How To Gain Strength Faster and Stay Motivated

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Most training programs will keep the variables set for a period of 4 weeks. This means the sets, reps and exercise selection will stay the same for a month. There is nothing wrong with this and this style of training is backed by a lot of research. In fact, most of my programs are designed this way. It follows a more traditional linear periodization.

But for a lot of people, following the same workouts for 4 weeks creates some boredom, and they need changes in their workouts more frequently – it keeps the motivation level high. Some trainers will continually changes exercises, or create crazy looking exercises just to be different, or worse, not have any plan at all.

Other well-known strength coaches will use a non-linear or undulated style of periodization where the training variables change each workout so they hit a hypertrophy (increase in lean mass), strength and power style workout every week.

I’m a pretty conservative guy, and my philosophy is to stick with very basic, compound exercises that work a lot of muscle fibers, and get very good at the technique in those lifts. Better technique allows you to lift more weight, leading to more strength, power, and muscle. I kind of look at it as “exercise specialization”. Any professional that is well-known and makes a lot of money is a specialist, not a generalist. They pick one thing and become very good at it. So my repertoire of exercises is relatively small compared to many other coaches and trainers. (Not that I’m against it, or that I won’t add exercises when necessary, just my view).

As far as a typical undulated periodization, I like to keep my workouts short and split movement patterns up between two or three alternating workouts. In order to make sure all movements were hit each workout, would make the workouts longer than I would want. It’s not impossible to do, but that’s for another post.

So my solution is to change the variables every week, or every two weeks. An example program that follows this is my Ultimate Strength Training Manual. With typical monthly cycles, a sample plan and it’s phases might look like this (with sample sets and reps in brackets):

Month 1: Adaptation (2-3×12)

Month 2: Hypertrophy (3×8)

Month 3: Strength (3×6)

Month 4: Power (3×4)


By changing the variable each week, it becomes this:

Week 1: Adaptation (2-3×12)

Week 2: Hypertrophy (3×8)

Week 3: Strength (3×6)

Week 4: Power (3×4)


Having an Adaptation week every month acts somewhat as an unloading week, keeping you fresh and recharged, ready to hit new goals.

Further, following a plan like this allows you to look forward to a new phase every week, and you can set personal bests in each phase every month, rather than every four months. (You should always compare PBs to a similar phase, set and rep scheme). This way, boredom is less likely to set in, and setting PBs more often helps keep you motivated. Nothing is more motivating than seeing success and results.

Dynamic Warm Up

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When it comes to warming up, many people still rely on the outdated 5-10 minute warm up on the treadmill and then go straight into their workout.

While this was generally accepted as the best way to warm up for a very long time, it’s been discovered that a more specific, dynamic style warm up serves the purpose much better.

That said, I still like my athletes to do a quick general warm up on the treadmill, bike, skipping, jogging, etc., but only for about 3 minutes.  The biggest reason is for most people, it’s a psychological thing.  Once they’re doing they’re general warm up, they know they’re in workout mode.  Also, I think it’s a good way to slowly transition your body from rest to exercise.  It raises your core temperature, lubes up the joints, and increases heart rate.

Once the general warm up is complete, we’ll move into a more specific warm up, depending on whether it’s a conditioning session or strength training session.

So here’s what I usually prescribe to my athletes before their conditioning:

  1. High Knees, or High Knee Skips (for the glutes and hamstrings)
  2. Butt Kickers (for the quads)
  3. Lateral Step Unders and Overs (mobility)
  4. Reverse Lunges with a Twist (hips and core)
  5. Inchworms (posterior chain and shoulder stabilization)

Do these exercises circuit style 2 to 3 times, then you’re ready to go.

For a resistance workout I use a few bodyweight exercises more specific to the movements of lifting:

  1. Bodyweight Squats (lower body)
  2. Lateral Step Unders and Overs (mobility)
  3. Push Ups (push muscles)
  4. Inverted Rows (pull muscles)

Again, do this circuit style 2 to 3 times, about 10 reps for each exercise.

