Question of Strength 53

by Christian Thibaudeau

Your Questions, Expert Answers

Coaches and steroid users, the best trap exercises, Russian vs. American kettlebell swings, and box jumps for conditioning.

Coaches and steroid users, the best trap exercises, Russian vs. American kettlebell swings, and box jumps for conditioning.

Training Natties vs. Training Juicers

Q: How important is it for you to know if an athlete or bodybuilder you’re working with is using steroids or other PEDs? Do you ask? Is it obvious? Does it change how you train them?

It’s super important. I’ve worked with natural and enhanced individuals alike. And you simply cannot train them the same way, unless you have a natural athlete who’s a genetic freak in the muscle-building department.

For example, an individual with the ACTN3 RR genotype and with naturally high testosterone and IGF-1 levels could build MORE muscle and respond better to training than someone with poor genetics who’s using low-to-moderate amount of steroids.

I’ve trained a pro football player who was 323 pounds, 6’0" with a biceps vein, and who could bench press 525 pounds. One day he came up to me and asked to talk in private.

“Christian, this year is the last year of my contract and I really need a solid year…”

(Shit, I knew where this was going.)

“Do you think I could do… a cycle… of… creatine?”

I’m not kidding! The guy had never used creatine or even protein shakes for that matter!

People kept asking me what I had him do for his bench press. The guy benched 315 x 6 when he was 15. He military-pressed 315 for reps when he was 18. He was just a freak.

But these guys are few and far between (1-2 percent of the population). The normal, natural lifter doesn’t have the advantages that drug users and freaks have, and they just can’t tolerate the same amount of training. The main differences are:

Frequency Per Muscle

Anabolic drugs turn on protein synthesis and it stays elevated pretty much 24/7, meaning that steroid users don’t need to hit a muscle as often to get maximum growth. A natural lifter will have elevated protein synthesis in a muscle only when he trains that muscle, and it stays elevated for 24-36 hours.

As such, a natural lifter should train a muscle 2-3 times per week for maximum growth, whereas an enhanced lifter can grow just fine hitting a muscle hard once a week. (Though I still believe that hitting it twice per week will be better.)


Enhanced lifters can recover from more training volume. They repair muscle damage much faster and more easily because of the higher protein synthesis. That’s why the approach of completely destroying a muscle once a week that’s popular among bodybuilders will work well with enhanced lifters, but not so much with the average natural.

Furthermore, frequency of hitting a muscle and volume per session are inversely related: the more often you hit a muscle, the less volume per workout you can do. A natural lifter should hit a muscle more often for optimal results, which is another reason why they shouldn’t do a high amount of volume per session.

Number of Exercises

This goes with the volume component. An enhanced lifter can recover and grow from more volume, so they can do more exercises for each muscle group.

And if you’re like most gym bros, you believe in “bombarding your muscle from every angle.” Well, a natural has to be more careful with his exercise selection. Since he can’t recover as well and tolerate as much volume, he can’t use a zillion exercises every workout. So he must select exercises with great care and choose movements that give the biggest bang for their buck.

He should also avoid redundant exercises (doing bench press, then dumbbell bench press or Smith machine bench press for example) and avoid garbage volume (exercises that’ll provide very little in terms of added benefits).

Whether the natural lifter can go heavy or not has more to do with the CNS, so both natural and enhanced lifters can go heavy if they have the nervous system for it.

How do you know if you have the nervous system for it?

  • Do you crash 2-3 hours after a heavy workout?
  • Are you moody or unmotivated the day after a heavy session?
  • Is your resting heart rate significantly elevated the morning after a heavy workout?
  • Do you have a drop in libido after a few weeks of heavy lifting?
  • Do you have problems sleeping when you train heavy, even when you trained early in the day?

If that’s you, you likely don’t have the nervous system suited to tolerate a lot of heavy work.

Making Sense of the Overhead Kettlebell Swing

Q: American (overhead) kettlebell swings aren’t for everyone, but is there ever a place for them? They’ve never given me shoulder problems and I enjoy them more than conventional Russian kettlebell swings.

Good question. Let’s break it down:

Exercises for Upper Back and Traps

Q: Got any new exercises for traps and upper back?

Dude, I’m always looking for new trap exercises! To quote Paul Carter, “Traps are the new abs.”

