18th Jan2012

DIY Tire Sled

by Tom

If you have some space in or around your gym like we do here at Fort Mason, a sled can be a very valuable conditioning tool as part of circuits or as a nice finisher to a weight training session. If you have some cash lying around, I’d recommend the versatile prowler from Elite FTS or the affordable power sled from Muscle Driver. Since I eventually want two (or even three) sleds in order to accommodate larger groups and keep rest time shorter, I decided to make one on my own to keep the cost down. Here is the material list and how I went about building it.


I picked up a couple of tires at the local Pick N Pull. For a used tire with a 13-14 inch hole sold as a single, you shouldn’t have to pay more than $16 for each one. Regardless of how big the tire itself is, I’d recommend sticking with one that has less than a 15 inch hole. In order to add weight to the tire later, we’re going to drop standard 45lb or bumper plates into the tire and you want them to rest securely in there. Plates are about 17 inches wide, so if you buy a large tire with a 17 inch hole, the plate will just fall through and drag on the ground. Not good.

When looking through the tires, try to find one with very hard, sturdy tread. If the tread is bald or thin, it will provide a less stable base to secure the handle and tow rope. The sturdier the tread, the longer the rubber will hold out after being pulled on hundreds of times. I bought Michelin X Radials, which have a long tread life compared to most other tires.

These are all the necessary materials and cost of each

  • 14 inch used Michelin X Radial Tire – Pick N Pull $16.00
  • Power drill with a phillips head bit
  • Door pull handle with 4 screw anchor points – Home Depot $3.70
  • Length of 2×4 just long enough to accommodate pull handle
  • 4 count of 1.5 inch wood screws
  • 15 foot emergency car tow strap – Home Depot $16.50
  • Total Cost = $36.20

I could have cut down on the cost quite a bit by trying to find a cheap or even free strap, but the car tow strap was too cool to pass up. The locking hooks are heavily stitched into either side of the strap, the material is wide and comfortable for pulling, and the strap and hooks are rated for up to 5000 pounds.

Attaching the Pull Handle

I first considered attaching the pull handle directly to the tire using bolts, nuts, and washers. After thinking about the force that would be generated and the possibility of ripping the rubber, I settled on anchoring it to a 2×4 backing using wood screws. Since the 4 anchor screws are all essentially connected via the 2×4, there is a whole lot more stability. The hardest part is getting in the first screw. Place the handle lengthwise in the center of the tire like the picture above and get the first screw through the tire rubber. Then reach in with the 2×4 and go by feel where the screw should connect to the wood. Then drill in while pressing hard on the wood. Once the first screw is securely in, the other three are pretty easy.

Adding Weight

In order to add weight to the sled, you need to increase the diameter of the top of the tire to accommodate bumper plates. First, start by centering a bumper plate on top of the tire as shown below.

Make small pencil or chalk marks around the plate so you know how wide of a space you need to cut in order to make the plate fit. Stay about a quarter to a half inch outside these marks while you cut. To do the cutting, the best method is probably to use a drill to make a small hole then use a handheld jigsaw to make the cut all the way around the tire. I didn’t have a jigsaw, so I just used the blade on my leatherman skeletool, which did the job very quickly. Any serrated hunting knife will work just fine. After you’re done, there will be enough space to drop in plates.

My cut was by no means perfect, but going a little wider than necessary certainly won’t hurt you. It will give you a little more margin to set plates in there on top of each other. In hindsight, I’m going to do the cutting before attaching the pull handle the next time I make one of these. You can see in the picture above that the 2×4 anchor is much more visible and accessible after making the cut. Getting the first screw attached to the 2×4 would be much easier at this point than prior to the cut.

The Finishing Touches

Next, just attach the two tow rope hooks to the pull handle and you’re good to go. Here is the final product. It’s definitely a versatile and quality piece considering it only cost $35 to make. After a first test of a total of 50 sprints on blacktop, there is no visible wear on the bottom tread and the pull handle is just as secure as when it was built.



