My wife, Tiffini, has been working in banking since before we met in 1987. Today she's a bank examiner, and yes, she complains every time we watch It's a Wonderful Life.
Just as I roll my eyes when I watch a football movie starring geeky actors who couldn't play in a Powder Puff league, she also rolls her eyes dismissively over the errors of the evil bank examiners in the movie.
The upside of marrying an intelligent woman with financial expertise is that you marry an intelligent woman with financial expertise. And after we combine her career choice with the fact that I can barely add two single-digit numbers together, I let Tiff handle the money in our family.
For the record, whenever I ask about how much money I have, she says, "Honey, you have one hundred dollars." That seems about right.
Anyway, it only makes sense that the key concept I hold in training would be stolen from the financial world. I insist on a concept I call Physical Capital. It's simply this: Physical Capital is the sum of all your training, nutrition, and recovery "tools."
(Now, I call them recovery tools, but honestly, most of us sleep without giving a ton of consideration to the importance that sleep holds in muscle building and fat burning. "Good night, dear, let's really drive out catabolic forces from our bodies for the next eight hours!")
I don't think there's anyone who would disagree with the concept of Physical Capital. In fact, I'm sure that I don't go nearly far enough encompassing the concept. There are certainly emotional, financial, social, and genetic factors that lend themselves to success for any and all of your goals. If you want to go to an Ivy League school and both dad and grandpa (graduates of said school) are also the largest donors to the school, there's a chance you might just get a break at admissions.
So, Physical Capital is an account that all of us can add to every day in some different way. I attend workshops, buy tons of books, experiment with supplements, and visit forums on the Internet way too much to not be considered a geek. Which leads me to an issue: when you write on forums about lifting, soon you become an "expert."
It's a rare day when I don't get at least one email asking me for a program. For what? Well, it can be for fat loss or discus throwing or "looking good nekkid" or whatever, but nearly every day, some nice person asks me to design them a foolproof three to six week program to take them from "skinny fat" to Mr. Universe. For the record, that would take nearly seven weeks, but "for you, well, we can have this done in five!"
The problem with these emails is twofold: First, I don't believe in the correspondence course approach to coaching. Second, and more important, there are literally dozens of problems with a cookie cutter (or an email cut and paste) training program. Before I can even begin helping my email writer, there are dozens of questions that have to be asked. And, with apologizes to Wittgenstein and my philosophy instructors, I also have to ask the questions behind the questions.
It sounds so simple when I ask them:
1. What is your max front squat, deadlift, snatch, and bench press?
2. Do you know how to do a front squat, deadlift, snatch, and bench press?
3. What have you eaten for breakfast the last thirty mornings?
Question number two is the killer. You see, generally, before we can even begin ramping up a training program, my athletes have to have a basic level of mastery in all the Olympic lifts and power lifts. Then, after a basic mastery of the lifts, my emailing friend needs to know his maximum effort on these lifts. And this simple question, "What's your max?" is the first problem to solve when I try to help an athlete. What is a max?
This is Physical Capital. You know how to perform the lifts, but can you do them at a level appropriate to your goals? So then, what is a max?
Well, recently, I was sitting with Mark Twight at dinner. If you don't know Mark, there's a chance you never climbed a mountain. If you do, yes, it was that Mark Twight. Mark is a genius in training athletes, most recently the cast of 300. If you don't know about 300, well, find out. I mean, really, this is Testosterone Nation, isn't it?
As usual, Mark and I were talking about getting to the next level in performance. Mark told me about a workout that he has his athletes doing, a "three bar deadlift" workout. Let's set this up exactly as you would need to do it.
Load three bars:
One with 95% of your best deadlift.
The next with 90% of your best deadlift.
The third with 85% of your best deadlift.
Mark's athletes would then do a single with the first bar (95%), then step over to the second and do a double (90%), and finally step back and do a triple with the last bar (85%). The idea of the workout would be to do up to three of these clusters.
Before you rush off to do this workout, please sit up and pay attention. I asked Mark an intelligent follow-up question, "Um, whoa, how uh...?"
