Monday, January 26, 2009

The Minimalist

When it comes to training, I'm a minimalist.

I don't "attack the bi's from different angles". I do chins with an extra 100 lbs around my waist.

I don't spend any time "working the core". I never do ab work. I squat and do triple body weight deadlifts.

I don't "feel the burn". I give every set a 100% and only concern myself with adding an extra rep, or another 5 lbs, on the bar.

And most importantly, I don't go to the gym to have a nice and cozy time.

Sometimes people ask me things in between sets.

"Nice arms, man. How do you get that veiny look - do you go for the pump to really bring those cuts out? And what's the lowdown on preacher curls with a straight bar vs the EZ-bar?"

"I don't curl"

"Yeah right, c'mon..."

I then give them The Look. The Look let's them know I am dead serious and that the conversation is over.*


I think it was Iron Addict that once said

"The people that should not be touching a high volume/high frequency routine are usually the first people to do them"

That was true for me back in the days, wasting my time in the gym 5-6 times a week. While I did gain a bit the first few months, I certainly didn't get the same results as most of my buddies I trained with at the time.

Now, I am competitive by nature. I couldn't stand watching my friends outlift me. I figured if I can't beat them in the genetics department, I have to beat them on smarts. I needed to find a superior training routine or suffer humiliation every time I went training with them.

I started looking around online, and was lucky enough to come across a site called Cyberpump. Here, I found a very different perspective on weight training. Articles by Ken Leistner, Arthur Jones and others, talking about high intensity training and how people screw up by trying to emulate the genetic elite.

A minimalist approach, very different from what I had been doing up until then. I had my doubts of course, but I figured I didn't have have much to lose. And boy, did my gains take off.

Now, if I remember correctly, this is how my training routine looked back then.

A (day 1)

Bench press
1 set to failure
Immediately followed by pushups to failure
Followed by another set of bench (with a lot less weight)
Immediately followed by pushups to failure
and repeated one more round.
10 mins rest
Chins for 2-3 sets to failure

B (day 4)

Breathing Squats (20 reps)
Leg extensions, 1 set to failure

C (day 7)

Deadlifts (started at 20 reps here, added weight and decreased reps until I was working in the 3-5 rep range after several months).
10 min rest
Pullups for 2-3 sets to failure

And then days 8-10 were spent resting. And eating.

How much did I gain on such a routine? I remember that quite well. I started benching 135 for a few reps, ended up with 225 lbs after a few months. Squats went from about 200 lbs for 8-10 reps to 300 x 15-17 and deads from 175 x 6 to 380 x 3. Weights jumping op 5-10 lbs each session and often with a few extra reps to boot. It was amazing; like newbie gains multiplied by ten.

Was it a walk in the park and do I think everyone should be doing HIT from now on? No. The intensity used for each set was ridiculous. The sessions were painful and I dreaded them every single time. Was it productive? Yes, it was time extremely well spent. Since the training frequency was low, I made sure every session counted. It wasn't long before I outlifted my friends who were still in the gym 5-6x per week.

Since then, I've always taken a minimalist approach to training. Though I've added some lifts to my arsenal, my training routine is still quite spartan by any conventional standard; however, the few lifts I train, I give a 100%.

My point in writing this isn't to say that high intensity training is superior to any other form of sensible training ideology. There are other training approaches out there that I agree with; Starting Strength, 5x5, DC, RPT, and so forth. All of these put focus on principles that really makes the difference (hint: it's not about swiss balls or working different angles). HIT just happened to be the turning point for me, and has influended my view on training ever since.

The take away message here is twofold.

Part of it is a homage to abbreviated training routines, which I feel deserve more attention. You can go a long way just focusing on pressing, squatting, deadlifting and chinning. Throw in some calf and ab work if it makes you feel better.

Another part of it is encouraging change. If your training routine isn't working for you, ditch it and maybe start at the other end of the spectrum of whatever the hell you were doing before. You have nothing to lose.

*Ok, I made that up. I don't really give people The Look. The rest of it is true though.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

How people fail their New Year's resolutions

According to this article, getting fit and leaner ranks 2nd and 3rd on a list of the most popular new year's resolutions people make.

So, as January comes around, the cardio machines, swiss balls and dumbbells gets the most attention they've had in a long time. It doesn't last of course, since people are lousy at maintaining new habits if they don't have strong incentives for it. Being healthy and fit is, sadly, not a strong enough incentive for people when they have to weigh it against the 'sacrifices' they have to make (such as spending an extra hour in the gym three times a week and *gasp* maybe even cut down on fast food a bit).

