Jun 16th, 2012

Accessory Work

Low Bar Squat

One of the best assistance exercises yet developed.

Often when a trainee experiences a problem with one of the big lifts such as a squat or a deadlift, one of the first questions that gets asked is, "What other exercises should I do to make (insert muscle group here) stronger?" This is a very natural reaction and assistance exercises certainly have their place. However, in many cases, a simpler solution exists. If progress in the squat is lacking, then the answer is probably to squat more instead of doing something else.

Strength is not built overnight, but, instead, is the result of hard work and consistency. Lifts like the squat and deadlift are multi-joint exercises that employ most of the musculature of the body and are renowned for their difficulty. Because of the muscle mass used, the technique required, and the will that must be summoned to complete these lifts successfully, it is not always clear what the weak link is when a lift is missed.  At limit weights, something is going to give and you are not going to be able to employ technique alone to pick 600 pounds up from the floor. Until a trainee is already fairly strong, it may not really matter what muscle group, or groups, are impeding progress on a lift. The body responds well to being trained as a system instead of a collection of discrete parts. Instead of looking to greater complexity or more exercises, it will often be a better use of everyone’s time to work on the movement in question with renewed focus.

There is probably no movement in the training arsenal capable of building total body strength like the squat. If the squat is a weak point, then choosing a weight that can be handled for three sets of five is a very good place to start. After the training session, the lifter should go home, eat some good food (probably a lot of good food), sleep, and then add a little weight to the bar and squat three sets of five again the next time they train. The process of lifting, recovering, and then lifting a little heavier is a proven method for getting stronger. Note that there is nothing complicated here. The repetition scheme is held constant. No additional exercises are added to bring up weak points. Instead, the only variable adjusted is the weight. Simplicity is good. Training should be as simple possible to drive the progress that is desired.

For many trainees, a simple approach such as the one above is all that is needed for a good long time. As strength levels increase and as familiarity with the lifts increase, additional complexity and exercises will become useful. However, the basic lifts remain the primary drivers of progress throughout a training career. If the goal is to squat more weight, then more time needs to be spent squatting. Any weaknesses that impede progress will be addressed by doing the exercise correctly and loading it in a way that encourages success.

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May 26th, 2012

Andrey Malanichev

Just another day at the office with 460 kilos

In the event you have not heard about Andrey  Malanichev, I would encourage you to make his acquaintance by watching the video above. He is a frighteningly strong Russian powerlifter who tips the scales at a lean 300 pounds and has already established himself as one of the greats in his sport. In the video, Malanichev walks 1014 pounds (460 kg) out of the rack and, without any fanfare, proceeds to squat the weight deeply for a double. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s over half a ton on his back. Half a ton. He does this wearing a belt, a single ply squat suit, and some knee wraps. Please read this post if talk of squat suits is something unfamiliar.

One of the most disturbing things about this video is just how easy Malanichev makes it look. Note the bar speed of his ascent. He comes back up faster than he descended and there is no doubt that he will finish each rep. The only thing missing is for him to yell, "I wanna hold it!" before racking the barbell. Perhaps he was discussing that omission at the end of the video.

Also impressive is Malanichev’s ability to walk the weight out of the rack and demonstrate complete control over it. A common sight in powerlifting is a monolift where the supports swing out of the way prior to a lifter beginning the squat. This enables the lifter to stay in place and to assume a very wide stance. While there are many reasons to use a monolift for training and competition, there is something especially cool about watching Malanichev walking the weight out, squatting it, and putting it back. Enjoy the video and enjoy your lifting.

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Apr 21st, 2012

Powerlifting Competitors

Greg Deadlift

Greg deadlifting at the CrossFit Total in December 2011. Sorry, Zeke, I don’t have a photo of you.

Schedule Update: Next week’s Strength Saturday class (April 28th) will be coached by our one and only Mike Minium.

