Okay blog readers!!! I finally convinced Matt Perryman to do an interview for my blog. If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of his work. There are a lot of different types of “experts” in the fitness field. The main reason why I like listening to Matt is because he trains for general strength (and hypertrophy to some extent)…not athleticism. As someone who trains the same way, I know first hand that this is an art unto itself. Training for strength as opposed to training for athleticism has it’s own rules, and there aren’t many people who understand those rules better than Matt Perryman.
Matt is a guy who has positively influenced me in several ways. First, he has helped me realize the value in reading research journals (something I’m now doing all day long it seems!). Second, he has helped me identify logical fallacies (errors in reasoning) when debating on internet forums (something I discovered the hard way after actually debating with him on a forum). Third, he has helped me realize that the human body is capable of more training frequency than most of us believe to be ideal (I’ve had much recent success adding in a fifth workout day to my routine). And fourth, he has helped me cement/reinforce my views on certain methods such as auto-regulation. I find myself “nodding in agreement” quite often when reading Matt’s work which is a rare occurrence when I read strength training blogs.
I believe that this is one of the better interviews that I’ve ever read in the strength training profession (it helps to have a good interviewer, not just a good interviewee :)). Rather than bore you with the traditional “introduce yourself” introductory question, I’ll sum it up. Matt’s a super-smart recreational lifter who likes to lift heavy weights, read journals, crucify people on forums, and write great blogs. Here’s a link to his blog. It is my belief that Matt is one of the smartest and most knowledgeable guys in the industry. You can learn all about him here.
Although I’ve been trying to create shorter blogs, an interview with Matt Perryman justifies an exception to the rule. I will definitely interview Matt again down the road if he’s still willing to share his thoughts. Here’s the interview:
1. BC: Alright Matt, first question: What’s the single best exercise in existence? Please justify your response.
MP: The short answer: There isn’t one.
The longer answer: This is a question everybody wants to ask because people like order. We naturally tend to rank things according to importance. The thing is, the nature of an exercise is to train a specific motor quality — a movement, a muscle group, an energy system, whatever. Exercises are done to move you towards specific goals, which means it’s impossible to define any one as “best” without knowing what those goals are — and sometimes people have more than one.
If you want to get a 180kg bench, then your best exercise may be different from the guy training for a fight, or the girl training for a figure show, or a kid after big arms. And it may even be different from the exercise that gets you to a body weight bench. It may not even be any single exercise.
The single best exercise is the exercise or group of exercises that brings you closer to your specific goal.
2. BC: Someone wants desperately to bring up their deadlift. How frequently should they deadlift and what assistance exercises should they do in the meantime?
MP: I wish there was an easy answer for this one, because the DL is the one lift that seems to have little rhyme or reason to it. Over the years I’ve tried just about everything you can name. I’ve deadlifted with high frequency, 3-5 times a week. I’ve deadlifted with low frequency, one hard session per month with other lifts subbed in on non-DL weeks. Honestly, I don’t think there is one right or wrong answer, but I will lay out some thoughts on what has worked and why (most of which is cribbed from guys much stronger than myself).
I think that in general some people are “volume” responders and others are “intensity” responders. This may be due to a lot of factors, but I think that build and limb-proportions, along with your CNS responsiveness (for lack of better terminology) would be the big two. If you’re built for a lift, you’re going to have a much easier time getting strong at it than a guy that’s disadvantaged. With my build, I’m a good puller, okay to good squatter, and horrible bencher. This means that on average, my pull tends to go up when I pull. You look at guys like Bob Peoples and Lamar Gant, guys that had knuckles dragging the ground, and they could get away with lots of pulling. Even Konstantinovs is tall and “lanky” as top-level powerlifters go, and he doesn’t do much besides pull heavy all the time. In my case, benching benefits from benching, but it also seems to need more work from other exercises to improve. Mechanical disadvantage means more benefit to assistance work, and vice versa.
CNS responsiveness is what we’d have once called “fast twitch” or “slow twitch” dominant. I think there is something to the classification, but I don’t think it has a lot to do with actual muscle fibers. It’s all in your head, so to speak — your brain’s ability to rapidly activate and/or keep activated muscles that are involved in an exercise. This is the difference between being “explosive” and a guy that strains to hit all his maxes, and I think people tend to naturally fall into one camp or the other. I’m more in the former camp. Any time I hit a near-max weight, I can go look at the video and it looks at least snappy, if not fast. If I get stuck on a lift, I have very little ability to strain and grind through it.
I find that I’m more of a volume responder, probably because of that. I can train relatively heavy relatively often, and that’s what I benefit from–lots of practice. I do very well when most of my training is done with moderate intensities (70-85% of 1RM) and at least three weekly workouts for a given lift. Since I can go pretty heavy without straining through weights, I don’t see the hit to recovery unless I go nuts and train on nerve.
The deadlift is one exception to that. My max DL strength seems to respond to some kind of heavy pulling (high relative to 1RM), and that means I can’t train it frequently because that will blow me out just like anybody else. The things that have gotten my deadlift strongest with any consistency are making sure to pull hard once a week and then have some kind of lighter pulling session on another day. There’s only a handful of assistance lifts that have ever carried over to DL strength for me; the good news is that those are either DL or squat variants, so it’s not hard to keep them in. For my set of circumstances, the pull benefits from pulling hard at least once a week. That may not be the case for everybody, so keep that in mind.
