There are No Shortcuts on the Road to Building Strength
The current trend in strength training and the fitness world is to come up with some new piece of equipmentor a training system that isn’t demanding but that enables a person to get stronger or become more fit. Easy is in; difficult is out. Modern fitness facilities reflect the trend. They’re no longer places where die-hard lifters and bodybuilders sweat buckets of water and sometimes blood in their quest for greater strength and finer physiques. They’ve become social clubs where attire is more important than how much effort you put into a routine. Using heavy weights is frowned on, as are sweating and making noise while working out.
Which is why you rarely see anyone in those state-of-the-art facilities who’s strong or in great shape. People prefer the word toning to training and believe in short, condensed sessions, as they’re very busy.
Even if you do join a gym for the purpose of packing on muscular bodyweight or increasing your strength by a large margin, your task is going to be difficult due to the lack of equipment. Ever see any power racks or lifting platforms in the newer gyms? I doubt it. There are probably a dozen training centers in the county I live in, and not one of them has a power rack or a lifting platform. So athletes who would like to get stronger in order to be more proficient in their chosen sport or are aspiring Olympic lifters are out of luck in Harford County, Maryland. As they are almost everywhere else in the country.
The last thing an owner of a gym wants is a group of men and women who are serious about getting stronger. They stay way too long, taking up space that five others could be using. Of course, the reason the proprietors give for not having any equipment for heavy training is that doing the Olympic and power lifts is risky and light weights are much safer and not as stressful to the body. Plus, the machines are a great deal easier than having to learn how to do a movement with a free weight.
I can determine the true nature of any gym just by checking out its squatting stations. If there are power racks or staircase squat racks, I give the place a B rating. Should it, by some miracle, have a platform, it gets an A. If I see a row of Smith machines instead of squat racks, though, I know that this is the home of mullets: trainees who seldom miss workouts yet never make any appreciable gains in either size or strength. They come to these ultramodern fitness centers to visit, ogle the female members in skintight leotards and maybe get lucky and score an invitation to a party. Trying to improve his strength on some exercise is the last thing on a mullet’s mind.
The current attitude of the majority of Americans is that fast is better than prolonged, whether you’re talking about making money, getting promotions, gaining salvation or staying in shape. Writing a letter is old-fashioned, and sending a fax is slowly but steadily falling into the same category. No one wants to put forth much effort anymore.
When I come across one of the programs on TV selling some new gadget, I stay with it because I’m fascinated by the ideas they come up with to try and get viewers to believe what they’re saying is true and buy their product. Some are downright silly. My favorite lately is the apparatus designed to let someone do crunches. That is, instead of not buying the flimsy piece of junk and doing crunches on the floor. The selling point is that the apparatus will let you perform crunches and be completely comfortable while doing it. One happy customer, a real person, proclaimed that he loved the apparatus because he could now do crunches without any aches in his neck. Right—nothing should ache or give you discomfort while you train. That would simply be ridiculous.
After my hip surgery the only ab exercise I could do for some time was crunches. Because I was still weak, I managed only a couple of dozen the first time I did them, and my neck gave out before my abs. Someone in tune with the times would have immediately ordered one of those crunch machines, but I chose another approach. I did some dynamic-tension exercises to strengthen my neck, and I slowly increased my reps. Within two months I was doing 600 crunches, and only the last 50 bothered my neck—but nothing to the degree of grinding out of the bottom of a max squat or bringing a heavy deadlift through the sticking point. Getting stronger always involves discomfort. It’s the only way to move your body to a higher level. Yet that’s not what the masses want to hear.
The preference for the quick and easy over the long and difficult is the primary reason we see so many grossly fat people waddling around malls and supermarkets—everywhere in fact. Sure, they’re overeating, but that’s been going on for quite some time. The recent spurt of obesity in nearly all age groups is a direct result of inactivity. Moreover, if changes aren’t soon made for youngsters growing up in our do-less environment, a great many parents are going to be burying their offspring.
