Tag Archives: muscle

Do You Want to Look Better for 90 days, or Forever?

Probably the most common fitness related goal is weight loss, more specifically fat loss, and every one wants the fastest route there starting yesterday, I get that, but not many people pause to think that if they get there, how hard will it be to stay there and not rebound like the majority of flash-in-the-pan crash dieters and over-exercisers? Do I know how to do this without an all or nothing mentality?

Let’s clear the air really quickly: the fastest way to fat loss is through dietary restriction and through large energy expenditures. At the start this will mean a fairly radical dietary overhaul, and various weight training circuits, intervals and other high intensity methods that put out large amounts of energy in a relatively short period of time, BUT, is this the most sustainable way to transform your physique? Probably not.

Strength, Muscle and Habits are yours to keep

These three things are the most important long term predictors of a transformation that is yours to keep forever, not just rented for 90 days before your trip to Mexico or 10 year reunion, so let’s talk about each one of them in a little more detail.


“I don’t care how strong I am I just want to look better!”

At the base of this sentiment, I get it, you didn’t come into the gym to be the world’s strongest man or woman, you just want to look better, but, your strength has a whole lot to do with how quickly you’ll lose fat. Thanks to Greg Nuckols for highlighting this in one of his articles, but the energy expended during a workout is highly correlated to how much resistance you’re overcoming (aka how much weight is on the bar) and lifting a 300lb deadlift for 8 reps takes almost perfectly 2x as much energy to move as 150lbs for 8 reps, but they both take the same amount of time. So the person who is consistently getting stronger over time is actually expending progressively more and more energy in the same amount of time as the person who stays the same strength but just does endless circuits. The person getting stronger is also building muscle to boot, which brings us to the next key piece of the puzzle


The more of it you have, the more energy you burn at rest, and the more energy you burn while you move. So long as you keep training, and don’t do any crazy starvation diets, the muscle you build is yours to keep, and there it will sit, silently pushing up your metabolic rate 24/7, and giving you better return on your workouts. Compare that to the person doing cardio and interval training only, who will likely be losing some muscle tissue and therefore slow their metabolism over time, and because of this they will have to train longer, or eat even less to maintain their fat loss efforts. Eventually this practice becomes prohibitively restrictive, downright unenjoyable, and unsustainable; you can’t eat nothing and run forever.


Building muscle takes time, actually significantly longer than it takes to gain or lose fat, and to do so takes consistency. You’re going to need to show up to the gym at least 3x per week and make that a habit, you’re going to need to eat enough of the right foods to recover from the muscle damage you created in your workouts and probably take care your hydration. You’re going to notice that sleep affects your strength, and that’s pretty damn important too.

The weight on the bar never lies to you, you can’t fake strength or pretend you’re working harder by grunting, if you’re hungover, eating poorly, and half-assing your workout, the weight won’t move, simple as that. By measuring your progress with objective numbers instead of subjective sensations, you take responsibility for your own progress and will have to look introspectively if something stops working – this is where true progress happens! It’s the same process and habit formation you can apply to your nutrition, your sleep, your health, and any other important facet of your fat loss/physique transformation journey.

We have had some incredible transformations at Blacksmith Fitness, people who have lost up to 100lbs and stayed there for months and counting, and every single one of those people are stronger, have more muscle, and better habits than they had one day 1 – it’s not a coincidence!


Does Your Workout Scare You? It Should.

I was reading an article by Charles Staley about the psychology of lifting weights and it got me thinking about my own training and the research I’d done on the topic. Like Charles, I too often wonder why the arguably most important aspect of physical performance is just brushed off as an after thought. The brain is your most powerful weapon when it comes to displaying the abilities you’ve trained your muscles to do.

I’ve talked previously in the “how mirrors make you weaker and ruin your fitness” articles how your brain actually lifts the weight; your muscles simply do what they’re told to do. If you get a large impulse of electrical activity from the brain and spinal cord, you get a massive contraction of the muscular tissue, although it’s slightly more complex than that, barring any underlying disease, it’s not that much more complicated. Pavel Tsatsouline has a great quote “your muscles already have the strength to lift a car, they just don’t know it yet”

We’ve all heard the stories about the untrained woman who lifted a car off her child after a car accident, or the 100lb woman who while under the influence of suspect substances managed to snap her leather restraints and throw an entire hospital bed at the hospital staff – so what explains these feats? Whether through the extreme stress of a life or death situation or the altered chemical state, the brain was able to bypass all its preset limitations and apply a true maximum effort. If a 100lb untrained woman can do these things, just imagine what you could do. Now I’m in no way recommending that you put a gun to your head or munch on some bath salt preworkout powder before your next squat session, but it gives you some insight into just how powerful your mind is

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right” – Henry Ford

I have 110lb women that are significantly stronger than many 250+lb men, even some of those who are actively training, do you dare try and explain this difference quoting “genetics” as the reason? Of course the 250lb man has every physical advantage here, the real difference is the way the two groups approach the task. One group approaches the task with focus, they expect to get stronger each week, expect to see results, and have faith in themselves and the process, the other group doubts themselves, doesn’t believe they have the power to change, makes excuses, and fears the task, or mild discomfort. Group 1 will outperform group 2 every time, regardless of the genetic potential, especially if given enough time. I used to believe you were either group 1 or group 2 and nothing could change that, however, I no longer believe this to be true, but it will take a focused effort inside and outside of the gym/sport to commit to this new style of thinking.

“I think therefore I am” – René Descartes

If you’re looking to take advantage of the mind’s incredible power, Josh Bryant, my friend and coach has a great article here http://www.joshstrength.com/uploads/PLUSA_Article_Sep2009.pdf about the power of visualization and belief systems, he sent me this article before testing my 1 rep maxes in one of the first training blocks I did with him and it really didn’t have impact it should have at the time.

Back then I was invincible (or so I thought), nothing scared me, not 600lbs on a deadlift or squat bar, not insane training volumes that would leave me in hilarious predicaments when I had to somehow make it down to the toilet the next day, not my separated sternum or torn rotator cuffs, that nagging pain in my right knee, none of it mattered, every bar I walked up to I expected to lift it – I could recover from ANYTHING! Until one time I couldn’t…

The Power of Fear

Most of you who read my writings know that I had a head and spine injury that sidelined me for 3 years and kept me from training up until late march of this year. I’m now for the first time attempting to peak and seeing where my strength lies in comparison to my pre-injury numbers, and in the last week before deloading I missed my squat weights not once but twice. I’m dealing with medial and lateral elbow tendonitis and a minor migration of the radius across the elbow joint that is especially painful when I squat, to the point where my spotter had to take the plates off the squat bar after I missed the lift and I could barely untie my shoes until the elbow moves back into place. For the first time in my life I’m afraid of pain, and afraid to get under the squat bar.

The squat is especially terrifying right now, because it puts pressure directly on the previously injured area of my spine and I can feel the pressure there more than anywhere else, coupled with the pain response from the elbow, I get an overwhelming rush of negative images and my mind wants to give up, as a result while doubling 510lbs last week, I missed 515 completely the first time, and singled it and got pinned on the second rep the second day I tried it. All I can think about is getting crushed and spending another 3 years trying to walk down the street without getting dizzy, all those experiences are sitting there in the back of my subconscious waiting for me to let them in, and this time I did.

Just like you can use your mind as a weapon, you can let it work against you, this to me is where the character development in training lies. If you ever hear people who have achieved great things through weight training talk about how training has made them a better person, a better business owner, communicator, helped them conquer their fears/phobias etc. this is how it happens. On Saturday I’m going to get another chance to hit 515 for 2, and all the same thoughts will be there, the same fear, that same pressure (I’m fine, I’m medically cleared to train max intensity), and the same elbow pain (ok maybe not so medically cleared here), and I’m going to have to make the decision to get under that bar, put it out of mind and get after the squat.

