Thursday, March 31, 2011

60 Seconds to Better Movement: Lying Knee-to-Knee Mobilization on Wall

The other day, Ron (one of our SAPT clients), came up to me after his session.  He had been performing a mobilization at the end of his session and asked me:

"I really like that drill you've been having me do on the wall, but WHY exactly am I doing it?  What is it for?"

This gave me an idea for a blog post because:
  1. Just yesterday I was talking about the importance of asking the "Why?" question to a trainer, strength coach, or anyone trying to hand you exercise advice.  As soon as Ron asked me the question, it was a perfect test for me to put my money where my mouth was.  After explaining it to him (and him looking satisfied/intrigued with the answer), I thought I'd shared it with the rest of you. 
  2. It's a fantastic drill for most (not all) people to do; especially males, in particular.
First, here's the drill:

What is it for?

To improve hip internal rotation (IR).  Specifically: a loss of hip IR caused by muscular restrictions (as opposed to passive restrictions such as labrums, minisci, bone, etc.).

Why should you care?

Poor hip internal rotation is strongly correlated with low back pain, and also knee pain.

Basically, when the body can't draw range of motion from an area that it should be able to draw it from (ex. the hip), it will call in another segment of the body (ex. the low back) to pick up the slack.  When this happens over and over again - especially under load as it would in a squat, or under a fair amount of rotational torque as it would during a friendly soccer or football game - it's highly possible to experience pain/injury at the knee joint or low back back. 

For the common person, this can be an issue if your squatting in the weight room (you need significant hip internal rotation to go into deep hip flexion, such as in the bottom of a squat), or going out with a group of friends to play a casual game of soccer or flag football. 

In the athletics realm, it's frequently common for hockey players, golfers, soccer players, baseball players, and powerlifters (and most rotational sport athletes, in general).

How to do it

Be sure the knees and hips are flexed (bent) at 90degrees, as shown in the video.  The feet should be outside shoulder width.

Keep your feet flat on the wall as you drive the knees together (ex. don't excessively pronate the feet in to get the knees closer).  Don't force range-of-motion here, just gently mobilize the knees in and out.

As you rotate the knees outward, it's o.k. to rotate onto the outside of the feet, as shown.

A couple notes

  1. If you're a female, I wouldn't jump the gun on this one.  A lot of females already tend to have a fair amount of hip internal rotation, due to their hip structure (wider hip bone). 
  2. This can be performed before a training session (especially if you're squatting that day, as you'll notice significantly improved hip mobility as you descend into the bottom).  It can also be used at the end of an athletic event (especially if you're a baseball pitcher, or partake in a rotational sport) or training session.  This will help loosen up the external rotators of the hip that tend to tighten up over time. 
  3. This drill can also be done with the feet on the floor (a valid option), but I personally prefer to have the feet on the wall as it's a bit more low-back friendly.  
Give it a shot!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Best Question for your Trainer

"Why?" has to be - in my opinion - one of the best questions you can ask someone handing you training/diet advice.  Whether it is a friend, someone you met in the gym, a self-proclaimed "internet expert," a personal trainer, or strength coach.

One should always be able to justify (within reason) the advice her or she hands out like candy.

I love my job, but one of the most frustrating aspects of working in the industry I do is that I'm constantly having to fight ATROCIOUS advice handed out by other fitness "professionals."  For example:
  • "Wearing Sketchers Shape Ups will tone your glutes and thighs."  Really?  Why?  How about we put the doughnut down first, and then talk about why Shape Ups are way to go for shapely legs.  Everytime I see someone wearing these I want to throw myself into a shark tank. 
  • "Squatting on a BOSU ball is functional training."  WHY?  Are we training to prepare ourselves for playing a sport in the middle of an earthquake?  Are we trying to force someone into aberrant motor patterns and teach them fool-proof biomechanics for an ACL tear?  Not that I know of.  As Tony Gentilcore put it: squatting on BOSU balls is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.  (Disclaimer: they DO have a use in the rehab setting for ankles and shoulders).
  •  "If a female lifts weights, she will become big and bulky."  Again, why??  Where did you get this information?  Are you thinking of professional female bodybuilders who juice up on steroids and bring their body fat down to absurd, unhealthy levels?  Or maybe women believe this because of unfortunate, sad, incidents such as Tracy Anderson telling women to never lift a weight over 3 pounds.  I think my soul just died inside. 
Candace Parker (WNBA All-Star).  Lifts weights?  Yes.  Big and bulky?  Not that I can see...

Along a similar note: I can't tell you how many times a parent approaches me and tells me that I need to run their kid through an agility ladder for 30 minutes and have the child perform endless "plyometrics" in order to make the child run faster or increase his/her vertical.

  1. I think this is a bit amusing because, well, why are you trying to tell me how to do my job?  Do I walk into an accountant's office and tell him/her how to file my taxes?
  2. Do you even know what "plyometric" really means?
  3. Where are you getting this information that agility ladders and plyometrics are the key to increased speed and agility and vertical jump height?
I often tell these parents/athletes to go back to the person that told them this information and ask them:


Without fail, they return to me saying the trainer had no real justification behind his/her advice.

At SAPT, we see consistent improvement's in our athlete's linear speed, change-of-direction time, and vertical jump, and we use little-to-no agility ladder or plyometric training.

For example, we're currently working with a teenager - Kaleigh - who is the current VA state record holder for various sprint distances (ex. 400m, 100m).  After training with us for the past 6 months or so, she has been blowing her her previous times out of the water.  Her father was just telling me the other day that - even during her practice sessions - all of her 30m split times have been significantly faster than 6 months ago.

We haven't run her through a single agility ladder, and plyometric training has comprised roughly 5% or less of her total training program at SAPT.

