Protein Slows Digestion? Nope.

By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, Starting Strength Staff, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach

In response to this gem of an article. I answered this on the Starting Strength nutrition forum, but I thought I’d repost it here. The article’s claims are italicized and my responses are in bold. 

The food that we consume is absorbed and its nutrients are subsequently sent to different organs through the blood.

The food that we consume is absorbed and its nutrients are subsequently sent to different organs through the blood. Not really the case literally. Protein and carbohydrates get absorbed as amino acids and monosaccharides through the small intestine’s brush border> into the enterocyte (cell)> into the portal vein> to the liver first before going anywhere else, then they get distributed based on lots of factors.

Fats get absorbed as fatty acids directly into the enterocyte (cell) and packaged into the chylomicron (with cholesterol, phospholipids, etc.)> into the lymphatic system> into the venous circulation and then go to some tissues, but mainly those who express high levels of mitochondria for beta oxidation or peroxisomes for long chain fatty acid oxidation. Principally, these are the liver and skeletal muscle.

However, a slow or sluggish digestive system isn’t able to perform its assigned function effectively. That is why a person experiencing a bout of slow digestion is bound to feel extremely uncomfortable post lunch or dinner. Nausea, bloating and vomiting are the most common symptoms of sluggish digestive system that occur after having meals.

Notice they do not define a normal GI transit time for a mixed meal, a slow GI transit time for a “bad” meal, nor do they distinguish between a pathologically slow state like gastroparesis or ileus or obstruction and a “slow” transit time occurring due to a specific meal composition. Yes, there is a marked difference.

Constipation or common digestive problems like diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome can make the digestive system sluggish.

Diarrhea is actually the GI contents moving too fast. IBS has physiological symptoms of a combination of diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and abdominal bloating. Seems like it might not make the digestive system sluggish, right? Though if you’re constipated, sure (and fiber and/or some probiotics tend to improve symptoms by increasing motility and osmotic pressure in the intestine to propel the contents)

Although protein is good for health, excessively high amounts of protein in the diet can slow down the digestive health. This is because, the body has to really work to digest protein.

Not the case at all. Proteins are initially broken down via the acidic pH of the stomach (and further in the small intestine by pancreatic enzymes that are all part of our normal physiology) and are absorbed very rapidly into the portal circulation. Whey, for instance- spikes blood plasma levels of amino acids (digestive end products of protein) within 20 minutes of ingestion.

Mixed meals confound the “speed” component, i.e. what is the fat content (slows gastric emptying), fiber content (soluble slows, insoluble speeds), total kCal content (larger is slower), tonicity of the meal (isotonic empties faster than hypo or hyper tonic from the stomach to the small intestine), etc. In addition, the hormonal milieu at the time with respect to previous meals also influence gastric transit time. Ghrelin, for instance- increases when you’re hungry and increases the motility of the gut.

Don’t forget about existing food in the GI tract. See how this is quite complicated to talk about? Let’s not forget about drugs….

At any rate, Carbohydrate rich and protein rich foods empty at about the same rate, but normal gastric emptying following a meal is 2-6 hrs….so yea- perhaps this whole article is a bit silly, eh?

Unlike simple carbohydrates, proteins are heavy, hence are not easy to digest and so when its presence is alarmingly high in everyday meals, the consequence is a slow digestive system.

Now this is easy to see that this is wrong…

People with intestinal problems such as Crohn’s disease tend to have a sluggish digestive system besides bowel dysfunction (diarrhea or constipation), vomiting and stomach pain. In this condition the lining of the small and large intestine are inflamed. However, in most cases, the swelling infiltrates in the inner layers of the bowel tissue. This chronic inflammatory disease considerably slows down digestion as the food tends to move at a very slow pace through the intestine.

Fuark. Crohn’s is, currently, a dysregulation of inflammation in response to bacteria in the walls of the GI tract, which results in proinflammatory substances causing direct mucosal injury.

Crohn’s usually presents with diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and crampy abdominal pain plus oral ulcerations, perianal fissures, perirectal abscesses, and malabsorption BECAUSE THE FOOD CAN’T BE ABSORBED BECAUSE IT’S MOVING at a normal speed but the mucosa can’t absorb it.

