Fitness Friday: How to do the squat

If you want stronger legs, you’re going to have to get under the bar.

In terms of overall mobility, athleticism and strength, there may be no more essential move than the squat. This goes for everyone: the professional athlete, the novice lifter and your grandmother. You can tell a lot about a person’s future health by how well they can drop into a deep squat and pop back up.

If you can, chances are good that you will be able to move well as you age. If you can’t, it’s something you need to remedy before you lose your ability to run, climb stairs or even walk.

So yes, it’s that important.

In terms of fitness, the squat is fundamental. Anyone looking to build lower body (and really, full-body) strength needs to program squats into their routines.

Squats come in many forms. The bodyweight squat, or “air squat,” is done without any weights involved. Other basic forms include the back squat (where a loaded bar is placed atop your shoulders and behind your head) and the front squat (where a loaded bar is held just above collarbone level in front of the head). There are others (dumbbell squats, Zercher squats and more), but what I want to focus on is the most used weight training variation, the back squat.

This form is the most basic and has the capability to offer the highest potential for moving a lot of weight. That’s why it’s a staple for lifters and athletes worldwide. But just like last week’s post on deadlifts, the squat requires good technique to be effective and safe. So, let’s go over it.

What you’re aiming for: The idea is to be standing with the weight on your back, lower yourself down to where the crease in your hips is at or below parallel to the top of your thighs, and then to stand back up (I’ll go a little more into squat depth toward the end of this post). Your thighs, glutes and back will all get worked hard doing a loaded squat.

Foot placement: It’s going to vary for most people, but generally speaking, your feet should be about shoulder-width apart, with your toes angled out slightly. The reason for the toe angle is simple: You need your knees to remain stable throughout the lift (not caving inward), and you need space for your belly to go as you get into the deepest part of the squat. Some people choose a wider stance, which will mean toes will be pointed out more. The downside to a wider stance is a decrease in hip mobility. But find a stance that works for you and go with it.

Setup: As you’re approaching the bar in the rack, get under it with both feet squared up. The bar should be loaded at a point on the rack where you can unrack it by standing underneath it without having to rise on your toes. If you have to go up on your toes, the bar needs to be racked a level down. Grab the bar tight, with your hands past shoulder width. Now squeeze down on your armpits. This will engage your back muscles and have you ready to receive the full weight of the bar. Now that you’re ready, stand up to lift the bar off the rack, take a step back with each foot and assume your proper stance. Take in a good breath and hold it, letting your midsection expand to brace your core. Now you’re ready to lift.

Descent: From here, you will unlock your hips, sit back slightly and break at the knees while lowering yourself and the weight down. Your back will not be vertical, but rather, it will be angled forward. Do not lean too far forward, however, as this will act to fold you in half and put too much strain on your lower back. Descend under control until you reach proper depth, being careful to hold that breath in and not let it out – you definitely want your core braced to protect the spine. Keep your head in a neutral position, not looking too far down or craning your head up.

Not bad, but in this pic, I’m craning my head up too much.

Ascent: Keeping your breath in and core braced, drive upward, with your weight centered over the middle of your foot (if you drive too far back on your heels, you risk pitching backward and possibly losing control of the weight; too much toward your toes and you’ll pitch forward and fold yourself in half). Concentrate on powering your lower back up as you straighten your hips and knees. This will help you mentally engage/connect with all the muscles needed to lift the weight. It’s important to remember that you are executing the lift by powering through your hips, and not trying to lift solely with your legs. Once standing straight up, exhale a bit, take another good breath and repeat.

A FEW TIPS

I mentioned not letting your knees cave inward during the lift. This is called valgus and it’s no bueno. You fix this in a few ways. First, make sure those toes are angled out. Second, as you lift, try to think about driving your knees out as the weight comes up. And last, if your knees are caving inward it may mean you’ve got too much weight on the bar for your ability at this time.

I also mentioned body lean. This is going to differ based on your physique. People with shorter legs and a longer torso will not have that much forward body lean, and their back angle aspect will be more vertical than average. Conversely, people with shorter torsos and longer legs will have greater body lean and a more horizontal back angle aspect. You can guess which body type has an easier time with this lift!

LET’S TALK SQUAT DEPTH

This one is critical, because you want to get the most out of the lift as possible. But you also don’t want to push depth to the point where you get injured. So let’s discuss it.

As I said earlier, the goal is to drop down to where the crease of your hips is at or below parallel. This puts your hips and knees into a full range of motion, which is ideal for building the maximum amount of muscle, strength and mobility.

