Blood and Chalk Vol 4: Jim Wendler Talks Big Weightsby Bryan Krahn
2009 saw Jim Wendler introduce his sensitive, politically-correct style to T NATION readers in his popular Blood and Chalk column, where he made it crystal clear that he knows more than his share about all things strength related.
And now, for the first time in 2010, The Ohio Hellraiser has returned, full of more piss and vinegar than a used douche and ready to help cure your heavy lifting woes. Whether your goal is to hit a 2000-pound total, kick ass at the combine, or just plain be the scariest looking dude in the entire accounting department, Jim's your guy.
Don't forget, if you have a question of your own for Big Jim, just post away in the discussion thread following the article. Jim loves to help people, and if you're serious about getting strong, you'll listen.
T NATION: I always read about power lifters doing "finishers" in their training, like squatting 315 pounds for 30 reps after regular squat workouts. What's your opinion of finishers? Should power lifters do this type of shit often? Some of these guys online talk like if you aren't lifting until your nose bleeds and your ass leaks, then you're just not hardcore?
Ahh, finishers. The cool thing about them is that they're fun and probably one of the few feats of mental and physical strength that most of us will ever go through, especially in the safe, comfortable lives that most of us lead. Think about it, it's not like we have to chase down our food or run for our lives on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, the finisher has been sullied by hardgainers and other random skinny punks that put one in every damn workout and can't figure out why they can only train two times a week when they're 15 years old.
The role of the finisher in the weight room is one you have to be careful with; you can't use one every time you train or you'll burn out quicker than Ryan Leaf. I've done some really stupid shit, mostly involving squats. In college, I did 330lbs x 30 reps; I was supposed to do 3 sets of 10 reps with 330 and decided to just get the shit over with.
As a sophomore In high school, we had to do 1.5 times our bodyweight in the squat for as many reps as possible. Thankfully, depth wasn't crucially important, so I ended up cutting most of the reps fairly high but ended up doing 255 for 44 reps.
These days, most of my finishers are based around some hardcore conditioning: hills, Prowler, sled work, etc. Now I do these activities all the time, but it's how you do them that makes it a true finisher. Usually, I'll have some kind of stupid or crazy goal once a month involving the Prowler or The Big Hill.
The Big Hill is one of two hills that I run — obviously, The Big Hill is a motherfucker. The current record for sprints up The Big Hill, six, is held by yours-motherfucking-truly. Now I only bother to count the records of people who have some kind of distinguishable muscle mass, not distance runner types that aspire to look like David Beckham. Anyone can run, but not everyone can total Elite and run.
But the goal this summer is to do 10 sprints up The Big Hill. As a few of my compadres can attest to, The Big Hill will put tangled dreadlocks on your balls before it drops you to your knees.
Now there is no rhyme or reason to the conditioning finisher. There shouldn't be. There's no progression. There just IS. So if you're looking for guidance on what to choose or how to choose, start looking inside your mind. Or just get a sicker mind.
I usually think of some really crazy stuff when I'm walking my dog or sitting on the phone at work, having a riveting discussion about the complexities of band tension. I suggest when ideas come to you, write them down and when the time is right (this simply means, "whenever you feel like it") try them out.
But to sum up, for the most part, finishers are part crazy, part fun, and all stupid. But these are some of the best and most memorable feats of strength that we will ever go through. The problem with weak people (or unsuccessful people, really) is that they're too scared to ever attempt a finisher in their training or their life.
Whether or not you put this in your workout is usually based on how far out from a contest you are (don't use these things if you're preparing for a meet or a show) or how crazy you want to get. Most of the time, the really, really good ones are done with a training partner who is just being a dick, or starts talking trash. But like Kenny Rogers once told me in a drunken stupor, you gotta know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em.
Giving into peer pressure as an adult is pathetic.
TM: I love low-pulley cable pull-throughs. What do you think of them? Also, I hear you can perform a sled-dragging version of them that also doubles as GPP. Your thoughts?
My thoughts? Meh. Next question.
All right, here's the deal. If you're going to do pull throughs, you best stop wasting your time and start doing kettlebell or dumbbell swings. They not only offer a greater range of motion than pull throughs, they're also a total body movement with some hip pop at the top.
When I was first introduced to pull throughs, I was incredibly underwhelmed. To get any sort of effect, the reps had to be pushed very high and the weight was frustratingly limited due to the fact that you can't load the exercise with any more weight than you can get into position with. But I did them anyway, because a lot of strong folks swore by them, and I assumed they must have some magical properties of some kind.
