Question of Strength 49

Q & A with one of the world’s premier strength coaches.

Q: I deadlift for bodybuilding, and have no desire to compete in powerlifting. To lift heavier weights, should I use the powerlifter’s mixed grip, or is the overhand grip better for muscle development, even if it means using lower weights because my grip gives out?

Use a regular pronated grip, but use straps (not wraps!). You want time under tension for muscle development, which means doing sets of more than five reps. Without straps, the strength endurance of your gripping muscles will fail long before you exhaust the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and quads.

Now, for those who do compete in powerlifting, it’s a good idea to switch your hands around in the mixed grip during practice – sometimes with the right hand facing you, sometimes the left. Alternate from set to set. If you always use the same style of mixed grip, you could set yourself up for a biceps tear.

For competition, use whatever feels best to you.

Q: I need to improve my vertical jump. Got any new exercises to try?

Try a speed snatch.

This is a good exercise for anyone who needs to improve his or her vertical jump. Shoot for five sets of six reps (5 x 6).

Q: A lot of coaches recommend knee and elbow sleeves for heavy lifts, along with wrist wraps. What’s your opinion?

I don’t recommend a lot of this type of equipment for most athletes. More often than not, they perform in an unprotected environment. Why train in a protected environment if you can’t use any of that gear when you’re competing in your sport?

But if you’re a powerlifter, wraps and sleeves will help you lift more weight. For example, wrist wraps (not straps!) make it easier to support the load on a max bench press. You need to train with the wraps on for at least three weeks before a meet to get used to them.

For the average trainee, I’m neutral on the use of knee and elbow sleeves. If you feel better using them, fine, but they’re not something I go out of my way to recommend.

Q: My lats suck compared to the rest of me. Do you have any general guidelines for bringing up a particular muscle group?

The “rules” of specialization vary by body part, but the basic concept is to increase the volume for that muscle group. You can do that by increasing the number of sets per workout, or by training it more often.

Here’s a good trick for lat specialization:

Train heavy on Monday, four to six reps per set. On Tuesday, use different lat exercises, but do eight to 10 reps. On Wednesday, use higher reps, as many as 15 to 20 per set, again with different exercises, which should deplete the final nanograms of glycogen from your muscles.

Your goal is to overtrain the lats, then take four days off from lat training before you hit them again. Here’s a sample program:

Monday (Full Recovery Between Sets)

Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest
A1 Narrow parallel-grip chin-up 5 4-6 4011 120 sec.
A2 Dip 5 4-6 4110 120 sec.
B1 One-arm dumbbell row 5 6-8 3012 120 sec.
B2 Incline dumbbell press 5 6-8 32X0 120 sec.

Tuesday (Incomplete Rest Intervals)

Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest
A Close parallel-grip lat pulldown 4 8-10 2011 60 sec.
B Seated cable row to the neck 4 8-10 2012 60 sec.

Wednesday (Giant Sets)

Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest
A1 Mid-grip chin-up 3 6-8 30X0 10 sec.
A2 Twin-handle parallel-grip lat pulldown 3 8-10 30X0 10 sec.
A3 45-degrees lat pulldown 3 10-12 20X0 10 sec.
A4 Wide-grip lat pulldown 3 12-15 20X0 10 sec.
A5 Iron cross lat pulldown 3 15-20 10X0 10 sec.

From Thursday through Sunday, avoid direct lat training.

This system doesn’t work with every body part. With calves, for example, a better method is to pair it with a strong body part, like arms. So you do a set of biceps curls, and instead of taking a normal rest period, you rest just 10 seconds (or however long it takes you to move over to a calf-raise station), do a set there, rest 10 seconds as you return to wherever you were doing curls, do your next set, and repeat.

Calves can also be trained every other day. Every 48 hours, in other words – something no sane person would attempt with bigger muscle groups. (Try it with deadlifts, if you don’t believe me.)

Q: I have the calf development of a parrot. Got a new routine I can use?

Here’s a quick and dirty solution:

  1. Start at the standing calf-raise machine, eight reps with a two-second pause at the bottom of each rep.
  2. Rest 10 seconds.
  3. Load a barbell with about 25% of your body weight. Hold it in a squat position and, with minimal knee bend, jump up and down, bounding with the calves on each rep. Do this for 30 reps. The eccentric damage caused by the landing will favor hypertrophy.
  4. Repeat the superset four more times.