But enough about mullets and the lazy part of our population. No matter what they’re told, they aren’t going to change. My message is for those who are seriously trying to alter their physiques for the better or want to get considerably stronger, and it’s for those who profess a genuine desire to gain strength and build a more balanced physique but still take the easy way out when it comes to doing the hard stuff.
Working the lower back is a prime example of what I’m talking about. The single best exercise for strengthening the lumbars is the good morning. It also happens to be one of the most demanding exercises in all of strength training. Good mornings, which are often called tomorrow mornings by my athletes due to the lingering soreness they cause, are an integral part of my athletes’ programs—females as well as males. As soon as they’ve learned the basic exercises and established a firm enough foundation, I insert good mornings into their routines. That’s because without the specific lower-back work, they won’t make nearly the gains on the pulling exercises or squats as when they do good mornings religiously and with weight that’s in proportion to their squats.
Although athlete hate good mornings with a passion, they do them because I’m in charge. Plus, they feel the results right away and know they’re beneficial. As soon as they complete their sports eligibility, of course, the majority of them drop the exercise, contending that they’re no longer interested in getting stronger. They just want to maintain a fit body. What they fail to understand is that strong lumbars are critical for success in any physical activity and that if they want to continue to play recreational sports and stay reasonably strong, they must work their lower backs directly and diligently. As they grow older, keeping the lumbars strong becomes essential to leading a healthy life.
Then there are those who keep good mornings in their routines but use such puny poundages that it becomes an almost useless exercise. When the hyperextension machines came on the scene, they became instant substitutes for good mornings in nearly every collegiate program in the country. The machines looked sharp, and both athletes and coaches loved them—athletes because anything was better than good mornings and coaches because they no longer had to listen to complaints about the dreaded exercise.
I like the hyper machines, yet they’re not as demanding as good mornings, and there’s the rub. Take a step back in the difficulty department, and you’ll soon find that many of your lifts are regressing rather than progressing.
I also use almost-straight-legged deadlifts in my routine, but only as an alternative for my advanced athletes to give them more variety. At first the athletes think they caught a break. Then I inform them how much weight they’re going to be using: three quarters of their best squat for 10 reps. Plus, they’re not allowed to skip the good mornings. Rather, they do them twice as often as the deads. So there’s no moving from difficult to easy. It’s difficult to difficult, and that’s how it must be if someone wants to get stronger or even maintain existing strength. Shift to an easier movement, and strength will be lost, guaranteed. It’s just how the body functions.
Many trainees do partial squats rather than going deep. They contend that full squats hurt their knees while partials do not. That’s bullshit. Half and quarter squats put a much greater amount of stress on the knee joints than the full movement. It’s been proven in a great many studies. The best exercise for stabilizing the knees is the squat, done in a full-range movement. The real reason so many prefer partial squats is that they’re easier, pure and simple.
Cheating on an exercise is another example of how so many take the easier course. It’s easier to accomplish a higher number on the bench press much more readily and with less effort if you rebound the bar off your chest followed by an exaggerated bridge to get it through the sticking point. To use strict, correct form is much tougher and brings about slower gains—in the beginning, that is. Over the long haul using perfect technique will result in a much higher lift with the added bonus of lowering the risk of injury to the elbows and shoulders.
Taking the less demanding route is why so many prefer to do seated presses with the bar or dumbbells rather than cleaning them and pressing from a standing position. It’s also why some do shrugs with dumbbellsrather than loading up a bar with a score of plates in the power rack. Heavy shrugs are very hard; dumbbellsare not. It’s evident when athletes want to do flat-bench dumbbell presses and have teammates hand them the weights. That’s the easy way. The hard way is to learn to clean the dumbbell, then lie back and do the presses. To really test athletes’ determination, have them sit up with the weights when they’ve finished the set and place them on the floor. That’s what I mean by making a movement more difficult. Rest assured, however: The athlete who did the exercise without any assistance is going to get a great deal more out of it than someone who asks for help.
