Monday, December 20, 2010

5 Core Exercises You've Never Tried

Ah yes, with the holidays approaching and everyone merrily chomping away at holiday parties, people will quickly begin thinking about "their abs" as the we round the New Year and begin to prep for Summer.  While one can definitely not "out-train a crappy diet," these will be sure to spice up your core training.  
Most people tend to pay attention whenever I say the word "Core," so I' thought this would be of interest to many reading this.  While this is by no means an exhaustive list, (there are many different exercises/variations I'll use depending on the specific scenario), I thought it would be useful to see some "unconventional" exercises that are actually extremely effective.  When most people think "core training," what (unfortunately) immediately comes to mind is some sort of flexion-based training (think bending of the torso in the sagittal or frontal plane, such as a situp or side crunch).  While I'm certainly not saying it is always innappropriate to train this way, people would be way better off focusing on other crucial functions of the core.  The function that the following exercises focus on is stabilization.

If your motive in doing core work is strictly driven by aesthetics, these will help you on your quest.  If you're an athlete seeking a stronger core for performance, these will, quite effectively, get the job done more so than the endless crunches and situps you're doing.  Not only are these great for those who "have to feel their abs working" to consider something a good ab exercise, but they have remarkable, (dare I say) functional implications as well.  Without further ado, here are 5 core exercises guaranteed to light those abdominals on fire.

1.  Bodysaw Plank
Planks are great.  However, once someone can hold a perfect plank (or "prone bridge") for 60 seconds, it's time to progress.  Rather than simply add time to the equation, I prefer to make the exercise more challenging by one of two means:
        1) Loading the exercise (placing a weight on the back)
        2) Adding a dynamic component

The bodysaw progresses the plank by adding a dynamic element to the standard plank position.  This exercise utilizes the "anti-extension" function of our core.  In other words, it trains the trunk to resist hyperextension (excessive arching) of the low back.  There are 3 variations in the video below, ordered easiest --> most difficult (although some may argue my ordering of #2 and #3).  The first one, with the slideboard,  I originally saw taught by Mike Boyle.  The second - executed by dragging plates along the ground - I actually picked up from Chris, who figured it out when trying to find a way to have the Mason baseball guys do the exercise without use of a slideboard.  The third variation is completed by suspending your feet in a TRX (or any suspension system).  The TRX variation is quite difficult as you have to fight the "pendulum effect" of the straps wanting to swing you back to the starting point.

I also like it because it adds a nice intermediate stage between planks and rollouts.  Or, if you can already do rollouts, it's a way to train the anti-extension core function without quite as much delayed-onset muscle soreness.  

2.  Offset-Loaded Deadlift (or "shovel lift")
This is a fantastic exercise I picked up from a guy named Steven Morris.  You simply load one end of a barbell (I recommend a trap bar to begin with), then pick it up and stand perfectly straight.  Trust me: you won't need to put much weight on the end of the bar.  You can do this for reps (I'd keep it 6 and below) or hold it for time.  Then do the same thing facing the other way.  If you don't know where your obliques are prior to performing this exercise, I guarantee you'll figure it out as soon as you try this!  It is absolutely brutal, especially with the barbell.

Pointers: as you begin the lift, think about "pushing down" with the hand furthest from the loaded end (like your shoveling dirt) as you initially pull the barbell off the ground.  Also, the further you are from the loaded end, the more difficult the exercise will become.  This is very tough to get used to at first, but with some practice, you'll get it!  Just make sure you're not cheating by shifting your hips toward or away from the plate (have a partner watch to keep you in check). 

3.  Feet-Suspended Sandbag Walkups
This one I actually made up, when I was coaching a guy who possessed a strong abdomen but needed to improve his shoulder health.  I love this exercise, as it's a great "bang for your buck" movement.  It trains, simultaneously, core stability and scapular function.  More specifically (with regards to shoulder health) it strengthens the serratus anterior, a muscle that is extremely important in aiding proper upward rotation of the scapula (shoulder blade), which has critical implications for overhead athletes (think baseball and tennis players, swimmers, certain track athletes, etc.).

Not to get too sidetracked, but most people - when training overhead athletes - tend to focus exclusively on the rotator cuff when looking to improve shoulder health/function.  While this is definitely important, an often over-looked "piece of the puzzle" is the scapula.  If the scapula doesn't track properly when the arm moves into an overhead position, it compromises health of the shoulder joint.  Quoting physical therapist and strength coach, Bill Hartman: "Any altered scapular muscle function, weakness, or inability to position the scapula and then stabilize it results in a direct affect on the shoulder joint with dire consequences. These include glenohumeral instability leading to arthritis, impingement, rotator cuff tendonitis/tendinosis, rotator cuff tears, labrum injuries, and so on."

 3 muscles involved in proper "scapulo-humeral rhythm"

You will immediately find that you have to remain very tight during this, or your legs will very quickly begin to sway side to side in the straps.  Think "glutes tight, abs tight" as you walk up and down the sandbag (you could easily use an aerobics step, thick book, etc. in place of a sandbag).

Anyway, one has to possess quite a strong trunk in order to do this, so I wouldn't recommend throwing it to a rehab client unless you're sure they're physically ready to do it.  You can easy perform these with your feet on the ground, or even elevate the feet (ex. onto a stable step or bench), which increases serratus involvement.

Basically, when considering training economy, this exercise is PHENOMENAL for killing two birds with one stone, especially when working with an athlete who needs special consideration with regards to his or her shoulder health.  For those simply looking to spice up their training with something different, this will fit the bill, too.  

4.  "Move the Mountain" Plank
Similar to the Bodysaw Plank, this variation adds a dynamic element to the standard plank exercise.  You know have to stabilize your trunk as your arms move.  You can widen the base of support (your feet) to make the exercise easier.  The key here is to have minimal shifting of the torso and/or hips as you move the plates back and forth (I am even shifting my hips a bit too much as I demonstrate this one). 

And be careful: this exercise becomes tiring deceptively fast.  Hope you enjoy!

5.  Chaos Training: Supine Bracing with Partner Disruptions
I honestly don't know how to name this exercise in a concise fashion.  I do know that it originally came from Diesel Crew, to give credit where credit is deserved.  This exercise isn't really practical for most because of equipment limitations (although there are creative ways to still get the same effect), and it's an illogical exercise for beginners, but I'd like to share it nonetheless. 

Simply lock your feet in under a stable surface, lean back, and BRACE.  Hold one end of a rope, and have a partner hold the other end.  Be sure to have your arms extended, as this increases the lever arm that your core has to work through - essentially making the exercise more difficult.  As you can see in the video, Kelsey just pulls that rope in an unpredictable fashion: up, down, left right, away from me, etc.  If you never knew your core was designed for dynamic stabilization, you will know shortly into this exercise as it will feel like your abs are being torn in half!  Oh, and do both sides, as shown in the video.

There you have it!  5 new core exercises to spice up your training (don't let me catch you doing sit-ups). 

P.S.  Wow if I say or hear the word "core" one more time I may need to be placed in an insane asylum.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Q & A: Training to Failure

Chris - the great strength coach I work with - just answered a question submitted to SAPT regarding "training to failure."  See below!
If am trying to gain some muscle mass should I always train to failure?
"Hi Billy,
Thanks for the question.
As is my answer to most things in life, it depends, and even more so, it depends on who you ask.  But understand this; training to failure is not synonymous with muscle growth, and I personally I feel that it can be dangerous if utilized by the wrong populations, and can have an adverse training effect if used in the wrong situations. 
With no understanding of your weight training experience level, current and long term training approach, training frequency, biological age, short and long term training goals are etc., the best I can do provide you a fairly general answer.
First, let’s establish muscle growth contributors: hormones, food, training stimulus and ample recovery from those training sessions.  Lacking any of these four things will significantly limit muscle growth.  For instance, prepubescent populations shouldn’t concern themselves with muscle gain due to lack of hormone production, and should focus more on improving integrity of connective tissue, learning proper motor patters, and becoming more neurologically efficient.  Similarly, those who don’t eat enough, nor get adequate rest in between training sessions, are significantly limiting growth potential.  I’d closely investigate those two things as many looking to gain muscle are strikingly lacking in these two areas.  As I believe your question pertains more to finding the “magical” set and rep scheme, I can tell you there isn’t one, but staying within certain rep and total volume ranges will ensure high amounts of tissue disruption, without always needing to train to failure.  
If I, or any of my athletes are engaged in a hypertrophy focused training block, I always prefer training to positive failure for most sets, defined as when one can no longer complete another rep with good form.  This strategy mainly pertains to their accessory work which depending on the time of year, and programming intentions, will typically fall in the 8-20 rep/set range.  A variety of factors will determine how many total sets/sessions/frequency.  I’ll also shorten rest in between sets.  Sets will always stop feeling they had another 2 reps “in the tank” during their main compound movement (ie. squat, deadlift, etc.) of the day.  That’s my strength coach-biased answer, and I’m sticking to it…for now."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Great Read for the Day

