Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rolling, smashing and mobility training explained

Someone once told me that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time a trainer has to blog and the amount of time he actually spends coaching people to get better. I couldn't agree more. About two months ago I resigned from my duties coaching at a Crossfit gym and now work full time as a personal trainer. The hours are about double what I was working before and my blog time has gone out the window. However, I decided to take the afternoon off today and hopefully  I can use this time to provide you all with some quality content for the first time in almost 2 months.

In the last month I have seen the following things

- My old CF gym hosting a workshop on foam rolling

- a trainer at my new gym reaching tremendous levels of success by building his entire business around various myofascial release techniques, with very little application of any real training [1]

- Kelly Starrett, a very popular physical therapist in the CF community, released another bestselling book aimed at restoring mobility and movement quality to the general population largely through the use of myofascial restoration techniques

Kelly Starrett has been a huge influence on my training. I probably agree with about 95% of what he says. I'm looking forward to checking out his new book. 

Clearly mobility is on peoples minds. Specifically self myofascial release or SMFR (foam rolling, lacrosse ball rolling or any other form of applying pressure to various tissues of your own body). This is a good thing. Being mindful of range of motion and quality of movement should theoretically lead to improved performance. However I think many people are over/misusing  or simply not understanding some of these fantastic techniques.

When I started in the fitness industry (6 years ago) none of these things were particularly popular. Throughout my entire coursework in college we hardly ever mentioned myofascial release. And my program was very heavily focused on mobility. We focused heavily on dynamic warmups and full range of motion resistance training in conjunction with static stretching after each workout. As far as I was concerned tissue quality was the job of physical therapists and massage therapists. I was a strength coach and I was supposed to make people strong through a full range of motion.

The first time I actually heard of any of this was when I was hired to work at Equinox in 2011. Trainers looked at me like I was crazy because I wasn't having my clients hop on a foam roller for 5-10 minutes before lifting. "Dude, their fascia is gonna be so tight!" So I did what the veteran trainers told me to do and I made all of my clients hop on the roller. And they got better. Flexibility, strength, alleviation of minor pains etc. But what was I actually doing? What happens when one applies tension to a muscle with a foam roller, and why does it make you more flexible and able to lift better?

Let's break down the science behind SMFR in the simplest way possible. In your muscles there are receptors called GTO's (Golgi tendon organs) They sense changes in tension. When tension is extremely high the GTO's basically pull the plug and force the muscle to relax so that nothing is permanently torn or damaged. When we foam roll we are applying tension to an area of the body. The GTO's in that area sense tension and then cause the muscle to relax, allowing for greater range of motion following the foam rolling session.

With regard to pain management there is also the idea that rolling simply provides a counter irritation effect. I will explain further. If a segment of the body is in any way irritated it will send signals up to the brain, which can be interpreted as pain. One way to decrease the discomfort is to send a second signal to compete with the original noxious signal. This is why when we bang our elbow on a door frame we immediately rub it. The rubbing of the painful area sends a second signal to the brain to interfere with the original signal that is leading to our pain. So if your hip is causing discomfort sometimes rolling it with a ball or foam roller can provide a secondary message to the brain, thereby decreasing the pain response.

So, to summarize, what we are doing is allowing for muscle tissue to relax and be restored to it's normal length and/or providing secondary messages to the brain from a painful area. Either way we are creating temporary change in the nervous system by providing a novel input. We are not stretching or lengthening anything. I would even be skeptical of the idea that we are "breaking up adhesions" "untying knots" or whatever other analogy you want to use. If we were really doing that we wouldn't have to repeat the process every single day. The "knots" would just be untied and then we could happily go about our squatting (or sprinting, or down-dogging, or whatever it is you do). We are simply changing the neural input to the muscle in order to reduce tension.

When we foam roll we create a change, but this change isn't forever. This change lasts only for a brief window following the exposure. Studies looking at foam rolling alone (no stretching or strength training in conjunction with the foam roller) have not shown that foam rolling has any positive effect on long term flexibility improvements. Only when used in conjunction with other training modalities is foam rolling useful. So all of that foam roll while watching TV advice doesn't help unless you follow it up with something useful like movement drills [2]

With that window we have a variety of techniques that we can use to make mobility "stick". Some options include

- Yoga: this has the benefit of utilizing full range of motion through most movements, and the added bonus of incorporating deliberate diaphragmatic breathing, which is one of the most underutilized methods of improving movement quality

Some yoga poses are silly and ridiculous. And some are awesome. This falls into the latter category

- Weight training: Obviously this is my personal favorite. Resistance training gets a bad rap for making muscles tight but that's really an issue of correlation vs causation. A lot of dudes like to lift weights and don't like to do it through a full range of motion or perform logical, intelligent programs. Therefore, a lot of dudes lift and are also very tight.

However, lifting through a full range of motion can actually be one of the most effective forms of flexibility training available. Try doing Bulgarian Squats, Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell presses or overhead squats with a pause in the deepest position and watch your mobility go through the roof.

- Movement quality instruction: This is intentionally a very vague category. I just want to be clear that you don't need a bar on your back in order to make lasting change. Just learning to hip hinge, or even performing simple patterns like rolling, crawling and stepping can be fantastic starting points. This can be whatever you deem "corrective exercise", it can be stability drills or basic locomotor patterns. The key is that we use the window of opportunity created by the SMFR work in order to explore new movements and provide a stressor that will get the body to adapt in a permanent manner

These methods all apply some form of stress on the muscle/joint in it's newfound range of motion. That newfound stress triggers adaptation from the body. The common analogy is that foam rolling is like working on a document on the computer but resistance training is like hitting save on that document (all the more reason to not resistance train with poor patterns. Some documents are better off not being saved). Going to full range of motion with some form of loading provides stability in these new positions. It's like telling the brain that a position is safe, and it's ok to go back there.

So when doing your mobility training please don't lose sight of the bigger picture. We do mobility work so that we can use that mobility for a purpose. Maybe you run marathons, maybe you put big weights over your head, but either way your foam rolling session don't need to take more than 5-10 minutes. Get on the ground. Roll out chronically tense/tight/painful areas then get the real work started.

I wonder how much of his time is spent foam rolling?

[1] You could make the argument that the tissue quality work is "training" in some sense but I mean big weights in your hands or heart beating out of your chest type of training, not movement prep

[2] It may help with temporary pain relief but not really provide anything additional in terms of long term movement quality enhancements

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Brief Intro to Pain Science and a Change in Coaching Style

In the last couple of months I have been studying, and plan to study further, the science of pain. It's a fascinating topic and one I admittedly have only just scratched the surface of. But the things I have learned so far are very intriguing.

