Stuff to Read: Weightlifiting vs. Powerlifting, Hormones & Weight Loss


Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting

To a lot of people the terms “weightlifting” and “powerlifting” may sound synonymous.  I assure you they are quite different activities.  Both sports require the lifting of barbells with lots of weight attached, but the similarities stop there.  (As an example, we can start with the highly ironic term “powerlifting.”  In fact, powerlifting features almost no power whatsoever.  Weightlifting on the other hand features lots of power. You had no idea did you?)  For a very thorough and informative look at the two different activities–and to figure out which best enhances athletic performance–check out this article from titled Weightlifting vs. Powerlifting: Which is Right for You?

Hormones and the Difficulty of Weight Loss

Losing weight and keeping it off is typically a very difficult task for a lot of people.  The idea that it’s simply an issue of willpower is simply false nonsense.  (Look here, here, here, here and here for previous posts on the issue.)  Now there’s another study and another article to add to the pile of knowledge on obesity and weight loss.  Why Dieters Can’t Keep the Weight Off is an article from Time Magazine that discusses recently published research from the New England Journal of Medicine.  It goes into the issue of various hormones that essentially tell us we’re hungry.  The levels of these hormones rise in people who are losing weight.  Further, these same hormones tend to stay elevated post weight loss.  The practical effect is that weight loss is difficult to achieve and maintain.  It’s definitely not just an issue of willpower.  Read the article for more detail.

Deeper Strength


The Mind Behind the Muscle

I’m not sure what the meditative term is for it but these days I’m sort lingering over, examining,  and re-learning the details of strength training that I thought I learned a long time ago.  Picking up heavy objects in a lot of ways is very simple stuff.  But similar to sitting quietly and focusing on the breath, lifting those heavy objects can provide an opportunity for deep thought and detailed examination of many things.

From a neurological perspective, lifting weights is no different from dancing, painting, learning to juggle or singing.  We think then we act on our environment and we create something.  Initially we may struggle with the basics of these activities.  We must think hard in order to perform the task at hand.  We are learning a brand new skill–just like learning to walk or ride a bike.  With repetition the neuronal connections between the brain and our limbs strengthen and we can perform our task with relative ease.  If we choose, we can perform our task in a sort of autopilot mode: not thinking too deeply; mostly going through the motions.

We have another option.  We can dig deeper into our task and explore it.  If we continue to concentrate deeply we can develop an amazing connection to what we’re doing and have a rich, vibrant, and meaningful experience in the process.  This is where I am in my weightlifting.


Our connection to the strength process can and should occur even when we’re not touching a barbell.  I’m talking about visualization, and it’s a technique where we create a vivid mental image of our performing a task.  Interestingly, our brain doesn’t know the difference between imagining the task and actually doing the task.  Our nervous system lights up as if we’re doing said task and if done correctly, the result may be a new personal record.  An athlete–an Olympic weightlifter for example–using this technique will sit quietly and imagine himself effortlessly lifting a tremendous weight.  Every detail is imagined: the fit of the clothing, the feel of the floor under his feet, the lights, the grip of the bar, everything.  Eastern European athletes have used this technique for decades to great success.

Perfect Execution of the Perfect Set

Now, going into the lift, we should be focused on the task like an animal on the hunt.  Now’s not the time to be thinking about groceries, our job, Christmas shopping, or the guy next to you admiring his biceps while he does silly little machine half-curls.  The proper mindset has us in a hyper-alert state with an electric-type charge running to every cell in the body.  This is a rapturous, invincible feeling.  And it is a blissful state of mind.  The set has been rehearsed during visualization and there’s no doubt about moving the poundage.  The only thing left is to do it.

