Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Keep Your Chin Up About Chin Ups

I believe chin ups are a fantastic exercise for upper body and back strength. But I also feel they are vastly underrated. When most guys in the gym train their back they are thinking of endless lat pull downs or some kind of cable machine. When they do do chin ups its usually a measly few half reps throw randomly in the middle of their workout. This is a shame. Chin ups and pull ups are fantastic for size and strength and even have benefits for other lifts such as the deadlift.

It would seem a lot of very strong dead lifters agree with this. Andy Bolton pushes his pull ups and busts out sets of 6 with 50kg of added weight while weighing around 160kg of bodyweight. And check out this video of Konstantin Konstantinov.

I know he's kipping the shit out of them and all the cross fitters will jiz in their pants but since he weighs 122kg its quite some feat.

The problem with chin ups is most guys suck at them and simply busting about some half assed half reps in your workout is not the way forward.

So how do you go about improving your chin up numbers?

The first thing you need to do is to get yourself a doorway pull up bar. You can get either the telescopic type or a hanging type which relies on leverage. I used to have a telescopic one although I found it did damage to the doorway so got rid of it. I now have a leverage one but it feels less secure than my old one.

Telescopic ones

Leverage ones

Either should work fine but if you weigh more than about 100kg I would advise against a doorway bar as will struggle to find one strong and study enough for your weight. If that's the case you are going to have to rig up a more sturdy setup.

Should you perform pull ups or chin ups? I prefer chins. They are a more compound exercise using more overall musculature which let's you do more reps or more weight than pull ups. I think it is best to stick with chins to begin with before changing to pull ups when things get stale. I kind of see these two like back and front squats. Back squats let you lift more weight and will always be a main lift. Front squats are a great variation but can't beat the back squats for overall strength and muscle.

I believe the best way to increase your chin up numbers at a basic level is by using a method known as grease the groove. This will work to take you anywhere from 2 reps to 20. It is not a method on how to achieve a chin up if you can't do a single rep. If that's the case just do a bunch of lat pull downs and rows and lose some weight.

Grease the groove is probably the most retardedly named strength training method ever. It consists of performing multiply sets of sub maximal sets throughout the day. You stay well away from failure and treat strength as though it were a skill. If you had to perform a task which involves a lot of skill then it would be best to practise it when you are fresh as fatigue would interfere with performing that skill correctly. If you've just run a marathon how easy is it to then play the piano? Grease the groove works by improving the efficiency of your nervous system. It works by grooving the motor neutrons responsible for the pull up movement and coordinated muscular contractions involved. When a motor pathway is continually used the myelin sheath which covers the motor neutrons becomes thicker. This means that the speed and efficiency of those motor neutrons improves. This process occurs when learning any skill whether that be doing a chin up or learning to juggle.

So how do we go about getting some serious myelin mass gains on our chin up pathway? Perform multiply sub maximal sets of chin ups though out the day. Each set should be around 50-70% of your Max ability. So if you do 10 chin ups then doing sets of 5-7 reps of chin throughout the day will work well. I would suggest aiming for about 5-8 sets a day with at least 30mins between each set. You want to avoid failure at all costs (as this doesn't improve efficiency of the motor pathways) and avoid fatigue. A good way of doing them is to just do a set every hour on the hour until you have finished your days sets. Obviously you will have to work these in around your job, school, gym etc. One set before work, one set when you come home, two sets at the gym, one set before dinner. One set before bed you get the idea just get the sets in and keep to the principles of grease the groove.

You can do these sets everyday it doesn't matter if you are sore and don't worry about over training on these.

If you are only strong enough to perform a single rep then just do sets of singles until your strength improves.

An alternative to the multiply set approach is to just do one set of Max reps everyday and stop one rep before failure. I did this and went from 5 reps to 15 in a short period of time. I would avoid failure but found my daily Max reps increasing rep by rep. Some days it would be more or less reps than before but if you keep going your numbers will improve.

