Archive for the ‘Legs’ Category

Not Seeing Improvements in Your Body? Here’s How You Break through a Plateau!

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About to get dunked for hydrostatic testing (fat %)

About to get dunked for hydrostatic testing (fat %)

Have you ever worked your butt off in the gym or at home to burn off the weight or gain some muscle, but it seems like nothing you do seems to work, and your body seems to be completely unresponsive to the workouts that you’re doing? Yeah, we’ve all been there – you’ve hit a PLATEAU.

You usually hit a plateau when your body adjusts or acclimates itself to the intensity, progression, and format of your workouts. So how do you break through annoying plateaus to get your body to respond to your workouts again? Throughout my 20+ year workout career, I’ve literally hit dozens of plateaus, and here is my practical advice to smashing through them:

  1. Use a “Phased” Approach to Muscle Confusion: I’ve found that the most important factor in breaking through a plateau is to confuse my body and muscles through systematic change in my routines via Phased Muscle Confusion. I say “Phased” confusion because you should NOT make “muscle confusion” a recognizable pattern, as your muscles need to genuinely be confused and overloaded. For example, I’ve seen programs out there where they supposedly “confuse” your muscles by performing different types of exercises sporadically throughout the week (e.g. mix in Cardio Boxing or Plyometrics to your routine), but the problem is that these changes come at such regular intervals that people’s bodies come to expect the change and adapt quickly to it. In addition, in many cases a sporadic “mixing up” of exercises don’t yield long-term gains from that particular exercise type/genre because it’s used so sporadically. This is why I recommend employing a PHASED approach, where you stick with a different type of routine for at least 2~4 weeks at a time, so that your body can benefit from the positive effects of the “confusion.” Incidentally, I’ve built Phased Muscle Confusion into the workouts in Alpha Trainer… what you will find is that each phase is a bit different from the prior, which helps to keep your muscles guessing and minimize the effects of plateaus.
  2. Change the Order, Pairings, and Types of Exercises: Often times, people get so stuck on their “routines” that they rarely deviate from them. This presents many challenges, including the fact that certain body parts don’t get worked as hard as others.
      • Change Exercise Pairing: For example, many people hit their Chest and their triceps on the same workout day continuously (almost always chest first, followed by triceps) – this exercise pairing is perfectly fine, but if you never change your exercise pairings or your exercise ordering, chances are good that certain muscles are not getting worked as hard as they could be. In this example, if you are always exhausting your chest first before hitting your triceps, you’re not going to be able to maximize improvements in your triceps because it’s already somewhat fatigued from the chest workout (which also works your triceps). It makes sense to mix up your routines for different periods such that your triceps are worked hard first, followed by another body part, such as biceps, back, or legs.
      • Change Exercise Ordering: Another example I want to give is that simply changing the order of the exercises on the same body parts can yield amazing results. For example, I’ve broken through bench press plateaus in the past where my bench press max became stagnant after always doing flat bench press first, followed by incline bench press… when I changed up the ordering and performed incline bench press first, followed by flat bench press for a 2 month period, my body broke through a plateau, and my max bench press went up by ~40 pounds soon thereafter! It’s because my upper chest was not getting maximum stimulation because it was pre-exhausted from the flat bench in the past, but now I was giving it the attention that it needed to get stronger.