The tire itself weighs a little over 20 pounds, so using it with a 25 pound plate turns it into a 50 pound sled. This was more than enough weight to gas us on repeats of 40yd sprints followed by a 40yd backwards pull to the starting line. If you wanted to load it up, the tire could probably hold about 4 45lb plates, making it a 200lb sled. Since the friction of the tire on asphalt is pretty substantial, there would probably never be a need for more than that. While the loop works well as a harness, you could easily detach one of the rope hooks and clip it to a standalone shoulder harness, which would allow the arms more freedom during sprinting. Another really cool use would be to take a cable rope or lat pulldown bar and clip it to one of the rope hooks to do straight arm overhead pulls of the sled. There would be less speed to it, but it would tax the entire body similar to a car push.

There are also other potential great uses like using it for hand over hand pulls if I attach it to a long manila rope. It could also easily be converted for farmer’s walks by detaching the tow rope and carrying it by the handle. Regardless of how you use it, it’s definitely a great addition to any gym with outdoor space.


05th Jan2011

Tweaking the Litvinov

by Tom


Sergey Litvinov, the front squatting machine

Anyone who’s been around the block in the strength and conditioning game knows that nothing works forever. Depending on the situation, a ‘great’ program can run one athlete into the ground while a ‘bad’ program will allow a different athlete to see gains. One of my favorite quotes on this subject is from Dan John: “Everything works…for six weeks.” I used to be slightly fanatical about fitness programs, getting overly immersed in the benefits of a program and telling myself I would ‘do this one forever’. This fanatical attachment to one program caused me to look down on other programs much as it goes in religion and politics. Thankfully I’ve passed through that stage in my life where I fall in love with programs, which was eerily similar to my Ayn Rand phase post college.

That prefaced, I now always keep my eyes peeled for any program, workout, or exercise that can add a little spice to my training. I came across the Litvinov Workout about a year ago and have played with it sporadically ever since. For starters, have a look at this Dan John article on the Litvinov. Dan is the one who came up with the name after hearing about hammer thrower Sergey Litvinov performing repeats of 8 reps of 405 in the front squat followed by a 75 meter sprint. The strict interpretation of the Litvinov per Dan John is:

  • Exercise 1 – Heavy compound barbell exercise (back squat, front squat, power clean, power snatch, or overhead squat)
  • Exercise 2 – Sprint of between 50 and 400 meters
  • Rest 3-5 minutes
  • Repeat 2 more times

In the article, Dan discusses methods for adjusting the sprint protocol by either pushing a sled or doing hill sprints.  I’ve done the hill sprint version with front squats. The total time spent actually working out in that session is about 5 minutes, yet it’s one of the most painful things I’ve ever done.  I’ve taken to bastardizing the protocol and generalizing it to fit the following structure:

  • Exercise 1 -Heavy and Intense for 3-8 reps
  • Exercise 2 – Metabolically challenging work between 20 and 60 seconds
  • Rest for 3-5 minutes
  • Repeat 4 or 5 times

I’m a firm believer that in the ideal situation, you’d use barbell exercises for exercise 1.  However, sometimes you lack the equipment and/or clients lack the flexibility to perform a barbell movement for reps. For novice clients, I really like using a heavy kettlebell and doing deep goblet squats for sets of 10-12 on the first lift. For exercise 2, I’ve gone pretty far afield of the original protocol. Working out in a gym without access to a good area to sprint, the rowing machine is a surefire ass kicker in this situation. Doing 8 heavy reps on the back squat, racking the bar, and immediately going for a PR in the 250m row will leave you in a puddle after 4 total sets. I’ve also experimented with repetition work as well.  I’ve even played around with using 3 exercises instead of 2.  Here are some examples of workouts I’ve done or programmed using this template:

  • Back Squat, 8 Reps / 250m Row / 4 Rounds Total
  • Power Clean, 3 Reps / 250m Row / Ab Wheel Rollouts, 5 Reps / 4 Rounds Total
  • Box Squat, 8 Reps / Max Ring Pushups / Kettlebell Swings, 25 Reps / 4 Rounds Total
  • Front Squat, 8 Reps / Max Pullups / Kettlebell Swings, 20 Reps / 4 Rounds Total
  • Overhead Press, 8 Reps / Farmer’s Walk, 75 yards / 4 Rounds Total

