Speed Training or Strength Training for Youth Athletes

The other day we posted about the need for youth athletes to be strong.  That post gave me an idea of what to talk about next. Parents often come to us and ask, “How do I make my son/daughter faster? I read there’s a lot of great speed drills and agility things to do? Why aren’t we doing that?”

Youth Athletes and Strength Training


This is something I know Beau and Eric and I have talked to parents about when they ask why kids who train with us don’t do any “speed” work. The truth is, we’d have to really break this down to take a bigger view of what’s going on when we train for strength and when you train “speed work”.


Hard Truths


One big thing that most people don’t understand is that speed may not be trainable. And by speed I mean top end, full throttle speed. Running at 100% of your capabilities. Speed is a mostly inheritable trait. Meaning if your mom and dad were fast, and their parents were fast, it’s likely you or your child athlete may have inherited the genetics to be fast. If you’re pushing your high school athlete child to be the next national 100-meter track champion and you and your spouse have never participated in any athletic endeavors, it’s unlikely that your child is going to be a track star. All the speed work in the world will not fix this issue. This does not mean that there is no possible way to be a good athlete if you are not genetically fast, there is still hope.



Strength To Go Faster


Although speed is a mostly inheritable trait, there are things parents and athletes can do to improve their sprinting performance. That thing to do is get stronger. In the strength and conditioning world, we talk about FORCE PRODUCTION and POWER. Power and force production are closely related because power is the ability to produce force quickly. This is where genetics have a say. When sprinting, every time the runner’s foot strikes the ground, they are applying force against the earth to propel themselves forward. Faster runners can apply MORE force into the ground in LESS time. Meaning the faster runner’s foot is in contact with the earth for a shorter period of time than a slower runner. AND that faster runner is able to contract all of their muscles in synergy to apply a greater amount of force that propels them farther forward than a slower runner. That’s the bad news. I can’t teach you to do that, because you were either born with that ability or you weren’t. But strength has a say. Strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance. So, essentially, by making a runner stronger, which would be producing force against a greater and greater external resistance, their ability to produce force from the contraction of their muscles increases. If the runner’s ability to produce force has increased, they should be able to run a little faster. There is still that pesky thing about applying that force quickly, though.

Producing force when sprinting

Producing force when sprinting


Trainable vs. Not Trainable.


Ok, so you may be thinking, “Why am I going to spend my hard earned time getting stronger to increase my body’s ability to produce force if I’m just going to remain slow?” Well…. Because… that’s your only option. The equation for Power (which is the ability to apply force quickly) is:

Power = force x velocity

This equation shows that a powerful object is both strong (lots of force) and fast (lots of velocity). The fast (velocity) part is arguably not very trainable but, wouldn’t you know it, the force part definitely is. This is not to say that you can’t increase Rate of Force Production at all – just that the amount that RFD can be increased is wildly exaggerated. Training to be strong has a much greater influence over the power you can produce. That is why we train all of our athletes to be strong.


Transfer to Sport


Ok, so now we’re sold. Getting strong is a good thing for myself or my athlete. How does that work on the field? Once adequate levels of strength are reached, which can vary greatly depending on the person and the sport being trained for, we begin to train to use that strength to do athletic movements. To put that another way, we practice using our newly found strength for powerful movements. The debate over which movements to train, and how to train them, is big in the strength and conditioning world. There are a variety of ways to train powerful, athletic movements. At WS&C we teach the Olympic lifts (the snatch and clean and jerk), but we’ll also train jumps, or throws, or sprints; the options are plenty. But the end result is that we take the athletes’ ability to produce a lot of force and try to insert that into movements that need the athlete to produce force quickly. These movements lend themselves to sporting movements and thus a transfer to performance on the field or court.


Added Benefits of Strength


There are plenty of ancillary benefits to training for strength aside from force production and power. One benefit many strength coaches hang their hat on is durability. Strength increases the size and contractile ability of muscles. Bones grow denser and more rigid. Tendons and ligaments become steel cables. These all lead to a decreased likelihood of injury on the field. When an athlete is running, they not only produce force when their foot strikes the earth, but their foot, leg, knee, and hip also accept force from that strike. The forces the leg and its joints accept is MANY TIMES that of the athlete’s bodyweight. Now imagine your athlete is sprinting, cutting, changing direction, jumping multiple times A MINUTE in a game. The musculature of the leg, foot, ankle, and hip need to be able to withstand that workload, which is what overall strength helps the athlete do. What we also see with our high school and younger athletes that we train, is an increase in confidence. Knowing you can walk in a gym and squat twice your bodyweight on any given day is a game changer for young adults and kids. It’s an accomplishment that many people, athletes and non-athletes, can be proud of. When you are strong you have the confidence to go after opponents on the field, court, or track.

And don’t forget health. In America, we have a big crop of kids who are overweight, out of shape, and not interested in physical culture. Training for strength gives youth athletes something to do outside of their sport, and a good strength & conditioning program teaches them habits that will remain with them into adulthood. Too many times parents are using sport as a way for their children to exercise. This is ill advised because their child may come into a season out of shape and get put through the ringer in practice or a game, increasing the likelihood of injuries.


So… now what?


In the end, training for strength has more bang for your athletic buck. Spending time in the gym getting stronger, healthier, more confident, and maybe more powerful makes for a better athlete than spending a couple sessions of speed work on an agility ladder and running through cones. We discussed the need for the athlete to be strong in order to be able to accept the forces of running, jumping, cutting, and changing direction in a competitive athletic setting, and training with weights is how that athlete gets to that point. This is all not to say that speed work and agility work is not of any use. Working through sprint and running mechanics, learning to change direction better, and running drills are all valuable parts of an athlete’s training once they have achieved adequate levels of strength. Once those strength levels are achieved, speed training takes the form of using the enhanced strength level to perform powerful movements, as discussed above. Working through the techniques of sprinting, cutting, jumping, and changing direction makes the athlete more efficient at those activities, and thus faster. So get your young athletes in the gym, train using the barbell lifts – squats, presses, pulls, cleans, and snatches. Get them strong. Then set them loose.

Youth Athletes and Strength Training

Somewhere along the way youth athletics have turned into a year around activity.  I’m an implant to Maryland so the popularity of Lacrosse was lost on me until I moved here in 2006.  Actually it wasn’t until 2010 when I opened up WS&C that I fully understood just how big lacrosse was in this state.  It didn’t take long before parents of all different sports began calling or stopping in looking for a strength program for their son or daughter.  Not all of them were lacrosse players but the overwhelming majority played lacrosse in the spring even if they were looking for training for another sport.

When I get a call the conversations usually goes like this.

Me:  Westminster Strength and Conditioning, how can I help you?

Parent:  I’m looking to get my son/daughter into a strength and conditioning program.

Me:  What sport do they play?

Parent:  Lacrosse.  (This is October, Lacrosse season is in the spring obviously)

Me:  OK, we can help them out.  We offer a program for athletes on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays at 4:30.

Parent:  They have club practice on Monday and Wednesday at that time.

Me:  Ok, how about we get them in on Friday and begin to teach him the lifts and we will see about moving him to Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings?

Parent:  He has games on Saturday and in a month he begins indoor lacrosse twice a week.

Me:  Oh, I thought lacrosse was a spring sport and he/she was in their “OFFSEASON” right now.  (If this conversation is face to face I will even use the scary hand quotes when I say “offseason”.)

Parent:  Between club, indoor, travel, and school lacrosse he/she plays all year around.

Me:  So when exactly should I get them stronger and is their priority to get stronger or play indoor lacrosse?

Parent:  Maybe we can get them in here once or twice a week after practice?

Me:  No, that won’t work.  I’m sorry; I don’t think I can help you.

At this point I will I will try to explain the concept of in-season, post season, off season and pre-season strength and conditioning, the reason for getting stronger, how getting stronger is best accomplished initially when sport play is at a minimal, and how that strength is going to impact their play and injury prevention more than playing another season on top of a season.

The parent always has an epiphany when I explain this all to them but then they get a look of defeat.  They understand it but there is nothing they can do about it.  They say things like “if he doesn’t play travel he will not play varsity ball, the coach requires travel play.”  They feel stuck.  After a brief explanation of the concept of strength and conditioning for an athlete they understand the importance of them spending time in the gym getting stronger but if they pull their child from the travel team a couple nights a week they may be hurting their chances to play in the spring.  I don’t think this is actually true for a couple reasons I will discuss later but this is what the perception is.

I’ve had this conversation so many times I thought that I would put something on paper so I can just hand it to them or direct them to this page and let them read it for themselves.  Maybe they can ask their coach to read it.  I’m certain it won’t do much good but I swear for my sanity it will at least help me out.  I’m just not sure how many more times I can do this face to face or in person and still look civil.

Before we get into the how and why of strength training for an athlete there are a few concepts you need to understand.  These are universal things that most strength coaches should understand but admittedly many may not.

1.  The strength level of an athlete can be classified as novice, intermediate or advanced.  Which designation the athlete gets has little to do with their actual strength and more to do with their ability to recover between strength sessions.  Using actual numbers on a bar to determine whether an athlete is a novice, intermediate or advanced strength athlete does not work because we all have different potentials for strength.  Some will squat 600 pounds and others will never squat that much.  Genetics play a big part but we will not go into explaining that here.

So what do we mean by recovery between strength sessions determining whether the athlete is a novice or intermediate strength athlete?  If an athlete squats a certain weight on Monday and he is able to add 5 more pounds to that weight and squat it on Wednesday, provided his sleep and food intake was adequate, he is a novice strength athlete.  Regardless as to how much weight is on the bar, that weight is so far from his/her genetic potential that they can recover from that stress in 48 hours or less.

When that athlete becomes unable to recover in that 48 hours provided they had adequate rest and food intake they are then considered an intermediate athlete.  Usually at this point we will then give them 5-7 days recovery between heavy sessions.  The line between an intermediate strength athlete and an advanced strength athlete become a little more blurred but we will leave it at the novice/intermediate level because very few if any athletes will ever reach advanced levels partly because they are splitting time between strength training and sport.


Carrie squatted 225 as a 15 year old

training in her prep for basketball.

If you are a parent reading this or a coach at the high school level, I can almost guarantee your son/daughter athlete is a novice strength athlete.  It doesn’t matter how strong you think they are,  I’m here to tell you they are more than likely not an intermediate.  With this in mind the most efficient and fastest way to get them stronger is to strength train 3 days a week until they can no longer recover from those sessions.  Remember, at a time when kids are playing multiple sports strength training with efficiency is critical.  We don’t have much time to waste. We are lucky to get a couple months between seasons.


2.  Initially while you are a novice athlete and strength training 3 times a week, putting weight on the bar every session, you are better served only strength training.  When you are in the weight room and you squat, pull and press heavy we are stressing your body.  In essence we are making it weaker.  You get stronger during your time outside of the gym between training sessions.  This is the time when you eat and sleep to let the body rebuild after the stress from squatting, pressing, and pulling.   The athletes time outside of the weight room becomes just as or more so critical than his/her time in the weight room.

3.  You will inevitably encounter those in this industry who either does not understand these concepts or are willing to take your money and tell you they can properly strength train the athlete during season.  Either results will be less than lackluster or the lack of understanding of recovery capacity can lead to injury.  I have turned as many athletes away after a brief conversation with the parent as I have started on our program.  If you are in wrestling season and you want your child to strength train I will kindly decline our services.  Don’t take it the wrong way but also understand you will more than likely find someone willing to do it.  This does not make it right.

Now that you have a little background let us look at why your priority should be to build strength as quickly as possible and why things like agility, vertical jump training, conditioning, and an entire host of other things are really just a waste of a novice strength athlete’s time when said time is a rare commodity.

Jim Cawley gave us a pretty good list of what he termed the 10 domains of fitness.  Things like cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.  Depending on the athlete’s sport of choice they will need varying levels of each of these.  For instance, an Olympic lifter needs high levels of speed, power, strength, flexibility but really only needs enough cardiovascular endurance to be able to make it through his Olympic lifting workouts.  He doesn’t need the respiratory endurance to run 16 miles.  On the flip side a marathon runner doesn’t need staggering levels of speed, power, strength or flexibility but does require high levels of cardiovascular endurance.  This is not to say the marathon runner does not need some levels of speed, power and strength.  They do.  Running, regardless of distance still requires force production (strength) and still requires you to outrun your competition at the end of the race (speed/power).

The important concept to understand about the 10 domains of fitness is the fact that only one of those domains affects the other 9.  Strength will improve endurance, building strength is the first step in improving speed, it’s about the only way to improve power production in a novice, it helps agility and when strength is built properly, it will improve balance, flexibility, coordination and accuracy. For these reasons building strength should be the FIRST stage of athletic development.  It’s the foundation upon which all other desirable traits of an athlete are built.

I don’t know how many times I have had a parent stop in and explain to me that their child’s coach told them that the child needs to work on their agility.  The statement on the surface is probably true but the solution is not what the parent or the coach has in mind.  When they ask me to help them with their child’s agility they immediately think about ladders, cones, change of direction drills, jumps, skips, bounds and the endless other selections of agility drills. There is a major problem with this and it goes back to whether the athlete is a novice or intermediate strength athlete.  We already know that your child is more than likely a novice strength athlete, remember the picture of the 14 year old girl squatting 225?  Use her as a metric.

If the athlete is a novice strength athlete there really is no way to improve things like speed, power, and agility WITHOUT BUILDING STRENGTH FIRST.  Don’t believe me?  Think about this.  Your son weighs 170 pounds.  His max back squat below parallel is 150 pounds (this strength level is not uncommon and is representative of nearly every high school athlete that walks in our door).  You or the coach

Matt squats 365 for 5 training over the summer for

his senior year of high school football.

would like to find an agility coach who can get the athlete to accelerate his 170 pound body as fast as he can and then decelerate it as quickly as possible and change directions.  How will this ever happen when the force displayed on his leg as he plants and tries to change direction is WELL OVER 170 POUNDS?  Remember, he can only squat 150 pounds with both legs yet we want him to decelerate 170 pounds and change directions?  No amount of agility training will change the physics dilemma.  The only way to improve his agility is to take his back squat to 350 pounds.   Every step on the road to a 350 pound squat is doing more to improve the athlete’s agility that any amount of agility training you can think of.

Need to improve your vertical jump?  This one is even easier.  The first step in improving a vertical jump is to get stronger.  Remember, we are talking about novice strength athletes here.  If we use the above athlete as an example, the biggest initial increase you will see to their vertical jump is by gaining strength.  Think about what is happening during a vertical jump.  The body is able to produce force quickly and overcome gravity for a short period of time to propel the body upwards.  It simply cannot do this without initially building strength.  Still don’t believe it?  How about this?  Below is a video of me dunking at age 36.



At the time of the video I weigh 235 pounds and stand 6’1”.  This was the first day I discovered I could dunk a basketball.  A glorious day by the way!  When I played basketball 20 years earlier in my “prime”, I was 6’1” and weighed 170 pounds but I COULD NOT DUNK.  Trust me it was not from a lack of trying, I practiced every day.  What’s the difference between then and now besides the fact I haven’t touched a basketball in about 20 years?  I was not strong enough then to dunk.  Fast forward 20 years, 65 pounds of muscle on my frame and probably 4 times the strength and I had no problems dunking.  Want to jump higher Get stronger.  But doesn’t getting bigger slow you down?  Seriously?  NO.  Don’t ever let someone tell you that gaining muscle will slow you down.

But there is actually a more important reason to focus on building strength first.  Building strength hardens the athlete.  It makes us less likely to get injured and as Mark Rippetoe would say “strong people are harder to kill”.  When we place a bar on our back, squat down with it and stand back up we are strengthening more than just our muscles.  Every system in our body must adapt to the load placed on our back and strengthen.  Muscle bellies merge to form tendons.  These tendons originate and insert into our bones to manipulate our bony levers to create movement.  As the muscles become stronger so do these tendons.  As the tendons pull harder and harder on the origins and insertion points on the bones, these attachment points become stronger.  As more and more load is placed on the bones they also adapt and become stronger, laying down new bone mass to accommodate the ever increasing load.  The ligaments and cartilage that articulate the joints of the body begin to adapt also and become more robust.  As the muscle mass above and below the joint becomes bigger and stronger the likely hood of injuring that joint becomes less.

Cory hits a 300# power clean

training for football.

It actually goes far beyond just bigger, stronger and more robust.  Last week I had a mother contact me about strength training for her son.  He is well over 6 feet tall and just turned 14 years old.  This basketball season he suffered a concussion.  He saw the neurosurgeon for evaluation and he recommended her son strength train.   Do strength training to prevent concussions?  Well yes, of course.  My guess is that her son probably didn’t get hit in the head by another player.  I’m guessing he fell on the court and his head bounced off the wood.  You see, lack of strength in the musculature of the neck is a problem when you fall.  It prevents you from stabilizing your head which in turn makes your head hit the ground with considerably more force.  Want a stronger neck?  Squat 350, deadlift 450 and press 200 pounds.  The neck, core and the rest of the entire body AND nervous system will have no choice but to become stronger.

You see how this building strength thing gets a little more serious when we are talking not just about increased athletic performance but about safety?   Increasing your child’s strength will do more to improve their safety in sport than any other thing you will do.  Are we ready to make it a priority?  I hope so.

So you get it.  Building strength is the first stage of developing the athlete.  You are starting to understand how important an “off-season” is for your child.  Not only do you understand the importance of having a few months off to build strength but you are starting to see how this will have a bigger impact on athletic performance and safety than playing the sport for an extra 2 or three months.  Maybe taking a break from the actual sport (working on skill development only) for a few months and putting on strength and size will not cost them a spot on the varsity team after all.  Maybe when the athlete returns to the sport with 15 pounds of added muscle mass, twice as strong, with increased speed, agility and power the coach might just find room on the roster for them.   Add to that fact, they will be decreasing the likelihood of suffering a concussion or knee injury and the answer seems pretty clear.

The initial movement from a novice strength athlete to an intermediate does not take that long.  If we focus on strength acquisition only during that first off-season we can get it done in 3-5 months.  During this time the athlete should be only strength training 3 times a week.  Remember, conditioning is of secondary concern and if we try to condition the athlete (who probably already has a pretty good base of conditioning from playing the sport nearly 12 months of the year) while building strength in the novice strength athlete; we only delay the process of acquiring strength.  Delaying the strength acquisition process is not something we can or should do; we only have a small window of time between seasons.  I promise you it’s not conditioning that an athlete with novice strength levels need.  It’s strength.  Lack of strength can be confused with lack of conditioning when an athlete’s performance suffers on the field but it’s rarely the case.  The winner of any engagement in sport will nearly always be won by the stronger athlete.  To take that a step further, the one aspect within the athlete’s control is their strength acquisition.  Our athletic ability may very well be determined but we can always work to be stronger than our opponent.

Why is an off season so important?  The more we try to do in our off season the less it resembles an off season.  At least during novice strength acquisition, the athlete should not be doing anything outside of the weight room except low intensity drills geared toward sports skill.  Remember earlier when we talked about recovery?  We actually get weaker when we strength train and recovery happens outside of the weight room.  Another way to think about this is to look at the athlete’s recovery functioning as a kitchen sink.  You have the faucet, the sink and a drain.  The drain is big enough to handle the water from the faucet turned on maximum output as long as the drain is clear and working properly.  The water pouring into the sink represents all the things the athlete is doing, in this case strength training.  The drain is their ability to recover (sleep and nutrition).

The more we pour into the sink, the more recovery we need and the more it takes away from our ability to recover from heavy strength training sessions.  As we progress closer to an intermediate strength athlete, the more managing the stimulus (amount of water) into the sink matters.  Playing indoor soccer twice a week while trying to recover from heavy strength training 3 times a week quickly begins to over flow the athlete’s sink.  When these ‘drain clogging’ events happen, strength acquisition becomes difficult or impossible due to the athlete’s inability to properly recover (empty the sink).   Remember, we are talking about novices only.  Once an athlete becomes an intermediate these things can be managed better because we are increasing the amount of recovery between heavy strength sessions from 48 hours to 5-6 days.  This is the time when we can add conditioning work or more sports play during a slower strength progression, because at this point, the athletes are ALREADY STRONG.

Hopefully this highlights why it may be beneficial to step away from the sport for a few months to focus on getting stronger.  It is difficult as a strength coach to watch an athlete who needs to be stronger not find the time to do it correctly because a coach is pressuring them to play in the off season.  Or the parent is worried about them missing a few months on the elite travel team because they think it will hurt their chances for a scholarship or to start on the varsity team.  These things are simply not true and are short sighted on both the coach and the parent’s part.  Taking the time to properly build strength now builds a healthier, hardened and physically stronger athlete later.  I promise it doesn’t take 12 months of playing basket ball to be a great basketball player.  Somewhere in there, the athlete will benefit more from building strength and becoming stronger than their competition.


Lastly, because it comes up often, I will touch on when your child is ready for strength training.

Weight training is extremely safe for kids.  The thought of it affecting the proper development of their growth plates is simply not true.  Kids that grow up on farms are accustomed to hard physical labor and lifting heavy objects at a young age.  Surprisingly, growing up “farm strong” does not equate to small, meek kids.  It’s actually quite the opposite.  These kids are some of the strongest and most physically capable kids you will find.  What I will tell you is to let the kid be a kid.  The time to start strength training is probably not when they are 12 years old.  There will be plenty of years to get them into a weight room.  We turn a lot of kids away because we feel time would be better spent letting them be kids.  Instead, encourage them to be outside, run, jump, climb and do things kids should be doing outdoors.  If you have questions about when your child may be ready for a structured strength program let us know and we can help determine if they are ready or not.


Week One In The Books (51 To Go)

Two of our newest members finished up their last training session of the week today.  They started on January 1st just like millions of people around the country did. Their first week looked much different than the overwhelming majority of people (and maybe yours) who headed back to the gym to make 2018 the year they finally get in shape.

Their first week didn’t involve a treadmill.  Not one “body pump” class.  They didn’t learn how to use a machine to tone the biceps.  Somehow they escaped this first week without a single plank- GASP!  Neither of them were told they had tight hips.  Or they lacked mobility.  They didn’t learn how to do any lifts with a PVC pipe.  Not a single corrective exercise.  No one yelled at them to go faster.  Weirdly at no point during this week did they think they were going to die.  They didn’t do a single burpee, box jump or wall ball.   They didn’t even learn that carbs are bad and processed food would kill them.  Strangely there wasn’t a mention of “eating clean”.

What the hell did they do?

They learned how to squat.


This is their third training session of their first week.  Amazingly we didn’t have them train every day this week.  Just three sessions with a rest day between each, that’s it.  Here’s a 55 pound squat for her third set of 5 reps.  This is 15 pounds more than she squatted on her first day.  Every time they walked in this week they were coached.  They’re still learning.  Some reps are better than others but we will keep adding weight slowly each workout.  As they get better at squatting they will be getting stronger.  By the end of the first month they will both be squatting over 100 pounds for three sets of five reps with near perfect technique.

They learned how to press.

This is their second time pressing this week.  The press is a difficult lift and they have worked pretty hard to improve from their first day.  Again, our coaches will coach every rep and add weight each time they train.  Increasing the stress a little each time so they can adapt and get stronger.

At the end of the first week they have completed 3 training sessions.  Learned to squat, press, deadlift and bench press.  They have added 15 pounds to their squat, 5 pounds to their press and 10 pounds to their deadlift.  They have started the process of increasing strength, muscle mass, and bone mass.  Our coaches have not only coached them but taught them how to train.

They learned that calories matter.  To lose weight they must burn more calories than they consume.  They learned that the best way to do that right now is to squat, press and pull.  Gaining muscle mass is their priority and running is not the best way to shed excess body fat.

They learned that foods are made up of protein, carbs and fat.  That protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram.  That fat has 9 calories per gram.  They learned how many grams of protein the should be eating each day and how to track what they eat.

Next week they will do it all over again.  Our coaches will keep coaching them to make them better at the basic barbell lifts.  They will add more weight to each lift every time they train next week.  They will be stronger than they were this week.  We will teach them how many calories they should be eating.  We will talk about carbohydrates and the role they play in fueling their training.

We will slowly give them the tools to succeed and they will be joining a pretty cool group of people who have done it before them.

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Client Spotlight – Caitlin Clarke

Here is a great client spotlight to start off 2018. Caitlin Clarke is a one-on-one client at Westminster Strength who trains with Steve Barker. Caitlin has been training three times per week since February 2017, only missing sessions for some vacation time. Her work so far has been nothing short of incredible.

I’ve known Caitlin and her husband for years and she came to me looking to shed some weight and get in shape. She’s more than exceeded those goals since the first time she came into the gym. As of today, January 2nd, 2018, Caitlin has lost 45 pounds. For the better part of the past year, she followed all of my recommendations closely. We trained for strength three times per week, tracked calories so she was in a caloric deficit, and had a daily protein goal. She did this week in and week out, without missing much time, for a full year and has been wildly successful. Simple methods with great results. Here’s to Caitlin’s hard work and success!




Please share with us a little about your background.

I’m 27 and I am a veterinary cardiac nurse. I live in Rockville with my husband and our 3 dogs.

What was your exercise history before WSC?  

Not much! I joined a gym once and it was pretty intimidating so I eventually lost interest. I focused on cardio because that’s what everyone else was doing.

How did you find out about WSC and what was the catalyst to get you to contact us and come in your first day?

My friend Steve Barker is my coach and I would see his posts about what he was doing at WSC, and always knew that if I started strength training, I would go to him. I had read stories online about strength training and how you could change the shape of your body without being on the treadmill for hours. I wanted to get in shape and be strong, so I made the decision to start training.

What are your current personal bests for all the lifts? 

150×3 Squat, 80×2 Bench, 70×2 Press, 195×2 Deadlift

What is your favorite lift and why?

Squats are definitely my favorite. It’s the lift I think I’m best at and have progressed the most with.


How long after starting at WSC before you noticed a difference?

I noticed a difference about 1 month after starting. It’s been 10 months and now everyone tells me they can see a difference!

How has strength training impacted your daily life? 

I have so much more confidence than I did 10 months ago! It’s the only exercise that has kept me motivated and constantly striving to work harder and be better. It also makes lifting at my job easier, and is a great outlet for stress.

How is strength training different than what you did before for exercise?

I think it’s different in that there will always be a new goal to reach, and that keeps me motivated to keep going. I haven’t lost interest like I did with previous exercise because I genuinely enjoy strength training and it doesn’t seem like a chore unlike other things I’ve tried.

Success with Heavy Light Medium

Lets start this off by saying that HLM is not a novice program. No matter how strong you think you are, if you have never ran through a simple linear progression on the basic barbell lifts, you will get stronger much quicker by doing that than anything you will read in this article.


The goal here is to explain what we do with certain people when they finish up a novice LP. A Heavy-Light-Medium (HLM) program provides a pretty good early-intermediate way to design weekly increases. Not all of our members use this template, but it can be very useful if used appropriately. It’s a basic framework that can be applied to athletes, older folks, and everyone in-between.


Our first foray into HLM began with Bill Starr’s Strongest Shall Survive. In it, Starr gives a very good description of what and why he did as a strength & conditioning coach. The basics are that he had his team do ascending sets of 5 with little rest on the power clean, squat, and bench press. If you read the book, he explains the limitations he was facing and how that influenced exercise selection and programming.



The average person at our gym, however, does not face these same limitations. So we were able to run with the program a bit and apply it a bit differently.






This is the basic program we began with, and one that a lot of our people have had success with. For the novice coming off an LP, it provides a nice boost in volume without being quite as grueling as, say, the Texas Method.


The “Ascending 5’s” part comes from the rep scheme of each lift. We do sets of five at 60%, 70%, 80%, 90% and 100%. The first four sets are done with little to no rest. Whatever it takes for you to change the plates. Before the last heavy set, that person does their normal 4-5 minute rest. This allows a lot of volume to be done quickly, which is perfect for anybody on a time crunch. I remember reading that Starr had some of his Baltimore Colts players go through their light day in 15-20 minutes.


A sample squat workout looks like this:





^All done without much rest

Rest 5 minutes, then hit 305×5.


The weekly layout looks like this:

Monday – Heavy

Squat – 100%

Bench – 100%

Deadlift – 100%


Wednesday – Light

Squat – 80% (base your %’s off 80% of whatever you did Monday)

Press – 100%

Deadlift – 80%


Friday – Medium

Squat – 90%

Bench – 90%

Deadlift – 90%


Now if you’re just coming off a novice LP, your first thought is probably “sweet mother of deadlift volume!” It’s a lot, especially coming off a program that does one or two sets of five per week. This is why for some people we go to the next section, in which we take some pulling volume away.



Nothing changes too much. We just swap out some of the pulling from the floor to decrease deadlift frequency and volume. We still keep the heavy day, but put in other pulls that are inherently lighter.


Monday – Heavy

Squat – 100%

Bench – 100%

Deadlift – 100%


Wednesday – Light



Squat – 80% (base your %’s off 80% of whatever you did Monday)

Press – 100%



Friday – Medium

Squat – 90%

Bench – 90%

Deadlift – 80% (or any other lighter variation that may work on weaknesses, such as a paused DL)



Early-intermediate athletes need to get stronger while doing the Olympic lifts. So we take some of the pulling volume and put it in as cleans and snatches. For most of our athletes we replace the light day squat with front squats.

Some of our athletes Jerk, while others don’t. It’s simply a matter of prioritizing time in the gym. If the athlete is going to struggle with it, I would rather save time and energy by doing something more productive. The only exception is if the athlete is going away to a S&C program that will have them perform the jerk. In which case we teach them now, so they don’t have the chance to learn incorrectly at school (which saves us lots of time the next year when we have to fix everything).

We add in conditioning on the light and medium days, making sure not to program something that’s going to mess up their lifts. Things like sled pushes, assault bike sprints, sled drags, and carries that don’t create a whole lot of DOMS.

Kerri Prowler


Monday – Heavy

Squat – 100%

Bench – 100%

Deadlift – 100%


Wednesday – Light

Front Squat – 3×3 or 5×3

Press – 100%

Snatch – singles or doubles



Friday – Medium

Squat – 90%

Bench – 90%

Power Clean – singles, doubles, or triples




Eventually you won’t be able to add 5 pounds to your lift each week, and you have to get somewhat fancy. You can eek out a few more weeks/months of progress on this program by changing the top set of each lift while keeping the first four sets the same. For instance, if you are stuck on a 225×5 squat, your first week might look like:

135×5, 155×5, 185×5, 205×5, 230x3x2.

By hitting 230 for two triples, you essentially keep volume the same while still pushing the weight up a bit. We have had people cycle through the following rep schemes for a few months, spending one week on each before starting over at the top of the list.





Once you run through this a couple times, it’s time to move on to a different program.



While multiple sets of 5 are optimal for most lifters, it can beat up some athletes when they are in-season (or if their season lasts year-round). A lot of our athletes seemingly have a weekend tournament every weekend throughout the year and they need to be somewhat fresh to perform each weekend. This setup provides a nice stimulus at the beginning of the week, while the lower reps on Friday have them not feeling so beat-up from volume. This isn’t HLM weight-wise because your triples on Friday will be heavier than your 5’s on Monday, but the overall volume is lower than Monday’s workout . So the week’s stress still follows a HLM template.

Julie Bench

We’ve found this program to be really good for younger athletes (12-14 years old) who burn through an LP real quick. It gives them enough exposure to everything without being completely random, and is simple enough that their brains can understand it.


Monday – Heavy

Squat – 1×5, then back off 5% for 2-4 more sets

Bench – 1×5, then back off 5% for 2-4 more sets

Deadlift – 1×5, then maybe a back-off set or two


Wednesday – Light

Front Squat – 3×3

Press – 1×5 or 1×3, then back off 5% for 2-4 more sets

Snatch – Work up to a few heavy singles


Friday – Medium

Squat – 1×3, then back off 5% for 1-2 more sets

Close-grip Bench – 1×3, then back off 5% for 1-2 more sets

Clean+Jerk – Work up to a few heavy singles


Kids Oly

We have a few kids at the gym who play team sports but also enjoy the Olympic lifts. A few of them competed in a developmental weightlifting meet recently, so we simply took their normal program and added a little more exposure to the snatch and clean+jerk. They still got stronger while practicing the Olympic lifts more. Win-Win.


Monday – Heavy

Squat – 1×5, then back off 5% for 2-4 more sets

Bench – 1×5, then back off 5% for 2-4 more sets

Deadlift – 1×5, then maybe a back-off set or two


Wednesday – Light

Snatch – Find a heavy single

Clean + Jerk – 5-10 singles at 80% of last heavy day

Front Squat – 3×3

Press – 1×5 or 1×3, then back off 5% for 2-4 more sets



Friday – Medium

Clean+Jerk – Find a heavy single

Snatch – 5-10 singles at 80% of last heavy day

Squat – 1×3, then back off 5% for 1-2 more sets

Bench – 1×3, then back off 5% for 1-2 more sets



We take the same template but change it up to reduce squatting frequency. Because squatting and pulling in the same day can be a bit much, we move deadlift to the light squat day. When 5’s beat the person up too much, we drop to 3’s to keep pushing intensity while backing off in volume. The prowler day immediately after Heavy day helps loosen things up a bit while still adding in some leg volume.

Colyer Squat


Monday – Heavy

Squat – 1×5, then back off 5% for 1-2 more sets

Bench – 1×3 or  1×5, then back off 5% for 2-4 more sets


Tuesday – Light

Chins or rows – 3 sets



Friday – Medium

Squat – 70-80% of Wednesday’s weight for a few sets of 5

Press – 1×3 or 1×5, then back off 5% for 2-4 more sets

Deadlift – 1×3 or 1×5, then back off 5% for one set



We take the same template as the “Ascending 5’s”, and apply it to a one-heavy-set-with-backoffs program. Some people we feel aren’t suited to doing a bunch of sets of 5. Others are really bad at math and would mess percentages up all the time. Either way, the main thing that changes the weekly stress here is exercise selection. We pick exercises that are inherently lighter and stick with a rep scheme for a few weeks before changing to a new one. 6/4/2 is one rep-cycle that seems to work well for most people.


Monday – Heavy

Squat – 1×6, then drop 5% for 2-3 more sets

Bench – 1×6, then drop 5% for 2-3 more sets

Deadlift – 1×6, then drop 5% for 2-3 more sets


Wednesday – Light

Squat – 80% (base your %’s off 80% of whatever you did Monday)

Press – 1×6, then drop 5% for 2-3 more sets

Chins or Rows


Friday – Medium

Pause Squat – 1×6, then drop 5% for 2-3 more sets

Pause Bench – 1×6, then drop 5% for 2-3 more sets

Pause DL (or any other DL assistance that lowers the weight on the bar) – 1×6, then drop 5% for 2-3 more sets



There are thousands of different ways to set up a program like this. These are just a few that we have had success with. The most important aspect of every single person that has had success on these programs is that they showed up every day, worked hard, and watched their nutrition. Without attendance and effort in the gym and at home, it doesn’t matter what special program you’re doing.


Are You Strong Enough To Run?

This article is especially relevant due to some extremely nice weather we’ve been having here in Maryland lately. It is from our coach Steve Barker and originally appeared on his blog last year at www.barkertraining.com.


It’s getting nice out, which means everyone will be (and should be) getting outside more to move around after a long winter of staying indoors, binge eating oreos and checking to see what’s new on Netflix. The first thing everyone thinks to do once it gets nice out is to go for a run, and when the weather here in Maryland got over 60 degrees the first day, the sidewalks and streets were flooded with ipod-wearing runners hitting the pavement for the first time in a long time.  But what happened to those first timers? The streets haven’t been that busy since. Where have they all gone?

I have a few ideas.

With most people, as the weather fluctuates through early spring from warm to cold and back again, so does their motivation and commitment to get out and run.  And trust me, I don’t like running in warm or cold, so I’m not judging.  Here’s what I would bet happened to more than a few people though; overwhelming soreness and perhaps minor injury.  After spending all of winter indoors, motivation (and perhaps self loathing) hits an all-time high and our would-be spring time runner wants to go for three miles to begin to shed that hibernation weight. Everything goes great, the three miles was hard for our runner, but they got it done and now feel accomplished, endorphins are high, they check themselves in the mirror while getting into the shower after the run and they think “HELL YEAH”.  Until the next day. Shins are sore, knees hurt, feet feel funky.  “Oh yes, this is why I don’t run” the spring runner thinks. But what the hell happened?

Likely, the mileage for most nice-weather-only runners, who haven’t done anything all winter, is too much, too soon. (Think stress-recovery-adaptation)  The stress of a three mile run on someone who hasn’t ran in a while, and is perhaps a few pounds heavier since the last time they ran, is too much and the body tells you so by making literally everything hurt. There is a chance for redemption though, and that is training for STRENGTH year round, then adding your runs when you want.

The best “fitness” thing you can do is strength train. Period. Strength is an attribute of fitness that effects all others in some form or fashion, even endurance. Many hardcore runners will argue that training for strength will not effect performance on long runs, saying it will make them bulky, slow, and have them put on a few pounds (mostly gainz).  And some of those points I am unable to argue, since the science shows that training for strength gains and endurance gains at the same time may leave you inadequate at both. However, I would argue that taking time to prioritize strength and properly structure that strength training program while running would increase performance during long runs and increase, by leaps and bounds, a runner’s durability. Besides, unless you are a world class runner, putting on a few pounds of muscle will help you in other ways, such as feeling better, looking better, lasting longer in old age.  If you are a world class runner, than you probably already have a structured strength training program.

Staying healthy should be a priority during anyone’s training program, runners included. Take into account the ground reaction force during running, meaning the force that your body absorbs each time your foot strikes the ground (which is multiple times the amount of your bodyweight). Your body takes a hell of a beating while “pounding” the pavement on a long run.  The body needs to be able to repeat the task of running for many minutes and many miles, and over a long run, the ability to maintain good running form gets harder, so now ground reaction forces take a bigger toll, and faulty running mechanics lends itself to shit just generally hurting.  This is where many runner’s complaints of knees and hips and back and feet and ankles hurting come from.

In comes training for strength.

Strength training increases your ability to handle these forces.  Squatting, pressing, and pulling uses every muscle in the human body and the adaptations from these exercises include creating thicker muscles and tendons and bone, from head to toe. This means the body is able to handle more force, thus keeping you healthier while you run. Now, with your newly found strength, you are able to hold a proper running posture for a longer period of time.  Stronger leg musculature means less injury since your muscles are more durable and more PREPARED to handle big time forces. And those same stronger muscles can propel you forward quicker because they’re capable of putting more force into the ground.

Simple solution – prioritize strength for at least a period of time during the year, run when the weather is nice or if you want to run a big time race, but always strength train. Squat, press, pull. Your knees and hips and back and feet and race times will thank you. Your body will thank you by not being hurt.  Being strong enough to handle logging the vigorous miles should be a priority.

February Member Spotlight – Linda Kephart

lindasqOur second monthly spotlight in 2017 goes to Linda Kephart.  Linda has been a steady member of the 6am for a many years.  Day after day, week after week Linda can be found starting her day under a heavy barbell.  It’s safe to say she is an inspiration to the entire gym- coaches included.

Linda was a tough person to convince that more is not always better.  That first year she would train in the morning and run/bike/swim for many miles in the evening.  In her mind training with a barbell with smart short conditioning could not be enough to reach her fitness goals.  As progress became more difficult due to limited recovery we finally convinced her to trust the programming and scale back her time spent on the road.  She hasn’t looked back.

As a masters athlete her strength numbers would be admired by 20 year old college athletes.  The best part?  In her 60s she is stronger this year than she was last year.  After training with a barbell for years she is still getting stronger.  She deadlifts 2x her bodyweight, squats 1.5x her body weight, and presses .75x her body weight.  Absolutely impressive numbers for any for any age.  Add this to the fact she competed in a 5k without ANY running preparation and finished 4th in her age group of 40 other runners.

Linda is the type of athlete every coach wishes to coach.  She trusts the process and plan we give her.  She is consistent, showing up to put in the work day after day, week after week.  She establishes goals and works as hard as possible to reach them.  This county was lucky to have her leading and mentoring the Physical Education program for many years.  I know my children will benefit from her time spent teaching in Carroll County for many years to come.

Linda has competed in a few powerlifting competitions over the years.  Last fall she competed and won the Best Female Masters Lifter in the country at the Starting Strength Fall Classic.  This spring she will attend the Starting Strength Seminar to further expand her 40 years of knowledge in the fitness field.  Always learning and always improving.  Congrats Linda!

Please share a little about yourself. Profession, family, age, background…

I spent 26 years in public education as a physical education teacher followed by 14 years as the county lindapressPhysical Education Supervisor.  Most rewarding has been as mom to 2 beautiful and talented daughters, and now 2 grandsons!  Currently I am an adjunct professor at McDaniel College in the exercise science department.  I don’t know what 63 is supposed to feel like, but I feel pretty good.

What was your exercise history before WSC? 

Growing up I competed in swimming and gymnastics then switched to field hockey and lacrosse in college.  After college, I ran most every day and lifted on machines.  As a physical educator, I always felt it was important to be a fitness role model for my students.  Running was a convenient workout after school so it was 3-5 miles a day for many years. Fitness has been and continues to be an important part of my daily routine.

How did you find out about WSC and what was the catalyst to get you to contact us and come in your first day?

I was looking for some additional challenges in my fitness routine beyond what I was doing on my own: run, bike, lift.  I had heard good things about the program and coaches at WSC so decided to try it.  Since training at WSC for the past 4 years, I run less, bike more efficiently, and am much stronger! 

What are your current personal bests for all the lifts?

Squat – 205 lbs.

Bench Press – 115 lbs.

Dead Lift – 250 lbs.

Press – 90 lbs.

What is your favorite lift and why?

Squat:  Progress has continued at a steady pace.

How long after starting at WSC before you noticed a difference?

Within the first few weeks progress was noticeable.  Documenting daily lifts and WODS enables me to set goals, note progress, adjust training as needed.  All under the guidance of very knowledgeable coaches.

How has strength training impacted your daily life? What is the greatest impact?

Strength training is how I start every day at 6 AM.  Is it strange that most evenings I mentally load the bar for what I have to lift the next morning!  In addition to getting stronger and feeling more empowered, the WSC atmosphere encourages friendship and comradery. Friendship provides emotional strength.  For that, I am very thankful.

How is strength training different than what you did before for exercise?

There is a plan when strength training with a qualified strength coach.  The plan includes both short and long term goals.  Complete the lifts, document progress, and adjust the weight next session. 

lindadlWhat would you say to someone who is unsure about starting a barbell strength training program? How would you convince a friend to get started training?

Anyone at any age can benefit from strength training.  Once the myths of getting too bulky are debunked, the implementation of linear progression training provides safe, strength progress.  As the physical education supervisor, I was able to provide continuous professional development for all our high school and middle school PE teachers with Beau and Angie Bryant, Starting Strength coaches and owners of WSC.  All our high school weight rooms have been redesigned for barbell strength training.  We have more high school girls taking weight training than ever before.  Some of their comments include:  “I feel better about myself”, “I am stronger”, “I am more self-confident”. 

The Ritual of Barbell Training

From the Beau Bryant archives:


I stood in a weight room the other day watching about 40 kids squat, press and deadlift. It was one of those rare occasions I wasn’t yelling something at a kid, “shove your knees out”, “chest up!”, “elbows in front of the bar!” All you could hear were the weights clanging, bumpers dropping, and yells from fellow lifters encouraging their training partner. I’m not sure why I wasn’t yelling at a kid but it was pretty nice for about 10 minutes – just thinking and watching. As a strength coach in a crowded gym we don’t get much of that. So, in this rare opportunity I began thinking. Why do some kids excel in the weight room and some do not? Why do some kids gain 20 pounds of muscle, take their squat from 135 pounds to 400 pounds in 7 months, and become technicians of the lifts. Why do some of the others with access to the same program, the same advice, the same bar, the same steel, only gain a few pounds, take their squat from 115 pounds to 185 pounds, and just never make any more progress? This is what I was thinking about in the rare quiet of my own head in that noisy basement weight room.
I understand all the reasons we know so well. We all know them. Consistency, dedication, proper eating, proper recovery, genetics, mental attitude, and all the other things required to gain strength, size and power on a strength program. We know all these things are critical and we hammer them at every power athlete. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t talk to a kid about food, rest, recovery, focus, and consistency. There still seemed to be something else as I stood and watched these kids. What were the best performers doing in this crowd that made them different? Why did they look different as I stood and watched that day? Then it hit me. It hit me so hard that I could see it in every weight room I had coached in, including my own gym. The successful, the strong, approach the weight room and training in a very deliberate and focused manner. In the words of one of the best coaches in barbell sport, Marty Gallagher “one obvious difference between the athletically ordained and the athletically ordinary is the elite have an (innate?) ability to center and focus the mind on the athletic task at hand, whereas the civilian, the normal person, attacks weight training with the same approximate level of mental commitment they would muster for watering the lawn or brushing their teeth.” This was the difference.
Read that quote again. Let it sink in. It’s important to understand that although you are not trying to set a world squat record you are trying to get as strong as possible to improve your quality of life. Stronger now means stronger later. We only have so much time here, today, to get strong. We are all busy. We all have a million other obligations. Most of us make it to the gym 3 days a week or so for about an hour each. If I can do something simple that requires no extra time on my part and actually make my workouts more efficient why would I not do so? If I can reduce the likelihood of stalling on a lift simply because I have done everything right and make 100% use of that time I made it to the gym, why would I not do so? Whether you are a weightlifter or a powerlifter your task (the actual lift) takes as little as a second to tops about 3-4 seconds. If you have done everything right leading up to that 1-4 seconds you will not miss that lift.
As I stood there I noticed the kids making the most progress walked in every day and approached the same squat rack. Set their gear down in the same place. Adjusted the bar on the rack the same way they did 2 days earlier. As they stepped into the squat rack every movement was the same as the set before it. They placed their left hand on the rack, then their right, they stepped under the bar the same, carefully placed the bar in the exact same spot on their back. They took the same steps out of the rack. Their first warm-up set looked like their 3rd work set. They had ritualized everything they did from the time they walked in to train. If something threw off their ritual (their normal squat rack was occupied) you could physically see their discomfort. It upset them visibly.

The kids that made the most progress had what seemed to be an instinctual ability to ritualize what they did in the weight room. I as the coach didn’t teach it. They just seemed to do it; like all the best lifters I have coached. As I thought about it I realized I knew which kids were going to make the most progress by the end of the first week with a new group. It had nothing to do with how well they squatted on day one, it had nothing to do with what they looked like physically, it didn’t have much to do with genetics, it had everything to do with those that had the innate ability to ritualize the lift. You could see it developing by day two and by day three the ones that were going to do it had already started doing it.
So the next question I logically asked myself was can you teach someone how to do this? Can you teach someone to ritualize what you teach them during that first squat session? Can they begin to ritualize those first 10 cues you teach them about the squat and repeat the sequence two days later? Over time as they become more and more proficient at the movement will they continue to do it and add new steps to that process that have a positive impact on the lift? I think the answer to these questions is yes, many can (clearly many will never learn or apply this process) if you begin the process during the first coaching session.
Most of you reading this are not coaches so I will spare you the process I have used to get those without the innate ability to ritualize a barbell movement to begin doing so from day one. This article is for you the lifter who may approach the bar with the same focus you would any mundane task that needs little attention. This article is to get you thinking. All of you are familiar with the process of ritualizing something in your life. You all do it whether you think about it or not. Think hard about something you do regularly that if you get out of sequence it gets you get off track and gets the task harder. I know for me grocery shopping is a task I have ritualized. I will walk into the store with my list and attack it the same way every time. Veggie section, meats, milk for the kids, back in the other direction to hit the few things I need in the middle isles. When the process happens it’s smooth, I’m in and out in no time. The only thing I fear is the dreaded text from my wife while in the meat section asking to add ketchup to the list. If I do not turn and get the ketchup as soon as I get the text I will likely forget it. If I turn and get it I will mess my sequence up (my grocery store ritual) and I will forget something else. I will spend 10 minutes stumbling around an aisle I do not even need to be down all because I got out of sequence. I know you have something, just think about it. You already know how to do this.
The next step is to apply it to your training. Begin to ritualize how you squat, press, and pull. Place the same hand on the bar first in the same spot every time you squat. Place the bar in the exact same position on your back every time. Walk out of the rack and place your left foot in position then your right. If you do this you will never have your hands placed in the wrong position on the bar. You will never place the bar in the wrong position on your back. You will never miss a squat because you took too wide a stance. This is the start of the process. As you continue to ritualize you will add your own cues or steps to the process. You will begin to see all your lifts looking exactly the same. The first set to the last will look the same. Remember, when you do everything correctly you cannot do it wrong. Once you have set the lift up correctly you can’t miss it.
Check out one of the greats, Kirk Karwoski training his deadlift. Look at the first warm-up to the last. I think it is safe to say Kirk ritualized his lifts. The only difference between set one and the last is plates added to the bar. Kirk had the ability to treat his 60% warm-up the exact same way he treated a max attempt. In his mind the 60% lift might as well have been 900 pounds. He had the same mental focus and the same ritual.
Remember, when you do everything right you cannot screw up.

January Member Spotlight – Mary Brunst

We will kick 2017 off with a monthly member spotlight.  We have a gym full of amazing people who have done great things and it’s time to introduce everyone to them.  We understand the misconceptions of strength training or the fear many people have to get started.  Our hope is to introduce you to people just like you who have changed their life with a barbell.  To show you that everyone starts somewhere and where that place is doesn’t matter.  The only thing that matters is that you begin.

Finding a monthly person to spotlight will be easy.  Picking just one each month will be difficult.  We have been dong this in Westminster since 2010 and the number of people who have changed their life with a barbell is long.  We could do this weekly and still not get to everyone this year.  With that in mind someone had to be the first and Mary Brunst immediately came to mind.

Mary is a local photographer who started training with us last spring.  (See here for an awesome photo of Mary on her website)  I vividly remember her first day.  She was about as nervous as a person could be and I knew it took all her courage to walk in the door that morning.  We immediately got her to work learning how to squat, press and deadlift.  There’s a lot to learn on those first few weeks and that first hour goes by quickly.  When we finished up I wasn’t sure if Mary would be back for her second session.  Thankfully she showed up and she hasn’t looked back.

Mary spent the next week or so learning the basic barbell lifts.  All our new members begin the Starting Strength program to establish a foundation of strength.  We keep things pretty simple and focus on mastering the squat, press, deadlift, bench press and eventually the power clean.  We start light and add weight each session.  Once confidence builds in the proficiency of these lifts we will begin to talk about nutrition.  Our nutrition program starts simple and becomes more complex as needed.  We taught Mary the importance of establishing a caloric deficit to lose weight.  That foods are not inherently “good” or “bad” but simply made up of proteins, carbs, and fats.  We established a caloric load and helped her as she learned how many macronutrients were in the foods she ate.  She slowly began to hit daily caloric goals and eventually macronutrient goals.

By March her lifts were slowly going up and she began tracking her nutrition closely.  In addition to her barbell training she added one or two days a week of conditioning.  Conditioning consisted of work on the prowler for short intervals.  Her program has been largely unchanged since her start.  She still strength trains three times a week, conditions at the gym if she has time and gets outside for a hike or walk on the weekends.

How effective has it been?  Her hard work and consistency has her down over 32 pounds and 10 inches off her waist.  She hits the gym with a smile and is the first person to introduce herself and offer words of encouragement to a new member.  She has done what many won’t.  She has learned the difference between training and exercise.  She has learned the basics of nutrition and has learned how to apply it to reach her goals.  She has established a training program and a nutrition plan she can live with for the rest of her life.  Our coaches at WSC have done their job.  We educated and delivered the tools of success and watched Mary succeed on her own with her own hard work.  She now understands more about the world of strength and conditioning, weight loss and strength gain than most coaches.  She will be able to apply these principles for the rest of her life and we are proud of her.

Please share with us a little about your background?

merypressI almost feel like I should start off this blog interview like a confessional – “Hi, I’m Mary and a year ago I was a total gym newbie,” or “Hi, my name is Mary and I was terrified to walk into Westminster Strength & Conditioning that first day,” or better yet “Hi, I’m Mary Brunst and WSC has changed my life for the better this past year.” All of those statements are true, but to give you some background let me share with you a little about myself. I work as a self-employed, professional photographer; I’m 28, not married, and do not have any children. I’m blessed that I truly love my job and I’m so grateful for the opportunities that it has provided me; however, working 60 to 80-hour work weeks to get my business off the ground has given me little time for much else these past 6 years. That is not at all a complaint, but rather a reality. You know that saying about some people working 80 hours a week to avoid working 40? That’s true for me. To say that it has been a constant hustle seems like a bit of an understatement at times. So while I have a job that I love, last year at this time, my work life and personal life were way out of balance. My personal life and health were at an all-time low.

I’ve always been someone who has struggled with my weight. Over the past 6 years my weight has dramatically fluctuated due to a crazy work schedule and a lot of inactive hours in front of a computer screen. I have tried what feels like every diet around in efforts to fend off the weight gain – including Ideal Protein, the HCG diet, and Whole30, to just name a few. After all of the yoyoing back and forth I got really, really tired of it all. A year ago I was 50+ pounds overweight, so frustrated, and frankly unhappy.

Enter Westminster Strength & Conditioning. I have friends who do CrossFit and a cousin who is really into powerlifting. After hearing about their experiences, both were something that I had wanted to try but put off for several years. Working 60 to 80-hours a week and hearing people say “you don’t find the time, you make the time to workout,” (I’ll be honest with you) my thoughts were always responding with “yeah, that’s nice, but THERE IS NO TIME to make. A girl has to sleep and I’m already running myself into the ground.” I eventually reached a point where I knew something had to change. I was in my mid-to-late-twenties, unhappy, unhealthy, and questioning what I was really doing with my life. I also knew that I didn’t want to wake up at 50 regretting that I never made my health a priority. The current pace I was keeping was unsustainable and I knew it. There were no easy answers, the same amount of work still had to get done, I wasn’t at a place where I could hire anyone to help, and I wasn’t at all confident that taking an hour to an hour-and-a-half out of my work day would be do-able. I know how crazy that sounds and how much I sound like an insane workaholic…. however, that was my frame of mind at the time. It’s not that I wanted to be working 10-14 hour days but that’s what my present reality was and there were no easy answers for how to change it. Give up a dream that I had poured blood, sweat, and tears into? Scale back the work and pray that I somehow would make enough money to make the ends meet? I know it seems crazy, we’re only talking about a few hours a week here, but at the time I was stretched really thin with very little margin in my life. I read a quote on Instagram around that time that said something along the lines of: “you are your business’s biggest asset, when are you going to start treating yourself like it?”, and it really struck a cord with me. I decided that I needed to carve out the time for my health. Instead of having all of my questions answered of how I was going to gain time and margin in my life, I decided to just jump in and take it one day at a time. So here I am almost a year later and I won’t lie to you, finding the time to spend at the gym is not easy or convenient, but the benefits far, far, outweigh the cost. Not only has my physical health greatly improved, but also my mental health because of it. Now that hour, to an hour and a half, has become less of a sacrifice and so much more of a blessing.

What was your exercise history before WSC?  

I played soccer through high school but that is the extent of my athleticism. In recent years, if there was a workout routine in my life it looked like running a mile or so three times a week. I tried a 24-hour gym and held a membership for a year, however, I rarely went because I had no idea how to use any of the equipment other than the treadmill…. and I preferred to run outside so that was a waste!

How did you find out about WSC and what was the catalyst to get you to contact us and come in your first day?

I’ve known about WSC for awhile but never had the courage to actually come. Once I decided that I maryDLneeded to change my health, and my life, I researched all of the gyms in the area and kept coming back to WSC. I knew WSC had a great reputation and I knew that I needed to go to a place that would train and educate me. With my schedule I didn’t have the time or energy to be self-taught, I also didn’t want to spin my wheels and pick up bad habits for lack of knowing better. I saw on Facebook that my friend Lindsay Archer went to WSC so I contacted her to see if I could tag along with her sometime. To my dismay, Lindsay responded immediately with “yeah! How about this week?” …. and in my mind, I was like “uhhhh no time to mentally prepare and work up my courage, so guess it’s just time to jump in.” To say that I was out of my comfort zone is an understatement. However, walking through the door I couldn’t have been met with more kindness and patience by owner Beau Bryant and the other gym members. Looking back it’s almost laughable. For all of you other gym newbies out there, I can tell you from personal experience that it is so much less scary than it seems in the beginning!

What are your current personal bests for all the lifts?  

Back squat: 205, Press: 85, Bench Press: 105, Deadlift: 230

What is your favorite lift and why?

My favorite lift is the deadlift and I think that is because I’m half afraid of it! As silly as it sounds, because the deadlift is so challenging for me I feel the most successful after a good set, and that feeling of success makes it my favorite…. even if the relationship is a little bit of both love and hate!

How long after starting at WSC before you noticed a difference?

The first week at WSC I was too nervous to remember anything other than my awkwardness, but definitely by the 3rd or 4th week of going I was confident that this was going to provide the life-change that I had been needing and wanting. I started noticing the biggest difference when I started the nutrition program.

How has strength training impacted your daily life?  

Strength training has impacted every area of my life. I can say without a doubt that it has been the best thing that I did for myself (and my business) in 2016! It’s truly been life-changing in the best way possible. I feel more capable than I ever have. I have more energy than I’ve had in a very long time, and the back pain that was a constant during every busy summer/fall season photographing weddings is virtually gone. I feel happy and confident again, and for the first time ever I feel in control of my health. I no longer feel like my weight is this ever-changing mystery dependent on how stressful life is at the moment. Tracking my macros along with strength training has finally given me the answers that I’ve longed for and with that I’ve found a new sense of freedom.

How is strength training different than what you did before for exercise?

Before strength training my version of exercising was running or hiking. Strength training has been a million times more beneficial as well as less time intensive, which has made it so much more do-able and practical for me.
What would you say to someone who is unsure about starting a barbell strength training program?  How would you convince a friend to get started training?

