How I Trained in 2013: Lessons From an Intermediate Lifter

This is a summary of my training for the year of 2013. I thought it would be insightful/useful to others. Please remember that the pros and cons I list for each program are my personal ones.

These are programs filtered through my experience using them and my particular strengths/weaknesses. It might be completely different for you. But as an intermediate lifter/trainee, I thought it would be interesting now, and later to catalogue my training and show an example of different programs I used and insights I got from them.

This blog really is my personal journal. I use it for reflection, digestion, and as part of my learning process. Blogging publicly helps me stay honest with myself and how I learn and build my driving philosophies. Putting it up “for examination” is more risky and makes me examine my own beliefs and practices better.

To begin:

At the end of 2012, I had competed in two powerlifting meets with a total of 622 at 132 lbs. But before I get into how I trained after, I wanted to talk a bit about picking a program.

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Gotta love a bathroom selfie

I get asked about my opinion on a lot of popular programs that pop up on T-Nation or threads or ones that have been around forever and are published in books.  If you are a beginner to strength/weight training, you really do need some sort of plan or blueprint to follow. A good program is a must, because, well, you don’t know what you are doing. There are some good ones out there that give you a basic template to build from, but I wanted to emphasize something before you read this and possibly try out a program just because I did it. Also, I want to give you some food for thought about programming in general:

1.) There can never be a one-size-fits-all program. Not 5/3/1, not Starting Strength, not The Cube, not NROLFW, 5×5, Sheiko, Strong Curves, etc. All a better program is, is a better model. It gives you:

2.) A plan and structure. A so-called better program gives you a better framework to work from. That’s it. You will either need to a) get a good coach b) really get into training as a hobby, and pay attention to what you are spending hours of your day doing. Commit to learning. A good program is a just as good (or better) model than something random and untestable (how do you know you are making progress?).

Greg Nuckols says:

“A good model has three main features:

1)      It captures enough of the system’s complexity to be useful in describing how it works and how it will respond.

2)      It accounts for few enough factors to actually be user-friendly.

3)      It actually works.”

Matt Perryman, another coach I respect, said this about programs or routines:

“Everybody has to start somewhere, and workout routines are a great way to get a feel for the gym. But, like training wheels, they have a downside: it’s too easy to sucker yourself into overanalyzing the training wheels and becoming fixated on what is supposed to be a teaching tool. That’s where my thought process stands: training is like learning to ride the bike rather than focusing on the training wheels. There are unwritten rules that go into any successful strength athlete’s training, and these are not reflected in any written-down workouts. By only looking at lists of exercises and numbers, you miss a critical part of the process. The actual experience of lifting weights is crucial.”

When someone writes a program, there is often an unfortunate side to it. They have to sell it. Some of the best and well-thought-out, general-population programs are the ones the mainstream doesn’t hear of. The most popular programs or “methods” (I use that term liberally) have to market on the fact that they are special, ground-breaking, deliver rapid results, etc. The problem is that what makes a program really “good” for someone is usually not some unknown and secret method. It just fills in a need for that person, at that time.

This doesn’t automatically mean a well-known, generalized program is shit, though. One of the ones I recommend the most is very well-known, at least in certain circles: Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1. I think the basic structure is awesome and the allowance for fluidity and individualization of the template makes it a good model for most people.

But, part of the problem is that plenty of people choose programs like they do food at a restaurant. Cursory glances over the description, with a large side of “what are you getting?” and “what do you think is good?” rather than asking themselves what it is they need, want, or can adhere to. I know. I’ve done it.

There are also the much, much more general ones like P90X for instance. They promise absolute results, market like crazy, and use the burden of social proof to back up their claims that it works. Because it does work. For awhile. And for some people it IS a good option because they will actually start something and stick with it.

Or what about other popular strength programs we always hear of, like 5×5? Or Starting Strength? I’m not here to bash them, at all. I just want to generate some thinking. They are specialized programs. And you, sir or madam, may not have earned the right to specialize your fitness so much. What? You mean 10,000 kettlebell swings or just 5 sets of squats and deads will not make me a well-rounded fit individual? Not really. And maybe. It really depends.

