A Master Swordsman's Advice For Productive Strength Training
One of my favorite books is A Book Of Five Rings by Miyomato Musashi. Musashi was a badass 17th century Japanese swordsman who never lost a duel in over sixty fights. This book outlines his philosophy of success. I re-read it recently and was amazed by how many of his principles apply to a variety of areas in life, including productive strength training.
In this article, I'm going to quote some of Musashi's words of wisdom and demonstrate how they can be applied to your workouts and training goals. Don't worry, I'm not going to recommend that you start throwing ninja stars or wearing a kimono when you workout. Instead I'm going to use Musashi's wisdom as a backdrop to reveal that productive strength training is far more than just working the body.
Let's get started!
"Truth is not what you want it to be. It is what it is, and you must bend to its power or live a lie."
You just had a great workout and feel like a million bucks. Before you head out of the gym you record your workout in your training journal. That's when the brutal truth hits: you haven't made progress all month!
Fortunately, you've been keeping an accurate training log and have some important data to work with. The majority of trainees don't keep a training journal and it's no surprise that they don't make much progress either. Imagine running a business in which you didn't keep accurate records. You have no idea what you're making and what you're spending. You could have the illusion that you're making a big profit when in reality you're just living off past revenue.
Strength coach Charles Poliquin once told me about a study on factory workers. Once the workers were told what their production number was, they started beating the number dramatically. Poliquin says that there's a natural human drive to want to improve when you know what your number is.
This is one of the main reasons why an accurate training log works. It forces you to accept the truth and gives you important info about your workouts. If something isn't working, you'll know and will be able to make the necessary modifications to improve. In addition, who wants to record the same weights and sets at every workout? Just like the factory workers, when you know the number you'll want to beat it.
Tip: Hire a strength coach to review your training journal once a week or at least have a friend that's into training look at it and give you some feedback. Just knowing that someone else will be seeing your training journal will force you to step it up a notch.
Without an accurate training journal you're just shooting in the dark and hoping that you hit your target. It's amazing that trainees will spend tons of money on supplements and yet not take the time to keep a training journal, which costs next to nothing. All you need is a notebook or a file on your computer.
Start keeping a training log today. You'll be amazed at what a big difference it makes in your workouts.
"To build anything quickly and maintain quality means not being disorganized with anything."
Many lifters are impatient when it comes to training and want immediate results. While expecting impressive results after a few workouts isn't practical, you can speed things up by controlling as many factors as possible: nutrition, training, restoration, stress levels, sleep, and accountability.
First, get on a solid training program that targets the goals you want to achieve. Just don't try to accomplish too many goals at the same time. Pick one to two and focus on those, such as adding fifty pounds to your deadlift or ten pounds of muscle.
In addition, take your lifestyle into account. If you're only sleeping five hours per night and are under a lot of stress, now isn't the time to do Charles Staley's EDT program or a dose of German Volume Training. Adjust your training accordingly based on your current situation and you'll make more progress. If you don't have a lot of time, try brief and frequent workouts you can do at home. If you have plenty of time on your hands, then try doing twice-a-day workouts to accelerate your progress.
Second, if you have a solid nutrition plan, you'll have more energy for your workouts and more energy for adequate recovery. Start keeping a nutrition journal and track how many calories you're getting in each day and where they're coming from. If you're not losing fat or getting bigger, your food log will show why.
I've found that many trainees think that they're eating a lot, but when they break it down it doesn't add up to much. I had one of my clients keep track of his caloric intake for a week and he realized that he was only consuming around 2000 calories per day. This is a guy that thought he was eating a ton!
The same works for fat loss. One of my clients thought she had it together until she wrote everything down and realized that she was getting an additional 250 grams of carbs each day from "Jamba Juice" smoothies! Get your nutrition on track and you'll make more progress in the gym. Or just stay in illusion land and hit Mickey Dee's three times a day.
Third, work on additional recovery methods to facilitate faster progress. Try sitting in a Jacuzzi or sauna for twenty minutes after each workout. Get a sports massage once every two weeks and get a power nap in after each workout. Not that you need another reason to do so, but an active sex life is a great way to reduce stress and shouldn't be overlooked.
Fourth, stress is another factor that must be controlled. The more stress you have in your life, the less likely you are to make progress. Meditation is a good idea. You don't have to sit in the lotus position and chant for twenty minutes. Meditation could be a thirty-minute walk to clear your head at the end of the day or it could take the form of stretching or doing joint mobility work to loosen up in the morning or evening. Just incorporate a few activities in your day that help you relax and unwind. Did I mention that an active sex life is a great way to reduce stress?
Finally, make sure you're getting at least eight hours of sleep per night. Some need less and some need more, but erring on the side of more is always a good idea. It's amazing to see athletes that have everything else down, but completely neglect sleep. Four to six hours isn't going to cut it, especially when you're training hard.
Try taking a mineral supplement called ZMA or an amino acid product called "GABA" to help you get some deep REM sleep. Just get ready for some crazy dreams if you take ZMA!
