A Daily Goal That Led To A Finding

At the start of February, I set a goal for myself to begin each of my workouts with at least a couple sets of dumbbell rows. I planned to do this for a month, and was hoping to strengthen my upper back to help boost my deadlift.

Also, I wasn’t planning on doing ordinary DB Rows - I was using a very heavy dumbbell (one that was so heavy that it required some body english to hoist around).

I started doing these rows at the beginning of each workout without much focus on the movement or much planning. Some days I would do sets of 5, some days sets of 8-10. Some days I would do a ton of sets of just one or two at a time. I didn’t really care about set and rep structure, I just wanted to pull some reps on a heavy weight.

For most of the month I was consistent and stayed true to my goal. Toward the end of the month though, I got lazy a couple of days and skipped the rows at the beginning of the day.

And on the days that I skipped my rows, I noticed a surprising correlation…my lifts were lousy on those same days and my workout in general was not good.

When I first devised the idea to start each session with heavy rows I figured that my performance would go down a little bit due to pre-exaustion from the rows. I never really noticed that to be true, but I certainly didn’t expect the rows to enhance my performance every session.

It wasn’t until I linked my bad workouts to the skipping of rows that I actually did believe they helped my lifts that same day.

Here is what I now believe…

Starting your lifting session with a few sets of heavy rows activates your upper back and helps familiarize a “set” shoulder position.

You need a strong upper back and “set shoulders” to support the weight you are trying to squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, etc.

Any compound movement you can train will heavily involve the upper back.

Starting your workout with heavy rows warms you up in a hurry.

If you are using heavy enough weight, your whole body will be stimulated making the exercise a potent energizer.

My theory is that the weight you are rowing should be very heavy - nothing you can do in strict fashion - and done at relatively low volumes (I would say 25 or less total repetitions each side).

If you’re rowing a weight that doesn’t require use of straps, the weight isn’t heavy enough.

I do predict that if you performed rows at higher volumes to begin each workout, say 30-60+ reps per side, that a pre-exhaustive effect would set in and your performance would in fact suffer for that session.

That’s just a guess though. Maybe I’ll try that in the future.

As for now I’m going to keep doing my heavy rows at the beginning of each day. I like how they make me feel and I like what they do for my lifts.

Try them for yourself and let me know what you think…

Strength Wins Again

Last night I had a conversation with someone who had been experiencing chronic low-back pain for years. After several injections to help relieve the pain, she was told that her only option moving forward would be to undergo several procedures involving nerve manipulation, if she wanted to resolve the issue.

Needless to say, she did not like the sound of having to resort to this course of action.

Instead of doing more of what she was already doing, she identified some lifestyle changes that could be made and started heading in a different direction.

She started eating better and she started doing some true strength training.

She didn’t start doing 5lb. dumbbell curls while standing on a BOSU ball.

She didn’t start doing karate kick burpees.

She didn’t start doing twirly-do-dah twisty planks.

She started training movements that build total body strength.

If you have ever experienced low-back pain, you may gasp when you read that she started doing deadlifts.

She started to squat.

She was bench pressing and pressing overhead.

She spent time building a stronger upper back and midsection.

She didn’t do what many do - avoid things that involved her lower back altogether.

She actually did quite the opposite. She directly attacked her lower back with movement, working to strengthen and mobilize local tissues.

She familiarized proper positions.

She spent more time on her feet, and less time sitting.

She pushed for heavier and heavier weights.

She pushed for more and more repetitions.

Over the course of the several months she has given a strength training program an honest chance to do its work, she has noticed vast improvements taking place.

During our discussion last night, she reported to me that she no longer expects to need to go under the knife, and hopefully will never have to get an injection again.

Now that is a real, meaningful result!

I have written about how important it is to build, and then to retain your strength.

When you get stronger, any goals you are after become more reachable. Strength should always be the foundation.

I am very proud of this person. She has worked so hard and has had 100% trust in the powerful process of getting stronger the whole way. It’s amazing what a strong body will do for you!

I'll Be There

A couple of weeks back, a local HS football player contacted me for help with getting on an eating regimen. After a few days of corresponding back and forth via email, I got to work on designing his meals and eating schedule. After finalizing it, I sent it over to him and also invited him to lift alongside me sometime if he was ever interested.

He did express interest, so we began to coordinate our schedules.

This was on Tuesday.

He told me that on Wednesdays, he is done with school around 2pm. I told him I would be lifting tomorrow from around 2:30-4:30pm and that he was welcome to join me.

To paraphrase his response, he said “I’ll be there.”

