Episode 41. Training Progression and Strength

Episode 41. Training Progression and Strength

Episode 41. Training Progression and Strength

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Show Notes

We look at how to make real progress through your workout program, and how to assess that progress. What does it mean to be in what Scott calls the “Mastery Phase” of a workout program? How important are strength gains? If it depends on the program, what factors determine this?

Workout Progression:

Training for Size vs. Training for Strength

  • Scott’s been posting exercise form videos on his Facebook page: facebook.com/CoachScottAbel
  • A functional trainer or dual-axis cable machine.

    Scott also wanted to talk about how great and versatile functional trainers are. You can mimic pretty much anything. You can see Scott’s own in his home gym walkthrough video: https://youtu.be/kJ6pHGuxSVk

  • Workout program design needs to account for whether it is training ultimately for strength (e.g. powerlifting) or training for muscle development. If you’re training for strength, you’ll use volume, but your’e still straining ultimately for strength. If you’re training for muscle and development, you’ll gain strength, but you’re still training ultimately for muscle size and development.
  • Strength will have more linear periodization than training for hypertrophy and muscle gain.
  • If you’re training for muscle and size, the indicators of progress will be much more subjective, and perhaps subtle. You WON’T necessarily add pounds to the bar.

Key Term

Training Efficiency Percentage (or TEP) – the percentage of reps in a set that force an adaptive response. I.e. a beginner does a set of 10, and the first 7 reps are easy. It’s only the final few reps that seem hard. By contrast, look at an experienced lifter. Even from the beginning those reps are difficult.

Key Term

Maximum Voluntary Neural Activation:  Simplified answer: your ability to activate your CNS and make as many muscle fibers as possible contract.

The Mastery Phase

  • The Mastery Phase comes usually at least 6 weeks into the program, and it’s about getting through the initial “getting used” to the program your body goes through, and now you’re at the stage where you can really hammer it.
  • What does it feel like? You’re no longer trying to remember, “Oh, do I do this, or this? Where do I go after? Aw, crap, how am I gonna super set this exercise with this other one?” At this point, you’ve figured it all out, both on the macro level (exercise 5 follows exercise 4, which follows 3, etc.) and on the micro level (this is how you perform this specific exercise).
  • On the one hand, this is just… memory. Not even “muscle” memory, but just plain old memory. AND YET, that is important too, and plays a role. It’s not the entire thing, but it’s a part.

Strength in the Service of Size?

  • Subjectively, you should always choose a weight that challenges you within the reps indicated. The program design should take care of forcing an adaptive response, which doesn’t always take the form of #s on the bar.
  • Both Scott and Kevin agree that training for 1-rep max strength is not optimal if your goal is muscle development.
  • Kevin thinks you do need a certain base level of strength before you start adding volume or worrying about advanced strategies. You just need to go through that initial progression.

Links & Resources

Scott’s book, The Abel Approach, covers the science of what we talked about. Learn more here.

The Innervation Primer provides more of a general intro.

Download the Primer

Expert muscle activation.

Episode 40. Work Ethic

Episode 40. Work Ethic

Episode 40. Work Ethic

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Show Notes

Work ethic! Why do some people have tremendous work ethic when it comes to one aspect of their life (e.g., career) but struggle with others (e.g., fitness)? In this episode we debate the nature of work ethic.

