Love Sriracha? Try this. Cut up a ripe avocado. Slice some banana. Put Sriracha on it. Awesome. Carbs can be easily tweaked +- bananas.
A few months back, I started my own little investigation of the most effective training modalities for hypertrophy. But instead of my usual poring over sport science journals, I went about it from a different, more common-sense angle. I decided to develop a list of truly natural bodybuilders and physique athletes (not on roids), then watch how they train on YouTube. What was pretty obvious was that there were commonalities between all of them: 1) they trained with heavy loads generally between 70% and 90% of their one-rep maxes, and 2) their training sessions looked really dense (meaning that they were doing a lot of work in a short time) and intense (meaning that they were creating significant fatigue in the target muscles).
But how were they creating that intensity, that deep, acute fatigue? After watching way too many videos of sweaty, sometimes shirtless men, I found that many of them weren’t strictly adhering to the standard straight sets and reps prescriptions we’re so familiar with, e.g. “four sets of eight reps”, or “five sets of five reps.” Instead, they were oftentimes conducting some form of rest-pause training. You might be familiar with some well-known set strategies like drop sets, giant sets and cluster sets, which I’d classify as species of the genus that is rest-pause. Anyway, a couple of months ago after some experimentation and trial and error, I began rest-pause training in earnest and it’s literally changed my entire approach to lifting.
So what the fug is rest-pause?
It’s just what it sounds like: pausing for a short time between reps or groups of reps and then continuing with more reps. In my definition, rest-pause (RP) refers to a family of lifting methods, each of which can vastly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of any training session. It’s a philosophy that recognizes that no human is a lifting machine and acknowledges the natural variations in performance levels from day to day. At the same time, RP enables a person to lift more total weight in the same period of time with the same, or even less fatigue than would be experienced under a more standard set/ rep routine. RP enables you to lift to your maximum capacity at any given moment in time. RP training is dynamic, flexible, fun, challenging and really, really effective for developing size, which has a direct effect on total strength potential.
My specific take on rest-pause training is that it’s comprised of four distinct methods, which lend themselves well to various types of periodization schemes. They can all be used in the same session, in different sessions in the same week, each for a week or several weeks at a time.
1. Rest-Pause Set Method
Perform a predetermined number of sets and complete as many reps per set as possible just short of form failure.
What this might look like in practice:
Complete as many reps as possible in six sets using 80% of 1-rep max:
7 reps, rest 30 seconds
6 reps, rest 30 seconds
6 reps, rest 30 seconds
5 reps, rest 30 seconds
4 reps, rest 30 seconds
3 reps, stop
How to progress: aim for more reps with the same load in the same number of sets next time, or increase the load by 5% and aim to complete the same number of reps.
A great variation on this is to perform, say, the first three sets with 30-second rests, then rest for 90 seconds, then perform the second set of three sets.
2. Rest-Pause Total Rep Method
Perform a predetermined number of reps without regard for sets. The rep method can be further broken into static rest periods and autoregulated rest periods.
Static rest periods:
Perform as many reps as possible just short of form failure, then rest for a predetermined period of time. Do another set and rest for the same amount of time. Continue until all reps are complete.
Target reps = 50
75% of 1-rep max:
10 reps, rest 20 seconds
9 reps, rest 20 seconds
8 reps, rest 20 seconds
6 reps, rest 20 seconds
5 reps, rest 20 seconds
4 reps, rest 20 seconds
4 reps, rest 20 seconds
4 reps, rest 20 seconds
2 reps, stop
Auto-regulated rest periods:
Perform as many reps as possible just short of form failure and rest until you feel ready to complete more reps. Continue this way until you hit your target reps.
What this might look like in practice:
Target reps = 40
75% of 1 rep max:
10 reps, rest 15 seconds
8 reps, rest 17 seconds
7 reps, rest 20 seconds
5 reps, rest 10 seconds
2 reps, rest 10 seconds
2 reps, rest 18 seconds
3 reps, rest 22 seconds
3. Rest-Pause Rep and Set Method
This one comes in a couple of flavors.
The first is the classic cluster set, which I’ve found is exceptionally effective for getting more volume out of very heavy loads with a bias toward strength rather than hypertrophy (equal to or greater than 85% of 1RM) in the same amount of time as straight sets would allow. Like straight sets, each set in a cluster set is comprised of a certain number of reps. But instead of performing, say, five straight reps at a given weight and then resting for two or three minutes before beginning the next set, cluster sets enable more reps to be performed in the same set under the same load by breaking the set up into mini sets with short breaks in between.
