Category Archives: cross training

Progressive Machine Strength Training: Modifying the Rapid Fire Sets

So since introducing the Rapid Fire Sets I’ve modified the approach in a way that suits my training and has benefitted me quite a bit. I should probably talk about it, and note that what I do now is not really true to the name anymore. I still think Rapid Fire Sets are valuable, but what I do now while similar is rather different.

First of all, this approach is exclusively used with strength machines at the gym, where the weight is set using a metal pin. You could probably use this with a Tonal or similar machine, if you have one.

But I don’t use this approach with free weights of any kind, as switching between them at the gym is too complicated and at times prohibitive. For exercises requiring free weights, I still continue to follow a standard four set block, with the first and last set 12 reps at a light weight, and the 2nd and 3rd middle sets 8 reps at twice the weight.

Given that, here is the (as of now unnamed) approach I follow for any given machine exercise.

  • I start with a light weight. On most machines I’ll start at the lightest weight possible. In many cases I’ll start several pounds higher as the lightest weight is so effortless that it’s not an exercise. (As I get stronger I imagine I’ll do the latter with every machine)
  • I do 8 reps at that weight.
  • I pause/rest 30 seconds, during which I increase the weight by 10-20 pounds, depending on how the weight is divided on the machine. In my case, some stacks are in 10 pound blocks, some are in 20 pound blocks. Whatever the next step up in weight is, that’s what I increase the weight to.
  • Then I do 8 reps at the new weight. Then I stop for 30 seconds, and increase again by one step. Repeat.
  • Once I’m at a weight that’s too heavy to finish 8 reps, or I finish an 8 rep set and know I probably don’t have enough to do the next weight up… I stop increasing. I rest another 30 seconds.
  • I divide the highest weight I lifted in half. I set the pin to that weight. Most machines have some way to let you do half increments, so if the half-weight is not an even number I use that to set the correct weight.
  • I then do 12 reps at the half-weight. After that, I am done with this exercise, and move on.

I now do this on machines for all my 20 minute workouts. I still restrict my strength workouts to 20 minutes, and find this way I can do two machine exercises, plus at least one regular 4-set block of a free weight exercise. I don’t always do 2-and-1… I might do all free weight exercises, or just one machine exercise. It depends on what I plan to work on that day.

Sometimes there’s enough time left over to do 2-4 sets of something else, and often I’ll do seated cable rows at a single light weight, hanging raises, or Russian twists, as these exercises work on muscle groups I incidentally want to improve. Which ones I do depends on feel. I’ve also mixed in odd exercises like farmer’s walks or goblet squats.

Since starting this approach I’ve found that if I leave a machine exercise for last, I often run out of time before I reach a weight too heavy to continue. I don’t go over-time: I just end the workout after the last set I’m able to complete before the clock reaches 20:00. So now, if I find maxing out an exercise important, I make sure to not do that one last. And I typically default to the old wisdom of “do the most important thing first”. Likewise, if I want to take it easy on a machine exercise, I’ll often schedule that one last, knowing the clock may run out before I can max it out.

Because I can only do about three exercises per workout, this allows me to spread my full routine across multiple workouts, without burning me out or leaving me too sore to continue in subsequent days. I’ve done a couple of 5-day splits and been able to strength train 4-6 times a week without problems. In the last month or so I’ve done this, I’ve made a ton of progress.

So while I have yet to codify this process (it is a bit complicated to clearly describe for others), I’ve found this progressive approach to strength training effective and repeatable.

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I love you, Spin Bike, but we need to see other people

Photo by Ivan Safmkov on Pexels.com

I have probably used the spin bike more than any other piece of equipment at the gym over the last year. It’s been my go-to cross training equipment while in-between training cycles, a low-key aerobic workout so easy to do I often will read books while doing it.

But it’s time to stop and take a break. It’s not you, Spin Bike, it’s definitely me. There isn’t anything wrong with stationary indoor cycling in general.

In my case, I not only have ramped up marathon training ahead of Indy Monumental, but I also decided that two signs were too strong to ignore.

The stiffness in my legs after most spin bike sessions is a sign I need to focus on other training methods. Typically, I would just stretch after spin bike sessions and this would subside. But if instead of limber and flexible my key movers were feeling tight while walking afterward, that intuitively tells me that range of motion isn’t helping my running. I have to keep in mind my primary goal.

Also, more importantly, the spin bike in general can exacerbate upper and lower crossed posture problems, encouraging tightly held, slumped shoulders, bent-in under-stretched hip flexors, and a rounded back from all that sitting on the bike. Most trainers working with clients who have upper crossed syndrome will make a point to emphasize those clients should not do cycling while working on their issue. It emphasizes the very (lack of) range of motion they need to change.

