What really works, and what doesn’t?

Gaining Perspective

I never claim to have created some amazing, never before discovered workout plan that will increase your size and get your shredded in weeks. If I could live with myself after getting in front of a camera and saying bullshit like that, I’d probably be rich. But I can’t, so I’m not.

I don’t train for money. Of course, I want to be paid for my experience and the results I deliver to my athletes and clients, but I want to be able to train how I want to. That means that I can never put the money first, I have to put the training first and not compromise that.

That being said, I’ve developed my training methods over a few decades and through some very unique opportunities to observe and work with literally hundreds of people over that time people. For example, the first gym I worked in, and subsequently became very serious in, was in fact the greatest laboratory I’ll probably ever witness. That gym was full of convicts, inside of a prison, and was undoubtedly the most hardcore gym I will ever step foot in.

I was constantly able to observe guys come into the gym fresh: older, younger, big, small, overweight, skinny…guys with workout experience and those with no physical background at all. I watched all of the different body types and genetics, and observed how each one of them adapted to the different strength, bodybuilding and conditioning methods being used.

I saw the difference of training with a real, necessary purpose (survival) vs training for aesthetics, image or leisure. I watched guys give it their all in ways I’ve rarely seen before or since. I watched skinny guys who were terrified that if they didn’t put on some size fast they would be eaten alive.

This was an amazing opportunity at the very beginning of my career in strength and fitness. I learned some very important principles that have stuck with me to this day, like genetics do matter and some people are pre-disposed on average to adapt well to certain training methods. I learned that programming rep ranges, intensity levels, intervals of work and rest, and using different training methods not only produced different results, but it produced differing results for different individuals.

When I moved on from there and into the world of professional coaching, I had 10 years of experience coming with me. In that professional capacity I learned the more scientific side of it, the anatomy and physiology as well as the all important nutrition component. I was able to, over several years, spend time helping hundreds of people from all walks of life transform their bodies and their lives into something much better.

I never stopped learning. Over the years, I’ve watched fitness trends and methods come and go. Some have stuck around, whether they are great or not. I’ve learned that popularity and success in the fitness world often has more to do with marketing and selling things outside of fitness (like image or “community”) than it does with actual goal-oriented training.

Conversely, coaches and trainers who thirst for knowledge and are not married to one particular system are constantly learning and searching for methods and techniques that will help them solve the athlete and client puzzles of individual optimization. They have a wealth of experience and have spent time trying different methods on themselves and experimenting with their athletes to find better ways to get better.

This type of coach will develop a strong “coach’s eye” to see movement patterns and tendencies, and immediately can use their intuition and experience to diagnose and program to correct or improve what they are seeing. Their toolbox is well rounded and full. Their biases are minimal, which allows them to pull from systems and methods that would be outside of the box for many of their counterparts.

That coach will not just blindly hate on other methods, because he or she knows there are great, proven results that can be looked at from just about every system out there. They know that the magic is in knowing when and where to apply it, and they spend their lives developing that “magic” (and as we all know, it’s not magic, it’s just the right information with the right application at the right time).

I definitely categorize myself in that latter group. Even though I have spent over a few decades with the barbell movements and conditioning workouts, and through years of training and coaching in corporate gyms, crossfit boxes, fight/boxing gyms, and hardcore powerlifting and bodybuilding joints, I still never stop learning and studying. In fact, I try hard to learn something new everyday. Doesn’t always happen, but I still try everyday.

So, what have I learned about what works??

First of all, let’s be clear that we are talking about specific goal achievement as opposed to newbie gains. Any program will work for the first few months if it’s the one that got you off the couch. But when it comes to pursuing specific, long-term goals, it’s going to take more than that.

As I said earlier, what works is the right information, with the right application, at the right time. 

The right information:

  • Knowing the problems we have to solve, the imbalances, weaknesses or other limitations of the athlete that we have to overcome and correct in order to reach the desired goals.
  • Knowing the details of multiple methods, techniques and systems that could be applied to correct those issues.
  • Knowing the psychological parameters of the client and what they would be both motivated by and capable of maintaining.
  • Knowing the lifestyle and stresses in the athlete’s life and how to factor them into the programming.

The right application:

  • Choosing the best methods to correct the imbalances, weaknesses or limitations without creating or encouraging other problems or imbalances to occur (like employing powerlifting to build strength without causing limited mobility or loss of endurance).
  • Applying the right methods or techniques in the best order to achieve the optimum adaptations without also creating negative consequences.
  • Staying within the athlete’s capabilities and mental capacities with the programming and not overwhelming them or burning them down by overtraining, all while keeping them motivated with the all important buy-in needed for success.
  • Programming the athlete’s finite resources by correctly figuring in their daily life, work load at their job, family life, etc. (Stress is stress, no matter where it comes from, and we can only recover from a limited amount of it.)

The right time:

  • Knowing when to go after specific problems or imbalances
  • Knowing which problems should come before the others, and how to see and determine the unapparent root causes of apparent issues allowing you to hit the correct issue in the right order and spending the needed time on each issue.
  • Allowing the athlete to auto-regulate at some level, not peaking or backing them off by some arbitrary schedule that has nothing to do with their own biological clock.
  • Knowing when to push an athlete and when to back them down based on issues outside of the gym, how to read the signs and ask the questions, and then program based on the mental state at the time.
  • Programming the right amount of time for the athlete to be under tension, working out and investing overall.
  • PERIODIZATION!! Look it up if you don’t know what sports training periodization is. Choosing all of the above and applying it at the right times is essentially intelligent periodization, and it is mandatory for long-term success.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start for figuring out what works and what doesn’t. There’s way more to this than grabbing some cool workout off the internet and going at it. Those templates will work for a little while, maybe, but you could end up going backwards, too. 