Minimalist strength programs and single-focus programs have a couple of benefits:

1.) Focus. Sometimes, it’s the right time to put on your blinders and focus hard on a single goal and clear out the bullshit in your exercise. A lot of people have heard the term “fuckarounditis” coined by Martin Berkhan. That can sum up a lot of what you see people doing in a gym. I *hearted*  some of Mark Rippetoe’s rant a bit where he went off on the lack of simplicity in training. Why? Because it had a lot of truth. But there’s another reason we like extreme opinions like that: Black and white thinking is exciting and safe. It makes us feel safe. It makes us feel like we know. Our brains like certainty. Something simple and direct and not too complicated is often a relief. You can be the dumb horse, and plod up that hill! But sometimes it is also a lazy approach, which is why simple strength programs can be great or can leave you hurting and stalling a couple of years from now.  A lot of people (gen pop) need more development in a variety of fitness attributes and movement skills, thereby earning the right to specify. If you are great at squats, they may deliver most of your fitness needs. If you can’t get down in a squat – well, no barbell will fix that.

This does not mean you need to clutter your workout time with hundreds of correctives, but it also means that maybe barbell back squatting and benching is NOT all you need. Your tight upper back, weak feet, and sluggish nervous system make things a bit less simple and require you to develop your fitness in a more generalized way than just 5 sets of 5 reps with a barbell.

The second reason a lot of people find success on minimal strength programs:

2.) They fullfill physiological requirements or “laws” you need in order to get past a plateau in your progress. Maybe what you were missing was some proper linear progression, where you actually had to write down numbers and hit them consistently. Maybe upping your volume or adding speed to your lifts was what was needed. There is more than one way to make progress besides just increasing weight, but that seems to be the one a lot of people get stuck on.

Let’s use P90X as an example again even though that is not a strength program. A lot of people get results quickly from this program, and I think it comes down to one important factor that is often missing in mainstream exercise: good intensity. P90x makes you jump around like crazy! Same with a lot of CrossFit classes. You are actually working hard enough for your body to go “Oh shit, let’s adapt.” You are including fitness qualities you have not been training. The long-term hows, whys, injuries, plateaus, etc., may be in the future, BUT those programs are adhering to a “law” needed for progress for your body at that time. You just weren’t aware of it.  This often happens when either 1.) volume 2.) frequency or 3.) intensity are added in some form. All of these variables are often the next element that gets progress for awhile. That’s really what periodization means. You focus on different aspects of adaptation.

 

Basic strength programs adhere to the principles needed better than programs like P90X.

They usually are a better model. They actually focus on progression, include movements that are natural yet complex to the musculature, and stimulate high levels of hormonal response and neural adaptation. They can be an excellent starting point, but it’s not really about that. It’s more about what people think they will get from those types of programs. Like they are the secret to “something something next level of athletic development.” No, they aren’t. They just fulfill more of the requirements needed at that point in time. The best way to not get stuck, is to know the why, not the what.

“Everything works for six weeks. Nothing works forever.” -Dan John

Variety in training is about the dose as much as the medicine. This is how we can reconcile the principle of KISS (keep it simple, stupid) and variety (how many squat variations can you name?).

The safest and surest thing you can do for your training is stop looking for the perfect program, and instead figure out what you need most at the time. This is a bit tougher. You have to think outside your own “head” and be honest. Try it though, it’s simple, just not easy.

Greg Nuckols summed this up perfectly when he said in a blog post,

“Your body changes day to day, and it won’t respond exactly the same way to an identical stimulus if it meets it twice. Your body is different from someone else’s, and theirs won’t respond exactly the same way yours does. It’s usually weak people who try to argue that one exercise technique or one program is the best. Chasing optimal is a fool’s errand.”

Alright, enough of my philosophizing, here’s a trip down memory lane with a bit of personal history to go with it for context. I just wanted to talk a bit about picking programs, since I know that people often pick them based on what others have done or because it gets  a lot of press. So in case you want to jump on something after reading this post, keep YOUR needs in mind, eh?

2013 Training

1.) Miguel Aragoncillo’s “Back to Neutral” written for me personally after a brief assessment. 

January to March

Fellow coach, friend, and recent intern (at the time) at Eric Cressey’s facility, Miguel designed a program for me using a lot of the “Assess and Correct” methods.

This was the first time I learned more about postural restoration, breathing mechanics, delved more into corrective exercise, etc. I learned the subtleties of motor control for joint ROM versus just “having ROM” or “hanging out” on my joints and thought critically about my hypermobility as a factor for my movement patterns. I was having very bad SI joint/low back (QL) pain at the time after my 2 PL meets. A deadlift position would be instant pain. Working with Miguel helped me explore a lot that I didn’t know about movement and joint positions, and it was the first time someone else designed a program for me after a brief assessment. Well, it was the first time I had ever been “assessed” period.

