Goal setting: The Six Years’ War


Time to get serious about my powerlifting goals!


The year was 2013. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and was on my way to North Carolina to start grad school. I didn’t really know anybody there, I just knew that Abbie Smith-Ryan was there, she was doing cool stuff, and I wanted to be on her team.

It was around this time that I set four goals, with a six year deadline. It didn’t matter when I accomplished each, or what order they fell in, they just needed to get done by May 2019. They were as follows:

1) To establish myself as a proficient, productive researcher

2) To get my pro card in natural bodybuilding

3) To achieve an elite total in raw powerlifting

4) To earn my PhD


Four years in, it’s time for a progress report.


Overall, I’d say I can cross off #1, although it is admittedly vague in nature. You could always be more productive, but I’m very proud of the amount of quality research our lab group has completed and published within the last four years. We’re far from done and have plenty more research to do in my remaining time at UNC, but the wheels are absolutely in motion and we’ve accomplished a great deal so far. If you’re interested in seeing what we’ve been up to, much of our work is available at my PubMed and ResearchGate links.

As I recently posted, #2 has also been completed, as I recently took home pro cards in bodybuilding and classic physique, and subsequently made my pro bodybuilding debut. As far as #4 goes, a lot of progress has been made. Completing a PhD takes time, and there isn’t much you can do about that. But, at this point, my coursework has been successfully completed, comprehensive exams are quickly approaching, and I have secured a research grant to fund my dissertation. So, I am still on track to meet the self-imposed deadline for graduation in May 2019.

That leaves #3. I’m so incredibly far from an elite total right now, it’s a joke. But on the bright side, I could have said the exact same thing about #1, 2, and 4 at various times throughout the last four years.

I’m writing this post for a few reasons. First, it’s important to put your goals in writing, and to make them known. This can help reinforce your commitment and accountability, and it makes them feel a lot more “real” and tangible. I’m being facetious with the title of this article- I’ve always found in humor in the duality of strength and physique goals; they mean the world to us, but are so trivial in nature. It’s common to see athletes take themselves way too seriously and drastically inflate the importance of what they’re doing. I’m not one to give unsolicited advice frequently, but I would encourage you to find the middle ground. Let your goals mean a lot to you, pursue them enthusiastically, but don’t lose sight of the relative triviality of pursuing a lean physique or a huge bench press. It’ll help keep you rooted in reality, keep your priorities in line, and make you more robust to the speedbumps along the way.

Second, this post serves as a quick update to contextualize my upcoming focus. After a long, arduous contest prep, it’s time to figure out what the next step or transition is. I’ll be focusing on regaining as much lean mass as possible in the immediate post-competition period, then transition toward a more powerlifting-oriented approach to my training and nutrition. Of course, I’ll be updating this website along the entire way to keep everyone posted with regard to what I’m trying to implement and how it’s going.

But third, and probably most importantly, I want to use this post to reinforce my belief that setting and reaching goals is, more than anything, a battle of attrition. From the outside, it’s easy to look back after someone else accomplishes one of their goals and say, “I knew they’d do it eventually.” I do this all the time when I see others reach their goals, and I think it’s a fairly natural response when we believe in the abilities of our peers. But as I cross one of my goals off the list (pro card) and switch gears towards another (elite total), I want to document my first-person perspective here, and highlight two facts:

The goals I’m currently working on are numerous years in the making, and there have been times that I’ve strongly doubted my ability to complete each and every one of them- including those that have since been accomplished.

Like I said, I’m weak as hell right now. I’m standing at the foot of a very large mountain that I fully intend to climb. Based on my current numbers, it’s a really stupid goal, almost impossibly out of reach. But as I’ve learned from pursuing my other goals over the last four years, where you start isn’t really that important. What really matters is identifying the route to achieving it, putting your head down, and grinding it out. There will be times when the route takes detours, when it’s necessary to slow down the pace, and possibly times when it’s necessary to hit the “pause” button. But like I said, it’s a battle of attrition- I don’t need to be superhuman to finish off the list, I just need to make sure I don’t give up, and I don’t move backwards.

I don’t consider myself “successful” yet, so I’m not the guy to dish out tips on achieving success. I am still working on the climb, and I have a long way to go. I’m happy about the progress I’ve made so far in a variety of pursuits, but I’m a work in progress that has much to prove and achieve. But the more I meet and talk with successful people- academics, physique athletes, business owners, and otherwise- the more I observe the same thing, over and over: These are, typically, very average people. You don’t need to be born with it, made for it, or possess some exceptional talent that no one else has. You just need to identify the goal, focus, and always keep moving. So as I gear up to tackle the rest of these goals by May 2019, I hope you’ll join me in identifying some goals, putting them down in writing, and chasing them like crazy.