If you want to learn about grease the groove in more detail check out Pavel Tsatsouline's not bad but overpriced book The Naked Warrior. Also for some interesting info about the
the importance of myelin, and how skills and champions are developed check out the Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

Once you have reached 12-15 chin ups I believe it is time to start adding weight to them. Weighted chins seem to be used even less than bodyweight chin ups from gum goers and even serious lifters. Think about it when was the last time you saw someone in the gym busting out full range of motion chin ups with a pile of weight hanging from them? Weighted chins are even better for back size and strength than the bodyweight only version. I don't know why it is chins are always seen as some assistance bullshit for serious lifters rather than as a serious strength exercise. This may be due to the fact that a lot of big fat guys with huge benches suck at chin ups and that back training is always secondary to arms and chest despite how much your shoulders might complain about it.

So when you are ready to start adding weight to your chins you should treat them like any other serious strength exercise. A great rep scheme to start is the classic 5x5 with progressive overload. Start with just a 2.5kg plate attached to you and then treat them exactly like you would squats or benches and start adding weight progressively every workout. No need to continue with the grease the groove stuff at this point you want to treat the chins like a regular strength exercise and cut out the extra volume. You will want to make small jumps with weighted chins 2.5kg or even 1.25kg every work will well. Train them once or twice a week in your regular strength sessions and give them just as much effort and emphasise you do to squats and benches. If you start to stall out on weighted chins with 5x5 then simple reduce the volume such as to 3x5 or change the rep scheme to something different such as 3x3

What if you are a really big guy who is just too big and muscular to be able to chin ups? If you can't do a chin up you are either fat or weak. It doesn't matter how much you bench if you can't do a chin up you are weak. I can do 4 reps in the chin up with 50kg at 82kg bodyweight. So a 132kg guy should be able to do at least 4 reps with their bodyweight. And did see the video of KK? Or read what I wrote about Andy Bolton. Being big is no excuse strong is strong and weak is weak.

And by the way the world record in the weighted pull up (couldn't find chin up) is 206lbs. Held by Steven Proto. Lest you think this guy probably weighs 110lbs he actually weigh in at 200lbs of bodyweight. That means he's doing a pull up with a combined weight of over 400lbs!
Here's his video of his old record:

Also check out a short interview by him here.
Weighted chin ups really are a fantastic and underrated exercise, train them hard. Now go get some lats and get out there defying gravity!

Friday, 11 January 2013

Beginner Strength Routine Part 2

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog was a beginner strength routine designed to get you on your way to being strong and useful. This post is the next part of that routine. It is to be used after about 8 weeks of the first routine and is only really minor adjustments.

Week A

Day 1
Squat 3x5
Bench 3x5
Lat pull down 5x5/chin up 5x5
Ab wheel rollout from knees 5x5

Day 2
Rest or cardio

Day 3
Dead lift 1x5
Overhead press 3x5
1 arm dumbbell row 5x5
Curls 3x8
Dips 3x8

Day 4
Rest or cardio

Day 5
Squat 3x5
Bench 3x5
Lat pull down 5x5/ chin up 5x5
Dumbbell side bends 3x10

Day 6
Rest or cardio

Day 7

Week B

Day 1
Squat 3x5
Overhead press 3x5
1 arm dumbbell row 5x5
Ab wheel kneeling 5x5

Day 2
Rest or cardio

Day 3
Dead lift 1x5
Bench 3x5
Lat pull down 5x5/ chin up 5x5
Curls 3x8
Dips 3x8

Day 4
Rest or cardio

Day 5
Squat light 2x10 with around half the weight of your 3x5 sets
Overhead press 3x5
1 arm dumbbell rows 5x5
Side bends 3x10

