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;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: Exercise Frequency and Off-day Meals

Posted May 26th, 2010 in Ask the Author by Clint

What is your take on daily exercise? If I lift a 5×5 three a week, is it okay to spin on the in between days, or should I let my muscles recover?

Also, do you eat a peak meal on days that you don’t exercise?

As I mention in the book, I think it’s great. The more the merrier. I might debate the merits of Spin class, but as long as the intensity is high enough there’s nothing wrong with using it as an interval exercise.

One thing I would recommend (and I do recommend in the book) is that you allow for proper recovery, which includes both adequate sleep and active recovery, such as taking a decently long walk. Honestly, if you had the time on your hands, there’s nothing wrong with weight training every day and doing interval, provided you get proper recovery. If you find yourself fatigued or with reduced performance, you simply either increase active recovery (more massage, more rest, more walking and so on) or scale back training. It’s pretty straight-forward.

It’s not like in ye olden times (of a whole century ago) dudes would be like “hell, guess I can’t toil in the fields since I just chopped wood. I’ll overtrain! MWF is butter churning, T-Th is for wrangling livestock. Better eat mah glucose snakes.” What a horribly hamfisted analogy, but hopefully the gist is clear.

As for Peak meals, no. I don’t recommend them if they don’t accompany an appropriately intense activity. I sometimes take a Sunday off as a complete rest/recovery day, and those days basically mirror a meal plan from a ketogenic low carb diet.

AtA: So I’ve got these dumbbells, see

Posted May 19th, 2010 in Ask the Author by Clint

I’ve got a pair of dumbbells, up to 7.5kg on each (or more like 15kg if you put all the weights onto one bar.) I’ve read the section about doing hip and shoulder pull and push exercise, and I was wondering if you could recommend any exercises I could do with those weights that involve the areas mentioned in the book?

Although you can certainly abuse physics to some extent by using unilateral movements such as split-squats, single-hand OH push or lawnmowers, honestly that’s just not enough weight. You’ll quickly outgrow it (if you haven’t already), and more importantly you won’t get the crucial loading-stimulus on your frame or spine that hoisting a heavier weight will do.

But this is a wide world full of heavy stuff. 50lb bags of pea gravel are $3USD at a hardware store, and an engineer bag will fit in any corner. Or if the engineer bag doesn’t suit you, make due with what’s around (I’ve done a full workout with a mini-fridge before). One guy I train with from time to time has a workout based around his wheel barrow. Fill it up with the shovel, leverage squats, walking deadlifts, press, etc. You can also use crates, kegs, just about anything you’ve got. And the more cumbersome and unwieldy, generally the less weight you need since leverage and torque works against you (which is the sort of physics you can abuse without cheating yourself out of the benefits).

I regularly receive inquiries along the lines of  ”Well, I already have [miscellaneous piece of equipment], how can I use that?” If it’s a piece of gimmicky equipment like an ab circle lounger antelope strider pro plus, don’t bother unless you have fun using it. If you enjoy it, go for it, but bear in mind that almost none of them will provide a high enough intensity to count as an Interval Exercise; you’ll still benefit from the General Movement but don’t expect it to fulfill your exercise requirements. If it’s a home gym setup with tracks or rails, you’re better off (and safer) doing free-standing lifts with a heavy object. Sell the machine, buy a canvas sack and some pea gravel, and spend the rest on meat.

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.

free e-book version now available

Posted January 26th, 2010 in Site Update by Clint

Look I have no idea why it’s putting those weird squares on the edges of the pictures; we tried saving the pdf in a number of different dpis and styles and it’s just happening and we can’t stop it.  It isn’t like that in the original or the hardcopy, but you can still tell what’s going on. Just bear in mind I don’t have this square nose or square head or whatever, and that’s not a horrible photo-trimming job. It’s Adobe.

That said, hey it’s free. Go B A N A N A S. You can click here or hit the ‘Get the book.’ link on the bottom bar.

Brain Over Brawn: now on Old Man Bezos’ little online store

Posted January 22nd, 2010 in Uncategorized by Clint

Brain Over Brawn is now up on

Here’s that earl:

Recommended Reading: Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe

Posted January 22nd, 2010 in Recommended Reading by Clint

Though I’ve many times said in Brain Over Brawn and elsewhere that you do not need to go to a gym, some people have access by default through their school, their company or as an amenity of ownership or membership of property or association. And some people just enjoy going to a gym for the atmosphere and camaraderie. Though it’s not for everyone, I might like for it to be in my personal neo-utopian fantasies.

I’ve also said that personal trainers are by and large hacks and charlatans, and that has yet to change in any measurable metric.

With these two facts in mind, I would suggest for both the novice and veteran gym-goer and barbell enthusiast alike to pick up Mark Rippetoe’s “Starting Strength: 2nd edition”. For as much as someone could capably learn a physical, spacial movement (well, a series of movements) via a book, Mr. Rippetoe goes into exhaustive (approaching neurotic) detail. If you intend to mess with big iron plates and bars as your preferred method of resistance training, this is about as close as you can get to someone with accurate information getting uncomfortably close to your ear and rubbing their stubble against your jaw while whispering all the collected minutia and errata they have dutifully gathered over decades of legitimate training.

Ball-busting aside, Rippetoe knows what the haps are, and if you plan to formally lift this is the resource for you. Even if it is your first time in your life entering a gym, chances are excellent you would be far better equipped after reading this book than by taking that ‘complimentary session’ from lycra-clad “Kev” at your local McGym.

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