“Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I’d studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick.”

-Bruce Lee

Photo credit: hanneorla
Photo credit: hanneorla

This past week saw a proliferation of fantastic strength and conditioning information being offered to the masses — podcasts, articles, you name it — all of it for free, I might add.  This kind and quality of information was once only available to upper-end athletes — and when I say “once”, I mean as recently as the early ’90’s.  The problem with this plethora of information, of course, is that the vast majority of it is nothing but noise — misinterpreted, misrepresented, manipulated, or just flat-out friggin’ bass-achwards wrong.  What to do?  How does one go about filtering this low signal to noise ratio for the nuggets of truth (and there are some) that may be out there?  My advice is simply this: All truth is simple in concept, complex and difficult in learning and actual real-world application, and finally, a different kind of simple — elegantly simple — in mastery.  Consider Bruce Lee’s quote above.  Really, this is just he’s saying as well.  Filter all that incoming information with that notion in mind.

As an example of this, what if I said that one could build a stunning body (as “stunning” as one’s genetic hand will allow), and, if athletically inclined, propel this individual leaps and bounds ahead of the competition by doing no more than this: Power cleans, heavy carries, sprints, and adherence to a Paleo lifestyle.  Now, that’s about as simple as it gets in concept; however, give this “workout” a shot: carry a pair of 150 lb dumbbells — any method, it doesn’t really matter — one round of a 400 meter track.  That’s it, you’re free to go home after that — or to the hospital, whichever you feel you need.  That’s the difference between a concept that’s simple, and the application thereof that is anything but.  Is there any question, though, as to the efficacy of such an endeavor repeated over time? Think you’ll lose fat and muscle-up by adhering to that simple workout everyday, coupled with a sensible diet?  You bet your sweet ass you will.  This same idea is applicable to the Paleo lifestyle.  I can’t think of a more simple “diet” concept — eat protein, good fats, fibrous veggies and a smattering of fruit; have some raw dairy if it’s to your liking.  That’s it, that’s my “diet book” in its entirety.  Where the rubber meets the road, though, is when you’re confronted with that luscious carrot cake, or bombarded once more with “oh my God, your cholesterol must be…! or, Everyone knows you have to have carbohydrates in your diet!, or the dreaded just one little piece won’t hurt ya.” There’s a world of difference between being an intellectual Paleo, and in being Paleo in action.  The concept is simple; application — especially in the initial stages, will test your resolve.

Photo credit: Cossfit
Photo credit: Crossfit

Analysis Paralysis

One doesn’t need much in the way of equipment to pull-off what Tanya is doing here.  What one does require, though, is an immense amount of intestinal fortitude.  Simple in application, difficult in actual application.  Nothing fancy here; lunges with a heavy load held at lockout over your head.  Simple; and it’ll simply hand you your ass in no time flat.  Not much programming involved here, either.  And check this out: that very same exercise can be tweeked for strength, power, and yeah, even hypertrophy emphasis with simple manipulations of load, rep speed and total time under load.  How much more detail do we really need to be concerned about?  About as much workout detail as anyone can realistically juggle in a real-world situation are these few things:

  • Modality (strength, hypertrophy, power)
  • Movement
  • Duration
  • Rest

If you delve into much more detail than this in your pre-workout planning, you’re just setting yourself up for frustration.  Modalities are best worked in blocks according to what your needs happen to be.  Movements should be basic, multi-joint, and functional (unless there is an underlying need for some sort of isolation work).  Duration is the energy cycle you intend to target.  Rest is simply an avoidance of overtraining.  Now the problem with getting into much more detail than that is allowing yourself to bail on an entire program if, for instance,  someone happens to be occupying the squat rack (probably doing bicep curls) when your “program” called for heavy front squats.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen have this occurrence blow their entire workout (and their day’s attitude), and, if they happen to be following some “pre-set program”, said program is now deemed, “useless” now, and unworthy of continuing.  I say to this what the hell, do deadlifts, Bulgarian splits squats, whatever — just have it be of the same modality, basic movement patern and target duration.  Do you think your body really gives a damn? Your body only needs proper and targeted stimulus — it’s your conscious mind that absolutely has to have the particular exercise at the precise percentage of 1RM on this particular day.  Adapt, overcome, and bust your ass at whatever you happen to be doing — even if it wasn’t in your plan — and everything else will take care of itself.  Hey, don’t get me wrong, it’s fine (and even sometimes, necessary) to have a workout template planned out — I usually operate with one  in the background as well — my point is that things can and will go wrong; your shoulder hurts, the car broke down, you had to plow through a 60-hour work week, somebody has the squat rack tied-up with doing bicep curls.  Reach that “enlightened” point of a “kick being just a kick”, realize your template is no more than a crutch for your conscious mind, and move on.

