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(My) Strength Training 101

Dear reader, the following post is really long. It is about the history of my own experience with physical strength and fitness. Then I talk about some of the things I associate with strength training and progress. I wrote this post primarily to have something to refer people to when they say “tell me about your training.” Feel free to skip it if you’re not here for talk about weights, muscles, and skinny skinny me.

It’s not a fancy read, but it’s honest.

The stronger I get, the more people ask me about the way I train, even though I don’t have world class strength in any category, except maybe odor and spelling-bee prowess.

The questions also increase with the amount of posts I write. Too often, someone who talks or writes a lot is given credibility. After all, if they can run on endlessly, they must have a lot to say, right?

Maybe. There are plenty of people out there who talk a lot but say nothing. I hope I’m saying something worthwhile. I’m sure I’m guilty sometimes. But I would like to write this post so I can point to it later as a summation of everything I associate with weight training progress.

Since I’m a librarian and not a professional personal trainer–although I’m a pretty good trainer, in terms of getting results and teaching people not to be scared of training exercises–I’ve never become a strength training anatomy wizard.

I don’t quote studies and I don’t know how to pronounce a lot of scientific words when I read them. Most of what I’ll say in my fitness training history below is simply anecdotal notes from a fan of anything that has to do with getting stronger or more fit.

I’ve never professed to be an expert personal trainer or a fount of knowledge. I answer most questions based on anecdotal experience–my own and that of the persons who ask me to teach them training exercises.

How and why I got interested in fitness

As soon as I was old enough to be interested in girls, of course I wanted bigger biceps, to get a bigger chest, six pack abs and an extra 100 lbs of muscle. Unfortunately, I was 13 years old and weighed about 140 lbs at 6’8″.

This situation wouldn’t change until I was about 27 and finally started putting on some weight. When I got my driver’s license–age 16 in Nevada–I only weighed 150 lbs. Yuck.

How was I going to get some muscle?

Weight training class with Mr. Barrett

I signed up for weights class in my junior year of high school. Weight Training 101. Mr. Barrett was the wrestling coach and a strong little bastard. He promised us that after taking his classes we’d be able to program our own workout training and know which strength exercises were best for us and our physical or sports-related goals.

I hated it. He would tell me to do a squat with 135 and I’d quaver and quake and nearly fall on my face. As soon as he’d turn around I’d do two or three ugly reps while counting “8,9,10, done!” I was a little better at the bench press and did okay with the trap bar deadlift, but overall, I wasn’t a fan. I would cut corners in our circuit training at every opportunity.

Like most things in life, it was easier to say “I want to be strong” than to actually get strong or build muscle. Anyways, I was a basketball player, not a wrestler or a linebacker. I wanted girls to notice me, that was all. So instead of working on strength and aesthetics, I joined the cross-country team, along with the cutest girls in school.

Skinny, skinny, skinny. I hated running even more than I hated strength workouts. Speed training wasn’t my thing and it certainly didn’t build muscle. At least not the way I did it, which was to run around the first bend in the road with the cross-country team, then stop and play hackey sack for 20 minutes before running back in for a cooldown lap.

Fast forward a few years, bodybuilding training

I was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome as a freshman in high school, but experienced my first symptoms at age six. When I was 20, it absolutely exploded. I’ve written about this extensively in my series on Tourette’s, so I won’t go into it all here. It’s enough to know that I lost control of my body. It did whatever it wanted to. I didn’t handle this well.

I discovered that my greatest talent was lying on the couch alternating between moping, whining, sleeping, and crying. My dad discovered that his greatest talent was being annoyed by this behavior. So one day he came home from work and told me that we were going to the gym.

I hadn’t lifted a weight in a couple of years. “Why?” I asked.

I’m not sure if he could have verbalized the why, but I believe part of him knew that I needed a way to feel like I could control myself and my circumstances. He knew that getting through a strength workout would be a way to win. Big deal, right? We’d go in and bench press, squat, do a lot of curls, look at ourselves in the mirror, and avoid deadlifts at all costs. Move a weight from here to there, what a waste of time, right?

