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Getting Stronger is Hard Work

Getting Stronger is Hard Work

“But I never see no postman down here on the farm”
Photo by Gozha Net on Unsplash

The late afternoon sun hugs the field. The two tired brothers have worked since the early hours of the morning. Now they’re getting the last of the day’s harvest done.

Bob, the younger of the brothers, is inherently lazy. Trying to get the harvest done with him is like dealing with a toddler insisting on using a hammer to eat a kiwifruit. A patience testing endeavour.

Ron, the older of the two, with his sleeves rolled up, is throwing bales of hay on to the rusty cart. And after each bale he’s muttering words of encouragement to his brother.

Unless Ron wants to do all the work himself he needs to spend most of the days directing and asking Bob to lift another bale of hay onto the truck. Otherwise Bob would spend his time lounging on the ground, getting a tan, and chewing a long piece of grass while half humming lazy renditions from the Grateful Dead catalogue.

But with Ron’s determination and gentle encouragement Bob does his part. As the sun starts to set the brothers climb onto their beat up John Deere and chug across the field to get home.

At home Ron pours a small Scotch.

He hands it to Bob and tells him to go have a bubble bath. Meanwhile Ron himself, organised to a fault that he is, heads to the kitchen to cook a hearty bean stew and potatoes. 

The brothers have a meal together and go over the state of the field. Ron maps out the plan for tomorrow’s work and promises to Bob that tomorrow’s work load won’t be any worse than today’s.

After the meal, with the weathered floorboards creaking, Bob makes his way to his bedroom to retire for the night. Ron stays up to pack the leftover stew, potatoes and thick peanut butter sandwiches ready for tomorrow’s lunch.

The next day on the field is more of the same. 

And the one after. And the one after that. At some point each day Bob will hit his limit and insist on returning to lounging on the ground and work on his tan. And unless Ron wants to finish up the day’s work all by himself, he has to encourage Bob to get up and pick another bale of hay. 

Each day, despite Ron’s promises of easier tomorrows, Bob does a bit more than what he did yesterday. 

Ron is the driving force of the brothers. If he wouldn’t force Bob out of the house and put on his underwear and ask him to do more work, Bob would spend his days sitting at the kitchen table playing solitaire, without his underwear. While trying to get a tan through the kitchen window.

We’re all Rons. Bob is our body. And toddlers should only use hammers in mattress lined houses.

Our body is inherently lazy

They want to exist in a world where they can rest on the bales, get a sick (but healthy) tan and hum the great songbook of the 70s. Like Bob, our bodies want an easygoing existence where it’s possible to get by only doing what’s absolutely necessary. 

The body yarns for a world of, and here’s a big word, equilibrium.

Just turning up to train isn’t enough. 

Lifting the same amount of hay as yesterday doesn’t lend itself to progress. If all we do is the same thing over and over in each training session, Bob never progresses. He has no reason to because his current existence is his definition of that aforementioned, and here’s that big word again, equilibrium.

We have to keep shoving Bob forward to improve.

And the only way to do this is training. Conditioning to improve our heart and lungs and all that anatomical stuff that connects those two to wherever they’re meant to connect. Cutting down calories to burn fat. Resistance training for strength. To take the next step, to get that extra rep, and to go that little heavier.

Well, hard manual labor on the farm works too. But let’s face it, neither you nor me are doing none of that. I, for one, don’t even know what a tractor looks like.

So we make this deal. 

We challenge him in the training. Then we make a promise and lie through our teeth. We promise that if Bob sits in a warm bubble bath, eats his potatoes and gets stronger during the rest between the workouts, the whole thing will feel easier next time.

So Bob sits in the bath and repairs himself with the false hope of renewed, ah big word, equilibrium. And the next time is indeed easier for him. 

Yet we, Rons, can’t help ourselves and take another step on the path of betrayal. We take off the nice person mask and reveal our true self to Bob by making the training even more challenging come next time.

Lucky for us Bob’s tangled in a groundhog day. 

Thanks to our body’s short emotional memory we can keep repeating our false promise day after the day. We act all nice, pour a Scotch, run a bubble bath and serve chilli. We even add a thick layer of peanut butter on those sandwiches to really elevate Bob’s Stockholm Syndrome.

The next morning Bob climbs on to the beat up John Deere whistling “Friend of the Devil”. Sure, he complains how he would rather play solitaire and get a tan. But with some non-abusive encouragement, and the hanging carrot of a future peanut butter sandwich, Bob eventually does a bit more. And it’s the same cycle all over again.

We do all these devious acts for the benefit of our body 

If we want to keep getting stronger, fitter and more resilient we have to make training uncomfortable. Not a pseudo-military spew town. But we have to keep challenging what we’ve previously done in a reasonable and sustainable fashion.

Yes, there is wisdom in sticking with the same until it feels a bit easier. But we can’t get stronger by doing the same months on end. There comes a time on the farm when progress requires picking up that heavier bay of hay.

Of course, if we’ve reached a point of strength where we feel content, things change. It’s ok to turn up to repeat what we’ve always done for the sake of maintaining what we’ve got. 

That’s fine too. Because sometimes Bob needs a tan. And Ron needs to calm the… down and sit himself in the bath.

How To Warm Up And Be Less Like Britney

How To Warm Up And Be Less Like Britney

Yes, warming up can seem like an annoyance at times. Especially when you’re in a hurry and just want to get into it.

But skipping the warm up, or worse, doing it like a sloth means leaving some of the potential results hanging uncollected on the hooks of missed opportunities.

The purpose of a warm up

Get more out of the workout

Cold muscles don’t contract as well as warm ones do. By warming up you increase the blood flow into the muscles making them, and I risk sounding like a car mechanic working on an adult movie set, lubricated and ready to contract.

More oxygen in the muscles allows them to contract and relax quicker. You’ll perform better and milk more benefits from your workout.

Possibly lower the risk of injuries

Although science isn’t conclusive on this, it would make sense that injuries are more likely to happen with cold muscles. Purely based on the slowness of contraction and relaxation when compared with warm muscles.

Let’s focus on the fact that training injuries happen when the force applied exceeds the tissue tolerance. It would make sense then that as warm muscles contract better, they are more likely to counteract the force demands.

Excite the nervous system

Warming up the muscles and joints is one thing. “Warming up” the nervous system is another. Again leading to a better muscle contraction.

Get in the right headspace

This is the brain content of a typical adult on any given day:

“I am soooooooo over Simon sitting next to me at work. What’s his deal anyway?!? Does he really need that much cologne? Smells like he got it from the discount bucket in Target.”
“Did little Timmy remember to take his lunch box to school? Gosh, I hope he eats his peeled apple slices.”
“We really need to find a solution to get our company through this merger. Maybe I should call Melinda…”
“What should I make for dinner?”
“How good are these pants!”
“I wonder if my wife wants more woolly socks for her birthday?”
“Ok, what was I doing again…?”

