How to Build Old School Herculean Legs

Around 1.500 words, estimated reading time: 8 min.

Once upon a time, dinosaurs ruled the earth and perky little mammals were their after-dinner snacks.

Then a meteorite or a giant volcano wiped their poikilothermic ass out of existence (or whatever else their ass was). Except for chickens. Soon the perky mammals evolved into puny humans and avenged their ancestors by enslaving the chickens, slaying them by the score and eating their flesh.

T-RexEventually, some humans began to feast on their cholesterol-laden eggs, and in so doing, they built up testosterone and became capable of squatting, benching and deadlifting heavy-ass barbells. The other still-puny humans clapped their hands in appreciation and the memory of the chickens’ ancestors was mocked and there was much rejoicing.

Wait. There’s one shortcut too many in this story. Heavy barbell deadlifts, sure. Heavy squat and bench? Not so much.

What? No Squat?

Bench presses and squats (at least, heavy squats) are a fairly recent addition to the repertoire of gym exercises. The bench that makes the bench press, well, a bench press has been around for just over half a century. And the squat rack is not much older.


Where’s the rack?

Sure, one can squat heavy-ass weights without a squat rack. German strongman Heinrich Steinborn (1894-1989) made a name for himself by doing just that. (If you have never heard of the Steinborn squat, you should definitely check this BarBend article.)

In fact, according to Jon Broz, the earliest description of a squat can be found in Eugene Sandow’s System of Physical Training and it is a dumbbell exercise. Sandow’s description is fascinating and deserves a little more attention than Broz gives it. But before I get to it, I can’t resist a bit of a build-up.

No chicken legs here

Sandow was immensely strong, known for it, and damn proud of it. Even past his prime. When SandwinaKatie Brumbach visited New York in 1921 and claimed that she could outlift any man, guys in the audience knew better than take a chance. But not Sandow. Eventually, Sandow lost the contest, failing to press 300lbs (135kg) overhead. Brumbach succeeded, and later change her name to “Katie Sandwina” to commemorate the victory.

Still, Sandow was 54 at the time, the contested lift had been a one-arm bent press, and both contestants had ramped the weight up until 300lbs. So, Sandow was still a pretty strong dude.

Falk,_Benjamin_J._(1853-1925)_-_Eugen_Sandow_(1867-1925)_-1894_3Sandow was also really easy on the eyes aesthetic, knew it, and was damn proud of it. When Sandow organized and judged the first-ever bodybuilding competition in 1901, the prizes were statues of himself — gold for the winner, silver and bronze for the runner-ups — executed by Frederick William Pomeroy. Pomeroy was not yet a member of the Royal Academy of Arts but was no small fry either, having been Sir Frederick Leighton’s assistant in the 1870s and worked on Leighton’s masterpiece,  the Athlete Wrestling with a Python. The bronze trophy would later become the Mr. Olympia trophy, colloquially known as “The Sandow”.

Sandow could commission a statue of himself without risking ridicule because he had already turned himself into one, modeling his torso and legs after the Farnese Hercules. And in fact, he had come as close to Herculean proportions as humanly possible before Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules AAS stack meal plan, as you can judge below.

Herakles_Farnese_MAN_Napoli_Inv6001_n01 (1)

Glycon of Athens (copy), Lysippos (original type) Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011) CC B.Y. 2.5 with Sandow’s impersonation (circ. 1900), public domain.

Sandow’s squat

By now, you’d probably expect that Sandow’s squat, whatever it was, must have been quite the leg builder.

Well, brace for impact.

Here is Sandow’s description of the exercise:

“Take a dumb-bell in each hand, and come to the position of attention, the body straight, the head erect, the chest thrust out, and the shoulders and hips held well back. By bending the knees, dip the body in a vertical line to the heels, keeping the back straight and the chin drawn in. Recover and repeat the movement until the muscles ache. This is a good exercise in  poising the body and giving suppleness to the knee-joint. If the muscles of the leg and thighs have been well toned, their natural elasticity will render the movement easy.”

