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5 Steps to Get Strong AF Without Feeling Like a Dumpster Fire

Feb 27, 2020
Good training is about understanding when to push the gas and when to apply the brakes. Learn how to program effectively so that you can mash weights, stay pain free, and be on your way to becoming a true "apex athlete".

From Rusty Old Refrigerator to Lifetime PR's

I was randomly looking back through some old training logs the other day and stumbled upon one week, in particular, that stood out.

It was my final testing week before starting grad school, and I can still remember it like it was yesterday.

I back squatted 485, deadlifted 585, benched 335 and front squatted 405.

While these were all PRs for me, the biggest win was that I did it while feeling better than I’d ever felt before.

Throughout my early 20’s I felt like an old rusty refrigerator more or less 24 hours a day.  I was getting stronger, but at the expense of being in pain and frankly not feeling good.

So, how did I make the switch?

How did I stop trading strength for pain?

I’ve written this post to take you behind the scenes and give you a proven 5 step process that will get you stronger than ever before, while also feeling better than ever before.  No more having to trade strength for feeling like an old rusty refrigerator.

First, I’ll walk you through the process step by step from a 10,000-foot view, and then myself and Matt Domney (Director of Meat here at Rebel Performance) will zoom in and analyze two specific case studies so you can see how we helped two athletes hit 50+ lbs PR’s while getting rid of knee, hip and back pain.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a complete roadmap to getting strong AF without feeling like a broken down 1968 station wagon.

Get This Post + Our 12 Favorite Accessory Exercises

We’re going to cover a lot of ground in this post, so we’ve put together a free package of resources that will help you implement everything you are about to learn. Be sure to grab it before you leave!



The 5 Step Process That Transformed My Training

Let’s Get Started

Alrighty, let’s dive in and take a look at each step:

Step 1: I picked “smarter” exercises.  

No more being married to this or that just because it’s how we’ve done things in the past.  For example, early 20’s James lifted exclusively with a straight bar and did nothing but bilateral, extended, ribs in your face accessory work.  Mid 20’s James, on the other hand, used more specialty bars, wasn’t afraid of a heel wedge, and did tons of slow, low load, unilateral accessory work.  

Step 2:  I cut all the garbage, junk volume and focused on working at the minimum effective dose.  

This means doing just enough work to drive the adaptation I wanted and no more. To do this, I almost always utilized question mark sets or reps at a set percentage with a strict rest time.  For example, I’d hit SSB squats for 5 reps at 63% with a 3-4 eccentric and strict rest time of 60-90 seconds. In this particular example, I’d also cap my sets at 10 and make that a “max” rep set if I reached it.

Step 3:  I started breaking up my training days into output vs. sensorimotor blocks.

Output for me was always my main lift for the day.  It was some form of a squat, deadlift or press and it was GO TIME.  No puttering around thinking about finding and feeling every little muscle and position.  It was blast music, belt up, and go HAM.

My sensorimotor work was very different and occupied my accessory block.  This is where things like a front foot elevated zercher loaded split squat lived.  Or a half-kneeling 1 arm landmine press. Things that are all about low load, going slow and feeling exactly what you want to feel.  

Step 4:  I made the distinction between closed-door and open-door sessions.

The best way I can describe this is with music.  

I lift in my garage, so open-door sessions are when I’m listening to country music and functioning as a normal human being.  Closed-door sessions are when I’m listening to Meek Mill and acting like a psychopath.  

The number of open-door sessions should far exceed the number of closed-door sessions.  You need to reserve that nuclear energy for special occasions and not go there too often.

Think of it like a dimmer switch.  Most of your training should operate at a 7 or 8, and then you crank it up to 10 whenever a peak week, AMRAP or test shows up.

Step 5:  I actually started doing my LIS and LITT sessions

Low-intensity longer duration cardio, while boring, pays big dividends.  For a long time, people spewed nonsense about how doing cardio will wreck any and all strength gains.  This is blatantly wrong unless you program it like a dumb ass.

When executed correctly, it helps drive recovery, buys you low-level aerobic adaptation, increases your work capacity, and gives you a better off switch.  

We will be back in April to talk in far greater detail about building an aerobic engine, but needless to say, it’s important.

Now, let’s break down two real-world examples of how we did this for two of our athletes:


Chronic Back and Knee Pain to an All-Time Bests?

Case Study 1:  Keiran

Meet Keiran.  He is a stud.