Ideally a thorough warm up will allow you to bring your focus to this:

“Fuck Simon. Time to train.”

How to warm up

The purpose is to start easy and gradually ramp up so you’re ready to get after it when it counts. I like to think of the warm up as a gradual progress of reducing ground contact. Start on the ground, progress to standing and finish with locomotion before adding power and speed.

It could be as simple as this:

  1. 9090 breathing
  2. Kneeling heel rock
  3. Snoop Dog steps into rotation
  4. Squat to stand
  5. Lateral squat
  6. Single leg hip swing
  7. Carry variation

This could also be much longer. A warm up for someone in their 60s might take 25 minutes and include a variety of movement work. For someone deconditioned returning to fitness the whole workout might look like a warm up.

Then comes the power and core work.

I really see this part of the program still part of the ramping up. We are now taking movements and making them more explosive. One for the upper body, one for the lower body, plus a core exercise thrown in the mix.

8. Kettlebell swing
9. Wall power push up
10. Side plank to rotation

Again, adjust these to what’s right for you and your setting. Med ball slams and throws are brilliant choices when training in a gym. Not so much when training on the third floor of an apartment block at 4am.

Technically your first one or two sets of each exercise in the strength training session are still part of the warm up.

You’re practising the movements of the training. Start with a lighter weight and build up to a one or two work sets where you really push it.

You can’t really tell where the warm up finished and the training started

The whole warm up should feel like you seamlessly transition from warm up to training. In terms of gradually ramping up from awful to awesome, think transitioning from Britney to Batman.

Walk Away To Come Back Stronger Another Day

Walk Away To Come Back Stronger Another Day

Strength, power and cardiovascular fitness forms the foundation for longevity. And these qualities have to be constantly nurtured to stop them from crumbling. They need the integrity that comes from frequent practice.

Yet there is a point of diminishing returns. A point of too much. Be it chasing some random ego-driven numbers with weights, running ourselves to the ground on the trails, or pushing that one extra set or rep when it clearly doesn’t matter.

Should I stay or should I go?
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Strength, power and cardiovascular fitness forms the foundation for longevity. And these qualities have to be constantly nurtured to stop them from crumbling. They need the integrity that comes from frequent practice.

Yet there is a point of diminishing returns. A point of too much. Be it chasing some random ego-driven numbers with weights, running ourselves to the ground on the trails, or pushing that one extra set or rep when it clearly doesn’t matter.

As I am closing in on a full decade of working with clients, and twenty years of training myself, this is one of the guidelines I try to drill into people’s heads (including my own) the most:

It’s okay.
You’ve done enough.
Walk away.
Come back another day.

Not only is it a solid advice, it also rhymes. Which in itself is a great thing in any sentence. And means that because of the poetic beauty in it, it shouldn’t be argued with.

Listen to the sweet whispers of your body.

This can be tricky, and sometimes we abuse it to get away from doing the good quality work. It’s a skill to differentiate between mentally not feeling it and feeling off physically. A skill that usually gets better as the training age increases.

What often acts as a good guide, unless you’re feeling like an absolute dirt, is just starting the workout. Just by completing the movement prep and the first set of training can bring a newly found glory to the body and mind. That’s a sign to keep going.

The opposite is true too. If after the movement prep the body and mind still feel like they’ve been a pinata for a bunch enthusiastic kids high on birthday cake while practising their latest karate moves, it might be better to walk away. Literally, a walk instead might be a good idea.

Only quality reps matter.

It’s often that “one more set” that will leave us feeling like a bag of runny donkey poo for days, even weeks. Injuries, muscle strains and general shadiness usually happen in the vicinity of trying to do a few more.

Quality reps deliver results and leave you feeling semi-fresh. Piling shitty reps on top for the sake of quantity usually does nothing good, but leave you tired. And being tired is not a measuring stick for the success of a training session.

Compare previous results before “I’ll do one more”.

Checking what you’ve done in the past can act as a guide to whether you should do more. If you’re feeling great and one more means just a bit better than in the previous workouts, go at it. Be great. A savage, if you must. Whatever adjective that gets you going will do, really.

If you’ve already done a bit better than before it might be better to walk away. You’ve done enough. Insert the rest of the rhyme here and whistle away.

And if you’re constantly feeling like you’ve been run through a meat grinder it’s time to investigate what’s up.

If you’re like most of us it’s unlikely that you’re training too much. But it could be that you’re training too much for what your body can handle with whatever else is going on in your life. And it often comes back to the basics of not enough sleep and food, of too much stress.

Let’s do just enough to keep getting better.

Why I Rarely Use Barbells

Why I Rarely Use Barbells

Chains. Metal.
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

The gym-less self-isolation training hasn’t been a challenge for most of my clients. Not because any of them have proper gym set ups at home. But because when we train at the gym it’s mostly with kettlebells, dumbbells, resistance bands and bodyweight. Stuff that’s easy enough to set up at home.

Sure, there are some aspects we are now missing. Cable pulley system-machine-whatever-you-want-to-call-it, the power work with medicine balls, trapbar deadlifts and the access to landmine exercises. The last being just about the only thing we use barbells for.

I’ve gradually used less and less of barbells over the years. And it’s probably been three or four years since I’ve cut them out almost completely for new clients*.

Barbells emphasise a one dimensional view on progression

Go heavier. That’s really it. You get better by increasing your numbers. Sure, you can add pauses and all the other stuff to get stronger. But focusing on barbell lifting emphasises increasing the weight on the bar. That’s a fact in people wired in barbell lifting.

Great for powerlifters competing in lifting the biggest possible weights, but not so much for people who just want to be and look fitter and healthier. Let’s face it, how much does a healthy adult really need to lift anyway?

Using barbells makes people more prone to injury

All the barbell lifts are way too easy to load excessively heavy. Because it’s possible to pile on the weights with the bar already elevated in the rack, you don’t have to bypass the body’s self-limiting brilliance: the need to build a base of strength to get the bar into the starting position.

Making barbell squat into a self-limiting exercise.
Imagine if before even trying squatting the weight you’d have to clean it into the rack position. But no. With a squat rack all the trainee has to do is to walk under the bar, create tension against it and walk it away from the rack.

And that’s why I like goblet, and front squats with kettlebells.
There is no way most people can lift as heavy when the weight is held in front of the body. The pull forward is just too great. And there’s the grip strength which adds another element of difficulty to the lift.

Smells like goblet squat spirit.

Besides, for this to even work, you have to lift the weights to the starting position first. Another safety check to pass before earning the right to squat with them.

What about barbell loaded hip thrust?
I love the hip thrust. But not with a heavy barbell. A heavy weight sitting on my hips? Trusting that my back and pelvis can handle it? No, thank you.

Besides, there is something off-putting about loading things so heavy that you have to use a cushion to reduce the pressure of it on the body.

