Training journal update: 4 weeks out

So the idea for this strongman comp was for me to go back to my ‘roots’ per-se, and get back into some serious heavy barbell work so I can kick some ass at this comp.

There’s one problem: After 4 weeks of deadlifts, military presses, and bench pressesI feel like I’m regressing.

That’s not to say this stuff isn’t good for its purposes; but for the past 6 months I’ve been waking up more and more energised; having no DOMS sitting at my desk in the office; and basically feeling (to borrow a phrase from Pavel) “Fast and loose” – and I’m begrudged to lose that.

So for the past week and a half I’ve been attending Bikram Yoga classes (survived four so far; and to survive is definitely the appropriate verb), and have dropped deadlifts from my programme after hitting a comfortable 230kg for the second time in the training cycle.




That’s all I can say. Those two changes, and I feel like me again; this lead me to the following decisions (pretty much in this order):

  1. Deadlifts are off the menu;
  2. Stretching and yoga need to be put back on the menu (in the case of the former with greater emphasis).

I’ve also been checking out some vids of Scott Sonnon‘s, and re-reading a few books of his I’ve neglected for the past few months (Intu-flow; the big book of clubbell training) and I’m reminded why they struck a chord with me the first time. Given this, I’ve also decided to drop useless half-plane movements (namely the bench press, and the military press), and focus on functional, multi-planar strength.


Basically I’ve decided to instead do loads of power cleans every day; as part of a complex (or “superset” for all you bodybuilders) along with front squats, and agility band sprints.

I’m following this with a few circuits of multi-planar exercises, using a nice mix of plyometrics, single leg and balance drills, clubbells, kettlebells, and gymnastic rings. For example, today’s circuit (using gymnastic rings) was:

  1. 20 pistol squats (2 sets of 5 each side) with a 12kg kettlebell
  2. 10 jumps over approximately a 30″ box (so kind of a combined box and depth jump)
  3. Cutting side-to-side for 20 reps
  4. Dead-hang pullups with rings to 2 reps short of fail with legs held straight out in-front (about 8 reps)
  5. ice-cream makers to near-fail (4-6 reps)
  6. wipers to near-fail (core exercise – google it; 12-16 reps)
  7. skin the cat, 4 reps
  8. body flyes with rings set near the ground, 5 reps
  9. plyobox pushups to near-fail, 8-10 reps (see here, but more explsoive. Kudos to Tim Ferriss for showing me this)

Go straight from one to the next without significant pause. Total of 3 circuits; 2-3mins rest between circuits.

Yes, this was after 5 sets of power clean complexes. I swear my heart almost a-sploded.

So yes – no deadlifts in the run up to a comp. Am I nuts? Time will tell ladies and gentlemen, but know this: I feel much much better training this way.

This is, after all, FULLCIRCLESTRENGTH.



– fullcirclestrength

Weight Training 101: A beginner guide (PART 1)

This series is where I really wanted to start, but felt I couldn’t do this justice without first addressing a few key concepts when lifting heavy-ass weights. If you haven’t checked out my other blog posts, check out this article on progressive overload and this article on warm-up sets first. Don’t worry I’ll wait.


Right, with those 2 concepts lodged firmly in your mind, let’s start from the beginning and work up:


1. Determine your long-term goals

Seriously, this is important. It’s easy to define a short-term goal like “lose 10lbs”, but it’s far more important to plan beyond the horizon. If you set yourself something major to reach for, your training will (by and large) automatically fall into place.

This is especially true for weight training, as it’s easy to get bit by the lifting bug. Allow me demonstrate:

  • You start training with the honourable goal of toning up a bit, and getting healthier. You have set yourself a long-term goal, but you saw a lean fit body (on the cover of Men’s Health or something) and that’s what prompted you to get started. Maybe if you work hard enough, one day you could look like this:

  • A few months in, and you’re making great progress. You love the ‘pump’ you get from working out (WARNING): the bug bites. Fast forward a few years, and this:

WTF, right? This is the issue with progressive overload: mass moves mass. Somewhere you have to draw the line on strength versus how you look and feel. Bret Contreras summarised this brilliantly (and rather conveniently) just a few days ago here.

