My years of competing in bodybuilding and then transitioning into Strongman gave me a great understanding of strength training principles.
The huge differences between the two sports call for vastly different training methodology.
Bodybuilding, being purely about aesthetics, calls for lots of volume using a lighter weight. This enables you to hit all sorts of different angles to achieve a 3D-looking muscle.
Strongman, on the other hand, has absolutely nothing to do with the way you look and everything to do with using high-weight and high-intensity functionality. With the X9 system, you can utilize both the bodybuilding and the strength training protocol. Each has been designed specifically through years of trial and error with research and development to bring you the best possible programming for each. There will be no stone unturned!
BIG DOES NOT MEAN STRONG
This was one of the biggest, hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn. And I only learned it by getting my ass kicked by much smaller guys.
For the longest time, I was under the guise of – bigger is better. Bigger is stronger. Bigger means power.
During the height of my strength career, I weighed up to 316 pounds. For my frame, that was huge. But I wanted to be big because everyone else was big. I competed against guys that were 350 – 400 lbs. It irked me to be the small guy in the lot. Getting to be 300+ pounds for me was no easy task. It required a lot of fast food, junk food, and loads of sugar.
By no means was I trying to be healthy in order to achieve this weight gain. I didn’t care. I wanted to be an Open Class Heavyweight Strongman. It was like an itch that needed to be scratched or my ego that needed to be stroked, you decide. Either way, I did finally achieve Big Man status. I still had a huge problem. My size was worthless. I remember vividly going into the Valhalla Strongman Classic, in October 2017, being absolutely massive to the point where I was out of breath just tying my shoes. Sure I was strong as hell for a rep or two but that wasn’t going to win any competitions.
The key to useable muscle was conditioning.
As the competition started I noticed the 231u class guys (231 pounds and under), with abs, smashing their competition weight! Some of these guys were absolutely shredded. They were making easy work of the 231-pound log in the overhead press event. One of the competitors Jesse, a friend of mine in the 231u class, had a massive 400-pound static overhead press and he’s ripped!
That’s absolutely insane. Most of the world pro’s don’t even have that power. I turned and looked at my class. They looked like a bunch of Sumo wrestlers, including myself. I had an epiphany then and there. Some of these guys in the 231u class were definitely stronger than me. All this crappy, useless, fast food weight did absolutely nothing for me except jack up my blood pressure and get me fat. It also caused me breathing issues at night. Boy, did I have it all wrong. I kept shaking my head at myself.
I’ve seen this over and over again in both professional and amateur sports. The big guy doesn’t always win. A great example is Oleksii Novikov who won the 2020 World’s Strongest Man competition. He already had a number of European Strongest Man championships under his belt. Oleksii is 6’1 and he weighed 295 pounds during the competition. Compare this to the likes of the other World competitors who were pushing 400+ pounds, like Brian Shaw or Thor Bjornsson. Even Eddie Hall weighed in at 420 pounds during his world competitions.
It comes down to this: West Side Barbell said it best:
“Strong is Strong – Big is not Strong”.
If you can really understand that saying you will go far. Let’s break it down a bit more. To gain muscle, real quality muscle, you need to eat a lot. However, eating junk food and trying to justify it with the extra size you tac on is not the way. This kind of extra weight is not muscle. It’s not usable. It’s just plain and simple Fat. The effective, efficient way to build quality muscle is to eat quality food which is covered in the nutrition section. Don’t fall under the ruse of bigger is better. It’s not. Keep a strong good looking physique all year round while making great strength gains. It is one hundred percent attainable. I found this out firsthand when I was competing.
THE BIG 3 – ECCENTRIC, ISOMETRIC, CONCENTRIC
This, in essence, is a lot of the magic behind understanding a perfect repetition. As you work your way through your fitness journey getting stronger and stronger, your gains are going well. You’re seeing awesome improvements all over. Sooner or later your progression will begin to flatten out. At some point, the “pop and drop” reps won’t cut it anymore. Pop and drop reps are repetitions most beginners use because the reps burn too much or they simply just want to get the workout done as fast as possible.
At first, that method is just fine. You’re getting the reps done. You’re fulfilling the required set schemes in the workout. You see some good gains. Awesome. But in order to progress into a physique worth turning heads, you’re going to need to up your game a bit. You’re going to need to understand how the repetition tempo has every bit of power to dictate what a muscle looks like and performs like. It’s an absolute game-changer.
Let’s look at these three concepts.
ECCENTRIC In most cases means lowering or lengthening the muscle that’s being used.
