Archive for the ‘strength training’ Category

The Octogen Philosophy

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

The Octogen Philosophy

With the relaunch of my blog and websites I want to take a minute to define a simple training philosophy so that everyone here is on the same page.

Training philosophy is one of the most contentious issues among exercise professionals and enthusiasts today.  True professionals and knowledgeable athletes understand that there is no one “Way” to achieve fitness and they constantly seek new knowledge to refine their methods.

Unfortunately for many people a lack of deeper understanding leads to adoption of dogmatic principles and a rejection of other methods and philosophies because they have been told by a guru that such and such a system is bad for one reason or another.

I’ll get to some of these dogmatic groups in future posts but for now let me lay out my current (and I say current because it is always open to change based on new evidence) training philosophy.

  1. You can be whatever you want but you must be Strong First! – Ok I have shamelessly stolen this line from Pavel Tsatsouline and his new organization StrongFirst but for me this statement captures what I’ve been trying to tell people for years.  Strong is a relative term and the level of strength that person requires is different depending on their goal but a foundation of basic strength prevents injuries and allows for more sophisticated and complicated fitness qualities to be developed.
  2. Training must have goals – If you don’t know where you want to go then how do you know what methods might be helpful to get there.  The best training plans I’ve ever seen have a specific goal at the end that motivates people to apply the correct methods and deal with the discomfort to achieve that goal.  In the last few years my best clients have been without exception military members who are attempting Special Forces selection.  These guys will do 12 workouts a week and don’t blink when I tell them to do a 7 hour long workout (yes you heard right, your 40 minute workout is nothing)
  3. Unless you have a very good reason to do it don’t bother doing shit you hate.  It took me 15 years to figure this one out but basically if you hate doing something and don’t have a great reason for doing it then you are going to do a half arsed job of it and miss half your sessions, you’ll get demotivated and then your plan will fall apart.  I had this for over 10 years with running.  I always did some running because its part of fitness but honestly I fucking hate running.  It’s boring, it hurts my knee and it interferes with my strength gains.  This year I resolved that I’ll never run again as part of a fitness program unless I absolutely have to.
  4. Only do as much as is necessary to continue to progress.  If you only need to do basic barbell exercises, a few bodyweight drills and some cardio to continue to improve your fitness and move toward your goals then don’t complicate your life with every latest and greatest gadget and exercise.  It ends up being distracting and leads to what I call exercise ADD where you do a little bit of everything and suck at them all.  As you get deeper into training complexity will inevitably increase but don’t jump the gun.

That pretty much covers it for my overall philosophy but of course this says nothing of methods.

Here is a list of the general methods that I utilize on a regular basis to help my clients achieve their goals.

Powerlifting – In keeping with the theory of being strong first I believe that everyone needs a good basic barbell program.  Squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, rows and their variations cover this.

Kettlebells – Good for strength (up to a point) and great for making a body bullet proof against injuries and also the single best tool for fat loss and conditioning I know of.

Olympic weightlifting – for athletes Olympic weightlifting teaches the transfer from strength to power like no other modality.  When I say Olympic lifting I am NOT talking about throwing 40kg for 20+ reps.  I’m talking reps under 5 and weights close to 1RM, anything else is stupid.

Crossfit – having just taken a swipe at Crossfit above I have to admit that some of the basic principles of crossfit such as functional movements at high intensity have some merit.  I just don’t subscribe to the theory of flogging yourself senseless every day and honestly some of their exercises are just dangerous and look stupid. (kipping handstand pushups WTF)

Strongman – If you want to get strong in a practical sense then do some strongman.

Running and all that crap – single mode cardio is my least favourite form of exercise, both to participate in and to program.  Long periods of that stuff inevitably lead to overuse injuries through postural imbalance which then takes ages to fix.  My opinion is that if you need to run then you can get most of your conditioning through doing kettlebells and other stuff and you can then practice the skill of running in a limited number of sessions a week.  In particular I hate military programs that have people out pounding the pavement 5 days a week, it’s just asking for shin splints and knee issues.  If you look like a concentration camp victim (ie like most great runners) then you can get away with that.  Normally muscled people are going to break.