MarYSQTo anyone unsure about starting a barbell strength program and wondering if it is for them, I’ve been there, I’ve had all of the same questions and doubts. Can I do this? Will I look like a bodybuilder? Will I still look feminine? Is it only for athletic types? Is it really for me? However, after almost a year I can tell you that not only can I, or anyone else, strength train but 1.) you won’t look like a bodybuilder. However, you will feel more capable than you ever have…. and that feels so good! 2.) For better or worse, will still have the body shape that God gave you, even if that shape is slimmer and more “toned” :). Yes, you will still look feminine, but you’ll be stronger and feel more confident. 3.) I’m about the farthest thing from an athlete and if someone would have told me a year ago that I would actually love barbell strength training there is no way that I would have believed them, but I do love it, and it’s way more fun than I ever imagined it would be. 4.) I honestly believe that strength training is for everyone, no matter your age, background, or weight. I know it’s scary getting started, I was terrified, but looking back almost a year later, I can’t put into words how happy I am that I made the first step to go to WSC. That I decided to just jump in and take it one day at a time, that I’m still taking it one day at a time. The knowledgeable coaches at WSC have always been there to guide and help me every step of the way. I promise you that getting started is the hardest part and I’m confident you will never regret it!

Sit-ups And Other Silly Things in 2017

It’s that time of year again.  As a gym owner I get to be subjected to hundreds of articles about fitness designed to get page clicks and advertisers paid.  The entire thing is quite maddening because the stuff pedaled will mostly be silly bullshit.  If I’m lucky I’ll even have a few people ask me about the silly shit a friend told them about “getting in shape”- then get to watch them tune me out at the point I mentions squats, deadlifts and caloric restriction to lose weight.

Luckily by the end of January things will mostly be back to normal and I will only deal with weakly silliness.  But one thing is for certain.  The first week of January millions of people will crowd the local gyms to jump on treadmills, bosu balls, ellipticals, hit the body pump class, the cable machine, and GNC for all the right supplements.

In the spirit of the time for new found fitness I have come up with a simple guide to help you navigate the gym in 2017.  A simple list of all the things you will WANT to do to “get in shape” come January 1st and all the things you SHOULD do to get strong in 2017.

What you want to do

Hit the gym 5 nights a week and do some extra cardio on the weekend.  Seriously, summer is just around the corner.

What you should do

Carve out an hour from your schedule three days a week that you WILL stick to.  Pick these three days with a rest day in between.  Monday, Wednesday and Fridays work great but the choice is yours.  Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays will work the same.  As will any number of days with at least one rest day in between.

These three days a week are all we need when we first get started.  Missing workouts make most people feel guilty.  Most of us have a pretty busy life with work and family obligations.  The thought of needing to hit the gym 6 days a week can set you up for failure before you get started.  Unless you are a 19 year old college student you will more than likely miss workouts on a schedule like this.  These missed workouts can lead to guilt and that guilt snowballs into more missed workouts.  Failed diets often work like this.  “I ate a pizza for breakfast, might as well have this cake for dinner.  Cake for dinner last night, might as well have this pie for breakfast.”  Failure leads to more failure.

Make those three days in the gym as optimal as possible.  Training optimally is one of the most important things you can do to see results.  Training optimally begins with proper exercise selection.  For 99% of you reading this this means just a few basic exercises.  The squat, press, deadlift, bench press and chin-up will cover you for the first 4 to 6 months in the gym.  No need for more.

These five exercises are optimal for a few simple reasons.  They give us the most return on our time invested in the gym because they use the most muscle mass over the greatest effective range of motion and allow us to lift the most load.

You will want to do endless curls in front of the mirror.  Don’t.  Just do chin-ups.  If we use the above criteria for the selection of our exercises it becomes pretty clear why.  What is the effective range of motion on a standing dumbbell curl?  Go ahead and stand up, pretend to do a curl.  Now compare that to hanging from a pullup bar with arms straight and pulling your chin over the bar.  See the difference?  How about muscle mass?  What muscles are being used when you curl a dumbbell?  Now compare that to the required musculature to hang from a bar and pull your chin over the bar.  See the difference?  Which one allows you to lift the most load?  How much can you curl?  60 pound dumbbell?  How much do you pull over the bar when you do a chin-up?  Your body weight?

Lastly, my own criteria- which one is harder?  Now, which one do you think you should be doing as a beginner?

We can do this all day long.  Squat and the leg extension.  Deadlift and the cable machine.

Using more muscle mass over the greatest effective range of motion handling the most load means MORE adaptation.  More adaptation means more results.  More results means you will keep at this thing longer than a few weeks.

What you want to do

Lose this gut and get a stronger “core”.  Time for endless sit-ups and planks.

What you should do

Oh the time wasted doing sit-ups and planks.  None of this works this way.  You don’t lose your gut by doing sit-ups.  You lose your gut by losing fat.  You lose fat by eating less food.  Simple.

If you need to lose fat you need to eat less calories than you burn.  You can do that a number of ways but the common theme to fat loss is caloric restriction.  The best way to do that is with a combination of eating less calories and more activity.  Guess what?  The first thing we talked about covers the more activity nicely.  Just eat less.  Track your calories for a week while eating normally.  The second week drop your calories between 200 and 500 calories a day and monitor the results.  Make adjustments only when needed.

Things can get more complicated than this but you are just starting out.  Simple works and adding complexity is not needed and only serves to overwhelm you.  Keep it simple at first and it will work.

So, no sit-ups and planks?  Why?  Because they don’t work nearly as well as the five exercises we covered earlier and sit-ups can potentially hurt your back.  If you are squatting, pressing, deadlifting and doing chin-ups- as a beginner there are absolutely no reasons to do sit-ups and planks.

The musculature of the trunk functions to provide support isometrically.  Think or them as functioningholly squat much like a corset.  They contract to increase support so your spine doesn’t do wiggly things when you lift, run or jump.  Take a look at the picture to the right.  She has 210 pounds on her back at the bottom of a squat.  Her trunk muscles are held in rigid isometric contraction to prevent her “core” from folding under the load and dropping the weight forward.  Using our criteria above (most muscle mass, longest effective range of motion, most weight used) which do you think is better for building “core” strength- a body weight plank or sit-up or this 200 pound squat?

How did her “core” get strong enough to hold over 200 pounds?  Slowly over time of course.  She started with a 75 pound squat and over several months slowly increased the load.  The body adapted.  We already learned the body adapts the quickest when we train optimally with big compound exercises.  Adaptation is results and results keep us going back.

Lastly, sit-ups just are not good for your back.  If they are suboptimal for results AND they have a potential to make cranky backs crankier, why would we do them?  I know people like them.  I know your CrossFit gym has you do them.  There was a time I had people do them.  It still doesn’t mean you should do them.

But don’t just take my word for it.  Read all about why you can cut the silly sit-up from your new program.     

Furthermore, if your back is hurting, something is usually inflamed.

If jamming the spine into a compromised position triggered the irritation, wiggling the compromised structures can increase the irritation, and thus increase the inflammation. Keeping your back rigid and internally motionless as you strengthen the muscles does not increase the irritation, and does not bother an older spine nearly as much as situps and back extensions do. Situps obviously don’t hurt everybody, but if your back hurts already, situps may be part of the problem.

If your back hurts and you are doing situps, just try this for six weeks: Stop doing situps and back extensions. Just stop. – Mark Rippetoe

What you want to do

Jump on a treadmill for 60 painful minutes or start a couch to 5k program.

What you should do

Spend the entire hour you have in the gym each of the three days building strength.  When first starting in the gym it’s the most important and useful adaptation you can acquire. In the beginning it will do everything you are trying to do BETTER than running long slow distances.  Everything.

Strength is the foundation of all domains of fitness.  Your ability to produce ever greater force against objects in your daily environment will literally make everything you do easier.  Yes, even running.  All the tissue of your body will adapt to the ever increasing loads from the barbell.  Muscles will become bigger, tendons pulling on the bones will become thicker, bones will signal to lay down more bone mass, cartilage will adapt to handle increasing loads and the list goes on and on.

Focus all your energy and recovery on this process.  Stress the body, allow it to recover and adapt then do it again.  In less than 6 months you will have acquired the strength required to do all those other things you want to do safely and effectively.  Just get strong first.

There will be plenty of time to train your couch to 5k once you have built strength and toughened your bodies connective tissue and bones.  Save yourself all the overuse injuries and heartache with a little time investment in strength acquisition now.  Your body will thank you later.

Getting stronger with a barbell is also a far better way to lose fat and build muscle than running.  Yes, you want to build muscle to look good.  When you tell a strength coach you want to “tone up” what you are saying is, you want bigger muscles.  Bigger muscles and less fat.  By now I think you have a pretty good idea how to get bigger muscles and less fat.  So, get started.

Don’t make the same mistakes you made last year.  Get in the gym.  Occupy a squat rack.  Start light and put a little more weight on the bar every time you hit the gym.  Squat, press and pull every time you train.  Track your training.  If you need to lose weight eat a little less than you have been.  Get outside and move on your off days.  Go for a walk, a hike, a bike ride with the kids.  Make 2017 your strongest year yet.