OK, you’re warmed up now — so go do it!

Joint Mobility – The Plan

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Admittedly, joint mobility exercises are not terribly exciting, and it can seem at times like it’s doing nothing for you. But be patient, just do the exercises, and you’ll find yourself feeling “freer”, you’ll be able to lift more weight, because your technique will improve with improved joint mobility.

You will want to work on ankle, hip, thoracic spine, and shoulder mobility. If you notice, each joint from the ground up alternates between mobility and stability:

  • Ankle – Mobility
  • Knee – Stability
  • Hip – Mobility
  • Lumbar Spine – Stability
  • Thoracic Spine – Mobility
  • Shoulder – Stability and Mobility (I might talk about this another time, but we’ll focus on the mobility part today)

Anyone that has experienced low back pain is probably because of poor hip mobility. The lumbar spine has to compensate. Knee pain can be caused by poor ankle mobility. Many people find that once they begin a joint mobility program, their pains go away.

So, from the ground up here’s a list of mobility exercises that can get you started (One of these days, I’ll get some video up for these posts):

Ankle – Ankle Rockers – Stand with your knees slightly bent and toes on a step no more than a couple of inches. Rock back and forth taking the ankle through it’s whole range of motion.

Hip – Unders and Overs – Imagine you have a bar just above waist height and duck under the bar to come up on the other side, and repeat the other way. After a set of unders, picture the same bar lower, then step over the bar to get to the other side, and repeat the other way.

T-Spine – Prisoner Twist and Bend – Place your hands behind your head like a prisoner, and keeping your hips and lumbar spine stable rotate to one side as far as possible, then, in this position, bend to the side you twisted to. Rotate to the other side and perform the same motion.

Shoulder – Wall Slides or Stick-Ups – Stand with your feet 6 inches away from the wall with your hips and shoulders planted against the wall. Raise your arms so your elbows are at 90 degrees and your forearms are perpendicular to the floor (like you are doing “stick ’em up”). Keeping your elbows, shoulders and hips against the wall and your forearms perpendicular to the floor, raise your arms up as far as they can go and then lower them as far as they can go.

When you perform these exercises, remember they are not static stretches, move through the range of motion dynamically, but under control.

You can do these before your workouts as part of your warm-up. Start by doing these for 15-30 seconds each and progress from there.

Training Intensity

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Training IntensityAthletes and coaches need to realize there are two types of training intensity: Load-Based Training Intensity and Effort-Based Training Intensity.

Load-Based Training Intensity is based as a percentage of your maximum ability and is usually associated with strength training.

Effort-Based Training Intensity is a less definite measure of intensity and is based on the perceived effort of an activity. This measurement of intensity is usually matched with conditioning activities.

They both have their place, and in fact, can and should be used simultaneously.  If you’ve ever walked into the gym and have had those days when even a relatively light weight felt heavy (high effort intensity with moderate load intensity), you’ll know what I mean.

Load-Based Training Intensity

Load-based training intensity is most associated with strength training, but can also be used with conditioning style activities.  A simple definition is how heavy the load is you are lifting, relative to your 1RM (1 Repetition Maximum).  As such, the intensity of a particular lift will be expressed as a percentage of your 1RM.

An example in a conditioning setting would be working at a particular percentage intensity of your max heart rate.

Here’s the basic rule for load-based training intensity for strength training, depending on your goal:

Hypertrophy (muscle gain) – At least 70% 1RM
Strength – At least 80% 1RM
Power – At least 90% 1RM

In the programs you see here on Athletic Workouts, each lift has a designated training intensity.  They are listed either as a percentage of your 1RM, or as somthing like 8RM.  This would mean that you select a load you can lift for 8 repetitions. I sometimes list it this way, but call for 6 reps in a set, meaning you should be able to complete 2 more reps at the end of the set with the load you selected.  This is useful for de-load weeks and active rest weeks.

If you want to determine your 1RM, I prefer finding an estimated 1RM for most people.  Lifting at your max can be dangerous, and having an estimated 1RM is more than practical for most guys purposes.

