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Dialing in the Training: Three Case Studies

Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW CC, Starting Strength Staff

When it comes to dialing in the training there are numerous valid approaches that will result in changes in bodyweight, body composition, strength, and conditioning. The trick is to manipulate the correct variables at the correct time to get the preferred result. Each individual has specific goals, needs, and concerns that their particular training and nutritional approach should meet and in this article we’ll attempt to cover the most common goals, troubleshooting techniques, and dietary/training tweaks that actually work.

Case Study #1: Jane Smith

Stats:

  • Weight: 165lbs
  • Height: 5’8
  • Age: 35
  • Body Fat: 24%
  • Current Nutrition:
    • Jane currently eats “pretty well” and is a Paleo Diet follower. She sticks mainly to meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and similar products 85% of the time. A few times per week Jane disregards her Paleo underpinnings and has ice cream, pasta, pizza, or other tasty foods. Her compliance is pretty good, but she knows she can do better. She does not currently weight and measure her food, either.
    • Current Training:
      • Jane has developed a proficiency in weight training with her sessions mainly being comprised of squats, deadlifts, presses, chins, and other compound movements.
      • Current Cardio:
        • Jane also does cardio 2-3x per week, with one of the sessions being more “interval” based training.
        • Goals:
          • Jane would really like to take it to the next level with her body composition. While she is happy with here current level of leanness, she really wants to push the envelope and get down to a level where her abdominal muscles are starting to come out so that she’s ready for swimsuit season.

To tackle Jane’s quandary in the least amount of time with the smallest amount of intervention necessary we need to develop a baseline of nutrition first. We need to give Jane some homework in that she starts to record and measure her macronutrients and calories that she is currently consuming for a full week. We need not worry about implementing any sort of change in her nutritional protocol just yet; we’re just interested in getting a baseline reading. So we send Jane on her way to get us some data and here is what we get:

Macronutrients:

  • Protein: average= 105
  • Carbohydrates= average = 150
  • Fats: average= 100

Calories:

  • 1920 kCal

While these averages might seem a little off to some people, we must remember that Jane occasionally goes off the rails and has a cheat meal here and there which influences the average macronutrient totals. In an effort to lean Jane out quickly we need to reduce her intake of energy-dense nutrients while providing enough building blocks so that she can preserve her current level of muscle mass or slightly add to it via training. We can do this in an intelligent fashion by manipulating the macronutrients in a step-wise fashion as the process goes on.

The first thing to do is to set the daily protein intake at a level to sustain her muscle mass whilst also not being so excessive as to preclude her from dropping some body fat. The range of between 1.0-1.5g/lb of bodyweight is a nice place to start. Let’s start Jane right in the middle with the protein for the following reasons: she’s already used to eating meat frequently as a Paleo dieter, but not large amounts of it apparently. Furthermore, she has a pretty good chunk of lean muscle tissue we’d like to keep and she trains hard multiple times each week.

Protein total= 200g/day

Next we need to take care of the energy requirements. While we could get all fancy and describe a carbohydrate cycling plan for Jane to follow, it would be such a drastic shift from what she’s currently doing that compliance might suffer as a result. So let’s start this nutrition plan with steady amounts of carbohydrates and fats and leave their manipulation for another time. These amounts of energy-dense nutrients will allow for energy restriction, which is important when it comes to losing body fat. However, the carbohydrates are not so low that Jane runs the risk of ruining her metabolism and getting spun out. Similarly, her fat intake will not be so low that she will have to worry about decreasing fat-soluble vitamin absorption, hormonal status, etc.

Carbohydrate total= 150 g/day (35g coming from fiber)

Fat total= 50g/ day

Total Calories= 1850 calories per day

So we’ve induced a slight calorie deficit with Jane while shifting her macronutrient profile. The other step in this initial change is make two of her weekly “cardio” sessions interval based for the following reasons: long-lasting uptick in metabolism, hormonal stimulus to preserve lean muscle tissue, better carbohydrate and fatty acid metabolism properties. I’d have her stick to 20-30 second sprints followed by 1:30-2minute “active” rest periods x 7-9 total intervals. The interval session would be capped by a 5 minute warm up and cool down. So now, Jane is good to go!

Each week we’d assess Jane’s fat loss and measurements and adjust the macronutrients down in a step-wise fashion. The first thing I’d do is strip away 10g of protein and carbohydrates and leave the fat where it’s at. After that, I’d strip 10g of fat away while leaving protein and carbohydrates the same. During each of these steps I’d consider adding in additional conditioning sessions one at a time. Losing a solid pound per week is likely and if this is happening then just hold steady until there is a plateau and then start manipulating your variables.  Pictures taken at the same time weekly also tell the tale and this is a nice addition for bookkeeping.

