This past summer I presented a talk to the young men of the 21 Convention in which I described how strength training can help expand and retain health through our very finite human lifespan. I felt at the time the talk went well and in viewing it now I still feel this way. Are there things I’d like to do better or correct? Of course but on the whole I think what I was trying to convey was related accurately and effectively. Take a look:
I’m a big fan of the late John Christy’s work. Basic progression, big exercises, avoid injury, think long term…these were his basic tenets. He wrote a LOT of stuff over the years and you can still buy his book “Real Strength, Real Muscle” for the in-depth version of what I’m about to post. Is the list perfect? No, but it is directionally accurate. If you ever find yourself losing focus and getting too caught up in “conjugated mumbo jumbo” from genetically elite trainees who grow walking through a gym, read this, reorganize, and get back to what matters.
John’s Christy’s Magic List
Weight train 2 to 3 times per week
1. A no-brainer for real trainees that don’t take steroids.
2. Allows for complete recovery, which means you get bigger and stronger from every workout.
3. Joints can recover – no injuries – consistent training – great results.
Train hard but make sure the ‘hard training’ is put towards progression; lifting more weight
1. Training hard pushes the body to adapt to a new level of development or performance.
2. If that ‘new level’ is more muscle or more strength then it must be pushed with more weight.
Eat enough to gain muscle
1. It takes a lot of effort to eat enough to gain, which is one main reason, most trainees’ fail – they won’t work at it.
2. Eat 1000 more calories per day than you eat now and you will gain muscle (as long as the training is stimulating).
3. IT TAKES A LOT OF EFFORT.
Do aerobic work to get in shape, which is good for your health but also promotes recovery from workouts
1. Promotes recovery from weight workouts.
2. Better recovery = bigger and stronger muscles.
3. This can make the difference between gaining 25 pounds on your bench this year or a measly 10 (or a big fat zero – which is what most gain).
Stretch to keep / get your joints healthy so that you don’t miss workouts or have to eliminate productive exercises
1. Healthy joints = consistent workouts = bigger, stronger muscles.
2. Healthy joints = ability to perform more productive exercises = bigger, stronger muscles.
Get yourself fired-up to train with goals, pictures, entering contests, etc
1. Promotes putting out maximum effort allowing you to lift heavier weights, which produces bigger, stronger muscles.
I know it’s hard to believe that such simple ‘non-sexy’ methods can produce stunning results. But they do. I’ve seen it, and helped make it happen in many cases. And as a matter of fact I’ve never seen a ‘sexy’ (flashy, secret, underground, new-wave, instant, etc) method produce anything except a fat wallet for the seller of such garbage.
Do all the basics outlined above – not just one or two of them – and people will line-up to buy your magic pill.
I’m a minimalist when it comes to exercise. A really small, really intense dose is all that is needed for the vast majority of people to manifest all of the health benefits that exercise can provide. This does not mean that you can then get away with bed rest in the face of this concentrated dose of exercise, I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that if a person is living a fairly “normal” life with a decent amount of non-exercise activity built into their day, not a lot of “exercise” is needed above that to maximize health markers.
My friends Melissa and Dallas Hartwig are found of saying, “Food should make you healthier.” I don’t think I’m the first to say this but it seems so obvious: Exercise should make you healthier! Even though water is vital for life, too much of it will causes hyponatremia, which is a way of illustrating that too much of anything is a bad idea. As far as exercise goes, the diagnostic component of how much exercise any one person needs, and how they will respond, has been a Soviet pipe dream.
But it is coming.
This lecture outlines the failings of public health exercise recommendations in light of the scientific evidence and shows that there is currently have a highly accurate genetic test to determine if you will experience VO2max improvements from training. I find it all fascinating and hope you do too.
On Sunday December 2nd, I received a call from Doug McGuff was very sad news: our mutual friend Greg Anderson had suddenly died. It was all I could do not to cry as I staggered to sit on the curb in Downtown Austin. I was speechless, which is not something that often happens to me.