In the AW Training Manual, I have lifters find their estimated 1RM based on a 5RM lift.  This is the most weight you can lift for 5 reps.

1. For beginners, start with an empty bar and perform 5 reps.  Rest at least 1 minute.  With lower weights, you can rest for a shorter amount of time and as the weight progresses, increase your rest time, even up to 5 minutes.

2. If you were able to perform 5 reps with good technique, proceed to the next step.

3. Add 5-10 lbs to the bar for upper body exercises and 10-20 lbs to the bar for lower body exercises, and repeat steps 2 and 3 until you cannot complete a full 5 rep set.

Of course, as the weight get heavier and closer to your 5RM, you may want to increase the weight more conservatively.

To calculate your estimated 1RM, take the highest weight you lifted for 5 reps and multiply by 1.12.  for example, if you lifted 150 lbs 5 times on the bench press, you can estimate your 1RM by multiplying 150 by 1.12 which equals 168.

This is much safer than attempting a true 1RM.  If you miss the lift, you usually stop at 3 or 4 reps (and can even calculate your estimated 1RM from that result), as opposed to failing with a weight you can’t lift at all.  Most of the guys here lift on their own, so this is the safest, most accurate way to find an estimated 1RM.

A lot of coaches argue against using percentages of 1RMs in their training programs, they feel it’s too rigid.  I use training percentages to ensure my athletes are working at a proper intensity, and are progressively overloading at proper, regular intervals. But I’m not foolish enough to believe that everyday in the gym will be easy, and not every lifter will be feeling 100%.  I use percentages more as suggestion and tracking, and realize that intensity sometimes needs to be scaled back for longer term gains.

Effort-Based Training Intensity

I used to judge intensity in conditioning activities based purely on an athletes MHR (Max Heart Rate).  But seeing as the most widely used MHR calculations are far from exact, I began implementing more of an effort-based intensity system.

I still use MHR calculations from time to time, mostly to measure recovery time during intervals (In this instance, the next work period in an interval session would begin once an athletes HR reached a specific recovery level).

There are various ways to measure effort, but I like to keep things simple and keep it out of ten.

For example, a 1/10 would be laying on the couch watching football, a 10/10 would be running for your life.  High intensity intervals would occur at anything above an 8/10.  The only drawback with this arbitrary method, is sometimes athletes work at a lower intensity than they should be.

Of course then, duration of the activity related to overall intensity of effort.  Running at a 10/10 for 2 seconds and running at a 10/10 for 10 seconds are different intensities as well.  Without a doubt, it can get complicated.

Putting Them Together

Let’s understand that different manipulations of how drills and exercises are performed results in different kinds of intensities. Both a 1RM squat (max load/max effort) and 100 bodyweight squats (min load/max effort) are both intense, but in different ways.

Properly manipulating both load and effort intensities  in a training program relate directly to the training principles of overload and specificity, leading to effective training.

Image courtesy of digitalart /

Exercise Specialization

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Exercise SpecializationExercise Specialization is a term I’ve come up with to describe the fact that beginners need to focus on a specific group of exercises and forget about any others.

What is Exercise Specialization?

Exercise Specialization means you specialize in certain exercises until you have mastered the technique of these exercises, without using any others.  It’s also important to note, that in the the AW Training Manual, I’ve selected only the most effective exercises for beginners to improve strength and size.

Proper technique, developed by focusing on only certain exercises, allows the athlete to lift more weight.  More weight means more strength, and more strength means more size.

This also allows the beginner to see quicker results (and in less time), meaning they’re more likely to stick with a fitness plan.

By using Exercise Specialization, the lifter doesn’t need to worry about learning a whole bunch of different exercises, wasting time and effort in the gym.

Get good at the most basic and beneficial of exercises first and then begin to add other exercises to your program.

There are plenty of other variables that can be manipulated in a training program that will lead to variety and results.