      • Experiment with Barbells, Dumbbells, Cable, Different Exercises, and more: Go through phases where you focus more heavily on a specific workout apparatus, such as barbells, dumbbells, cables, Hammer Strength machines (excellent “machines” that use free weights), etc. I’ve had much success going through a progressive stage of focusing on barbells, then focusing on dumbbells, then working on Hammer Strength machines, etc. The reason is that each apparatus works your muscles slightly differently because of the angles, positioning, and balance, so they develop your muscles differently. For example, although you can do less absolute weight on the dumbbell bench press as opposed to barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press works your stabilizer muscles far more, and when you develop these muscles, they help you tremendously in gaining overall muscle size and strength.
  3. Put focus on a specific body part: sometimes what you need to break out of a plateau is to simply focus most of your attention on a specific body part. For example, try getting much stronger on your legs, chest, or shoulders. When you do this for weeks to several months, often times you will find that you naturally break out of a plateau, and all of your weights improve as a result of a stronger individual muscles!
  4. Take it easier for a short while, Turbo!: Sometimes your body hits a plateau because you are exhausted from OVER-TRAINING. Again, this is why a phased approach to developing your body is necessary. Don’t be afraid to take it down just one notch for a few weeks, as you let your body and muscles recuperate from months of hard work and exercise. Now, I don’t mean you just stop working out (although in some cases it really makes sense to take a week or two completely off), but definitely change it up for a couple of weeks. For example, if you have been working out heavy for months with low reps of 3~6, go through a phase of working out with lighter weights at 8~12 reps. Or try lower intensity circuit training, instead of high-intensity bodybuilding type of workouts. Giving your body a welcome respite is sometimes exactly what your body needs to help it recover from the negative effects of over-training.
  5. Finally, you can increase the Intensity of Your Workouts by Adjusting the following Factors: Many times, you need to work out more intensely to break out of a stagnant plateau. But remember, after working out super intensely for a few months, be sure to take it down a notch for a couple of weeks to prevent over-training.
      • Progressively use heavier weights. Remember to push yourself. You can reduce the number of reps you do, but push yourself to do more weight (while maintaining good form). This is one of the best ways to overload your muscles.
      • Perform more reps to failure, more forced reps, more “strip” sets. Perform each set to exhaustion, until your body can’t handle another rep. By pushing yourself to your physical limits (while staying safe), your body will be forced to adapt by becoming stronger and bigger.
      • Perform more sets (in some cases, not all). Use this sparingly… but in some cases, some people just don’t do enough sets to get a good workout. Or if your workout stamina has increased, don’t be afraid to add an extra set in your workouts to overload your muscles. Remember, I am not espousing long workouts or high volume workouts – in fact, I prefer shorter but more intense workouts. But in some cases, you will need to add an extra set to your workouts to increase intensity.
      • Reduce your Rest Time (unless you are trying to maximize your strength). Unless you’re doing Power Training and primarily trying to increase your strength, reducing your rest times is a good way to increase your workout intensity and get better results.
      • Perform bi-sets and tri-sets. There’s magic in performing different exercises one after another with minimal rest… this makes your body work hard, and it also makes you burn more calories during your workouts AND AFTER your workouts, through an effect called EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption), or “Afterburn”. Again, I’ve mixed in many bi-sets and tri-sets into the routines on Alpha Trainer to maximize intensity and EPOC.