Let’s take the Bench Press for example. Once I take the bar off the bench and hold the bar above my chest, this is called neutral position. Your body is at rest. The only tension comes from holding the bar in a locked-out position. To start the lift I have to ECCENTRICALLY lower the bench press bar to touch my chest. During this phase, my chest is also stretching or lengthening its muscle tissue in order to be lowed. Once you touch your chest your body ISOMETRICALLY stops the weight.
Then begins the CONCENTRIC phase of lifting the weight back up to starting position. During which time your chest muscle shortens to contract. Hence the word CONCENTRIC.
Let’s look at another example. The squat. If I proceed to take the bar off the squat rack and hold the bar on my back in a standing position. This is called neutral. The only tension I have is from the weight on my back in the standing locked-out position. To start the repetition of the squat, I have to ECCENTRICALLY lower the weight down to wherever my ROM ( range of motion ) stops.
That exact stopping point where the weight changes direction from going down to going up is called the ISOMETRIC phase. Lastly to move the weight back up to starting position I have to CONCENTRICALLY move the weight back up to complete the repetition.
Now that you understand what the Big-3 means, let’s break down why they are important.
The biggest reason is connection. The greater the connection from mind to muscle the greater the overall muscle development will be. Both in size and function.
The ECCENTRIC phase is particularly important. This is where most people miss out and until now, you did too. You will learn that the eccentric phase controls that connection. It is also responsible for half the repetition. So for someone who has no idea what the eccentric phase is, conceivably they are missing half the repetition. In my eyes, they are also missing half the work that could have been done.
Another important aspect of the eccentric phase is again its control factor. Have you ever lifted an extremely heavy weight? Notice you cant lower it very quickly or you will have no chance of that weight going back up for a successful rep.
Let’s deep dive into that situation. Let’s take my 405-pound bench. I can get 2, maybe 3, reps out at that weight. You will notice the speed of those reps is particularly slow. Not because I’m focused on slow reps, but because in order to achieve and complete a rep at 405 it takes an immense amount of focus and concentration in the Eccentric phase, lowering phase. If I put any emphasis on that particular phase the bar moves down too fast for me to stabilize the weight. Ultimately I end in a failure or a bailout by the spotter. The bigger the weight, ultimately the slower it has to move in the eccentric phase.
As you progress into the Advanced concepts of X9 you will see a rep tempo scheme for every lift. It will change and vary based on muscle fiber activation and what the repetition scheme for the week is. You will come across something like this:
Rep Tempo 3 / 1 / 2
All of this is key for the particular repetition scheme. It reads, 3 seconds Eccentric. 1-second Isometric, and 2 seconds Concentric. Pretty simple right?
Let’s look at this example of the Bench Press again: 3 seconds to lower the bar, 1-second pause on your chest for the bar to change directions, and 2 seconds to put the bar back into starting position. Simple as that!
Let’s look at another example with a little complexity. The Lat- Pulldown Machine. This one is particularly tricky because it starts with the concentric phase. Reading this rep scheme it would be backward: 2 / 1 / 3 because you are starting with a contraction ( concentric phase ) and ending in the stretching or lengthening phase ( eccentric ).
Just remember this: The first number is always the Eccentric phase. The second number is always the Isometric Phase. The third number is always the Concentric phase. You are now a master of tempo. Use this in your workouts and watch the immediate growth.
RANGE OF MOTION
This is a very fundamental concept to understand. As basic as it is, I see folks short repping in gyms all the time. Short repping, or what I call half-ass reps. This leads to poor muscle development if any at all. The only purpose of half reps could be in the advanced stages or strength or bodybuilding. Very specific movements to achieve a very specific goal. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.
Full repetitions are key. It develops the full spectrum of that muscles’ range of motion which ultimately looks much better and also performs much better as well. It may be tempting to grab a heavy weight and do some curls in front of the mirror to impress your friends but try to resist that temptation. Stick to the program and trust the process. The short reps lead to shortened, inhibited muscle. It will be much more worthwhile to put the time in and focus on getting full-quality reps.
NO EGO AMIGO
Everyone has an Ego Amigo. He’s the guy (your conscience) who whispers in your ear: “Go heavy or go home! Forget your program, forget your technique, let’s just bust out some heavy deadlifts today and fuck shit up!”
Woohoo! Sound familiar? It definitely does to me. It took me a lot of patience and discipline to stick to my programming.
Over time you will see the importance of structure. The methodical, precise way to stay on point with progression is sticking to the programming otherwise everything is always going to be under or over-developed depending on what your favorite lifts are. It’s as simple as that. Another huge problem with Ego Amigo are the injuries. I have hurt myself on many occasions lifting heavy out of pure ego: trying to out-lift my friends, trying for a PR ( personal record ) every time I lift, or tossing my programming for the day and just lifting with odd movements.