Wrong. I took to resistance training with a fervor that surprised us both. And it helped. It didn’t lessen my symptoms–in some cases it made them worse–but I made progress and the progress resulted in feelings of control. I also got some muscles, which was great. I loved walking into the dingy little hole in Elko, choosing a piece of strength training equipment, and getting to work.

My calves, however, remained about the size of pencils, though, no matter what I did.

I got things under control enough to leave home and return to college. Then I started taking a new batch of Tourette’s pills, reacted badly, got fat, quit lifting, and moved back home after a couple of aborted semesters.

I got married, which I thought would fix everything. It just exposed the problems that I already had. Six years passed without me stringing together three weeks of exercise in a row. I did a bit of (non) core training though, eating more than any human has a right to.

Bench press fixation

Finally I had my disorder under control, or so I thought. I was graduating from college, my marriage was better than ever, I had gotten a job at the library, and of course, I was back at the gym.

It was good to be back, and for a while I hammered away at various exercise programs, primarily focused on proving that I could keep a promise to myself, that I could commit to a workout routine. Not for days, but weeks and months and years.

I was also, of course, still trying to get bigger muscles. My interest in powerlifting and maximal weights was still a couple of years away, but one day a personal trainer handed me a bench press program that promised something like 50 more lbs on my bench press in eight weeks.

Everyone knew that bench press was the greatest measurement (and builder of tiny legs) of strength of all time.  If not, why was it the only strength training exercise I ever saw anyone doing?

I actually put on more than 50 lbs in the time frame of that exercise program, but I also managed to hurt my shoulder when I finally hit a 300 lb bench press. So my lifting got derailed. I didn’t know how to shift focus. All I wanted to do was bench. Now I couldn’t bench, so I played around with all the other upper-body movements I could think of, following the magazines and occasionally having my wife measure my arms, hoping for big changes and MASSIVE GUNZZZZ.

I kept going to the gym, regardless, so that was a win. It was the first time I’d experienced a setback without getting out of all of my good fitness habits.

Kettlebell training

One day at the library, a copy of The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline showed up on the desk. One of the great perks of working at the library–if you’re a reader–is that you see books you’d never lay eyes on otherwise. I’m not sure where else I would have found Pavel’s book on bodyweight training. I still wasn’t an active member on the online fitness community or I’d have found it at Dragon Door, so it was a happy accident that someone brought it back to the library when I happened to be working.

The Naked Warrior teaches you how to do one-armed pushups, one-legged squats, and practice high tension strength techniques. I immediately said, “I want to be able to do all of that!” I gave up on the bodyweight training as soon as I got to the end of the book and saw the ads for Russian kettlebells.

Here was the quote that sold me: Try it if you’re so tough. You’ll wish you were dead.

Marketers and those of you who run focus groups, take heed: I’m the guy you can market to. “I want to wish I was dead!” I thought, just before running out to Play it Again Sports to buy my first Russian kettlebell.

I loved the macho mindset of “no pain, no gain.” I loved the suffering. I did kettlebell swings and snatches until I wanted to cry. I tore my hands up. I did the Turkish get up and pressed and pressed those bells overhead until I wanted to faint.

This isn’t what Pavel advises that you do, by the way. I just did it because it was the most fun I’d ever had training. For the next couple of years, I became a complete kettlebell snob and quit going to the gym.

I also joined the Dragon Door forum online, where for the first time, I experienced a community of strength enthusiasts. Besides those early days with my dad in Elko, I’d always trained alone. This forum–and others I joined–were nearly as good as having lifting partners.

I loved it so much I became a certified RKC, Russian Kettlebell Instructor, just for fun.