Pain is a complex beast; trying to explain all of its intricacies is not something I'm prepared to do but there are a couple of interesting points that I want to note

- This first point is not so much science as it is a disclaimer. As a fitness professional you should not be responsible for treating pain. There is an entire field of professionals trained in how to do that. Trainers/coaches should be responsible for body composition and improved performance. However, a series of circumstances can put non therapists in a position where they need some knowledge of pain. Even when working with a client who is pain free, we want to keep it that way, which requires some rudimentary knowledge of how pain works. Some clients will refuse to go to Physical Therapy based on previous experience (or financial circumstances) leaving their trainer as the only line of defense [1]. Often times clients will be finished with PT and need someone to “bridge the gap” between therapy and high level fitness. Additionally many injuries do not have to prevent fitness gains. No one wants to get fat and weak while undergoing rehab. I have had many clients who simultaneously worked with a Physical Therapist and me. By understanding pain on a basic level and having a good working relationship with the therapist, trainers can improve fitness qualities while therapists decrease pain. Both parties are actually helping each other be more effective. 

- Pain is not synonymous with injury. Sometimes people get injured and feel no pain. I don't know the statistics off the top of my head but there is a large number of people walking around with herniated disks who are completely unaware of it, because they are pain free. Herniated disks are so commonplace and unrelated to pain that the American College of Physicians has actually said "Clinicians should not routinely obtain imaging or other diagnostic tests in patients with nonspecific low back pain". In fact, 95% of back pain is idiopathic- meaning that there is no diagnosable cause for it [2]. Which brings me to my next point: Many people have pain despite no structural damage. This is evident in many cases of chronic pain in which the tissues are completely healed but patients still have pain with certain movements. My dad still has ankle pain during certain movements despite not rolling an ankle in over a year. Ankle sprains, even for people in their 50’s don't take years to heal. The tissue and joint should be fine, so why is there still pain?

- The body alone does not sense pain. Pain is primarily a function of the brain [3]. The body, specifically nociceptors, senses threat or danger. The nociceptors relay that message to the brain. The brain then processes it along with a lot of other information (beliefs, past experiences, stress, etc) and decides if it is dangerous enough to warrant causing a pain response.

There are two primary models of what causes pain:

- The PSB model (postural structural biomechanics) - The PSB is what most people are familiar with. My hip is weak so my knee caves in when I run and now it hurts. You can tell the same story for the back or the shoulders. This model treats stimuli from the body as the primary means of pain and treats them accordingly with traditional biomechanical fixes (stretching, strengthening, manual therapy etc.). This is the basis for how I have treated every client that I have ever worked with, although the specifics of the training have obviously evolved. Posture, structure and biomechanics are still the foundation of all of my program design. But a different viewpoint has come to my attention that has changed some of how I implement my programs. 

- The BPS model (biopsychosocial) - The BPS model is more relating to how the brain perceives threatening stimuli and how psychology influences pain. Seems like soft science at first but there are mountains of evidence supporting the role of psychology in pain, and it has been around since the 1980’s. It relates to how perceptions and past experiences can affect the processing of stimuli from the body.

Both models are relevant, and these are not necessarily competing systems. The "B" in BPS stands for biological, which is the foundation for all of our traditional pain management methods. The two models are probably best used in conjunction with one another, but most trainers only take into account the structural model when dealing with clients. Even without being a psychologist or PT educated on the psychological model you can still take from that research and positively affect training any client. I want to discuss how I've used this philosophy to improve my own coaching and how you can do the same.

A huge part of being a coach is recognizing poor movement patterns and being able to correct them to put clients in the best position to succeed. How a coach goes about making these corrections and the language they use goes a long way in determining how effective that coach will be in both the short term and the long term. Let's take a look at two examples of correcting a valgus knee position in the squat exercise (let's assume this is a post-set correction. Mid-set cues should be extremely brief, preferably 2 words or less, and yelled over loud music in the gym)

Coach A - Drive your knees out, letting them fall in like that is going to tear up your meniscus

Coach B - Drive your knees out, it's a stronger position and it will transfer better to your golf swing/jumpshot/whatever

Coach A and Coach B are both correct. A valgus knee position under load is related to a host of knee injuries. Being able to resist that position is also related to increased gluteal strength, which allows for a greater expression of power in just about every activity. Both coaches probably got their clients to do what they wanted, assuming that exercise selection and progressions were appropriate. 

However there is a big difference between what they said. Coach A created a threatening situation to fix his clients position. Now when Coach A's athlete finds himself in a valgus knee position he or she will sense a threat or a danger. As we discussed previously, feeling threatened or in danger is a great way to trigger a pain response. These feelings are part of the thoughts, beliefs and past experiences that contribute to the pain message from the brain. Essentially, if an athlete feels as though she going to get hurt and perceives a position as dangerous, the brain will cause pain in order to get the athlete out of that position. This can trigger fear avoidance behaviors and chronic pain issues.

For this reason, I have eliminated all pain based coaching cues from my vocabulary. Telling an athlete she is going to get hurt is one of the easiest ways to put them in position to actually do it. I don't have any hard data proving if this has decreased rates of injury or pain in my clients but the current pain science all supports avoiding fear-based coaching cues. Telling someone to stop something before they get hurt is well-intentioned and likely gets the desired short term response, but as trainers and coaches, we need to have an eye toward the future. Not only do we need to increase strength in foundational patterns and follow sound biomechanical principles, but we also have to decrease the perception of threat to allow for pain free training and living. 

You can do this by avoiding the fear mongering coaching style and cueing or by any method that increases clients’ confidence in movement. Find a style that works for you but make the goal improved performance, not catastrophe avoidance through fear.

[1] Based on the crap I've seen in some PT offices, I don't blame a lot of these clients. There are good PTs out there, but you have to look hard for them. 
[2] This fact was provided by my lovely girlfriend Jocelyn. She’s in medical school, is way smarter than me and likes when I put her name in my blog.

[3] So if someone says that pain is "all in your head" they are correct, but that doesn't mean your pain isn't real or that you are conjuring it up for some ulterior motive. Pain is in your head because that's where your brain is and your brain controls everything.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Lateralizations and Regressions: Product Review

I have spoken in the past about people in the industry who have inspired me in my training and coaching. Near the top of that list is Charlie Weingroff. He recently released a DVD series called Lateralizations and Regressions

Charlie's first DVD set furthered my knowledge of a lot of concepts that I still use (FMS, joint by joint, core pendulum theory etc.) Because I knew this new resource would be full of good material I watched the whole set (all 13 hours) with pen and paper in hand and took lots of notes.

For today's post I have taken those notes and compiled a list of what I found to be important or interesting takeaways. Because this encompasses many topics this will be less of a coherent article and just a series of bullet points that I found interesting. If any of these topics interest you drop a comment in the box and I'll try to expand on them in my next post. Thanks

- We often discuss fitness and optimal means of achieving it but rarely define what "fitness" is. Lateralizations and Regressions defines it as becoming resilient to stress. I love this definition because it allows for fitness to be flexible depending on the needs of the individual being trained. We all encounter different stressors and therefore we all have different fitness needs.