An Example of Simple Vs. Easy

Consider my Saturday, July 18th workout (the first of two that I performed in the middle of an intermittent fast); this one rates pretty damn high on the intensity scale and about rock bottom in complexity.

  • Overhead lunges (just like Tanya is demonstrating above); two 45lb plates x 25 yards
  • Ring flyes (4/2/x tempo)* x 7 or so
  • Muscle-ups on a pull-up bar x 2

*four second eccentric, 2 second hold at critical joint angle (bottom-out position), fast-as-humanly-possible concentric.

I lost count after 4 rounds of this beast.  I had to stay away from home for a while because the realtor was showing the house, so I just kept hitting set after set.  What the hell else was I going to do 🙂   After a while, though, I could only lunge for about 10 yards or so, so I walked the last 15 yards of each round the plates still at full extension over my head.  I hit the point where I could only manage 4 flyes at my initial tempo.  And muscle-ups?  My upper body was so toasted from the overhead caries that I hit the point of only being able to eek out a single, then I digressed to the point of being happy to get my chest to the bar.  Simple? You bet.  Easy? Try it on for size and get back to me.  And the second workout?  Interval sprints on my fixed-speed steed, about 2 hours following the workout above.

In health,

Keith

19 COMMENTS

  1. Keith,

    You do a great job of breaking it down. It can and should be that simple. Details are details. They can get you to second guess all of the work you have put in to your training already.

    I like to keep it simple: the ground, gravity, resistance (you and/or a weight) interacting; move as much weight, in as little time, with good technique. The rest are the subtle details that we all like to debate.

  2. This post puts things into perspective. I know i can catch myself overthinking training some times when all it really takes is grabbing some weight and busting my ass in the gym or on the field.

    And always when i work hard and get the job done….the experience in the weightroom sorts out all the answers i was overthinking!

  3. Keith,

    You mentioned different modalities for strenght, power and hypertrophy being affected by load, rep speed and total time under load. I am not very knowledgeable about these, but would be very interested in your input about how the former affect the latter based on your experience!

    Thanks in advance

    Al

    • Hmmm, that’s a lot of ground to cover, Al; sounds like another blog post. I’ll give you this to ruminate on, though. Human performance, in a nutshell, boils down to a measure (and betterment of) force, distance and time (or power). What we should all strive for is improved functionality, or the ability to move large loads for a specified distance as quickly as possible. Greg Glassman (of Crossfit) defines “fitness” as the application of power over broad time and modal domains. And that realization, by the way, is just a stroke of simple genius for which he ought to be commended.

      • Keith,

        Thanks for the quick answer!

        So if I follow your reasoning, if one was looking for power (e.g. “the ability to move large loads for a specified distance as quickly as possible”), the load should be as heavy as possible while still enabling a fast enough rep speed, and thus reducing time under load. Is that correct?

        For the rest my uneducated guess would then be:
        Strenght: Heavy load, slow rep speed, long time under load (That sounds like what Doug Mc Duff’s Body by Science recommends).
        Hypertrophy: ??? (Absolutely no clue here!)

        These questions might sounds basic, but so far I couldn’t find any convincing answer (i.e. “elegantly simple”)!

        Thanks in advance,

        Al

        • …(for power) the load should be as heavy as possible while still enabling a fast enough rep speed, and thus reducing time under load. Is that correct?

          Yes. You should strive to find the sweet spot between load and speed that maximizes power output — with correct form, of course.

          Strength is maximal force dependent, independent of the time variable.

          Hypertrophy is “inroad” dependent. In other words, one needs to chose a weight for a particular exercise that is heavy enough to enable a “burn through to” and total fatigue the fast twitch fibers, before slow twitch fibers have a chance to recoup. The best set/rep scheme for this a topic of fierce debate.

          Power and strength are highly CNS-dependent phenomena; hypertrophy, not so much. All 3 modalities are interrelated and intertwined, though.

          • Keith,

            Thank you very much for the explanation, it does make things a lot more clear!

            If I follow your reasoning, then the approach of Doug Mc Duff in Body by Science would be encouraging strenght and hypertrophy, but with little in terms of power wouldn’t it?

            “Hypertrophy is “inroad” dependent. (…) to enable a “burn through to” and total fatigue the fast twitch fibers”

            So to make sure that inroad occurs, is going to failure enough (which makes me wonder, is muscular failure necessarily fast twitch muscle failure)?

            Also, from what you wrote I got the impression that hypertrophy and power were mutually exclusive to a certain extent when it comes to exercising schemes (i.e. it is difficult to achieve both with the same rep/set scheme). Am I just misinterpreting what your wrote or is there some truth in that?

