By Jesse McMeekin, CSCS
Let’s put positivity aside for a moment and acknowledge that this sucks. Most of us are stuck at home without a barbell, without a squat rack, trying to figure out if we can do bicep curls with the dog. It’s even worse if you were making progress; overnight the promise of a new PR simply vanished. Your gym doors are locked, and for once the squat rack is open!
That’s the bad news, and there’s really not much we can do about it. What we can do is refocus our efforts.
I see two primary training goals dominating the landscape, at least for the foreseeable future. Put simply, they are:
Maintaining muscle mass isn’t as hard as it may seem. If you can maintain an appropriate protein and calorie intake while still subjecting major muscle groups to a training stimulus, any muscle loss that occurs will be fairly minimal. With relative training intensity inevitably taking a hit, it’s probably a good bet to increase frequency and volume; if you’ve never tried a full-body training split, now might be the time.
Keeping the muscle you’ve already got is one thing; building new muscle is another. And while now may not be the best time to pack on the size, we can ensure that our training is preparing us to get the most out of a return to “training normalcy”. How? By focusing on some of the underlying qualities that allow for effective training and recovery.
At some point you’ll be back in the gym, and my goal is to get you ready to chase those gains like Liam Neeson chases Albanian sex traffickers. To that end, we have all been presented with a unique opportunity to develop some specific, often-ignored qualities right now. Each one of these qualities is fundamentally important for good, hard training; they’re the bedrock that new muscle is built on. Put some effort into these foundational elements now and reap the rewards later.
Movement options exist on a spectrum, with mastery and variability sitting at opposite ends. Moving towards one inherently moves you away from the other. Like it or not, being really good at something means you’re probably not as good at something else.
This dichotomy isn’t limited to human performance—picture that pocket knife with the mediocre, well, everything and you get the idea—and there isn’t necessarily a perfect balance. Rather, once you understand the trade-offs involved, it’s up to you to determine how much you favor mastery over variability. If you’re chasing size, strength, and power the way I think you are, chances are you’re shaded pretty heavily toward the mastery side of things.
Lifters have a tendency to become hyper-sagittalized (picture that dude whose walk is more of a waddle and you get the picture) as a direct result of their efforts. Why? The best mass-building movements tend to be big, basic, and bilateral; by limiting how complex or unstable the movement is you can focus on moving more weight for more reps. That’s a great recipe for hypertrophy, but it can have long-term consequences.
Assuming you’re interested in longevity, it’s in your best interest to spend some time maintaining a reasonable degree of variability. We’re not looking for mastery, we’re looking for competency. Variability can encompass force vectors, planes of motion, velocities, energy systems… you get the idea.
*The takeaway: maybe putting the barbell away for a little while is a good thing. Rather than simply mimicking barbell movements with whatever’s at hand, it might be worth exploring some less structured movements. So what does variability look like in the context of raining? Picture the difference between a bench press and a Turkish get up. The simple fact that it’s hard to classify the latter is a good sign that it may reintroduce some much-needed variability.
I’ve long viewed unilateral training as preventative maintenance for my big, bilateral lifts. The asymmetrical position and resulting forces not only help train balanced strength, they can also help develop the stability and control needed under heavier loads.
While bilateral lifts are certainly more stable—the typical combination of an increased base of support and more central load distribution guarantees that—a more stable lifter is still a stronger lifter. And if you can move more weight, you can build more muscle.
A clear illustration of how unilateral exercises can support their bilateral big brothers can be seen with a Bulgarian (or rear foot elevated) split squat and whichever version of a barbell squat you prefer.
During the Bulgarian split squat the lifter’s weight is primarily on their front foot. As they move through the exercise a lot of work goes into stabilizing the trunk, the pelvis, and the femur (abs and ab/adductors for the win). The demands of a barbell squat are essentially the same, just reduced; the same joints and body segments all need to be controlled. And while this may be an obvious/familiar example, the same principles apply to unilateral pushing, pulling, and hinging variations.
*The takeaway: a heavy dose of unilateral patterns can help make the most of whatever weight you do have available, and the increased stability you develop as a result will help keep you moving heavier weights better and more safely in the near future.
If I never see another meme about bros avoiding cardio it’ll be too soon. Far from stealing your gains, a well-developed aerobic energy system—along with all the supporting architecture it requires (in the form of capillaries, mitochondria, enzymes and the like)—underpins every single element of recovery, regardless of the kind of workout you’re recovering from.
Recovery—both inter and intra-workout—is in turn responsible for gains; you don’t build muscle in the gym, you build it away from the gym. If you can’t recover, you can’t grow. So tell me again how cardio automatically limits your gains?