And trust me, if your program does not address your specific imbalances, weaknesses, postural problems and movement pathway deficiencies, it will not optimize your results. It most likely will exacerbate the problems by pushing you into loading a chassis that is misaligned and unprepared for loading. This is as true for the group fitness class as it is for grabbing an equally random template online.

The last thing I will say is this, part of the right time is the amount of time invested. There are 168 hours in a week. Take off 8 hours of sleep a day and 5 days of 10.5 hours of work, and you have 59.5 hours for you to spend on home life, family life, social life, hobbies and health. And you want to give 3 hours a week to your fitness?

You have to do better than that if you want transformational level results. If all you want is to get in a little better shape, maybe maintain so you don’t go backwards, then 3 of your 60 hours might be ok. If you want real transformation, above all else, your desire to get there will be the ultimate determining factor.

Sleep, you MUST have it!

Sleep for Focus and Success

In our busy lives, we often sacrifice the things we need the most to be healthy and recover from our hard workouts. Unfortunately, sleep and nutrition are often the first two to go. It’s important to say it right from the start here when it comes to sleep, there is no such thing as “catching up”. We should aim to have the same amount of hours of sleep whether it is a weeknight or weekend night. Not only that, heading to bed at the same time every night is essential in setting up the body’s circadian rhythm for success.

This means optimal performance throughout the following day! Even more, getting both sleep quality and quantity on a regular basis leads to overall optimal health and vitality. You absolutely CAN NOT recover and experience the true adaptations from your hard work in the gym if you do not get enough quality sleep, and at the right times.

Sleep requirements may differ from person to person. However, the goal is to aim high. Listen to your body and count the number of hours of sleep after a morning waking up refreshed. If your body demands 7-9 hours, then try to aim for 9 hours! Teens may demand at least 10 hours nightly while toddlers demand even more.

Although as adults, some of us do not have the luxury of scheduled bedtime, we should aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep, if not more, each night. Furthermore, the goal is to achieve restorative sleep. START by setting a routine of maintaining the same bedtime and wake-time every single day!

Sleep appears to affect our hunger, our metabolic rate, our weight, our immune system, and even the compassion we feel for others! These effects involve our thinking, choices, and emotional state. This means that sleep influences many aspects of our brain function, including (according to various studies) our risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Sleep loss has also been linked to numerous other serious health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc. More research is suggesting that inadequate and/or fragmented sleep may even be linked to premature death in older adults.

Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make us cranky; it also compromises our immune system, which increases the likelihood of getting sick! So for the sake of our loved ones and our immune system, let’s aim to get enough sleep every night. While it is understandable that we have busy lives and often not enough time in the day for all of the demands on our time, nothing you do will destroy your focus and success faster than cumulative sleep deprivation. 

(Editor’s Note: I can not emphasize enough how important this is! If you are a client of mine you will hear me say it all the time. Your excuses do NOT make a difference. If you are burning it down in the gym, but not getting proper sleep, you are most likely doing more damage than you are recovering from. This is the opposite of what you want from all that effort you are putting out! -Varg)

5 Simple Sleep Solutions:

  1. Darkroom at nighttime – make your bedroom a haven for sleep
  2. Avoid all electronics in bed and a couple of hours before bedtime – these include ANY devices with a screen: phones, computers, TVs, and any other devices that excite the brain (*including night-lights)
  3. No caffeine intake after 2pm – ideally none after lunch
  4. Seek out morning light – helps set the internal biological clock
  5. Wind down – listen to yourself and ease into a bedtime routine

Sleep is not an optional, lifestyle luxurySleep is a non-negotiable biological necessity. It’s a life support system” ~Matthew Walker, PhD.

  Nhi received her Bachelor’s Degree in Food Science & Human Nutrition at the University of Florida in 2014, and her Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies also from the University of Florida in 2017. She works full-time in primary care enhanced by the field of functional medicine as a PA-C, helping people heal and thrive with healthy lifestyle choices. She enjoys educating patients on healthful living and taking charge of their lives by optimizing all the components of health and performance.

Diminishing Returns and Training

It’s very common to encounter a hardcore attitude about training. In fitness it’s often, “No Pain, No Gain!!” or  “Train hard! Train often!” However, there is a point where putting in more effort will actually result in negative results rather than positive rewards. I’ve personally hit my own wall of degradation of skills many times as the result of putting a massive effort out. I’m sure most of you have as well.

There are 3 ways to look at diminishing returns for training.

  • Diminishing Returns in the Training Session
  • Diminishing Returns over the Long Term
  • Diminishing Returns of Lifestyle

 Saturation: Diminishing Returns in The Training Session

This is a pretty simple concept. There is a certain point during one single training session that if you keep going, you are not going to gain any more improvements. In fact, in fitness or strength training you could actually hurt your progress or yourself. Think about physically working out to the point of exhaustion, where your muscles can not successfully perform the movements any more. Continuing to work through that post-fatigue level of exhaustion can not only work against you but eventually it becomes dangerous as the muscles can no longer do the job of protecting the tendons, cartilage and joints from damage while under load.

If you did not hit specific goals, it’s ok. Pushing past this point won’t help you reach them and the harder you try to push it the farther away those goals will get. It’s also the point where safety awareness begins to fade under the weight of mental drain and physical fatigue and mistakes become more likely. 

There is a technique of training just into the point of diminishing returns that I am a fan of. Basically, it means not quitting at the first sign of becoming weary. There’s that point where sometimes you’re ready to quit, but it’s well before you’re spent or drained. There’s a short opportunity there to push your limitations, force yourself to pull it back together and perform at your higher level for just a bit longer. 

