Tag Archives: movement

Contrast Training To Boost Strength Gains

Contrast training is one of the most effective ways to increase your strength levels, power output, muscle mass, metabolic function for fat loss, and overall performance levels.

contrast training
Sprinting with a parachute or sled, followed by sprinting with no resistance, is a great example of contrast training.

I first read about contrast training in Yuri Verkhoshansky’s Supertraining, but I have seen it employed elsewhere for a variety of different training goals and applications.

The concept is simple. Taking an example from Verkhoshansky and something we’ve probably all done in our lives, imagine picking up a can that was half full of liquid when our mind thought it was full. Typically what happens is we move the can with much more force than we intended and make a big mess. Our nervous system was primed based on past performance and therefore muscle capability was enhanced.

Now apply this to strength training. There are two different ways I use contrasts in my training. I use contrasting movements (an explosive movement after a heavy lift) and I use contrasting tempos (lighter loads with explosive, faster tempo than normal).

Using either of these, think of the above water example. Working in explosive movements/tempos after a strength movement recruits more motor units and produces more force. The benefits are straightforward. The more muscle you recruit, the more explosive, strong, and powerful you are. Contrast training also increases the amount of work you are doing giving you a greater metabolic boost than normal training. And obviously, the more muscle you recruit, the more hypertrophy you can induce (although you may want to up your reps slightly for a hypertrophy focus).

Putting Contrast Training Into Practice

Ok, so you get the concept, but how do you actually implement it? As mentioned before, I use contrast training in two different ways.

#1 Contrasting Movements

Start with a 5-8 rep set of a heavy lift and pair it with an unloaded explosive movement with the same rep scheme. For example, a heavy set of squats followed by a set of box jumps; or a heavy set of bench followed by a set of plyo push-ups; or a heavy sled drag followed by an all-out sprint.

contrast training
Heavy squats followed by max effort box jumps will increase your strength and explosiveness.

Your unloaded contrasting movement should be done with maximal effort. Rest times in between your heavy lift and contrast movement can vary and is goal dependent. If you goal is maximal strength, rest for 3 minutes. If your goal is for increased athletic performance or fat loss, rest for 30 seconds or no rest at all. For hypertrophy, split the difference somewhere in between.

Four to five sets (of each movement) will do the trick. Use the lower end of the rep scheme for maximal strength, and the upper end for hypertrophy and fat loss. You don’t need to use contrast movements every training session, as I don’t recommend training maximally for extended periods of time, but continuously keep it as part of your training toolkit.

#2 Contrasting Tempos

For this, you are doing the same movement (bench, squat, deadlift, etc.) for three sets, but varying the tempo in which your perform it. You start with a set of slow tempo emphasizing the eccentric movement of the lift, then perform a set faster than normal, and then perform a normal one. Here is an example:

Set 1: Using a moderate weight (70-80% of your 1 rep max), you use a very slow tempo (about 5 seconds on the negative portion of the lift) and then pause near the bottom of the lift for 2-3 seconds. For squats the pause would be at roughly parallel, for bench, the bar just above your chest, etc. The idea here is that you keep full body tension. After the pause, you perform the concentric part of the lift normally. This set is done for 2-3 reps, and then you rest for 2 minutes.

Set 2: This set is done with lighter weight (60-70%) but done explosively. You control the eccentric portion, but explode from the bottom applying as much force as you can. This set is for 3-5 reps, and then rest for 60 seconds.

Set 3: This set is done with the heaviest weight (80-85%) using normal tempo (2 seconds down, no pause, 2 seconds up). This set is for 4-6 reps and then you rest 3 minutes.

You perform this series of sets (all 3) 2-3 times, giving you a total of 6-9 sets.

After your last set, try to end your training with the tempo that is most conducive to your goals. For example, if you are a strength athlete always end your training with the heaviest set. If you’re a an athlete and are trying to develop explosiveness, then add in an extra set of set #2 at the end of the series. For hypertrophy, end the series with an extra set of #1.

contrast training
This is perfect position for pausing at the bottom of the squat.