Pull hard means singles, doubles, or triples up in the 75-85% range, mostly staying away from 90%+ reps and doing whatever I can to avoid missing reps in training. Missing reps in your deadlift workouts is suicidal from a training standpoint. You can do these as straight sets (pick a weight and do sets with it), you can wave-load (move the weight up and down by 5-10kg increments on each set), you can do this as density training (set aside 20 minutes and get as many reps as you can), whatever. This works best if you have some kind of short-term goal for a number of reps to hit, which triggers a small increase in the working weight.
Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 routine would have you doing fairly high reps on the deadlift when you start a cycle, and I think this is a solid way to go about it too. One Hard Set of 5-10 reps on the pull is a great way to train it (at least some of the time).
You could even do something like John Kuc’s deadlift program, where he split it in half. The first exercise was off the floor strength, so he’d pull from a deficit or pull to the knees (the halting deadlift). The second exercise was out of the rack. Rack pulls from the knee or higher are a show-off move. If you want them to carry over to your full-range pull, rack pulls should be done somewhere from mid-shin to just below the knee, with the plates 2-6″ off the floor. Coincidentally, pulling from a deficit and from a low-rack position are the two assistance lifts that actually have helped my deadlift in the past. Kuc also did what was basically a linear progression with triples, starting with 3-4 sets and then tapering up to a 3RM in short 4-6 week cycles, which is another option to look at.
So your heavy day comes down to three options:
1. Do lots of work in the 75-85% range
2. Do One Hard Set of 5-10 with some kind of progression cycle (either add weight linearly, or use mini-cycles like the 5/3/1)
3. Do some kind of simple linear cycle with triples, doubles, or singles, dropping sets and adding weight each week.
The lighter day can be a lot of things. Bill Starr suggested doing power cleans and high pulls. Westside has gotten everyone big on speed work, and I think this is a good idea. For my last meet, I did an old Westside deadlift cycle which is all singles. You start at 65% for 15 singles and work up to 85% for six singles. It worked about as well as anything could have. The take-home for me is that the light day should be in that light-moderate percentage zone, regardless of what you actually do.
Barring your freaks (like Bob Peoples, who deadlifted to a max single 5-7 days a week), most of the guys with good deadlifts are pulling hard once a week and then have a lighter, faster session on another day. I think that frequency is an unexplored dimension here, though, and you could potentially do a lot more pulling as long as you kept the daily efforts reasonable. The CNS strain of a big pull is too much to recover from done regularly, but the game changes if you keep the intensity reigned in.
As far as assistance, I already mentioned the deficits and low-rack pulls. Those are gold. Other things worth exploring are front squats, which are great for off-the-floor strength; good mornings, which can be hit or miss, but I’ve had some success with them as a lighter, high-rep/high-volume movement; and stiff-legs from the floor or from a deficit, done like GMs or even for heavy sets of 5-10.
You could also add in the usual glute/ham/low-back/abs stuff, but honestly these days I’m getting away from that. I’d rather spend the extra 20 minutes doing more work with the bar. Setting PRs on assistance lifts but never actually budging your main lifts isn’t helping you. This happens to more people than you might think. If you’re going to do it, do something like glute-ham raises or back hypers, and then a heavy ab exercise and call it a day. I like Dave Tate’s rule: 80% of your results come from 20% of your work. I’m big on pushing the 20% that generates the most value.
3. BC: Some one wants desperately to bring up their full squat. How frequently should they squat and what assistance exercises should they in addition to squatting?
MP: Squatting is a whole different beast. You can squat heavy week in, week out and it won’t kill you the way deadlifting will.
The strongest squats I ever hit were done using some variant of 5×5 planning. Years ago when that stuff first started getting popular online, I tried what’s now called the Texas method. You squat for high volume on Monday, do a light session on Wednesday, then work up to a peak set of five on Friday. It’s worth noting that this also got my deadlift about as strong as it’s ever been.
I spent quite a while doing that pattern in some form or another. It taught me a lesson, that a lot of what we think to be true may not be true. I think sometimes we forget how most guys train. To hang out in any commercial gym, if guys are training their legs at all it’s leg press, leg extension, leg curl. They might occasionally step up to some Smith-machine squats, or some jerk will load up 3-4 plates on the bar and move it 3″. Point being, people don’t squat. People that think they’re squatting aren’t. The first thing that gets skipped is “leg day”, cause leg day is hard, right?
If you want to squat big, you have to get past that mindset. If you want to squat big, raw, you have to think a little differently from the guys that are gearing up to train. Nothing against gear, but I think a lot of times people forget that competing powerlifters are squatting in suits and wraps. This changes the training, and you can’t just leave that out when deciding how to train. If you’re trying to copy a wide-stance, shins-vertical, “sit back” kind of squat without gear (and without the leverages for it), that’s probably not optimal. My best raw squatting is done with a narrow stance and reminiscent of how OLers squat, regardless of where the bar sits on my back. That’s also an individual leverage thing, in my experience, given my build. A bulkier guy with better levers might find that the wider stance is better. Horses for courses, sure; the point being, if you’re a lanky raw lifter or generally not a squat tank, you probably need to look at other options besides copying “sit back” geared box-squat form. A lot of people have gotten this idea in their heads that powerlifting means wide-stance, sit-back, never hit depth squats, when the truth is many of the old-school PLers never squatted that way and a good many of the current IPF guys don’t squat that way.