Some people go further. They call it “ass to grass,” or ATG, which has your butt hovering just inches above the floor at the lowest part of the lift. If you can do this and not get hurt, more power to ya. But most people can’t, and for various reasons.

Hip mobility, or a lack of it, is one hindrance to squat depth. And something that surprised me, so is ankle mobility. If you have issues in these areas, the ATG squat probably isn’t gonna happen, and hitting/breaking parallel might be a challenge.

If this is you, your goal is to reach the maximum depth possible, and even for people with these compromises, that’s going to be at or extremely near parallel. Do the best you can without breaking form or causing a lower back injury. But also, if you ever plan to compete in a powerlifting meet, you’ll be required to break parallel.

For the rest of you (like, 95% of all exercisers), here’s this admonition: Every time you squat, you should be squatting deep. Afraid it will hurt your knees? Stopping short of a full squat is actually worse. And if you’re piling on weight and throwing out “squats” that are a half-rep or a quarter rep, swallow your pride, peel off some weight and do it right. Trust me, we admire the person getting quality reps with 135 pounds. The dude half-squatting 350? Or 400? We think that guy’s a joke. Nobody believes your half squat at 405 is a legit PR because it’s not even a legit squat. You’re just cheating yourself if you half-ass this exercise.

Wrapping it up, if you have the ability to do barbell squats, you definitely should. Build your strength, athleticism and mobility by programming this lift into your workouts a couple times a week. As a bonus, you’ll never be accused of skipping leg day.

Here’s a video with more great advice on doing the squat…

Next time: Let’s talk bench press.

Fitness Friday: How to do the deadlift

You can build a lot of strength with the simple act of pulling a barbell off the floor. Let’s talk deadlifts.

By now, you all know what some of my favorite lifts are. And if they become a part of what you do to get stronger, you’ll enjoy the same benefits. But if you’re new to it, there are some tricks to making these lifts more effective and less injurious.

I mention injury because when you start challenging yourself with heavier weights on compound lifts, it’s important to be dialed in when you’re doing the exercise. If something is off, it doesn’t take much to put yourself in a bad position and get hurt.

Similarly, to get the most out of an exercise, proper form is needed. You’re just cheating yourself otherwise.

This week, I want to focus on the deadlift.

This lift is my favorite, mostly because it offers the most bang for the buck. The deadlift is a full-body exercise that can build a ton of real-world strength. And nothing is more primally satisfying as knowing you can walk up to a heavy thing and lift it off the ground.

Deadlifts are done in one of three ways: Conventional, sumo and trap bar. All have their merits, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to concentrate on the conventional deadlift. The conventional stance has your feet wider than hip width, but less than shoulder width. Your hands will grab the bar on the outside of your legs.

We often refer to the steps to setting up and executing the lift as “cues.” Each of these cues will help execute the lift as efficiently and safely as possible. Here’s how you do it:

Walk up to the bar until your shins are about an inch away from it. The bar should look like its hovering about mid-foot above your shoes. Bend down and grab the bar. Once you’ve grabbed it, bend your knees. The bar will now likely be touching your shins, but don’t move the bar toward you. Move toward it. Point your toes out slightly.

Your upper body should be somewhere short of a 45-degree angle at your hips. Your back isn’t vertical, nor is it horizontal. If you’re looking toward a mirror, you would be able to read any lettering or graphics on the upper chest portion of your shirt. How far you are bent over will depend on how tall you are, and how long your legs are. Longer lifters will have a more horizontal aspect to their stance.

Keep your spine straight, from your neck to your lower back. Resist the urge to crane your head and neck up.

Now it’s time to “set your back.” What this means is getting your back muscles tight and engaged. Grip the bar tight, and pretend you’re squeezing down on a ball in your armpits. This will engage the muscles in your back, so everything is involved and locked in. When doing this, your lower back might arch a bit, and that’s OK. If it’s arched, it will be in a stronger, more locked-in position rather then flexed or bowed out (rounded), which is a weaker, less stable position.

Now you’ll want to set your core. Take a breath in and force your midsection out. If you’re not sure what that’s like, imagine trying to force out a fart. Crude/funny, I know. But this will engage your abdominal muscles and create a rigid wall that protects your back. You’ll hold that breath in until you complete the lift; if you breathe out during the lift, you’ll partially release the core and you don’t want to do that. When you’re at the start of the lift, holding this position will make it look like your belly is hanging out, and that’s a good thing as long as you’re braced. Sucking your gut in and flexing your abs like you are posing for a six-pack photo is not the kind of core bracing you’re looking for.