Adam Glass and grip strength

The strongest guy on the forum–at least, the strongest active member who was posting frequently–was this ugly skin-head looking monster named “Unbreakable” Adam T. Glass (I can call him ugly because he’s now one of my best friends). He could tear decks of cards in half. Phonebooks too. He was bending horseshoes for some reason, and nails as well. Bending steel had never before crossed my mind as a…well, as a thought.

He made grip strength look really fun. The thought that there was a world where people obsessed about their hand strength, of all things, was really, really strange to me. But I’m nothing if not curious, so I jumped in.

It looked fun. I didn’t write to Adam for a while because he seemed like a huge dick and I often didn’t like the way he treated people.

I started bending easy nails and working on my grip. It was fun, and here was one more way to make progress. Adam and I started corresponding online. There were questions I just wasn’t figuring out on my own. I was surprised when he responded to my questions and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the progress I made.

But one of the most interesting things about Adam was that he said Kettlebells were only good for certain things. I wasn’t confident enough to argue with him about it, but I would have argued with anyone else. Remember, I’m the guy you can market to! I loved kettlebells more than anything and I didn’t want to use anything else ever again, did I?

Deadlift obsession

Another marketing snare, but a good one. One I was happy to fall into. Pavel has a book called Power To The People that focuses on the deadlift. Strong men deadlift was basically the message I took away. With kettlebells, the emphasis is rarely on looks and muscle-building, although you can certainly build muscle with them. While in the throes of my intense kettlebell passion, I’d proudly renounced the pursuit of aesthetics.

PTTP was about pure power.There’s the kind of strength you build with kettlebells, and there’s the kind of strength you build with the deadlift.

So I started deadlifting. A lot. Frequently. And I grew big muscles and I started looking like I wanted to back in high school, although my calves remained scrawny.

But I didn’t abandon the kettlebell for the barbell and loads of plates. I worked it in with my grip training and deadlifting. Now I had a few balls in the air and I wanted to make great progress with all of them.

By this point I had gotten friendly enough with Adam to ask if I could come train with him for a week in Minot, North Dakota. At the time he prided himself on being able to write great programs for people who wanted to get stronger. He also offered an online fitness training option, but he said I could come stay with him.

It was an interesting week, to say the least.

Gym Movement

That was September of 2009. Adam and I were both working off of the program in Pavel’s latest book, Return of The Kettlebell! I absolutely loved it.It was extremely challenging and absolutely kicked my butt.

However, while I was following the program to the letter, Adam was playing around with all kinds of weird variations of the RTK protocol. He would do light weights when the program called for heavy weights. He would squat with a different weight than he would press and snatch with. He would sometimes do two sets when more were called for.

“I am working within the framework of the program,” he said, “But I test everything with biofeedback.”

He told me about Gym Movement, a training protocol designed by a guy named Frankie Faires. It sounded really weird and kind of stupid, if I’m being honest.

Before I go into my experience, there is a ton of criticism out there about Gym Movement. I’m about to tell you that it has helped me make great progress, but if you’d like to hear the other side, go to Dragon Door and use the search function for Gym Movement or biofeedback. Or Google it. You’ll find plenty.

I’m just going to relate the basic tenets of the protocol and how I use it.

How Gym Movement works

Gym Movement uses various tests, called biofeedback, to determine whether a movement is good or bad for you, or better or worse if you prefer, at any given time. The most common test I see is a range of motion toe touch or arm flexion test.

Here’s a simple example from my own workouts. The question: would squats or deadlifts be better for me today? (This assumes that I have a bigger squat or deadlift as my goal).

So I would come into the gym and:

  • Do a toe touch, stopping when I feel tension anywhere in my body (it’s not stretching, just looking for the first sign of tension)
  • Do a few squats without weight
  • Return to the toe touch. If my ROM (range of motion) has increased, doing squats will be beneficial for me today
  • do a few deadlifts without weight
  • If my ROM has increased beyond the baseline test, deadlifts will be beneficial for me today
  • If squats show a greater increase in ROM than deadlifts, I would choose to do squats

There’s more to it based on goals and the way to run an actual workout in terms of sets and reps, but the basic claim of Gym Movement is that if you only practice movements that are good for you, you will make better progress than if you are following someone else’s program.

