My Presentation at the 21 Convention

Recently Anthony posted my speech from this summer’s 21 Convention in Orlando, Florida. After my quasi-manifesto post, “The Six Year Itch,” Anthony contacted me to do a live version, expanding what I had been through and adding some wisdom about potential, training, and the hype that so many marketers like to put on strength training in general.

Some of the things I discuss include:

  • My strength training history
  • Aligning your efforts for a lifetime of productive training
  • Understanding that this is a genetic ceiling for everyone and who to look to in order to determine that
  • And much more!

I hope you gain something from this discussion; the gentleman at the 21 Convention really seemed to enjoy it as evidenced from the Q&A afterwards.

20 thoughts on “My Presentation at the 21 Convention

  1. Hey Skyler,

    Awesome job. Puts things greatly into perspective for me, another tallish naturally lean guy. It is all too easy to get into the “I am not getting huge so I must not be doing it right”.

    A couple of quick questions, if you don’t mind:
    -How is it that I am consistently getting stronger without getting much bigger? What, physiologically, is happening to allow that? I always assumed that stronger = bigger, but I don’t see how that is the case anymore.
    -To gain that ~1#/year do you have a feeling how much one needs to eat to achieve it? Is it required to go surplus to get it?
    -What is your take on cycling intake ala leangains to get that measly 1# without gaining fat.

    Great job again, thanks.


    1. Jeff,

      I’ll cover your questions in order (and thanks for the kind words!):
      1. Strength and size are correlative to a large degree. Generally, getting stronger means getting bigger and getting bigger means getting stronger. However the rate of each improvement holds not consistent rate in which it improves the other (e.g. gaining 100lbs on your bench will build lean muscle but how much is genetically mediated). Which brings us to our next topic: thrifty genes vs. spendthrift genes.

      The perhaps stereotypical statement of “black men gain size while maintaining leanness” argument has some truth to it. If food supply is variable, seasonal, and frequently in question meant that those who could survive would thrive. A huge muscular body means a lot of fuel to be used; being between the tropics means that food is plentiful and consistent from a variety of sources. This leads to an increased possibility of developing a spendthrift metabolism, that is adapting to the environment in ways that can be considered inefficient in the face of stress or starvation. It should also be of no coincidence that the biggest, fastest, strongest land animals are also from this area of the world.

      Juxtapose that with a thrifty metabolism, which would create adaptations that result in the lowest fuel cost to create the desired effect. If stress and famine might be around the corner (or just a harsh winter), the thrifty thing to do is increase neural drive, improve rate coding (how quickly the motor neuron fires), increase insulin sensitivity (so any substrate that adds up to a calorie surplus is stored), and likely reduce sympathetic nervous system output (responsible for neurotransmitter release like epinephrine/norepinephrine) which would lead to a reduced metabolism.

      That explains the tall skinny-fat type to a T, doesn’t it? Even if you’re naturally lean and have a hard time putting on muscle in the face of strength improvements, there are other factors involved in gaining strength without size including:

      Inter and intra muscular coordination
      Motor learning
      Motor unit/fiber recruitment efficiency
      Golgi tendon inhibition
      Fatigue resistance
      Postural changes
      Connective tissue changes
      Improvements in cadence and turnarounds
      Pain tolerance
      Perception of difficulty

      However, so few of those are actionable enough to worry significantly about. Continue to get stronger and that threshold eventually breaks to more size, assuming nutrition is sufficient which leads me to…

      2. You need more food but this is where things get tricky. There are plenty of times when there is an increase in lean mass which in turn follows with an increase in appetite/food intake. You can’t “force” muscle gain just by shoving endless food down your throat; rather training should be inducing the desired structural adaptations that create the requirement for more calories. But I also feel that you need a reasonable climate for muscle growth to take place. Nobody is getting jacked on 2000 kcals per day, in other words.

