Drop the Ego and Get Strong for Real

If you follow me on twitter you know I’ll post somewhat frequently (for me at least) that it’s extremely important to drop your ego when you get serious about the strength game.

About a year after I started lifting I thought I was progressing much quicker than everyone else and it must be because I was simply superior to everyone around me.  I was pulling 345 for 3 on my deadlifts after only one year, I was so damned strong…

In reality it was the fact that I was using lifting straps, a belt cinched as tight as my intestines would allow, shoes with overly thick soles, and a back as round as a scared cat.  Of course this story ends in injury.  My injury wasn’t huge, I’d just have an excessive amount of trouble walking, tying my shoes or lying down for days after deadlifting but about a week later I’d be okay and I’d do it all over again.  Squats were a similar story…

I believed that all the pain meant my body was going through a rapid adaptation and that I was just working harder than everyone else, and therefore I’d surpass them. Clearly this was not the case.

After a long hard look at some footage of me squatting and deadlifting I realized how bad it was and decided I needed to pursue better performance instead of just stacking on plates.  I dropped the weight on all of my lifts to a measly 95 lbs for the first week, practicing better form without the aid of anything and slowly increased the weight.  I became much more critical of my form as I added weight, if my squat was deep at 135 but I suddenly couldn’t drop below parallel at 145 I’d drop the weight back down and climb my way back up.

Nowadays I can pull over 400 lbs on my deadlift without the aid of anything except a bit of chalk, squats leave my knees feeling good rather than creaky, and I’m stronger than I’ve ever been (for real this time).

The strength game can be extremely humbling because very few can actually make significant progress much faster than the average.  Individual rates vary and newbie gains are speedy gratification but for any natural weightlifter that’s been in the game for a while knows that progress slows and eventually the biggest factor becomes how consistent you are.

Getting Strong, Properly

There are innumerable methods to gaining strength available but all of the good ones rely on the same basic principle: Progressive Overload.  Progressive overload (PO) is the principle that the muscles will continually adapt to progressively increasing demands.  The key with PO is that the levels of increase need to be manageable increments and not lofty goals of going from 185 to 225 on bench in the span of a single session.

Some of the most popular effective programs available utilize this principle extremely well; you set a given rep range for an exercise and when you can perform the upper limit of the range with a given weight you increase the poundage, when you can’t complete the lower limit you decrease the weight.  These kinds of programs involve consistently performing at the edge of your capability which is what makes them so effective.  The limitation with these programs is the exclusive focus on a given rep range can be less than optimal for developing the skill of strength.

I’m certainly not saying you should throw these programs out!  Many of them are based on some very solid research, yield amazing results and are overall very well designed.  What I am saying though is that sometimes we should “inject” a phase of training with an array of rep ranges to develop our skill.

Periodized Training is a method of progressively overloading the muscles in training.  Typically people think of it as “Start with High reps, low weights (High Volume) and move towards high weights and low reps (High Intensity)” and while this is kind of correct it is not the type of periodization I am talking about.

In my free program, The Gauntlet: Phase One, I like to utilize a different kind of periodization.

If we define the rep volume as:

# of Sets x # of Reps = Rep Volume

By keeping the rep volume relatively consistent we can incrementally increase the weight in cycles that allow us to continually push the overall intensity of the workout higher while simultaneously utilizing multiple rep ranges.  For instance in the Gauntlet: Phase One program the deadlift is programmed in two 3-week cycle and looks like this:

Week 1: 4 Sets, 9 Reps Each, 70% of 1RM

Week 2: 6 Sets, 6 Reps Each, 75% of 1RM

Week 3: 9 Sets, 4 Reps Each, 80% of 1RM

Week 4: 4 Sets, 9 Reps Each, 75% of 1RM

Week 5: 6 Sets, 6 Reps Each, 80% of 1RM

Week 6: 9 Sets, 4 Reps Each, 85% of 1RM

As you can see the overall rep volume stays the same each week and only the weight increases.  Weeks with higher reps allow us to practice the movement repeatedly with a lower weight, which is beneficial because it taxes our ability to maintain the form.  Weeks with the lower reps per set allow us to refine our skill of lifting a very heavy amount with plenty of attempts (sets).  The weeks in the middle are the ones I find the most challenging because it requires a mix of the two skills we develop in other weeks.

How does this relate to dropping my ego?

A program structured similar to the one listed above requires two things: a plan, and the capability to follow through with that plan.  When we walk into the gym every week with the plan of “Just gotta do better than last week!” we are vulnerable to allowing our ego to take hold and pushing much higher than we should.  Maybe the guy next to you is squatting 25 more pounds than you and you want to show him you can hang.

When we employ a program like this we have to plan everything ahead of time and stick to it.  We can relax our egos and trust that the numbers we programmed will allow us to develop our strength.  We’re not just trying to get one really really good workout in, we’re cultivating our strength strategically and focusing on consistently improving over the long haul.

Be Strong With me

The type of program I described in this article is similar to the one I designed in

The Gauntlet: Phase One

This program is meant to be a 6 week injection into other programs to help increase your strength across the board.  Test your before numbers and run The Gauntlet, you won’t be sorry.

Have you already completed The Gauntlet: Phase One?

Tweet me your before and after maxes (@brawnforbrains) and be featured in future phases of The Gauntlet.