I was going to write an article on why interval training (used appropriately and not in excess) is so effective for endurance athletes.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll pass on a great article I read a while ago by Alwyn Cosgrove.  Concepts from this excerpt prove invaluable with the athletes I work with, and also have proved quite effective in preparing for my own races in the past. Enjoy!

Why 'Endurance' Training Lacks Staying Power
 by Alwyn Cosgrove 

"The biggest mistake endurance athletes make in their training program is falling into the trap that their sport is about who can go the longest. It’s not. It’s STILL about who can go the fastest. They give medals for the first athlete to cross the5K/10K/ marathon/ ultra marathon finish line – not the athlete who crosses it and can keep on going. There’s a reason it’s 26 miles and 385 yards. There’s an END point. And whoever gets there the fastest will be the winner.

Traditional endurance training programs reflect that fallacy. They are based around a lot of mileage to increase your ‘endurance’.
 As a sports scientist – let me break this down. Endurance in my field – is the ability to maintain a constant sub maximal output – to maintain a lower percentage of your max output. In other words – your ability to run/bike/swim slower than you are able to, for longer periods of time.

So if your ability to run fast (at maximal speed) merits a hypothetical ‘score’ of 100 units – you may be able to run a 10K race at 70% of this or 70 units.

Typical endurance training involves you running at this 70% for long periods of time, hoping that somehow – when it comes to race day – you’ll be able to run at 75%! This will never happen. If you can run a six minute mile – and you train for 12 weeks running 3-4 miles at a time, at 6min mile pace – what do you predict you’ll run on race day? That’s correct – a six minute mile. You’ve trained for 12 weeks and produce the same speed you were capable of before you trained.
(Real world example: I was hired to conduct the strength training portion of a program for some of the LA Sheriff’s department as they prepared for the annual law enforcement Baker to Vegas relay run. I was given a copy of their running regime, written by a TOP name in the endurance training field and was actually very disappointed in what I saw. First off the volume in my opinion was excessive – with the team running 7 days per week. But more surprising was the QUALITY of those sessions. There was one fartlek workout per week for speed, and one hill workout to develop strength, and therefore speed. The other FIVE workouts were all listed as ‘slow pace’, ‘easy pace’ and ‘moderate pace’. I asked one of the runners for his personal best mile pace for the five mile section he was running. He was running a 5:30. After reviewing his training log, we established that with all this volume – he was averaging a 7 min mile pace in training. His goal? To run a 5:15 pace. How on earth are you going to run a 5:15 in competition, when your average pace in training is a 7 min mile? Where is the speed going to come from if you don’t train for it? Needless to say we revamped the training program and he was successful in reaching his goal)

Here’s the modern system – if you can maintain 70% of your max pace (again – assuming 100 as your max) – if I raised that max pace to 120, even without any direct endurance training, that 70% would now be 84 ‘units’. So because you built more “power” in your running engine – we automatically increase your capacity to run long at a sub maximal pace.

(Example: Max speed: 6 min mile. Running a seven minute mile is cruising – you are working way below your limit.

But if your max speed was a 5 min mile – then running a six and a half minute mile would be even easier than the first example.)

So if we accept that endurance is all about maintaining a lower percentage of your max output – then increasing that max output is the key to increasing your endurance.

Modern “endurance” training should begin with high intensity work – not slow low intensity work.
Still not a believer – consider the following:

One recent study, which is soon to be published in the US, concluded that 10-km running performance could be predicted from a combination of 300m time trial performance and plyometric leap distance; both of which have explosive power as a determining aspect.