I’ve put people through CrossFit workouts, EDT, and other HIIT workouts, and I’ve honestly never seen anything more soul crushing than these Litvinovs. There is something incredibly powerful about hitting a very heavy lift for reps and following it immediately with metabolically challenging work. The combination of the central nervous system (CNS) hit from the intense work and the cardiovascular and muscular endurance requirements of the second exercise just plain lays you out flat.  For my money, this is one of the ideal ways to burn body fat and build muscle in a safe, time efficient manner.  One interesting observation I’ve found when doing the same Litvinov with both men and women is that guys are borderline comatose on the floor after the workout while the girls occasionally break a sweat. This is a great example of how the power of this stimulus is in the loading. If ladies can’t lift enough to effectively challenge their CNS in exercise 1, the effect of the workout is significantly less.  The key here is to get people flexible and technically sound enough to be able to perform a very heavy lift in exercise 1. Once that is accomplished, this protocol can provide immense benefit.

One of my favorites aspects of this protocol is the inverse relationship between fatigue and the difficulty of the exercise. You’re always most fresh when you’re hitting the heavy, skill-intensive barbell lift and more fatigued when you get to the less skill-dependent metabolic work like farmer’s walks or kettlebell swings.  This highlights my one big problem with CrossFit.  The program uses great exercises and is motivational as all hell, but I just can’t get on board with doing heavy barbell lifting under fatigue, especially for novices. Most people relatively new to training have difficulty with barbell exercises when they’re fully rested, much less in the middle of a workout when they can barely stand up.  The Litvinov, much like EDT, allows you to manage this fatigue and effectively work strength and conditioning into the same circuit without sacrificing form or weight on the bar.

For more on the Litvinov, check out Keith’s recent post on Theory to Practice. Joe DeFranco has also had great success using a Litvinov-type approach with football players.

10th Nov2010

25 Reps

by Tom


Bill Starr – A pioneer of 5×5 training

If you aren’t aware, there’s an excellent S&C blog written by Keith Norris called Theory to Practice. The other day I found a January 2009 post at TTP discussing two articles written by Chad Waterbury for T Nation. You typically have to wade through a lot garbage at T Nation, but there are some gems to be found by Dan John, Mark Rippetoe, Chad Waterbury, Charles Poliquin, and others if you look hard enough.

This article in particular captured my attention immediately thanks to Chad’s respect for Bill Starr and the 5×5 method, a protocol Chad found success with early on for himself and his clients. He notes that many experienced lifters have done some version of a 5×5 at some point in their life. Whether it’s something like Starting Strength (5×3) or Starr’s method (5×5), 5 rep sets are the tool for the job. In most cases, hitting a challenging 5 rep set across should be done with around a 6RM weight, or 85% of 1RM. Chad puts an interesting spin on the holy grail of 5 reps per set, bringing up the idea that we should focus on a total rep number of 25 rather than sets of specific reps. So in contrast to a traditional 5×5, you could instead hit 6 reps for the first few sets, five for the third, then 4 reps in the final two sets. The point is there’s no special magic to 5 reps. 4 or 6 is essentially the same and if done in a certain way may give you more quality reps in each set. More on that in the next paragraph.

The concept of not clearly defining reps per set dovetails very well with the other Waterbury article that Keith links to in his post. In essence, Chad advises that you should manage your fatigue during strength training by stopping a set when you begin to slow down.  Once you start to slow, your larger motor units are beginning to crap out and you’ll be losing steam significantly from that point on.  And anyone who’s trained to failure at some point knows that trying to get in quality work sets after doing a set to failure is an exercise in futility. So once that bar speed starts to decrease, cut off the set, rest, and come back for more a few minutes later. Even if you have to do more sets, this will ensure each of your heavy reps is very high quality. This reminded me a lot of what I’ve heard often on podcasts from John Welbourn, the former NFL’er who started CrossFit Football. Welbourn mentions that he was only concerned with moving weight quickly since that’s the speed of gameplay on the football field. Not surprisingly, moving weights quickly is a tremendous developer of athleticism, muscle, and explosiveness as evidenced by olympic weightlifters and sprinters. The point here is to move FAST with heavy weights. When you can’t move fast anymore, stop the sets and prepare for the next one.