Day 6
Rest or cardio

Day 7

So there are a few changes going on. The main lifts drop from 5x5 to 3x5. This means with less sets you can lift heavier weights. Continue adding 2.5kg to the bar each workout for those lifts.
The dead lift has changed from 3x3 to 1x5. This is because you should now have a good base of strength and technique to be able to try higher reps safely. Start with about 80% of your 3x3 weight and continue adding 2.5/5kg per workout. Your goal is to exceed the 3x3 weight for 1x5.
If you are still not strong enough to do chin ups stick with lat pull downs and progressively add weight. If you can do as few chins stick with the recommendations from the previous routine. The volume does not change for the upper body pulling exercises. This is because you can never really do too much upper back work and more of it helps keep your shoulders healthy.
You will have been doing planks on the last routine so your abs should be strong enough to handle kneeling roll outs with an ab wheel by now. If your gym doesn't have one buy one and bring it with you in your gym bag. They are pretty cheap from Amazon
With the arm work the sets of 8 will let you train a little heavier and the extensions have been replaced with dips. I believe dips are a much better arm exercise and are healthier for your elbows. Add weight to them if the 3x8 is too easy.
On day 5 of week b you have a purposely light squat day. This is intended to help your recovery and improve technique. The 2x10 should not be difficult. If you are really struggling to make the reps then you are using too much weight. Don't worry about trying to add weight to these sets. It will prevent over training of your back and legs at this stage and is very important.
The final change is the addition of side bends with dumbbells at the end of the workout. This is too give your more complete strength and development of your core than roll outs alone.

There will be later additions and changes to this routine as it develops into a routine aimed at intermediate lifters.

I have some more posts in the pipelines including the final first aid post as well as one about improving your pull up strength. Stay tuned.

What To Be Strong To Be Useful Doesn't Mean

To be strong to be useful doesn't mean that:

-You are fat
- You can bench press 400lbs but can't do a single chin up.
- You get winded walking up a flight of stairs
- you weigh 150lbs can do 20 chin ups but can't dead lift 300lbs
- You do all your training with a 8kg kettle bell and TRX straps because they are functional
- You kip your pull ups
- You can lift a lot in the gym but struggle with anything that isn't a barbell
- You can deadlift 600lbs with straps but can't hold onto 400lbs with a double overhand grip.
- You can't lift even half of what you bench overhead.
- You can curl and bench a lot but can't squat or deadlift for shit.
- You only go heavy with a belt, wraps, sleeves, suits, shirts, briefs after a 30 mins foam roller session a 30min dynamic warm up after you have drunk the latest pre workout potion from GNC and just sniffed ammonia capsules.
- You just squatted 500lbs but aren't willing to carry someone away from danger.
- You think you need to get fat to get strong.
- You can do like 10 push ups but think the bench press is not functional
- You think you should use weights to train for fat loss.
- You think cardio will make you weak.
- You wouldn't help someone with a physical task because all that manual labour would hurt your gains.
- And of course you can't organise an evacuation away from an erupted volcano.

The Strong To Be Useful Diet

With the new year in full swing everyone will be flocking to gyms in an attempt to burn off the two week binge they inevitably did. What better time for me to In this outline my diet approach which will get you lean, keep you lean and let you slowly and steadily gain strength. It will help to maximise your energy and recovery while minimising fat gain. It will also help to optimise natural hormone levels and keep you healthy. While I have not aimed it at bulking and huge muscle gains I do think it might work well for a steady lean bulk approach if you were to consciously try to eat more.
It is based on carb and calorie cycling with higher carbs and calories while having lower fats on training days and higher fats lower carbs on non training days. Protein will remain high throughout. Unlike other diet plans based on these concepts you will not need to  count grams of carbs or work out your daily calorie intake. I have been down that road before and it makes your life no fun. You become obsessive about food although it does improve your math skills.
The be strong to be useful diet is based simply on good clean food choices. While ultimately it comes down to calories in verses calories out it is far easier to keep calories in check eating good food than it is to eat small amounts of bad food which will only leave you wanting more. Its pretty difficult to overeat on chicken breast and vegetables. Its also pretty difficult to just eat the suggested serving size of a tub of Ben and Jerry's.
The diet is closely based on the classical paleo diet but is tailored for strength athletes by including the right kinds of carbohydrate as well as time tested supplements.

