Friday, November 22, 2013

What's the Problem 2.0!

By Andrew McGunagle

Back in June, I created a training questionnaire and posted it here on my blog. This tool spawned from my realization of the importance of accurately identifying issues at the outset of the problem solving process. All too often, we seem to allow our biases to guide our thinking and subsequently direct our efforts in the wrong directions. With concrete and objective tools, we can get a bit closer to diminishing our flawed tendencies and we may begin to focus our limited time and attention appropriately.

While the assortment of queries posed in the original questionnaire remain valid, I knew I could improve the utility of the tool for my lifting brethren. Also, on a related note, I've begun to realize that, when it comes to the strength training community and our use of technology to improve the training process, we have only just begun to scratch the surface. While there are bright young entrepreneurs - such as the dudes at Strength Portal - creating innovative new software, there is so much progress to be made on the digital front of our iron obsession. So, with these thoughts in mind, I transformed my questionnaire into a well-organized spreadsheet:

(Note: To use/edit this version of the questionnaire, log into your Google account, then go to "File" > "Make a Copy...")

After you make a copy of the sheet and begin to scroll through the updated questionnaire, quickly ponder each question and type a value between 1 ("No Problem") and 10 ("Problem") in the middle column, along with any notes that come to mind in the column to the right. These values will be averaged at the bottom of each section in the yellow rows, and the average of all the issues will be displayed at the bottom of the page in the blue row. Spend a few minutes filling out the spreadsheet, figure out what you need to fix, and think of a few feasible solutions to the problems that are presented.

You might be surprised what is holding you back. Or, your existing inklings may simply be confirmed. Either way, your obstacles will be staring you in the face, and now all you need to do is make some changes and get moving towards your goals. Cool, huh?

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Roll With the Punches, Manage the Chaos

By Andrew McGunagle

If only your ankles were a bit more mobile, right? What would you deadlift if you didn't have to sit so much at work? Imagine how big and strong you'd be if you could afford that ridiculously expensive protein powder that is biochemically engineered to INCREASE MUSCLE PROTEIN SYNTHESIS BY 5000%!!! As soon as you figure everything out and get everything under control, then you'll start making real progress, huh? "My training, my diet, and my life would be all perfect if only I could..."

Stop it.

Perfection is a pipe dream in the world of strength and conditioning. Fix one problem, and you'll be confronted with a new one just a few reps later. Knowing the science behind size and strength can certainly be advantageous, but the human body can be a finicky bastard. There are simply too many variables involved in the undertaking for you to ever be in complete control, and you know what?

Perfection isn't necessary, and waiting until every detail is pinned under your thumb to begin working hard all but guarantees your progress will be unspectacular.

You see, success in strength training depends on a lifter's ability to consistently create a specific, stimulating training effect. If you don't regularly lift in a manner that influences your muscles to grow or forces your nervous system to become more efficient, then you aren't going to get bigger and stronger. Lots of people brood over their lack of progress and search high and low for answers, and they forget to simply do enough of the right things at the right times. If you want to start making legitimate, continual progress, you must quit kidding yourself with complex solutions and begin doing the work you know you cannot avoid.

The lifters who can consistently maintain the proper frame of mind - a state of unrelenting problem solving - and pair it with a unique ability to put the blinders on and lift with a logical, controlled recklessness are the ones who get closest to discovering their potential. You need to constantly be assessing your movement capacity and addressing deficits with targeted mobilization. You need to monitor your technique and perceive and rectify flaws before they become bad habits. You need to be mindful of the foods you ingest and adjust your intake when you aren't performing well or making the body composition improvements you expect. You need to be tracking your training and thoughtfully manipulating your training variables if you are not getting closer to your goals.

However, at the same time, you must also turn a (relatively) blind eye to all of your issues when it comes time to get after it in the gym. Your hips may be a bit tight, but you can still squat to depth pain-free, right? You're having a little trouble maintaining a perfect neutral spine position during your deadlift session, but is the deviation excessive enough to be dangerous? Obviously there are certain problems that should never be ignored. But all of those tiny issues you've allowed to build up in your head? Those aren't urgent. They may not even be worth a single second of stress.

You should strive for perfection and figure out how to overcome any obstacles you encounter, but you also need to be realistic. Know that you can function and make progress despite a less-than-ideal training, eating, or living situation. Frame the process correctly: set short-term goals, address issues, and train hard. Stop holding yourself back and you'll begin to see what you're capable of.