I would argue it’s more of an exercise for mindset than for improving skills. Overcoming the desire to shut down and forcing yourself to focus is a form of stress training and does work. Doing this correctly will help you perform better under stress and helps to build stronger character. But remember, this in no way means pushing into that dangerous territory of mental and physical fatigue or forgetfulness when it comes to safety awareness.

Pushing past that first urge to quit, to give in and not do another set, or another run, is where the boundaries of your work capacity begin to get pushed out. But eventually fatigue, both physical and mental, will take over and your form will deteriorate with your capability. You will, at that point, be doing too much damage and risking injury. 

The trick is knowing when to actually walk away and save it for the next session, which is another reason to have the guidance of an experienced coach or instructor. 

Adaptation Threshold: Diminishing Returns over The Long Term

This is the one unavoidable instance of diminishing returns. Basically, the better you get and the more capable you become, the less improvements you will gain from training sessions. In the early days of your training endeavor, you are brand new and have close to zero skills or fitness level. When you start at the bottom you get your first gains quickly, newbie gainz, as we call them. 

Nearly any program or method you try at first will give you good results. Basically just getting off the couch and becoming active will make you better rather quickly. But as time goes on, those methods, workouts, rep ranges, etc. will not have the same affect. Your body will adapt and you will become more resistant to adaptation, which is the desired result of training. That is where quality coaching, experimentation and good programming come in to help you continue to grow.

You just have to be aware that you will hit plateaus and you have to push through and keep working at it. Constant evolution and the discovery of how you change and what it takes to grow and adapt will be required to keep moving forward. Diminishing returns in this phase come from stagnation, or continuing to rely on the same methods and workouts that got you to this point. 

Diminishing Returns of Lifestyle

The final one, diminishing returns due to lifestyle, is a bit more complicated. It’s also probably the most important one to fix. There are endless factors that combine to affect your training abilities and the rewards you will get from that training. I am speaking mainly to those of you who are ambitious and are actively pursuing an increase in your strength and/or physical fitness on a regular basis. I mentioned that I’ve hit my own walls of diminishing returns. The worst wall, for me, is due to lifestyle. 

Everything affects your performance: how much sleep you get, what you eat, when you eat, stress levels, work schedules…every factor will enhance or diminish your performance. As you get older, the impact those factors have on your performance becomes magnified. Once I hit 40, even something as simple as not getting a full night’s sleep can seriously affect a day of training or performance for me. 

We all have our own physical and mental issues that need tending to on a regular basis. For example, if you are sensitive to carbs, or you are diabetic or hypoglycemic, you can forget about feeling great or performing well if you don’t eat correctly that day. In fact, if you try pushing through a hard workout you could end up unconscious on the floor. The examples are endless but it’s easy for you to understand what your own issues are if you take the time to log your inputs and your outcomes and compare the notes after a few times. 

Using my own example, I used to have a habit of letting my ambition run me straight into the ground. I can remember working 80 to 100 hour weeks regularly. This resulted in a multitude of problems. The administrative tasks of my business ran late into the night causing me to lose sleep consecutively day after day. The busy work schedule prohibited proper eating. The stresses wore my mind down to mental fatigue. Do you see the negatives stacking up there?

Nothing will destroy your performance or your ability to recover from performance like the accumulative effects of insufficient sleep, poor nutrition and stress. On top of this, we can allow a busy schedule to prohibit regular practice and training. It can happen even if you work in the business; it’s easy to be the proverbial mechanic who’s own car doesn’t run properly. 

Why is this an example of diminishing returns? All of our hard work each week is put toward a goal. At a certain point you’re just putting out maximum effort but you are spread out too thin and you are hurting your performance and thereby hurting your ability to attain your overall goal. The returns for your efforts are diminishing. 

In some ways, you are hurting your goals because you are repeatedly performing things incorrectly, which makes them a trained performance. You are training yourself to do it poorly. You know you feel like hell, but you’re going to show up and do those cleans, or snatches, or squats anyway. Consequently, you practice doing them wrong. 

Of course, this is reversible. When I get fixated on a goal I pursue it relentlessly and will burn myself down to get to it. I’ve ran across a lot of students and athletes who exhibit this same intensity in their desire to perform well on the field or in the gym. Sometimes we need to sit down and prioritize and, sometimes, sacrifices need to be made. The fix is there. If you are unhealthy or unhappy, figure out why and fix it.

 Breaking the Plateaus of Training

When you reach plateaus, places where diminishing returns seem to halt all progress, take the time to examine your regiment and your lifestyle to determine what you can change to disrupt that plateau. It’s that old saying about not getting different results as long as you keep doing the same things.

Sometimes, it’s technique related. If you spent a lot of time doing slow, heavy lifting, after a while your body is trained to move slow, so it makes sense that you will find your  performance in explosive movements to be subpar. 

The easy remedy is to change your fitness training to include more movements and methods. You have to cycle your workouts, vary your rep ranges and intensity levels and venture into different programs to reach new goals.

Lifestyle causes are a bit harder to change, but it can be done. While most people can’t quit their jobs and go on a quest to achieve a mystical level of strength or skill, you can adjust how you sleep, eat and improve your fitness level. The resultant improvements in fitness will change your life. Stress itself is more easily regulated due to a lower resting heart rate, a slower climbing heart rate and a faster heart rate recovery time.

The point is that there is a solution for most problems leading to diminishing returns. But it does require change. It requires doing things sometimes that are not fun, or working on things that might not be the “focus” of your goals but will hoist you over the plateau and on to the next level of your performance potential. Working hard is a good thing, but working too hard for diminishing results is not working smart. Identify your goals, work hard to reach them, and improve or change any factors in your routine or lifestyle that might slow or obstruct those goals in any way.

