Basics: The Core Four

I’ve been training for over ten years, with varying levels of discipline and effort. In this time, I’ve done a lot of studying on what matters and what doesn’t. What follows are the four strength training exercises that are the biggest bang for your buck.

(Full Disclosure: Amazon links below are affiliate links. If you like this article and buy any products I suggest, I’ll get a small cut of the sale.)

Front Squats: The squat is one of the most important strength exercises in the toolbox. It doesn’t matter how you do it, the benefits are similar. But I prefer the Front Squat for some important reasons:

  • It strengthens the upper back. Early on, the upper back can often be a limiting factor in front squatting, but as it strengthens, posture and shoulder flexibility will improve.
  • It improves wrist flexibility, holding the bar in the clean position.
  • It is easier to bail out of – you just drop the implement in front of you.
  • It can be done with many implements – a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags – and can even be done weighted on one side at a time for more of a challenge.
  • It uses a more upright posture, which has more practical carry over to athletics.

It is a very versatile way to squat. Be aware that the weight moved and progression will be slightly lessened when compared to a back squat.

Weighted Dips: While the bench press is one of the most well known builders of chests and triceps in every gym across the world, I prefer the simple Weighted Dip for a few reasons:

  • The scapula are free to move, not pinned in place against a bench or the floor, resulting in more idealized shoulder mechanics.
  • The stretch in the chest at the bottom helps improve shoulder flexibility often caused by excess chest work.
  • The position at the top of the dip, where arms are locked out, helps train stability of the shoulder girdle.
  • Weight can be added with a dip belt, a weight vest, or by placing a dumbbell between your thighs.
  • In addition to weight alone, difficulty can be varied by using straight bars, angled bars, or you can use gymnastics rings or a single bar – you can pick up a pair of rings for cheap and hang them almost anywhere.

When doing dips, make sure you only use the range motion that doesn’t hurt – if you are as flexible as concrete, going to deep can cause injury. Stay within a comfortable range and try to push at the edges of that range to improve over time.

Weighted Chinups: I don’t think this is a controversial choice. I’ve known all sorts of people that attribute various achievements to their skill with chinups. But let’s add some good reasons anyway:

  • They are a great back exercise that allow for free scapular movement and work the biceps.
  • The necessity to hold the bar throughout the set will vastly improve grip strength.
  • Similar to dips, you can vary pull-up difficulty by using an different grips, or modifying the width of your grip.
  • Any of the tools to add weight to dips also works for pullups.

Concerns about grip orientation are largely unwarranted, but I prefer a focus on chinups Рwith palms facing you. Even this can be difficult for novices, however, so the movement can be scaled down by  using pull-up negatives and jumping pullups until you are able to perform a chinup.

Power Cleans: This is probably the choice that will meet with the most disagreement, but the Power variation of the Clean is not as complex as people seem to believe. The full Olympic Clean is certainly complex and full of technique that is important to get right. But the Power Clean is like the undignified, brute forced brother of the Olympic variation.

To perform a Power Clean, you setup the bar on the floor, pull it upward forcefully, and catch it as if at the top of a front squat. Watch some videos and practice with light weights. The movement won’t really click until See this tutorial or this one for more complexity if needed.

Reasons for choosing the Power Clean are:

  • Explosive lifts have major carry over to athletic performance.
  • Covers a wide range of muscles from the calves and hamstrings to the upper back and traps.
  • Variations like the Olympic Clean and the Hang Clean can vary the emphasis and training effect.
  • Cleans are often a crucial part of Complexes [more on Complexes later!]

While there will be complexity in learning the movement, the Power variation is very forgiving – it’s not a technique movement, but one based on simply muscling through.


[Bonus] Adding Deadlifts: I know I said this was four core exercises, but the Deadlift needs to be mentioned. The reason it is not part of the four is simple: Deadlifting is often not something that should be done often with training. The Front Squat, Weighted Chinups, and Power Clean will all work to improve your Deadlift.

But you should still train it! Whether you train the conventional- or sumo-style Deadlift or if you use a trap/hex bar, it doesn’t particularly matter. I recommend training the Deadlift once a week – either in place of the Power Clean, or after it. If you want, you can dedicate an entire day to Deadlifting.

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Basics: Goal Setting

Reaching a goal is hard. Life is messy and gets in the way. That’s why I like to use a very particular form of goal setting that helps me course correct.

