A Master Swordsman's Advice For Productive Strength Training!

In this article, I am going to quote some of Musashi's word's of wisdom and demonstrate clearly how they can be applied to enhancing your workouts and training goals. Read on for more ...

One of my favorite books, is The Book Of Five Rings by Miyomato Musashi. Musashi was a bad @ss 17th century Japanese Swordsman who never lost a duel in more than 60 fights with the best around.

He wrote about his philosophy of success in his book and as I re-read it recently I was amazed by how many of his principles apply to a variety of areas in life including productive strength training.

In this article, I am going to quote some of Musashi's word's of wisdom and demonstrate clearly how they can be applied to enhancing your workouts and training goals. Do not worry, I am not going to recommend that you start throwing Ninja Stars or wear a kimono when you workout. Moreover, this is not an article about how Tom Cruise trained for the film The Last Samurai.

On another note, too bad Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars did not have a chance to read the "Book of Five Rings." And apply the principles to his life. If he had he may not have become a dark force b*tch! But I digress.

In this article I am going to use Musashi's wisdom as a back drop to reveal clearly that productive strength training is far more than just working the body. ou have to incorporate mental discipline and accountability with physical work to have the entire package. Let's get started.

The Truth
"Truth is not what you want it to be; it is what it is, and you must bend to its power or live a lie."

You just had a great workout in the gym and feel like a million bucks. You feel strong and ready to conquer the world. Before you head out to enjoy the spoils of war, you record your workout in your training journal and the brutal truth hits you as you realize that you have not made any progress all month.

Fortunately, you have been keeping an accurate training journal and have some important data to work with. The majority of trainees do not keep a training journal and it is no surprise that the majority of trainees do not make much progress either.

Accepting The Truth:

    Imagine running a business in which you did not keep accurate records. You have no idea what you are making and what you are spending. You could have the illusion that you are making a big profit when in reality you are just living off of revenue. Moreover, God help you if you ever get audited!

    Top strength coach Charles Poliquin once told me about a study on factory chair workers. Once the workers were told what their production number was, they started beating the number dramatically. Coach Poliquin states that there is a natural human drive to want to improve when you know what your number is.

    This is one of the main reasons why an accurate training journal works. It forces you to accept the truth and gives you important information about your workouts.

    If something is not working, you will know and we will be able to make the necessary modifications to improve. In addition, who wants to record the same weights and sets at every workout. Just like the factory chair workers, when you know the number you will want to beat it.


    Want another tip to make training journals even more effective? Hire a strength coach to review your training journal once per week or at least have a friend who is into training look at it once per week and give you some feedback. Just knowing that someone else will be seeing your training journal will force you to step it up a notch.

    Hey, you could even ask some hot fitness bunny at the gym to be your accountability friend. One of man's strongest desires is to impress women and what could be better than having a woman that you are attracted to look at your journal each week? Well we all know what the answer is to that, but once again get back to reality buddy.

    Click Image To Enlarge.
    Find Yourself An
    Accountability Friend.

    Without an accurate training journal you are just shooting in the dark and hoping that you hit your target. It is simply amazing that trainees will spend tons of money on supplements and not take the time to keep a training journal, which costs next to nothing. All you need is a notebook or a file on your computer.

Workout Journals Workout Journal Section.
Post your workout journal and progress in this section, feel free to update as often as you would like. You can also monitor other members as they share their experiences with the board.
[ Click here to learn more. ]

    Do yourself a favor and start keeping a training journal today. You will be amazed at what a big difference it makes in your workouts.

"To build anything quickly and maintain quality means not being disorganized with anything."

Many trainees are impatient when it comes to training and want immediate results. While expecting impressive results after a few workouts is not practical, you can speed things up by controlling as many factors as possible such as: nutrition, training, restoration, stress levels, sleep and accountability.



Choose Your Goal Below.
Is Your Goal Not Listed? Click Below To Learn More About Goal Setting.