What this might look like in practice:
6 cluster sets of 6 reps:
Set 1: 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 90 seconds
Set 2: 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 10 seconds/ 2 reps, rest 90 seconds
The weight is re-racked for every rest period to allow the muscles to recover some. This is so effective for strength training because unlike hypertrophy-specific training that seeks to fatigue all fibers over the course of several sets, strength training is used to improve the body’s ability to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible at the same time. To train this response, as many fibers as possible need to be kept fresh to improve the potential to activate all of them simultaneously. You end up extracting
The other flavor requires performing a predefined number of reps within a predefined number of sets.
What this might look like in practice:
Complete 50 reps within eight sets.
How to progress: When you can complete 50 reps in less than eight sets, increase the next session’s load. If you can’t complete 50 reps in eight sets, repeat same weight next session.
4. Rest-Pause Time method
Complete as many quality reps as possible in a predefined time period. Rest is autoregulated. Basically rest when you need to.
What this might look like in practice:
10 reps, rest 15 seconds
7 reps, rest 10 seconds
3 reps, rest 10 seconds
2 reps, rest 45 seconds
6 reps, rest 15 seconds
5 reps, rest 60 seconds
6 reps, rest 30 seconds
4 reps, rest 15 seconds
1 rep, rest 10 seconds
1 rep, rest 10 seconds
How to progress: in the next session, complete more reps with the same load or the same number of reps with 5% more weight.
Some caveats about rest-pause training
Rest-pause is probably best used by intermediate and advanced lifters who clearly understand their bodies, the difference between good and bad form, and the difference between form failure and prime mover failure.
Rest-pause is taxing. Because it increases work density, it’s easy for overtraining to become a problem if specific limits aren’t set. Using rest-pause, my workouts last 45 minutes and I’m out of the gym. As most frequent lifters know, the hardest part isn’t getting to the gym–it’s having the mental resolve to LEAVE the gym and have faith that your body will respond. Even though rest-pause is acutely demanding, just like any other workout, you shouldn’t be dragging and chronically fatigued after completing an RP workout.
Progressive overload is still (and always) critical for making gains. For RP, progressive overload can take on many forms, including decreasing the time in which a given number of reps are performed, increasing the load, or increasing the number of reps performed under the same load. But only one of these forms of overload should be applied to any given lift on any given training session.
In the coming days, I’ll post my current rest-pause routine, which has allowed me to pack on around five pounds of muscle in only two months. I’m now a full 10 lbs heavier than I was in that shot in the sidebar.
Like grains? So do I, but I don’t eat them because I believe they’re objectively not great for optimal health and just feeling good. I’ve experienced a host of positive changes in my body since I stopped eating them more than a year ago (except for the odd bowl of oats and an occasional helping of white rice). But if you’re lifting heavy and you’re thinking about dropping or heavily limiting grains, where are you gonna get those carbs? I’ll tell you where.
1. Cassava a.k.a. yucca a.k.a. manioc.
With a whopping 38g carbs per 100g serving, cassava is the king of natural, unprocessed, unrefined carb sources. It’s packed full of starches that go to replenishing muscle glycogen, and contains very little sugar. I personally love its dryish texture. Make sure to peel it, cut into large chunks, then boil it until fork tender. Cooking is very important because it contains cyanide-containing compounds that are destroyed in the process. I like to boil mine in salted water, drain and just eat like that, or dip in mayo mixed with sriracha, fresh lime juice, cumin and chili powder.
2. White potato
The classic. A 100g serving contains around 31g carbs, almost 85% of which is starch and the rest of which is fiber and a little sugar. I’m about easy, so I just wash it with soap (organic potatoes are better), pierce with a knife, microwave on high for 3-4 mins and eat out of hand like an apple.
3. Yam (not in photo)
Don’t get it twisted: yams and sweet potatoes are not the same thing; yams contain more starch and virtually no sugar. At 27g carbs per 100g, yams get you those killer carbs you need to replenish after a session of big, heavy compound lifts. Pierce with knife a few times and microwave on high for five minutes or until tender.