- General fitness is a part of any good rehab program. Aerobic conditioning decreases sympathetic tone. Someone who is sympathetically overtrained will not respond well to more aggressive manual therapy techniques. This is actually something I heard a few months ago from Patrick Ward but it was reiterated here. FMS is a system for pointing us in the right direction as to how we can safely accomplish that general fitness. Using heart rate variability or other less advanced methods of athlete tracking can tell us if we are using appropriate intensities.

- Exercises should make you move better or make you faster/stronger. Otherwise it's a warmup or a waste of time. This thought runs through my mind now every time I design exercise programs.

- Sometimes you can fix a sport problem with a fitness solution (being able to jump higher will allow a basketball player to get more rebounds), sometimes it requires a movement solution (greater ankle range of motion will allow a basketball player to maintain a more upright torso to release a jumpshot and avoid having it blocked). Figuring out these types of problems can make a strength coach an invaluable asset to a sports team.

- Our training can be looked at as a pyramid with movement quality at the bottom, capacity as the middle and sport skill at the top. A pyramid cannot be built tall (highly skilled technical athlete) without a wide base of movement competency. Gray Cook has referenced similar concepts in his books.

Performance Pyramid

- Just because there is pain or dysfunction in one position does not mean that you have to eliminate fitness altogether. Sometime a shoulder that has pain overhead will feel better after a few weeks of deadlifting and lower gripping positions like rows, and loaded carries. This is really just a more specific example of using FMS principles. FMS screens movements and tells you what not to do but you can still crush heavy lifts in patterns that you pass the movement screen. I have seen this theory in practice countless times.

- Ground based patterns like crawling and rolling "switch" the joint by joint theory, meaning that segments that are usually mobile become stable and segments that are usually stable become mobile. During crawling movement occurs at the lower back and scapula with stability coming from the thoracic spine. This reversal allows for the swishing of synovial fluid through the stable segments and restores normal range to areas that don't usually get that sort of movement and shouldn't under load.

- EMG is horse shit. Not sure if those are his exact words but that seemed to be the sentiment. I would have to agree. EMG only tells us what muscle is firing but not whether that is the most efficient path. Sometimes movement is optimized with a lower EMG of a particular muscle and higher output from it's synergist. If we were to compare squatters with identical weight and bar speed but one has higher EMG of the abdominal muscles does that mean that they have "stronger" abs or that they had to call upon higher threshold strategies while the other squatter had a lot left in the tank?

- Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, creates a fixed lumbar spine which allows for greater mobility at the thoracic spine and hips.

- Keep your damn neck straight when you lift weights. Read more here.

Perfect neck position for lifting heavy weights

- All of the rotator cuff muscles have a specific role(s) stated in your biomechanics and anatomy textbooks, either external or internal rotation as well as some secondary actions. However the true function of all of these muscles is to work synergistically to create a suction effect that pulls the glenoid into the fossa and stabilizes the shoulder. You can't train that with a silly yellow band

- The same concept just mentioned applies to using any stabilizing muscles as a prime mover. That means lateral band walks, IYT's and many of your favorite "corrective exercises". This is a tough one for me to swallow as I've long been a proponent of many of these movements. It's really just a matter of whether you think independently strengthening stabilizing muscles will make them function better in full body movement patterns, where they have a totally different role. I'm not certain what the answer is but it certainly warrants consideration.

- Muscles don't get longer. It takes 30 minutes in a static position to add sarcomeres in series. Muscles operate more like an old radio antenna when you pull it all the way out. Yes it appears it's getting longer but really that length was there all along you just didn't know how to access it.

That's how muscle "stretches"

- "tightness" in certain positions is really just a product of the brain perceiving threat in that position. If we can eliminate the perception of threat we can access a fuller ROM. There are many ways to do this but traditional static stretching is one of the less effective methods. Lifting weights in with full range of motion seems to work well.

A lot of what Charlie talks about is different from the mainstream thought process in regard to training so many of these bullet points may sound different from what you are accustomed to, although if you have read this blog before some of it hopefully sounds familiar. I can't recommend highly enough that if you are a coach or trainer and unsure of how to allocate your continuing education money this year there may not be a better product on the market. Let me know if you found any of the points interesting and I'll try to write more about them.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Programming for Crossfit

A little over a month ago as a part of a managerial shake up, I was given the job of designing the exercise programming at my gym, Rowfit Chicago. I have been highly critical of many traditional CF programming strategies before (you can read by clicking here) but I think CF has the potential to induce dramatic changes in body composition and a whole host of athletic measurements, if done properly, so I was looking forward to this opportunity.

There are a few things to keep in mind before we address the specifics of this program

  • We are a crossfit gym, but we also offer a variety of other classes, including Bootcamp, rowing, basic strength, Olympic weightlifting, and squats (or as I prefer to call it SQUATZZ!) and plenty of open gym hours for members to do whatever they would like. This variety of classes makes programming challenging, as all of our members have a slightly different training week. I have tried to work around it by matching training stresses between classes. For example, because our Olympic lifting classes are on M,W,Saturday those days will usually have a more lower body heavy focus in CF as well.
  • Bootcamp is a class for aerobic development and for people to go and have fun without the mental focus required to pull a heavy snatch or any other technical lift. For that reason Bootcamp does not have a complex periodization scheme. Skills involved will build throughout the year but it will always be light weight and 30-40 minutes of near continuous work, aimed at developing cardiovascular endurance. For that reason most of this article will be focused on how I program specifically for the CF classes, and not bootcamp.
  • Our member base is, with a few notable exceptions, not interested in any sort of crossfit competition outside of maybe a local event or just bettering their scores and improving their results compared to previous months/years
  • In surveying members what people are interested in achieving at the gym is the following:
    • Get stronger (this is music to my ears). People want to be able to pick up their dog, their kids, their groceries and carry them up a flight of stairs without feeling exhausted.
    • Lose weight. I can’t emphasize enough how this goal has almost everything to do with the kitchen. However, there are strategies we can employ in the gym for maximizing caloric expenditure. This is an area where CF does not need my help. People have been getting ripped with CF methodology since before I even knew what it was.
    • Reduce pain. Pain is a complicated beast and I know when something is out of my league and when to outsource. With that said a lot of aches and pains have simple explanations. If your squat looks like crap and your back hurts and we fix your crappy squat the back pain has a good chance of going away too.
    • Perform. For some people this means triathlon. For some it’s running a 5k. For some it’s a CF competition or weightlifting meet. General programming will improve general fitness but to truly excel in a given sport you need programming specific to that sport, especially with regard to energy systems development. If you are interested in training privately for a competition or sport feel free to contact me directly at alexirigoyen89@gmail.com
So with those caveats out of the way let’s examine our programming. The traditional model of CF programming calls for random implementation of strength, endurance, and anaerobic threshold work throughout the week and throughout the year. It also uses random implementation of skills from Olympic Weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, kettlebells and endurance sports (rowing, running, sometimes swimming etc). I think encouraging competency across all athletic qualities and skills is admirable but trying to do everything at once is a recipe for doing nothing well. So let’s take a look at how to create a program that enhances all of the qualities.