There is a time and a place for improv workouts and a time and a place to lift heavy. If you’re looking for systemic progression that is like clockwork, stick to the programming. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again. Nothing will beat programming. Nothing hurts programming like Ego Amigo.
DROP SET – SUPER SET – GIANT SET
This is fundamental verbiage to classify different set types. A set is the completion of repetitions of a specific exercise done in a row.
For example, 3 sets of 10 reps means: To the best of your ability perform 10 reps, 3 different times. In doing so you have completed 3 sets. This is a fairly simple concept to understand.
A DROP SET is an advanced weight training technique in which you focus on completing a set until failure or the inability to complete another rep. Instead of being finished, you drop to a lighter load by 10-30% and continue on with little or no rest between drops.
For example. During a triple drop bicep curl, I would start with 40-pound dumbbells. Rep them out till I can’t perform decent reps anymore. Then drop the weight down to 30-pound dumbbells until I can’t perform decent reps anymore. Then immediately after drop the weight down to 20 pounds and perform the reps till failure. Now I have completed a triple drop set.
A SUPER SET is two separate exercises performed consecutively. One exercise directly follows after the other with no rest in between. Most of the time a superset will work the same muscle group.
For example, a bench press with Incline Bench Press would be a Super Set. These two exercises both use the same muscle group. In this case, they both use chest muscles. Another classic example of the Super Set is antagonist muscle groups. These are muscles directly opposite each other. For example, Bench Press would be a Super Set with Bent Over Barbell Rows. One exercise utilizes the Chest, the other your Back. Both will be very common in advanced programming.
A GIANT SET is very similar to the Super Set. The only difference is that the Giant Set is 4 or more consecutive exercises instead of 2. This will be popular during high repetition phases and burnouts.
ANGLES – BODYBUILDING
Angles in general, are the biggest difference between bodybuilding and strongman strength training. It comes from the very core concepts of each particular sport.
Bodybuilding is purely aesthetic and has nothing to do with strength or function. Bodybuilding does not require lifting intensely heavy loads in order to tac on slabs of quality muscle which is required for strongman strength training. In fact bodybuilders, in general, don’t focus so much on the weight lifted but rather the “flex” and contractions of each repetition. The angles of these specific contractions are what gives bodybuilders that 3D muscle look.
For example, let’s take the biceps and look at bicep curls. You’ll notice that the heavier the weight you lift, the harder it will be to lift in precarious positions. Standing tall in normal curl form might be easy for you to do. Now try them bent over. Or go even further and try bent-over alternating crossover curls. What we did just there is add a whole new angle and dimension to your biceps which will develop new striations in your bicep muscle tissue. This is impossible to achieve without adding different angles to your bicep curls.
Another good example of Angles are the different pitches you use on the Bench. For example, perform a flat dumbbell press for a set or two and then move the bench up one notch so as to be slightly inclined. Now perform the next set or two. Then move the bench up another notch so it is slightly more inclined and repeat. Ultimately work your way up to a seated military shoulder press hitting each bench notch as you go. Performing different angles like the above examples are in the advanced X9 concepts.
ECTOMORPH – MESOMORPH – ENDOMORPH
Which one are you? Basically, each and every person is built differently. With different needs, different caloric intakes, and different goals. How to go about achieving your desired goal starts with identifying what specific body type you are.
There are three.
Ectomorphs in general are skinny, have a fast metabolism, and have a hard time keeping muscle on. The biggest benefit to an ectomorph is the ability to keep fat retention low.
Ever have a friend who can eat whatever they want and still not get fat? More than likely they are an ectomorph.
That being said, these people need to have a constant supply of protein (amino acids) and carbs in their diet. Without these their metabolism eats up too many calories. Growing substantial muscle tissue becomes a huge battle.
Mesomorphs have it best. They have a moderate metabolism that allows for either muscle gain or fat loss depending on training structure. Many pro athletes are Mesomorphs.
Endomorphs are bigger people with lots of muscle and lots of body fat. These people have a hard time losing weight due to their slower metabolism. Think football lineman or a huge Sumo Strongman. They have big joints and big hips. They also have a relatively easier time getting strong and gaining muscle mass.