Case Study #2: Joe Gunz

Stats:

  • Weight: 180lbs
  • Height: 5’ 10”
  • Age: 28
  • Body Fat: 12%
  • Current Nutrition
    • Joe Gunz currently isn’t eating anything particular but typically sticks to meats, vegetables, rice, oats, whole wheat breads, potatoes, nut butters, healthy oils, and copious amounts of protein powder. There are days the Joe doesn’t eat all of his meals and also days in which he scarfs down a pizza, burger, or some Chipotle as he is a busy young professional.
    • Current Training
      • Joe is a training juggernaut, constantly switching to the latest and greatest training protocols published on the Internet yet he consistently gets stuck at certain weights after two weeks on a “new” program. He sticks to the big movements like squats, deads, presses, and pulls with a bit of isolation work although he hasn’t seen much progress on his lifts in the past few months.
      • Current Cardio
        • Joe doesn’t get any formal cardio done on a regular basis. Sure he throws down in the occasional metabolic conditioning workout (CrossFit-esque) and does some sprints when he reads an article about how sprints develop massive legs, but he is neither consistent nor scientific in his approach to cardiovascular system development.
        • Goals
          • Joe wants to get jacked, pure and simple. He wants to gain muscle mass whilst remaining lean or getting even leaner. What’s a boy to do?

While it would be easy to prescribe something very complicated like a carb-cycling nutritional protocol, interval training, and undulating periodization in the training- these things aren’t practical for Joe as they are too different from what he’s currently doing. While this large shift to a novel stimulus would likely work for a few weeks it would be a pain to implement and we don’t know enough about how Joe would respond to smaller-scale changes to properly manipulate any of the variables we changed. In my opinion, the best way to help Joe out towards the path to uber-man physique is to employ small, SMART, changes systematically. Here’s how.

First I’d introduce a post-workout shake consisting of 30g of protein and 90g of simple carbohydrates. This 1:3 ratio has time and time again proven to be an effective muscle builder in the exercise science literature. I’d prefer if Joe utilized a fast-acting high quality whey protein isolate and equally fast-acting simple carbohydrate source like waxy maize. This would be step one in Joe’s nutrition plan and this slight bump in calories around his training time would most likely increase his protein synthesis, recovery, and thus muscle growth. Adding 5g of creatine to this shake would be another smart idea. In short, introduce a post-workout shake consisting of whey protein isolate, waxy maize (or similar), and creatine. The other two nutritional changes I’d make off the bat is to get Joe to start keeping a log of his nutrition and to add a cup of instant oats to one of his protein shakes, preferably in the earlier hours of the day or around his workout time.

The log of his nutritional intake will allow use to make more intelligent tweaks to his plan in the future, as we’ll know what he’s actually eating. The extra serving of oatmeal results in an additional 50g of carbohydrates which both provide extra fuel for the training while also allowing for increased muscle growth by stimulating protein synthesis. These three changes, post-workout shake, logging nutrition, and extra oats will work synergistically and aren’t so novel in that they will prevent Joe from being compliant.

After a week’s worth of time on this new plan we can assess Joe’s results. Pictures help a ton in this instance as well as tracking the scale. Optimally, Joe should be about the same weight (or slightly heavier) and the same level of leanness. If the pictures show a slightly more muscular Joe with no noticeable increase in visceral body-fat then he has successfully added muscle mass with the requisite body fat, but he hasn’t added MORE body fat than muscle mass. This is an important distinction. It is literally impossible to add lean muscle tissue without ANY body fat, as the two are part and parcel. What is possible is an increase in lean muscle tissue with a similar percentage increase in body fat. If a person goes from 180lbs at 12% body fat to 200lbs at 12-15% body fat then they have added a significant amount of muscle mass compared to the insignificant amount of body fat the comes with it. It just isn’t physiologically possible to add ONLY LEAN MUSCLE MASS with ZERO FAT in the absence of chemicals, or being a rank novice. Besides, someone at 200lbs and 12% body fat is much larger and more muscular than someone at 175lbs and 10% body fat. Do not get caught in the trap of trying to increase muscle mass whilst decreasing body fat- it just doesn’t happen that way. What we are intending to do to Joe during this phase is add muscle mass without getting sloppy. We can intelligently enter a “lean-out” phase after he is happy with his new muscle growth, but if we try to lean him out while gaining muscle then we will be unsuccessful in both accounts.