      So without micromanaging a whole lot, if you’re hanging around your body fat set point and your set point isn’t 7% you’re likely eating enough. However…

      3. You can optimize the process by feeding your body more on days when protein synthesis is higher…after your workouts! This is why Martin Berkhan and John Berardi both make training days “higher” carb days. If you keep them to safe starches plus a little more fruit and let your calories drift up a little bit, you’ve primed the environment to gain as fast as your genes will allow.

      If you have any other questions please let me know!

  2. Skyler,

    Thanks for the response.

    It seems that leangains makes a lot of sense for me then. Since I ain’t getting huge in a hurry, the best thing to do is get really lean(maybe a touch leaner than my current 9-10%) and work to add my 1#/year or so of muscle. To do that a cyclic pattern which is in line with evolutionary patterns of eating more post hunt(workout) while being a bit lighter in eating on non-hunt days seems to make perfect sense for a combo of muscle gains and leanness. That gets the synthesis where it is needed and avoids extra fat building when no workout is going on. That works out approximately 2x/week or so, which is in line with many recommendations of people I respect.

    I am currently doing a brutal HIT/SS workout once a week or so( I miss a week from time to time) and in between I do 1, sometimes 2 reverse pyramid training. I am gaining on everything each session, so I don’t think I am overdoing it. What do you think of RPT? It seems interesting to me since it is a much stronger load stimulus than SS as the first set is done when fresh at highest weight. You ever tried that? Any thoughts on that training method? I like the idea of the sequential recruitment once a week along with a simultaneous recruitment at higher load. Injury is my main concern about RPT.

    thanks again,


    BTW, the answer to the question on fat loss was classic. The 2 exercises of head shakes and table presses was awesome. I will be passing that one along.

    1. Jeff,

      I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to post this exchange as a post for everyone to read… a reader “Q&A” if you will.

      1. Understand that 1#/year was an average and you might still have a little more in you if the variables are correct and you don’t routine jump too much. This is why some trainers are against variety under most circumstances: it mucks with knowing if you’re improving. That said a few marker exercises (e.g. the big compounds) being consistent allows for a little variety to be used to keep enthusiasm high. Use wisely, however, as one can quickly get focused on the superfluous exercises, not the big, big movements.

      2. I like reverse pyramid, which isn’t outside the wheelhouse of old-school HIT. It’s basically an intelligent drop set that allows for maximum performance as opposed to blistering fatigue. If you have an appropriate rep range is allows for a bit more volume of contractions as compared to a TUL-based HIT routine, possibly creating more strain on the tissue as opposed to the SS routine which is going to create more metabolic byproducts (relatively speaking). Both are good for growth.

      3. Understand that you’re still sequentially recruiting with the RPT routine, you’re just doing it faster. So while you might not be into the high threshold motor units on the first rep of a SS set (assuming a ~1:30 TUL) you’re likely into by the end of the second rep.

      I hope this helps.


  3. Awesome presentation Skyler, it was a good addition to your post on the “six year itch”.

    I had a question related to what Jeff asked you above. What if you are not gaining in either strength or size? Having done the HIT big 5 workout for awhile now, I’ve been pretty much stuck at the same weight for the last two months on all lifts except the leg press. I understand that after awhile making gains weekly is unrealistic, but when does stalling become too long and what can be done about it?

    1 more follow up, you mentioned “appropriate rep range”. How would one determine their appropriate rep range?

    Again awesome talk!

    1. David,

      Thanks for the kudos and patience for this late response. Regarding what to do with your big 5, I’ll need a bit more information i.e. age, training history, TUL’s, athletic history, health status. From there I can better assess what you’ve been doing and give you direction on how to improve it.

      Appropriate rep range means neither too high nor too low a rep count for those who use the rep metric for training. That is not to say that there is 1 perfect rep range but generally speaking somewhere between 5 and 12 reps tends to manifest maximum hypertrophy (assuming that is your goal). Also wrapped up in this is what you are training for, your own structural considerations, disposition, etc. There are plenty of people who had to structure to use and thrive on heavy singles as well as people who grew and thrived on 20-rep sets…they’re not the majority, however.