Work Ethic

  • Scott wanted to share stories about work ethic and the development of it.
  • Scott remembers when he wanted to play hockey as a kid, his father say okay, but then — since Scott was a goalie — he had to go outside and practice with his father and brother every evening to make sure he kept sharp.
  • Kevin remembered that doing your chores as a kid was something you just always had to do; there was no sense of “If you do X, you get reward Y.” It was simply that… there are some things that need to get done — go do them!
  • Mike was ambivalent about the development of his work ethic, because he’s had good work ethic in various domains of his life, while being totally lazy in others, so pinning it down “work ethic” as this one consistent “thing” you have more of or less of doesn’t make sense to him.
  • For example, Scott wondered if Mike being lazy in school had “consequences,” i.e. the fact that he was extremely overweight. Mike’s answer: no, definitely not, because that was one area where he was trying his darndest to lose weight (not intelligently, mind you, but trying nonetheless).
  • An important part of this is self-efficacy and agency. With dieting etc., he felt lost and a lack of agency. But overcoming that — while it didn’t necessarily build “work ethic” — did build a sense of agency and self-efficacy, and that might be more important.
  • Scott remembers working in a factory doing hard manual labor and at first being horrified of the idea of doing that for the rest of his life, but then reveling in it, though partly this is because he was working precisely for the reason that he was working his way out of that life.
  • Everyone agreed that having a parent who believes in them is important; there’s an important thin line between “never good enough” and knowing deep down that a parent believes you are capable of much, much more.
  • Scott views work ethic as much more of a continuum. Some clients come to him and clearly just have no background or experience in hard work. Other clients, by contrast, have amazing work ethics, out of the box.
  • Based on the ways in which his own work ethic has manifested — first in one domain, then all of a sudden carried over into another domain where previously he’d had none at all — Mike thinks that a lot of people actually have something like hidden reserves of work ethic — they just need a switch flipped, in terms of agency, choice, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, beliefs, and that sort of thing.
  • As a counter-point, Scott points out that lots of people will say they have lots of motivation, and are passionate about something, but then… don’t back it up.

Links & Resources

Carol Dweck’s Mindset

Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated

Episode 39. Taking Time Off and Re-Focusing… in a Healthy Manner

Episode 39. Taking Time Off and Re-Focusing… in a Healthy Manner

Episode 39. Taking Time Off and Re-Focusing… in a Healthy Manner

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Show Notes

How do you take time off in a healthy manner? Without guilt? The holidays are finally wrapping up. In this episode we talked about some of what *we* actually did, in terms of taking time off (or not), as well as some of the really unhealthy things we’ve seen prescribed to people.


  • Kevin just completed a huge move, so his schedule for the past month and a bit has been extremely hectic.
  • In terms of diet, Kev mostly kept to his same schedule, but he did take some time of training.
  • He did enjoy some treats for Christmas, but his eating schedule was *mostly* on point. He made do when he had to.
  • Since he’s getting ready for a powerlifting comp, Kevin is much more “weight” focused (i.e. what weight class he’ll be in) than he is worried about his actually physique.


  • Every year Scott gets a lot of emails from clients who are surprised that they didn’t lose all their gains when they took time off.
  • Part of this, granted, is eating well and having an optimized metabolism (i.e. not yo yo dieting and messing it up)
  • Scott also saw a lot of nonsense prescribed to non-clients, like coaches say, “Oh, you can have Christmas dinner with family, but you need to do no carbs and cardio in January.” This is… mentally unhealthy.
  • Scott did a parody video about this: The Twelve Days of Christmas


  • Mike went to a few dinners with his family.
  • Mike actually prefers to mostly stay exercising in some form. Honestly, he just feels better.For example, if he knows he won’t workout much (because he’s, for example, at the cottage), he might go for an extra long walk with his dog, for example, helps with digestion, energy, and his thinking and stress.

What if you don’t have an “Optimized Metabolism”?

  • Scott: “Choose the behavior, choose the consequences.” There are consequences for everything. If you have dinner with family, yes, you might gain weight. That’s a consequence. But if you don’t do it, you might feel mentally deprived, and you’ll miss out on Christmas dinner. That’s also a consequence. Sometimes… you just have to choose.
  • A small step back doesn’t mean “give in” for all of January. What if, instead, it meant you’re ready to get back to things refreshed and ready?
  • (There is a huge difference between “ready and refreshed” and “desperate with guilt to lose weight.”)

Other Notes:

  • You don’t need food police. Don’t hire a coach to be that!
  • Mike noted that it’s “okay” to make some sacrifices now in order to reap rewards later; this doesn’t make you a mindless gym lackey who always needs to be “hardcore”…. BUT, at the same time, you need to be careful: do you find that you’re constantly making sacrifices “just for now” for rewards that never seem to come? If so, that’s a problem.

