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How Much Strength do you need?

heavy_weight_lifting_image_title_ovyw1.jpgI’m kind of known as the physical training guy in my circle of tactically minded friends. I was a graduate assistant in the exercise physiology lab at my university and worked at a hospital human performance laboratory for five years. I have trained a number of people and have written a lot about training.

So, it might surprise you when I recommend weight training and cardiovascular training as supplemental to your main activity/endeavor/or sport.  You should do the minimum amount of weight training and cardiovascular training to get the desired adaptations. You then reduce training and maintain the attributes you gained through training. The majority of your time should be spent practicing your sport/endeavor.

Does general strength and cardiovascular conditioning carry over to sports? Yes, but it doesn’t supplant specifically training for your sport.

There is no way to know how strong you need to be for your endeavor. Even the oft quoted: 1.5 bodyweight bench press, 2 x squat, and 2.5 x deadlift, have no real basis in sport performance. Can Marcelo Garcia (A multiple time grappling world champion, including absolute champion) 2.5 imes his bodyweight for a one rep max deadlift? We don’t know because Garcia admittedly does not weight train. He is one of the best grapplers in the world, arguably one of the best grapplers of all time and he does NO supplemental training, he just trains BJJ.

There is no formula for how strong you need to be in a particular lift which translates to elite performance in non strength sports.

Legendary strength trainer Dan John, has the following standards:

Expected = Bodyweight bench press
Game-changer = Bodyweight bench press for 15 reps
Expected = 5 pullups
Game-changer = 15 pullups
Expected = Bodyweight to 150% bodyweight deadlift
Game-changer = Double-bodyweight deadlift
Expected = Bodyweight squat
Game-changer = Bodyweight squat for 15 reps
Loaded Carry
Expected = Farmer walk with total bodyweight (half per hand)
Game-changer =Bodyweight per hand
One left and right, done with a half-filled cup of water

All of these standards could be met with a concentrated, consistent, basic, strength program.

There is not a linear relationship between strength and performance in any (non-pure strength) sport.

Years ago, I taught boxing for self defense at a seminar. There was an extremely huge powerlifter in the class. He was strong and he looked strong. He trained to maximize his one repetition maximal lift in the: Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift. He did not train to box. What do you think happened? He gassed in 30 seconds and eventually had to sit out the rest of the session. I was concerned he was going to pass out or force me to use my CPR skills…no joke.

Many conditioning coaches and strength trainers come from strength sports, powerlifting, Olympic Lifting, Track and Field or endurance sports. For most strength athletes, lifting heavy things is their sport. So lifting four to six days a week IS sport specific training.

Some trainers love to whip out platitudes like: “Strong people are harder to kill” and “An adult male weighs over 200 pounds”. Marcelo Garcia weighs well under 200 pounds and would display one tenth of the strength of an elite powerlifter but I guarantee Garcia would take the elite powerlifters back and choke him unconscious within seconds.

Skill makes you harder to kill, strength supports skill and supports your ability to drill and train more to develop that skill while reducing injuries.

So, how do we determine what to train to supplement our sport?

For the athlete, shooter, tactician, or multidisciplinary practitioner, the goal of strength training is to support our skill training. Because we are stronger we could squeeze out 200 reps of a technique drill rather than gassing at 50 reps. We are also healthier and more resistant to injury when stronger.

Like the physician’s Hippocratic Oath, strength training programs and trainers should “do no harm”.

You should never be injured from your supplemental training program.

This cuts out aggressive plyometrics, kipping pull ups, or other inherently fast, ballistic movements…like the full versions of the snatch and clean and jerk. Unless your sport involves kipping pull ups, jumping, or the full range Olympic Lifts, doing these exercises enhances risk. If you do not have a sport or side line your training for or you really like Olympic lifting, have at it, your training is your sport.

We need to be strong enough but not chase numbers. Injuries occur when athletes skate on the thin edge. Once we can squat 2 times body weight is there more crossover if we could squat 2.5 times body weight?

A more relevant question is “what do I have to do to go from a 2 times body weight max squat to a 2.5 times body weight max squat”? If that involves more squat work, bands, chains, and accessory work, you are just taking time away from skill training to hit a random number in a gym, to impress your training partners (who really couldn’t give a shit). The small injuries, sore legs, sore knees, etc. will make training your actual sport harder.

Dan John said: “The goal is to keep the goal the goal”.  I love that. If your goal is to be a better shooter, boxer, or grappler (or all of the above), keep that your goal, don’t get distracted by the 315 pound bench press.

How do you know if you’re strong enough? Get input from coaches, trainers, training partners, and your own self evaluation. My BJJ training partners have never told me I was weak. I don’t feel weak when rolling. At various times in my training and competition career I have felt gassed. When that occurred, I focused on cardiovascular conditioning and maintained my strength. If you are self aware and train with realistic pressure, you know.

