Tag Archives: strength 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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So, about those overhead squats

As advertised, the overhead squat is pretty tough.

At the gym, I started swolework with the overhead on the Smith rack, and started with a set of 3 reps at just the 25 lb bar. I progressed up to 45 lbs and after 3 tough reps realized that was about as high as I could expect to go yesterday. I unracked and moved on.

Dan John, like many strength coaches, sets a benchmark that you should be able to do the exercise with your bodyweight in pounds. I am clearly a far cry from my bodyweight, though granted I don’t bench or deadlift by bodyweight either (I did leg press it earlier this week though!). I’m strength training more seriously now, and we’ll see how much time it takes for me to progress and get within range of all that.

Since I follow a 5 day sequence of strength workouts (with days off interspersed every few days), one idea is to do the whole sequence, then for a 6th workout do the benchmark lifts as a test: Bench Press, Deadlift, Squat, and each time through the sequence see where I’m at. I would end up doing the test roughly every 8-10 days.

More to come. I’ll take it slow for now, and weave the overhead squats in with the workouts.

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Adding the Overhead Squat

Training right now feels great. Yesterday was a rest day, and all I did was walk on work breaks and go 45 minutes on the spin bike.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Dan John, a long tenured strength and track and field throwing coach who has authored a few very insightful books on training. The best known of the bunch is Easy Strength with Pavel Tsatsouline, thouugh I’ve recently read Attempts, A Contrarian Approach to the Discus, and am currently reading through Can You Go?

There’s a lot of information and I obviously won’t go into all of it. In Contrarian, however, he references a lift that he found instrumental in developing athletes: The overhead squat.

It’s a typical Crossfit exercise, and simple in scope. You hold the barbell overhead. You squat, making sure your weight drops between your squatting legs, and then come back up with the bar still straight overhead.

John sums up the benefits as such:

  • You can’t fake or cheat the strength and mechanics required to do it.
  • It demands balanced strength, not just to balance the bar itself overhead, but all of yourself has to be strong and developed. This develops it
  • You develop strong, flexible legs, not yoga flexible/strong, but the ability to quickly, powerfully transfer more than bodyweight, e.g. a jumper, a thrower, a football or basketball player, a sprinter.

I like my five day strength circuit and I plan to stick with it for the next while. But I also have some redundant exercises in there, and swapping in a sub-max version of the overhead squat would be a decent addition. I’d start with light weight and gradually build up to see my current capacity.

Last week I briefly tested the overhead squat mechanics with the Smith rack at the gym and found that it would work just fine (I was lucky; if I were a couple inches taller or my arms were a bit longer, it might not have!).

John also mentioned the Power Curl, which is just a leveraged bicep curl using a full bar. I might mix that in, though it turned out the redundant exercises I mentioned were bicep exercises, and I may have enough for now. Adding in the overhead squat is probably enough for now.

More to come as I see how it works.

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Checking In 10/22/2021

This week I’ve strength trained almost every day, spreading the exercises I’d have split over two workouts across five, along with leg and ab exercises I’d have previously done occasionally or weekly.

Some of these exercises are modified Rapid Fire Sets. I start at the lightest weight possible, do 8 reps and then after a 15-30 second rest move the weight up one step until it’s too tough to finish a set (aka to failure). Then I do 12 reps at half the failure weight, and move on.

Some of these exercises are standard 4 set blocks, the first and last set 12 reps at a light weight, and the 2nd and 3rd sets at twice that weight.

If the exercise is done on a machine where the weight can be quickly adjusted, I do Rapid Fire Sets. If I have to do the exercise any other way, I do a standard 4 set block.

I plan on three exercises. If I finish them all before 20 minutes are up, I pivot to light weight sets of 12 reps of seated cable rows, an exercise I do need to focus on. I do up to 4 sets, until I reach 20 minutes. (If for some reason every single cable row machine in the gym is being used, I have other needed exercises for which I can do easy sets instead. But I have yet to encounter this since starting this plan.)

I threw together a 5 day plan before I started, but (while I’m still finishing that 5 day plan) I have since adjusted the 5 day plan to better spread out the exercises, and will follow that plan once I cycle back to day 1.

It’s not such a big deal that the current v1 plan is not as organized, as the primary goal was to start this almost-daily training and see how my body responded. In fact, it’s better to have multiple muscle-group exercises clumped together in one workout or on back to back days and see what my body tolerates. Then, once I start v2 and those exercises are more spread out, I know my body can bounce back from that, or can push harder on key days since there’s more recovery time and less to do per day.