Is there a time and place for plyometric training?  Absolutely.  However, I don't think a lot of trainers truly understand how and when to use them, and instead just throw them in a program because either:

     A.  They look fancy
     B.  They're unsure of what to do so they just throw crap at the wall hoping something will stick.

Moral of the story: Don't be afraid to ask someone to justify his or her advice in the training/nutrition realm.  I think you may be surprised at the myriad fallacies shouted from almost every rooftop.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A personal update: I got Engaged!

So I realize this post isn't training/nutrition related (so I apologize to those who don't know me personally) but I wanted to share something very special that happened over the weekend.  Since I can't make a personal call to all of my family and friends, I thought this would be the best way to share what happened.  

On Saturday morning, I became engaged to the love of my life: Kelsey.

The proposal was a very exciting (and epic) process for everyone involved, so I thought I'd share the details. 

Basically, there's a website Kelsey reads everyday, so I wanted to initiate the proposal through that.  It's Tony Gentilcore's website, and for those of you not involved in strength training, he's basically the Luke Skywalker of the training world.  The man is a Jedi when it comes to training people.

Seriously though, I don't think many people outside the training industry can really appreciate this, but let's put it this way:

If you loved tennis, it would be the equivalent of Roger Federer grabbing your attention on the internet.

So I had Tony (after he graciously agreed to help me out) initiate the proposal through his website.  I filmed a video of myself - at the spot I'd be waiting to actually propose - and Tony embedded the video into his blog.  You can see it here (it's on the second half of the post).

The first part of the proposal on Tony Gentilcore's website

Note: Tony also followed up with a blog post today on what happened from his end of the spectrum, so you can read that HERE.  He's a more entertaining writer than I am, so I encourage you to check it out:

Tony Gentilcore's follow-up to the proposal

I knew Kelsey would be arriving at SAPT (where I work) to get in a training session on Saturday morning, so I had Chris (the strength coach I work with) tell her that she had to go into his office and take a look at Tony's blog post for the day.  Chris grabbed a camera and started filming Kelsey after she saw me on Tony's website and started quickly packing up to go meet me:

Once she arrived at the site I was waiting, I dropped to a knee (after saying a few words, of course) and asked her to marry me.  I had a photographer waiting at the site.

Long story short, she said yes!!

The Honeymoon

I am EXTREMELY fortunate to have a fiancee that enjoys strength training as much as much as I do.  As such, we'll be heading up to Cressey Performance (in the Boston area) for our Honeymoon to train there for the week!  In case you all don't know what this place is, they're basically the shiz (yes, I used that word) when it comes to training people.  The staff (Tony is one of them) is a group of really personable, intelligent, and caring people, so Kelsey and I are THRILLED to spend a lot of time during our Honeymoon at the facility to train, and talk some shop.

Here is a video of the facility in action:

Cressey Performance Promo Video Trailer from Lasting Memories Videotaping on Vimeo.

Yeah, A LOT of people have made fun of us for not going somewhere "tropical" for our Honeymoon.  But honestly, Kelsey and I will have WAY more fun in Boston - training and hanging out at Cressey Performance - than we would if we went to an island to lay down on the beach for a week.

And men in the crowd: you have to admit you're jealous I have a fiancee who is willing to do this with me!

Anyway, there it is!  Again, I apologize to those who don't know me (and don't care about my personal life), but I thought this would be the best way to share what happened with those that I wasn't able to make a phone call to. 

Thanks for reading, and a HUGE Thank You to all our friends and family that have supported us thus far.  We couldn't have done it without you, and we'll continue to need you throughout the craziness of engagement/marriage :)

I'll be back with some more training/nutrition-related posts soon.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Quick and Critical Nutrition Tip

Pre-chop your veggies.

I was introduced to this novel concept by Dr. Berardi (of the Precision Nutrition System) during my senior year of college.  It has absolutely revolutionized the way I cook and prepare my meals for the week.

Let's be honest: it's very difficult to get in a healthy dose of vegetables each day.  They take a long time to prepare (be it chopping up peppers, onions, broccoli, etc.) and it can be tough to find a way to make them taste so good that we look forward to eating them.  Most of us (if it were healthy for us) would rather just reach for a bar of chocolate.  Easy.  Tastes great.  No preparation needed. 

Actually, wait.  Many of us do that anyway, even though it's not healthy.  

Unfortunately, if we're seeking a body that works for us and prepares us for the day with a tank full of energy and mental clarity (not to mention, looks better to boot), we can't be lazy and just do "what's easy." 

The best (and easiest) way to make sure I have PLENTY of vegetables to get me through the week is to pre-chop them in advance (usually on a Sunday afternoon).  I then put them all in a Tupperware container and, Voila!  I have them all ready to put in a stir-fry, toss in with some scrambled eggs, use them as a side dish, you name it.  

Below are two pictures I took yesterday from my kitchen.  The first is a frying pan with a bunch of chopped veggies in it, and next to it is the Tupperware container I use to store my vegetables.  The second picture is after I added some black beans to the mix.

I'll usually throw a bunch of spices (garlic, chili powder, italian seasoning, etc.) on them as well, so they actually taste good!

I use the Vidalia Chop Wizard (you can order it off amazon), which my girlfriend gave me for Christmas a couple years ago.  This thing is AWESOME, and it will cut your meal-prep time down by 500%. 

So, that's it.  Short and Sweet.  Pre-chop your vegetables and you'll have no excuse for failing to get that healthy dose of vitamins and minerals your body needs each week.

P.S.  My girlfriend got the idea of giving me the chop wizard from Tony Gentilcore.  He's an awesome (and hilarious) writer, so if you're not following him already then shame on you!  He wrote two VERY comprehensive posts on how to get-it-done in the kitchen.  I highly encourage you to check out Part 1 and Part 2)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If you live in the NorthernVA/DC area, Please consider this

I normally don't recommend endurance training for health and movement-quality purposes, but this is an exception.  I personally don't perform any endurance training myself (see Part 1 and Part 2 of the Cardio Confusion posts for further clarification, as well as the Resistance Training for Runners series) but please HIGHLY consider doing this if you live anywhere in or near Northern Virginia.  