I was impressed.

He didn’t ask me what we would be doing. He didn’t remind me that he already does offseason lifting on M-W-F mornings. He didn’t tell me that he needed to check on a few things to make sure he could make that work. He didn’t tell me he’d think about it.

He accepted my invitation without making any stipulations.

Then it became Wednesday afternoon.

Even though he seemed serious the night before, I know from too many experiences that a person saying they’re going do something is not the same as a person actually doing what they say. I was optimistic that he would be joining me but I wasn’t going to count on it, so I carried out my day like I normally would as I kept an eye out for him.

At about 2:45pm, the door to the gym opened and in he walks.

I greeted him and we chatted for a couple minutes before getting to work.

He was a strong kid, and a respectful one, too. He did everything I asked of him without having any reservations about anything we did.

^This is the attitude we must have when working with a professional.

Forget what you think you know. Forget what you have heard. Forget what you did this morning, or what you’ll be doing tomorrow. Use the opportunity to fully trust and learn from the person you have sought out.

Before he left, I told him he could continue to lift with me for a while.

We’ll see if he shows up again.

My guess is that he will.

User Error

I don’t believe a single bad exercise exists.

I don’t believe there is a single bad form of exercise either.

But you can make an exercise bad.

You can make a form of exercise bad.

It is how you do things that is most important.

It is the quality of your movement that is important.

If you have done thousands of push-ups using poor form, it will be difficult for you to ever learn to do them correctly.

It is also likely that your shoulders will be banged up.

What is really bad, is that if you have racked up thousands of reps, you probably think you are doing them correctly.

And when the aches and dysfunctions begin to set in is when you start to place blame on the exercise.

In reality, you deserve the blame.

It is never the tool’s fault, it’s the user’s.

Take time to truly understand every aspect of the movements and lifts you are performing.

Don’t develop, and especially don’t drill bad habits!

Working Out Is Boring

Working out is boring…if you’re doing it wrong.

If every time you lift, you lift the same amount of weight, for the same number of repetitions, you’re going to get bored.

If every time you run, you set the treadmill to the same speed, and run for the same duration, you’re going to get bored.

And it isn’t the doing of the same things over and over that makes working out boring.

Doing the same form of exercise over and over can be (and should be) exhilarating…if you’re doing it right.

Adding pounds to your lifts is exciting. Doing more repetitions than you could do a couple of weeks ago is exciting. Being able to run faster is exciting. Being able to run further distances is exciting.

It is progression, or lack-thereof, that determines whether working out is mundane or engaging.

A person does not exist who wouldn’t take interest in improving their physical capabilities.

We all could appreciate our body experiencing performance enhancements, but many of us don’t give these enhancements a chance to take place.

Don’t become complacent during your workouts.

It doesn’t mean that you need to make massive advances every single session.

Add weight to one set of one exercise. Do an extra set of one exercise. Rack the bar, wait 10 seconds, then do a couple more reps for one set of one exercise.

^^^Do one, or some of these for a couple of sets of one exercise…or for several sets…or do them for just one set of every exercise for the day…or do them for multiple sets of every exercise.

There are endless ways to continue to make progress.

Be sure you are making it in some way, otherwise you are sure to lose interest.

Training Yourself

At one point, you were taught how to do every single thing you know how to do.

Once you were taught something, you had to train yourself to become better at it.

You trained yourself to brush your teeth.

You trained yourself to tie your shoes.

You know that you must train to get stronger. To build muscle. To lose body fat.

To be able to lift 100 pounds, you have to train yourself to do it.

At first, it might be challenging to lift 50 pounds. But you know you’ll never get to 100 if you don’t keep training.

So you keep training, and eventually you are able to lift 100 pounds.

Whatever it is that you start but always have trouble sticking to, happens because you are not approaching it as training.

On day one, two, and three of your diet you may have no trouble staying on track. But at the end of week one, and into week two is when things begin getting difficult.

You think to yourself that this just “sucks,” but it is really that you are right in the heat of training.

This is how it should feel. And it should feel like this for a while. For a lot longer than you think it should.

You have to train yourself to be disciplined.

You have to train yourself to eat right.

You have to train yourself to drink more water.

You have to train yourself to get enough sleep.

It will never be easy to lift heavier and heavier weight.

It will never be easy to run faster or to jump higher.

Don’t expect being able to eat the right things or being able to avoid eating the wrong things to be easy.

That is training.

More On Maxing-Out

Yesterday I wrote a post about working up to your 1-rep max. I had some more thoughts and suggestions to add to the procedure, so I recorded a podcast on the subject.