I guarantee you I can hand-pick at least half a dozen guys in any gym who fit this profile. I say this with utter confidence because I was one of them. Lucky for me, I noticed and went back to square one, and now feel in the best shape of my life at 73kg (160lbs)!

Author’s note: Eventually, the  road gets harder, and this is where many fall down and take route of exogenous compounds to fuel their addiction (strength, vanity, whatever) and risk permanently compromising their endocrine systems, their fertility, and longevity. This addiction is no different from girls insistent on more and more plastic surgery, or even anorexia! Again, it’s easy to pick out those this applies to in any gym. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.


Okay, now that I’m done scaring the pants off of you: Yes, setting your sights from the off is a flipping good piece of advice if (I do say so myself) – find a picture of what you want to look like, even especially if what you want seems impossible (or at least a million miles away) – the more ridiculous the better; the more ridiculous the longer it will motivate you.

And don’t think I can’t hear you “that’s just depressing not motivating!”, and “I’ll NEVER look like that!” – the subconscious works in mysterious ways. Print out that ridiculous picture. Stick it on your bedside table. Better yet stick it on your fridge. Trust me.

I’ve already linked this article before, but it’s so damn good I’m linking it again.


Finally – whatever picture (be it real or mental) you find; keep it to yourself. There is plenty of research to support how externalising your goals makes you less likely to achieve them. I do love me some TED talks, but in case you don’t have 5 minutes spare (or audio) here is the executive summary:

When you tell someone your goals and they acknowledge it, the mind experiences what psychologists call “social reality”: you get a good feeling from externalising the goal (i.e. it mistakes the telling as the doing) and you are therefore less motivated to do the actual work!

Bottom line: Don’t tell you friends; don’t tell your trainer; and definitely don’t tell me. Externalise your short-term goals if it helps keep you legit (we’ll get to these later), but keep the Master Plan under lock and key.


2. Taking your goals and making a plan

Whatever your form of training (free weights, calisthenics, bodyweight, kettlebells, athletics) you’ll need a working range for your goal. For weightlifting, the choices are reps and sets. For track athletics, its short sprints verses long distance. In all cases, the ONLY variables in determining the adaptive response of your body from a given exercise are TENSION (muscular) and TIME, and their product TIME UNDER TENSION. Or formulaically, as I love me some science:

In words: Varying the duration and intensity of muscular contractions determines how those muscles adapt (repair and grow) following exercise. If you run long distance, your muscles will get better at running long distance (i.e. increased endurance and efficiency); if you lift a heavy weight, your body will get better at lifting heavy weights (increased strength and power).

The caveat here is that adaptive response is governed by our old friend the Central Nervous System (CNS), and he is one lazy sonuva bitch: Adaptive response after exertion is precisely the minimum change required to deal with the new stimulus. Put in the context of weightlifting, if you deadlift 300lbs for 5 reps week in week out, you will get precisely strong enough to safely (read: comfortably) deadlift 300lbs for 5 reps, even if you do it every week for 10 years. Put another way, “Time under tension” is synonymous with progressive overload, or “total load lifted” (weight x reps x sets).


So, back to the plan: In terms of rep ranges, the following is the generally accepted consensus:

  1. STRENGTH – 1-5 reps (high tension, short time)
  2. SIZE – 6-12 (medium tension, medium time)
  3. ENDURANCE – 12+ (low tension, long time)

It’s up to you to decide which of these three attributes best encapsulates the latest piece of artwork on your refrigerator door :)

Author’s note: The remainder of this series assumes you picked either #1 or #2, since nobody chooses to look like an emaciated endurance athlete. They just end up that way if the are BITTEN BY THE BUG.



Reassessment: A quick aside

Re-assessing your goals periodically is perfectly fine and completely natural as you get to know your body better and perhaps alter the image of who you want to become. This happened with me within the past year when I realised that my goal of becoming as strong as possible was making me feel less healthy (excess weight, lethargy, constant lower back pain), so I shifted my focus to more functional bodyweight and gymnastic-style training: I’m 9 kilos lighter than I was in September (without going on a “diet”) and feel great. But nothing’s ever free, here’s the caveat: re-defining your goals is fine AS LONG AS THE CHANGE IS POSITIVE. Redefining your goals to make them easier is not fine. Quit it!


