A little while ago, Alwyn Cosgrove wrote an article about Five Ah-Ha! Moments he had when it came to training and suggested others do the same. I thought it was a good idea, so I'm following his lead and listing five "ah-ha!" moments myself.
These are moments of clarity when you (hopefully) have a deeper insight into an aspect of training and the info just falls from the lifting heavens into the right place.
1. Supersets are Always Better than Combination Exercises
A superset is when you do one set of an exercise and then do another set of a different exercise with no rest. They're normally made using opposite or unrelated muscle groups. Say, biceps curls and skull crushers, or bench press and abdominal work.
A combination exercise is when you take two separate exercises and try to combine them, like a lunge and a lateral raise or a front squat and a military press (the latter is usually called a thruster). The big problem with combination exercises is that, invariably, the weight used on one part of the lift is too light. For example, in the front squat combined with the military press, you should be able to front squat a lot more than you can military press, so by default you're undertraining the front squat.
A more effective way is to do a set of front squats followed immediately by a set of military presses, using the appropriate weight for each. Sure, there's a bit more coordination required to combine a front squat with a military press, but people forget that there's also more coordination required to front squat an extra 50 pounds.
This is a superior way of training because not only will you rapidly get better at the two separate exercises since you're using the appropriate weight for each, but you'll get better at combining the exercises if you ever choose to do that. If you can lunge and lateral raise some nice numbers, with five minutes of practice you'll be able to do a lunge combined with a lateral raise with a good chunk of iron. But, the person who just practices that combination exercise will be lacking in one of those exercises.
Other than the clean and jerk, I can't think of two exercises that when combined would be more effective than when supersetted. In addition, the benefits of increased heart rate and elevated metabolism will be even greater with the superset method than the combination method, but the total time spent lifting should be pretty similar.
Put it to the test in the gym and see what you think. Do you like combining exercises or supersetting them?
So what'll it be?
2. Train Abs First
Conventional wisdom says to train abs last because they're stabilizers and we don't want our stabilizers to be fatigued during other exercises. Yeah, I buy that. But for me and a lot of my clients and students, training abs first flat out works better.
I don't really enjoy training abs, but I like to train everything else. Once I'm finished training the good stuff and just have abs left, I have nothing to look forward to. Plus, I'm tired from the workout and may not have as much time left as I'd like. So what happens? I either half-ass it through the ab workout, cut it short, or just skip it all together.
I started training abs first while I'm fresh so I can go hard on 'em. I still have something to look forward to after, so instead of not wanting to hit abs, I like doing them. Sort of like the kid who holds his nose and begrudgingly eats his veggies just to get to the ice cream. So basically, I never skip them now.
On top of that, my performance hasn't suffered at all; I can still bench heavy with tired abs. Abs recover super fast, and the more trained they are, the quicker they recover. Even when moving on to legs after training abs, I spend enough time warming up for squats that my abs are no longer fatigued. For example, I'll do abs, bike for five minutes, then do some dynamic stretches, and by that time my abs are fine.
If you have a super heavy leg day scheduled then don't train abs that day. But that's probably once a week so you should still be able to train 'em with a pretty high frequency (I like two to four times a week). Plus, I've gotten better visible results doing it this way, so it's a win-win situation.
3. 500 Meter Rows are an Underutilized Predictor of Performance
In my school, we do periodic fitness tests to see where the students are and what kind of progress they're making. Thus, we want to know that the students are capable of administering these tests on their clients. One of the tests we do is a 500 meter row, performed on the Concept 2 rowing machine (sometimes called an ergometer).
Rowers measure their pace by their 500 meter speed. While a runner would say, "I run an eight-minute mile," a rower would say, "I maintained a 1:40 500/m pace." Most rowing events last five minutes or more (2,000 meters is the most common) and are pretty aerobic. But the 500 meter row is more like a sprint. It'll take most men less than two minutes and most women less than 2:30, but it's long enough so that you can't just blast away full speed from the start. It's similar to a 400 or 800 meter run.
I like the row for several reasons. First, it's easy to do. There's about a five-minute learning curve, assuming the person is properly instructed. You can bust your ass as soon as you feel comfortable. It's easier to learn than the elliptical machine for most people (which is pretty easy). The row, since it's seated, doesn't have a bias against the heavier athletes like most cardio tests do. In fact, heavier athletes, to a point, will have a benefit because they can exert more power.
In real indoor rowing competitions, they have weight classes of under 165 pounds and over 165 pounds to even the field (135 pounds is the separation point for women). The heavyweights almost always do better.
There's a big element of power in the row, so it isn't just pure cardio. Traditional aerobic athletes are too weak to excel in a lot of sporting activities. To be a solid rower you need strong aerobic and muscular systems. On the flip, strong but out of shape athletes will tire quickly during the row and get a poor score (puking after a brutal 500 meter row isn't uncommon, even if you're in decent shape). This would indicate that their VO2 max isn't high enough and might be holding them back.
The row is a nice combination of aerobic power and strength. I've noticed that the males who do well in the row can usually do a double bodyweight deadlift. The proficient females are often good at deadlifts and pull-ups and yet still have a strong aerobic system, often being mighty fine runners. The row also doesn't put as much stress on the joints as running does, so many people who have injuries can still row.