Training wise, we would be smart to reset all of Joe’s lifts and modify his conditioning protocols. We need to allow Joe enough of an on-ramp to really push his lifts past his same plateau points while providing enough stimulus to actually cause him to get stronger than these current sticking points. An easy way to do this is to add in a small amount of additional volume to his training program that won’t over extend him. I would like to see Joe take 10% off each of his lift’s last work sets. So if Joe recently squatted 275 x 5reps then I’d have him start at 245lbs and do the following rep protocol: 5-5-5+, or in other words, do two sets of five to prime the pump and then hit a max-effort set for as many reps as possible which should be around 10 or so reps. Each week he would add 5lbs to this lift and continue to rep out the final set until he cruises past his previous sticking point. Additionally I’d like to see his warm-up sets consisting of 3 reps each and moved as fast as possible. This accomplishes two things. First, it increases the total volume of the workload, as most people only do one or two reps at each consecutive weight when they’re “warming up”. Second, this focus on moving the weight as fast as possible will recruit more muscle fibers, further potentiating Joe’s ability to crush the weights when he gets to his working sets. Here’s a sample warm up routine for Joe’s recently reset squat weight:

Bar x 5 reps x 2 sets, 95lbs x 3 reps (fast), 135 x 3 reps (fast), 155 x 3 reps (fast), 180 x 3 reps (fast), 205 x 3 reps (fast), 225 x 3 reps (fast), 245 x 5-5-5+.

Finally, instead of introducing a competing stimulus like sprinting, metabolic conditioning, or other high intensity conditioning protocol I will simply have Joe walk briskly first thing in the morning for 30 minutes starting with a frequency of four times per week. As the pictures and results come in, we can adjust this as necessary. If Joe is staying lean and gaining size then there’s no reason to mess with success- just stay the course. However, if Joe is getting a little soft then we’ll increase the frequency of this fasted cardio to six times per week while adjusting the nutrition as described in the following paragraph.

At some point Joe will stop responding to our initial three changes we made nutritionally. This is not the time to throw all this data out the window and start fresh, but rather it is the time to intelligently modify the variables to suit Joe’s needs. The tweaks will be determined by the results. If Joe has stopped putting on size then this calls for a slight increase in energy (food), however if Joe is getting a little soft in the midsection then this calls for a slight decrease in his intake. In the former situation I’d like to see another cup of oats being added to a shake, or another shake added entirely (protein + oats) as this is a very small change and easily done. In the latter case, I’d like to see an elimination of either the cheat meal (if applicable) or if this is not relevant, then an elimination of an energy source at one of the meals outside the two surrounding the training time. For instance, if Joe normally has a serving or two of nuts with breakfast or his last meal, I’d like to get rid of this. I want to keep the energy around the workout (post workout shake and added oats) to fuel the training efforts and muscle recovery, but the added energy sources (fats and carbs) outside this peri-workout window are less important and thus, are the first things to go.

The summation of these small changes, post-workout shake, manipulated energy intake, rep scheme, weight reset, and conditioning protocols we will be well on our way to getting Joe dialed in. Each person has a sweet spot with regards to training and nutrition and as such, it requires some trial and error as well as record keeping to find out what this is for each person.

Case Study #3: Betty Purse

Stats:

  • Weight: 155lbs
  • Height: 5’4
  • Age: 57
  • Body Fat: 31%
  • Current Nutrition
    • Betty is set in her ways. After hearing the “heart-healthy whole-grains” and “low-fat” mantra for years she’s fully inculcated in the standard nutritional dogma. She regularly consumes a breakfast of either fiber-rich cereal plus a piece of fruit and fruit juice or some oatmeal, coffee, and a fiber supplement. For the remainder of her day she focuses on not overeating and eats a small salad for lunch with a pauper-sized dinner consisting of vegetables, lean meat, and a low-fat starch.
    • Current Training
      • Betty is fresh off the couch. She has started a walking regimen and has scheduled her first training session with her new trainer, Lindsey. Other than that she tends to housework and cultivating her small garden while making sure she’s on the couch in time to watch her shows.
      • Current Cardio
        • Betty walks between 40 minutes and 60 minutes 4-6 times a week at a light pace because she has noticed herself becoming winded as she goes about her activities of daily life.
        • Goals
          • Betty wants to get stronger, lose some body fat, and feel young again. She has recently come to the correct conclusion that she is becoming deconditioned and wants to right the ship. Osteoporosis and type II diabetes also run in her family so she’d like to avoid these two maladies.

Unfortunately, this scenario is all-too-common with regards to the population we normally see. The standard dietary advice dictating the client’s eating habits and what some consider being common sense dictating the client’s training habits, or lack thereof. What needs to happen is a large shift in the mindset of the client, which may or may not occur via judicious prodding. The best thing Betty’s trainer, Lindsey, can do for her is to convince her to give a different diet and exercise protocol a shot, as hers obviously hasn’t been working for her. Additionally, the results need to happen quickly if we have any shot at hooking Betty into this lifestyle for good. So what could Lindsey do to if given a two-week window with Betty to really change her life?