New article: Using fat-free mass index to guide your off-season

ffmi trexfit picture

My primary goal of this website, and my career in general, is to highlight and apply the symbiotic relationship between research and application. I find joy in using observations “from the trenches” to guide research questions, and in translating research findings back to applicable, real-world training and nutrition recommendations.

My newest article, “Using fat-free mass index to guide your off-season,” is an excellent example of this. The article, featured on BioLayne.com, translates my recent publication into some practical tips that help you use this valuable metric to guide your mass-gaining goals. Moreover, the BioLayne staff went above and beyond and put together a nice FFMI calculator to accompany the article and make life even easier.

As always, it’s an honor to be featured on Layne’s site, so I want to thank him and the BioLayne staff for their help and support in getting this article up. I’m about 4 days away from a nice, mass-filled off-season, so the timing couldn’t be better!

Check out the article, and please share if you like it.

“PowerBuilding”: Finding the right split

Note: The following article is a piece I wrote a while back, when serving as the Director of Research and Education for INOV8 Elite Performance. I have since allowed Kala Duncan to host this article over at her site, but I’m putting it up on TrexlerFitness to allow more of my work to be aggregated in a centralized location, and to ensure that images display properly. So, without further ado, please enjoy!

Bodybuilding is awesome. Few things truly match the fulfillment and excitement of a successful contest prep— months of discipline and restriction that culminate in the brief presentation of your best physique yet. Unfortunately, improvement takes time and patience in the sport of bodybuilding. Many competitors walk off stage knowing it will be several months, if not years, before they return to the stage with a significantly improved physique.

It has become increasingly common to fill this competitive void with off-season powerlifting. Thus, the competitor rotates between powerlifting and bodybuilding, making them a hybrid “powerbuilder.” This is an excellent strategy, as it provides ample opportunities for frequent competition and forces the competitor to constantly reach toward the next short-term goal.

The only drawback is that powerlifting and bodybuilding are not one and the same, and training for the two sports differs. They aren’t drastically different, but training programs for each sport have distinct characteristics: bodybuilding programs tend to utilize higher rep ranges, a larger variety of exercise selection, and lower training frequency for each muscle group. Conversely, powerlifting programs often utilize higher training loads, fewer repetitions, and more frequent training of each muscle group, along with longer rest periods between sets.

The powerbuilder faces the challenge of trying to train for two slightly distinct outcomes— building a balanced, complete physique, and increasing 1RM strength on the squat, bench, and deadlift. The two goals are far from mutually exclusive, but still require the powerbuilder to incorporate aspects of both powerlifting and bodybuilding-specific training. This can be further complicated by a busy schedule (such as my own) that threatens gym time. For that reason, I’m going to lay out a few decent splits and strategies for powerbuilders.


PHAT is an acronym that stands for “Power Hypertrophy Adaptive Training.” The training system, designed by Layne Norton and described in detail here, includes five training sessions per week: two power-oriented days and three hypertrophy-oriented days, with each muscle group getting trained twice per week. This program could be considered a form of daily undulating periodization (DUP), in which training volume and intensity are varied within the same microcycle.


You can incorporate the general principles of undulating periodization, or more traditional linear periodization, into a push/pull/legs routine to have a slightly more bodybuilding-focused hybrid program. With this strategy, training frequency is slightly lower, with a bit more volume per session. In this program, each muscle group is trained “1.5” times per week (3 times in a two-week period). The “push” workout involves all upper-body pushing muscles (chest, triceps, shoulders), “pull” involves upper-body pulling muscles (back, biceps, traps), and “legs” is self-explanatory.

As with PHAT, you can use this template to alternate between power and hypertrophy each workout— if one leg day is more hypertrophy-oriented, the next would be power-focused. Alternatively, you can also make each workout a blend of hypertrophy and power work— you may start with some heavy, low-rep sets of squat or deadlift, then move on to higher repetition hypertrophy work with accessory exercises.


Again, the basic principles of either undulating or linear periodization can be applied to an upper-body/lower-body split. This program offers slightly higher training frequency than push/pull/legs, and could potentially increase training frequency beyond that of PHAT, depending on how many rest days you take. Some prefer to do 4 workouts per week on this split, whereas others simply repeat the cycle of upper-body, lower-body, off, then repeat.

Just like push/pull/legs, you can alternate between power and hypertrophy sessions, or incorporate both into the same workout with power-oriented work preceding accessory hypertrophy training.

My Current Split

The previous training splits could be placed on a spectrum ranging from bodybuilding-oriented to powerlifting-oriented. In my opinion, such a spectrum would look like this:


I’m currently focusing on powerlifting, with the intention of hitting the platform in the near future. While I’ve often rotated between the previously mentioned training splits, I made my current split to dedicate slightly more focus to my powerlifting goals. My current training split is as follows:


In this split, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday are designated as “powerlifting” days. These days include heavy sets for at least one of the power lifts, with other accessory work aimed at improving the “big 3” (squat, bench, deadlift). Monday and Saturday are more dedicated to bodybuilding. Finally, based on my class/teaching/research/volunteering schedule, Tuesday and Thursday are off days. This split can be rearranged to fit anyone’s busy schedule; ideally, the workouts that focus on one or more of the “big 3” would not fall on back-to-back days.