All of the carbs you eat will be unprocessed, starchy and low gluten. Your best options here are:

-Oats, as in plain porridge oats not flapjacks and other shit. Plain oat cakes aren't bad either but don't get these confused with Hobnobs.
-Rice, white rice is fine it makes little difference between brown and doesn't take 4 years to cook. Rice cakes are also great if you don't want to cook.
-Potatoes, boil 'em, mash 'em, stick 'em in a stew whatever. Obviously chips and crisps do not count here.
-Sweet potatoes, same game as regular ones
-Other root vegetables, parsnips, swede, turnip, squash etc

These food choices will be your main fuel source for your lifting sessions.
Next comes regular veg. Anything is fair game here. I tend to divide them into those that I cook and those that I eat as salad.
Broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower, opinions, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, cabbage, spinach, sugar snaps, peas, green beans etc
Lettuce, cress, red opinion, spring opinion, peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, celery etc etc.
Veg is not always easy to get into your diet. I tend to divide it into these groups so I can include it into my meals more frequently. If you are cooking then get some veg in that way. If you are not then chuck some veg on your plate that you can eat raw with no preparation. Its good to have both types lying around.
Try to get a great variety of veg in your diet also try to have plenty of cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, cress, bok choy, broccoli and similar green leaf vegetables. These have anti estrogenic properties allowing you to maintain healthy hormone levels and letting more free testosterone become available for strength, muscle and general awesomeness.

Fruits can be a bit of a double edged sword. They contain lots of essential vitamins and minerals as well as fibre. Everyone thinks fruits are healthy and they are to an extent but the carbohydrates found in fruit are mostly fructose. Fructose is a simple sugar like glucose but unlike glucose it is not used as efficiently by your muscles for energy. It is more easily stored as fat than glucose and so too much can ruin body composition goals. While fruit contains fructose the actual amount of it is still quite low as fruit mainly consists of fibre and water. So I would suggest limiting fruit intake to 1 or 2 bits of unprocessed fruit a day. This should give you plenty of benefits while avoiding excessive fructose. Completely stay away from any kind of fruit juice or smoothie. People think they are healthy but they are almost pure concentrated fructose with much of the fibre and vitamins removed. It makes no odds whether is 100% juice, concentrate or not or whether the packaging looks innocent its still just basically a shit load of sugar which is not the answer to being lean.

                                Not as innocent as they make out

Have you ever seen the side of the carton of an innocent smoothie. The bit where it shows you how much fruit is in it. in their strawberry and banana 1.25litre carton it contains:
2 and a half apples, 3 bananas, 46 grapes, 1 and a half oranges, 22 strawberries and a dash of lime. That's quite a bit of fruit if you tried it eat in in its raw form. But how easy I'd it to drink an entire 1.25litre carton of smoothie? Easy and its very delicious. But you would also be getting 150g of sugar to keep you fat.
That's my innocent rant over.

Next comes protein.

For protein sources stick to mainly paleo choices. Lean meats,eggs and fish are best. Chicken, turkey, beef, lean cuts of lamb, liver, salmon, tuna, mackerel you get the idea.

Pork can be a weary protein choice. Its tends to not be very lean, and is normally one of the most processed meats there is often it is full of nitrates and is really high in salt. While I'd still consider it paleo choice I would suggest not to go heavy on the pork consumption. by all means have bacon but not everyday. Pork chops and gammon don't seem as bad as bacon or processed ham so I'd stick with them when it comes to pork and trim off the excess fat.

Protein supplements are fine as long as they don't account for all of your protein intake. I really can tell a difference in my recovery when most of my protein comes from food rather than supplements so don't just slam shakes all day. In terms of which protein powders are best go for a blend of multiple protein sources. They are some studies which suggest that these are better for muscle gain than straight whey and from my experience they improve my recovery better than whey and are more substantial as a meal. The one I use is a mix of whey, egg and casein. It can be found here. I am not in any kind of affiliate deal with Myprotein and get nothing by recommending them. I simply like them because its a decent blend that doesn't cost a fortune and tastes fairly good. I've tried lots of other blends from different companies but they either have too many carbs and fats added or are much more expensive. The equivalent product in GNC is nearly twice the price!