A point to note that although food is digested in the stomach, most of the digestion occurs inside the intestine. Experts say that the intestine is the place where nutrients are observed and eventually circulated in the bloodstream to various parts of the body. However if the food stays for longer time in the stomach, this can affect the digestion process. This condition is known as gastroparesis, in which the stomach takes more time to transfer the ingested food to the intestine. This happens because the stomach muscles that are assigned the task of pushing the food to the intestine, lose their ability to work efficiently. Gastroparesis is the result of malfunctioning of the vagus nerve that regulates movement of muscles lining the stomach wall.

Most common KNOWN causes of gastroparesis:

1) diabetes mellitus
2) idiopathic
3) post-surgical (especially if vagus nerve damaged)

Other causes:

-meds
-etoh and tobacco, weed
-surgery
-infection (mono, chagas, rotavirus)
-CNS injury like a tumor or cerebrovascular event
-PNS pathology (parkinson’s or guillan barre)
-other issues (cancers, hypothyroid, lupus, intestine obstruction, portal hypertension, HIV, stroke and migraines)

So…yea, protein is UNLIKELY to be the cause of “slowed” gi emptying….

-thefitcoach

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Top 10 Mistakes People Following Starting Strength Make

By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, Starting Strength Staff, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach

starting-strength-smh_1

1) Not reading the book

Seriously, most people who are doing “Starting Strength Novice Progression” have never even read the book. They got the “routine”, replete with rows in place of power cleans, of the Internet and are 100% unprepared for what this program requires. Further, because they have not read the book and thus, are lacking in understanding the rationale- the WHY- behind the program, they do a bunch of inappropriate things as seen in the other 9 items below. Bompa, Issurin, and Zatsiorisky all agree that explaining to an athlete the “why” behind the “what” is important for compliance. If you want to do Starting Strength Novice Progression, you need to read the book. Period.

2) Starting too heavy.

This is usually a result of a failure to read the book, however there are still some people that will start too heavy because the heavier you start the faster you’ll get strong, right? Wrong. What we’re aiming to do is use the smallest effective dose to stimulate the maximum potential response. In lifting terms, we want you starting with a weight that begins to challenge your ability. This can be gauged, roughly, by when the speed of the bar slows down or the technique suffers slightly. If the former happens, then you’ve just done a set of 5 reps that is heavy enough to drive the adaptations we want, i.e. strength, neuromuscular coordination, hypertrophy, etc. If the latter happens, however, we need to back the weight down just a tad in order to preserve proper form (see below).

3) Having poor technique.

This mostly stems from people not doing Step 1, i.e. reading the book, OR not watching all the videos, reading all the articles, etc. on the site, YouTube channel, or various other mediums. Bottom line is, if you’re technique is not good you’re going to see less than optimal results through any training program, period. When compounded by the fact that this program aims to get you as strong as possible in the shortest amount of time, things start to escalate quickly. It would behoove any person to see a Starting Strength Coach within their first week of training just to hammer this all out. If that’s not possible, post a form check on the Q/A the coaches so graciously run.

4) Eating like a bird.

I was thinking about putting this as number one, but alas, I thought the other things were actually more important and, specifically, doing number 1 would take care of this number. Look, if you’re a 16-23 year old male and <165 lbs, you need to gain a significant amount of body weight, like yesterday, in order to be facilitate the fastest rate of strength and muscle size acquisition. This is done through food, like LOTS of it. I’ve already written extensively about this topic in this article, so I suggest checking that out. Look, here’s the simple fact:

You have one chance in your life to put on muscle at an almost unnatural rate. This moment in time also coincides with the ability to gain a tremendous amount of strength, if you’ll only eat to facilitate this process. For 3 months forget about your abs so you can build the ice chest to put the 6-pack in.

The older, heavier, or more female you get away from this “ideal Starting Strength candidate” the less extra food you need to drive these processes. Again, see the article linked above “To Be a Beast” for more discussion on this topic.

5) Not resting long enough between sets.

After 3 minutes, approximately 80% of your muscle’s ATP has been replenished, at 5 minutes, approximately 95% is back in the game, and at 8 minutes ~ 100% is there. Don’t try to hit PR’s, which happen everyday on this program, with 80% of your muscles’ energy available.

6) Adding in too much bullshit.