In order to avoid overuse injuries we use a simple scheme of alternating muscle group emphasis for our strength training. We follow a similar template for conditioning but low intensity lower body exercise can be done every day. Currently it looks like this:

Exercises or rep schemes change every 3 weeks.

Monday: Power exercise full ROM + Heavy Lower Body + Heavy upper pulling

Tuesday: Olympic lift from the hang (because with the right intensity you can lift from the hang just about every day) + upper push + core exercise

Wednesday: Power exercise, partial ROM + single leg lift + moderate intensity upper body pull

Thursday: Skill development/Core exercise + long Metcon

Friday: Upper body Push + Pull

Saturday: Heavy bilateral lower body + Unilateral lower body

Sunday: Upper Push + trunk development


A general yearly calendar would look like this


May, June, July: Deload/Prep work.

  • Overall phase goals are flexibility, core strength and technique development
  • Olympic lifting is light and technique based.
  • Strength training is lighter and includes pauses for position development and control. There is also a big emphasis on range of motion through single arm and single leg lifts
  • Core stability is developed by using direct trunk exercises like Rollouts and landmines as well as a big emphasis on asymmetrical loading
  • There is very little squatting or pulling from the floor as both movements require a degree of flexibility that many members simply don’t have yet
  • Metcons have very little complexity as the goal is minimizing risk. We teach the complex movements in untimed situations
  • This is a great time of year to develop cardiovascular system through independent training or bootcamp classes

August, September, October

  • This is our strength cycle. If all of our athletic abilities (speed, endurance, power, etc.) are buckets, then strength is the hose that fills all of the buckets. Everything is easier when you have tremendous strength. A metcon with 95# front squats is a joke if you can front squat 3 plates. Our whole summer builds to this point. We have developed mobility and stability through single leg training and light technique work and paused work as well as dedicated mobilization time. Now it’s time to put some plates on the bar and begin building maximal strength.
  • Olympic lifting will be involved but at submaximal weights. It’s simply too fatiguing to Olympic lift and strength train at high intensity simultaneously
  • Gymnastics training is still minimal during this period. The strength developed through this part of the year will allow for easy gymnastic exercise in the winter. If you find me a person that can do pullups with load tied around their waist a good coach can get them doing muscle ups in no time. An athlete that can’t do strict pullups at all is wasting their time with muscle up skills practice. The same analogy holds true for pistols and a variety of other gymnastic skills
  • Energy systems training will emphasize moving heavy loads under fatigue. Metcons will be used to address lactate threshold as well as posture/trunk strength through specific exercises such as heavy single leg work, strict pullups and pressing as well as some cardiovascular modalities for short intervals

 November, December, January:

  • This is the heavy Olympic lifting Cycle. Our strength from the previous 3 month block is now transferred to Olympic lifting abilities. Because we did Olympic lifting technique work all year the transition should be smooth.
  • We also start a heavier gymnastics emphasis in the winter months.
  • A 5/3/1 type of scheme will be used for strength maintenance while we emphasize other qualities. 
  • Conditioning will be very short and intense with nothing exceeding 10-12 minutes.

 February, March, April: CF Open, Regionals.

  • This is the time of year where we aim to bring together all of the qualities we trained up to this point. This will most closely resemble what people are accustomed to seeing from CF programming in terms of intensity and heavy conditioning workouts.
  • Gymnastic skills are at a premium. Olympic lifting and strength training will be on maintenance cycles and challenging metcons will be occurring several days per week. The goal is to peak athletes for competition.
  • An important note is that even for members with no desire to compete in any CF event this periodized program will yield the greatest results. Emphasizing one or two qualities simultaneously while maintaining others allows for the greatest development of a variety of qualities. And that leads back to the goals we discussed previously.
I recognize that this is a lengthy post but this is what drives the programming in my gym. I have seen these methods work extremely well in private training and I expect the same results on a broad scale.

Please drop a comment below or message me directly if you have any questions.


Monday, June 30, 2014

ViPR, Animal Flow and Developing as a Coach

Last week I was cleaning out my computer, deleting things I will never need again and I came across some old programs I wrote for clients when I was a sophomore in college. Looking at that work shows me just how far I have come in terms of coaching and training. Some of the early routines I coached people through make me cringe.

Let's pretend this never happened

In spite of the errors of my early coaching career I like the fact that I can look back and see how things have changed. I hope that a few years from now I can look back on what I'm doing today and see areas I have grown or improved. You can't be stagnant in the fitness industry. Change illustrates professional development. Sometimes I don't even have to look back five years. Just since I moved to Chicago two years ago I have changed or significantly developed my stance on several topics. The topics I want to touch on today are directly tied to my experience working at Equinox as a personal trainer.

When I was  at Equinox, every couple of months we would roll out a new group exercise class or training format that headquarters really wanted to push. We even had a video screen in the front of the gym that would show promos for the hot new training style. These videos were often ridiculous.

Watch this ripped guy do handstands on a surfboard and come to our yoga class Sunday mornings!

Look at this attractive woman in her underwear doing plyometrics in her front yard. You can be sexy like her if you attend our 6am plyometric bootcamp!

That scapula is in hard anterior tilt. And this ad makes me laugh

You get the picture. For the members maybe this stuff caught their attention or enticed them to attend the class. And if it did then the video did it's job and it's makers should be applauded. However, for me these videos/images made me skeptical of the training. If it's good it shouldn't have to come with bells and whistles and ridiculous models doing your exercise. It will just look good. Sometimes in fitness you just have to use the eye test.

There were two modes of exercise that I learned there which, if implemented properly, seriously pass the eye test: ViPR training and Animal Flow. The key to that statement is "if implemented properly".

ViPR training:


The ViPR is essentially a rubber tube that can come in a variety of weights from approximately 5-45lbs. The tube has a series of holes/handles that allow the athlete to experiment with different hand positions. The general philosophy is that the tubes allow us to load more complex athletic movement patterns in all planes of movement: Straight ahead, laterally, through rotation, or any combination of movements.

My early training education centered largely on the value of building "head to toe" strength. Everything is about developing the the ability to generate force through the ground and transmit that force across the kinetic chain in a variety of different directions and speeds, and for extended periods of time if necessary. The ViPR is perfect for training these qualities, making it an excellent tool for building functional strength and athleticism.

Deceleration is an often overlooked athletic quality and the inability to decelerate properly can lead to many injuries. With the ViPR system you learn to decelerate your own body and the external load of the tube. This is especially helpful in a sport with an implement that you have to control, like golf, tennis, lacrosse etc.