Greg is partially responsible for my being a trainer and taking pride in attempting to become a better coach over the years. After becoming certified and training for a little over a year with Coach, I met Greg for the first time. I was 18 years old. Coach had talked about Greg in glowing tones and upon meeting him and watching his interaction with Coach it was clear why: Greg was an easy-going guy who was sharp as a knife and critical in the kindest way when teaching and coaching. It was clear he thought a lot about how to say what he said when training and how to command authority from a client without explicitly demanding such. I was amazed then as I am now at that ability.
During this visit Greg let me put him through a workout, in which I tried my damndest to make sure I just didn’t fuck the whole thing up. After he returned to Seattle, where he and his wonderful wife Ann-Marie train at their studio Ideal Exercise he sent me this letter:
This is framed in my office. When I’m feeling that I’m not able to reach my ability or that I’m somehow at a loss for how to explain to a client what we’re trying to do in a way that excites them and creates compliance, which you have to do as a coach, I read this and think that someone with years more experience than I sees something in me. This encourages me to not only reinforce belief in my own abilities but to know that I’ll figure a way through my problem eventually.
The Lifelong Student
Something I always admired about Greg was that his training facility was never run like a business per se: discussions with him was never about business models, expansion plans, internal systems, or profit maximization. I attempted to express this in our last discussion before he died:
- Me: I admire and strive to have what you have someday…to do what you do.
- Greg: You mean whatever the hell I want?
However, what that meant was to be singularly focused on one thing: the highest quality of coaching of high intensity training possible from anyone anywhere in an environment tailored exclusively to meeting that end goal. In that sense he was like the great martial arts instructors: their focus on teaching allows them to better learn over their lifetime this singular art. And believe me, coaching is an art.
Greg had a 6 month waiting list, on average. As a result, if he was profit-focused, he could have done all the right “business” things: build those systems, expanded, trained others to do what he did so he could focus on further business building. Instead, he kept the waiting list, trained 4 days a week while taking a 2 hour lunch, and celebrated his clients with plaques on the wall for those who had been with him 5, 10, and 15 years. Greg and Ann-Marie even took their clients who a baseball game every year as a way of saying thanks for their patronage and hard work. They made Ideal Exercise a “third place” for their clients, which in this business is an unheard of idea. They made it work stunningly.
The training community is worse for having lost Greg, as is humanity. Rest in peace, my friend.
The inspiration for this post came from a comment I left on Free The Animal:
Maintain your modest goals and a modest rate of gain; your peers are in decay and if you advance even a little bit you’re doing even better by comparison. I stress this to my clients on a daily basis.
From a personal point of view, I can give you an example: 8 years ago I was ~188lbs and chinning BW+25 for 5 reps. Now I’m ~175lbs and chinning BW + 52.5 for 5 reps. So 20lbs in 8 years. I’ve been stronger for short periods of time and heavier, but that’s a small 2.5lbs/year improvement. Learn from my experience and just try to double my strength gains on that exercise for the next 4 years.
If there is a nugget of wisdom in that statement, I’d say its that your rate of gain is directly proportional to your injury potential. Throw your genetic potential into the mix and…well let me show you.
Rate of Gain
Ultimately, training is about muscle tissue. At the very least the maintenance of, but often the increase of the total weight of dry muscle tissue you carry around. Improving your work capacity will often maintain your muscle mass while improving other metabolic factors (capillary density, total mitochondria, blood shunting, acid buffering) but the increase in work signals a need for maintaining muscle mass. While what I’m talking about in this post is related to strength and vis a vis muscle mass understand it applies to those who desire the deep end of work capacity.
Our rate of gain is really very slow; even when it is fast it is slow. I’ve discussed this when it comes to muscle but it applies for strength as well. When you are past the novice stage, the rate of gain is staggeringly low. Powerlifters and olympic lifters struggle to gain pounds (single) to their total. Also note that, like muscle mass, there is a limit to natural strength a human can achieve at a given weight. Casey Butt has discussed this in his article “Predicting Maximum Strength in the Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift:”
Interestingly, other absolute records on the Powerlifts have not increased significantly since the introduction of steroids in the late 1950s. For instance, Reg Park’s Bench Press and Squat would be within 20 lbs of the current raw, drug-free Powerlifting records (set by specialists at that), as would Doug Hepburn’s major lifts.