The case against barbell loaded bench and overhead press.
I refuse to help someone get heavy dumbbells in the starting position of a dumbbell bench press. If you can’t get them there yourself, you haven’t earned the right to press with them.

Compare this to barbell bench press where people can just load the bar and un-rack it. Regardless of it being too heavy or not.

Benching with a barbell also forces the hands and therefore the shoulders to follow a specific pattern. Where as when benching with dumbbells or kettlebells (one arm floor press) the hands can rotate freely. It just feels nicer for most people. Same goes for overhead press variations.

Deadlifts make an occasional exception to the rule.
Most people feel better using a trapbar instead of barbell when deadlifting. Compared to barbell the trapbar allows the weight to travel closer to the mid-line of the body, which just feels nicer on most backs.

There is the occasional client who still works on barbell deadlifts, just because it feels better for them. But these clients are few and far between. Even still, we often elevate the weight off the ground for them.

But what about when your arms get tired before your legs?

Most people’s argument against using goblet or kettlebell front squat is that it’s usually the arms that get tired before the legs. That it’s impossible to go as heavy with kettlebell front squat compared to barbell back or front squat. True.

And on that note, here’s a snippet from Charlie Weingroff’s The Concept of Lowest System Load:

Effort does not equal results.  We know this.  And Newton’s 2nd law says force is force is proportional to the mass of an object along with the acceleration of motion.  In theory, there has to be more mass of the kettlebell to increase more force.  But there can also be more acceleration.

For instance, in performing a proper hard style KB swing with 20-30% of the individual’s bodyweight, force plates register almost 4x bodyweight.  A 200 lb man can swing a 24 and create 800 pounds of force into the ground.  I am guessing there are many more 200 lb individuals swinging 20s, 24s, and 32s than pulling 8 and 9 wheels.

So the example here suggests that we MAY be able to accomplish ONE of the same things using an implement of 15% the load.”
– Charlie Weingroff

As I mentioned earlier, something happens when the weight in your hands is held further away from your body’s base of support. Because your centre of gravity shifts forward you need more strength relatively to the weight you are holding, which creates an experience of a harder lift.

The exercise will be harder to complete, but it is likely easier for your joints and nervous system. By driving the weight up fast, you should be able to get similar benefits with lighter weights. Making the return of investment much higher. If this matches your training goals, you win.

And if you get to a point when the grip really becomes the limiting factor, switch to single leg variations. One leg requires less loading compared to two.

Safer alternatives for barbell lifting

Squat alternatives

  • Kettlebell/dumbbell goblet hold or kettelbell rack variations for squats.
  • Split squats, lunges, rear foot elevated split squat to reduce the load on the back (load one leg, one back vs two legs, one back) and the grip.
  • Single leg squat variations.

Deadlift alternatives

  • Trapbar, kettlebell and double kettlebell deadlifts.
  • Single leg deadlifts.
  • Skater squats.

Hip thrust alternative

  • Single leg hip thrusts.

Bench press alternatives

  • Dumbbell bench variations.
  • 1-arm kettlebell floor press.
  • Push up variations.

Overhead press alternatives

  • Landmine press variations.
  • 1-arm kettlebell press variations.

My clients are not powerlifters

Hence we do whatever works so we can get to them to their goals in the safest, most efficient way possible. And for most, barbell doesn’t fit into that equation.


*Unless the barbell lifts are something that the client want to do and get good at. Then we work on them like any other.

Minimalist Strength Training for The Housebound

Minimalist Strength Training for The Housebound

Big enough to swing a kettlebell around.
Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

I like to think of myself as a minimalist. Not a hardcore minimalist who takes only chewing gum and a stapler to go on a zombie hunt. But a minimalist nevertheless.

I have a somewhat nihilistic view towards most of the gym equipment. Although I work at a gym (Except now. Cheers, COVID-19. You dick.) with options galore of training equipment, I often set imaginary restrictions on the equipment I can and can’t use.

Working with these invisible rules is a sort of creative outlet, I guess. Besides, time is of an essence with a young family. One equipment training makes the whole session more efficient. Which is sort of nice now when most of us train at home.

Let’s cover everything you need to have and know to master full body strength workouts at home. Even better, take the kettlebell to your backyard or a nearby park for some rays. If you have the luxury to do so.

Equipment

One kettlebell

A weight that is challenging for 10-12 reps of single leg deadlifts. For most people, 12-16kg will do just fine.

Here’s one you can order. Or you can try to rummage Amazon for one. 

Two square metres of space

Ideally without any kids, glass, or pets in the immediate vicinity.

Your body

Makes the training somewhat easier.

Warm up

Let’s keep it simple. Repeat the following warm up for 5-10 minutes, depending on how cold you’re feeling on the day.

  1. Snoop Dog doing Spiderman x 5 per side
  2. Squat to stand x 5
  3. Standing march x 10 per side

Strength exercises

Choose one exercise from each column for the day’s workout. Complete them as a circuit:

Lower body → upper push → upper pull → core

Exercises – choose one from each column

Lower bodyUpper pushUpper pullCore
Single leg deadliftPush upReverse snow angelHigh tension plank
Swing or 1-arm arm swingSingle arm floor pressNaked batwingsBear squat
Goblet squat1-arm pressSplit stance rowHigh tension side plank
Split squatHalf-kneel bent press1-arm 1-leg rowCrawl

Programming

Choose one of the rep ranges: 6-8, 8-10, 10-12, 12-15*.
*Batwings and planks, do the reps as powerful exhales through pursed lips. *Crawls, take one step forward and one step back. Repeat other side. That’s one rep.

Aim to complete as many rounds as you can in 20-30 minutes. 

The goal is to do a strength workout, not mindless high intensity I-forgot-my-name-fuck-the-form-I-am-Troy-is-it-Christmas-yet cardio. After completing a set of one of the exercises, wait until you can comfortably talk before moving to the next exercise.

Then take a bit of extra time after completing a full circuit of the four exercises. Get some water and admire your glistening figure in the mirror. Maybe open the curtains to give the neighbours something to look at.

Never lose your form. Even if it means that you can’t complete the rep range you set out to do. You can always try again another day.

Progressing

If you did 3 rounds last time, try to beat it. Again, don’t sacrifice form to get there.

When the weight is good for some exercises, but too heavy/light for others

If it’s too heavy simply do less reps. If it’s too light you can get creative with pauses, increasing tension, or doing 1.5 reps. Since I am all about tables and columns today, let’s make this into one.

