Not too long ago, on a cruise with the family, I learned a lesson about strength training and health from my daughter, Lindsay. I'd argue that it's the single best piece of advice that most of us never follow, and it's probably the key reason most of us are doomed to flatline in our training.
She would wake me up every morning and give me my directions for the day. "Dad, it's Family Feud at 9:00 in the Lido lounge. At 11:00, we need your help with Name That Tune, specifically for Sinatra and anything before 1998. At noon, you're in the belly flop contest, but be back on deck by 1:30 for the chugging contest."
Each day, after consuming enough food, beer, and sun to kill most humans, I'd be part of Team John in several contests. We won gifts like fanny packs, passport holders, and pens... and that is the lesson.
Unlike all my new friends, who headed off to the public health officials within days of our voyage, I came away with a new insight to put towards training: You have to be willing to try new things.
You may already know that, but I'd bet that few actually practice this simple principle. I want to discuss some of the hits and misses I've experienced in the past year.
One important point needs to be made first. Few people experiment as much as I do, and I wrote an entire article to outline the method I use to process new ideas. Re-read the sections, "DJ's Systematic Approach" and "The Rules," for a reminder of how to set yourself up for successful experiments.
First Priority: Health
I've been a fan of Steve Ilg's work for a long time. Not only was he one of Mark Twight's first coaches (Mark trained the actors in 300), but rarely have I read an intellect as clear as Ilg's when it comes to the big picture of training and life.
Ilg recommends a simple device called a Neti pot; a device designed to pour water into one nostril, rinse through the sinus cavity, and flow out the other.
Like many in the intermountain states, my allergies have been worse the past three years for a number of factors. One factor that makes a lot of sense when I train in my backyard is that weeds grow and thrive in warmer year-round temperatures, and that pollen sends me to the Neti pot.
With a light salt solution, I rinse my nose out every morning. My allergy symptoms have improved markedly, but my wife, Tiffini, wants to kill me and demands that I only use it behind a closed and locked door.
In the same spirit of candor, I'd also like to sing the praises of sugar-free orange flavored Metamucil, and I think that my next attempt at the Velocity Diet will be renamed "the V-plus SFOFM Diet."
This stuff mixes well with Metabolic Drive® and turns a protein shake into a creamsicle. One caveat for the traveling dieter: even though Metamucil lists three grams of fiber per serving, it works like 30 grams. Consider this carefully when planning any long drives while experimenting with this new idea.
Fiber and Fish Oil: The Secret Snack
I have a three-part nutrition formula for success.
1. More protein
2. More fiber
3. More fish oil
I take Flameout™ several times a day and I like the higher potency of key ingredients. In the last few months, I've also noted its use for something interesting. One classic bit of advice for dieters has been, "When hungry, drink some water to make sure it's not thirst in disguise."
I've had some of my elite athletes experiment with an even better trick when "hungry" between feedings. Drink a serving of sugar-free orange flavored Metamucil with two or three Flameout caps.
Once again, be wary of long drives for the next 24 hours, but this little "snack" seems to hold hunger at bay. It might be the simple sweet taste, or the thickness of the drink, or the hit of Omega 3's, but it does curb hunger and, honestly, I don't know why.
In the same way that cheat meals seem to readjust leptin levels to reignite fat loss, I think a sweet fiber drink can do a lot to follow the ancient bodybuilder's creed... "stay hungry."
On Dealing With Injuries
I have a basic rule call the "rule of X." Right-handed people like me tend to have an overbalance in favor of their left leg. It's stronger, more stable, and tends to get the workload. The right arm/left leg connection is the "rule of X." Imagine an X with your arms and legs in the middle of a jumping jack.
Like many athletes who throw, I spent many years blocking the left side and whipping the upper body around it, which lead to a technical issue called "I hurt my left hip."
At the Russian kettlebell certification at UCLA, I ran into a number of people with truly freaky shoes, Vibram Five Fingers. Yes, they're too weird to wear in public and far too peculiar for a dignified gentleman of my age. I bought a pair.
About a week after wearing them regularly, I was taking a shower and noticed that my baby toes were gripping the floor. They were awake after years of sleeping. Moreover, my hips simply stopped hurting.
In one week, a yearlong pain ended. I'd gone to doctors, masseuses, and physical therapists, and the best answer I got was from my good friend and former student, Dr. Brunetti. "Ah, coach, you're just old and beat up. Haha." But that still hurt, as I'm ugly, too.