Thanks for reading!  

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dream On: Ideas for Productive Gym-Less Training

By Andrew McGunagle

Going into my junior year of high school,  one  of our summer reading assignments was Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. While Thoreau's book is widely celebrated as a one of America's premier works of literature, I recall being thoroughly uenenthusiastic about reading it. I intermittently labored through each chapter during the hot summer months, and I don't remember ever being enthralled by the man's exploits. However, the one gem that immediately grabbed my attention and made the entire ordeal worthwhile was the following quote:
"...if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."   
I scribbled that quote on a 3x5 index card and taped it to the wall by to my bed between Emily Dickinson's "Compensation" and a Winston Churchill postcard that read:

Deserve Victory!
At the time, I was amazed by how relevant the thoughts of a few esteemed deceased individuals were to an awkward teen who dreamed of one day owning his own gym. Now, I marvel at how much these assorted quotes have guided my views and actions the past 6 years. Throughout high school and college, I've been driven to continually pursue the knowledge that will eventually allow me to become a successful gym owner. I know my self-assured progression will lead me to my dream, but I've arrived at some post-graduation bumps in the road.   

If I'm going to save enough money to realize my dream of opening up my own training facility, I will probably need to work multiple jobs and be extraordinarily thrifty. For a time - and hopefully not too long, or else I might go insane - I may even have to put off paying to lift at a gym. Obviously I will want to continue to train in some capacity, so I am formulating a gym-less emergency backup plan. I figured other people might, for a variety of reasons, find themselves in a similar situation at some point in their lives, so I wanted to share some solutions for training with a minimal amount of equipment.

The list of exercises and ideas I'm putting forth is not exhaustive, and I want to make it clear these fixes are not uniquely superior to your options at a gym. Rather, these are simply some basic solutions that should enable you to maintain your movement capacities and musculature until barbells become available. Having said that, a thoughtful generalized training plan can put you in a great position to make swift progress when you return to your specific main lifts. Use your time wisely by getting into great shape to train hard, and you will realize the value in your minimalist preparations.

Gym-Less Training Basics

Without the luxury of a well-stocked gym, your exercise options are obviously limited by your equipment selection. While there are a variety of useful exercises you can do with just your body weight, your repertoire will multiply with each implement you add. If you are avoiding the gym in order to save money, then spending a large sum on equipment doesn't make much sense. However, it is often easy to find second-hand equipment from friends, neighbors, thrift stores, and Craigslist. If you foresee your thrifty training experience extending beyond a few months, then you may want to consider putting together a small, strict budget to spend on a few fitness toys.

While many articles of this nature attempt to list every variation of every exercise you could perform, I'm going to keep things simple. The exercises listed below are ones I believe are useful and will actually be doing myself during my own gym-less workouts. That's not to say that all other movements are ineffective and pointless; I'd rather be honest and straightforward about what I believe is the best way to go about this rather than trying to impress you with a voluminous array of options. Having said that, let's dive right in:
Body Weight

-Push-ups: Without a bench to lie on and a bar to press with, you're going to need to flip over and pump out reps of push-ups on the ground. Make sure you squeeze your glutes, brace your torso, and externally rotate your arms, then pump out enough reps to maintain - or perhaps build, depending on your training status - your pressing muscles.   
-Get-ups: Few movements allow you to challenge, assess, and improve the mobility and stability of your entire musculoskeletal system like get-ups. Focus on the positioning of your bodily segments and the quality of your movements rather than the completion of the exercise, and you should notice improvements in your functional state.

-Sprints: Whether you run on grass, a track, up a hill, or on a street, make sure you ease into uninhibited sprinting if it's been a while since you last kicked it into high gear. Slowly increase the intensity of your starts and practice building up to higher speeds. Progress gradually and be conservative throughout the process if you want to get faster, improve your conditioning, and remain injury-free.

Body Weight + Bands

-Banded Good Mornings: Challenge you ability to hip hinge correctly while accumulating volume for the muscles of your posterior chain by looping a band behind your neck, bracing your spine, and flexing and extending at the hips. Keep your alignment strict and cut sets off if you begin to falter. Over time, increase the amount of volume you do as much as the prolonged strictness of your positioning allows.
-Band Push-Downs: If you can find a solid spot in or near your apartment to hang the band from, then band push-downs can be a good general exercise for your triceps. Focus on fatiguing the muscles and squeezing your triceps as hard as possible at the bottom of every rep, and you may be able to put a little size on the backs of your arms.