By employing these principles in your workouts, you will probably be able to break out of your plateau. Try it out, and let me know how it goes! Good luck.

-Paul.

Weight Training to Build Speed, Power, and Vertical Jump!

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 As I watched the Superbowl recently between San Francisco 49’ers & Baltimore Ravens and looked around at the incredibly big and strong athletes who spend countless hours in the gym training, I was reminded of the importance of weight training to become truly fast, quick, & powerful. But most people don’t understand HOW to train properly to develop speed, quickness, & vertical jump. So my purpose in writing this post is to take all of the complicated theories, books, and training methods that deal with building speed & quickness and summarizing the concepts for you in an easy-to-understand format to you can employ them immediately. I could talk about this topic for days, but I’m going to keep this post as succinct as possible, while giving you the framework to design the most effective workout for yourself.

To start, here’s an explanation of the two basic formulas that impact speed & quickness (we’re going back to high school physics for just one second!):

  1. P = F * V.       Power = Force x Velocity.
  2. F = M * A.      Force = Mass x Acceleration.

Formula (1) states that Power is a function of Force multiplied by Velocity. Simply put, the more Force (think of it as maximum strength) you can apply at the Fastest Speed (Velocity) possible, the more Power (Speed, Quickness, Vertical Jump) you will generate. So the faster you can lift a heavy object, the more power you will generate. A widely accepted rule of thumb is that it’s easier to increase your strength (force) than it is to increase your speed (velocity), which has more significant genetic limitations. For example, I can still remember the very first time I ever got under a barbell to do a bench press… I was a skinny little 15 year old, 120 pound Freshman in high school, and I had no idea what I was doing, but I remember being able to bench press ~120 pounds (1x my body weight) for several reps… more than a decade of consistent weight training later, that 120 pounds for reps essentially tripled to a max bench press of ~405 pounds at a body weight of 180 pounds during my mid-20’s (~2.3x my body weight). I read some research a long time ago which shows that you can increase strength up to around 4x from your starting point through consistent weight training…  the point being that you can increase your strength much easier than you can your speed, so focus on increasing your strength to increase power. In case there is any doubt that increasing strength will actually increase your speed, quickness, & vertical jump, take a look below at some random Powerlifters jumping up in the air after a lift… powerlifters have such strong legs, their vertical leaping abilities are very well known (I especially love the 300 pound dude on the left leaping high up into the air, which is remarkable). In addition, I have not worked specifically at jumping in a very long time, but because my I can squat a lot compared to my body weight, I am still able to get pretty high up in the air (about ~35″).

JumpingPowerLifters1

Formula (2) states that Greater Force is generated by either increasing the mass of the object or the acceleration applied to the object. No need to confuse yourself here… just think about FORCE as the Maximum Strength that you can apply to something. The key here again is to increase your maximum strength (getting as strong as you possibly can).

So here’s the bottom line. To maximize Power, Quickness, Explosiveness, and Vertical Jump, you need to concentrate on improving in the following key areas:

  1. Increase your Maximum Strength in the body parts that matter for your sport. For example, if you want to increase your vertical jump, increase your maximum strength in your quads, glutes, lower back, hamstrings, and Calves through key exercises like squats and deadlifts. You accomplish this by training VERY HEAVY, in the 80~100%+ of your 1-rep maximum range. For example, if your maximum squat for 1 full repetition is 300 pounds, then after performing sufficient warmup sets, you need to train with weights in the 240~300+ pound range for low reps, like 1~6 reps. When you’re training heavy, for any of the exercises where you are positioned underneath the weights (e.g. squats, bench press, barbell shoulder press, etc.), make sure you have a spotter AND/OR use a safety cage to be safe to prevent becoming workout roadkill. Also, try to perform the reps as FAST AS YOU CAN. The key point is not whether the weight is moving quickly… in fact, it’s not possible to move your 1-rep max weight very quickly… rather, what’s important is whether your muscles are working and understanding that it’s trying to move the weights quickly. This helps to actually activate your Fast Twitch muscle fibers (Type 2A and Type 2B) and helps you to recruit more of these Type 2 muscle fibers, which also helps to improve your rate of force development, which is the next key point.
  2. Increase your RATE OF FORCE DEVELOPMENT. What does this mean? Research shows that it generally takes more than 0.5 seconds to develop maximum force because it takes time and coordination for your muscle fibers to fire and be recruited… but the challenge is that many explosive activities, like jumping, sprinting (each stride), swinging, etc. are completed in a fraction of a second (like 0.2 seconds or less). So the key to increasing FORCE to increase power is to increase the amount of usable or recruitable forceyou can generate in a short amount of time. This requires muscles to be trained to fire quickly. Two great ways to do this are as follows:
    • Plyometric/Reactive Training: Plyometric training, first invented in Russia in the 1970’s, focuses on training your muscles to fire very efficiently, as well as quickly utilizing the potential energy that is stored via the stretching of the tendons (kind of like a rubber band that accumulates energy quickly, then releases).
    • Weighted movements performed quickly/explosively: Use moderate to moderately-heavy weights for maximum results, say, in the 30~80% of your 1 rep maximum. But again, move the weights very quickly. Some examples of exercises you can perform are jumping weighted squats, jumping weighted lunges, medicine ball throws, etc.
  3. Increase your Velocity or Speed through Plyometrics and Training in the Actual Sport.
    • Use Plyometric or Reactive Training. By nature, Plyometric exercises helps get you faster by improving explosive reaction time in your muscles.
    • Continue to Train in the Sport or Activity that you are trying to Improve in. It goes without saying that if you are a boxer, continue your live boxing training, and if you’re a basketball player, continue playing basketball. No amount of strength training in the gym or weighted workouts will ever mimic the actual speed and neuromuscular coordination that training in the actual sport will accomplish.
  4. Lower your Body Fat, and thus your Body Weight. This reduces the weight that the Power you generate has to carry or launch in the air, and thus increases your speed, quickness, vertical jump, etc. Think about it this way: who do you think will likely jump higher… a 150 pound guy who can squat 400 pounds, or a 300 pound guy who can squat 400 pounds? My money’s on the lighter guy, assuming his rate of force production and velocity are equivalent to the other guy, or even if slightly inferior. It definitely pays to have good pound-for-pound strength.