There are a few keys to proper use of this tool, or any loaded multiplanar patterns.

- Unless you are very weak to start, this is not strength training. This is a supplement to strength training. It is tremendously valuable for taking sagittal plane strength and learning to utilize it across multiple patterns and time intervals. There is no squat rack on the field or court but the strength you build in the rack will transfer a lot better with this type of loaded movement training.

- Just like any resistance training pattern, progressions and regressions have to be taught. An individual that can't lunge with technical proficiency obviously can't lunge while twisting and punching. This should be common sense but it is the number one error I witnessed with this system during my exposure to it. Everyone wants to do the coolest moves on day one without establishing a foundation of movement. A good coach, with proper regression strategies, can build multi directional training into the routine even for the most de-conditioned athletes but good coaches are hard to find.

- Be athletic! If you just want to practice your pressing and pulling strength grab the iron. This tool is for building athleticism. And don't even think about using this for bodybuilding.

Early in my exposure to this tool I was highly skeptical and I almost never used it with myself or with clients and I regret it because it could have been a useful means of building athletic ability.

Animal Flow

Only in the last couple of weeks have I really come around to these ideas. Animal Flow is the creation of Mike Fitch. It is a combination of moves from different disciplines (capoeira, martial arts, yoga, break dance etc.)

Originally I was skeptical for several reasons.

- The promotional videos are ridiculous. I still agree with this but I should be smart enough not to judge a product by it's marketing.

- It's too flexion dominant. With the animal flow series it is only as flexion based as you choose to make it. There are a handful of different patterns that can be strung together, all of which offer unique actions throughout the body. It's important for a coach to select movements that fit the need of the athlete. Someone that has terrible thoracic spine extension would want to side with more extension based patterns and follow a flexion pattern with an extension.

- It's too easy. One day I saw a few trainers practicing the moves in the gym and asked if they could show me the ropes. They were struggling with one particular stability move and I hopped down on the floor, pretended to be a very stable monkey (or whatever animal this move was named after) and nailed it with very little challenge. There are several things I did not take into account at the time that would explain why this was so easy for me and could still hold tremendous value.

I weighed around 150lbs at the time. Body weight exercise is easy when you have a small body. It's even easier when you have a good strength to weight ratio. And while I have changed my stance on Animal Flow it still is not a replacement for heavy weights in your hands. There is no replacement for heavy strength training. None

I have had a great strength coach since I was 16 years old. My high school strength coach would later win NCAA strength and conditioning coach of the year. I developed with a proper foundation and don't have some of the glaring imbalances and weaknesses that other athletes have.

Lastly, I only did one rep. This can still serve as valuable aerobic conditioning even for advanced athletes and it's far more interesting than treadmill work while offering a host of other benefits.

Other benefits include:

- Many of the movements work in fascial lines and sling systems, using cross patterns the way the body is meant to function. We can certainly build some of these systems with traditional training as well,but some require function in multiple planes.

- More points of contact with the floor. Recently I have been watching hours of Charlie Weingroff's new DVD series and much of it touches on the value of having contact points with the floor and the stability that can be gained in these regressed positions. I won't try to explain it further because it's something I'm just beginning to learn about. But I can tell you that after just practicing basic crawling and rolling patterns for a few weeks with the right breathing that there is something powerful about being on all fours

- Most good trainers recognize the value of ankle flexibility and how flexible ankles can protect the knees and even the lower back from injury. Trainers also recognize that the shoulder is essentially the hip of the upper body. It has a ball and socket joint and generates a tremendous amount of power. If we can all agree on those two ideas then wouldn't it be fair to say that wrists are like the ankles of the upper body and that improving mobility there can help avoid elbow, shoulder and maybe even spinal injuries? By constantly being on our hands and feet we are using dynamic flexibility to train and maintain range of motion at the wrists.

- Integrated full body patterns: Any philosophy that encourages the use of movements over muscles is going in the right direction. Animal flow has no leg exercises or arm exercises, just movements designed to optimize our function as whole people.

Similar to ViPR, this is a system I was overly critical of for shortsighted reasons and flat out wrong about in many regards. It can be a fantastic way to build mobility, stability, conditioning and just introduce something fun and novel into a stagnant routine. All of these benefits come with the caveat that these tools have to be used appropriately.

It's important to be skeptical as a coach, or just a consumer of fitness products. But we also have to give each new concept a fair trial in order to develop as trainers, athletes or people looking to improve fitness and movement quality.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

You're Not Allowed To Do That

Every good coach has their niche.  My bread and butter is getting people stronger in the most practical manner possible. What I mean by that is that I am not a powerlifting coach, but I still know how to make people brutally strong.


While some who know me may disagree, I really like to keep training as simple as possible. You squat, deadlift, push and pull with accessory work thrown in for balance and injury prevention. And for healthy and well balanced clients that's really all you have to do. Unfortunately not everyone falls into that category. A lot of people come with exercise related baggage. Tight here, weak there etc. For these reasons we sometimes have to change course and deviate from the traditional lifts to get progress. People don't usually like to hear that because the big lifts (squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press) are usually also peoples favorite lift to do.

People don't like to be told that they can't do their favorite thing. I have had clients debate me and argue that they have always done exercise x,y or z so they shouldn't have to stop now. Or they will tell me that previous trainers never said anything so why am I stopping them. The answer is twofold.

1. I am better than your old trainer
2. I am going to make you stronger/faster/fitter than you've ever been

For some people that isn't a sufficient explanation and they may require a more in depth breakdown. The logic behind excluding a particular lift, at least temporarily, is fairly simple. A good coach puts his or her athletes in position to succeed. That means finding the exercises that allow them to challenge the appropriate systems without risk of injury. Taking two steps backwards often allows you to find the right path to get 10 steps forwards. Staying on the current path may lead to a dead end in the long run.

Next we can start to work on recovering the ability to move freely in all patterns. There are many reasons a client might not be able to do a particular lift. Poor trunk control, lack of mobility, left-right imbalance etc. Dealing with these problem movements is one of the things that I have always found separates the average trainers from the great ones. An average trainer probably recognizes which movements give the most bang for your buck and might even be very good at coaching the technique and progressing them in terms of volume and intensity. But a great coach is able to identify when a client cannot safely do an exercise and is able to still make improvements while working to fix whatever is holding them back from the movement in question.

Let's look at some common examples


Joint by joint theory dictates that movement should come at the hips and not the lumbar spine. However when the hips lack proper mobility the body searches for mobility elsewhere, often immediately upstream or downstream of the immobile area. This can lead to movement occurring at the lower back and a squat that looks like this.

