Quick Tip: How to Count Sets for Strength Work

Quick tip today related to how to count sets for strength work. Many people program workouts such as 5 sets of 5 reps in the back squat, for instance. If your heaviest back squat ever (your 1 rep max, or 1RM) is 200 lbs, then perhaps your goal is to lift 175 lbs, or 75% of your 1RM, in this workout. Some people might do this:

  1. One set of 5 reps with the bar (45 lbs)
  2. Add 25-lb plates and do 5 reps (95 lbs)
  3. Swap them out for 45-lb plates and do 5 reps (135 lbs)
  4. Add 10-lb plates and do 5 reps (155 lbs)
  5. Add 10-lb plates and do 5 reps (175 lbs)

That’s 5 sets, right? Nope! That’s 2 warm-up sets and 3 working sets, not 5 working sets. I would recommend that the athlete in the given example above do 2 more sets at 175 lbs in order to truly have done 5 sets of 5 in the back squat that day. The question then is, how do you determine what counts as working sets for strength work?

Charles Poliquin has a general rule for determining how to count strength sets, and I have found it to work rather well:

There should be no more than a 10-20% spread in load from the lightest to heaviest set.

This principle is very easy to apply when you have a workout such as 3 sets of 3 reps, 4 sets of 6 reps, 10 sets of 1 rep, etc. Thus, if you aim to overhead press 100 lbs for 5 sets of 3 reps, then you should only start counting sets once you reach at least 80 lbs on the bar.

Things get a bit trickier, however, when you have wave-loading rep schemes like 5-3-2-5-3-2. Here, if you aim to deadlift 300 lbs for 2 reps on the last wave, then perhaps your first set is 225 lbs for 5 reps. (You could start at exactly 80% and do 240 lbs, but I’m a big fan of just using “natural weights” like Dan John discusses here.)

So there you have it: keep things simple when counting your strength sets, but don’t fool yourself and do less work than is prescribed. I hope this tip helps you optimize your time spent training! Thanks for reading.

Quantifying Instructional Efficacy

Over the past few years my life has been split between fitness and music education. As such, I have spent a lot of time both instructing groups and taking group classes. It is crucially important for teachers and trainers to also be students every so often. You can almost always pick up on other ways of doing things that you can then bring back into your own practice.

For instance, I always begin my CrossFit classes with everyone stating their name to the group. Why? Because I have dropped in on many CrossFit gyms where no one knew each other’s name and the atmosphere was socially awkward! Another example is that I never ask a group a question such as, “So you all have already gone over ____ before, right?” Inevitably, no one wants to be the person to make the entire group go over a basic skill again. Rather, I work basic skills into the warm-up so that I know right then and there where everyone is at on that skill for the day.

hspu

Banded Headstand Push-up: One method I’ve learned to expose new or weaker athletes to inverted bodyweight pressing.

While observing a group exercise class the other day, I realized there is a need to quantify Instructional Efficacy. What do I mean by that? Please allow me to get a bit technical:

  • Average Movement Quality (AMQ): In a group setting, the AMQ refers to how well each person is executing each skill. For instance, if 10 people are doing front squats, and 5 of them look rock solid while 5 of them have wobbly knees and elbows, then the AMQ is 50%. Similarly, if one person is doing power snatches with good positioning but consistently “presses it out” overhead, then perhaps we can say the AMQ is 33%.
  • People: Total number of clients, athletes, students, attendees, etc.
  • Instructors: Total number of trainers, coaches, teachers, assistants, group leaders, etc.

Using these three variables, we can then define Instructional Efficacy as:

  • Instructional Efficacy (IE) = (AMQ x People) / Instructors

Important to note here is that while the Average Movement Quality is a subjective number, the number of People and Instructors is not. Therefore, as a gym owner, manager, or head trainer, your task should be to set clear standards for what counts as good Movement Quality and what does not. (The CrossFit Judges Course is a good place to start, although I think some of their standards are a bit questionable. Catalyst Athletics has a great resource of videos too.)

