Strength is My Weakness Pt. 2
So I made up my mind, this is the year of strength training.
So far so good. But a much bigger problem: How to best go about it?
That question opened a huge can of worms that I’ve spent a couple months trying to sort through. There are A LOT of opinions out there, and a lot of conflicting advice. Especially for endurance athletes where strength training is cross training. Low reps and big weights? High reps and moderate weight? Metabolic conditioning? Crossfit? Train like a powerlifter? Like a bodybuilder? Like an MMA fighter? Maybe vigorous power yoga is enough?
My head was spinning. The elephant in the gym is bodybuilding. It requires a certain style of high volume training, frequently going to failure, and lots of isolation exercises. Most people who “just wanna get in shape” and choose the gym are bodybuilding, whether they admit it or not, because what they want is to look a certain way. Mostly just looking good nekkid. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not my goal. I want to get stronger, and most importantly faster, so is bodybuilding the best way?
My first answer was no. I thought back to previous gym experience and realized that bodybuilding training is what I was doing. It’s what everyone was doing. It just what you did when you went to the gym. It sorta worked. I did get stronger, but mostly I burned out. I just couldn’t recover adequately over weeks or a couple of months. I would be too sore to swim, bike and run, so I would lose my aerobic fitness. Greater strength can get you through some situations, but over time it fades. Trends in strength training began to shift away from this bodybuilding style with what was called “functional training” to distinguish it. This became a catchall term for unstable training, inflatable balls, weird cables and all sorts of tomfoolery that may or may not work. I lost interest.
Enter Maffetone. To best train endurance, Maffetone believes in training aerobically, so that all the slow twitch fibers get stronger along with aerobic metabolism. Strength training generally targets the fast twitch fibers, so why bother? Or so I thought. Maffetone does advocate for strength training, as long as it does not interfere with aerobic development. Fatigue is the big problem, and bodybuilding style training focuses on creating as much fatigue as possible with things like training to failure and drop sets. Maffetone’s approach is “slow weights.” Pick a couple of basic, multi joint exercises, train with low reps, very heavy, but never to failure, or even close. Very low volume, and it doesn’t even have to be done all at once, it can be broken up throughout the day. What? How can this possibly work? I shelved it for awhile, and kept looking around.
That’s when I found the “Evil Russian.”
Famous for bringing kettle bell training to America, he has a whole bunch of very different training philosophies that focus on strength. Not bodybuilding. I’ve always wanted to read the essay that kicked off the whole thing, “Vodka, Pickle Juice, Kettlebells, and other Russian Pastimes,” but I could never find it for free online. But it was mention of Pavel’s book Beyond Bodybuilding in a Maffetone recommended book on strength training for better bones called The Endurance Paradox. that made me take a closer look. Both books were a bit of a slog, but it opened my eyes to different training. I sorta knew that real strength athletes, such as powerlifters and Olympic lifters trained very differently from the typical gym bodybuilder, but wasn’t sure what it meant. Pavel showed how strength athletes train strength as a SKILL, not a “workout” whose goal is to break you down. They train frequently, but with very low reps, and never to failure. This intrigued me. I moved onto Pavel’s book Easy Strength, coauthored with Dan John, and who has a similar philosophy. I listened to him on a podcast explain his Mass Made Simple program. The mass program was intriguing, but too hard and not really applicable. But his humor and ideas intrigued me. I needed more, so I read Intervention.
But the books with Pavel fascinated me. Part of it was the idea that strength can be built without destroying yourself appealed to me. Pavel explains it’s not just the strength athletes that train this way, but other athletes that can’t lose training days for their primary sport because they’re too sore and wiped out from strength, “cross” training. Very Maffetone like. Pavel includes special ops personnel in this category, belying his background in the Soviet military. Such folks have to be strong, fit, and ready to go at a moment’s notice. They can’t destroy themselves with training before an engagement!
So I kept reading. Pavel’s trifecta: Enter the Kettlebell, The Naked Warrior, and Power to the People. All use a similar, minimalist philosophy for increasing strength and conditioning while allowing plenty of time for other pursuits. I needed more Dan John, so I read Never Let Go. Like triathlon. Intrigued by the growing trend of bodyweight training, I read Convict Conditioning. Bodyweight training is especially appealing, because it is based on strength, not size, and relative strength, rather than absolute strength. Relative strength refers to the ability to move your own body weight, while absolute strength refers to how many pounds you can lift. Relative strength seems more important to an endurance athlete. When I swim, bike and run, what matters is moving my own body around. The training programs in Convict Conditioning are also pretty low in volume, leaving time and energy for other pursuits.
But I’m still attracted to some good old fashioned barbell training in the gym, so I tackled Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, which like plowing through a physics textbook it is so detailed. In a similar powerflifting vein, I read Marty Gallagher’s The Purposeful Primitive, and my current program is a combo of the two. Gallagher’s beginner program, which is dead simple: the three power lifts (squat, bench press, and deadlift) for three sets of ten, with constant review of the technique pointers in Rippetoe’s book. I train as close to every day as possible, taking an extra day as needed. I will stick with this for a couple months, then as I need to expand running and cycling volume, I’ll transition to a combination of body weight and kettlebells.
The challenge is time. Not so much training time, as all these workouts take little time compared to the bodybuilding style workouts I used to do. It’s the recovery time so I don’t neglect aerobic training. Will I destroy my aerobic engine as I get stronger and watch my MAF tests plummet?