Making Progress: The Lowest Common Denominator Theory

First off, do I care if this theory actually abides by the definition of the phrase lowest common denominator? No. I do not. All I care about is that myself and my members make progress in a safe and sustainable way. So this is what I’ve come up with.

The Lowest Common Denominator Theory simply states that we want to create the smallest possible volume-load progression for each exercise, each week we step in the gym.

We use a lot of rep-maxes and estimated 1RM’s to create programs that allow our members to progress slowly from week to week. When we progress slowly week to week, we create progress that is more sustainable. And success in fitness is built on sustainability, which helps us develop commitment and consistency.

Progressing bodyweight exercise

Bodyweight exercise can basically be split up into a few different categories:

  • Isometric holds like planks, side planks, & bears
  • Upper body movements like chin-ups, pushups, or inverted rows
  • Low body movements like bodyweight squats or pistol squats

Now for many of these movements, you’ll find that both yourself and your clientele are performing full or “real” reps for the very first time. Things like full pushups or chin-ups are great achievements in the gym and we strive to get all of our members to these points.

In terms of progressing pushups and chinups, the smallest jump we can make is generally total-volume rep increases. For example, we could perform 21 reps instead of 20, but in the same number of sets. This works well for almost all bodyweight movements.

Adding weight to bodyweight movements (e.g. using a weighted vest for chin-ups) doesn’t make sense until we’re more proficient with the movements. However, once we are proficient with a movement like chin-ups or pushups (that is, performing 10 reps or more), small increases of about five pounds will actually make for smaller jumps overall.

Isometric positions are a bit different and adding a few seconds to an isometric hold would be imperceptible, especially considering the differences in activation both inter- and intra-individual.

So for our isometric work, we generally try to increase the difficulty of the variation before adding seconds arbitrarily. This could mean using a long-lever plank instead of a standard one or adding some instability to our hold.

Progressing band exercises

Band exercises are awesome. Exercise bands are super versatile and can be effective in almost every movement pattern that we use.

But like isometric work, bands can be a bit unreliable as only a small change in position can drastically alter the band’s tension.

In these cases, we typically add reps to the equation until somebody feels comfortable jumping to the next band. There’s really no way to get an exact “weight” measurement on a band (despite what they might be rated for) so our best bet is to keep our position relatively stable and add reps to our sets. After we’re added 2-5 reps per set, we can probably move to a higher band.

Progressing dumbbell & kettlebell work

Aside from barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells are the most useful and physiologically disrupting of all the equipment that we use. However, dumbbell and kettlebell progressions are largely based on the amount of weight that we’re actually using. Here’s an example:

Let’s say we’re performing three sets of ten with 50 lbs of total load. We can either add 5 total pounds (for a volume-load increase of 150 lbs) or add two reps to each set (for an increase of 300 lbs).

Now what about 100 lbs of total load? We can either add five pounds (an increase of 150 lbs) or add two reps to each set (an increase of 600 lbs).

The conclusion here is that as long as your weight jumps are 10% of total weight or less, it makes more sense to bump the weight up each time.

However, at small weights it actually makes more sense to increase reps a few times before increasing weight. And this is for two reasons:

  1. The volume-load increase will be smaller. (For instance, adding five pounds to 25 lbs increases the load by 150 lbs whereas adding two reps to each set increases the load by 125 lbs.)
  2. Weight jumps can be more difficult mentally when the weights are light to begin with.

As a general rule of thumb, we progress our dumbbell and kettlebell exercises by adding reps until somebody is tossing around 50 lbs of more. This is an easy rule of thumb and will keep your progression sustainable while continuing to build mental confidence.

Progressing barbell exercises

Since barbells start at 45 lbs and can get as high as 85 lbs (in the case of our mega trap bar), progressing barbell exercises is simple.

Adding 2.5 plates to barbell exercises consistently will always be the easiest and most sustainable way to progress barbell exercises. I’ve personally seen many people work from a 45 lb bar to 200-300 pounds with weekly 5 lb increases.

We use these small weight jumps within the context of whichever rep scheme we’ve chosen to use for that cycle. For instance, adding five pounds but subtracting two reps from each set does not work.

Just as a little note, 5 lb weight increases aren’t a forever solution. As you become more advanced and have been training for a year or two, some level of periodization and variation will be necessary to keep the weights moving. But that is far beyond the scope of this article so we won’t be covering that.

So let’s generalize here for a second …

Okay, so if we’re dealing with bands, dumbbells, or kettlebells, adding reps will always be the best way to create sustainable progress.

When we’re talking about barbells, 2.5 plates are a nice way to add volume-load in a manageable way.

Bodyweight movements should be practiced. Difficulty can be increased incrementally as movements become a 5-6 RPE or a “medium” difficulty.

Creating manageable growth in fitness (and in life, actually) helps develop consistency and commitment. And consistency is the only thing that matters to long-term fitness success.

How to Build Muscle

This post isn’t for everybody; this post is for people that want to build muscle.

Maybe you’re a teenage athlete looking to gain some size for next season or maybe you’re just dipping your toes into the strength training pool and want to learn how to put muscle on to support your strength gains.

Whatever the case may be, gaining muscle isn’t all that hard. It isn’t all that complicated, either. Gaining muscle is simply a product of increasing volume over time, both through increasing weights and increasing volume at the same weight.

Your muscles respond to the challenge by literally growing themselves.

Don’t get too hung up on rest periods or rest-pause or drop sets or forced eccentrics. Sure, these things can help and certainly do, especially when we’re talking about higher level bodybuilding & strength athletes. But if you’re just starting out, stick to the basics.

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You Don’t Have To

You don’t have to do it.

Whatever thing it is that you keep telling yourself you have to do, you don’t have to.

You don’t have to do anything.

In fact, you never have to do anything you don’t want to do.

Disagree? That’s okay, you don’t have to agree. You’re allowed to disagree. It doesn’t make you a bad person. And it doesn’t make me a bad person. And it doesn’t mean you can shame me for having that opinion (or vice versa). But we don’t have to agree.

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Toning and Being a Fitness Purist

If you quickly Google the word “toning,” the first page of search results is a mishmash of both pro-toning and anti-toning blog posts. The fitness world loves the word toning. It’s schismatic (how’s that for SAT vocab?) and makes for good blog content. Heck, isn’t that why you clicked on this post in the first place?

And I have a confession: for a while, I was a fitness purist.

I believed that, whenever somebody came to me looking to “tone up,” it was my job to correct them. I needed to explain to them that toning is a myth and that muscles only get bigger or smaller and that bodyfat is what really matters. Then I’d dive into a quick soliloquy (I’m crushing the SAT words today) about rep ranges, percentages, and how we were going to program so that they got exactly where they wanted to be.

But at the end of the day, they just didn’t want the “stuff” on the underside of their arm to jiggle as much.

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Meal Frequency & Health

With intermittent fasting on the rise once again, the question of meal frequency is rearing it’s myth-covered head.

How often should I be eating?

How many meals should I eat each day?

Won’t more meals speed up my metabolism?

Should I be eating breakfast?

Is it bad to eat before bed?

Shouldn’t I consume at least 20 grams of protein every two hours?

Is it ok to go more than 2-3 hours without food?

First off, yes. Your body, as a rule of thumb, can go about two weeks without food. So, yes, it’s okay to go hungry for a few hours.

Meal frequency is a hot topic in the fitness & nutrition industry right now. And along with it comes meal timing, so we’ll cover both today.

After reading through this article, you’ll have the knowledge and tools to design your own meal schedule, allowing you to work efficiently, train intensely, sleep better, and live an awesome life in general.

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The Problem with Food Acceptance

I’m calling it the Food Acceptance Movement. If you search for the hashtag on Instagram, you won’t find much, so I’ll explain it here. The Food Acceptance Movement is this new-fangled (look at me – 27 going on 87) idea that there are no bad foods, only bad habits.

The last few years or so have been comprised of fitness experts all over the interweb showcasing themselves chowing down on Pop-Tarts & ice cream, giant beers & wine. Sometimes, it’s a ploy to sell some online book about IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). Other times, it’s just meant to push readers a little more toward moderation instead of deprivation.

But lately, I’ve seen quite a few of these same fitness experts backing down from these posts, opting instead for posts that exhibit their true nutrition habits.