Physical Conditioning: In Conclusion

         There are many great ways to get in shape, be stronger, healthier and live longer. Some are definitely better than others so you need to find what fits your lifestyle and your goals. Seek out proper guidance and coaching if possible; if not, then get on YouTube and make a go of it.  Much of what I talked about in this section can be done with moderate equipment at home that can be purchased $50 to $100 at a time. The important thing to remember is that no matter what your “mission” is, none of it is realistic without the physical fitness to carry you through to it. 

The Successful Home Gym

As I was loading up the like new, $350 half-rack squat rack that I just purchased for $175, the guy said, “I hope you have more luck with it than I did. I intended to use it everyday and it just never got used.”

That was about a year ago when I was replacing the rack I had to leave behind in Ohio, and that rack has seen use 4 to 5 days a week since that time. It doesn’t look new anymore. The pads have been beaten off of the bar hooks, the paint is fading from the Florida sun, and that rack is kicking ass handling everything I throw at it.

Few things in life rival the failure rate of the home gym. Every Marketplace and Craigslist from every city is full of equipment for sale, at a fraction of what the seller spent on it, because they had big plans that “just didn’t work out.” [Editors note: That was a pre-COVID world! Not so today…]

It doesn’t have to be this way.

My absolute favorite place to be is my home gym, but that didn’t happen overnight. I want to share with you a few things that have made the home based gym a success for me. Hopefully it will help some of you to avoid contributing to the pool of under-used equipment for sale on the internet.

Equipment Selection and Mission

One of the first mistakes people make is in choosing the wrong equipment. Hell, some never even get started because they can’t afford the fancy Rogue home gym for $3000 that they think they need to “do it right.”

Bullshit. You don’t need a full rack and high temp bumper plates with $500 bars to get started. You can go to Dick’s and buy the 300# iron Olympic bar set and a half rack with a moveable bench and have everything you need to keep you busy and in great results for as long as you can handle it.

Sure, it’d be nice to have all the fancy stuff. I have some nice Rogue bumpers and bars because I owned a gym business and kept all of my equipment when I moved (because ultimately I will re-open in my new area). But I started out with cheap bars and iron weights.

Is it true that cheap iron weights can vary greatly from their advertised weights? Sure it is. But if you are not an elite athlete where 1 kilo can make a difference in winning or losing, then why worry about it? You want to get strong? Put fucking weight on the bar and move it around.

Dig around on the selling sites and you will find a rack, bench and weights. Get started. Don’t try to be perfect, and for the love of progress don’t worry about what it will look like on Instagram. Just do the work. Just make sure to get a rack with moveable safety bars so you can miss lifts and not die. You will get strong.

Solitude, Focus and Meditation

One of the greatest benefits I have experienced from the home gym is the solitude and focus. If you are not the type of person that can function well completely alone, maybe a home gym isn’t for you. Or maybe, you can keep a cheap gym membership for that once or twice a week trip into a more social setting.

For me, because I live in Florida my platform and “gym” is outside. I placed my gym in the most beautiful setting I could find, so it is generally just an enjoyable place to be, period. This matters.

I can remember some basements I worked out in that were moldy and probably dangerous to be breathing heavily in. If it’s all you have, work with what you have. But if at all possible, make it your goal to put your gym in a space that is inspirational and enjoyable to be in. That will help motivate you to be there more. Decorate it with inspirational props if you have to. Make it your space.

That setting is what creates the mental space to focus. Weightlifting is very close to a meditative practice for me. It is the hour or two of my day where I can tune out all of the things that piss me off and stress me out, and take time just for myself.

I can practice something that is making me better, stronger and faster. I can do it by myself. It’s for me, but then the better version of myself that emerges from there everyday is for everyone I care about.

It is the space of reflection, dedication, perseverance, focus, and self-development. It’s a place of constant challenges and frequent victories. It is precisely where I go to make myself better each day. That’s what my gym is to me.

Understanding Programming 

Another huge failure that the home gym’ers suffer is a lack of programming knowledge. You can’t just grab a program off of the internet and expect it to work. Hell you can’t even rely on a trainer to make it work, because getting an experienced program writer and getting a trainer can be two very different things. 

Almost any program or workout plan will get results when you are new. Your body is just responding to doing anything more than you have been doing. But it doesn’t mean it’s the optimum program for you. You are uniquely individual in your life, metabolism, habits, and how you respond to stimulus. Programming is an individual task, not a group task.

But life gets in the way…

The second part of the programming problem that causes massive failure is the inability to stick to a schedule. Life does get in the way. One of the reasons that life disrupts the ability to keep working out is because people tend to look at working out as totally a separate activity from the rest of their life.

This is a mistake! Working out is another part of everything you do. Every mental and physical demand on you, from jobs to family duties to house work, needs to be considered in your program. This will ensure you are working as a unit toward a common goal and will keep you from burnout and loss of motivation.

As for life getting in the way, I program heavy on volume and use the 80% to 90% standard. If I can complete between 80% and 90% of my prescribed workout for that week, then I am successful. Often, I can hit that 100% and it feels great! But if not, I am still at an acceptable standard and I feel accomplished for it.

Perfection is the enemy of the good in exercise plans and intentions. Miss a day or two, and your motivation quickly falls away as you feel like you are just getting nowhere.

Kick that volume up in your prescription, allow for some flexibility in your times and volumes, and shoot for that 80% minimum. 

Video Analysis and No Fear

It is strongly recommended that you find a good remote coach if you are going to use a home gym. If you do so, they will direct you to video yourself doing the lifts to help guide you to safe and effective form and intensities.