Whew, this is taking longer than I thought. I’ll continue with converting your goals into a plan in part 2 (stay tuned). I hope you enjoyed reading!

– fullcirclestrength

Choosing the Right Footwear for Strength Training

In case you have somehow missed the recent epidemic that’s been sweeping the world, whereby otherwise normal people have been casting off their Nike trainers to go running in minimalist shoes; or the more main stay advice to squat in Converse all-stars: good news, you are about to get schooled.

For those of you who think this is old news, I lay down this challenge: Do you know why people are doing this? I mean, really know: Could you explain it to your mother? By the end of this article, you’ll be capable of waxing lyrical on the exciting topic of training footwear with the best of ‘em.

So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on why barefoot or flat-soled shoes are a good idea when lifting weights:


Reason #1: Stability

Foot position and stability have a huge impact on your ability to shift weights in closed kinetic chain leg movements (anything where your feet are on the ground.)


A stable base increases ground reaction force (GRF), or how effectively you can “push down” into the floor and generate an equal and opposite reactionary force (pro tip: this is why good weightlifting coaches provide the mental cue to “push down with your feet through the floor” rather than try to raise the barbell). Think how much harder it is to jump when standing on one leg, or on a bouncy castle – running shoes aren’t quite as bad as the latter, but all the cushioning means you’re not stood on a solid surface. This can also mess with proprioception (body awareness) and put your ankles at serious risk. Two more excellent reasons squatting on a Bosu sucks.

A chiropractor’s nightmare.


Reason #2: The Central Nervous System

This one might take a bit longer. In a future article, provisionally titled “Grip strength, the nervous system and the somatosensory cortex” (really engaging title there Chris, good job), I’ll discuss the importance dominance of the nervous system when handling heavy loads, and how this can be manipulated to provide instant strength increases. Any readers familiar with Power to the People! or The Naked Warrior will be familiar with the trick of clenching your fists or squeezing a barbell when exercising for pre-loading tension & increasing motor recruitment.

Pavel Tsatsouline demonstrates this technique in The Naked Warrior by asking the reader to make a fist; then clench it harder, and harder still, and note how the upper arms, shoulder, lats and abs are recruited to support the fist.

What this means? High muscular tension in a specific area has a carryover effect to the surrounding muscles as a built-in safety feature (remember my previous post on progressive overload? the nervous system’s main concern is keeping you safe!)


The same principle can be applied to your feet: squeeze the floor! Imagine trying to curl your toes under the ball of the foot – this is much like gripping the floor with your fingers when doing push-ups (another pro tip).

Try the same exercise above, but with your foot (or both feet): Stand in a stable position (barefoot), and squeeze your toes as described above; now do it harder, and harder still, until the entire leg shivering with tension to support the tension in the foot.

If you’re still not convinced, try the exercise backwards: get in that stable position, and tense your upper legs; now harder, and harder still. If you haven’t clued-in yet and are not pushing your foot into the ground (see reason #1, something Pavel describes as a “static stomp”) and gripping with your toes, do so now. Notice how your upper leg contracts even harder.


Reason #3: Proprioception, or body awareness

In short, proprioception is the ability to sense the position, location, orientation and movement of the body and its parts. I shaln’t go into too much detail here, but recommend you click here and here to get yourself clued up.

In short, by being barefoot, you will receive better tactile feedback from the floor – and so it’s easier to balance or adjust. With increased sturdiness, you may even find that you’re able to increase the resistance.