Looking back now, I should've just stuck with the staples: good mornings, glute ham raises, reverse hyperextensions, back raises, and straight leg deadlifts.
The kettlebell and dumbbell swing are very good alternatives, though. Not only do you get low back, hamstring, and glute work, but your traps get some healthy stimulation as well.
The big problem that I see when people do them is they don't do enough good quality reps; their upper backs aren't strong enough to stabilize the downward swing of the weight and they use way too much upper body English.
Sure, I've tried dragging the sled like a pull through for GPP. Not my cup of piss. Sorry friend, but I don't jerk around when it comes to sled work. I believe a sled was designed to be loaded with as much weight as you can handle and pushed or dragged until you vomit all over your favorite shoes. Doing a pull through with a sled is like feeding animal crackers to a tiger shark — pretty frickin' pointless.
TM: I've read that the shoulder press will help out your bench press but the opposite isn't necessarily true. I freaking hate shoulder pressing, I can't seem to get strong. What am I doing wrong?
First of all, please remember that the shoulder press is probably the slowest to increase out of the four major lifts (squat, bench, deadlift, overhead a.k.a. military press). So you have to be more patient with this lift, and you have to take it slower in terms of progression. It's simply not going to increase like your bench press, just like your bench press isn't going to increase as fast as your deadlift.
But I sense the vagina-esque frustration in your message, so here are two things that have seemed to help others greatly with their shoulder pressing:
Take a different stance. Some people have reported more stability and better results with a split stance (one foot in front of the other). A good friend of mine, Ryan Goldstone, switched his stance and immediately got five more reps on his previous best.
Take a false grip on the bar. I learned this from Jim "Smitty" Smith of the Diesel Crew. Many years ago, Smitty and I were talking about overhead pressing and he told me that he had a much better time with bar path and strength when using a "false" grip (thumbs not around the bar). While many keyboard warriors argue that this is dangerous, I find it to be incredibly safe and far more comfortable. In fact, the false grip was like one of those Trojan Magnums — it felt great from the very first time I used it. There was zero adjustment time.
Besides tweaking your form, a lot of people just need to make this lift a priority in their training and not treat it like another assistance exercise. Here's a novel idea: try making it as important as the bench press. I've seen this little change in mindset alone make a big difference simply because now you CARE more.
TM: Whenever I try to improve my conditioning I lose strength in my upper body. I know, that's why many powerlifters aren't lean, but there must be something I can do to prevent this. Any ideas?
And please, don't give me that bullshit answer, "You gotta pick a goal, either improve your strength or your conditioning." That's a cop-out. Lots of NFL players are ridiculously strong and fast and lean.
Well, I have to say that I admire your drive and your goals, but let's look at this another way:
You're trying to compare yourself and your training to that of a professional football player. That, kind sir, is absolutely retarded. But I'll give you a free pass, just because I feel a little sorry for someone as hopelessly delusional as you appear to be. Just don't send me any of your "Elvis helped pull off 9/11" conspiracy theories, okay?
Anyway, I'm going to take a wild guess that you're probably frustrated by your declining strength over your current training cycle (which, for most people, is about two weeks before you get frustrated and move on to the next big program you read about online) and don't realize that it's going to take some time for your body to adapt to the increased work load you're imposing on it.
Listen Corky, NFL players (or any professional athletes for that matter) don't just decide to try out for the big leagues the day they graduate from high school or college. There's an extremely lengthy, almost life-long building-up process that allows them to knock heads with the biggest and the best.
Allow me to use myself as an example, so you can get an idea of what more than five years of college football is like, in terms of training load.
January — March: Morning conditioning, usually a series of grueling circuits done over the course of an hour. Most people puked and got run into the ground. This goes on three days/week. You also lift four days a week.
Spring Ball season: Practice begins at 6 AM and lasts for about two hours. Conditioning performed after each practice. Lifting three to four days/week.
Spring Ball to end of School: Lift four days/week, running three to four days/week.
Summer Sessions: Lift four days/week, run four days/week, 7 on 7 drills every day.
Pre-Season: Two to three practices/day. Lifting is minimal due to heavy practice schedule.
In Season: This depends on the coaches and the school. We lifted three days/week. Hard practices (hitting) on Tuesday and Wednesday, Thursday was half-pads but you still ran a lot. Conditioning was hard on Tuesday and Wednesday. Sunday was usually a one-mile run and some pool work. Every practice started with a 10-15 minute dynamic warm-up.