Ok so now that we are all on the same page we can get down to looking at different training methods and programs for various goals!

Building the Perfect Program – Part 1

Monday, July 26th, 2010

In the strength and conditioning world nothing is more likely to ignite a fiery debate than the subject of programming.  Many coaches and athletes have a program or system that they believe is the “best” way to develop speed, strength or endurance.  Crossfit, sheiko, 5×5, Westside, the Bulgarian system, all of these systems have their applications and have proven effective but for a lot of people who try specific systems there are problems with these systems not fitting their schedule or their exact goals.

Over the last 6 years I’ve written hundreds of programs for clients from a wide variety of backgrounds from office workers training 3 days a week to drop a few kilos and improve their health through to military personnel and police training up to 3 sessions a day to achieve special forces selection.

In this article I want to outline the considerations and basic steps that I go through in putting together any program so that next time you need a program you can have a go at putting together a personalized program that takes into account your current fitness level, goals and available time and resources.

Programming Considerations


Before you begin to put together a training program it’s important to determine the desired outcome of the plan.  I won’t spend too much time on goal setting as it’s an area that most people are familiar with but one point I do want to stress is that in order for your plan to be successful your goals need to be fairly simple and they need to be achievable in the time frame you’ve set.  Many people I talk to are making the mistake of chasing too many goals at once and end up achieving nothing.  If you want to get good at several things that’s fine, just break your program up into smaller cycles and emphasise one or two goals at a time and put your other goals in a holding pattern.  If you are working hard on one aspect of fitness you won’t lose much ground on another aspect of fitness!

Time and Resources

This is a critical consideration.  If you want to join the SAS but you work 80 hours a week then chances are your available time is insufficient to achieve your goals.  Decide early on how many days a week you can REALISTICALLY devote to training.  You will save yourself a lot of frustration by planning and executing a solid 3 day week program compared to planning on 6 days a week and missing 3 workouts due to other commitments.

I would recommend a minimum of 3 days a week and a maximum of 6 days a week with a maximum of 15 training sessions for very serious athletes.

As with time, make sure you’ve got access to the right equipment before planning your training.  If you want to get strong you’ll need weights of some description, if you want to become the worlds greatest crossfitter then you are going to need a gym full of rings, rowers and all the other toys needed for the workouts.

Current fitness level, diet and supplementation, age and training age

I’ve lumped these together because they are all major factors in your ability to adapt and recover from training sessions.  Many people get frustrated because they set out to do a program only to burn out .  The problem is that unbeknownst to the athlete the program was originally written for a genetically gifted 25 year old professional athlete on a steady diet of food sleep and steroids!

At this stage of planning it’s important to conduct an honest assessment of how well you are going to recover from your training and take that into account when planning overall volume and intensity.

Putting the plan together

So once you’ve written down the main considerations above it’s time to put together a plan.   Here are the steps I go through when putting together a program.  Note that when planning initially I don’t try to put the program into a weekly schedule, I simply collect all the elements together and arrange them later, often shuffling things around a few times to get the best fit.

Match your goals with primary exercises/workouts

This stage is pretty simple.  If you’ve got a specific goal simply match up that goal with a short list of core exercises.  For example if your goal is to improve your powerlifting performance you would choose squat, bench press and deadlift and if your goal was to improve your aerobic fitness you might choose 3-4 variations of aerobic exercise like long distance runs, intervals, rowing and cycling.

Within your workouts these exercises should be “front loaded”, that is they should appear preferably as the first exercises in a session so that if the session gets cut short you’ve got your important stuff out of the way early.  I like to call these your “A” exercises and in a good program they will account for about 70% of your time and will give you about 80- 90% of your total results.  If you are on very limited time they may be the only exercises you do.

Choose supplementary exercises

Once you’ve got your big basics written down you can add a sprinkle of exercises that complement your core exercises.  This can be stuff like ab work, mobility work or strength exercises to balance out areas that need work to support the primary areas of interest in your program.  For a powerlifter this might be things like seated rows to balance out the shoulder or some conditioning work to keep bodyweight down.  For an endurance athlete this could mean strength work, soft tissue work or stretching.

