Strength has always been my weakness. Ever since I was a kid, a skinny kid with little evident athleticism, my ability to move loads, win arm wrestling matches and throw heavy objects has been an embarrassment.
In high school, I remember, one science class testing how many Newtons of force each kid could produce, pulling on a spring attached to a poll and measuring it – I was amongst the worst of the boys. Barely a level up above the fattest girl, but out of 15 boys I was joint bottom third or fourth. I’ve always been weak.
Of course I was skinny too. Vanity and insecurity have always been a hard to admit reason for wanting to get jacked. But most importantly, and I always kept this mind over the last five years of training strength, my goal has been to hide my weakness as a fighter and build up my relative strength to an accessible baseline.
Along this journey there were obstacles to contend with: injuries, bad programming, conflicting training targets and three months of chemotherapy.
When I started way back when, I weighed a little over 160 lb (73 kg) at 6’1. Today I walk around at 185 lb (84 kg), lean. That took five years to put 15 lb (7 kg) on my ectomorphic body-frame. I want more, but for now, it’s good.
2007-2008 – starting MMA training
In early 2007, shortly before I started Muay Thai, I bought a cheap squat rack from Amazon.co.uk, a barbell, much too small for the rack, some dumbbells, and some free weights.
This was the first part of a much larger journey I was embarking on in my mid-20s. Even though I had no idea what I was doing with the weights at the time, I approached my training with a singular purpose and dedication – thinking in the long term, tenacity and persistence. Disciplined, driven, motivated, and above all, consistent.
But back then, I had no clue. The York weights set that I bought came with a poster, still up in my room, long past its usefulness, illustrating an assortment of exercises, targeting the back, the legs, the biceps, the triceps, the chest the deltoids – an ad hoc mixture of general and isolated muscle groups.
I had bad form and little programming knowledge, but I’d consistently train three days a week. I split the week, targeting legs one day, arms and shoulders another and chest and back on the final day.
2008 and Starting Strength
By early 2008 I gained more knowledge about strength training through websites and books and learnt how scientific athletic development needs to be – not in an overly complex sense, but in terms of measuring progress, working with percentages on the bar and numbers of repetitions. I learnt the importance of implementing what now seems obvious – that which we measure, improves.
I learnt and understood the difference between myofibrillar hypertrophy and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy; of CNS activation and the glycolitic pathway; of stress and adaptation, nutrition, periodisation, and the importance of rest and recovery.
Then I came across the book Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.
The book is a comprehensive breakdown on training with a barbell. A versatile long piece of metal to which you can add weights and train all the most important muscles in your body. According to the book, with a barbell and a squat stand, all you need to do was concentrate on four exercises which would correctly train all the muscles you need to get stronger. The squat, the deadlift, the bench press and the military press. The book taught me that all strength work should be built around these “big” multi-joint movements. which would train my muscles in balance with each other, developing them proportionally and “functionally”.
Rippetoe advises squatting three times a week – which for a beginner should not overtax the central-nervous-system (CNS). Along with the squat, he advises to pick one other multi-joint movement. As far as I can remember, I split my training week like this:
3×5 Bench press / Press (Alternating)
Chin-ups: 3 sets to failure
3×5 Press / Bench Press (Alternating)
3×5 Bench Press / Press (Alternating)
Pull-ups: 3 sets to failure
In October 2009 my squat was 75 kg for 3 sets of 5 reps. Bench press was 60 kg for 3 sets of 5 reps. Military press was 40 kg for 3 sets of 5 and deadlift was 75 kg for 1 set of 5 reps.
By June 2010, I’d added 10 kg to my squat, 10 kg to my bench press, 15 kg to my deadlift and my military press barely improved at all.