Another thing to do before going to bed is to take a walk around the block. This gives you a chance to think about the day and what you need to do tomorrow. That way, when you hit the sheets, your head is clear and you're all set. A hot shower or twenty minutes in a sauna also works wonders. I've also heard that sex before bedtime works well too.
"You should study all things to broaden your life. You should specialize in several things to polish your life."
Studying a variety of training methods is a good idea because there's a synergy among many schools of thought. A book on the benefits of sandbag training may give you ideas on how to improve your powerlifting routine, and a DVD on kettlebell training may give you some ideas on how to improve your conditioning for combat sports.
While studying a variety of training methods is a great idea, you want to focus on a few things at a time and do them well. If you want to improve your squat, then make that the focal point of your workouts and place other things on maintenance mode. If you need extreme conditioning for mixed martial arts, focus on roadwork or other forms of high intensity cardio and place other things on maintenance mode.
Having a laser-like focus will increase the odds of achieving your goals. Just don't make the mistake of having too many goals at one time. I once had a customer who wanted to compete in powerlifting, Olympic lifting and marathons! She wanted me to design a program to address all of these goals. A "jack of all trades" program isn't the way to be successful.
Pick one goal that's most important to you and go after it. Once you nail that goal, switch gears and go after another one.
"You should avoid becoming too dependent on any single weapon. Keep your options open and remain flexible. Too much dependence on any one thing is just as bad as not depending on anything."
We all have "pet" exercises that we tend to make the focal point of our workouts. For many men, this exercise is the bench press, while women tend to focus on leg exercises. This is why it's difficult to design a program for yourself: you'll have a tendency to focus on exercises that you're naturally good at and avoid exercises that you suck at.
Focusing too much on one exercise is a sure-fire way to acquire overuse injuries and bring progress to a stretching halt. It's a good idea to have several "weapons" to choose from. If you want to improve your bench press, try rotating it with bottom position bench presses, weighted dips, one-arm dumbbell bench presses, and floor presses.
Powerlifting coach Louie Simmons has his athletes rotate exercises frequently. You don't have to be a powerlifter to benefit from this. Try rotating your primary exercises with similar exercises every few weeks to break your dependency on your "pet" movements.
Also, many lifters tend to be overzealous about one training philosophy over another. For example, many trainees belong to the High Intensity Training camp (HIT) and swear by training to failure even though they only made progress with HIT during the first six weeks of the program. They just find it easier to not think and would prefer to do the same program over and over again even if they don't make progress. They care more about the stimulus of training rather than moving forward.
Trainees from other schools of thought think that high volume training is the be-all and end-all and never cycle in lower volume training. As a result, their progress comes to a halt and the pile of overuse injuries they have gets bigger and bigger every year.
Over the years I've tried a variety of training programs and can say that many programs have merit. However, no program will work all of the time. Have fun with training and try a variety of different methods over your training career. In addition to being wiser, you'll have the results to back up your open-minded outlook.
"Business is like the waves of the sea. All things rise and all things fall. You must be able to discern the time that you are in and the time that is approaching."
Ah, if only your entire training career was like the first month you started working out. Remember that? Remember how you got stronger at every workout and you felt like it could go on indefinitely? You did the math and got excited when you had the illusion that you'd be breaking every powerlifting record on the planet by the end of the year.
Unfortunately, reality had a different plan for you and your progress soon slowed and stopped. Fortunately, being the smart trainer that you are, you did some research and came across the concept of "training cycling." This is where you start off way below your best effort and work up to a new personal best over time, then back off again to live another day and grow stronger.
You can't train at full intensity all of the time. Whether you plan to or not, you'll cycle your training. You can either proactively do it by mapping out a training cycle that gradually builds up to high intensity or high volume and then backs off, or simply attempt to train all-out at every session. The latter will cause the inevitable demon of overtraining to enter your training world and you'll be forced to back off or continue to work hard to get weaker at every session.
I recommend that you take Musashi's advice and realize that everything goes up and down. You have to know when you're in an intense phase and maximize the window of opportunity, and know when to back off and prepare for the next wave of training progress. Failure to pay attention to these cycles will leave you in the land of mediocrity and weakness.
You don't have to get overly technical with training cycling. Take some advice from powerlifter and T-Nation contributor Jack Reape and apply a back-off week for every three weeks of hard training. For example, try the 5 x 5 protocol for three weeks and then switch to 2 x 5 with 85% of the weight that you were using for a week. In week five you'll be refreshed and ready to roll.
"Only intense training and experience will teach you to recognize the difference between what is important and what is meant to distract."
Nothing can take the place of real world experience. I can tell newbies they should avoid doing ten sets for biceps and triceps three times a week and focus on compound exercises instead, but very few will take my advice. They just can't help it and have to find out the hard way that over-focus on isolation work isn't the most efficient way to get bigger and stronger.
In order to make gains, you have to put in some time and pay your dues. You have to experiment with a variety of programs and discover what works best for you. More than likely, this will be a lifelong process, and if you're smart and open-minded you'll continue to discover new ways to maximize your training progress. Expecting to find the ultimate program in your first year of training is like expecting to start a business and earn a million dollars in your first year. It's just not likely to happen.