Anecdotally, I have a younger brother named John who’s about 5’11” or so… at his best, I’ve seen him do reverse slam dunks while pulling the ball down to his mid-chest level with both hands (below is a video of him dunking)… not bad for a guy of his stature. But what’s amazing to me is how much effort he put into his vertical jump, and how much I saw him improve, when he was a kid. What really helped him in the jumping arena was him developing serious leg strength via heavy squats, as well as improved muscular efficiency, velocity, and efficient force production via plyometric exercises. One summer during college, I remember training with him at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach, which has an intensely steep and high hill made of sand, where we would hop up the hill with weights strapped onto us (I remember it well because I vomited at the top of the hill after my first workout session). But John worked hard throughout the summer and worked on plyometrics and squats… after which, he was skying and throwing down the basketball with ease.

Hope this helps in understanding how to improve your speed, power, and vertical jump. If I have time, in future posts, I will post some workouts that combine heavy weightlifting, plyometrics, and explosive weight training. Until next time, more power to ya! ;)

-Paul.

Say NO to Chicken Legs: Why it’s Vital to Work Your Legs (40-minute full leg workout included)

(Pic: Demonstration of Dumbbell Stiff Leg Deadlifts)

Legs… they’re the largest muscle group in your body and are vital for so many of your daily activities, from walking, running, jumping, playing with your kids, playing sports, etc. And yet they are the most neglected body part when it comes to working out. I know you’ve heard people ask, “how much do you bench?” But have you ever heard anyone ask, “how much do you squat?” Probably not, unless you’re talking specifically about squats. This shows how non prioritized leg workouts are in our society. It’s kind of funny to see the wide gamut of excuses that people employ for why they don’t work their legs. I’ve heard so many, ranging from “My legs are big already” to “I run for my legs” to “I don’t do legs because I won’t be quick and flexible.” Well let me pull out my B.S. translator… hmmm let’s see… it says these excuses are often used by people who are usually lazy or unmotivated to work legs because it takes so much effort… it also says that sometimes these excuses are used legitimately by people who really don’t know any better.

It’s important to realize that you can work your legs to accomplish many different goals, just like you can for your other muscles. If you want, you can train to get your legs big, muscular, and strong (e.g. power lifters, strength athletes). On the other hand, instead of focusing on getting super thick legs, you can work them to be functionally strong, quick, and flexible, like what sprinters and professional athletes who play football, soccer, basketball, etc. do. Actually, I’m one of those people whose goal for legs is not to necessarily become “Quadzilla” but to build functional strength, agility, and quickness for sports – naturally, these workouts come with size gains, which is great, but again, this is a somewhat secondary for me to athletic performance. And I accomplish this goal by combining hard leg workouts in the gym with actual game play (e.g. soccer, basketball) and plyometrics. The only challenge that I carefully manage is to plan my workouts and sporting activities so that I have plenty of time to recover from each activity and give my full attention to the next. For example, as I’ve gotten older, I definitely need at least 48 hours to recover from a soccer or basketball game, and I need even more days to recover from a hard leg workout. So what I do is play indoor soccer on Tuesday nights with my team, work my legs with weights on Thursdays, then play basketball on Sunday evenings. This allows me to recover from each activity to concentrate fully on the next. Now, you may ask the question whether intense, heavy leg workouts have hampered my speed and agility? Not at all, in fact, they have helped me become faster and more powerful. Frankly, I love the look on a defender’s face after I burn the crap out of him all night to score a hat-trick or drive around him all day for easy layups… they simply don’t expect a “beefy” guy to be faster and quicker than them. But hey, look at NFL running backs… they are some of the fastest, most powerful, and most agile people around, and those guys do serious squats, deadlifts, and legs in general, so obviously, these workouts help performance. The point I want to make is that having different goals for your leg development is totally acceptable – what’s not acceptable is not training them because you’re lazy, it takes too much effort, or you have some erroneous notion of intense leg workouts.