Look for Eat-Nap-Lift on all major podcasting platforms. Subscribe on your favorite podcast app so you never miss an episode!

Listen to “Thoughts on Maxing-Out”

Listen to “Thoughts on Maxing-Out”

Testing Your 1-Rep Max

When it comes to weight training, nothing is more exhilarating than maxing out.

And although the basis of maxing out is simple, there is more to it than just loading up with a bunch of weight and going at it. There is some strategy that should go into a max-out session.

The purpose of testing your 1-rep max (1RM) is to determine the maximum amount of weight that you can lift for one repetition of a given exercise.

Below is the typical protocol I like to follow for working up to a 1RM…

  1. Ideally, you should begin with a 5-10 minute light-paced general warm-up.

    Then you should start to drill the lift you are testing, beginning at a light intensity, and gradually ramping up to a higher intensity.

  2. Start with 1-3 sets of 5 (using a weight you could actually do 20+ times).

    The purpose of these sets is only to groove the movement and to get some blood flowing through the system. You don’t want to be expending much energy on any of these sets.

  3. Then move on to 1-3 sets of 3 (using a weight you could actually do 10-15 times).

    You should start to feel the weight, just a little bit, on these sets. At no point should you have to grind out reps. Each 3 reps of every set should feel crisp and relatively easy.

  4. Finally, start taking singles the rest of the way up.

    Your first couple of single attempts should still feel pretty smooth. If I must choose a number, you should actually be able to do 5(ish) reps with your first single. If you’re barely making your first attempt(s), you have over-estimated an appropriate first attempt, or you have wasted too much energy on your work-up sets (or even a combination of both).

  5. Once you start taking singles, it is pretty straightforward from there. If you successfully lift the weight, add weight, repeat, and continue to do this until you cannot add any more weight. Whatever the heaviest weight you have lifted one time is, is your 1-rep max.

This is only general layout for how to go about maxing out. I have more detailed suggestions that I would share if anyone is interested. Let me know in the comments!

You Won't Get Big On Accident

In my experience as a personal trainer, it has always been difficult to convince some people to train with weights.

Many people have come to me over the years believing that lifting weights is dangerous and that it is sure to make them look like The Incredible Hulk within 2-weeks time.

Actually, it’s far more dangerous to go through life not lifting weights than it is to lift weights.

And it is extraordinarily difficult to look anything like The Incredible Hulk.

The fact is that most people that ARE TRYING to get big, can’t even get big.

It’s very audacious of anyone to think that they might start to look “too bulky” by accident.

***It takes years and years of frequent, consistent, and sufficiently intense weight training to build muscle***

The majority of people who are concerned with getting too bulky will never train for enough years, will never train frequently or consistently enough, and because of their misinformed belief that they’ll probably get too big from this stuff, will never train at high enough intensities to risk getting anywhere near the dysmorphic size they fear they’ll become. So there’s one more reason not to worry.

I don’t encourage weight training to firmly impose my training style and goals onto others. It really doesn’t matter what your goal is. I already know you should train with weights.

Properly utilizing the weights will support any training goal.

If you want to slim down, you should lift weights.

The weights won’t make you bigger, it’s other things you’re doing that may.

By the way, not all exercise that includes weights is “weight training”. If you’re using a weight for a set of 8 that you could really do 15 times, you aren’t lifting weights, you are quite literally wasting your time (go back and find the ***).

More Frequency

I think one of the best ways to force an adaptation in the body is to use higher frequency. 

Want to get better at running long distances? Run a mile every day.

Want to get your legs stronger? Squat every day.

Want your chest to get bigger? Do push-ups every day.

The only way your body will change (whether it be performance-based or aesthetic-based) is to do enough work to elicit the necessary training response. You might as well be accumulating work as often as you can.

If the typical recommendation to never train a muscle two days in a row comes to mind, know that your body is highly resilient. It will figure out how to function under whatever environment you put it into.

More isn't always better, but sometimes more is better! 

Who You Lift With Matters

Yesterday during my workout I just didn't have it. I wasn't focused and felt myself getting distracted by other things. It led to it being a sub-par session.

A couple of hours later during my group class, I began working in amongst the class and quickly started to feel in the zone. It ended up being a great workout!

The only thing different from two hours earlier was the people I was with.

It reminded me how important your training environment is.

It is difficult to motivate yourself day after day when you are the only one who is there to push. 

When you are surrounded by people who are there with you to get after it you feed off of each other.

Thank you to everyone who let me lift with them last night - I needed it!