Next, “take the slack out of the bar.” What this means is to come up just enough where you hear a metallic “click” of the bar touching the plates. Now you’re set to lift.

As you lift, remember that the deadlift is not a squat. It’s a hip hinge. So, you will be using your legs and your backside to stand up with the weight. Lift with too much legs and you’ll be weaker in the lift. But if you use too much back, you’ll be limited into now much you can pull – and begging for injury. An easy way to judge if you’re doing this right is to see if your knees and your hips straighten at the same rate and time.

As you’re lifting, try to press your feet down through the floor. Thinking of it this way is very similar to following through on a baseball throw or a golf swing. It will make your drive upwards that much more powerful. Ideally, you will feel your quads, hamstrings, glutes and your entire back working to lift the weight. A cue to remember as the lift is going up is to concentrate on squeezing your glutes and hams.

Be sure to not let your lower back become rounded during the lift. Your lower back must remain flat and rigid. Too much flex will eventually lead to injury. Remember, you’re not a fishing rod. You’re more like a crane.

As uncomfortable as this sounds, the bar needs to slide up your legs. If the bar is not making contact with your legs as you lift (this is called “bar drift”), then you are creating a longer distance the weight must travel. So, it’s more work and less power. And it will pitch you forward, putting unnecessary strain on your lower back.

As you complete the lift, keep your chest out and your shoulders back. Once in a standing position, lower the weight back to the floor for your next rep.

That’s the meat of it. Here are a couple of other things about the deadlift that may show up as options for you…

Some people use wrist straps when they deadlift. The straps assist your grip, allowing you to lift heavier than your unaided grip would allow. I’d resist using straps, as you’ll want your grip strength to rise with the rest of your deadlifting power. Big-time lifters will use them while training when the weight gets very heavy, allowing them to do more work. And in Strongman competitions, straps are allowed. But for the rest of us, just use your own unaided grip.

There are options for your grip. The double-overhand grip is most common, but a lot of lifters find it limiting when the weight gets heavier. A mixed grip is when you have one hand overhand, one underhand. A mixed grip will allow you to lift more, but be careful. It can create imbalances during the lift. There is also the hook grip, where your fingers come over your thumb as your grip the bar. This also allows for a stronger grip once you get used to it, but be warned – it’s a little weird and pretty uncomfortable.

The deadlift is not a good high-rep exercise. Because it is very technique oriented and technique tends to break down under fatigue, I’d advise against doing high-rep sets of deadlifts. A loss of form is a sure-fire way to increase risk of injury. I keep my sets at 8 reps or less, depending on the weight.

Finally, some lifters use a belt. The belt is designed to protect your lower back, especially as the weight gets heavier. Generally speaking, lay off using the belt as long as you can so your core strength rises with the rest of your lifting strength. That said, if the weight is getting somewhere near 200 percent of your body weight OR you are becoming prone to tweaking or injuring your lower back, using the belt is a plus. You’ll find that when wearing the belt, setting your core becomes even easier, as your midsection has something to push against as your midsection expands.

I’m going to attach a video from Mark Rippetoe, the author of “Starting Strength,” which goes through what I’ve talked about. He knows his stuff. Heed what you’ve read, watch the video, and get to pulling some weight!

Next week: We’re going to tackle the squat.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: A 3-day strength training plan for those pressed for time

Lift hard/run hard? Sure, to an extent. And the truth is, some people don’t have the time to be Superman or Wonder Woman.

Funny thing about fitness: Not everyone’s goals are the same.

It runs the gamut: Weight loss, getting that beach body, improving strength, boosting endurance. Some folks are training for a competition of some sort, be it in physique sports or some sort of race.

In January, I wrote a couple of posts about strength training. In those posts, there was one prediction (if you do this, you will get stronger) and one assumption, and it was a biggie: that you will be able to commit to lifting six days a week for 45-60 minutes.

I think it’s a doable proposition. But for some people, it’s not. Whether you’re time-crunched or you have other fitness goals that make such a schedule impossible to keep, some folks can’t hit the iron that often. But that doesn’t mean you should chuck the idea of strength training entirely. You just must change things up and properly scale your expectations.

Every fall for the past eight years, I’ve trained for longer-distance goal races ranging from half marathon to full marathon length. As training plans for these races progressed, the mileage and time commitment grew. There was no way I could do a heavy deadlift day right before embarking on a 13-mile training run. Even shorter runs (in the 5- to 8-mile range) were incompatible with the rigors of an intensive weight training schedule. So I made a compromise: During race training, I jacked up the miles and eased back on the weights.

