Clarity is an issue in the strength training field. I can yell out, “Ace, LeRoy, Middle Stretch” and eleven freshman football players will all know where to line up, block, run, move and attack as soon as the ball is snapped.
But when I say, “Squatting is important,” I get questions about high bar, low bar, Zercher, goblet, box, front, overhead, Smith machine, and probably a dozen other styles, options, and nuances that I’ve yet to hear.
Part of the issue with strength and conditioning is that we have a set of tools. It doesn’t matter how long your list is, whether it includes barbells, machines, kettlebells, dumbbells or whatever, there seems to be some confusion about the application of these tools to “this.”
So what is this?
The Barbell: Your Tool of Choice
Well, it’s qualities. The basic barbell is unmatched for building strength. The Olympic lifting moves – including the military press that left competition in 1972 but is still a good idea for anyone – can change lives. One can build a level of strength that can stop your older brother’s friend from ever talking bad about you again.
I witnessed this with my friend, Eric, and one of my most cherished memories is telling Eric, “You can let him down now.” Eric had push-pressed an older, mouthy friend of his brother up into the air and, to be honest, it was fun to watch his feet dangle for a few seconds.
If you want even more satisfaction, the three powerlifts (bench, squat and deadlift) are unrivaled in their ability to change 97-pound weaklings into monsters who belch thunder and fart lightning.
What about mobility and flexibility? As early as 1980, I wrote that the overhead squat, straight leg deadlift, dip, and pull-up (done correctly) could do more for flexibility than all the ballet classes at charm school.
If you need proof, teach someone off the street a correct front squat. Sure, strength will be an issue, but more likely it will be flexibility of the wrists, elbows, shoulders, back, and legs. Other than those joints, and a few others, front squats require no mobility or flexibility at all. (For those missing the gene, that was “sarcasm.”)
For hypertrophy, a.k.a. “bodybuilding,” the barbell is still the tool of choice. Although I put on forty pounds of mass in four months doing nothing but the O-lifts, I can’t ignore the contributions of three or four generations of lifters who used the barbell for bodybuilding. I maintain the advice the great Robbie Robinson gave me years ago – to mix front squats with straight leg deadlifts and bench presses and pull ups for hypertrophy – stands the test of time.
And finally, for this odd thing I call “Armor Building”, I maintain that quality fighters need to deal with contact, snatch grip deadlifts, Zercher squats, biceps curls (especially with a thick bar), and bench presses. That protocol will answer the call better than anything else.
So, one tool, the barbell, answers the question for a number of qualities – strength, mobility, flexibility, hypertrophy, and general toughening. The problem is, when most people go into the gym and train, they strive to do literally everything at once.
There’s also another issue: most of us can’t help but think that unless we’re putting the pedal to the metal, going right into the red zone then hitting the wall, we aren’t truly training.
So, to sum the issue:
We have one tool (or several, but weights are weights).
We have one mind set.
This is the problem.
Before I get going too far, it’s true that a new lifter can do just about anything. Hypertrophy, strength, power, and mobility will all improve when you go from zero to something.
Linear progression is about the greatest and most wonderful part of training. The first time I was taught the snatch, I made 165 pounds. Three weeks later, I was bigger and snatched 187, then 209 in my next meet.
In nine months, I improved from that original 165 to 231 pounds. Sixteen years later, I did my lifetime best of 314 pounds. So if you were born the first day I Olympic lifted, you could drive to the meet the day I set my personal record. However, it wasn’t linear after those first nine months.
Once you get off that initial wonderful ride as a beginner, you need to start using your toolkit. It’s difficult to try to do everything all the time. This is where you need good coaching or a mentor or just some basic logic.
Calendars and Traffic Lights
I’d like you to consider two simple ways of looking at your training that might direct you to taking on one quality at a time (or, at most, two) and bringing yourself to a goal reasonably quickly.
First, the calendar is the single greatest training tool you have for success. The training diary and the food journal are also absolutely necessary, but these two tools both tell you your history:
I ate this…
I lifted that…
The calendar is proactive. The calendar gives you ideas about where you want to go and a bit of a roadmap to this destination.
My first idea is based on the traffic light. This works well for some people. The problem is that while green means “go,” the other two colors have a few issues.
Green works because during the months you highlight as “green months,” you can focus on challenges and programs that demand focus, drive, and intensity. If you need to toss down some Spike® or extra caffeine to do the 21 Day Challenge or whatever, do it. It’s not a lifetime commitment!
If you want to build mass, I have a program called Mass Made Simple. It’s six weeks, 14 workouts, and a ton of reps. For O-lifters, I have my Big 21 program and it simply sucks during the third week. But for three or six weeks, you can pound through the pain.
Yellow is the problem. On traffic lights, it means caution, but I use the color to refer to those “punch the clock” workouts that people who’ve been around a while understand very well.
I think that most trainees miss this opportunity to understand that there are times, perhaps for long stretches, where you need to get your workouts finished, eat fairly clean, and take care of basic recovery.
During the green light crazy training, you can afford to use a lot of energy trying to dial in perfection, but I’ve yet to find someone who can do this for over six weeks without support from a government body, a wealthy spouse, or anabolics. Most of the programs that I give to my people are here, and it’s the basis of the Easy Strength and Even Easier Strength programs.
Red, of course, means stop. I used to think that divorce would be a red light training time, but since then, I’ve met women who use training as a means to attack the demons.
Surgeries, life altering problems, and a few other things are red light periods. I’d still argue to move, eat well, and check your recovery, but I also understand how difficult even minimal training can be to do in certain situations.
The red, yellow, and green light system provides you with a basic tool to say “maybe not now!”
The impact on training is obvious. You can attack your training when you’re in green lights. Red and yellow situations do not mean you toss out your training, exercise, or supplement regime. In fact, this is the time where a “workout” might be supportive of your other issues.
It is not, however, the time to ratchet up the volume, intensity, and load. Currently, I’m working on teaching people to be much more proactive about this so they can focus certain periods of the year on the reality of their lives.
For example, a tax accountant would perhaps “X” out March and April on their calendar as obvious “yellow light months.” A teacher could maybe do the same for May/June and August/September. Certainly, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for parents of younger children to put December into an “X” with all the concerts, pageants, plays, and “stuff.”
The minutes you spend each year simply looking at when you want to ramp up your training and when you want to simply “show up” is playing with house money. You can’t lose.
Another way to look at a year-round approach to reasonable training is my “bus bench” and “park bench” workouts.
- Bus bench workouts: You’re expecting results – on time! (Like you’re hoping the bus will be.)
- Park bench workouts: Are an opportunity to explore and enjoy where you are in training.
It’s a simple concept. Like weights, benches have multiple uses. If you’re waiting to get to work sitting on a bus bench, you don’t just hope, you demand that the bus be on time. If it’s even a little late, it could ruin your day at work.
Park benches are built the exact same way, but when you sit in a park, you don’t expect or worry if Toby the squirrel comes by or not. You sit back and enjoy the process.
My good friend, Josh Hillis, believes that almost universally, people need four months of bus bench training a year, split into two-month periods (so, two two-month blocks of focused training a year).
The rest of the year should be park bench workouts where the training goals are simply to train. So, one could “X” out eight months a year and still follow a plan that could achieve just about any goal.
This is contrary to what most people think. There’s this idea that constant exhausting training is the only path to the goal. It’s not true – and it’s destroying many people’s journey to their goals.
So what’s a bus bench program? Well, as a graduate of the Velocity Diet – 28 days of basically no food, just six Metabolic Drive® Low Carb shakes a day – I would’ve punched Chris Shugart right in the mouth (in a kind, caring way) if I wouldn’t have sliced up my abs.
This is the epitome of the bus bench workouts: you expect, you demand, results.
This past January I did a program called Kettlebell Fever over four weeks, and one of the first week’s workouts included 245 squats and 315 swings. The author should be very happy I had excellent results.
Mass building programs and fat cutting programs are the poster children for bus bench workouts. Sadly, it’s also the problem, as most people shuffle from one new ebook or diet or fat loss secret to another in a blind stumble.
You have to attack fat loss as an all out war with every resource at your command. That’s hard to do for 365 days in a row. So, look at your calendar and the events you have coming up and decide when you’re going to bring all your weapons to bear on fat loss.
For mass building, there’s no question that high-rep squatting piles on muscle. I went back through my volumes of journals and I’ve never been able to do high rep squatting beyond six weeks before the wheels literally came off. Oh, I got big and lost a bunch of fat, but my joints just said “enough!” Once or twice a year, make mass building your goal and give it everything you have.
I make my living on park bench workouts. I spend a lot of time talking people off the ledge who think that every workout, every day, every year, should be defending Sparta against the Persians. I’m a strong believer that, for the bulk of your time, you need to just be sure to take care of the basics.
The basics? Well, first are you doing the basic human movements?
- Loaded carries
If you’re doing the basic movements at least once a week, are your reps and loads appropriate?
It’s not that complex, as most programs tend to gravitate around that magic 15-25 number like:
- 3 sets of 5
- 5 sets of 3
- 3 sets of 8
- 5 sets of 5
Keep adding plates when appropriate, and just continue to come into the gym and take care of business. In a recent article, I gave an idea that a few bright readers tried:
“My friend, Pavel Tsatsouline, handed me this great two-day a week training program. I shared it with a young, busy guy who told me it was too easy. I knew he was lying, so I tweaked it for him. Here’s the “King of Less Training Programs”
- Bench Press
- Bench Press
Now, let’s look at my tweaks:
- Only 45 and 25-pound plates.
- No less than ten reps on every set of bench and squat until the last set.
- No less than five reps on every deadlift.
So, the bench press workout was sets of ten, add weight, until the last set where you grind out as many as possible.
A bench example from 1993 when I did this basic program:
- 135 x 10
- 225 x 10
- 315 x 10
- 365 x “as many”
For the squat, the last set should be around bodyweight, usually 185 or 225, and you go for at least 30 reps.
In the deadlift, keep grinding out those sets of five. Over time, feel free to slide this down to three reps, then two reps.
On paper, this looks so easy!
I’ve suggested other minimalistic programs here at T Nation and other authors have done a much better job than me. The important thing is to get into the gym and train your whole body with an appropriate load and go home. I plan on these relatively easy workouts for the bulk of the year.
The point is, we have one tool to train strength, fat loss, hypertrophy, mobility, and power: the barbell (and all the other friends and family of Iron). Sadly, it’s nearly impossible to work all those qualities all the time; actually, it’s impossible.
So, we need to have the courage to mark certain periods of the year when we’ll ratchet up the intensity and go after it. Two of those qualities, hypertrophy and fat loss, only seem to work well in tight focused “all in” programs anyway.
For most of your year, train intelligently and get your reps and sets in. Oddly, I’ve discovered that these are the times where you strength improves almost miraculously. I don’t know why, but that’s how it works.
So, keep training and food journals, but invest in a calendar and think about your life and when you can really go after it. If you’re too cheap to buy a calendar, the local mortuary gives away free ones. It’s the best investment I know.