How embarrassing

Maybe this looks more familiar

You can't immediately peg this as a flexibility problem. In some cases it is an issue of core stability. Have the client perform the squat again with a light kettlebell held in front of the body. Does the pattern look good now? That means it was an issue of not generating sufficient anterior core stiffness.

You can also try having the client lay on the ground and pull the knees up to the chest. If they get all the way up without the lower back rounding that is another demonstration of sufficient mobility. In this second example the ground provides the stability so the client doesn't have to. If the previous two drills don't fix the pattern then you are likely dealing with an issue of tight hips.

Remedies: If someone cannot safely get a into the squat position the last thing we want to do is force them further into it. Take a month off from squatting and work on the limiting factor to the squat. Emphasize hip mobility in warmups, foam roll problem areas. Strengthen the anterior core. You can build tremendous strength in the lower body without squatting. Try exercises like step ups, lunge variations, deadlifts (if hip mobility allows) and hip thrusts. Eventually you can progress to heavy kettlebell squats, then front squats, then back squats can come back in to the program if deisred.

Overhead Pressing

Pressing a barbell overhead builds tremendous strength and requires good upper body mobility, particularly from the internal rotators and thoracic spine. It also requires strong control over the lumbopelvic region to avoid catastrophes like this

Unfortunately anyone who sits all day is at a huge disadvantage, as is anyone that spent years doing traditional bodybuilding split workout routines. Sitting can tighten hip flexors, thereby inhibiting the ability of the glutes to maintain neutral pelvis. It also causes kyphotic posture and tight lats/pecs. Traditional bodybuilding routines are usually way too internal rotator dominant (pecs, lats) and in direct opposition to what is needed to safely go overhead (scapular upward rotation, external rotation)

Our screen for safe overhead pressing is fairly straight forward. Stand up tall and raise your arms straight over your head

If you live near Boston and need an awesome coach call this dude.
And check out his website tonygentilcore.com

If you look like the image on the left you have work to do. If you look more like the right side image you are free to press.

In the event that you cannot get the proper position and overhead pressing is temporarily off limits there are still a lot of good upper body exercises you can do. There is almost no such thing as too much horizontal pulling. There are tons of varieties. Cable rows, DB rows, face pulls, barbell rows, half kneeling rows, TRX rows..

Pendlay rows, Supine grip rows, wide grip seated rows...

Upper body pressing strength can be maintained as well with half kneeling press variations like landmine presses or upside down kettlebell presses. Bench pressing may be safe as well although it likely won't fix any of the problems.

Someone that can't squat or overhead press safely can still get an effective full body workout by using single leg training, upper body pushing from the half kneeling position and a lot of anterior core and mobility work.

Taking a staple lift out of the arsenal for a few weeks is not the end of the world. In fact it may allow you to make greater progress than you ever thought possible.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Muscle Confusion and Proper Progression

Exercise program design is a complex topic with a lot of variables to consider. Within just a single weeks training a coach must look at volume, frequency, rest intervals and exercise selection and weigh those variables against the recovery capacity of the individual doing the program.

The exercise selection is the most obvious of those variables. It is the variable that most clients and athletes look at first when given a new program. People want to know what exercises they are going to do. Many people like going to a trainer because it breaks up the monotony of training on their own. Trainers are often aware of new exercises that clients have never seen before and can make workouts different every time, which people love. Variety in training is important for maintaining interest and avoiding plateaus but some trainers take this concept too far, either in an attempt to appease their clients or because of a lack of understanding of basic principles of adaptation.

If you are doing a completely new workout every single time you train and new exercises every week you will never reach your maximal potential in improving any of your fitness qualities. This philosophy of constantly rotating exercises often takes the name "muscle confusion" Like many ridiculous fitness trends muscle confusion has a small grain of truth to it. Your body can become adapted to certain types of training but it has far more to do with volume and intensity than it does exercise selection. Assuming you have adequate muscle balance and mobility, as well as adequate sleep and calories, you can do almost any exercise several times per week all year round with great results. What you can't do is the same rep scheme year round, especially if it's very high intensity.

Regardless of how you design your program your muscles will never become confused. They also won't get happy or sad. They will not become upset if you don't do their favorite exercises. Muscles are just contractile proteins. They can get better or worse at contracting at certain intensities and in conjunction with other muscles. These qualities are what lead to improvements.

One of the bedrock principles in exercise science is the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand). Your body will adapt to chronic stressors and therefore get better at whatever you make it do consistently. But if you change your routine every week you aren't really doing anything with consistency and significant improvements will never be made.

You may be saying to yourself, "I have a friend that did P90X and lost x lbs". You can replace P90X with any number of other gimmicky high intensity training systems for this example (Insanity, every group exercise class I've ever seen, etc.). Your friend was likely a novice to high intensity training. Training new exercisers is great because they will adapt to anything. I am trying to promote a style of training with more sustainability.
As I mentioned before muscles can adapt to training intensities and plateau so some variation is required. So how can we design programs to allow for consistent adaptation without wasting our time with a gimmicky routine?

Typically when I write programming I have overall goals for each month for the next three to four months. The specific program (exercises, sets, reps) is usually planned one month at a time. This is by no means the only way to do it but has always worked well for me and many other coaches I know.

A client may be on a MWF weight training schedule with cardiovascular/ energy systems work/ sport competition on weekends or other days. For this client every Monday for the month will have the same exercises. Same with Wednesdays and Fridays. What changes is the rep scheme, and the weight, or maybe the rest interval.

For example, a client looking to improve strength may receive a program that looks like this:

Back Squat 5x3@80/4x3@85/6x3@85/3x3@90

Or Maybe

Bench Press 3x6@77.5/3x5@82.5/4x6@82.5/3x3@90

This program format allows some form of progression every week. When volume decreases the weight goes up. The following week the volume goes back up and weight stays the same. With this system there is always some form of improvement. The consistency of the exercise selection is what allows that improvement to occur. At the end of the month you can either keep the same exercise and adjust other variables or change to a new exercise depending on the goals and experience of the athlete.

So next time a trainer tells you that the program you're doing is designed around "muscle confusion" or keeping the body guessing or any other BS tagline like that kindly ask for your money back, because they have failed at understanding the basic principles of adaptation and overload that allow for progress in the gym.

Monday, May 12, 2014

My favorite exercises (Upper Body)

Last week I posted my favorite lower body exercises, but I would be remiss to not show some love to the upper body as well. Here are some of my favorite upper body exercises

Band resisted pushup

A little anterior tilt but atleast he didn't hurt himself with the band

I could have simply inserted pushups here but I promised to make these posts cover exercises that are underutilized or rare in most gym settings. The pushup has tons of benefits that you don't get from most loaded chest pressing movements. Trunk stability requirements, free movement of the scapula, tons of options for variations etc.