Before becoming a full-time performance coach at SAPT, I worked as a Physical Therapist Aid for an awesome company called Commonwealth Orthopaedics.  The physical therapists that work for Commonwealth are amazing, and I highly, highly recommend their services.

Anyway, Commonwealth is helping to sponsor an 8k/1 Mile Fun Run in Burke, VA on April 10th.  All of the proceeds go to benefit the Celebrate Cherie Scholarship Fund.  Cherie was a very sweet, young (35 years old) physical therapist - who worked for Commonwealth - that died suddenly in 2009 after fighting a rare cancer.  She was an awesome PT, and anyone that knew her could testify to way she greeted life with a smile and genuine care toward others.

The money raised will go to the Celebrate Cherie Scholarship Fund, which helps physical therapy students pursue their dream of helping others as she did.

If you don't feel comfortable running the 8k, you can walk/run the 1 mile portion as well!  The course is set up through the scenic Burke Centre.

I will personally be running the 8k just to see how well I do (the last endurance event I did, training sessions included, was a 5-mile sand/obstacle course race back in August 2010).  I don't expect to place exceptionally well, so feel free to come on out and whoop up on me!  

Please go to one of these two locations to find out more and sign up!

The Facebook Page for the race

Thank you!


Friday, March 18, 2011

Some Female Pushup Goodness

A misconception I would like to blow out of the water today is that women should only perform pushups from their knees.  It seems that when fitness instructors are working with females, and realize they can't do "normal" pushups from the feet, they resort to placing their knees on the ground.

I personally feel this is an erroneous thought process, for two reasons:
  1. I've never seen a correlation between the number of pushups a woman can do from her knees versus the ability to perform a pushup from her feet (ex. even if a woman can do 25 pushups from the knees, she still may not be able to do a full pushup with the knees off the ground).  This is largely do to the heightened lumbo-pelvic stability suddenly required at the hips/torso when the knees are elevated.
  2. While subtle, it continues to perpetuate the notion that women should train differently than men and are destined to be "inferior," if you will, in the weight room.  I think we should set women up for success, and show them what they actually can do with some perseverance and proper coaching. 
If we're trying to, oh I don't know, actually improve female's movement quality and help them become stronger (not to mention boost their confidence), we need to stop perpetuating this notion that the majority of women are doomed to eternally fail at the full-range pushup.

I'll tell you what: I coach girls who can perform better pushups than most men I see in commercial gyms, and these same girls couldn't do a single perfect pushup when they first started training at SAPT.  My guess is that if we had just resorted to having them do "knee pushups," they'd still be unable to do a proper pushup (not to mention received FAR less improvement in their preparedness for sport). 

Below are some videos of a couple of our female athletes performing pushups.  I'm sharing these for two reasons:
  1. To show that it is definitely possible for a girl to do a full-range pushup after proper training (without them being eternally destined to do "knee pushups" as the media will often portray). 
  2. These pushups completely destroy 95% of the pushups I see performed by men in commercial gyms.  Boys: you really aren't that cool!  Get off the bench press until you can perform a Perfect Pushup.  Let's be real here.
Below is one of our volleyball players (13-years old, mind you), Kenzie, performing five flawless pushups, and then topping them off with some sandbag walkovers. 

Note: when Kenzie first came to us, she had to do pushups with her hands elevated on a high mat, so she has come a long way! 

Next is Kaleigh (a track athlete), performing them with a 25lb plate on her back.

Thirdly, is a video of Kelsey (my better half) performing some awesome TRX pushups, with her feet elevated.

Now, what to do if she can't yet perform a full-range pushup?  One option is to only perform the eccentric (the lowering or "yielding" portion of the movement) as Maggie is doing in the video below.  Focusing on the eccentric portion is actually a pretty key factor in rapid strength gains, especially in beginners.

Now, if someone can't do eccentric pushups them from the floor (as most people can't, initially), then you could simply have them elevate their hands on a mat or bench to make it easier.

You can even have them practice a simple isometric hold in the top of the pushup position, in order to acclimate to the feeling of supporting their bodyweight in full pushup position.
There are many other tools you can use as well, but I trust this is enough to at least give the women in the crowd some motivation, and get you thinking about tools outside the knee pushup to work on your strength and movement quality.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Split Squat ISO Hold: An exercise I like (and you should, too).

I thought I'd share an exercise I've found myself growing increasingly fond of over the past few months.  It's been around for a while, but I've realized just how versatile it is, no matter if we're dealing with a new trainee, an advanced athlete, or someone looking to spice up their routine. 

It's the traditional split squat, but performed with an isometric (ISO) hold in the bottom of the movement.

Why do I like it?

1.  It's great for in-season athletes, or during a period leading up to competition. 
As a strength coach, it's critical to be able to provide the in-season athlete with a training effect, while simultaneously reducing the risk of muscle soreness.  What athlete can optimally perform while he/she can hardly move his or her legs because they feel like jell-o? 

The split squat ISO hold reduces the risk of soreness because it minimizes the eccentric portion of the lift, where the most muscle damage takes place (and thus contributes to that delayed-onset muscle soreness you typically feel 24-48 hours after a workout).

So, you can still receive a training effect (become stronger and improve neuromuscular control) while simultaneously reducing the soreness commonly felt after a lift.  Sounds like a no brainer to me!

2.  It's a great teaching tool for beginners. 
Many people nearly topple over (and sometimes actually do) when first learning the split squat.  This shouldn't come as a surprise, as it's always going to require sound motor control when you move the base of support from two feet (as in the traditional squat) to one foot. 