These “B” exercises are still very important but because of their secondary role you can get away with dropping them occasionally (but you shouldn’t make a habit of it)

Sometimes I even go a step further and add some “C” exercises and workouts that are nice to have but not essential.

So for example a sample exercise grouping for a strongman in the early off season might look like this.

Main goal – Improve deadlift and overhead strength.

“A” exercises


Rack pulls

Military press

Push press

“B” exercises



Kroc Rows


Bench press

Glute Ham Raise

“C” exercises

Kettlebell Swings

Strongman implement work

Conditioning work

Choose set, rep and loading schemes for your primary exercises

Once you’ve got your exercises sorted it’s time to choose your sets, reps and loads for your primary exercises.  This is where the art and science of programming can get a bit tricky as there are a number of effective (and some not so effective) loading patterns you can use.

Initially I suggest using a simple program like 5 sets of 5 with a steady linear progression in weights over 4 – 6 weeks.  You could also adopt a 5-3-1 loading pattern or alternate between sets of 5 and sets of 3.

For endurance programs a simple cycle of long distance, short interval, medium intervals with a linear progression in volume works well.


In part two of this article I’ll outline the final steps in putting together a program and provide some worked examples of programs for different goals.

Sports Supplements

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Different supplements have got different effects but in general if you are training as hard as you possibly can you are going to want to take something even if it’s just a multivitamin.

The reality is that most people don’t train hard enough to justify the supplements they are on but they can be very useful.

Before taking any supplements you need to understand which level of training you are at and then get the appropriate stuff. You also need to make sure your basics are squared away. If your diet is crap, you don’t get enough sleep or your training program is rubbish no amount of expensive powders will make you big and strong.

So here is a guide for three basic levels of training, keep in mind that these are cumulative which means that people at the advanced/competitive level need to take everything from the levels below as well.

Before you think about supplementation check the following

1. Are you eating 3 solid meals a day + 2 – 3 snacks each containing some protein, carbs and good fats

2. Are you training at least 4 days a week with a focus on the big basics like deadlifts, squats, bench press, chinups and military press.

3. Are you getting 7- 9 hours of sleep a night.

If the answer to any of these is a no then spending big bucks on supplements is going to be a waste of time.

Level 1 – Beginners

During the first 6 months to 1 year of serious training it’s unlikely that you’ll need much more than lots of food and some hard training to make gains.

Supplements at this level are restricted to stuff that’s cheap and highly effective.

Multivitamin – Train hard and chances are that you’ll be working your bodies vitamin and mineral stores a bit harder than the average couch potato. While you may be getting enough from your diet a multivitamin is good insurance and costs bugger all.

Protein – Plain Whey Protein Concentrate mixed with whole milk 2-3 times a day. No need for fancy pants stuff that’s been bioengineered to death.

Fish oil – 3 – 6 caps a day for general heart, brain and joint health. Start now and never stop taking it.

Sports drinks – Gatorade or similar during hard training to replace electrolytes and provide energy. Avoid if your goal is fat loss.


Jim Wendlers 5-3-1 for maximum strength

Monday, November 2nd, 2009
Pulling 240kg in April

Pulling 240kg in April

In my experience the vast majority of athletes are always on the look out for the magic program that is going to boost their performance into the stratosphere while making them 10X sexier to the opposite sex.

They are normally impatient for the performance and sexiness to arrive and try 4, 6, 8 or 12 week super cycles that promise the world but often deliver overtraining, frustration and injury instead of results.

While it may not provide instant results or sexiness (your mileage may vary) Jim Wendlers 5-3-1 system is a definite antidote to the endless skipping through radical plans.

It’s more of the slow cooker approach to strength development and if you’ve got a tiny bit of patience for the first few weeks then you’ll reap some big rewards.

I’ve been using 5-3-1 now for a few months, testing out variations of the program in my own training and want to share some observations so that you can decide if it’s a good option for your training.


Training to Failure

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

One of the questions that I get asked a fair bit is about the concept of training to failure in bodybuilding, kettlebell training and strngth and conditioning.

The other day on one of the forums I post on the following question came up.

It’s always said not to train to failure. What I’m wondering is why?

