The Staley Principles

An Interview with Charles Staley

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Charles Staley is a good 'ol boy. In redneck-ese, that means he's a good guy who does a good job. I also get the sense that he's one of us. A self-described "frustrated athlete," training and sports never came easy for him. Not blessed with great genetics, he had to really dig into the books, study up, and work twice as hard in the gym for everything he's achieved. But those are the traits of a great coach and leader. You wouldn't want to follow the orders of a general who's never been down in the trenches with the grunts, would you? Charles has been there and has fought his way up the ranks.

In a community occupied by quite a few megalomaniacs, narcissists, posers, cutthroats and – let's be honest here – weirdos, Charles is also a really grounded guy. His common sense when it comes to training theory and his ability to disseminate information in an understandable manner make him one of our favorite contributors. For those reasons, we decided to sit down with Charles for another T-mag interview.

Testosterone: Charles, one thing I've always liked about your work is that you cut through the bullshit and bring us back to reality when needed. That's the kind of stuff I'd like to focus on in this interview. So, what's making you want to tear your hair out in the fitness and bodybuilding community in regard to training theory?

Charles Staley: Ah, if only I had hair to tear out! Okay, what really just makes me bananas is the arbitrary numbers that people assign, the so-called "optimal" numbers of exercises, sets, reps, rest durations, etc.

For example, let's say that you're on a program that calls for 5x5 on pull-ups. Or 3x10, pick your number. Now, whose butt did they pull that number out of?! Look, imagine doing a set of pull-ups to failure. What happens? Rep by rep, you start to fatigue, and as a result, every rep is slower until you have to start doing some pretty good body English to stay in the game. Some coaches call this "technical breakdown." Finally, no matter how perversely you alter your biomechanics to get those last few reps, you'll ultimately hit complete muscular failure.

Now, here's where I think things get interesting: Most people would tell you to terminate a set either at technical breakdown, just before failure, or even at failure. Some would even say after failure (by doing forced reps, etc). But if you look at it in a Forrest Gump sort of way, since you slow down before you break down, speed is really how quality is measured in resistance training.

If you agree that quality must be maintained, then you need to stop the set when your speed deteriorates significantly. And this occurs long before most people would ordinarily stop a set. Look, there are universal principles in life. And one of those principles is that when you do work, there comes a point when the benefits are no longer worth the costs. And in my twisted way of thinking, when your movement speed drops by 10% or more, the benefits are no longer worth the costs.

T: I'm sure very few people have thought of it that way. How does this style of training affect recovery?

CS: It promotes recovery because you're maximizing the benefit-to-cost ratio of the work you're doing. In fact, you really can't overtrain using this principle, since by definition, you don't ever do a rep unless you can do it within 10% of your best performance. Think of it this way: let's say your PR on the squat is 405 pounds and you can complete a 365 pound squat in .9 seconds. Now, if on any given workout, you can't manage to squat 365 in at least .9 seconds, then it obviously means that your body hasn't recovered –  it's not responsive to further training loads!

So if you insist on lifting that 365-pound bar just because you can, you're experiencing a poor benefit-to-cost ratio, and you begin to overtrain. So the take-home lesson is, just because you can lift a certain weight doesn't mean you should. And if you can't do a good job at it, you're better off not doing it at all, just like anything else in life.

T: Cool. Tell me, what has you excited right now in this field. What's the newest, coolest thing you can lay on us?

CS: I guess I've already covered that in the whole speed issue, but here's something else: I'm doing a lot of work with weighted vests lately. I've always thought that weight vests had a lot to offer, but the problem is that they never seemed to fit right. But I've now found the ultimate vest – it's called the X-Vest. This thing can be weighted with up to 40 pounds of weight and it fits like a second skin.

Talk about interval training! I have a hill near my house, and man, two or three sprints with the vest will have you wishing you were never born! Actually, just wearing it will increase your heart rate significantly, partly because the vest also provides resistance against your diaphragm as you breath. If you're into the warrior-training sort of mindset, you'll love this vest, I'm telling you.

T: We'll be reviewing that vest soon in our "Stuff We Like" column. Now, you've written a little here at T-mag about post-workout cryotherapy, which is basically an ice massage. What's that all about?

CS: You have to first create a challenge for the system, i.e., training, and then recover from that challenge. There are two approaches to recovery: you can let it happen, or you can make it happen. I prefer the latter approach.

The three most significant things you can do in regard to recovery are 1) Don't do poor quality work in the gym, as we just discussed, 2) use a good post-workout shake such as Surge, and 3) use post-workout ice massage. As I think I've mentioned in an earlier article, I first picked up this idea from Jay Schroeder, who coached Adam Archuletta, a guy who went on to break the NFL combines bench press record a few years ago.

Anyway, I started using this technique on several athletes with great success, including Gea Johnson, who broke the track record in Park City, Utah, during last year's Olympic trials for bobsleigh. The best way to go is to get a cryocup (from Cryo Therapy, 1-800-ICE-5722). Right after the workout, what you'll want to do is focus on soft tissue, staying away from bones and joints. Concentrate on long, deep strokes, going parallel to the muscle fibers of the biceps, triceps, and forearms. It's not fun at all, by the way, but it does speed recovery.

T: We may have to try that. Here's a good question for you: It's easy to spot newbie mistakes, but picture an experienced lifter. The guy reads T-mag, checks out your site, and has been lifting for ten years. What mistakes do you see a guy like that still making?

CS: A lot of experienced people miss the forest for the trees. When an athlete comes to me, I try to have what the Japanese call shoshin or "beginner's mind." I try to forget all the books I've read and just look at the situation clearly for what it is.

One example that comes to mind is a very high-level female track athlete I was working with a few years ago. She came to me all busted up; she was an orthopedic nightmare. She showed me the resistance training program she'd been following, and it was like, clean and jerk, 90% for 4x2, squat, 95%, 3x1, stuff like that. Then I asked her how strong she was compared to the best athlete in her sport. She told me that she was stronger than this particular person in any lift or event you could throw at her.

So then I wondered out loud: why has my client been tearing herself up trying to develop motor qualities that are already in abundance? This came as a revelation to my client, but we all make similarly bad decisions. If I had to pick one thing that almost everyone needs more skill at, it would be the ability the focus on things that have the most payoff. I have a little formula for this. Focus on elements (muscles, motor qualities, exercises, whatever) that are:

1) Needed

2) Poorly developed

3) Highly trainable, and

4) Foundational to other elements

5) given available resources

T: What do you mean by "available resources"?

CS: Well, by resources, I mean time, energy, knowledge, equipment, genetics, etc. There's no point in trying to train for a marathon, for example, if you're a fast-twitch dominant person. You don't have the genetic resources.

T: Give us something cool training-wise we can try the next time we go to the gym. Anything goes, as long as it's interesting and something we may not have tried before.

CS: Hmmm, well, first thing that comes to my mind is that people should take care not to confuse novelty with utility! But to answer your question, and this is just a little tidbit I guess, but try fingertip pull-ups or chin-ups off the power rack.

I just love the statement that you can make doing this exercise?you're right there next to the pull-up handles, but you're not using them; you've chosen something much harder. Just hang from the thick squared-off tubing at the top (you won't be able to get your hand around it usually) and have yourself some fun. An added bonus is all the stares you'll get from people who are just dying to "correct" you. It's great!

Oh, here's another one. I got this from coach Alwyn Cosgrove just last week. Try reversing the "usual" eccentric/concentric tempo. In other words, fast eccentric, slow concentric. It's a very different sort of stimulus, quite a shock to the muscles.

T: I'd imagine! Okay, I'm going to throw a bunch of stuff at you now and you just tell me what you think of each one. Training to failure.

CS: It's not a bad thing, but it shouldn't be your goal. Look, think of it this way: you're a doctor, a carpenter (or whatever)... do you organize the day's events and activities in such a way that you'll be as tired as possible at the end of the day? Or do you organize the day's events and activities in such a way that you'll get as much done as you can? Obviously, the latter. But when it comes to exercise, almost all of us do the former! Very often, the right way is 180-degrees opposite of what seems instinctively correct, and training to failure is just another example of that.

T: The "pump." Is it necessary?

CS: It's about as relevant as the color of the shirt you train in! Actually, color would be somewhat relevant, come to think of it. There have been some investigations into how color affects mood and arousal. Anyhow, as long as you're increasing your workout output from workout to workout, I couldn't care less about how you feel as a result of doing it.

T: Steroids.

CS: I think it's not so much an issue of whether or not someone uses these substances, but why. In other words, there's a vast difference between an international-caliber athlete using steroids to be competitive with others who also use, especially when there's something at stake, but a teenage kid using steroids to get hyoooge is idiotic. The chemistry and health issues involved are very complex, and there are thousands of kids taking stuff and they have just no idea what they're getting into. Look, I'm into having big muscles just as much as anyone else, but guess what: there's more to life than what you look like. Radical concept, huh?

T: Steroids in baseball.

CS: Well, what else is new? I think one could say that baseball is a lot more fun to watch when there are so many big powerful hitters out there. Whenever there's money at stake, there will be drugs. It's just a fact of life.

T: Vegetarians.

CS: Here's my take on vegetarianism: if God didn't intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat? Okay, bad jokes aside, from a nutritional standpoint, not such a great idea. From an economic/ethical standpoint, possibly a good idea. I say possibly because one can make the case that agriculture kills more animals than it saves – crop harvesting machines kill untold millions of mice, snakes, and other small animals every year as crops are being harvested. It's just that the animals being killed are somewhat small and unpopular, so no one really considers them relevant in the big scheme of things.

T: Good argument! Next topic: alcohol and pot.

CS: If you want to make yourself really unpopular, all you have to do is suggest that pot and alcohol aren't such a good idea. But look, every time you put something into your body, it's either taking you toward or away from your goals, correct? There aren't enough people saying this, so I will: Drinking and drugging are the behaviors of followers, not leaders. If you feel the need to use these substances, it's a pretty good indication that your life is out of whack.

T: "Functional" training.

CS: What an absurd term. I also hate the term "training."

T: Really?

CS: Well, I mean, you train animals, not people. It's really physical preparation, motor learning. Anyway, when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if you're a "functional training" disciple, everyone looks like they need rehab – everyone is dysfunctional. And obviously, the majority of people aren't in need of "correction" or whatever you want to call it.

T: Machines vs. free weights.

CS: Everything has a place. Machines and free weights are simply tools; if you use them in the proper situation you'll get a good result. Athletes need the ability to control the force they're producing, and therefore need to use predominantly constant resistance (free weights) in their training.

Machines have more of a place in hypertrophy training. And most machines won't hurt you per se, with the possible exception of Smith machines and pec dec machines. In both cases, it tends to be difficult to line up the machine's axis of rotation with the axis of the joint involved in the exercise. If you did a lot of work on a machine that didn't jive with your own body's joint axis, over months and years, I think you could wear out your joints, in much the same way that a poorly balanced tire will wear out faster than a properly balanced tire.

T: Soreness.

CS: We all love soreness because it's a 24-hour a day reminder that we've recently done a hard workout.

T: You once told a guy on the T-mag forum that if he was really seeking soreness you'd be glad to run over him with your pick-up truck. What did you mean by that?

CS: Well, you've got to clarify your objective. Do you want to get stronger and/or have bigger muscles? Or do you just want to feel bad? The two aren't necessarily one and the same, believe me!

T: The term "No pain, no gain."

CS: Look, the way to assess the value of your training program is not by how much pain it causes, but rather, by how well it improved the characteristics or qualities that you're attempting to improve through that training. Call me crazy!

T: The term "Go heavy or go home."

CS: I can't really argue with the principle behind that, but it needs some clarification. The training effect is a function of the tension that a muscle experiences during exercise, both the magnitude and duration. And tension is a function of the weight times how fast you're moving it. You can take a heavy weight (which moves slowly due to its mass) and you have a certain amount of tension, but you can also take a moderate weight and really move it, and you can get the same amount of tension. You get more with less. More people should do this, especially athletes.

T: "Body for Life."

CS: I'm hot and cold about it. Bill Phillips has certainly got a lot of people exercising and eating better as a result of that book, which is great. On the other hand, I don't like the twelve week "quick fix" emphasis. If you've spent half your life getting out of shape, you can't expect to reverse that in twelve weeks. We need to get out of the quick-fix mentality; we need to be what Jay Kimiecik calls "intrinsic exercisers," meaning, we need to do it for its own reward, rather than for some external reward.

T: Fitness gadgets on TV.

CS: I always try to imagine what they'll come up with next. I have an idea actually. Here's the best oblique exercise imaginable: the next time you're at the grocery store, grab the handle of a shopping cart, take a solid stance, keep your arms straight and tensed, and roll that cart to the left and then quickly reverse it and pull it over to the right. Go back and forth for like five reps on each side. You can do this in pyramid fashion. As you put more and more groceries in the cart, you have more resistance for the exercise. You have to get a cart with good wheels though.

T: You're joking , right?

CS: Actually, I'm not!

T: Heck, I may have to try it then! What do you think of personal trainers in general?

CS: Over ninety percent of them are horrible, but that's true in most professions. The reason is that too many people aren't following their true passion in life. Many "trainers" are just doing it because they view it as an easy way to make money or to meet girls. It's a very difficult and potentially noble profession though, and there are some great trainers out there.

T: Some experts in the field seem to base their ideas on what works for them. That's natural of course, but does it create an unfair bias? In other words, should the tall ectomorph listen to the short, endomorphic strength coach when he tells him he has to squat to get big quads, or that he can get big on low reps?

CS: If the short, endomorphic coach is helping tall ectomorphs improve their fitness levels, then you should listen. There's a critical distinction here. Just because you've worked with a lot of talented athletes doesn't really mean that much because you have to factor in genetics, drugs, and all of that. What you want to find is a coach who has helped people make significant breakthroughs regardless of how talented they are to start with. There are a lot of well-built trainers and coaches out there who can't seem to help their clients achieve the same, so what good is it?

T: You were one of the first experts out there to talk about the difference between tall and short guys in the gym. Can you give us an overview?

CS: Tall athletes can be great on the field, but still suck in the weightroom. Just to give a personal example, I'm 6'2" and will never have an impressive squat or bench. But when I competed in martial arts, I could break a stack of cement blocks like a hot knife through butter, and I can still drop you with a single punch flat-out. That's because many athletic skills favor long levers.

But most weightroom feats (such as the classical powerlifting events) favor short levers. So, there's a real case to be made for shorter ROM squats, benches, etc., and also for more accelerative training for long-levered athletes. Case in point: If you compare a tall athlete and a short athlete, and you have them both squat to parallel, you might assume that they're both doing the same amount of work. But if you measure how far each athlete has to move that bar to get to parallel, you'll find that the taller lifter had to go through a much larger ROM to get there.

T: Good point!

CS: What's also noteworthy is that long-levered athletes have much more distinct sticking points. Ever notice how some people will just immediately stall and die when they hit the sticking point while others can sort of work their way through it? These taller people can benefit by doing CAT (compensatory acceleration training). It creates a scenario where you can develop some speed to "run through" the sticking point. It's sort of like if you have to knock down a wall; if you can get enough of a running start, you'll be able to generate enough speed to knock it down.

T: How does height relate to injuries?

