If you want to set yourself up for success, you need to know your limits – both upper and lower limits. You need to know how good you can be at your best, but you also need to know how bad you can be at your worst. In my opinion, the latter is more important.
People ask me all the time how I can be so relaxed all the time, especially when it comes to lifting heavy stuff. It’s simple. I know exactly how bad I can be. I know what I can do on my worst day. Best days are fickle. We’ve all had days where it feels like the stars are aligned and you’re capable of things you didn’t think were even possibilities. Then, the next day you wake up and it’s back to the grind. I don’t see any point in basing you progress and success on those mountain top moments that come out of the blue and then may elude you for quite some time.
Bad days happen all the time. You don’t have to worry about whether one of them will find you in the coming weeks or months. It will. You can bet on it. And that’s what makes it a perfect baseline. And you know what? When your worst-case-scenario numbers are moving up, you’re getting better. Lots of weightlifters refer to this as a daily minimum, and it was crucial for me when I was on a Bulgarian-inspired program. Not every day will be a PR day, but when you’re grinding away for months at a time, show up and the gym and your legs feel dead, your hips hurt, the bar feels like it’s cutting into you more than normal, and you walk away grinding out a weight that’s 50 pound under your best, only to realize that it was your PR a matter of months ago… that’s what builds confidence. That’s what tells you you can bring it no matter what. You don’t have to wait for a mountain top moment to attack the bar, to attack life. You can do it right now, because you know the worst case scenario, and it’s not that bad. It’s not your best, but it’s enough.
This tip isn’t just for lifting. It’s for everything you do in life. Why would you be apprehensive about something unless you were afraid it would go poorly? Before making decisions and taking action, always be cognizant of the realistic worst case scenario. If it’s not too bad, you can take action confidently. If it’s an unacceptable risk, don’t take it. Then, no matter what you do and what situations you’re in, you can act with confidence because you know nothing unrealistically bad can come of it.
This also helps you plan for a rainy day. By knowing what you can still do when you’re at your worst, you can become much more productive. For example, when I have everything together and my thoughts are clear, I write the programs for my programming clients, I write article I plan to submit to other websites, or I tackle an in-depth blog post I’ve been putting off for a good day – basically I address the things I need to be at the top of my game for. On a so-so day, I usually tackle homework, my reading list (at any given point in time, I’ll have at least a half dozen articles pulled up I plan on reading, at at least 2 books I’m working my way through), and other stuff that I need to focus on, but that don’t necessarily require intense higher-order thinking. On my worst days, I can still knock out training posts, make lists of articles I want to write, videos I need to make, and work on general networking. There’s always something I can do. I don’t need to bang my head against a wall on a bad day working on something I put a lot of detail and attention into like writing article-quality stuff or personalizing programs. I know how I am at my worst, and I know I can still press forward in a positive direction.
This concept is also similar to my preference for hitting PRs on days you don’t feel great. They mean more because you know you’re probably capable of replicating the effort the next time you’re in the gym, instead of putting up a number you may not approach again for a matter of weeks or months on your best day.
Anyways, I’ll wrap this up. It’s been much more ramble-y than I intended, but I hope the concept has made it through. When you plan based on your best, you’re always nervous because you’re afraid you may not perform at the highest level you’re capable, and when things don’t go your way, it throws you off. When you’re always aware of your worst and the realistic worst case scenario, you can attack life with confidence because you know that any losses will be small and success is likely even with a huge margin for error.
Deadlift up to 600×3 beltless
Paused sumo pulls (On each rep, pause with the bar hovering off the floor for 3 second. Never let the bar touch the ground)
225 2×5, x15
Lying single leg raises with the other leg raised against a wall (for posterior pelvic tilt and hamstring stretch) 2×15 per leg
Short but sweet session. 600×3 was a PR. My hips felt kind of janky, but the weight still moved relatively easily. 600×3 today was considerably easier than 565×5 last week. I need to just take some time to loosen my hips up from my drive last weekend. They were just shifting really bad. Hard to get too upset about it though since I hit the prescribed reps for a PR. 650 beltless is going to fall next week!
The belt vs. beltless discussion is a common one in the strength world, and is, in fact, one that I actually wrote about several weeks ago. What I have for you guys today is a study write-up to cut through the speculation and actually provide some data for the discussion. The study is titled “The Effectiveness of Weight-Belts During Multiple Repetitions of the Squat Exercise.”
A few notes about the study itself:
- It’s actually uses relatively strong subjects. Not world champions, but the subjects had to meet one of two minimum criteria: either an 8rm of 125.5kg (~277 pounds) or an 8rm of at least 1.6x body weight. So these guys at least had a little experience under the bar, which means the results are more apt to translate to people who have been lifting for a few years than if the study had been done on untrained people.