If strength is the main concern then squatting twice a week is an absolute minimum. You need at the very least a heavy day and a light day. Having three days would be better. If you think that’s too much squatting, then you need to get your head out of the bodybuilding mindset. This isn’t about training to failure or with puke-level “intensity”. It’s about practicing the movement with decently heavy weights.
I’ve recently gone through a training cycle where I squatted to a daily max, five days a week, for two months straight. I was beat up, sore a lot, but I kept making progress every single week. I used to doubt that the extremes could work for a raw, drug-free lifter — that kind of Bulgarian plan, Smolov and all those Russian squat cycles floating around the ‘net — but now I’m not so sure. Squatting more has translated to more gains. I’m not quite back up to all-time bests but I’m getting there fast. I’m about 20kg off my best-ever front squat and 25-30 off my best back squat (all unequipped “no no no” squats – no wraps, no belt, no spotters), weighing 10kg less I should add.
The general advice is the same as above — you want to squat big? Then squat. Squat as heavy as you can as often as you can. For most people, I think a reasonable starting point is the Bill Starr heavy/light/medium approach. Squat to a 5RM on Monday, 80% of that on Wednesday, and 90% on Friday. The Texas method is a good option, volume on Monday, light on Wednesday, peak set on Friday.
Of course, this isn’t to say you must have that kind of frequency. Obviously that won’t be practical or even necessary for everyone. Like I said before, somebody built for squatting may be able to get away with one good squat session each week. But I do think practice will benefit most people.
Squatting gives you a lot more flexibility as far as what works. You’ll see guys that go in and do a 10RM set once a week and improve. I did that last year for awhile. Or even that old 20-rep squat cycle. On average though I think sets of 5-6 reps are the money spot; that’s been confirmed by anecdote and research. It’s possible to come in and grind out sets each week without blowing yourself out. You’ll think you’re peaked but you come in, put the weight on, and it just moves. Most people just don’t want to put in the work to do it.
More often than not, that’s the secret to squatting. Just keep showing up and working a little harder than the last time. The specifics are secondary to that.
4. BC: Why are there different “rules” for the squat and deadlift?
MP: Look at the mechanics of the lifts.
Powerlifting gear notwithstanding, you’ll be able to pull more than you can squat. The deadlift is already the heaviest thing you’ll be able to do, unassisted, out of the three powerlifts. Not only that, but you glue it to the floor and then introduce grip as the weak link in the chain.
I’ve missed many pulls over the years due to “phantom grip strength”. That is to say, the bar will feel too heavy but I won’t automatically associate it with my grip. My hands feel fine. The bar just feels too heavy. There’s some kind of proprioceptive feedback going on there. The weight feels heavy in the hands so everything else shuts down.
That issue aside, there’s the fact that you have to overcome the weight from a dead stop (which is where the name comes from). From a neuromuscular standpoint, overcoming a dead weight is a hugely different thing from lowering and reversing a weight, which you do in the squat and bench press. Anecdotally, you get this with all exercises that start from the overcoming position. Think about a military press compared to a bench press.
As a rule, these overcoming lifts have a different strength/volume curve than the lower/reverse lifts. This goes for chinups, curls, deadlifts, rows, military presses, and anything I left out. They respond best to lots of low-rep sets at moderate percentages, or to One Big Set. They fatigue quickly and don’t respond well to a lot of volume.
The squat and bench get the advantage of a stretch reflex to help them along, which is why these lifts can respond better to higher volume and higher reps on average. Note that these aren’t hard rules, because you can train the squat and bench in the same way; just that you have more flexibility in programming them. They’re harder to screw up.
5. BC: Give us your thoughts on the good morning. There are lots of variations. Does it transfer better to the squat or deadlift?
MP: I have a love-hate relationship with this exercise. You hear a lot of guys that swear by it, but most of those are the guys that are competing in a lot of equipment. Bear in mind I train raw, and my idea of gearing up for a competition is a belt and a pair of knee wraps I bought in 2001. A lot of my perspective reflects that.
Years ago, I gave GMs a shot as a main exercise. I got reasonably strong on them, but never saw any carryover to the powerlifts. I really think that a raw or raw-ish lifter needs to spend most of his/her time doing the lifts, and anything like GMs should be an assistance move.
That’s where they shine, in my experience. Doing GMs after squats or (especially) deadlifts is a solid way to do it. As mentioned, I don’t find that the DL really responds to volume barring speed weights. This is a perfect spot to throw in GMs to get a little extra volume for the hip and low-back muscles. I like using them for modest weights but higher reps and more sets. In training for my last meet, I did sets of 6-8 reps with only around 100kg.
As far as the transfer, I really think that depends on the GM and how you squat. Wide-stance squatters will benefit from wider-stance GMs. If you look at a lot of those low-bar wider stance squats, as soon as the guy gets tired it basically becomes a GM anyway, so you might as well prepare for that. I’m a close-stance squatter so I’ve never really had that effect.
Narrow-stance GMs seem to be a little better for deadlifts. You’ll also see some Olympic lifters using these to help the pull. I’ve heard it suggested that narrow-stance GMs, suspended from chains or straps, would be a good assistance lift for the DL. It makes sense, though I haven’t tried it enough to comment.
6. BC: What about the front squat? Do you believe that it’s one of the best “deadlift-builders” due to the emphasis on upper back strengthening?