Former collegiate basketball player, a lifelong athlete, educated meathead and coach himself, Keiran seeks to be a complete strength athlete.

He wants to be strong, jacked and powerful with a big engine and great movement.

He wants to challenge himself and push the boundaries of what he is capable of.

When he first came to us, however, he found himself trading strength for pain.

While he was making some progress in his training, he wanted more.  He wanted to be able to train hard, heavy and fast without the knee pain and back pain.  Both of which acted as a hand brake on his performance prohibiting him from unleashing his true potential.

Here’s what happened after 6 months (and no, that squat graph is not a typo...he couldn’t squat because of knee pain when we first started):

And in case you are curious about things like power and endurance, here are some of those numbers as well:

In addition, he was playing basketball again at a level he hadn’t since college.

So, how did we make this happen?

Let’s break it down

Step 1:  We Picked “Smarter” Exercises

We moved him away from “classic good accessory exercises” like face pulls and barbell RDL’s, both movements that were exacerbating his inability to control position, and put an emphasis on more sensorimotor dominant work.  

That means using restraints (like the floor), unilateral low load exercises, and going at very slow tempos to force him to own position and feel every single muscle we want.

Here’s an example of his accessory work on day 1 month 1

Notice how each of these exercises places a premium on “stacking” the ribs and pelvis (the position we need to drive if we ever want his arms and legs to work well) and then challenges his ability to maintain that position throughout the movement.

That is more or less the goal of the sensorimotor dominant accessory work.

Once he demonstrated the ability to appropriately find, feel and control movement, then we started bringing back things like barbell RDL’s and bilateral pulling.

In addition, we were smart with how we programmed his main lift each day.  He used a SSB squat with a significant heel wedge and benched with his feet elevated in a hook lying position.  

The goal wasn’t to stay here forever (and we didn’t) but we needed to put him into a position to be successful while moving higher loads. 

Step 2:  We cut all the garbage, junk volume and focused on working at the minimum effective dose.

This point reared its ugly head in two ways:

First, he found himself participating in what I like to term the accessory olympics.

He was doing WAY TOO MUCH on a day to day basis, and we needed to reel it back.  As opposed to doing upwards of 8 exercises in a session, notice how we dropped his accessory work to 4 very “simple” movements that have a sniper-like purpose to them.

Second, he wasn’t giving himself the opportunity to WIN with his big lifts each day.

In other words, there was no way for him to work to what he was capable of on any given day.

So, we brought in a sets in reserve protocol to make sure he worked to his potential each day.

Here’s an example from his Month 2 Day 1 lift:

I love these types of protocols for athletes that have a decent training age because they will do a far better job of autoregulating than me blindly guessing what the “perfect” set and rep scheme is on a given day.

Now he can work to his potential each day.

If he’s having a down day, sets are lower.  If he’s having a great day, sets are higher.

Step 3:  We started breaking up his training days into output vs. sensorimotor blocks.

You’ve already witnessed this in Step 1 and Step 2, but we didn’t draw attention to it.

Notice how his main lift is set up as an output section.  It’s where he must FIGHT and WORK for that adaptation. And that’s why he has “?” sets, and later in the program saw “?” reps.

We wanted to make sure he put out on his main lift and went HAM.

This section was not about finding and feeling every little muscle.  It was about OUTPUT. When performed correctly, it didn’t leave room for accessory olympics because he was already toasted.

His accessory work, on the other hand, was the exact opposite.


Step 4:  We helped Keiran make the distinction between closed-door and open-door sessions.

Having control of your gas pedal is a big deal.

Too many athletes snort pre-workout before every session and end up with their gas pedal all the way down too frequently.

You have to appreciate sessions or even blocks within a training day that should feel like a 7, while others should feel like a 9-10.

While in The Silverback Training Project, we helped Keiran dial this in with weekly competitions.  He quickly learned the difference between normal day to day training and “animal-mode” competition type training.

Which then allowed him to optimally drive adaptation and recovery on a day to day and week to week basis.

Step 5:  He actually started doing his LIS and LITT sessions

While not the sexiest of training sessions, they make a huge difference.

As opposed to spreading out his stressors and lifting 5-6 days/week with next to no conditioning, we implemented a 3-3 high low split model to better consolidate stressors for Keiran and give him the ability to work hard, recover and then work hard again.