    First, get on a solid training program that targets the goals that you want to achieve and you are more likely to achieve those goals. Just don't try to do too many goals at the same time. Pick one or two and focus on those; such as adding fifty pounds to your deadlift or ten pounds of muscle. In addition, take your lifestyle into account.

    If you are only sleeping five hours per night and are under a lot of stress at work or at home, now is not the time to do Charles Staley's EDT program or a doe of "German Volume Training."

    Adjust your training according to your current situation and you will make more progress. If you do not have a lot of time, try brief and frequent workouts that you can do at home. If you have plenty of time on your hands, then try doing twice a day workouts to accelerate your progress.


    Second, if you have a solid nutrition plan, you will have more energy for your workouts and more energy for adequate recovery. Start keeping a nutrition journal and track how many calories you are getting in each day and where they are coming from. If you are not losing fat, your nutrition journal will show why.

    If you are not getting bigger, your nutrition journal will show why. I have found that many trainees think that they are eating a lot and when they break it down, it does not add up to too much. I had one of my online clients keep track of his caloric intake for a week and he realized that he was only consuming around 2000 calories per day.

    This is a guy that thought he was eating a ton everyday. The same works for fat loss. One of my online clients though that she had it together until she wrote everything down and realized that she is getting an additional 250 carbs each day from "Jamba Juice" smoothies!

    Get your nutrition on track and you will make more progress in the gym. Or just stay in illusion land and hit Mickey Dee's three times per day.

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    Third, work on additional recovery methods to facilitate faster progress. Try sitting in a Jacuzzi or Sauna for 20 minutes after each workout. Get a sports massage once every two weeks, and get a power nap in after each workout. Not that you need another reason to do so, but an active sex life is a great way to reduce stress and should not be overlooked. Just do it after your workouts or before bedtime.

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    Fourth, stress is another factor that must be controlled. The more stress you have in your life, the less likely you are to make progress. Meditation is a good idea. You do not have to sit in the lotus position and chant for twenty minutes.

    Meditation could be a 30-minute walk to clear your head at the end of the day. It could take the form of stretching or doing joint mobility work to loosen up in the morning or evening. Incorporate a few activities in your day that help you relax and unwind.

    My friend and top strength coach and BJJ athlete Steve Maxwell has a great "joint mobility" DVD that is a great way to start the day and a great way to end a workout. Pick up a copy today at www.maxercise.com. Also, did I mention that an active sex life is a great way to reduce stress?


    Finally, make sure you get at least eight hours of sleep per night. Some need less and some need more, but erring on the side of more, is always a good idea. It is amazing to see athletes that have everything else down, but completely neglect sleep.

    Four to six hours is not going to cut it. Especially when you are training hard. Try taking a mineral supplement called ZMA or an amino acid product called GABA to help you get some deep REM Sleep each night. Just get ready for some crazy dreams if you take ZMA. I could write a book on some of the dreams that I have had while taking ZMA.

    Another thing to do before going to bed is to take a walk around the block to clear your head. This gives you a chance to think about the day and what you need to do tomorrow. That way, when you hit the sheets, your head is clear and you are all set. A hot shower or 20 minutes in a sauna also works wonders. I have also heard that sex before bedtime works well also.

Broaden Your Life
"You should study all things to broaden your life. You should specialize in several things to polish your life."

Mike Mahler's Aggressive Strength Video
This DVD, "The Kettlebell Solution For Size And Strength" will show you how to get much stronger with kettlebells and build a muscular physique as well.

Studying a variety of training methods is a good idea as there is a synergy among many schools of thoughts. A book on the benefits of sandbag training may give you ideas on how to improve your powerlifting routine and a DVD on kettlebell training may give you some ideas on how to improve your conditioning for combat sports.

While studying a variety of training methods is a great idea, you want to focus on a few things at a time and do them well. If you want to improve your Barbell Squat, then make that the focal point of your workouts and place other things on maintenance mode.

