AtA: Setting Up the Weight and Maintaining the Challenge

Posted July 7th, 2010 in Ask the Author by Clint

Do you have any tips for getting the bag on for pushups? It’s getting too heavy for me to do that part properly without the weight being centered at my lower back, which seems bad.

If you don’t happen to have someone who can set you up, you can put the bag on a chair, then kneel next to the chair and draw it onto your shoulder blades with your outside hand, bracing yourself with your close hand and your knees. Then replace your hand and get in push-up position. You can also try varying your hand spacing, doing incline push-ups by putting your feet on a higher surface, or for something still more advanced, see if you can bust them out one-handed. Those are my fav.

Alternatively, you can do one-hand flyes/presses using the straps on, say, the edge of a couch or step so that you have clearance for the full range of motion. Or simply switch to overhead presses, or one-hand overhead presses until such time as your shoulders get strong enough to support one-handed push-ups.

Lastly, plyo push-ups going for height/clearance will never stop being a challenge. That is, until you can explosively push yourself up to standing position without breaking at the knees or hips. Which would be pretty impressive. You probably want to do them on carpet, a mat, a wood floor or something with some give. Concrete is for people that hate themselves.

Squats is kind of a pain for that too when you have no squat cage. You have to find some appropriate-height surface in your place to set it on and then roll slide into position on the back of your neck, or just do Zercher Squats.

I like Zerchers for the same reason I like hill sprints; you can’t do the weight you could on a back squat, but it’s a lot harder to do them wrong. And it lends itself to a natural functionality when you are doing something that requires you to squat and lift.

A great compound movement is cleaning the bag off the floor and throwing it over your shoulder in a fireman carry; you can not only scoop more weight than you might be able to hustle into zercher, but you also get additional stimulus to the torso and body to balance the weight. Just switch sides between sets (or for true brutality, drop it back to the floor and clean it up again for each rep).

I’d also recommend giving the split-squats a try with the bag in zercher position.

AtA: the ‘vanity’ of exercise and the ‘proper’ resistance weight

Posted June 30th, 2010 in Ask the Author by Clint

In the last month I’ve started hitting to gym to lean up my fat ass; while in the last months my lifts have all gone from “struggling with the bar” to 100-140lbs, my motivation is more or less purely physical vanity.

Though this might not apply to your situation specifically, I’m still mildly surprised when someone blushingly confesses to me that their motivation is aesthetic, as if it’s somehow less noble of a goal or motivation than health or athletic performance. In the same way exercising for better health and longevity could be attributed to selfish motivation (because you personally want to live longer or better), or likewise could be for others (because you do not want to be a medical burden on your family or society), you can likewise consider aesthetic reasons to be for the benefit of others (so that your children don’t grow up with a weak, fat parent as their role model, or so that your significant other can continue to find you attractive and enjoy you physically as well as mentally and emotionally). I’m not one to break each and every little thing down to subjective reality, but you can call the motivation anything you want so long as it gets you where you ultimately want to go.

For example, I’m motivated to see everyone succeed because every person who is obese is a financial burden on myself and my society. I’m also motivated because I have plenty of friends and loved ones who are overweight or obese, and suffer not only medically, but emotionally and mentally.

What ultimately matters to me is that as many people who want to help themselves can do so, and I’m doing that in the best way right now that I know how. But my motivations aren’t as important as the end goal, and yours don’t have to be either.

However I hate the hassle of actually going to the gym so the idea of keeping a sandbag in my closet I can use in my apartment in the morning is extremely appealing.

I would caution you that though (or perhaps because) it is more convenient, you will need more motivation to convert to working out at home, not less.

Though it’s a method I recommend, having a sandbag in your closet is an easy thing to go “Oh I’ll just do it tomorrow, I deserve to take it easy today because of [reason here].” The engineer bag can be an incredible tool and can readily serve as a universal one for people who need it to do so; just don’t let it enable you to make excuses and eventually fail yourself in your ultimate goal. Again, that may not be your problem, but we’re all different.

Now, I’m 6’2″. Is a bag full of sand that maxes out at 160lbs going to be enough of a stimulus to give me decent-sized musculature (once I drop enough fat to have it become visible, of course)?

Time and again, athletes are shocked when they find out an engineer bag they’ve been struggling with might only weigh 100lbs. The reason barbells became so popular is because of the fact it’s efficient, that the body can best grasp that weight and manipulate it in that form, where it’s as compact and unencumbering as it can be. That’s why things like fatbars/fat grips and kettlebells are so en vogue; they take a weight and make it unwieldy and thereby more challenging. Bagging weight takes it that step further, especially if you are gripping the canvas itself rather than the convenient handle or cradling it. It’s a pain in the ass to lift and move, and the more obnoxious it is, quite frankly, the better it can be.

If you can fill a bag completely and are knocking out all your movements like it’s no thing, simply get another bag and either load them both up on your arms zercher-style, put one on each shoulder, or carry one under either arm. If you’re at 300+lbs in sandbags and you’re still feeling unchallenged, at that point you might look into a gym membership. And probably competing at a serious level of sportsmanship.

Lift Something Heavy Contest Winner! (finally!)

Posted June 9th, 2010 in Contests by Clint

Speaking of engineer bags, we finally have enough entries to declare a winner for the “lift something heavy” contest I started way back at the beginning of this blog.

Okay this has been a while in coming, but I’ll start off by saying I’ve been at this for just over 6 weeks. Here is my gear:wow, people are actually doing this thing. cool.

I thought different colors of duct tape would make things more fun, and to a point, it does. I’m not entirely happy about the bag I got, though. It’s big enough that I can fit all of my weights into it and have room for plenty more. I could probably fit myself into it if I wanted. But because I have relatively short legs, I find it pretty difficult to lift by the handles properly, which means I need to grab it from the bottom for deadlifts.