I had never really thought about posture too much (beyond the usual “chest out, ass out”) in relation to lifting and exercise before. My knowledge base was not broad at the time and had mostly come from resources like Starting Strength, The Strongest Shall Survive, Beyond Brawn, etc. While all excellent material, I only “knew” barbells. Exposure to Cressey added another layer to my education and reinforced how much there was to learn. I also realized I needed a much better education on anatomy and biomechanics, which was to come in my next semester at college.

In hindsight, the program was limited in that it takes a REALLY GOOD coach’s eye to see what someone needs movement wise; you can’t just give them correctives. Cressey’s books aims to help the process, but understanding movement is a skill not just from an educational standpoint, but also from a “watching people” standpoint.  Miguel applied a lot of good concepts, but the limitation was in a higher knowledge of applicability and an ability to see my movement needs from a bigger picture. I still could not go heavy in deadlifts without pain. I stopped squatting completely for the next three months.

Pros:

  • Breathing practice and postural awareness
  • Use of isometrics (GREAT for hypermobile people, but VERY dependent on getting them in the right position)
  • Corrective strategies
  • More than just “the big 3”
  • Included work in multiple planes of motion (you forget about that stuff, when you mind is all about “squat, bench, dead, repeat”)

Cons:

  • Pain continued. Weight progressions stalled nowhere close to my previous maxes.
  • Did not address motor patterns and biomechanics well. Was from the “strengthen this part” stance.
  • Overall motor control was off, so even good exercises did not have full effect intended. My ROM was to the extreme in everything in hindsight.

2.) Matt Perryman’s Squat Everyday

March to May

Was itching to get back to lifting heavy, so I did, and I got my squat goal  of 250 at 132lb at the end of this program! I am an average specimen. 😉 It’s not “wow,” but impressive for my capabilities. I made up for my lack of motor control with a lot of sheer determination (and rib shear; heh, get it?).

I learned a lot about work capacity (what it really means!), auto-regulation, undulating periodization, and how to think about training all around. I became more mindful, engaged, and present in my training and practiced auto-regulation and intuitive training. I learned that I didn’t understand the squat as a movement pattern, but it felt very good to get back into heavy lifting. I loved having a singular focus and firm structure for workouts. Workouts were minimal in exercise choice, but were high volume. Pain was intermittent, but not exxaggerated. Deadlifting was really where it was a serious hit and miss. In hindsight, I put up with way more pain than I should have.

I blogged about this training time more in depth here. You can see my logs, notes, etc., from this time.

This was a very valuable training time for me, even though I still struggled through nagging pain almost constantly.  It brought to life the whole “your body will adapt to what you do” and also showed me how my CNS regulates training: how you can perform regardless of “feeling it” that day; the true basis of undulating periodization; the natural dips and peaks of training. My max would be 225-235 one week and I would not be able to get over 155 the next week, and then as low as a max of 135 some days.

I highly, highly recommend reading Squat Everyday by Matt Perryman. Purchase it for $7 on Amazon here. This is a training philosophy book, not about “squats” themselves per se.

Pros:

  • Very educational. Like taking a class in training philosophy, application, and principles.
  • Learned how to apply said principles.
  • Really opened my mind!

Cons:

  • My body really couldn’t handle squatting everyday, with the way I squatted.

3.) 4-month bodyweight run modeled after Convict Conditioning.

May to September

Heavy loads were still defeating me in nagging SI pain, and I was getting a bit frustrated. This was kind of random training at the time, but it focused more on bodyweight using Biofeedback methods from David Dellanave as well as creating muscle tension (as opposed to hanging out on my joints all the time, a big problem I had).

If you haven’t been introduced to biofeedback and the principles behind what “listening to your body” means, I highly suggest signing up for his e-course. Now, I subscribe to a lot of blogs and have plowed through e-courses before, but rarely have I gotten so much out of such a compact, easy-to read, and enlightening course. You can sign up for that here: David Dellanave Gym Movement E-Course.

