Me trying a spinal decompression

RP Hypertrophy Review and Training Update

I’ve just finished the fourth week of my hypertrophy block, the first of three mesocycles coming in to the regional champs in early April, so I figured it would be a good time for a training update and to review the program I’ve been running.

RP Hypertrophy

The program I’ve been running for the last four weeks is the Renaissance Periodization Hypertrophy program, which is a five week program (four training weeks, plus a one week deload) designed for either gaining muscle mass while gaining weight, or maintaining muscle mass while cutting. This is usually your first step in a macrocycle – building the base, so to speak. I decided to run it while on a caloric deficit because I started over my weight class limit!

I have run the four day version of the program, which has me doing essentially an upper/lower split, twice a week. The gist of it is that each week the sets become more intense, heavier, and there are more of them. The program is well put together, with a very nifty spreadsheet that makes it easy to keep track of what you’re doing week to week.

Volumes

The training volume increases pretty quickly on RP Hypertrophy – from the first week which is essentially a joke, it accelerates to week three where you hit your Max Recoverable Volume (MRV) and then in week four you exceed it. (If you want to know more about this, read Scientific Principles of Strength Training or hit me up; I’m always keen to talk about programming and sports physiology!)

I like graphs, so here’s a visual representation of what I mean.

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The volume increase is pretty drastic – especially notable in the squat. (The deadlift volume drops from week three to week four; I couldn’t maintain the volume that week. Long story short, trap bar deadlifts suck.)

True to plan, in week three I was flirting with my MRV (read as: I started feeling not-fresh at the beginning of each training) and by week four I was feeling downright shitty (sore all the time, my appetite disappeared). I’d like to apologise to anyone I snubbed or was grumpy to in that time.

In the beginning of week four I was feeling pretty beaten up, so I convinced these guys to do some banded spinal compressions with me. I (left, @rawrylynch) went first and couldn’t get enough band tension, though I still got what I wanted out of it. @yuliquay (middle) got into a way better position than I did, I think she had fun. @angusblair tried too, but he’s heavier than me and basically ended up on the floor, even though we put the band higher up. I felt better afterwards, even though we look ridiculous!

Anyway, along the way I set a bunch of rep and volume PRs – I high bar squatted 130 kg for 75 reps in a session, close-grip benched 110 kg for 10 reps, and comp-grip benched 120 kg for 8 reps (touch and go).

I could not be happier with the results I’ve had from this program. I’ve been tracking some measurements through these past four weeks, and on all counts it’s gone extremely well.  I’ll do a full write up on this in about two weeks after finishing this phase of my diet, but basically I’ve gone from 93.0 kg @ 17% body fat to 90.6 kg @ 13% body fat (4 kg fat lost, 1.6 kg muscle gained.) Due to some apparent resolution problems with my scales (more on that in the diet post), inherent inaccuracies in the Navy Body Fat Calculator, and human measurement errors, I don’t actually believe I’ve gained that much muscle while on a deficit, but its a good indicator that I didn’t lose any muscle, while dropping 2.4 kg (0.6 kg per week, ~1.5 lbs per week).

That’s a damn good start to the year. Now its time for me to spend a week playing video games and deloading (and some lifting) before spending a few weeks getting really strong!

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Ed Coan Seminars: My Thoughts

The IPF recently released this post via their website. The TL;DR is the seminars being held by Ed Coan are off limits to IPF lifters, as Mr Coan is a life-time banned athlete, and WADA rules prohibit “[working] or [associating] with individuals who are serving a period of ineligibility due to an anti-doping rule violation.” This seems to have been met with a lot of criticism from the Internet’s lifting community, and honestly I don’t understand why.