For the average person entering the gym I coach at, I'll use the split squat isometric hold to help them learn the position.  Depending on the person, I may have them start on the ground (in the bottom position), and then just elevate a couple inches off the ground and hold.  This way, they're not constantly having to move through the full range of motion, where the most strength and neural control is required.

3.  Like most single-leg variations, it trains the body to work as one flawless unit.

As noted in the Resistance Training for Runners series I wrote a couple months back, lunge variations teach the body to work as a unit, as opposed to segmented parts.  Specifically: the trunk stabilizers, glutes, hamstrings, quads,  TFL (tensor fascia latae), adductors, and QL (quadratus lomborum) will all have to work synergistically to efficiently execute the movement.

As mentioned above, you'd be surprised at how many people nearly fall over - or actually do - when learning the split squat.  It goes to show just how "non-functional" we really are, despite all the people out there training on BOSU balls!  Use single-leg work to actually train your body the way it was designed to perform.

4.  To use as a change of pace. 
No need to elaborate here.  

Anyway, here it is in the video below:

Key Coaching Cues
  1. Get in a wide stance with the feet parallel to each other (as you'll see when I face the camera).
  2. Lower straight down.  What we're looking for here a vertical shin angle (shin perpendicular to the floor).  It's very easy to let the knee drift forward if you're not paying attention.  
  3. Keep a rigid torso (upright).  Imagine as if you're struttin' your stuff at the beach. 
  4. Don't let the front knee drift inward (valgus stress).  Keep the knee right in line with the middle-to-outside toes.  I even cue "knee out" sometimes as many people really let the knee collapse inward. 
  5. Squeeze the front glute to help keep you stable.  You can also squeeze the back glute to receive a nice stretch in the hip flexor of the back leg. 
  6. Perform for 1-3 reps (per side) with a :5-:15 hold in the bottom. 
That's it!  I hope you like it.  

And just for fun: In case you thought single-leg work was for sissies, here's a video of Ben performing the Rear Foot Elevated (aka Bulgarian) variation of the split squat with 305lbs added weight (two 90lb dumbells and 125lbs of weighted vests).

This bear doesn't really have to do with anything, but he popped up when I searched "lunge" in Google images so here he is.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Some quick updates

So I apologize for the reduction in content as of late.  Even though it is Spring time (our slowest time of the year at SAPT, as the majority of our athletes play a Spring sport), a few other things at SAPT have really picked up.

We recently launched a distance-coaching program in which those who can't (because of geography or finances) train at SAPT more than 1x/week.  We've been pretty busy putting together our online video database, complete with various exercises and the most important coaching cues we use, and ironing out some of our programming templates.  

In short, it has been a SWEET addition to help more people experience our system of becoming awesome.

For now, in case you're not reading his site already, I'd like to direct you to Ben Bruno's Blog.  He has basically created a fitness google, in which he compiles TONS of great articles from some of the top names in the fitness industry (and some schmuck named Stevo is on there, too).  Ben is also one freakishly-strong dude, so his training updates are always very inspiring to read/watch.

Check it out HERE!  If you have access to free-roaming internet at work, this will keep you busy for the rest of the workday.  I'm serious!

I'll be back tomorrow with some more great content!  Be well.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Q & A: Best Exercise for the Obliques, Part 2

Continuing from Part 1 on Friday, I'm going to give some exercises I feel are best for training the "obliques."  Now, if you open any kinesiology textbook you can learn the functions of both the internal and external obliques:
  • Internal Obliques:  Lumbar flexion, ipsilateral flexion and ipsilateral rotation (bending of the low back, side bending, and rotation of the same side of the torso). 
  • External Obliques:  Lumbar flexion, ipsilateral flexion, and contralateral rotation (bending of the low back, side bending, and rotation of the opposite side of the torso).
Hence why you see so many people performing side crunches, side-bends, and russian twists to "bring out" their obliques.

However, I feel these commonly performed exercises are one of the worst for developing a strong midsection.  Yes, you may "feel the burn" while doing side crunches, but in my humble opinion they do nothing more than to exacerbate the poor posture we already place ourselves in (from sitting too much), and increase our risk of low back pain.  Also, considering that the biomechanics of the lumbar spine are designed with only about 13 TOTAL degrees of rotation from L1-L5, I don't even see the "Russian Twist" as a wise exercise to perform regularly, with low back health in mind. 

(As a side note, people you see with nice-looking obliques did not achieve those through endless crunches and side bends.  They achieved them through very low body fat levels and/or through great genetics, as discussed in part 1). 

Anyway, I haven't prescribed a single crunch in the last few years of coaching people toward moving, feeling, and looking better. 

As Tony Gentilcore so eloquently put it:

"To be honest, I can think of a host of other things that would be more beneficial than doing crunches:

1. Cirrhosis of the liver
2. A nuclear holocaust
3. Getting kicked in the balls, repeatedly
4. Another Sex and the City movie"

I'm right there with him.  From a results-standpoint, I see it a complete waste of time to perform endless sit-ups and crunches.  From the view of keeping someone's low back healthy, I see it equally futile to include sit-ups in a core routine (especially, as mentioned before, the sit-up places roughly 3300 N of compression on the spine). 

Anyway, now main point.  What are some exercises I'll use to attack the midsection?  First and foremost, there is no "Best" exercise.  Secondly, I almost always use a form of trunk stabilization to develop the midsection, as this is one of the primary functions of our core.  Here are some exercises I've found to be awesome: 

1.  Over-Shoulder Sandbag Carries

Over the past year I've become a huge fan of sandbag carry variations, for a few reasons.
  1. With the legs as the prime movers, and the load on the shoulder, everything in between will be maximally challenged to keep you upright.  If you never knew where your obliques were located (or any abdominal muscle, for that matter) you'll know as soon as you perform these.  
  2. The position of the load essentially allows your core to help create a very efficient buttressing system for weaker joints throughout the body.  
  3. They provide axial loading for the body (important for strengthening bone and connective tissue).
Of course, in order to receive the full benefit, you need to resist shifting of the hips and stand STRAIGHT. 