You see, I looked at this workout through one lens and Mark looked at it through another. With Mark's athletes – who are serious asskickers in the dojo, the field, and the mountains – this workout was doable. For someone who lives in the weightroom, this workout might put you in the hospital! Why?
It's those words, Bestand. Max. I know that everyone "knows" exactly what that means, but I don't think so!
From "Sorta Max" to "Max Max Max"
First, let's look at four highly scientific terms that I use on a daily basis:
Max Max Max
The Sorta Max
Not long ago, I heard Dave Tate speak and he basically said that most programs he reads are, and I quote, "full of shit." It takes an elite powerlifter maybe fifty weeks to build up to something like a 95% lift. Yet all of us read programs where athletes are asked to do 90% of this or that for 8 sets of 10.
Folks, that 90% isn't 90%.
I agree with Dave completely. Most people have a "Sorta Max." A Sorta Max is a concept that I came up with a while ago when people were telling me about what their "max's" were in various lifts. Sorta Max is that heavy lift you do in the gym and call it a day. And, I must say this, hats off to you, you deserve it, here you go: good for you. That's great, nothing wrong with it. It's the heavy "today" max, if you will.
For many of us, we occasionally have a good day and nail a big lift, or in some cases, just have a great performance. That's where most people hail their "max" numbers.
One time, I was asked to show a dip to a roomful of young women. The other instructor said, "Just do as many as you can." Now, usually, more than five dips for me is considered a marathon effort worthy of a good Gatorade dousing and tears of accomplishment. But, before a roomful of women, I knocked off a nice 35 reps. That's my max... and I ain't going to be doing that every day, thank you very much.
The Max Max
Max Max is the next step. That's that top end lift that maybe you spent the better part of a few months building up to with some kind of organized program. For the record, that's exactly what my best bench press reflects.
John Price and I decided at least three times that both of us needed to bench press 405 – four big plates per side – and focused on the bench for two workouts a week. John's program, which I followed to its exacting principles, was this:
Monday: Bench Press
135 for 10
225 for 10
315 for 10 (if you can)
More weight – 335 or so for 10 or as many
Thursday: Bench Press
135 for 10
225 for 10
315 for 10
365 for as many
With this highly scientific approach, I usually benched 405 by the fourth week. The last time I did this, I bench pressed 405 in a polo shirt and a pair of khakis.
If I would have ever spent more than a month working on the bench, I'm sure I could have done more. But, for me, 405 is/was my Max Max. A few weeks of training focused on one lift and I made a good number.
In my opinion, the Max Max is the most underappreciated measure in sports and training. It's simply what you can do with some effort. If all your Max Max numbers are at a good level for your goals and interests, I can practically promise you that you have achieved a solid level in your chosen field. Maybe not the best, but you're good.
The Max Max Max
Now, it should be obvious where Max Max Max is heading. This is a number that takes a lot of commitment and a lot of time to achieve. You'll probably need to do it in competition. All my top lifts are done in competition. Why? Well, there's usually a story.
Why a 628 deadlift? Because after I pulled 606, a bunch of other guys missed, and then one or two went up and made a big show of missing something a bit heavier. So, I wanted to make sure there was no question: I took the next poundage (628) and made it. For days later, I felt lousy throughout my body and decided, "Hmm, that's enough for me."
Really, my best deadlift could have been more... and, honestly, less. But the circumstances led to the choice of weight as much as any intelligent training program on my part.
So, Max Max Max might be a lifetime achievement that you planned for decades or, like me, you simply stumbled around long enough to do something "max-worthy." And that's the issue.
Back to the Three Bar Deadlift
Now, let's get back to Mark and me at dinner. You see, I "heard" Max Max Max, and Mark was talking about Sorta Max. Mark's athletes deadlift around 300. So, the three bars would look like this:
One bar with 285 (I'm rounding the numbers to reflect easy plate selections)
One bar with 265
One bar with 245
Twelve 45 pound plates
Two 25 pound plates
Six 10 pound plates
Two 5 pound plates
Maybe more than a home gym would have, but most gyms would have this many plates.