I still wanted to focus on the big lifts and compound movements, though. But during race training, running was first priority.

What I came up with was a plan to lift three times a week, using a total body format. So, that meant that each workout used the same movement patterns I described in the first week’s Friday Fitness post: Squat, press, pull and hip hinge. Furthermore, each day started with one of the bigger lifts being the emphasized exercise of that workout, with other lifts coming behind it in priority and difficulty. Here’s what that looked like:

Monday (squat emphasized)

Barbell back squat: Warmup, then sets of 10, 7 and 5, increasing weight

Incline dumbbell presses (3 sets of 8)

Lunges (3 sets of 8)

Pull-ups (3 sets of 6-12, depending on ability)

Wednesday (press emphasized)

Bench press: Warmup, then sets of 10, 7 and 5, increasing weight

Goblet squat (3 sets of 12)

Kettlebell swings (3 sets of 12)

Barbell rows (3 sets of 8)

Friday (hip hinge emphasized)

Deadlift (warmup, then sets of 8, 6 and 4, increasing weight)

Overhead press (3 sets of 8-10)

Chin-ups (3 sets of 8-12)

Leg press (3 sets of 12)

You’ll notice that each workout has some sort of pulling movement (pull-ups, chin-ups or rows), and that’s by design. And you can always adjust the exercises you do depending on your preferences or limitations (machine lat-pulls can sub in for pull-ups or chin-ups, for example). But the lift portion of your workout should be no more than 40 minutes long. That way you’ll have time to do your run, ride, swim or other endurance session without having to cut it short.

How did that look for me? The last three years, I’ve used this plan alongside half marathon training workouts. Days where I had longer runs, I didn’t lift. And I didn’t lift on planned rest days. My schedule looked something like this:

Half marathon training workout schedule

Sunday: Cross train (bike for 30-60 minutes)

Monday: Lift, 5-mile run

Tuesday: 8-mile run

Wednesday: Lift, speed workout run

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Lift, 5-mile run

Saturday: 12-mile run

Obviously, this will look different for each person. You may not want to run that much, or you need to run more. Tailor it to your own needs.

But if you’re an endurance athlete, you should do some form of strength training, and this is a good blueprint to get it in a way that dovetails nicely in your endurance training.

And what if you’re not an endurance athlete, you’re pressed for time, and three workouts a week is all you can get? The lifting schedule still holds. If you can give it 2 hours a week spread out over three days, you can work on your strength needs on this plan. Tack on 20 minutes of some sort of conditioning (check out the interval training ideas I had two weeks ago), and you’re spending 3 hours a week getting the strength and conditioning you need.

Last thing: While this sort of plan can be beneficial, you’ll want to manage your expectations. Three workouts a week is not going to get you looking like Mr. Universe or The World’s Fittest Woman. Your strength gains will be in proportion to the work you put in. And you’ll want to make sure your caloric intake matches the amount of work you’re doing (too little and you’ll break down; too much and you’ll gain fat). But if you can give yourself 3 hours a week spread out over three days; you’ll be far better off than skipping it altogether with the thought that you don’t have time to exercise.

Next week: We’ll look at the things that can undermine your fitness goals, and ways you can fix that.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: More ways to use interval training for conditioning

Go to any commercial gym and there is a good chance you’ll have a lot of tools you can use for interval training conditioning.

I’m a fan of interval training. It’s a way to get a lot of work done in a compressed amount of time. And the method works: Performing intervals will build cardiovascular capacity and help burn excess body fat.

But going back to last week’s post, I knew that I’d need to follow it up with some ideas that do not involve running longer distances. Not everyone is a runner, either by choice or from physical limitations. What I want to do here is give you some ideas for interval training that do not involve “running” workouts.

As a refresher, let’s talk about different forms of cardio. The type you see when someone plows ahead on some machine for 30-60 minutes at the same speed is called steady state cardio. The same is true of someone out for a run or on their bike who travels at pretty much the same pace the entire way.

Intervals involve an activity where you switch speeds from a slower, easy pace to progressively higher speeds, then drop back down to the original slower pace. Another version of this involves working at a high, intense speed (think sprint), then slowing way down to a recovery pace and doing that for multiple rounds. This is sometimes referred to as high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

The up-and-down nature of intervals tends to have greater fat-burning qualities than steady state. And you can generally get that benefit in a shorter amount of time with intervals than you can with steady state workouts. The latter has its place, but for most of us, interval training has more value.