Body Weight + Bands + Chin-up Bar

-Chin/Pull-Ups: Whether you purchase a cheap doorway chin-up bar, hang from a pipe, or go to a local park, chin-ups and pull-ups are great exercises you can do without paying gym dues. Like the push-ups, keep your legs locked straight and squeeze your glutes, brace your torso, and create external rotation torque at the shoulders. Diligently position yourself well and grind out reps in order to maintain the lats you built with heavy deadlifts.

Body Weight + Bands + Chin-up Bar + Pair of Dumbbells

-Split Squats: If you are going to spend any extended amount of time away from squats and deadlifts, then you will want to make up for that as best you can with other lower-body exercises. Split squats can be a useful way to work the hip and knee extensors while also challenging the complex of muscles that prevent the arches of your feet and your knees from collapsing inward. Fix your feet forward, keep your knees out in a neutral orientation, squeeze the glute of your trailing leg, and stand tall. If you regularly neglect single-leg training, then your hips will benefit from these split squats if you perform them correctly. 
-Curls: While many of the other areas of your body will be difficult to build without any of the multi-joint exercise stimulus you normally benefit from, your biceps may be a different story. Get a pair of dumbbells you can curl and go to town on your upper arms. Keep track of the amount of quality volume you can do, and strive to increase it with regular curling sessions. If you're like me and you tend to neglect your biceps in favor of your pressing muscles, then you will see some noticeable changes from this novel stimulus.

-Shoulder Work: You can build your shoulders without any heavy barbell pressing if you get creative and do enough work. Do raises, then press your dumbbells overhead until you are too fatigued to lock them out. Align your hips, ribcage, and spine correctly in order to give your shoulders a chance to function optimally, and these exercises will hold you over until you're back in the gym.  

Body Weight + Bands + Chin-up Bar + Pair of Dumbbells + Kettlebell

-Kettlebell Swings: Simultaneously improve the explosive power of your posterior chain and your conditioning with this single exercise. If you're a powerlifter who has shunned swings in favor of lots of deadlifts, then you may get a noticable training effect from this general exercise. Refine your technique so you can swing violently, then pick up your kettlebell and get those glutes in gear!  
-Goblet Squats: Unless you pony up the money for a gnarly kettlebell, these goblet squats are not going to do much to increase your leg strength. However, I believe it is important to squat regularly in order to assess your current movement capacity and maintain your squat patterning. Grab your kettlebell and drop into a deep squat for reps and for long holds in the crucial bottom position.

-1-arm KB rows: Rows can be a great upper back exercise in the gym, and they can be just as effective out of the gym as well. Grab your kettlebell, hip hinge, and use your non-working hand to steady yourself. Or, prop one leg up on your couch or coffee table for support. Stabilize your body and increase both the size and strength of your upper back musculature.  

Bag of Tricks

-High Volume: The tonnages amassed during sessions of multiple high-intensity barbell lifts will be nearly impossible to replicate with just your body weight and a few pieces of smaller equipment. Therefore, it will likely be necessary to drastically increase your training volume if you want to see noticeable physical changes. If your normal gym routine consists of strength-focused barbell work such as powerlifting or Olympic lifting, then tweaking your sets and reps towards bodybuilding-style protocols can be beneficial. Use a variety of high-volume general exercises to build a solid base of mobility, stability, and conditioning so you will be fully prepared to make swift progress when you return to your barbell roots.   
-High Frequency: As your gym-less training progresses, it may become difficult to accumulate enough volume to promote a notable training effect during any single session of reasonable length. Over time, you may want to work towards daily training sessions if you plan on stressing your body in the same capacity you do when you can afford a gym membership. Also, if you're working multiple jobs and don't have the time to drive to the gym and lift, then shorter daily sessions may be your most realistic training option.

-TUT Extenders: If you own only a few weight implements, then you will need to find creative ways to make those loads more challenging as you get stronger. Obviously, doing more reps and more sets are your initial avenues for progression, but there are some other tricks that can help you do more with less. Think of unique ways you can extend your time under tension (TUT), such as prolonged eccentrics, partial reps, or isometric holds at various points in the range of motion. Once the weights you possess begin to get too easy, you will need to add in a few of these wrinkles in order to make progress.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In Case You Missed It 3...

