Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Of the importance of "progression"

My attention got caught today by the following NYT article: For fitness push yourself. Apart from the traditional caveats (to what extent an experiment made in mice really tells us something about human physiology? even if it does, and protein CRTC2 is part of the mechanism that help make us bigger and stronger after a high intensity, "out of your comfort zone" workout, to what extent is that knowledge "useful"? does it provide us with any kind of guideline about what the optimal stressor should be, or about the number of sets or reps or weight increases that may optimally trigger the release of said protein? well, obviously it does not, but it may still be useful if -and that's a big if- it opened up new avenues of research and new studies to answer those same questions, studies that will never be conducted because they would be expensive and in nobody's -no particular corporation or institution with the money to conduct them- interest, we will probably have instead a slew of crappy publications in which the blood levels of CRTC2 of too few people, with shitty routines, are improperly compared with those of other too few people, with even shittier ones, and without controlling for any external factor, from which utterly unwarranted consequences will be extracted...) I find in it some vindication of a principle I have championed for a long time: how you "progress" your training is in the end more important that how exactly you train (the weights, sets, reps and exercises that form each workout), and the ultimate measure of your program validity should be how much it allows you to progress (how much more weight it allows you to lift in a certain interval of time in whatever exercises and whatever range of repetitions that your training is made of):
  • No progress = no validity at all. 
  • 50 kg in a year = you were a total noob, so that explains almmost all, and not so much the program, but at least it had some merit. 
  • 10 kg in a year for an experienced lifter = pretty solid program (in some lifts, as the bench press, that's progress I would almost kill for)
I think it is useful to take a look at how some popular programs out there plan for progress:
  • Starting Strength (Rippetoe for beginners): 2,5 kg per session for the upper body lifts and 5 kg per session for the lower body ones, doing three sessions per week, which translates into gains of about 30 kg in a month for upper body and a whooping 60 kg in a month for the lower body lifts (obviously we are talking big compound lifts here: press & bench press for upper and squat & deadlift for lower). The author recognizes that such a progress is only available to absolute beginners, and sustainable for 1-2 months, after which frequency becomes lower (to simplify, about 1/ week for upper body & DL, and still 2-3/week for squat), which translates into 10 kg/month for upper body, 20 kg/ month for DL and about 40 kg/week for SQ. When that rythm becomes unsustainable, Mr. Rippetoe leaves it to the lifter to decide on smaller increases (he suggest if necessary to mill 1/2 pound plates so increases as small as 1 pound can be done) to keep the session to session increase for as long as possible
  • Texas Method (Rippetoe for intermediates): now the increases happen on a weekly basis, still aiming at 5 kg week to week for the lower body lifts and 2,5 kg for the upper body lifts, which translates in gains of 10 kg/ month for BP and press, and of 20 kg/month for SQ and DL. As w previous, once that speed becomes unsustainable, he recommends slower increases (for the record, I'm currently running a TM only for the squat, and adding 2,5 kg -my smaller plates are 1,25 kg- per week, and if I can complete a couple months and show for them a gain of 20 kg I'll be beyond happy, extatic would be more like it), up to the individual lifter to decide
  • 5/3/1 (Wendler for everbody, but geared towards lifters w some experience already): the basic unit of time is the 5/3/1 cycle, which takes three weeks. After each cycle he prescribes adding to the TM (training max) the same 2,5 kg for upper body and 5 kg for upper body than Rippetoe, so once you factor the prescribed deload weeks that translates in gains of about 2,5 kg/ month for upper body and 5 kg/ month for lower body. Of course, how the gains in the TM translate into gains in the 1RM is not immediately assessable, but both tend to go up roughly in parallel and at roughly the same speed.
  • Soviet volume methods (Sheiko, Smolov, Smolov jr): they aim to increase about 5% a particular lift with a training cycle lasting between 8 and 12 weeks. Given they should be used at a level of proficiency when the lifts to be improved are around 200 kg, that 5% improvement should be around 10 kg, so they can generate a gain of about 5 kg/ month
Having tried all of the aforementioned, we can see a common thread here. For a moderately big, healthy young male (around 20 yo,6 feet high and above 80 kg weight -adjust accordingly for older, younger, lighter, or female individuals) progress should be:

  • Very fast at the very beginning (first 1-2 months): up to 20 kg/ month for upper body big compound lifts, and 40 kg for lower body
  • Fast at the beginning (months 2 to 4-6): 10 kg/ month for upper body and 20 kg/ month for lower body lifts
  • Consistent in the middle (between 4-6 months and 14-18 months): 2,5 kg/ month for upper and 5 kg/ month for lower (that still gives you at the end of this period 30 more kg than you started with in the upper body and 60 more kg in the lower body lifts)
  • Slow and discontinuous after that (once you've been lifting consistently for a couple of years): 5 kg/ year for upper body and 10 kg/ year for lower are not bad results, and demand quite some effort. With very focused training cycles (like the soviet examples mentioned before) that gain can be obtained much faster (in 2-3 months), but it is difficult to maintain, and even more difficult to replicate (people tend to run them 2, max 3 times per year, and w generous deload periods in between, so they have to regain much of the strength each time)
Of course these are orders of magnitude, and individual variation can be quite big. But given the realities of human physiology, these are reasonable gains to strive for, and good yardsticks to measure every year's end how the last twelve months have worked

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What should be done (on very basic life choices)

As of late I've been pondering more heavily than usual the right way to live in our late capitalist, desiderative reason guided society. There are a number of guidelines which have always been (and still are) very clear for me:

