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  • Writer's pictureJesse McMeekin

"Stone Soup" for Strength Training

An old children's story has a lot to teach us about resourcefulness, optimism, and cooperation. What's more, it may help you—and your clients—keep that hard-earned muscle, while helping remind us all of some particularly important lessons.

Let's start with the story, and get to how it helps you, your clients, and the industry at large later.

Once Upon A Time...

...there was a great famine that ravaged an entire country. In one small village in particular, people were worried about having enough food for the coming winter. As a result, they hid what little food they had away, afraid of letting their neighbors know that they had food for fear they might try to take it for themselves.

One day a traveler arrived, and asked about finding a place to sleep and a meal to eat.

"Oh, there's no food to be had here," they said, anxious for him to move along. "You'd be better off trying the next village."

"Oh, that's no problem. I have everything I need right here in my cart," he said, taking out a large cooking pot and a single, smooth stone. "If you'd like, I'd be happy to share with all of you!"

The villagers looked on in hopeful confusion as the traveler filled his pot with water and laid wood for a fire. "Stone soup is one of my favorite dishes," he announced as he put his stone into the pot. "Of course, it always tastes best with carrots."

A small crowd of townspeople had gathered, curious about the traveler's magical stone. They glanced around warily, before one of them piped up, "I may have a few carrots. Nothing much, but I suppose I could share." At this, the traveler smiled, and said that he'd be grateful for anything they could spare. Shortly the carrots arrived, and were placed into the now boiling pot of water along with the stone.

"That's perfect. But I've always been partial to a little ham to go with the carrots. Still, this will be plenty."

At this, the butcher bashfully offered up his own contribution, "I may have some ham scraps, and maybe a bone or two for the stock..."

You can see where this is going. Before long, the traveler has convinced each of the villagers—as rich together as they were poor alone—to contribute to the soup. The stone was nothing more than a starting point, a catalyst for contribution; the village had enough all along, but each member was so afraid of the perceived scarcity that they couldn't see the larger reality of the situation.

A Backpack, a Dumbbell, Four Resistance Bands, and a Weight Plate

I was reminded of this story as I tried to plan today's workout. Most of what I'd done to this point had been good exercise, but fell far short of anything I'd call "training". A teeny tiny humble brag here: the stronger you are, the harder it is to train with limited equipment. The bottom line was that I needed more resistance. I gathered what I could find—an eclectic mix if ever there was one—and got after it.

I started with a fan favorite, the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat. Individually, none of these tools is enough challenge me. A few resistance bands? Please, I'm way too strong for that! But together, those bands, a 30 pound backpack, 50 pound dumbbell, and 25 pound weight plate meant I was working against roughly 165 pounds of additional resistance per leg. Throw in my bodyweight, multiply out by three sets of 12 on each leg and that's close to 20,000 pounds of volume on this movement alone—more than enough to leave me looking forward to some bonafide DOMS tomorrow. (All told I figure I did close to 60,000 pounds of volume in around 45 minutes.)

The parallel is obvious—you've got more at hand than you may realize—but can be taken even further. In addition to making the most of some mismatched tools, we can also combine different training methods to up the ante stress-wise.

Knowledge is Power... Literally

I've run a ton of programs over the years, my own and those of others (there's no better way to learn than through experience), and as a result, I've used a lot of different training methods. From Cal Dietz's Triphasic system to Yuri Verkhoshanksy's Static Dynamic method and just about everything in between.

In addition to the hodgepodge of equipment hanging off of me, I chose a few subtler methods to make this particular exercise more demanding. Namely:

–Unilateral Pattern. It's obvious, but doing so effectively doubles the load I've got to work with. It doesn't work for everything, but it's a great choice when it does.

Eccentric Tempo. It's hard to tell from the gif, but I was aiming for a three second eccentric on each rep. Unless you're training power/explosiveness, this works for just about everything you can do at home.

Isometric Hold. Again, the gif doesn't do it justice, but adding a brief hold at the bottom—I was working with just one second—was enough to make the concentric phase of the lift more challenging. It might not be the best choice in all training cycles, but it's probably a good option for most of us as we try to navigate the coming weeks.

Circuit training. Almost as obvious as choosing unilateral work, circuit training allows me to create a greater systemic stress, and may help to create a more anabolic hormonal environment as a result.

This is far from a complete list, as it only represents what I did for a single exercise. What it does do is illustrate just how much is still at our disposal. We can choose to focus on what we don't have, or we can choose to focus on what we do have. No one's shutting down your knowledge, so make use of it.

In This Together

In addition to the physical realities of training with limited resources, the metaphor works on a social level as well; it speaks to cooperation, community, generosity, and optimism—all things we need as we face an uncertain future. The real irony of social distancing may be that it drives us to find new ways to stay social, as we’re reminded of just how fundamental a need our daily interaction is.

On that note, now's as good a time as ever to build your network. Find someone to learn from, and someone to teach. The need for what we do—provided we do it well—isn't going anywhere. Rather than hoarding from your neighbors, bring what you've got out into the open, and let's face this together.

(Hey, speaking of making the most of what you've got, check out my free pushup manual: Thirty Days of Pushups.)

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