Whether you use a coach, or not, you will need to utilize the awesome capabilities we all now have with smartphones. Video yourself doing the lifts and then analyze and compare them to professional videos from Youtube (from proven sources, like Catalyst Athletics, Starting Strength, or whoever does your particular style of training.)

The benefit of doing so in a home gym is the full freedom to set up and video yourself without looking like a social media narcissist in the gym. You can set up the camera where ever you like and get all the angles you need.

You can also go hard, utilizing proper safety bars and equipment of course. There is no fear in a home gym of being embarrassed because you miss lifts with lower weights than what someone next to you in the public gym is easily lifting. Nope. At home you can suck all you want and there is no social consequence.

Just make sure you video yourself sucking so you can stop being bad at it. Use the solitude and technology to your advantage. This is a HUGE benefit of home gyms.

Wrapping it up

This article is just a quick note about just a few of the many ways to be successful in a home gym. These are probably my favorite ways that I have found to make it a success for myself. There are a ton of other reasons and concepts, but I hope the few I outlined here can help you at least get started and keep going.

There are few places I would rather spend my alone time than on my platform at home. I hope you find the same peace and progress in your own space as well.

Feel free to message me with questions or comments, I’m glad to help out where I can.

Writing your life into your fitness programming

Dealing with life events that “disrupt” programming is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in a fitness routine. Time consuming work projects, travel, vacations, family and other intermittent life demands all have a way of knocking you off of that “perfect” workout groove you’ve been trying so hard to stay in.

Here’s a way of looking at it from a programming standpoint that can help keep you on track by actually turning these temporary situations into opportunities rather than disruptions. 

Programming is not just a static workout plan

Programming, in its most effective form, is individualized. The best program is not only one that is written specifically for you, but one that constantly evolves as you change physically and psychologically, and as your life changes around you.

If you are paying a trainer or a coach, hopefully they are listening to you and asking the right questions to take all of that into consideration while guiding that evolution towards optimizing the results of your efforts. 

Listening to, recording in detail and then synthesizing the information from your workout performance, your results and your life are the best practices that separate high-level programming from the rest of what’s out there. If you are self-coaching, you need to be doing these practices

This includes taking into consideration vacations or travel that will remove access to your regular gym/equipment/schedule, as well as any psychologically stressful events in your life and how they affect your drive and susceptibility to fatigue.

For many, sticking to a program and not missing the workouts, meals, and rest required for success is a huge struggle even when everything else is going right in their lives. Throw a change in that pattern and it’s extremely easy to “fall off the wagon” and lose your momentum.

It can take weeks to get back on track, only to have something else come up the following month and here we go again…

Disruption vs Microcycle vs Back-off Week

If you are like most normal people, this will sound familiar to you. Jobs, kids, taxes, life…they all can be emotionally stressful and cause real fatigue, if not keep you from getting to the gym at all.

Much of the internet would yell, “Power through it!” or “No crybabies!” But this just is not always practical or even safe. Not considering fatigue in its these forms can push you into dangerous territory resulting in injury or burnout if you “just power through it.” And sometimes, you just can’t get to the gym as planned.

There is a better way. 

Instead of viewing these events as disruptions, we need to look at them as opportunities to work in microcycles (single week plans) or back-off weeks (rest microcyles) that can optimize and sometimes supercharge your results and performance. 

For example, last month one of my online personal coaching clients had two “disruptions” coming up in his schedule. He had been working very hard for about three months uninterrupted and was disappointed and very worried that these events would set him back. This posed a real threat to his progress, as well as a psychological threat to his motivation.

The first event was a 4 day conference that involved travel and a hotel stay. This, of course, basically knocked out a week of his time. The second event was the physically and psychologically stressful task of moving out of his apartment and into a new space. These events were spaced with only one week in between them. 

Where he saw worry and disruption, I saw an opportunity. We programmed a very light week for him during the travel utilizing the hotel gym just two nights, reverting back to some hypertrophy and maintenance intensity and volume levels.

This allowed him to focus on his conference, network with associates, and have a much needed rest from what had been an unbroken eight week mesocycle of moderate intensity and volume work. It also served the purpose of preventing the emotional stress of feeling like he was sliding backwards (this is very important). 

We used that time to prepare him for a maximum effort week that would fit perfectly in between two weeks of being off program.   

The following week, we set a maximum effort goal for a microcycle (one week) of high intensity/high volume. It was perfect timing for a test of strength, work capacity and will power, and an awesome way to kickstart his mind back into feeling motivated about his progress, even though he had “missed” a week of regular programming. 

That week he produced the highest numbers of his life. He was well rested, he felt good about his work, and lifted an astounding 42,600lbs of tonnage for the week. His usual tonnage prior to the trip was just under 30,000lbs.

This obviously took a lot out of him, which created the perfect time to take a week off and get that functional movement and cardio work of moving his household items to his new place. He still managed to get to the gym that week once as well, making up a great active rest week. 

Upon returning to the mesocycle phase, he is putting up numbers that are 15% higher than before the three weeks of back-off/max effort/rest, and doing it at the same perceived exertion.

This is success. He feels great. Not only did we not lose momentum, but we were able to write his life events into his programming in a way that actually maximized his results during that time period.

This produced great results emotionally and psychologically as well, turning what would have been a negative situation into a very positive one. This will work for functional training or sports specific training cycles just as well as it worked for his strength training cycle. 

Thus we see, under good coaching, “disruptions” don’t have to exist as much as you may think. They are merely back-off weeks or focused microcycles that need to be written into the program to extract maximum value from what is available. Any good programs will have back-off weeks written into them. A little bit of adjustment in a program goes a long way toward creating a positive out of a negative. 