A lot of gym goers feel that they have progressed past the point of getting benefit from the pushup; I would disagree. For one, most people do the pushup wrong. Even guys with a big bench (maybe even especially guys with a big bench) allow way too much arch in the lower back. Regardless of how much external load you can press there is always benefit to training the pushup for shoulder health and trunk stability but it may not present sufficient challenge to develop strength.

This is where the band resisted pushup becomes useful. By looping a resistance band or powerband around the shoulders you can apply an extra degree of resistance to the movement. The same can be done by placing a plate on the back but I've always found that to be awkward and uncomfortable and it is difficult to do without a training partner

Half kneeling kettlebell press

This is my go to vertical pressing exercise for anyone that can't maintain neutral spine during traditional overhead pressing. I love overhead pressing but recognize that some people are simply too immobile or weak in certain areas to do it safely and it ends up looking like this:

"Elite" fitness has not been forged here

 In some instances the right cue can get someone out of this spot and into a safer position but many times it's a physical shortcoming that can't be overcome so easily.

Taking the split stance gives some slack to the lats and allows people to get overhead while maintaining a neutral spine. It also puts a mild stretch on the hip flexors which is reinforced with load. There is even an element of rotational stability because of the load only being located on one side of the body.

Front loaded kettlebell farmers walk

Because I currently work in a gym with a very limited dumbbell set I have become quite fond of using kettlebells. When life gives you lemons you do a lot of kettlebell work. I believe that's how the saying goes.

Unfortunately the kettlebell farmers walk is very awkward for me and many other people. Farmers walks train posture, trunk strength, grip strength and lower body strength as well. They work well as a very simple conditioning tool that requires fairly little coordination or mobility and comes with very low risk. However, a strong individual with moderate to large thighs will find the kettlebells banging into their legs and interrupting normal walking gait. For this reason I like to utilize the front loaded carry.

The demand on grip strength is less but it places an additional burden on the anterior core. Also it makes it easier to pair in circuits with other grip intensive exercises like kettlebell swings, pullups or the rowing ergometer.

A good sample upper body workout could look like this (I'm not even going to include reps/sets/rest because that's opening up a whole other can of worms and we're focusing on exercise selection today)

Bench Press
Turkish Getup
Ss/ chinup
½ kneeling kettlebell press
Ss/ Single arm row
TRX fallout progression

Rowing ergometer
Front loaded KB carries
Pushup variation

Give this a try on your next upper body day!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

My favorite exercises (Lower Body)

In the past I have posted about exercises that I don't like. These exercises were mostly listed because they carry a high risk with very little reward (upright rows, dips etc.). I don't want people thinking that I'm all doom and gloom so I figured I should post about some of my favorite exercises as well.

If you have read many of my previous posts you are likely aware that I am a big proponent of the classic barbell lifts (squatting, deadlifting, pressing, pulling etc.) With this piece I want to focus on lifts that may not be as common in the average gym.

Front Loaded Barbell Reverse lunge:

Squatting and Deadlifting are great exercises but both have some pre-requisites to safely execute. Both require a certain degree of flexibility in the hips and symmetry between the strength of the left and right leg to avoid injury. Not all clients have that flexibility and symmetry but they still need heavy lower body training to stimulate increases in overall strength and muscular development.

For a client that has a difficult time maintaining neutral spine at the bottom of the squat or can't properly set up to pull a bar from the floor unilateral training can be extremely beneficial. Lunge variations are very effective for improving strength in the trunk and the legs, flexibility and balance.

The front loaded barbell reverse lunge is probably my favorite unilateral lift. I am a huge fan of front loading the barbell in the clean grip position. It helps with flexibility of the shoulders and allows for greater contribution of the anterior core muscles (the abs). When compared to other single leg training exercises (step ups, walking lunges, split squats) the reverse lunge is much less strenuous on the knees while providing greater stimulation of the posterior chain.


This is a great lift for athletes and personal training clients, as not a lot of weight room movements condition people to move well backwards. Many personal training clients usually struggle with this movement at first because they are only accustomed to moving straight ahead and this is a great way to incorporate functional movement in multiple planes without getting too silly with what should be strength work. 

Barbell Hip Thrust

The barbell hip thrust is a great exercise for several reasons.

1. The hip thrust isolates the glutes, unlike other exercises that also bring the hamstring and quads into play. Let's be clear that we want exercises that incorporate multiple muscles groups but it's good to have the ability to isolate in certain scenarios, particularly with commonly underactive muscles like the glutes

2. The barbell hip thrust is easy to learn. This lift can load the glutes to a large degree without the technique or mobility requirements of a squat.

3. The hip thrust trains the glutes with no load placed on the lower back. There is a time and a place for challenging the lower back to stabilize but the hip thrust is a very good change of pace movement. I like to program it for clients with a history of back pain or during de-load weeks of training when I want to maintain strength while not taxing the system quite as hard.

The hip thrust can be performed with no external load or with a barbell. If using the barbell variation I recommend using an airex pad or rolled up yoga mat to pad the front of your hips. You can even use the silly pad that people put on the bar when back squatting. Finally, we have a use for that thing!

DB squat to press

Front racking a barbell in the clean position is difficult. Repeatedly pressing that bar overhead and returning to the front squat position with each rep is even harder. I like the barbell squat to press because it involves multiple foundational patterns and teaches transference of force between the lower and upper extremities. However, multiple repetitions with the barbell often get sloppy (I'm looking at your crossfitter with poor shoulder mobility). For that reason I like the dumbbell squat to press. It allows the athlete to keep the torso upright while the neutral position of the shoulders is safer than the barbell grip.

Give these exercises a try during your next weightlifting session and let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Core training

It's been a couple of weeks since posting so I thought I should return to writing with a big topic. Let's talk about "core" training. What is the core, what does it do and how do we train it? And just as importantly, how should we not be training it?

I like to think [1] of the core as 2 systems that work together to stabilize the body. The two systems are as follows:

Outer unit:
The role of the outer unit is to generate movement and stabilize the spine during excursions of the upper and lower body. Additionally the outer unit allows for efficient full body movement by keeping the spine in proper alignment. Think of a volleyball player leaping and then spiking the ball. The core muscles generate rotation in the torso to increase the velocity on the spike and they maintain stability at the spine and prevent overextension, which allows the force from the jump and the torso rotation to transfer effectively to the shoulder and eventually to the ball.

Muscles involved:
Glutes (yes the lats and glutes are core muscles. They directly influence pelvic position, which directly influences lower back position. If we are going to agree that part of the role of the core is spinal stability then we have to include these muscles as part of the core)
Rectus Abdominus (the abz)
Erector Spinae
External obliques

Inner unit
The inner unit is sort of like a box in the middle of your torso. The role of that box is to expand to create pressure within the abdomen. This pressure stabilizes the spine and allows for lifting of greater loads and transfer of force through the kinetic chain. The diaphragm in particular has a huge role in proper breathing mechanics and therefore spinal alignment.