If you're curious about times, on Concept 2's website they have the world records for different age classes and bodyweights. There's also a percentile ranking of everyone who's entered their information so you can see how you rank.
For some simple guidelines for active people under the age of 50, here's what I use:
World record (heavyweight)
World record (lightweight)
So if your sport requires a combination of power and conditioning, like most do, give the 500 meter row test a try and see where you fall. You might find it helps predict athletic performance as well as some of the other measures used.
4. How to Gain Weight
If you want to gain weight, and mainly muscle, eat a lot of the following foods: whole milk, whole eggs, potatoes, and nuts. Everybody already knows about lean meats so I don't think I need to slap you with a chicken breast to refresh your memory.
Drink whole milk, not skim or 1%. You need the fat for additional calories, and remember that fat helps create hormones, like Testosterone. Low fat diets (< 20%) promote lower Testosterone levels. The same is true for whole eggs. About half of the protein is in the yolk, along with all of the vitamins and minerals and all of the fat. And some of the fat in the yolk (especially free-range, high-quality eggs) is the healthy stuff. Keep in mind, most studies show that the cholesterol in eggs doesn't raise your blood cholesterol.
Eat your eggs, yolk and all.
Potatoes, along with sweet potatoes, are an easy, cheap, and damn tasty source of quality carbs. I know they have a high glycemic index (GI), but I don't care. They always give me long-lasting energy in the gym, and when combined with other proteins and fats, their GI is lower. As for nuts, these little packages of nature's goodness are very dense in calories and nutrients. I try to eat one can of nuts a week when I'm gaining weight.
Stock up on the above foods, watch the scale (it needs to be going up), and you should be able to gain weight.
5. Use a Tube or Band to Measure Squat Depth
The squat is a tough exercise because you don't "know" when you've hit the proper depth. To fix that issue and avoid having someone call out the right depth for every rep, set up a tube going across the power rack so that every time the lifter comes down their butt will touch it. That way they'll learn what the proper depth feels like.
You can set the tube at whatever height you want for your particular goals. The tube should be tight enough so that it makes a straight line across the power rack, but not so tight that the lifter is tempted to bounce or rebound off of it. You can tie knots in the tube or loop it around something if it's too long. At no point should the lifter have to walk over the tube with weights on their shoulders. Just step over the tube as you're getting into position to unrack the weight and step back normally.
The one negative of the tube from a safety point of view is that often you have to have the safety racks set low because that's what the tube is attached to. At this height, the racks are too low for safety so you either need one or more good spotters. If your gym has multiple squat racks, you can steal a second pair of the safety racks and put them at the right height.
An exercise band set up in the squat rack.
6. Stability Exercises Use Fewer Muscles, Not More
Nah, I didn't fail Mrs. Johnston's math class, this is a bonus one just 'cause.
Maybe you're thinking "stability exercises use fewer muscles" is just a bold statement to get your attention, but it's partially true. Stability exercises are exercises where you do a traditional exercise in a less than stable environment, like stability ball dumbbell presses, standing on a Bosu ball, or doing something on one leg. Most people assume that performing an exercise in that fashion makes the muscles work harder.
That isn't necessarily the case.
It's true that most stability exercises will work your distal stabilizing muscles more. For example, your legs and obliques will work more on a stability ball dumbbell press than on a regular dumbbell press on a bench. But as for the main muscles, like the pecs in that example, they'll work less. So you'll be using less of the agonist muscle on stability exercises, not more.
This is because when the body detects instability at the joint it shuts down the muscles that are crossing the joint. It does this to protect itself. If the joint is unstable but maximum muscular force is generated, the chance of injury skyrockets.
This is pretty easy to see: Picture a standing dumbbell military press. How much weight can you do for five reps? Now do the same thing but stand on one leg. Can you use the same weight? No, your dumbbells have lost a few pounds. Your delts and triceps didn't change, but the instability from standing on one leg transferred up to the shoulder, and the body won't let you recruit the same number of motor units to the do the task.
You made the exercise "harder," but that may not be the brightest idea. If your goal is maximum strength or size, you want to recruit as many motor units as possible. This is why most "big" exercises put the body in a stable position to allow the muscles to work as hard as possible.
You can also feel this effect take place by doing pull-ups. Start by doing a pull-up and then take one finger away from each hand. You can probably do a four-finger pull-up okay, but when you get to three or two fingers on each hand you can pull and pull but you likely aren't going anywhere.
A one-finger pull-up is extremely impressive.
What happened? Your lats are the same, as are you biceps, rear delts, and everything else working in a pull-up. Your fingers will have stayed bent, but it'll "feel" like you just can't pull yourself up. Only having a few fingers on the bar weakened your grip and led to instability in the surrounding joints. This, in turn, caused some of the muscle power you can generate to be shut off.
Now, I'm not saying that stability exercises are inherently bad or that they should never be used. But it's worth mentioning that while some muscles do work harder in an unstable exercise, it isn't normally the big muscles that you're trying to train. This is why bodybuilders will shy away from stability exercises because they know that they won't get great aesthetic results from them.
Seeing Slightly Clearer Now
Now you've copped a look into my training moments of clarity. As I'm sure you've experienced, there's no timetable for these things, just appreciate them when they happen.