Background

For those of you who don’t know who Ed Coan is, or why he is a big deal, he’s widely considered to be the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) of powerlifting – the equivalent of Michael Jordan to basketball or Jonah Lomu to rugby. He has an “equipped” (inverted commas because equipped in the 90s was very different to now) squat of about 460 kg, a bench of 265 kg and an effectively raw deadlift of 410 kg, all at around 100 kg bodyweight. Whether or not he is the GOAT is not a question I am equipped to answer right now, but he is certainly one of the greats. Unfortunately, Mr Coan also failed three drug tests; in 1985, 1989, and finally in 1996. The third failure resulted in a life-time ban from the IPF.

Ed Coan mostly spends his time these days helping new lifters and doing his best to encourage growth in the sport. By all reports, he is one of the nicest guys you could meet.

My Two Cents

I am so fucking confused by why people are up in arms about this.

The Non-IPF Lifters

There are some non-IPF lifters who are using this as an opportunity to deride the IPF. In accordance with Godwin’s Law, Nazi comparisons abound, along with poorly thought out arguments and irrelevant opinions. To those non-IPF lifters who are weighing in here, this is not your business. You do not compete within the IPF, their rules do not apply to you. I’m not going to otherwise address these opinions, as they are not relevant.

The IPF Lifters

Every single person registered to an IPF affiliate has signed a WADA (or local affiliate, in my case Drug Free Sport New Zealand) form agreeing to a set of rules and conditions of competing. Among the clauses in that document is a section saying words to the effect of “I will not associate, either in sport or in my professional life, with any athlete or support person who is completing a ban for doping violations.” (Full version not written out because the relevant section is really long.) Every single competitor in the IPF has signed this document, therefore you cannot be surprised when these rules are enforced. On the flip side, if this rule was not enforced, just as many people would be weighing in about inconsistent application of rules. Nobody made you join the IPF, so there is little argument to be had about if this is fair or not. This is the price we way for legitimacy.

I think this is a dumb fucking rule. I would love to go to an Ed Coan seminar, I feel like there is a lot I could learn (maybe I would even get stronger by osmosis). What I want, or what anyone else wants for that matter, does not have the slightest bit of influence here. The IPF wants become an Olympic sport, and to do so means following the rules laid out by WADA. I think being an Olympic sport would be one of the best things for the growth of powerlifting (I also think powerlifting fits well into the IOC Values and the Olympic Charter). As such, we need to play by the rules. No cherry-picking of rules, no playing favorites, but strict adherence to the rules.

To quote a friend, “If this was any other sport, there wouldn’t even be an argument,” and he’s totally right.

Dieting (the smart way) – part 1

As most people have, I’ve experimented with diet and nutrition in the past, with varying levels of success. I’ve tried keeping a food journal, intermittent fasting, “clean eating”, and calorie counting in the past. For various reasons, mostly my own lack of understanding of basic principals (and impatience), I had very little success with most of the above.

This time I’m smarter, so I’m trying to do things properly, following a scientific method, with set goals and measurable criteria for succeeding. I’m currently two weeks into what will be a five week cut, so right now I’ll outline what my plan was and give a quick update on a couple of aspects, and at the end of the five weeks I will write up another post giving my full thoughts about the method I’ve followed.

A quick disclaimer – I’m not a medical professional, and I really don’t know anything about dieting or nutrition. These blog posts are meant to help consolidate my own knowledge and thoughts about powerlifting and related topics- they aren’t meant to be instructional! There are literally dozens of better places for you to get information about either dieting or nutrition. In particular I’d like to recommend Dr. Mike Israetel‘s book, The Renaissance Diet, which I think is invaluable, as well as (soon to be Dr.) Eric Helms‘ book, The Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramid and its accompanying video series. I’m sure there are plenty of others too, but I’ve found these two to be particularly instructional.