With this, I delved more into biomechanics! Katy Bowman’s blog gave me a lot of insights and a better eye for lumbo-pelvic issues with myself and others. I kept learning so much more about movement and got a bit obsessed with “fixing” myself. In hindsight, I was a bit too eager to make connections and find solutions. I still feel that urge sometimes, but when it comes to the body, just because it “seems to make sense” does not make it true – especially in relation to pain, posture, and movement. I had a lot to learn still.

Pros:

  • Gave my joints a rest. Felt better muscular tension.
  • Bodyweight stints are cool, and good to develop alongside using weights.

Cons:

  • Well, not particularly cons per se, but let’s just say that all the “cons” in these programs were not due to anything MORE I could have done, but more due to my lack of experience and knowledge of application and what my body needed.

4.) 10,000 KB Swings by Dan John.

Sometime after September

I wanted a single focus program again, and so I jumped on this.  I completed 1,000 swings in about 40 minutes, learned more about KBs from Kettlebell Athletics seminar, and explored windmills, bent presses and was aiming to perfect my Get Up. Got up to 55 lb barbell Get Up.

As I sit here writing this almost a year later, I can’t help but chuckle a bit. I have just finished my StrongFirst cert, and the holes in my KB technique are amusing now. One of the main ones being that I didn’t know how to use my hips! In hindsight, I can better appreciate how years of knee injuries, limping, and well-intentioned but often misguided efforts in training made me miss out on a lot of my strength potential. It’s so fucking exciting now. Matt Perryman says:

“A background of training is an advantage that I could never have imagined as a beginner, and that most people will never train long enough or hard enough to understand. They’ll give up before the process really starts.”

That grit, eh!

For shits and giggles, here is a comparison of my lockout then to my lockout now. Pain was still a regular companion, especially SI joint, upper ass, QL.

kblockoutcomparison

Pros:

  • Single focus, single attention. Great feeling.
  • Increased my work capacity.

Cons:

  • Consistent SI pain.
  • Needed variety in movement.

5.) Finished the year with intuitive programming.

Here, I picked 2-3 main strength movements that tested well and focused on quality reps for an hour or so. Finishing faves are: Squats, Bent Presses, KB Clean/Press, Planks (all kinds!), and Deadlifts (all kinds!). I made some good progress in my squat form (doing high bar, ATG) and realized how my resistance of forward knee drive (just fear really from former knee injuries) was inhibiting my ability to sit down and straight. Got over that. Back/SI pain is a thing of the past for the last half of the year for the most part, though it will flare up if I push it too far.

I finished the year by taking a complete break from heavy lifts, focusing instead on getting my movement patterns clean again! I’m still at it, but I am much stronger … but in different ways. Strength is not just a squat. Strength is NOT a number. It’s what you can repeatedly do with excellence. It’s variety. Its the ability to jump and squat heavy. To learn a new movement and master it. To connect with your muscles and keep your joints happy and having a ton of patience to just chill and enjoy the process.

Exercise can NEVER be boring. No way. There is so much to do! But movement is your base. Always. Otherwise, you will have to backtrack. I have/am backtracking, so maybe you won’t have to. All of the programs I did are excellent options for intermediate to advanced trainees, but really it’s not the program itself. It’s you – your ability to keep going and keep learning.

I also engaged in some random fun during the year, like competing and winning the Muscle Pharm obstacle race at the Europa Expo, winning $3,000  just in time for my move to Toronto! I beat out all the Crossfitters (hehe), but I ran it 7 times! You can view that exciting 30-second video here: https://twitter.com/joyvictoriaFitB/status/351719313767534594

I was behind until the very last race!

With 2nd place winner Katerina Bares, who gave me a run for my money. Literally.

With 2nd place winner Katerina Bares, who gave me a run for my money. Literally.

I also got to attend my first Fitness Summit in Kansas City, meet a lot of my online colleagues and friends, and get EMG’ed by Bret Contreras.

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Demonstrating with Bret at the Fitness Summit.

Demonstrating with Bret at the Fitness Summit.

Pics from 2013:

Kettlebell ladders

Kettlebell ladders

Bent pressing

Bent pressing

Leg Raises

Leg Raises

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Said goodbye to the St Johnsbury weight room, my home and office for 2 years.

Said goodbye to the St Johnsbury weight room, my home and office for 2 years.

Wherever you are in your journey: Keep going.

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Comments

  1. Great post Joy! I loved your introduction and discussion regarding why cookie cutter programs may not be the best choice for someone, and it was refreshing to see you discuss what you learned in the past 18 or so months.