In the video above I'm carrying a 85lb sandbag.  When I was training for obstacle course races in 2010 (and I'll be doing this again soon as the weather is warming up), I would take the sandbag to a 400m track and walk the distance with sandbag on one shoulder, and then repeat on the other side.  You can carry the sandbag in many different positions (over shoulder, bear hug, zercher carry, overhead, etc.).

The sandbags are very easy to make, too.  In the video I'm simply using a duffel bag filled with pea gravel.

2.  Offset-loaded Farmer Carries and/or Deadlifts

Similar to what I discussed a  Core Training article a while back.

These things are brutal.  Granted, you need to already be fairly proficient at the deadlift to perform this safely. 

Along the same lines, you can perform an offset-loaded farmers walk as Tony is doing in the video below:

We've been doing the same exercise at SAPT for a few years now, but using a small hand towel instead of a "tricep pushdown" rope.  Again, you only reap (and feel) the benefit when you stand perfectly straight.  A bonus is you receive some solid grip training with the variation, too.

3.  Medicine Ball Drills

Medicine ball drills are great to develop rotational power.  See below (Tim Collins of the Kansas City Royals training at Cressey Performance):

4.  Pallof Presses

One of the most versatile, awesome, and useful core exercises out there.  Period.  Tony Gentilcore (along with many others) has already written extensively on this topic, so instead of reinventing the wheel I'll direct you here:

Everything Pallof Press

You honestly need nothing more than the exercises shown above to work on those coveted obliques and begin a successful journey toward a strong midsection that performs optimally and looks good, too.  Personally, I rarely perform more than two "ab" exercises a week and have seen significant development of my midsection in the past few years. 

To reiterate: you can't out-train a poor diet.  No amount of abdominal training, no matter how fancy, will give you those abs of steal if you're irresponsible with your nutrition.  However, when you clean up your act in the kitchen, and work on a few of the exercises above, I guarantee you won't be disappointed with the end result.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Q & A: Best Exercise for the Obliques, Part 1

 Question: "I was wondering if you had a great work out for the inner obliques and outer obliques? because Ive been looking for a great work out other than those "Russian twists".  Thanks."

Answer:  When I received this email the other day, I knew I should address it on the blog as it's a question I've received over and over again.

You didn't specify whether you desire a workout for the obliques because of physique or performance goals, so I'm not exactly sure how you want the answer directed. However, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that this is for physique purposes, as you didn't mention that you were looking to improve performance with a particular sport (although training the obliques would be a VERY small part of the entire equation).

First off, any so-called fitness guru who tells you they have "THE workout" for your obliques, or your abs in general, they either:

       A.  Have no clue what they are talking about.
       B.  Are trying to steal your money.

Look, I'll get straight to the point (a little dose of tough love ahead).  If you want a better-looking abdominal wall, I have two fool-proof strategies:
  1. Ask for different parents. 
  2. Clean up your act in the kitchen. 
Then, and only then, worry about the latest and greatest ab exercises.  This isn't the advice people want to hear, but it's what they need to hear.

Why ask for different parents?
The "look" of your abs is largely genetic.  Your genetic make-up will determine what percent body fat you need to be at in order to have visible abs (ex. some people need to get down to <10% bodyfat, while others can see their abs at around 13-14% bodyfat).

Your genetics will also determine the "shape" of your abs once they're visible.  Please, I'm not going to go all mainstream on you and tell you that you can make your abs "long" or "compact" through training (hint: you can't), but your abs will appear a certain way based off your pre-determined body type.  And you can't change this.  You can change whether or not your abs become visible, but everyone's will look slightly different.

I can't tell you how many guys have told me "I want abs like Brad Pitt."  My first answer is always:

"Have Brad's parents give birth to you."  

I'm serious.  You can do russian twists, side crunches, side bends, jacknives, etc. until you are blue in the face and you'll never achieve abdominals exactly like your coveted celebrity's abs as the two of you are of a completely different physiological make-up.  The goes for women who are chasing the abs of a particular female celebrity. 

I say all this because I'm hoping it will at least set you up for realistic expectations, as otherwise it will be as worthwhile as chasing a moving a target your entire life.  Once you understand what you can actually accomplish, you won't consistently be met with disappointment. 

Clean Up Your Act in the Kitchen
Since you can't ask for different parents, this is your best bet if nature didn't bless you at birth with abs that could scratch diamonds.

Your abs are made in the kitchen, plain and simple.  You can not out-train a poor diet.  Yes, this means you have to develop some self-control and good habits.  Get your body fat down, and then you'll see your abs!  I often tell people, "Everyone has a six-pack, it's just that some are more insulated than others."

I honestly don't look down on those that have poor nutrition habits.  Heck, I enjoy ice cream every weekend, but I do crack down on what I eat throughout the week (you shouldn't be a slave to your body or nutrition habits; you should have your nutrition/body work for you).  What I have an issue with is people who constantly complain about their physique, when they aren't taking the necessary measures to change.  Yes, it is HARD.  It's simple, but not easy.  

It comes down to a very simple question: Which do you like better?  That treat you're about to shove down your pie hole, or creating a body that is HEALTHY and sets you up to look, move, and feel better?  It all comes down to priorities.