During this two-week time period Lindsey has the opportunity to make some real progress, however this cannot occur under the guise of small changes to Betty’s lifestyle. On the other hand, any radical advice will likely be dismissed as pseudoscience if it’s too out there. What we have here is a sedentary individual with significant body fat to lose. Additionally, Betty is so deconditioned that simply getting her to be able to perform the most basic functional exercises will help her immensely. We can do a whole lot without getting crazy, but how to start?

Nutritionally speaking, Betty needs a plan that’s both easy to follow and rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. We can get away with encouraging Betty to eat similar meals to what she’s consumed previously and simply stringing these meals together for days, weeks, etc. It is highly likely that Betty has once eaten a breakfast consisting of eggs and a piece of fruit before. Similarly, she has also probably had a salad with grilled chicken and balsamic vinaigrette dressing before. Finally, it’s probable that Betty has had a piece of lean meat and vegetables for dinner at one point in her life.  If we can get Betty to buy in and eat in this manner for this two-week trial run period then it is entirely possible that she could lose a large amount of body fat and weight in short order.

Training wise, Lindsey would be well served to teach Betty how to squat (if even to a box, bench, or similar), press overhead (with dumbbells, PVC pipe, or empty barbell), row, deadlift, and chin (on an assisted machine) during her first two sessions. In the remaining time, she could focus on increasing the difficulty of each movement by altering the load/assistance, increasing the range of motion, altering the leverages, etc. The goal at the end of two weeks would be to have Betty be able to perform a free-standing body weight squat, put a barbell or heavier set of dumbbells overhead, and deadlift more than she started at. These improvements will dovetail nicely with the weight loss and increased feelings of “getting fit” that Betty is likely experiencing. Likewise, this is not the time to mess with Betty’s conditioning protocol, but rather it is a time to encourage her to keep as active as possible in order to increase caloric expenditure, increase cardiorespiratory capacity, and get her just plain MOVING!

If Lindsey can implement all these things with Betty she can change her life in short order and large strides can be made towards Betty reclaiming her life!

-thefitcoach

Programming For the CrossFit Games Athlete Part 5

By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW CC, Starting Strength Staff

You can read parts one, 1.5, two , three, and four, before checking this installment in.

To begin with, here is my athlete ladies and gents:

He’s a dark horse and I’m looking forward to seeing how he does in competition. That being said, let’s check some programming. What you’re looking at is the start of some more block periodization as we incorporate more and more conditioning work in. We’re also trying to improve/maintain strength, which should be evident by all the barbell work.

Week 1: Cycle 2: In Season- Deload

  1. Day 1
    1. Power Clean x 1 x 15 on a 30s clock @ 70%
    2. Front Squat x 3 x 3 @ 70%
    3.  WOD: 3 rounds for time of: 15 GHRs, 15 KB swings (2 pood), 30 double unders
  2. Day 2
    1. Snatch Balance + OHS (1+1) x 2 x 6 @RPE 6-7
    2. Press x 5-5-5 @ 80%
    3.  WOD: AMRAP in 10 min of: 10 wall balls, 10 butterfly pull ups, 10 sandbag cleans (to shoulder-moderately heavy)
  3. Day 3
    1. OFF
  4. Day 4
    1. High Hang Clean + Clean (1 +1) x 2 x 5 @ RPE 6-7
    2. Squat x 5 x 2 @80%
    3.   WOD: 3 rounds of: 500m row, 30 walking lunges (15 each leg), 15 burpees
  5. Day 5
    1. High Hang Snatch + Snatch (1+1) x 2 x 5 @ RPE 6-7
    2. Bench Press x 5 x 2 @ 80%
    3.  WOD: 15-12-9 of: 185lb Power clean, muscle ups
  6. Day 6
    1. OFF
  7. Day 7
    1. OFF

    Week 2 (14 weeks out)