MP: The front squat is ridiculously underrated. To be fair, it’s not the easiest thing to learn and it’s not a comfortable lift even when you do pick it up–but the benefits just can’t be ignored.
Minus a few freaky OL exceptions, most people won’t ever be able to front squat as much as they back squat. Somehow, this doesn’t seem to matter. I tore an adductor muscle in my left leg at the end of 2008 and had to spend the next 7 months off back squats. I switched exclusively to front squats for that time. I rarely went over 100kg on them. When I brought back squats back in, it took me about a month to get back to squatting 140kg for 10 reps. That was an eye-opener.
This is something I’ve noted elsewhere, but there’s definitely a connection between narrow-stance squat strength and your deadlift strength right off the floor. Ever since getting my front squat strong, I don’t miss deadlifts off the floor anymore. The same held true in the past regarding my OL-style squat. It’s most likely a function of quad strength helping you break the bar off the floor, whereas lockout is all glutes and hams and grip endurance.
The upper-back development and, possibly, core-strength are probably factors as well. In short, this is a good lift to keep in the mix. If you can’t clean-grip it due to wrist flexibility or big arms, the cross grip is fine. Also John Broz has videos of some of his guys using straps to hang on to the bar, which I thought was pretty neat.
7. BC: Are you a fan of box squats? If so, do you believe in “touch and go” or “rocking” style?
MP: Yes and no. I like them as a teaching tool, and they were invaluable when I blew my quad out last year. I’ve found that a lot of new clients lack the body awareness to “just squat”, even with their own body weight. Put a box out there and they get it right away. Whether it’s a confidence thing or box squat magic, I don’t know. I don’t guess it particularly matters as long as the result is there.
As far as the style, it really depends on what you want from it. Using it to teach form and depth, it’s mainly there as a depth indicator. I don’t really get people to pause on it. The rocking pause-then-explode style is a great way to build explosion out of the bottom, since it basically turns a squat into a dead-stop kind of movement.
I don’t think most people need to make them a core lift if the goal is to improve the free back squat. Being consistent with what I’ve said already, I think the box squat needs to be looked at more as an assistance lift. It’s a great hip and hamstring builder. This is one thing I’ve had on my list to try in fact, to bring in high and parallel box squatting after my regular daily squatting. That’s straight from the old Culver City Westside guys, who used box squats as a partial or overload exercise.
I just don’t think box squats should entirely replace free back squats for most people. Guys using suits can get away with it, because the box mimics the suit’s support in the hole. A raw squatter won’t get that. Using it to build the hips and hamstrings is a solid idea, though.
8. BC: Do you ever mess around with Zercher squats or barbell hack squats? In theory they’re great lifts but I never seem to incorporate them into my training.
MP: Rarely to the point of never. As in, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done them since I’ve been lifting weights. If I were to ever get into strongman in a more serious way, I’d take a hard look at incorporating more odd lifts like that. Right now, I don’t have much reason to mess with them.
9. BC: What’s your take on single leg exercises for bilateral strength gains? What’s your take on the step up, Bulgarian squat, reverse lunge, pistol, and single leg RDL?
MP: I like them for beginners, I like them for non-strength athletes, and I like them in down phases where I drop out the heavy stuff and focus on being not-beat-up.
I’ve used them extensively, sometimes exclusively, with endurance athletes. Those guys are more concerned with muscle balance and stability than with absolute strength, so single leg work can be thought of more as a preparatory and preventative kind of thing.
I’d also make it a point to use unilateral work for “general fitness” types, who are looking for more well-rounded development as opposed to any specific performance goals, and really anybody that has “stand up and move around” as part of their needs.
10. BC: Do you believe that glute ham raises transfer over much to squatting and deadlifting? I’ve personally never seen any tranfer whatsoever.
MP: If they do, it’s very small, or it requires more overload than I’ve ever used. The funny thing about GHRs is that you can put somebody on them the first day and that person will rarely be able to do even one. But without fail, if you keep them at it, they’ll be cranking out sets of 10 within a month or two at the most. After building them up, I’ve always found that I can maintain the hamstring strength as long as I’m squatting and pulling regularly. Even after taking a couple of months off I can come back and hit multiple sets of 10, so who knows.
In the case of somebody relatively untrained going from zero to lots, then yeah I think it does shore up a weak point. If you take a guy that already has relatively strong hips and hamstrings and get him good at them, it’s more of a skill-improvement thing and I’m not sure that carries over very much as far as actual strength.
I think they’re worth keeping in just for that level of “preparedness”, but I don’t think they directly help the squat or pull beyond that level.
11. BC: What’s your take on partial lifts such as quarter squats, rack pulls, and floor press?
MP: Useful in the right context and in moderation. It should go without saying by now, but I think that the problems arise when people drop the full lifts in favor of the partials, instead of seeing them as assistance work. Or as in the case of most gym-squatters, they think the partial is the full lift.
I do have a confession though. When I was babying my right shoulder, I relied exclusively on 2-board presses and floor presses for my bench training. So there’s another case when partials can be useful: training around an injury.
Same could be said for quarter squats and rack pulls. The advantage is that you get to handle heavier weights. The problem is that only goes so far. It’s pretty much universal; if you find a guy that’s done a lot of short-ROM lifts for awhile, he’ll inevitably tell you that he went back to the main lifts either no stronger or sometimes weaker than he was. If they’re training a legit weak-point or using them for overload along with the lifts, sure. Otherwise, I can take them or leave them.
