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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.

Sport Specific Strength Training Is Probably Not What You Think It Is

Sport Specific Strength Training Is Probably Not What You Think It Is

Most athletes think that their sport requires a unique approach to strength training. And fancy marketing tailored for a specific sport often reinforces this.

But once you peel off the layers of fluff you’ll see what is (or should be) in the core of any quality strength training program. Regardless of your sport, the basics of strength training and building overall athleticism apply.

Strength training for all sports is made up of 90-100% of the same stuff. In the gym, train the qualities of being a more athletic, stronger human by training the six movement patters:

  • Push
  • Pull
  • Squat
  • Hinge
  • Locomotion
  • Rotation

Then take the qualities built in the gym and transfer those into your sport in the sport specific skill practice outside of the gym.

If you do kayaking, go paddle. If you run, go run. If you swim, go swimming. If you participate in mosquito killing world championships (happens in Finland every summer), or wife carrying world championships (also happens in Finland*) go practice those.

Often that 10% difference (at most) between different sports is more about undoing what gets overdone in the sport practice:

  • Runners run in a straight line. Balance it out with lateral and rotational strength work.
  • Swimmers do a lot of overhead work in their sport practice. Balance it out by limiting overhead in strength training.
  • And anyone working in an office already leans forward and rounds their back. Limit ab work that rounds the back and do more pulling vs pushing exercises.

Or, the 10% difference can be finding an exercise that feels better for a particular athlete. You might feel better doing a dumbbell bench. Some prefer almost-horizontal landmine press. They both accomplish the same thing: upper body push.

When you become stronger, faster and more resilient you will become a better athlete. Regardless of your sport.


*I guess when you spend 8-9 months of the year in the dark frothing for summer you’ll come up with all kinds of activities to enjoy those long summer days and nights.

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.

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.

The Safest and Most Sustainable Way to Get Strong

The Safest and Most Sustainable Way to Get Strong

The deeper the roots the stronger the tree. Or, as Max Cavalera would put it, “Roots! Bloody roots!”
Photo by Jason Weingardt on Unsplash

It’s a Tuesday night and the clock on the living room wall hits midnight. Sarah Connor is stressed to her eyeballs. She’s spent the evening at a friend’s party mostly worrying about getting home because she has to be back at the office by 7am, and it’s a 30 minute drive home. Sleep is not something Sarah is happy to sacrifice. She’s itching to bolt home as fast as possible.

She tells quick goodbyes and throws her tired body into her Q7 Audi, starts the car and reverses to the street. She shifts to ‘D’. With lead heavy petrol running through her veins Sarah rockets towards the night sky kissed highway.

Interlude. At this point you probably assume that I’ll write about Sarah speeding her way through the night like a true gearhead, driving off a cliff, severely injuring herself and killing a large colony of nearly extinct special birds nesting half way between the cliff and the ground? No. Too morbid for today.

Fifteen minutes into her raging drive home, beacons of blue flash from the darkness in her rearview mirror. Highway’s finest in uniform request her attention. Sarah’s been doing 105km per hour on an 80km zone. Licence, registrations and the time to call a tow truck. 

Suspension of licence for 3 months, fines enough to make a deposit on a nuclear missile in Russia. Luckily she hadn’t been drinking. Still, good luck trying to sleep now.

Like Sarah, when we limit our focus on to the end goal we tend to ignore that the fastest (and let’s face it, often the sexiest, most marketable) way of getting somewhere is rarely the safest or the most sustainable. Strength training is no exception.

The unsexy, idiot proof strength training

Even the name echoes Minnesota more than California: constant resistance strength training. 

People who thrive on this tend to be the ones who treat the gym as practice. As a means to an end. They find their excitement in life from outside of the training sessions. Let’s face it, this is how it should be instead of being the gym warrior who lives to lift. 

I am really working hard here to not go on a tangent on a topic I’ve repeated ad nauseam…  To keep this article somewhat short, check here for more on what ad nauseum here could look like.

Factors making constant resistance strength training safer

Muscles adapt faster to the strength training compared to connective tissue. That means ligaments, tendons and all the other fancily named areas of the body. They can’t keep up with the strength gains the muscles are reaping.

So if you keep lifting heavier weights by progressing too fast the rest of the body isn’t necessarily ready for it. Constant resistance strength training method uses this to your advantage by forcing you to wait until you really are ready to progress.

Here’s how I use it with my clients

Choose a weight you can do for a given amount of reps. This really depends on the exercise. You wouldn’t want to do a one repetition max lift on a say, I don’t know, ½ kneeling cable chop. I’ll give you two examples here, both lower and higher rep exercises. The principles stay the same, regardless of the exercise.