The Six Month Goal

Six months is short term. A lot of things you actually want (to win a powerlifting meet, to have visible abs, become immortal, etc) will ultimately be made up of many 6 month goals strung out over years. But it’s not always human nature to plan that far ahead. Instead, we will only look ahead six months at a time, using a goal that is:

  • Achievable in 6 months time. This is probably the hardest part to suss out. Discuss your goals with experts and temper them accordingly. When in doubt, start easy.
  • Measurable so that you can track your current position compared to your end position. Body weight, bench press numbers, your mile time – these are good measurable things to set goals on.
  • Important to you personally. Don’t set goals others think you should achieve – set a goal that stokes your fire simply by looking at the goal. One that makes you think “hell yeah”.

The One Month Plan

Now that you know what you want at the end of six months, it’s time to chop that up into short plans to achieve this goal. Each plan only lasts for one month, so it’s fairly easy to stick to. Some examples include:

  • If losing or gaining weight, create some dietary rules to follow that contribute to your goal. Maybe no food after dinner, or maybe you have a protein shake with breakfast.
  • If lift numbers are a goal, you may want to focus on a specific variation of the lift, or you may want to perform the list 3+ times per week.
  • For skill based goals that thrive on repetition, like juggling, handstands, or even running, plan to practice a specific amount of hours each week.

Review and Adjust

When the month is over, look at your plan and check how well you stuck with it. Make a note of your adherence and anything that took away from what you wanted to achieve.

Measure your progress toward your goal. Did you plan bring you closer? If it didn’t, do you need to adjust your six month goal to accommodate?

And finally, decide on the plan for the next month. Repeat this plan if it worked well, or try something different.

Examples

Here’s some versions of how this would look in practice. Each month plan is not set in advance but setup as the previous month ends.

  • Squat: 6 month goal is a 315lb back squat
    • Month 1: squat 3x/week
    • Month 2: repeat, progress was good
    • Month 3: high rep back squats 2x/week
    • Month 4: front squat 2x/week, heavy back squat session
    • Month 5: back squat 3x/week using medium/light/heavy wave
    • Month 6: 2x/week one heavy session, one high rep
  • Weight Loss: 6 month goal is 15lb weight loss
    • Month 1: no food after 8pm
    • Month 2: + more vegetables, increase protein intake
    • Month 3: + 30mins of deliberate walking, 3x/week
    • Month 4: + 30mins rowing or cycling, 2x/week
    • Month 5: + 24hr fast, 1x/week
    • Month 6: cruise control: keep it all up for another month
  • Pullups: 6 month goal is to hit 15 reps
    • Month 1: 10 sets per day at 50% effort
    • Month 2-4: repeat, increasing effort slightly
    • Month 5: 5 sets per day, 75% effort
    • Month 6: repeat Month 1, but retest max each week

Basics: Eating Right

You have a goal, right? Maybe you want to look good on the beach in the summer, or maybe your Thanos costume needs to be on point, or maybe you just want to be fit and healthy.

“You can’t outrun a bad diet” is the old adage, and it’s important. While people have gone on record losing weight on junk and fast food (example), they still don’t look like you want to look. It isn’t just about weight but about body composition. And to get where you want, you’ll need to worry about what you eat as much as you worry about the how much.

While it’s a fact that your weight is based on how much energy you intake compared to how much you expend, that isn’t the whole story when it comes to muscle and fat.

  1. Assuming you’re doing some sort of training, you will need more protein than a typical person in order to support muscle growth.
  2. Where the rest of your calories come from isn’t particularly important as long as the sources are not low quality.
  3. Low quality carbohydrate sources – deep fried, highly processed, or cheap fast foods – are very caloric by volume, often with fiber removed and sugar added. This can lead to higher or more regular insulin spikes resulting in insulin resistance.
  4. Highly processed foods are often digested faster, which in turn increases production of ghrelin, a hormone produced in the stomach which tells you you’re hungry.

tl;dr

  • Eat protein, probably around 1g per pound of bodyweight.
  • Skip low quality foods – fried, packaged, or premade – when you can
  • Focus on high quality sources with lots of fiber or unprocessed fats – fruits, vegetables, nuts, dairy, etc.
  • If you’re trying to lose weight, you will feel hungry. If you’re trying to gain weight, you will feel full. Recognize this, and accept it.

The rest will fall into place.