I’ve done it a little lately to vary it up, and while it really smashes me I at least feel some progress. Learnt the hard way though to do it close to bed time, cause if I go to failure (or beyond with lowered weight) a few times with small break in between I’m absolutely wrecked till I sleep a while.

After answering the question I thought i might as well pu tthe answer up here because i’m sure other people would have the same question!

So here is what I wrote…

This is a fairly complicated subject and depending on who you talk to you’ll get lots of different opinions.

I’ll try to simplify things to the three most common scenarios.

1. Muscle mass – Training to failure is an easy way to ensure progress when trying to build muscle.

Basically a fairly high volume of work with moderately heavy weights leads to a break down in muscle fibres and the bodies response is to build more muscle to compensate.

Due to some quirks of physiology though not all the muscle is contractile fibre (the bit that lifts stuff) so you can get bigger muscles but you aren’t necessarily as strong as you look. You still get stronger but just not the same way that pure strength athletes do.

Bodybuilders who train to failure in the 8 – 12rep range are in the muscle building zone and will often experience delayed onset muscle soreness.

2. Strength and power – strength is more neurological than most people think. When aiming to develop maximal strength and power you need to lift as heavy as possible but not necessarily to the point of failure.

By avoiding failure you recover more quickly and therefore can train more often. Like all skills the more often you practice the better you get.

This is why olympic lifters favour low reps (1-5 and mostly 1-3) and often twice daily training. They never train to failure in multi rep sets and only really “fail” during one rep max attempts when the weight is too high to lift.

Olympic lifters still get DOMS sometimes and initially they often build a lot of muscle mass but then tend to plateau when they get to the body weight they want to compete at.

3. Muscular endurance –
When the goal is high rep local muscular endurance (20+reps) for things like pushups you can train effectively either with multiple sets of sub maximal numbers or you can hammer away at training to failure. Either will work for a while and then it’s probably best to switch.

During long sets or circuits you end up with different types of failure if you push to the limit. You can experience metabolic failure where the muscles don;t have enough energy to contract or a build up in acid levels is inhibiting contraction. When this happens you’ll stop because you are out of breath basically. You can also get the same type of failure as doing bodybuilding type training whereby you might have the energy to do the reps but you’ve run out of nueromuscular juice.

At the end of the day you need to overload the muscles and your energy systems and try to progress every few sessions, once something stops working switch to a slightly different plan and start again!

Exercises You Should add to Your Program

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Lets face it there are a lot of exercises out there. Once you get past the basics like squat, deadlift, overhead pressing and bodyweight stuff there is a bewildering variety of exercises that have been developed by various people for all sorts of reasons.

Some of these exercises are good, some are bad and some are just pointless (anyone standing on a BOSU curling a 5kg dumbell i’m talking about you).

So let’s assume you’ve already got a solid basic program based on the powerlifts, olympic lifts, kettlebells or Crossfit often the question becomes:

What are some additional exercises you might want to add to your program that are going to push your strength and fitness along without turning your program into a circus act?

Over the next few weeks I’m going to add some short videos of exercises that I’ve added to my training and the training of my athletes recently and will tell you WHY you should add them to your program.

Here are the first couple

Band Benching

Face Pulls

Strongman Training – Some thoughts and a new video

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Ever since throwing my hat in the ring for this Strongman comp in June I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about strongman training, especially as it relates to guys having a go at their first comp.

So as I progress toward the comp I figure I’ll make some notes about my musings and see how they work out in reality.

This weeks random thoughts

1. 5kg may not seem like a lot but in strongman it can be the difference between easy and impossible! This week I did farmers walks at 100kg (relatively straight forward) 105kg (hard but doable) and 110kg (made it a whole 8 metres!) and had the same experience of axle cleans. 80 for triples and then a bunch of missed attempts at 85kg.

2. Strongman is unforgiving of weaknesses and when you find yours you need to prioritise training. I’ll freely admit that my overhead strength is crap at the moment but in the first weeks of my program I was treating mil press and push press as accessory exercises but now i’ve made the first exercise in each gym session an overhead lift with an additional overhead lift later in the program. No use having a huge deadlift and squat if you are going to fail as soon as the events head above the shoulders.