Hmmm. The ability to predict an “endurance” time based upon a speed and power component. Interesting. Another study done by researchers in Finland several years ago showed that 5-km run time could be significantly improved by supplementing run training with explosive power and speed sessions.


With the above philosophy in mind, there are several high intensity methods that we can use to train for ANY endurance activity.

This month we are focusing on the triathlon. Triathlons used to be primarily aimed at retired swimmers or runners. But now – triathlon has some into its own – it’s an Olympic sport and has its own subculture and training methods.
Here’s our “dummies guide” to triathlon training:

1)      You must get technical preparation for the swim event. Running and cycling are probably easier for you in that you know what to do. The swim event will require some more work.

2)      At some point – you need to train at least two modes on the same day. The hardest part of a triathlon for many is getting off the bike with your legs DEAD and having to run. You need to train for this unique sensation.

3)      There is no need to do the full distance in training PHYSIOLOGICALLY. We prepare the body to handle the full distance, and based on science, we know that it is possible. However for PSYCHOLOGICAL reasons – a lot of athletes like to ‘know’ they have the conditioning to do the entire distance and like to schedule a practice ‘event’ prior. There is no harm in this, but psychologically on race day you’ll be a wreck anyway, so in our opinion it offers little benefit in the real world.

All distances and modes in the below examples can be adjusted. Feel free to substitute swimming for running etc.

Diminishing rest interval method

Here’s the premise: Split the distance you are running / biking up into three – four periods (so if you are running three miles, we’ll use a mile)

Run that first distance (one mile) as hard as possible.

Rest for at least 50% of the time it took you to run the mile (we are looking for almost full recovery).

Repeat for two more sets (until you’ve covered the full distance).

Perform twice a week. Each week – reduce the rest interval by 30 seconds. So be week four, you’ve cut two minutes of your rest time.

Here’s the concept: You can run a six minute mile. But when you do three miles you average 21 mins or a 7 min mile. If we prepared you by running only 3 miles – we only reinforce that slower speed. So running three miles trains you to run at the slower speed.

With this method – we work on the quality, the speed of your run. We maintain a much higher speed, and a much more intense workout, and develop the endurance by cutting back on the rest period – as opposed to slowing down the pace.

Sprint Repeats
Select a 60m area – straight as possible. Starting at one end – sprint maximally to the 60m mark – should take under 10 seconds. Turn and jog back, taking approximately 20 seconds. Perform a total of 4 circuits to complete one set (this is approx 2 minutes). A session should be as follows: three sets with a one minute rest between each (9 minutes); rest for two minutes and repeat for a total of a 20 minute workout. This is not for the faint hearted.

Obviously this workout can be performed over a longer distance – just maintain the ratio between work and rest periods, and understand the concept. We are trying to develop our ability to go long, by increasing our capacity to go hard. Going at 70% of 100mph is still faster than 80% of 70mph."

I'd like to note that these workouts wouldn't always be appropriate for improving someone's maximum speed or acceleration (ex. in training a sprinter or field athlete).  However, a lot of people tend to go about endurance training in a suboptimal fashion.  Hope you learned something new today!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The 80-20 Rule and How it Affects Your Training, Part 2

Last week, in Part 1, I discussed how roughly 20 percent of the exercises you perform in a workout will be responsible for approximately 80 percent of your results.  This may be an easy concept to grasp mentally, but a very difficult concept to execute.  Many of us feel that if we want to achieve maximum results, we should perform as many exercises as possible in a given week in order to "cover all the bases."  Besides, what's the point in having an abunbance of machines if it's not worth it to use all of them?


