Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Geek's Approach to Working Out

Not being your typical geek (at least in my commitment to fitness and avoidance of Mountain Dew), I've been working out for more than 20 years. I'm no no power lifter, but even now, at the age of 41 and a bodyweight around 195 (6 feet tall), I can still exceed a 1,000 pound total on the three big lifts: squat, bench press, and dead lift.

Over the years, my training has changed as I've learned new things and grown older. I take a much more cerebral approach to training now than I did when I was in my 20s and early 30s, where my main lifting philosophy was high weight, low reps, every set to failure and never go down. This type of max effort training eventually takes its toll, especially on joints like the elbows and shoulders and the lower back as well.

As my strength gains trickled to a halt in my late 30s, I began exploring alternate ways of training and have come up with a good system that seems to work, in that I've made some very good progress using it over the last 8 months. It's more of a high intensity training approach, as opposed to the volume training I used to do (and the one most weight lifters still do).

If you're a regular weight lifter, you probably do multiple exercises per body part, multiple sets per exercise, and reps in the range of 4 - 10. Typical weekly schedules for someone doing such a workout might be 4, 5 or 6 days a week, along the lines of:

4 day
Mon, Thurs:Chest, shoulders, triceps
Tues, Fri:Legs, back, biceps

5 day
Mon, Thurs:Chest, triceps
Wed:legs, shoulders
Tues, Fri:back, biceps

6 Day
Mon, Thurs:Chest, triceps
Tues, Fri:back, biceps
Wed, Sat:legs, shoulders

These volume workouts usually include doing 3-5 different exercises for each bodypart, 3-5 sets per exercise, and 4-10 reps per set, usually with the weight increasing each set. There's nothing wrong with such a workout - I did a workout much like this for almost two decades. Everyone can make good gains lifting this way, though you might often find yourself hitting a plateau now and then and needing to do something to break through. Varying the exercises you do each time, along with the amount of weight and the numbers of reps, is a good way to keep this routine from going stale.

Since this type of routine didn't seem to be working for me that well, I decided to try something new. After much online research and experimentation, I came up with a routine that has resulted in good gains in size and strength over the last 8 months (bodyweight from 188 to 195 and all poudages heavier). It's based on several high intensity workout (HIT) methods, which you can read more about online if you've any desire to research it.

To determine the intesity of my training (how much work I am doing), I calculate a pounds per second. Lets look at that in a volume workout. I'm going to use a few assumptions for the ease of calculation; YMMV:

Time to complete 1 rep: 5 seconds
Time between sets: 120 seconds
Time between exercises: 180 seconds

Here's some of the formulas I'm using:
RepTime = Number of Reps * Number of Seconds to perform each Rep
Set Rest Time = (Number of Sets - Number of Exercises) * Seconds of Rest Between Sets
Exercise Rest Time = (Number of Exercises -1) * Seconds of Rest Between Exercises

Tonnage is calculated on a per set basis:
Tonnage = Reps x Weight

I use Pounds per Second as representing 'intensity' of the workout:
Pounds per Second = Total Tonnage/Total Time

Now let's take a typical volume chest workout. Substitute your poundages for the ones below if you want to see how your workout breaks down. The time under each exercise include rest time between sets ((Number of Sets - 1)*120):

  • Bench Press: 135x10, 155x8, 185x6, 205x5
  • Time: 500 seconds; tonnage: 4520 pounds

  • Incline Press: 135x8, 135x8, 155x6, 175x4
  • Time: 490 seconds; tonnage: 3790 pounds

  • Decline Dumbell Press: 70x8, 70x6, 70x5
  • Time: 335 seconds; tonnage: 1330 pounds

  • Dumbell Flys: 45x8, 45x8, 45x6
  • Time: 350 seconds; tonnage: 990 pounds

  • Rest between exercises: 540 seconds
  • Total time: 1675 seconds
  • Total Tonnage: 10630 pounds
  • Pounds per second = Total Tonnage / Total Time = 6.35

    After chest, if you were doing the 4 day routine, you'd still have shoulders and triceps to do.