  • Do not lie (damn Kantian that I am!) to others or to self
  • Do not harm others, except when the benefit to those same harmed vastly outweights the pain (so yes, you can vaccinate your children)
  • Seek your own perfection and other people happiness
  • Do not settle for normal, or mediocre. Strive for greatness
  • Apply critical judgment, don't be fooled by your desires
  • Learn more
  • Critizice less (which may be the opposite of "critique less")
  • Be kind to strangers, kinder to neighbors and companions, kindest to loved ones
The question buzzing in my head is to what extent the adherence to those principles is compatible with a normal (even more a "successful", as per the prevalent social standards) life within our society. If we accept (as more and more I tend to do) that money corrupts (to be more precise, if not exactly money, which is just a convenient technology to keep track of mutual committments, at least market mediated exchanges as a way of coordinating every social interaction) participating in a society which is mediated by money to the extent the current one does may require a level of compromising that makes a mockery of the upholding of those guidelines.

Specially if one rises (assuming no cheating, no lying and no debasing oneself) in the corporate hierarchy and ends up in a position of certain responsibility (which almost unavoidably implies using people as means, and certainly not as ends in themselves, as the 2nd formulation of the categorical imperative commands us to do), where the expectation that goes with it is precisely to mould one's team to be an efficient tool for maximizing the benefit to be apprehended in those market mediated interactions...

Put in another words, if there are some inherent evils in the way society is organized, and we accept that those evils are not an optional feature, but a core component of the system, without which society would not function, ¿isn't it immoral not to devote all our energies to the overcoming of such system? ¿is it not even more immoral to strive to benefit from it, playing within its rules, leaving others to fend for themselves (even if one donates a certain amount to "charity", isn't that giving counterproductive, as it helps buttress an essentially unjust way of organizing things)?

Of course I would desire "it" not to be so, and to justify to myself that it's OK to "flourish and prosper" as society dictated. I could even justify it in the beenfit that my loved ones, the wife adn kids that depend on my salary for their subsistence (and that have a lot of flourishing in front of them, of which I'm in a substantial part responsible, having brought them in this world), derive from my work (so, being for the prosperity of others, can be presented as an act of altruism). But that would contradict the fifth principle, so I can't lay content with it.

S I have to keep thinking about what to do not on an individual scale, but on a whole societal one. What kind of society must we strive to build, and what kind of action is it reasonable to expect from us towards it. Which will definitely require another post...

Monday, June 9, 2014

And in the barbell realm...

Noticed that except for the clean analysis all my posts so far have been more philosophy related, so to change pace I'm going to devote some lines to my current goals in the gym, and how I intend to go about them:

  • Enhance powerlifting total in 15 kg. Which breaks down in +10 kg in the squat, +5 kg in the DL and just keeping the BP. That means I'll be squatting a helluva lot, basically using the Texas method: 5 x 5 on Mondays, using a high volume and a moderately high percentage of my 1RM , starting around 75% (currently 125) and adding 2,5 kg each week, and an AMRAP top set on Thursdays, starting w 85% of 1RM (as of today, around 140). As active recovery I'll use a toned down, "mini-compressed TM" of front squats, w some manageable volume (5 x 4 w about 70% of 1RM, which in this case translates to 85 kg) on Tuesdays and some intensity on Fridays (probably I'll rotate between a top 3, top 2 and top 1 lifts, getting close to 100% in the last one, and improving every 3 weeks). For the (relatively modest) gain in DL I'll rely on a lot of Olympic pulling (see next goal) and one day a week of semi serious DL'ing, rotating between stiffies from a deficit (putting in some volume, with 4 sets of something between 4 and 6 reps) and competition stance DL's (going for a day's max, followed by a couple back off sets w 3 reps taking 10% off the bar). As for maintaining the BP, I do not plan to do any bench pressing whatsoever in a couple months, but I'll do pressing, lots of dipping and some jerking, so I should be fine. If I happen to grow somewhat stronger in tris and pecs, all the better
  • Enhance Olympic total in 5 kg. Not very sure how this may look like, if they're gonna come in the snatch or in the C&J, just intend to do one of them every day (may be some days both), trying to have every week a "volume" day (totalling between 16 and 20 reps in doubles or singles) and an "intensity" day, going for a daily max w a couple back off singles w a few kg off (just to ingrain some technique w heavyish weights). Also will try to perform a couple days a week my recently developed "snatch catch combo", designed to improve my position in the bottom of the snatch AND enhance my overhead stability. It consists in the following sequence: a hang power snatch, a power snatch from the floor, two overhead squats and three snatch balances, then add a little weight until you fail some movement (it starts w the empty technique bar, so it may take a lot of sets to get to that failure, which for me is typically a miss forward in the snatch balance)
  • Improve conditioning, by performing the planned workouts in less than an hour (so, every time the weights have gotten so heavy I need rest intervals between sets of more than 2 -3 minutes, I'll reset the weights going back 2-3 weeks and focus on beating my prev times w same weights, trying to get further until I hit the 1h mark again)
So improving all three areas is going to be quite a tall order, and I'll have to see how it goes. It hasn't started well, as in my second week I had a motorcycle accident, which has left my right knee pretty sprained, so I'll go a tad slower for the next couple weeks before I pick up speed again (at which point I'll have to stop for another week due to a Holiday committment w family), but that's OK, the time frame I've set to review where I'm at and potentially adjust is the end of September, so we'll see how things work until then