How to Spot Bull Sh*t: Charlatans in the Strength Training Industry

I did a video last year covering charlatans in the lifting/performance/fitness industry. My main focus was Joel Seedman, somebody who’s gained quite a bit of notoriety by  peppering his Instagram with videos of his clients doing ridiculously complex exercises. Seedman is known for gems like “ squatting to 90 degree knee angle is superior to squatting to depth” and likes  to insist on his very carefully branded method of training, which primarily consists of training  conflicting movement patterns within the same exercise and often in a massively destabilized  setting.  Do a curl with one arm and a press with the other, stand in a split squat, control the eccentric and try to resist external band tension pulling you out of position. Seriously, that’s an exercise.

 Now, in his case it’s one thing to argue the efficacy of any one movement. Of course A movement can’t be evaluated until you have a specific goal to apply it against; NFL players, for instance. Seedman often uses Pro players to prop up his methodologies, which is a compelling sales tactic. Understand that these athletes need to be strong but also fast, reactive and coordinated more so than they need to be big. So it stands to reason that standard hypertrophy work is going to be a smaller piece of the puzzle than things that might lend themselves to sports specific performance. You wouldn’t evaluate a program for an NFL player the same way you would a powerlifting or general fitness program for the average Joe.

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Size v. Strength

Size and strength are two of the most trainable qualities in the human body. Not only do they both respond very predictably to training but they just so happen to go together like peanut butter and bananas.

Where certain physical qualities might have a more rigid ceiling that can’t be pushed past, anybody can continue to add a little bit of muscle mass by increasing training volume, implementing progressive overload and upping their calorie intake. If your goal is to increase strength, there is always the option to add a few more pounds of muscle to your frame.

 Size and strength can also be trained separately and when that’s done for a long enough period of time you can dramatically increase one at the expense of the other. At the top end of the competitive tier, you might very well find bodybuilders with ridiculous amounts of muscle on their frame who would be hard-pressed to hang with amateur powerlifters 3 weight classes down.  And on the other end of the spectrum, you will see 500lb benches and 800 lb deadlifts from specialists who have as much muscle as your average landscaper.

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Why Strongmen Are the Best Deadlifters

Strongmen are better deadlifters than powerlifters are. 

This is a point I’ve made in passing a few times while having a broader discussion about different training variables and why certain activities are so good for strengthening your posterior chain and improving your ability to pick things up off the ground.

  I never thought it was that controversial. After all, strongmen are known for having a dozen or so athletes who are capable of deadlifting 1000 pounds from the floor within several hours of  performing Yoke carries, bag loading and log pressing. Powerlifters are known for missing their second deadlift attempt and blaming it on the fatigue from their bench attempt from 4 hours earlier.

 After so many posts on the subject, I’ve come to expect the voice of dissent in the comment section every time I make this point. I can talk about the massive lifts that are done with many different implements through many different movement and rep ranges. I can talk about how the feats performed by the world’s best strongmen are out of arm’s reach of the world’s best powerlifters. Like clockwork, a powerlifting sycophant (likely someone who has had no exposure to other strength sports and likely isn’t very competitive themselves) will imply that powerlifting holds the rights to the one true deadlift because they don’t use straps and they hitch. 

And let’s not forget about those dirty, dirty suits.

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These Questions are Stealing Your Gains

Which Exercises are Better?

Example: Is low-bar squat or high-bar better? Will the safety bar or cambered bar do more for my squat? Is parallel more productive than full ass-to-grass?

Here are some better questions.

What are the meaningful differences between these training variables (if any) and how will those differences impact my immediate and long term goal?

Let’s start with your competitive setup.

For your main lift, you should be aiming for a  comfortable and intuitive setup where you have good purchase on the weight at the bottom position and can transition to lock out in a fluid and efficient manner. That’s going to mean different things to people with different builds. Regardless of your build, remember you get good at how you train!   You can have the longest femurs in the world and still learn how to high bar squat. There are plenty of Olympic lifters who fit that mold. Similarly, us stumpy potatoes can mimic a wide, hip dominant type squat just as well as we can put our heels together and touch the ground with our butt. The thing we will have the most skill and efficiency with will invariably be the thing that we drill the most. So don’t sweat the small stuff.

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5 Reasons That the Squat is the King of the Lifts

  1. Functionality 

 Performance in anything requires physical ability as well as skill and experience in that particular movement. It would be enough to say that squats develop really strong and conditioned leg and hip muscles but the fact that the pattern of squatting so closely resembles athletic and real-world movement patterns gives it a quality that few other movements have. It’s no accident that squatting is a key feature in all athletic programs, from American football and soccer to  track and field events.  Putting a weight on your back, sitting down and standing back up creates physical adaptations that  transfer over to just about every physical activity you can think of. 