The Goal

I’m intending to compete in early April (likely the 2nd, but to be confirmed) as an under 93 kg powerlifter (with a two hour weigh in). Before beginning my new macrocycle on the 4th of January I was sitting at about 93.5 kg, which didn’t give me a lot of wiggle room. The plan then is to use the first five weeks of my training (a hypertrophy block) to cut back down to ~ 90 kg (+/- a little), hopefully without losing any muscle or strength, and without compromising my training, then going on a slight caloric surplus coming through my strength and peaking blocks. Hopefully a what that means is that I can come into my meet at the right weight, without a massive water load and without needing to cut calories at the time I need them the most.

That sounds nice, but a goal without a plan is just a dream, so how am I going to make sure I am on track?

The Plan

The plan is not too complex really – follow the principals of dieting as laid out in the Renaissance Diet, and learn to do so in a sustainable way. Principal by principal:

  1. Calorie balance – figure out my maintenance calories, as described by Eric in his book and video series (see later for details), set my daily calorie goal in my hypertrophy block so that I lose ~0.5 kg per week, add ~300 calories per day each week following the hypertrophy block until I see maintenance or slow weight gain.
  2. Macro nutrients – meet a minimum goal for protein and fats each day (160 grams and 20 grams respectively), make up the rest from whatever works.
  3. Nutrient Timing – eat high G.I. carbs (i.e. “shitty” carbs) before and throughout trainings, eat fats as far from workouts as possible, try to balance protein throughout the day.
  4. Food Composition – we’re starting to get down the the nitty gritty here. Eat fruits and vegetables (Eric’s recommendation is one of each per 1000 calories, I use this as my rule-of-thumb) and a variety of meats. Don’t eat the same foods every single day!
  5. Supplements – 5 g of creatine monohydrate and a multi-vitamin each morning. (I’m considering adding magnesium and/or zinc supplements in the evening as well.) When it comes to micro-nutrients I am a big fan of Rippetoe’s ‘Shovel Philosophy’ – put more than you think you need in, and you’ll pee out what you don’t need. This is mostly covered by the variety of foods, and the multi is just to cover my bases.

The Tools

I’ve got a number of tools for keeping track of myself.

  • Scales – I weigh myself every morning (this will go up to morning and evening as I get closer to competition). I use a 7-day moving average to track movements in weight, as daily measurements are prone to water fluctuations etc.
  • MyFitnessPal – I think this is a stupid piece of software, but its the best I can find. I use it for tracking calories and macros.
  • Tape Measure – I’m taking quad, chest, neck, and waist measurements once a week. A derivative measure of these is body fat and hence lean and fat mass via the Navy Body Fat Calculator. This combination of measurements should give me a pretty good idea of how much of my weight fluctuation is muscle and how much is fat.
  • Google Sheets – I’ve got a lot of numbers to keep track of man!

Thus Far… Maintenance Calories

Before starting this I had no idea what my maintenance calories were… somewhere in the range of 2800 to 3000 seemed reasonable. I set my daily calorie goal for my first two weeks at 2500, which should have given me 0.3 to 0.5 kg of weight loss per week.

To eliminate water fluctuation I’m keeping track mostly of my seven day average body weight. At the end of the first week, it was 92.4 kg, and by the end of the second week it was 91.4 kg… hmm.

1 kg is approximately 7000 calories, so 1 kg x 7000 calories / kg = 7000 calories, split over 7 days is a 1000 calorie deficit per day! My average calories of the last 7 days was 2489, which puts my maintenance calories as 3500 (rounding to 2 s.f. because no-one is that precise.)

So that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, I can eat a lot more than  I thought I can! On the other hand, I’ve been losing weight much faster than I should have been. Eric Helms recommends 0.5 to 1.0 % of your body weight per week, and I’d like to be towards to bottom end of that. Knowing this, I am going to increase my daily calorie goal to 3000 calories per day for the next 3 weeks. Hopefully that will see my 7- day average drop to 90 kg with minimal muscle loss.

That’s it for today – in a few more weeks I’ll publish another blog post with a full run through everything I did, by thoughts, and all of the various statistics I’m tracking!