This weekend our very own Greg and Zeke will be heading to the South Bay to compete in their first powerlifting meet. The competition will be held at Wild Iron Gym in Santa Clara, CA under the auspices of the United States Powerlifting Association (USPA). Lifting will begin at 9:30 AM on Sunday and go until it is done. The meet is limited to 30 lifters, so unlike the last USPA meet I attended, things will probably wrap up by the late afternoon.

A powerlifting meet consists of three events – the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. Competitors get three attempts at each lift and the winner is determined by totaling the heaviest successful attempt from each of the three movements, also called a "total." Actually, it is slightly more complicated than that. A formula is used that involves the lifters total and bodyweight in an attempt to more evenly compare the performance of competitors in different weight classes. The winner with the highest calculated value wins, but getting a big total is essential if a person is to win. In a meet, all the lifters finish their three attempts at the squat before moving on to the bench and then the deadlift. To allow for reasonable rest periods between each attempt, competitors are often broken up into groups, or flights, based on weight class.

Greg has been a regular at the Strength Saturday classes since they began and has made enormous strides in his lifting in that time. He is a testament to power of hard work and persistence. Zeke is a relative newcomer to the class, but has been training consistently and driving his lifts up. I am going to enjoy watching both of them compete on Sunday. Should you find yourself with the time to make a little trip to the South Bay, please stop by to cheer them on. Best of luck to both of you.

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Apr 7th, 2012

Getting Tight


Scheduling Update: In honor of Easter Weekend and to make sure that there is plenty of time for celebrating at CrossFit Oakland, Strength Saturday will take place on Sunday, 8 April from 4:00 PM  to 6:30 PM. There will be no Strength Saturday class next weekend, April 14th.

Reminder 2: Come to the party on Saturday, 7 April at 4:00 PM at CFO. Yes, you. A good time will be had.

Today’s installment will be a short reminder on the importance of keeping the spine stable under a load. A frequent cue that is given when lifting weights is “Get Tight.” This is an important concept and one that is often sacrificed when fatigue sets in. When handling a heavy barbell, the musculature of the trunk and limbs needs to be held in contraction as much as is possible. Obviously, in order for joints to flex and extend, muscles must contract and relax, but the degree to which this occurs is important here.

Let’s consider the squat, which, in my opinion, should be nominated for the most important lift of all time. If a trainee allows themselves to fall freely into the bottom of the squat, chances are that the back will round, the knees will buckle, and other grievous sins against the gods of gravity will be committed. It is Easter weekend and upsetting the gods is probably not a good idea. Flexing, extending, or twisting the spine under a load is a good way to incur a back injury. The spine likes the relationships between the various vertebrae to be maintained when squatting 500 pounds. Instead, if the hypothetical trainee above controlled their descent and kept the musculature of the trunk and legs in contraction, good positioning could be obtained, the lift could go forward, and great glory be obtained.

How does one get tighter in a lift? The first thing to do is hold your breath, also known as the Valsalva maneuver. The second is to actively contract the musculature involved prior to moving. This will slow down the movement slightly, but will allow for a better lift. As a trainee’s skill increases, the squat, or whatever lift is being performed, can be done at higher speeds while still staying tight. Therein lies one of the paradoxes of lifting, contract the muscles, but move quickly. So, cease dive bombing into the bottom of the squat and save your back at the same time. Sounds like the highly coveted win-win situation to me.

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Mar 31st, 2012

Strength Saturday Openings

Green Belt

For any of those interested, I have two openings for this week’s Strength Saturday class. The class goes from 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM (sometimes a little later) on Saturdays and the cost is $25 a session. It is limited to eight participants so that I can spend an appropriate amount of time providing coaching to those in attendance. We squat, press, and pull every class with an emphasis on proper form and gradually increasing weights. If you would like to stop by, send me an email at

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Feb 18th, 2012

Powerlifting and Strength Saturday Scheduling


On Saturday, February 18th, Mune and I will be traveling to Concord, CA to compete in a powerlifting meet. The event will be held at Diablo Barbell Club and the lifting will begin at 9:30 AM. If you would like to learn more about what goes on at a powerlifting meet, check out this posting from November. Should you find yourself in the area, feel free to stop by and say hello.