So let’s get to it. I’ll break it down into inside and outside forms of interval training you can do.

INSIDE

If you have access to a gym, there is a good chance it has a variety of machines like treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, stair climbers and rowing machines. Although I’d much rather get my work done outside, there is a benefit to having these tools at your disposal.

One of my favorite machines is the stairmill. One of my friends calls it the “stairway to hell,” and I know why. It’s not pleasant. But it can give you a great workout. And it is very interval-friendly. I’ll start out at an easy speed, and then every minute, go up one level for four minutes, then drop it back down to the speed where I started. Five founds of this and I can climb 1,000 feet in 20 minutes and burn a few hundred calories:

Minute 1: Speed level 8

Minute 2: 9

Minute 3: 10

Minute 4: 11

And than back down to 8 to start the next round.

Ellipticals have the same feature: a speed level, or in some cases, speed is measured in RPMs. In that case, the intervals would look like this:

Minute 1: 55 RPMs

Minute 2: 65 RPMs

Minute 3: 75 RPMs

Minute 4: 85-95 RPMs

And then back down to 55 to start the next round.

A similar path could be forged on an exercise bike using miles per hour as your guide. And so on. Do five rounds of this, and make sure that hardest interval (minute 4) is one in which you are really working hard. You need to be gassed when you take it back down to the slow interval on the next round.

You may have a couple of machines that are more conducive to sprint intervals. Two that I can think of are the spin bike and the rowing machine.

In this case, the goal is to work as hard as you can for a minute, then take a two-minute break before doing the next sprint. Do this for 6-10 rounds. It’s important to remember that your sprint pace is going to feel rough. You’ll need those rest breaks. And when you’re done, you’ll be trashed.

If you’re lucky enough to have a place where you can push a prowler sled, you can do sprints with those, too. Load the sled with a weight you could push at a walk pace fairly easily. Get behind it and sprint behind it as hard as you can. Do 6-10 rounds with a 1-2 minute break between sprints.

As with any form of cardio, I recommend doing your conditioning after you lift and not before.

This grassy pitch is small, but if you run up and down it enough you will get one tough workout.

OUTSIDE

If the idea of indoor exercise is a no-go for you, then you still have options. Probably not as many, and you may need to go back to running a bit. But the distances will be short, so it won’t be anything like longer steady state runs or cross-country style workouts.

Hills on the bike: Find a hill that has a moderately steep grade and is long enough that you can get a 30-60 second ride uphill. Ride as hard as you can up the hill, coast back downhill to recover. Repeat for 10 rounds.

Hills on foot: Find a moderately steep hill that is at least 50-100 yards to the top. From the bottom, run hard uphill, turn around, jog slowly back downhill. Repeat this for 10 rounds.

Wind sprints on foot: Depending on your fitness level, find a stretch of level ground anywhere from 50-100 yards. From a full stop, explode at full speed for the distance you choose. Walk back to the start line, and give yourself a 1-2 minute break between sprints. Do this for 6-10 rounds. Word of caution: I wouldn’t do wind sprints if you are just starting out in your exercise journey. The potential for injury is higher for an untrained person, and if that’s you, build up to sprints by doing other forms of conditioning first.

What I hope you get out of this is your toolbox for conditioning is fairly extensive, especially if you have access to the tools or the places that have the tools to get you there. Not every conditioning workout has to involve running for miles and miles. And if you use intervals and work hard, you’ll see results.

Coming up next week: We’ll take a look at one of the most important (and undervalued) part of training: Recovery.

See you then.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: Running intervals to build speed, torch fat

Good-ole running is a solid way to work on your conditioning goals.

The last couple of Fitness Fridays have been heavy on the weight training side of things, so I wanted to go in a different direction this week. Let’s talk conditioning, and then go over a couple of run-based plans that will definitely up your fitness game.

Fitness is basically two things: strength and conditioning. Strength is the ability to produce force. Conditioning is the ability to produce work capacity. If that sounds nebulous, let’s get down to brass tacks. A strong person can lift and move heavy things. A conditioned person can carry out rigorous physical activity for prolonged periods of time. A good athlete is a person who exhibits high performance in both areas.

And this even includes people in very specialized areas. Strongman champion Eddie Hall, who set a world record deadlift at 1,100 pounds, used swimming to make him better in competitions. Elite marathoner Jordan Hasay can deadlift twice her body weight. The two are nothing alike as athletes, but respective to their fields they are both strong and well-conditioned.