Reason #4: Eliminate heel-drop

Going barefoot will also eliminate any heel elevation you may get from footwear. Although this is most commonly associated with barefoot running and the long-term issues for the joints (particularly the knees) of ‘heel striking’, from a strength perspective, eliminating heel-drop will force you to push with your heels, resulting in:

  • The enforcement proper technique – as discussed in a previous post, conditioning motor patterns is key to effective exercise. To take the example of a squat, eliminating heel drop forces you to sit-back more into the movement (unless you have freak ankle flexibility), which reduces stress on the lumbar spine and reduces risk of knee valgus (wobbly-knee syndrome).
  • Increased ankle strength and mobility – stronger ankles means more stable ankles. Refer to reason #1 for the why stability makes you squat more.


So which footwear is best?

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll be unsurprised that if possible, I believe the best footwear is none at all. However, as most gyms won’t let you walk around barefoot for Health & Safety reasons (as if your trainers are going to help if you drop a plate on your foot or something), here are some alternatives:

  1. Barefoot or Minimalist shoes – I’ll be the first to say, I do 95% of my training in Vibrams. These are as close as you get to going naked, and have the benefit of providing a grippy-sole to help keep you put (especially pertinent for wide-stance squatting). Be warned, they’re a bit of a pain to size correctly; for UK buyers, I recommend checking out this link.
  2. Converse all-stars – while still a solid choice, I would only pick these over Vibrams if I were a real cheapskate: they do eliminate the heel-drop, and provide good stability, but you don’t receive many of the proprioceptive benefits you get with Vibrams.
  3. Socks – Bad idea. These things can slip, and that is not a pretty picture when it happens. Take it from someone who’s had a near-miss or two before.

So for me, it’s Vibrams all the way. But do be sure to bring a pair of boots or trainers for the small pool of exercises they aren’t suitable for: heavy farmer’s walks, which are a staple round-off to my workouts, hurt your feet like hell if you don’t have some cushion!


As always, the information in this article is non-exhaustive, and I still very much consider myself a student rather than a teacher; and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or any other topic!

Thanks for reading,

– fullcirclestrength

How to: Warm-up Sets for Maximum Results

First allow me to clarify that this does not cover (nor constitute) a more general warm-up which everyone should be doing before hitting the weights: this covers specific warm-ups for a particular exercise or movement.

With that minor caveat out of the way, onwards!


The problem

Let me start off with an observation: Most people have no idea how to train heavy. The odds are that includes you (sorry) – but not to fear, help is at hand!

The amount of times I see people going TO OR NEAR-TO FAILURE on warm-up sets is staggering: How do you guys expect to see improvement (see previous blog post: Progressive Overload) if you waste your energy, insistent on “feeling the burn”, warming up?!


… Okay, okay, calm down Chris.

Let’s start with some definitions of specific warm-ups (from Google ‘define:’)

“Gradually prepares your body and mind for the workout.  Elevates body temperature and increases circulation of blood and oxygen throughout your body.  The intensity level of the warm-up is very low.  Performing a warm-up prior to your workout reduces the risk of injury. …”

“… a gradual increase in the intensity of exercise to allow physiological processes to prepare for greater energy outputs.”

“Movements and/or movement phrases designed to raise the core body temperature and bring the mind into focus for the dance activities that follow.”

Okay, okay – so that last one about dancing is a bit tenuous. But it’s there for a very specific reason I’ll come to in a moment.


The main objectives of specific warm-ups

  1. Increase blood and oxygen circulation in the area worked by the specific movement;
  2. To allow the body to prepare for greater exertions (i.e. getting into the ‘flow’, or polishing motor patterns);
  3. To focus the mind on the specific activity for the greater exertions to come.

(This is not an exhaustive list; if you can think of more, feel free to chip-in in the comments section!)

As we can see, the third quote quite neatly addresses objective #3.


What this means – the Golden Rule

Re-read quote one. Did you see it? No? Read it again. What this means is that: “The intensity level of the warm-up is very low.” Bold. Italics. Underline.

Let’s be crystal clear about this: Doing lots of warm-up repetitions is a darn good idea (refer to objectives 2 and 3 above); but it does not take a significant load to achieve the first objective, and this is where 99% of gym-goers fall down.

If at any point a warm-up rep feels even slightly hard, even a teensy-weensy bit; park it. You’ve done enough (well, more likely, you’ve already overdone it, but let’s make the best of the situation).