Re-Examining the Basics

I learned how to squat, bench press, deadlift, press overhead, row dumbbells, etc. a long time ago.  I thought I knew everything about these traditional lifts.  Over recent months I’ve returned to these lifts with much greater concentration.  Part of this comes from my experience with Z-Health where we emphasize the learning of the very basic joint-by-joint foundational movements that make up our larger movements such as running, pulling, pushing, etc.  Plus I’ve been reading work from some strength training greats: Pavel Tsatsouline, Marty Gallagher, and most recently, Mark Rippetoe.  These men have decades of strength coaching experience under their belts.  Their books, Power to the People, Purposeful Primitive, and Starting Strength have provided me with details and insights I could have never imagined on my own.  So I’m returning to these basic exercises with very new eyes and a fascination I’ve never felt before.

Train to Failure or Train to Success? Part II


In Part I of this post I gave evidence that training beyond our limits or “training to failure” may not be the best

This guy could never fail.

strategy for enhancing athletic performance (or just every day performance for that matter.)  Training smarter but not necessarily harder is a concept worth considering.  The correct amount of training at the correct intensity is key, not just more more moreharder harder harder!! Observations and instruction to exercise at an appropriate intensity are found in both the endurance running world and the strength and power realm.

Tim Noakes’ Lore of Running is a superb text for anyone who’s a serious runner or run coach.  At the other end of the physical performance world is Pavel Tsatsouline’s Power to the People!. This is also an excellent book on very heavy strength training, primarily the deadlift and side press.  Both books encourage top physical performance through very hard work.  Both authors though consistently tell readers that most workouts should essentially be moderate in intensity.  Running workouts should not be races.  Weightlifting sessions should not be hell-bent-for-leather torture fests.  Rather both activities should leave the participant feeling energized.

Scottish ultramarathoner Bruce Fordyce is quoted in Lore of Running:

“My training advice is going to be different… because I place my emphasis on rest and recovery.  I do believe in hard training, but there is only so much hard training that the body can take. , and the timing and duration of any hard training phase is very important.  During the hard training phase, never be afraid to take a day off.  If your legs are feeling unduly stiff and sore, rest; if you are at all sluggish, rest; in fact, if in doubt, rest.”

Further advice from other running coaches cited by Nokes includes:

  • New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard: “You can’t train hard and race hard at the same time.”
  • American coach Jack Daniels:
    • “Don’t leave your race on the training track.”
    • “Alternate hard and easy days, in fact only two to three hard days per week.”
  • American exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler:
    • “Build the program around two high-intensity interval sessions per week.”
    • “Most of the non-interval training should be at fairly low intensities.”
    • “If you are not training easily enough on the easy days, you will not be able to train hard enough on the hard days.”

So we have words from the endurance running world on the importance of focusing your hard efforts to a few specific workouts.  As well you should balance these high-effort bouts with truly easy recovery work.  How about the other end of the spectrum?  How do we train for maximal strength without failing?

“If after your exercise, your bath and your rub-down, you feel fit to battle for a kingdom, then your schedule is right.”
– Earle Liederman, Secrets of Strength, 1925

Power to the People! presents the idea of training with very heavy weights–not to the point of fatigue.   The idea being that it’s tension of the muscles via lifting very heavy weights for a very few reps (five or fewer) that leads to greater strength, not the fatigue of the muscles that occurs when using many reps.  Tsatsouline states:

The most intelligent way to develop strength is to lift much heavier weights than than most weekend warriors play with but to terminate your sets before your muscles fail.”

Further,  he cites Russian strength expert Robert Roman:

“…besides, as the result of fatigue [from many reps], the last reps of a set are performed against a decreased excitation of the nervous system.  This impedes the formation of the complex conditioned reflex loops needed for further strength development.”

So in practical terms, what are we talking about?  The experts are suggesting that most of our workouts should be of the submaximal variety.  Don’t make every run a race.  Make your races races.  If your running workout consists of 20 sprints then at the end you should feel like you could run 22 sprints.  If it’s a long-run day then you should finish knowing you could run one more mile.   Feel good at the end!

When lifting, terminate your sets before total exhaustion sets in.  End the set and/or the workout knowing you could lift a few more reps.  Feel that you’ve conquered the workout, not that the workout conquered you.

Am I advocating easy workouts?  NO!!  What I’m suggesting is that your hard efforts should be very focused and specific.  Don’t dillute your hard work by trying to go hard all the time.  (If you do, you’ll probably just be going “medium-hard.”)  Further, your hard work must end in success and not in sloppy failure.  Otherwise you will only have set the stage for more sloppy work.  Work very hard when it’s called for and balance the effort with easier efforts, relaxation and restoration.  Then come back to the next hard workout ready for success and new achievements.

Train to Failure or Train to Success? Part I


Nike says “Just Do It.”  The people in Gatorade commercials look like they’ve worked within an inch of their lives.  The Crossfit mascot is a character called Pukie the Clown.  “I want you to push me,” is something trainers hear all the time from clients and potential clients.  Classes known as “boot camps” are have been very popular the past few years, complete with yelling, hollering and foot-dragging exhaustion.  We want to “test our limits.”  What’s the observation here?  If some exercise is good for us–then a whole helluva lot must be extra super awesome!!! That’s how we do it in America right?  Some = Good.  LOTS = GREAT!!!  This type of thinking sells but does it actually result in greater physical ability?

I’m reading a great book in Pavel Tsatsouline’s Power to the People!.  It’s very much making me rethink the way I train my clients as well as myself.  The book is all about heavy strength training–not bodybuilding mind you.  We’re talking strength not size.  Interestingly, I’ve noticed some parallels to advice given in the classic running book by Tim Noakes, Lore of Running.  How could it be that training for the expression of brief maximal strength might share anything at all with endurance running?

Key points of advice given in both texts amount to this: Train to the point of success, not to exhaustive failure.  As Noakes puts it:

The single most important reason most runners are prone to overtraining is, I believe, that we lack the ability to make an objective assessment of our ultimate performance capabilities.  We simply will not accept that we are mortal and that we have a built-in performance range beyond which training and other interventions cannot take us.  We believe that the harder we train, the faster we will run, and we ignore the evidence that indicates that this is blatantly untrue.  Thus we train harder and run worse.  And then, in the ultimate act of stupidity, we interpret our poor races as an indication that we have undertrained.  Consequently we go out and train even harder.

Similarly, Pavel states:

“From Eugene Sandow to Yuri Vlasov, the strongest men and women in the world have never trained to failure!  Cut the ‘do or die’ rhetoric, take a long hard look at yourself, and tell me what are your odds of becoming another exception?  If ‘training to failure and beyond’ is so hot, how come your bench has been stuck at 185 lbs. since Arnold’s first movie?”

Also from Pavel:

“Ed Coan squats 875 lbs. x 3 and calls it a day although he knows he could’ve fived that weight.  Heavy training not to failure sure worked for Coan who has set nearly eighty world records.”

Is this surprising information?  Maybe not if we consider the nervous system and the SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) principle.  Simply stated, our nervous system always adapts to exactly what we ask of it. 

If we swim a lot then we tend to be able to swim.  If we ride a bike frequently then we adapt to bike riding.  If we lift heavy weights then we tend to get stronger.  (Also, if we sit hunched over a desk for enough of our life, we tend to be hunched.)  To the point of this post, if we train the nervous system to move our bodies successfully in clean, efficient form be it running, lifting, rock climbing, getting groceries–whatever–then we are training to succeed.  If however we spend enough time going to failure–that is to the point where our technique becomes sloppy and inefficient–then the nervous system says, “You want to practice doing this exercise in poor, sloppy form?  Okay.  I’ll adapt to that.”  Thus we develop poor, sloppy movement patterns.  The result of prolonged poor movement may be tendonitis/tendonosis, bursitis, arthritis–all sorts of itis-es: pain, in other words.

So what does success feel like?  We’ll find out in Part II of this post.