New Year’s (and other) Resolutions:

  • Make them specific!
  • Be resolute always; don’t just “make resolutions” because that’s, y’know, what everyone’s doin’!
  • Sometimes the best resolutions are the ones you don’t tell anyone about.
  • Mike’s advice: Do something that hurts a little — face something you know you need to face. Just by virtue of facing it the resolution will serve you.



Episode 38. Reasonable Expectations and Aesthetic Goals for Physique After 50

Episode 38. Reasonable Expectations and Aesthetic Goals for Physique After 50

Episode 38. Reasonable Expectations and Aesthetic Goals for Physique After 50

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Show Notes

Scott and Mike discuss balancing aesthetic goals with health goals for those folks in the Physique After 50 club. Sometimes fitness and so on isn’t about “health.” Sometimes you just want to look good naked. But obviously there is a balance. So: how do you achieve it? How does age come into play?

The discussion was prompted partly by listener questions and partly by Scott’s new book The Aging Proposition, which is now on Amazon, and is about changes in mindset after 50. (That said, the first book Physique After 50, was probably more relevant to this podcast.)

Age and Aesthetic Fitness Goals

Question 1. How relevant is age to obtaining aesthetic goals?

Question 2. Does age have as much impact on reaching aesthetic goals versus general health and fitness goals?

One way to avoid the problem of sacrificing health for looks is avoiding the “calorie burning” mindset. It’s not about burning X cals per hour. It’s about maintaining an optimized metabolism, which is in turn about maintaining muscle.

Scott thinks bodypart resistance training is much, much better for joint health. Strength training can be good (especially for sports goals), but after 50 your joints need to be considered.

How important is training history? What if someone is just getting started?

How realistic are aesthetic goals for the “beginner” club member vs. the one that is starting with a fair amount of muscle and experience built over a lifetime?

You need to be realistic of course, but there are always, always positive changes someone can make. Just because stepping on stage for the Olympia isn’t in the cards doesn’t mean you should just not go to the gym.

The “Compare, Contrast, Compete” game is an exercise

Scott really likes a graduation speech often referred to as “Wear Sunscreen.”

Here’s Baz Luhrmann’s performance of it:

What’s more “important”? Age or gender?

All things considered, men tend to have a metabolic advantage. It’s easier for them to put on muscle, maintain a healthy metabolism, things like that.

That said, it depends what your goals are and how you define your terms: sure, a woman has “more trouble” putting on muscle. Typically speaking, though, a woman doesn’t want to put on as much muscle as a man. There are TONNES of factors at play in trying to make a (useful) generalization here.

Mike: “Whatever your stubborn spots are at age 25, are going to be your ‘even more stubborn’ spots at 55.”

“Precision” is the solution…

For Scott, precision is about not having the person fit the program, but having the program fit the person.

He cited a popular sign up for an online challenge or something that was 100% the same for people age 25 to 55. That’s not precision. Get a program customized to you and your needs, lifestyle, goals, challenges, body type (etc etc ad infinitum).

This is more important after age 50, with its changes in hormones, metabolism, and everything.

For example, in his mid-fifties, Scott has to be very careful. He has a VERY developed work capacity. This means he is very “capable” of driving his body into the ground, because his recovery capacity has diminished much, much more than his work capacity has. By contrast, a total beginner at age 50 still needs to protect their joints and so on, but it’s really not the same situation.

Metabolism and Age

At the same time, stick to the basics. Nothing “-arian.” (Thanks James!). Or Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plans.” Avoid trying to short-circuit your appetite with “craving crusher” whatever. Eat real food.

What about someone whose metabolism is not totally messed up, has never had a weight problem, but who now finds themselves gaining weight: if they eat to the level of satiety they’re used to, they gain weight. What should they do?

Scott: Look for individual things that might be off. Replace heavily processed sugars with real foods. Don’t eat crazy amounts of condiments. Avoid counting calories. You can usually switch out highly-processed, highly-palatable foods for real foods and keep sticking to hunger and your own assessment of biofeedback before you get into macros, tracking, and blah blah (which can take you further away from reading your own body).