CS: Well, once I attended a training seminar by Joe Lewis, the first heavyweight, full-contact champion, and also, I might add, the most dangerous person you'll ever want to meet! He asked everyone who'd had knee surgery to raise their hands. And they were all tall people. So, when you have a long lever, it creates more torque at the joint for any given amount of muscular contraction.

T: Duly noted. You once said that the most important virtue for an athlete or bodybuilder to have is an open mind. Elaborate please.

CS: Here's how I look at it: have you ever lost your keys, and you look, and you look and you look, and you can't find them? You know where they are? Where you're not looking! That has a lot of applications for life in general. The answer is likely to be something you aren't doing, something you aren't looking at. Now, a lot of people wouldn't think of using a shopping cart for ab training, but I was open-minded enough to try it!

T: Just don't appear on late night cable TV hawking the "Super Ab Cart" for four easy payments of $19.95! Charles, at the SWIS symposium last year, you used a life analogy about how much a person's life would change if he was to become suddenly rich. I liked that. Can you share it with T-mag readers?

CS: Sure. I fervently believe that people need to find what business coach Dan Sullivan calls their "unique ability." This is defined as something that you really excel at, something that you keep getting better at, something that you can do expertly with total consistency, and perhaps most importantly, something that really juices you up.

Once you find your unique ability, you need to find a way to make a living doing it. If you can do this, you'll be happy and fulfilled, and you'll be making a positive (as opposed to a negative) contribution to the world.

I believe what I said at SWIS is that a good indication that you've found the right profession is if you win the lottery and it doesn't change your life in any significant way.

T: A while back you published a couple of articles on EDT training here at T-mag. How has the response been? What kind of results are you hearing about?

CS: I have to say, EDT has been the most gratifying thing imaginable for me. It's funny how life works sometimes; I spend my whole life working on strength development for athletes, but then I create a system for hypertrophy training and I'm getting literally hundreds of e-mails from people telling me that it's been the most productive program they've ever used! They say they're finally making gains when nothing else has ever worked. I'm talking about putting an inch on their arms in eight weeks when nothing else has worked for ten years, those types of gains.

T: Tell us a bit more about how EDT works for the readers who may not be familiar with your system.

CS: Sure. Well, to start with, unlike all other programs, EDT adjusts to you (rather than the other way around) workout by workout. This means that every workout you do becomes more effective than the one that preceded it. You'll be absolutely assured of always performing the optimal numbers of exercises, sets, reps, and workouts. It's almost like my computer –  whenever I need to type out my name, as soon as I type "Cha?" it automatically fills in the rest, saving me from having to do it myself.

Also, other programs tell you how many exercises to do, how many sets and reps, and how long to rest between sets. Then you complete that program, regardless of how long it takes. With EDT, you're given discrete time-frames – called "PR Zones" – and then do as much as you can in that time frame.

EDT acknowledges the importance of both volume and intensity, but focuses primarily on a little-appreciated, yet critically important facet of the training load called "density." Essentially, density is the work/rest ratio of your training. Your muscles will get bigger when you force them to do gradually more and more work in the same period of time. Many programs allow this to happen, but EDT forces it to happen.

Every time you start an EDT workout, you know exactly what must be accomplished and when you'll be finished. The importance of this is intuitively obvious: you can work hard when you know you'll be done soon. So these two points are very important in terms of EDT's ability to motivate you through a workout.

T: I hear there's an EDT book in the works as well, correct?

CS: Yes, it's about 75% finished and will be released this fall. The tentative title is EDT: The Ultimate Guide to Massive Arms. Tim Patterson convinced me that there would be a lot of value writing this simply based on all the responses T-mag was getting from people doing EDT.

So I thought, okay, if this is really helping people, I want to get the word out. We'll be taking pre-release orders for the book in about a month, but for now, if people would like to get on the waiting list, they can send an e-mail to: [email protected]. Then we'll let them know when we're taking orders.

T: Okay, Charles, thanks for all the info!

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram