by Dave Thomas
First, a very quick thanks to y’all. I really hit a period where I lost my fun in writing and it’s been a slow grind getting it back. When I hit post, I never know how it’s going to be received and there is always a period of apprehension despite my belief in what I write. To see the support, feedback and sharing of these articles has lit a big fucking fire underneath me. Thank you.
Today we’re going to talk about the skill of strength.
It’s very easy to build strength in one movement. However, it’s very difficult to get really strong at a lot of movements.
I believe that proper strength workouts should be minimalist in execution but all inclusive in benefits, like going to Vegas. With a focus not on hammering your body into the ground with volume, but rather with efficient, cross-functional movements that train the total body.
To quite Jim Wendler, “Arguing about strength theory is just stupid”. Lots of different strokes out there for different folks, so if you don’t agree with all of these, perhaps you can pull one or two into your training and see some benefit.
Here are my five favorite workouts to get stronger if you are at a CrossFit gym, big box gym, at home training in your garage or follower of the board at Performance360.
5×5 Power Lift or Hang Variation Olympic Lift @ 80%
The success rate in prescribing consistent 5×5 squat or deadlifts is 100%. If you include it you’re going to get stronger. Most of our programming at Performance360 (our gym in Pacific Beach, San Diego) is based around the 5/3/2 principle and many of our lifts are often in the 5-rep range.
The beauty is that it toes the line. It’s right on that cusp of nervous system (strength) vs. musculoskeletal (hypertrophy).
Perhaps my favorite saying in how we run all aspects of our gym is, “When you try to get the best of both worlds, you end up getting the worst of both worlds”, meaning if you try to do two things you’ll usually get the negatives of both.
5×5 is the outlier to this statement. The near maximal percentage work (~80%) is well in the range of strength training on the CNS, recruitment, etc. and the volume of 25 repetitions is enough to stimulate growth (yes, we can build muscle on reps as low as five).
On the contrary, 1-3 rep work will focus more exclusively on the CNS and 6 – 12 rep work will focus more exclusively on hypertrophy.
5×5 hits both.
Squats and deadlifts for sure. Press variations and cleans, as well. I find 5×5 is better to perform hang variation on the Olympic stuff. No tricky resets and touch and go can diminish skill. Stick to around 75 – 85% and be prepared to take the next day off from any heavy lifting. These days are a grind and will tax the body. Include deloading weeks.
6×1 Turkish Get-Ups @ 90%
The TGU is like weight room porno for me. So stable. So graceful. So hot.
It’s a perfect expression of strength and stability, requiring the utmost coordination, control, shoulder stability and strength in your core, shoulders, hamstrings and hips.
It’s also the unilateral contributor to this list.
Heavy get-ups will chin check you real quick as you can’t even move without near maximal motor recruitment. Your hamstrings, shoulder and abdominals are all working in unison at near maximum capacity just to get you going, like putting the gas pedal to floor in hopes of getting a truck out of the mud. It takes everything you have at a maximal effort to get from the ground to the support of your forearm, and sometimes, your tires are just going to spin in place until you develop that total body unison strength.
Like the OHS, the get-up teaches the body to apply and maintain tension for periods of up to thirty seconds, harnessing that power of time under tension.
It’s also the best exercise that teaches “cross-lateralization”, your right side working with your left side at max tension, and vice versa.
Use kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells, human beings…whatever is heavy that you can access.
5×3 Overhead Squat @ 80%
Pound for pound, I believe the OHS is among the best weight lifting exercises we can do. will combine strength, mobility, stability and core strength workout in a way that is not matched in a single movement.
It’s like the Captain Planet of barbell movements.
Before we begin with the love fest, it’s important to note this movement is not for everyone. It requires a very high degree of mobility in the t-spine, lumbar, hips, shoulders, hips and ankles. Make sure your coach assesses you prior to performing these as lumbar hyperextension in this movement is particularly bad.
It’s also important to note that this will likely not improve your squat or your snatch. It’s not heavy enough to train true squat strength and even though they are in the same family, I do not find it to correlate well to the snatch, either. The slow, controlled tension in the OHS does not much help the fast, explosive, speed dependent snatch. So, if your goal is to snatch heavy, these may help you stand up out of the hole, but they likely won’t make you a better snatcher.
Neato. So why do them?
Think of the OHS as an assembly line of efficiency, the total body all working together to establish harmony. If one part does not do its job the whole process crumbles. Too often we overlook weakness and let one strength power through a deficiency. The OHS disallows this.
First, it trains tension incredibly well as there is not a dormant muscle in the body when under load. If time under tension contributes to strength, the OHS must be included.
Second, demands on trunk stabilization have been shown to outperform the back squat. In an EMG test, the OHS showed higher muscle activity than the back squat in every single muscle other than the glutes, particularly outperforming in the rectus abdominus and external obliques, as well as the deeper trunk like the transverse abdominus. (1)…obligatory study inclusion to appease the keyboard coaches.)
I don’t need no stinkin’ muscle thingy to tell me these work. I can feel them. In real life. Doing them.
