05
Feb
13

Frequency

Blogging frequency — rather pathetic lately.  It’s almost like I’ve got a job or something.  I’ll try to do better but no promises.  Got some tabs open on higher ed bubbles (spoiler warning: A B.Sc. does not make you immune).

Lifting frequency — slowly increasing.  I’ve recently discovered the Myosynthesis blog and a lot of stuff’s been falling into place.

My basic problem is that I have a job.  (Take that out of context and I can be the lead auto-da-fé at the next Occupy Wall Street gathering.  This whole post is #firstworldproblems anyway.)  It’s a fun, fulfilling, rewarding job, which means it’s often a lot of work and I get kind of obsessed with it.  Some days I go to the gym and have the wherewithal to grind out a zillion heavy squats; some days I get stapled by 135.  This does not play well with programmes based on a steadily increasing percentage of my 1RM, because even if those percentages (or maxes) are chosen and progressed conservatively they’re built around the idea of linear progression which eventually resets lower but ratchets steadily upwards.

Enter John Broz, most recent Western proponent of the “Bulgarian system”, in which athletes snatch, clean-and-jerk, and squat to a max single every day.  Obviously that’s better suited to my present lifestyle.

Well, no.  First enter Dan John and Even Easier Strength, which itself is based on Pavel Tsatsouline’s “Easy Strength” challenge:

Years ago, when I first met Pavel, he challenged me to do a “40 Day Workout.” I followed his simple instructions to a “T:”

“For the next forty workouts, pick five lifts. Do them every workout. Never miss a rep, in fact, never even get close to struggling. Go as light as you need to go and don’t go over ten reps for any of the movements in a workout. It is going to seem easy. When the weights feel light, simply add more weight.”

So, I did exactly as he said. On the 22nd workout, alone in my garage gym, I broke my lifetime best Incline Bench Press record that was 300 for a single. Without a spotter, in a frozen garage, I benched 315 for a double. All the other lifts went through the roof and I was as amazed then as I am now.

Fifty reps (at most) per workout, every day, for a month and a third.  Go as light as you need to and never grind a rep.  “How light is that?”  As light as you need to, never grind a rep.  “But how light is that?”  As light as… okay, I get it, I get it.  But surely there’s some progression, right?  Nah.  “As light as you need to” could be 315x3x3 on Monday and 45x5x2 on Tuesday because, ow, Monday.  After a month it might be 335x3x3 on Monday and 305x3x3 on Tuesday because Monday isn’t quite so crippling any more.

Now enter John Broz.  He’ll tell you that his lifters snatch, clean-and-jerk, and squat to a max single every day.  Then they do backoffs.  To most lifters that sounds like “OMG they work up to a personal record every day, they must be swimming in cortisol and oozing cytokines from every pore!”  Nobody said PR, guys, just “max single”.  The most you can lift that day, in good form.  Read what Broz has actually written about his training philosophy rather than what other people have assumed he’s describing and you’ll find that it includes a lot of give for how each lifter’s feeling able to perform that day, with an emphasis on total accumulated training effort rather than workout-by-workout performance.

Jim Wendler and Paul Carter and other smart strong people will tell you that accumulated effort is what matters, that hitting a big lift early in your cycle and bombing out is less productive than six weeks (or months!) of easy workouts, each incrementally harder than the last, until those increments finally catch up with you and you have to reset.  That’s the philosophy I’ve been trying to follow, despite my ego getting in the way, but that incremental progress and the “quit crying, man the fuck up and lift what’s on your programme” attitude that tends to go with it eventually gets to me at the wrong time of the software development cycle.  (I should note that neither Wendler nor Carter — particularly in their recent writing — advocates slavish devotion to the Almighty Spreadsheet.)

Back to those Bulgarians — they’ve won a lot of Olympic medals, they must know something.  Oh sure, “they were on ‘roids!”  So was everyone else, and they beat everyone else.  There’s no planned progression here, no “add five pounds when you get ten reps” or anything like that.  As you get stronger, your daily max goes up, and congratulations — you’re making progress.  Accumulate enough fatigue, and your daily max goes down until you (super)compensate.  (What the internet chest-beaters won’t tell you is that even the Olympic team scheduled deloads, which helps the latter.)

So how do you know — how can you regulate — a “daily max” without turning into a twitching ball of inflammation and failure?  You evaluate each rep as you go.  Was it slick and fast?  Add some weight to the bar.  Was it slow but smooth?  Add a bit less weight to the bar.  Was it a bit of a grind?  Stop and think.  Don’t get to the point of grinding out a hard rep, of having to psych yourself up before you get under the bar.  “Never miss a rep, in fact, never even get close to struggling.”

These ideas are common across Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline and Jim Wendler and Paul Carter and John Broz and Doug Hepburn and Mel Fuckin’ Siff.  There is steak here, not just sizzle.  I’m slowly starting to learn.

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