If you need extreme conditioning for mixed martial arts, focus on "Roadwork" or other forms of high intensity cardio and place other things on maintenance mode.

Having a laser like focus will increase the odds of your achieving your goals. Just do not make the mistake of having too many goals at one time. I once had an online customer that wanted to compete in powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and she wanted to run a marathon as well. She wanted me to design a program to address all of these goals.

A "jack of all trades" program is not the way to be successful. Pick one goal that is most important to you and go after it. Once you nail that goal, switch gears and go after another one.

Your Arsenal
"You should avoid becoming too dependent on any single weapon, or anything else really. Keep your options open and remain flexible. Too much dependence on any one thing is just as bad as not depending on anything."

We all have "pet exercises" that we tend to make the focal point of our workouts. For many men, this exercise tends to be the bench press while women tend to focus on leg exercises. This is why it is difficult to design a program for yourself, as you will have a tendency to focus on exercises that you are naturally good at and avoid exercises that you suck at.

Focusing too much on one exercise is a sure-fire way to acquire overuse injuries and bring progress to a stretching halt. It is a good idea to have several "weapons" to choose from. If you want to improve your bench press, try rotating it with bottom position bench presses, weighted dips, one-arm dumbbell bench presses, and floor presses.

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The One-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press:
A Great Weapon Of Choice.

Top powerlifting coach Louie Simmons has his athletes rotate exercises frequently and calls this method "The Conjugate method." You do not have to be a powerlifter to benefit from this.

Try rotating your primary exercises with similar exercises every few weeks and you will not only get stronger but will break your dependency on your "pet exercises."

Also, many trainees tend to be overzealous about one training philosophy over another. For example, many trainees belong to the "High Intensity Training" camp otherwise known as HIT and swear by training to failure even though they only made progress with HIT during the first six weeks of the program.

They just find it easier to not think and would prefer to do the same program over and over again even if they do not make progress. They care more about the stimulus of training rather than moving forward. However, some of the "HIT" devotees do not corner the market.

Other trainees think that high volume training is the be all end all of training and never cycle high volume training with lower volume training. As a result, their progress comes to a halt and the pile of overuse injuries that they have gets bigger and bigger every year.

Over the years I have tried a variety of training programs and can say that many programs have merit. However, no program will work all of the time. Have fun with training and try a variety of different methods over your training career. In addition to being wiser, you will have the results to back up your open minded outlook.

There Is A Season ...
"Business is like the waves of the sea. All things rise and all things fall. You must be able to discern the time that you are in and the time that is approaching."

Ah, if only your entire training career were life the first month when you started working out. Remember that? Remember how you got stronger at every workout and you felt like it could go on indefinitely? You did the math and got excited when you had the illusion that you would be breaking every powerlifting record on the planet by the end of the year.

Unfortunately, reality had a different plan for you and your progress came to a halt. Fortunately, being the smart trainer that you are, you did some research and came across the concept of "training cycling." This is where you start off way below your best effort and work up to a new personal best over time and then back off again to live another day and grow stronger.

You cannot train at full intensity all of the time. Whether you plan to or not, you will cycle your training. You can either proactively do it by mapping out a training cycle that gradually builds up to high intensity or high volume and then backs off or simply attempt to train all out at every session.

Click Image To Enlarge.
You Cannot Train At Full Intensity
All Of The Time.

The latter will cause the inevitable demon of over training to enter your training world and you will be forced to back off or continue to work hard to get weaker at every session. I recommend that you take Musashi's advice and realize that everything goes up and down. No pun intended!

You have to know when you are in an intense phase and maximize the window of opportunity and know when to back off and prepare for the next wave of training progress. Failure to pay attention to these cycles will leave you in the land of mediocrity and weakness, which I have heard it is not a fun place to be.

