, I often relate exercise selection to clothes. Just because you own several nice shirts does not mean it makes sense to wear them all at once. And certain clothes may not match each other. Your favorite pair of pants may not match your favorite shirt. As much as you like both items, it doesn’t make sense to wear them together.

In many ways, the same logic can be applied to exercise. Over the years, I have worked with almost every imaginable training tool and style. I have worked with bodyweight exercise, free weights, odd objects, and more. There are quality movements that I have performed with each. I don’t work with everything at the same time though. I use the surplus of information to provide options in the future if and when necessary. If I attempted to include every useful exercise I’ve ever performed within a single routine, I would run myself into the ground.

In summary, there will always be useful exercises that don’t make sense for you to perform. If you wish to add something that is new, different, or intense, be sure to make the transition gradual. Do not force the body to take on more work than it can handle. If the addition truly is as valuable as you believe it to be, there is a good chance you will need to remove something to make room for it.

Less can be more.

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The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity. – Douglas Horton

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Bodyweight Tricep Extension Variations

Earlier this week, I posted a few photos to Instagram which highlighted two variations of a bodyweight tricep extension. You can see below how I perform the exercise with manila ropes and sledgehammers. The ropes add a grip challenge to the movement while the sledgehammers provide instability. These two variations are much more difficult than the more commonly seen bar and bench versions. Even a suspension trainer proves less challenging than the ropes and sledgehammers for this particular exercise.

One reason that I wanted to share these images was to continue a theme that I highlighted in a recent entry (see here). As mentioned previously, the best forms of variety are often subtle. For instance, performing this exercise from sledgehammers as opposed to a bench may look similar but the challenge is entirely different. When first attempting this exercise from hammers, it is not uncommon for the body to shake uncontrollably as it struggles to maintain stability. And while the triceps are certainly targeted, there is much more to the movement. For example, many are surprised at the secondary core challenge. I have seen several strong athletes humbled by what appears to be a relatively basic bodyweight movement.

Using myself as an example, I have performed bodyweight tricep extensions for many years now. I first demonstrated the exercise online over 10 years ago. It was a favorite of mine then and it remains a favorite now. There are variations to this movement that I will never outgrow. Such variations continue to prove both challenging and beneficial.

Yet despite what I consider a tremendous exercise, it has never captured much attention. The rope variation has actually been included within a few of my recent compilations. You can see a brief example at the 3:23 mark here. Since creating that video, I’ve received comments about almost every exercise included except the tricep extensions.

It is one of those movements that isn’t exciting to see and whose difficulty is impossible to comprehend without trying. The reality however is that this exercise remains one of the more challenging movements within my arsenal. I have had days where I felt like a beast after doing dips with 225 pounds attached, only to be destroyed by two sledgehammers in the corner a few minutes later.

The take home lesson therefore is simple. Exercise quality has nothing to do with flash and visual appeal. As discussed recently, many of the best movements appear quite basic. Contrary to what social media may suggest, training effectiveness is not based on how many onlookers you attract. I will take substance over flash any day.

If you are looking for a strength movement that is easy to learn yet difficult to perform, this exercise is certainly worthy of consideration. It is always nice to have effective exercises that can be performed almost anywhere with minimal equipment. As a trainer, it is also nice to have exercises that are devoid of steep learning curves. There are no elaborate skills that must be mastered before attempting this movement.

And for the beginners in the crowd, the exercise can be made much more feasible by altering the starting point. Simply start from a higher position on the rope (or a suspension trainer). It may take some experimenting initially, but you should be able to find an angle where you can perform quality repetitions. As your strength increases, you can gradually lower your starting position. In time, you can progress by adding a weighted vest and/or working with a more difficult variation such as the sledgehammers.

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Many an opportunity is lost because a man is out looking for four-leaf clovers.

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Realistic Expectations

Following my last post, I received a variety of comments and questions. Much of the feedback touched on beginner gains and realistic expectations. For instance, several readers attempted to counter my entry by stating that they had in fact made rapid gains as a beginner.

I will start by saying it is great to read about early improvements, but I’ll add that I am not suggesting otherwise. On the contrary, a beginner is able to make faster gains than he will at any other point in his life. When you enter the weight room for the first time, you could almost look at a barbell and gain strength. Anyone who transitions from a life of inactivity to one of deliberate and repeated physical exertion is naturally going to improve.

I preach a message of patience and consistency not to suggest that you won’t make early gains, but instead for encouragement once your rate of improvement declines. No one continues to improve at the same rate indefinitely. If we did, we would all continue to set new world records. The reality is that it is much easier to gain strength when you are weak. Once you have developed a moderate level of strength, it becomes much more difficult to continually improve. An already strong athlete who is training to become stronger must be patient.