And they set a good example for you. It doesn’t matter if you want to be strong as a bull or able to run long distances at a good clip. If you have a good balance between strength and conditioning, you will be better at what you choose to do, and healthier overall. I went through some basics of strength last week. Now it’s time to talk conditioning.

Let me say at the outset that running is both the default exercise of choice for conditioning (or “cardio,” as you’ve probably come to know it) and a much-maligned activity in some fitness circles. It’s the default because it’s a natural human movement. You ran around as a kid. You ran laps in PE class or for whatever sports program you were in. Aside from running form techniques, running is about as intuitive as it gets.

It’s maligned because some folks see it as a way to get hurt (I think that’s overblown) or believe that other forms of conditioning are superior. Run too much, they say, and it will inhibit strength gains. There are grains of truth to all of this, but generally speaking, a good running program with moderate distances and different types of workouts offers a lot of bang for the buck, and without nearly as much downside as detractors would have you believe. Yes, it will be hard to build strength if you’re running 30, 40, or 60 miles a week. But we’re not going there, at least not in this post.

One last note before I get into the meat of it. The workout ideas I’m going to throw out there in this post will be for people who are already doing some running. If you’re a beginner, you’ll need to start slower and much more modestly and build up your running base before trying what I’m going to present here. A solid Couch to 5K program is going to be right up your alley. Tackle that and you’ll be ready to go to the next level.

Now for the rest of us. You can get fit running 15 to 20 miles a week. But your body will eventually adapt, and when it does, you’ll find your fitness levels stagnate or even regress. Adaptation is a bummer. So that’s why we must challenge ourselves by making things hard.

And that’s where intervals come in. What are intervals? For running, intervals are when you run at a challenging pace for a specific distance or time, then slow down to an easy recovery pace for a short time. Once that recovery period is over, you ramp up the intensity again.

A basic interval run might look like a “race pace” 400-meter interval, followed by a 200-meter slow jog or walk, and repeating this process for about eight rounds. That will give you about three miles of movement. A “race pace” speed should be a hard effort, akin to running but not being able to hold conversation during the effort. Your rewards: torching excess body fat, improving your cardiovascular capacity and gaining experience running at challenging paces that might have made you pause. Try it and see what you think.

400-meter warmup

400-meter race pace 200-meter recovery walk or slow jog, x8

400-meter cooldown (light jog)

As you get accustomed to this, try kicking up the speed on the race pace intervals.

Here’s a place where you can work on some speed.

Too easy? Let’s kick it up a notch. But I’ll just warn you right now:  It’s hard. It’s called a ladder, and it’s a whole lot of no-fun work with big rewards.

How it works: After a moderate warmup, you’ll run a certain distance at a challenging pace, or maybe a desired race pace. Then you’ll slow down to a light jog for 400 meters. When that recovery interval is over, you do a longer race-pace run, then slow down to the light jog. And the next interval has you go at an even longer race pace interval. When you reach a peak distance on the “fast” intervals, you’ll then shrink their distance until you reach the “fast” interval distance that you started with.

If you’ve never done this before, start with a “baby ladder.” It looks like this:

400-meter warmup

400-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1200-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

400-meter race pace

400-meter cool-down

The first time I did this, it trashed me. And this isn’t even the full monty!

Here’s the full ladder:

400-meter warmup

400-meter, race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1200-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1600-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

1200-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

800-meter race pace 400-meter recovery jog

400-meter race pace

400-meter cool-down

That’s a lot of work, a lot of intensity, and a decent amount of mileage, to boot. It’s important to remember that during this workout, you never stop for a water break, never stop to walk. You’re always running. As you adapt, increase the speed on your race pace intervals.

The best places to do this is either on a track (one lap is 400-meters, so it’s easy to keep track of distances) or on a treadmill (distances are going to be on the control panel). It will be a little harder to track your speed on the track, though most sports watches can help. On a treadmill, you can set precise speeds.

Do this speed workout once a week, mixed in with your regular runs or other conditioning routines.

Your weekly run schedule might look something like this:

Monday: 3-mile-run

Tuesday: 5-mile run

Wednesday: Speed work (ladders or other form of speed interval)

Thursday: Rest

Friday: 3-mile run

Saturday: Long run

Sunday: 30-minute cross train (bike, swim or some other form of conditioning)

Next week: I’ll get into some other ideas for conditioning, and not all of them will involve running.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: Basic strength, work capacity, and a blueprint for continued strength gains in the squat, deadlift and bench press

Getting stronger in the big lifts has huge benefits. And it can improve over time if you do it the right way.

