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Strength Training 101

With professor Urban.

Ok, so youíre new to this game, welcome aboard.  This section will teach you the basics of constructing a routine geared towards general, functional strength and guide you through the first year of your venture in the gym.  Basically what I will cover in here are the elements of a good power lifting routine (which is a good base for strength routines).  For those of you not in the know, power lifting is a sport with three events (AKA the big three): The dead lift, the Squat, and the bench press.  To each one of these Movements there is quite a bit of technique for preventing injury and moving more weight.  Because of the abundance of articles on these techniques, Iíll only refer you to them later when it is appropriate (because my technique is not exactly flawless).  Weíll begin with a basic three day power lifting spit.  This encompasses pull, push, and squat days.  Abdominal work is to be factored in as well and Iíll cover that after I cover the bulk of these three days.  In addition, grip work is very important to your overall strength but I will cover that later as it is a whole other beast.

I always keep the first day as a pull day.  What this means is that most of your pulling motions are done on this day. You can just as easily do squats on your first day, I just happen to like deadlifts more. If, however, you find your deadlift getting MUCH larger than your squats I would strongly suggest you make this switch.  Because so many people who work out three days a week work M-W-F this also gives you two days of complete rest before your first day.  This is the day you will develop your back and biceps.  A couple of notes on your pull day:

  • There are three main motions to fully develop your back.  The deadlift (almost irreplaceable as a lower back exercise), overhead pulls (such as pull-ups and pull downs) and Lateral pulls (such as bent over rows, chest supported rows, or seated rows).
  • Your lower back responds in ways that are not similar to other parts of your body: muscle soreness here is often mistaken for injury.  This is because your body has evolved in a way that warns you of potential injury to your lower back.  It evolved this way to prevent you from aggravating an injury and potentially causing paralysis.  If your lower back is sore, rest, check your form, and try again next week (assuming you are not still very sore).
  • A note on biceps, because I mentioned them earlier.  Youíre thinking right now that curls are the way to go, and you are wrong.  Training with heavy rows, and pulling motions will train your biceps better than if you were to train them by themselves.

The dead lift is a short movement but encompasses just every major muscle group.  It is the main lift of your pull day because, done correctly, it will require the most energy.  Good Article on deadlift technique and common errors, Here

The second day is your press day.  Thatís right boys and girls, every high school jockís love in the weight room: the bench press.  Oddly enough, this movement is, in my opinion, the least important in developing real, functional strength.  This is not to say itís unimportant, because upper body strength is necessary to fully train the body.  All I want you to know is that coming into the weight room 3+ days a week and training bench press every day is just making you look like a fool in front of people who know what theyíre doing.  Thatís all.  Simple enough?  Now onto notes for constructing a press day:

  • Your bench press consists of mainly three contracting muscle (groups): your pectorals (possibly least important) your shoulders, and your triceps (probably most important).
  • Your triceps, like your biceps, should be training by themselves as little as possible (this means no cable push downs, no overhead dumbbell extensions, etc.).  Also, many people find that their biceps need more volume (sets x reps x weight = volume), so most of the time I recommend two exercises for your triceps in a push day.

Not really much else to say on the matter, being the most involved lift the bench press is your main lift on this day, and you can pick up some helpful pointers here

Last but definitely not least is your Squat day.  Your lower body has had three days of rest by this point and itís time to put some weight on your back and work.  If when I said squat you immediately thought of a machine then you have been poorly mislead my friend.  Squat does not mean leg press nor is leg press in any way an appropriate substitution for squats.  Yes you can handle more weight on a machine but squats are a far superior movement.  Important things:

  • The first thing to note is that going beyond parallel is not (I repeat not (did you hear that?  NOT)) bad for your knees.  Well, it isnít any worse than stopping at parallel.  Your knees are actually their least stable at 90ļ (which is parallel for you math whizzes out there), so why would you suddenly stop and switch directions when youíre most prone to injury. 
  • Squatting as low as you can go will require more balance and coordination.  More balance will recruit more stabilizer muscles (little muscles all over your body to help keep you from shaking, falling over, swaying, etc.). Stronger stabilizer + better coordination = more strength applicable to things that arenít as well balanced as a plate loaded barbell.
  • Quads are not really your only key movers in this lift.  Like dead lifts your squat incorporates you whole body, putting particular emphasis on your lower back, quads, glutes (your butt) and your hamstrings.  All of these are important for a big squat.
  • Your lower body houses some of the biggest muscles in the male body (btw a womanís largest muscle is her uterus, and unfortunately the only way to work that is giving birth.  Regardless the legs house her second largest muscles).