Now, there might be valid arguments for favoring more specialized variations when it comes to peaking in a specific event. Specificity advocates have cited quarter squats as being more specific (and, thus, more useful) to sprinting and jumping and I’m inclined to say that they aren’t exactly wrong. But as a base standard for physical development, getting comfortable sitting down into a parallel squat  will lead to a baseline of strength, size and coordination that will provide a substantial platform for more specialized training in any particular sport.  

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Waves and Deloads: Why You Need to Take One Step Back

Serious training builds up fatigue. It’s a fact. If you’re training hard enough to get stronger then you’re training hard enough to dig yourself into a recovery hole. Now, there are a lot of ways to work around that which might include varying the exercises over time, dropping volume as the weights get heavier or moving into different phases of training. But when it comes to making your training sustainable in the short-term, deloads are one of the easiest and most proven methods for making your training sustainable.

 While not defined in most textbooks, deloading is talked widely about in general training culture and has been written about extensively. It generally means a deliberate reduction in training stress that is done to allow for recovery. So as multiple weeks of hard training compound togethe,r a single week of reduced training stress will allow the lifter to bounce back so that they can continue to hammer the iron once again.  This can be done by reducing volume, intensity, effort, aggression, changing the exercise or doing some combination of all..

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Weak Point Training: 3 Points of Attack

Weak Point: An obvious imbalance that creates an inefficiency, one factor that is single-handedly limiting progress, can cause lifts to stall at particular points of the movement) or can cause deviation in setup that leads to a missed rep.

It’s become trendy to focus on weak point targeting as a primary means of driving your numbers up. The problem is that this approach is not as well suited for newer or less experienced lifters. When you are unfamiliar with the lifts, untrained and lacking in muscle mass and basic coordination, everything is weak which means that there is no justification in isolating a single piece of the puzzle. At this stage,  your best bet is to focus on the fundamentals and use broader, non-specific training approaches to develop a well-rounded and symmetrical base that will contribute to optimal efficiency as you become more specialized.

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How to Kill Plateaus: Specialization Part II

We scratched the surface on specialization last time, breaking down the difference between developmental and specialized phases of training. It’s an important concept to get down if you want to actually have a handle on your training but, unfortunately, is misunderstood by many competitive hopefuls. 

Specialization means high development in one skill. You can’t specialize in everything so there’s an implication of priority; i.e. you specialize in one thing at the expense of others.

Example time. 

The World’s Strongest Man contest started in the 1970s as a television exhibition on ABC. The appeal of it was to take  a group of the strongest men in the world from a variety of different backgrounds: bodybuilding, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, track and field, football, wrestling and so on) and expose them to a variety of tests to see who actually was the strongest. It’s an interesting premise that hinged on the athletes not knowing what was coming next. This was ‘every-day strength’. 

As recently as 2012, the heaviest atlas stone at World’s Strongest Man was 405. That’s in contrast to the world record stone (630lbs) set by Tom Stoltman in 2020.

However, the sport of strong man has since evolved to something far from what the original creators intended. Today, strongman athletes are not coming out cold in trying to wing it with unfamiliar events using whatever physical qualities they happened to develop by doing something else entirely. To be competitive in today’s field you have to be practiced and peaked with the same deliberate precision of any powerlifter or weightlifter (lest you give up the margins to another competitor who was). That means you have to be specialized.

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How to Kill Plateaus: Specialization Part I

Variety is a huge component of any strength program. You can’t progress long-term unless you are continuously trying to make changes for how much work you’re doing, what type of work you’re doing and how hard you’re doing it. The earliest advice anybody gives when they’re brand new to the gym is that at some point they’re going to have to switch it up. For those who have long-term performance-based goals it’s imperative that you understand what that actually means.

We know the diminished returns eventually sets in, meaning the same type of training stops yielding results. So we have to make changes to avoid that. But we also know that training, if broken into different chunks, can potentiate or improve the training effect from one block into the next. So we can make changes to build off what we did in the block before.

That’s a powerful 1-2 punch in training; giving yourself a break from the same old thing so that your body might start adapting again to a new stimulus while also arranging that stimulus in a way that points to a dedicated contest performance. No matter how different the programs appear (concurrent periodization like Westside, linear periodization like the Juggernaut method,  forever program LPS like 531 or starting strength), virtually all competitive strength programs work by exploiting this in one way or another. 

You just have to know what to look for to see it.

 If you have a primary goal that you’re training for, whether it’s running a marathon, acing a math test or training for a powerlifting meet, the total successful performance can be broken into smaller constituent parts. This is true for everything. 

This is a broad conceptualization of what a full meet prep looks like, with broad skills being trained first and specialized ones coming closer to the test date.

Success in test-taking, for instance,may benefit from focusing on smaller bit, like reading comprehension, attention span, understanding of the subject or your ability to utilize mnemonic tools. Think of these smaller qualities as the base of a successful performance plan.

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