I would recommend you get between 2.5-3 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight. I myself weighing 82kg get around 200-240g a day.

Magic of a high protein diet
A high protein intake is essential. Not only does it improve your recovery and muscle mass it keeps you fuller for longer which stops you gaining fat as easily. The other thing I find is when you arr are eating 200g+ of protein a day you have less space for junk. You have to have proper meals to fit that amount in and I find things like vegetables tend to get worked into my diet automatically simply because they go with the slab of meat I'm eating. Who eats steak on its own? You always put it with some green veggies or salad or something.

Low dairy, low grains
In sticking with a typical paleo diet I suggest keeping dairy products and grains other than those I've mentioned already.
When it comes to dairy there are two main problems. High fat and high lactose/sugar. Aside from any obvious lactose intolerance problems just the fact that dairy tends to be high in both fat or sugar makes it a bad food when it comes to body composition and controlling calorie intake. Cheese? Very high in fat and calories. Yogurt? Sugar and doesn't fill you up at all. Milk? Fat and lactose. None of these foods I would consider good for being lean and in shape. I don't consider protein shakes to count here since they tend to be low in both fat and sugar. I suppose things like cottage cheese would also be OK but since that shit tastes nasty I would just have a protein shake instead. If you want an alternative to milk go for almond, coconut or hazelnut milk. I use these for protein shakes and for my oats at breakfast. They are much tastier than using water and only add a little bit of extra carbs and fat to your meal. By the way Alpro hazelnut milk is amazing. It tastes awesome with chocolate protein.


The only grains I recommend are rice and oats. These are good sources of slow release low gluten starchy carbs. Theory are great for energy production and replenishment.
Other forms of grains mainly wheat are less useful. They are higher in gluten and their products use fermented yeast both of which are not fun for your digestive system. They tend to be more processed and contain a lot of other added crap too. Bread and cereals contain a lot of extra sugar, salt and a host of other preservatives. I don't consider foods like this to be clean sources and are not good for body composition or energy production. Generally avoid them.

I know bread is the most convenient food ever but you will have to learn to do away with it despite the fact that to the average person not eating bread is like telling someone to go without air. Some alternates you can use are rice cakes and oat cakes.

Good fats
Good fats are important for healthy hormone levels but don't go crazy on them otherwise your calorie intake will some add up. Some sources are:

Meat, generally fatty meats are not great and I would suggest trimming excess fat from your meats. You will still get some fat from your meats once the visible fat is removed
Eggs, eat your yokes don't be one of those idiots sieving your eggs to just get the white. The yoke is a great source of good fats and won't give you an instance heart attract.
Nuts, Anything except peanuts are fair game. The typical paleo diet avoids peanuts because they aren't actually nuts but legumes which contains lectins and other anti nutrients. Which can cause a whole  host of digestive problems. While all nuts do contain these I believe they are higher in legumes such as peanuts so generally I don' TTF recommend them.
Olive oil, plenty of good fats here and the go to oil for cooking
Oily fish, salmon, mackerel etc. You really can't get enough of these.
And of course the infamous avocados. I've included avocados simple because its always on lists of foods when talking about good fats. The only thing about them is i find them a pretty awkward food that doesn't really go with anything. They are also a pain to prepare. So by all means include avocados in your diet  if you know what to do with them.

   Such an awkward fruit/vegetable whatever it is

No high carb high fat
All your meals should be either high protein and fat or high protein and carb. You want to avoid high carb and high fat as that is a recipe for storing fat. When your insulin levels are raised while you have a lot fatty acids in your blood stream your body is going to put those fatty acids into storage. Not only that but meals which are high in both also tend to be very calorie dense. So peanut butter sandwiches? No. pasta with cheese sauce? No. ice cream? No. Chocolate? No. You get the idea.

