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8 More Practical Tips for Training and Recovery

by Ben Bruno – 2/18/2013 
My 6 Most Important Training Discoveries

Last August, on my 27th birthday, I made the goal to share 27 useful training tips by this August you know, the practical stuff that you can start implementing on your own immediately.

Here are eight more for you. I cover a wide range of topics so you should definitely be able to find at least a few that apply.


1. Calf Training Sans Machines

My 6 Most Important Training Discoveries

I don't do any direct calf work.

If you've ever met me, this probably doesn't come as a huge surprise because, well, my calves reflect the neglect – meaning they aren't very impressive.

They get enough indirect work from things like sled work and glute-ham raises so that they aren't completely nonexistent, but they're not great.

It's not that I'm against training the calves, it's just not a big priority. If you're after big calves, though, I absolutely think you should be doing calf raises of some kind. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either genetically blessed in the calf department (I'm jealous) or like me, has some pretty puny calves themselves.

I'm usually a fan of using free weights over machines, but calves are an exception. Machines are simpler and work better.

But what if you work out in a home gym or in a bare-bones "hardcore" gym that doesn't have any machines? Then it gets tricky.

One of my online training clients recently ran into this dilemma, so I started thinking of some good workarounds for him.

The usual staples in this situation are bodyweight single-leg calf raises or standing barbell calf raises. While these are both better than nothing, I'm not a big fan of either.

I like single-leg calf raises done with just bodyweight, but they're simply too easy for most dudes. You can hold a heavy dumbbell in one arm, but even then you're really going to be really limited as far as loading potential is concerned.

Barbell calf raises offer much great loading potential, but when you do them freestanding, balance becomes the limiting factor.

To circumvent that issue and take the balancing aspect out of the equation, try doing them with the barbell pinned flush against the rack so you're scraping the rack on the way up and down, similar to a Smith machine.

For this to work, you need to hold the bar in a front squat position so you can lean into the rack slightly to keep the bar on the correct path.

To increase the range of motion in the stretched position at the bottom of the rep (which is important for growth, by the way), stand with your toes on a weight plate or small aerobic step and your heels dangling freely in the air.

You can do them single-leg or double-leg, but I much prefer single leg because a) it just feels better to me and b) the non-working leg can serve as a "spotter" in case you lose your balance.

If that description left you confused, here's what it looks like in action:

Balance shouldn't be an issue since you're using the rack for support, but if you do start to feel shaky just tap the free leg down to rebalance yourself. You can also use the free leg for a little added boost at the end of the set to help squeeze out a few more self-assisted "forced" reps.

This is harder than it looks, and when you take into account the friction of the bar against the rack, you probably won't need a lot of weight to really feel it.

To hit the calves in a slightly different way, you can also set up more like a rack pull with a big forward lean, which turns the exercise into something like a donkey calf raise.

These feel quite a bit different from the front squat version, so switch it up and try it both ways.

If you find yourself looking to bring up your calves but train in a machine-free gym, these may be just what the doctor ordered. I should really start doing more of them myself.


2. Training "Free Days"

My 6 Most Important Training Discoveries

The topic of "cheat days" or "free days" is big in the nutrition world, and people swear by them for both psychological and physiological reasons.

I prefer to be a little more fluid with my eating. I eat well the vast majority of the time and only keep good food on hand, but when I go out with friends I'll let loose a bit (sometimes more than a bit), regardless of what day it is. It's a similar concept I guess, just less rigid.

I do love to employ a "free day" in my training program though, which functions essentially the same as a dietary cheat day. On the last day of the training week I go in and do whatever the hell I feel like doing at that particular moment. Just about anything is fair game, so long as it's not (too) reckless and it doesn't interfere with subsequent training sessions.

My rationale for the free day is mostly psychological. I think that to make progress in the gym it's important to stick to a logical plan, but once you've been training hard for a while you can start to get bored or stale, especially when you aren't competing in anything or training for something in specific and instead are mostly training just for the love of it.

Maybe you do your regularly scheduled workouts Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and follow it up with a free day on the weekend, or maybe you lift Monday-Friday with Friday being the free day. The setup isn't too important, just make sure it's the last training day of the week.

To liken it to food, the idea is that you're making sure to eat all your healthy food first and then following it up with dessert, so to speak.