My workout idea, based on my Max Max Max:
One bar with 605
One bar with 575
One bar with 545
Thirty-two 45 pound plates
Two 35 pound plates
Two 25 pound plates
Two 10 pound plates
Two 5 pound plates
Hmmm, that's interesting. I don't need that many 5's or 10's, but thirty-two 45's? That would clear out many collegiate athletic team gyms!
Now, let's simply look at load. If Mark's athlete did his workout three times through (18 total reps), the tonnage would be 3650 pounds. If I did the workout through once (six total reps), the tonnage would be 3390 pounds... nearly the same load at one-third the volume!
I realize the numbers are boring, but most of us need to look at these numbers carefully. Why? Well, when you read an article at T-Nation and go back to Golden Spa 23/7, how do you determine how much weight you're going to lift? Do you simply just strut over to the Duo DynaBiceps Machine and pull the selector into "D," or do you pull out a calculator to decide whether to use the 18 pound dumbbell or the 20 pounder?
Do you remember how simple the question was back in the beginning: What's your max front squat, deadlift, snatch, and bench press?
So, here's the question: Is your bodyweight front squat a Sorta Max, Max, Max Max, or Max Max Max? Doing a six week front squat program designed to add ten percent (guaranteed!) to your max probably won't work if you're an elite lifter. Imagine the letter:
After doing your miracle Bench Press Protocol, the BPP, I went from a 1000 pound bench to 1100 in just six weeks. I had never considered the importance of [fill in appropriate new miracle training idea or supplement here] until I tried your program.
Let's be honest, to up your bench to 1100 might take (for some of our readers anyway) almost twelve weeks, double my imaginary program.
So, to understand the concept of Physical Capital, the first twin issues are:
1. Do you know how to do the exercises listed in standard training programs?
2. Do you at least have something beyond a "Sorta Max" for these exercises? Yes, it may take a few months of focus on each of the basic moves to progress to those carefully scientific terms "Max" and "Max Max."
And before I move on, let's not forget the two other great issues that I tend to beat to death in my lectures and presentations. First, and really so simple most people miss it, do you have the equipment to do the workouts that I, you, or anyone else designs? If you decide to do Mark's deadlift workout, do you have thirty-two 45 pound plates? Do you have three Olympic bars?
Recently, I was given advice to begin doing horizontal rows, a form of pull-ups for the rhomboids, and it took me nearly a week to figure out a way to do these in my home gym. Great exercise, no facility!
Next, the other issue that I tend to discover with many people far too late: do you have the temperament to do certain kinds of training? For example, I struggle with programs with percents. I also struggle in programs that don't have a ton of variety built in. Yet I also thrive on short, brutal programs that demand total focus for a few weeks. Why? I have no idea, but it's worthless for me to help you design a training program if you:
1. Don't have the equipment to do the program.
2. Don't know how to do the lifts demanded in the program.
3. Don't have the capacity to train at the numbers asked in the program.
4. Don't have the mental skill-set to handle the program.
Now, be careful about number four here. There are people who thrive on volume and no change. Another person reading this article might think that those guys are mad. Sometimes, the problem with the cookie cutter approach to training goes far beyond the issues of the body and really are cultural, social, and mental challenges.
A buddy of mine recruited a fine young thrower from Germany who always did ten standing throws, then ten reps of this drill, ten reps of that drill, and ten reps of another. Always! Why? His coach told him to do ten when he was a youth and, by all that is holy, ten is what you do!
That approach worked for this young man, but it would drive me crazy in one day. So, yes, Physical Capital certainly encompasses a lot of other areas of life, too.
Cinderella's Stepsister Syndrome
I call this problem – the problem of trying to follow a program that fails to fit any of your equipment needs, exercise issues, volume or intensity issues, or your personality – the Cinderella's Stepsister Syndrome. In other words, the shoe don't fit!
A few years ago, I spent far too much of my life trying to explain to a father that his daughter couldn't possibly follow a program I use for my athletes called "The Big 21." She wasn't strong enough to do the basic program. But, since my athletes did it, his daughter should be able to do it, too. First, let's look at the program.