The LIS and LITT sessions played a prominent role in this scheme as can be seen below (they are on Tuesday and Thursday):

This is how he managed to drop his resting heart rate and improve on all of his conditioning tests while still seeing big strength and power gains.

While I’m sure you have questions here, we will be back in April to take a real deep dive into building an aerobic engine.


Where Less Equals More: How to Add 170lb to Your 3 Lift Total in Just 12 Weeks

Case Study 2:  Zito

I’d like to introduce you to my dude Zito. Zito is an absolute unit, a total savage human. When he came to us, calling him a “broken refrigerator” was considered the understatement of the year. 

He’s played soccer for most of his life, and his body has paid the price. He’s got 2 busted up knees, a repaired ACL in the left and a right ACL tear that he never fixed (told you he’s a savage).

When he came to us, he had a 450lb deadlift, 315 squat and 205 bench. But, he wasn’t satisfied with those numbers. He wanted more.

He wanted to be strong.

He wanted to feel athletic.

He wanted to take his body back and live the savage life he wants.

We had our work cut out for us. 

At the end of his first 12 weeks as part of AMRAP, his numbers skyrocketed. Deadlift went to 505 (55lb increase), Squat went to 400 (75lb increase), and bench jumped to 245 (40lb increase). 

And the craziest part, he started playing soccer again about 6 weeks in and his knees felt better than they had in years. In his words, “Crazy stuff. The craziest part though, soccer games came and went and my knees felt great! Not ok, GREAT!”.

How did we do this?

Step 1: We had to pick “smarter” exercises

We had to add a ton of constraints to make most of his work as light as possible because recoverability was priority #1 for us. We used things like wall references, tempos, long-duration isometrics, and timed rests to limit his output

Why was this so important? Well, because the human-repair-man (surgeon) is so expensive, we had to pick high “bang-for-buck” exercises that would not only put him in a safe position but allow him to drive some intensity when needed (more on that later). Things like Hatfield squatshooklying bench presses and hover deadlifts made up the majority of his program. 

Picking these “smart” exercises taught him how to actually manage his body’s position while crushing heavy weight. The better he got at this, the better his body felt. Crazy concept, but he was actually using the right stuff to move the weight. 

Step 2: We cut out all his “garbage” work

He was throwing himself into a meat grinder on a daily basis. 

This was basically him:

So we actually had to make him do much less than he was used to. This was a very weird concept for him at first. It’s a weird concept for everyone. “So, what you’re telling me is, you want me to REMOVE training volume??” 

Yep. We do. 

We want you to find your minimum effective dose to elicit a training response in each individual session and progress from there. 

If we start by attacking this, there are a couple cool benefits:

1. We can increase your frequency! If you recover and progress best with 10 sets of squats a week, there’s no point doing them all in one day. We split that into 3 sessions and do a 3/3/4 set split throughout those sessions and allow you to drive intensity a little more on each one.

2. Your sessions don’t take 7 days and 7 nights to complete. Time is our most valuable resource and I don’t want you wasting 2-3 hours in the gym 4-6 days a week. We want to maximize your efficiency and get you back to what matters faster.

What he used to do:

Exercise Sets Reps
SSB Squat 4 8 ,6, 4, 2
WTD Pull Ups 4 6 w/20kg KB
TBDL 5 5, 4, 3, 2, 2
DB Press 4 6
Lateral MB Slam   x 10e
PB Stir the Pot 3 15e

He was using heavy loads for nearly every exercise and it was eating into his ability to recover properly.

See below for examples of how we created separation in his training from his main output driven exercises and more sensory based or accessory exercises.

Step 3: Getting rid of the Accessory Olympics.

No one cares how much you can dumbbell lateral raise. So, we have to classify things as either “output” or “sensorimotor/capacity”. You gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. 

If you’re doing a bench AMRAP? We want you to drive that until your spotter has to pull the bar off your chest. 

But on a lateral raise? Or a pec fly? We’re more concerned about proper positioning and “feeling” the right stuff working over how much weight you can lift. Slow it down and lighten the load. 

Most of the time we go from flat bench to dumbbell bench to push ups to dips. We maintain the same exact position in each. Scaps down and back, ribcage projecting forward #extendedAF. Always stressing the exact same patterns and same positions, for what? At what cost? This is usually where we see overuse issues appear.