Examples of "free day" workouts might include:

  • Strongman-style training
  • Complexes or circuits
  • "Vanity Day" (arms, traps, abs, calves, etc.)
  • Work on a weak lift or weak body part
  • Catch up a workout you missed during the week
  • Jump in with some friends and do whatever they're doing
  • Skip the gym entirely and rest (I do this about 30% of the time)

If you're training for a specific goal or competition, then free days may not fit into the equation, but if you train with more general goals in mind, it can be a great approach.


3. Recovery and "Overtraining"

My 6 Most Important Training Discoveries

The people that worry the most about recovery and overtraining are the ones that don't train hard enough and aren't strong enough to need to worry about it – while the stronger dudes that train like maniacs on a regular basis don't give recovery the respect it warrants and often push themselves beyond their limits.

That's why I don't like to write about overtraining very often, because the wrong people pay attention. Weak and lazy people use overtraining as an excuse to feel okay about their indolence while the people that should pay heed are too busy kicking the shit out of themselves to care.

When I first started training I was so anxious to get stronger that I trained almost every day with marathon workouts that would scream "overtraining" on paper. You know what happened?

Absolutely nothing.

I actually got stronger and it taught me the true meaning of hard work. I wasn't strong enough and hadn't learned how to push myself hard enough to overtrain.

Now that same program would absolutely bury me. On paper my workouts today don't hold a candle to what I used to do, but they still kick my ass even more because the weights I'm using are so much heavier and I've learned how to push myself much harder.

Conventional wisdom would say that the more advanced you get, the more workload you can handle, but that's only true to a point. The stronger you get, the more emphasis you must also place on recovery.

I think most people need to worry about undertraining much more than overtraining, but we here at T Nation are part of the few who perpetually ride that fine line between training hard and overdoing it, hence the added importance on recovery methods to ensure we aren't sabotaging ourselves.


4. Z-12™

My 6 Most Important Training Discoveries

I've been using Z-12™ since the start of December, and after trying it out I must say that I'm surprised it's not talked about more on this site – it's some really good stuff!

Like many of you, I've struggled off and on with sleep and have tried all sorts of different sleep aids, and Z-12 is by far the best of the bunch.

My problem isn't falling asleep so much as staying asleep. I tend to go to bed around 11 P.M.-midnight and have to be up by about 5:30 A.M. – which doesn't leave too much time to begin with – so it's important that I maximize that downtime to the fullest.

For some annoying reason though, I also seem to wake up for no apparent reason and then my mind starts racing about everything I have to do. The next thing I know, it's time to get going, leaving me running on fumes. Sound familiar?

Since taking Z-12 though, I sleep much more soundly through the night and wake up feeling refreshed, which makes for a much nicer day.

It's funny, you often hear people talk about how supplements are not meant to make up for a crappy diet, and I totally agree. But I think the same thing goes for crappy sleep. Along with good quality food, good quality sleep may be the best supplement going.


5. Hand Care for Meatheads

My 6 Most Important Training Discoveries

Hand care is quite possibly the least sexy topic I've ever broached, but if you lift heavy weights regularly, it's damn important.

Before you click off the screen and try to revoke my man card, rest assured that I'm not talking about getting your nails done or anything like that. The only manicures I get come from my own teeth.

This is just about keeping your calluses in check so you can continue to train hard, because if you've ever ripped one then you know how badly it sucks and how much it can put a damper on your lifting.

To keep that from happening, get one of those gizmos that resembles a cheese grater for your hands.

Once a week or so, soak your hands in warm water and gently scrape the calluses with the grater to remove most of the dead skin. The whole process will only take about three minutes, but it will end up saving you lots of pain and bad training sessions over the long haul.

Disclaimer: You don't want to remove the calluses entirely as small calluses will actually help protect your hands and serve as a badge of honor for your hard work in the gym, but you do want to keep them filed down enough that they don't tear and your hands aren't so nasty that on one will let you touch them.


6. Bring the "Warming Up" Part Back to the Warm-up

My 6 Most Important Training Discoveries

More and more attention is being given to the warm-up, and rightfully so. A good warm-up is extremely important for both long and short-term joint health and helps set the tone for a good workout.

But I think we tend to think about the warm-up too much in terms of elaborate mobility and activation drills that we sometimes lose sight of the whole "warming up" part of the warm-up. This is especially important during the winter months for those of us that live in colder climates because all the latest and greatest mobility drills are useless if you're cold.

Walk into most gyms and you'll see a room of half-naked people. While I certainly appreciate the eye candy as much as the next guy, I don't think exposing all that flesh to the cold air is the best way to warm up. During the workout is a different story, but during the warm-up, wearing layers can make a huge difference and really expedite the whole warm-up process and allow you to get more out of the mobility work.