Below, I’ve summarized the primary reasons why, in my opinion, legs are the most critical body parts to work out in your entire body:

  1. Releases more natural, anabolic hormones in your body than other exercises. Research shows that working legs releases more growth hormone and testosterone naturally in the body versus other exercises. As such, working your legs benefit your other body parts because of the increase in these natural bodily hormones. Ladies, there’s no need to worry, as increased natural testosterone will help your workouts but won’t make you more masculine, I promise :)
  2. Burns the most calories and fat. Your legs are the largest muscle group in your body. As such, working your legs burns the highest amount of calories and fat. This is fantastic, especially if you are looking to get more toned or trying to lose weight/fat.
  3. Fundamental for all sports, athletics, and day-to-day activities. Can you think of many physical, day-to-day activities or sports that don’t involve your legs? Whether you’re carrying luggage, cleaning out your garage, running, jumping, or playing sports, your legs are essential for success. As such, you will see your athleticism improve as you continue to develop your legs.
  4. Achieve large strength and muscle gains EVERYWHERE on your body. The cool thing about working out your legs is that these exercises benefit many other parts of your body. For example, doing squats and deadlifts will not only strengthen your legs and butt, but they also strengthen your lower back, core, and upper body muscles (yes, it’s true!). If you have never done weighted leg exercises before, I promise you that you will see huge increases, not only in legs, but also in other areas when you start working your legs. It’s actually quite amazing.
  5. Symmetry (e.g. NO CHICKEN LEGS!). Finally, you don’t want to be the person that people laugh about at the gym… you know, the one people say should be walking on their hands as opposed to their legs? You want to make sure you have a good balance in your body, even for the sake of aesthetics alone!
  6. It gives you a sexy looking butt! Seriously, it does! Many of you will now work your legs, just because of this, right? Oh well, whatever gets you to do it!

My 40-minute Leg Workout

I’ll finish off this segment by sharing a 40-minute leg workout that I use quite frequently. Again, I change my workout around quite a bit, but when I’m pressed on time, this one works like magic. It’s optimized to build general strength and power in your legs. Now, here’s a few things to remember when you’re working your legs:

  • Stretch and warm up your body well, especially your legs, knee joints & ligaments, and lower back. Leg workouts put tremendous strain on these body parts.
  • Use strict form and be particularly careful with your knees and lower back. These are very critical areas of your body, and injury to them can cause serious disruption to your life, work, and athletics. As such, it’s especially important to use strict form and focus on safety.
  • When you do Squats, do not go lower than “90 degrees” unless you are using much lighter weights. There is a bit of tradeoff between incremental growth by breaking 90 degrees (where your butt is almost touching the ground) versus the risk of serious knee injury – in my opinion, the very slight gain from going down all the way until your butt nearly touches the ground is not worth the dramatic increase in potential injury. I know many people who’ve sustained serious injuries from going down too deep in their squats, and they are never the same afterwards. As such, I espouse going down deep, but only until your thighs are parallel or close to parallel to the ground – I don’t recommend you go down any lower than that, unless you are on a very specific program and you are using much lighter weights.

1. Squats: 5 total sets. Go down until your thighs are parallel or close to parallel to the ground. Don’t go lower than that because the risk of injury outweighs any potential benefit. Also, keep a natural arch in your back and look up 45 degrees in the air while doing your sets, as this helps you keep the natural arch in your back. NEVER round your back, as this is a one-way ticket to injury.