If that doesn’t make your calves grow, nothing will!

Q: I can’t squat due to a medical condition. What’s my best alternative?

My first question is, what medical condition are we talking about?

I ask because, in my experience, people who ask me this question are actually saying, “I’m a lazy fuck and I don’t want to squat. What can I do?” They just want me to justify their use of the leg press or something.

Listen, anything that hits the knee and hip extensors should also be “impossible” to do if you have a true medical condition that prohibits squatting. And if your back is sore, then leg presses are also going to be intolerable. Same thing with “bad knees.” Now, some of these people may think they can leg press without trouble, but it’s only because they’re not going down very far.

My answer for this one, without knowing more about the medical issue, is simple: Fix the medical condition, then do squats!

Q: I want lower abs like an underwear model – the guys with that V-shape below the navel. What exercises can I do to get it?

For starters, you have to get your diet in order to get as lean as he is.

Next, remember that the major compound exercises – chin-ups, deadlifts, and squats – build up the abs better than most ab exercises. That includes the inferior rows of the rectus abdominis, which give that V-shape you covet.

Q: In this article, you’re quoted as saying that a guy who can do pull-ups with a load equivalent to two-thirds of his body weight is “pretty damn impressive.” But what’s the most impressive pull-up performance you’ve ever seen?

First, let’s define a good pull up. It’s an overhand, wider-than-shoulder-width grip, and at the top of the movement your clavicles or upper pecs hit the bar.

A guy I knew once, who worked for a national ski team, would do 23 single-arm pull-ups off the end of a diving board in an empty swimming pool.

I also knew a bodyguard who could do a controlled, one-arm, one-finger pull-up – 30 seconds up, 30 seconds down. That guy was, not surprisingly, also a great mountain climber.

Q: A trainer at my gym said not to train abs first in my workout. If I do, my core will be fatigued, which could screw up my other lifts. True?

Yes, that’s true. If you’re going to squat and you do a bunch of ab work beforehand, your ability to control that load will be compromised. Anyone training with high loads using free weights should not train abs first in their workouts.

Direct ab exercises are finishers, not starters.

Q: My main goal is fat loss. Due to my schedule, I have to lift and do energy-systems work in the same workout. Is it best to do cardio first, or weights first?

Weights. Always.

It’s related to the rule of motor-unit recruitment. Always start with what’s hardest to recruit, then finish off with what’s easiest.

Now, do you want my totally honest answer? Fuck the treadmill. Lift for an hour, then go home and work on your diet for fat loss.

Q: I think I may be overtrained. Then again, maybe I’m just being a wuss. Any quick way to tell if I’ve pushed it too hard in the gym?

Here’s a simple way to tell: Record your body weight every morning when you wake up, after going to the bathroom. If your diet hasn’t really changed recently, and yet you suddenly see a 3.5% drop in body weight, then you’re probably starting to overtrain, which is another way of saying you’re under-recovered. The change is caused by a loss in muscle mass.

So if you’re an experienced athlete and typically weigh 200 pounds, then suddenly drop to 193 almost overnight without trying to, you’re overtrained. The solution is to back off the number of total sets you do in training, but not the intensity.

Q: I’m about to turn 40. What’s something I need to start paying more attention to?

Quality of sleep. It’s the most underrated health indicator and recovery factor.

High-quality sleep means putting your head on the pillow and not waking up until the next day. You also want to wake up at the same time every day.

But quantity of sleep isn’t the only problem. Erratic sleeping patterns are also bad for your health and your physique. If you wake up in the middle of the night to go pee, it’s not good sleep.

Remember, all the anabolic-hormone cascades depend on the quality of your sleep. A lot of males with low Testosterone levels can be cured simply by fixing their sleep patterns.

A low estimate is that 68% of the population doesn’t sleep properly. When I work with pro teams as a consultant, the first thing I do is teach them all the tricks I have for improving quality of sleep.

Now, a young guy can go out on Friday night, hunt for quiff until 4 a.m., then go to the gym on Saturday morning and deadlift without it affecting him much. Eventually, though, it starts to take a toll on you. Many men these days start to see a decline in Testosterone at age 31. Thirty-one is the new 50.

If you’re not sure if you’re getting quality sleep or not, this is your standard: You should always wake up under a teepee. If you don’t have a boner so solid you have to do a handstand to take a morning piss, your Testosterone levels are probably low.