5 more strength training tips and things I’m thinking about
1. Consider dripping some water on your legs for deadlifting if your legs are “too massive”
I’m a reasonably ok Deadlifter. At the time of writing this I have an over three times bodyweight Sumo stance deadlift (300kg@90BW) and I could probably get about 255-260kg in a conventional stance. An issue that has caused me a great deal of frustration in recent times is my legs being “too big” and getting in the way of the bar. If I stand up straight and contract my quads they will protrude way out over the line of my shins if viewed from the side.
This creates a huge problem for me when deadlifting as my quads create so much friction on the bar that locking out has become extremely difficult for me. So my initial solution was to use baby powder. This works just fine in a Powerlifting meet and is perfectly legal in most (if not all federations) to the best of my knowledge. However, the stuff goes EVERYWHERE! This can create quite a serious safety hazard in a busy commercial gym and what’s even worse is that it looks like chalk so people would think nothing of it if they walked over it. It got so bad that I had to find a small space in the corner of the gym beside a fire exit where I could go out and apply the powder before every set, then chalk my hands and shoes so I wouldn’t slip.
I was pretty fed up of this so I decided to give baby oil a try. All of the lubrication, none of the mess on the floor, and what’s better still I usually don’t have to apply more for each set. Just make sure to clean the oil off the bar (and yourself obviously) once you’re finished.
Problem solved right? Not exactly. There were two issues with this. Firstly, it made my legs so lubricated that locking out became EASY! The problem with this is that it didn’t transfer to a competition setting where baby oil is not permitted. The second issue was that it completely discoloured my shorts, I’ve been unable to get them back to their original colour since.
So my solution now is to simply dribble some water on my legs, it aids in reducing friction of the bar. But it doesn’t make it so much easier that the lockout becomes lightning quick (which did happen with the oil). Just be sure to chalk your shoes and you’re good to go.
2. Stop looking for the “secret”, or magical “quick fix” you know what you have to do
A few years back when I deadlifted 200kg for the first time, as soon as I put the bar back down on the floor I quickly reached for my shaker to take a sip. It contained some protein or branched chain amino acids and some dextrose or something else fairly benign like creatine. Another gym user then approached me, “Man that was some lift, was that 200?” he said to me, “Thank you, yeah it was, it was pretty hard though” I replied. He responded fairly quickly, “So am, what exactly are you taking in there?”. Now to be fair, the man probably never meant to cause any offence, nor was he impolite in any way at all. However, looking back it was indicative of many gym-goers who see someone who looks better or lifts more than they do, so they automatically attribute this to some quick fix (“Ahh, you’re taking something though”). Those in the know will understand what that “something” is. The fact of the matter is I have just trained consistently for many years and accumulated a reasonable amount of strength over time, nothing spectacular, but if you are consistent and strive to keep improving over time then you will eventually accomplish something fairly impressive. When someone expresses frustration at their lack of training progress to me, I always refer back to when I got stapled under 70kg on the bench press back when I was just starting out in college, a staff member was on the verge of kicking me out of the gym. Now not only do I work in that same gym, I can rep out with double that amount of weight. Just remember that it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a lot of time. That was nearly 6 years ago. So stop looking for a quick fix and just accept that in order to get to where you want to be, you will have to be consistent with your training, diet and lifestyle habits, give yourself a realistic goal (and timeframe to achieve it) and continue to strive for small improvements in the short term as these are what will add up over the long haul to bring you to where you want to be.
3. If you’re anyway serious about your training goals, don’t do German Volume Training (GVT)
Just say no to GVT (i.e. 10 sets of 10 reps). If you just want to feel flogged at the end of your session and don’t really care about how much you’re lifting or if your performance is improving then by all means do GVT. If your goal is to feel better, add some muscle, look better, get stronger, reduce the likelihood of injury or improve your performance in any sport, then there is just no logical reason for doing 10 sets of 10. But time and again I see a some skinny runt, wondering why he’s not getting bigger or stronger and I ask him about his training, his face lights up and he responds with “Oh I’m doing German Volume Training, it’s really tough”, he also tells me how he “never stops eating”. Then I ask him how much his lifts have increased since he started the program, the increase (if any) isn’t exactly spectacular. GVT just isn’t appropriate for most people, it is too much volume to recover from, it doesn’t allow for much progression week to week, the quantity of reps involved means that form will probably be compromised at some point in the session and it doesn’t really leave you with much time or energy to do any more than 2 or maybe 3 exercises, so muscle imbalances (and possibly an injury) are likely to occur.
4. What makes an “Expert”?
Nowadays anyone with a few months to a year of training experience or who seems to have put on a reasonable amount of muscle mass is now an “expert”. “I was fat and now I have a six pack so that means I should be telling you how to diet and train”. This is absolute nonsense for the following reasons:
- N = 1 Meaning our new “Expert” has only ever worked on/experimented with one subject (i.e. him or herself).
- Our “Expert” may be a complete idiot who just so happens to have the best genetics in the land (or they respond exceptionally well to drugs in some cases).