12. BC: Have you ever tried barbell glute bridges, barbell hip thrusts, and/or single leg hip thrusts? If so what’s your take? How about the pull-through and kettlebell swing?
MP: Well hell, who couldn’t give them a shot after your book and articles? ;-)
I’ve used them as part of my general warmups. I have to say it never occurred to me to use them as a “strength” movement, but on consideration it makes sense. I think that if the glutes and hip extensors in general are a weak link, then it would make sense to bring them up the same as any other muscle.
The KB swing and pull-through are movements that I enjoy. As part of a well-rounded training regimen, I think they’re much like back hypers or GHRs–good as a high-rep/high-volume kind of assistance move for those muscles. These aren’t exercises that I’d swear by or anything, but I think they’re good standbys. I like doing pull-throughs on sled medleys as well, along with pressing and rowing/pulling movements.
13. BC: I’m of the opinion that the erector spinae are usually the limiting factor in squat and deadlift strength. In other words, I believe that the legs could almost always do more. Do you agree with this statement?
MP: Pretty much. The low back is a touchy area, in that I think we get a little overprotective of it as far as our training suggestions. It’s a muscle group that needs development, but is often ignored or babied because nobody wants to risk injuring it. For most people it is the weak link, but I don’t think it should be, if that makes sense.
I think this is where you’ll find the greatest benefit to GMs, GHRs, back raises, and the KB swings and pull-throughs. Strengthening the lower back with a lot of higher-rep volume seems to be a sure-fire way to strengthen it without risking injury.
And I know this is controversial as hell, so take this with a grain of salt, but I also credit the bulletproofness of my lower back with years of training it rounded. Obviously you have to build up to this and you need the matching ab strength to support the core, but hell we’ve all seen my deadlift videos. I also do GMs and back raises that way as well. The rationale is that the body adapts, and if you strengthen it in a weak position, then it’s no longer a weak position.
This doesn’t excuse legitimately poor form that comes from ignorance. It means that you can do “dangerous” things in a controlled way, with intent, as a kind of weak-point development. Given that the low back is such a potentially weak link in the chain, I don’t see any reason not to train it to handle “potentially catastrophic conditions” that can occur in training. Even McGill backed that up in that recent paper looking at the practices of competitive strongmen. Being conservative is good, but you can’t ignore the realities of strength sports, and I’d rather be prepared. It’s worth noting that of all the numerous injuries I’ve racked up over the years, I’ve never once hurt my lumbar spine or any muscles of my lower back.
14. BC: Briefly describe the major mistakes that most newbies make in trying to pack on mass and gain strength.
MP: Training the wrong way and not eating enough.
I say “the wrong way” because it’s not easy to say “they do too much” or “they don’t train hard”. I think most people should be in the gym at least 3-4 days a week to gain, so they aren’t doing too much in that sense. You can’t say most skinny noobs don’t work hard, either. I’ve seen these guys spend hours busting ass under half-ROM benches and heaving cheat curls.
Newbies are often willing to put in the time and work. They just want to apply that work ethic to the wrong things. If you want to grow, you will find few things you can do in the gym that help this process better than frequent squatting (and other compound lifts). If you want to grow, you need to focus on heavy sets and getting stronger.
All these kids come in trying to do body-part routines, cause that’s what the magazine said and that’s what the big meathead down at the gym told them to do. That isn’t necessarily bad, mind you, as a body-part split is not the worst thing in the world if it’s done right. It’s rarely done right. Instead of focusing on big lifts and bringing those lifts up, they want to muck around with 5 different bicep curls and 20 different chest exercises. And then leg day is extensions and curls.
In short, they’re focusing on the assistance work and not on the important things. If I could go back and do it all over again, I’d do something like Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program, or at least pay more attention to that Ed Coan powerlifting workout that I started doing. My biggest mistakes were getting away from the lifts and trying to make assistance work more important than it is.
Diet-wise, there’s not a lot to say. If you “eat all the time” but never add a pound, you aren’t eating as much as you think. If you’re skinny and want more muscle bulk, then you need to eat and stop sweating the details. Once you’ve added some size, then you can talk macros and meal timing and worry about how much fat you get in a day.
Years ago I got sick of being stuck at 165 pounds. I started swilling a few 1500 calorie shakes per day, eating half a loaf of bread and one of those one-pound trays of beef among other things. I don’t recall exactly how much I was eating, but it was 6000+ calories at one point. Two months later, I weighed 195 lbs. Yeah, I got pretty fat. So what? I also added a good bit of LBM and achieved the goal I wanted.
The moral of the story: if you want to grow, being pudgy is the sacrifice you must make. Lean bulking does not work well for ectomorphic guys. Eat now, worry about dieting it off later.
There’s also something to be said for the kids that come in and lift Monday through Thursday, come pump the guns and shoulders before they hit the club on Friday, and then spend the weekend partying. Hey, I was there once. It’s fun. But it’s also not the best environment to grow either. If you’re coming in with a hangover til Tuesday and eating like crap 3-4 days out of seven, big shock but you’re not setting yourself up for progress. I’m not a teetotaler by any means, but there is a balance point and a lot of these guys are on the wrong side of the line.