Identifying what body type you have helps play a huge role in how you dictate your training. For example, if I’m an ectomorph and my goal is to put on size and muscle mass, I will increase my caloric intake. Use the 1 gram per pound formula with protein. This means to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. So if I weigh 200 pounds I would be eating 200 grams of protein a day. I should also make sure I’m eating 300-400 grams of carbs a day. If this is coupled with strength training an ectomorph would see solid muscle tissue growth.
Now, let’s take an endomorph who is concentrating on weight loss. Knowing I’m an endomorph I would increase aerobic activity and body weight activities such as swimming, running, hiking, climbing, and walking. I would keep my protein intake high to speed up my metabolism and keep my muscle tissue from atrophying. I would limit carbohydrates and be extra cautious during the nighttime with calorie consumption. Using these tools an endomorph would cut weight and be able to achieve his goal. Using this new knowledge figure out what body type you are. This will be critical to your success gents.
This seems to be the biggest kept secret among Gym going Athletes.
To grow muscle, you must rest. I myself was a culprit of the old “balls to the wall” method of “the more you train the more you grow”. Unfortunately, throwing hours of stress and stimuli at the body doesn’t equate directly to growth.
Our body’s chemistry is far more complex. To unlock the secret of muscle growth you must take rest days intermittently with your training days. I found the best recipe for quality muscle growth and sustainable gains is 2-3 days on 1 day off.
Let me explain. By going hard, lifting heavy for 2 to 3 days your put an astounding amount of stress on your body, giving that you workout hard. This is good! You will see muscle growth. However, there is a fine line not to cross between the right amount of stimulus to the body and too much stimulus. If you are overtraining the stress almost backlogs if not taken care of in the form of recovery. Waking up in the morning extremely sore from last night’s workout and then trying to go hard and heavy the next day, and the next day is a recipe for disaster.
Over-training is absolutely real. There are a few circumstances where athletes can push the boundaries of the body’s capabilities but that’s only for a short period of time. In bodybuilding and strongman, we call it “Peak Week”. It’s a short period of time where you’ve built up your body to extreme stimulus sometimes doing two or three a day workouts for a specific purpose, in a specific time frame.
It’s quite tricky to time. Once you’ve hit peak week, the body literally has a week or maybe two running at peak performance then it will start to degrade and if not addressed and de-loaded will lead to serious injury. De-loading is the phase after peak week where you use lighter poundage in your workouts to allow for effective recovery.
All of that is pretty advanced stuff and can easily be navigated with rest and recovery days.
The key to rest days is Active Recovery. This means your are not just resting and doing nothing during rest days. You are working on stretching, yoga, foam rolling, Zone 1 cardio ( low HR ), ice baths, breath work, or getting a walk in.
Most people take rest days and don’t do anything. Yes, you are resting by doing nothing but you aren’t recovering to your full potential. In the case of a serious training program you’re going to need a fresh body the next day. Treating rest and recovery days like training days are imperative to your success in the gym. Listen to your body!
One of the most important, and most overlooked, factor in strength training is proper breathing. Time and time again I’ve come across poor and even backward breathing habits.
It’s essential for muscular function that the tissues have an adequate oxygen supply.
There are two main types of breathing during lifting weights to choose from. The first is continuous breathing. This means that the breath, inhale and exhale synchronize with the weight being moved.
For example, during a bench press utilizing continuous breathing, you would lower the bar ( eccentrically ) while taking an inhale of breath. The bar would then pause on your chest ( isometrically ) shortly followed by an exhale of breath lifting the bar back up (concentrically) to the starting position. The breathing would then be continuous with each repetition.
This form of breathing is the most basic and it is best suited for beginners. It teaches the importance of a fresh oxygen supply with each repetition. This allows you to have adequate endurance and strength for each lift.
The second form of breathing is called the Valsalva Maneuver. It is a more advanced, technical type of breathing used for heavy weight loads. It requires an athlete to actually hold their breath through the entire range of motion for that repetition.
Sound dangerous? It’s not. Let me explain.
This form of breathing will only be used during lifts of extreme weight with repetitions in the 1- 5 range or perhaps during the last rep of a tough set.
For example, let’s take a look at the squat during the Valsalva Maneuver breathing. In this example, you will be using 405 pounds with a set of 3 repetitions. You would start taking the weight off the squat rack and onto your back. Before starting the set of 3 repetitions you are going to take a huge breath of air inhaled into your lungs. Next, you are going to brace your core like someone was about to punch you in your gut. Holding your core tight through the whole range of motion you are going to hold that same breath through the eccentric, isometric, and concentric phases of the squat. Exhaling when your complete the three phases.