Let’s see this formula play out in a few different scenarios:

  1. CrossFit class with 2 instructors and 20 people doing power cleans. 5 athletes look good, 10 people could fix one small detail like stance width, and 5 newer clients need serious work on hip extension instead of arm bending. So let’s say the AMQ is 75%. Thus, the IE = (.75 x 20 people) / 2 instructors, or 7.5. If you only had one instructor, you’d have an IE of 15, and if you bumped it up to three instructors, then you’d get an IE of 5.
  2. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class with 1 instructor and 12 people practicing arm-bars. 3 blue belts have it down, 3 advanced white belts can do it but have trouble transitioning, and 6 newer white belts are really struggling. The black belt instructor deems the AMQ to be roughly 40%, and therefore the IE is 4.8. If he asks a blue belt to help the white belts and the AMQ raises to 90%, then the IE raises to 4.95.
  3. Personal training session with 1 client and 1 trainer discussing nutrition. Ah, a trick question! Well, if the client goes home and follows the trainer’s advice to eat mostly meat and vegetables, then the Instructional Efficacy is high. However, if the nutrition information goes in one ear and out the other, then it is the trainer who has some homework to do because their IE is low.

So how should you use this concept? Your goal should be to keep the Average Movement Quality, and thus the Instructional Efficacy, as high as possible. Whether you teach fitness, martial arts, music, or arts and crafts, your value as an instructor can be quantifiably measured based on the quality work done by your students.

Thanks for reading, and please share if you find this concept to be noteworthy!

Range of Motion as a Method of Progressive Overload

Alright people, let’s geek out. I mean, seriously, let’s get into the nitty gritty details of what it takes to get better in the gym. In fancy exercise science talk, the term progressive overload means “the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.” That means that every time you step foot into the gym, you are trying to improve at least one aspect of your fitness program.

You typically have a few options when it comes to stepping up your training game:

  1. Volume: Do more work (e.g., 5 sets of 5 reps instead of 3 sets of 3 reps).
  2. Intensity: Do harder work (e.g., lift 205 lbs off the ground instead of 185 lbs).
  3. Density: Do the same amount and kind of work, just faster (e.g., a 3-minute Fran instead of a 5-minute Fran).

Let’s go a step further and add Range of Motion as a Method of Progressive Overload. I’m talking about how long of a distance you move a certain load in any given exercise. For instance, the standard range of motion for squatting in the sport of CrossFit is that the hips need to travel below the knees at the bottom, and the hips and knees need to reach full extension at the top. Similarly, for pull-ups, the chin needs to travel above the bar at the top, and the elbows need to reach full extension at the bottom.

So how can we manipulate range of motion in order to gradually increase the stress placed upon our body during exercise? Let’s start talking specifics: back squat, deadlift, handstand push-up, and muscle-up.

Back Squat: Let’s say you can squat 315 lbs with a low-bar position, wide stance, and powerlifting range of motion where you stop when the hips are parallel to the knees. Rather than just strive to add weight to the bar, another option in order to increase your fitness would be to then make it a goal to squat 315 lbs with a high-bar position, narrow stance, and Olympic weightlifting range of motion where you descend completely until the hamstrings cover the calves at the bottom. By moving the same weight a greater distance, you have performed more work!

Deadlift: So you can deadlift 405 lbs from the floor… what next? Try this: over time work up to be able to pull, say, 425 lbs, but from a higher position, where the bar begins at your knees instead of at mid-shin level. Once you can lift a heavier weight from this decreased range of motion, then (yep, you guessed it) you will work towards being able to deadlift 415 lbs from the ground. This just demonstrates that range of motion is a two-way street: you can increase range of motion and decrease load, or decrease range of motion and increase load.

Handstand Push-up: As mentioned in my previous post on Progressions and Regressions, you can strive to make improvements in your handstand push-ups by manipulating the range of motion. If you can do a headstand push-up (where your hands and head are both on the floor at the bottom), then strive to work up towards a legitimate handstand push-up (where your hands are elevated such that only your head touches the floor at the bottom). As a regression, you could do what many CrossFitters do and begin by doing mini-HSPU’s with a stack of ABMAT’s beneath your head as a cushion as well.

Muscle-up: Here’s an example that’s a bit less intuitive. When practicing muscle-ups, scale by starting from a bent-arm hang at the bottom. By decreasing the range of motion required to pull yourself up and over the rings, you have made the movement a bit easier to perform. Then, of course, over time gradually work towards being able to muscle-up from a complete dead hang with straight arms at the bottom.