To be fair, I’m not arguing in favor of making aerobic work your primary training focus, but I am arguing in favor of a minimal effective dose. Do enough aerobic energy system work to not suck at it—pick the low-hanging fruit. As with movement variability—this is really just a more specific example of the same concept—we’re after competency rather than mastery. What does that look like? I tend to use following measurements as good indicators of a well-developed aerobic system:
A Resting Heart Rate of 60bpm or lower
A Heart Rate Recovery (how many bpm heart rate drops in the first minute following exercise) of 30–40bpm
If you’re there, great—do enough to maintain, but no more. And if your conditioning could use a little work—there’s no time like the present.
*The takeaway: The aerobic energy system may not fuel your strength training, but it fuels your recovery from strength training, and that means it fuels your gains. Don’t aim to be a cardio monster, but don’t neglect aerobic development either.
Regardless of what you’re training with—barbells or book bags—skeletal position is a crucial determinant of outcome. Position determines function. It’s a simple idea, but understanding its implications enough to leverage them in your training may be a watershed moment of understanding. And while we’re all stuck working at limited intensities, it’s a perfect opportunity to learn to make use of position.
A full list of muscle actions impacted by skeletal position would be overwhelming—that’s a four-part article on its own—but the following examples may help clarify the concept. In both cases, muscle action and/or the muscles contributing to movement are clearly influenced by the position of the skeleton.
–Plantar Flexion with bent knee vs. straight knee. Every bodybuilder worth his posing suit knows that you need to train your calves in both positions. Why? When the knee is bent the gastrocnemius is shortened (it crosses both the knee and the ankle joint), limiting its effective contractile range and putting the bulk of the stress onto the soleus.
–The hamstrings are another example of a biarticulate (acting upon two joints) muscle. The semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and the long head of the biceps femoris all cross both the hip and the knee. That means that the position of one joint influences how these muscles act on the other joint. For a simple illustration picture a conventional deadlift vs. a stiff-legged variation.
–When the diaphragm contracts it creates a vacuum in the upper thoracic cavity, effectively expanding the lungs and pulling air into the body. It’s ability to do this relies on good alignment of the ribs and pelvis. Ironically, when the lumbar spine is in extension, the diaphragm’s ability to act as a breathing muscle is limited/lost, and contraction of the muscle now results in thoracic/lumbar extension! (This is a tricky concept, but once you see it the physiological irony of this dual function becomes almost unbearable).
Clearly this concept can become a bit of a rabbit hole (and I’d whole-heartedly endorse any efforts to chase it down), but even a simplified application can pay enormous dividends in terms of strength, size, and performance.
The skeleton is typically divided into axial and appendicular divisions, and the position of the axial skeleton (the skull, spine, ribs, and pelvis) does a whole lot more to influence the appendicular skeleton than vice versa. By learning to arrange and control your axial skeleton appropriately you’ll literally put yourself in position to succeed, whether you’re defining success by strength, mobility, or anything in between.
The core musculature gets a lot of well-deserved attention, and its role in controlling the axial skeleton can’t be overlooked; the muscles literally tie the ribs and pelvis together, controlling their movement in all three planes of motion. Having said that, if we extend our view of the core down a little bit we see a whole new group of muscles that attach to the pelvis and can have a strong influence on axial position. Chief among these are the hamstrings and ab/adductors of the hip.
While there’s a tendency to understand muscle action in a simplistic way—the hamstrings extend the hip and/or flex the knee—the reality is more complex, and includes the ability to influence the proximal attachment as well as the distal. In the case of the aforementioned muscles this means that, in addition to moving the femur, these muscles can all move the pelvis as well. What’s more, these are some of the strongest muscles in the body; bringing them on board can alleviate the workload on the core musculature and help ensure better control of skeletal position. Here’s a quick cheat sheet for some of the more important upper/lower core complementary pairings:
*The takeaway: when in doubt, get your axial skeleton in order. Stacking your skull, ribs, and pelvis ensures that most of the big movers are in a good position to do their thing. Learn what that feels like in different movements and positions and you’ll be surprised by how much more you get out of a given exercise. Of particular importance are the hamstrings as a complement to the abs—together they can create rock-solid control of the sagittal plane.
The frustrating reality is that no matter how much I scroll through the Rogue website—and I spend an unhealthy amount of time doing just that—my training options are still limited. What makes that even harder to swallow is that none of us know how much longer this will last. But rather than choosing between blind optimism and cold cynicism, I’m choosing to think about how I can get myself ready for what really amounts to an increase in training intensity.
My way of looking at things means that focusing on the skills and systems that drive hypertrophy takes priority over anything that might look cool on my Instagram feed. Developing an aerobic base or making the most of unilateral loading may not be very sexy, but all that muscle you’ll be packing on most definitely is. Be smart, be safe, and stay the course.
About the Author
Jesse McMeekin, CSCS is the owner of Adapt Performance (http://www.adapt-performance.
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