Yup. You read well. The legendary Eugene Sandow used to squat for the pump.

Given how strong the dude was in the bent press, he must have relied on other exercises to “tone” the legs and thighs. (I used to be quite pissed when I read about exercise toning” this or that, but from now on I’ll take it as meaning “looking like Eugene Sandow”.) So, what could have been Sandow’s secret weapon to build  Herculean quads? Well…

Enter the deadlift

With deadlifts, most likely. Deadlifts could be performed with the heaviest barbells available at the time, without having to go through the trouble of Steinborn-ing them off the floor.

Now, I know what you may think: the deadlift is a hinge. Great for the posterior chain but the range of motion for knee extension is too short for the quads to be really involved.

That’s a good argument. But it’s not a great one.

First, the case has been made by no-one else than Richard “The Ant” Hawthorne that the deadlift is a push, not a pull. Hawthorne scored some really good points based on biomechanics, and there are some to be made from neurology as well (but it’s more tentative and I’ll leave it for another day). And if the deadlift is a push, the leg extensors matter more for performing a deadlift than the back erectors.

Second, irrespective of whether one disagrees with Hawthorne (I’ll come back to that) it is possible to extend the range of motion in the deadlift so as to emphasize knee extension relative to hip extension. Discounting aberrant motor patterns (I’ll come back to that, too) knee extension is performed by the quadriceps. So, a deadlift with an emphasis on knee extension becomes a quad builder.

Discounting (again) aberrant motor patterns, hip extension is performed by the gluteal group and the long head of the biceps femoris. You can’t neutralize the glutes in a deadlift because the bar has to clear the knees, which requires pushing back the shins. But having both knee and hip extension is a feature, not a bug. The bottom line is, a deadlift with exaggerated knee extension is a total leg builder.

In fact, Olympic weightlifters still practice the “floating snatch deadlift on riser” (a snatch-grip deficit Romanian deadlift) as leg strengthener.


(If you check the link, remember that Catalyst Athletics tends to draw Byzantine distinctions between close variations of the same lift. For instance, the “snatch deadlift on a riser” is presented a leg-strength builder and its floating variant as a postural exercise for the back. Still, time under tension surely improves postural awareness, but it’s also awesome for strength and hypertrophy. Voilà.)

Wrapping up (for today)

I have no direct evidence that Brumbach, Sandow, or anyone else in the golden era of strongpersons actually used deadlifts as leg builders, let alone floating deficit snatch-grip deadlifts. But it would not surprise me. However, if I really had money to bet, I would go to some variant or another of full Zerchers (like that one). All the arguments I’ve made about knee extension apply to it as well, and it requires less equipment (if not imagination) than the floating deadlift.

Now, I still prefer the snatch-grip variant because it’s easier to learn and to do right. I also have another reason, that I can only sketch here. I mentioned an earlier possible disagreement with Hawthorne and promised to return to it. I also mentioned aberrant motor patterns and made the same promise. Let’s fulfill both promises at once.

According to Hawthorne, the only function that the back muscles should perform in a deadlift is to keep the back straight, and using the back muscles in the deadlift as movers is dysfunctional. Hawthorne recommends keeping the mechanics of the deadlift as close as possible to the mechanics of a jump because jumping is how humans deliver power off the floor. Using the back muscles to generate momentum in a jump is possible but inefficient, and so is it in the deadlift.

But if the ‘power’ muscles of the legs (glutes and quads) are inhibited, other muscles will take over for performing movements in which glutes and quads should be the prime movers. And since glutes and quads tend to be inhibited from excessive sitting, using the back in the deadlift is the result of a motor dysfunction.

From my (admittedly limited) experience, the floating snatch-grip deadlift is the best exercise for repatterning glutes/quads function in the deadlift. Zerchers do not fare as well in that department. But more than experience, my preference for snatch-grip floating deadlifts over other deadlift variations (or accessories) is a matter of logic, or more accurately, deduction from well-established principles of exercise science. And since I’m closing in on 1500 words, logic will have to wait for another post.

The Science and Bullshit of Lifting (Part I)

Around 1.500 words, estimated reading time: 8 min.

I’ve been living and breathing philosophy since 1993.

Since 2013, I’ve been breathing chalk, too. But it was only recently that I realized how powerful the mix could be.

Philosophy is incredibly useful to tell apart science and bullshit. This is priceless at the gym because the majority of fitness-related YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook accounts that peddle ‘sports science’ to lifters are just psuhing plain bullshit.

How would I know?

Short answer: I’m a philosopher and damn good at what I do.

The long answer is hardly longer. I’m a logician trained in the philosophy of science and an expert in information-seeking-by-questioning. When a conference needs a keynote speaker on the topic, I’m among the top picks. For sure, we are not that many, but the top of a short list is still the top.

I also put my money where my expertise is, and I know where to seek information when I need it and how to evaluate sources. Finally, I know science when I see it, and the same goes for bullshit.

Now, back to today’s topic. It’s a bit more technical than my usual posts, so I’ll have to split the discussion over a series. In Part I (this post), I look at whether there is a general method to tell science from pseudoscience, and whether there is a general method to identify bullshit. [Spoiler alert: the answers are no and yes, respectively.]

In Part II, I’ll look into some features of science that bullshitters can easily exploit. In Part III, I’ll point to some unexpected directions one should look to back one’s lifting with science.

Also, sometime around Part II or III, I’ll point fingers at a few bulshitters.

But now, let’s get to business.

Continue reading

Training like Sherlock Holmes

Three months without a post, really? What took me so long?

Well, I was that close to quit training, so writing about it did not make much sense anymore.

But I didn’t quit, so here I go again, etc.

Honestly,  I’d love to turn the story about why I didn’t quit into an inspirational tale, but I suck at this, so instead, I’ll stick to facts, and keep the color comments to a minimum.

In a nutshell, what happened is that, while trying to rehab myself from a debilitating injury, I made unexpected progresses, that were prima facie a mystery to me. And since my day job is to figure out how Sherlock Holmes solves problems [1], I applied what I know, and solved the mystery.

The Backstory



In July 2016, I tore my TFL. One injury leading to another, about a month later, I suffered from a severe onset of  piriformis syndrome/sciatica/sacroiliitis (I’m not making that up). All my barbell lifts went to the shitter, and for about a month or two, I could barely walk.

I could bear-crawl, though. According to Cros*iters from where I live, that’s enough to look like they do. But who would want that anyway. So I slowly started the process to stand up anew, with some yoga, then (practicing what I preach) with kettlebells.

Kettlebells movement worked so well that I toyed with the idea of turning rehab into girevoy practice. 

But I soon realized that my poor shoulder mobility was encouraging compensations and setting the stage for future injuries.

Not a great idea.

To make things worse, pain in the leg migrated in the back, and I started to wonder whether I could really get rid of it, after all. Still, kettlebell practice always made things better, even for a couple of hours. And since my idea of fun at the gym has always involved complexes and time sets, girevoy looked like the one thing that could prevent me from quitting for good.

So, mid-October, in a last-ditch effort, I set myself a goal: completing a 10-min set of double long cycle, all reps competition-worthy, and pain-free, by the time of my 46th b-day. Which, if anyone wonders, is in the end of January 2017. So, that was a 12-15 weeks plan.

Crucially, the plan did not include double long cycle, at least initially. There were some kettlebell presses, to monitor my overhead mobility progress (cf. below), but other than that, I just tried to build a killer pixlr_20161201184951013backside, and I learned how to use Prisma to make me look like I was actually lifting.

Since I had noticed a correlation between onset of sacroiliac pain and exercises involving spinal compression by barbell, I ditched my warm-up routine (snatch balance, Sotts presses, and overhead squats), and back squats. Anything with barbells in my hands seemed to be fine, so I kept  front squats, but I learned to cut depth. I did all sorts of deadlifting, too.