The trick is to plan ahead as much as possible using naturally occurring life events to implement them. Sometimes this has to be done on the fly and can’t always follow the pre-planned schedule. Use it in your program and it will push progress forward rather than slow it down or stop it.  

You may even be able to work a little harder when you realize how often life forces in rest days and back-off weeks where you did plan them. More rest can allow for higher intensities and volume in your program. 

Instead of fighting the realities of life to fit a “cookie cutter” program, we can use our real schedule and results data to optimize our program to come out even better in the end. Just a few things to think about. 

Olympic Weightlifting Seminar with Greg Everett, Catalyst Athletics

Course: Catalyst Athletics Level 1 Olympic Weightlifting Seminar/Coaching Certification
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
Date: August 24-25

This past weekend I was fortunate to have the opportunity to train with Greg Everett of Catalyst Athletics at his Level 1 Olympic Weightlifting Seminar in Salt Lake City, UT. This is a two-day course covering the performance and coaching of the two lifts that make up Olympic weightlifting competition: the snatch and the clean and jerk. The course was a great experience and I learned enough information to keep me busy for a few years practicing these very technical lifts.

Background

I have been teaching myself the “proper” Olympic lifts for about 2 years (more seriously for the past 8 months). Prior to that I had only really performed the clean in my lifting routines, so the snatch and jerk are both very new to me. I am definitely a novice “Olympic” lifter. 

In all honesty, it takes several years of dedicated practice to be an accomplished and efficient Olympic lifter in it’s pure form, and by “dedicated” I mean it is the emphasis in your fitness goals for that entire time. This is differentiated from forms of the snatch and the clean and jerk that you may find in other sports, like Crossfit. (Many of those sports perform the lifts for time while sacrificing form, which is different.) Traditionally, the lifts are extremely technical, and the form is critical for maximum, safe performance.

Despite being a novice at the Olympic lifts, it did help that I have a background in barbell movements, fitness training, sports training, lifting weights and coaching spanning nearly 25 years.

I was coming off of a 4-week cycle that was preceded by 4 weeks off due to re-injuring my lower back. I made the mistake of attending a group Olympic lifting class where we did a bunch of good mornings prior to doing muscle snatches. Even though I knew better, the pre-fatiguing of the lower back proved to be a critical mistake. It was my responsibility to coach myself and I failed at that. 

After not being able to lift for 4 weeks, I had 4 weeks leading up to the seminar to get back to being strong enough to handle to two, 6-7 hour days of bent over and overhead lifting. I peaked that cycle 1 week before the class with a 4 hour workout of explosive and functional movements. That preparation went a long way to make the 7 hour days with Greg and the barbell not only doable but also enjoyable. Keep this in mind if you plan to attend the seminar.

Greg Everett

I became aware of Greg several years ago as my interest in the traditional sport of Olympic lifting began to grow. Having come from the “old school” of weightlifting the clean had taught me that explosively lifting heavy weights was not only beneficial for my body, it improved my athletic performance, and my ability to fight and grapple, immensely. It was quite natural to gravitate toward Greg because he simply has provided the largest library of intense knowledge ever offered to the public on the subject of Olympic lifting.  

Greg has several sources of information out: his book, Olympic Weightlifting, his website library of articles at catalystathletics.com, his YouTube channel with his Library of Movements, and much more.

I had his book and older DVD, and I had planned to attend one of his seminars for a few years now. One day, Catalyst Athletics sent me a message on Instagram. To my surprise, it was Greg telling me how much of a fan he was of my own book, Violence of MInd. A coach and author I admired and followed for years was also a fan of my work. What a great experience that was. We struck up some good conversations and I was eventually invited out to his seminar in Utah. I booked my flight and hotel, thrilled I was finally getting to attend.

Goals

My goals for the course are two-fold: First, I obviously want to improve my capabilities in the performance of the snatch, clean and jerk. I don’t have any desires to compete formally, but I do have goals to reach a moderate level of performance with a high level of form and execution, just because I want to.

The lifts have become meditative to me. I have my platform outside on my farm in Florida, and the pursuit of the challenging and elusive execution of the movements, by myself and outside in nature, takes my mind away from everything else. It creates a place that only I go to. Just me and the lift. I want to always have that in my life for as long as I can, and longevity in this type of activity comes from doing it well and doing it safely.  

My second goal is professional: I am working on segueing back into the fitness training business more in the coming year or so. I have been building my self-defense and weapons training business for several years and I really miss being a fitness and conditioning trainer, which I did full-time for several years. Getting Greg’s instruction and (eventually) his certification, while also reaching a demonstrable competence level as a lifter myself, will allow me to integrate Olympic lifting into my own programming in a safe and effective way.

With all of my gym equipment quietly stored away in a warehouse in Florida, I plan to re-open my gym eventually. When I do, Olympic lifting will be a component of the programming there, programming which will center around general physical preparedness and self-defense conditioning and capability.

I have no desire, nor do I have the background, to be a competitive Olympic weightlifting sport coach. I do, however, fully believe in the benefits of Olympic lifting in GPP fitness and self-defense/fight conditioning, hence my desire to integrate the lifts into my coaching and programming.

I want that integrated method to be in the purest form I am capable of delivering, without sacrificing form or execution for any reasons. Greg’s course is a definite source of that pure form.

Equipment and Facility

The facility used for the seminar was Proven Strength Training in American Fork, Utah, owned by USAW Coach and IWF National Referee Jenny Shumacher. Jenny was super hospitable as a host, and was available both days for any questions or help concerning the facility.

There were approximately 7 nice, but well used, standard 2-layer plywood and rubber platforms in the lifting area. There were more than enough pvc pipe lengths and regular bars of different weights and lengths for everyone to participate in the lifts.