    I've included a spreadsheet breakdown of a full body workout done over two days. Change the weight used to see how your workout stacks up. Here's the final rollup for the Monday and Tuesday workouts of the 4 day a week routine listed above:
  • Total time: 13620 (3 hours 45 minutes)
  • Total tonnage: 53640
  • Pounds per second: 3.94

    With my new workout, I elminated almost all the isolation exercises and have gone to doing the full body three times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri). Each exercise is done for 1 set of 15 reps, with only 2 minutes of rest between exercises (keeping the assumed 5 seconds per rep). Here it is with the poundages I used on October 2, 2006:

    Mon, Wed, Fri
  • Squat: 205x15 - 75 seconds, 3075 pounds
  • Leg Curl: 130x15 - 75 seconds, 1950 pounds
  • Dumbell Press: 80x13 - 65 seconds, 1040 pounds
  • Lat Pulls: 160x15 - 75 seconds, 2400 pounds
  • Military Press: 105x15 - 75 seconds, 1575 pounds
  • Triceps Extensions: 100x15 - 75 seconds, 1500 pounds
  • Dumbell Curl: 40x12 - 60 seconds, 480 pounds

  • Total time: 1100 seconds (18mins 20secs)
  • Total tonnage: 12020
  • Pounds per second: 10.93

    Comparing the pounds per second here with that of the volume workout, we see that this routine moves almost 3x as much weight per second. Time taken to complete a full body workout has gone from 4 hours to just under 20 minutes (not including warmup and stretching). If you think this workout is for sissies, I challenge you to give it a try. Make sure you bring a barf bag the first few times!

    I realize a lot of traditional lifters will look at this and scoff, thinking that there's not enough work being done. Although overall exercises, sets, and tonnage is lower, there is actually more work being done per second of this workout - almost 4 times as much work.

    By cutting out isolation exercises and focusing on compound, multiple joint movements, we can get a full body, high intensity workout done in 20 minutes. I know a lot of you lifters enjoy those small isolation movements, but they really aren't necessary to a workout program with the goal of increasing OVERALL strength and fitness. If you're a bodybuilder, you might need to do isolation movements to bring out details, but for someone who simply wants to get stronger, bigger, and look better, basic, core strength movements are best. If you really want to put a little emphasis on a muscle group, add it in at the end as I've done with biceps and triceps.

    • Don't be a wuss! Go all the way doen on squats. Don't listen to whiners who say you'll injure your knees; that's BS. Knees are made to bend - deep squats wil make them stronger, not weaker.
    • Vary the exercises. For legs you might do squats on Monday, Leg Press on Wednesday, and Deadlifts on Friday. For chest you might do Flat Bench, Incline Bench, Dumbell press. For back maybe Close Grip pulls, Wide Grip Pulls, Seated rows.
    • Warm up! I do 20 minutes slow jog on a treadmill (5 miles per hour) at the start of every workout
    • Stretch! After the treadmill, I do 10 minutes stretching
    • Keep up the pace - don't slack between sets
    • You can do less reps with more weight if you want, but your goal should be to do no less than 10.
    • I do cardio 3x a week on my off days, jogging about 2.5 miles on Tues, Thurs and Sat or Sun
    Here's a spreadsheet of my current Geek Workout.

    Explanation of exercises you might not have done and how I do others:
    1. Power clean is gripping the bar slightly wider than shoulder width with your arms hanging in front. With knees slightly bent and keeping your elbows high, pull the bar up the front of your body and then rotate your arms underneath once the bar gets to your upper chest. From that position, press the bar straight up overhead. Then lower the bar to the upper chest, rotate the arms over the top of the bar, and lower it to the starting position. Focus on keeping the movements crisp and smooth. Use just enough leg to assist in getting the bar overhead.

    2. I do dumbbell curls seated and alternating arms, starting with my left (weaker) arm

    3. Narrow lat pulls are either gripping the bar underhanded with your hands close together, or using a v-bar. Hands should be no more than 6 inches apart.

    4. I do shrugs gripping the bar behind the bar, not in front. Easier on my lower back.

    Keep in mind you don't get that workout body through workouts alone. Watch your diet - you don't have to be a food Nazi, but you should do your best to limit fat and sugar. Get rid of soft drinks and fast food. Snack on trail mix or almonds or mixed nuts/dried fruit. Limit red meat, eat more chicken, preferable white meat chicken. Tuna is good, but don't eat too much because of mercury content. Replace white rice with brown, white bread with whole wheat. Eat more fruits and veggies. Make sure you get enough protein. If you're going for size gains, don't overdo tha cardio and make sure you're getting sufficient calories.

    It all might seeem overwhelming at first, but if you can get it going and stick with it for a few weeks, it will become habit and you'll soon be reaping the benefits.
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