The “New year, New me” guide

Okay, all of your friends and family are tired of hearing you say “new year, new me” so let’s make it stick this time, shall we? 

The questions to ask yourself

Where are you at now?

Take an honest self assessment of yourself now. Be honest but not self-loathing, what can you improve upon? What are you already good at?

Where do you want to go?

What kind of fitness are you looking for? Bodybuilding? Powerlifting? Yoga? Obstacle Course racing? What do you want to be with your new body?

How are you going to do it?

The last question should give you some idea of how but there is always more research to do.

Why are you doing this?

This is the most important question. Those with the more detailed answers to this question have the best results. Getting in shape for your children, parents or friends tends to motivate people better than self-driven reasons.

Exercise programs

Insanity, P90X, 5/3/1, Zumba, Pilates, yoga, CrossFit, Starting Strength, etc…

These are just a few programs of the seemingly infinite variety you can choose from. Each is advertised with before and after photos, testimonials and lots of promises. DVD options have the benefit of exercising in your own home but your stuck with the generic coaching coming from the screen, classes are great but can be intimidating to walk in to. It’s overwhelming and no wonder those looking to start exercising regularly have a hard time choosing.

Before you pick anything I want you to imagine a place where everyone there is in shape, performing all sorts of exercises, smiling and no one is even caring how many calories they’re burning. That place is the playground. Kids at a playground are swinging from monkey bars, chasing each other across fields and sprinting up stairs and I can promise you none of them are thinking about how killer their workout is.

Ideally, you need to find your playground. That place/activity that you really can enjoy for itself. This doesn’t mean you have to be playing some sort of sport, just means you should make it enjoyable. Early on in my fitness journey I made trips to the gym exponentially more enjoyable because I frequently would try to go with friends, it became a social event and continued to drive me to go. Nowadays I go just for the joy of lifting the irons.

Gyms: Are they necessary? What kind of membership is best? Can I trust the staff?

First off, you really don’t need a gym to get in shape. Remember: Find your playground. However if you do decide the gym is your method of choice then here’s a few things to keep in mind.

Gym Memberships are negotiable, so when they say this is a limited time offer or they can waive a certain fee that is them making concessions they were prepared to lose to get you to sign up. Please note that if the price isn’t unreasonable then you may not need to negotiate at all. Most of the time the guy signing you up for a membership is also a personal trainer and this is one of the commissions he can make. When I signed up for my most recent gym I agreed with everything up until the end when I was asked to sign, at this point he feels he has made the sale and his time investment has paid off, so by making my requests here I really increased his compliance. I asked them to waive the start-up cost (you can compromise on 50%), and lower the monthly rate by $10 citing the rate was from a TV ad (it wasn’t but most chain gym employees are unaware). In return I promised not to ask for any change to the outrageous cancellation fee. It worked wonderfully and I have had this membership for nearly 3 years at $20 a month at a large chain gym.

Gym staff are all salesmen, especially the personal trainers and keep in mind: I am a personal trainer! Gyms have rigged it that personal trainers pretty much operate like contractors and they’re only getting paid if they bring in clients. This can make it hard to sift through the bad trainers and find a good one. When looking for a good trainer look for someone that is willing to give a free consultation/session and make sure they aren’t just going through the motions with you. Make sure they are hearing your goals and concerns and making adjustments as needed. I tell all my prospective clients that one of the points of a consultation is to find out if we like each other; it’s okay if we don’t but it would certainly not be enjoyable for either of us if we trained together anyways.

Do your homework. Make sure the gym is regularly cleaned and maintained. Was the pool empty when you visited but they said they were just repairing it? A quick search on Yelp will reveal if it’s been empty for very long. Additionally, searching your prospective gym in Yelp may clue you in to whose trustworthy and who to avoid in the staff. Don’t trust a gym at its face value, gyms are not easy to maintain and if the staff takes shortcuts you will surely be the one to pay for it in the end.

Supplements: What the hell will make me fit?

“Got my gym membership, time to spend my mortgage at GNC”

The fitness industry is a multi-billion dollar a year industry and the cornerstone of that industry is supplements. The idea is simple: supplementing what you’re missing from your optimal diet will make you superhuman. In truth most of it is crap disguised as healthy crap and only a small fraction of what they’re selling will do you any good.

The TV personality Dr. Oz was put in front of the Senate in 2014 for popularizing a “miracle weight loss” pill that had no scientific backing among other “miracle” supplements that also did not have any supporting research. This is the perfect analogy for how the supplement industry has been able to sell snake oil to millions for billions: put an expert or trustworthy face on the product, have them swear by it and give them some sort of credentials.

Still if you’re looking for some things that may actually supplement your diet then your best bets are a solid protein powder, fish oil and a decent multivitamin. Click the pictures below for links to the supplements I use.

“Just tell me what to do and eat”

Think for yourself! And eat mindfully!

I hear so many people say “just tell me what to do and what to eat” that it makes me a little sad. It’s the reason you’re not fit already, you just want the responsibility to fall on someone else and to not have to spend mental energy on it but that isn’t going to work. You have to be willing to put in the time, both in and out of the gym, to schedule your exercises, plan your diet and know what to do if everything doesn’t go according to plan. And don’t beat yourself up of you don’t get it on the first try, no one does.

All we can do is try to be a little better today than we were yesterday.