One of the most common refrains after a Craig Douglas’, Extremely Close Quarters Concepts class (basically grappling with firearms) is: “I need to get in shape”! If we drill down we learn people hit or go over their anaerobic threshold, hit a wall, and cannot continue or can only continue at a much reduced power output.

This issue is actually a tad more complicated than just “getting in shape”. Skill breeds efficiency. The more efficient you are the less energy you expend. Experience breeds confidence. The more confident you are the less nervous you are and the better you could control your heart rate. The stronger you are the easier it is to move people using submaximal contractions (if you bench 250 moving around a 150 pound person is easier than if you bench 150). And, of course, the more conditioned you are, the better you are able to generate submaximal power for longer periods of time. We have to balance this with the time we spend actually doing our sport, working, and actually having a life!

I accomplish this by focusing on one attribute at a time while maintaining other attributes. I find three days a week of strength training using 2-5 reps, 3-5 sets, major compound lifts is perfect for building strength. I structure training is 8 week blocks changing the reps, sets, and working weight (as calculated by percentage of 1 rep max), every week.

So when building strength I would prescribe 3 days of lifting, one long cardiovascular session at a low heart rate, and one interval cardio session, usually 15 seconds hard followed by 45 seconds slow x 15 – 20 reps.

If I had to focus on another attribute, say anaerobic threshold, I would focus 4 times a week on cardiovascular training and maintain strength with two sessions a week. I find, at 53 years old, I could maintain or even build strength (albit slowly) with two short, intense, weight lifting sessions a week.

If I just wanted to cruise and train my sport hard, I would lift two times a week, do one long cardio session a week (1 – 1.5 hours, mixed modalities, usually at least 30 minutes of running outside), and one high intensity interval training session of about 15 minutes.

I will detail a lifting program in a future post.























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I had a fairly unusual mentor during my college years. Dr. Ed Thomas was a, I don’t know exactly how to put this, “movement enthusiast”.  If it involved physical movement, he was into it and studied it. Ed was also a hippie, donated a large percentage of his earnings to charity, embraced minimalism before it was trendy, living with with a futon and writing desk, one pair of shoes, and the minimal amount of clothing necessary to survive in northern Illinois. This was 1982 to about 1985.

Ed Thomas Indian Clubs

As a young man Ed was raised in a rough town in a rough neighborhood. Ed joined the Army and was a grunt on the Korean DMZ during the Pueblo Incident. After leaving the military, Ed choose to hitchhike around the country like Kwai Chang Caine (if you don’t know, look it up..Kung Fu was seminal to my growth). He left my college as a PhD and ended up teaching as a civilian for the U.S. Army. He and his coworkers, altered the physical training culture of the military.

Ed is the most open minded person I know. He encouraged me to be open minded and learn from everyone. He took me to a Hari Krishna gathering on campus to sample vegan (I don’t think vegan was a word in the ’80s but that food was vegan) food and hear what the cult members…I mean, “monks and monketts” had to say. He practiced Yoga, Thai Boxing (he recruited some of the first Thai Boxers to come to the United States to teach), Indian Clubs, weight lifting, cardiovascular training, inversion training, meditation, control of breathing, mind control, and more esoteric undertakings (some from yoga and other disciplines).

One time, I went to his office the day after I was involved in a bar fight. I was a little conflicted, and impressed with myself, that I used my martial arts to, let’s say, defeat a larger dumb ass. He gave me a disapproving look and told me the following story:

A Judo black belt is on a bus, in Tokyo, going to the Kodokan to train. He observes a very large, extremely, drunk man enter the bus and begin to bully a number of smaller people in the front of the bus. The black belt becomes angry and pictures how he is going to destroy the drunk idiot. As the black belt stands, he observes an older, frail, woman approach the drunkard and place her hand on his arm. The drunkard turns to her and they engage in a brief conversation. The drunkard sits down in on a bench seat, puts his face in his hands and begins to cry. Between sobs, the black belt hears the man tell the story of how the man just lost his wife and daughter. The older woman consoles him and the man becomes meek and apologies to everyone on the bus. The black belt realizes the real black belt on the bus is the older woman. When he enters the Kodokan to train, the black belt returns his black belt and dons a white belt.

This story is not verbatim, the black belt might have been an Aikido black belt but in my memory it was Judo. I figure this is some common martial art lore to teach a point but I couldn’t find the story with a Google search, so I will attribute the story to Ed.

Ed always had stories like that. He once told me: “If you want it bad enough, a teacher will come”. I thought that was pretty cool but sorta thought it was bullshit.