I'm out of time for the moment, but I'll be back on Monday with some exercises that can give you your "fix."  I almost don't even want to give them, as nutrition is really over 80% of the "abz equation" but I'll show you a few to toy with.  Stay tuned for part 2!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

60 Seconds to Better Movement: Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization

I thought I'd share a quick "bang-for-your-buck" exercise that you'll thank me later for.  It's the Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization, and it focuses on lengthening the rectus femoris, which is both a hip flexor and a knee extensor, due to the fact that it crosses both the hip joint and the knee joint.  I'm definitely not the first to write about this drill, but I thought I'd share it for those in the crowd that aren't doing it regularly. 

The Rectus Femoris
Why should you care if your rectus femoris needs to be stretched?  (Note there is a difference between a muscle being "stiff" and a muscle being "short," but that's a topic for another post).
  • First and foremost, tight hip flexors = weak glutes.  This is a very simplified way of putting it, but that's the take home message.  The physiological term for this is "reciprocal inhibition."  By loosening up the rectus femoris, you're essentially allowing your glutes to do their job better.  As mentioned in the It's All About the Glutes article:
    • If you're an athlete, this means jumping farther and running faster.
    • For general health purposes, strong glutes promote a reduced risk of knee, hip, back, and hamstring injury.
    • For those seeking benefits in the physique realm...well, this one is obvious. 
  • To the desk jockeys in the crowd: sitting for the majority of the day leads to loss of mobility at the hip joint - where the rectus femoris crosses - thus promoting a host of aberrant motor patterns that will only increase over time. 

  • To the runners in the crowd: not one single joint moves through a substantial range of motion during steady state running (what I'm saying is the more you run and the less you perform mobility drills, the more you begin to move like crap).  You need something to actually encourage sound biomechanics to help you run more efficiently and smoothly.  
  • To the meatheads in the crowd: loosening the rectus femoris will encourage good lifting mechanics in lifts such as the squat and deadlift, thus increasing your Awesome status. 
  • In cases of anterior and lateral knee pain, the rectus femoris is often a common culprit. 
Anyway, here is the drill:

Key coaching cues:
  • Place a towel or other soft surface under your knee (not shown), and brace your hand against a wall (Yes, I'm using a box in the video, but it should be done on a wall).
  • Be sure not to slip into excessive lumbar extension (arching of the low back) as you rock forward.
  • Keep the heel of the back leg as close to your butt as possible throughout the movement
  • Squeeze the glute of the back leg throughout.  This will help intensify the stretch of the hip flexor.
  • Think about pushing FORWARD rather than DOWN (think hips toward the wall, not the floor)
  • Rock for about thirty seconds per side, holding for around two seconds in the stretch position. 
  • In case this wasn't clear, you're aiming for a stretching sensation in the front hip area of the back leg. 
  • Do it every day.  Unless you live in a Hunter-Gatherer society and never sit down at a computer. 
This is of course just one piece in the very large puzzle of improving movement quality, but it's at least a step in the right direction.  Give it a shot!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Quick Thoughts on The 4-Hour Body

Lately I've been reading through "The 4-Hour Body" by Tim Ferriss.  While I may not agree with all of the training protocols he has in the book, it's an entertaining read to say the least.  He traveled the globe and met with the some of the world's leading experts in the realm of human physiology.  He met with scientists, professors, lab rats, and "in the trenches" strength coaches and compiled everything he learned in the book. 

He also has quite a few points - with regards to behavior change and taking care of one's body - that were worth taking note of.  Tim Ferriss is an extremely successful businessman, and in fact he was a large inspiration behind the "80-20 Principle" post I wrote a few months back, which describes how to leverage the fact that 20% of your efforts will be responsible for 80% of your results, both in and out of the weight room. 


 I thought I'd share a couple points from the book that I took note of:
  •  "More is not better.  Indeed, your greatest challenge (in a training program) will be resisting the temptation to do more."
  • "We want to avoid all methods with a high failure rate, even if you believe you are in the diligent minority (those who always stick with a plan).  In the beginning, everyone who starts a program believes they're in this minority.  Take adherence seriously: will you actually stick with this change until you hit your goal?  If not, find another method, even if it's less effective and less efficient.  The decent method you follow is better than the perfect method you quit."
  • (In blaming genetics) "Even if you are predisposed to being overweight, you're not predestined to be fat."
  • "People suck at following advice.  Even the most effective people in the world are terrible at it.  There are two reasons:  1.  Most people have an insufficient reason for action.  The pain isn't painful enough.  It's a nice-to-have, not a must-have.  2.  There are no reminders.  No consistent tracking = no awareness = no behavioral change.  Consistent tracking, even if you have no knowledge of fat-loss or exercise, will often beat advice from world-class trainers."
Tim's point about the "nice-to-have" becoming a "must-have" for success really hit home to me.  It explained, in beautiful simplicity, why so many people seem to always be talking about how "next month" they'll make the decision to clean up their diet, or "at the new year" they'll begin a weight training program to jump start a positive body composition shift.  These goals (fat loss, muscle gain, etc.) are most frequently just a "nice-to-have," not a must-have.  It's usually not until they're told (for example) by a doctor that they'll die from diabetes unless they begin a sound nutrition and exercise regimen, that they make an intentional behavior change.

It's the same for athletes, too.  I've noticed that the athletes who are focused and work the hardest in the weight room (and thus experience the greatest results), are those that view the resistance training portion of their sport program a MUST-HAVE for success, not a nice-to-have.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Q & A: Improving Pullup Strength

Over the past couple months, I've received emails inquiring about how to improve pullup strength.  Since this is a common question (and a good one) that I'm sure I'll receive again, I decided to use it as a Q & A on the blog.  (The question was modified a bit to omit information that wasn't pertinent to the central question).  Note that I refer to chinups a fair amount (where your palms face you, as opposed to away from you like in the pullup), but the exact same principles apply.