The athlete does three exercises (each and every day) for three workouts a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) for three weeks (week one, week two, week three) for a total of nine workouts. The three exercises are: clean and press (you clean the weight and press the weight for every rep), snatch, and clean & jerk (you clean the weight and jerk the weight for every rep.)
It's so simple that it confuses people. You do all three lifts, in that order, every workout. I've probably lost the bulk of my audience, but this is so important. The key to the workout is the rep and set scheme, and the built-in weight increases.
The most confusing part is this: each workout, add five pounds to the opening weight. After three weeks, opening weight will be 45 pounds more.
Reps and Sets
Opening weight x 5
Add five pounds x 5
Add five pounds x 5
Add five pounds x 1
Add five pounds x 1
Add five pounds x 1
Add five pounds x 1
Add five pounds x 1
Add five pounds x 1
Total Repetitions: 21 (You see: The Big 21!)
So, and this is all math related now, if you want to finish with 225 on the last workout's last rep, you start with 145 on day one. Let's look at those two bookend workouts:
145 x 5
150 x 5
155 x 5
160 x 1
165 x 1
170 x 1
175 x 1
180 x 1
185 x 1
185 x 5
190 x 5
195 x 5
200 x 1
205 x 1
210 x 1
215 x 1
220 x 1
225 x 1
For the psychos out there:
Day two starts with 150 and ends with 190
Day three starts with 155 and ends with 195
Day four starts with 160 and ends with 200
Day five starts with 165 and ends with 205
Day six starts with 170 and ends with 210
Day seven starts with 175 and ends with 215
Day eight starts with 180 and ends with 220
Here's what you're still missing: that's for one lift! You still have to do two more each day! The Big 21 is 63 reps of full body, explosive, big lifting. Just writing it down gives me wrist cramps.
What kind of Physical Capital does it take to do this workout? Let's look:
1. Equipment: One bar, a 310 pound set. So, it's easy and cheap for equipment.
2. Do you know how to do the lifts: the clean and press, the snatch, and the clean and jerk? If you don't, honestly, please, don't do The Big 21 workout!
3. If you answer "yes" to both questions, can you do them with the weights suggested?
4. Finally, do you have the ability to stick to a program for nine workouts and hate the last three?
As a lark, I figured out the lightest a person could do this workout with a traditional Olympic bar set up:
45 x 5
50 x 5
55 x 5
60 x 1
65 x 1
70 x 1
75 x 1
80 x 1
85 x 1
85 x 5
90 x 5
95 x 5
100 x 1
105 x 1
110 x 1
115 x 1
120 x 1
For the record, the dad who wanted his daughter to do this workout couldn't figure out how "to make it work when she can't snatch 85; so how will she snatch 110 in a few weeks?" You see, Mr. Cinderella's StepSister, the shoe don't fit.
And that's the whole point: all too often, the shoe doesn't fit!
Let's summarize with a few key principles that can help most of us adapt the programs we see online or in magazines (or in emails) to fit our needs:
1. I strongly recommend at least a two month focus on the major lifts. If we can just agree to get a Max Max squat, bench press, and deadlift and work from there, we'll all be miles ahead. Yep, that will take about six months. If you can't deadlift double bodyweight, you need to by the end of the six months.
2. You need to make an honest evaluation of your equipment. One of my workouts calls for four bars and several kettlebells. Now, if you don't have four bars then don't try it. Alwyn Cosgrove has several one-bar workouts and that will be fine for those with one bar. If you don't have one bar... sorry, I forgot the question.
3. When you begin a program, if you don't know how to do a lift, move, or exercise, spend a few workouts mastering it, and get yourself to a place where you're lifting weights that will actually make your body react. Hint: If they're foam and brightly colored, go heavier.
4. I'd strongly suggest that you also take some time to look at a bunch of different training programs to honestly see which ones "resonate" with you. When I read the workout of the Iranian Superheavy, something in my core says, "Yes, that sounds right." When I read about the 1000 crunches a fitness model does before her one hour of cardio, my brain looks for potato chips. Make sure the shoe fits...
Taking a few minutes aside every so often to account for your physical capital – your shortcomings and your assets – is like finding a vein of pure gold. Mine it.