Anyone who has trained for any amount of time has hit a sticking point that was difficult to surpass. In the words of the late, great Mel Siff,

The inevitable reaching of a ‘sticking point’ in training is one of the single most frustrating experiences in the life of any athlete. It may lead to loss of form, loss of interest, decrease in motivation, the unnecessary or premature reliance on anabolic substances, an endless search for plausible ergogenic aids, injury or even the end of one’s sporting career.

Rather than pretending that such barriers do not exist, I would rather be brutally honest from the onset. There is no viable reason to deceive a knowledge seeking adult who wishes to better himself physically. Since when did deception become a motivational tool?

Perhaps I am in the minority, but I do not consider it discouraging to uncover the truth. Isn’t that what we are after? Beginners should never be fooled to believe that dramatic results are a few weeks away. Yes, they will make early gains, but let’s be realistic when discussing the extent of those gains.

Isn’t it more discouraging to start with unrealistic expectations and then find out otherwise as the weeks and months pass? If the fitness industry ever wishes to legitimize itself, the first step is to eliminate the deceptive marketing campaigns. You will be hard pressed to find any other industry with such a misleading marketing style. A used car salesmen won’t tell you that his vehicles can fly, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a nutritional supplement that promises human levitation.

In summary, I encourage you to defy the odds. Don’t train to be average. Strive to reach levels that go beyond what is realistic, but don’t be discouraged if it takes longer than expected. Significant results take time. There are no shortcuts. Training shouldn’t be viewed as a sprint. It is a continuous journey with many potholes along the way. There is no reason to panic and assume something is wrong just because you’ve hit an obstacle or temporarily stalled. The best of the best have bad days and hit sticking points that can be physically and mentally taxing. It’s all part of the process. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

Rather than pretending that there isn’t a challenge ahead, let’s prepare for it each and every day. When the time comes that you hit an obstacle, you will be better prepared if you knew it was coming. And when that sticking point rears its ugly head, realize that it will not stand up to the test of time. That is when patience and consistency truly come into play. If you stay on track and continue to grind, the obstacle will eventually fall. You just can’t lose focus and start hopping from one program to the next. Be patient. Be diligent. Learn to embrace the grind. Welcome it. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

That is how real results are earned.

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The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. – William Arthur Ward

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Enough is Enough

It was around this time last year when I stressed the importance of time and patience through the following video. As discussed within, legitimate strength is not developed in weeks or months. A few weeks are literally a blink of the eye when considering what is necessary to develop truly impressive strength.

Yet, since posting the video, I’ve likely received more questions about it than any other video I have ever filmed. Almost every question comes from a reader who believes that legitimate gains can be achieved in less time. Such opinions highlight the effectiveness of the deceptive marketers in the industry. Their false promises are obviously working.

Unfortunately, the marketers spreading such deception are not always easy to identify. Previously, fitness hucksters were seen as those who talked the talk without getting their hands dirty. One example would be the author who never trained anyone yet wrote about training athletes. More recently, deception is not nearly as obvious. It may come from individuals who are actually very well trained. They may even possess above average strength, which naturally makes their message much more appealing.

For instance, I woke up yesterday to an email from a reader who wanted my opinion on a transformation picture that he recently saw. The picture showed the progress of a new lifter within his first 12 months. I won’t share the image here, but let’s just say that a skinny man transformed himself into a Ronnie Coleman look-alike. The man who wrote to me wanted to know what he could do to achieve a similar physique in that time. He asked about diet, exercise choice, sets, and reps.

Now, assuming the transformation pictures were legitimate (which isn’t always the case), I will start by saying that I am happy for that person. I am not here to hate on anyone. With that said, I am also not naive. I wasn’t born last night. It is not difficult to identify performance enhancing drug use in certain individuals. And I say this not to bash anyone’s decision to use performance enhancing drugs. Speaking as a natural athlete, I do not care what anyone does to their body. Assuming that you don’t compete in a sport where drug use is banned, I don’t care what you do. You are welcome to drink, smoke, and use any performance enhancing drug that you want. What another person does with his body has no bearing on my life. It is not my decision to make, nor is it my decision to get upset about. I honestly don’t care.

My only problem with drug use is the deception that often comes with it. If you choose to use drugs, I will respect you more if you admit to it. Let everyone know exactly what you take so others are not deceived by your example. If you are snapping pictures of yourself to promote a transformation, at least do so with full disclosure. Don’t just talk about sets and reps, but also share the specifics of your supplemental plan (whether legal or not). Don’t mislead others by pretending that such gains can be attained solely through hard work and consistency.

And please note, before the steroid crowd gets upset, I am not minimizing your hard work. I am not here to debate work ethic. The best athletes in the world who use PEDs work as hard as anyone. That’s not the issue. The issue is based solely on realistic expectations. Don’t mislead others to believe that they can attain what you’ve attained without using what you’ve used.

In addition, before anyone comments on legality, I realize that a drug user may not want to incriminate himself by openly discussing what he takes. That’s fine. If you don’t wish to incriminate yourself, stay out of the public spotlight so no one cares what you are using. Once again, my problem is not with drug use, but rather the deception that comes with it. If you promote a program or product, yet lie about the drug use that went along with it, you are deceiving the public. You are no different than any other snake oil salesman who relies on deception.