Muscles involved:
Transverse abdominus
Internal Obliques
Pelvic Floor

Given what we now know about anatomy and function the natural next question is how best to train this area of the body for optimal performance, either in sporting activity, weightlifting or just daily life.

As previously mentioned one of the primary roles of the trunk musculature is to aid in transfer of force between upper and lower extremity. If every joint is an opportunity to lose force the spine is the area that has the greatest potential for loss. However, with a well trained inner unit and outer unit, force is transferred effectively from hips to shoulders or vice versa. In many people the inner unit is underactive and the outer unit over active from a stability standpoint and this can compromise force transfer and spinal stability, as well as lead to a higher likelihood of injury. This often occurs by overtraining the outer unit muscles (particularly the lats and rectus abdominus). These type of athletes typically appear to have strong core muscles but are challenged to perform even one repetition of a true stability task.

All show, No go

We can categorize our core training movements as follows

Lateral Flexion
Anti-lateral flexion

Let's look closely at each of the areas and see what sort of value they have and how to implement them in training.

Flexion - Spinal flexion exercises used to be all the rage in the fitness industry and the predominant method of training the abs; in the common gym going public they still are. Go to any gym and look on the mat area and you're likely to find a few people stretching and a group of people doing all sorts of crunches in pursuit of the elusive six pack. [2]

However, in recent years the crunch and situp have lost favor particularly due to the research of Dr. Stuart McGill who has repeatedly shown the stress that high repetition and/or loaded flexion can have on the lumbar spine. If you haven't read into any of his work I highly suggest that you do so. I agree that loaded flexion is a major no-no and that people who sit all day aren't doing themselves any favors either. This part is important so I will re-state it.

No loaded flexion and no high repetition flexion. That means tighten up your weightlifting technique and toss out that 1000 crunches per day plan.

With that said the spine should have the ability to bend and flex. We can train it through simple cat/camel positions to start and eventually progress to advanced tumbling techniques. These type of movements are actually a great dynamic warmup for people with no history of disk problems and a moderate level of coordination

One last note on the issue of spinal flexion: after a long restful night sleep when the spine has been horizontal for hours the hydration status of the disks is very high. This increased hydration status can cause higher likelihood of herniation or other disk injury. For this reason I avoid all tumbling and flexion based movements with my 6 and 7 am clients

Lateral Flexion - 

Loaded lateral flexion has been shown to cause a lot of disk problems and this isn't a movement I recommend training with clients. If you want to include unloaded lateral flexion in your dynamic warmup I see no reason why you can't although I don't know that it would be the best use of your training time. Additionally this movement will hypertrophy the quadratus lumborum, a thick muscle running from your pelvis to your lumbar spine. In other words the muscle under your love handles. If that is an area that you want to make bigger while simultaneously doing long term damage to your disks then this exercise is for you!

Extension - 

There is a common misconception in the fitness community that a sore or painful lower back is caused by a weak lower back. In many cases that couldn't be further from the truth. Many low back pain sufferers are in their current predicament because they lack anterior core strength to keep the spine in a neutral position. This forces the lower back to work harder than necessary and put excessive extension based strain on the lumbar spine. Using a proper assessment protocol can help you see what the problem really is

Not a weak back, but maybe a painful one

Back extension is best trained isometrically and in conjunction with hip extension. Deadlift and squat variations are simple exercise staples that when performed for appropriate volume and with good technique provide sufficient back extension training. Someone with very specific training goals (like squatting 3x their body weight, may be well served to add in additional back extension training). As with many spinal movements, extension in an unloaded environment is also of significant value for restoring or maintaining proper mobility. 

Rotation - If you haven't read about Mike Boyle's joint by joint theory I highly suggest you REVIEW IT. In it he discusses that the lumbar spine is intended to be a stable joint and the thoracic spine operates as a mobile joint, or series of joints in this case. With that in mind we can form a multiplanar approach to core training. Rotation exercises of the spine are excellent for developing range of motion, power and athletic ability, so long as the rotation is occurring through the thoracic spine and not in the presence of flexion.

Anti-flexion - These are the isometric back extension exercises I referenced earlier. Any exercise in which the load pulls you into a flexed (or round back) position and you must resist is an anti flexion exercise. Think squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, even some lunge variations

Anti-extension - This is the bulk of the "abs" training that I do with my own clients. The goal is to place the client in a position where resisting extension forces is the goal. Many clients will attempt to complete these movements by activating the hip flexors so keep an eye on anterior pelvic tilt to ensure proper technique. These type of exercises train the glutes and abdominal muscles to work in unison to allow force transfer across the spine. Some personal favorite exercises include barbell rollouts, Pushups, TRX fallouts and OH pressing

Anti-rotation - Developing rotation and power in multiple planes is great and is the foundation for success in a lot of sports (golf, tennis, lacrosse, hockey, etc) but an inability to control throughout a full range of motion can lead to wasted energy and poor performance. That is why anti-rotation drills are a staple in almost every sports program I design and a part of most general population programs as well. Usually I will focus the first couple of weeks of training on anti-rotation stability and training rotation range of motion and then transition to more powerful active rotation drills for the trunk

Anti-lateral flexion - Lateral flexion under load causes disk problems for a lot of people by putting excessive strain on the lateral components of the vertebrae. However, we can still strengthen those muscles isometrically and in a manner that has greater carryover to real life. Options here are endless. Anything in which you load one side of the body will cause the body to want to shift it's weight to easily accommodate the load. Single arm squats, single arms lunges, single arms presses etc.

So what would a daily routine look like for a client with the goal of "improved core strength" ?[3] This will vary depending on a persons posture and injury history or the sport they participate in but lets keep this plan well rounded just to be thorough

Dynamic warmup
Yoga flow and tumbling 10minutes (not first thing in the morning)

Deadlift (training anti-extension) 
ss/ hip flexor mobility (not necessarily core training but restoring proper length to the hip flexor will keep the pelvis/lower back in good positions)
Overhead Press (training anti-extension)
TRX single arm row (anti-rotation)
ss/ pushup march (anti-extension and anti-rotation)
lateral lunge (not directly core training but anterior loading will cause some anterior core contribution)
ss/ pallof press (anti-rotation)

Interval circuit
Sledgehammer swings (rotation)
farmers walk (anti-flexion and extension)
rowing ergometer (anti flexion)

A good full body routine with sufficient multiplanar challenge for the trunk all without doing a single crunch or side bend. This method of categorizing your core training will allow you to build a strong and stable core and keep a happy and healthy lower back. Now get to work!

[1] Obviously I am not the only person or the first person to categorize the core this way. If I could remember who I learned this concept from I would gladly give them credit. I want to say Paul Chek
[2] your six pack is not missing due to a lack of crunches, but rather a lack of disciplined eating and likely sleeping
[3] A vague goal but one that every personal trainer has heard at least a dozen times