So squats are important, and are completely safe.  Aside from the main lift, the back squat, there are various other squat variants youíre going to run into (Front squats, pause squats, hack squats, Ĺ squats, the list goes on and on).  Last but not least, a squat article for you to read here

Lastly there are your abdominal and core muscles.  Odds are, btw, that right now you donít know shit about abdominal training.  Itís no big deal; just about everyone out there is spending time doing endless crunches without getting any particularly astonishing results.  Let me start by saying this, your abs are like any other muscle and need to be trained heavy.  You need weight to train your abs properly.  This doing 200 crunches a night crap is garbage.  Also if you can train your abs every day, youíre doing it WRONG. Now that you know this, we can begin.  There are three or four different types of abdominal exercises and all accomplish different things.

  • First, and most popular, are your abdominals.  Your abs are worked mostly by contracting them to move your upper body to your lower body while your lower body remains stationary.  Some good exercises for this are sit-ups (not crunches, full chest to knees, hands behind your ears (not head) sit-ups), Ab wheel rollouts (the site advocates against rolling out with your arms extended, however, I feel if you keep a slightly rounded back, you should keep your arms oriented in the same way relative to your torso all the way through, which would make them extended at the end), and standing cable crunches.  A note on sit-ups, go here and find a level you can do 3 sets of 10 at.  Now from week to week add a set when you can and when you can do 7-10 sets of 10, re-assess your level.Remember, the sit-ups on that site are with your feet unsupported (nothing is holding them down) and if they come off the ground, thatís a failed rep.
  • Next are your obliques.  Now here is where the discrepancy comes in as to 3 or 4 different ways you can train your midsection.  Your obliques can be trained by side crunching and side bending motions, or through rotational exercise.  If general strength is your goal either, will work fine, and you would do best to mix it up.  However as a striker (a boxer or a kick boxer) you will want rotational strength more.  Good oblique crunching moves are Saxon side bends, Bent press, windmills, and side press all of which are described here. Also on that page is the full contact twist (a good rotational exercise).  In addition to the FCT, Russian twists, and Gagneís cyclones are great rotational exercises and are described here.A new addition to my rotational arsenal is the Power iron coil, which are just plain hard.
  • Last but not least are your hip flexors.  These are worked by contracting your midsection by bringing your legs to your chest (via leg raise type exercises).  Interesting note, in a pole menís health (a garbage magazine for weight training) took of Cosmo readers, abs were the most desirable part of a man to women.  But not just the abs, it was the diagonal muscles that made the lines towards your crotch they liked.  Guess what?  Those are your hip flexors.  So lie on your back with your legs together and raise them up to be perpendicular to the floor.  Any leg raise variant will work your hip flexors pretty well.  If you are really hardcore, try dragon flags.  You can go here again to get a description of a partial dragon flag.  A full dragon flag will go down and come back up (touching but not resting on the bench).You want my hip flexor secret?SQUAT!I donít do leg raises personally, but that doesnít mean somebody out there couldnít benefit from them.

Now that you know how to work your abs, you probably want to know how to see them.  That is a matter of body fat.  Watch what you eat, kick up your cardio, and youíll have a six pack in no time.  Spot reduction is a myth.  Doing a 1000 sit-ups will not get you a six pack because itís burning away the fat on your stomach.  Think of your body fat as a pool, if you take water out of the middle of the pool will the surface there be lower than the rest over the rest of it?  No, the water (much like your body fat) will redistribute according to the layout of the pool (your genetics).

If youíre new to lifting (less than 4-6 months of serious consistent training) stick with higher reps until you meet that benchmark.As a general rule for 8 weeks I would have you just do 3 sets of 8-12 on most exercises (notable exceptions to follow in the routine) and rest for a 90 seconds or so in between sets (To me rest time isnít really that important.Rest until youíre ready, and your whole workout should take less than an hour and thatís the only criteria I try to meet).Then add a set, two weeks later add another set. By your 12th week you should be doing 5x8-12 for each exercise. Now that you have your sets up to 5, for the next 8 weeks you're going to reduce reps. start with 8 reps on all your exercises, and each week do one less (with more weight you ninny).

ďOk, so I should be failing on every set right?Push as hard as I can and have my spotter save me on the last rep or two each time?ĒNO!You should fail on less than 20% of your sets.Strength is LARGELY based on your central nervous system and the better you condition it not to fail, the better off you are.Failure will happen from time to time (from a bad session, simply thinking youíre stronger than you are, not long enough rest between sets, etc.), but rarely should you STRIVE to fail on a set.This holds particularly true for overhead presses, in that instance, fail less than 10% or 5% of the time.

Three weeks into when you began reducing reps, you're going to be doing 5 reps on everything. Perfect. now keep your assistance exercises around the 4-6 rep range and keep knocking off reps on your main lifts (bench, Squat and deadlift) until your down to 1 rep. now you can go to failure. This is going to be your max. Go down to 80% of this and keep doing 5x5 for three weeks, then start knocking off reps for the last 5 weeks. Repeat until youíre a strong mother fucker.This is called linear periodization.There are several alternatives, many of which are very complicated, but one that is extremely simple.