    1. Day 1
      1. Clean + Jerk up to 85% x 1, 80% x 3 x 4
      2. Front Squat x 3 x 3 @ 85%
      3. WOD: 1 round of: 2K row, 50 pistols (alternating), 30 hang cleans (power or full)- 12 minute CAP
      4.  Recovery: prowler walks (3 trips down and back) + banded TKE’s (25 per leg)
    2. Day 2
      1. High Hang Snatch + Snatch (1+1) x 1 up to a miss
      2. Press (strict)- up to 85% x 1, 80% x 4 x 3
      3. Ring Rows x max reps x 3 sets (rehab)
      4. WOD: 21-15-9 bent over row @225lbs, ring dips
    3. Day 3
      1. OFF- active recovery if possible. Get legs fresh.
    4. Day 4
      1. Power Clean x 1 x 12 every 30s @ RPE 8-9
      2. Squat –up to 85% x 1, 80% x 4 x 3
      3.   WOD: 3 rounds for time of: 20 OHS @155, 30 toes to bar, 40 double-unders
    5. Day 5
      1. Push Press + Jerk (1+1)- up until a miss
      2.  Ring Rows x max reps x 3 sets (rehab)
      3.  WOD: AMRAP in 7 minutes of:

    i.     100lb DB snatch x 10 reps (5 each arm)

    ii.     150m row

    1. Day 6
      1. Snatch up to 90% x 1, 85% x 2 x 4
      2. Deadlift up to 85% x 1, 80% x 4 x 3
      3. WOD: 5 rounds for time of: 7 rope climbs, 14 KB swings (2 pood), 21 burpees (20 min CAP),
    2. Day 7
      1. OFF

       

    -thefitcoach

Programming for the Crossift Games Athlete Part 4

Aside

By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW CC, Starting Strength Coach

  1. Week 6: Cycle 1: Peaking (2 of 2)
    1. Day 1

i.     Bench Press- up to 1RM

ii.     WOD: 15-12-9 of 225lb bench press, strict chin ups + 45lbs (5 min cap)

We’re in the final week of our first cycle of training, the end of the peaking phase. You’ll notice just how low the volume has gotten on all the exercises but the intensity is very high! Also, this athlete will not have access to bumpers or other fancy equipment for the next six days, hence the focus on the classic slow lifts. After this week the athlete will be pretty beat up and in need of a nice deload week, after which the in-season training begins towards the CrossFit Open.

As an aside, this lifter hit a buttery smooth 255 snatch @ 180lb bodyweight. Everyone better be on the lookout, we’ve got a serious dark horse!

  1. Day 2

i.     Front Squat up to 1RM (no misses)

ii.     Deadlift up to 1RM (no misses)

iii.     WOD: 7 min AMRAP 5 DB snatches (each arm), 10 knees to elbows

  1. Day 3

i.     OFF

  1. Day 4

i.     Press- up to 1RM

ii.     WOD: 10 min AMRAP: 10 pushups (hand release), 10 ring rows (inverted rows)

  1. Day 5

i.     Back Squat- up to 1RM

ii.     WOD: 1 round of: 30 backsquats (50% 1Rm), 30 burpees, run 800m

  1. Day 6

i.     Off

  1. Day 7

i.     Clean and Jerk up to 1RM

ii.     WOD: 21-15-9 snatches @ 135, chest to bar pullups, handstand push ups

-thefitcoach

Old Country Strong

Old Country Strong

By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about lifting weights and the physical changes resulting from a steady diet of squats, presses, and pulls. I know, I know, it’s shocking right? What’s really been on my brain, however, is how America’s media outlets have given many, if not all, severe body image issues. Women and men alike seem to want to be waif thin or lean, athletic, and toned rather desiring to be strong, powerful, and capable. These ideals died with the ghosts of meathead’s past and somewhere Jesus wept.

When exactly in history did this ideology become so prevalent? In order for a woman to feel good about her figure, and by this I mean really good, she needs to be a size 4 or less and have arms the diameter of fettuccine. A man, by contrast, must look part Abercrombie model and part marathoner, lest someone proclaim that he is muscle-bound. Have we really come so far from the days of Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn? Do men really not aspire (even a little) to be like Arnold, Columbo, or Zane?

My thoughts on the matter are simple: we’ve been conditioned to believe that there is a perfect ideal for each sex that we’re to aspire towards that’s been defined by the media, societal pressures, and other factions. Let me be crystal clear, the idea that you (or I) am supposed to look a certain way to fit into the current conventional definitions of health or wellness is just plain ridiculous, and it’s costing us our quality of life.

If I were to poll ten thousand people and ask them point-blank, “Are you happy with your body’s current shape, size, and composition?” I can safely assume that 9,995 would answer “No” followed by innumerable rationalizations. Could it be that this current ideal body-type is actually unattainable? Is there something in our society’s psyche that prevents us from being content with our physical morphology for even a moment, lest we be considered a slacker or lazy? What if I told you that what we fundamentally value, as a society, with regards to health and wellness, are impeding our attainment of true fitness?

