Year In Strength 2015: Reflections on Training

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Another year of strength training is under my belt, and since it’s in every strength enthusiast’s best interests to look back and reflect on their training every so often I thought I’d take this opportunity to do so. I’ll be reflecting on my progress on each of the Big Six from Convict Conditioning, as well as reviewing a few of the decisions I made this year.

Push-Ups

2015 was definitely the year of the push-up for me. I’ve always struggled with upper-body pushing, and although this year was no different – I feel my approach has come along leaps and bounds.

When starting calisthenics, I was desperate to master the push-up and raced my way through the first four stages towards Full Push-Ups, and this showed in my form. During the summer of 2014 I made a start on Close (Diamond) Push-Ups, and was shocked at how difficult they were. Yes, I fell straight into the trap Coach Wade has spent the better part of his career warning me against. For the latter half of 2014, I performed sloppy Close Push-Ups for sets up to 15 reps, and wondering why I couldn’t get past that point.

I resolved to change this in 2015, and since then I’ve been working on form. I would start at 3x5 reps, then move slowly up one rep per set per session until I hit 3x10. I would then realise that there was something else wrong with my form, and I would resolve to fix that and begin again. This recently culminated around August/September for me, when I admitted to myself something I’d been avoiding saying out loud – “I’m not going deep enough”. One of the benefits of Close Push-Ups is that you can tell if the depth of your movement is appropriate because your chest should touch your hands. Mine wasn’t. I spent the last quarter of 2015 concentrating on depth, and squeezing my glutes, and it paid off immensely in terms of both strength and musculature by the time I reached the 3x10 again.

Squats

My old friends. In short, I feel I neglected Squats as a whole this year. Late 2014 and early 2015 saw me performing Balance Assisted Pistols outside using a lamp-post and a towel. After hitting 3x15 per leg (and staying there a while) I felt that I was pulling down with the towel too much, and swapped them out for Box Pistols. I made it up to a good 3x10, but moved down to 3x5 to work on form, and never really bothered to move it back up. I think my form’s deteriorated a bit too – I bounce a lot I think, and my negative is a bit fast and uncontrolled.

Overall, I think Squats have went backwards; they’ve certainly not progressed particularly.

Pull-Ups

My eternal foe. I still haven’t progressed to the point of Full Pull-Ups, but I’ve accepted that as 100kg+ (Orc body-type) I’m going to find most pulling motions difficult. That said, I again think that my approach to Pulls has been a lot better, and that I’m a lot stronger for it.

I’ve been focusing on negatives a lot this year, since my set-up doesn’t allow for very smooth jacknife pulls. I reduced the work sets to 3 to match my other movements, and began performing negative Chin-ups up until 3x15 reps. This took a while (and I destroyed a few launching platforms), but It was definitely worth it. After this I swapped grips and started performing Negative Pull-Ups in full, which is where I am now. I think I’m afraid of success here, since I don’t quite know what I’ll do after Negatives – every time I approach 3x10 and there’s a blip (e.g. I miss a session due to a conference etc) I don’t jump back in at the 3x10 but reduce back to 3x5. This obviously has benefits for form, but I think my justification is wrong.

Overall, I’m deeming my Pull-Up progression in 2015 to be moderately successful.

Leg Raises

I’ve been consistently strong in Leg Raises, and I’ve progressed at approximately a linear rate since beginning them. Early 2015 saw me progress to the final stages of the Leg Raise – the Hanging Leg Raise.

This has been a mixed bag for me, as noted I powered through the initial stages generally and managed to hit the final stage. I have noticed, however, that my form is not strictly perfect. I’ve had a few problems here and there with cadence, and with a slight bend in my legs – likely due to tight hamstring muscles. My thick abdomen is testament to my overall progress though, very pleased.

Again, deeming 2015’s Leg Raises to be a moderate success.

Bridge

I’ve always enjoyed Bridges. My rate of progression with these has always been moderate, and relatively steady. In 2015 I tackled the Head Bridge and the Half Bridge, progressing finally to the full Bridge sometime in June or July.

I feel that my progress with the Bridge has been very good overall, I feel quite strong in the movement, although I do think there’s a little room for improvement in terms of depth and cadence (especially on the negative). Very pleased.

Handstand Push-Ups

I did not train any vertical pressing movements such as the HSPU this year. I felt my efforts were better concentrated on the Close Push-Up and the Bridge. This is something I regret only slightly, as I wonder what my strength would have been if I had trained them.

I remember reading that Pull-Ups and HSPUs each have a positive knock-on effect with regards to the other. This makes sense as a lot of the upper shoulder muscles are involved. Once my initial plan of attack is complete during 2016, I resolve to begin training the HSPU series.

Good Decisions

I believe I made three very good decisions this year regarding strength: first, I gradually lowered rest between sets to 2 minutes, and changed my workout structure to a circuit or superset structure; I also began resting more often, training only 4 days a week with weekends and Wednesdays off; I began eating a lot more, including switching from vegetable oil to olive oil.

The combined effect of more intense, shorter workouts and more recovery days have had a very profound effect on my training. I’m no longer shattered when I drop into the first set of Push-Ups, I sleep better overall, and I’ve been able to push past a few plateaus. The eating has been a mixed bag: more calories and in particular more meats, veg and potatoes have allowed me to recover well and gain a lot of strength (and size); but with my increased appetite I’ve also fell prey to eating a shittonne more chocolate than I used to. It’s not all bad, but something I’ve noticed that I could have avoided.

Bad Decisions

In terms of training, I think the worst decision I made this year was letting myself become afraid of performing certain exercises. I noticed it particularly with Bridges (since they’re difficult), but it’s been creeping in with Pulls too. I’ll get ready to perform a set, and then hesitate and put it off for about 20 seconds. I know people sometime psych themselves up, but the fear of failure really got to me sometimes. I used to get the same when I performed Barbell Squats back in my Dark Ages of fitness.

I also let what training means to me become a bit perverted. This might warrant its own post, but it revolves around personal flexibility and resilience. I became so focused on my training routine and hitting strength goals, I forgot part of why I train in the first place – and that is for personal, rather than purely muscular, strength. If I got sent to a conference, or attended an event, I would get very anxious about missing training. I would also become downright pissy. That’s not what training should be doing to me. It’s not strong, and it’s certainly not healthy.

I think I’ve managed to brush past these mostly in the last few days. I just took a 2.5 week break over the Winter’s start and New Year, and as of writing just completed my first split routine back. I didn’t particularly hesitate due to fear of failure (slightly present, but not a lot) and I didn’t lose much in performance. I was conservative with my output (6-8 reps instead of 10) but overall I was as strong as I was before my break. I think that unless I’m in the middle of a big push for a benchmark I can relax a little bit and start to enjoy training, and the strength it gives me, even more in 2016.