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.


How the Engineering Design process can help you win in the gym

Engineers. On the whole we have probably some of the best stereotypes: intelligent, imaginative and resourceful. However I rarely see a physically well trained engineer, in fact most engineers are quite average in their approach to fitness. Some run the treadmill, do home workouts, set unspecific goals, maybe throw some weights around. It’s a real shame because engineers have been conditioned to approach problem solving with a very specific process but never apply that process to themselves. Using the engineering design process as an outline I’m going to show you how you can lay your own foundation to engineer a better body and give you some real life examples of me putting this process to good use.

Identify the problem/constraints

Translation: Identify your goals and obstacles. People don’t come to a team of engineers with millions to spend and say “I’d just like to make a better car.” They come in being very specific: “I want it to be at least 10% faster, get at least 6 more miles per gallon and to automatically play the ‘imperial march’ when I enter a parking lot.”

One of the first issues I always deal with when interviewing a prospective client is getting a specific goal out of them. Usually it starts with “I just want to lose some weight and be healthier” and it takes 20 minutes of me prodding to finally get them to admit “I want to look like (generic celebrity) and get excited about being naked!” And this is when we get somewhere. From here we can make specific comparisons and decide how to proceed. Some clients obsess with fat loss when in reality their goals are better accomplished by building a bit of extra muscle and letting the fat loss happen by association.

Additionally, we need to identify the constraints of our situation. Time and materials are the two most commonly considered constraints when engineering an exercise program. By taking these things into account we can maximize the results of our efforts. As a good example of working within constraints: I had a client interested in packing on muscle mass, this is commonly correlated with high volume training which makes it sound like more time at the gym means bigger muscles. Well this needs to be balanced with cortisol being released in response to exercise. The longer he exercises the more of the hormone cortisol is released, inhibiting muscle growth.

For months I had been going to the gym trying to lose fat, build muscle on all of my body, get stronger AND increase my endurance via running. I was overworking myself trying to do literally everything at once. I decided I needed to sharpen my focus, I decided I was going to put my energy into making my squats stronger and not push everything else. This made things extremely easy to research because I didn’t need the most effective fat burning or muscle building techniques, they weren’t the goal.



So you have your specific goal(s) in mind and a list of the constraints. Next you need to research some possible solutions. More often than not you can find someone that has done something similar to what you are trying to accomplish. I typically like to look for people that accomplished a given goal with a minimal amount of effort. These tend to be the cases in which the subject has already distilled a plethora of information into the most actionable bits.

I researched the living hell out of squats, from performance journals debating parallel vs. deep squats to workouts called “45 days to a powerful booty.” I found plenty of “strength experts” and “squat gurus” preaching their patented workout program that guaranteed results. After enough research I began to see a consistent presence of one of two principles: linear periodization and progressive overload.

Brainstorming possible solutions

7LJXUWVX9SBased on your research and constraints look up some programs available to you. If they meet all your requirements and pass through the stipulations set by your research then you have an actionable program! If you can’t simply find a program then try to sketch one up (this isn’t advisable for beginners) or, better yet, meet with a trainer to discuss some possibilities.

A progressive overload program would involve consistently squatting close to my maximum and when I could break through a given threshold I would increase the weight. A linearly periodized program would involve squatting lighter weight for more reps at first and work my way towards heavier weight with less reps while trying to keep the overall volume the same. When both programs were put onto paper both seemed quite feasible in getting me to my goal.

Model – Analysis – Simulation – Prototype

This part is simple: follow the program! Record your progress and consistently analyze it. If you programmed too much weight then reduce it, if it all feels to easy turn up the program. Try making only one change per every 2 weeks, I consider 2 weeks to be long enough to consider a prototype time frame. If the change made works keep it in the normal program, if not then toss it and go back to normal. Experimentation within your program is necessary to optimize results but too much tinkering and we have no idea what worked.

I worked with the progressive overload program for 6 weeks first. I’d try to reconfigure my approach every two weeks but always felt like each day was just as difficult as the last. Second I tried the linearly periodized program for 6 weeks. I broke the 6 weeks into 3 smaller 2 week cycles in which I’d monitor my own performance as I progressed but that wasn’t needed, I didn’t need to tweak a thing!

Implementation and Selection

Now that you’ve played with your program 6 different ways over 12 weeks (just an example) you can select which prototype program worked best, point it at your specified goal and knock it out.

00F7DB5857I selected the linearly periodized program based on my clearly positive response to it. Nowadays I will select a specific exercise I want to be better at to focus on and apply this same schedule to it. It’s become one of my most reliable tools for ensuring I am becoming more fit each session and I engineered it myself.