If this sounds like you, I’m not sorry about the personal attacks. But we are here to change that. Get yourself into opposing patterns. If you live in extension, training and working into some flexion might be just what you need to crush a new PR and not feel like a bag of smashed crabs. Why should I care, you ask? Continuously using the same strategy for ALL your training, living, and relaxing can lead to hypertonicity of these tissues, never giving them the rest they need to truly recover. 

Here’s a great example of how we program this out.

Exercise Notes Sets Reps Load
Incline Bench   4 10  
Hooklying DB Floor Press Same as hooklying bench, maintain that positon. Inhale on eccentric, exhale on concentric. 3 12  
Trap Bar Deadlift Mash this too 3 6  
GHR   3 MAX  
Zercher Squat ISO accumulate 2 mins of volume   2:00  

Next up, the "garage door". "What's that?" you ask?

Step 5: The Garage Door: “Open Door” vs “Closed Door” Sessions

We need to learn the difference between “Open Door Sessions” and “Closed Door Sessions”. 

An open door session is great for a #bropump. Crushing some arms, listening to some upbeat tunes, it’s a picturesque 75 and sunny. You’re wearing your favorite tank top. You’re feeling good. You’re feeling yourself. Your neighbors whisper “gosh they’re so jacked” as they walk by.

We can’t train like this all the time, progress would be super slow.

Because sometimes you have to turn up the heat.

You have to close that garage door.

You head into the gym wearing a hoodie, hood up (don’t even DREAM of talking to me), and blast some angry music. 

You’re training so hard you’d have the authorities called on you. You’d be considered a menace to society. Children in a 5 mile radius start crying. 

These sessions need to be few and far between. If every single session is a closed door session, you’re going to dig a hole and bury yourself in it. Remember that broken refrigerator we talked about earlier? Yeah, that’s too many closed door sessions.

Open door sessions should make up the vast majority of your program. I typically program out using the 80/20 rule: 80% of our sessions should be open door sessions, focusing on quality movement and quality reps. 20% or less of your sessions should be closed door. 

This mix of open door and closed door sessions is a great way to help you stay healthy, while performing at your best. We want to be savages, but learn to control that savagery. We want to be strong, but express that strength when it matters. 

Here’s a great example of a closed door training session:


Exercise Notes Sets Reps Load
Trap Bar Deadlift 65% 3 8  
Trap Bar Deadlift 65% AMRAP, enter reps in column 1    
Bench 65% 3 8  
Bench 65% AMRAP, enter reps in column 1    
A1) Bulgarian Split Squat   4 12  
A2) Lying Leg Curl   4 10  
Tall Kneeling Landmine OHP   2 10  
Hanging Leg Raises   3 MAX  

We broke his program into a 6 day/week split. Before you freak out about the time commitment, days 2, 4, and 6 were entirely cardio/conditioning and all take under 30 minutes to complete. 

Step 6: He actually started doing some cardio

I structured his cardio program like this:

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Lift High Conditioning Lift Low Conditioning AMRAP day Low Conditioning Off

We’ll cover more of this in April, but this is the general idea we follow for a lot of our programming. This structure allowed him adequate recovery time between sessions while also building an engine that wouldn’t give out during his big AMRAP days. 

 Here's an example of one of those sessions:

Exercise Notes Reps/Time Result
Reverse Sled Drags LICT, moderate load 10:00  
Continuous Step Ups LICT, keep this slow and controlled 10:00  
ARM FARM Sets Reps Load
A1: Hammer Curl Circuit all these 3 10  
A2: DB Reverse Curl   3 10  
A3: DB Incline Curl   3 10  
A4: Incline DB Skullcrushers   3 10  
A5: DB Triceps Pullover   3 10  
A6: Tate Press   3 10  


Training this way is incredibly effective, and we’ve seen it work again and again and again.

We know it’s likely different than a lot of what you’ve heard before, but you’ve gotta be willing to think differently if you want to create different outcomes.

Just to make sure you’ve followed along, here’s quick summary of the 5 steps:

  1. I picked “smarter” exercises.
  2. I cut all the garbage, junk volume and focused on working at the minimum effective dose.
  3. I started breaking up my training days into output vs. sensorimotor blocks.
  4. I made the distinction between closed-door and open-door sessions.
  5. I actually started doing my LIS and LITT sessions.

To help make this as actionable as possible for you, we’ve created a bonus bundle that has the following resources:

  • This entire post in PDF format
  • 12 of our favorite accessory exercises

Access that bundle below:


Now it’s your turn to stop trading strength for pain and discomfort.


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