  • Warm-up Set 1 (very light weights): 15 reps @ ~30% of 1RM(1-rep max). I use 135 lbs.
    • Rest: 90 seconds afterwards.
  • Warm-up Set 2 (light weights): 10 reps @ ~50% of 1RM. I use 225~275 pounds.
    • Rest: 90 seconds afterwards.
  • Heavy Set 3: 5 reps @ ~85-90% of 1RM. Go to failure. I use 385~405 lbs.
    • Rest: 2 ½ minutes afterwards.
  • Heavy Set 4: 5 reps @ 85-90% of 1RM. Go to failure. I use 385~405 lbs.
    • Rest: 2 ½ minutes afterwards.
  • Burnout Set 5: 10~15+ reps @ ~65% 1RM. Go to failure within this range. I use 275~315 lbs.
    • Rest: 2 ½ minutes afterwards. Go to your next workout station.

2. Leg Extensions: 3 total sets. Squeeze your quad muscles up at top and pause momentarily. Focus on getting a great contraction and pump.

  • Intermediate Warm-up Set 1: 15 reps. Don’t go to failure but focus on feeling the pump and the contraction.
    • Rest: 90 seconds afterwards.
  • Heavy Set 2: 6~10 reps. Go heavier. You should fail on your 8th ~ 10threp.
    • Rest: 90 seconds afterwards.
  • Burnout Set 3: 10~15 reps to failure. Drop the weights to somewhere between your warm-up set and your heavy set. Target going to failure around the 10th ~ 15th rep.
    • Rest: 2 minutes afterwards. Go to your next workout station.

3. Stiff Leg Deadlifts: 4 total sets. Be careful of your lower back on this exercise. Keep a slight arch in your back at all times. Do NOT round your back. Be sure to keep the bar in contact with your legs while doing this exercise (e.g. slide the bar down your thighs and shins), which helps keep tension on your hamstrings and glutes, which is the objective of this exercise.

  • Warm-up Set 1 (very light weights): 15 reps @ ~30% of 1RM(1-rep max). I use 135 lbs.
    • Rest: 90 seconds afterwards.
  • Warm-up Set 2 (light weights): 10 reps @ ~50% of 1RM. I use 225 pounds.
    • Rest: 90 seconds afterwards.
  • Heavy Set 3: 5 reps @ ~85-90% of 1RM. Go to failure. I use 315~335 lbs.
    • Rest: 2 ½ minutes afterwards.
  • Burnout Set 4: 10~15+ reps @ ~65% 1RM. Go to failure within this range. I use ~235 lbs.
    • Rest: 2 ½ minutes afterwards. Go to your next workout station.

4. Leg Curls: 3 total sets. Squeeze your hamstrings at the top and pause momentarily. Focus on getting a great contraction and pump.

  • Intermediate Warm-up Set 1: 15 reps. Don’t go to failure but focus on feeling the pump and the contraction.
    • Rest: 90 seconds afterwards.
  • Heavy Set 2: 6~10 reps. Go heavier. You should fail on your 6th ~ 10threp.
    • Rest: 90 seconds afterwards.
  • Burnout Set 3: 10~15 reps to failure. Drop the weights to somewhere between your warm-up set and your heavy set. Target going to failure around the 10th ~ 15th rep.
    • Rest: 2 minutes afterwards. Go to your next workout station.

5. Calf Raises3 total sets to failure. Go all the way down to stretch your calves, then go up and hold at the top of the movement. Don’t just go through the motion, exhaust your muscles.

  • Set 1:Perform 10 reps to failure. Select weights where you fail around ~10 reps.
    • Rest: 60 seconds afterwards.
  • Set 2: Perform 10 reps to failure. Select weights where you fail around ~10 reps.
    • Rest: 60 seconds afterwards.
  • Burnout Set 3: Perform 15~20 reps to failure. Select weights where you fail around 15~20 reps.

Let me know what you think about this workout. And remember… don’t neglect your legs because they’re the most important muscles in your body to work out!

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