Trust me: if you focus on just a few different movement patterns each week, your results will eclipse the gains made by performing as many exercises as possible in a day/week.  You may be asking "Well, what are the key exercises that will produce the greatest possible gains?"  They are:
  • Squats (and their variations ex. single-leg movements such as lunges and split squats)
  • Deadlifts 
  • Pulling (think dumbbell rows, cable rows, pullups, lat pulldowns, etc.)
  • Pressing (pushup variations, military/overhead presses, bench variations, etc.)
  • Core (hint: not sit-ups)
Speaking of squatting, I love this video.  It shows a girl completely pwning (that's nerd-speak for "owning") a male in the weight room.  She's doing full squats to parallel while the guy in the corner does 1/4 squats (using the same weight) with the pad between his shoulders and the barbell.  (Side note: women can - and should! - lift weights and still be sexy and feminine.  I know most of the SAPT women understand this, but I'm still shocked at the misconceptions I hear touted on a regular basis.  More on this in a future post)

Anyway, if you center your training around those 5 movement patterns, you can't go wrong.  This applies to athletic performance, muscle gain, fat loss, you name it.  The sets, reps, rest period, etc. will determine the training effect received. 

Something else to keep in mind: if performing an exercise will provide a 10% stimulus, but produce 20% fatigue, it's NOT WORTH doing.  There are many exercises that are very neurologically taxing (especially if executed incorrectly), but don't produce very much from a results standpoint.  This can also be the case with how you perform an exercise.  Once your performance on a lift diminishes (i.e. you can't complete the reps with perfect form), STOP the set.  Making a habit of grinding reps is fool-proof recipe for failure.

The workout must also not be so long and voluminous (containing superfluous exercises) that the majority of the training session is done in a state of fatigue.  This will ingrain bad habits - "just going through the motions" with an exercise, executing reps with sloppy technique, etc. - and also dramatically tax the CNS (central nervous system) so that recovery is sub-par.

This post could literally go on and on, but I'll stop it here.

Bottom Line: It is better to perform fewer exercises with intensity and perfect technique than to perform more exercises with sloppy form in a state of fatigue.  And even if you don't feel fatigued, there are hormonal shifts that take place when the volume of exercises becomes too high (ex. cortisol, a stress hormone, will rise sharply) that will negatively affect your results.  So, it is possible to actually gain body fat over time, or lose strength and power output if one consistently trains incorrectly.  So, you know those extra sets of sit-ups or bench presses you're doing?  Those can actually hurt you rather than help you!

Ok, now I'm stopping for real.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The 80-20 Rule and How it Affects Your Training, Part 1

The 80-20 Rule (or "The Pareto Principle") states that, for many events, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.  It’s named for Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who in 1906 observed that 80 percent of the wealth in Italy (and every country he subsequently studied) was owned by 20 percent of the population.  Many others observed similar ratios in their own areas of expertise after Pareto published his findings. 
Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek) popularized the idea for the most recent generation of entrepreneurs when he observed that 80 percent of his income came from 20 percent of his clients. So he chopped off 80 percent of his clients, effectively reducing his workload by 80 percent, and focused on the clients who accounted for 80 percent of his income. At first he took a 20 percent pay cut, but his productivity and income soared on a per-hour basis. 

So how does the 80-20 rule affect your training??
Essentially, 20 percent of the exercises you perform will be responsible for 80 percent of your results.  Think about this.  For me, this was an enormous realization.  As a high schooler reading bodybuilding magazines, I was given the impression I had to perform every exercise I could possibly think of in a week in order to achieve results.

Alwyn Cosgrove states it very well this way: "Let’s say you have a total-body workout with 10 exercises. If we hacked out eight of the 10 exercises, and just kept squats and chin-ups, would you expect to get just 20 percent of the results? Chances are it would be the opposite — you might get 80 percent of the results by focusing on just 20 percent of the exercises. So most of your results come from just two exercises, and relatively few results come from the other eight. 
                      pullup.jpg     OR   SquatonBOSU.jpg   ?

It’s easy to see why. Compound exercises (interjection: think squats, deadlifts, pullups, pushups, etc.) recruit more muscle, allow you to use bigger loads, and burn more calories than isolation exercises. That’s why you want to build your program around them, and why your workouts should start with exercises like deadlifts or squats, the ones that produce the best results on a rep-by-rep basis."