It wasn’t.  A teacher always came my way when I needed one. In martial arts, SWAT, police work, Investigations, leadership, and tactics, a mentor appeared, almost like magic. Every one of them were elite operators and excellent instructors. Mike Knauff, Dan Inosanto, Bob James, Pete Negro, Dale Sayset, Jeff Neal, Carlson Gracie Jr., Craig Douglas and more. Close friends and colleagues, Cecil Burch, Paul Sharp, William Aprill, and Chris Fry still teach me something, pretty much every week.

Ed also believed you could learn from anyone or anything.

I see a ton of sniping on social media. People publicly going after instructors in the “training” industry. Personal attacks and flat out character assassination. I have nothing against an aggressive debrief of an event, operation, or a class. As a matter of fact, I flat out encourage it! The more truthful and comprehensive, the better.

Personal attacks have no place in the debrief process. Ed believed you could learn from anyone. The guru or the bum. If you treat everyone with respect, they will open up and may teach you something.

Don’t have a fixed dogma. The more entrenched you become, the harder it is for you to learn new things. Develop best practices, follow them, but be open to new information. My friend Claude Werner, an elite firearms trainer, once said to me “my understanding NOW…”. He was explaining trigger press. Trigger press is a pretty basic function of firearms training, yet Claude carefully used the word “now”. He left open the possibility his views might change in the future.

Large organizations are slow to move and hard to change.  Most traditional martial artists are also fixed or constrained within the boundaries of their art.

People who know me know I speak my mind. My mentors in martial arts, SWAT, and Investigations encouraged me to speak my mind.  In those environments, open, honest, raw communication were vital to the safety and effectiveness of the job.

This did not translate to career advancement. There were two distinct incidents where my directness negatively impacted my career advancement. So, use this advice with caution.

Be open to new information, always remain a good student, don’t enter a class with preconceived notions. If you take a class and the instructor teaches a technique or a process you do not agree with, embrace the process train the technique and do the work. After the class, after the reps, then critically evaluate the information and determine if you could extract any information.

The answers are usually contained within the process of DOING. Be openminded.

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Odysseus and the wind bag



BagofWinds_2.jpgOdysseus, King of Ithaca, and action hero in Homer’s poem, Iliad and Odyssey, teaches us something about attainment of goals.


According to Homer (I can’t verify this actually happened but is seems likely), ten years after the Trojan war (check out the movie Troy, it’s almost a documentary), Odysseus was had still not gone home and arrived at the floating island of Aeolia. The King of Aeolia, King Aeolos, was appointed by Zeus as “The Keeper of the Winds”. Odysseus and Aeolos became fast friends and after hanging around for a month, telling war stories, Aeolos gave Odysseus an ox-skin bag which contained all of the strong winds.

The calm and mild Zephyr wind was left out of the bag and Odysseus left Aeolia to calmly sail home to Ithaca. Odysseus left the bag of winds strapped to the boat but did not tell his men what was inside the bag. In retrospect this was a really bad idea.

Odysseus and his men sailed, actually rowed, for nine days and nights for Ithaca when in the distance, Odysseus saw land and the cooking fires of his people. Exhausted from sailing for 9 days straight and so close to home, Odysseus decided the journey was almost over, so he decided to nap.

While sleeping, Odysseus’ men decided to open the bag, thinking it might be treasure.

what's in the box.jpg

(It’s possible they did not see the movie Seven, thereby not knowing NOT to look in the box, or bag, whatever)

They open the bag, the winds escape and the boat gets blown almost back to where they started the 9 day rowing marathon.

Odysseus is pretty pissed and the crew rows back to Aeolia. King Aeolos is amazed the Odysseus screwed up a fairly simple task (getting home in calm winds) so he believes Odysseus is cursed by the gods and refuses to help with another bag of wind.

Odysseus and his merry crew then try to head back home and it doesn’t go so smoothly this time, ogres, blood suckers, witches, men turn into pigs, and a trip to the Underworld ensue.

So, where am I going with this?

Often, we get within sight of our goal and decide it’s good enough. We stop and then backtrack.

Trying to get under 10% bodyfat and see rippling abs? I have seen numerous people get within striking range after four months of hard work, call it good, and quit. Then rather than maintain and have a last go of it, they go back to their normal habits and gain all the fat back.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, students work hard for a belt promotion. After years of hard practice they are rewarded with a blue belt. Many then quit. The journey was hard, they accomplished something and the next step, purple belt, or the big step, black belt, seems so far away as to be unattainable. I know many perpetual blue belts. The quit, come back, quit, come back, in a never ending cycle.


  • Make a commitment to finish what you start.
  • Focus on the daily habits which lead you to your goal, engage the GRIND.
  • Focus on the day to day, do your dryfire, go to BJJ class, etc.
  • Be a professional and show up. You don’t have to be heroic every day but you do have to show up.
  • When you feel like quitting, you are close, ignore that voice in your head and continue to grind.
  • And, for God’s sake, don’t fall asleep and give your men an opportunity to open the wind bag!