Training Smarter, Not Harder

Use contrast training to help boost your performance, but know how to tailor them to your goals based on the recommendations I gave above. These are easy to integrate into any strength training program, so use them to your advantage and break through your plateaus. But as with anything else, do not overuse them to the point that they lose their effectiveness.

— Tank

How to Improve Your Pull-Ups

The pull-up, sometimes referred to as the “upper-body squat”, is one of the best tests of your relative strength (strength to bodyweight). It’s one of the greatest upper-body builders there is and one that all serious lifters should train to master.pull ups

But pull-ups give a lot of people problems and it can be one of the hardest exercises to improve on…until now.

Use these methods to improve your pull-up performance.

#1 Do Not Train to Failure

This is by far the most prevalent violation of training your pull-ups. With any other exercise, you usually implement some form of progressive overload and you don’t train maximally day in and day out. But yet, I often see people doing set after set of pull-ups until failure and then wonder why they are not making progress.

You must treat your progression in pull-ups just as you would any other exercise and not train maximally every training session. By implementing some sort of pull-up specific training plan with progressive overload, I can almost guarantee you that your performance will improve.

#2 Train the Regressions, Progressions, and Variations

If you are trying to increase the number of pull-ups you can do, work in some variations that allow you to do more reps. Recline rows work well here and give you the ability to develop your pulling power and really initiate your lats. Vary your grip positions as well (narrow, neutral, overhand, underhand, wide).

For those of you who can already do 10 or more pull-ups and want to further increase your ability, strap some weight to a weight belt and do weighted pull-ups. Then, when you go back to pure bodyweight pull-ups, your movement will feel much lighter.

#3 Train Assistance Movements

There are a ton of row variations. Rows are one of the main exercises I recommend for building your back and by improving your pulling-power in other row movements, you will be improving your pulling-power on your pull-ups too. Single arm dumbbell rows, barbell rows, recline rows, and lat pull-downs are all great for improving pulling power.

#4 Modify Your Rep Ranges in Your Variations and Assistance Movements

This one is important. If you are trying to increase the number of pull-ups you can do, you probably need to add in some more endurance work. Lifting heavy the majority of the time will work wonders for your strength, but say you are stuck on a 5 pull-up max, training heavy with low rep sets on all of your assistance work may not benefit you.

If you want to increase your reps on pull-ups, try increasing your reps on rows and other similar movements as well, so you are conditioned for more endurance that high-rep sets of pull-ups require. For most of you training Primal style, that means throwing in high rep sets of 12 or more on your pull-up specific movements, rather than typical strength rep ranges of 3-8.

#5 Use Your Latspull ups

This comes down to a simple tweaking of technique, but I’ve found that this one adjustment can add up to 3 solid pull-ups on your current max. You must initiate your pull-ups by firing up your lats and not by pulling with your biceps. Cue yourself to drive your elbows down and back when you start the movement; this will engage your lats and take the emphasis off your biceps, giving you much more pulling power.

#6 Improve Your Grip Strength

The more grip strength you have, the easier any lift will feel. Pull-ups are no different.

Train your grip strength with farmer carries, barbell pulling movements, and the use of fat bars. If you don’t have access to fat bars, invest in a pair of Fat Gripz. They are always in my gym bag, and I use them every single day. You can pick up a pair through Primal, on the right hand side of this screen.

#7 Cut Body Fat

Extra weight might help you put up bigger numbers in leverage based exercises like squats and deadlifts or some sport specific activities, but in most other cases it’s worthless and unhealthy. Trimming excess weight will help you move more efficiently and improve your mobility, not to mention make pull-ups a hell of a lot easier.

— Tank

Explosive Power for Strength Gains

Explosiveness is key for generating force and strength.  Without it, you will never meet your potential at the big lifts like bench press or deadlifts.  While most gym rats focus on gaining size and developing strength via training heavy, developing explosive power to augment your raw strength can be your competitive edge.

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys
There are a number of ways to develop explosiveness, and here is what I would recommend.