Sometimes for fun I like to cruise YouTube for weightlifting videos from recent (and not so recent) Olympic weightlifting contests. To me, the most physically impressive attempts to watch are the male superheavyweights (SHW), 105kg (231lbs) and up, to see how much athleticism and strength they can display. When I watch clips of Hossein Rezazadeh clean and jerk 263.5kg (580lbs) or the late Vasily Alekseyev strict press 503lbs overhead I am awed by their strength and the work ethic it took to get there. Interestingly, when I peruse the comments on these videos the first things I inevitably see are posters calling this elite athletes “fat” and “disgusting”. Nothing is said about their performance, they are competitive athletes after all, but the entire focus is about their physique. Why are people so obsessed with body image and weight?

As a male in a notably male-dominated field, strength and conditioning, I can’t help but feel sympathetic towards females looking to get into legitimate training. A female who gets into lifting weights is cautioned against too big and bulky and advised to stick to lighter weights and high reps. Moreover, whenever a female hits a legitimately heavy personal record (PR….not Puerto Rico) like a 200+lb squat, for instance, their expert friends clamor with judgments and remarks about how they wouldn’t want to do that. Meanwhile, they keep running on the hamster wheel or wearing out the elliptical, not looking any different then they did last year. What the rest of this article is about is the idea of being Old Country Strong. As a throwback to the previous generations it’s high time we do something about our weak society. No longer will we feel overwhelmed by challenges, but rather we’ll embrace the obstacles that are presented to us. After all, a heavy set of 20 squats will prepare you mentally for any line at the DMV, any meeting with your boss, and any amount of work you need to knock out. A heavy pull from the floor requires that you have the mental toughness to overcome a “sticky” situation at work and a completing that last set of sprints up the hill demands the kind of work ethic that only the cream of the crop in the business world exude. The generation who lived through the Great Depression and World Wars didn’t feel entitled to a job or even a meal; they knew that hard work was part of the equation to receive such “niceties”. By becoming Old Country Strong we can shift the paradigm in our society and we’re not going to get there by trying to emulate the airbrushed models that we’re constantly bombarded with either. Nope. The only way to get there is through consistently showing up and putting in the work, period.

So what is Old Country Strong all about? It’s about being capable, of anything, being strong, coordinated, powerful, and FIT. Fit doesn’t mean, nor has it ever meant, being skinny, thin, or good at Zumba Tone. Nope, fitness is a blend of equal parts strength, conditioning, and a large capacity or motor to complete the task at hand.  Body morphology will be determined in the kitchen, but the fact remains that we still have to build the engine.  Let’s outline how to build the engine while giving you some firepower for that haters you’re sure to encounter.

As you might have guessed, strength training is very important. Of all the basic elements of physical fitness, strength is the most important and here’s why. Strength, or ability to overcome a resistance, is so general that training it develops all other facets of physical fitness including endurance, flexibility, coordination, power, etc. To prove that strength development applies to endurance let’s use cycling as an example. A pedal stroke requires force turn the cranks on the bike, and we can safely say that this force is some submaximal percentage of the rider’s maximal force production- for this example we’ll say it’s 45% of the total leg force that the rider can muster. This means that every time the rider “pedals” the bike forward he or she is using 45% of their total force capacity, or strength, to turn the cranks. Moreover, the rider must maintain this force production to keep moving forward at whatever pace this force produces. During a dead sprint or climb up a steep grade, the rider increases their force output to the pedals, as both of these challenges require extra force to maintain or increase the rider’s speed, let’s say that in order to increase the rider’s speed from 18mph to 22mph the rider must now use 75% of their maximal force production. This is not sustainable for long periods of time because it is too close to their maximal force output, and thus is more fatiguing than their cruising pace’s force requirements, 45%. If we can coerce the rider to squat and he or she can do 135lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps on their first session, then after 6 weeks of training the squat (and other movements) their squat will likely be closer to 185lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps., the rider got stronger. It still requires the same amount of force to ride at the 18mph but this is now a LOWER percentage of the rider’s maximal force output, because they got stronger. The rider can now maintain their prior pace for longer or ride at a faster pace for the same period of time because they’ve gotten stronger. This same analogy can be applied to running, swimming, rowing, etc. “But what if the athlete gains muscular weight, wouldn’t that increase the force requirements?” Right you are, however, to the degree that the athlete might gain muscular weight (a few pounds over a long time) their strength will be developed in spades comparatively. Besides strength development DOES NOT REQUIRE BODY WEIGHT GAIN, as strength is developed by the nervous system (brain, nerves, etc.) and any muscle mass acquisition is likely mitigated by excess body fat loss if the trainee actually pays attention in the kitchen.