The simple way to become a strong mother fucker is to keep your reps and sets up (5-10 sets of 1 to 5 reps).And each week you strive to beat your performance last week with either more volume, more reps, or more weight.So last week if you worked up to deadlifting 3 @ 300, this week you may strive to deadlift 4 @ 300 (more reps and volume) or 3 @ 300 then 1 @ 300 (more volume), or 2 @ 325 (more weight).This is the kind of mentality you should use on your assistance lifts no matter what youíre doing with your key lifts.From the beginning, you should be striving to progress on everything on a regular basis, but for the first 20 weeks you want to keep things at sub-maximal weights (that means youíre not killing yourself in the gym).You can still strive for more reps or more weights, but youíre not maxing out every time.Focus on form, and move slow as a beginner, you need to realize that if you add 5 lbs a week, thatís 260 lbs a yearÖ so focus on your form.

Now letís put all this together in a routine:

Day 1 Ė Pull

Deadlift Ė

Weighted Pull-ups Or Bent over row

Stiff legged Deadlifts Or Romanian Deadlifts

Ab Wheel rollouts

You have your deadlifts, an overhead pull, a hamstring exercise, a lateral pull, and in addition this is one of your two Ab days.  You can, at the end, tack on some power shrugs.The deadlift is the first exercise I wouldnít use the 3 x 8-12 rep scheme on for beginners. Instead, consider doing 20 sets of 1 rep with a minute per set.You can get progressively heavier each set if you like, but you should not be approaching maximal weights.After about 8 weeks of that you can move on to 10 x 2-3 or so.Set the bar down and let go in between every rep.It has been my experience as well that pull-ups respond best to higher reps (8-12), and conversely bent over rows respond best to low reps (4-6), so after the initial technique building weeks, thatís something you want to take into consideration.Ab wheel rollouts can be done from the knees if you suck at them, and to add difficulty you can raise your knees up on a platform or wear a weighted backpack.When you get up to half your bodyweight in the backpack do them standing instead of on your knees.

Rest day

Day 2 Ė Press

Barbell Flat Bench press

Military press or Dumbbell incline Bench press

Tate press

Some other pressing assistance.

Main lift, Shoulder lift (or shoulder and pectoral lift), a tricep lift, and whatever else you feel like doing.  Presses can take a lot of volume and a lot of people work them twice a week with good results.However, here is the military press, which you are NOT to fail on.Again, if you canít make another rep, just rack the bar and adjust the weight for the next set. If you have the enough energy, do close grip bench instead of tate presses to add more specific work to your triceps.  You can work your hip flexors here if you want, I left them out becauseÖwell I donít normally work my hip flexors.That comes on day 3 when I squat.

Rest Day

Day 3 Ė Squat

Power squats

Box squats (make sure the box is low) or Front squats

Good Mornings or Romanian Deadlift

Saxon side bends

Main lift first, technique oriented lift or quad lift based lift, Hamstring lift and a midsection exercise.  Box squats will help teach you to sit back and not down on your squats.  Many beginners have trouble with this concept.You need to understand squatting is not about going up and down with a weight on your shoulders: itís about moving your hips back and forward.Itís all in the hips: your heels should stay on the ground at all times, and youíre going to bend forward at the waist.Sit back into a squat not down. Also, as an alternative to using dumbbells on Saxon Side Bends, you can use a barbell or a heavy plate.

Now that you know how to choose the exercises you want for your routine, you can play with it.  you can mix and match most of the exercises in a routine like this to make 3 full body days, or you can move the exercises around so that you to countering motions (put bench press right before bent over row), or arrange it however you want.  Just make sure of a couple things: donít move your main lifts.  If you want to swap dead lifts and back squats, fine, but keep flat bench in between them as a buffer.  Do not work a body part two workouts in a row, if you work your hams on Day 1, donít do it on day 2.

I want to introduce the term compound lift first before I call this done.  In the scheme of how to work your muscles there are two types of exercises: Isolated and compound.  Isolated exercises are that only involve the movement of one joint or one muscle groupís contraction.  Bicep curls, Hamstring curls, Leg extensions, and triceps kickbacks are a good examples of isolated exercise.  Now at first glance it may seem like Isolated may be the way to go for training your muscles, but consider how often you have to use your bicep in isolation in real life: almost never.  So why train that way?  Compound movements, which involve the bending of multiple joints or multiple muscle groups, will train your Central Nervous system to use your muscles in combination, thereby yielding greater potential to build good functional strength.  Train compound, get stronger faster.  Itís that simple.

Well thatís it sports fans.  Good luck!  Lift heavy, train hard, go home happy!And be sure to read the what I learned article.It will keep you from making some disastrous mistakes.


Last Updated 1/25/06