Okay, phew, there we have it. Hopefully these tips make the concept of Range of Motion as a Method of Progressive Overload a bit more clear in your minds. Use this the next time you’re in the gym! You are training sub-optimally and leaving potential performance gains on the table if you only ever strive to increase weight or decrease time without regard to range of motion. Thanks for reading, and please share!

Pluralism in Health and Fitness

This past weekend I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina for a weekend-long workshop with Yuri Marmerstein, a Las Vegas-based acrobat and handbalancer seen here:

Attending the seminar were CrossFitters, Olympic weightlifters, yogis, acrobats, handbalancers, gymnasts, and martial artists. We spent two whole days practicing handstands and learning basic capoeira. The whole experience was fantastic, not only because Asheville is such a vibrant and unique place, but also because my fellow attendees implicitly understood something that most people do not: Pluralism in Health and Fitness is a beautiful phenomenon to be celebrated, not a matter for argument.

Here’s what I mean. Have you ever seen or heard two people arguing about eating Paleo vs. Vegan? Or what about one person trying to convince another to do CrossFit vs. Yoga? What happens is that we tend to over-compartmentalize certain camps in the health and fitness world. Yes, I understand that at times there are real, genuine differences between certain viewpoints. However, there is also plenty of overlap among various “belief systems” out there, and sometimes all it takes is a change in perspective to become aware of this.

Paleo or Vegan? Well regardless of what they might think about eating animals, I am willing to bet that both care about animal welfare, eat a ton of fruit and vegetables, and make food and nutrition a central part of their lives. Why not share some recipes, make some restaurant suggestions, or have a potluck? CrossFit or Yoga? Whether or not they choose on a barbell or shavasana, both groups prioritize their physical fitness, train to improve their strength and mobility, and do plenty of bodyweight movements for exercise.

Whether or not you think religious pluralism is a good idea, there are definite benefits to engaging with those in your community who may or may not practice the exact same habits that you do. My personal fitness journey has taken me from team sports in middle school to drum corps in high school and college to triathlon, yoga, and CrossFit as an adult. Nowadays a typical week involves a lot of gymnastics, some jiu-jitsu and muay thai, and a little bouldering. Throughout all these experiences I always learn something new from those who practice different activities from myself, and I always walk away with a better understanding of my own views.

If this post inspired you, then go out this weekend and try something new! How about a capoeira class, a sunrise hike, or cooking beef tongue? Just some ideas! Thanks for reading.

Review of Ben Musholt’s “Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia”

This past July I was on tour with my band in northern California when I came across an article on Breaking Muscle written by a Portland-based physical therapist and parkour athlete named Ben Musholt. The more I researched this guy, the more I liked him! A short list of his experience includes parkour, freerunning, gymnastics, martial arts, capoeira, trail running, snowboarding, and beyond. I greatly respect whenever a fitness professional is well-versed in multiple disciplines instead of just a single domain or speciality. Check out some of Ben’s skills from his American Ninja Warrior Regional Semi-Final in 2012 (ignore the title, the name is wrong):

I also learned that Ben was raising funds for an exercise encyclopedia he was planning to release in October called Mad Skills300+ pages of workout movements with over 700 illustrations on disciplines ranging from bodyweight to kettlebells to barbells and more? I’m in! I made a donation and have been eager to see the finished product ever since. Here’s the book trailer from Ben Musholt’s Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia (available on Amazon here):

Having donated to the fundraising campaign, I was afforded the opportunity to read through an electronic copy of the book this past weekend, and in short, I love it! There are so many positives to how this book was put together. First off, in the Introduction Ben writes, “The broader array of movement skills that you train, the better athlete you will be.” Sound familiar? In my “What Are We Really Training For Anyway?” post I concluded something very similar: “Train to learn new skills, gradually and progressively, so as to become capable of and masterful in more complex movements.”

Second, this book achieves exactly what it set out to become: an exercise encyclopedia filled with brief descriptions and illustrations of movements; not some sort of esoteric treatise on movement philosophy. Because of that, Mad Skills is an invaluable resource for personal trainers, CrossFit coaches, martial artists, and athletes of any sport. Heading into the gym to do squats today? Check out Ben’s chapter on leg strength (aptly titled “Pillars of Steel,” love it!) to get some ideas of possible subtle variations on your routine. Or do you need some ideas on programming for your athletes? Ben includes an entire chapter on push-ups, so there’s no reason to stagnate, plateau, or get bored in your training anymore.