3. Back off weeks are your friend! Last week I was cranky and sore but a week of lighter workouts has renewed my enthusiasm for training and i’m looking forward to attacking the next few weeks of training.

Anyway here is a video of some farmers walks and stone simulator training. Stay tuned for the next video of some squat and deadlift variations i’m experimenting with in my quest to hit a 230kg / 500lb deadlift before April.

Muscle Building and Strongman

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

One of the most common goals I’m asked about is gaining muscle mass and recently this topic has become very close to my heart.

As regular readers will know I’ve just entered a Strongman show in June and despite competing in the “Lightweight” category at 101kg and 179cm tall I’m a good 4kg under the weight limit for the class.

Now from weightlifting I can tell you that the last thing you want to do in a weigh category sport is train and compete so far under a weight limit for two reasons.

1. It’s muscle mass that you are just giving away

2. Some other dude will train all year at 110kg and then squeeze himself down to 105 for the weigh in, rehydrate and effectively you’ll be competing against a 110kg monster.

Therefore I’m aiming to add about 6-8 kg over the next few months so that I can be that guy that lives and trains at 108 – 110kg and then squeezes in under 105 for the comp.

What most people don’t realise is that putting on QUALITY muscle mass for strength sports is not easy. You can’t just eat crap all the time because you’ll put on fat and once you’ve reached a certain level of muscle mass it becomes harder and harder to convince your body of the need for more. Furthermore while you could use bodybuilding techniques the type of muscle you put on is different to the type required for true strength sports.

So stay tuned and in furture posts I’ll be sharing some of my strategies.

Pumping Iron

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Yep, thats right, the Classic movie about Arnolds 1975 quest to win a 6th Mr Olympia.

I was watching it last night while I was doing some work and even though I’m not big on bodybuilding as a “sport” or even on training just for looks I have to say it’s a pretty good movie for a few reasons.

1. It shows what bodybuilders looked like before the ridiculaous steroid freaks of the current era looked like. Was there steroid use in mid 70’s bodybuilding, undoubtably but nothing like what you see now! The guys in Pumping Iron are big, muscular and lean but none of them look like they’ve dropped out of an Alien spaceship. These days bodybuilders present a completely unrealistic picture of what you can achieve in the gym, mostly because the magazines refuse to admit that these guys are all juiced up to the eyeballs! Kind of like airbrushed female models modern probodybuilders set unachieveable goals for guys and make everyone wonder why they can’t be 110kg of ripped to shreds muscle!

2. The strength training in pumping iron is pretty basic. Over and over you see guys benching, rowing, squatting (deep squats too), pressing overhead and deadlifting. There are few fancy machines around. Big basic training like this should never have gone out of fashion!

3. In places Pumping Iron is just damn funny. Listening to a young Arnold talking about sex, commitment and playing mind games with other lifters is very interesting. It’s no wonder the guy has had three very successful careers in bodybuilding, acting and politics. Love him or hate him the guys got ambition and balls.

I believe that there is a new edition of Pumping Iron out on DVD soon so I suggest getting together with some fellow muscleheads and watching it for a little motivation!

An Excellent Article on Simplifying Training

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

Just a quick link today to an excellent article on simplifying your training and improving the efficiency of your workouts.

The article is by Pavel Tsatsouline and was posted on Tim Ferriss’ 4 hour Work Week blog. (I highly recommend getting a copy of Tim’s book)

The main thrust of the article is that many people do too much fluff in the gym and that you can eliminate much of the crap, work hard on the basics and achieve better results.

The article outlines a plan to cut powerlifting training down to bench, deadlift and squat. Of course you may not be into powerlifting but I think that the principles outlined in the article are sound and could easily be applied to other fitness areas. For example an Olympic lifter could choose clean and jerk, snatch, pulls and squats and apply the program, or a kettlebell lifter might cut back to snatches, turkish get ups and presses.

I’ve kind of being doing this for the last few weeks anyway. I’ve been squatting heavy, doing either pullups or military presses and then a short conditioning workout at the end of each session. It allows me to squeeze in a workout before my clients and athletes turn up to the gym and i’m hitting rep PBs on back squat.

Anyway check out the full article here

Tim Ferriss – Pavel Tsatsouline Blog post