15. BC: What are the best three assistance exercises for bringing up one’s bench press?
MP: Dumbbell bench for high reps, tricep work for high volume, and some kind of overhead work.
16. BC: Do you believe that most people could considerably raise their bench press by focusing on rowing strength for a month or two?
MP: If the upper back is a limiting factor, it certainly won’t hurt. Given that your average bench jockey does little to no scapula-stabilizing back work and limits back work to pulldowns and machine rows, it’s certainly possible.
17. BC: Do you believe that the power clean can be used effectively as a deadlift builder?
MP: Yes, as per above: if you use it as a light or speed kind of training, I think it can work very well.
18. BC: What are your favorite ab/core exercises? Do you believe that core strength limits many people in squat and deadlift strength?
MP: Weighted decline or GHR situps and heavy side bends, without question. If you’re talking about a guy that’s got to stand up and move, throw in something to train rotation like Russian twists, woodchops, or full-contact twists, and something with bodyweight like planks, leg raises, dragon-flags, and rollouts with the wheel.
Core strength probably does limit a lot of people in the big lifts. The old wisdom is that these lifts tend to build core strength as you train them, and I do find that this is true to a point. But I’ve also found that I can benefit from at least a few sets of weighted situps and/or side-bends, too. I don’t keep them in all the time but they are useful if I start to find myself getting soft in the midsection.
19. BC: What’s your take on back extensions and reverse hypers? Are they low back destroyers? Can you do them safely? Do they help build a strong deadlift?
MP: I love back extensions (or hypers as I’ve called them in earlier responses). A lot of the old-time lifters were big on these, and Bill Starr in particular suggested to make them a mainstay if you want a strong lower back. I like them for both high-rep sets and weighted. I’m not sure if they carry over directly to the deadlift, but they do help with lower back strength and stamina, which can’t hurt.
Reverse hypers I’m on the fence about. If my gym had one, I’d use it. I like the way it feels when done for high reps. I couldn’t see ever using it as a strength move, though. I doubt I’d ever buy one; it’s a big specialized piece of equipment that costs a lot of money for little benefit in return. If you want to do the move, you can do it well enough on other equipment at the gym, maybe using bands for resistance.
20. BC: If someone’s goal is solely to raise their powerlifting total, do they need to perform overhead presses and chins?
MP: They don’t absolutely need to, no. That said, it would be rare for me to drop these exercises because I feel they both offer benefits that are hard to duplicate.
Overhead presses obviously work the triceps and shoulders. Surprisingly, I’ve found that the contraction of the traps that you get at the top of the lift has made my shoulders feel a whole lot better (which isn’t surprising, since most of my shoulder problems can be traced to dysfunctional scapular positioning).
Chins, same thing. You don’t need them in the strictest sense, but there’s something to be said for having the lat and mid-back strength necessary to move your bodyweight around (or even weight on top of that). You can never have too much back strength to support the bench, in my opinion. Chins also work the hell out of the grip, which is useful.
21. BC: What are the major things that annoy you about the fitness industry?
MP: If I had to summarize it, it’s the general lack of respect for knowledge and lack of critical thinking among most would-be professionals. That leads to most everything that I could complain about. The whole field is built on regurgitating quasi-truthful factoids that often have little or no basis in reality.
The mainstream fitness industry is about worship of superficiality to the exclusion of substance, and the fact that knowledge is judged by appearance. Half the industry is dominated by fitness models that look amazing, but can’t tell you anything about training or diet that doesn’t require a big dose of AAS.
The other half is book-educated guys that don’t have the context of actually training themselves, or anyone else, but want to tell you how you’re doing things wrong. Whether we like it or not, exercise science academia has a vast gulf between it and solid training practices. A degree should be the very beginning of a coach or trainer’s education, not the end of it.
Everybody wants to be an expert, but few are willing to put in the real time and effort to truly learn and think. You wind up with a lot of people that may mean well, but often know a lot less than they think and do more harm than good with dogmatic thinking. Somewhere in the middle there’s this tiny subset of guys that know what they’re talking about and mostly stay under the radar.
I’ve done my share of yelling and stomping my feet about deceptive marketing and garbage claims made by the industry, and that’s not substantially different. It’s the flip side of the coin, painting authority when there is no authority and abusing what should be a position of trust held by a professional. I’m not as hostile about this as I once was, but it is still irritating if I think about it too much. I don’t like the fact that success and credibility are a function of marketing more than competence. But it is what it is, and sitting around yelling about it won’t do anything to change that.
If there’s one thing that has been consistent as I train myself and others year-in and year-out, it’s that I’m constantly reminded how little I really know. As I get older and more experienced with different goals and different solutions, I’ve come to realize that a lot of what we argue over is just trivial. It doesn’t matter that some guy wants to go train with a body-part split instead of three full body workouts. It doesn’t matter that some girl wants to go do Crossfit instead of my preferred mode of exercise. It doesn’t matter that you prefer Program A and I prefer Program B. All of that stuff is just not important.
I think that the field, collectively, needs to realize that we don’t know everything, we can’t know everything, and that there aren’t always right or wrong answers. If you’re happy doing what you’re doing and you’re getting results, great. Keep your damn fool mouth shut and let others do the same. That goes for me, too.
22. BC: Who are your “go-to” guys for strength training knowledge? What about nutritional knowledge? Name your top five favorite strength training books?