I may fail again on Saturday, and I may fail again the week after deloading when I test my maxes, I may fail next training block and the one after, but none of it matters. I only lose when I stop trying to conquer my fear, stop trying to fix my elbow and the shoulder causing it, stop trying to dial my training program, stop communicating with my coach, and give up.

If your training program doesn’t scare you a little, it’s probably not making you the best person or athlete you can be, it’s not giving you the opportunity to develop the skills to deal with fear or failure or to appreciate success when you achieve it. Conquer in training, and dominate in competition. In the words of Dave Tate, “prepare, perform, prevail”

Now get after it!

One of the Most Painful and Effective Ways to Build Muscle. Can You Handle the Blood Flow Restricted Method?


If you want to find out what you’re made of, then grab a pair of resistance bands or some medical tubing and read on to find out what that blood flow restricted method (BFR) can do that almost no other method of training can do…

BFR Training: What is it, and why does it work? Like everything in fitness, we’re manipulating a survival mechanism

We tend to think a little too simplistically when we’re thinking of our muscles, we usually think of them as entire muscles like the biceps or the triceps, deltoids, hamstrings etc. and we tend to think that if we flex that muscle or use it, that we’re using the whole thing, unfortunately it doesn’t really work that way. Our muscles are actually made up of hundreds to thousands of independent contractile groups within the muscle belly, these groups are called motor units, and you almost never contract all these individual subunits of the muscle at the same time, in fact if you did contract them all your muscles can create enough force to serious damage themselves and sometimes rip the muscle right off the bone. As we approach our 1 rep max, we approach the highest amount of motor unit recruitment we can reach voluntarily – which may be around 65-70% of the available muscle fibre in the untrained and around 90% in the highly trained.

Fun fact: There’s really only two ways to get 100% motor unit recruitment, A) you must perceive that you or someone else is truly in a life or death situation (this explains those stories where 65 year old ladies pull cars off victims in motor vehicle accidents) or B) Using external electricity like an electrostim machine or getting electrocuted – I probably wouldn’t recommend either scenario

So in the name of the preservation of energy and not ripping our muscles off the bone, our brain is hardwired to always use the smallest amount of muscle, and the smallest motor units to do the job – this sucks if we want to maximally develop the muscle because we want to develop all the fibres! Sure we can keep adding weight to the bar and we’ll recruit more and more of the muscle, but, it comes with a cost, how many times can you actually do your 1 rep max? Well if it’s a true 1 rep max, just once. 1 rep, no matter how heavy, isn’t going to develop much muscle if you can only do it once, but what if there was another way to hit those big motor units that are normally saved for extremely heavy events? There is, and it’s called the blood flow restricted (BFR) method, or “occlusion training”

One of the things about the smaller motor units is that they are highly resistant to fatigue, this is why your arm doesn’t gas out after curling food to your mouth with a fork at every meal, but in order to resist this fatigue, they need oxygen, and that oxygen gets delivered by the blood. So when we cut the blood flow off, the small muscle fibres that normally would handle the lighter weights literally cease to function, leaving the big, normally untouched fibres to take over the load, and now we can hit them with a ton of reps. How many reps? The research right now is varied, but somewhere in the 100-125 total rep range seems to be the sweet spot.

So we’re hitting some new muscles fibres with a ton of reps that wouldn’t normally get them, but BFR training offers another muscle building advantage – it creates a ton of metabolic stress, which is one of the three main methods of muscle growth. The blood normally carries in oxygen and nutrients, but it also shuttles away the metabolites (aka the unwanted by-products of muscle contraction) away from the muscle. Normally theses metabolites are shuttled away from the blood fairly quickly, but when we exercise these by-products tend to build up a little faster and therefore exist in higher concentrations before the blood can take them away and shuttle them to liver to be turned into cool things or are filtered out by the kidneys. In standard conditions, the higher the concentration of these by-products, the more work we did, and the more likely it is that we created some serious muscular damage that needs to be repaired. This build up of by-products is one of the things that signals to the brain that we just did something that posed a threat to our survival, and it better do something about it before it happens again. When we block off the blood from leaving the muscle, these by-products build up in concentrations that really can’t happen under normal conditions, BUT, we really haven’t done anywhere near the damage that these concentrations would indicate. Regardless, the brain responds as if that amount of damage had been done – and viola, you get a huge muscle building response!