This book is also very comprehensive. It is quite a daunting task to set out and list all the possible exercise movements that are out there, and I can only imagine that it must have taken Ben years to compile all this information. Here’s a brief list of the variety of entries in Mad Skills: shadow box, ginga, cossack squat, plate pinch curl, bodyweight chest fly, zercher lunge, neider press, barbell sit-up, double KB windmill, KB bear crawl, sandbag overhead squat, plank push-up, breakdance push-up, handstand leg raise, cocorinha squat, precision jump, archer pull-up, towel drag, quadruped skiers, stability ball bird dog, fireman carry, scorpion downward dog pose, revolved side angle, rectus femoris stretch, levator and scapula stretch. Phew!

Lastly, the last chapter in the book, titled “Cooking it up,” is a very straightforward, to-the-point summary of how to construct an exercise program. Ben mentions general athleticism vs. sport specificity, sets and reps, variety, social support, recovery, and the bottom line, which is that “movement is the answer” and “just go play.” And it is important to note that throughout the book Ben is able to do just that: keep it playful. We’re talking about exercise people… moving your body and external objects through space because, in one way or another, we want to do it! As a resource to be referred to time and time again over the next few decades, I highly recommend Ben Musholt’s Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia to all human movers.

Top Five Coaches You Should Follow

Keeping it simple with this Monday’s post: the Top Five Coaches You Should Follow, along with brief commentary about my experience with each one. I hope this will inspire you to pursue some of their educational offerings!

1. Charles Poliquin

I had to list Charles Poliquin first because he has probably influenced everyone else below in some capacity. Although he recently separated from the Poliquin Group, he is now building his own brand called Strength Sensei. My experience with Charles was initially through his Poliquin International Certification Program, and both Levels 1 and 2 which I have completed were chock full of great quality information. Another thing that really stands out when you attend a Poliquin event is that they have seriously high standards for everything that they do. Taking an online exam? You have to score 92% or higher to pass. Doing squats at their gym? You will be prescribed split squats if your butt winks even the slightest above parallel. Drinking green tea from their café? It’s organic from Whole Foods. Charles Poliquin and his team are all-around health and fitness experts, so I recommend you follow them for advice on everything including strength training, conditioning, nutrition, supplementation, and lifestyle.

2. Ido Portal

I would be completely remiss if I did not mention Ido Portal and his team on this list. A CrossFit trainer first pointed me in Ido’s direction online in 2009, and I have been hooked ever since. Let me try to do his work some justice with a few brief links: The Floreio Art and his Self-Dominance video, The Improper Alignment Speech, and the Raw Brahs Interview with Ido Portal. Movement is the central theme in Ido’s work, and movement can come in various forms, such as handbalancing, capoeira, gymnastics, weightlifting, dance, etc. I am currently working through some online coaching through Ido and his team (thanks Odelia!), and I am looking forward to meeting him at the Dynamic Movement in Sports Symposium in Rhode Island in November.

3. James FitzGerald, aka OPT

The bottom line is that if you coach CrossFit, you need to learn from James FitzGerald at Optimum Performance Training. Not only did he win the CrossFit Games in 2007, but he also has more experience both in the gym and in the research lab than anyone else I have ever heard of. His Coaching Certification Program will be the gold standard for fitness coaches moving into the future, as it includes modules on Assessment, Program Design, Nutrition, Life Coaching, and Business Systems. Furthermore, his Big Dawgs blog is probably the best example of group programming that’s out there, as he has different levels for different athletes. Having met James and heard him speak a few times, he is as passionate about health, fitness, and sport as they come.

4. Martin Rooney

I was only recently pointed to Martin Rooney and his Training for Warriors program, but after watching him speak a few times, I could tell he was someone I needed to learn from. The biggest takeaway from the Training for Warriors online certification I completed this summer was Martin’s simple yet profound commitment to walking the walk in addition to talking the talk. Not sure you can trust what your coach is telling you to do? What if he is also having his very own daughter complete the same style of training? That probably means he believes what he’s telling you is true! Plus it doesn’t hurt that Martin’s coaching background includes these guys from Brazil who do jiu-jitsu… oh yeah, the Gracies!