 

Program Review – Sheiko

Boris Sheiko is arguably one of the greatest powerlifting coaches of all time. Among other things, he was the Russian powerlifting head coach for ages, is a qualified sport scientist, and has published a number of books on powerlifting. Usually when powerlifters refer to “Sheiko”though, what they mean is the system he created to turn strong people into world champions (or in my case, take a not-strong person and make me slightly less not-strong.)

When you get coached by Sheiko you train at his gym, and he writes you a program based on your specific needs. Sheiko also produced a series of numbered programs as part of one of his books, which were intended as examples, but people tend to just treat them as cookie cutter templates these days. If you’re interesting in having a look, you can find them over on the Sheiko Forum. These programs are presented as a series of four week blocks, each with a different focus and an identifying number. I have templates for about a dozen of these blocks, but far more (at least 40) exist. A series of blocks put together can make an effective macro-cycle.

I’ve run a total of about 8 months of  Sheiko, most recently running #37, #31 and a hybrid peaking block (#31/#32 hybrid) coming in to the 2015 NZPF National Championships. I’ve only done the three day variants, but there are also four and five day templates (his elite athletes train 8 times per week though!) Sheiko’s programs vary a lot week to week, but here’s an example training day for reference.

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This is #31, week 1, day 1. You are reading that correctly – Sheiko has you bench, then squat, then bench again, then squat again, then do some accessory work. If you look at the training session exercise by exercise, it doesn’t look too bad. “Four sets of two at 115 kg on bench? Pfft, I could do sets of five.” But then you have to bench again. Then do flys, or dips or whatever. Then you get a day off, but then on Wednesday you do it again. Sheiko wears you down by the sheer number of reps, around 1000 per month, and that’s excluding the accessories. (Four total compound exercises is somewhat unusual on Sheiko, three is the norm.)  These days are long, taking 2 1/2 to 3 hours per training is not unusual. Matt McGorry sums up his first encounter with a Sheiko program quite eloquently as “I was less than fully prepared for this.” 

In my standard Sheiko week I would squat on Monday and Friday, deadlift on Wednesday, and bench all three days. I also reserved Saturdays for finishing things off and extra bodybuilding work.

Sheiko has a number of positives and negatives, I’ll try to look at each in detail. Its worth bearing in mind here that these programs were never intended to be run as cookie cutters, but rather to be individualised to suit your specific needs.

First of all, Sheiko is a powerlifting system, through and through. Although the specific volume of the competition lifts is high, in general you’re not going to accrue enough volume to create hypertrophy. You get very, very good at the competition lifts. The relatively low working intensities mean that you can hit perfect rep after perfect rep. The volume and intensity adds up to (hopefully) a thousand perfect reps per month, and that means your skill at powerlifting improves a lot. The trainings are different all the time too, which is nice. Although a few rep schemes repeat a lot (5 x 3 at 80%, 4 x 2 at 85%) each day is still fresh.

The flip side of high specific volume is that there is very low variation in Sheiko. This was great when I was (even) more novice than I am now as it allowed me to practice a lot, but having nailed all of the easy technique gains, I need much more variation now. Low variation would also probably suit lifters who are already jacked and at the top of their weight class, which is not me. The other big downfall in Sheiko gives you relatively little time under heavy loads. Sheiko rarely goes above 85% even while peaking, and while that may be appropriate for elite raw lifters or most equipped lifters, for novice to intermediate raw lifters time under 90 to 95% loads (and overload) seems more important; it certainly is to me. The complex way which Sheiko manipulates volumes and intensities over each block can make it difficult for more scientifically minded lifters to figure out the best way to manipulate volumes, which is a big pitfall for some lifters.

These sessions are also really long, so that could be a barrier to some people, however they can easily be split down into 5 or 6 shorter days, while maintaining total volume.