#1: Up Your Tempo

This one is probably the most obvious, but if you take a look around the gym, I’m willing to guess that less than 20% of the average Joes are doing it.  The problem is people read too much junk on the internet and lift with 4/2/1 tempos or spend an ungodly amount of time on each rep trying to maximize time under tension.  For most barbell lifts, you should be doing them as fast as you can and with explosion (controllably, not like a damn maniac).  This means a 2/0/2 tempo at most.  Move the bar with some authority.

If you start doing all of your reps with some explosiveness, it is inevitable that over time you will become more explosive.

#2: Do Speed Work

This is a classic remedy for when you get stuck at a strength plateau and you need to be able to apply more force and accelerate the bar in order to put up bigger numbers.

Some of you may ask, isn’t speed work just upping your tempo?  Yes and no.  When I spoke about upping your tempo above, I’m assuming that you can increase the tempo of your current working sets (in that 70-85% of 1 rep max zone I talk about here).  If you can grind out a working set of 5 reps on the bench with a slow tempo, I’m betting that you can do the same, if not more, with a higher tempo.

But with speed work, you are reducing the weight you can handle greatly to about 50-75% of your 1 rep max and banging out sets of 5-8 as explosively as possible.  Working with the lighter weights, you will be able to up your tempo more controllably, and while it may seem easy, you are priming your body for improved neurological efficiency.

Spend too much time on the left side of this curve, and your explosiveness will suffer. You need to incorporate some speed work in order to help augment maximal strength.

#3: Learn the Olympic Lifts

There is nothing better for athletes than learning the explosive lifts.  While squats, deadlifts, and overhead press remain my go to gym lifts and mass builders, the olympic lifts are some of the most explosive lifts you can do.  While they are highly technical and can be hard to learn, for someone trying to develop explosive power they can be essential.

I attended an olympic lifting seminar a while back taught by the head football strength and conditioning coach from the Virginia Military Institute, and he spoke of how he has his athletes olympic lift several times a week.

At the very least you should learn how to clean and press, which is something I’m required to do a lot training for Strongman.  If you could only do one upper body exercise for the rest of your life, this would be it.

Laura Snatch

#4: Embrace Plyometrics

Back when my vertical jump was at its highest, so were my squat and bench numbers.  I was jumping twice a week and developed explosiveness that directly translated to my performance in the weight room.

Jumping for height and distance is all you need to do once or twice a week.  Nothing fancy, but it needs to be part of your training.  Not only will this help with explosion, but it’s a great conditioning tool as well.  Vertical jumps, box jumps, hurdle jumps, and broad jumps are all you need here.

Evolve!!

— Tank

How Do I Incorporate Bodyweight Into My Strength Training?

Bodyweight training is an essential part of any serious strength training routine.

Contrary to what many people may believe, it is a great way to build muscle if you know how to properly integrate it into your training.  It develops stability and balance, core strength, and will become more and more important as you get older.  Plus some of the movements require some serious muscle to pull off.

Still have your doubts?  Look at any male gymnast.  Those guys train bodyweight all day long and they are jacked.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzhQVDj0iOQ[/tube]

But, like anything else that you take on, to get good at it, you need to practice.  The one thing I’ve found is that we get so busy with the other aspects of our training, like trying to set PR’s at the big barbell lifts, or gain weight by doing high-volume, moderate-intensity work, we neglect the bodyweight exercises.

Listen, I get it 100%.  It’s tough to cram everything in.  It’s hard for me to pry myself away from the bar too.

At one point, I really tried.  I got really enthralled with bodyweight training and I decided to train that way once a week, in addition to a 4 day heavy strength training routine.  I had grand plans of crushing pistol squats, and all of the inversions, and every single pushup and parallel bar exercises you could imagine.

I quickly learned something.  My intentions were good, but you can’t get good at anything by doing it just once a week.  Getting bigger and stronger is my priority, which requires heavy lifting.  But bodyweight training is still an important component and I wasn’t going to neglect it.  So I had to find a better way…

So what is the best way to incorporate bodyweight training into a regular weight lifting routine?

Strategy #1: Work It Into Your Warm-Up

Every time you train, you should be warming up.  By working bodyweight movements into your warm-ups, you are practicing them upwards of 4 times a week.

Pushups, pull-ups, bodyweight squats, jumps, and lunges are all staples of Primal warm-ups.  By the time we are done, we’ve already hit 100 reps of bodyweight work before the workout has even started.  This allows you to keep your heavy weightlifting workouts the same, but still get in an ample dose of bodyweight training.

Strategy #2: Learn the Variations

This is a biggie.  The key to building muscle with bodyweight training is learning the progressions.

pistol squat strength training

A lot of times people master pushups or pull-ups and stop there.  It’s “too easy” and they get bored.

But can you do plyo-pushups?  Inverted pushups?  Feet elevated pushups?  Bet you can’t do one-arm pushups!

“I can squat 400lbs, so what do I need to bodyweight squat for?”

Sure you can, but what about jump squats?  One legged squats?  You are a real hard ass if you can pistol squat.

Maybe hanging leg raises are easy.  How about front-levers?

It takes impressive muscle development to pull off these moves.

Learn the variations and work them into your training.  Devote 10-15 minutes of your gym day to working on them.  You don’t need to master them all of course.

Pick 1 or 2 and work at them consistently.  Over time you will get better.  Then you can work one or two more variations into your training at a time until you eventually build up a repertoire.

Strategy #3: Use Bodyweight as a Finisher

This is one of my favorites and a good way to have a little competition with yourself or your training partner.

Pushup or pull-up ladders are awesome.  You perform 1 rep, your buddy performs 1.  You 2, them 2.  3, 3.  And so on.  First person to quit loses.  It wouldn’t be uncommon to get a hundred reps or more in just a few minutes.

Circuits are good here as well by picking a variety of bodyweight exercises and performing them one after the other for a set number of reps.

This time could also serve as your opportunity for practicing the variations I mentioned above.  After a heavy squat workout, finishing the day off with several sets of one legged squats would be icing on the cake.  Benched heavy?  Plyo-pushups to add in a little explosiveness and power will serve you well.

Strategy #4: Bodyweight Only During De-Load Phases

If you are coming off a heavy duration of heavy lifting or high volume work, de-loading is something you probably need for a few weeks after several months of wear and tear.  Or maybe you are just beat up from your previous workout and need “a break”.  Bodyweight training is a perfect way to do this.

Whole workouts built around bodyweight during de-load phases are great opportunities for several reasons.  One, you are protecting your body and central nervous system from prolonged bouts of heavy lifting.  Two, you are working your body more with different movements that will train your muscles in new ways.  Three, you will have entire workouts to practice the variations as opposed to 10-15 minutes a day.

As you get older, you will probably find your de-load phases will become more and more frequent.  Hate to burst your bubble but you can’t escape it.  Your ability to recover decreases and the aches and pains will probably increase.

But incorporating more bodyweight training and easing back on some of the heavy barbell work will keep you in the game longer.  Don’t be stubborn.  Accept it and prolong your shelf life.

flag pole strength training

Alright Primal Camp.  Take these strategies and run with them.  Using these will allow you to use bodyweight every day you train, without detracting from your normal lifting routine.  Use them properly, and you can build some big-time muscle in the process.

Evolve!!

— Tank
NASM Certified Personal Trainer
Underground Strength Coach

Cardio For Getting Shredded

It kills me every time I walk into a gym and see 50% of the real estate covered in cardio machines.cardio

People churning away, reading magazines on a stationary bike, watching tv on the elliptical, chatting with their friends on the treadmill.  They are totally crushing the ‘fat burn program’ on that $3,000 heap of metal. They will be doing that for hours multiple times a week.

The problem is that there are far better ways to get shredded in much shorter amounts of time…

Steady State Cardio and the Fat Burn Zone Confusion

First, let’s clear up a misconception.  Word on the street is that you burn more fat during low intensity steady state cardio, such as walking or jogging.  Totally false.

While your body does burn a higher percentage of fat at lower intensities (50% of calories from fat) versus higher intensities (35% of calories from fat), at higher intensities you burn far more calories overall, ultimately leading to more fat calories (in a much shorter amount of time).

Confusing?  Let me put it this way.  If I walk on the treadmill for an hour and burn 250 calories, I may have burned about 125 calories from fat.  But let’s say I train Primal style and run several sets of hill sprints, followed by a high intensity finisher.  In about 20 minutes, I could burn 500-600 calories, with 210 calories from fat.  One-third of the time and far more fat burn…

Pretty eye opening right?

Get off the treadmill, crank up the intensity, and do work!

cardio

So what exactly do you do?

You have a number of options.

Hill Sprints or Sprint Intervals

Sprint hill.  Jog back down.  Repeat.

Sprint intervals are the same concept.  Sprint 20 seconds, rest for 20.  As you get better, increase the duration of the sprint and decrease your rest time.

Sled or Prowler Work

Load up the sled or prowler, strap yourself in and get to work.  Pull or push for distance.

Lately, I have been loading up a prowler with about 60% of my bodyweight and sprinting 40’s while pushing it. About 4 sprints with this is enough and a great finisher to heavy weight lifting.

MetCon (Metabolic Conditioning)

MetCon is really just a fancy word for interval training.  It is a short duration, fast paced workout designed to kick your metabolism into high gear and turn you into a fat burning machine for long after you have left the gym.  Under the MetCon realm, there are a number of options:

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

  1. You could lump hill sprints and sprint intervals into this, but when I think of HIIT, I use it with weights and different exercises.
  2. Weight circuits, where you pick 5 or so exercises, and perform them all consecutively for specified reps, with no rest in between.  That is one set.  Do several sets.
  3. Intervals, where you pick one exercise (say bodyweight squats), perform for a timed duration, then rest, and repeat is another.  Plyos work well here too.

Random Guidelines for High Intensity Training

women's cardio

  • Coupled with a 4 day a week weight lifting routine, 2 sessions a week should be enough.  Anything more and you are jeopardizing your recovery times.
  • Sessions should last roughly 20 minutes or so.  Anything more is overkill.
  • This is not meant for everyone.  If you cannot perform high intensity training initially, start with steady state cardio until you are capable.
  • High intensity is not an excuse for poor form.  Form trumps all.
  • Train outside when possible.
  • Metabolism is a function of muscle mass.  The more muscle you have, the better your metabolism is, and the more effective your training will be.

All the best!!

— Tank

Anatomy of a Kick Ass Training Session

A lot of people ask how I plan and organize my training sessions.

There are a million different ways to train out there; some good, some bad.  I don’t train the same way every day.  The key to breaking up the monotony and daily grind (as well as making permanent progress in general) is having a dynamic training schedule.  But there are rubrics you can use as the foundation for building your training program.

Let me break down one of my all-time favorite sessions for ya real quick.  I’ve found it is one of the best ways to get in the gym, move some serious weight, build some muscle and work capacity, and get the hell out, all in less than an hour and a half.  Anytime I need a “go-to” workout, this is it…

Phase 1:  The Warm Up (15 minutes)

The warm up should be fairly high paced and take about 15 minutes or so, depending on how strenuous you want to make it.

My warm ups usually only entail bodyweight, like several rounds of band stretches, bodyweight squats, walking lunges, high jumps, pushups, jogs and sprints, and lateral movements like shuffling.  Mix in some foam rolling to get everything loosened up and you should be good to go.

Have a plan, and execute it.  You should be concentrating during the warm up just as much as you would be if you were about to set a personal squat record.

This is also a great time to work on your weaknesses when you are fresh; and since you are warming up before every workout, you are attacking those weaknesses with much more frequency.  Weak on pushups?  Add an ample dose to your warm up.  If you want to be good at something, you should be doing it every day! 

big lift training session

Phase 2:  The Big Lift (30-45 minutes)

A lot of my workouts are focused on going heavy on one of the big lifts (squat, bench, overhead press, deadlift).  I’ll pick one big lift to do per training session and perform it immediately after the warm up.

Four to five warm up sets usually work for me, then I’ll perform 3 working sets according to whatever my training goal and program is at the time.  If I feel I didn’t get enough, I’ll throw in some drop sets to finish the lift off.

Phase 3:  Assistance Work (20-30 minutes)

After the big lift, I’ll focus on assistance work that is meant to add size and help me to pull more weight in one of the big lifts.  Three or four exercises here will do the trick, working sub-maximally (70-85% of 1 rep max) for 6-20 reps per set, depending on the exercise.  I’ll usually do 4-6 sets per exercise.

Pushups, pull-ups, dumbbell push and pull variations, rows, good mornings, and dips are all examples of exercises to do here.  Pick exercises that will help build some muscle and will increase your ability to perform one of your big 4 lifts.

women's training session

Phase 4:  The Finisher (5 minutes)

This phase is built around conditioning and increasing your work capacity.  Heavy farmers walks, battle rope circuits, sled pulling, prowler pushing, and sprints all work well here.

Pick an exercise that isn’t necessarily strength focused, but will take some mental toughness and heart pumping effort to complete.  This phase is meant to be short and sweet, and help finish your workout with a bang.  Do not overdo this since it’s not meant to make you puke and keel over, but you should feel good and crushed when it’s over.

Wrap Up

There ya have it, a bad ass rubric for planning a complete muscle building training session! 

Sticking to this kind of template has never done me wrong, and if you are unsure of what you should be doing in the gym, this is a damn good place to start.  Now go out and crush it!

Evolve!!

— Tank

Train Movements, Not Muscles (Primal Movement Patterns)

Far too often we get overly focused on training our muscles.

Sounds crazy coming from a strength coach right?

Stick with me.

Focusing and planning your training sessions around certain body parts will limit the exercises you can do, limit the amount of muscle you recruit during training, and could lead to muscle imbalances.

Solution?

Train movements, not muscles.

Our bodies were made to be worked, made to move, designed for performance and survival.  Not to sit down on a lat-pulldown machine.

When I first founded Primal Strength Camp I was determined to take people back to the “old school” ways of building muscle.  I built my concept around the “7 Primal Movement Patterns” coined by the world renowned Paul Check.

primal movement patterns

What are the “7 Primal Movement Patterns”?

  • Squat
  • Lunge
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Bend
  • Twist
  • Gait

Back in caveman times, if you couldn’t perform these movements, you were a dead man!

Now, when I watch people in a typical gym setting, I notice these patterns are largely absent from how people train, and I cringe watching people waste their time on junk exercises.

After an hour of training Primal style with a heavy dosage of overhead presses, deadlifts, pull-ups, pushups, and farmers carries, I can still see the same joker sitting on his ass doing the same bicep curl exercises he was doing when I started.

(Now before you think I’m just bashing on people here, rest assured I was that guy once doing curls all day long that I just talked about.  Back in the day before I knew any better, I loved working on the guns and feeling the pump.  Not ashamed to admit it!  But now I am enlightened and make it my mission to not let people make the same mistakes I did!)

Anyway, the guy is so focused on training his biceps that he is spending an entire day on them, when he could be recruiting far more muscle in the same amount of time by training with the Primal Movement Patterns.  More muscle recruitment + higher frequency + heavier loads lead to muscle gain.

By planning your training around muscles, you could be setting yourself up for muscle imbalances as well.  For instance, you may end up training with too much pushing but not enough pulling, or too much squatting but not enough bending.  Training like this will lead to weaknesses and imbalances that will hinder your performance and force you to play catch up by training certain muscles more frequently than others.  Not the biggest setback in the world, we all have them, but why not do your best to avoid them in the first place?

Look back on your training log (if you don’t keep one, you better start) and see how many exercises you are doing where you are sitting down.  If you are going station to station sitting on one piece of equipment after another, you need to start incorporating some of these Primal Patterns.

Strength training is not sitting on your ass doing isolation exercises.  You should be moving!

primal movement patterns

I can guarantee you that you will be bigger, stronger, and more conditioned if you train the movements and not muscles. It forces you to plan better workouts, eliminate the crap and focus on compound lifts, and move in space.  It makes you get back to old school strength training roots and use your body in the way that it was designed for.

With the flood of information out there on training these days, it is easy to be distracted by the “Next Big Thing”, or to complicate things by straying from the methods that have worked since the beginning of man.

Despite our origins dating back over hundreds of thousands of years, our DNA really hasn’t changed that much.  So why should our training?  That’s what Primal Strength Camp is all about!

Evolve!!

— Tank