I’ve done some research over the years to find things that work in terms of strength training. Two methods come to mind: the 5-by-5 rep scheme, and the importance of volume training. The former is something promoted by the well-regarded author of the book “Starting Strength,” Mark Rippetoe, and the latter is something I picked up from listening to Westside Barbell founder Louie Simmons.

Let’s look at that 5-by-5 first. What it has you do: Using the “big lifts” – bench press, squat and deadlift — you’re going to start by selecting a weight you can comfortably do for five reps. Do the set, then add some weight for the next set, and do five more. You keep doing this until you’ve completed five sets of five, and that last set should be a struggle – one where you’re probably not going to get all five reps. Once you get to the point where you can complete all 25 reps, it’s time to move up the weight in all the work sets. Repeat this cycle for 12 weeks, and you’ll pack on some strength on those lifts.

Now for a curveball: When you’re working with rep ranges like five or less, your body will tend to grind down. You’ll keep progressing, but it will slow and eventually stall. That’s my experience, anyway.

Enter Louie Simmons.

If you don’t know who Simmons is, here’s the short of it: He founded the Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio, and using what he learned from American and Eastern Bloc strength coaches, he came up with a system that helped his gym produce more world-record powerlifters than just about anybody. Simmons knows his stuff.

One of the things he said he discovered is that when his athletes would get to the end of a training cycle, they’d grind down and, to paraphrase his words, walk into a meet with a lack of conditioning.

What he meant by that is they’d be stronger at the end of the cycle, but not as strong as they should or could be. As their lifts got heavier, their total reps per workout got fewer. Sometimes, they’d miss their lifts at the meet – a fate no competitor wants. So, he split his lifters’ workouts: One day would be heavier weight/lower reps, and the following workout with the same lift would include lower weight, but a lot more reps.

And that’s how the legend of Westside Barbell was born.

So how would that look for you? Let’s set up some squat workouts combining these two methods. Say your leg day workouts are Mondays and Thursdays. I’m sure you’ll have other leg exercises besides squats, but I’ll let you figure out what those are (I provided some examples in last week’s post). You’ll be doing them after you squat anyway. All weights I’ve listed below are used only as an example. You’ll have to figure out what works best for you/challenges you and go from there, but remember, that last set of five should be at a level where you won’t get all five, and when you do, it’s time to move up in weight on all of your work sets.

Monday squats (5-by-5)

Warm up:  Empty bar, 10 reps; 135, eight reps.

Work sets (5 reps each) 185, 205, 225, 245, 265

Then do the rest of your accessory leg work.

Your Thursday routine will look at lot different. Lighter weights, more reps. It’s volume all the way, baby. How I’ve been doing this for leg day is a deal I call “death by squats.” In this routine, you’re going to pick a weight that is light for you. You’re going to do 10 sets of 10 reps, and you’re going to rest precisely one minute between each set. Use a timer to keep yourself honest. Again, the work set weight is just an example. You’ll need to figure out what’s “light” but doable for you.

Thursday squats (Death by Squats)

Warm up: 10 reps, empty bar.

Work sets: 10×10, 135 pounds, 1-minute rest between sets.

Now catch your breath, get a drink of water, go find your spleen, and continue with your leg day accessory lifts.

Why does this combo work? For starters, you’re getting good volume on both days. You’re getting 25 reps of work set weight on Mondays, and a whopping 100 reps on your high-volume day. That’s a lot of squats! But importantly, you’re getting a good combination of reps with heavier weights AND a bunch of volume with the lighter weights. The variation will boost strength AND work capacity (a term Crossfitters know, and a trait all of us should emulate, even if you have an aversion to Crossfit).

You can do similar plans on your bench day (I call it a “press” day) and on your deadlift day (my “pull” day). I’m not sure I’d do “death by bench” or “death by deadlifts,” but you can find a way to use lighter weights with high rep ranges to give you a similar effect. On my volume bench day, I’ll do a couple of warm-up sets, and then do four sets of 15, adding 10 pounds to the bar with each set. On my deadlift day, my volume workout has been doing 3-4 sets of Romanian deadlifts at 12 reps a pop. And if Death by Squats sounds a little too extreme, feel free to use a different combination of sets with lighter weights and higher reps. In the squat, I’d advise something like four sets of 15-20 reps with lighter weights on your high volume day. In any  case, I’m using much lighter weights than what I use in my work sets during my 5-by-5 days.

Bottom line: Get some good volume with heavier, challenging weights. And then in your next workout, dial back the weight and jack up your volume.  And let the gains begin.