So if all of the conditions are right, one can push strength fairly aggressively in the short term with an ever increasing risk of burnout and injury. Our joints are fragile, as are the connective and shock absorbing tissue that surrounds them. Compared to muscle they’re positively implastic: their rate of change is slow and their strength relatively fixed. It could even be argued that a person’s ability to gain strength is at the mercy of their connective tissue’s ability to resist trauma and rebuild.
So we have a strength potential and, by extension, a mass potential. This potential is reached asymptotically, with a more aggressive slope corresponding with an increased potential for injury. It looks like this:
So the horizontal black line represents the absolute limit of your potential and each of the curves represents are rate of gain for a given trainee. The more aggressive the angle of the slope, the more potential for injury. Knowing that you have a limit that you’ll infinitely near (but never reach) the question must be asked: are you in such a hurry that you’ll risk a potential lifelong injury just to reach a potential that you would have reached with a more modest approach?
To put it another way: you’re going to train until you die…why not pick the route that gives you the greatest gains compared to injury risk. Don’t be a knucklehead.
There is no other way to describe it. People want to jump through all sorts of mental hoops, finding increasingly complex minutia to pin the obesity epidemic on but the fact is that people don’t know what they are eating and obese people really don’t know what they’re eating. I’m being kind with that statement. The reality is this:
People lie about how much they eat, to themselves and to any coach who may be trying to help them.
- Dr. Dietz found that, through the use of doubly labeled water, people were inaccurately reporting their food intake, with obese subjects under-reporting by 35-50%. 35-50%!
- In another study involving Dr. Dietz, obese and nonobese adolescents all underreport their intake, with the obese subjects under-reporting by a far larger margin on average.
- In perhaps my favorite study of all, a post-obese man (I love that phrase) reports inability to lose weight consuming 1914 calories per day. When stuck in a lab and fed 1900 calories per day, he loses weight!
So I could just call it a day at this point: people are liars trying to save face with their own gluttonous behavior. They really don’t want to be lean bad enough to actually do what is required to be lean. Welcome to fatness forever.
Upon further review…
It’s not that simple. It’s really just a sign that people aren’t willing to count calories their entire life. Partly because they’re not good at it, partly because the OCD required would make most people faint (save for pro bodybuilders). Who can blame them? Counting is a giant pain in the ass.
Rather than attempt to control every ounce of food, every input, perhaps we should start moving toward improving our habits, our decisions. This is partly why an ancestral/paleo/primal/real food paradigm works: you’ve shaped the path for better decision making. While plenty of people take the schtick too far, I think it’s a good framework to at least jump off into the seas of healthier eating habits (note: not healthier eating). Ditto for food reward, density-focused paradigms (volumetrics, for example), and nourishing traditions. You no longer choose to choose; it either fits the model or it doesn’t. The path is set.
A great example of shaping the path (as they call environmental changes that nudge toward better results in Switch ) is the Halloween party we had last night. Sarah and I are at least 90% primal with our eating habits and not because of willpower. Simply we don’t buy shit that tempt us to overeat it. For our party, however, we have a primal-leaning assortment of goodies (cinnamon pecan brittle) combined with some not-so-friendly goodies (Real Ale Coffee Porter). Because these items were there, they were consumed. Every time I walked by the dish with chocolate covered almonds, a few went down my neck. Coffee porter? Why the hell not! Triple cream brie? Oh hell yeah!
I feel less than stellar this morning. Not bad, just not 100%. The good news is that most of the food isn’t hanging around, so I won’t be tempted to eat it. I’ll have my usual (12pm) breakfast of bacon and eggs with some MCT-enriched coffee. Back on the horse, have experienced consequences without guilt.
In conclusion: keep a clean kitchen and you won’t have to count calories. The elephant only takes the path you give it.
I’ve known Doug McGuff for a number of years now and had the privilege of being able to pick his brain nearly at will (save for when he’s not saving someone’s ass in the emergency room). Gracious, humble, and more informed than any 3 people you might know combined. As I told him after my 4th glass of wine during our Libertarian/Anarchist Meathead Party: “Every time I talk to you, I am amazed at the depth of your knowledge.”
If you’ve never heard him talk, I highly recommend you settle in and watch his talk about how to maintain your liberty by keeping you ass out of the hospital. Settle in, allow yourself to be appalled, and accept the challenge to save your own ass: