Back in the summer of 2006, I read a book called The Alphabet of Manliness. Like all the great literary classics, it covered a breathtaking range of topics, from beef jerky to lumberjacks to Chuck Norris. All that was missing was information specific to muscleheads like us.
So I wrote my own A-to-Z guide, focusing on the issues we care about, from Accommodating resistance to Zatsiorsky, et al.
I updated the list in 2008, covering 26 additional concepts ranging from Asymmetry to, uh, a bunch of books I like. (It made sense at the time.)
Now I’m back with another list of the techniques and tricks that can make or break a workout program, ranging from Assessment to …
I guess you’ll just have to read to the end to find out. (No scrolling allowed.)
A is for Assessment
If you’re a coach or trainer, the initial assessment is a crucial part of the program-design process. Each client reveals unique issues, ranging from postural deficiencies and lack of joint-specific mobility to general muscle weakness and/or chronic pain. Without a comprehensive initial assessment, you can’t possibly know how to address the client’s individual needs.
The problem is that there are so many assessment and screening systems out there, no one really knows where to start, or what to use.
On one end of the spectrum you have trainers who spend three sessions doing nothing but “testing” — literally trying to seek out dysfunction, even it it’s not there. On the other end, you have trainers whose idea of an assessment is to show their clients how to use the machine circuit.
Personally, I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, taking the same approach as my colleagues Mike Robertson and Bill Hartman. Hartman has noted that, no matter how much information we gather in our assessments, we still manage to ignore what our clients show us when they aren’t being assessed or tested.
More often than not, if we simply paid attention to how our clients and athletes move when they exercise or play their sport, we’d learn almost everything we need to know. Just watching a client perform a simple body-weight lunge will show us where they have movement issues and whether or not they’ve developed faulty compensation patterns.
I’m certainly not trying to downplay the importance of an assessment. However, I do feel that many of us get too caught up with minutiae. Is it really necessary to spend an hour testing the glute medius? Get your clients moving, and you’d be surprised at what you learn.
B is for Behavioral Modification
I deal with a lot of clients who come to me with postural issues, and more often than not, it comes down to simple math. I have one hour to fix the problem, and they have 23 hours to mess it up again.
Let’s assume you train three to five hours per week. Because you’re an avid reader of T Nation, you include some dynamic flexibility and self-myofascial release — foam rolling — in your program. Awesome.
Conversely, you also spend upwards of 40 to 60 hours per week in front of your computer at the office working on your budgets or TPS reports or changing your Facebook status for the 37th time. Not so awesome.
It only takes 20 minutes for tissue to “creep,” which results in adaptive shortening of the muscle. I don’t care how often you train, the likelihood that you’re going to counteract the 40+ hours you spend sitting on your ass is slim. This is why I’m always adamant that people try to practice behavioral modification as often as possible.
This could be something as simple as not slouching in your chair (like you’re doing right now), or setting an alarm on your computer to remind yourself to get up and move around a bit. Better yet, every time you get up to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, you sneak in some scapular wall slides in an empty office. Believe it or not, I have a client who actually does this.
C is for Contrast Circuits
Let me preface this by saying that I have nothing against the Olympic lifts. But when I have just a few weeks with any particular client or athlete, as is often the case, it doesn’t make sense for me to spend a lot of time on lifts that take so much time to master.
That’s why I use contrast circuits to incorporate power training. Nick Tumminello wrote an entire article about contrast training recently. If you read it you know that the basic idea is to use post-activation potentiation to teach the central nervous system to recruit more motor units by following a traditional strength exercise with an explosive variation of the same movement. A great example would be a back squat followed by a set of box jumps.
For those who have access to medicine balls, a few other great examples — which Nick included in his article — are a bench press followed by an explosive chest pass to a wall, or a chin-up followed by an overhead medicine-ball slam to the floor.
D is for Vitamin D
Now that fish oil is used almost universally by serious lifters, I think vitamin D will be the next big thing in supplementation. Among the benefits:
• It helps to maintain calcium homeostasis, along with bone and muscle health.
• It plays a crucial role in helping to regulate blood pressure, as well as improving cardiovascular health.
• It helps prevent autoimmune disease.
• As a kicker, it helps improve your sense of well-being, which makes sense when you consider that most of us look and feel better during the warmer months of the year.
Interestingly, just about all of us are deficient in Vitamin D, thanks to the amount of time we spend indoors.
Many experts recommend between 800 and 1,000 IUs of supplemental vitamin D per day, in the form of cholecalciferol (d3). However, some studies show that even people who routinely supplement at this level remain deficient.
Likewise, some experts have suggested 4,000 to 10,000 IUs per day. That’s easily obtained — as little as 15 minutes of daily sun exposure yields more than 20,000 IUs of endogenous vitamin D. Score!
Few of us have the luxury of living in places like Hawaii, where daily sun exposure is part of the lifestyle. And given that most of us are concerned — with good reason — about skin cancer due to excessive sun exposure, supplementation is a good idea, especially during the winter months.
E is for Eccentric Quasi-Isometrics (EQIs)
Traditional stretching mainly stretches the non-active parts of the muscle. But EQIs — in which you hold a static position for a period of time (the photo at right shows a deep lunge position) — target two active muscle structures as you fatigue and your body sinks deeper into a stretch position: the parallel active component (the muscle cell’s membrane, also called the sarcolemma) and the series active component (tendon).
I like to include EQIs at the end of a training session to help restore length-tension relationships, as well as to help promote connective-tissue development, which is an often-overlooked factor for those of us trying to work past an injury.
Two holds of 30 to 60 seconds on each side should do the trick.
F is for Flexibility vs. Mobility
Surprisingly, many people regard flexibility and mobility as one and the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Flexibility describes the length of a muscle.
Mobility describes how a joint moves.
Take your ankles, for example. If an ankle is restricted due to a mobility issue, static stretching your calf muscles won’t fix the problem.
Unfortunately, many trainees will still want to stretch their calves in the hopes of improving their ankle mobility. Motion is needed to fix a mobility issue.
G is for Gibala Study
Given the choice between a two-mile jog or 15 to 20 minutes of intense intervals, most T Nation readers would choose the latter. But typical exercisers would go for the jog, assuming it’s superior for general cardiovascular health.
That’s because they don’t know about an often-referenced study by Martin Gibala and colleagues at McMaster University, published in 2006 in the Journal of Physiology.
The researchers compared 20 minutes of interval training (30-second sprints, followed by four minutes of rest) with 90 to 120 minutes of steady-state endurance exercise on a stationary bike.
The interval group had the same improvements in oxygen utilization as the endurance group, despite compiling 90 percent less total training volume over two weeks.
What’s my point? Most people who exercise gravitate toward steady-state work because it’s easy and we’re good at it. Steady-state cardio has a place in a well-rounded fitness program, but I see a lot of exercisers placing far too much emphasis on it, especially considering how little benefit there is compared to the amount of time and effort it takes to get the desired benefits, and the risk for overuse injuries.
H is for Hard
Ask any personal trainer or coach what he or she feels is missing from typical training programs, and you’ll get a variety of answers: too many isolation exercises, too little activation work and corrective movement training, blocking the curl rack with all those annoying squats and deadlifts …
Ask me that question, and I’ll say there’s one thing missing from almost every workout I see: the idea that training should be hard.
Coaches and trainers like me often get so caught up in trivia — “OMG their left big toe pronates!” — that we forget our athletes and clients need to lift heavy things, get stronger, and train with intensity to make progress and get their money’s worth out of our training sessions.
I is for Integrity
I had the opportunity to hear Martin Rooney speak at the recent Perform Better Summit in Providence, Rhode Island. He talked briefly about integrity, and how many of us in the fitness industry have no clue what that entails.
To prove his point, he told a quick story involving a wise man, a little boy, and his mother. (Stick with me here, I promise this isn’t some cheesy joke.)
“I can’t get my little boy to stop eating sugar,” the mother said to the wise man. “Please help me.”
“Come back and see me in two weeks,” the wise man said.
With a quizzical look on her face, the mother reluctantly walked away. Two weeks later, she brought her son to see the wise man.
“Stop eating sugar,” he said to the little boy.
“Why did we have to wait two weeks for that?”
“Because,” the wise man said, “I myself had to stop eating sugar.”
That’s integrity. You can’t ask your clients to follow your advice if you don’t follow it yourself.
J is for Just a Little Ass Kicking
What makes muscle also keeps muscle. That’s important to remember when you’re in a caloric deficit with the goal of losing fat. You need to keep lifting heavy stuff if you want to maintain your muscle mass.
But if you train exclusively for strength, taking long rest periods between sets, you won’t give your body the metabolic boost you need to lose fat.
That’s why, when I work with fat-loss clients, I typically divide training sessions in half. The first half is pure strength training, with the goal of preserving as much lean mass as possible.
The second half is what I like to call chaos training. One of my favorite ways to finish those workouts (and ensure my clients hate me) is a technique I picked up from Matt Pack, a strength coach based in Miami. It’s called “ladder/hybrid-based energy-system training,” which is a mouthful. Here’s how it works:
You’re going to do 12 circuits with three exercises. In this example, we’ll use trap-bar deadlifts, close-grip push-ups, and chin-ups. But you’ll do them in a uniquely brutal way.
You’ll start with 12 reps of the trap-bar deadlifts, and then do one fewer rep in each set until you get down to a single. With the push-ups, you’ll start with a single, then add a rep each set until you reach 12. And with the chin-ups, you’ll do three reps each set.
So it’ll start like this:
Deadlift: 12 reps
Push-up: 1 rep
Chin-up: 3 reps
Deadlift: 11 reps
Push-up: 2 reps
Chin-up: 3 reps
And then you keep going for 10 more sets.
You can think of any number of ways to do it. For example, instead of finishing each circuit with three reps of a strength exercise, you could do 25 jumping jacks or 10 burpees.
No matter how you do it, it’s a great finisher for a fat-loss workout.
K is for Knee Sleeves
If your knees suck, do yourself a favor and buy a pair of Rehband knee sleeves. They’re pricey (a pair will probably cost $70 with shipping), but they’re the best I’ve ever used.
Even if you don’t go with the top of the line, a good pair of knee sleeves will provide some joint compression, which helps you achieve a better range of motion, and keeps the joint warm by passively increasing tissue temperature.
The downside to Neoprene knee braces: If you don’t wash them regularly, they’ll end up smelling like an old lady’s fart passing through an onion.
L is for Let’s Be Honest, We’re Wussies
You can always train around an injury.
If you have chronic lower-back pain, you can work on core stability. If you have shoulder impingement, you can cut back on bench presses while adding more horizontal rowing (not to mention the fact you have a lower body that isn’t affected). Knee pain won’t stop you from performing glute-ham raises until your ass has its own zip code.
That is, if you really want to train.
Eric Cressey and I have worked with clients who came to us on crutches, in back braces, or with limbs in a cast. We could always find ways to give them a good workout without interfering with their rehab. Sometimes they actually get stronger.
Conversely, there are people who’ll skip out on a training session because they’re tired or have a headache. We call them “wussies.” Next time you feel like being one, watch this video.
M is for Missing Lifts (and Why You Should Stop Doing That)
When I spent a year training at South Side Gym in Connecticut, I could count on one hand the number of times I saw a guy miss a lift. And these were guys who were routinely squatting over 800 pounds and benching more than 500.
And yet, I see guys in gyms routinely miss non-PR lifts. My question is, why? You’re really doing yourself a disservice if you miss lifts day in and day out. Your gains come with quality reps, not by swinging and missing. If you can’t do a quality rep with the weight you’re using, lower it until you can.
N is for Nervous System
Pavel Tsatsouline was once quoted as saying, “For performance, the nervous system is key. Your muscles already have the strength to lift a car. They just don’t know it yet.”
Coaches like me spend a lot of time trying to improve the efficiency of the nervous system with the athletes we train. It doesn’t matter if we’re training a marathon runner, MMA fighter, shot-putter, or middle linebacker. The goal is to improve the body’s ability to produce force. (I described how to do it in this article.)
The athletes I work with get this, but it’s more challenging to explain to a recreational lifter why we need to invest time training the nervous system. I suspect this applies to a lot of T Nation readers as well. You don’t want to hear about rate coding or intramuscular coordination. You want to feel the pump or the burn and get some visceral sense that you’re making progress.
Christian Thibaudeau likes to refer to “priming hypertrophy facilitation” when trying to convince people to spend a little more time on power and strength. By focusing on power and strength now, you’ll prime your body to grow much faster with hypertrophy-based training in the future.
In short, if you train with performance in mind, aesthetics will follow.
O is for Orthorexics
Orthorexics, a word I learned from reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, are people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
Believe me, I get it. I understand why you weigh and measure your food, take your fish oil, and pre-cook your chicken breasts a week in advance. All of us who contribute to T Nation believe in being meticulous about pre-, peri-, and post-workout nutrition, and I’d be a hypocrite if I said you’re overdoing it.
However, according to Pollan, the idea “that eating should be foremost about bodily health” is relatively new. Historically, food has been about pleasure, community, family, and even spirituality. Only recently has it become an issue of vanity or identity or our relationship to the natural world.
You know, it’s okay to eat red meat. You can live life dangerously and eat butter too. You don’t have to look at every bite you eat in terms of how it affects your health or your body-fat percentage.
Unless, that is, you’re in the middle of contest prep. In that case, you’d damned well better be orthorexic if you want to have any chance of winning.
P is for Pull Yourself to the Bar
This is a fairly easy coaching cue I like to use when teaching someone how to deadlift for the first time. All too often, the biggest mistake is in the initial setup.
As you can see in the first video to the right, my chest is parallel to the floor, my hips are too high, and I’m pulling with a slightly rounded back.
Conversely, in the second video, you’ll see how, when I grab the bar, I use it to pull myself into the proper position. Now my chest is a bit more perpendicular to the floor, allowing my spinal erectors to buttress the shear forces. My hips are lower, allowing for better loading, and my shoulder blades are retracted and depressed. This last point is crucial, since I’m now activating more of my lats and providing more stability to my spine through the thoraco-lumbar fascia.
Try it; I guarantee you’ll feel the difference.
Q is for Question: How’s Your Hip Internal Rotation? (It Most Likely Sucks)
An increasing body of research suggests a profound correlation between lower-back pain and a lack of hip internal rotation (IR) range of motion. (Try saying that five times fast.) Considering that most people have the hip mobility of a batting cage (thanks, desk job!), this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Before you can address the problem, you have to figure if the ROM deficit is muscular or capsular in nature. Try these simple tests that I graciously stole from Bill Hartman:
Lie on your back with your hip and knee bent 90 degrees, and internally rotate your hip. The flexion of the hip relaxes the hip capsule and brings the muscles under tension. So if your ROM is limited — 35 to 40 degrees of IR is considered optimal — the limitation is probably muscular in origin.
Lie on your stomach with your hips in a neutral alignment. Bend a knee 90 degrees, place a hand firmly on your tailbone to eliminate pelvic rotation, and internally rotate your hip. (That is, rotate your foot outward.) Because your hips are in neutral, there’s less tension on the muscle tissues, so any limitation will tend to be capsular in nature.
So what can you do about it?
Luckily, muscular issues tend to respond to a lot of different methods — anything from static stretching to dedicated mobility drills that target hip IR. I picked up one of my favorite drills from John Marchese, a sports physical therapist and chiropractor in Woburn, Massachusetts.
As seen in the video to your right, you stand on one leg, internally rotate the other foot, and rotate back and forth through the hip on the standing leg. Be careful not to rotate through the lumbar spine. I prefer to do these for 30 to 60 seconds per leg several times throughout the day.
With capsular restrictions, however, Hartman notes that passive joint mobilization and passive low-load, long-duration static stretching (such as the lying knee-to-knee stretch while lying on a foam roller) would be the best strategy.
R is for Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, and Hot Chicks Are Hot
This is Jennifer Stano. Jennifer is a model/figure competitor who happens to read my articles and blog. Jennifer, unfortunately, has a boyfriend. I really hate Jennifer’s boyfriend because I’m not him.
S is for Someone Had to Say It
The notion that whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereals are healthier for us is overrated.
Whole-grain bread is marginally better than white bread, with more fiber and some additional vitamins and minerals. But many whole-grain breads contain anti-nutrients like phytic acid and lectins, which prevent our bodies from being able to absorb the healthy nutrients in the first place.
Here’s the problem: When grain is milled into flour, the bran and germ are removed, along with many of the vitamins and minerals we covet. Food companies then “enrich” the flour with a lot of the things they took out in the milling process.
My friend Cassandra Forsythe told me about Ezekiel bread, which is made from sprouted grains. These retain the ability to neutralize the negative affects of phytic acid. Sprouted grains also produce enzymes that help promote the digestibility of the entire grain, making the nutrients more bio-available for the body to process and absorb.
Now, I’m not trying to make this into an anti-whole grain crusade. As I stated above, there are certainly advantages to incorporating more whole grains into your diet. My point is that food companies can be dishonest a-holes, and that there are alternative (possibly better?) options out there.
T is for Tiger Tail Bar
Some people like to collect stamps, or Star Wars action figures (who doesn’t?). I like to collect soft-tissue gadgets. My new favorite is the Tiger Tail Rolling Muscle Massager, which retails for $25 on Amazon. It’s the next-best thing to actual human thumbs for massaging out the knots and kinks in your soft tissue.
U is for UR an Internet Guru
I have a simple equation for calculating the douche potential of Internet training gurus. The larger the audience and the more anonymity a forum offers, the bigger the claims to accomplishment and expertise from the douche bags who post there.
Just because you have 8,945 posts in a forum and can spell “Zatsiorsky” doesn’t mean you know WTF you’re talking about.
Here’s a quick test to measure your own degree of douchiness: If you posted under your own name, how much would the tone and content of your posts have to change? Would you be as sure of your infallibility? Would you be as quick to shoot down other people? If you answer “no” to any of these questions, you’re part of the problem.
V is for Vermeil, Al
If you have an opportunity to listen to Al Vermeil speak, you sure as hell better listen. He’s been the strength coach for championship teams (San Francisco 49ers and the Chicago Bulls) in two major sports, along with some of the best athletes in those sports (Joe Montana and Michael Jordan).
Here are some words of wisdom I picked up from the man in a recent presentation:
- Be cautious of the latest and greatest new training systems. “Functional training” is so convoluted nowadays that few fitness professionals have any idea what it means anymore.
- Be apprehensive of any method of training that changes the natural rhythm, coordination, or pattern of acceleration in any way. If you’re the guy who trains to failure on every set, he’s talking about you.
- If you improve an athlete’s speed and power, you’d better remember to improve his brakes. Anything that’s accelerated has to be decelerated.
- Type II muscle fibers decrease with age. That’s why it’s so imperative for teenage athletes to optimize their form, function, and resistance to injury. Coincidentally, this is why young trainees who spend most of their time doing body-part splits and isolation exercises rarely develop good strength, and why those lifters tend to have chronic injuries later in life.
- To all the trainers who are reading this: If you spent more time getting really, really good at what you do, and less time twittering and writing lame e-books that no one will read, chances are people will find you anyway. And that’s when you’ll make more money.
W is for Warming Up (the Right Way)
We’ve all witnessed it. One minute a guy is warming up with just the bar in the squat rack. The next minute he has 275 pounds on his back. It’s never pretty.
Your body naturally limits itself to protect you from injury, a feedback process that’s controlled by your Golgi tendon organs. Any number of things can limit your ability to recruit motor units efficiently. For example, weak or tight hip flexors can limit the amount of force your glutes and hamstrings produce.
You limit interference through a process called disinhibition, slowly prodding your muscles until they’re ready to reach maximal contraction.
On the other hand, you have lifters who warm up more than necessary, wearing themselves out before they’re using weights heavy enough to produce hypertrophy and increase strength.
Lets take a look at each type of lifter, using the bench press as an example, and find a better way to warm up. In each example, the lifter has a 1RM of about 250 pounds.
Lifter #1: Doesn’t warm up enough
Warm-up: 135 x 10 reps
Work set: 250 x stapled
Lifter #2: Warms up too much
Warm-up set 1: bar x 10 reps
Warm-up set 2: 95 x 10 reps
Warm-up set 3: 135 x 10 reps
Warm-up set 4: 165 x 8 reps
Warm-up set 5: 185 x 6 reps
Warm-up set 6: 205 x 5 reps
Warm-up set 7: 225 x 4 reps
Work set 1: 250 x epic fail
Let’s try a better way:
Warm-up set 1: bar x whatever — just groove the pattern
Warm-up set 2: 135 x 5
Warm-up set 3: 185 x 3
Warm-up set 4: 205 x 1
Warm-up set 5: 225 x 1
Work set: 260 x fist pump!
X is for X Pulldown
This is one of my new favorite exercises, which I picked up from Mike Boyle. It forces your scapular muscles to depress and retract, whereas a traditional lat pulldown offers just scapular depression.
Stand with your chest up, chin tucked, shoulder blades pointed down, glutes tight, and both feet pointed forward. Now pull your elbows down toward your hips.
Y is for Yolks
Real men eat their egg yolks. Nuff said.
Z is for Zea Mays (aka Corn)
Not too long ago, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, another phenomenal book written by Michael Pollan. While it’s a rather dense book detailing how Americans think about the politics, perils, and pleasures of eating, Pollan note that Zea Mays — aka corn — is the only species that “domesticated its domesticator.”
Put another way, corn is in everything.
While I’m certainly not trying to make this an anti-corn crusade, it’s depressing to think just how FUBAR our food system has become. We’ve sacrificed quality for cheaply acquired quantity, and as a result, people are fatter and sicker than ever.
Wrapping It Up
I hope you found this fun, enlightening, and perhaps even a bit infuriating. If I could sum it all up in one paragraph, it might be something like this:
“Eat well but don’t obsess over every morsel. Train hard but only after you’ve warmed up properly. Make sure you have optimal mobility throughout your body, from your ankles to your neck. And if Jennifer Stano ever breaks up with her boyfriend, you might not see me for a while.”