Even I’m guilty of it. I’m sure our own members could quote me as saying, “There are no bad foods, only bad habits.” Probably verbatim.

But it’s way more complicated than that.

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Three Programming Tips for Busy Lifters

I read something good on Instagram the other day, it was from a fellow gym-owner, “How might you feel if you say ‘It’s not a priority’ instead of ‘I don’t have time?'” When it comes to programming, it’s important to remember that exercise isn’t always or top priority. But we can still achieve an amazing level of fitness by making a few small adjustments.

Making our own health and wellness a priority can be difficult. I’m not sure if it’s the natural human instinct to care for others first, but between work, marriage, kids, and weekend trips to Home Depot, finding time for exercise is tough.

So it’s crucial to make the most of your hours at the gym. It doesn’t matter if you have 2 hours or 20 hours, making the right choices when it comes to programming can be the difference between progress and stagnation.

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Quick Thoughts on Plant-based Diets & Finding Balance

Plant-based diets seem to help us live longer. They’re less inflammatory, reduce our chances of ending up in the cardiac wing of the hospital, and MIGHT protect against certain cancers. Diets that include meat & animals have been widely used by competitive athletes for many years, producing stronger and stronger people each month it seems.
So here are a few quick thoughts:
  • You’ll probably live longer on a plant-based diet with minimal animal consumption (or none at all). That’s pretty cool.
  • Carnivorous diets (at least right now) seem to be better at helping us GAIN muscle. Many athletes switch to a plant-based diet in an effort to extend their careers (e.g. Tom Brady), but we don’t have enough data on “life-long plant-based athletes” to make any concrete judgements.
  • Many plant-based bodybuilders and fitness models are also ingesting large amounts of both soy products and protein/amino acid supplements/shakes to get closer to “carnivorous” levels of protein each day. Are soy products and supplements better than a piece of grass-fed steak?
  • And considering the growing base of vegan bodybuilders and fitness models … They. Are. All. Using. Drugs. Yes, even the “natural” ones.
  • It’s just as easy to be nutrient-deficient in a vegan diet as it is in a carnivorous diet. You’re just typically deficient in different nutrients. While a carnivore might be deficient in Vitamin A, a vegan might be deficient in Vitamin B12.
  • Vegan diets are necessarily much higher in carbohydrates – this works super well for endurance athletes. On the other hand, endurance athletes do best with a protein intake bordering that of strength athletes because of all the energy they’re expending through training. They’re more likely to use amino acids for energy, so they need to replenish those amino acids through their diet. Do with that information what you will.

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The Three P’s of Exercise Selection

Life is better with rules. So is exercise.

Rules make things clear. For instance, the NFL’s Catch vs. No-catch Rule has made it super quick and easy to figure out whether a receiver legitimately caught the football (note the subtle sarcastic undertones).

Rules prevent society from breaking out into anarchy. They prevent people from just walking into convenience stores at their leisure and taking whatever items they want. (I’m looking at you, Philadelphia.)

And when it comes to training, rules help guide us in our decision-making.

So without further adieu, I’d like to introduce you to the Three P’s of Exercise Selection.

These rules help guide us in choosing exercises for both ourselves and our members. They help us prioritize what is important during a workout as we make adjustments. Most importantly, they help create consistency in our process.

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Why We Don’t Use Crunches or Sit-ups

To be honest, I don’t get this question very often. I think that, for the most part, crunches have found their way out of current “mainstream” fitness. This is probably because modern fitness is dominated by extreme classes, Instagram experts, and multi-level protein shake marketing. There’s just too much other noise out there.

But I did get this question today, so let’s dive in.

Crunches and sit-ups are both exercise variations used to strengthen the abdominals. Specifically, we’re talking mostly about the “six-pack” abs, the ones that you can see on the outside. (This layer of muscle is called your rectus abdominis.)

These exercises are great when it comes to strengthening the six-pack abs through contraction and hypertrophying the abdominals so that they “pop” when your bodyfat is low enough. Additionally, they can be performed in a variety of positions and on an assortment of machines. They’re even used by popular competitive fitness outlets as parts of workouts.

So why have we chosen to disregard such popular exercises in favor of planks and deadbugs? Let me explain.

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