This allows, according to Gym Movement, for an athlete or strength trainee to set a Personal Record every day–or every day they train.

Gym Movement emphasizes:

  • Low effort
  • non-linear progress
  • being in a calm state while working out
  • pursuing the best form you are capable of, not someone else’s idea of perfect form

Again, there’s plenty of reading out there. Some of it is from enthusiasts like myself, some of it from people who absolutely hate it and think it’s a sham.

I’m fine with people training however they want. Whatever makes them happy. This post isn’t to defend or condemn anything, only to show where I’ve been with my training and mindset.

What I can currently say is that Gym Movement has allowed me to make wonderful progress in my training. I can deadlift well over 500 lbs and have done a bottoms up presss with the 48 kilogram kettlebell, AKA The Beast. I’ve also put on 30 lbs of lean muscle.

And if it quits working for me, I’ll be the first to say so. I have no stake in the business and feel no need to defend anything. But it’s working for me right now, better than anything else ever has.

Moving forward: my associations with strength training

I say associations rather than beliefs because the body is always changing, just like my perceptions about strength training are. I’d rather just change directions than try to unlearn anything at this point. Associations that seem to be false are easier for me psychologically than realizing that a set of “facts” I’ve always adhered to has to be discarded entirely.

Our bodies and minds change. We’re always adapting. Heraclitus said you can’t step in the same river twice. I feel like we can barely inhabit the same body twice. Everything’s in flux, and that is why I think strength training will continue to fascinate and consume me for the rest of my life. There will always be new questions to ask.

If I had to come up with my own list of debatable commandments for fitness, exercise, health, strength…whatever we’re going to call it, it would look something like this.

I think:

  • Strength training should be fun
  • It doesn’t have to hurt
  • No pain no gain doesn’t make sense to me anymore
  • Exercising should make you happy
  • You don’t owe anyone else an explanation for your own training
  • Kettlebells are awesome
  • Training longevity and quality of life should be the main fitness goal
  • There will always be someone stronger, don’t sweat it
  • All progress is worth celebrating
  • Everyone’s progress is worth celebrating

Enjoy your training. Please let me know if I can ever do anything for you. I’m not the strongest or smartest guy out there, but I love this stuff and love to talk about it with like-minded people.

Josh



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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris Smith July 10, 2010, 11:41 am

    Excellent post, Josh. I think everyone goes through some kind of training evolution, and that’s a good thing. The points at the end are awesome, especially the one about there always being someone stronger. That’s something that I think a lot of us often get stuck on.

    There is no room in training for dogma in fitness. I don’t argue with results, though I may not agree with methodology. If someone wants to do 1-legged squat-presses standing on top of a swiss ball and it gets them results, go nuts. As long as it gets results. Too many people, trainers or otherwise, try to invent all this bogus stuff just to be original. There is no room for that here. Show me results-oriented training or leave me be.

    Chris

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:56 pm

      Thanks Chris. Are you prepping for another powerlifting meet anytime soon?

  • Dan July 10, 2010, 12:02 pm

    Awesome article, Josh! It’s always cool to hear about people’s journeys.

    I don’t have anywhere to put an olympic set right now. Aside from kettlebells, do you have any advice on strength training with minimal available space and a complete lack of privacy? (I’d rather my landlord not see me hauling things around in the tiny shared backyard)

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:57 pm

      Thanks Dan. There’s always bodyweight and kettlebell training for minimal space. Are you sure? you can’t fit a rack in there? They take up surprisingly little space on paper, they just look enormous when crammed into a little room. Priorities, laddie!

  • Gubernatrix July 10, 2010, 12:57 pm

    Thanks for sharing that Josh, interesting for a fellow strength enthusiast to read.