I think Sheiko has provided a series of great templates. They do need to be modified to meet individual needs, and I don’t think they are appropriate year round, but they certainly have a place. I am personally fond of Sheiko, as it was doing Sheiko #32 I first squatted double my body weight. I wouldn’t be surprised if 5 by 3 at 80% was my go-to rep scheme for the rest of my lifting career.

My TLDR of Sheiko’s templates – they have a time and a place, and in that time and place I love them. Sheiko will grind you down over the course of weeks and rebuild you as a (probably very tired and annoyed) better powerlifter.

Drugs, Steroids, and Cheating

Yesterday Jesse Norris, a (relatively) famous American powerlifter, failed a drug test for a stimulant called phenylisobutylamine (that’s n-ethyl-1-phenylbutan-2-amine for the chemically minded among you). As far as drug violations go, that’s reasonably minor, but that’s not the point. Jesse claims he accidentally took the drug in a contaminated pre-workout called Craze, but that’s also not the point. The point is that whenever you cheat, you steal from people you probably haven’t even though about. If you cheat intentionally, or if you cheat through carelessness, you’re robbing something from other people.

A little background for non-powerlifters (powerlifters feel free to skip this paragraph.) There are a number of federations for powerlifting, the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) being one of the dominant ones. There are a number of differences between the IPF and their affiliates and other federations, but the one I am focusing on here is that the IPF subjects itself to World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) drug testing standards, whilst most others do not. The USAPL is the USA’s national IPF affiliate, the NZPF is New Zealand’s. I compete with the NZPF, Jesse competes with the USAPL.

There’s something rare about powerlifting that most sports don’t have – opportunities to compete completely untested. You could take all the steroids, all the stimulants, and all the recreational drugs you want and it wouldn’t be an issue. By choosing to compete with an IPF affiliate, you subject yourself to drug testing; you even sign a form saying you won’t do anything that would bring the sport into disrepute, including using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). You didn’t have to do that. You could compete with the IPL, the GPC or anyone of a dozen other federations whilst taking whatever you want, and not cheat.

When you use PEDs you bring our entire sport into a bad light. It affects more than just you; it affects your friends and family who supported you, it affects your team mates and fellow gym-members, it impacts on public perception, and most importantly (in my mind at least) it impacts on your competitors. Others work hard and play by the rules and by cheating, which is what you do when you take banned substances, you’re taking something away from them. The lifter standing in second place on the podium is robbed of their chance to stand at the top, the lifter who finished fourth is robbed of their chance to stand on the podium at all. Everyone else has their integrity questioned, and a little bit of what they’ve done devalued. You’ve taken away these people’s chance at a fair competition, you’ve taken away their chance to earn what they’ve worked for. That’s one of the most selfish things I can imagine.

The closest analogy I can come up with is in academics. When someone else does the same degree as you and cheats to get through it, your degree becomes less valuable. Through their selfish actions, that person has taken something away from you, and they probably haven’t even thought about it.

I’m not strictly against steroids for personal use, but when you use them in tested competitions you are robbing other people of what they have worked for. That’s selfish, egocentric, and honestly a little arrogant.

So kids, if you’re a tested athlete, don’t do drugs.

My Introduction to Powerlifting

I am pretty certain that almost all university aged males end up in a gym at some point; to look good on the beach, to get better at sports, social pressure, to meet women, whatever.

I go there to squat, mostly.

If I rewind back to 2010 I was in high school, thinking about joining the army, playing hockey and a bit overfat. I decided to lose some weight to improve my chances at all of the above. By the time I started university in February 2012 I was down about 15 kg, and I decided to start going to the gym because a) I couldn’t find a martial arts club that was both challenging and affordable, and b) one of my mates wanted to go as well. You could describe my first two years with one (made up) word – fuckarounditis. I didn’t know what I was doing, and neither did my mate. I lost a couple more kilos, but I was pretty much just spinning my wheels.