ExercisePauseTension1.5 reps
Single leg deadlift5 seconds at the bottomUp to 5 seconds on the way downn/a
Swing or 1-arm arm swingn/aShould be tight as it isn/a
Goblet squat5 seconds at the bottomUp to 5 seconds on the way down and upAll the way down, halfway up, down, up
Split squat5 seconds at the bottomUp to 5 seconds on the way down and upAll the way down, halfway up, down, up
Push up5 seconds at the bottomUp to 5 seconds on the way down and upAll the way down, halfway up, down, up
Single arm floor press5 seconds in the middle of the rep on the way downUp to 5 seconds on the way down and upAll the way down, halfway up, down, up
1-arm press5 seconds in the middle of the rep on the way downUp to 5 seconds on the way down and upAll the way down, halfway up, down, up
Half-kneel bent press5 seconds in the middle of the rep on the way downUp to 5 seconds on the way down and upAll the way down, halfway up, down, up
Reverse snow angeln/aUp to 10 seconds per directionAll the way down, halfway up, down, up
Naked batwingsn/aShould be tight as it isn/a
Split stance row5 seconds at the topUp to 5 seconds on the way down and upAll the way up, halfway down, up, down
1-arm 1-leg row5 seconds at the topUp to 5 seconds on the way down and upAll the way up, halfway down, up, down
High tension plankn/aShould be tight as it isn/a
Bear squat5 seconds at the topUp to 5 seconds on the way down and upAll the way up, halfway down, up, down
High tension side plankn/aShould be tight as it isn/a
CrawlStep, spend 2 seconds suspended before touching the groundMove in slow motionn/a

Sample Strength Program

6 minute warm up we covered earlier.

10-12 reps of each exercise with a 16kg kettlebell.

1-arm swings → 1-arm press → split stance row → crawl → longer break.

Repeat for 20 minutes.

To recap

You can get heaps done with a whole lot of nothing and a bit of creativity. As long as you have a kettlebell, a small space and a body, you’re golden.

The hardest part of this housebound living is not deciding what to do with training. The hard part is actually doing the training when you’re stuck on your computer and struggling to switch off work.

Or, if you’re like me, you might have a kid demanding some of your attention. And rightfully so. Being a parent is awesome. More the reason to keep the training short and simple to get on with the other things that matter in life.

Don’t Take Your Strength Training Standards From Powerlifting

Don’t Take Your Strength Training Standards From Powerlifting

“We’re here about the less-than-parallel squat.”

A fact: speeding through a red light will get you in trouble with the law. And if there’s no real-life-police or a tech-abled-camera-police to see it, you’ll at least get condemned, huffed and labelled as an irresponsible driver by your fellow motor vehicle operators. And as a bare minimum, you’ll see rude visual gestures from the people eager to cross the road.

The cultural norms around driving are strong and based on the heavy sense of “people like us drive like this”. That’s how it should be. Reinforcing and adhering to strict road standards keeps our roads safer. When it comes to driving there really is the right way to drive and the asshole wrong way to drive. 

Unlike traffic, there are no strict right or wrong ways for strength training. No must do exercises, or strict standards that every person should follow.

We are not competing in powerlifting or Olympic lifting, so why should we follow the rules that are meant for those two sports? I mean, you don’t do the collision drills from rugby just to get your heart rate up either.

You don’t have to deadlift off the floor.
You don’t have to squat to parallel.
Actually, you don’t have to deadlift or squat. Period.

You don’t have to deadlift off the floor

The bottom position of the lift is the most challenging. You have to create enough tension to “break” the bar (whether it’s a barbell or a trapbar). This is where most injuries happen, especially during the first rep when the tension has to come from nothing.*

Not only that, but some people really don’t have the hips to deadlift comfortably off the floor. Hips which run out of available flexion leading to low back taking over. I’m in this category unless I go super wide with my stance. Which in itself makes the whole exercise as awkward as trying to shadow box a ghost.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have clients who lift off the floor. But I only do it with those who can do it really well. Otherwise the bar gets elevated. Raising the bar for 5cm -10cm off the ground will usually do the trick. The lift is easier to set up, and it’s easier on the eyes. Meaning it’ll feel less like shit.

You don’t have to squat to parallel

Sure, you’ll get more out of the squat if you’re able to go lower. Purely because it’s harder (someone smarty-pants can explain all the vector angles and EMG readings). But if going any lower than you currently do causes your knees, back, ankles or other body part to ache, why bother?

Your squat is your squat and as long as you get out of it what you set out to do, well, that sounds good enough for me. We’re not here to collect points on gym performance. But on how what you do in the gym helps your life outside of it.

In the end, gym is just training and exercise under fancy fluorescent lights while listening to Beyonce belt out her vocal chords. Or, if you lucky, you get to listen to something else. Like Crowbar.

But isn’t squatting ass to grass the benchmark for healthy hips and longevity?

Yes, but there’s a difference between squatting for exercise and squatting for the sake of maintaining or re-discovering one’s squat. Squatting for exercise is usually done for multiple repetitions. Squatting for health can mean just sitting in a deep squat once a day. Or as close to a deep squat as the person can do.

How to improve one’s deep squat for health is another article altogether.

You don’t even have to deadlift or squat

Sometimes you might not be able to tolerate any of the traditional exercises that all the cool, hardcore looking people in the gym are doing. I often find that when doing a program with heavier trapbar deadlifts my lower back let’s me know about it, eventually. 

As in, “Hey, Joonas. This is your low back. Enough already. Ok? Cool. Thanks. Also, how good are single leg deadlifts? Yeah, you should totally do those instead. Ok, bye. P.S. ease up on the muesli, will ya.”

If your low back doesn’t like heavy-ish loading:

Here are some alternatives that require less loading through the low back while still working your legs and butt just as hard. And except for the skater squat and single leg squat, your upper back gets a decent amount of training in too.

Try switching the barbell or trapbar deadlift to single leg deadlift, skater squat, or even a kettlebell swing.

Try switching the heavier goblet squat or front squat to split squat (and progressions), single leg squat, or kettlebell bottom up squats. 

Summary

In movement there are standards on how a human should be able to move. Being able to sit in a deep squat and hinging from your hips are both an important part of that equation.

But in exercise and training? Not so much. The only right way to train is the one that gets you results while staying safe. That’s it. Regardless of what others may think, there are no strict exercise standards that you should adhere to. Especially if they make you feel like shit. 

If to not feel like shit means not squatting as low or elevating your deadlift, so be it. And if you have to abandon an exercise altogether because how it makes you feel, that’s cool too.

They’re just exercises, nothing else. Don’t tie your identity to being able to do them in a one specific way. Instead, do what suits you and your body.


*Yes, I know you have to create tension on the first rep. But it’s heaps harder to do for most people compared to any other rep of the set.

Ten Principles for Training

Ten Principles for Training

Map of Westeros.
Photo by Jakob Braun on Unsplash

Call them rules or principles, either way it’s reasonable to expect that you have a set of them guiding how you live your life. Even if you don’t have them written down, there’s that inner compass of values that you reflect on as you navigate life. You know, don’t lie, treat others with respect, don’t be a dick…

As with life, principles in training matter because they keep you close to the track of what’s important for you. Here are the rules that guide my training. Both with clients and in my own training. And I just so happen to think that more people would be better off by adopting them.

