Straight from the desk #8
Written by: Joachim Bartoll
Classic Muscle Newsletter, May 2015 (issue #9)
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This is an excerpt featuring only four topics. Each issue normally features 6 to 8 topics.
Straight from the desk is an ongoing series where I put my thoughts, ideas or recent topics (discussed by clients or other coaches) into small and nuggets of useful information. Each issue usually contains 5 to 7 topics (comparable to two full-length articles), covering anything from health, fat loss to weight training and sports performance.
Simple ways to make the dip awesome
In Sweden we have a discipline called Athletic Fitness, dating back to 1994. You compete in a physique round followed by a strength round and finally an endurance round. In the strength round you have to do as many repetitions you can in the pull-up and the dip.
In the dip, you need to go deep as a f**king clown, with shoulders way below 90 degrees with your biceps touching you forearms. Now, in training, this is not a good idea since you greatly increase the risk of injury – even more so if you use a dip belt and attach weights.
To keep your shoulders healthy, stop at 90 degrees (your shoulders in line with your elbow). And if you do go below 90 degrees in a workout, don’t do overhead presses in the same workout unless your shoulders are truly exceptional and healthy. You’ve been warned.
Now, let’s look at some easy ways to make the dip awesome.
As you lower, keep the tension on the triceps by imagining that they’re being loaded like a spring. If you’re going for hypertrophy, stop short of lockout and keep the muscles working hard during the whole set. When tired, you can emphasize the lockout by squeezing your triceps hard at the top for a second or two.
Dips are also great for explosive concentrics and really slow eccentrics. Try to lower yourself for 8 to 10 seconds, preferably wearing some added weight. You can even skip the concentric by stepping in with your feet. Doing some eccentrics only, will build strength fast! However, don’t go overboard with eccentric-only work, it can cut deep into your recovery abilities.
Another great way to quickly build strength is isometric mid-rep pauses. Simply stop and hold yourself at various points along the eccentric range. Start with 5 to 10 seconds just below lockout, halfway down and at 90 degrees. Try to shoot for 30 seconds at each position. That’s 90 seconds for each set, and that’s plenty.
Morning coffee or morning tea?
I started drinking coffee pretty late, at the age of 25, when I worked as a project manager at AMS (National Labour Market Board) with a lot of consultants on my team who all drank coffee (everyone was a lot older than me). At that time, back in 1999, I experimented a lot with ketogenic diets and fasting (The Animal Diet, the predecessor to intermittent fasting). So, it didn’t take long until I started to put cream, protein powder and cocoa nibs in my coffee. And when almond milk and coconut milk became more readily available in Sweden, I used that too.
As of late, a lot of what we did back then have become the rage again. We have Bulletproof Coffee and here in Sweden, some people has coined the expression “Fitness Coffee”, which simply means coffee with protein powder and something else like coconut oil or almond milk.
All of these are a great rocket fuel for the brain. If you’re fasting, you do need to keep your calories below 100 or preferably around 50 at a time, or you’ll break your fast. So about 5 grams of coconut oil in your coffee is probably fine.
Another option to get you going that is becoming more popular (thanks to Tim Ferriss and his TV Show) is the morning tea cocktail. This one really packs a punch!
You use a base of green tea and fermented black tea (like pu-erh), which can keep you energized for 3 to 4 hours, as the slightly different pharmacokinetics has different biological half-lives (you get a time-released effect.) Then you add a little bit of coconut oil and butter from grass fed cows to some hot water, mix it up and then add in the brewed tea. It might look like horse piss, but it taste pretty solid and it will keep you going for hours!
If you wish, you can extend the energizing effect even further by adding in some Yerba Mate, which includes three xanthine alkaloids.
Periodization made easy
Periodization simply means that you divide the year into different phases. These phases are then planned in a way that you reach your peak performance at a specific time – such as the start of a season, a competition or a physical test.
In the majority of cases we talk about five levels of planning, although there can be a sixth one (the Olympic cycle). The levels are:
The Yearly Cycle
All levels of planning put together determines your yearly cycle.
This is the plan (training cycle) leading up to a competition or test. A macrocycle normally spans over 8 to 20 weeks with 12 weeks being the most common duration.
The yearly cycle usually consist of 2 or 3 macrocycles. For some elite athletes, a yearly cycle can consist of as much as 4 to 5 macrocycles.
A macrocycle is divided into several phases called mesocycles. A mesocycle can also be called a “training block”, as it is a block of training that is oriented toward developing and/or maximizing certain physical capacities while other are kept at a maintenance level.
Usually the mesocycle last between 2 to 6 weeks with 3 to 4 weeks being the most common duration. Since advanced athletes tend to adapt more quickly to a specific stimulus, a mesocycle is usually shorter (2-3 weeks) for elite athletes and longer for intermediate athletes and beginners (4-6 weeks).
