Saturday, January 2, 2010

How To Look Awesome Every Day

Shortly before and after New Year's Eve, there's always a slew of articles and blog posts about how to train and burn off the holiday pounds.

They mostly preach the same message about taking it easy and not overdoing it. It's such a tired and boring topic, so I'll spare you that. Last year around this time I wrote an article about how people fail their New Year's resolutions. You might want to check that out if you need some general advice about how not to approach your training and diet in 2010. This time I'll talk about something different.


I never feel the need to do any post-holiday dieting. I prefer to look awesome every day and not just three months of the year like many people I know. One of my secrets to staying in shape at all times of the year is a little concept I call "checkpoints". A checkpoint is a pre-determined day during which I note all my relevant stats: my body weight and my strength in four key movements. For each checkpoint, I try to beat the results of the previous checkpoint.

Each year I have six checkpoints interspersed by eight weeks. I usually place them on holidays; placing checkpoints on days of festivities is like having a carrot in front of yourself. For example, my last checkpoint was on Christmas Eve, my next checkpoint is on my birthday (22nd Feb) and my next checkpoint is on my mother's birthday in late April. Next checkpoint after that is on Midsummer's Eve in late June. Each checkpoint is celebrated by plenty of cheesecake, red wine and/or other indecent behavior.

If your goal is to slowly improve your body composition, this is a great way to measure long term progress. Another big advantage of a checkpoint is the competitive spirit it brings. If you constantly compete against yourself and know you'll have to answer for your sins every so often, checkpoints bring all the motivation you need.

If more folks would use checkpoints, we wouldn't see legions of people suddenly ramping up cardio and going on crash diets shortly after New Year's Eve. Checkpoints is part of the reason I never need to make any New Year's resolutions related to diet and training.

Measuring Progress

I try to better my stats for every checkpoint. Weight is taken first thing in the morning three days consecutively prior to the checkpoint and divided by three. This will give a more representative number than a single reading, since it lessens the chance of the number being skewed due to water retention or dehydration. After that, my latest and best sets of bench presses, squats, deadlifts and weighted chins are recorded and compared against the results of the last checkpoint.

My progress is then quantified in relative strength. For the intermediate or advanced lifter, relative strength is hands down the easiest way to know if your body composition going in the right direction. Beginners are trickier - substantial strength gains don't necessarily mean a proportional amount of muscle mass gain. However, for someone well acquainted with the key movements, the quality of the weight gained, or lost, can be measured by how much your lifts increased (or in the case of weight loss, how well you managed to maintain or gain strength).

Quantifying progress

An extra 10 lbs added to your bench isn't impressive if you also gained 10 lbs of body weight. That's a 1:1 ratio of weight to strength, which is strongly indicative of fat gain. However, assume you added 10 lbs to your bench, but only 3 lbs of body weight. That's a 1:3.3 ratio of weight to strength, which is quite good. Odds are most of those 3 lbs came in the form of muscle and not fat.

Setting up specific guidelines to strive for in terms of weight to strength ratio is hard and has been a pet project of mine for a long time. While some very general guidelines can be set up for the average guy of average height and build, there are differences between body types.

Tall and long-armed individuals, such as myself, will excel in pulling movements while suffering in pressing movements. For them, modest weight increases usually result in a lot more weight on the bar on movements such as the deadlift. Conversely, they will always see lower gains in pressing movements and usually have to gain a substantial amount of weight to get their bench moving. The reverse conditions apply to short and barrel-chested individuals, which excel in pressing movements but suffer in pulling movements.

Another confounding factor is training experience. It's easier to get your bench press from 200 lbs to 250 lbs without gaining a ton of weight, but harder to take it from 250 lbs to 300 lbs.

For the intermediate lifter, a category I think the majority of my readers would fall into, strive for the following weight to strength gain ratios:

Bench Press and Weighted Chins* - 1:3

Squat - 1:4

Deadlift - 1:5

* Example, weighted chins:

Body weight (180 lbs) + 25 lbs x 6 = 205 x 6 to body weight (185) + 35 lbs = 220 x 6 is a 1:3 ratio. 5 lbs weight gained, 15 lbs strength gained.

Additional notes

* I prefer to use bench presses, squats, deadlifts and weighted chins for my checkpoint-lifts. If your strength has increased in these four key movements, it's very likely that you've gained strength in assistance movements as well. That's why I don't care to record my best set of curls, triceps extensions or close-grip chins. Keep your mind set on a few key movements and the rest will follow.

* With strength, muscle follows. Anyone that tries to tell you differently is a fool. For the intermediate and advanced lifter, where strength gains via neural programming or technique improvements are moot issues, modest weight gains followed by substantial strength gains is the best indicator of lean mass gain.

* Your checkpoint-lifts should be performed first in your workout, or under similar conditions. For example, I always do weighted chins after deadlifts, and deadlifts are always done first. Even if your training routine may change in between checkpoints, you should not alter the sequence of checkpoint-lifts in a way that may skew results.