Strength training also increases flexibility. I’m not sure where the notion came about that everybody needs to be so flexible as to be able to do the splits and perform contortionist acts but the fact is that people need only to be as flexible as their life, or sport, demands.  I know of no quicker way to develop mobility in the lower body than to perform a loaded barbell squat. The movement itself requires full range of motion articulation in the hips, knees, and ankles while the soft tissue of the muscles, joint capsules, etc. are loaded. No amount of static stretching will result in the same tissue qualities as a loaded movement, especially since the joints and their surrounding soft tissues are not actually moving through their natural range of motion during the oft-prescribed stretches. Sure there are movement deficiencies that might need remedial attention in some folks, but the idea that stretching by itself outside of proper training results in any significant morphological changes in the way the body moves is foolish.

Coordination is also developed by strength training in that each movement requires a certain motor pattern, or firing of muscles in a sequential fashion, in order to complete the lift successfully. Most people without any formal training cannot activate a very significant amount of their muscles, and furthermore, they cannot do this in any coordinated manner. By training movements like the squat, deadlift, press, row, and chin the trainee will learn to use their muscles in very general patterns. This carries over to more nuanced movements wonderfully since once you are able to recruit muscles to a greater degree you can devise ways to actually accomplish tasks that you might be unfamiliar with.

Finally, strength training develops power quickly, which is useful for athletic endeavors. Power literally refers to a force being displayed quickly. When you see an athlete jump, punch, kick, or sprint you’re witnessing them showcase their power. You might intuit that the stronger someone is the more power they will be able to display, which is correct to a point. Power, in its purest sense, will always go up when someone gets stronger. As a trainee’s deadlift increases their power clean will go up, given proper technique training. Who has a larger power clean, the athlete with a 200lb deadlift or a 500lb deadlift? While the relationship is certainly not linear, as power expression has a large genetic component, it certainly doesn’t harm the athlete to get stronger. Like Rip says, “All things being equal, the stronger athlete always wins.”

Above- Klokov just hanging out….

Klokov snatching 197kg (434.5lbs)

All this background information should lead you to the conclusion that in order to be proficient in all physical fitness qualities you must be strong. I know of no better way to get strong than to perform the classic barbell lifts; the squat, deadlift, presses, chins, rows, and Olympic lifts, in a manner that results in progressive overload over time. What this means is that week-in and week-out (or monthly for advanced trainees) weight needs to be added to the bar and more stimulus needs to be applied to the trainee. By doing so you will maximize your strength potential and be well suited to any other activity that you fancy. The caveat with this is that it’s just bloody hard work. After the novice phase where everything is easy and each lift goes up despite other confounding factors like lack of sleep, food, excess conditioning work, etc. strength training demands that a trainee starts paying attention to these other things. Unfortunately, the ideology that is all too prevalent in today’s society discourages the acquisition of big-time strength, and instead rewards those who’d rather aspire to be skinny, weak, and fragile.

While I’m certainly guilty of having aspirations of a certain body image, I can say without reservation that it has not left me in the skinny, weak, or fragile category. Because I understand strength training’s effect on the physiology of the human body I realize that without this style of training I’d never get anywhere at all. Even if your ideal body image is different than mine, we still require the same training with only a few exceptions. Want to be really lean, conditioned, and look like an athlete? You need strength training. How about being toned (God I hate that word) and fit? You need strength training. Finally, do you desire to be the best version of you this world has ever seen? You need strength training.

You see, there is no such thing as firmer or tone-er, only leaner or fatter. You can’t lengthen muscles and you certainly can’t just lose fat in your derrière. Muscles are firm when there’s less body fat covering them compared to the amount of muscle mass that’s present. If you have either bigger muscles or lower levels of body fat you’re muscle will be more firm and taut (like a tiger) when you touch them. Muscle tone, or tonus more correctly, refers to the nerve innervation of the muscle by your nervous system. In the absence of a neurological deficit your muscle’s tone remains unchanged, only your body fat or composition can change. Finally, you can’t just lose body fat in one area of the body unless you suck it out with a cannula during your liposuction procedure. The point of all this is to say, you must get strong to develop your muscles and you must eat and condition yourself according to your own body image goals or wants.

The beautiful thing about strength training with females is that it does not develop big and bulky muscles, quite the contrary. You see there are only two different types of muscular growth that occur in the human body, myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Strength training typically revolves around 1-5 sets of 1-5 reps which is prime real estate for myofibrillar hypertrophy. This style of hypertrophy slightly increases the size of the muscle fibers as they adapt to the stress and damage caused from lifting heavy (relative) weights. This muscle mass gained from this style of training does not result in large, bulky muscles but rather just a slight increase in the density of the muscles that you already have. Therefore, if firm and toned is what you’re after- you guessed it- you need strength training. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, on the other hand, requires high reps, moderate weights, and incomplete rest periods, to inflict damage in the muscles to a great degree while also increasing the release of certain cellular waste products into the blood stream. These waste products, or metabolites, initiate a cascade of inflammatory repair signals and a concomitant hormonal response that results in growth of muscle tissue and the non-contractile elements around the muscle. This is why bodybuilders have larger muscles than strength athletes like powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and strongman competitors.