Putting the Concepts to Work

I put these two concepts to work in my training session this morning with good success. Today, the job was to do 25 quality reps each of the back squat and the weighted pullup. Here’s how it turned out:

  • Back Squat @ 80%1RM
    • 235x5x5
  • Weighted Pullup @ 70%1RM
    • 41lbs (4,4,3,3,3,3,3,2)
  • Rest between each set of each exercise was about 3 minutes

This was undoubtedly a quality lifting session. There’s something about focusing only on quality reps that really puts your head right during sets.  While squatting, I was focused only on strong speed out of the bottom rep after rep rather than thinking I had to get to a certain number of reps. I just ended up doing 5×5 coincidentally.  As it turned out, I began to lose steam on each set during the fifth rep.

The keys to this type of training are intensity and commitment. More often than not, you will slow down because of a lack of intensity or mental commitment to the set. When you start to do this over and over, these sessions will not be effective. You have to be willing to push your body to the maximum and get every ounce of speed out of that weight that you possibly can. I’d recommend only 25 rep workouts either with a group of training partners or a personal trainer to motivate you.

Parallels to Escalated Density Training

This session reminded me a bit of Escalated Density Training, which I’ll do a full post on at some point. Staley and Waterbury have very similar views on managing fatigue. I could picture the progression in this type of program working similar to EDT as well.  Using the weighted pullup as an example, I’ll probably attempt the same weight next time but try to get the work done in fewer sets, like 4 sets of 4 and 3 sets of 3, progressing each time until I can do 5 sets of 5 and then increase the weight.  This is EDT to the letter, except in this case we’re keeping reps constant and varying the time of the session, whereas EDT is the opposite. (note that I haven’t read Waterbury’s book Huge in a Hurry, so I’m not exactly sure how he suggests progression.)

Summing Up

These pair of articles are definitely head smackers, in that you read them and realize your brain has mulled over that stuff before but was never really able to order and explain it in such a nice way. Chad’s not reinventing the wheel by any stretch, but rather using sound knowledge of what works to get people strong and giving them a solid training option to put in the quiver.

22nd Oct2010

Diet and Training Lessons from IF Guru Martin Berkhan

by Tom

Martin Berkhan, the master of intermittent fasting

By now, a number of people in the Paleo community and beyond have probably come across Martin Berkhan and his site, Leangains. Martin is a fitness writer, personal trainer, and nutrition consultant in Sweden. You can see from his client results page that’s he’s done some amazing work with his trainees, not to mention himself. It’s an immediate attention grabber when I come across someone who has phenomenal success practicing what they preach. If you take a look at this series of posts on Martin’s transformation, you’ll get a firm idea of what I’m talking about. From his teenage years through late 20′s, Martin ran the gamut from a chubby 225lb high schooler to 160lb waif-skinny model, finally settling at 195lbs and a staggering 6% body fat with a 600lb deadlift.  For a number of reasons, you should take notice when you hear a story like this and absorb the pertinent messages:

  1. His before picture shows that by no means is Martin genetically predisposed to be incredibly lean. A lot of people consider single digit body fat to be an elusive haven for people who’ve won the genetic lottery, but that simply isn’t true. Genes can help, but in the end it comes down to diet + lifestyle factors + exercise.
  2. Being overweight, excessively skinny, and finally lean and powerful at different points in his life, Martin has a unique take to offer on what factors caused him to move the scale in either direction for both good and bad. No matter what your goals (cutting fat, building muscle, etc), there are likely to be a few gems in his writing that will apply to you.

With those reasons in mind for pulling up a chair and paying attention to this guy, the following are some of Martin’s points that really resonate with me.  The thing about all of these takeaways is that they’re incredibly simple and foundational.  But like so many simple, foundational concepts, they tend to get glazed over VERY frequently or turned into cliches which becomes off putting. The beauty of getting these messages from Martin is that the proof is right there in the pudding.  He’s put these simple concepts to work in an intelligent way and in the process was able to change his life and the lives of his clients.

The Importance of Protein

  • In this post on maintaining low body fat, Martin talks about the importance of a healthy dose of protein every day. In simple terms, a lot of good protein is crucial for synthesizing muscle, has a high thermic effect, is incredibly satiating, and reduces muscle loss during a fat loss diet.