Programming Clusters

Image by kit8

This is Part 2 in a series of posts about my training recommendations. Part 1 covered Clusters and how to choose exercises. This installment will cover what to do with your cluster.

I Have a Cluster, Now What?

Ok, you spent some time choosing a set if exercises you want to focus on.

The next step is to choose a set number of sessions or weeks to focus on this cluster. Choosing how long to commit up front is an important step – if you don’t set these limits, you might find yourself changing clusters too often.

I recommend committing to 12-15 sessions or 3-5 weeks, depending on what scale works best for you. You should strive to have one off day between sessions, hitting maybe 2-4 sessions per week.

What Do I Do Each Session, Though?

That’s probably important to know, I imagine – what to actually do when you prepare to actually perform your cluster.

There’s four basic methods I recommend here. Whichever you choose, you should stick with it for the entire length of your commitment.

The Strength Method is pretty straightforward – for each exercise in your cluster, you’ll perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps. Begin with a weight you’re confident in, and perform a set. If you hit 5 reps, increase the weight a bit for the next set. If you didn’t hit 3 reps, decrease the weight for the next set. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets to make sure you’re not limiting your strength due to fatigue. Keep track of the highest weight you can do a full 5 reps with.

The Classic Method might be even simpler than the Strength Method. For each exercise, you will need to track the weight you are using from session to session – this is called your Working Weight. Using your Working Weight, perform 5 sets of the 5-10 rep range. If you hit 10 reps in every set, increase your Working Weight by 5-10% for the next session. If you fail to hit 5 reps in one set, decrease your Working Weight by 5-10% for next session. Rest 1-2 minutes between sets, so we can learn to manage fatigue.

The Density Method works best for smaller clusters of 2-3 non-overlapping exercises, and is based in Escalating Density Training from Charles Staley’s book Muscle Logic (affiliate link). Like the Classic Method, we’ll be tracking a Working Weight, but it should be a weight you can manage 10 reps with. You will be performing 5 reps of each exercise, rotating through all exercises in the cluster, and repeating with minimal rest for as many rounds as you can manage in a 15 or 20 minute time period. As you fatigue over time, you can do sets of 4, 3, 2, or 1, as long you’re not outright failing. Keep track of the total reps you do for each exercise and increase the Working Weight when you exceed them by 10%.

My Cluster is Over, What’s Next?

At the end of your commitment period, you have three options:

  1. Keep going with another commitment without changing the cluster. This works incredibly well early on in training.
  2. If using the Strength Method, spend a week with all sets under your latest Max before continuing another commitment.
  3. If you have a Working Weight, step it back by 10% and make another commitment.
  4. Change one or more exercises in your cluster, or change clusters completely. Maybe you want variety. You’ll need to figure out Working Weight again.

Using these Methods along with Clusters is an excellent style of long term training. There are many other Methods that work as well – feel free to comment if you use something different!

In Part 3 I will focus on conditioning using clusters, and Part 4 will be about flexibility and recover.

Managing Distractions

Art by David Shrigley

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about distractions – particularly social media, phone apps, and the like. While I’m certainly not the most distracted person in the world, I do feel like it’s negatively impacting me.

Instead of spending idle time day dreaming, thinking, or just being present, I do it on my phone. I check my phone during TV shows, while working out, or while reading books. When I’m working on a computer, I will instinctively open new tabs to check various news and media sites. Does this sound like you?

I’m taking steps to fix this. For the rest of December I’m going to commit to:

  • No social media apps on the phone
  • No checking news and media first thing in the morning
  • Carry pen and paper around to jot down ideas
  • Keep my phone out of reach watching TV, reading, or playing with my kids.

I’m hoping to learn a few things about myself by doing this, and improve my distracted life.

I will report on the outcome of this experiment come January.

Nutrition Rules

Image from AllPosters

I’m going to commit blasphemy in the health and fitness world and let you in on nutrition’s deepest and darkest secret: all diets and nutrition plans are just a series of rules that help you eat the right amount of food (which is “less” for most people, in my experience). Let’s look at some of them:

Traditional Tracking of calories and reducing what you consume in order to lose weight uses the most scientific of the rules. You record in a journal what you ate, total up the calories, and then compare to some target. You then double check by weighing yourself to confirm you’re losing weight and adjust your caloric target if you’re not. It’s easy to see why this is a rule that helps eat the right amount of food – that’s literally all it is.