Remember that we’re using the minimum effective dose to get the maximum response here. Adding in a bunch of extra stuff dilutes the “effective dose” AND spreads the body’s available resources for adaptation to the “dose” too thin for optimal results for a novice trainee. Of course, as you become more “trained” and thus, can tolerate more volume, frequency, and intensity, you’ll be able to add more exercises, sets, reps, etc. 

If, on the other hand, you add too much tomfoolery TOO SOON in your training career, you run a very serious risk of attenuating (diminishing) your adaptive responses to training, thus blunting your progress.

The take home, keep it simple Santa (K.I.S.S.- I don’t like calling people stupid, normally). The big five, squat, bench press, press, deadlift, powerclean plus chins, curls, and back extensions will work beautifully for your dedicated novice progression. Read the book to see implementation, or this excellent article on Fitocracy by Michael Wolf.

7) Resetting a million times.

Sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade and realize it’s time to move on. Whether it’s due to not enough food, not enough recovery, or poor technique, etc. you just need to either get some help or move on. If you’re not progressing every training session, you’re no longer on the Novice Progression anyway, so don’t be married to it if it’s not working for you (and you’re doing all the necessary things to make it work).

That being said, having a training program that revolves around the big 5 and some HIIT (if necessary) is the best base template you could hope for, with rep ranges, total volume, and frequency all reflecting an individual’s needs and goals. Put simply, you could do a lot worse than to keep resetting over and over again, but do you really want to stay weak? Figure out the limiting reagent and nip it in the bud. Grow. Progress. Profit.

8) Missing workouts (and not adjusting accordingly).

Simple enough, right? If you miss a workout on this program you are, by default, failing to provide a stimulus for your body to adapt to. This adaptation response is what is used to drive the next training day’s progress. Thus, if you miss a day you shouldn’t be expecting to “go up” in weight the next training day, although in the beginning this is more feasible. Moreover, novices tend to de-train more quickly than advanced trainees, as they’ve had less cumulative exposure to the lifts, progression, etc. and thus, it’s not unusual to see some of these detraining or deconditioning effects if a person misses a workout.

So, what do you do if you miss a workout? Simply repeat the last workout you did and start from there. If you miss a series of workouts and are a true novice, you’ll just start all over again. I really shouldn’t have to say this, but how about just not missing workouts?

9) Reading too much bullshit.

Bro 1: “Hey man, did you see that new exercise on MonsterMuscleGainer.com today?”

Bro 2: “Nah, bro. What was it?”

Bro 1: “It’s like this weird lunge thing with kettlebells. All the Russians used to use it and that’s why their legs are so jacked. I heard Klokov invented it!”

Bro 2: “Dude, this is awesome. We don’t have to do squats today then. Let’s do like 40 minutes of mobility, to make sure we activate all our muscles during training, then do Klokov lunges with kettlebells.”

Bro 1: “Yea, squats are so old-school. MonsterMuscleGainer.com said these were better for hypertrophy anyway. I don’t care about being strong, I just want to LOOK strong.”

Sadly, this sort of crap happens everyday in gyms (CrossFit and black-iron gyms are not exempt from this either) across the country. People mistake “new” or “proprietary” with “better” and try to reinvent the wheel. Look boys and girls, barbells are the most efficient way to load the human musculoskeletal system and stress the body. Because it’s the most efficient*  way to stress the body, it’s the most efficient at causing the body to adapt and these adaptations are more robust than any other silly shit your “guru” is pushing.

*ef·fi·cien·cy: noun, plural ef·fi·cien·cies.

1. the state or quality of being efficient; competency in performance.
2. accomplishment of or ability to accomplish a job with a minimum expenditure of time and effort: The squat is increasing Christy’s exercise efficiency by working all the muscles of her legs and trunk instead of wasting hours doing isolation/activation bullshit.
3. the ratio of the work done or energy developed by a machine, engine, etc., to the energy supplied to it, usually expressed as a percentage.

10) Being a p*ssy.

Any program that’s designed to add weight to the bar 3x a week is going to be hard, make no bones about it. If you want it to be easy or, more commonly, easier week to week you need an attitude check.