Question: Which sets count as warm-up sets?

Answer: Any set that isn’t specifically defined in your programme (e.g if your target for that day is 5 sets, then those 5 sets are not warm-ups. If you’re shooting for a new rep max, the anything but the one max effort set counts as a warm-up)


Further information (or, back-up sources)

For those of you who think I’m talking like a quack, let me point you to a few external articles on this very subject (there are quite a few, but these are my pick-of-the-bunch):

Fast forward to point 3 of 6: Here, Dave Tate gives you some sample numbers for a guy shooting for a new 300lb (~136kg) bench press PR, and has some choice quotes on most people warm-up technique. The article concludes:

“According to Tate, the smart lifter primes technique, activates the nervous and muscular systems, and gets the job done. The stupid lifter gets pinned.”


(If you’re going to disagree with Dave Tate, best do it when his back is turned)


In his awesome e-book on strength training, Jim Wendler advises the following:

“• 1×5 @ 40%

• 1×5 @ 50%

• 1×3 @ 60%

• Work sets

The purpose of a warm-up is to prepare yourself for a great day of work sets – not an average one. You really shouldn’t need too many warm-up sets to prepare yourself for your work sets.”

It’s worth noting than Jim gives us some actual numbers: See that the top warm-up weight he advises is 60% of your training max (technically this is not quite your one rep max, but it’s hardly worth fussing about for our purposes). This means if your max bench is 315lbs, your top warm-up weight is only 190lbs or 84 kilos, and for a meagre 3 reps!

Quote of the day: straight from T-Nation: “If you don’t know who Jim Wendler is, you’re probably not very strong.”



Well, there’s not really much to summarise today folks – but please recap those objectives of warming up. If you take the advice written here, you’ll be posting new PR’s in no time!

– fullcirclestrength

Progressive Overload: What You Need to Know to Get Stronger


So I spent a while yesterday outlining my first blog to be titled “Does Calorie Counting Work?” and realised after about 1500 words and hardly having finished the introduction, that it’s one hell of a broad topic for my rookie blog post. I have no idea how to answer the question adequately without dipping into all sorts of other topics I haven’t yet written about.

Baby steps Chris. Baby steps.

So instead, I decided to narrow my focus, and at the same time blog about something completely different: How to warm-up for max effort lifting. But even this was too complex!I needed to get even more basic.

With that in mind, welcome to my first article: Progressive Overload: the single, number one, primo, numero uno, most important concept in strength training.


What is progressive overload?

To introduce the concept, allow me to quote a paragraph from Supersquats (Ironmind publications, page 23), one of the best training-aids of all time:

“The overload principle states that unless you do more than you are used to, you won’t build muscular size or strength. All those training clichés like “no pain, no gain” reflect the overload principle (…) The principle of progressive resistance goes back to Milo of Crotona, who carried a calf a given distance each day in ancient Greece – as the calf grew, so did Milo, getting bigger and stronger for his efforts. Adding five or ten pounds to the squat bar every workout simulates the process (…)”

In a nutshell: If no variables (examples: number of reps, weight lifted, bar speed, number of sets) improve from your previous workout, you will not make any improvements. And let’s be clear, we’re talking about getting stronger here, if you goal is to stay as you are, then you may stop reading: this article is not for you.

Once again I’m struggling not to lapse into scientific jargon, but basically everything in your body is governed by your Central Nervous System (or CNS), and it is concerned with keeping you safe, not getting you swole. If you perform the same exercises (weight, sets, reps, the lot) week-in, week-out, your CNS will respond by building you up to the precise level necessary for you to perform that exercise safely (think beginner gains).

If you up a variable each week, the CNS is forced to take an adaptive response to the increased load – and you will get bigger, stronger, or faster (all any combination of these) depending on how you train. Generally speaking (and please take this with a huge pinch of salt):

  • Increasing the weight makes you stronger;
  • Increasing the total load (weight x reps) makes you more muscular;
  • Increasing bar speed makes you faster, or more explosive;
  • Increasing the number of reps, and / or reducing the rest-period between sets will improve your conditioning.