Third, it requires your important, performancey lats to be in a position of maximal overhead isometric contraction for an extended period of time.
Fourth, it is an excellent postural exercise. We spend all day in spinal flexion. This puts in spinal extension and opens up our chest.
I recently read an experiment that David Dellanave performed that came at perfect timing for this article where he removed anterior core straining from his programming block as an experiment.
I removed all anterior core training from their programming for the next 5-week block of training. I kept everything else the same, and in place of where they would test anterior core variations, I put in sort of innocuous mobility drills that should have a neutral effect like wall slides and easy movement drills. To state what I think should be obvious, our normal programming consists of a lot of big compound movements like deadlifts, squats, kettlebell work, presses, and pulls…Within two weeks I started to see an unmistakable uptick in complaints about back issues…The effect was so immediate and dramatic that I discontinued the experiment, re-worked the rest of the cycle of programming, and reintroduced the anterior core work. The complaints vanished as quickly as they had appeared.
The OHS is a great developer of the anterior trunk.
At the end of the day, the OHS squat does not hit one single component of strength particularly well, but it combines everything in a way no other movement achieves and asks more of us physically than any other movement.
It’s the ultimate deficiency revealer and developer.
10x100m Farmer’s Walk
I would venture a guess that this was the first form of exercise in which man ever partook, except it was called ‘survival’. Farmer’s walks are among our most effective forms of isometric training despite the fact we are moving the entire time. For the purpose of motor unit recruitment and strength, it’s been argued by some smart folk that isometrics (95%) trump both eccentric (88%) and concentric (89%) phases of movement in terms of the percentage of total motor unit recruitment, (2). That’s a pretty incredible fact if true, and wonderful reason why we should be walking with shit in our hands more.
Farmer’s walks are maximal recruitment of motor units with no eccentric or concentric phase, a huge reason why farmer’s walks will help improve just about every lift across the board. Harnessing tension, midline strength and grip are critical in some way to our squats, deadlifts, presses, cleans, snatches, pull-ups and kettlebell swing repetition capacity.
I find farmer’s walks to be particularly useful in strength training routines for runners, too.
Understand going into a workout that this will need to be the king of the day and have most of your attention and energy set towards maximizing it.
As a kicker, farmer’s walks are also excellent for our stability and health of our rotator cuffs. For more good info on this, check out local San Diego Strength Coach Brian Tabor’s article on walks. Rather than reference what well respected minds like Stuart McGill, Charlie Weingroff and Gray Cook have to say about the ability of farmer’s walks to improve spinal and shoulder stability, I will point you to Brian’s work.
50 Heavy DB Snatches (From the Floor)
The benefits of dumbbells over barbells is rather significant in certain areas. I’ve always preferred dumbbell snatches over barbell because they have certain physiological benefits that barbells do not.
I know the Olympic snatch has become quite popular over the last few years since it’s a great movement (we need to fucking calm down on Oly everything, though), but I find we get a lot more out of performing them with dumbbells for a few reasons.
First, it’s a more complex movement from a motor standpoint. Because a single arm is in use, it’s much more demanding from the need to counter stabilize. This provides work on the superficial (obliques) and deep musculature (TA) of the core that a barbell typically does not reach.
DB snatches are also great equalizers. If all you use are barbells you will never address non-dominant arm deficiency. We are all stronger in one arm than the other. Imagine what you could do if both arms applied the same power output? Eliminating imbalance is also smart injury prevention.
DB snatch volume requires power, speed, transfer of force and stability. It starts with power in our legs, transfer of force in our trunk and strength/stability in our shoulder to finish it off and receive it for a rep. One single rep from the floor will engage just about every muscle group in your body.
Lastly, a lot of folks muscle through barbell snatches with cranky, immobile shoulders. That’s highly inadvisable when the free moving dumbbell version exists just a few feet away.
Dan John says, “Without much serious study, I believe the one-arm lifts demand a longer pull than their two-handed brethren. No question that the overhead work is far more demanding, far more tedious”(3).
Don’t be a part of gym culture that performs strength and conditioning workouts without including dumbbells. Use ’em heavy and often.
I would love to have included some multi-plane work as this is a bit sagittal dominant. But there is enough multi-faceted movement inclusion that I feel good about it, and that stuff can be saved for accessory movements.
I don’t have any research other than what I’ve observed at my gym for nearly five years, but I would put my entire training reputation on the line that performing a well-rounded mix of movements, often times not relating to one another at all, will work together to enhance all of your major movements. Your get-up will increase your hang clean. Your OHS will let you do more push-ups. Shit you wouldn’t think would correlate suddenly ties together because your body, not muscles, learn strength.
The body works in fluid unison and knows how to transfer other skills without being told to, if you train it that way.
Have some favorites on this list? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments below and we can talk shop. And if you liked this article, please consider sharing it.
Dave Thomas is owner and head coach at Performance360 in San Diego, CA. Performance360 was a finalist for Best Gym in San Diego in 2013, 2014 and 2015.