Also, because of the meet, Strength Saturday this week will get pushed to Sunday from 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM. Class will be cancelled all together on the weekend of Feb 25. Saturday classes will resume as normal on March 3rd.

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Feb 11th, 2012

The Shoulder Press and Bench Press

Michelle Pressing

Michelle in the midst of a shoulder press

Firstly,  pictures from the CrossFit Total that took place at CFO in late December are now ready for your consumption. You can revel in watching yourselves and your gym mates hold their collective breaths and perform maximal effort lifts for nothing more than the joy of setting personal records. They can be found at:

Also, I will be holding a Starting Strength Training Camp on the Shoulder Press and the Bench Press on Sunday, March 4, starting at 1 PM. We will probably go until around 5 PM that evening. The camp will start with a discussion of the mechanics of the shoulder press and then transition into a warm up followed by plenty of time underneath the barbell. We will take a break to talk about the bench press and then lift again. The afternoon’s festivities will conclude with a discussion of programming for the pressing movements, injury prevention, and a question and answer period. The cost is $125 and attendance is capped at 8 people to allow everyone a proper dose of constructive feedback delivered at an appropriate volume. Additional details and sign ups can be found at the Aasgaard Company Store.

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Feb 4th, 2012

Do Personal Records Have Expiration Dates?


Aisha contemplating the true nature of the PR before attempting to set one herself.

I was speaking with lovely and talented Dave Sally this evening when he suggested writing about the concept of the personal record, or PR for short. Specifically, should you refer to your lifetime PR when selecting training weights? When a trainee sets a personal record and does not improve upon that record for a period of time, does it still count? For the purposes of talking about accomplishments, if you did it then you did it. Nothing will ever erase that. However, for the purposes of making training decisions, PRs are perishable commodities.

Early in a trainee’s lifting career, PRs come easily. This is symptomatic of what Mark Rippetoe has deemed The Novice Effect. When a lifter is still new to barbell work, gains are rapid and can be made under less than ideal conditions. Once the easy gains have been made and progress slows, then more effort must be expended to continue improvement. The heavier the weights become, the more careful a trainee must be about recovery. PRs start requiring more than just showing up the gym. They require a little bit of thought and maybe even some planning.

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation involving my favorite lift – the squat. The workout calls for three sets of five repetitions (3×5) for sets across (meaning the weight stays the same for all the sets) – also a good choice. Our hypothetical trainee squatted 225 pounds for a five repetition maximum effort (5RM) four months ago. Our lifter is not on a fixed lifting schedule, but is engaged in a program that includes significant doses of variety with every workout, a la CrossFit.

How relevant is that 5RM for the workout today when the lifter is interested in performing a 3×5? The answer is, "It depends." Obviously, a 5RM does not directly translate into a weight for a 3×5, but such data is useful nonetheless. If recent attempts at a 5RM were below that 225 mark, then that PR has probably expired and more recent 5RMs should be used as a guide when selecting a working weight. If the trainee has not done much, if any, squatting in those four months, then it is also wise to be conservative and also consider the 225 to be expired. If the lifter trained their squats regularly, although hasn’t attempted any 5RMs during that time, then maybe that number is just fine, or even too conservative. Determining the proper number is dependent upon recent training. "What have you done for me lately?" is the order of the day.

To recap, PRs live forever in our hearts. If they were set months (or years) in the past, they may not be useful for guiding today’s workout. Recent training history and how a lifter feels on a given day need to be taken into account. Here’s to the recognizing when a PR is relevant and to setting new ones.

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Jan 28th, 2012

Straight Arms in the Clean

Zach - Jumping Position

Zach in the jumping position during a Starting Strength Pulling Camp.