1. Warming up can often feel like an annoyance, but it’s important

The idea of a warm up is to raise the tissue temperature and to prepare the ranges of motion you’ll use in the day’s training. Spending the extra time in the beginning means you’re less likely to pull, strain or do something else that won’t feel nice tomorrow. And you’ll get more out of the workout itself.

But warm up also acts as a vestibule to your mind. It’s the mid-space where you transition from a busy, work-filled headspace into the mental spaciousness and overall “on-ness” required for training. Now that sounds fancy.

Here’s a simple full body warm up to get started.

2. Be present

Carrying over from the “on-ness” above, you’ll get more out of your training session when you’re with it, so to speak. Simply, it allows you to focus on the parts of your body you’re meant to be using during a certain exercise. 

Mindfulness gets sickening levels of hype these days, but it’s not without a reason. Save some of it for your training sessions and you’ll get more out of the workout itself. 

3. Have a one main goal per training session

Unless you have the luxury for lengthy training sessions to incorporate elaborate warm ups, mobility, training and conditioning parts, it’s impossible to get everything done. Be clear on what the goal for the session is, or you’ll risk going through a half assed workout that doesn’t move the results needle in any direction. 

Work on what’s most important for your overarching goals. Usually it’s either fitness (this includes strength and other parts we expect to be included in the word fitness) or mobility. Improving your mobility isn’t always a must if you know how to choose the exercises that allow you to reach your fitness goals with the mobility you already have. 

But most rules have an exception. Here the exception is to think of your single training session as two separate sessions. First session is for mobility. The second for fitness that helps the body to press “save” on the new mobility just created.

4. Never train through pain

Seriously. There are exceptions. But seriously, don’t do it.

5. Don’t train to get tired

Unless that’s your goal. Which to me seems a bit silly. 

If you’re stuck on feeling tired, I recommend having a kid. Or if you’re not fond of kids (or have already done your fair share of raising them) adopt an older dog with a weak bladder who needs to go out 5 times between 11pm and 4am. You’ll be tired. All. The. Time.

Instead of chasing tiredness, train to get better. Progress equals success, which means that the next principle is going to come real handy.

6. Have a plan and track your results

If you have a specific goal, you need to reach you better have a trackable plan. When the goal is strength related, it’s mostly about what you do in the gym. Track your weight, sets, reps and anything else that’s paramount for you to gauge progress. 

As a side note, when the goal is fat loss it’s a whole lot more about what you do outside of the sessions. Keep a food journal. You don’t have to walk around with a food scale in your back pocket. Hand portions will do. But track it.

7. Challenge yourself

Someone way more articulate than me once said that you can’t just keep doing what you’ve always done and expect to get better results. Or something along those lines. You know the quote. 

Challenge doesn’t have to be a hero-training-mode-fuck-everyone-I’m-Troy mindset. In fact, I discourage it. But if you want to keep getting better, you need to stretch your comfort zone a bit and put yourself into situations where you might (safely) fail. 

Whether it’s learning a new movement skill, getting stronger or improving conditioning. But as you’ll discover below, it’s not about blindly changing numbers (unless you’re single and on a steamy dance floor).

8. Master the weight before going heavier

This is the one thing I wish I would’ve understood earlier. And the one thing I have to keep frequently reminding myself of. And it sort of contradicts the principle seven.

Patience is the name of the game. In strength training, get really strong at the current resistance before jumping to the next one. It’s not sexy, but it’s the safer, more sustainable option. I even wrote a full article about it.

9. Leave some in the tank for next time 

Reasonable done with consistency shits on extreme. The quicker you recover, the faster you can come back and do it all over again and get closer to your goals. It’s difficult to recover enough for the next workout when you walk out of the gym smoked each time.

Competition is another story, save it up and bring your best then. But this is about training for the competition. Don’t try to be a gym hero. Or a dick. Or a hero dick. Unless of course, your name is Dick Hero. In which case, we should hang out. And, I don’t know, maybe talk about your parents.

10. Homework can be even more of an annoyance than warming up. Still, get it done

The more homework you can do at home, the more you can focus on the stuff that counts in each workout. If confused, see number three above.

Summary

The principles that deliver sustainable results are far from sexy and “Instagrammable”. It’s all about consistent hard work. Ideally done with a limited amount of egocentric behaviour.

The Almost-Perfect Training Program for Busy People (Who Might or Might Not Be Going to Mars)

The Almost-Perfect Training Program for Busy People (Who Might or Might Not Be Going to Mars)

“I’m not the man they think I am at home. Oh no no no, I’m a rocket man”
Photo by Nicolas Lobos on Unsplash

On every brilliant record there’s usually that one “meh” song that you’re willing to skip to get to the next. On Appetite for Destruction it’s “Think About You”. Although a good song, it sounds painfully 80s today. They should’ve put “Perfect Crime” or “Shadow of Your Love” there instead. I assume the Geffen suits had their say to make the album appeal for a wider audience. Sigh.

Then, on one of my all time favorite albums, Exile on Main St, it’s “Casino Boogie”. Again, it’s not a bad song by any means. In fact, it’s sort of good-ish. But it’s tough to stand out between “Shake Your Hips” and “Tumbling Dice”.

But there’s one record that’s perfect from start to finish

Kicking off with “Thunder Road” and finishing with the epic “Jungleland” and that big saxophone by Clarence Clemons, Born to Run comes as close to perfect as I can think of. It’s the one record I would take to keep me moderately sane on a solo space mission to Mars (and, ideally, back). [1]

And if I’d be off to Mars I’d want to keep loose and sane with a minimal, almost perfect training program. In case you’re off to somewhere in space anytime soon feel free to print this out.

Or, I don’t know, use this when you need a program on Earth to have all your bases covered.

The almost-perfect training plan for general fitness

Unless you’re into all kinds of war stuff and dynamite, “general” sounds lame. But that’s what most of us already do and need. Stuff that either: 

a) forms the base to build on with other, more specific programs, or 

b) is fine just like it is when the goal is to stay healthy, look decent, be strong and not to die.

Ramp up / movement prep / warm up

  1. Downward dog to step and rotation x 3
  2. Crawl x 20 frw/rev
  3. Squat to stand x 5
  4. Lateral lunge to overhead drive x 3
  5. Standing cross crawl x 3
  6. Get up x 1-2

The workout

A1) Carry anyhow x 1*
*waiter, offset farmer, suitcase, rack, and the combinations of all

B1) 1-leg squat x 8-12 x 3-4
B2) Push up x AMAP x 3-4
B3) Kettlebell swing x 10-15 x 3-4

Don’t rush between the sets of strength work.

Complete for 3-4 days a week. Three is probably enough for the majority of us. Most of the time try to keep the intensity at around 7-8 out of 10. Some days go easier, occasionally go harder. Never judge progress based on any single workout, or even a single week. Or a month, if you have kids under the age of 3.