Fat Loss Should Be Slow and Tempered

  • Martin’s best success came when he started to take a long term view of fat loss. His dip into mid single digit body fat came from slow fat loss with barely noticeable caloric deficits.  Not only does this make a diet easier to stick to since you’re not ravenously hungry, but it also makes for a very smooth transition into maintaining your body composition once you hit your goal.  Additionally, losing fat at a slower rate will let you retain much more muscle mass than if you try to cut fat quickly. If you’re serious about getting leaner and healthier, make it a long term project and try to maintain absolute strength and increase relative strength while you lose fat over time. This will keep you motivated with some short term goals while your long term fat loss goals will tend to work themselves out over time with little stress.

Training Should Be Simple and Heavy

  • Another impressive takeaway is Martin’s approach to training. He trains classically, prefering heavy compound lifts like the deadlift, squat, and press instead of isolated bodybuilder training. While I’ve found some success mixing in 8-10 rep hypertrophy work for assistance, there’s no doubt the most effective program for strength and body composition should be based around lower rep compound movements. In contrast to conventional wisdom, Martin does not do cardio to maintain a low body fat. He chooses to use his time more effectively in the weight room with strength training and manage his diet and lifestyle to stay lean. Many people think they can exercise away a poor diet.  This may be true to some degree, but you’ll feel a little bit like crap and waste a hell of a lot of time on the treadmill.

You CAN Maintain a Single Digit Body Fat %

  • Martin torches the notion you can’t maintain a low body fat percentage over time. While I think I’d be miserable at 5-6% body fat, he certainly shows that you can live at less than 10% very comfortably and still hold on to an enormous amount of strength. Pure and simple, this comes from intelligent nutrition and strength training. If you intelligently refeed your body after hard training sessions for recovery and keep your insulin and leptin sensitivity tight, there is no doubt you can make gains in the gym while hanging out around 8-9%. And as Martin says, it’s helpful to have some goals revolving around relative strength. If you track something like a weighted pullup or weighted dip PR over time, you’ll see big jumps in these numbers by keeping the BF% down.

You Don’t Have to Deprive Yourself Forever

  • Martin has a famous love for eating cheesecakes whole. He also drinks booze when the occasion calls for it and eats large meals regularly. In other words, he can still maintain a fun, social lifestyle complete with good food and drink while still staying in phenomenal shape. Many people (ahem, CrossFitters) think a perfect physique and perfect performance can only be gained through dietary perfection at all times. First of all, there is no perfect, so stop chasing it. Second of all, it has been repeatedly shown that the body responds favorably to variation. Eating the same number of calories at the same time every day may work at first but it will eventually lead you straight into a brick wall. The concepts behind intermittent fasting, the anabolic diet, and Tim Ferriss’ cheat day protocol all involve varying when and how you eat and have been shown to be tremendously successful. Not only do they allow you to cheat occasionally and give you a mental break from dieting, but these diets are also wonderful ways to build muscle while losing fat and improving nutrient metabolism and hormone expression.

One thing I enjoyed about reading Martin’s content when I first came across it is that I realized I was personally very close to a number of the things he was talking about in terms of fitness and nutrition. The reason is that a lot of these concepts are simple, intuitive, and they just plain work. I’d encourage you to apply some of Martin’s principles for a while and then take a Robb Wolf plan of attack and see how you ‘look, feel, and perform’.

08th Sep2010

Be an Athlete: Stop Exercising and Start Training

by Tom

Take your training to the next level with competition

Strength coach Mark Rippetoe has an excellent series of videos on his website called the Starting Strength Series, in which he interviews some of the big names in strength and sport. His latest discussion with Charles Staley was a great conversation between two guys who have been in the strength and fitness field for a long time. They begin to delve into coach Staley’s approach to training and arrive at the idea that he treats each of his trainees like they’re athletes, rather than simply a personal training client. This leads into a give and take between coach Rip and coach Staley about what exactly defines a person as being an athlete. Paraphrasing from the discussion, here are some points made by coach Staley about his definition of an athlete:

  • An athlete is someone who progressively tries to improve their physicality, physical capacity, and performance
  • Being an athlete means setting goals and accomplishing physical tasks
  • And finally, it means putting yourself to the test in an objective competition against others