Now realistically you are not going to eat clean 100% of the time so I'd recommend a weekly cheat meal of whatever you want and ass much as you want. Just make sure this is the last meal of the day otherwise a cheat meal turns into as cheat day. When you wake up the next day you start a fresh on clean eating. Also make sure your protein needs for the day have been taken care of. 

Outline of diet.
So here is the basic outline of the diet as well a sample meal selection.

Training Day

Meal 1
Protein and carbs
Oats, protein powder, almond milk, banana

Training session

Meal 2
Protein and carbs
Meat, rice, vegetables

Meal 3
Protein and fats
Meat, vegetables, handful of nuts

Meal 4
Protein and carbs
Meat, potatoes, vegetables, apple

If you train at a different time then simply make the first meal the protein and fat meal and make the others carb and protein meals. Ideally you want to have a carb meal before you train.

Non Training Day

Meal 1
Protein and fats
Eggs, meat

Meal 2
Just protein
Meat and veg

Meal 3
Protein and fats
Protein shake, handful of nuts

Meal 4
Protein and carbs
Rice, meat, veg, banana

Why does this diet have 4 meals a day rather than 6 or 3 well I see it as the best of both worlds. Its seems research is suggesting that there is no advantage to the 6 small meals a day compared to the 3 square meals approach. What matters is the overall amount of food and nutrients you consume whether that be over 6 meals or 2. 6 meals a day is its a pain in the arse preparing that many meals and finding time to eat them all. 3 square meals is fine but they have to be quite big meals and it can be harder to fit bigger meals in during the day along side work and whatnot. Often there is less time to cook during the day. 4 meals I find work well giving you a balance between meal size and the amount of time for eating sand prep. Usually it will be 3 smaller meals during the day and a bigger cooked meal in the evening.

Something which may seem unconventional is that the last meal of the day always contains carbs. There are some advantages to this. Firstly they improve recovery by replenishing the glycogen you may have used up during the day. This is especially important on non training days where you have been low carb up until that last meal. By having a Largish carb meal in the evening you create a hypoglycemic effect. This is a sugar low which will put you in a sleepy state which will then aid you in falling asleep and further improve your recovery. How do you feel after eating a large meal? Sluggish and sleepy despite their fact that you have just consumed as large amount of energy. This is exactly what you want from your last meal of the day. But don't carbs at night make you fat? First of the type of casbs you are consuming will be clean choices I've already outlined, rice, oats, fruit, potatoes and other root vegetables. Its quite hard to get fat eating foods like this. Second your overall calories will be in check and you will be eating carbs you need as reflected by your training program. Also there seems to be other more complex plans springing up which also suggest carbs should be eaten before bed such as intermittent fasting and carb back loading.

what about pre and post workout nutrition?
This is an area I'm really not sure about at the moment. Currently I'm not following any protocol but am simply eating a regular meal after training. I have noticed no differences from when I was having  a post workout shake of fast acting carbs and quickly digested whey protein. My theory is that if you are consuming the same amount of food and macro nutrients whether it be from a post training meal or a shake of insulin spiking dextrose with the fastest digesting whey isolate it will make no difference. If you have the same amount of protein and carbs from chicken and rice after training is it really going to make any significant difference? If you really can't live without your waxy maize starch in a 2:1 ratio with whey isolate shake then by all means have it just factor it in to your overall food intake.

If you want to include cardio/conditioning on your non training days you nutrition may have to change slightly. If you are doing steady state on off days like I outlined in my conditioning for lifters article then nothing changes about the off day meal plan. You can do steady state training on low carbs no problem and the carb meal at the end of the day should take care of any glycogen depletion or recovery issues. If you are going to include something more intense such as high intensity interval training, sports, hill sprints whatever then you can just follow the same plan as the lifting days. If you feel the conditioning is not an overly long or intense session then you can just have a protein and carb meal before the session and then keep the rest of the day as normal.

I have already mentioned that protein powders are fine as long as they don't account for all of your protein intake. Besides that I only recommend the basics of a fish oil supplement and multivitamins and/or greens or super food powder. The diet should take care of anything else.

That wraps up this rather long post. Now go get yourself lean, strong and useful!