Hey Stevo, 

I also have a question for you - your thoughts on the best way to improve deadhang pull-up numbers? My upper body pulling strength is woefully lacking (upper body is weak in general, outside of the Jerk). While I'd say CrossFit can address it, the reality is accessory/supplementary work is necessary because CrossFit only does kipping pull-ups. I can't recall any time recently that my affiliate used deadhang pull-ups.  (I think if fresh I could probably do 6-8 right now without incredibly awful form or resorting to a kip of sorts).

Great question.  I love the pullup/chinup variations as they're a great way to keep your relative strength in check.  I find it difficult to admire someone who can bench press a house but can barely pull his chin over the bar for a pullup or two. 

Not to mention, your chinup:bench press ratio is actually a pretty strong indicator of shoulder health for the long run.  For example, say you're a 175lb male who can bench 300lbs.  If your maximum weighted chinup (bodyweight + external load) is only 225lbs (BW+50lbs added weight using a dip belt or weight vest), then you have some serious work to do on the "pulling" side of things.

Mike Boyle has mentioned this in the past, as he has coached thousands of athletes in the weight room and monitored the correlations between push:pull strength ratios and shoulder health.  Is it a fool-proof formula?  Certainly not, but at least balancing your pushing and pulling strength is a a huge step in the right direction. 

Anyway, now to the question.  I'm not the first to write about these strategies, but I'd like to share the ones I've personally found most effective in helping the athletes (and general fitness enthusiasts) I coach:

1.  Never go to Failure (or "Grind Out" Reps).
Want a surefire way to halt your progress in the pullup realm?  Grind out reps.

Most intelligent people never continue to grind out squats and deadlifts once their form breaks down, and for good reason (I don't know about you, but I like to remain on good terms with my spine).  Yet for some reason when it comes to pullups, people will approach their maximum number of reps, and then continue to push out a few more by grinding, kicking and screaming their way up to the bar.  Set after set.  

Once you begin to slow down through the sticking point on the way up, stop the set.  Once your reps no longer look or feel like they did in the beginning (good form, decent speed, etc.), let go of the bar.  If you continue to grind reps out, set after set, it will do nothing for you other than to ingrain bad habits and to burn out your Central Nervous System (which needs to remain fresh for optimal recovery and performance during subsequent training sessions). 

Remember that strength training is a skill.  When you practice a skill correctly, you don't continue to do it under a state of high fatigue.  Pullups are no different. 

Below are two videos I filmed during a recent chinup session.  (For a frame of reference, my current 3-rep max on the chinup is about 130lbs added weight).

The first video is an example of what a GOOD working set looks like.  In this set I have 110lbs hanging from a weight belt.  Note that I don't slow down through sticking points, and each of the reps look nearly identical.  Even though I probably could have ground out 2-3 more reps, I stopped the set because - based off the feel of the third rep - I knew the remainder of the chinups wouldn't have been pretty. 

The next video is what a BAD working set looks like this.  In the video below I have 125lbs hanging from a dip belt.  Normally I wouldn't have gone so close to a true 3-rep max during a training session, but I did this for demonstration purposes.  Note that the first and second rep look O.K., but on the third repetition I really slow down at the top (my sticking point, personally, is about 2 inches shy of the bar), and I continue to hang up there as I grind my way to the bar.  Again, this is what NOT to do regularly when you train pullups/chinups!

So, for the person asking the question, whose max number of pullups is 6-8, I would suggest to never go above 4-5 reps during a single set in training. 

The ONLY time I recommend going to failure is when you are testing your true pullup max, which should be only a few times a year.  Otherwise, in training, always stay clear of hitting failure.  You'll thank me later, I promise.

2. Prioritize Pullups in your Training Plan
If you want to improve your pullups then you should probably: focus on your pullups.  Haha, sounds like an axiom, doesn't it?  However, it seems to me that people often tend to desire improvement upon a hundred different things at once.

Lose fat.  Gain muscle.  Improve my 5k time.  Increase my bench press.  Run a marathon.  See my abs.  Bicep curl more than the guy next to me.  Improve my online ranking in Call of Duty or World of Warcraft.   

The truth is, if you genuinely want to improve something, you need to prioritize it and let a few other things take the back burner.  This doesn't mean you cease to work on other qualities, but you can't go balls-to-the-wall with everything.  In fact, Eric Cressey wrote a fantastic short article regarding this very subject:  Weight Training Programs: You Just Can't Keep Adding.  I encourage you to check out!

What does it look like, to prioritize your pullups?
  1. Train them in the beginning of your training session, when your fresh.  Yes, even before you bench press. 
  2. Train them more frequently throughout the week (again, only if you're refusing to grind reps). 
  3. Increase the volume (combined sets x reps) of pullups, and scale back a bit on the volume of other upper body movements (press variations, as well as lat pulldowns, bicep curls, etc.)
  4. Give your pullups the same INTENSITY and focus you would during your other lifts (deadlifts, squats, etc.).
Prioritize your pullups in your routine and train them like you mean it.  Everything else can take the backseat, at least for a little while.

3.  Drop the Kipping Pullups.  
All this will do is take away from your current goal: improving your "dead-hang" pullups.  While some other strength coaches may argue that kipping can aid those seeking improved pullup numbers, I don't personally prefer to use them (not to mention, I've helped more than one person - females in included - obtain their goal of performing their first unassisted, full-range chinup without using any kipping method for assistance). 

4.  Improve Your Grip Strength.

Your hands are the first link in the chain when you grab the bar to perform pullups.  If your grip is weak, then you'll fail much more quickly.  You probably won't literally slip off the bar, but a strong grip will certainly allow you transfer force through your upper body much more efficiently.  The stronger your grip is, the less the rest of your body will have to work to perform the lift.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of a thick-grip pullup bar at SAPT.  The wider diameter of the bar makes it significantly more difficult to hang on to - thus improving your grip strength.  At first I hated Sarah (the President) for ordering thick-grip bars to attach to the power racks, as my ego was shattered upon trying pullups in SAPT for the first time!  However, over time, I've noticed substantial improvement in my grip from using the thick bar alone.  Not to mention, whenever I try pullups on a normal bar, it feels like a walk in the park!