Constant strength training using trapbar

Warm up to a weight you can do for 6 reps. Weight should be challenging, but all the reps should be doable without grinding at any point.

First warm up set 60kg x5 reps
Second warm up set 80kg x5 reps
Worksets 100kg x 6 reps x 2 sets

Now for the next however many workouts do that same thing until it starts to feel easier, even easy. Then add 5-10kg to the bar and start all over again. That’s it.

Constant strength training using ½ kneeling cable chop

Here’s an exercise better suited to a higher repetition 8+ training. No need to warm up the same way we did on trapbar. But as always, get a general warm up done before the training part of your workout.

Worksets 12.5kg x 8 reps x 2-3 sets

Once easy-ish add weight. Little jumps in here are more feasible versus 5-10kg. 

Listen to your body

Some days the weight feels tough. Do fewer sets, train to train another day. Sometimes it feels lighter, add a set. But don’t do too much. There’s a point, a fine line of diminishing returns. Again, train to train another day.

Because you don’t have strict target numbers to hit each workout, you’ll never feel behind. You never have to force it. And this is great news for us who have kids, busy work, are tending a nut farm, and other stuff that often impairs our sleep and training. 

Basically, don’t force the training if you’ve spent the night roaming the nut farm.

This sounds just about as boring as shoveling lost thoughts of the poets past

Well, it depends what you want out of your training time. If you’re anything like my typical readers you want sustainable results to thrive in the activities you love. So, no, we don’t think that’s boring. If you love simplicity, no, definitely not boring. And results are never boring. 

You could also go about things without any structure and just do whatever smokes your goat that day. Fun? Yep, but not necessarily super progressive for strength gains. Unless you’re an absolute beginner.

But if you want to feel like a kid in a pawn toy shop each time you get changed for your workout clothes, yes you’ll probably find this boring. I’d make a case that you should find excitement from joining the local circus, not from from the gym.

This also sounds like it takes a long time to see results

What’s long? Longer than other training methods where you follow pre-established percentages to lift a certain amount of weight each day? Or where you work up to a heavy lift for four weeks, deload, and start again? 

Yes. But I argue constant resistance strength training is more sustainable and you’re less likely to burn out and injure yourself. Also, you don’t have to be a slave to the numbers or turn each training session into a maths class.

How about linear progression where you keep adding reps or weight each training session? Yes, this will take longer. But same caveats from above apply. Besides, unless you’re a true beginner there’s only so long you can keep progressing linearly. 

What did we learn today?

Pick a weight you can do for 8 reps (or 6, or 9, or 10, 11, or 12…) without grinding the weight. Keep repeating that for however many workouts it takes to make the weight feel easier, even easy. Then add more weight and start again. The jumps in weight don’t need to be humangus.

Constant resistance strength training method requires patience. You have to be in it for the long game. Which means this works well for you and me. We are past the age of ego driven gym fanaticism.

Your progress will be more sustainable and your strength gains deeply rooted and solidified. You’ll spend a long time getting strong on a weight before progressing. Solidified. Great word. One more time, solidified. 

This method seems to work especially well for those who are in somewhat tune with their body, can listen to what it’s whispering to them, and don’t give two shits about what anyone else thinks about their lifting.

For the next three months Sarah embraced car pooling

She was able to get her co-worker Brian to pick her up each morning. Now, Brian was all about smart driving. He left ample time for the commute each morning.

Brian woke up earlier when he predicted the traffic would be bad (rain, roadworks…) And on the rare occasion when things didn’t go his way on the road, Brian was content at being late, “as my grandma used to say, some nasty shit you just can’t control.” Something for Sarah to meditate on.

Besides paying her fines, Sarah spent three months forking out for Ubers to get her kid to and from school, karate practice, football skill training and piano lessons. All by the same teacher.

Next step

Hey, this sounds a lot like Easy Strength.

Why and How to Stop Training for Fat Loss

Why and How to Stop Training for Fat Loss

Why and How to Stop Training for Fat Loss

For most people the first introduction to exercise is all about losing weight or keeping the weight off. Sure, there are those few rare exceptions that just start because of some other reason, but even then it’s often “I have a [insert a non-fat loss problem or an injury]. But I would also like to lose weight”.

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How To Build Training Consistency

How To Build Training Consistency

How To Build Training Consistency

Not everyone has the willpower and determination to tackle each training session with the same passion and rage as Arnold did. And that’s fine. For you, having training motivation might be a constant battle between putting your feet up after a long day in the office versus dragging your ass into the gym. Here are some ways to build training consistency while still having time to do other things.

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