  • adam July 10, 2010, 9:23 pm

    No matter how many people I train I can not get away from the blanket title of ugly strong skin head. ..oh well

    • Josh Hanagarne July 10, 2010, 9:45 pm

      Hey, if you had had the giant beard and crazy hair at the time, it would have been different. Come on now, you’re know you’re a dashing rogue. You make vibrams and karate pants look as respectable as any tux.

  • jean sampson July 11, 2010, 7:25 am

    It was a long post but extremely worth it. Thanks, Josh! Enjoyed reading about your journey.

  • Heather July 11, 2010, 9:32 am

    Josh,

    Thanks for this! Thanks for explaining what the Gym Movement is in terms even a moron like me can understand! THIS helps ME! And yes I still check out Adam’s stuff too. Oh yeah, @Adam T. Glass—don’t let anyone confuse your HONESTY with a bad attitude. I appreciate your forthright, direct approach. I also think you’re CUTE! Hair is overrated anyway. Back @Josh–THANKS AGAIN for explaining about the flexion stuff! I’ve recently taken a week off from training, simply because it’s been unGodly hot here out East, but I’m starting back up TODAY because I miss it and it’s how I’ve been clearing my mind lately, to concentrate on this hideous Children’s and Adolescent Lit class that I’m taking (which I hate). Now–here’s my question. . . . what if you’ve always been freakishly flexible, as in toe-touches and behind-the-back stuff comes easily to you? Or maybe I need to look at some Gym Movement stuff? Please advise at your earliest convenience. Oh yeah, @Josh and @Adam—YOU GUYS ROCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! \m/ \m/

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:58 pm

      Heather, I’ll send you an email. Don’t defend Adam too much. He’ll start putting on airs.

  • Demond Thompson July 11, 2010, 12:31 pm

    Great post! It feels like I’m almost reading my own journey. Gym movement has helped me out a lot, and I know I’m still learning. Sometimes it feels like I’m doing a little too much still. My training today was a lot “easier” and I continue to get stronger, which is all that I’m after. It’s fun to stay in touch with like-minded folks! Keep up the great work!

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:58 pm

      Glad to hear it, Demond. Agreed on all points.

  • Larry July 11, 2010, 5:59 pm

    This is a terrific post (as Josh’s always are), with tons of information and motivation at its heart. One of the things I love about Josh’s posts, and the subject of strength training in particular, is how it reflects and parallels life itself.

    It’s about so much more than cool-looking guns or even how much you can bench. Those are by-products of the real reason to get sweaty.

    Part of what appeals to Josh, I think (haven’t asked him, he may weigh in on this), as it does to me, is that everything about resistence training speaks to the fundamental rules and experience of life. It’s not an analogy as much as it’s a case study.

    You only get out of it that which you put into it.

    There are principles to follow and rules that you break or bend at your own peril.

    You must persevere to succeed. Without it you will lose that which you have worked to gain.

    When done right, health and goodness ensue. When done wrong (see above bullet), injury and a waste of energy and time is entirely possible.

    The goodness is internal and external. It gives back to you while it empowers you to pay it forward. A strong and healthy camper is a happy and productive camper.

    You can over-do it. That’s one of the principles. Over-training can be as bad as a lack of training. Less can be more.

    Progress is relative. And there is no ceiling. You get to define your own goals, just as you do your ultimate rewards.

    To make it work, you must own your process and get a return on your investment through an enlightened enjoyment of the journey. If it’s all about the mirror you’re missing the point and the opportunity.

    It can be a spiritual elevation and a meditative time of healing when you are alone with the weights and confronted with your own sense of self-worth.

    I could go on. My point — if you can’t see how this (resistence training) is indeed life itself, how it mirrors life and models the path to bliss, then you aren’t looking deep enough. Perhaps at anything.

    Or you haven’t been under bar loaded with 300 pounds ready to crash down on your chest, challenging you to be at your best.