“It never get’s easier, you just go faster”- Greg LeMond

Programming for the CrossFit Games Athlete Pt. III

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

Ahhh, deload weeks…..the week(s) that EVERYONE hates (including me). In this installment I’m posting how I’m letting my athlete do a mini-deload. I call this a mini-deload because it’s not a full-on deload where we are transitioning to a new cycle. Rather, this deload is used to facilitate PR’s during the subsequent two weeks of training. Basically, during the previous three weeks we accumulated volume, intensity, and stress and now we need a mini recovery period to get fresh for the Realizationphase.

A lot of people claim that they feel weak and slow coming off a deload week. This is completely normal and also, this is the reason why we have two realization weeks coming up. The first week increases the intensity a bit and allows the athlete to get back in the swing of lifting heavy and training hard. The second realization week is for the athlete to set some big time PR’s!

So basically we’re taking everything back to 80%, adding in some GPP circuits for recovery, and some moderate intensity conditioning to get a lot of blood flow into the muscles and joints. Here is what it would look like:

 

    Week 4 Cycle 1- Deload Week

    1. Day 1
      1. Snatch up to 80% x 2 x 2
      2. Press up to 80% x 2  x 2
      3.  Assistance Circuit: 3 rounds x 15 of: pushups, pullups (strict), dips, DB curls
      4.  Row x 500m x 3 @ 1:40 pace
    2. Day 2
      1.  Off
    3. Day 3
      1.  Clean and Jerk up to 80% x 2 x 2
      2.  Back Squat up to 80% x 2 x 2
      3.  Assistance Circuit: 3 rounds x 10 of: Glute Ham raises, walking lunges (no weight), 1 minute plank, toes to bar
      4. Prowler walks x 100’ x 4
    4. Day  4
      1.  Off
    5. Day 5
      1. Snatch  x 1 x 5 up to 90% (no misses)
      2. Clean and Jerk x 1 x 5 up to 85% (no misses)
      3. Deadlift up to 80% x 2 x 2
      4. Assistance: 3 rounds of 15 kb swings, 25 reverse hypers, 15 body weight squats, 15 banded terminal knee extensions
      5. Prowler walks x 100’ x 4
    6. Day 6
      1. Off
    7. Day 7
      1.  Off

Programming for the CrossFit Games Athlete pt. 1.5

Just a little pre-weekend update before I head down to Atlanta to hang out with the Starting Strength crew and help out at Rip’s seminar being held at AK CrossFit. Should be a good time, but I wanted to get into how I would go about identifying goals and programming them for the specific blocks in the macrocycle.

In part one of this series, we broke up the training into four phases:

  1. November 14-Dec 31= Block 1 (Preparation Phase)
  2. Jan 1- February 14= Block 2 (Pre-Season Phase)
  3. February 14- End of Competition (In-Season Phase)
  4. End of Competition- Resumption of Preparation Phase (Off-Season)

These blocks, or mesocycles, could potentially be further broken down into microcycles if one really wanted to geek out on this stuff. It’s been my experience, however, that trying to get overcomplicated with the programming before having any data or feedback from the athlete is a recipe for two things: wasting time (yours and the athlete’s) and over training. I prefer to identify the main goals of each block and then program accordingly, with the weeks further away being programmed more vaguely and the more immediate weeks being more detailed. I do this because I utilize feedback and data from the athlete to program each successive week. Ultimately, the over-arching goal(s) for the training blocks guide the programming.

When I sat down and started looking at the needs analysis of my athlete for the CrossFit Games I immediately started thinking about using the first block, The Preparation Phase, to primarily increase strength levels, improve high-yield skills, and maintain a good level of conditioning through dedicated GPP (general physical preparedness) work. It’s important to consider the compatibility of the attributes you’re trying to emphasize during a particular block of training. For instance, the goals of increasing strength and endurance are not compatible for an advanced-level athlete (strength or endurance). Neither strength or endurance gains would be very significant if the athlete made it through the block unscathed via an overuse injury or performance drop-off. A more complementary set of goals would be something like strength and hypertrophy, strength maintenance and conditioning, etc. Much of this information has been distilled down from past coaches’ experience, exercise science texts, and other resources laying out popular methods of periodization. At any rate, despite what some will tell you, a lot of this is just educated guess work based on both anecdotal and scientific evidence. It is very important, however, to take into consideration the tolerable work load of the athlete and how they’re responding to the training. If performance is trending downwards then either the work load is too much, causing overtraining-like symptoms, or the work load is not sufficient to cause the desired adaptation (increases in strength, work capacity, power, etc.), causing de-training like symptoms. This is why feedback from the athlete is so critical!