It all changed the day I saw the 2 m giant (okay, he’s actually a few centimetres short, but let me finish the story) squat 200 kg in the corner. “I want to do that, man.” That was the beginning of the end for me. I hopped on an actual program, and made more progress in 3 months than I had in 2 years.  I started reading (and never stopped).

I went from never having heard of this sport, to being a national competitor with medals and stuff to prove it in under 2 years. I’m the president of the Auckland University Strength and Powerlifting Association (AUSPA, what a mouthful), am qualified as a referee up to a regional level, and have met some of the best people I know through powerlifting.

On the other hand, I’m always sore, and I’ve hurt joints that I didn’t even think you could hurt. Every waking moment is consumed by numbers, weights, rep schemes, and percentages. I repeat the same tedious movements dozens to hundreds of times per week.

So why am I here?

I love powerlifting.  I love the process, the journey and the struggle to improve yourself. There is nothing than can compare to setting yourself a goal, and then growing into the person than can achieve it. I’ve found the community to be consistently positive and encouraging. I’ve seen direct rivals at meets loaning each other equipment and helping one another warm up. I’ve seen complete strangers coaching novice lifters through meets when they need help. Above all, I’ve seen dozens and dozens of lifters doing things they couldn’t do before, and there’s nothing quite like it. I think the world would be a little better off if there were more powerlifters around. I’m here, lifting, refereeing, handling, writing this blog because I want to share this passion I’ve developed with the world.

This was meant to be an introduction to myself and why I’m here, but I guess its ended up getting a little sentimental. Anyway, I’ll leave you with a quote from Henry Rollin’s famous essay, Iron and the Soul.

I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-respect. I think a lot of inwardly and outwardly directed contempt passes itself off as self-respect: the idea of raising yourself by stepping on someone’s shoulders instead of doing it yourself. When I see guys working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and insecurity. Strength reveals itself through character. It is the difference between bouncers who get off strong-arming people and Mr.Pepperman [his mentor].

 

Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.

New Year, New Macro Cycle

I’m writing this on the 5th of January 2016, which is the day after I started a new 13 week macro cycle leading in to the Auckland Powerlifting Championships, where I am competing between the 1st and 3rd of April. I’ve already got quad and glute DOMS from last night’s training, so I guess that is setting the tone for the next 13 weeks.

There isn’t going to be anything particularly unique about my training, but this will be the first time I have written any of my own programming from scratch. This macro-cycle is going to consist of three mesocycles – hypertrophy, strength, then peaking. The hypertrophy block is that of Renaissance Periodisation, which is 5 weeks (4 training + 1 deload). I will write my own strength and peaking blocks from scratch (4+ 1 and 2 + taper weeks respectively), likely with much input from Angus and Jing (friends/mentors/strong motherfuckers). It’s both exciting and daunting for me to be writing these programs from scratch, but I’m looking forward to it. Regardless of how it goes, it will be a learning experience.

The other thing I am going to do differently this macrocycle is to track my calorie intake. I’ve used food diaries and macro tracking before, but because I have had quite an all or nothing mindset previously I had pretty mixed success. I’m smarter now, having just finished reading Eric Helms’ book on diet (Muscle and Strength Pyramids) as well as The Renaissance Diet, and I’m possibly more balanced to boot. Given this, I am going to give it another proper go, and see what happens. Hopefully good things. At worst, it will be another learning experience. Because I’m currently bumping up against the top of my weight class (u93 kg) I’m going to use my hypertrophy block as a cutting phase, trimming body fat and hopefully maintaining muscle, and then maintain or slowly gain weight through my strength and peaking blocks.

The success of my training/programming will be gauged by my performance on the platform come April, and the success of my dieting will be gauged by changes in BF% as shown by eye-ball and the Navy Body Fat Calculator, circumferences of my right quad and bicep, and circumference of my waist about my navel.

So, with all that said, I guess it’s time to get started. I’ll try to provide updates with regards to both training and dieting, probably at the end of each mesocycle. No promises though.