The smart strength trainers can agree that the details of the plan you follow is not as important as you actually following a plan that allows you to consistently train. That said, I have certain development goals in mind, and these exercises all fit what I can do and things I need to work on.

As I iron out the plan, I’ll eventually show the layout and why I do what when I do it. But so far, so good.

In addition to this, I’ve been riding the elliptical for 30-45 minutes after workouts, maintaining aerobic fitness while my leg issues heal up. While my right hamstring has a bit of lingering soreness, overall I feel strong in my lower body. I’m giving myself all week to not worry about running, though I may take a work break run today and ride the spin bike tonight to see how it feels today and tomorrow.

I have a couple of casual 5K races coming up this next month, which will help me see where I’m at. At least after all the issues this year I am sure I’ll finish these, and can maybe even race one or two of them.

More to come.

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The Next Day Of The Rest Of Your Life

Since withdrawing from Indy, I’m now focused on more frequent strength training, which I plan to do almost daily (though today is a rest day).

I’ve spread out all my strength exercises over a repeatable 5 day sequence, to do more sets of each exercise while only focusing on 2-3 per 20 minute workout.

I’m back to doing Rapid Fire Sets for key machine exercises, spending about 6-10 minutes on key machine exercises while doing a basic 4 set progression for any dumbbell and bodyweight exercises. If this progresses well, I’ll do a future writeup on how it all works together.

Even though my hamstrings ache a bit when I do it, I’m riding the recumbent spin bike easy as well, focusing more on circulation and general aerobic fitness than trying to build or maintain anything. I’m doing this no more than every other day, just in case it’s possibly aggravating anything rather than just an idle ache.

I don’t feel any hamstring pain most of the time. The only time I feel any sort of ache, aside from when I use the spin bike, is when I’m sitting for long periods. That might be why it aches on the recumbent spin? I’d like to think so, but still I’ll be cautious.

If I feel better in the next week, I’ll test out a short run this weekend. If that goes fine, I’ll gradually ramp back up to regular running, probably focusing on easy intervals with longer runs or races on weekends as the opportunity arises. But I’ll probably restrict myself to running every other day for a good while afterward, just in case running back to back workouts was causing the issue.

Obviously I’m not work break running anymore for now. I’m sticking to walking on these breaks for the next while, which feels comfortable for now.

Mentally, I’m good. What happened was slowly unfolding over weeks, so it wasn’t exactly a huge surprise it came to that. Admittedly, I wasn’t even particularly excited about or looking forward to Indy like I had with past marathons. I could see I wasn’t ready, that training wasn’t progressing the way I wanted, and I didn’t feel confident. So moving on felt better than it would have otherwise.

The goal with everything right now is to get stronger overall while healing up. Hopefully in a couple months I’m feeling great. I’ll continue working on this until then.

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Should you strength train before or after a run?

Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything besides daily check-ins. I’ve finally found a topic I want to separately discuss.

I’ve talked about this before, when you as a runner want to strength train with your endurance workouts, and whether to do it before or after the run.

First of all, I offer the caveat that serious endurance training will always compromise growth and development in any strength training you also do. Your body physiologically does not compartmentalize its recovery and adaptation to multiple simultaneous forms of exercise. Your finite hormonal and nutritional resources will spread recovery efforts across everything in your body that needs repair.

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Building A Better Self: July 2021 Edition

I not only finished Friday with 34 miles this week, with this weekend and a long run workout still to come (after 36 miles last week), but I did so despite insomnia on Thursday night and my air conditioner problem messing with my sleep earlier this week.

While obviously tired, I didn’t feel burned out, and I had the energy in me to pump out 30-45 minute training workouts on the treadmill after work, AND run 1K-2K on all my work breaks (except only for Thursday afternoon, which I walked). I played everything by ear and was willing to bail on any of the above if I simply didn’t feel well enough to do it.

But I did all of the above. No stimulants (outside of the same 12 oz of coffee I have had every morning for years and years), no crutches, no supplements I hadn’t already been taking for a while. Even now, other than understandable general fatigue (and yes I got decent sleep last night), I feel okay.

How am I doing this? I haven’t taken a complete day off from training since June 23 (10 days ago)

There’s a few new things I’m consistently doing. Some regular readers already know about, but some things not as much:

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