Sponge bob bag of wind.gif



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Photo Credit: Pasion (sic) Project

I want to talk about a subject most people don’t understand. It is the key to success, in any endeavor. It takes no talent, minimal IQ or EQ, all it takes is relentlessness.

I have been teaching martial arts since 1982. My typical student, about 90% of students, would show up for class twice a week and do nothing in between. This necessitated going over material for review and slow progress.

The students who progressed the fastest were not the natural athletes or even the brilliant thinkers. They were the ones who worked on the material on “their time”.  They worked the basics more than the average student.

The real high achievers obsessed with grinding out a movement. They performed rep after rep until it was grooved into their nervous system. THIS is the secret to elite performance. Find ways to get reps in. Most people will not do this, they get bored, they feel they “have it” after 10 reps, they keep glancing at the clock in anticipation of the “fun” part of class…the sparring.

A story Ron Balicki and I often tell is about a time we were training in my wooden floor, Chicago, apartment. We were grinders. I threw Ron, onto the hardwood floor, probably 50 times. Enough to have a neighbor knock on my door and yell at us to stop throwing around a “medicine ball”!

We all like instant gratification, I like it too. It’s nice to want something and get it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen with skill development. With BJJ, fighting, and shooting, I constantly see students checking their basics. I could see the wheels turning in their heads; “foot goes here, grab this…what comes next”?  Even advanced students miss or skip over important steps in a technique, under pressure.

Our skilled opponents will immediately take advantage of our technique lapses and errors.

Our goal is to make fundamental movements and concepts automatic and then refine and maintain those fundamentals.

New BJJ students often ask me “how do I get better”, my answer is always “mat time”. There is a linear progression between mat time and skill level.  Same goes with shooting: dry fire. This has to be consistent practice, hence, the GRIND.

The grinding has to happen with every endeavor we are involved with, if we want to obtain more than a casual level of skill. The more you grind technique, the better you become.

When I was learning to interrogate suspects, I had the uniform troopers call back to Investigations when they made minor drug arrests. I would go up to the processing room and conduct a 15-20 minute interrogation, no stress, if I got the person to confess, it’s all good; if not, no big deal. I learned a ton during these sessions. Mostly, how to perform the mechanical aspects of interrogation by rote so I could evaluate suspects responses and body language. It also helped to lower my nervousness. Interrogation became routine. New detectives get flustered and constantly check questions or are thinking about what to ask instead of evaluating the suspect and his/her answers. The only way to overcome this is to train – grind – do it alot.

Most, if not all, shooting errors occur because of a breakdown in fundamentals, sight alignment, sight picture, grip, and trigger press. Literally the things we learn in shooting class number 1. We see students in “advanced” classes making consistent errors with fundamentals.

Reping fundamentals is not fun, it is not cool, but fundamentals are called fundamentals for a reason. Fundamentals need to be ingrained prior to building advanced skills. Fundamentals also need to be maintained and refined throughout your career.

Fundamentals need to be practiced with no pressure and then they need to be performed under gradually increasing amounts of training pressure and stress. Ultimately, the training should progress to exposure to “real world” testing. In an ideal world, this real world exposure would begin gradually, sometimes this is not possible but it is preferable.

When my drug unit was training a new agent for dynamic search warrant service, we would always put him or her on perimeter until we had a chance to evaluate them under stress and they had a chance to acclimate to the perceived chaos, noise, and potential danger of a search warrant service. They would then progress to the back of the entry team. With enough real world reps, constructive feedback via brutally honest debriefings, and training designed to work on weak fundamentals the agent would progress to the front of the line.

Here’s the easy roadmap to excellence in any endeavor:


  1. Obtain expert technique instruction. Ask questions and receive feedback until you understand the technique enough to break it into component pieces.
  2. Breakdown your endeavor to it’s basic fundamentals and component pieces.
  3. Commit to a specific number of reps of the fundamentals or components of the fundamentals, every day. Link this daily practice to an already established habit, if possible.
  4. Practice daily, no breaks.
  5. Be focused and relentless with your practice. Don’t let concentration wander.
  6. At first, practice the technique slowly, with no pressure.  Over time build speed and pressure.
  7. Obtain feedback from coaches, experts, or visual feedback from video recording.
  8. Ruthlessly evaluate technique, progress, and feedback and attack weaknesses.
  9. Repeat the above practice…forever.


Clearly, when we are integrating a new technique, we should laser focus on all of the elements of that technique and grind technique work. High performers will grind out hundreds of reps daily while learning a new technique; fewer reps when maintaining a skill.

Grinding takes no talent above the ability to overcome boredom. If you don’t have time to focus a training session on drilling, just get 15 reps in a day.  15 reps a day equals 105 reps a week, 420 reps a month, and 5040 reps a year.

Elite performance is linked to your ability to grind away day after day, year after year.

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