Don't Rely on Mirrors

There are certainly times when it's acceptable to use a mirror while you work out, but for the most part, I recommend not relying on a mirror during training. 

Without the visual feedback a mirror provides, you are forced to develop better kinesthetic awareness. Kinesthetic awareness is your ability to detect changes in your body's position without relying on your senses. 

I believe that having at least decent kinesthetic awareness is something every person should strive to develop. 

Having an understanding of how your body should be arranged, how it should move, and how it should interact with other objects in space is something that has carryover to training as well as everyday life.

When it comes to training, the better your kinesthetic sense, the stronger your mind to muscle connection will be, and you will be less likely to sustain an injury.

As extreme as this may sound, a person who has great spatial awareness, is less clumsy, practices sound body positions, and utilizes safe movements is better equipped for long-term survival. 

Again, I am not saying that you should never use a mirror while you are working out.

I am only saying that you should train yourself to not depend on one every time you step into the gym.

Pull Up Tip: Pull The Bar Down

A pull up is an exercise that many people strive to be able to do. 

Make the task of pulling yourself up seem less daunting by thinking about pulling the bar down, rather than pulling your body up.

Much like this bench press tip, doing this gives you a psychological edge and can help you recruit the lats and other target muscles more effectively.

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Heavy Weight and Dangerous Exercises

Many people are reluctant to lift heavy weights or to do certain exercises because they think they will get injured. 

Considering a weight to be "too heavy" or fearing it will hurt you is the wrong approach.

Avoiding a certain exercise because you think it is dangerous is the wrong approach.

A weight is too heavy only if you are not prepared to lift it and an exercise is only dangerous if you are willing to perform it incorrectly. 

Weight training is simple, really. All you are doing is training your body to move against a load. The load you are trying to move constantly resists your efforts to move it. If you are strong enough to apply more force to the object than it exerts upon you, then you will move it. Overcoming the load is what builds strength, coordination, better-looking muscles, stronger bones, and much more.

As simple as weight training is, it is not, and should not be easy. If you are training with a weight that is easy to move, you really are wasting your time. The weight should be fighting against you. If it feels like you are just taking the weight along for a ride, you need to use a heavier weight.

You should at times feel like the weight is barely moving.

You should at times feel like you are beginning to break form.

When these things happen is about the time many people think they're on the verge of getting hurt. In actuality, this indicates they are beginning to work with sufficient weight. This is the kind of weight required to elicit the positive adaptations associated with weight training.

In order to lift weights safely, your body must get into and hold the correct positions, brace, and engage different muscles at certain times. Do these things effectively and there should be no limit to the amount of weight you can lift or the types of funky looking exercises you can do. Fail to do these things and yes, you will likely get hurt. 

Lifting 200 pounds isn't going to hurt you. Your unpreparedness to lift 200 pounds is what is going to hurt you. 

 

Complex Thursday

On Thursdays at Drew Murphy Strength, the theme of our 5:45 pm group workout is COMPLEXES. We call it Complex Thursday, and these workouts are a lot of fun.

In fitness terms, a complex is when you perform multiple exercises, one immediately following another, without setting down the implement you are using. Complexes can be done using many forms of equipment, but we tend to use barbells for most of the complexes we do. Strength and muscle can be built through the use of complexes, but I find them to be the most useful for conditioning and for refining technique. 

Here is a sample complex that uses dumbbells as the implement:

8 DB Curl

8 DB OH Press

8 DB Front Squat

8 DB Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

With variables such as exercise selection, exercise order, and repetitions for each exercise, the number of complexes one could design would be infinite.

I typically like to design complexes in a way that the exercises flow nicely together. Using the same exercises from the example above, here is an example of a complex that I wouldn't consider to have great flow:

8 DB OH Press

8 DB RDL

8 DB Front Squat

8 DB Curl

Here, you would start with the weights at shoulder height. After doing the presses, you would drop them down to do RDLs. After those, you would need to bring them back up to do front squats and eventually finish the complex with curls. Unless you intentionally wanted the added challenge and awkwardness of bringing the dumbbells up to and down from shoulder height, this would be a poorly designed complex when compared to my original example.

In the original example, the dumbbells are already at shoulder height after completing the last curl, making it nice to go into overhead pressing. After your last overhead press, you are able to keep the dumbbells at shoulder height to complete your front squats. You finish the complex with RDLs, which require you to drop the dumbbells back down to a hang. Bringing the weights down at this point is not a big deal because you will need to do so anyway to set them all the way down and step away from the set.