The overall space was huge, with a Crossfit gym sharing space in the building which was also opened up to us for warmups, stretching, rowing and whatever else we needed to use or do.

The main equipment used for the seminar was pvc pipe, barbells and bumper plates. Brands ranged from American Barbell, to Eleiko and others. The equipment was well maintained and in good working order. The bars all had great spin and seemed to flex very well. It was easy to see that Jenny’s facility was a serious level weightlifting location.

The Seminar: Day One

We started at 10AM on Saturday. Greg was very personable and had a great demeanor right from the start. There were about 20 attendees with a fairly even distribution of men and women. The backgrounds were mixed, with most coming from Crossfit gyms and just a few being pure Olympic lifters and serious competitors. In terms of experience, most attendees had several years of qualified experience, while a few seemed to be novice/beginners.

Greg started by having everyone introduce themselves around the room. When I very briefly introduced myself, Greg took a minute to tell everyone how great my book is, suggesting they should buy it, which was a kind gesture.

He also humbly emphasized that what he would teach us was not necessarily new and he didn’t invent it, he just found what works and developed a unique way to teach it.

The atmosphere was not intimidating at all, everyone was very nice and positive, and the facility was extremely hospitable and welcoming. This made for a great class environment. The space was a little tight for 20 lifters, but we made it work with cooperation and courtesy. Other than wishing I was capable of lifting more comparable weights with my fellow attendees, I have no complaints.

Day one curriculum consisted of the Snatch Progression as Greg teaches it. (I won’t get into specifics here, you’ll have to take the course for that.) The snatch is a very technical lift where you start with a barbell on the floor and explosively lift it up and receive it over your head in a deep squat position and with locked elbows in a wide grip. You complete the lift by standing up with the barbell elevated over your head with locked elbows.

The basic progression we followed is:

  • Foundations, fundamentals and terminology
    • Trunk stabilization
    • Breath control
    • Foot position
    • Double knee bend
    • Hook grip
  • Snatch Receiving position
    • Overhead Position
    • Overhead Squat
    • Pressing Snatch Balance
    • Drop Snatch
    • Heaving Snatch Balance
    • Snatch Balance
  • Snatch from the hang
    • Mid-Hang Snatch Pull
    • Tall Muscle Snatch
    • Scarecrow Snatch
    • Tall Snatch
    • Mid-Hang Snatch
  • Snatch from the floor
    • Snatch Segment Deadlift
    • Halting Snatch Deadlift
    • Segment Snatch + Deadlift
    • Snatch

We began work with pvc pipes to assist in understanding the movements and positions. Greg’s breakdown of the movement into components is phenomenal and easy to understand. His choice of beginning with the receiving position is very intuitive and quite similar to how I teach firearms movements in my courses. As Greg says, you have to know where you are going to build a good path to get there.

His choice of nomenclature seems to be the most sensible I have heard of so far. He was very clear about the explanation of the use of words like catch and drop and explaining them with meaningful words and phrases like receive, and forcefully move ourselves under the bar (push or pull), among others.

This is an important distinction especially for new lifters that may not know how the lift really works. For example, if we simply call it a “drop” movement it implies that we are simply dropping into a position by relaxing and letting gravity carry us downward. This would be an incorrect mental image for a new lifter.

We know this isn’t the case because we must employ speed when getting under the bar, specifically a much greater speed than gravity itself can produce. We should be aggressively pushing ourselves down under the bar against the mass of weight going over our heads, (or in some other lifts pulling ourselves under the bar for position.) Therefore, creating accurate mental images for the lifter is easier to achieve with better explanations to accompany old terminology.

I’m definitely paraphrasing here (maybe poorly) but I think I am conveying the idea well. Greg’s use of speech and nomenclature made the learning process much more productive for sure, for both students and coaches.

Greg also emphasized aggression as an important part of weightlifting. As we moved into work with the bars and eventually with weights, that aggression would play a big part in our success in the lifts. This led to talks about the importance of mindset and focus throughout the weekend.

By the end of the day my understanding of the snatch had increased immensely. I was able to execute a few of the nicest snatches I’ve ever done, and I have gained enough knowledge of my own technical issues to go forward and begin fixing them through training and practice.

The last hour or so of the day Greg sets the class loose to snatch as you see fit using your own judgement on weight and variation choices while he walked around and coached. This was no easy task since we had been doing pulls and snatching in the different variations for approximately 5-6 hours already. Some of those hours were spent repeatedly holding isometric positions bent over in mid hang or low hang, which is extremely taxing on the back.

Despite having lifted for 5 hours prior, many of the attendees were hitting impressive lift numbers, with snatches climbing into the mid 100 kilo range (mid to high 200lbs range). There were definitely some seriously competitive lifters there and it was awesome to be in the room with them.

We ended class around 5PM and I headed for the hotel pool and hot tub to enjoy the 97 degree Utah weather and reflect on the day.

Day Two

Day two was clean and jerk day. We began the day with a quick review of the snatch progression, which included doing a few movements with pvc pipes to refresh our memories.

The progression we followed for day 2 was:

  • Receiving Position
    • Split Position
  • Jerk Progression
    • Press behind the neck
    • Press
    • Push press
    • Tall Power Jerk
    • Power Jerk
    • Split jerk behind the neck
    • Jerk balance
    • Split jerk
  • Receiving Position 
    • Clean Rack position
    • Front Squat
  • Clean from Hang
    • Mid-hang clean pull
    • Rack delivery
    • Tall muscle clean
    • Tall clean 
    • Mid-hang clean
  • Clean from Floor
    • Clean segment deadlift 
    • Halting clean deadlift
    • Segment clean + clean
    • Clean

We moved on to the jerk first, which I found to be more challenging than the snatch, personally. I simply suck at the split jerk right now. I was able to improve that quite a bit during the class, but I certainly have a long way to go.