Back in college when I had to walk to the gym, I'd do my warm-up in a T-shirt, a long sleeve shirt, a sweatshirt, a winter jacket, sweatpants, and neoprene knee sleeves. Then during my first exercise I'd do a warm-up set, strip a layer, do another warm-set, strip a layer, so by the time I got to the work sets I was feeling great and ready to rock and roll.

I've since ditched the winter coat, but I'm still big on layering up. It may not be the most fashionable thing to do, but the gym isn't the place to worry about fashion anyway.

Along those lines, don't be afraid to start the workout with a few minutes on the bike, elliptical, or something else to get your heart rate up a bit and get a little sweat going. Some will scoff at this and see it as "old school," but in conjunction with other warm-up drills, it can be an important piece of the puzzle, especially if you train early in the morning as a way to get moving a bit before hitting the weights.


7. "Top Down" Pressing

My 6 Most Important Training Discoveries

I've started to notice that some of my clients experience mild shoulder pain on the first rep of the set on dumbbell presses, kettlebell presses, and landmine presses that goes away on subsequent reps.

At first this had me perplexed because these exercises are all supposedly "shoulder-friendly," but looking at it more closely, these pressing variations all start from the bottom position, which can be tough on the joints.

It's the same reason dead-stop deadlifts can be harder on the lower back than touch-and-go deadlifts, and step-ups are harder on the knees than step-downs.

For these clients that have problems starting in the bottom position, I've had them switch to mostly unilateral pressing variations and instructed them to start the set by using both arms to press the weight up to the top position, and then use one arm to lower the weight, thus starting the set with the eccentric.

That seemingly trivial tweak has made a huge difference; so if you find yourself in that same boat with your pressing, give it a try.


8. Drink the Rainbow

My 6 Most Important Training Discoveries

As someone who can't stand cooking and spends most of my day walking the gym floor, I go through protein powder faster than the Kardashian sisters go through spouses.

Shakes are a convenient way to meet your protein requirements and Metabolic Drive® Low Carb is the best tasting stuff I've ever used by a mile, but eventually chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry starts to get old.

If you feel similarly, try mixing and matching the flavors to spice things up a bit. I'm loving a scoop a chocolate with a scoop of vanilla, and while I don't really like strawberry on its own, I really like it mixed in with chocolate or vanilla.

If you really want to get frisky, you can even mix all three together and make a Neapolitan shake – though admittedly I haven't gotten that adventurous yet.

Sometimes it's the little things that go a long way.

Hopefully some of these little things strike a chord with you and you can start putting them to use. In the meantime, I'm off to the laboratory (the gym) to see if I can come up with a few more useful tips to improve your training in time for my 28th birthday.


6 Weeks of Squatting Insanity

by Mathew Bertrand – 2/21/2013 
6 Weeks of Squatting Insanity

Editor's note: This program sounds nuts. The end results are a little hard to believe. The trouble is, we kinda' like nuts and hard to believe has always been appealing to us. While we make no promises that this program will work, as always, we leave it for you to decide.

There's a lot of misinformed squat advice on-line, and unfortunately, I've read most of it. Thanks to relying heavily on the Internet for explanations on how to lift, I spent two years squatting with horrible form (and it took me just as long to un-learn my bad form).

I don't want anyone else to have to go through that – and if you follow the advice in this article, you won't have to.

I have one goal with the squat and it's 600 pounds, raw. It torments me every day, and keeps me awake at night. I'll never be able to tell myself I'm strong until I do it.

In pursuit of 600 I've been injured repeatedly, needed people to help me stand for months, and laid in hospital beds with my crying mother sitting next to me.

I've felt guilty at times, but not once did quitting ever enter my mind. I'm not bragging, because it became an unhealthy obsession.

I've been ready to lie, cheat, and steal to get there; and cheat I did, which ultimately set me back. I've used every trick I could think of. I tried to widen my stance to decrease ROM and it ruined my otherwise okay form.

I tried ammonia, and would get wildly fired up for big sets hoping it would help. I used to smash my head against the bar until I bled. I went through four different shoes of varying heel heights, knee sleeves, Reh-band shorts, the list goes on and on.

Finally, I opened myself to good advice and received just that from a close friend and amazing lifter, Willie Albert. Willie is the 2010 WPC Raw World Champion with a 252.5 kg squat, a 170 kg bench, and a 325 kg deadlift, all done at 82.5 kg and with beautiful, textbook form.