      1. Thanks for the response.

        Well I’m 21, I’ve weight trained since I was 18, but only have been lifting in any consistent manner for close to a year now. I started off with routines from, then went on to rippetoe’s starting strength, then moved on to HIT once I saw Drew Bayes 21 convention speech.

        I did martial arts for most of my childhood and into late adolescents so I was pretty active and in decent shape for most of my life. Current health status I would consider pretty good, no ailments.

        I haven’t kept a record of my TULs as I count reps instead. I can usually hit at least 7 reps with a 3-3 cadence, which always slows down once I get more reps so if I had to ball park it I’d say my TUL would be around 50-60seconds on upper body lifts.

        When I first started lifting I tried “bulking” but just ended up chunky. Stronger but chunky. Right now I’m following leangains with more calories on workout days and less on rest days.

        Not sure if this information will be helpful in making a better judgement but I would fall into the ectomorph hard gainer category. By the way, I read about casey butt’s calculator for muscular potential somewhere on the internet, have you heard of it? If you have how accurate do you think it is? Apparently, according to the calculator I could be 45lbs bigger, I’m not so sure about that.

        As for my goal with weight training, its to get more muscle on my frame. Any specific tips on how to find that appropriate rep range to maximize hypertrophy?

        Just to reiterate, my frustration is about not gaining in either strength or size. I’m confused as to why I’ve been stuck at the same place for the past 2, almost 3 months now.

      2. David,

        Given where you’re at now, I’d like to make a few suggestions:

        1. You’re an average gainer, likely, which means gains are slow under the best of circumstances. This is why a normal guy, training great and eating right, might gain 15lbs of beef his first “real” year of training, half that number the next, and so on down the line. As I pointed out in my talk, muscle gain is a slow process and even the average for steroid users is a paltry 5lbs/year over a career. It’s front-loaded but they still approached their enhanced potential asymptotically.

        2. Regarding how I would set your routine up, I think you’re on the right track regarding leangains eating. What I’m going to suggest is that you transition into an RPT style of set reduction while following what is discussed here:

        In order to do that, you would need fractional plates to micro-load the bar. Those can be found here:

        3. As far as exercise selection, go with Casey Butt’s suggestion:

        So, let’s put these two mantras into practice – concentration on the basics and getting stronger for reps. The hard gainer routine will be…

        Day 1
        Incline Press
        Barbell Row
        Seated DB Press or Behind-the-neck Press

        Day 2
        Forearm/Grip work
        Neck work
        Calf Raise

        Day 3
        Overhead Press
        V-bar Dip
        Deadlift (may be done every second week or omitted by those with tempermental backs)

        Alternatively, the trainee can neglect forearm and neck work and train just twice a week…

        Day 1
        Incline Press
        Barbell Row
        Seated DB Press or Behind-the-neck Press

        Day 2
        Overhead Press
        V-bar Dip
        Deadlift (optionally every second week)
        Calf Raise

        On Variation 1 training is done three days per week (for example, Monday, Wednesday and Friday), on Variation 2 training is twice per week (for example, Monday and Friday).

        Trainees are given Incline Presses instead of Bench Presses because the majority of hard gainers do not recruit the chest properly and overtrain easily on Bench Presses (which require a certain upper body structure to prosper from – one that most hard gainers aren’t blessed with). Experimentation with bench angle to find the ‘sweet spot’ that feels best is required by all trainees, with the recommended angle in the 15 to 40 degree range.

        3. Speaking of Casey, his calculator is really great but the one on his website seems to be a combination of a few of the calculators he presents in his book, of which there are 6 calculators total. His book is a great investment and an engrossing read. But keep this in mind with strength training, straight from Casey himself:

        Until you’ve built enough muscle that you wouldn’t look out of place on a bodybuilding contest stage then focus only on getting stronger for reps on the basic exercises. When you’re that big you can focus on any weak point that you perceive yourself as having. Until you’re that big then don’t waste your precious recuperation energy on anything other than big weights on the big exercises – if you do, you won’t build much of anything.