In summary, I am not here to debate whether steroids should be legal. I’m also not suggesting that a natural athlete cannot make gains. I am proud to be a natural athlete who has developed a fair amount of strength. It has been a process of years however. It didn’t come easy and it wasn’t something that happened overnight. I’d rather be brutally honest about what it takes, rather than misleading you to believe that significant strength lies right around the corner. It is a long and difficult road to travel. Anyone who suggests otherwise either hasn’t developed any real strength or took a shortcut to do so.

I’m sure this rant won’t change any of the deceptive marketers, but perhaps it can at least open a few eyes to their methods. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is…

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A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies. – Alfred Tennyson

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Understanding Temperament (Mike Tyson and Cus D’Amato)

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In my last entry, I mentioned that I’ve learned many valuable lessons in the gym that wouldn’t make sense on paper. I say this as both an athlete and perhaps more importantly as a trainer. There are times when it makes sense to go against the grain and do things that others may not understand. Success as a trainer depends on much more than your understanding of anatomy and kinesiology. The ideal solution to individual needs cannot always be calculated scientifically or determined mathematically. Often times, the temperament of the athlete will dictate the ideal approach.

As a boxing trainer, I look up to the legendary Cus D’Amato as perhaps the greatest example of this concept. Cus is most known for his work with Mike Tyson, but he was also instrumental in the development of other Hall of Fame fighters such as Jose Torres and Floyd Patterson. Cus was truly a student of the game and understood the inner workings of a fighter’s mind. He was the polar opposite of the clipboard trainers who have become so common today. Cus had brilliant insights into the sport and a deep understanding about the psychology of fear and discipline.

When Cus developed an athlete, he wasn’t focused solely on physical attributes. He did as much for the mind as he did for the body. There is no better example of physical and mental development than that of a young Mike Tyson. Tyson came to Cus D’Amato as a youngster who lacked discipline and was mentally unstable. He was far from the dominant force that he became as a young heavyweight.

Mike Tyson did not become the youngest heavyweight champion by accident. Everything that Cus did with Tyson was done for a reason. There was a method to his madness. Ironically, many of today’s keyboard gurus who have never trained anyone often criticize the workouts and regimen that Tyson performed. For instance, the internet is filled with discussions about Tyson’s routine as a youngster. Many question why he trained 7 days a week, or why he performed hundreds of repetitions of calisthenics. Others ask why he ran at such an early hour in the morning. Countless pencil pushers have stated that such frequent and intense work could lead to overtraining and was everything but optimal.

Cus D’Amato knew better however. He knew what he had in Tyson. Yes, he was naturally strong, but Tyson was also mentally fragile. You can see an example of this in the video below. You’ll see how he was plagued by fear and insecurities.

Cus knew of Tyson’s deficiencies and tailored the training accordingly. He had to turn Tyson into a conditioning machine for reasons that go far beyond the physical. For example, Cus stated the following in regards to a fighter’s development:

I get them in excellent condition… Knowing how the mind is and the tricks it plays on a person and how an individual will always look to avoid a confrontation with something that is intimidating, I remove all possible excuses they’re going to have before they get in there. By getting them in excellent condition, they can’t say when they get tired that they’re not in shape.

Cus also knew of the trouble that Tyson had been in as a youngster. Mike Tyson was far from a saint when he was taken in by Cus D’Amato. Tyson had been in and out of trouble his entire life. As a result, it is no surprise that Cus kept Tyson busy throughout the day. The last thing that you want a troubled teen to do is wander off on his own. Instead, you keep him busy even if it means having him do more work than it makes sense to do. Cus wasn’t just building Tyson’s body. He was developing mental toughness in someone who didn’t have it. He was developing discipline in a fighter who was young and reckless.

It was the discipline and knowledge that Cus gave Tyson that led to his success as a young pro. Sure, there will always be debates about the specifics of Tyson’s training and perhaps even exaggerated tales, but there is no denying that he worked extremely hard for several hours each day. And Tyson’s Spartan-like regimen continued as a young pro as is evident in the video below.

As for the success of Cus D’Amato’s methods, it is undeniable how Tyson’s career slowly fell apart when Cus died and after the firing of Kevin Rooney (who had been tutored by Cus). Once Tyson lost the discipline that Cus worked so carefully to construct, the physical force that Tyson was slowly came crashing down.

In summary, the development of an athlete often entails much more than the regimen you see on paper. To be a successful trainer, you must communicate with your athletes. You need to know what makes them tick. You need to know what distracts them and what has hampered them before. Don’t just focus on physical development, but also understand the significance of the athlete’s temperament. Analyze each athlete as the unique individual that he or she is. What works for one may not work for another.

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Boxing is a sport of self-control. You must understand fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you. Fear is a friend of exceptional people. – Cus D’Amato

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