As mentioned above, the preparation phase will focus primarily on strength increases, dedicated skill work, and maintaining a good base of conditioning through GPP work. This is appropriate for my athlete who has a high level of conditioning currently, yet is lacking a little bit in the strength area. If the reverse were true, someone with freaky strength but a lack of conditioning, perhaps this block would be strength maintenance and conditioning-focused instead. The preparation phases’ programming will be focused around the Olympic lifts, the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press. Each of these lifts will appear frequently and start on a brief linear progression before transitioning to a peaking cycle where intensity and volume will be inversely correlated. The linear progression will allow the athlete to acquire some volume with the lifts to become more efficient and also quickly increase their strength. Next, the peaking cycle allows the athlete to handle heavier loads for a few weeks in order to push strength and power levels to the absolute maximum. This of course, will be followed by a deload week, which will then lead into the next training block. Strength work will consist gradually decreasing volume and increasing volume as the block goes along. Each workout will have the rough template of:

  1. Olympic/Power variant: ex. Snatch x 2 x 6 (all exercises written as “reps” x “sets”) @ RPE 8*
  2. Strength: Press x 5 x 5 @RPE 8
  3. Assistance: Ring rows x max reps x 3 , close grip bench x 5 x 3 @ RPE 8
  4. WOD (skill based): AMRAP in 6 minutes of: 50 unbroken double unders, 15 butterfly pull ups (unbroken)**
  5. GPP: 5 x 500m rower intervals w/ 1:3 work to rest ratio (1:38-1:43 pace minimum)

*RPE scale is used to “auto-regulate” the effort of the athlete. Some athletes, especially those used to hard training will go into the gym and “overshoot” the required effort for the day. This causes problems in subsequent training efforts due to lack of recovery. Using an RPE scale allows for the athlete to modulate the efforts based on feelings for that particular day while still accomplishing the overall goals for the day. Here is my interpretation of the RPE scale:

RPE1-5: easy, recovery style work. 5-10 reps left in the tank.

RPE 6-7: Moderately hard, but still 3-5 reps left in the tank.

RPE 8: Hard, but not a limit effort, 2 reps left in the tank.

RPE 9: Very hard, near a limit effort, 1 possible rep left in the tank (maybe with compromised form)

RPE 10: A limit effort for the day (may or may not be a true 1RM). No reps left in the tank.

**only unbroken sets count towards the “round” total. This is used to develop the capacity and skill set needed for fast “cycle” time of these commonly seen elements in competition workouts. This also limits the amount of rounds, reps, and overall volume that the athlete can do in a given workout, thereby facilitating recovery.

Block 2, the pre-season phase, will see a transition to more strength maintenance and a heavier emphasis on sport-specific conditioning work. Given these priorities, strength work will primarily be limited to singles, doubles, and triples, and have an overall time-cap on how long during each session the athlete is allowed to work on the lift(s) programmed on the day. More time, however, will be dedicated to metabolic conditioning resembling typical CrossFit workouts, i.e. those combining elements of weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, and monostructural conditioning. Some days will include multiple workouts as the schedule allows and some infrequent Open, Regional, or Games-type days will be included to test the athlete to see where they’re at and give them the confidence and mental toughness needed to be successful for the upcoming in-season block and competitions. Each training day would be based off the following example template:

  1. Strength/Power- Clean and Jerk x 1 x 5 @ RPE 9
  2. Front Squat x 3 x 1 @ RPE 9
  3. WOD: 5 rounds of the following: 10 R-arm 2 pood KB snatch, 10 swings (2 pood), 10 pistols L leg, 10 L-arm 2 pood snatch, 10 swings (2 pood), 10 pistols R leg
  4. Cool Down/Endurance: Row 2k @ RPE 7

These workouts are just examples of what I think will be in the template as of today. As I get more information I will refine the programming and share what I’m working on with you. I’ll also discuss more RPE stuff, programming for WOD’s over the course of a training block, and legitimate strength programming. Hope all of you have a good weekend and I’ll be back here Monday!
-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