Even when rubber bumper plates are available, I have my athletes lower the bar to the floor under control rather than dropping it. Why? It’s not to keep from damaging the bar or plates but to do a bit of extra work by lowering the bar. Before the bumps came along in the late ’60s, lifters had to lower the weights back to the platform, even after a heavy clean, press, snatch or jerk. If a bar was dropped during competition, the lift was disqualified. Platforms, unless engineered to handle a huge amount of stress, couldn’t handle heavy chunks of iron being rained down on them repeatedly. Gym owners would go berserk when someone lost control and dumped a weight. I’ve trained at a number of gyms that were on the second floor and was told that if I dropped even one attempt, my workout was over. A small thing, perhaps, to lower a bar under control, but that additional bit of effort adds up in the long run. It builds a different kind of strength from what you use to elevate a weight.
Having a wide range of machines and all the other usual equipment in a gym isn’t always the blessing many believe it to be. A gym with only the bare essentials may seem to be a handicap, yet it can be a positive if you’re willing to go the extra mile. When I started weight training, the first three weight rooms I trained in had no squat rack. I believed squats were necessary if I wanted to grow and get stronger, so I cleaned the weight, flipped it over to my back, squatted and then flipped it back to my shoulders and lowered it to the floor—certainly harder than taking a weight off a rack and squatting it. The combo exercise did a great deal in helping me build a solid foundation so that when I did finally find a well-equipped gym, I was much better prepared.
Steve Stanko told me that he had to do the same thing, then did me one better. There was only a flat bench in the small room where he trained in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, before moving to York, Pennsylvania. So in order to do bench presses, he had to lie on the bench and pull the bar from the floor up over his head and place it on his chest. After he finished his set, he would lower the bar as carefully as he could back to the floor. He credited that movement with his exceptional upper-body strength. If you know the history of physical culture, you know that Steve was one of the greatest Olympic lifters and bodybuilders America ever produced. He was the first athlete in the world to total 1,000 on the three Olympic lifts—the press, snatch and clean and jerk—as well as a Mr. America winner.
Those who train alone have a tendency, over time, to opt for doing an easier exercise for some body part. They might substitute hang cleans for full power cleans. While I also use hang cleans in some of my athletes’ routines, it’s mostly for variety, and I never have them do the shorter version exclusively. Hang cleans serve a purpose but aren’t nearly as beneficial as the full-range movement. Full power cleans require a higher degree of coordination, timing, and overall quickness than hang cleans, which means they have more relevance to an athlete in any sport.
If you’re training alone, you have to constantly monitor your program to make sure you’re not cutting corners on some of the more demanding exercises. Or you might still be doing all the hard stuff but less of it so that your overall workload numbers are slowly becoming lower and lower.
The reason anyone trying to gain size and strength needs to constantly be making workouts harder and harder is that the human body is always seeking a state of complacency. The mind, however, is in charge, and dedicated athletes won’t let the physical self succumb to the ever-present urge to take it easy.
Back to the chubby segment of our population. The reason so many are in the sad state they are is simply that they lack willpower. To stay fit and healthy requires a resolve that cannot be shaken no matter what obstacles are placed in your path.
That means, when you decide to change an exercise in your routine, that replacement movement must be as difficult as or more difficult than the one being dropped, such as replacing deadlifts with heavy clean or snatch high pulls, weighted dips with overhead presses and so on. Not only do the exercises have to be noticed, but workload as well. If you allow your workload to slip backward, gains are going to come less often. That’s yet another reason I encourage all serious strength athletes to keep a journal of their workouts. Most think they can remember exactly what they did the previous week or month, but few can. Very few. Even my sharpest premed athletes at Hopkins couldn’t tell me how many sets or reps they did the week before or the specific numbers they used on all their sets.