- They looked at a lot of different variables. They used a force plate to examine force output, they used a camera system to gather kinematic data (joint angles and how the body moved, essentially), they measured intra-abdominal pressure, muscle activation via EMG, and time it took to complete each phase of the lift (bottom of the lift to 90 degree knee angle, 90 to 135 degrees knee angle, and 135 degrees to full extension). This is good because it gives us a broad picture of how wearing a belt affected the movement as a whole, not just one variable.
- The subjects used the same load for both sets – their beltless 8rm. This is an important thing to point out. I’ll touch on its importance later.
What they found:
1. The “sticking point” became much more pronounced without a belt. Although there weren’t huge differences between total time it took to complete the eccentric and concentric portions of the lift with or without a belt, the period of the concentric with the knee angle between 90 and 135 degrees increased throughout the sets both with and without a belt, but increased significantly more without a belt. Of course, this is to be expected since the load used was the beltless 8rm, so it would be relatively less difficult with a belt than without.
2. There were no significant differences between belted and beltless with regard to kinematic and force plate data. HOWEVER, in both groups, the amount of forward lean increased across the sets, from a minimum of about 51 degrees to a maximum of about 46 degrees.
3. Intraabdominal pressure was 25-40% higher in the belted group, as opposed to the beltless group.
4. EMG data was taken for the vastus lateralis (a quadriceps muscle), biceps femoris (a hamstrings muscle), external oblique, and spinal erectors.
a) no significant differences were observed for the spinal erectors in the belt vs. beltless set, and muscle activation in the eccentric and concentric phases was actually quite similar, indicating that it takes about the same amount of effort from the spinal erectors to keep the spine extended during both phases of the lift.
b) no significant differences were observed for external oblique activation either. The EO is one of the muscle used to compress the abdomen along with the internal oblique, rectus abdominis and transversus abdominis. Proponents of beltless training often argue that these muscles will contract harder without a belt to product the necessary intraabdominal pressure. Such was not the case in this study. However, they did observe about twice as much EO activity in the concentric as the eccentric, regardless of belt usage.
c) the vastus lateralis showed significantly more activity during the concentric portion with a belt than without across most time points, and especially during the sticking point of the lift. This increased activation of the knee extensors may help explain the smaller increase in time spent at the sticking point with a belt than without. Both with and without a belt, the VL showed about 50% higher activation during the concentric than the eccentric portion of the lift.
d) the biceps femoris showed about twice as much activity during the concentric portion of the lift than the eccentric both with and without a belt. The biggest difference seen with vs. without a belt was that the increase in BF activation during the concentric portion of the lift increased more across the set with the belt than without. Initially the values were about the same, but activation only increased 31.5% across the set without a belt, vs. 42.5% with a belt.
1. In spite of the set with a belt being easier (since both sets were performed with the beltless 8rm), it still resulted in greater quad and hamstring activation, especially during the sticking point and as the set progressed, respectively.
2. Wearing a belt seems to increase intraabdominal pressure (which should reduce net shear stress on the spine) without diminishing abdominal activation, at least if we assume that external oblique activation is representative of the rest of the muscles of the abdominal wall.
3. Increased forward lean is an undesirable effect of fatigue. The researchers found that the subjects experienced more and more forward lean as their sets progressed. In their discussion at the end of the article, the referenced another article (here) saying that the more proficient someone was at the squat, the more upright they stayed and the more they relied on knee extension rather than hip extension. I’m working on rounding up full-text for it too to check out the study procedure. It looks really interesting, so if I can find it, I’ll do a write-up for it too.
4. It seems like abdominal weakness may have more to do with the back rounding at the bottom of a squat than spinal erector weakness. Spinal erector activation was about the same for both phases of the squat, which means that if weak erectors caused the back to round over, the rounding should be expected to start from the moment you unrack the bar. Conversely, external oblique activation was about twice as high for the concentric as the eccentric, indicating an increased challenge to that muscle (and potentially the muscles of the abdominal wall in general).
5. There is a bigger difference in eccentric vs. concentric muscle activity for the biceps femoris (hamstring muscle) than the vastus lateralis (quad muscle). It’s hard to draw definitive conclusions from this factoid, but it could mean a couple things. It could mean that people tend to excessively load the knees relative to the hips in lowering a squat. It could also mean that loading the knees to lower a squat is the more natural pattern (i.e. the olympic style squat vs. the “butt back” powerlifting style squat). No definitive guidelines can be drawn from this one study, but it’s worth keeping in the back of your mind.
Based on the variables assessed in this study, it seems like one could use it to argue for training with a belt. Wearing a belt allows you to lift more weight, and even with the same training weights it increases muscle activation in the quads and hamstrings without decreasing abdominal activation. An argument for beltless training either needs counter evidence or a rationale based on other variables.
I was about due for a bad session. At least it was one that I could learn a lot from. Here’s how it broke down:
Bench up to 365×6 (had maybe 1 or 2 more, but knew I wasn’t going to make 10)
Reverse grip up to 375×5 (left biceps seized up. Not worth risking a major injury.
