A couple of days ago, my friend and occasional workout partner, Dan Fouts, said something interesting, "Danny, you just hate medium, don't you?"
I answered, "Now, why do you say that?"
"Because, you always say, 'I just hate medium.'"
It's funny because it's true. Talk to any police officer and ask if the force likes this description: "Medium height, medium build, with medium hair." Imagine your daughter coming home from college announcing she's found the love of her life and describing him as "mediocre in every way, but poor or excellent in nothing."
Thanks to Alwyn Cosgrove and Joshua Hillis, a quote of mine has been running around the internet for a while:
"Fat loss is an all-out war. Give it 28 days – only 28 days. Attack it with all you have. It's not a lifestyle choice; it's a battle. Lose fat and then get back into moderation. There's another one for you: moderation. Revelation says it best: 'You are lukewarm and I shall spit you out.' Moderation is for sissies."
Now, Gentle Reader, I have to warn you: I acknowledge that I'm probably wrong about my issues with medium workouts, medium training, and moderation in all things.
Actually, I know I'm wrong.
But, there are dozens of fine authors, coaches, and trainers out there urging you to keep a balance in your diet, your training, and your life, and, well, most of us don't listen to them either.
Hesiod, the Greek historian, noted, "Observe due measure, moderation is best in all things." Yeah, but what could Hesiod bench press? Plato, noted for underperforming in the squat, said, "We should pursue and practice moderation."
"What Was the Goal?"
Here's my issue: Every four years or so, I start getting emails. Not long ago, I received this thing called a "letter" with something called a "stamp" on it.
Anyway, the messages are dire.
Hard working, intelligent, genetically gifted athletes who've just competed at the Olympic trials write to tell me that after four years of hard work, on the day that it mattered most, "I just didn't have it."
Now, "Have what?" is the best question to follow up with at this point, but I know exactly what they mean.
When I ask about their training programs, they often send back literally dozens of pages of charts, graphs, diaries, programs, projects, and spreadsheets. It's easy to deal with all the paper, as I simply ask one question:
Picking a random month or time period, "What was the goal of October, 2007?"
I always get an intelligent follow-up:
Ah yes, that month, we were trying to focus on:
The Olympic lifts
Learning new drills
Increasing muscle mass
And, you can see why these athletes fail.
The Two Principles
Let's review the two great principles of strength and conditioning:
1. Everything works.
2. Everything works, but for only so long.
Oh, don't ignore number one, here: Everything works. Yep, everything. That's why sometimes we find that radically changing our workouts leads to remarkable body composition changes in a short time.
Say, for example, you're like me and think that long, slow running is really a method of getting information out of terrorists, but after reading John McCallum's The Complete Keys to Progress, you decide to add a little running to your training. Just going from one lap without stopping to a mile without stopping will drop fat off your body over a few weeks as quickly as those deadly cocktails of rat poison that some underground fat loss experts touted.
"You may have abs, but I'm decomposing!"
A few weeks later, at a party, someone will note you look "leaner" or, worse, "better." This will get you to run until your knees ache, you lose muscle, and your body comp is actually worse than when you started.
You see, remember number two, too: Everything works, but for only so long.
When Everything Means Nothing
So yeah, it all works. Nautilus training really developed my pecs and biceps. Jogging can really help with fat loss. Joining a gymnastics team will help your strength and flexibility. Doing ultimate fighting will help with all kinds of things.
But, doing everything all at once will destroy you.
You see, to do everything at once, you have to be lousy at everything. To be great, you have to focus on very few things – most of us can barely handle more than one.
Don't believe me? Ask an elite sprinter to try another event. There are 100-meter runners who won't run the 200 meter because they "don't want to be embarrassed." Now, they'll run a time faster than anyone you've ever met, but it'll be an "embarrassment" for the athlete not to post an elite time.
But, we all fall into this trap.
Highs and Lows
The best summary of training I've ever heard was from Charlie Francis at the clinic I attended this spring. Most people's problem is this:
"Their highs are too low and their lows are too high."
I've been as guilty as anyone in taking potshots at the High Intensity Training crowd (c'mon, they call themselves "Jedis"), but the original work of Arthur Jones still demands respect.
Years ago, I had an interesting conversation with an eyewitness at the original training facility who told me that Jones nearly had to use firearms to get people to train the second time. Screaming, threatening, cajoling, and inspiring didn't seem to work in getting people to attempt to go to that level of pain again.
Here are two leg workouts done by Casey Viator, reported by Stephan Wedan.
The first workout observed:
Leg press – 460 pounds x 25 reps
Leg extension – 200 pounds x 22 reps
Squat – 400 pounds x 17 reps
On June 10, he did the following:
Leg press – 750 pounds x 20 reps
Leg extension – 225 pounds x 20 reps
Squat – 502 pounds x 13 reps
These were done back to back to back without rest between sets. This isn't a medium day. These highs are high.
Dr. Arthur De Vany has some more insights based on early human activities. He recently had a great interview here at Testosterone.
My favorite part of the interview was his few words on cardio work:
My cardio is the fast pace of my workout. And it's sprinting in a field or on a stationary bike. I alter the pace intermittently. I never put in the miles or time on a treadmill. It's boring and worthless.
Look at joggers and distance runners. They aren't slender, they simply have no muscle mass. They're weak, they can't generate power, and in spite of their slender appearance, joggers aren't lean. The average body fat content of jogging club members was 22 percent in one study. Anything above 13% is deleterious.
I wouldn't jog for health, but playful runs are wonderful. Vary the speed and terrain and you have a really great activity that's fun and healthful. Routinized jogging is factory work, not natural activity. If you log long miles on a track, I believe you're compromising your health.