            Thanks again for your advice, it is very sound and definitely helps me see things more clearly!

            Al

  4. Keith,
    Brilliant as always!

    Question/advice
    What’s preventing me from doing a muscle up on a pull up bar?
    Is it strength? flexibility? technique?
    I can crank out 3 sets of 15 perfect slow deadhang pull ups.
    But the muscle up is escaping me…

    Follow up on the “dip belt” you turned me onto.
    I’m up to 55# for 6-7 reps. (x 3 or 4 sets)
    Thanks as always.

    Marc

    • “Follow up on the “dip belt” you turned me onto.
      I’m up to 55# for 6-7 reps. (x 3 or 4 sets)
      Thanks as always.”

      No problem. Heavy dips and overhead presses beat the hell out of bench pressing, in my book. Glad you’re having success with the belt.

  5. Marc,

    It is technique. I am in a similar situation as you. I can crank out the pull-ups and dips (with external resistance), but still struggle with muscle-ups. You (and I) need to learn to use momentum from the pull-up to get the leverage for the dip (from watching a friend do them). I guess it is easier said than done. I practiced with rings by lowering them so I could ‘jump’ into the dip position. As I got more comfortable, I raised the rings so I had to do a ‘jump Pull-up’ to get into position.

    Good Luck!

    • And I’d add, as well, the ability to produce instantaneous power in this movement. This is quite apart from the strength (and strength-endurance) required to do even a good number of pull-ups. Technique notwithstanding, this is somewhat analogous to someone with a poor power clean-to-deadlift ratio.

  6. This is the reason I like Wendler’s idea of the Triumvate: pick the best exercises, no more than 3. I sometimes fudge the rule with mobility work, because I think rotator cuff work isn’t really a work exercise, but you have to pick the best.

  7. The analysis paralysis advice is excellent, but I think at least some people find switching to a “similar” exercise mid-work-out a problem due to the fact that they don’t have experience/knowledge across a range of exercises. I know this is true for me. When I first started working out with weights, I was told I absolutely had to have a spotter to do squats, so I started doing all my leg work on machines and sleds. I have no idea how to convert my sled weights into squats, and when it’s busy enough that the sled isn’t available, I don’t want to be messing around trying to figure out the free weights.

    • I hear ya, Chris, and I understand. But think of it this way — a “leg press” for example, really is just a leg press. Now, you can squat, lunge, Bulgarian split squat, deadlift, even…you get the picture. Different angles and different feels, sure; and yeah, you might hit the right weight for the energy system you want to target right off. But really, if you perform whatever exercise (or modality) at a high intensity and at a sufficiently heavy weight your body will have no other choice but to respond and adapt. I am totally serious when I tell you that I have had times where I’ve finally been able to hit the gym after a prolonged absence (due to work hours) and found it so crowded (i.e, pre-spring break college kids, getting their “buff-up” on), that I just grabbed the heaviest pair of DB’s I could find and did a continuous combination of lunge/walking until my (1) my grip gave out, then I wrapped-up with straps and went until (2) either my traps or legs gave out, whichever happened first. You can’t get a better workout than that — even on a scheduled “chest and tri” day 🙂

  8. Keith,

    I would love to hear your reasons why you don’t use the bench press. I have developed my own over the past ten years. I haven’t been on the bench in years, but love ring dips, pushup variations, kettlebell presses, and side presses. But, I still hear many experienced strength coaches recommend them for ‘horizontal pressing strength/power’. These coaches are usually from a Powerlifting background.

    Dan

    • Probably for the same reason as you, Dan; I simply feel that other exercises transfer better to the field of play. Now, this is not to say that the bench press is a “bad” exercise — I don’t feel that there are any “bad” exercises, per se; bad applications toward a desired goal perhaps, but no “bad” exercises. Now, if you’re a powerlifter, of course, that’s a whole different story altogether. In just about any other sport I can think of though, if you find yourself flat on your back & worried about how much you can press, you got some other serious, more sport-specific issues to contend with — namely, you’re having your ass handed to you, and it’s “game over” at that point. Now, flat, single-arm DB work I can go along with — along with ballistic push-ups to bring in the power element. Why the NFL continues to use the benchpress as a measure of functional upper body strength, I’ll never know. Tradition dies hard, I suppose.

  9. Hi Keith,
    Great post. Particularly enjoyed the start (conceptual) side of it… also found strong resonance in this line: “All truth is simple in concept, complex and difficult in learning and actual real-world application, and finally, a different kind of simple — elegantly simple — in mastery” , and its tie-in with the Bruce Lee quote.

    …learned skill becomes ‘simple’ again once its been mastered – after its complexity has been disassembled, examined, then reassembled. You understand the workings but you see it for what you first saw it as, through different eyes.

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