Exercise Specialization in the AW Training Manual

Here are the exercises featured in the AW Training Manual:

Bilateral Compound Movements

  • Power Clean (A very difficult lift to master, but beginners are recommended to begin with squat jumps and progress to a power clean.  This is really the only exercise where there is some room for judgement based on training experience.)
  • Squat
  • Bench Press
  • Deadlift
  • Overhead (Push) Press
  • Pullups/Chinups

Unilateral Compound Movements

  • 1-Arm Dumbbell Snatch
  • DB Stepup
  • DB Incline Press
  • DB Rear-Foot Elevated Squat
  • DB 1-Arm Shoulder Press
  • DB Rows (Can be chest supported)

That’s it.  Those are the only exercises included in the AW Training Manual.

To ensure variety and proper periodization, we manipulate other variables like load, volume (sets and reps) rest time, and rep speed.

Again, the idea with exercise specialization is to let the lifter practice and develop good technique in the most essential of lifts.

Better technique allows an athlete to lift more developing more strength.  More strength leads to more muscle (lean mass) and more lean mass helps burn more fat.

There’s no need for complicated programs.  Simple is better, especially for beginners.  Simple is easier to stick to, especially for beginners.

By using exercise specialization, strength gains will come quicker and that means a beginner will be more likely to stick with the plan.

Granted, at some point you’ll need to introduce other exercises into your training program.  I certainly don’t recommend exercise specialization for more advanced athletes.  They need the exercise variety of stimulus to achieve smaller gains.

Keeping exercises the same leads to familiarity in a beginner, and keeps from overwhelming them.  In this day and age of information everything, keeping things simple is the way to go.

So, if you’re a beginner, or have been away from the gym for a while, give the AW Training Manual a try for 8 weeks.  I promise you’ll see results.

And you’ve got nothing to lose anyway, the program is completely free.  Just sign up below to download the program today.

Note: Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

Diet and Training Tips: How To Get Started And Succeed

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Diet And Training TipsA little while back, I posted “six-and-a-half” nutrition and diet guidelines to follow for better health and performance.

For some people, this still may be difficult to get used to in a short amount of time.  So here’s my suggestion to you:  Incorporate one guideline at a time.  Don’t even think about following another one until you are achieving that single diet guideline 90% of the time.  Only then should you consider implementing a second.

While diet is crucial to your success, I suggest the first change you make is to strength train.  Make a commitment to train 3 times per week – no matter what.  Build that habit for one month.  Only then should you begin to make other lifestyle changes.  I find that once you get into the habit of training, and see some success, other changes become easier because you are more motivated.

Now, some of you may be more ambitious and will make changes quickly and with relative ease.  But for most of us, too much change too quick, will only lead to failure.

Speaking of failure, inevitably, sooner or later you will fall of the rails with either your training or diet.  When this happens, don’t let it be an excuse to quit.  Believe me, I’ve thought the same thing – “Well, I blew it yesterday, so why bother trying today” – or something like that.  Cut your losses, so to speak, and get back on the wagon.

It’s consistency that leads to success, but consistency doesn’t have to be 100% of the time.  Even 90% will yield great results.

Don’t feel like you need to make a million changes all at once.  Focus on one change at a time until it becomes habit, then move to the next challenge.  Choose to become the person you want to be, and take it one step at a time.

Note: Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /

How To Progress To A Full Pull Up

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I’m asked all the time what people can do in place of the pull ups and chin ups if they can’t do full pulls or chins. Especially if they call for multiple reps.

Here’s what I suggest in progressive order:

Inverted Rows

For absolute beginners, inverted rows are a good place to start.  Depending on your fitness level, you may even find it difficult to do a pull up hold.  If this is you, start here.  While an inverted row doesn’t work in the same movement plane a pull up, it will serve as a good substitute and begin strengthening the muscles used to do a pull up.

For an inverted row, lay face up on the floor underneath a pull up bar a few feet off the ground.  Reach up and grab the bar, keeping your feet on the ground.  Pull your chest up to the bar and return to the starting position.  To make the move easier, bend your knees to bring your feet closer to the bar.