Again, Greg’s progression is phenomenal and very intuitive towards how someone could best learn the complex series of movements within the clean and jerk. It is easy to see his years of experience and success as a coach shine through here.

I have been in front of a few local coaches here and there and never have I experienced the level of explanation or clarity that came from just a few hours with him.

The clean portion of the instruction was very fluid since it mimicked the a very similar progression as the snatch from the previous day. Most lifters understood the squat and the floor pull very well, so there wasn’t much need for remedial work. 

Just like day one, we ended the day with a blast session of cleaning and jerking at our own pace. I chose to stay very light to work on that jerk technique, while some of the others went on to clean and jerk well over 300lbs successfully. It was truly a marvel to see in person.

Conclusions

Olympic weightlifting is an amazing activity. It requires a mixture of mobility, explosiveness, strength, precision, speed and a kinesthetic awareness that few other sports require. There are few movements you can do that can provide so much benefit. They are safe, when done correctly. They are difficult to master, which can be excellent if you are looking for something to really focus on.

If you are looking for an edge in combat sports or fighting, Olympic lifting will provide it. If you want to be stronger and fitter in your daily life, well, it will help you do that, too.

The course was phenomenal and well worth the time and money. If you are serious about doing the Olympic lifts correctly, this course is a must attend event. I learned enough about Olympic lifting to keep me busy practicing and correcting my issues for the next two years.

I know there are lots of “methods” out there and some like to say that some particular method or country of origin is better than another, and so on.

I personally don’t prescribe to that philosophy as I’ve trained enough skills in my life (gun fighting, combatives, powerlifting, bodybuilding, etc.) to know that all good methods center around the same concepts, and that variations on those skills are not only good to learn, they are necessary to achieve a deeper understanding and development in the discipline.

It doesn’t matter if it’s weightlifting or gun fighting. I will listen to all of the successful methods and pick the ones that work for me the best. Greg Everett seems to understand this as well and is very humble in paying homage to his coach own Mike Burgener and acknowledging other sources when talking about concepts specific to the lifts. The Catalyst Athletics method really resonates with me.

Another one of my favorite aspects of Greg’s teaching style is that he quite intentionally avoids using big scientific words or making the class into an “anatomy and physiology” course. That was not what I was there for. That was not what anyone was there for. We wanted to learn how to better snatch, clean and jerk, and how to better help other people snatch, clean and jerk.

I’m not saying A&P knowledge is dumb or useless. But I do loathe trainers and instructors who constantly have to let everyone know how smart they are by using the scientific names of body parts every chance they get. Even when they aren’t showing off, using that hyper scientific language is annoying for most clients or trainees.

If you can’t have a normal conversation using language everyone can understand, how do you connect with your clients? Unless we need to address a specific issue with a specific part of the body, let’s just talk about movement and how to achieve it. Greg does a slamming awesome job of just that.

Being a long-time instructor myself (personal training, firearms, self-defense) I am very impressed by Greg’s teaching progressions. Teaching people complex movements that require slight, personalized variations in technique and application is difficult because, well, people are all different. Everyone has their own issues. Developing progressions that are scalable and modular to a large extent is really the Holy Grail of teaching capabilities, and Greg has that in spades.

He offered insights and instruction on the proper assessment of both athlete and movement throughout the entire course. He expertly weaved this into instruction on customizing the programming of an athlete (or yourself) around the issues that manifest in the performance of the lifts, and how to use the progression with addition and omission of variations and supporting exercises to correct the issues. 

Personally, I was lifting among the lowest weight in the gym, which I was perfectly fine with since I wanted to train strict technique while I had such a great coach around, as well as not wanting re-injure my back again by trying to impress anyone. It may have stung the ego a tiny bit, but it’s good for you to get out and see where you really are in comparison to others. It helps to prevent Dunning-Krueger from setting in.

It was great to be in a room where people are lifting more than me BUT they were doing it with correct form. This is not usually my experience when doing Olympic lifts in many gyms. These were lifters who had both had proper instruction and had also exhibited the dedication to performing the lifts correctly over years of hard work, and it showed.  

While I was among the least strong attendees there, I was not the least conditioned. I held up just fine and flying back on Monday the only complaints I had were those damn cramped economy seats. I recommend if you are going to a weightlifting seminar that you train your work capacity up to a high level. The weekend before the seminar I had reached a peak with a 4-hour workout of explosive and functional movements. That prepared me well for the low/moderate intensity 6-hour days of the seminar. Be in shape, I do recommend it.

You should also have a basic understanding of the lifts. There is no reason to walk in to a seminar of this magnitude and not know anything relevant to the material. Buy Greg’s text book, watch the videos on YouTube, try to learn the movements or at least understand them. Know the basics about how to stabilize your trunk under load, how to breath, how to back squat, etc. There wasn’t anyone in the room that didn’t have a clear understanding of these things and that was notable.

To be fair, I’ve gotten to know Greg and had the opportunity to spend a few hours one-on-one with him after the course. We did not talk much weightlifting, or gun training. We talked about life, and coaching, and family and business. He is an outstanding guy, very down to earth and humble, which makes it even that much better that he is one of the best Olympic lifting coaches alive today.  

The most valuable thing that I walked away from the seminar with is the ability to be a better coach to myself. I learned how to spot my own issues, assess ways to fix it, use the progressions in a modular, customizable way to address those issues, and simply just get better at the lifts. That’s money in the bank.

Bottom line:

Without any doubts, I will attend more seminars and training with Greg in the future, and I recommend anyone who is interested in learning about the snatch and the clean and jerk should do the same.