        Micro-load and adjust as suggested by John Casey in the link above, using microplates with one of the routines suggested by Casey, while doing only 2 sets on each exercise (1 top set, 1 with a 10% reduction ala the Reverse Pyramid), and only worry about adding a little dose of iron each week. Its the way to big gains but it takes time.

        To put it another way: I knew about this when I was 21 and I could have reaped the reward much faster had I not been in a hurry. Learn from my mistakes.


  4. Awesome! Thank you very much Skyler, I can already tell this is going to be a big help!

    It gives a lot of direction which I found kind of lacked with HIT training.

    One thing I’m curious about though is how would you perform the reps for each exercise. Would you do it in a continuous fashion such as in superslow or would you deload and take a short breather between reps for a second or two.

    Again thank you for your help!

    1. First understand that this training advice falls squarely within HIT guidelines, especially those espoused by Ken Leistner. That said we must make changes to create progress toward a result, even if it doesn’t fit perfectly with a tidy concept…you’re after a result.

      The reps are continuous but controlled, especially through the turnarounds. Use the pause test if you’re unsure of your speed, which is that you can stop the rep anytime during the set with minimal lag between when you initiate the stop and actually stop.

  5. Some really good stuff here above. I may have to start following it myself. What would you recommend to a trainee who has exhausted this program Skyler?

      1. I’ll let you know when I get there. I have some ideas but will not speculate until I get there.

  6. Haha, should be an interesting blog post in about 2-3 years 😀 One quicky about Casey’s routine. The guy seems to advocate for free weights. Do you think there is much of a difference between using free weights for those exercises rather than machines?

    1. I’m just making sure I have experience before I give recommendations!

      Use the best equipment available. It is often a mix of free weight and machine training for most trainees due to the quality of equipment (or lack thereof) at their local gym. If you’re in a gym situation a poor row platform but a good row machine, use that. As long as progression is occurring you’ll be alright.

  7. Nice Post. I have tried a broad variety of muscle building exercises over the years, but I think it is clear for anyone that the essential compound strength exercises work best for real muscle growth. The more pounds you can whack on the bar the more strength you shall gain and the more muscle you will grow, it is quite straightforward really.

  8. Skyler,

    This is an awesome video. You articulate a lot of things scientifically and with great authority and credibility that I’ve always kind of known but have not been able to express so eloquently.

    I’m a 19 year old sophomore in college. When I first started “working out” (during my junior year of high school) I was 5’9″ and weighed about 120lbs. I gained a little weight over the next two years and learned a little about exercise, how to lift weights for endurance, etc. When I started college last year I hit the weight room for the first time and gained about 12 lbs that year, and continued training for size, hypertrophy, whatever, through this past fall. I would do the typical 5-6 days a week, lifting weights doing 4 sets of 8 reps and doing some plyometrics and boxing for cardio. At the start of this semester I was introduced to Crossfit. I adopted a new “fitness for life” type philosophy and moved away from just lifting for size and more for functionality. I sit at about 147lbs now. I eat a really loose paleo diet (Meat, fruit, vegetables, plus some oats, sometimes corn, etc. It’s impossible to eat organic stuff or perfectly paleo in a college cafeteria) I still have some filling out to do, and while I’d like to gain weight, that’s not my concern. I guess my main questions are:

    1. What’s your opinion of CrossFit? Obviously there are a lot of different types of CrossFitters out there. Some are idiots that don’t know how to olympic lift, get all jacked up about their numbers, use horrible form, and are probably going to hurt themselves. I really like the program though, and I worry way more about form than I do numbers.

    2. Between CrossFit, boxing, and leading workouts on campus I do end up working out about 6 days a week still. Is that really going to be bad for me in the long run? Most workouts are short, or split into two for the day, and I’ll usually do about 4 weeks on before taking a week off.



    1. Derek,

      I’ll answer this as a new post topic sometime next week. I’m glad you liked the talk.


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