This definition resonated with me because it allows for anyone with drive and passion to be considered an athlete. They may never be a collegiate athlete, a professional, or an Olympian, but they can be an athlete nonetheless. By this definition, anyone who trains for and competes in the following competitions (and many others) would be deemed an athlete:

  • Runnings races: 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, ultra
  • Triathlons
  • Bike races
  • Weightlifting meets
  • Powerlifting meets
  • Fitness competitions
  • Surfing competitions
  • Gymnastics meets
  • Track and Field meets
  • Basketball leagues
  • Baseball leagues
  • Volleyball leagues
  • Flag Football leagues
  • Tennis leagues and tournaments
  • Golf tournaments

Most of these are available at a reasonable cost to everyone of almost any age who have the desire to compete. And if you have a desire to succeed, just the simple act of signing up will have a profound effect on the way you work out. Quoting coach Rippetoe from the interview:

“The best thing we’ve ever done for our training is write out the check for the entry fee, sign the entry, and mail the damn thing to the meet director. All of a sudden, I have a completely different workout to do today, even if it’s the same workout. My attitude concerning my training has just gone up an order of magnitude. It’s the easiest way to completely change the intensity, the focus, and the commitment.”

One of the other great points they bring up about committing to a competition is that it changes the scope of your training. Most people who just go into the gym and exercise have a very limited focus. Coach Staley observes that a lot people who exercise do it out of penance rather than a desire to improve themselves. They go to the gym on Monday to ‘work off’ some bad decisions over the weekend or as a compulsive need to counteract poor eating habits. Anyone who has ever exercised for these reasons knows how boring and draining it can be. There is no tangible goal for the workout and nothing in the future that you’re striving to accomplish.

Real training for any type of athletic endeavor involves a long view. And signing up for a competition has a way of automatically putting you in this mindset. In the past few years, I’ve competed in running races, triathlons, swimming races, fitness competitions, golf tournaments, tennis tournaments, and a few rec sports leagues. And as coach Rip says, there is nothing that changes the face of your training like mailing in that check or signing up for the event online. The first thing I did when I signed up for my first triathlon was to buy a book and scour the internet for a training program. Instead of taking a short view and running, biking, or swimming a random amount each day, I made the effort to find out exactly how to improve my performance over a specified period of time so I would be at my best on race day. The best swim training I’ve ever done was preparing for the 1.5 mile Alcatraz island swim. It was scary as hell knowing I’d be out in freezing, choppy water that was a few hundred feet deep. This pushed me to train and prepare in a way that simply would not have been possible had I not entered that race.

Entering an event also provides for a great opportunity for camaraderie in your training. While most people go to a gym and exercise solo, training for a sport or a competition can give you a network of people to train with. Whether it’s going on weekly runs, strength training, or doing conditioning drills for tennis or basketball, it’s always more motivating to do it with company. And if you’re both training for the same event, you can feed off of each other in pursuit of the common goal. Last year, I signed up for the CrossFit Games Regionals along with a few other people at my gym and it immediately fueled our training.

Despite the great things competition can do for your training, I think people avoid it sometimes because it can be daunting. Everybody has pride, and it can be demoralizing to get crushed at something. Coach Rip talked about his first powerlifting meet, making the point that “even though I got my absolute detached ass handed to me, it made me better than all the guys that didn’t go to the meet.” This is a crucial point. When I ask people about getting into CrossFit or a high intensity fitness program, many will say that they need to get fitter first. That they need to get fitter before they start a fitness program. This same odd logic applies to competition. People think they’re not ready and need to get in shape or get better before they start competing. What they don’t realize is that resolving to compete now will make you SO much better than simply saying you’re going to get better and then competing at some undetermined time in the future. Even if you go out and walk a 5K race, enter a tennis tournament at the lowest NTRP level, or go to a weightlifting meet and just lift the bar, this will confer so many benefits. It will boost your training, give you the opportunity to build a network of people to train with, in addition to giving you a starting point. If you walk a 5K in 40 minutes, now you have a number to beat in the future the next time you compete. You’ll also learn the ins and outs of the competition, like how to taper before a competition, what to eat during your last meal before competing, and how best to warm up to maximize your performance. No matter how poorly you do your first time out, all of these things are invaluable.

Coach Rippetoe sums it up best:

“Competition has the potential to enrich your life in a way that isn’t possible by simply exercising.”