I bought 20 pairs of XXXL socks and three bags of pea gravel. I would stuff a sock as much pea gravel as I could fit, then I would work another sock over it in the opposite direction, and finally I would tape them up. This worked out pretty well, I fit two bags of pea gravel into 10 weights this way. I still have another bag of gravel but I doubt I’ll need to make more than five more weights. There is some variation in the weights – in particular, one of the blue ones weighs much less than the others, but I just make sure to leave that one out for the exercises with only a few weights, and put it in for the ones with most or all. I’m deliberately not weighing them to avoid the psychological barrier as suggested. I would guess they’re somewhere between 15 and 20 pounds though.

Other than that, I’ve bought a sleeping mask and a good amount of whey protein, and I’m trying to follow the 40/40/20 split. I do tend to go a bit high on carbs, though. Nevertheless, I’ve maintained a weight of 180 pounds while gaining a significant amount of muscle. It’s also nice to easily move things that I found daunting not long ago. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, and it feels great.

Congratulations to EC for both his winning entry and his dedication and progress.

Also, don’t let the contest being resolves stop anyone from submitting pictures of their training equipment or setups. I always like to see how people are making it happen.

AtA: Engineer Bags Revisited

Posted June 4th, 2010 in Ask the Author by Clint

In buying your “engineer bags,” is it worth paying extra to get one with a flat bottom, or is round fine? It seems like round would roll off you when you try to do a weighted pushup? On the same note, it seems like you might be doing a disservice by continuing to call it an “engineer bag” when searching for that turns up only different things, while “duffle bag” is mostly correct. As a reader I’d rather just see links to a few inexpensive “recommended” ones on your site, though.

I apologize for the confusion; for effectively all of my life I’ve heard them referred to as engineer bags. It’s a heavy duty canvas bag that’s typically early 20th century issue, available at pretty much any Army/Navy store, suitable for carrying tools or parts in, and thick enough that chunks of metal won’t slice through it. “Duffel bag” to me is the big canvas tube-like backpack you see infantrymen carrying their clothing and worldly possessions in. And most people seem to think of the thin nylon/plastic ‘gym bag’ as a ‘duffel bag’ as well.

Whenever I’m not at home and I’m building a new engineer bag (which happens frequently if I’m traveling, at a workshop, helping a friend/client put one together, whatever), it’s pretty much an hour job. I go to a local Army/Navy (or failing that, sporting goods store) so I can physically touch the bags and see what seems most durable (and grab a bag of tube socks while I’m there), then go to a hardware/home improvement store and get 2-4 bags (100-200lbs) of gravel. About $20USD total cost. I usually take the recipient of the bag along so they can pick something that appeals to them (some people don’t appreciate having an olive drab sack in the corner of their nice living room).

I would feel uncomfortable recommending ones off Amazon that I haven’t tried, so I’ve ordered a couple and will test them out and let you know what I would recommend.

As far as flat bottom or round, my current pair are rounded. The rocks will ‘flatten out’ on the bottom and be more of a significant factor in stability than a seam will, for push-ups or whatever. But it’s not that big a deal either way.tl;dr get something durable that pleases you aesthetically. Straps going all the way around the bag for support. Many readers also recommend handles on the side as well as the top.

AtA: Engineer Bags vs Freeweights

Posted May 10th, 2010 in Ask the Author by Clint

I have a question about your suggestion for using an engineer bag stuffed with weights as resistance training, though [...] but I really wonder how favorably it compares to pumping iron with real free weight equipment.

I should preface by stating that the engineer bag (or other suitably heavy object you might train with) is not a short-cut or temporary fix to get people started with resistance training; it is a fully-formed method suitable for people of virtually any level of fitness, and can be an effective program for life. The barbell is less than a century old; it’s not like prior to that humans were just wads of cookie dough with stick arms.

A lot of ‘underground’ fitness methods do Strongman-style training, with tire-flipping, sandbags, car pushing, stone lifting, and so on. For all intent and purpose, you can build an incredible physique and immense strength doing basic movements with challenging free-weight of any kind. It’s just mass being moved, simple as that.

That said, it would depend on your goals and how you define them.

Bodybuilders, to start off with (and pardon me if I paraphrase something you might have already read, I say a lot of things more than once) are particularly suited to using barbells and dumbbells because what they are doing is in essence being sculptors, with their own body as the medium. Even amateur-level bodybuilders spend hours just critiquing their own physique, and by having a wide range of tools and stimuli available they are able to shape each curve, angle and plane. In that case, not only would you want the more refined tools that a gym offers, but a host of other isolation exercises that I don’t get into in the book.

Powerlifters and other competitive weightlifters I consider to be athletes, and lifting barbells as a sport. From the lowly gymrat up to the girthiest (sure that’s a word shut up) of pro powerlifters, they seek to make the numbers go higher, same as a runner wants to make the numbers go lower. In this case, I would recommend you seek a gym as well; it’s significantly easier to lift 225 on a bar, even in a front squat, than it is to do the same with an engineer bag or any other unwieldy load. This isn’t to say it’s somehow less of an accomplishment, but like any other sport, some powerlifters wear special suits and practice special techniques (and often have horrifying physiques and form) just to get the numbers a little higher. It’s not a means to an end, it’s the end itself.

There are obviously other purposes that I may not need to get into for the moment, but suffice to say if you goal is “be leaner”, “be stronger”, “look good naked” or most of the reasons people want to ‘do exercise’, the engineer bag is not only a valid choice, it’s one of the better ones available. Though I personally love the gym in theory and in practice, and consider my power cage to be a part of the family, it’s not necessary. I (and you) could accomplish basically the same thing with a good sized rock.