* You may use other lifts as checkpoint-lifts if you for some reason cannot do the aforementioned lifts. Instead of bench presses, weighted dips or dumbbell presses. Instead of squats, front squats or leg presses. Power cleans, romanian or stiff-legged deadlifts can be used as alternatives to deadlift movements. Weighted chins can be substituted for weighted pullups or lat pulldowns.

* How do you measure strength gains if reps are lower or higher compared to the lifts recorded at your last checkpoint? If you increased your 6RM bench press from 200 lbs x 6 to a 4RM of 220 lbs x 4, that doesn't mean you increased it the lift by 20 lbs. For a quick and easy way to figure out how much your 1RM strength increased, use this 1RM-calculator.

* 8 weeks for each checkpoint is a good time frame to judge progress in the intermediate and advanced lifter. For the beginner, 4 weeks can be used due to the rapid progress often seen in new lifters. Very advanced lifters may consider 12 weeks between checkpoints, since progress is very slow. However, having checkpoints interspersed by too many weeks may be detrimental, since it increases the likelihood of slacking off on your diet and training. I've found that 8 weeks is just right for "keeping the eyes on the prize" so to speak.


Unknown said...

Martin this is a little of OT but are you familiar with any of the Greasinng the Groove training by Pavlov(?) the kettlebell master? I feel it's especially applicable to chins. In 8 weeks I have gone from 3 BW chins max to 11 max at a BW of 225 while using IF and compound lifts. Just curious if you have any experience with it.

Unknown said...

Yes. Do a search for Tsatsouline and you'll find the post where I talked about it.

Lloyd said...

Great post mate

Anonymous said...

Curious if you include any micro-cycling/periodization in your routine?

Anonymous said...

Curious if you include any micro-cycling/periodization in your routine?

Unknown said...

I do. Might elaborate more on that in a future article.

Yew-wei Tan said...

Thanks Martin for the wonderful post. I do have two questions though.

Is there an ideal rep range by which you use to test for exercises?

Finally, what is your training like before your checkpoint tests?

I assume you wouldn't be at the end of a training cycle, but I'd mainly like to know if you do anything specific to optimise performance.

Either way, this approach is definitely worth a legitimate try.

Unknown said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Tan.

1. I typically use the 4-8 rep range.

2. It doesn't change much for testing, but I make sure to include an all out set in each respective movement (in contrast to the weeks prior where I might leave reps in the tank depending on where I am in my training cycle).

Anonymous said...

Great post. How's the book progressing?

Unknown said...

Slowly. But I'm in no rush, as everyone has probably guessed by now.

Raidho said...

Awesome post Martin, I'm off for my first checkpoint tomorroww! I have a question in another topic though. I did som research after reading a roundtable about clean vs dirty dieting in which several fitness profiles including yourself figured. Something that caught my attention was Justin Harris saying that gamma-linolenic acid GLA increases fat oxidatin through activation of brown adipose tissue. Interesting i thougth and started searching the internet and came up with this study
It was conducted on rats, but it would still be great to hear your thought about it. Is a supplement of borage or evening primrose oil(high i GLA) something to invest in, to upregulate the activity of brown adipose tissue hmm?
Happy continue of the new decade!
ps. Sorry for the long post.ds.

Unknown said...

Rodents have a lot more brown fat tissue than the adult human. We are born with some amount of brown fat, but most of it disappears in adulthood. People frequently exposed to cold temperatures retain a greater % fat as brown tissue, but it doesn't play that big of a role for us as it does for other mammals (esp hibernating mammals). The results of that study could hardly be applied to humans.

Eddy said...

Another great post.

How much I love NB approaches!

Shelly said...

Awesome post, Martin! Definitely a strategy I will employ in 2010.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Checkpoints sounds like a simple but very effective way of keeping track of physique goals.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent post! Some great ideas here (as usual). Thanks, Martin! Happy new year!

Anonymous said...

By the way, I can't overestimate the value of taking progress photos!

I always use the same bare wall with the same clothes, lighting, camera, and I get all sides. VERY very interesting because often changes are too gradual to perceive in the mirror but in a photo, wow! It can be SO motivating.

Unknown said...

You're right. Taking photos to track progress is very motivating. But for some people it can be perceived as somewhat of a hassle. Making sure the lighting and posing is the same as before, having someone to snap the pics etc.

I know from experience, since only a minority of my clients take before/after-pics (which is a shame, since many great transformations go undocumented).

So for that reason, I didn't mention it as part of a checkpoint. Make things too difficult and people won't bother to do it. A training log, a scale and a mirror will go a long way when it comes to keeping yourself in check and tracking long term progress.

Aled said...


How do you measure progress with regards to your diet? As in how do you ensure you're eating right for your goals - be that bulking or leaning out?