5. John Berardi

Last but certainly not least, is John Berardi from Precision Nutrition. It’s just impossible to argue against what John Berardi has accomplished through his career: multiple degrees in exercise and nutrition, coached athletes at the highest level (GSP, for instance), and developed the largest online nutrition coaching programs in the world. I would recommend reading his short e-book “All About Intermittent Fasting,” as well as his role in Nate Green’s hilarious journey “Bigger Smaller Bigger.” Currently I am about halfway through the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification program, and the textbook, workbook, and videos are absolutely top-notch.

That’s it, thanks for reading! Feel free to comment with any other coaches who have you inspired you.

Practical Tips for Prioritizing Quality over Quantity in a CrossFit Setting

With all the pro- and con-CrossFit articles coming out recently (here, here, here, and here), I felt the need to side-step the bullsh*t and just write about what it is that we actually do . . . train.

quality

Practical Tips for Prioritizing Quality over Quantity in a CrossFit Setting

So you’ve been doing CrossFit for some time now, and you have made noticeable gains in your fitness. That’s great! You should take some time to literally stop what you’re doing and reflect on how incredible it is that you are improving your body’s health and capabilities. Getting your first chin-up, muscle-up, or handstand push-up is an accomplishment worth celebrating!

I want to keep things very practical in this article. As you continue to progress in CrossFit, you might reach a point where you find yourself pushing harder and harder to get extra reps and rounds to the detriment of your form and technique. This is not the way to go! Rather, you should prioritize Quality over Quantity so that in the future you may continue to make gains in strength, work capacity, mobility, and overall fitness.

1. Breathe

What a simple thing that we all do everyday! However, mid-WOD, it suddenly becomes apparent that you have not been breathing adequately. How about this: focus on inhaling. Long, slow, controlled, and in through the nose. If you are doing a 20-minute AMRAP, then I want you exclusively breathing through the nose for at least the first 10 minutes. Heavy mouth breathing should be reserved for sprints, short efforts, and the ends of workouts.

2. Break up sets

Have you ever stopped and thought about why 21-15-9 is such an effective rep scheme? One reason is because each set can be broken up into 3 distinct sub-sets: 3 sets of 7, 3 sets of 5, and 3 sets of 3. Another great way to break up this rep scheme is: 11 and 10, 8 and 7, then 5 and 4. So the next time you do Fran, Diane, or Elizabeth, strategize a bit beforehand and see if that helps you set a new PR.

3. Rest between sets

Rest?! Aren’t you supposed to go all out as fast as you can? Okay, yes, I get it, the workouts are done for time. However, you might end up with an overall faster time (and thus greater work capacity) if you actually plan to rest between sets from the get-go. For instance, next time you do Cindy (as many rounds and reps as possible in 20 minutes of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 squats), try to do 1 round at the top of every minute. If you succeed, you will have accumulated 20 rounds! It will feel very easy in the beginning, and very not-so-easy at the end. (If 20 rounds of Cindy is out of your reach, then try 1 round every 90 seconds. Or, vice-versa, if your old PR is higher than 20, try 1 round every 45 seconds or so.)

4. Prioritize mobility

You know you’re supposed to do it, but somehow you only manage to hit the foam roller or grab that stretch band once or twice a week. How about this: you are not allowed to do a WOD unless you’ve first done your mobility work for the day. Have you ever set a timer for 5 minutes and then rolled out your thoracic spine? Or what about grabbing a lacrosse ball and hitting your entire shoulder girdle? Check out Kelly Starrett’s awesome MobilityWOD project for more ideas.

5. Scale movements and weights effectively

If you only take one principle away from this post, please pay attention here. You want to make optimal choices in your life, correct? If you could take 2 routes to your destination, but one of them was longer and riskier, what would you decide? You would take the optimal route, duh! Similarly, learning to scale movements and weights effectively is how you optimize CrossFit workouts to fit your individual fitness level and needs. Refer to Prilepin’s Chart (a guideline for what percentage of your 1 rep max to lift for each given rep range) when choosing what weights to do for WOD’s:

Thanks for reading! If you have any additional practical tips for how to prioritize quality over quantity in a CrossFit setting, please post to the comments!