This is part of the reason why many gym-goers fail to witness tangible changes in their bodies over the course of five years.  They go in, week after week, performing the same circuit of tricep kickbacks, bicep curls, seated abduction/adduction machine work, crunches, etc. and wonder why they aren't much stronger or don't possess a lot more lean body mass than five years prior.   (side note: just to clear this up, because I know this myth is devastaingly pervasive in our current culture - You CANNOT spot reduce.  Ex. performing endless tricep kickbacks, or machine abductions, will not "tone" your triceps or your glutes.  You cannot "sit-up your way to a six-pack."  It's beyond the scope of this post to explain, but it will be touched on later).  They aren't spending time on the 20% of exercises that are going to give them most of the results they're looking for.  Either that, or they perform so many of the less-effective exercises that they've essentially performed so much volume (sets x reps x weight lifted) in training that they have exceeded their bodies' capability to recover (construct lean body mass, reduce body fat, lower cortisol levels, etc.).

         juliet3.jpg    VS.kickback.jpg
   Which one do you think will construct more of the lean body mass she's looking for?

This makes me think about my own training in high school.  I wanted a bigger bench press (which high school boy doesnt?!) so I performed every bench variation known to man.  I mean EVERY ONE I could think of.  Incline bench, flat bench, decline bench , dumbbell bench variations, isometric holds, training to failure, etc.  You name it, I did it!  And (I'm embarrassed to admit) I would often perform all of these in ONE training session!  Guess how much my bench increased over the course of 9 months?  15 pounds.  Yep.  15 pounds.  And I was in the novice period of weight training, where my gains should have arrived the fastest!  (Novice liftiers will improve at a much higher rate than advanced lifters, as their nervous systems are very inefficient to begin with and thus have a lot of room to improve).

Now, compare my experience with Ron, an SAPT client (he was on the blog under our "Client Testimonial" post a few weeks back).  He arrived here, barely able to do 10 pushups.  In merely 7 months of training 2x/week he went from hardly being able to do 10 pushups to benching 225 pounds.  And he accomplished this when he was 50 years old!!!  How did he do this?  Endless bench variations, and copious amounts of tricep isolation work to help his lockout?  Absolutely not!  SAPT had him focus on the few exercises that were going to guarantee progress, as long as Ron worked with intensity and was consistent in showing up for his workouts twice a week.

That's it for today, but just take some time to consider what you're doing when you begin your training session, and analyze why you are choosing a particular exercise.  You may be surprised at your results if you go against "the norm" with regards to training!

To Be Continued!.....

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Your dose of Awesome for the day

This is just amazing. Below is a guy, Tom Martin, deadlifting 771 pounds (350kg) at a bodyweight of 181. This broke the old world record deadlift at the 181lb weight class. He's only 23 years old, and is in a drug-tested federation. My favorite part about this video is his reaction when he breaks the world record on the 350kg pull: he just calmly walks off the platform like he came to simply get business done. The 2:45 mark in the video is where he hits it.

While I'm on the subject of beastly people, here is are two awesome training videos of Ross Enamait. This man is strong as an ox (the deadlift he hits in the second video is 550lbs+) and, at the same time, possesses an incredible work capacity. I love watching this guy's stuff because he trains only in his home garage and outside. He completely defenestrates the notion that you have to have access to a "nice facility" in order to stay in shape and become strong. He's a great example to those that make excuses for why they don't train (ex. "the gym is too far away," etc.). I actually used a lot of this guy's training methods in preparing for the Mud Run race back in August. And, if I may "toot my own horn," the suspension straps he's using in the second video were constructed using the tutorial of yours truly :)

If you only watch 5 seconds of this video, watch him do full-range sissy hams with a weighted vest at the 2:37 mark!

I hope these videos got you pumped up to train today!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Different Exercise for Core and/or Conditioning

The following is an exercise I picked up from Dave Rak of MBSC. It's a sled pull, performed from a 1-leg plank position. I tried it the other day, and I found it to be a great addition to add to my "training toolbox."

Now, just to be clear, there's no point in performing "cool" exercises just for the sake of doing them. The basics have worked for decades, and this isn't going to change anytime soon. There are many "cool," "different," and "trendy" exercises I see in the fitness industry that I find less practical than throwing yourself into a shark tank:


Doing curls while standing on a BOSU ball is another exercise that makes me want to curl up in the fetal position, but I digress.