What makes this program almost-perfect?

Let’s do a run down of the stuff I value in programs.

It’s minimal equipment

Ideally two kettlebells somewhere between 20kg and 28kg range will do. This gives you heaps of options for carries and enough of a challenge for the swings. 

If you want to go super-minimal, you can get away with a single kettlebell. Again, anywhere between 20-28kg should do for most. If it’s too light for swings, you can always do them with one arm. But let’s face it, 28kg isn’t too light.

Bonus. If you happen to have a 4-12kg kettlebell, you could do a bottom up variation of the get up. Great for building shoulder health, and destroying egos.

It’s full body and covers all the movement patterns 

Push: crawl, push up
Pull: carry, swing
Squat: squat to stand, lateral lunge, get up, 1-leg squat
Hinge: get up, swing
Rotation: crawl, standing cross crawl, get up
Locomotion: carry
And single leg because life is so much nicer with a decent balance: standing cross crawl, 1-leg squat

The movement prep itself serves a purpose beyond just warming up the tissue. It also helps you to keep the upper back and hips mobile. Important stuff in a world that revolves around chairs.

Plus I threw in as many cross body movements as I could without turning this into a circus. It’s good for your brain, apparently. The cross body movement, not the circus.

Simple and quick to complete

With adequate rest periods this shouldn’t take you more than 40 minutes. But really, when in a pinch you could be done in 20 minutes. This is great for all us parents who always have to be somewhere soon.

Joint-friendly

Yep. Because, well, yeah it is. As long as you don’t do anything your body shouldn’t do.

But unlike Born to Run, it’s not perfect 

You still need a kettlebell 

This one’s rather obvious. If you don’t have one I suggest you go buy it, or join a gym. What else is there to say, really?

Not seeing the weights go up from session to session

This can be frustrating or even demoralising for some. You need to have the patience and persistence for constant strength method.

Lack of pure upper body pull

Yes, but we are getting plenty of upper back work from the carry and swings. You could also throw in some inverted rows or pull ups of any variation if you so desire. Great for the arms and whatnot. But definitely not necessary.

And in case you’re thinking this is not challenging enough

I beg to differ. You can do all kinds of evil progression with the exercises. 

Progression IProgression IIProgression IIIProgression IV
Carry (suitcase, farmer, rack, waiter)Slow, high knees with full exhale on each stepSuitcase and rackSuitcase and waiterDouble waiter
1-leg squatSlow the tempoPause at the bottomGo lower1.5 reps
Push upSlow the tempoPause at the bottomHeels pushed to wall1-arm progressions
SwingLess restLonger set1-arm1-arm less rest
Fancy progression table to please your eyeballs.

But honestly, most people get bored and never go beyond the second progression. That’s a fact.

In closing

Good programs don’t have to be complicated or have a ton or variety. But we trainers have a tendency to make them so because of boredom and trying to impress someone. I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone.

Also, what’s your perfect, or almost-perfect record?

Next step

The Safest and Most Sustainable Way to Get Strong


[1] “Which one record/book would you take with you on a solo space mission to Mars?” A question I ask in my new client consultation form. In case you wondered. Now you know.

How To Decide Your Next Training Goal Part III: Measuring Fitness and Filling The Gaps

How To Decide Your Next Training Goal Part III: Measuring Fitness and Filling The Gaps

Plenty of gaps in here.
Photo by Jan Genge on Unsplash

This is the third and final part of the series. If you haven’t read Parts I and II yet, I recommend you give them a geez before diving into this one. It makes this Part III far easier to get into.

You wouldn’t watch The Godfather Part III before watching the first two, right? Not that I am comparing this to The Godfather. It’s just the first that comes to mind when thinking of a trilogy of any sort.

Part I: Intro, overall health markers, movement, body composition
Part II: Strength and conditioning standards
Part III: Measuring fitness and filling the gaps


So this last part is less about how to determine your next goal and more about taking a step closer to that goal.

Fitness – the capacity to do shit

Fitness doesn’t mean cardio, bodybuilding or any of that. At least not today in the bubble that is this blog. Fitness means do you have the capacity and the goods to absorb and adapt to the stress required by your next step?

You’ve looked at the standards from Part I and Part II and perhaps seen some gaps in either your overall health, body composition, movement, strength, conditioning, or a combination of some of them. But gaps for what? What is it that you are specifically training for? 

It could be a sport related goal, but it doesn’t have to be.
As you’ll see in the first case study, a client in his mid-60s wants to be more fluid and graceful stepping in and out of his car. That’s the stress he needs to absorb and adopt.

The second case study is a lady who wants a better butt to elevate her Kardashian game. For her the immediate goal of absorbing and adopting stress means that she can handle the best exercises that deliver those results. 

Finally, in the last case study the client’s goal is a more typical athletic endeavour. For her it’s about being able to return to competitive outrigging and dragon boating and to paddle pain free after a shoulder surgery. 

Let’s look at these case studies. It can help you to narrow down your training program and get the results you need to keep progressing towards your goal.

Case Study One: hip mobility to get in and out of the car

A client in his mid 60s has started to notice how getting in and out of a car has become difficult, even uncomfortable as of late. He is already seeing an osteopath for the hip and wants to emphasise this goal during his personal training sessions too.

The curve ball of a thing is that although he has 45 minutes of training booked twice a week, he’s always around 15 minutes late. We need to be able to do the best we can in 30 minutes, without completely ignoring other aspects of his health.

I am telling you this to show that you don’t always need long bouts of training to move the needle forward. A good sessions done is better than perfect that never gets even started.

Here’s a sample of how I divide the session based on his goals.

0-15 minutes – movement prep / hip mobility x 1 round

  1. Diaphragmatic breathing to encourage posterior pelvic tilt
  2. Hip, shoulder, scapula rotations on all fours
  3. Rockback to heels
  4. Hip Pails/Rails in modified pigeon stretch
  5. Hip rotations
  6. Rockback to heels
  7. Glute hip bridges
  8. Carry

15-25 minutes – power / strength circuit x 2-3 rounds

  1. Lateral step (crossover, cross behind) to slam x 5 ea
  2. Reverse step to high knee (trying to crossover to bring knee and elbow to touch) x 5 ea
  3. Single leg squat to box with an isometric hold with the first rep x 8-12 ea
  4. TRX Row x 8-12
  5. Lateral crawl x 5 ea

25-30 minutes – conditioning x 5 rounds

  1. Rope full body waves – emphasising hinging x 20s work : 40s rest

Depending on the day we might go 20 minutes of warm up / hip mobility followed by 5 minutes of power / strength and 5 minutes of conditioning. It’s not perfect, but you do what you can in the time you’ve got.

Case Study Two: Butthurt

A lady with a goal to get her Kardashian to pop. A more advanced client with a few years+ training history.