Bench with 35s hanging from bands: 135+70 3×10 with feet up
One arm pushups (alternating arms, no rest) x5, x3, x1
Light band press downs and barbell curls 3×20 apiece
75s x4 with a 8 second stretch at the bottom of each rep
1. Low bar is still rough on my elbows. I think I’d be fine if I only squatted low bar once last week, but hitting two rep PRs really taxed my elbows. My distal biceps tendon was not happy with the reverse grip bench today at all.
2. I need to re-prioritize upper body warmups. I used to be pretty good about rolling my T-spine and taking time to get everything lose and warm. I’ve gotten away from that for no good reason. A 13 hour car ride a few days ago didn’t help matters, but it’s nothing I couldn’t have dealt with via an intentional warmup.
3. I need to actually train to be strong. I have this tendency of forgetting powerlifting is about being strong. When I write programs for other people, there’s always plenty of volume and targeted accessory work. Theoretically there’s a lot of that in mine as well, but as long as I’m PRing on my main lifts, I have a tendency to skimp on the rest which eventually comes back to bite me. Things haven’t started dipping too bad yet, but this workout was a good wake-up call to hop back on the bandwagon.
I was recently humbled when I was told my blog was being featured on Heavy Culture. If you haven’t heard of it, I promise you it’s worth your time to check it out. It pulls together content from a lot of great lifting websites and blogs from guys like Louie Simmons, Ed Coan, and Mike T. I’m absolutely honored to be included on the site alongside guys like that
Most people aren’t nearly creative enough with resistance bands. Here are some unique ways you can use bands to fix a bunch of really common squat and deadlift problems!
I’m in the process of writing an article with a lot of this information. You guys will have to wait for the whole article to get published, but all the videos for it are up and live.
However, I made a couple videos for biceps and triceps too, so we’ll start with them to get the boring stuff out of the way:
You can hear the disdain in my voice here. I love the pump, but I hate actually doing curls #firstworldproblems
Next is the same concept applied to triceps exercises
If you have weak quads:
If you shift weight to one leg in the squat:
If you have a problem with your upper back rounding in the squat or deadlift:
How to strengthen hip extension for the deadlift:
How to learn how to set your lats for the deadlift:
How to keep your back from hunching over on the deadlift:
When I’m back at Mash Elite, I just throw my training plan out the window because a) the atmosphere is awesome so I always hit bigger numbers, and b) there are always spotters that I actually trust there. So, this was just a week of maxing on everything. Since Lyndsey could come to the gym too, I actually have some video as well for once! Here’s just a list of what happened, probably in the wrong order. No accessory lifts listed because honestly I didn’t do any.
Deadlift 565×5 beltless
Push press 287
Front squat 515
As you can see, I’m still breaking this form in. I don’t have a good “feel” for depth yet, but it improves as the set goes on, and the deeper reps were no more difficult than the ones I cut a bit higher. It’s a kink I need to iron out, but I doubt it’ll affect my strength at all.
On Tuesday I got the opportunity to be on Weightlifting Talk with Travis and Jon North. We had a blast. We talked about coffee, cold barbells, Biggest Loser, whippy bars, and a lot more.
Here’s the link to the channel. You’ll be able to guess which episode I was on.
If you guys didn’t see, Jesse Norris hit a ridiculous 1900 total at 198 this weekend in the USAPL. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him total over 2000 at 198 within a year. Huge props to him.
Squat (no belt or wraps) up to 545 with a long pause in hole
Squat (low bar with wraps) – worked up to a relatively easy 640×8!
Walked around in a haze for a while focusing on not vomiting
Deadlifted up to 585 beltless, just for fun
Well, that went well! 640×8 projects my max to 800 with this new form, which really seems about right. I don’t think I’d want to go much heavier than 725 in the near future because all the bars at the gym are a little whippy, but all my reps were deep and none of them were much of a grind. As you can tell, I’m going off script this week because I want to take advantage of the atmosphere at the gym for hitting bit lifts while I’m in town.
Also, just so you guys know, I have a LOT of videos coming soon. I need to edit them (mostly to remove verbal clutter. It’s amazing how long I have a pause to think of a phrase synonymous with “vector” – I assume you guys are all smart, but the average youtuber… not so much) somewhere with faster wifi, but there’s a lot of good stuff coming. A lot of them are going to find their way into articles I’m in the midst of writing, so you guys will get a sneak peak at some of that content before it gets published
I also got another article published! This time it was one The Strength Agenda, which is a blog/website Tom Sroka (one of America’s top SHW weightlifters) runs. If you haven’t heard of it, you should check it out. It’s growing fast, and it publishes a lot of really high quality content with very little fluff – mostly geared as more serious and knowledgeable athletes.
The article is about eggs and why they’re freaking awesome. If you didn’t know, there are a lot of ways eggs help improve strength, hypertrophy, and body composition beyond just their protein content. Check it out to learn all the details.