A lot of people can't perform a true, proper, plank or side plank for 60 seconds, so I recommend mastering those exercises (and their variations) before adding something else to your program just because it looks fancy. It will be a much more effective way of reaching training goals! Now, let me introduce you to the 1-leg Plank with Sled Pull:

(Aside: crunches and sit-ups suck. Something like this - and similar variations - will do way more for your core development, strength, and stability than the traditional sit-up, which also places roughly 3300 N (730lb) of compressive force on the spine BTW)

You'll notice my left leg and right arm work together to provide the base of support. My left arm extends to grab the rope and pull the sled toward me, all while trying to prevent rotation at the torso and also keep the right leg suspended above the ground the entire time.

I find this one to be particularly useful for three scenarios:

  1. For a reasonably trained athlete/client that has mastered static core exercises (ex. plank and side plank, and has progressed appropriately)
  2. For someone that is strong enough to perform an exercise like this, but either lacks the focus to perform other exercises prescribed for them, or simply doesn't really, truly care. Some very talented athletes fall into this category. They're in the weight room simply because they're told to be, not because they (the athlete) sees strength training as genuinely beneficial to their sport performance. This is a great exercise for them because it's a self-limiting exercise. It provides a natural obstacle that prevents someone from doing it wrong (you simply have to stay focused on the movement, or else you'll inevitably mess it up ex. the leg in the air will hit the ground, or you fall on your face).
  3. A way to combine core and conditioning. Most people hate core training, and dislike conditioning even more. This is a way to kill two birds with one stone, and most people will find this exercise at least somewhat "fun."
Side Notes: You could do the plank+sled pull with both feet on the ground to make the exercise easier. Sled pulls (standing, seated, prone, etc.) in general make a great option for a GPP session in between lifting days, as there is minimal eccentric contribution to the movement.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Unconventional Exercise for Hamstring Strength

Confession: I have weak hamstrings. Very weak hamstrings. As such, I’ve needed to ensure that my training includes exercises that will bring up the strength of those stubborn muscles on the back of my legs. In the process of solving this dilemma, I came up with an exercise that will also help athletes improve their performance via stronger hamstrings. Now, the last exercise we would have one of our (healthy) athletes perform to increase their hamstring strength is the leg curl.


They’re a terrible waste of time (again, outside of rehab and special population scenarios). While most people understand that hamstrings function to flex the knee (which is what the leg curl trains), they neglect that the hamstrings play a CRITICAL role in hip extension. The hamstrings are the body’s second most powerful hip extensor – just behind (no pun intended) the glute max!


For athletes, strong hamstrings can be invaluable as they play crucial role: resisting (eccentrically) knee flexion during sprinting. Take home point: stronger hamstrings make you faster!

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Enter the Band-Assisted Sissy Ham (or “Russian Leg Curl”). I came up with this exercise as I was helping some of our athletes perform pullups with band assistance. I had an “ah-ha” moment and decided to find a way to give myself (and others) band assistance during the sissy ham. In the video below, the first half will show me performing the sissy ham without the band. Then, I perform it with the aid of a band (attached above me). Notice there is now no arm push needed to help on the concentric (the “up”) portion of the lift.

Now, I’m sure there are people out there doing this exercise. I’ve just never seen a video or read about it, so I wanted to share it with those reading this.

This is such a fantastic exercise as it trains, simultaneously, both functions of the hamstrings: knee flexion and hip extension (which is how our hamstrings are utilized in athletics, anyway). It also makes for a more tangible progression than the regular sissy ham/russian leg curl. As you get stronger, you can lessen the band tension (as opposed to subjectively measuring "how fast you fall" during the regular sissy ham).

As strength coaches, our mission (behind keeping people healthy) is to improve movement quality, performance, and strength and power. We also only have roughly 150 minutes a week to do this. This being the case, you won't find us filling 10 of those 150 minutes wasting time on an isolated leg curl. I could think of a million things athletes would be better off spending their time doing (placing their hand on a heated frying pan being one of them). This exercise isn't appropriate for everyone (it's EXTREMELY difficult, although it may not appear so if you haven't tried it), but, for the right people, it's phenomenal.

Note: Even if you're not an athlete, this exercise will still be wayy more beneficial for developing your hamstrings than the leg curl. It will also work well for the long-distance runners in the crowd!