When you spend all day sitting in an office and have to therapeutically address those posture issues in training, the last thing you probably need is extra quality time sitting while exercising.

So, sadly, I decided a little bit ago to stop using the spin bike in training. There’s other methods that can better emphasize use of my running muscles while also better promoting the posture and range of motion I need to maintain to succeed.

For now, the spin bike and I can just be friends.

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Rapid-Fire Sets: A Strength Training Workout For Endurance and Strength

The Rapid Fire Set workout can be done on a Smith Machine rack or on strength machines at the gym

The following strength training workout is an excellent way to test your strength while still developing your muscular endurance.

It requires that you can quickly adjust the weight: Gym machines, a Smith rack, or at home with quickly adjustable dumbbells. I wouldn’t recommend doing this workout with conventional barbells or dumbbells unless you have the entire training area to yourself, such as at a home gym. Definitely don’t do this with barbells and dumbbells at a regular gym.

You basically do a lot of light, gradually increasing reps for each exercise in rapid-fire sets of just 4 reps per set. Eventually, you hit a max weight, then take the weight down and repeat the rapid-fire cycle one more time.

This can build muscular endurance while still building muscular strength, and gets your heart rate going enough to generate better mitochondrial development than your typical strength endurance weight training.

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A Quick Cross Training Workout For The Spin Bike

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

The following cross training will really challenge your quads, hamstrings and glutes. Definitely don’t do this cross training workout if you’re sore and recovering from some other hard lower-body workout.

I would save a workout like this for base training, if you’re coming off an easy workout, or you’re not actively training for a goal race in general.

The Workout: Start the spin bike at the lowest intensity, level 1.

Every time the minute counter turns over (e.g. at 1:00, 5:00, etc), adjust the level to match the number in the minute column. So at 2:00 you’ll set the level to 2, and you’ll increase the level by 1 every minute thereafter.

If the lowest spin bike levels feel too light and easy for you (for example you normally do easy spin bike sessions at level 4), you don’t have to start at or go down to level 1. If you generally bike easy at level 4, then for any level 4 and below you can just go at level 4. In this example, you do the first 4:59 at level 4, then at 5:00 you switch to level 5.

Once you get to a level that’s too tough, take it back down to a low, comfortable level. Then once the timer reaches 10:00, repeat the process by adding the digits in the minute column to determine the level, e.g. 11 –> 1 + 1 = Level 2… or in the level 4 example above, that person can just stay at level 4 for now.

If you can get to level 10 or higher without needing to slow down, great! You don’t have to add the digits at 11:00 or higher just yet. Just keep climbing levels until you need a break, then add the digits of the next minute to see how far down you can take the spin bike’s level. For example, say you get tired after 16:00 at level 16. Then at 17:00 you take it down to level 8 (17 –> 1 + 7 = Level 8).

If you’re a super strong cyclist and plan to go longer than 25 minutes, you may be able to reach the bike’s maximum level 25 (most spin bikes only have 25 intensity levels). If you get to 26:00 in this case, just take the spin bike back down to level 8 (26 –> 2 + 6 = Level 8… you must be super strong if that’s too easy for you; if so you can set the level higher to whatever level you prefer to cruise at). Then from there build the levels back up each minute. Do note that this workout method after you max out the bike won’t get you higher again than level 14 once you do so, so if maxing out is your goal and you can max out the bike then you may want to stick to 30 minutes or less.

Regardless of your abilities, you can repeat this level-up process until your spin bike workout is finished, whether it takes 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 3 hours, etc.

You could also do this workout on an elliptical, rowing machine, or ARC Trainer. But it can be very demanding to do more than recovery-level training on these devices. To do a workout like this on a machine like those may defeat the purpose of cross training unless you’re in an offseason, or are a triathlete or similar and this sort of demanding training is in line with your key workout needs.

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A Home Endurance Workout Series Using 5-lb Dumbbells

My 5 pound dumbbells

With Nevada’s “Pause” lockdown reducing gym capacity to 25%, going to the gym to strength train or otherwise exercise could become largely impractical. I don’t foresee the restriction being lifted anytime soon. Plus, with New Year’s having arrived, what little capacity is available is likely getting swallowed up by many poorly-planned New Year’s resolutions.

Until a couple weeks ago, I hadn’t lifted weights at all, since I hadn’t been to the gym at all. I’ve had personal dumbbell weight sets at varying points in my life, but the last few years certainly hasn’t been one of them. My only free weights are a pair of 5 pound dumbbells that I once used in a clown theatre piece years ago. I long since figured I’m probably not getting swole off such light weight.

Or so I thought.