In fact, after a year and half on the starting strength programme, most of my lifts were stagnating. These relatively modest gains in that time frame, for a beginner, were not entirely due to any flaw in the programme, but because my Muay Thai training took an increasingly large chunk of my training, and the three days a week of squatting left me quickly fatigued and over trained. I could not handle that kind of volume demanded by the programme and had no time to recover. After a year of starting strength, I also began to incorporate other strength training methods, which I felt at the time were much more important for my martial arts development. This included using complex pairs – such as body-weight squat jumps after completing a final set of max strength squats, or plyometric push-ups after completing the bench press. There were also snatches, and cleans and dumbbell swings. My Muay Thai improved, my kicks, my punches – all delivered with knockout power. But my max strength stagnated. Worse still, I could feel a back injury accumulating.
Years of bad posture had accumulated an extremely weak lumbar spine which was exacerbated by the three days a week squatting. I could already feel this, but at this point I thought I could simply train through the throbs of pain I got every time I tried to sprint or get under the bar.
2010-2011, 5/3/1, injury and the beauty of bodyweight strength
In late 2010, I cam across Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 weight lifting programme.
What I like about the Wendler’s 5/3/1 programme is its flexibility – you could strength train four times, three times, two times or even once a week, and still progress on your lifts. It’s perfect for those for whom strength training is a secondary goal. This programme is very precise in helping you progress in your lifts – incrementally increase weight from 65% of your 1 rep-max to 95% for any given lift through a 4 week cycle.
Wendler focuses on counting the total number of reps you can perform with a given weight as markers of strength, rather than focusing on how much weight you can lift in total, which is a great indicator of overall strength and lets you know when to increase weight.
The programme also leaves plenty of room for accessory exercises if hypertrophy is your goal or if you want to add extra volume. The upshot is that it allows you to significantly increase intensity while keeping volume low. This allows for plenty of recovery to concentrate on MMA skills and other conditioning targets.
For the next year and a half, to almost two years, I went through several 5/3/1 cycles. These varied from three sessions a week to two sessions a week depending on how much time I dedicated to other training goals. This programme was remarkable in that I put on plates of iron on all my lifts faster than I ever have. Unfortunately, this quick progression led to overconfidence leading to a serious back injury in early 2011.
2011 was also marked with cancer treatment. I was initially diagnosed with cancer in 2010, but then all it took was quick surgery to remove the tumour and I was back in the gym three days later. The summer of 2011, however, took three months of chemotherapy where my muscles wasted and my weight dropped fast.
Throughout the period of injuries and hospitalisation, and in between barbell training, I maintained my strength by adopting bodyweight training. Dips, chin-ups, single-leg squats, hand-stand push-ups – these required a high degree of skill, but I was proud of pulling off up to 10 reps of bodyweight single-leg squats as well as three hand-stand push-ups (off the wall).
I did very little explosive work, such as swings and snatches, as I was prohibited by a barely rehabilitated back. For now, I was concentrating on my max strength as much as possible – especially after chemotherapy, which left my red blood cell count and overall cardio-vascular capacity very low. Max strength is all I could do. And, to my surprise, following the end of chemo treatment in August, my max strength shot-up quickly.
In January 2011 my bench press had reached 81 kg for three reps, 107 kg on the squat for three reps, press was 54 kg for three reps and deadlift 117 kg for three reps. By the end of the year, my lifts were back at similar numbers and progressing steadily.
My weight, however, was a constant battle. From a max of 187 lb (85 kg) several times I fell back down to 170. It’s as though 170 is my natural body weight. After and during chemo I was between 170-180. When I became ill for two weeks in November, I went back down to 170-180. I’m normally at 185 and aim is to get to 205.
At 185 lb (85 kg), my current (estimated) numbers are:
Squat = 110 kg = 1.3 times bodyweight
Bench press = 85 kg = 1 times bodyweight
Deadlift = 120 kg = 1.4 times bodyweight
Pull-ups = 5 with additional 20 kg weight
By the end of this year my aim is:
Squat = 1.5-2 times my body weight = 170 kg,
Deadlift = 2-2.5 times my bodyweight = 210 kg
Bench press = 1.25-1.5 times my bodyweight = 130 kg
Pull-ups = 10 with an additional 20 kg of weight