To understand why straight arms are an important part of a successful clean, it helps to understand what a clean is. Since I like succinct explanations, we’ll use this one: A clean is a jump while holding a barbell. Upon completion of the movement, the bar is racked across the front of the shoulders. While there are some differences between a standing vertical jump and a clean, this definition works remarkably well to instill a good fundamental movement pattern for the lift. Note that in the definition above, no mention is made of pulling or rowing the bar to the shoulders. This is important. The function of the arms in the clean is to efficiently transfer force to the barbell.

When we perform a jump with the barbell, the work of propelling the weight upwards is done by the legs and the hips. The arms can be thought of as ropes or chains that attach to the bar. When visualizing that scenario, we can see how a taught rope directly produces force against the resistance. If the arms are bent, we effectively inserted a spring into the system. As the jump occurs, the bent arms absorb some of the energy as the muscles struggle to maintain the flexion in the elbows.  If the arms bend at any time before the jump happens, you are very successfully siphoning power out of the system.

Let’s look at the picture of Zach at the top of this post as he performs a power clean. This is the jumping position. Note how straight the arms are. The bar is in contact with his thigh, his knees are bent, his shoulders are in front of the bar, his feet are flat on the ground, and his arms are in full extension and ready to transmit the power generated by the jump to the bar. He’s not trying to row the bar. He is trying to jump the bar upwards.

Zach - Full Extension

Zach after completing the jump

The picture above this sentence represents the next frame in the series. The knees and hips and hips are extended and the arms are almost completely straight. Had I managed to click the shutter a few milliseconds sooner his arms would probably be more fully extended. This picture probably represents the beginnings of the transition from the jump to the rack and we see the arms bend slightly. However, you get the point. He is not pulling the bar up using his arms. Zach is powering the bar up with the force generated by the lower body. In order for this to happen effectively, straight arms are required.

So, keep your arms straight as you jump in the clean. The bar will move more quickly. More weight will be lifted. You will be happier. Your coaches will be happier. The world will be a brighter place for it.

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Jan 21st, 2012

Training While on the Road


Finding a place to deadlift while away is not always an easy thing.

I had the opportunity over the past year to do a bit of traveling, mostly for work. During those trips, I often attempted to train with decidedly mixed results. I figured it might be time to recount what worked and what didn’t and how to integrate travel with training. If someone is going on a big vacation through areas where gyms aren’t available then the best advice is not to worry about training at all. Enjoy the trip instead. This article is geared towards more routine and less exotic travel.

One of the first things to determine is whether there will be time to engage in structured workouts. If not, there’s no need to pack the lifting shoes. Instead, some pushups and stretching may be the best that can be managed. Provided time is available to go to a gym, it is wise to be conservative. In most cases while I am travelling, my attempts to set personal records have ended in disappointment. You may be different and, if so, I salute you. However the vagaries of a disrupted schedule combined with limited control over food and sleep will often conspire to limit peak athletic performance. So, what to do? Work to your capacity at the time and realize that a maximal effort on the road is likely below what could be accomplished at home.

The primary goal of training while away may be the avoidance of detraining. Using a trip as an opportunity to back off from normal intensity can be a valuable thing, particularly if aches and pains are beginning to make themselves felt. Developing strength is long term process where consistency is rewarded. Even if training sessions on the road resemble punching the clock more than inspiring vignettes from a Rocky movie, they beat doing nothing.

In the event that long car rides or plane trips are involved, be aware of how your back responds to being seated and largely immobile for hours at a time. Back injuries are even less fun when you are away from home and are best avoided. Being sensible about loading after stepping out of a multi-hour trip in a car is a good choice.

None of this deviates from common sense, but I need to remind myself of these ideas when I am on the road. I have had some good training sessions while traveling, but they tend to be exceptions. Provided workouts are approached intelligently, it is usually a simple matter to pick up where you left off upon your triumphant return.

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