You do not have to get overly technical with training cycling. Take some advice from Powerlifter and T-Nation contributor Jack Reape and apply a back off week for every three weeks of hard training. For example, try the 5x5 protocol for three weeks and then switch to 2x5 with 85% of the weight that you were using for a week. In week five your will be refreshed and ready to roll.

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"Only intense training and experience will teach you to recognize the difference between what is important and what is meant to distract."

Let's face it. Nothing can take the place of real world experience. I can tell a newbie that they should avoid doing ten sets for biceps and triceps three times per week and focus on compound exercises (such as: Squats, Deadlifts, Bench presses, Military presses, and Bent Over Rows) all day long and very few will take my advice.

They just cannot help it and have to find out the hard way that over focus on isolation work is not the most efficient way to get bigger and stronger. Regardless, the thought of giving up preacher curls and triceps push downs is harder for most trainees then giving up sex for a month. Well, maybe not that hard, but you get the point.

In order to get bigger and stronger, you have to put in some time and pay your dues. You have to experiment with a variety of programs and discover what works best for you.

More than likely, this will be a life long process and if you are smart and open minded you will continue to discover new ways to maximize your training progress. Expecting to find the ultimate program in your first year of training is like expecting to start a business and earn a million dollars in your first year. It is just now likely to happen.

Wisdom comes with experience and there is just no way around that. After you put in a few years of concerted effort in the gym and in researching proper training and nutrition, you will be well on your way to separating yourself from the weak masses.

Take your time with training and realize that it is a life long endeavor. Learn to enjoy the process and the learning experience and you will be able to train productively much longer.

"Overuse of power is not a good thing. If you cut with the mind of being strong, your cut will be crude and sloppy. It is almost impossible to consistently win by relying on strength alone."

Making progress in your workouts has more to do with just making your muscles stronger. The more you learn how to engage your mind, specifically, your central nervous system, the stronger and bigger you will get. Look at any trainee that trains with heavy training loads with good form and you will see a serious demonstration of focus and determination.

The Central Nervous System.
The human central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. These lie in the midline of the body and are protected by the skull and vertebrae respectively.

This collection of billions of neurons is arguably the most complex object known.

The central nervous system along with the peripheral nervous system comprise a primary division of controls that command all physical activities of a human.

Neurons of the central nervous system affect consciousness and mental activity while spinal extensions of central nervous system neuron pathways affect skeletal muscles and organs in the body.

A great deal of productive strength training is mental and the more you learn how to use psychology to maximize your training progress, the more efficient and productive your workouts will become. In addition, using more power and effort than is necessary to get the job done is a waste of energy.

If an Olympic lifter uses too much power on the clean and jerk, their form will be sloppy and they will most likely miss the lift. If they do not use enough power, the bar will not go from point A to point B. When they use just the right amount of power to get the job done, they make the effort look easy and that is the sign of a true professional.

As your technique improves and your experience increases, you will learn how to channel the right amount of effort in your workouts to get the job done.

To increase focus, only work with others that are as serious as you are with regards to training. No chit chat about the weekend in between sets and definitely no talking during sets accept some words of motivation to push you along.

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No Chit Chat!

Get focused with each set and think about what you are doing before you do it. The more you practice the more it will become second nature like driving a car.

"The truth is that victory comes by manipulating the circumstances to your advantage."

Many people tend to live their lives by simply reacting to whatever comes their way. People that fall into this category are never people that do anything exceptional with their lives. Successful people are far more pro-active and can see several moves ahead. They have learned how to stack the deck in their favor and maximize circumstances to move forward.

You have to learn how to do the same thing with your workouts. If you have an arm injury, do you use this as an excuse to skip working out and watch four more hours of the idiot box? Or do you see this as an opportunity to work on your spindly legs? I hope you picked the latter.

You just started a new job and only have time for a few 30-minute workouts per week. Do you decide, that you are better off not working out at all or doing some lame cardio program until you have time to get back to longer workouts? Or do you decide that this is a great time to streamline your program, and do a few sets of a few basic exercises?