Wisdom comes with experience and there's just no way around that. After you put in a few years of concerted effort in the gym and in researching proper training and nutrition, you'll be well on your way to separating yourself from the weak masses. Take your time with training and realize that it's a lifelong endeavor. Learn to enjoy the process and the learning experience and you'll be able to train productively much longer.
"Overuse of power isn't a good thing. If you cut with the mind of being very strong, your cut will be crude and sloppy. It is almost impossible to consistently win by relying on strength alone."
Making progress in your workouts is about more than just making your muscles stronger.
The more you learn how to engage your mind (specifically, your central nervous system) the stronger and bigger you'll get.
Look at any person that trains with heavy loads and you'll see a serious demonstration of focus and determination. A great deal of productive strength training is mental and the more you learn how to use psychology to maximize your training progress, the more efficient and productive your workouts will become.
In addition, using more power and effort than is necessary to get the job done is a waste of energy. If an Olympic lifter uses too much power on the clean and jerk, his form will be sloppy and he'll most likely miss the lift. If he doesn't use enough power, the bar won't go from point A to point B. When he uses just the right amount of power to get the job done, he makes the effort look easy. That's the sign of a true professional. As your technique improves and your experience increases, you'll learn how to channel the right amount of effort in your workouts to get the job done.
To increase focus, only work with others that are as serious as you are with regards to training. No chitchat about the weekend in between sets and definitely no talking during sets except for some words of motivation to push you along. Get focused and think about what you're doing before you do it. The more you practice the more it'll become second nature.
"The truth is that victory comes by manipulating the circumstances to your advantage."
Many people tend to live their lives by simply reacting to whatever comes their way. People who fall into this category are never the ones that do anything exceptional with their lives. Successful people are far more pro-active and can see several moves ahead. They've learned how to stack the deck in their favor and maximize circumstances to move forward.
You have to learn how to do the same thing with your workouts. If you have an arm injury, do you use it as an excuse to skip working out? Or do you see this as an opportunity to work on your spindly legs?
You just started a new job and only have time for a few thirty-minute workouts per week. Do you decide you're better off not working out at all or do you decide that this is a great time to streamline your program and do only big basic exercises like squats, pull-ups and deadlifts? Go with the latter and you may find that something odd happens. Because you have less time, you have to focus on the exercises that'll give you the most bang for your buck. As a result, you make more progress than when you had all of the time in the world.
Winners find a way to win and losers will always find a way to lose. You're either one or the other. As one of my mentors told me, "You can either make money or make excuses, but you can't do both." Well, you can either make training progress or make excuses, but you can't do both!
"The proper speed at which to execute a technique should flow of its own accord."
There's an ongoing debate in the training world about optimal tempo speed. Here's interesting way to look at it: Why not let the weight decide what the speed should be? If it's light, lift the weight with solid form as quickly as possible. If the weight is heavy, attempt to lift it as fast as possible as well.
What'll happen? You'll learn how to get faster with lightweights and will build strength and size with heavier weights due to the time under tension. Moreover, moving the weight quickly recruits more fast twitch muscles, and the faster you are the stronger you can get. Don't believe me? Look at the difference between the body types on sprinters versus marathon runners. Case closed!
Even though you're still attempting to move the heavier weights rapidly, the laws of gravity have another plan for you and you'll benefit accordingly. I'm not saying that varying tempo doesn't work; I just think that more focus should be placed on lifting weights instead of worrying about tempo.
Frankly, if you have the mental time to think about tempo while you're lifting a weight, then it isn't heavy enough to do you any good. Focus on using good technique and let the weight dictate the speed.
"Those who have missed the mark may chatter all day long about this and that, but they have never done anything. Anyone can make a good argument, but few can show good results."
There's a saying that those who can't do, teach. Well, that may be true, but I doubt that they teach very well. There's another saying: "Talk is cheap." Anyone can read some books on training, attend a few lectures, and have the academic training background down. However, few can get their hands dirty, get some real world experience, and learn from their mistakes to achieve successes.
Sure, learning from others via books, lectures and articles is great. However, if that's all you do, then you're just talking from a place of theory rather than application and practice. Where am I going? If you want to be a champion powerlifter, hire a powerlifting coach who has demonstrated clearly that his methods work through his own achievements and the achievements of his athletes. Want to build a strong muscular physique without using steroids? Find someone who has the training knowledge and results you're after and work with that person.
Of course, just because someone has results doesn't necessarily mean he's a good teacher. Regardless, in life what you see is often what you get. I'd rather hire someone that has both the knowledge and the results than one or the other. In other words, find a good teacher and a good student and you're on the right path.
Interested in more Musashi wisdom? Start by purchasing D.E. Tarver's translation of A Book Of Five Rings. While it might not inspire you to take up sword lessons, if you apply the wisdom to your workouts, you'll maximize your time in the gym and become a wise trainee.