This sounds tricky but let’s break down what’s going on during the maneuver so you can understand what’s going on internally. During the bracing while doing the Valsalva Maneuver your entire core, internal obliques, and CNS ( Central Nervous System ) are held tight and motionless during the exercise’s range of motion.
You will be moving during your repetitions of course but your core would remain braced and tight. This alone allows the body to lift a considerable amount of heavier weight than the continuous breathing method because your body is now stabilized much more efficiently.
If you look back at the continuous breathing method, your core, obliques, and CNS would be in constant motion due to your diaphragm moving in and out with your breath rate. Consequently, this is not stabilizing your core effectively. However, the huge benefit to continuous breathing is the abundant supply of oxygen to your muscle tissue which is why this method works better with lighter loads.
To sum it up simply, continuous breathing is better for light and moderate loads. The Valsalva Maneuver is better for heavy loads. Both of these tools will be a great addition to your biological toolbox if used correctly.
Recovery breathing is another advanced breathing method that goes hand and hand with the Valsalva Maneuver. It doesn’t have a place in the continuous breathing method because you will already have a substantial amount of oxygen in your blood from constant breathing. However, the Valsalva maneuver, which requires you to hold your breath during the three phases of a repetition (eccentric, isometric, concentric), will always require you to utilize recovery or reset breathing.
Let’s go back to the example of the 405-pound squat. This is a heavy load that will require the Valsalva maneuver to complete. After executing the first repetition flawlessly and successfully you feel gassed, out of breath, and most definitely not ready for repetition number two. Instead of putting the squat bar back on the rack and settling for one repetition, take recovery breaths. This means while the weight is still on your back, standing tall in neutral position, you take as many breaths as you need to feel ready for the next repetition. Usually, this takes anywhere from 1 – 3 breaths before your body feels ready again. When your mental clarity and muscular strength feel ready to begin taking another huge breath into the Valsalva Maneuver and start the next repetition.
This starts the cycle over again. Use recovery breathing as you see fit. Use it to take the place of settling for lower repetition counts in your sets. If used correctly you will be able to add extra weight and ever more repetitions to your sets in the gym.
Your mindset is the deal breaker. This is what sets people apart. Mindset is everything when it comes to weight training and really anything in life that’s great and worth achieving.
Oftentimes, when things get tough, we quit. We tell ourselves it’s not worth the effort. It’s not worth the pain. Negative thoughts are the most detrimental thing to your body. Thoughts become actions whether they are good or bad. You have the power to control every phase of action from your starting thoughts to successfully finishing the task.
If you ask some of the most powerful men in the world, “which is stronger, their mind or their body?” they will most undoubtedly reply “their mind”. It’s the sharpest, most dangerous tool you will ever possess. It can take you through two-a-days and it can push you through sleepless nights. Also, it can work tirelessly for hours if you have the right mindset.
You need to cultivate a can-do attitude and the belief that no task is impossible, no matter how big it may seem.
Inevitably your body will hurt when you are breaking down boundaries, you will be sore. You will have thoughts of staying in bed instead of training in the early hours of the morning or missing a workout because you had an extremely hard day at work. That is all normal. There’s not one person, professional or amateur, that doesn’t feel like that from time to time. I’ve sat on the edge of my bed staring at my shoes for 40 minutes, more than once, trying to convince myself to lace them up to head out and train. Eventually, I will snap out of it and get to it.
You have to always come back to the same question: why? Why are you training? Why are you so passionate to change?
For myself, the question is easy to answer but it has also changed over time. In the beginning, I wanted to be like Arnold. He was big, jacked, and the man had the best physique on the planet. I wanted big muscles.
As I got older my mindset and my motivation became more intrinsic. I cared about the functionality of the body and I wanted to push the limits of my own physique to see where I could take it. I love the challenge of competing and the abilities I’ve developed over the years and I have turned my body into an absolute machine with my mind.
Now, in truth, having 23-inch biceps doesn’t do anything for me anymore. It’s interesting to look back at the motivators that made up my mindset in the past. Going from an external goal mindset to an intrinsic goal mindset made a huge difference.
With an external goal, there is an endgame such as getting the six-pack abs you always wanted or Arnold-sized biceps. An intrinsic goal on the other hand is never-ending. I love climbing mountains and diving oceans, mountain biking until the sun goes down, and lifting with my strongman crew on the weekends.
All the activities and hobbies I have are because of the mindset I cultivated long ago. I told myself I can do anything I set my mind to. Any goal I want is achievable with the right work ethic and plan of action. You can achieve the same mindset if you work hard for it. It starts with a goal and a plan. Do not let anything derail you. Learn to build laser focus. Hone in on your power and use that power. This can change your life.