A mesocycle consists of several microcycles. Each of these microcycles are normally referred to as a training week, as most coaches use programming that fits into a week (7 days). A microcycle can also last anywhere from 5 to 10 days.
So, if a mesocycle is 4 weeks long, it usually consists of 4 microcycles where each microcycle is one week in duration.
The Training Session
Your training session is the smallest unit you plan. As each microcycle is broken down to each individual day, your training session (or sessions) for each day is the final piece you plan. Each training session is structured to move you towards the goal of the training phase. The goal, or the content of your training, is usually decided at the mesocycle.
So why do we divide our training into so many different phases? No matter if you’re a bodybuilder, a football player or a runner, you can’t cover everything you need in every single training session.
If you’re a bodybuilder you need to gain muscle mass in the off season and you need to lose body fat before a contest. However, during the off season you might need to prioritize one or several body parts, you might need to get rid of injuries or correct muscle imbalances (who left unattended would lead to injuries). And if we look closer at the goal of building muscle mass we have to consider increasing our strength, improving our central nervous system, different ways to increase the training volume or other ways to force our bodies to adapt and become bigger – and of course, we need to plan for adequate recovery.
In other sports you might need to increase both strength and power, get better conditioning and improve several sport specific skills.
So when you start planning, you usually go from the most general goals to the most specific ones. For example, you need to build muscle and a good foundation before you start to prioritize your weak areas. This is also true for most other sports. Let’s look at an example for a power athlete:
We start with the macrocycle who normally has three mesocycles, these are:
Mesocycle 1: general physical preparation. You focus on the most general qualities. Usually this is referred to as building a good foundation. Focus is usually on increasing strength, building muscle mass, correct muscle imbalances, improving mobility and developing an endurance base.
Mesocycle 2: specific physical preparation. You focus on the most important physical qualities for your performance while the other are put on maintenance. Focus is usually on maximizing strength and/or muscle mass, improving power and, if needed, developing anaerobic capacity. Mobility is maintained. If needed, running is introduced.
Mesocycle 3: competitive preparation. You put it all together. This is where you transform the gains you’ve made and turn them into sport specific athletic performance. More time is spent on being a better athlete while less time is spent on developing physical qualities. Focus is usually on maximizing power, running speed and agility. If needed, continue to develop anaerobic power (short burst to simulate the action in for example ice hockey or American Football). Strength, muscle size and mobility is maintained.
Don’t waste energy when you “warm-up”
I know that I’ve been beating this old dead horse for more than 15 years now, but since I still see people doing a “warm-up” routine, it obviously needs repeating.
When you enter the gym, you want to activate and potentiate your central nervous system (CNS). An effective and activated CNS, simply means better muscle fiber recruitment, better coordination and more gains in both strength and muscle mass. You also want to reserve as much energy and muscle glycogen for your main workout as possible.
Doing some pedaling on a bike or walking on a treadmill will only waste energy and tell your CNS that you’re about to do some endurance exercise. That’s not what we want.
If you have nagging injuries or if your mobility sucks, you should start with some easy mobility work for 5 minutes. Other than that, you should get on your main exercise directly. No matter if it’s squats, deadlift, the bench press, the power clean or some barbell rows.
What you should do is a ramp. This means that you keep the reps low (to preserve energy), you start with a weight about equal to your 40 to 50% of your 1RM and then you increase the load for each set. You only rest as long as it takes to change the load and get into a proper lifting position.
A good rule of thumb is to keep the ramp within 5 to 8 sets. If you’re a beginner or intermediate, keep the reps at 5 at the start and lower them to 3 at the end as you approach your max weights. If you’re more advanced, start with about 3 reps per set and 2 reps towards the end of the ramp.
I prefer to do 2 reps instead of singles, simply because your second rep is always better due to getting more compact/tight and “settling into the load” from the weight and execution of the first rep.
Doing a ramp like this will potentiate your nervous system, getting you ready to push the really heavy weights. It will also warm you up like nothing else and get you into the grove, as you actually practice your main lift during the ramp.
This is how it could look like:
Set 1) 135 x 5
Set 2) 185 x 5
Set 3) 225 x 5
Set 4) 275 x 3
Set 5) 295 x 3
Set 6) 315 x 3
Set 7) 325 x 3 (first work-set)
The number of sets are dictated by your daily performance level. Some days you’ll need more sets to get ready, some days you’ll need less. And never do more than 5 reps – don’t waste your energy and don’t give your CNS the wrong signals. Also, try to be as explosive as possible on all lifts. Always strive to accelerate the load as much as you can during the lifting concentric phase.
This kind of ramping can also be used as a part of the planned workout. You work your way up to your daily 3RM or 2RM and then you do a couple of sets at that load or you move on to some intensification or hypertrophy-specific technique.
All of my training programs from the last 15 years have started with some kind of ramp. It’s simply the best way to start a workout.