Pull Up/Chin Up Holds (Isometric Pulls/Chins)

Using a bench, plyo box or chair for support and position yourself at the top of the movement with your chin above the bar. Remove your feet from the support, and simply hold yourself in this position for as long as possible. Try for as many seconds as reps. If the exercise calls for 6 reps, hold for 6 seconds.

Drop Pull Ups/Chin Ups (Eccentric Pulls/Chins)

When you can hold yourself for as many seconds as reps are called for in your exercise, try doing Drop Pull Ups. You’ll position yourself above the bar again, using a support, but instead of holding that position, you will let yourself perform the negative or eccentric part of the movement. Slowly drop down to the arms extended position. If the lift calls for a 2 second eccentric portion, then it should take you 2 seconds to lower yourself.

Use your support to bring yourself back up to the top of the movement and repeat as many times as possible, until you can complete the required amount of reps. So, if you can perform 2 drops, and the exercise calls for six reps, you should finish the exercise by holding the top position for 4 seconds.

Full Pull Ups/Chin Ups (Concentric/Eccentric Pull/Chins)

Once you can perform as many drop pull ups as are called for in your program, you should be able to do at least one full pull up. Again, if you are asked to do six pull ups, You might find yourself doing one full pull up, doing 3 drop pull ups, and then a pull up hold for 2 seconds.

Keep working at it. This is not an easy exercise, but one that will provide many benefits. Of course, if you have access to an assisted pull up station go for it, or use bands to help you, but many people I consult with train at home, and don’t have access to these. This is a great progression for beginners and advanced athletes alike

Guest Post: Build Insane Muscle with Power Training Workouts

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Today’s guest post is by Jim Smith, CSCS.  I like his work because he takes a holistic approach to his training, including recovery workouts, and mobility work.  And if you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you’ll know how important I think these components are to a program – especially as we get older.

In this article, he gives you a sample workout (and of course, it aligns with my philosophy of training movements),  and I really like that he emphasizes the “posterior chain” movements.

For more of Jim’s work, check out


Have you ever been in a situation where you need to modify your planned workout because of time constraints? If it has not happened yet, rest assured that it will at some point in your training career. Do not fret, with Power Training Combos you will be able to get in a decent workout and you may even be able to add some quality muscle on your frame as well. By combining certain mass building exercises, you will help accelerate your gains and decrease your time in the gym.

While there are limitless combinations you can choose, the following combinations will take care of a huge amount of muscle with minimal time invested in the gym.

1. Horizontal Pull / Vertical Push: Seated Cable Rows/ DB Military Press
2. Full Body / Vertical Pull: Barbell Power Cleans / Pull Ups
3. Vertical Pull / Hip Extension – Barbell Shrugs / DB RDL’s

You will notice that these combos really target the musculature of the posterior chain primarily. This will give you a huge boost of growth hormone and pack on the pounds where it counts. Check out a sample workout below for a way to get your own power building combo training going.

Sample Training Workout:

Warm Up:
1. Foam Roller-IT Bands, Hammies, Quads, glutes
2. Light Static Stretching 3 x 10 s hammies, quad hip flexor
3. Jump Rope


1a. Deadlift 5 x 5
1b. Military Press 5 x 5
2a. DB Shrugs 5 x 15
2b. Back Extensions 5 x 20
3. Abdominal Fallout’s 3 x 15

As you can see the work is not involved. Just make sure you perform the sets back to back and then take an appropriate rest period. It will be tough, but you will save time and build strength and some serious muscle.

Jim Smith, CSCS is a highly sought after lecturer, author and renowned strength coach. Jim is an expert for Men’s Fitness and a member of the Elite Fitness Q/A staff. He speaks regularly at clinics, conferences and seminars about the Diesel Method. His distinctive and comprehensive training approach has helped athletes and fitness enthusiasts of all skill levels attain their goals and “Achieve Beyond Potential”. Jim is an active student of strength athletics and is always seeking new ways to innovate and provide a unique perspective for gaining muscle, rehabbing injuries, improving performance and building better athletics.