Now, most people that played college ball obviously played in high school first. Many times, the running was more intense and crazy in high school. Most football players also played another sport. So for about 10 years they have built up this incredible base of conditioning and work capacity. In other words, their bodies have adapted to it.
So my frustrated friend, my advice to you is to give yourself 10 fucking years of the above if you want your body to react like a pro athlete's. Until then, choose ONE goal and go for it. Serving two masters isn't going to get you where you need to be.
Now this doesn't mean you can't be in shape and be strong. But the trouble with wanting both is this:
What is strong? What is "in shape"?
I have very clear notions of what both of these mean to me. I know exactly what I think it means to be strong. I know exactly what it means to me to be in shape. But that's just me. What is strong to you? What is in shape to you? And more important, what does being "strong AND in shape" mean to you?
Define each of these with CLEAR numbers and performances. The more specific, the better, none of this "I wanna be strong and look jacked" crap. I know I've started to go off on a bit of a tangent here, but you always have to know what you want before you dedicate yourself to the task. Otherwise, you're just wasting your most valuable commodity: your time.
And last but not least, you better be willing to give blood to get what you want.
TM: I rarely bench wide anymore. I'm basically shoulder width or about 14-inches. I know this compromises my max strength but it feels way easier on my shoulder. What do you do?
Well, I'm with you on this one. I made the switch to all close-grip pressing and have had no problems. It's better to bench a few pounds less over 20 years than bench big once and have the rest of your life limited to dumbbells, machines, or nothing at all.
Most people who do wide grip benching and switch to a closer press will have an initial drop off in strength. But over time, you'll build it back up. And I think this is a small price to pay for a lifetime of healthy bench pressing (and any pressing).
There are a select few people who can press wide for a long period of time (without a bench shirt) but these people are a rare breed. It's best to learn from those that have come before you and have suffered shoulder injuries. And don't forget, a bad shoulder will limit your squatting, too.
Bottom line: stick with the closer grip.
TM: I love board presses, but I usually train alone so I'm stuck doing pin presses in the power rack. Is this an okay substitution?
While pin presses have their place in certain programming instances, the majority of power lifters [not necessarily bodybuilders] have found a bigger carryover to their bench press with the good old-fashioned board press. The pin press is really good at allowing you to lift a tremendous amount of weight — on the pin press. It doesn't necessarily transfer to the actual full range bench press. So it's a good ego boost but not much else.
Board pressing is a good assistance exercise for longer limbed lifters and shirted benchers. Just be wary that you don't turn into a good board presser and a shitty bench presser. These people make great gains on partial lifts week after week, month after month, only to try a full range bench press on competition day and fail miserably. This is also seen on box squats and rack pulls.
Partial reps can help people, but don't center your entire program around doing half reps. You'll only get half results.
Bonus Question From the Editors
TM: Hey Jim, you're like the power lifting equivalent of Deepak Chopra. Give us something inspirational. Tell us the 10 things you learned in 2009?
I hate questions like this. I feel gayer than a French horn just having to think about it.
But since you asked, this is what I learned for sure in 2009:
• Riding a motorcycle in 40 degree weather in the pouring rain for 400 miles in not smart.
• If you want to get shit done, wake up before the sun comes up.
• Always try to lead an interesting life. Get out and kick some ass at what you love to do and make shit happen. Have a life worth putting on the movie screen or in a book.
Note: arguing on the internet about any subject is the furthest fucking thing from interesting, and if you think that it would make for a cool movie then I'd hate to see your DVD collection.
• If a fitness expert is a pussy, double whatever his recommendations are.
• If a fitness expert scares the shit out of you, halve whatever his recommendations are.
• Choosing to not watch the news is time well saved.
• Growing an angry-looking beard is cool.
• Turning down a dinner/night out without an excuse is awesome. It's your life; do what the hell you want.
• Words to live by: "Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt." — from the movie Ronin.
• Self-help books are for people that need a hell of lot more than a self-help book.
Kettlebell Swings: Wendler's preferred alternative to Low-Pulley Cable Pull-Throughs.
The false grip (thumbs under bar). Guys who do this probably run with scissors, too.
Shorten the grip, spare the shoulder.
I run twice a week and lift weights. Why don't I look like this guy?
Iron meets wood. The board press is a keeper.
Scientists have identified an inverse relationship between the amount of time spent arguing online and how interesting your life is.
Turning down a date with her shows you're independent, ballsy, and cool. And really stupid.
© 1998 — 2010 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.