De Vany's point leads us directly to the second part of Charlie Francis's insight: "Their lows are too high."
Call them "off days," "easy days," "recovery days," or whatever you like, but the bulk of the people I work with miss the point entirely on these "days."
I used to allow my athletes "easy days," but an interesting thing started to happen. I won't name the guilty, but I had an elite athlete, in some ways the single best athlete I've ever worked with, who once came to me the afternoon of a major championship and told me, "You won't believe my workout yesterday."
Yesterday, I thought? Yesterday was the last of three easy days.
He went on, "The weights felt so light, I did a 425 bench press for five. Unbelievable. It felt effortless." The goal for the day was a single with 335, but, like he said, "the weights felt so light."
He then went out and had the single worst track and field performance I've ever witnessed. He left it all in the gym the afternoon before the meet. His low was too high.
Breaking the Addiction
Most of us have a form of addiction to training, so off days are nearly impossible.
I've lost athletes to off days of playing pickup basketball games and twisting ankles, broken arms in backyard football games, and frostbite to an off day of cross country skiing (a strength athlete in a long-distance snow activity... please help me here).
Joshua Hillis, in his brilliant blog, had an insight that hits the mark for those of us with training addiction. Two days a week, he recommends that your "workout" is preparing all the meals for the week. He notes that Sunday and Wednesday work very well for this. I agree.
These days serve two purposes:
1. You'll eat the way you say you'll eat. I don't care what diet you're on, sticking to it is the key. If you do Atkins, don't eat chips. If you store everything you need for each meal, you're going to reach for the meal rather than the chips.
2. This might be more important: The time it takes to shop, prepare, cook, and store will take the place of your usual training period. Besides locking your nutrition down, you'll also insure that your off day is – how does one explain this – off!
Josh then goes on to recommend two strength days a week and two killer workouts along the lines of my article on Fat Loss in Four Minutes.
You know, for someone contemplating losing fat, I can't imagine a more perfect week. Two days of locking down nutrition, two days of lifting, and a total of eight minutes getting the system to burn fat. Oh, and the other day? Have some fun. Life is more than just all of this nonsense.
Twice a Week Ain't All That Bad
The idea of lifting twice a week is actually quite sound. A few years ago because of my life taking the lead over my training, I dropped down to two days a week.
The original plan was simply this:
Soon, it became evident that I should bench on Saturdays, too, and we dropped the cleans.
8 x 5
10 x 135
10 x 225
10 x 315
Max reps with 335
8 x 2
10 x 135
10 x 225
10 x 315
Max reps with 365
In a six week period, my lifts went through the roof (a nice 405 bench wearing a polo shirt and khaki pants) and I threw the discus very far.
It was such a good program I continue to wonder why I didn't keep doing it!
And Here We Are...
To recap, so far:
1. I dislike medium training.
2. I like really hard training, but you can't do it every day.
3. I'd like to recommend easy days and off days, but few people really take them easy or off.
Which leads us where? This is why "medium training" is so popular. Five sets of ten or five sets of five can be done year in and year out, especially if you don't squat, clean, or deadlift.
But, these workouts have great value. The "virtues" of medium lifting are:
- We used to use a word in lifting called "tonic." It means that a workout tends to refresh you, inspire you, and keep you in the game. After doing a few months of vomit-inducing training with Arthur Jones, you'll find joy in doing curls for five sets of ten.
- Medium workouts hold onto strength and fitness (or whatever we call it this week). You'll "stay in shape" like your P.E. coach used to say. You won't drop too far down having these tonic fun workouts.
- The best part of medium training is that it's repeatable. It's also its curse. But, it's nice to have a workout that you know you could do again for weeks, if the situation should arise. The curse is that most people do the same lousy workouts for years at a time.
- A few years ago, I did Pavel's "Forty Day Workout" where I did the basic movements, sets, and reps every workout for forty workouts. I'd go as heavy or light as I felt. The key is that there was no emotional "buy in" to do the workouts. I just went into my home gym, did the movements, and walked out. I often didn't even take the plates off the bars. Sometimes, it's nice to just go train and not have to spend an hour psyching yourself to get ready.
Notice that all the boons of medium training are also fraught with its problems. Medium workouts, also known as "submaximal training," can lead to long periods of flat-lined training, which may or may not be a bad thing. Just remember what your primary goals are at the end of all of this work.
So, what did I tell our elite Olympic athletes? Basically, I told him the same things I tell you here at T-Nation:
- Instead of taking four years to drop fat, take 28 days and do the Velocity Diet. Can't do it? Then why do you think you have the discipline to train for four years?
- Instead of taking four years to tweak your flexibility, go to a Bikram yoga studio and sign up for the thirty day challenge. Let the coaching, the heat, and the yoga get you more flexible. Can't do it? Then why do you think you have the discipline to train for four years?
- Master the Olympic lifts. Take some time with a good coach and compete in a few meets. I strongly suggest getting as strong as you can the year before an Olympic year, then coast through the big year with your foundation. Can't do it? Then why do you think you have the discipline to train for four years?
You know, I could go on, but you see the point.
In the end, the message is:
- Everything works. But, it's well worth your time getting good at something.
- Everything works, but for only so long. When you add something new to your program, it'll improve you. Be sure to double check a few weeks or months later to see if it's still working or, as often happens, actually hurting you.
- Instead of "off days" or "easy days," consider prep days where, like Josh Hillis explains, you take care of the other side of good training: good nutrition.
- There's a place for those "punch the clock" workouts where you do everything in the middle ranges. Just be sure to plan on punching it up often, too.