0-5 minutes – movement prep x 1 round

  1. Breathing to center the busy mind
  2. Hip, shoulder, scap rotations
  3. Downward dog to step to rotation
  4. Glute side bridge
  5. Squat to stand
  6. Carry

5-40 minutes – strength x 3 rounds

A1 Lateral lunge to pulse x 5 ea
A2 Hip thrust march x8 ea

B1 Trapbar Romanian deadlift x 6-8 1.5 reps
B2 Vertical cable row x 6-8 1.5 reps

C1 Pike push up x 5
C2 Step down heels touch x6-8 1.5 reps

40-45 minutes – conditioning x 5 rounds

  1. Skillmill 30s work : 30s rest

Case Study Three: Return to competitive paddling

Bilateral shoulder surgery. Now at the stage of building more power and strength to return to competitive paddling.

0-10 minutes – movement prep x 1 round

  1. Breathing
  2. Hip, shoulder, scap rotations
  3. Big 3 shoulder activation
  4. Side plank
  5. Glute side bridge
  6. Cable shoulder external rotation (standing 9090)
  7. Carry

10-45 minutes – power / strength x 3 rounds

A1 Get up to hand x 4 ea
A2 Split stance chop slam x 5 ea

B1 Trapbar deadlift x 8-10
B2 Landmine single arm press x 8-10 ea
B3 Single arm seated row x 8-10 ea

C1 Elevated push ups x as many as possible with perfect form
C2 TRX row x 15

Conditioning

Done on her own on a different day.

Summary

When you have a goal in mind, it’s easier to specify the training program to get there. Find the gaps in your current health, body composition, movement, strength and conditioning as they relate to your end goal. Then fill those gaps appropriately. 

And if your current goal is a more elusive, say “to stay healthy and don’t get fat”, that’s fine too. Just make sure you are not not letting any of the aforementioned aspects of health and fitness to deteriorate too far from the baseline.


Thanks for reading the full series. You’ve been great. I thought I’d never get this out in time.

How To Decide Your Next Training Goal, Part II: Are Your Strength and Conditioning Up To Standard?

How To Decide Your Next Training Goal, Part II: Are Your Strength and Conditioning Up To Standard?

Gloomy stair runs, anyone?
Photo by thr3 eyes on Unsplash

This is Part II of a series of three. Not unlike The Godfather. I mean, The Godfather Part II is where it’s at.

If you haven’t read Part I yet, I recommend you do so before diving into this. It’ll make Part II make more sense. If that makes sense.
Part I: Overall health markers, movement, body composition
Part II: Are Your Strength and Conditioning Up To Standard?
Part III: Measuring Fitness and Filling The Gaps

Let’s continue the adventures into the standards. By compering yourself to the standards you can gain clarity on what to work on, narrowing down the goals to set for yourself. Today, strength and conditioning standards.

Strength Standards

Search the internet or ask ten trainers for their standards on strength and you’ll get eleven different answers. Surprisingly to none, trainers tend to be biased on pushing the importance of strength. Getting people strong is our livelihood after all. 

But, how much strength is enough? It depends, as always, on your goals. Winning the heavyweight class in powerlifting requires an insane amount of raw strength. But as great as raw strength in powerlifting might be, it is too narrow approach for sports that require more than just moving heavy weights up and down. There is a point of diminishing returns for, let’s say, snowboarding, running, swimming or team sports.

I can’t give you a specific strength standards for every sport, but I can give you my standards

There are certain strength skills that have more carryover than others. The ones that provide the base for the other qualities, such as health, freedom and specific sports skills to thrive on. Beyond specific athletic endeavors where money, status and immortality are at stake, there is absolutely no point gaining strength at the expense of your health and freedom of movement. 

Bodyweight exercises hit the sweet spot for measuring general health and wellbeing

I am far from a calisthenic purists who thinks all the world’s problems can be solved with a quality set of pull ups. No matter how much I want a diplomatic solution to all of the world’s problems, I doubt that it’ll happen by getting Trump to rep out on pull ups. Unless he gets a heart attack while doing it, survives, and comes back as a more decent person. But, I digress.

Having the control of your body ticks multiple boxes all at once while acting as a measuring stick for your overall health. Controlling your body weight in space forces you to keep your body fat and weight in check. It’s easier to bang out 10 pull ups weighing in at 85kg compared to 125kg. That’s just physics 101.

Keeping the body weight in check also means that you are required to focus on things beyond pushing external weight for mindless hypertrophy chasing excessive muscle gains. As we established in Part, I there is a line where more muscle doesn’t serve a purpose beyond a bloated ego. 

And so, we finally arrive at the strength standards for health

Push ups – full range, one second pause in the top and bottom positions

Women 10 repetitions
Men 20 repetitions

Push ups are a simple test for upper body pushing strength, core strength and for creating and maintaining full body tension. Really, push up is just a moving plank. All the things challenged in a push up transfer to other activities in life, whether it’s maintaining tension on a bike or a surfboard, or creating stiffness in the trunk while throwing a punch in a street fight. 

Note, I discourage street fights. Unless it’s Tekken*.

Pull ups – full range, one second pause in the top and bottom positions

Women 2 repetitions
Men 8 repetitions

Pull ups demonstrate upper body pulling strength while being able to maintain a full body stiffness and control. Again, pull up is a plank with an added vertical pulling challenge. 

To even get into the starting position of a pull up requires 180 degrees of shoulder mobility. Something that a lot of people lose throughout the course of life due to poor posture and lifestyle habits. Another box ticked.

The get up

Both women and men 1 repetition per side with a cup of water.

Here’s an old write up devoted to the get up.

Then the guidelines as to what I believe a strong recreational athlete** should be able to do in the gym (on top of push ups, pull ups and get ups)

Kettlebell swing
Women 24kg x 10
Men 32kg x 10

Strength and power rolled up into a one heavy iron ball. Trains the rear side of the body like nothing else. If I could only do one exercise for the rest of my life, it would be the kettlebell swing. Yes, it’s that efficient.

Single leg deadlift
Women 28kg x 10 per leg
Men 32kg x 10 per leg

Beyond the obvious strength benefits without heavy load on the low back, SLDL is a great stability exercise for the hips.

Rear foot elevated split squat
Women 28kg x 10 per leg
Men 32kg x 10 per leg

Why single leg and not a two-legged barbell squat? Less load on the low back while getting the bonus of working single leg stability. Sure, the rear leg does a bit of work, but whatever.

½ kneel 1-arm landmine press
Women 20kg (aka just the bar) x 10 per arm
Men 30kg (including the bar) x 10 per arm

As much as I’d like the kettlebell overhead press to be my go-to upper body strength exercise for clients, landmine is a shoulder friendlier option.

Farmer Walk
Women 24kg per arm x 50 meters
Men 32kg per arm x 50 meters

If I could have a second exercise to do for the rest of my life, it would be the farmer walk. When you go heavy, it feels as if there’s not a single muscle in your body that doesn’t work to a some degree. 