I prefer yellow ones, but they do contain more sugar and less starch than the less ripe green version. Yellows contain around 30g carbs per 100g, about half of which is sugar (I don’t pay much attention to sugar content if the food is whole and completely natural without any refinement. Processed sugar and sugar naturally occurring in whole foods affect me in two totally different ways). They have an earthy-sweet-tart flavor that’s totally unique to them. Plantains must be cooked (unless completely black). The easiest way is to trim the ends off, pierce through the skin a few times with a knife, wrap in a damp paper towel, and microwave on high for three minutes. Once cooked, remove peel. I like to slice into 1/2″ discs, toss with butter and sprinkle with a little salt. It’s my favorite snack right before bed.
5. Sweet potato
The dessert tuber. 100g of sweet potato has around 21g carbs, only around 35% of which is starch, with another 30% as sugar and a decent hit of fiber. While it’s not as effective for glycogen restoration as king cassava or the white potato, it’s great for fat loss, because it makes you full with a relatively light weight to calorie load. Pierce with a knife, microwave on high for five minutes or until tender.
6. Winter squash (butternut and kabocha)
Ok, you’ll have to eat a lot of kabocha to get a lot of carbs, but that’s only because it isn’t a calorie-dense food. Virtually all of the calories it does have come from carbs. It’s about a 50-50 split between starch and sugar, but you can eat an absolute sh*tload of it without breaking 200 calories. It’s another great fat loss option because it’s so filling, nutrient dense, and calorie poor, and lets you get some carbs in. My favorite way to prepare is to cut in half (need large sharp knife and strong arm), gut seeds, peel, cut into ~1-inch cubes, toss in coconut oil, kosher salt and cinnamon and roast at 400 degrees until tender (around 35-40 mins). The texture is soft/ fluffy/ pillowy and the taste is sweet.
Butternut squash is another winner–higher in calories than kabocha and packing three times the carbs with less sugar, it’s a very good non-grain carb option (10g carbs per 100g serving, two of which come from sugar). Same preparation as kabocha.
I really like combining flavors, especially Asian and Italian. I don’t have a photo of this Thai Italian Sausage Green Curry, but you’ll have to trust me, it’s excellent. Every time I eat it I tell my wife it’s my favorite thing ever.
I also have to preface this by saying that when I cook, I cook big. I usually make one huge thing on a weekend that will last four to five days and then one smaller dish during the week that will last for two. So be warned, the recipe below is for a gigantic load. Let’s all get ripped eating this together.
1 lb hot Italian sausage AND 1 lb sweet Italian sausage, removed from casing and pulled into chunks
700g eggplant (one large), cubed to ~3/4 inches
650g sweet potato (two large or three medium), cubed to ~3/4 inches
600g zucchini (a few medium), cubed same as above
1 large Vidalia onion, rough chopped
1 large red bell pepper, large diced (preferably organic cause the non-organic version is heavily sprayed)
180g or so carrots, sliced ~1/2 inch thick
1 large can (28oz or 790g) diced tomatoes (I prefer the Muir Glen organic variety)
2 cans lite coconut milk
1 cup unsalted chicken stock
2-3 Tbsp honey
1/4 cup arrowroot flour (you can use corn starch, but I’m not really into grains so much)
2 or so stalks of lemongrass, split and cut into 4 or 5 inch-long pieces
3-4 kaffir lime leaves (can be found in any good grocery)
1.5 or 2 Tbsp ground coriander
1-inch chunk of fresh ginger, minced
3-4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 Tbsp Thai basil
2 Tbsp sweet Italian basil
2 Tbsp oregano
2 Tbsp Thai green chili paste
2 Tbsp Sriracha (or to taste)
1 Tbsp chili flakes (or to taste)
- Brown sausage chunks in an 8qt stock pot.
- Once sausage is browned, remove from pot and add onions to remaining pork fat. Cook until lightly browned.
- Add garlic, both basils, ginger, coriander, oregano, chili paste, Sriracha, chili flakes. Sautee for a few minutes over low heat to release oils from everything. Don’t burn it!
- Put sausage back in pot. Add both cans of lite coconut milk, chicken stock and can of diced tomatoes. Also add kaffir leaves and lemongrass. Increase heat, cover, and let mixture come to a simmer.
- Once simmering, add eggplant and honey and simmer covered for 30 minutes. The eggplant should get really velvety and soft.
- Add carrots and sweet potato. Wait 10 minutes and add zucchini
- When sweet potatoes are tender, mix arrowroot flour with a little water or chicken stock to form slurry. Stir into pot and cook on low heat for another minute or so. Do NOT boil. It will destroy arrowroot’s thickening properties.
- Make sure to remove kaffir and lemongrass before eating, unless you actually like eating leaves and sticks :).
This can be eaten as-is, or served over rice, spaghetti squash, kabocha squash, rice pasta, or even regular pasta (I ain’t into wheat, but you do you, not me).
One serving is ~2.3 cups. ~420 calories, 15g protein, 20g fat, 35g carbs
This morning at the gym a nice guy came over, unsolicited, to spot my back squat today. I like this guy, but he actually grasped my lats and assisted me through the lift. I didn’t ask for it, and I definitely didn’t want it. I kept grunting “NO SPOT” and “NO HELP” because those were the only words I could squeeze out as I was fighting the weight. He kept “helping” even though I was asking him not to. I was so frustrated after the lift. With a spotter, you never know how much you’ve lifted. And when you’re operating on the razor’s edge of your limits, and when you have very specific goals with small tolerances, even an assist that reduces the weight by a mere one percent can nullify the lift from a progress perspective.
There’s a difference between a lifting partner who’s there to help motivate you, and one who’s there to spot you. Motivating relationship? Good. Spotting relationship? Bad. Spotting is the worst thing that’s happened to personal relationships in the gym. Spotting is like crack: once you get a taste, you’re hooked. Maybe it’s more like meth. If you can’t get through the movement on your own, either the weight is too damn heavy or you’ve gone one rep too far. “But my spotter helps me through my sticking point.” Every single lift has a sticking point i.e. where the muscle is at the greatest mechanical disadvantage relative to the weight. If you can’t get through it by yourself, you’ll stay weak there. “But my spotter helps stabilize my arms while I grind through an incline dumbbell press.” Come on. That’s caca. If the lifter can’t stabilize the dumbbells, it’s too much weight. The whole purpose of using dumbbells is to hammer all those stabilizers. “But my spotter is there for safety.” That’s the only potentially logical use of a spotter, but only for certain lifts. You definitely don’t want to get caught under a heavy bench/ incline/ decline barbell press. But even then, your spotter shouldn’t be altering the load whatsoever. The spotter is there to save your rib cage and/ or trachea should you have to bail. Other than that, there are virtually no lifts that a spotter can add safety to.
Moral of the story: do you, (but without a spotter).
Disclaimer: I am [was] a certified personal trainer, have been lifting on and off for more than 20 years, and consider exercise physiology and nutrition my favorite hobbies. I am not a doctor or a physical therapist. Take this advice at your own risk. Shoulder injuries are NOT to be taken lightly.
What qualifies me to provide any advice at all?
I’ve sustained several shoulder injuries since the age of 16. Some were the result of physical contact in sport, others were sustained during weight training. The most serious injury was to my right shoulder when I separated it while sparring in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu eight years ago. It was a grade II separation, with a noticeable displacement of my right clavicle that persists today (and forever). It took six months to get back into the weight room. Over the course of recovering from each injury, I learned new things about the types of work that helped and hurt progress (hint: improving shoulder stability is key). I’m currently working around a mild AC joint sprain in my left shoulder.
A quick shoulder anatomy primer
A common misconception exists that the shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint like the hip, but it’s far from it. In the hip, the socket that the femur sits in is much deeper than the socket in which the humerus sits, which is really more like a golf tee. So the shoulder is less a joint than it is a gruesome junction of connective tissue and muscle that works in a complex balancing act to “strap” the humerus, scapula and clavicle together. The trade-off for the tremendous range of motion in the shoulder is the lack of stability relative to other “real” joints like the knee and elbow. There are many types of shoulder injuries–some involve tendons, others involve ligaments, still others involve muscle. An injury can potentially involve a combination of all three.
Lifting with a shoulder injury
My first rule of safe lifting is this: if the lift hurts, stop immediately. It might be on the first rep of the first set, it might be in the third set. Whenever it is, put the weight down and assess. Run-of-the-mill muscle soreness is very different than joint pain or muscle strain. To get a better sense of where the problem lies, I deload the lift and slowly perform the same movement until I feel the pain again. I mentally note where in the plane of motion the pain begins and where it ends. That is the danger zone. I then either: 1) temporarily select lifts that don’t operate in the danger zone, or 2) continue to operate in the danger zone if deloading the offending lift(s), increasing the rep range, and focusing like a laser on maintaining form and tension is an option. I’ll speak specifically to my current injury to explain these two options more completely.
1) Temporarily select lifts that don’t operate in the danger zone
I originally strained my left shoulder several months ago. Overhead motion–both pressing and pulling–in addition to abduction along the frontal plane (raising arms to the side) causes discomfort. Does this sound like you? Even at a lighter weight and higher rep range, the fixed lat pull causes discomfort, so I’m avoiding it altogether until my shoulder tells me it’s ok. But since I still need to hit the lats and rhomboids, I’ve switched to performing other lifts [and more of them] that incorporate low and flat rowing (dumbbell and cable varieties).
2) Continue to operate in the danger zone if deloading the offending lift(s), increasing the rep range, and focusing like a laser on maintaining form and tension is an option
The majority of lifting-induced shoulder injury (as opposed to impact-related) is the result of a weakness in one or more of the many small muscles that stabilize the shoulder through its range of motion. They’re not as strong as they should be in relation to the big prime movers involved in the exercise. The prime mover engaged in the incline bench press (i.e. the target of the exercise) is the clavicular head of the pectoral muscle (a.k.a. the upper pec), while other big muscles and muscle groups, including the triceps, anterior deltoids, lats and traps are also heavily engaged for both movement and stabilization. At the same time, the little stabilizers that keep the shoulder together are also firing away.
But what tends to happen as the weights get heavier and the small stabilizers fatigue is that the large stabilizers begin to take on more of the small stabilizers’ burden, leading to a reduction in overall stability at the joint. A symptom of this is that proper form begins to break down as the lifter starts to “muscle through” the motion, subconsciously trying to shift work off of those small muscles. That shift puts the small stabilizers at risk of strain.
While pressing motions, like the incline bench (bar and dumbbell versions) currently disturb my shoulder at higher loads, at a lighter load they don’t. Accordingly, the lighter load can be used to more specifically train those weaker muscles while still effectively stimulating the prime mover. An important thing to note here is that by lighter load I don’t mean a light weight. I mean something along the lines of 60% of a one-rep max, or, alternatively, around 75% of the weight used for an eight-rep set taken to near failure. But since I also want the same quality of prime mover activation and stimulation as the heavier weight would have provided, I have to do two more [really important] things: increase the rep range and move more slowly. Until my shoulder is healed, my target range is 10-12 reps. Under normal circumstances, you establish your target range first and then set the weight so that failure or near-failure is occurring in that range. But since my shoulder injury is limiting the weight I feel comfortable with, the weight is already established. I also know I don’t want to get above 12 reps. But since I can pretty easily push out more than a dozen reps at this weight at my normal tempo (even with the injury), I have to reduce the tempo and alter the range of motion so that I’m approaching failure in the 10-12 rep range. This means keeping as much tension on the muscle as possible through all phases of the motion while maintaining perfect, totally rigid form by: not locking out at the top of the press, lowering slowly (as long as a three-count), pausing just before the bottom of the motion (not resting or bouncing the bar and the bottom of it), and contracting forcefully on the way back up.
Again, shoulder injuries are nothing to screw with, and will chow down on a big ego in the blink of an eye if you don’t give them complete respect. If your shoulder injury is agreeable to the course of action I describe above, take it slow and easy. You can still hammer your muscles this way. When confident, you can slightly bump up the weight while continuing to maintain perfect form. But remember, if you experience pain at any time, you have to stop. It’s not worth prolonging the healing process. Of course, the best idea is to go see a doctor if you don’t notice improvement over time.
In case you’ve never heard of it, Tabata is a form of HIIT that requires 20 seconds of ultra high intensity exercise to be followed by 10 seconds of rest and repeated eight times. Tabata was created to condition the most elite of elite athletes. But in my estimation, the vast majority of non-elite individuals who think they’re following the Tabata protocol are not. In fact, they’re not even close. Why do I think this? Because I can virtually guarantee that nobody, including myself, has ever been able to get anywhere near 170% of their V02 max. That’s what Tabata really is. V02 max is basically a measure of the amount of oxygen your body can use per minute, normalized to body weight. So at 100% of your V02 max, your body is using all the oxygen it can possibly use. 170% of V02 max means that your body’s oxygen processing capacity is being outstripped by 70%. Any idea what that feels like? Searing pain. Absolute agony. Three years ago in my cardiovascular prime (I was in the top 1% of the population for my age), I could complete only two rounds of real Tabata before collapsing. It is extreme, severe, virtually impossible. This is why most recreational fitness enthusiasts partaking in Tabata aren’t really doing it. They might be getting up to 90% or [less likely] 100% of V02 max, but nowhere remotely near 170%, I promise.
