Year In Strength 2015 – Reflections on Training
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.