    Life itself weighs more than that… much more. Hit the gym… live.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:59 pm

      Larry, that’s beautiful stuff. You should have saved it for a guest post:)

  • Jenn July 14, 2010, 2:50 pm

    I really enjoyed reading about your strength training journey, Josh.

    The other day my husband said something funny while I was talking about your blog. He said, “I wonder if he really is?”.
    “Is what?” I replied.
    “The world’s strongest librarian.”

    Made me giggle. Then I started imagining you competing in strength contest with all the librarians I know at my library. He he!

  • Core Fitness: James Thompson July 18, 2010, 7:53 pm

    Josh,

    I’ve been passively reading some of your stuff for a while now and really enjoyed this. I found you through some of your guest posts on Adam’s site. I’m not at the point in my fitness yet where I’m trying for huge gains in strength, but still enjoyed this and it will hopefully be relevant to me very soon. Right now I need to drop some fat and get back to healthy and then really concentrate on adding lean muscle.

    -James

    • Josh Hanagarne July 19, 2010, 9:43 am

      Hey James, glad to hear it. All progress is worth celebrating. Don’t worry about huge gains in anything. Just start taking little steps. They’ll add up to huge wins.

  • mike July 20, 2010, 10:43 pm

    Hi Josh,

    I liked reading your little workout biography. what was your deadlift before starting gym movement? And after? I read a lot about gym movement and would like to try it. I am thinking of trying it tomorrow on my workout. I will let you know how it works. thanks

    • Josh Hanagarne July 21, 2010, 11:27 am

      Prior to GM, my max was a gut-wrenching 425. These days it is a relatively easy 520.

  • Jenson August 1, 2011, 7:46 am

    Just to give another perspective:

    1.Strength training should be fun
    Why? weight training isn’t recreation it’s simply the most efficient and effective means to achieve a multitude of health and fitness related benefits. It’s merely a means to an end.

    2.It doesn’t have to hurt
    In order for weight training to be effective, the intensity of effort must be great enough to elicit an adaptive response, that is never going to be a pleasant sensation (far from it, unless you happen to be a masochist) it isn’t fun, but it can prove a very satisfying experience…once completed.

    3.No pain no gain doesn’t make sense to me anymore
    see above

    4.Exercising should make you happy
    No, the act of exercising is very specifically aimed at improving physiologic headroom.
    One definition is ‘ bodily exertion for the sake of developing and maintaining physical fitness’ those improvements in ‘physical fitness’ and any health related benefits garnered together with the known pyhological benefits of exercise may well be cause to make you ‘happy’, but the act of exercising if done correctly very probably won’t…or your not doing it correctly.
    I think the problem is most people confuse exercise with recreation, which can be very dangerous situation possibly leading to a compulsive exercise issues.
    Exercise is great but should be seen and used for what it is.

    5.You don’t owe anyone else an explanation for your own training
    True, only yourself but if you your self don’t understand exacly why you’re doing what your doing and the cost benefit relationship involved it may be time to re-examine things.
    If you can’t explain why/what your doing to others it’s a sure sign you probably don’t understand it yourself.

    6.Kettlebells are awesome
    They’re great for lateral raises if done correctly, but is’s very much down to how there used, any exercise where their used in conjunction with excessive momentum will put great stress on any joints and connective tissues involved, those types of injurys don’t allway occur early on in their usage but can be cumulative resulting in very serious injury.
    Check the crossfit forums injury threads for evidence of this.

    7.Training longevity and quality of life should be the main fitness goal
    Absolutly, exercise is a means to an end should be seen as such.

    8.There will always be someone stronger, don’t sweat it
    This is true in the vast majority of cases, excluding one.

  • JennyT October 24, 2011, 10:21 am

    I’m brand new to the blogging world and don’t even know how I came across your site, but I love the breadth in your topics and am totally looking forward to reading all of your stuff!

    • Josh Hanagarne October 24, 2011, 11:16 am

      Thanks Jenny. If you ever want to bounce blogging ideas around, let me know. Welcome!