- Whilst the crazy diet plan of our “Expert” may have worked perfectly for them, giving that same diet to someone else unless you are fully qualified to do so (i.e. a registered Dietitian who has spent years studying Dietetics and Nutrition) could potentially end very badly, particularly if any pre-existing health conditions the client may have aren’t taken into account.
- The “Expert’s” training program is likely to be at best unscientific and produce poor results and worst case scenario may even injure another person.
Now with that out of the way, who could be considered a genuine “Expert” in this field (training and/or nutrition?
- A trainer with a solid base of education. This may include a Degree yet I have seen plenty of incompetent trainers with even Honours Class Degrees in the field under their belt. On the other hand I know of some extremely intelligent and well-informed trainers who were college drop-outs. Some certifications are genuinely quite good (for example UKSCA, NASM, Precision Nutrition) but the majority are not worth the paper they are printed on so always be skeptical of these.
- A trainer should have a solid base of experience. If you’re getting Olympic Weightlifting Coaching from someone who has never Olympic Weightlifted properly, for your own sake find a new coach! A trainer should be in the trenches themselves or at least have done in the past. Ideally he/she should be a competitive athlete. However this needs to be done in conjunction with their education as the two feed off of each other. Education without practical experience is in comprehensive and vice-versa, to quote Ciaran O Regan "There’s a difference between someone who has knowledge and someone who can impart knowledge."
In other words, someone who is purely an academic and hasn’t the experience built up as a practitioner isn’t in an ideal position to be coaching clients (the problem with a lot of sport science graduates who go straight into coaching full time without building up their coaching experience while they were completing their degree in my opinion).
- The trainer should be constantly striving to get better. This includes furthering their education (particularly in this rapidly changing industry, you can never stop learning, if a trainer scoffs at the idea of reading, fire him/her), their coaching skills and their own athletic accomplishments. The trainer should be reading books, journal papers and/or research reviews regularly, reading highly regarded science-based blogs (such as Greg Nuckols’ blog, Bret Contreras’ blog, Eric Cressey’s blog, Dean Somerset’s website, Suppversity website, examine.com and Precision Nutrition.com) observing other coaches, watching educational videos and listening to podcasts as much as possible. If all your trainer does is train, watch his favourite bros on YouTube, post Instagram photos and troll on internet forums then his/her “continuing education” is probably sub-optimal.
- They know the boundaries of their expertise. Expertise is specific to a very small domain. An expert Psychologist is not an expert Physicist, an expert exercise physiologist is not expert dietician. The same holds true for trainers. I am quite competent in the narrow field of general strength training in beginner and intermediate level lifters. If you ask me about some pain that is radiating down along your leg, I will refer you to a specialist, if you are looking to train for Olympic Weightlifting, I will gladly refer you to an Olympic Weightlifting coach that I know and trust. If I did decide to take on a client for Olympic Weightlifting training, not only is there a higher chance of me injuring them, I am not doing what is best for the client. Any trainer or coach should know the scope of their practice and know when to say no.
- They are humble and open to the possibility of being wrong. Even experts make mistakes. The important thing is for them to acknowledge them, learn from them and move on. A trainer who is open to the possibility of being wrong and is not dogmatic about things is a trainer you can likely trust.
“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field”
Why I will never prescribe a pistol squat!
And all functional and unilateral training proponents lose their s*** in 3, 2, 1….)
Ok this one is likely to generate some debate/hate. The pistol squat is seen by many as a very “functional” exercise which can be used to train ankle mobility and knee stability. Great stuff! Just one problem though, it is a horrible position to be in*.
So here we see a typical pistol squat being performed. This is a fantastic display of ankle dorsiflexion whilst keeping the heel on the floor and the knee in a stable position. However, look at the man’s spine! I spend a great deal of my time training clients to get out of this flexed posture into a neutral spine position. Training with a flexed lumbar spine is a great way to slash years off your training career and leave you in a lot of pain down the road. Now by not prescribing the pistol squat, are my clients missing out on anything? I severely doubt it, but if they are one can obtain that same knee and ankle position with a deep front squat. Yet I still don’t feel the need to. The majority of clients don’t need to squat this deep and many of them can’t do it safely due to their own anatomy and/or mobility restrictions.
This deep front squat is an excellent display of ankle and hip mobility with a stable knee position and importantly a more neutral spinal position.
Now to satisfy the single-leg training lovers, the position can also be trained with a rear or front foot elevated split squat.
The rear foot elevated split squat
Front foot elevated split squat
Now which movement should you use? I will usually just back squat as it is the most specific to my sport (Powerlifting). Every client I have ever trained has benefited in some way from back squatting and unless you are an athlete or can’t handle a lot of compression and loading then single leg squats aren’t absolutely necessary. For athletes they can be beneficial, so programming them properly allows for both to be trained (for example you could back squat one day and perform a rear foot elevated split squat 3-4 days later, or something to that effect. Another application for single leg squats is in the elderly who can really benefit from the balance training they offer and I have even seen split squats take away a lot of knee pain in elderly women (now the sample size was quite small and the reporting of pain or no pain is a subjective measure so that needs to be taken into account as well).
*Note: There are a very, very small minority of people who can perform the pistol squat with minimal to no lumbar spinal flexion, if you are one of these people keep doing what you’re doing.