One feature of this split is that typical 3-day powerlifting programs, including many beginner/intermediate strength programs and variations of Sheiko, can be easily incorporated. With the schedule listed above, I could simply use my Sheiko programming for Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. I would include relevant accessory work for the “big 3” on those days, with additional bodybuilding-focused workouts on Monday and Saturday. The bodybuilding days would primarily focus on the muscle groups neglected by your powerlifting program, along with any muscle groups that might be lagging in development. Accordingly, I tend to focus on back, calves, and arms on those days.

Selecting the Right Split

As a powerbuilder, your goals and training needs tend to vary throughout the year. Sometimes you want a traditional bodybuilding program, sometimes you want to focus strictly on powerlifting, and sometimes you want something right in between. I am currently farther toward the “powerlifting” end of the spectrum, but not at the point of electing a program that is strictly for powerlifting. As my goals eventually switch toward bodybuilding-related outcomes, I will slide toward the other end of the spectrum and adjust my training split accordingly. Having a list of potential training splits gives you the ability to tailor your training to your exact goals in bodybuilding and powerlifting, and enables you to make great progress in both endeavors without temporarily neglecting either.

ICYMI: Featured guest on “The Bodybuilding Summit”

bodybuilding summit image

A while back, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a podcast with Joshua Vogel. This was part of his “Bodybuilding Summit” event, which featured an incredible list of bodybuilding experts ranging from active researchers to world-class competitors.

I’ve been extremely lucky to have the opportunity to merge my personal interest in bodybuilding with my research activities (a couple examples here and here). In this podcast, we discuss all things bodybuilding, drawing upon experiences from both the gym and the laboratory. Check it out here!

Quick Tip: New research supporting effectiveness of drop sets

drop set picture

If you follow the fitness research closely, you’re already very familiar with Brad Schoenfeld and Jeremy Loenneke. Brad has made tremendous research contributions in recent years, primarily focusing on very applied, practical questions that are common among gym-goers. Dr. Loenneke is an extremely prolific researcher, with focuses on blood flow restriction and responses to resistance training.

In the past few weeks, both researchers have co-authored brand new research papers discussing drop sets. Drop sets generally take the following form, more or less: You start with a weight, and do it to failure (or near failure). Without resting, you drop the load a little bit, allowing you to get some more repetitions in. The exact protocol can vary, but you’d usually drop weights once or twice in a single drop set. This has been a favorite “intensifying technique” among gym-goers (and even the old bodybuilding magazines) for years, so it’s fun to see it pop up in academic research from time to time.

In the paper by Schoenfeld’s group (Fink et al.), they did a 6-week study comparing a single drop set to 3 normal sets. Loenneke’s group (Ozaki et al.) had a similar set-up for their 8-week studying, comparing three groups: 3 normal sets with a heavy load, 3 normal sets with a lighter load, or a single drop set “cluster” progressing from heavy to light as the load was dropped.

For strength outcomes, the results are fairly intuitive. Fink et al. found greater strength gains from the multiple-set protocol; Ozaki et al. found significant strength gains in the heavy group and the drop set group, but not the light load group. At this point, the research seems pretty clear that in order to improve strength, going heavy is key; we can still make strength gains with light loads, but you’ve got to really push the intensity and approach failure to make it happen.

For muscle growth, the research generally tells us a slightly different story. Heavy training can be an important, effective part of a hypertrophy program, but it appears that light loads elicit plenty of growth when taken to failure. In line with this concept, Ozaki et al. found similar muscle growth across all three groups in their drop set study. Fink et al. saw improvements in both groups as well, although the drop set group experienced a little more growth than the group performing traditional sets.

Getting to the Point

These new studies both support the idea that drop sets may be a helpful technique for promoting strength and hypertrophy. In addition, you’ll note that the drop set groups completed their workouts in less time as well, providing the additional benefit of a more time-efficient workout.

I’m still not a huge advocate of single-set workouts, as the body of evidence largely shows some benefit to multi-set protocols. On the flip side, if you complete a true drop set to failure for your first set of an exercise and try to do more, the quality of sets 2, 3, and beyond are going to be garbage.

When I implement drop sets into my own training, I do it selectively and intentionally. For a muscle group that needs some extra attention, I’ll throw in a drop set as my final set of the final exercise, and really push the intensity to achieve failure. If you’ve never done drop sets before, this new evidence suggests it may be worth a shot.