MP: To talk strength training, we’ve got a great group of guys down here in Kiwi-land that are strong, well-read, and always trying to pick up more to improve, so those guys are great to bounce ideas off. I’ve cut out almost all of my internet foruming in the last six months, but I do still hang around a few sites that have some big brute guys that talk shop, which is informative from time to time. I’m interested in what lifters are actually doing, and you’ll never learn more than from lifting with other strong guys. I know that’s clichéd to say, but it’s true. Research and book-knowledge give you some unique insight, a way to put things in context, but it’s never a replacement for getting out there and doing it yourself or seeing what other guys are doing.
Besides that, I love reading about old-school lifters. There have been some very impressive strength athletes and bodybuilders in the last 100 years, and I think it’s a shame that most people don’t bother paying attention to that knowledge. The practical side of strength training is an area that isn’t that ripe for any kind of revolution or innovation. Any new knowledge is more explanatory than anything else, a matter of figuring out why things are working rather than saying what should or should not be done in the gym. What we don’t do is come up with anything truly new. Looking back to guys that were getting strong back in the early 1900s and on into the 1970s can teach you all you’d ever need to know; even raw and raw-ish lifters don’t train much differently from those old-timers. Which is why it’s just about impossible to name all my influences, because we’d be here all day.
When it comes to strength & exercise books, I’m a notoriously picky buyer. I’ve got Supertraining and Zatsiorsky’s Science and Practice. When it comes to understanding strength in detail, you simply won’t find anything better. It’s not an interview unless you mention those two books. Other than that, it really depends on what you’re after. As far as science-related stuff, there’s really not a lot out there that isn’t very niche info (like the Russian manuals or some stuff on periodization) or a mainstream info-product which I tend to ignore.
Practical books, I can list a few more than five here. Pavel’s books “Power to the People” and “Beyond Bodybuilding” are full of gold, as is Steve Justa’s “Rock, Iron, Steel”. Mike Tuchscherer’s “Reactive Training Manual” is virtually a must-read to learn about his system of autoregulation. Jim Wendler’s recent 5/3/1 manual is something that should be required reading for just about everybody. I like Bill Starr’s book “The Strongest Shall Survive”, and also the successor “Practical Programming” by Rippetoe and Kilgore.
Reading and digesting those will teach you just about anything you’d care to know about lifting. Easier said than done, mind you.
23. BC: What are your favorite lifting programs and periodization schemes? There aren’t many people in this world who know more than you about this topic.
MP: The trend with periodization, like my thoughts on everything else, has been toward simplicity. It’s tempting to look at the multi-year plans of advanced athletes and think we should copy that, but it’s just not the case. I don’t think the average person, even a strong person, has much need to plan more than a month or so ahead unless he or she is peaking for a contest.
Complex periodization cycles exist because a lot of athletes have to juggle lots of training goals. Strength training is just one part of the overall workout scheme, and many times not even an important one. When you have that to deal with, the equation can get pretty hairy. Lifters don’t have that problem, and would do better to ignore most of the complex plans. Getting stronger is just a matter of tinkering with progressive overload so you get occasional peaks and valleys.
All you need is some kind of simple, fool-proof system that builds those peaks and valleys (training cycles) into it. The simpler this system is, the better off you’ll be; less opportunity to screw up means less screwing up. This process of working up to a peak and then backing off is the essence of periodization. All the rest is details.
The best, most productive systems I’ve ever used have been these four things:
1. Straight linear cycles over 6-8 weeks.
2. Mini “wave” cycles over a month.
3. Heavy/light/medium training like the 5×5 Texas method or Starr’s original system.
4. Some kind of daily autoregulated training cycles.
The first one is pretty obvious. Start at 65 or 70%, add weight each week until you peak. Take a new max and start over. There’s a lot of ways to go about this. Traditionally, linear programs had you doing sets of 8-12 reps at the early stages and then dropping reps, but I don’t like that for stronger people. I think you can stick to fives for squat and bench (maybe threes or even singles for the DL) and just do multiple (4-6) sets. As the weight increases, drop the number of sets back, and once you reach a 5RM, start dropping the reps back until you peak. Bashing linear is en vogue, but it works and a lot of guys have gotten very strong using it.
Wave-like mini-cyling is basically what Wendler’s 5/3/1 workout does. You have four weeks in a month, so you go easy, hard, hardest. The fourth week is an optional deload or easy week if you need it; if not, you start over. You get one peak each month, then you back off and repeat. Here again there are lots of ways to do it. You might go for a 5-8RM, then a 3-5RM, then a 1-3RM. The 5/3/1 uses planned percentages, and you go all-out on the top set of the day. I’ve done something similar using Prilepin’s table to give me a starting percentage and rep-range for the day. Boris Sheiko’s powerlifting workouts would fall under this as they use mini-waves as well. Again specifics don’t really matter, as long as you’ve got something halfway intelligent and consistent to spit out numbers. The idea is that each mini-cycle is a little heavier than the last, so that’s how you measure progress.
The third program is in my experience one of the better programs a person could do. It will end up looking somewhat like the linear cycle if you do it right, with regular peaks followed by back-offs to reset the weights. The big difference here is that you stick to a fixed set/rep pattern, instead of dropping the sets and reps as the weight increases. The variation between volume and intensity-type workouts makes it easier to keep progress going. You may have also heard this called “daily undulating periodization”.