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Reverse Engineering a 1RM Formula to find your training weight

In personal training you can use max-effort reps on an exercise with any weight to estimate a trainee’s one rep maximum (1RM, the most weight you could possibly lift one single time at full strength) for an exercise without the risk of having them actually go and try to lift the maximum weight they possibly can.

A CPT has a trainee lift as much weight as they can for 4-6 reps, working up until they reach a failure point, then use that max weight and the number of reps performed in a mathematic formula that can estimate a 1RM, which you then use to program workouts for that exercise.

This is similar to runners using conversion charts to figure out from a previous 5K or 10K time how fast you could run a mile, or how fast you could run a marathon, without you actually going out and try to do either. Weightlifting and endurance running of course come with different goals, but both use formulas and estimates to determine how to train.

There are a lot of 1RM formulas, and each certifying organization seems to recommend a different one. NFPT for example uses the Brzycki Formula. Meanwhile, NASM just gives you a chart, and that may have been calculated from just about anywhere.

To digress a moment, I personally use the Epley Formula. For what I’m about to describe, I have found it from experience more accurate for training purposes, as well as accurately gauging my actual one rep max. Various studies also indicate that it’s among the most accurate of the formulas.

I tell you all this because I actually used the weights I used during swolework not just to determine my 1RM for those weights, but also reverse engineered the formula to get a more specific answer for weight to use in exercises.

For example, at one point I was doing four 6 rep sets of lat pulldowns at 85 lbs, for me pretty heavy. I was giving close to max effort on these 6 reps each set, and I wanted to focus more on endurance with more reps, 12 reps to be exact. But I didn’t want to take the weight so far down that my strength wasn’t being challenged.

So first, I would use the Epley formula to estimate my 1RM, presuming that 85 lbs was the most weight I could lift in one 6 rep sitting.

Weight: w = 85
Reps: r = 6

1RM = w(1 + (r/30))
1 + (6/30) = 1.2

1RM = w * 1.2
1RM = 85 * 1.2 = 102 lbs

I can use this formula backwards by applying some algebra, understanding that any equation divided by itself equals 1.

If I divide both sides by (1 + (r/30)), I can isolate the weight w to one side, and basically create a reverse engineered formula where I can use my known 1RM and a selected number of repetitions to determine how much weight I need to use for that number of repetitions to get the maximum benefit from the workout.

1RM / (1 + (r/30)) = w

So, knowing I want to do 12 reps (r = 12), and knowing my 1RM = 102, I can determine the amount of lifting weight to use:

102 / (1 + (12/30)) = w

(12/30) = 0.40

102 / 1.40 = w

w = 72.9

I can’t get a lat pulldown machine to give me exactly 72.9 pounds of resistance (unless maybe I have one of those expensive Tonal machines), but I can get a multiple of 5, so I round down to 70 lbs. Sure, I could try rounding up to 75 lbs and see how that goes. But it’s probably safer to round down and get through a whole workout with relative ease before deciding to add that 5 lbs.

So then I do my 12 rep sets of lat pulldowns at 70 lbs weight, exercise from there, and get the max value out of that 4 sets. And in my experience, this weight ended up giving me exactly the right challenge for that portion of the workout.

Note: Sure, that’s in line with NASM’s 50-70% max recommendation for stabilization and endurance. But rather than using their wide range (51-72 lbs) and just randomly picking a weight within that, I get a firm answer that’s in line with the specific number of reps (12) I’m using. Let’s say I do 15 reps instead, r = 15.

102 / (1 + (15/30)) = w

(15/30) = 0.50

102 / 1.50 = w

w = 68

At 15 reps, it would be more appropriate for me to use 65 lbs. If I were to use the same weight, it might be too much, unless I rounded up to the nearest 5 lb increment from 68 for, say, the last 1-2 sets, e.g. I did the first 3 sets at 65 lbs, and the last set at 70 lbs, or maybe the first 2 sets at 70 lbs and then the last 2 sets at 65 lbs, etc.

In fact, a logical progression for me from sets of 12 endurance-themed reps at 70 lbs, instead of increasing the weight, would be to increase the number of reps to 15 at the same weight, and see if I can handle that. If I can, it might work out to bring the number of reps back to 12 while increasing the weight to 75 lbs.

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Two Common Strength Training Mistakes

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

I spend a lot of time in the gym with a lot of people who work out. Social media shows me countless others who also work out, train others, etc. I don’t have a Kinesiology degree but I know what I’m talking about. I preface with this because some of you are not going to like what I’m going to say next.

The two most common mistakes I see people make with strength training are:

  1. People train like a powerlifter, with powerlifter goals, even though that’s not or should not be their goal.
  2. People train continuously without taking any proactive, conscious training breaks.

Why are these problems?

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