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.