Growing up, my single source for lifting, strength, and fitness info, beyond a few books in the library, was Strength and Health magazine.
I was convinced, as were probably most readers of the York magazine, that if I did 8-12 exercises per day, three days a week, and drank my Hi-Protein drinks, I'd be halfway to the Olympics or Mr. America in no time. Once I established myself, I could drive off to Pennsylvania and join the York Barbell Club and rub shoulders with the best and brightest while polishing off the "be-all and end-all" of energy supplements: wheat germ oil based "Energol."
Well, as it turned out, the protein gave me gas and the stories of York were all overblown. But, here's the deal:
1. I believed in high protein diets.
2. I believed in heavy lifting, preferably the Olympic lifts.
3. I saw a path that had many goals: general fitness, the Olympics, a great body, a long life, an odd kind of fame, and success in any and all other pursuits.
Now, compare this to what the vast readership of Testosterone Nation experiences in a typical week. First, there are dozens of commercials selling this and that for fitness from little chairs that work the abs to hucksters selling a pill that will eliminate the fat caused by stress. The new infomercial on "Ghetto Booty" is offensive at so many levels that I feel the need to cleanse after watching the show.
Always remember, unless I recommend it (insert Dan's smiling face!), it can't be trusted. I will never sell out... except for a lot more money than I've been offered. My integrity has a price.
Seriously, walk around a bookstore and browse these sections: health, fitness, cooking, sports, self help. You'll find dozens, if not hundreds, of books that give you more information on strength, fat loss, and conditioning than you could ever possibly retain.
For many of us, if we stacked all of our books, magazines, and printouts from the internet, we could literally go from floor to ceiling several times. I have a bookshelf at work, three at home, and a storage closet filled with liquor boxes filled with books, magazines, and articles. The amazing thing about all of this is finding enough liquor boxes in Utah to fill my collection.
So, what's the point? The point is simple: you have an amazing amount of info at your fingertips, but the ability to discern what's right and what's crap has probably never been considered by you before this article. Sure, you may have typed "this sux" at the end of one my articles (and that hurt my feelings) but what tools do you use to determine whether or not an article, a workout, or a diet is worthy of giving it a try?
In other words, what is your "fitness literacy?" How do you decide, literally? How do you cut through the crap? What's worthy of further reading and experimentation? As you go from one book telling you that 95% of your diet should be carbs to the next book that says 5%, how do you figure this all out?
I'd like to share how I go through the literally volumes of pages I read in a typical year, but first there's an important side note: reading all this "stuff" is great, but acting on it is greater. No one has said this better than the philosopher, Jerry Seinfeld:
"In a lot of ways, that's what a bookstore is. It's a 'smarter than you' store. And that's why people are intimidated. Because to walk into a bookstore, you have to admit there's something you don't know.
"And the worst part is you don't even know where it is. You go in the bookstore and ask people, "Where is this? Where is that? Not only do I lack knowledge, I don't even know where to get it! So just to walk into a bookstore you're admitting to the world, 'I'm not so bright.' It's pretty impressive, really.
"But the pressure is on you now. This book is filled with funny ideas but you have to provide the delivery. So when you read it, remember: timing, inflection, attitude. That's comedy. I've done my part. The performance is up to you." (SeinLanguage, page 3)
I think I speak for every T-Nation author when I say, "We've done our part. The performance is up to you." All those programs, workouts, diets, and supplements use schedules that you read here are all very good to excellent. The performance is up to you.
Tips for Improving Your Fitness Literacy
So, how should you read an article, book, or forum post? First off, let's look at how you should read an article. Here's a quote from one of my recent articles. I was going to use another writer, but I didn't want to get beat up at the T-Nation BBQ again like I was last year when TC tried to dunk me for making fun of him and Cosgrove for wearing the same swimsuit.
From a recent article:
"One of my favorite books has a title that caught my eye immediately when I saw it in the bookstore. It's Great Books by David Denby. Seriously, when you're looking around the bookstore for a new book to read and you see one called Great Books, how can you pass on it?"