YouTube Video

Willie Albert "missing" a 727-pound deadlift, at a bodyweight of 181 pounds.

But Willie's advice was anything but easy. He had me squat every day for 6 weeks, doing 10 singles with 405 one week, and maxing out the next week.

The idea was to let the squat build my flexibility and relearn how to squat, but the kicker was that I wasn't allowed to stretch or foam roll.

These 6 weeks were by far the most painful experience of my life. I'll get into my injuries later – there were a lot of them – but could I ever squat! I stopped having to think about it, and just did it. I was so tight I could get out of the hole with any weight.

Furthermore, something crazy happened after this, something wonderful. Once I took some time off and let my muscles relax, I'd completely changed my posture for the better, my pelvic tilt was gone, and my shoulders were rolled back. I couldn't believe it.


6 Weeks of Hell

6 Weeks of Squatting Insanity

First, use this knowledge at your discretion. In a "real-world" application, this may not be suitable for people that have a problem with pain or fear of injury. However, if you want to learn how to squat in record time and completely transform your posture, this is for you.

The thing is, it's going to hurt. Badly. Just remember that the pain is protection and if you can handle it and master it, your old nagging injuries that were so important simply won't matter anymore.

The plan is fairly simple: squat every day (except Sunday), which involves either working up to a certain weight for multiple singles or a flat-out max.

Since it's still a powerlifting program there will also be other exercises to do – I didn't do them as I was way too trashed – though I think it would've worked even better if I had.

Just remember, you're not allowed to stretch or do any sort of warm-up besides squatting with the bar on your back. And when you do this, day after day, without so much as a hip flexor stretch or a roll on the foam roller, you get seriously tight.

In my case, my psoas were so tight that having them released after this program made me throw up. My hips were like boards. My entire upper back was sore in a way I'd never felt before – tight, achy, and burning. By the end I had a permanent bar indent.

My entire left leg went into a spasm and I could hardly straighten it, so I limped when I walked. Both knees were sore to the touch; heck if you blew on them I'd flinch. Even sleeping was a nightmare – I couldn't put my arms in any position that was comfortable.

Looking back, I have no idea why I stuck with the program.


The Daily Grind

6 Weeks of Squatting Insanity

Every day I headed to the gym, limped up the stairs and then over to the rack. I wouldn't even do the bar – I'd go right to 135 pounds and hope it could push me down far enough to get depth.

Every set it would feel as if my left leg was going to give out but sure enough, by around 365-405 pounds, I'd start getting depth easier. My leg never stopped hurting, but I just kept going.

It's scary squatting when you're used to considering yourself injured. Once I even broke down and asked Willie if I could take the night off. I read off my list of injuries, and each one he just checked off and told me to go squat.

He was right. I understand now that although unpleasant, this is just your body's way of keeping you safe. Every time I took a rep, my body compensated by staying tight in all my screwed-up areas, and it held my form like a suit. My quads were so tight that I could get out of the hole with anything.

Of course, I still had to work and pay the bills. At the time I was doing physical labor, so I wound up taking naps on customers' couches when they weren't home. Looking up a flight of stairs would give me anxiety attacks and going down was much worse, and even having to stand up required serious motivation.

But by the sixth week, I was just used to it. I actually kind of enjoyed it. My favorite day of the week had always been squat day, and now I got to do it every day.


The Meet

6 Weeks of Squatting Insanity

I went to the meet and had a great day. I wasn't totally thrilled with my squat – I hit 500, missed 520 on depth by just a bit, then couldn't stand with 525 as I made a technical mistake of sitting back to try to get depth. This took my quads out of the lift and I couldn't get out of the hole.

Still, I benched 330, a PR, and I only benched twice in the 6 weeks I was squatting. I also pulled 580, another PR with no deadlifting. (I don't recommend neglecting the bench or deadlift during the six weeks; it's just something I did.)

I did all of this at 198 pounds and won the Best Lifter award. I've never cared about what place I came in – I know someone isn't going to live up to their potential when they talk about their placing instead of their numbers – but I always wanted to win a Best Lifter award. It meant a lot to me.

After the meet, I kept squatting at lower weights for a week before taking a week off completely. That was when everything got to me. I was in the gym training every night with my team, but I was dying. The pain just floated all around my body, and each day it would seem like I would have a new problem area.