Exclusion Diets are those that cut out specific foods or groups of foods. Paleo removes anything hunters and gatherers wouldn’t eat, ketogenic diets removes most carb-heavy foods, vegetarian and vegan diets remove animal products to varying degrees, etc. Other nameless exclusions are passed by word of mouth – no sugary drinks, no processed foods, nothing with more than five ingredients, no fried food, etc. The lists go on and on. Exclusion diets work on the simple principle that if you stop eating things that make up a lot of your diet, you will inherently reduce your overall intake and create results similar to traditional tracking of intake.

Intermittent Fasting is a method of restricting the time you’re allowed to eat during the day. This varies from the simple skipping of breakfast, to 16 hour fasts, to 19 hour fasts, up to 24 hour fasts every other day. Really, this is just another exclusion diet, except instead of excluding foods, you’re excluding times of the day. By doing this, you reduce your overall intake simply because you can only eat so much in a smaller eating window.


In the end, what works for most people is a combination of the three:

  • Track some things, but don’t be obsessive about it. Maybe track your carbohydrate intake, or protein intake, servings of vegetables, or cookies. Track what you want to improve.
  • Exclude some things that may be problems for you. Maybe it’s soda, or fast food, or cookies. Just give yourself a few easy rules to follow. Don’t panic if you break these rules, just acknowledge it and do better.
  • Finally, eat when it’s time to eat and skip snacking and grazing. Restrict your eating window to times when you should be eating. This might be breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It might be one meal a day, or two meals a day, or anything in between. Know when you should eat and when you shouldn’t.

Anyone following these simple rules will be successful in their dietary goals.

Cluster Training

Image from AllPosters

Most of my training advice I give to people these days centers around the idea of exercise clusters.

What?

A cluster is a pretty straightforward concept that has been around for a while, but it is described best in the Tactical Barbell (affiliate link) program. Put simply, a cluster is a group of 2-5 exercise that you do in a session, and they are the only exercises you focus on for some 3-4 week period.

An obvious example comes from a lot of beginner barbell training, and even the Bulgarian training method: focus on squat, bench press, deadlift. Every session, you perform these three exercises.

Why Clusters?

What I like about this method of training is that it affords a high level of mental focus on a handful of very specific exercises. You know that for the next 10-15 workouts, you will be doing these and only these exercises. You can read up on coaching cues, record videos and watch, or do any number of things to really pin it down.

The narrow focus also allows you to build strength faster in the movement, which carries over to any similar movement – if you’re used to having a “leg day” once a week, and switch to squatting 3 days a week for 4 weeks, you’ve tripled your workload and even if you have to reduce the weight, you’re still lifting much more on a weekly basis.

Cluster Choices and Design

Ok, I’ve convinced you and you’re in. How, then, do you choose the exercises to make your cluster?

First: get rid of the idea of “doing it wrong” which can lead to analysis paralysis. Just make some choices, and if it doesn’t work out for you, you can change exercises in 3-4 weeks. There’s no real “wrong” here, only “suboptimal”.

Once you’ve internalized that, the rules o hoosing optimal clusters are easy:

  • First focus on exercises that you have direct goals for. If you’re a powerlifter, or a weightlifter, or maybe you just want a good deadlift – throw those exercises in, or variations of them. Include them in nearly all clusters.
  • Choose a number of non-overlapping exercises that fit your goals – exercises that don’t duplicate the big muscle groups that move the load. You only one one chest exercise, one upper back exercise, one lower back exercise, one quad exercise, etc
  • Focus on big compound movements, not exercises that only hit one tiny muscle, like your calves or biceps. There are room for these exercises outside the cluster if you have time and energy.
  • If you have any skilled movements (Olympic lifts, gymnastics work, etc) that require a lot of focus on technique, only put one or two in each cluster, and put them first. Don’t do skilled work once you’re fatigued
  • Try to focus on fundamental human movements: pushing load away, pulling load to you, squatting, hinging at the hips, carrying, and twisting.
  • Including at least one unilateral exercise that uses one side of the body at a time (usually using DBs or KBs) is usually good design, too. Don’t forget to do both sides, just one at a time.

Most importantly, ensure each exercise you choose for your cluster can be done properly and without pain.

When you have chosen the exercises for your cluster, you just have to put it into practice. You will be performing this cluster each and every session for a set period of time before re-evaluating and possibly changing the cluster.

Next up will is Part 2 of this series – programming your clusters.