That's what it said, now let's add how I read it:
"One of my favorite books (How often does this guy use 'I, my, and me') has a title that caught my eye immediately when I saw it in the bookstore. (Bookstore? Is this guy so dumb he has to go to bookstores?) It's Great Books by David Denby. (What the hell is he talking about now? Why can't he ever just get to the point and tell us what he always talks about... whatever the hell that is.) Seriously, when you're looking around the bookstore for a new book to read and you see one called Great Books, how can you pass on it? (I'm amazed he thinks this is funny.)"
The problem with most readers, and there's actually research to back this up, is that they aren't activereaders. When I read an article, I literally talk with the author as I go through the points. Whenever a writer states, "I don't know why I'm writing another article about X," I nearly always agree. Seriously, how many times does the same thing have to be hashed over again?
But then, I continue to read the forum posts about my article, The One Lift a Day Program, and I'm stunned to continue to find people asking if two lifts are the same as one lift a day. I can't do the math, either.
Head-Nodding vs. Opposite Reading
If you only read opinions that agree with your opinion on everything, you'll simply be a head-nodder. One of the best ways to expand your active reading skills is to read the opposite of what you tend to think.
With the fitness wave caused by the movie 300, I find it funny to find some guys writing in forums that they wish Mark Twight would've trained the Spartans like Arnold instead of training them like warriors. For those people, please go back to your pirated copy of Hercules in New York and leave the rest of us alone.
For my "opposite reading," I go to pro-vegetarian websites, general fitness sites, and the HIT Jedis websites. (Seriously, many in the High Intensity Training world call themselves Jedis. Seriously.)
There are places on the Net where everybody kneels before the great Oz and nods away at their master's voice. But when you meet these people, they rarely look like they ever lifted a weight. As I remind people all the time: PVC pipe is great for learning the movement or practicing something specific; it is not a workout weight.
Just Skim It
The next little technique I use to read strength related materials is actually a tad arrogant, but true. Basically, it's this: I figure my needs are more important than the author's needs. In other words, I don't care what order the author wrote an article, I'm going to skim, pick and choose, skip, and jump and hop all over the article to discover whatever gems I can steal.
That's right, I steal ideas from other coaches. The amazing thing is this: I'm the only strength coach in the history of lifting to ever actually steal from others... So, as you can see, I steal and lie. It's not my fault; my parents were in the iron and steel business. My mother ironed and my father stole. (Old joke.)
So, I skim down articles quite quickly. Part of the reason I have so many liquor boxes — besides the obvious reasons — is that I like to come back to articles later on and catch up on what I missed. It's funny how sometimes I'll come back a decade later and discover the "answer" to an issue that's plagued me for years. I'm not saying that I'm a genius, but I usually find the right answer in thirty years or so.
Handling the Vocabulary
Feeling free to skim relates to the next key point, one that's really important for T-Nation readers. Basically, it's this: how do you handle the vocabulary?
Seriously, when someone writes up an exercise as "Close-Grip Narrow Stance Accelerating Front Pulls to the Rack Position," how do you go about performing the lift? I call this move "the clean," and you might find that as difficult to understand, too.
Now, when I start reading an article about neurons, I usually skip all the big words because I figure my nervous system has to be working okay because I'm still sitting in my chair. I go right to the bottom of these kinds of articles and look for the summary points. If seven sets of four is the final answer to "Who wants to be the World's Strongest Human?" I want to be doing seven sets of four before anybody else finishes the article.
The vocabulary issue is beginning to stagger the fitness world. Just pick up any random issue of any fitness magazine. Here you find Y Squat, Wall Slide, Spiderman Lunge, Counter-Movement Jump, Warrior Lunge, and Lateral Tube Walk. Once I see the picture and the description, I generally get it, but how much time will it take me to master these movements? By the next edition, there'll be a new breed of exercises that you might try and spend another month mastering. I'm sure there's some value to that, but Y Squat? Why not?
One of the oddest bits of research recently pointed out an interesting phenomenon: as high school textbooks get bigger and bigger (because they have to cover more and more crap mandated by non-teachers), literacy goes down. In fact, it's believed that one-quarter of today's students can't comprehend their textbooks.
Looking at freshman girls carrying over one-third of their bodyweight in backpacks, one wonders 1) how the girls aren't in the best shape of their lives, and 2) what an incredible waste of effort is going on if these students can't understand what the hell is in those pages.
Other countries are going to another model: slimmer, smaller texts that encourage the student to think and apply the information. That's probably good advice for all of us.
Resonate with the Author
Finally, the best advice I can give is to use your own experience to resonate with the author.
Not long ago, I was reading Play As If Your Life Depends On It: Functional Exercise and Living for Homo Sapiens by Frank Forencich. On page 182, I found a short list of muscles. At first, I just skipped over it. It's embarrassing to think that my thought process was something like: "Why pay attention to muscles when you're in the strength training profession?"
But I came back when I saw he was quoting something from Janda and I checked the list again. Forencich had noted that researchers had found that some muscles are "tonic" or basically slow twitch and prone to stiffening with age. Other muscles are "phasic" or basically fast twitch and prone to weakening with age.
The author noted that most masseuses and physical therapists had discovered the same thing within their practice. I sat in my chair and "shortened" the tonic muscles and instantly I had the look of an old man. Well, I always have that look, but more so.
The tonic muscles are hamstrings, pecs, upper traps, psoas, inner thigh, calf, biceps, and the forearm flexors. The phasic muscles are abs, butt, middle and lower traps, triceps, rhomboids, and forearm extensors. It hit me: no wonder the Olympic lifts seem to "keep me young." The simple clean & press might just be the Fountain of Youth!
So, I pulled out one of my favorite workouts from the past. Ignore the lifts and just look how it ties into Forencich's point:
Day One: Monday
Power Clean & Press: 1 power clean and 8 presses
Three sets of eight with one minute rest between sets. If there's a single key to the program, it's the one minute rest period. By strictly monitoring the rest period, and obviously keeping track of the weight, one can track progress.
Power Curls: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest between sets
Using a curl grip, slide the weight to just above the knees and curl-clean the bar. Let it come down under control. Again, get all eight reps in, don't change the weights, and monitor the rest period.
Finish with some kind of ab work.
Day Two: Wednesday
Power Clean and Front Squats: 1 power clean and 8 front squats
Once again, 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest. Stay tall in the front squats and keep your elbows high. We usually use this as more of a warm-up for the next exercise.
Overhead Squats: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest
Using the wide snatch grip, lock the elbows with the weight overhead, and squat down. Athletes who do this exercise well not only develop flexibility, balance, and leg strength, but an incredibly strong lower back.
Again, finish with some kind of ab work.
Day Three: Friday
Whip Snatches: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest
With a wide snatch grip, stand up and hold the bar at crotch level. Dip and snatch the bar overhead. Continue for 8 reps. You'll be surprised how quickly this exercise can get into your blood. If you want big traps and explosion, this is the king.
Clean Grip Snatches: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest
With a clean grip, stand up and dip the bar to your knees. Then explode up, driving the bar in one basic movement overhead. It's like a clean and press, well, without the clean.
Ab work if you wish.
I call this the "Transformation Program" because I always literally felt transformed after finishing it. In other words, I felt good. Think about that for a moment: a training program that makes you feel good.
Reading Forencich's work tied into something that my body knew, but I couldn't wrap my brain around it. Doing the Transformation Program and adding three simple stretches (the overhead reach, a biceps and shoulder stretch, and a hip flexor stretch) seems to resonate with me. I literally feel younger.
So, as I was reading one single paragraph of Forencich's book, I came away with an insight about why some workouts appeal to me and others simply don't. As I see my fiftieth birthday just weeks away, I need to rekindle those workouts that add life to my life, and walk away from just simply brutal workouts.
So then, what's the point of all of this?
1. You have, just at T-Nation alone, probably more info than the bulk of the historically great strength and conditioning coaches had access to during their entire careers. That's a problem. Why? Much of it contradicts the other.
2. You need to learn to discern the material. It helps to read stuff you absolutely disagree with to develop this skill. Where's my Jane Fonda fitness book?
3. You're in charge of your reading. Learn to interact with your authors as you read them. Feel free to skip to the end. At this time, I welcome all those who skipped to the end.
4. Listen to Seinfeld: "This book is filled with funny ideas but you have to provide the delivery. So when you read it, remember: timing, inflection, attitude. That's comedy. I've done my part. The performance is up to you."
Hey, read all you want, but remember, the performance is up to you.