By Andrew McGunagle

...I had a third article published on EliteFTS! This article got a great response, and I'm especially pleased with all of the positive feedback the Prilepin-RPE tables have received. Check out the article here:

As an aside, Klokov has been ridiculously active on YouTube. It's been interesting to watch Russian lifters do general training when major competitions are months away. Take a look:

Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 14, 2013

What's the Problem?

By Andrew McGunagle

As a passionate and knowledgeable lifter, I’ve reached a point in my development where my training issues are rarely due to a lack of knowledge. Nowadays, the mistakes I make and the problems I run into are usually due to an absence of awareness or faulty perception. I’ve acquired all of the information I need to get bigger and stronger and achieve my fitness goals, but there are still times when I struggle to exploit my understanding and make progress in the gym.

I’m slowly learning that a vast knowledge must be intelligently organized in order to be applied effectively in the real world. I need to pare down my insights and create principles, I must design systems that guide the training process, and I have to disregard the fluff in favor of what is truly important.

At the same time, as an aspiring strength and conditioning coach, I don’t want to sell myself - and my clients - short by engaging in excessive minimalism. I believe some lifting authorities wrongly tout overly-simple approaches to trainees who do not possess the experience that allows these coaches to succeed with a handful of straightforward tenets.

Focusing on a few key points enables these experts to get results, but they fail to recognize how much psychological processing is occurring behind their eyes. Young lifters who lack this finely-tuned gym intuition often fail when they try to copy the plain approaches that are preached. While simplification is vital, the details can still make or break a training program, so it is necessary to seek the optimal balance between over-complication and the lower limits of information and instruction.

In an effort to find this balance point, I have been developing a number of documents that will enable me to manage the training process more effectively. I’m working towards summarizing the knowledge I have acquired and the lessons I have learned in a manner that will ensure I do not continue to make crucial errors when I train myself and my clients. Many of these outlines are in the rough early stages of formulation, but they are workable, and I’m beginning to see how they can positively affect my training.

As I work on these projects, I plan to share many of them here on my blog. Individually, they might not look like much initially. However, as they come together, I'm sure they will combine to create a very potent strength training resource.

The first piece, which I put together recently, is a series of questions designed to help lifters identify where they are going wrong in the training process. Admittedly, many of these questions pertain to my personal lifting faults. In each category the inquiries are based on mistakes I have noticed negatively affected the training process in the past, and the questionnaire is meant to quickly bring awareness to issues so they can be rectified. I'm sure I will add more questions to this document as I make more errors, and other lifters will benefit from personalizing this list with their own insights.

If you are not progressing towards your goals, then you must figure out where you are going wrong. Unless you are very close to your "genetic potential" - and very few trainees are - then your training should be bringing improvements. Sure, some people don't respond as quickly and impressively to training as others, but it is highly unlikely that you are a genetic anomaly that cannot get bigger and stronger. Fix your training and keep moving forward! Start here:

Big Picture:
Do you have specific goals?
Are you actually making progress towards your goals?
Are you problem solving, planning, and executing new strategies when you become aware of issues? 

Too infrequent?
Not enough time spent?
Avoiding major issues / discomfort?
Not enough acute effort?
Ignoring joint pain / excessive stiffness / missing normal ranges of motion?
Not spending enough time in desired positions (deep squat, arms overhead)?

Consistently under-eating?
Not enough protein?
Too few post-workout carbs?
Not eating enough beforehand to fuel tough sessions?
Failing to eat until full (when attempting to gain weight)?

Not enough effort / focus?
Bad attitude?
Over-thinking the lifts?
Not focusing on and sincerely performing basic lifting cues?
Writing off lifts too early in warm-up process?
Lacking motivation and failing to work towards reclaiming it?
Not being realistic / failing to scale back training when necessary?
Missing sessions too frequently?

No concrete training plan?
Not enough work?
Misguided effort / failing to accurately identify and address weaknesses (relative to goals)?
Not actively / systematically progressing?
Failing to track training (not actively examining present numbers to guide future training)?
Not periodically systematically testing strength levels?

Poor bedtime habits?
Poor morning habits?
Not taking steps to actively manage stress?
Not periodically binging on good food to aid recovery during intense training?
Not enough time spent outdoors?

Too much sitting / poor posture / bad positioning / inactivity?
Not enough time spent doing quality reading?
Not enough quality socializing (family, close friends, new acquaintances)?
Too much ruminating?
Too much wasted time (Internet, television)?
Personal / professional stagnation?

Thanks for reading!