Then came the world's ugliest shoes, and I was fine in a week. Lifting with these shoes seems to spotlight issues with positions and balance points in squats. I can't recommend them enough.
Hypertrophy One Rep at a Time
Fortunately for me, it's a rare day that I don't talk with someone who has figured out something about strength that is going to make my job a lot easier. I often answer the phone and hear, "Dan, this is Pavel." Pavel Tsatsouline is recognized as one of the guys on top of the mountain when it comes to strength and flexibility.
Recently, we had a two-hour discussion and I came away with maybe the "answer" to upper body hypertrophy. I've been taking Pavel's advice about ladders for years in my training.
Ladders are simply taking the same weight and playing with a simple repetition scheme for every set. The most basic is 1-2-3. Let's say you're pressing. Take a weight and press it once. Rest briefly, then press it for a double. Rest again, then press it for three. That's one ladder set.
I'm getting evidence from the width of my shoulders that ladders are also the ticket to size gains. For size, intense volume trumps everything else. The problem was that I just hated doing all those reps that seemed to waste my time.
I admit I have an odd hatred to training this way, as I referenced in my article, I Hate Medium. Yet, I'm convinced that what one of my strength mentors, John McKean, wrote years ago is right on:
"I can speak with some experience in informing other mature lifters (this term speaks to any age where a trainee has acquired good basic strength – [Herman Goerner and Arthur Saxon] were there at 14 years of age, having started heavy lifting when they were 9 or 10!) that peak strength has already been acquired, therefore, only moderate poundage ever need be employed to maintain and even make slight gains!
And the best way to enjoy training, maintain freedom from injury, and keep your marbles without employing complex mathematical formulas for ever-changing lifting percentages (I'm not just being lazy here – I taught math for 32 years!), is to simply stick with constant weightfor long periods of time for your exercises!"
The conversation I had with Pavel solved my dilemma. I didn't need to do ladders with only single digit increments. I could jump the reps up. In other words, I turned ladders into German volume training.
GVT has been around forever, but I loathed 10x10 as much as the next lifter, until my telephone call with Pavel answered the great question of life, the universe, and everything.
The Answer Is...
Let's review my recent workout. With two 53-pound kettlebells, clean the bells once and press them overhead two times. Lower to the floor and rest for a few seconds. Clean the bells once again and press them three times overhead. Rest. On the next "set," press them five times, then briefly rest again. Finally, clean the bells and press them 10 times.
That's twenty repetitions, and not a bad workout by itself. I find myself squeezing hard on reps eight, nine and ten, but nothing's too terrible. I put the bells down, rested a while longer, and then started again at two.
If you do 2-3-5-10 for a total of five sets, you'll have done a total of 100 reps, and your shoulders will be finished for a few days. The upside of this training is that there's very little nervous energy or stress going through the system when you train with this method, unlike 10x10 when you need a force of will to drive through a full workout.
I've found this ideal for all pressing workouts. If you can handle ten pull-ups without too much strain, try it with this, too. Rowing for 100 reps seems risky to me, unless you can maintain quality positions and do quality reps. Please don't try this with any weight or exercise that you're not going to control.
Having warned you, I find that I can use this rep scheme over three workout sessions. It's a great way to build up a lagging lift or upper body issue. Try this simple week-long plan.
Back squat or front squat 2x5
Military press variation 3x2-3-5-10
Pull-up 2x Max reps
Any ab exercise
Back squat or front squat 2x5
Military press variation 5x2-3-5-10
Pull-up 2x Max reps
A different ab exercise
Back squat or front squat 2x5
Military press variation 2x2-3-5-10
Pull-up 2x Max reps
Another different ab exercise
Note how simple the three workouts are, because we're trying to stick with the rules of experimenting. After this sample week, do what you'd consider a "normal" workout and test to see if you're pressing things with more ease.
If you like this little variation, try to slowly add an additional 2-3-5-10 exercise into your training. Pleasedon't go crazy and do 100 reps of five exercises on the first day. That's the kind of thing that idiots like me do. You don't want to do that, okay?
What Have You Learned?
You see, it's important to learn new things. It might not sound like much, but a short experiment with any of these simple ideas might lead you to the next breakthrough of your own in strength and fitness.
I'm not arguing that you should abandon all the wonderful training and health secrets you already cling to each day. I'm simply putting out the idea that some new, simple solutions might be better than continuing to do the same thing over and over again.
For the record, I took second place in the belly flopping contest to some guy wearing a wrestling mask that he had just picked up in Mexico. Congratulations to the champion, but Team John did sweep all the other events.