OK, sounds cool, but how do you do it?

First, let’s get through the disclaimers:

  1. I warned you this is one of the most painful ways to build muscle, and I wasn’t kidding, those last few sets are going to be absolute agony, and there’s going to be a burn you’ve never felt before.
  2. This method is for aesthetic purposes and/or athletes recovering from injury, it builds more mass than strength, and if used constantly could skew the strength to weight ratio in the wrong direction

Here’s the muscle groups work the best for this type of training:

  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Forearm Muscles
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves

You’re going to take a resistance band or some medical tubing, (or really anything you can make a good tourniquet with that won’t come loose as you flex the muscle) and you’re going to tie it around the joint above the working muscle at about a 7/10 tightness – we want the arteries to force blood in and increase intracellular pressure, but we want to block the venous return to the heart. Here’s the pictures from above again:


If you look closely, there are two resistance bands tied around Riley’s legs right in the “crotch line” essentially right below the glute line and around the front of the thigh, this is the band placement for the quads and hamstrings


Here it’s pretty easy to see the bands tied right beneath the shoulders, this is the band placement for the biceps and triceps

My favourite BFR method is to work antagonistic pairs of muscles, meaning that you train the muscle on either side of the joint at the same time so good options would be:

  • Quads and Hamstrings:
    • A) 5×25 Quad Extensions, no rest
    • B) 5×25 Lying Hamstring Curls, no rest
  • Biceps and Triceps: 8mins straight, no rest between exercises, don’t count sets
    • A) DB Bicep Curl: 10 reps
    • B) DB Tricep Extension: 10 reps
  • Wrist Extensors and Wrist Flexors:
    • A) 8×15 Forearm Concentration Curl
    • B) 8×15 Wrist Roller
  • Calves and Tibialis Anterior
    • A) 10×12 Seated or Standing Calf Raise
    • B) 10×12 Toe Raises

You’ll notice that the lower body lifts all use machines, I’d advise using machines as opposed to say doing BFR squats and deadlifts – the stability demands are just too high, and many of those so called stabilizer muscles are made up of a really high degree of oxygen dependent fibres (you do have to stand with them all day after all) so there’s a much higher risk of injury. Plus, when we’re going for metabolic stress, this is where isolation really shines, so stick with machine variants for the lower body, but feel free to use free weight versions of the upper body movements if you’d like. Something that is definitely important to note is that you don’t need to use very much weight with this method! 40-50% of your 1 rep max is plenty and sometimes even less is all that’s needed to make progress with this method. I always smile when one of my clients decides to go hero mode after this warning and grab a set of 30lb dumbbells for the bicep/tricep method outlined above; they usually make it to about 2-3mins before realizing exactly how terrible that life decision was and inevitably have to lower the weight to make it out to the full time. 20lbs for most trained men and 10lbs for most women is going to be plenty to get the job done, and I promise you will see both results and agony at those seemingly minuscule weights. The low weight required to make this method effective is one of the reasons it works for athletes recovering from injuries – you can start with your own bodyweight but still have the brain react as if it had done a full intensity session. Last but not least, rep quality matters! No using momentum or cheating, and make sure to squeeze the muscle as hard as possible with each contraction! You want to wring out the muscle and force all those by-products into the blood stream so they hit the brain’s receptors all at once.

When integrating BFR training into your routine I would stick to a max of 2 sessions per week and always implement it as the very last thing in your training session, with only some moderate cardio after if you have it planned for the day. if you’ve really given this method your all, chances are you won’t want to be doing much after anyways. As always if you have any questions about the BFR method or anything else fitness/sport-training related feel free to comment below or on the Blacksmith Fitness Facebook Page http://www.facebook.com/blacksmithfit