Nowadays having big meaty traps can make you as sexy as having a chiseled six pack, which means building them is a sought-after training goal. But why is that?

My first theory is that CrossFit (and athletes in general) have a lot to do with it. A lot of serious lifters now want to look like athletes. CrossFit has made that trend even more popular and has encouraged more people to do deadlifts, cleans, and snatches (for better or worse).

With the increase in popularity of these lifts, you had a spillover effect to powerlifting and Olympic lifting which have seen their membership increase exponentially in recent years. And those lifts do normally make your traps jacked. So having big traps is a physical sign of being an “athlete.”

But maybe a better reason has been highlighted in a recent study conducted in an Australian university. It gave women shirtless pictures of male torsos and they were asked to rank them in order of attractiveness and perception of strength.

Not surprisingly, the more muscular physiques were seen as a lot more desirable than the less muscular ones. In fact, none of the skinny or fat torsos received ANY votes for being attractive. (More info here: 70 Percent of Your Sexiness Comes From This).

But the one cool conclusion is that it was the impression of strength that made the greatest impact on how desirable a male physique is. If a physique looked strong AF – even if the guy wasn’t super lean – he was seen as desirable. And nothing screams “strong” like big traps.

I think my love for traps came from when I got to see an exhibition game between the Steelers and Patriots in 1989 and they showed pictures of the players on the giant screen. One of the Steelers linebacker had traps that looked almost as wide as his shoulders. And I immediately thought, “That guy is a beast.”

Over the years I’ve always been on the lookout for new and effective traps exercises. I thought I’d tried everything, including:

Power Shrugs

Olympic Lifts and the High Pull

And Zercher Shrugs

But I recently learned a new one from Jim Wendler and it’s quickly becoming my favorite. While I call it the Wendler row, Jim himself would likely call it the T-bar shrug. Regardless of what you call it, it’s a superb exercise.

Because of the line of pull, you’ll hit not only the upper but also the middle fibers of the traps, which will give you “height” and “thickness.” These characteristics will give you a much thicker torso and will also give you better leverage when bench pressing. They’ll help keep the rhomboids and upper back tight when pressing.

It’s a pretty straightforward movement. Using the landmine/T-bar set-up, and ideally a parallel/neutral grip, you stand upright and row the weight up, initiating the movement with a shrug. It’s not a pure shrug because, just like with the standing cable row and the Kirk row, you’re pulling with your arm (bending at the elbow joint). That actually facilitates a more important trap contraction.

It’s best to keep your elbows pointing back, which is why I prefer to use a neutral grip. This allows you to recruit the middle fibers more effectively and prevents internal shoulder rotation, which you should avoid when training traps.

You can even do a form of mechanical drop set by changing the angle of the torso during the set. As you get fatigued, you can lean back a bit more and that’ll allow you to get a few more reps.

I like to go fairly heavy on these, sets of 6-8 reps, but with a 2-second hold at the peak of contraction. I do these twice per week as my third exercise in a session, but it’s mostly because my main goal is strength. (I currently do 4 exercises per workout: the main lift, the assistance exercise, upper back work, and then a loaded carry.) Those who are more into pure bodybuilding should shoot for sets lasting 40-60 seconds under tension.

So for hypertrophy you could do…

  • 8-10 reps with a 3-second hold and 2-second eccentric/negative. The set would last around 48-60 seconds.
  • 10-12 reps with a 2-second hold and 2-second eccentric (50-60 seconds)
  • 12-15 reps with a 2-second hold and normal eccentric/concentric (48-60 seconds)
  • 15-20 reps with a 1-second hold and normal eccentric/concentric (45-60 seconds)

All of these put you in the ideal hypertrophy zone for a targeted exercise.

Note that I also use a variation of this exercise with a pulley station. It’s a slightly different stimulus but works equally well.

Give this one a shot, it’s an awesome way to get a thick upper back.

Box Jumps For Conditioning

Q: Every trainer on the internet says that your body is going to explode if you do box jumps for conditioning. But I have never once been injured by them, and my legs were the leanest and tightest they’ve ever been when I was doing them as part of metcon workouts. (I’m female if that matters.) I stopped because of all the online warnings, but I’d like to add them back. Is there any real reason why not to… aside from spontaneous explosions?