The Most Effective Nutritional Habit

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Nutritional HabitI’m a meat guy. I love me some meat.

And I love to grill it just as much as love to eat it.

I’ll grill it outside on the BBQ all year round here where I live, about 45 minutes outside of Toronto, even when it’s well below freezing outside.

So lucky for me, I don’t have to worry too much about getting my fix of protein in a day.

But a lot of people don’t get enough protein to help them achieve their goals. And quite frankly the most important thing you can do for your nutrition is to make sure you get a good serving of lean protein at every single meal.

AW Nutritional Habit #1

Yep, the number one nutritional habit I can recommend is every time you plan to eat, be sure to get the equivalent of two fists worth (one for women) of lean protein.

We need protein to help repair and build muscle and other tissues.  Proteins and amino acids are the body’s building blocks.  Even more, protein helps your feel fuller, longer.

But protein does much more than this.

Protein helps control insulin responses because eating more protein usually means you will eat less carbohydrates that can spike insulin levels.

Protein also has a higher “Thermic Effect” than carbohydrates or fats.  What this means is the energy it takes to digest your food is higher with protein meaning more calories burned resulting in increased metabolism.

So if you want to get fast results with the least amount of fuss, make sure to get into the nutritional habit of eating lean protein with each meal.

And look, I know you can’t eat steak, or chicken, or eggs with every meal of the day, let alone cook it.

Plus, sometimes you just need a convenient way to get your protein needs at some meals, or maybe you just need a little variety.

Well, that’s where supplementation can help in the form of a protein shake.

I advocate eating whole foods as much as possible, but when whole foods aren’t an option, a protein shake is a great substitute, and one or two shakes a day can keep enough variety to help you stick with your nutrition plan.

Here’s what has to be my favorite shake recipe right now:

1/2 cup of water
2 scoops Chocolate Prograde Protein
1/2 cup plain greek yogurt
1 tsp cocoa powder
2-3 drops of mint extract
5 ice cubes
half a handful of pecan halves
(and you can even throw in a handful of spinach – trust me, you can’t even taste it, but it does change the color)

You can use any kind of chocolate protein powder, but I highly recommend using Prograde.

It tastes amazing, and is sweetened with stevia (not sugar).

=> Get Your Bottle Of Prograde Protein Here

Next time you want a sweet tasting snack without falling off the wagon, give this shake a try.

Stay committed,

Mike Dunk, BHK, CSCS
Athletic Workouts

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut /

Beginner Plyometric Workout

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A great way to prepare for a plyometric program is to jump rope for a couple of weeks — especially if you’ve never done plyos before.  Jumping rope helps condition the body and muscles for those quick muscular contractions I was talking about in the last post.

The next step, believe it or not,  is to learn how to land.  The idea is to learn how to land soft and in an athletic position.  Coincidentally, once you find your proper landing position, this is the same position you should be squatting in.  To learn how to land soft, you can start with drop jumps.  Find a step or platform about a foot high and step off the platform (do not jump).  The goal is to land as softly as possible and try not to even make a sound.  To do this properly, you will need to land in an athletic position and absorb the shock as you land.  Do this for another couple of weeks to help make the neuromuscular adaptation (the brain muscle connection) — making the response automatic for your muscles.

So yes, take about a month to prepare.  You must do this to perform beginner level plyos.  To be able to do intermediate level plyos, you should have done the above and be able to squat your body weight.  For advanced plyos, the same as before, but you should be able to squat 1.5x your body weight.

Here’s a sample beginner plyo program:

  1. Squat Jumps 2×5, rest 1 min between sets
  2. Medicine Ball Chest Throw 2×5, 1 min rest
  3. Jump to Box 2×5, rest 1 min
  4. Medicine Ball Incline Chest Throw, 1 min rest

Add this into your workout program even once per week to get amazing benefits (I wouldn’t do it more than twice). And make sure to change it up after no more than 4 weeks.