In doing so, I knew that I was detraining my hips and ankles mobility, but I made my peace with it. The priority was shoulder mobility which I trained with my morning coffee, with a broomstick and light kettlebells (8kg and 12kg). Every day, I’d go through shoulder dislocations, and the basic drills recommended by Dave Withley in his excellent Taming the Bent Press—armbars, bent armbars, and floor pull-overs, mostly.

Also, I learned how to use Pixlr to make it look like I was making progress.

The Mystery

Fast forward one month ago.

It’s breakfast time, and I am trying to convince my daughter to do wall squats.


*Not* a 4kg bent press.

I’m about to set my toes a couple of inches from the wall, show a 1/4 squat, wave my hands and say something like “If you do not want to end up like me, you’d better start practicing them now.

Instead of that, all of a sudden, bam! One solid full rep.

Emboldened by theunexpected success, I grab a pink kettlebell (8kg), and try an overhead squat. The last time I’d tried to pull that off, about a month earlier, with a 4kg kettlebell, I was looking like I was bent-pressing for max effort.

Instead of that, all of a sudden, bam! Sotts presses for reps. For which I have Instagram proof.

In all appearances, lower body mobility had improved without even training it. How come?

Enters Sherlock Holmes

According to Sherlock Holmes (in A Study in Scarlet) logicians can figure out pretty much anything:

From a drop of water […] a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. 002-lgSo all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can be acquired by long and patient study.

A good thing that I am a logician, then.

On the top of that, figuring out how Holmes reasons has been most of my day job in the last past years.

Now, the details involve some pretty hairy stuff (proof theory, computational models, and a pinch of cognitive science). But to keep it short and simple, let’s say that Sherlock Holmes solves mysteries by answering questions.

First, there are ‘big’ questions , like:  where did Irene Adler hide the photograph of the king of Bohemia? ( A Scandal in Bohemia ); or who stole the racehorse and killed his trainer? (The Case of Silver Blaze). Second, there are ‘small’ questions, like:  where would Irene Adler look if she believed that her house in on fire? or did the watchdog bark at the horse’s thief? Obviously, Holmes is hired to find out answers to the ‘big’ questions, and these answers are the conclusions of his deductions. But the real secret of his trade is to carefully choosing ‘small’ questions, so that he can deduce an answer to the ‘big’ question from answers to the small ones.

‘Small’ answers are the links of the “great chain” of life—at least, the length that connects what Holmes knows to what he wants to know about a case. Someone who believes their house is on fire tries to save their most prized possession. A watchdog keeps quiet only when ordered to by its master.

So: pick the right ‘small’ questions, answer them, and with a modicum of logic, deduce from them the answer to the ‘big’ one. Mystery solved.

The Deduction

Wall squats are usually thought of as a test of hip and ankle mobility.

I had intentionally left both out of my plan, reasoning that tight ankles and hip flexors would not limit my long cycle, and that I could always address restrictions when my left leg would not threaten to shut down any time I was shifting my weight on it.

As Holmes said once,

“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Here’s the impossible: my hip flexors and ankle mobility could not have improved from not training it.

This is obvious by having another look at the IG video above: I’m squatting just below parallel, but only just. And in case you wonder, my wall squat had been lower, but not enough to do better than touch the floor with the tips of my fingers. And I have really long arms.

Also, as evidence from my floor-slide picture, my gains in shoulder flexibility were substantial, but not spectacular. This also shows up in the video, where the lock-out is still soft-ish.

Once I had ruled out hips and shoulders, what was left was what was sitting right in the middle: lower- and mid-back. All I had to figure out was what kind of lower- and mid-back work had been beneficial. And once again, Instragram evidence proved invaluable:

Wrapping up

Being able to do something I had never been able to do and being able to figure out why, was a big boost. Still, I was far from being pain-free, but I was a little less desperate. So I set myself another goal—being pain-free by the end of 2016—and vowed not to quit if I reached it.

In case you wonder, I managed. With consistency and effort.

The real lesson here is not that consistency and effort pay off. After all, between July and October, I had not slacked, and still had made little progress on the pain front. When lifting is involved, the issue is not always where you think it is, and neither is the solution.

In fact, in order to become pain-free again, I had to question everything I thought I knew about lifting. And what I learned is the real reason for getting back to writing about training.

So, stay tuned, because there’s more to come.

(1.496 words)

[1] I’ve published scholarly papers about it here and there, with more  to come. Feel free to ask me about it if you are curious about that sort of things.

Yoga for Lifters (Part II): Loaded Yoga

This post is not about a yoga variant of Zui Quan. That would be fun, though.

Still, this is merely a follow-up on my previous post on the topic.

I concluded with an the observation that the Turkish Get Up (TGU) and the Windmill are loaded variations of the yoga Side Plank pose (Vasisthasana) and Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana). And I suggested that the loaded variations are more appropriate for lifters.

Now, there’s a whole range of yoga poses that do not have loaded variants, and I don’t want to dismiss them. In fact, I believe that the most important yoga pose for lifters, or anyone else for that matter, is the Cat-Cow. As I found out, I’m in good company, with no less than Chad Waterbury and Stuart McGill. (They call it the “Cat/Camel” for some reason,  which is why I did not find out earlier. It seems incorrect, but who cares.)

I’ll get back to unloaded yoga in the future, but this post is about building the case for kettlebells-as-yoga-for-lifters. I start with some theory, and then give some practical advice. But here’s a short reading guide:

  1. If you are already convinced that you should do Windmills and TGUs, but are not doing them, you can skip the theory and jump to the practicalities.
  2. If you think you can get away with not doing them, check some common excuses first, then decide whether you want to learn more. If not, you can forget about them. Until your shoulders hurt.
  3. When you’re done reading the post, don’t forget to tell all your friends about it. At least, hit the “Like” button. Please?

Continue reading

Training Older Avocados (and Younger Ones, Too)

Lately, I’ve had to take some time off sitting and/or standing at a desk. And because I cannot simply chalk up my sequence of injuries to bad luck—it’s more likely poor planning, and even poorer execution—I’ve done my homework, trying to figure out where I had gone wrong in the first place.

Fortunately, I’ve only gone wrong with myself. People I’ve trained have consistently done better, and I’ve only gone worse when I tried to train like them, but shouldn’t have—because I’m an old avocado, and they are not.

So I should know better. And I finally figured (some) things out. Furthermore, my conclusions are not specific to older avocados like me, and if you are a younger avocado, there will be something for you too (and not only to-be-remembered-when-you’re-old).

Still, I decided to start with the old guy’s perspective, in the honor of the second runner-up of the August Widowmaker Squat Challenge from the Older Avocados group on Fitocracy, who asked, for his prize, for “[an] intelligent training progression for the 40+ (or chronically painful) lifter”

Now, this post is just a first step towards that, but also towards an intelligent training progression for the -20 lifters (for reasons to be disclosed later), which is of interest to those older avocados (like me) who have sired younger avocados, like her.

But as usual, first come the caveats. Continue reading

Yoga for lifters (Part I)

Most lifters I know don’t practice yoga,  or use a handful of yoga poses as a substitute for static stretching. Most likely, because it’s slightly less boring (and looks cooler). This reflects how yoga instructors push “yoga for lifters”, aka mobility work.

But in fact, yoga-as-mobility is unnecessarily time-consuming for liftersAdding half an hour of yoga practice from time to time may not seem much, but that does not take into account the learning curve of yoga poses. As far as mobility is concerned, lifters are  better off with less time-consuming options.

However, there are excellent reasons for a lifter to incorporate yoga into their training. These reasons extend to any athlete using barbell work for strength and conditioning purposes. But they are slightly different from the reasons yoga is usually claimed to be beneficial.

What are those reasons? Well, let’s start with what they are not.

Continue reading

Turbo 2.0: A blueprint for daily training

A few posts ago, I argued that it’s a good idea to train more often, and touched upon how to turn a 3 days-a-week routine into a 5-to-6 days-a-week routine. The post was about the why, and not so much the how.

This post goes the other way around, and deals with how to jump right away on a 6 days-a-week routine, without spending hours at the gym or burning out. It’s more a template than a routine, though, because I’m big on autoregulation—the genuine kind, that crowds out rigid programming—and on experimentation.

Autoregulation and experimentation require wiggle room, but you should keep your eyes on the prize, namely getting better at a few important thingsThat being said, if you understand the principles behind the template, you can have a pretty good idea of how to make it work. These principles are:

  • If it’s worth doing, do it everyday; if it’s not, don’t do it at all.
  • If you need to change something, do the same thing, but different.

Now, this post is not about training philosophy, so suffices to say that I got the first from Dan John, the second from Pavel Tsatsouline (and Dan John) .

Now, let’s get practical. Continue reading

Slow cooker Cajun beef

Re-post from #Lazybuthealthy because this recipe kicks ass. If for no other reason. Also, the macros are awesome.


Jump to the recipe’s instructions

This is maybe the laziest recipe I’ve ever done. Lazier than that is takeaway, and we wouldn’t like this, would we? It is also one of my favorite slow cooker recipes, so I thought I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer. I had to share it with you guys. Because I love you. And this recipe is pure love. Okay, maybe a bit of meat too. And some spices. Cajun spices to be exact. My very own special Cajun spices mix.

I have known and appreciated Cajun cuisine since I was young, because after all, this is almost like French cuisine, albeit with a Louisiana twist. No? Well, maybe I’m simplifying the matter a bit too much here, but what I can say for certain is that I’ve been experimenting with this cuisine for a long time now. My aunt even brought me back some cookbooks…

View original post 969 more words

My top 4 training hacks (in 200 words)

The Swedish Summer tends to slow down things, my writing included. Both training-related, and academic. And since only the latter pays the bills, the former has taken the back seat.

Still, there are a few posts in preparation, but far from completion. Just to keep expectations high, here’s a short list of what’s cooking:

  • A big I-told-you-so thingy about submax squat training.
  • A program template to ease into daily training.
  • A piece about how to train without worrying too much about being beginner, intermediate, or advanced.
  • A “Bro, do you even ____ ?” episode about warm-ups (with my favorite warm-up routine on video).

All these pieces require some work and polishing. In the meantime, I though that I could manage a short post about my favorite training hacks. Because, really, the list is short. I don’t even have a top 5, barely a top 4, and they are dirt simple:

  • Hack #1: When not at the gym, rest more.
  • Hack #2: When at the gym, spend less time doing your stuff.
  • Hack #3: Also, do more of the useful stuff.
  • Hack #4: And do less of the useless shit.

That’s it, or at least the essence of it, under 200 words. The how to will use up the rest of my word count. Continue reading

Protein strawberry cheesecake


Jump to the recipe’s instructions

Cutting weight is hard for me. Not so much because I can’t eat certain foods – I actually enjoy the food I eat, meat, vegetables and healthy fats are my game – but because I need to keep track of the amount of food I put on my plate. See, my metabolism is rather slow, and efficient at using every nutrient I feed it with, meaning I don’t need so many calories to keep going, even with the intense training I put my body through. Which also means I can’t really use a IIFYM approach to cutting. It would make me feel miserable because I would merely get a bite of certain foods, and I’m on the team that prefers not to taste something if I can’t have more. Better abstinent than frustrated. But that’s me. There is also the fact that I don’t really miss…

View original post 1,434 more words

Adaptive Programming

For this week, I was planning an in-depth post about programming, and its scientific underpinnings.

This is not it.

Long story short, a friend on Fitocracy left a question on my wall and a lengthy conversation ensued. All the while, I was updating my draft on programming, but it was getting out of whack, and I was not going to have anything done by the end of this week.

So I decided to be practical.

I have a lot of experience with turning three-days-a-week training schedules into six-days-a-week training schedules, and making trainees better off with the latter than with the former.

This post is gives you a simple recipe to do it on your own.

Now, I’m not one to give practical advice without explaining where it comes from. If you are not interested, you can jump to the program, and leave the theory for later.

Continue reading