Tag Archives: swolework

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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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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Checking In 8/19/2021

I woke up fairly tired this morning, and Garmin verifies that despite a decent night’s sleep my body battery was fairly low, starting in the 30’s. The latter happens sometimes when I don’t get good sleep, but I did sleep a bit over 7 hours last night, which for me is a bit above average.

I will note yesterday was very busy and I did not get home until after 8pm, when usually I’m turning in for bed. Plus my body woke up early, around 2:30am, yesterday morning. I also trained a full hour on the elliptical after work, following a strength workout. And I did go on a 30/30 short test run during a work break.

So yes, I had a rather busy day, and it’s possible my body’s just taking a busy day following short rest somewhat hard. Sometimes my mornings after a long run feel like this too (albeit with way more soreness).

Depending on how I feel this afternoon, I could curtail today’s planned training and even skip it entirely, but we’ll see. My hamstring felt a bit stiff and sore but my groin doesn’t appear to feel too bad.

Yesterday’s session felt rather good, though I had basically taken three days off so of course I felt a bit fresh. I did get most of my elliptical time into zone 2, which is the sort of intensity I’m looking for in these aerobic sessions. I’m starting to move more weight in my lat pulldowns, though I also have to hold back a bit on my seated rows when I do move heavier weight. However, none of my other lifts have dropped back in weight or volume.

For swolework I’m still doing 4 sets of every exercise, while employing a 4-set-split derived from Jeff Horowitz’s Smart Marathon Training: The first and last sets are 12 reps at a lighter weight, while the middle sets are 8 reps at a heavier weight. What “heavier” and “lighter” means exactly is up to me and is decided by feel and where I think I’m at. I’ve seen good progress with strength training this way and will stick with it for now.

On a meso-level, I play the decision to strength train by ear, and while I’ll look to strength train however often I can during the week (while alternating between muscle groups, of course)… if on a given day I’m unduly sore or tired I will skip strength training. There are weeks I maybe strength train once or twice, and weeks where I manage to do so 3-5 times. My main focus (aside obviously from healing the hamstring/groin right now) is on continued aerobic development, and I build the other training around that priority.

So right now the plan is to train however much I can today and tomorrow, then take Saturday off and train long Sunday. The only planned day off from training next week is Wednesday.

If today my lower body is up to a work break run or two, I’ll also do those, or else walk. Sunlight and fresh air remains important with Coronvirus going around.

I brought more fruit with me to work today and I will probably be slamming apples and bananas along with my other food, plus some melon today if I get to the store before heading home.

This weekend should be more relaxed, thanks to lower temps and not traveling. More to come.

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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 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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