Recording each workout means all you have to do is look back through the pages and decide where you currently stand in regard to your past performances. From that record you can determine your workloads and selection of exercises for a certain period of time and make adjustments accordingly.
Those who have been training for a long time, including me, tend to stay with the same routine month after month, year after year. I’ve pretty much used the same weekly routine for the past five years. The practice can end up placing you in a rut. Yet as the Baltimore novelist Laura Lippman wrote in By a Spider’s Thread, “Ruts weren’t ruts if you varied them.”
So that’s what I do. Not so much my selection of exercises, as I’ve found a sufficient number that serve my needs and don’t put undue stress on my old, tired joints, but rather I vary my workload on different days. At each workout I target one muscle group—sometimes a large one, other times a smaller group—and jar it out of its complacency. Yesterday I decided to increase the load for my legs, so I did more reps on the squats and added another set to my calf raises. Today on my walk my quads and calves checked in. I plan to abuse my upper body at today’s workout and so on and so forth.
My point is, not all the groups need to be jacked up at the same time. It’s the amount of work an athlete does during a week that counts. There are many very simple ways to alter a workout to make it more demanding. Here are a few ideas.
Move at a faster pace than usual. That changes how your muscular, respiratory and nervous systems react to the stimulation. I can make myself sore by bomb-blitzing through a session rather than taking my good old time as I usually do.
Do the exercises more deliberately, using perfect form on each rep. One summer I coached a high school football player. Just before training camp he said he wanted to enter a bench press contest being held at the local fitness center. I said he needed to stop rebounding the bar and learn to pause the bar on his chest if he wanted to have his lifts passed. He agreed to have me show him what he needed to do; I had him do every rep on every set with a three-second hold on his chest. The following day his pecs, triceps and front deltoids were sore to the touch.
Pausing is a great way to make an exercise more difficult, and I use it regularly. Want to make your legs scream for mercy without piling on more weight? Pause at the bottom of the squat and stay there for two to three seconds before recovering. Need something to get your deadlift to move? Pause the bar at midthigh and hold it in that position for two to three seconds, then ease it back to the floor. Pausing on any of the basic movements not only increases strength in the target muscles but also helps you hone technique. But you must maintain an absolutely perfect position while pausing. Otherwise the strength gains won’t transfer when you’re doing the full-range movement.
There are some other very simple ways to make an exercise harder, such as elevating the situp board to a higher angle when doing situps or leg raises. All it takes is a desire and a bit of imagination. If you’ve gone flat with regular deadlifts, shift to Sumo style, or do them using 25-pound plates rather than the 45s. Change is usually a good idea, as long as you make sure the new movement or movements are as taxing as the ones you leave behind.
I also believe it’s useful to have at least one exercise in your routine that you dislike. Doing that exercise consistently lets your body know that you’re in charge of the situation and that complaining isn’t going to change things one bit. Once your body figures that out, all will be well. While you’ll still dislike that exercise, there will be less grumbling.
If you train hard, you should be just a little sore after every session. Not the deep soreness that borders on a ding but rather the kind that tells you that you put forth lots of effort at the workout.
There’s a direct correlation between the difficulty of your workouts and the results that you derived from them. When someone starts picking up bad habits, the Methodists call it “backsliding.” It’s the same in strength training and is as harmful to your physical welfare as it is to your spiritual state. If your workload is lower now than it was a year ago and your routine contains more easier exercises, you’re backsliding. The numbers don’t lie.
Those who read the John D. MacDonald adventure novels that feature the remarkable Travis McGee know that his best friend, Dr. Meyer, is always spouting philosophical axioms. This one is from Pale Gray for Guilt: “The thing you find the hardest to do is the thing you should do.” Sounds like he knows about good mornings.
Those are words to live by if you’re sincere about getting bigger and stronger or simply want to maintain the level of strength fitness that you now enjoy.
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