Do you have a certain strategy with regards to portion control - online food journal, eating the same meals/macro's, or do you know how to eat instinctively as long as you're hitting daily protein targets?

Obviously diet play a large role in any progress, be that strength gains or losing fat.

Unknown said...

After years of doing this I have a pretty good idea of my maintenance intake. With that in mind it's easy to adjust the diet to reflect my goals. I also tend to rotate the same meals on a regular basis, so it's not hard to do this on autopilot.

Anonymous said...


Great article. How do you execute your check point work out? Is it one work out (containing all the check point sets) or is it three (one for bench, one for dead lift and chins and one for squats)?

Unknown said...

The latter. My sessions always start with bench or squats or deadlifts and weighted chins. So I don't change the sessions for the checkpoint-week (nor should you). Lifts and sessions should be executed in the same manner as a regular week in order to allow for a proper assessment.

Aled said...


Going back to the diet side of things (sorry to harp on) but how are you currently stucturing for maintenance / mass gains?

Do you still do and EOD refeed type pattern you used for cutting but with inceased cals on off days?

Unknown said...

I go higher on training days/lower on rest days like I've always done.

Don said...


Great post. Since you mentioned it before, I wondered what ratios you used (strength increase to body mass increase). Many apparently believe you must gain fat to gain muscle, some of the people influenced by Rippetoe are now saying you have to gain muscle and fat in 1:1 ratio, so they recommend stuffing yourself until you reach 200 pounds. So-called "70s big".

Wondering how your experiment with higher frequency training has panned out.

Unknown said...

Rippetoe is a good guy, but we have different ideals and methods when it comes to aestethics and nutrition.

My experiment has panned out very well. For myself and for the clients I have been test-driving it on. When I get time, I might write an article about my findings and include a template for people to try out.

I originally planned on doing that in Dec and got started on an article. It turned out way too lengthy and complex. I'd have a headache managing all questions and concerns. I've added it to my "stuff I should post some time in the future"-list. Alternatively, I'll save it for the book.

Joacim said...

Great article. I have a question tho. Do you messure your strenght increas in 6RM? Or do you messure it in 1RM, Im a bit cunfused here.

Unknown said...

Doesn't matter, either way is fine. You can use your 2-12RM to get a good estimate of your 1RM using the calculator I linked. As long as your 2-12RM increases, 1RM increases.

Don Matesz said...


I agree about Rippetoe.

I have trained HIT most of the time I have trained over the past 30 years, but kept getting stuck. Kept trying all the HIT tricks like reducing volume and frequency, with little success. Finally decided to train more frequently with less intensity, a la Rippetoe's basic, and found it works well for me, although still hindered by old injuries I appear on track to get stronger than ever achieved on HIT in the movements I can currently train.

Unknown said...

Hello Martin, are the calculations in the example correct or is there something that I'm not seeing?
I see a 10 strength gain (215-205) and a 5 weight gain (185-180), therefore 10:5 = 2:1

Unknown said...

You're right, Jaime. Thanks for catching that. It's corrected.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering, in addition to using strength to bw gains as a standard to assess gains, do you have any for waist measurement to bw gains?

Im currently using your idea of bw:strength, and despite hitting the targets my waist has risen noticeably (2cm on the waist vs 1.5kg bw gained)

Unknown said...

No, I don't.

Your waist has increased - well, have you gotten fatter? That's what's relevant.

Anonymous said...

I see your point, that an increase in waist measurement isnt always indicative of fat gain.

But in this case yes, ive put on some fat. Its fairly noticeable around the lower abs/back. I guess that may just be a part of gaining(partitioning is never 100%), or perhaps i need to slow the gains down?

Unknown said...

Well, how much fat you gain is completely dependent on your diet. So yes, you need to take it slower.

Also keep in mind that the strength:body weight gain numbers are dependent on your training status.

If you're a beginner, the amount of strength gained for any given 1 lb increase in body weight should be much greater than for more advanced trainees.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, im definately in the 'intermediate' range

Slower gains it is, Thanks

Arjun said...

nice concept - and slightly OT: we are born on the same day ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi! Really enjoy your blog! You are a no bullshit kind of guy. Particularly enjoyed your comments about being more a pull then push kind of athlete. Quite honestly...most other "muscle builders" always claim to be adept at both and most are not. Your message seems to be excel at what you are best at...and forget what you are not at!! Honor your strengths...ignore your weaknesses. Terrific advice! Worked for me. I actually made gains following your advice. Thank u friend :)

customized fat loss review said...

In my weight loss journey, all I made sure was that I remain in a slight calorie deficit, but with sufficient protein to maintain muscle. Also, I made sure to increase intensity of my workouts like you mentioned in this post. And these two simple tips made me lean and kept me fit!

Anonymous said...

Hey, I don't know if you check this anymore, but are there certain age requirements needed for this training?

My name is Martin Berkhan and I work as a nutritional consultant, magazine writer and personal trainer.

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