This time I allowed myself to stretch and do whatever was required to relieve my pain and one by one, everything slowly went away. My new lower back pain was the last to go but it eventually did, thanks to some light squatting and tons of hips stretching, and soon only my knees were left aching. That was fine by me, since by now I don't feel ready to squat if my knees aren't aching.

What I wasn't expecting, however, was the radical change to my posture. At 27 years old, I was now over an inch taller than I was at 24. My shoulders were pinned back, my pelvic tilt was gone, and my neck was straight. I looked radically different.

What I think happened was that that my muscles basically turned into a "cast," and my spine straightened itself out. Once I became aware of it, I noticed my feet suddenly pointed straight ahead while I walked and that I had arches. I became aware of my glutes for the first time.

A lot of the stuff you were always supposed to feel started making sense. Now when I squat I don't push my knees out so much as I get on my arches and tighten up.

So in summary, my bench and deadlift went up, I grew over an inch, I activated muscles I didn't even know I had until they started to spasm and I became aware of them, and I learned how to master the pain of powerlifting, and accept it.

All good for 6 weeks I think.


The Program


Week 1


Monday

 ExerciseSetsReps% 1RM
ABack Squat11080%
BBench Press3380%

Tuesday

 ExerciseSetsReps% 1RM
ABack Squat11080%
BChin-Up*30 
C1Planks off GH Raise230 sec.** 
C2Dumbbell External Rotation210 

* as many sets as it takes
** if too easy, put a 10-pound plate behind your head

Wednesday

 ExerciseSetsReps% 1RM
ABack Squat11080%
BDeadlift*3380%

* must be done perfectly

Thursday

 ExerciseSetsReps% 1RM
ABack Squat11080%
BBench Press3380%

Friday

 ExerciseSetsReps% 1RM
ABack Squat11080%
BChin-Up*30 
C1Planks off GH Raise230 sec.** 
C2Dumbbell External Rotation210 

* as many sets as it takes
** if too easy, put a 10-pound plate behind your head

Saturday

 ExerciseSetsReps% 1RM
ABack Squat11080%
BDeadlift*3380%

* must be done perfectly

Sunday

Lie in bed all day, preferably in fetal position

Week 2

Max out every day, but you may only call for spotters once. Drop down 20 pounds and do 2 sets of 2. If you can't get the double, drop another 10 pounds. Make sure you do the doubles or your overall volume won't be high enough.

Don't rush your sets after 80%. Take 20-pound jumps at the maximum. Remember, the weights don't matter, you're learning your form.

Assistance work stays the same, same weights, and try for more chins.

Week 3

87% for 10 singles every day. Assistance work stays the same.

Week 4

Max out, then drop down for doubles. Assistance work stays the same unless you plan on competing.

Week 5

Monday: 4 doubles @ 80%

Tuesday: Single @ 80%

Wednesday: 4 doubles @ 80%

Thursday, Friday: Single @ 80%

Saturday: Max out powerlifting meet style or compete.

Week 6

Do whatever you want but keep squatting.

Week 7

You're done. Keep doing bodyweight stuff and just let yourself loosen up. Take some pictures – you'll look different now.


Some Tips


  • Stay away from anyone who's been trained to be a chiropractor, massage therapist, ART practitioner, or anything of the sort. I had a physiotherapist tell me all the ways I could injure myself – I just ignored her and was fine.
  • Do more warm-ups under 50% if you're really hurting.
  • Stay away from negative people. Seriously. I didn't tell anyone what I was doing because 90% of people immediately jump to the negative. I only told positive people what I was doing.
  • Do not stretch. If you have to break down, do a dynamic hip warm-up focusing on just hips and maybe ankles. Everything else will come – let the squat build your flexibility.
  • Be prepared to be in pain all day everyday, and understand your inability to train like this is the reason you're not a professional athlete. This style of training is also why Olympic weightlifters tend to have the highest below-parallel squats.
  • Be prepared to realize that pain is protection, and if you stay tight you'll be fine. Ninety-nine percent of injuries come from someone going loose.
  • If you don't hurt like crazy doing this, congratulations, you already have good flexibility and posture. If you're dying, then this is for you.
  • Be prepared to see pain in a whole new light, and understand truthfully that pain doesn't hurt.


Your Turn

6 Weeks of Squatting Insanity

This is not your typical strength-training program, and it requires a higher degree of commitment from those who try it.

But if the idea of pushing yourself past the boundaries of pain tolerance and sanity appeals to you, then look no further. Your reward for 6 weeks of hell could be a radically improved squat and a healthier physique to match.


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