Practical application

Rule #1 – keep a training journal

In short: this is why every smart man will keep a training journal. Unless you’re some kind of superhuman, you will not be able to remember the precise number of reps/ sets/ speed/ rest periods for the plethora of exercises you perform in a given week.

Write all your shit down, and this will not only allow you to ensure you are continually improving, but provides you with a target to hit each workout (more on the importance of targets in a future blog), and allows you to look back and see just how much stronger you have become; and trust me, this feels pretty damn good and is a great motivator!

Rule #2 – start conservatively

This one is a tough pill to swallow for some people; but don’t be afraid to start with a weight that you can handle easily. This is the concept of “peaking” used by competitive lifters, and there are a few notable benefits:

  1. Firstly, it gives you time to nail down your form (and do not underestimate the importance of conditioning neural motor patterns, or greasing the groove1);
  2. second, it provides a much-needed break or de-load period, since your body cannot take the strain of adding 10lbs a week to your squat indefinitely (see: adrenal fatigue, burnout, over-training, call it what you will); and
  3. Finally, it means you will be able to utilise progressive overload for a decent stretch before you hit point 2 above.

Rule #3 – Stick to the plan

Similar to rule #2: this means you do not, under any circumstances, do more than you’re supposed to on that day because you still feel you have “more in the tank”. That is not the point. The specific whys of this is the topic of a future blog, but for now, just have a little faith.

Rule #4 – Planning breaks into your schedule

A planned break, or Strategic deconditioning, is where you purposely let-up for a week or two to allow your body some time to recover and catch-up on the adaptive response we mentioned earlier, to avoid bullet 3 in Rule #2. Again, this is a hard pill for some to swallow, but the important things to remember here are:

Hitting burnout (or over-training, or adrenal fatigue, take your pick) is when you fail to improve, and in most cases means you will feel and perform worse than last week not better. Take what we said about adaptive response earlier, and you can see why not only is this painful, dangerous (training to muscular failure is always dangerous in my opinion), and damned demoralising; but is not beneficial to your body.

In short, you can either plan breaks, or your body will force you to take them (see my earlier point about your CNS being most concerned with keeping you safe): Always keep in mind Mark Reifkind’s tongue-in-cheek “classic tough-guy periodization” of light, heavy, heavier, heaviest… injury – can you guess the point where a planned break would have been a good call?


A quick demonstration

Right, so now we’re all (hopefully) clued up on the whats, whys and hows of factoring progressive overload into your training. But just to be sure, here are a few pointers:

  • First, decide how long you want the overload period to be (weeks, or number of sessions) – 6-10 sessions before a planned break is a good number.
  • Decide on where you want to be at the end of that period. For example, if your current Bench press 5RM (five rep max) is 225lbs, adding 10% to that number is a reasonable target (so 250lbs, roughly).
  • So in week 8, we will aim to perform 250lbs for 5 reps. Working backwards, on the assumption we want to add 10lbs per week, means:

Week 8: 250 lbs

Week 7: 240lbs

Week 6: 230lbs

Week 5: 220lbs

Week 4: 210lbs

Week 3: 200lbs

Week 2: 190lbs

Week 1: 180lbs

So for the first 5 weeks of the ‘cycle’, you are lifting a weight you can already do. I’m dead serious about this: refer to Rule #3.

Week 9 you will either do nothing, or you will train with weights no heavier than 135lbs. See Rule #4.

This technique will not only improve your strength, it will almost certainly improve your form, your confidence, and give you a keyhole-view into the world of possibilities if you employ real strength techniques in the gym.

And remember folks, there’s plenty more where that came from. Just give me time to write it all down.

–          fullcirclestrength



1. – ‘Greasing the groove’ – Chapter 5, The Naked Warrior, by Pavel Tsatsouline.

Further reading on this topic:

‘Unrealisitc’ Athletic Goals: Why and How to Pursue Them

Pavel: 80/20 Powerlifting and How to Add 110+ Pounds to Your Lifts

Dave Tate’s Iron Evolution: Phase 1 – Progressive Overload