Another thing I keep in mind when designing a complex is to try to keep the stronger movements toward the end. This is because you can afford to perform a stronger movement under more fatigue.

Looking again at the "poorly designed" complex, doing curls at the end of the complex doesn't make sense because that is actually the weakest of the 4 exercises in the complex. By the time you got to the curls, there is a chance you would be too exhausted to finish the complex.

Back to the first complex, we begin with curls and gradually work through stronger movements. As you become more and more fatigued throughout the complex, you perform an exercise that requires less effort the deeper into the complex you go. For this reason, complexes should feel challenging but do-able.

Lastly, I find that complexes encourage optimal technique, as that is what is required in order to complete some movements while fatigued. Sound technique will carry you through a complex, whereas poor technique will cause you to hit failure during a complex.

If this method of training intrigues you, stop by on a Complex Thursday and give it a try. Also, make sure to wear black!

Chase Strength, Good Things Will Follow

I am biased toward gaining strength. 

It's why I chose to name my business Drew Murphy Strength

Even though I prioritize building strength over everything else, I acknowledge that many others don't value strength as much as I do. In fact, I would say that for the majority of people who work out, the appeal of looking better outweighs the appeal of getting stronger. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Don’t get me wrong - I want to look good too. And the great news is that increasing strength will take care of that for us. Actually, building strength will improve just about everything in your life. The problem I see with just chasing aesthetics is that it does not necessarily improve other health markers.

Here is a sample roadmap of positive adaptations that can occur through strength prioritization...

You lift heavy weights. 

You lift heavy weights consistently. 

You begin to get stronger. 

You can now begin to do more things. 

You can work out harder. 

You can lift heavier and heavier weight. 

You begin to expend more energy as a result of working out harder and lifting heavier weights.

More energy expended equals an elevated base metabolic rate.

You begin to lose body fat as a result of your elevated metabolism.

As you lose body fat, your health improves.

You become better equipped to take on everyday tasks.

As a bonus, you begin to look better.

If you ask me, simply putting your head down to focus on getting your entire body stronger is the best way to achieve whatever fitness goal you desire. Strength brings everything along with it. 

Just being fixated on aesthetics does not guarantee the same improvements that getting stronger does.

There are plenty of ways to improve aesthetics at the expense of losing strength.

Provided you follow a healthy diet and sleep regimen, it will be difficult to not look better as you get stronger. 

Bench Press Tip: Push Away From The Weight

Today is Monday, so if you lift weights you probably bench pressed today. If you don't already use this cue, remember it for next time you are under the bar: concentrate on pushing your body away from the weight, rather than pushing the weight away from your body. Doing this gives you a slight psychological edge and more importantly, encourages you to tighten and dig your upper back into the bench. 

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Warming Up, Stretching, and Mobility

How much time do you spend warming up for your workout? How much time do you spend on stretching and mobility? Personally, I bet I spend 5 minutes or less on this kind of stuff most days.

Who really wants to spend a significant amount of their workout time preparing to work out?

I say just get on with it.

Of course, there are times when it is appropriate to prepare to work out by spending more time on warming up, stretching and mobility. But if on most days you need 10 minutes to do a general warm up and follow that up with another 10 minutes of soft tissue work or mobility work, I think you are probably wasting your time. Actually, I tend to believe that if you cannot have yourself ready to go in around 5 minutes, you may want to evaluate some things in your life, one of them being your training program.

This isn't to say that I am recommending that you jump into your workout completely cold either. For me, the absolute best way to warm up and prepare my body for a lifting session is to simply start doing the main movement of the session right away.

As an example, this is a typical protocol* I would follow for a squat-heavy workout...

  1. (A couple sets of) sitting in a very deep squat for 30-ish seconds, leaning and bouncing around to produce more stretch in different areas.
  2. (A couple sets of) 5-10 bodyweight squats
  3. (A set of)  sitting in a very deep squat for 30-ish seconds, leaning and bouncing around, this time with an empty bar.
  4. (A set or two of) 5-10 squats with the empty bar.

*I would likely do some ab work or different light intensity exercises amongst all of this. 

Then I would begin to work up to the weight I plan to use for my first working set. Do a set, add some weight, do a set, and continue this until I reach the weight for working set #1. "Working up" is something you should always do anyway. It allows you to practice and groove into the movement you are training while using very sub-maximal loads. By the time you get up to your working weight, you will be plenty warmed up and acclimated to safely handle heavier loads.

My overall recommendation is to get on with doing the movement(s) that are on the menu for the session right off the bat. Don't waste so much time doing pointless things you read you should be doing in a magazine.