What Can You Bench? Who Cares.

The title of this post is a common question, heard in gyms throughout the world. You can even supplant “bench” with “squat,” “clean,” or “deadlift.” Any lift will do. What are your numbers?

After reading Zach Even Esh’s article about the prisoner he saw working out, I re-read Dan John’s AIT article. In it, he asks “what would you do if you were a political prisoner, and only given 15 minutes to work out every day?” He goes on to suggest perhaps the front squat.

The first thing that came to mind when I read that sentence, in light of Even Esh’s article, was not the front squat.

Don’t get me wrong. I have the utmost respect for Dan John. And I really like his message in that article. But Dan John always recommends Olympic Lifts (or their variants, or their supplements). It’s his thing.

If you were truly a political prisoner (or any type of prisoner), and you had no access to a set of weights, what would you do? Would you sit in your cell all day and vegetate? Would you go the route of Even Esh’s inmate and bust your ass every day, becoming so strong you could break through your handcuffs and straightjacket? Or would you do something else?

I once read a story about one of Xing Yi’s Quan’s (it’s a martial art) “founding fathers,” Gou Yun Shen. As the story goes, he was imprisoned for killing someone (I think while working as a bodyguard, but maybe not…it was a violent time in China). Anyway, Gou was regarded as highly dangerous, because of his martial arts skills. He was kept manacled all day. Yet, somehow, he came out of prison a more dangerous martial artist than he went in. He had practiced his art while manacled.

I guess I’m just a little dismayed by the attention weightlifting still gets, even now. Weights are a tool. They can achieve certain ends. But they are not the end-all of resistance training. Intention, desire, determination…those are all more important. Sure, O-lifts are important if you’re an athlete, or an O-lifter, but for the general populace, is it necessary for me to perfect my hang-snatch?

Even closer to the point – is it necessary for me to put up a big bench press number to be truly powerful, or to have a very high level of physical strength? What about movement ability? What type movement did I learn after all of that time practicing my bench press?

I think we all can, and should, use the 15-minute paradigm in our workouts on a regular basis. Do as much work as you can in that 15 minute period. Pick the most intense, most effective exercises you can and do them for 15 minutes. Then rest. Then do them again. What will you pick?

Oh yeah…what can you bench?

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Power is the Strength Stimulus

I’ve wondered for a long time about the dose-response relationship.  That is, how much of a particular stimulus does it take for the body to respond a particular way.

This information is critical for personal trainers (like myself), whose clients want to experience specific (sometimes too specific!) changes in their bodies.

A recent article has changed my thinking on training for strength, and training in general, so I figured I’d share my revelation with you!

First off, what do I mean “power is the strength stimulus?”  What I mean is this – training to move a load as quickly as possible (power) makes muscles adapt by gaining strength (we won’t go into the physiology).

The funny thing is, power is typically best expressed with around 60% of your single-rep maximum (1RM), the weight you can lift once.  In fact, power can be significant with as low as 30% of your 1RM.  You don’t have to lift maximal weights to express power, you just have to lift the weights you use as fast as possible.

Power training also develops more bone density than regular-old strength training.  So there’s another reason!

Dr. Robert Newton recommends ballistic contractions to generate power.  A ballistic movement is one in which the weight is actually thrown off of the person moving.  Dr. Newton developed a machine to assist with this, to help the lifter decelerate the bar and not get crushed.  You or I can perform ballistic movements by doing things like medicine ball chest passes, depth or clap pushups, squat jumps (with or without weight), etc.

And here’s the article that changed my life: http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance/old_school_training

The reason is this – notice how Zach says the prisoner was doing his squats explosively?  That prisoner probably did all of his work explosively.  After so many repetitions, the only way to make it more difficult would be to add more force to the movement, increasing your acceleration.  Which is to say, power – which results in strength that can break handcuffs or straightjackets.

But this prisoner didn’t have any tools at his disposal (aside from a “sandbag” crafted out of…something?  A pillow-case and whatever laundry or other stuff the guards were foolish enough to leave in his cell?).

This prisoner didn’t do bench press, lat pulldowns, preacher curls, or even deadlifts.  But I’ll bet he could outlift you at any of those lifts, any day.  Not only that, but I’d wager a bet that that prisoner is more athletic than most well-trained lifters to boot.

Ok, Josh, get to the point.  My point is this – this year, make your strength training simple.  Pick one (preferably bodyweight) exercise for each of the sagittal-plane movements (i.e., vertical pushing and pulling, horizontal pushing and pulling, leg pushing and pulling), link them together into a circuit, and do them explosively, for as long as you can, every day.

See what happens.

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