Links & Resources

Scott’s books, The Aging Proposition and Physique After 50

The Wear Sunscreen speech has its own Wikipedia page!

Episode 37. Motivation and Fitness Trackers, Calorie Trackers and Other Quantification Perils

Episode 37. Motivation and Fitness Trackers, Calorie Trackers and Other Quantification Perils

Episode 37. Motivation and Fitness Trackers, Calorie Trackers and Other Quantification Perils

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Show Notes

Scott’s wanted to talk about two recent studies on the perils or “hidden costs” of personal quantification for awhile now. This includes things like calorie trackers and calorie monitors, step trackers, heart-rate monitors, gadgets, fitness apps, and more.

Jordan Etkin, “The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification”

This is from the Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 42, 2016. [link]

It was also reported on in The Atlantic [link]

  • Etkin did six experiments on tracking and quantification, all of which manipulated the subjects in terms of whether they had access to some kinds of tracking or were measured in some way. So when subjects got feedback about how fast they were coloring, they did it faster, but enjoyed it less, and showed less creativity.
  • From the research article’s intro: “This research examines unintended negative consequences of personal quantification. I propose that while measuring output can increase how much of an activity consumers do (e.g., the number of steps they take over a day), such measurement can simultaneously undermine intrinsic motivation” (p. 967)
  • In an experiment on reading, Etkin re-framed the act of reading as either “work” or “fun.” For the people who were manipulated such that the reading was framed as fun, when you added in measurement on top of that, it decreased enjoyment. But for the subjects who thought of reading as work, adding in the measurement didn’t decrease motivation or anything. This basically jives with the idea that one of the problems with measurement is it turns a fun activity into work.
  • As Scott pointed out, it can be even worse if it turns a fun activity not just into work, but into a form of critical, negative self-judgment.
  • Etkin also makes a point that measurement doesn’t affect enjoyment if it is integral to the activity. E.g., a video game where you have HP points or you’re going for a high score or whatever. Or gambling. Or a sports game.
  • Danger for personal trainers: “Likewise, personal trainers are increasingly using personal quantification devices to track clients’ calorie consumption and energy expenditures. If doing so reduces how much healthy behaviors are enjoyed, this practice may hamper long-term clientele” (p. 981)

“Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss”

Published in Journal of the American Medical Association, Sep 20, 2016 [Link]

It was also reported on in NPR [Link]

  • From the abstract: “Objective: To test the hypothesis that, compared with a standard behavioral weight loss intervention (standard intervention), a technology-enhanced weight loss intervention (enhanced intervention) would result in greater weight loss.”
  • From the abstract: “Conclusions and Relevance: Among young adults with a BMI between 25 and less than 40, the addition of a wearable technology device to a standard behavioral intervention resulted in less weight loss over 24 months.”
  • From NPR article: “Ultimately, Patel says, these devices are most effective when the people using them are already dedicated to tracking their fitness.” If you’re a nerd who’s into fitness (like Mike) and you go out and buy a fitbit, it won’t kill all your motivation.

Avoiding the Danger

  • Mike’s question: How does it happen? Scott talked a lot about how clients go from a “honeymoon” period to feeling imprisoned, as though they “have” to track this, or track that, and if not, their world will fall. but how does that happen?
  • You avoid it by being real: you won’t gain fat “just because” you stop tracking this or that. You can still have some control of your intake without an app or a tracker. You can still know how your exercise is going without a pedometer.
  • Seek out the benefits: go outside and enjoy the meditative aspect of a walk, instead of the “I have to burn X calories to be ‘on track'” mindset.
  • Know thyself, and catch thyself… and keep it real.

Links & Resources

“The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification” by Jordan Etkin

“The Quantified Welp” by Robinson Meyer (article on Etkin’s studies in The Atlantic)

“Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss” Jakicic, John M. et al. in JAMA.

“Weight Loss On Your Wrist? Fitness Trackers May Not Help” by Erin Ross (NPR article on JAMA article)