All that said, even it its unadulterated form, Tabata is inefficient for fat loss and strength development. It can be more effective than steady state cardio because it does create a modest anabolic stimulus, but it doesn’t hold a candle to heavy lifting. Let’s first look at why Tabata isn’t nearly as efficient for fat loss as heavy lifting.
I’ve mentioned in several other posts that if you want to lose fat, like if you really want to lose fat and stop believing what you see on TV, heavy lifting is the only way to go. Fat loss is almost blindly attributed to burning more calories than you eat. Yeah, you might lose fat if you eat less than you burn, but that’s usually not the case. You will DEFINITELY lose WEIGHT if you eat less than you burn, but generally that weight is comprised of a lot of muscle. Your body is efficient; when it’s in a chronic caloric deficit, it will preferentially use muscle over fat for fuel if there is no reason for it to hold it. Since muscle is metabolically active and requires energy to maintain, your body wants none of it when faced with the choice. This results in skinny-fat syndrome i.e. when someone who does lots of cardio and eats at a deficit is slim, but flabby.
If you’re really serious about losing fat, your job is to not give your body the choice between using fat or muscle as fuel. Your job is to force it to burn fat to the greatest degree possible. How do you do that? Lift very heavy weights. This simple thing creates a powerful anabolic signal that tells your body that the muscle is critically needed for something, meaning that you must metabolize more fat and less muscle to meet energy demands. There’s far too much fat-loss misinformation that treats fat loss as something acute, i.e. that you must burn lots of energy exercising to lose fat. It’s just flat out wrong and counterproductive. Weight lifting doesn’t acutely burn many calories–maybe like 250 in an hour for the average sized male. What it DOES do is to create the conditions necessary for your body to prioritize fat metabolism when you are in a caloric deficit.
Tabata (the real version of Tabata) is meant to develop superior cardiovascular capacity. That’s it. It’s not a tool for fat loss and it’s not a tool for muscular development (well, maybe smooth cardiac muscle, but that’s not what we’re talking about here). It is one of several exercise modalities that professional athletes use to endure longer in their sports. The cardiovascular fatigue Tabata or even a more moderate HIIT routine creates competes with your ability to create the type of anabolic stimulus necessary to force your body into fat-burning mode.
Take-away: just stay away from HIIT, lift heavy, and reduce your calories if you want to lose fat.
Clearly, this means you.
Top 11 mistakes that limit strength gains:
1. Poor exercise selection
Curls and bench all the time. Awesome, right? No. Not right. The most fruitful, productive work that can be undertaken in a gym is applying barbells and, on occasion, dumbbells to full-body compound motions. But.. but… but nothing. That’s it. I say it all over this blog–that means all types of barbell squats, all types of deadlifts, row variations and press variations (like bench and overhead). A little assistance work is ok (like biceps curls and triceps extensions), but that’s all. The compound lifts recruit more muscle fiber and hammer the central nervous system like nothing else.
2. Not putting in enough effort
I heard Terry Crews say something very silly on the Ellen show a couple of days ago (he’s the large, very well-muscled guy on Brooklyn 99 and in some Old Spice commercials). He said that just getting to the gym is more important than what you do at the gym. I laughed heartily at that one. If he actually practiced and/ or believed that, I guarantee you he’d have arms and legs like hairs and an eight pack of snowballs. Effort is one of the most important factors that separates the gainers from non-gainers. Man or woman, you need to summon the will of the ox when you’re pulling or pushing the bar. Total focus. Every rep is a mountain. Every set is a mountain range. The goal is to climb it all. You’ve got to hit the muscles hard to grow, to get ripped and stay ripped. But remember, that works out to literally 20 or 25 minutes of focused work during the session and you’re done; you can rest for the remaining 1,400-odd minutes of the day.
3. Not tracking progress
If you don’t know what you lifted the last time you performed a Bulgarian split squat, you won’t know what you’re supposed to lift this time. If you don’t know how many reps you completed last time, you’ve got nothing to shoot for this time. A lifting journal is one of the few physical things that can drastically increase the success potential of a weight training program. Want to get even more out of your journal? Take a few seconds to note how you feel after completing an exercise. It’s totally subjective, but over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge.
4. Poor lift sequencing
This is so important and so outrageously overlooked at both the intra and inter-session scales. Let’s first look at the intra-workout sequence (the lifts you do during a single training session).