Myofibrillar vs Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. I don’t know about “useless” muscle mass, but you get the picture.

The type of training greatly influences the morphological changes in your muscles. Finally, large amounts of muscle mass cannot be developed in the absence of testosterone, the predominant male sex steroid. This is why it’s easier for men to accrue muscle mass than women, if they can at all. Women lack the machinery, testes and their Leydig cells, to pump out significant amounts of testosterone, especially in the amount required for big and bulky muscles.  Women certainly do produce some testosterone from the adrenal (on top of the kidneys) glands, but this amount pales in comparison to their male counterparts. Whenever you see a woman with hyooooge muscles do not be fooled, they have taken specific steps (and chemicals) to achieve this look. Finally, do not buy into the idea that doing lots of reps with low weights will result in long, lean, and firm muscles.  This is exactly what a typical bodybuilder’s program looks like- high volume (sets and reps), moderate to low weight, and short rest periods. Why would you train like a bodybuilder whose goal is to grow the maximal amount of muscle mass when you yourself don’t want to grow big muscles? Similarly, if you actually want to grow significant amounts of muscle mass to either facilitate more strength gains or for physique aspirations, then sticking only in the 1-5 rep range is also foolish. While some level of muscle mass can occur with this training style, especially if the weights used are very, very heavy or the trainee is living chemically enhanced, there is a reason that top strength athletes do some higher rep training in their programs as well, because they want to develop additional muscle mass and more reps is how to do it.

Natural female figure competitor (left) versus chemically enhanced female bodybuilder (right).

The bottom line is that strength is paramount for any goal one might have. Body image wise, however, the key to your success or failure is your conditioning and nutrition. By adjusting these two variables you can achieve anything you desire. On the other hand, I’d like you to wrap your head around the idea that you’re great just the way you are, really. Even if you slack off on the nutrition and conditioning, if you strength train you’re doing the best thing for your physical and mental well-being. It just comes down to if you’re motivated enough to stick with a conditioning and nutritional protocol in order to achieve the body composition you want. If not, no big deal, just get strong and have fun when you train! No other type of training will account for dietary or conditioning indiscretions anyway, so you might as well make yourself useful if you’re going to go to the gym.

Hopefully now you’re motivated to get Old Country Strong and maybe I’ve piqued your interest in changing your nutrition and conditioning program so that you can optimize your body composition while training appropriately. What follows is what I consider the least intrusive way to implement conditioning and a sound nutritional program into one’s daily life. Here we go (cue Bud Light commercial).

The proper conditioning level is highly variable for each individual and it depends on his or her needs (athletic, activities of daily life, etc.) and body composition goals. While I’ve recommended high frequency low-intensity cardio (walking, cycling, etc.) in previous articles that focused on leaning out big time, I’m going to buck the trend with these recommendations. Assuming you’re actually pursuing Old Country Strength and aren’t massively calorie restricted then we will be best served by employing a few bouts of high-intensity interval training each week.

I don’t particularly care when these are done in the training week, as it’s largely a matter of personal preference. Two days out of the week do an interval session on a bike, treadmill, track, rower, airdyne, jump rope, etc. in the following manner:

  • 5 minute warm up
  • 30 second sprint (go all-out ish, if you’re running go at 85% or so as until you’re used to sprinting you run the risk of injury until your muscles adapt)
  • 1:30 easy effort
  • Repeat 10 times
  • 5 minute cool down

One day per week go out and do a long distance effort like a 5k run, 10k row, 1-hour walk, 20-mile bike ride, etc. This is chicken soup for the heart!

Nutritionally speaking, there are many protocols I’ve written about but I’m going to pare it down to 5 easy-to-follow steps:

  1. Eat single ingredient foods. More than one ingredient on the list? Skip it.
  2. Eat 3-4 times per day with 3 hours between meals (minimum) or 5 hours maximum.
  3. Have protein in every meal that’s about the size of your fist.
  4. Eat a serving of carbohydrates before and after your training session and skip the fat at these two meals.
  5. Alter your fat and carbohydrates in the remaining two meals based on your goals and progress. If you want to lean out, start pulling out the carbs first in these meals followed by the fat. If you want to pack on the muscle start adding carbs and fats to these meals and/or throw down a post-workout shake of whey protein isolate + waxy maize (20g pro: 60g waxy maize).

Well there you have it, you’re guide to Old Country Strong. I hope you enjoyed reading and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Stay strong out there and get under the bar!

-thefitcoach