Click Image To Enlarge.
Are you just going to start
a lame cardio program?

Go with the latter and you may find that something odd happens. Because you have less time, you have to focus on the time that you have to train and spend the time that you have on the exercises that will give you the most bang for your buck.

You no longer have time to overcomplicate your workouts and waste time in the gym and as a result you make much more progress than when you were unemployed and lived with your parents and had all of the time in the world.

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Winners find a way to win, and losers will always find a way to lose. You are either one or the other. As one of my mentors told me, "You can either make money or make excuses but you cannot do both." Well, you can either make training progress or excuses but you cannot do both.

"The Proper speed at which to execute a technique should flow of its own accord."

There is an ongoing debate in the training world with regards to what is the optimal tempo speed for training. Just the debate alone shows you the times that we are living in. However, that is another topic for another time.

Here is interesting way to look at it. Why not let the weight decide what the speed should be. If it is light, lift the weight with solid form as quickly as possible. If they weight is heavy, attempt to lift it as fast as possible as well. What will happen? You will learn how to get faster with lightweights and will build strength and size with heavier weights due to the time under tension.

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Let The Weight Decide The Speed.

Moreover, moving the weight quickly recruits more fast twitch muscles and the faster you are the stronger you can get. Do not believe me? Look at the difference between the bodytypes on sprinters versus Marathon runners. Case closed!

Even though you are still attempting to move the heavier weights rapidly, the laws of gravity have another plan for you and you will benefit accordingly. I am not saying that varying tempo does not work. I just think that more focus should be placed on lifting weights instead of worrying about tempo.

Frankly, if you have the mental time to think about tempo while you are lifting a weight, then it is not heavy enough to do you any good. Focus on using good technique and let the weight dictate the speed.

A Mentor
"Those who have missed the mark may chatter all day long about this and that, but they have never done anything. Anyone can make a good argument, but few can show good results."

There is a saying that those who cannot do, teach. Well, that maybe true, but I doubt that they teach well. There is another saying: "talk is cheap." Anyone can read some books on training and attend a few lectures and have the academic training background down. However, few can get their hands dirty, get some real world experience, and learn from their mistakes to achieve successes.

Good Instructors Are Born ... Great Instructors Evolve!
Good Instructors Are Born ... Great Instructors Evolve!
Whether you are a seasoned instructor or someone just starting out, developing the techniques necessary to be a great instructor are learned not inherited.

Sure, learning from others via books, lectures, DVD's, CDs, articles etc is great. However, if that is all you do, then you are just talking from a place of theory rather than application and practice.

Where am I going? If you want to be a champion powerlifter, hire a powerlifting coach like Louie Simmons who has demonstrated clearly that his methods work through his own achievements and the achievements of his athletes.

Want to build a strong muscular physique without using steroids? Find someone who has the training knowledge and results that you are after and work with that person.

Sure, just because someone has results does not necessarily mean that they are a good teacher. Just as just because someone is overweight does not mean that they do not have a substantial degree of training knowledge.

Regardless, in life what you see is often what you get and I would rather hire someone that has both the knowledge and the results than one or the other. In other words, find a good teacher and a good student and you are on the right path.


There you have it, a wealth of wisdom to improve your workouts and quality of life. What do you do now? Well, I would start by purchasing D.E. Tarver's translation of "The Book Of Five Rings" today. Mr. Tarver, uses modern day English so you do not have to try to digest a book that reads like something Master Yoda would put together (another lame Star Wars joke in case you do not get it).

Seriously though, the book is awesome and the more you read it, the more you will like it. While it might not inspire you to take up sword lessons, if you apply the wisdom from the "Book Of Five Rings" to your workouts, you will maximize your workouts and become a more intelligent trainee.

About The Author

Mike Mahler is a strength coach and kettlebell instructor based in Marina Del Rey, Ca. For more info on Mike, go to www.mikemahler.com.