Intra-session lift sequencing
I pay attention to the habits/ routines of the strongest people in the gym (men and women) as well as the weakest. The weakest almost always focus on small muscle groups from the start of their workouts to the end. Performing biceps curls, leg extensions, triceps kickbacks, crunches, shoulder raises, calf raises, shrugs, wrist rolls, pec flyes etc etc etc is virtually never a good idea, ever (ever ever) period, but it’s an even worse idea to do them at the beginning of a training session. Even if you’re sticking to mainly the correct handful of compound lifts referred to in point #1 above and just do a little bit of assistance work, if you do the assistance work first (i.e. hit a small muscle group like just the deltoids or biceps or triceps or whatever), you’re gonna screw yourself. Say you hit your biceps hard with barbell curls as your first lift. Then you move on to bent over supine barbell rows (that’s where your palms face away from you). Although it’s a ridiculously efficient back-building lift, how the heck are you going to hit all those muscles as hard as you can (rhomboids, lats, traps, posterior deltoids and erectors to name a few) if your biceps are fatigued? You’ve sabotaged the lift because the biceps also play a major role in pulling the bar. And if you can’t pull the bar… well… duh.
Inter-session lift sequencing
This is another big one. Let’s say you lift Mon, Tues, Wed. Monday is an upper body pulling day, Tuesday is a lower body day, and Wednesday is an upper body pushing day. Let’s also say you’re using all the right compound barbell lifts (Refer to #1. Yes, again.). Let’s say on Monday you do some heavy-ass barbell rows. Even better–Pendlay rows (that’s where your upper body is near parallel with the ground as you’re executing the lift). Not only does this lift hit the upper back nice and juicily, but it’s also heavily engaging the erectors (lower back), glutes and hamstrings, which are all contracting hard isometrically to stabilize and balance your body. Great. The next day is lower body day and you’ve got a whole melange of delicious squats to eat (like maybe front, back, and hack squats). Oooh baby! Just typing that gets me hot. But uh oh. Something’s wrong. You feel like the 250 lbs on your back is 500 pounds. You can’t move the damn weight. What’s going on? A messed up inter-session sequence is what’s wrong. All the prime movers required for those huge squats are tired from your rows the day before. Solution? Flip your push day and pull day so that you’re pulling the day after lower body, rather than before. Now it’s true that your Pendlay rows might suffer a little because you smashed your lower back, glutes and hams the day before with your squat salad, but not all pulling exercises require those muscles the same way squats do. Get what I’m saying? If not, please ask in the comments.
5. Poor form
Poor form can either be the result of the weight being too heavy for your current state of development/ restedness, or it can be the result of laziness. Either way, poor form means that the target muscle groups are not being optimally positioned for the lift to create the appropriate fatigue.
6. Prioritizing the weight moved over strength gains (i.e. not mastering a weight)
This point will be the subject of a more detailed post in the near future, but main idea is that focus should be placed on moving the weight the right way and not just moving weight because you can move it. I can move a bar loaded with 350 lbs, but the quality of the movement would suck. If it’s too heavy, form suffers and the crap described in #5 above happens.
7. Not having a plan
This one goes back to the point (#2) about tracking progress and keeping a journal. Efficiency in the gym boils down to knowing exactly which lifts you will perform, how they will be sequenced, how many sets and reps you’re aiming for, and the loads you’ll be using. This should all be determined before you set foot in the gym for the session.
8. Failing to repeat the same lift with heavier weights
How do professionals — professionals in anything — become professional? For one, they’ve repeated the thing they’re professionals in a sh*tload of times until it becomes second nature. If your goal is to get strong, and keep getting stronger, you have to get better and better at lifting weights. The only way to do that is to lift weights. If you want to develop huge overall full-body strength, you do the deadlift over and over and over adding weight over time. You do front squats. Back squats. Hack squats. Bench presses. Rows. Chinups. Dips. There’s no secret. There’s no glamour. There’s no TreadClimber, P90X, Insanity, CrossFit, Bowflex or whatever other flavor of the month might come along. Get under the damn bar. Move it well. Repeat. It’s the same exact recipe for men and women.
9. Failing to get adequate rest
There are many levels of rest. Without proper rest between sets, you limit your capacity to lift as much as possible and more completely fatigue the muscle. Without adequately resting muscle groups between sessions, you limit your body’s capacity to repair the damage you did, and its ability to adapt to the additional stress with additional muscle (a.k.a. hypertrophy).