The fourth option I’m listing only for completeness, because 1. it can apply to a lot of different systems and 2. I don’t know if it will benefit most people. It works for my circumstances, but I’ve also got over 10 years of experience in knowing how I respond to things. Your mileage may vary. This system is pretty simple: you show up, bust ass with the basic lifts, and go home. Some days are harder than others, as determined by your performance. Rest days are also determined by how you feel. I’ve got my own set of guidelines that determines how things go on the day, which meet the “hard to screw up” requirement. The rule-set is what governs how heavy you go and how much work you do, and it requires that you be aware of what’s happening and willing to act on it. Not everybody can or will do that.
You can adjust this into cycles by making the training more volume-heavy for 6-8 weeks, then spending 3-4 weeks doing fewer sessions and pushing to a peak. I also try to build in a light week for every 3-4 weeks of hard training, and a week off out of every eight weeks or so.
This is how I prefer to train now, with the whole thing autoregulated. I like this system because it’s flexible and one of the more effective things I’ve tried. Just be warned that flexibility is not always a benefit to beginners and intermediates; you have to be able to make judgment calls that either require experience or an experienced coach. Sometimes structure is a good thing, and the first three options I listed are always solid choices that will never stop working.
24. BC: Discuss what you’d do differently if you were training solely for mass vs. solely for strength? There’s certainly tremendous overlap but would you alter the frequency, exercise selection, number of sets, rep ranges, rest time between sets, etc.?
MP: That’s easy. Higher reps on average, higher volume on average, and probably a slightly lower frequency most of the time. I think I would focus on doing two kinds of workouts: one that was high volume or density-type training with sets of 5-6 reps (maybe triples), and another that was more traditional bodybuilder pump-volume.
The heavy density stuff would stick to squats, benches, rows, military press, chins, and maybe something like a GM or Romanian DL. Pavel had a great scheme for this, called the Bear: you work up to a daily 5RM, take 90% for a set of 5, then 80% for fives until you fatigued. You could do this with triples just as easily. The other option is to set aside a block of say 15-25 minutes and just do sets of 5-6 at 70-75%, or triples at 80% until you get fatigued or until time runs out.
Pump-volume went out of style for awhile but it’s starting to make a comeback now. I think this is more important for the show muscles of the upper body than it is for legs, but for whatever reason doing higher-rep assistance work with dumbbells or even machines seems to do nice things for the overall size and development of the upper body. Where I’d differ from the Flex type suggestions is to keep the exercise selection sane. If it’s an upper-body pushing day, then do a DB bench, a shoulder side raise, and a tricep exercise. If it’s back/pulling, do a chinup or row, DB shrugs, and then one good curl exercise. Pick solid, effective exercises and then just do say 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps. The goal isn’t to train with “high intensity” or train towards a point of failure, but to complete all the reps.
Another thing that may be worth exploring is the vascular occlusion approach. As I’ve written before, I don’t see this as a reason to start tying off your arms and legs with a tourniquet. Instead, I think this is validation of older bodybuilding methods like drop-sets and moderate-tempo, constant-tension training — all that stuff bodybuilders like to do that pushes the working muscle into fatigue. The idea is to keep the muscle contracted as long as possible, even with light weights (or progressively lighter weights as you get tired). This could even mean doing isometrics or very small ROM movements. This is something I’d probably throw in at the end of a session, after the main work is done, as a kind of finisher.
How you set this up is largely an exercise left to the reader, but I would say that I would lean towards being in the gym at least four and probably five days a week, trying to hit each muscle group at least twice if not three times. Layne Norton has an excellent template that has you doing two “strength” days and two or three “pump” days, with suggestions that aren’t terribly off what I laid out here. You could also rig up some kind of undulating program with A/B/C workouts that rotate across the four or five training days each week. You could do the old classic which is built around the big lifts on an upper/lower schedule, with the big lifts done heavy and then body-part work done for pump-volume. There are a lot of options, and I’m not of the opinion that the split itself is that important in the scheme of things.
I suggest this so that you’re getting tension-time overload from both the heavy weights and from the strength-endurance angle, and because it’s important to train a muscle more directly if you want it to grow. I know that’s counter to a lot of what we hear about exercise minimalism, some of which I agree with, but if you’re talking a non-beginner that’s after muscle, that’s what it takes. You need to focus on the big lifts as a framework, but this doesn’t mean you should ignore the detail work if you’re trying to maximize LBM gains.
I’ve had some discussion lately about training each muscle group very frequently, 3-6 times a week, for say 3-6 weeks, then backing off to a more sane schedule for 2-3 weeks to allow adaptation. That might be worth exploring for big guys that are really near the genetic asymptote. The more advanced you become, the more your body will respond to large variations in stimulus like that.
25. BC: I could ask you questions all day but I’ll cut it off at 25 just so you don’t hate me. Last question: How in the hell did you end up in New Zealand and do you ever see yourself moving back to the United States? Thank you very much for taking the time to conduct this interview Matt! It is much appreciated.
MP: Long story short, I met and got married to a nice Kiwi girl a few years ago. We spent a few years in Australia, and then decided to move here (home for her). I really enjoy it here (here including NZ and Australia both), and barring something major I don’t see myself moving back to the States. It’s a more relaxed pace of life which not everyone will enjoy, but it fits me just fine.
No problem Bret, I always like the chance to sit down and run my mouth.
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