However, I realize not many people have access to a thick bar; and besides, there are many other modalities for improving grip strength that I recommend whether or not you have a thick bar.  It's beyond the scope of this post to provide various grip exercises, but Diesel Crew has some fantastic grip exercises on their website that you can check out. 

5.  Use the "Pullups Throughout" Method
We've used this with fantastic success with our athletes at SAPT.  Basically pick a number (ex. 25) and hit that number of pullups throughout the training session.  The number you aim for will depend on your current pullup max.  Begin at the start of the training session, and then in between every few sets of your other exercises head over to the pullup bar and bang out 2-3 reps.  This is a great way to accumulate a fair amount of volume without inducing too much fatigue.

Again, stay FAR away from failure.  The reps should feel light and fast.

6.  Utilize a variety of grips and set/rep schemes.
Just like any exercise, it will help to add a bit of variety to the picture.  Just because you want to improve your pullups (palms facing away from you) doesn't mean that a healthy dose of neutral-grip pullups (palms facing each other) and chinups won't help.  I would still prioritize pullups, but definitely mix in a few other variations sparingly.

Regarding number of reps, don't be afraid to train both the lower end of the spectrum (ex. 1-2 reps) with a small external load added, and on the higher end (closer to your rep-max, but still shy of failure).

You can also toy with isometrics (a static hold at the top, or a "flexed arm hang" in gym class terms), and eccentrics, in which you jump up to the top and lower slowwwly.  However, I won't be sharing publicly the exact set/rep formulas I've found to be ideal for this method :)

Lastly: A technique Jason Ferruggia recently recommended, which I like, is the Ladder Method:
"Ladders are another effective way of bringing up your chins that we use as well.  For example, you start with one rep, rest 15-45 seconds, then do two reps, rest again, then do three reps, rest again, then do four reps, rest again, then do five reps, then start the ladder over.

Again, it looks like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

...You burn out a lot slower when doing ladders than you do with traditional loading parameters. Use a prescribed rest period or do the ladders with 2-3 partners. You do a single, they do a single. You do a double, they do a double. And so on and so on up the ladder. Then you start back down at the bottom again.

If you can only do five chins or pull ups don’t go up to five reps. Instead stick with three as the top rung of your ladder.  (Interjection: this would be the appropriate strategy for the person regarded in this Q & A).

Each workout try to beat the total number of reps you got in the previous workout. So if you got three full ladders as shown above, that would be 45 reps. You need to get at least 46 reps at the next workout."
Now, I wouldn't recommend using the Ladder protocol very frequently (at least if you're training multiple times a week), but it's definitely a good one to throw into the mix.  Again, make sure the reps are fast and strong (noticing a trend here?).

The 6 tips above should get you well on your way to improving your pullups.  Granted, this post was directed at those that can already do a few unassisted pullups, as getting from Zero to One pullup is a different bear entirely. 

I hope this helped!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Inside the Mind of a Strength Coach, Vol 2: Ankle Mobility and Knee Injuries

This is a guest post from Sarah, the SAPT President.  For the book worms in the crowd who like to understand the "why" behind training principles, I hope you pick up on something new! 

"Unexpectedly, I have found that my daughter, who is almost 8-months old, is reinforcing certain basic principles we use at SAPT to unlock the potential of our clientele. In fact, she’s so inspired me that I will be writing an upcoming post of how infants naturally increase their GPP (general physical preparedness) for the rigors of walking and how this relates to children as they move through adolescence and towards adulthood.

However, for the purposes of this post I am only focusing on ankle mobility. Over the weekend I became acutely aware of the perfect ankle mobility my daughter has – she was napping on me in a position that for most adults would be unimaginably uncomfortable. I noted the position of her foot and the angle of dorsiflexion. It was ideal - she's completely unburdened by muscle imbalances, injuries, and immobility. So, as she napped, this ideal angle got me thinking about injury prevention for the knee…


It’s generally accepted that an increased angle of knee abduction will predispose an athlete to knee injury. But, how can improving something seemingly unrelated like ankle mobility help these at risk athletes?


When an athlete lands from a jump, our joints act to absorb the ground reaction forces. The faster an individual’s body can get into proper force absorbing position, the lower the likelihood for injury and the quicker return to the next phase of the movement. To allow for this very quick absorption and transition (or amortization phase) to occur you need two things:

1.     Excellent strength – the good old fashion kind we build at SAPT.

2.     Very good mobility and dynamic flexibility – the not-so-glamorous pairing exercises we use at SAPT.


Unbelievably, the body ALWAYS knows what it should be able to do, so when a joint is restricted – like the ankle – the body searches to compensate at other joints, usually the knee. And this, my friends, is where the injuries start racking up. 

Now, I don’t want to expose this problem and leave everyone sans solution. So, here’s the quick ‘n dirty on what to add into your knee injury prevention training program:

1.     1. Inhibit – SMR – Gastroc/Soleus (foam roll calves)
2.     2. Lengthen – Static Stretching – Gastroc/Soleus (static stretch calves)
3.     3. Activate – Isolated Strengthening – Dorsiflexors (Dumbbell Dorsiflexion)
4.     4. Integrate – Integrated Dynamic Movement – Rocking Ankle Mobility 

Y Your knees will thank you - Sarah"

      The take-home point is that when a particular joint is hurt/injured, the culprit often lies above or below the problem area rather than the joint itself (the same is true for the low back and the neck).  So something as simple as improving ankle dorsiflexion ROM will reduce your risk of knee pain/injury.  This holds true if you're a distance runner, sprinter, football player, weekend warrior, or even if you don't exercise regularly.