10. Failing to eat enough carbohydrates
Carb fear kills strength. I literally need to focus on eating carbohydrates to maintain what I have, let alone to continue to make gains. Think what you want, but I’m telling you that white potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava (yucca), plantains, parsnips and winter squash (all kinds) are the best natural, unrefined sources of carbs. I will not argue with anyone. It’s just the way it is. Refined carbs, including grains are suboptimal. Natural foods are absolutely the best because they’re full of the micronutrients your body craves in a form that is simple for your body to understand. The vitamin B6 added to your Lucky Charms doesn’t count.
11. Having too many goals or not knowing what the goals are
Big, big, big one here. Is your goal to run a marathon, or to get strong and ripped? Is it to do some disastrous bullsh*t CrossFit metabolic training, or is it to keep getting stronger and stronger methodically?
I like melons. I do. All kinds. And until two days ago, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about them. I was wrong. At the grocery store the other day, I noticed a basket of these large, oblong fruits posted with a sign saying “Hami Melon” on it. It took me by surprise because 1) I’d never seen them before, and 2) they were $2.50 each, and I’ll buy any kind of melon for $2.50. Maybe even a rotten one. Anyway, this has become my favorite, favorite melon of all time. It tastes like a combination of a honeydew and cantaloupe and has the light, crispy texture of–wait for it–an Asian pear!! WhAAAAAtttt!?! Amazing.
This post isn’t about a diet–it’s about an approach to eating. Deep down in my heart, I know there is an objectively best way to eat. About 14 months ago, I decided to go grain-free because of the wealth of clinical studies I’d read that clearly demonstrate [at least to me] the detrimental effects of all grains on human health. We’re not talking about the carbs here–we’re talking about compounds within grains that trigger bizarre immune responses–compounds like phytates, lectins and saponins to name a few. And this doesn’t just affect individuals who might have overt sensitivities to these compounds (like those with Celiac disease to gluten)–from what I have read, it affects everyone. Even a modest immune response can produce symptoms you might never have realized were related to the consumption of grain.
Anyway, I maintained a grain-free diet for more than six months. But the demands of heavy lifting had me craving and needing carbs, so I let oats and white rice back in. Then I let corn back in because I love peanut butter Puffins so much (made with corn and oats). Never mind the fact that I wasn’t thinking so critically and missed the fact that there are plenty of non-grain foods high in carbs. When I went back on oats and [processed] corn [cereal], I absolutely noticed changes in my body, including water retention, less restful sleep, and mild bloating/ gassiness, slight eczema in my elbow creases after sweating (although I think that was mainly the processed corn. I’ve read that oats and rice elicit less of an immune response than other grains.). I began to realize that those physical issues I used to think were normal actually weren’t since I had my grain-free time to compare things to.
I’ve recently decided again to go grain-free because I objectively feel better without them. And along with that, I realized something else: I could eat anything I want as long as the answer to the question, “Will it rot in a month if left unrefrigerated?” is “yes”. This eliminates foods with long shelf lives, including anything in a box, chips, nuts, legumes, and all grains. These foods also happen to have the highest antinutrient content (those compounds I mentioned before). It’s true that many of the deleterious compounds in these foods can be rendered inert or at least less bad through soaking and fermentation, but I’m not into that cause of the prep time it takes (you can Google all this stuff). Anyway, I began asking myself that question and only eating those foods that resulted in a “yes”. Meat? Yes (organic). Dairy? Yes (organic). Vegetables? Fruits? Yes, yes. Let’s look more specifically at foods high in carbs–white potatoes? Yes. Potato chips? No. Sweet potatoes? Yes. Cassava (my favorite ultra-high carb tuber)? Yes. Plantains? Yes, definitely. Taro, spaghetti/ kabocha/ butternut squashes, carrots, parsnips, beets? All yesses. Pasta? No. Bread? No. Cereal? No. Popcorn? No. Peanut butter is a no also. Nuts? No. Wait, what? No nuts or peanut butter? What’s interesting is that the same foods that won’t go bad in a month if left unrefrigerated also tend to have higher concentrations of phytates, lectins, gluten and other stuff that’s likely not so conducive to optimal health. The only exceptions to my rule are coffee, 100% chocolate a.k.a. baking chocolate (fair trade only because child slavery is HUGE in the cocoa bean business), coconut oil and olive oil.
I think this is a really simple, maintainable way of eating that’s easy to remember and that forces your diet to revolve around foods that contribute to ideal health and well being. It also keeps you away from processed sugar.