I have mixed feelings about your question. The first 10 years of my career was spent training pro and high-level amateur athletes, so the strength coach in me hates it when an exercise is used for a different purpose than what it’s designed to do.

High-rep Olympic lifts and high-rep jumps are at the top of that list. It’s not so much because of the increased risk of injuries (although it can be a problem) but because it’s like using a screwdriver to hit a nail.

Jumps’ primary benefit is to increase power production and jumping height. This is best done by doing all-out efforts – trying to jump up as high as possible – or at least 85-90% efforts. And an all-out jump is very demanding on the nervous system; it’s a max effort just like a heavy squat. That’s why very high reps are counterproductive toward the main goal of the exercise.

First, when you have very high reps, you’ll never do max effort jumps. You jump just high enough to reach the box, saving energy to do all the reps. You never jump “hard enough” to increase power production. You’ll also learn bad motor habits because most of the jumps will be done in a fatigued state.

So as a strength coach my answer is that using box jumps for conditioning is a big no-no. It’s like sprinting with an 80 pound vest with the goal of building muscle. I’m not saying it won’t have an effect, but it will mess up your running mechanics, making you slower.

But you’re not an athlete. And your goal is to get leaner, not to jump higher. So I’m tempted to say, “Who cares if the exercise isn’t effective at making you jump higher?” What we have to do is look at high-rep box jumps and assess if the risks outweigh the benefits.

You mentioned that your legs were the leanest and tightest when you used box jumps as part of your metcon sessions. How is the rest of your body composition? If your upper body is just as lean or leaner, then yeah, we could potentially say that box jumps had a special effect on your lower body.

But if your upper body is a bit softer and less lean, then we’re talking more about a generalized effect, and box jumps can’t be the reason for the difference in leanness. Diet or overall training is likely the reason but your brain focuses on the one thing you believe to be the answer.

I will say one thing: I believe that explosive work like jumps and sprints will get the lower body harder, leaner, and tighter. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

I can’t explain exactly why. It could be from an increase in muscle insulin sensitivity (some studies point to that) or targeting the fast twitch fibers, which are more superficial. But the effect seems to be real.

So, high-rep box jumps are an inferior form of explosive training but it’s explosive training nonetheless, so I’m not excluding their potential effect on leanness.

But Let’s Look at the Potential Dangers

“I have never been injured doing them” has never been and never will be something that proves that something isn’t dangerous. I’ve coached a lot of CrossFit athletes and have seen many injuries from box jumps.

Shin injuries from missing the box are common: people land a bit too close to the edge of the box and slip. While most of those who have that happen only have a superficial (but very painful) injury, some can actually do structural damage to their tibia.

That was my case 20 years ago when I was prepping for the National Weightlifting Championships and using box jumps as an activation exercise. I hit my shin hard and had to miss two weeks of training.

The other source of injury is the landing. We’ve seen high-level CrossFit athletes, who are in much better physical condition than you or me, tear their Achilles tendon while landing from box jumps. I’ve also seen knee injuries.

See, when you land from a 20-24" drop (height of a regular box) the force during the absorption phase will be at least 4 times your body weight and can be as high as 6 times.

If you’re 130 pounds that means at least 520 pounds of force on your knees, hips, and ankles. So the potential for injury is there, especially since most people don’t focus on the landing phase of a jump.

The risk of injury is likely not as high as the internet “experts” make it out to be. But it’s still higher than most exercises you could use instead.

A Better Way

Prowler/sled sprints or hill sprints would likely give you the same kind of results. Prowler sprints are one of the best ways to get a woman’s legs lean and hard.

But if you still want to use box jumps, do them the smart way: don’t do them for speed or for super-high reps. But you can still include them in a metcon format. Here’s an example:

Four Rounds:

  • 10 Box Jumps (10 is the highest I would go)
  • Note: Stay two seconds on the box and two seconds on the floor (to avoid rushing into the jumps and landings); focus on proper landing mechanics both on the box and on the floor.
  • A 250 Meter Row
  • 20 Russian Kettlebell Swings
  • Rest 1 minute and repeat 3 times.

You’ll still get the benefits from the explosive work and will greatly diminish the risk factor.