I've found that the average joe, meaning the ones that makes resolutions and fail to live up to them (and they are many), usually gives up on diet and training for two reasons.

One is motivation. People simply decide that they "don't have time", which in reality means that they rather prioritize other, easy, leisurely things instead of breaking a sweat.

"one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything"

Occam's razor. Training requires some effort and time investment and people shy away from it. It's not even a matter of knowing how to eat and train properly. By February or March, only a few % of the 'resolutionists' will still remain in the gym.

On the other hand of the spectrum are the people that go at it with guns a blazin' on Jan 1st, doing two hours of cardio a day along with weight training and a sub-1000 kcal diet to boot. They wan't results FAST and expect to go from slightly overweight to ripped in 4 weeks. They usually last 2 weeks, before they get burnt out and throw their resolutions out of the window. Unrealistic goal setting plays in here as well.

The experienced trainee fails in other ways

The reasons why experienced trainees fail to reach their strength and fitness goals are slightly different from the average joe.

Here's a few common mistakes in random order that I often see experienced trainees making.

1. Fearing change

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same things all over again and expecting a different result. A lot of the people I deal with have spun their wheels for years.

Experienced trainees tend to be resistant to change and afraid of trying new things.
Part of this is not rarely due to housing irrational beliefs, such as the high volume training junkie fearing his muscles will fall off if he reduces his training volume; a sound change if he has stalled with his default approach, yet he resists it due to an unsound belief system.

Another example being the carbophobic/chronic low carb dieter that sees his fat loss stall or strength plummet; introducing carb refeeds would be a good idea at this point, but he's afraid the carbs will do him more harm than good.

And so it goes.

Man is a creature of habit and many people short-change themselves due to their inherent belief systems, created by years of ingrained behaviors. Behaviors which may have helped them inititally, but now poses an obstacle for progress beyond that point.

So, ask yourself, are you repeating yesteryear's behaviors while expecting a different result?

2. Being impatient/doing stupid shit

This falls under why people screw up their diet and training in general. Even experienced trainees overestimate their capabilities and are simply too eager to get results, fast, once they get the itch for something. They overdiet and overtrain, even though they should know better.

There is often a disconnect about what you know about diet and training in theory, and how well you apply it on yourself in practise.

Hell, even I did some stuff last year that I wouldn't recommend any of my clients doing, such as training at a very high intensities during weeks I would have benefitted from backing off a bit. Part of me thought I was exempt from normal rules, but lo and behold I overtrained and even regressed in the very lift I sought out to improve on.

I am in no way unique in this regard.

A friend of mine, which is an excellent coach and competes himself, usually has someone else handling his pre-competition diet for him since he knows he'll overdiet and overtrain if he attempts it himself.

Another aquaintance of mine is a top CrossFit coach, yet has some of worst carbophobia I've encountered and often trains to a point where she burns out and gets sick.

Another one coaches figure athletes, and does so well, yet is extremely neurotic and insecure about her own diet.

I got lots of similar examples, but the key point here is that people tend to be more ruled by emotion rather than objective thinking when it comes to their own diet and training, regardless of actual experience level, and regardless of what they would advise others.

Being aware of this at an early stage could possibly help you to stay away from doing stupid shit. If you're planning a diet or training routine which you wouldn't have recommended to someone else, it's usually a damn bad idea in the first place.

3. Lack of knowledge...about the right things

This is among the most common mistakes made by people in general, in the beginner stage, but often well past that. It boils down to a lack of focus and perspective, as the trainee is putting a great amount of attention to minutae, while missing the big picture.

If you want a big bench press, it makes little sense to worry about the fructose content of your favourite cereal brand. Rather, you find a bench specialisation program and put your effort into understanding and applying it properly.

If you want to get lean, it makes little sense in dwelling about what heart rate you should do your cardio at. Rather, you go and find out what your daily energy expenditure is, and put your efforts into understanding how to track calorie intake.

If you want to gain muscle mass, it makes little sense in asking around whether oatmeal is superior to potatoes as a carb source. Rather, you make sure you are progressively lifting heavier weights in the gym, while eating enough to support muscle growth.

To summarize, don't short-change your progress in 2009 by clinging to old beliefs and old habits if they aren't getting you anywhere, don't do stupid stuff due to impatience, and make sure you master, and put focus on, the right things.

My name is Martin Berkhan and I work as a nutritional consultant, magazine writer and personal trainer.

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