Next week: We’ll get into the weeds of running, and a form of speed training that will blast you into shape.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: A basic workout plan to kickstart your fitness goals

It’s the new year, so let’s stop screwing around with our fitness and have some fun, shall we?

Something I wanted to do at the start of the new year was a series of posts about fitness. January 1 seems to bring about a desire for change in that area of life for a lot of people, so I figured it would be worth spending some time on.

This week, I want to talk weight training. Strength is always useful, and maintaining strength is a major component to living a longer, healthier life. If you follow me on Twitter or have read some of this site’s older posts, you know what a big proponent I am of strength training. That’s what I want to go into here.

Too many people go into the gym with no real plan. Or maybe they’re rehashing something their high school coach did. Or mimicking something they read in a fitness mag. My idea: Forget all that, keep it simple, and put together some workouts that will help you do something useful, like building strength and conditioning.

I’m a big fan of what are often called “splits,” or workouts that focus on a particular area. Now I’m not talking about “arm day” or “shoulder day” or any of that. Instead, I like my splits to follow three basic movement patterns: The squat, the press, and the pull.

So, what the heck are these? Quick explainer…

SQUAT: This you know. From a standing position, break at your hips and knees, descend to at least to the point where the tops of your thighs are parallel to the ground, and stand back up. So, this could be a squat with a bar on your back, or a front squat, a goblet squat, or even bodyweight squats.

PRESS: This is an upper body movement where you are pushing against the resistance of a weight. Think bench press, military press, seated dumbbell presses, and standing barbell or dumbbell presses.

PULL: This is broader. But it’s basically what happens when your body’s musculature is contracting to pull a weight. The pull family can be divided into two parts: the hip hinge and the upper body pull. The hip hinge includes all deadlift variations and things like hip thrusters and kettlebell swings. The upper body pull includes pull-ups/chin-ups, barbell and dumbbell rows, cable rows (standing or seated), face pulls and lat pulls.

You might be asking, “Where are things like curls, flies, and tricep presses?” They’re going to be tacked on as accessories. But the truth is, if you major in the three main movements, you’ll get strong arms, shoulders, and so forth. We’ll get to accessory lifts in a bit. The reason I like movement splits better than body part splits is that if you focus on movement patterns, you’ll be doing compound movement exercises. That means instead of focusing on a couple isolated muscles, you’re working a whole bunch of muscles all at once. More bang for the buck, more calorie burn, and better response in terms of gaining muscle and getting stronger.

So, when you’re planning a workout, I’d advise programming two squat, two press and two pull workouts a week. So yeah, you’re going to be working out six days a week. Make your lifting sessions last about an hour or less. At the end, take care of your conditioning, like running, bike work, stair climbing, swimming and so forth. If you can keep your conditioning to 20-30 minutes (and make sure those are INTENSE minutes, not just playing around on an exercise machine), you can be done with the whole workout in 90 minutes or less.

About those accessory lifts: Too many people major in the minors and spend way too much time in isolating exercises. You know the types, the dudes who will spend 30 minutes doing curls or whatever. Piece of advice: Fewer curls, more pull-ups. Trust me. But accessory lifts can be a good way to round out a weight training session.

A basic weekly workout might look like this, with some of the exercises listed here added to the foundational lifts (italicized):

MONDAY: Squat (Squats, lunges, leg extensions, leg presses, hamstring curls, calf presses).

TUESDAY: Press (Bench press, overhead press, tricep extensions, dumbbell lateral delt raises, push-ups, dips)

WEDNESDAY: Pull (Deadlift, pull-ups, barbell rows, loaded carries, bicep curls)

THURSDAY: Squat

FRIDAY: Press

SATURDAY: Pull

SUNDAY: Rest.

Play around with this but be sure each day is anchored by a squat, a press, and a deadlift of some form. I’d also say that some form of a pull-up needs to be included, and if you can’t do a pull-up, there are variations and substitutionary exercises that can help you get there (future post topic!). These compound exercises build strength and are bricks in the foundation of any fit person. Tack on the other lifts, plus some quality conditioning, and you’ll be well on your way toward reaching your fitness goals.

In terms of weight used and reps performed, that’s all dependent on where you’re at physically, and what your goals are. Lower reps with heavier weights build strength. Lighter weights with higher reps tend to build size. But those are generalities; sometimes strength athletes will use both methods to reach their performance goals. We’ll get to that in due time.

Next week: We’ll examine some more detailed ways to make the most of the exercises that are at the heart of the squat, press and pull movement patterns.

Bob Doucette