Side note on grip strength as a measuring tool

Grip strength has been proven to be a reliable predictor of at least four super important things: a cardiovascular event in people with type 2 diabetes; the length of hospital stay in older patients admitted for rehab; a cause-specific mortality in middle-aged and elderly. Further, a study in 2017 found that grip strength is closely correlated with all causes of mortality. [1] And that’s sort of a big deal.

Training grip strength in isolation isn’t the solution though. Rather, grip strength is a signifier of overall health, vitality and strength. And which people have a strong grip strength? People who are active and participate in strength training. These folks (us?) tend to favor healthier lifestyle choices as well. 

You can use the grip to test your daily readiness for training at the beginning of the session. Simply pick up a 6-12kg kettlebell in a bottom up position and notice whether it feels easier, harder or the same as usual. The easier it feels the better your readiness is for the session. As with most things, you need to establish a baseline of “normal” first.


When you look at the strength standards above, are you inching closer to them, or do they seem like a far out of reach? 

If reading this made you realise your strength levels needs some work, that’s your goal for now. And guess what, here’s a great program to start with. But if you’ve got enough strength and some to spare, you should look at where you stand with your conditioning.

Onwards!

Conditioning Standards

“If your goal is to maximize your lifespan and stay healthy, you shouldn’t use the same conditioning strategies as a fighter preparing to step in the cage.” -Joel Jamieson

Resting heart rate, heart rate recovery, and heart rate variability are all important tools for checking your level of conditioning.

Resting heart rate (RHH)

As is often the case with general health guidelines the range for “normal” is as wide as Elvis’ pants in the 70s. Wide.

60-100 beats per minute is considered healthy, but for most people mid-to-high 50s is desirable. If you’re participating in a sport with decent conditioning demands (not darts), you should be probably sitting somewhere in the low-to-mid 50s.

Heart rate variability (HRV)

Heart rate variability measures the time between each heart beat. It can get all annoyingly technical so let’s just say that a high HRV is a great measure of your overall performance and efficiency of cardiovascular fitness. It means that the body can quickly change between different activities and demands.

High HRV may also mark how well your body handles different stressors of life. Too much training, poor sleep, lack of rest, and chronic inflammation can all lower your results. HRV goes down as you age, but as is with resistance training and muscle, bone and strength loss, you can control how fast this decline happens.

There’s not a clear “healthy” or “unhealthy” numbers for HRV as it varies depending on the person.*** To establish what’s good for you, establish a baseline from repeatable conditions. Shift your thinking from “higher is better” to a “normal is better”.

Measuring heart rate variability

You can use a variety of gadgets to measure HRV. Apple Watch, Joel Jamieson’s Morpheus and Finland’s own Polar are just a few of the options out there. I’ve personally tried HRV4Training app in the past and found it ok to use with a Samsung phone. Although the flash/camera based reader was sometimes out of tune, causing me periodically lose my shit.

To establish a baseline, take your measurement first thing in the morning when external stressors are low and you’re still in a rested state. For accuracy, try to keep the conditions as repeatable as possible. You should have a solid baseline of readings after four to seven days.

Keep tracking HRV for six months to a year to see any trends. If your readings are consistently normal, it affirms the goodness your current training and rest schedule. And I guess lifestyle habits in general.

I’ll go as far as saying that if you are consistently getting a high reading (and low on planned recovery days) you can probably stop measuring HRV until some factor significantly changes. Either in your training, rest or life and where you need to reevaluate your recovery.

Improving heart rate variability

If you’re getting frequent low readings (based on your baseline) there’s plenty you can do. Since Aerobic fitness improves HRV, I recommend you favor low-to-moderate intensity (about 60-80% of your max heart rate, or simply a pace where you can hold up a conversation) over doing multiple high intensity sessions each week.

Other things that will help you to improve your HRV score: manage stress, get enough sleep, don’t drink too much alcohol, stay hydrated, don’t get into a heated conflict with your wife or husband… As you’re starting to see, focusing on improving just one aspect of health should have a carry over to a host of other aspects too.

60 second heart rate recovery (HRR)

Heart rate recovery tells you how quickly you recover (surprise!) from a bout of exercise. The quicker you return towards your resting heart rate, the fitter you are.

You can measure HRR two ways: check your heart rate immediately after a high intensity effort (e.g. 30 second sprint) and again 60 seconds later. Or, check the heart rate after single all-out effort (e.g. long-distance run, cycle etc) and again 60 seconds later.

If you want to measure HRR specific to your sport, time the efforts and rests according to the demands of your sport.

Your heart rate should fall at least 20 beats within the first 60 seconds after intense exercise[2]. A drop of at least 30 beats within the first minute signals a strong conditioning. Anything less than 12 beats is considered abnormal so it might be worth checking in with your doctor.

How to improve your heart rate recovery?

Similar to reducing resting heart rate, heart rate recovery can be improved by improving aerobic conditioning (seeing a trend here?). You can do intervals at a medium pace, say 20s seconds on and 40 seconds off. The reps really depend on how conditioned you are. As a beginner 3-4 reps are usually enough. For more advanced 10 reps is a good number to aim for.

As with heart rate variability I also recommend long steady state aerobic work at 60-80% of your max heart rate. As an absolute minimum, aim for at least 20 minutes per day on average. Fast pace walking or rucking, cycling or kayaking are killer options for the enthusiastic individual.

As mentioned earlier, for more sport specific conditioning look at the demands of your sport and try to mimic those conditions in your training.

Onwards to the grande finale, Part III: Measuring Fitness and Filling The Gaps

I’ve never seen a single Rambo, but isn’t the third one meant to be ok? And unlike most people, I think the third Godfather was decent. So yeah. Something to look forward to, perhaps.


* I wanted to say Street Fighter. But that would’ve been too obvious.
**Recreational athlete is anyone who participates in a sport, however seriously, but isn’t making a living out of it. Although often is the case, being a recreational athlete doesn’t have to involve competition. It can be about participating, taking in the nature and being confident in one’s abilities to fully enjoy the sport.
***Although certain HRV trackers can give you baseline based on other users. [3]

References:
[1] Low Normalized Grip Strength is a Biomarker for Cardiometabolic Disease and Physical Disabilities Among U.S. and Chinese Adults
[2] Heart Rate and Health
[3] Heart rate & heart rate variability population values

Other resources:
Brett Jones at FMS – Get a Grip! Why Your Hand Strength Matters
Kevin Carr at Movement As Medicine – Is Your Grip Strength More Important Than Your Blood Pressure
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as a tool for diagnostic and monitoring performance in sport and physical activities
The 8 Biggest Mistakes Made When Measuring Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability: A new way to track well-being – Harvard Health Blog
The truth about conditioning (and the missing link): Why being strong, fast, and fit is ONLY a piece of the performance puzzle
Heart Rate Variability: a (deep) primer

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