Wednesday, March 31, 2010

From The Ground Up

Over the past two weeks I've had the opportunity to attend eight hours of workshops by a couple of smart fellas, Dr. Lenny Parracino of the Gray Institute, and Michol Dalcourt. The topics of discussion were human movement in a macro sense, but both Lenny and Michelle addressed the importance of foot function and how that interesting part of the body affects movement quality to a large degree.

The Gray Institute calls the foot/ankle the "switch that turns on the engine." Or in other words if your foot is not functioning optimally then movement at the knee, hip, back, and on up will be compromised, and long term may cause dysfunction.

Without proper talus (ankle) function torque cannot be converted into power in the lower body. Or in other words if your ankle is messed up it will affect how you walk or run. Common sense right?

Then think about how that may affect your fitness training. If you are running on shoes that are worn out or unstable, or if you train in the gym and in poor footwear, at the very least you are compromising progress. At worst you are causing injury to yourself. For those with flat feet or high arches, wearing the wrong shoes will hinder conversion of torque into power at the hip, which ultimately means compromising strength at the very important hip joint.

But aside from shoes if the ankle and foot is not able to function well in all degrees of motion, lacks stability, or if there is excessive fascial tension then ground reaction forces will not transfer properly into movement. For example if one's ankles do not dorsiflex or evert properly then restrictions there mean there will be increased stress on the knee in order to produce movement. Over time this may lead to knee pain and possibly injury.

But as physical therapist Bill Hartman points out here issues may not be only physiologic but neurologic. In other words long term ankle stiffness may lead to neurologic adaptations that negatively affect movement quality even after stretching the ankle. Other areas have been taking up the slack for the ankle and must now be retrained along with the ankle in order to produce good movement.

Let me explain with a little demonstration.
Take your shoes off and stand up…I’ll wait.
Now,  keep your knees straight, stay tall, and slowly lean forward until the moment you feel like your heels will come up off the floor and hold that position.  Do you feel it?
Do you feel your toes grip the floor?  Do you feel the tension move up into your calves?
In an effort to maintain stability, your nervous system turns on your calves and the deep posterior compartment musculature and on up the kinetic chain.  Many athletes have the exact same problem. 
Your mobilization and stretching may have addressed the physiologic stiffness that would prevent normal ankle mobility, but if your athlete has poor control of his center of gravity, the stiffness will persist to maintain stability.  The result is a neurologic barrier to performance and greater risk of injury.
Got an athlete with plantar fasciitis, anterior knee pain, groin pain, piriformis syndrome?
Consider looking at the factors that influence center of gravity and the associated alignment and muscular activation patterns.
Here’s a hint…start from the ground up.

Check out this video of Lenny talking about functional and structural work.

The final take home point is this. I see many people in the gym wearing shoes that appear to hinder their training. Take the time to find a great pair of shoes, or go barefoot if that is appropriate. If you are not sure what type of foot you have - flat, normal arch etc... than find someone qualified to help you. Doing so now may save you a lot of pain and money down the road. Same as eating well.

Funny how everything is connected isn't it?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Kettlebell Compound Movements

Men's Health UK graciously asked me to do another article on "unconventional" muscle building methods using compound movements, and when talking with the editor he mentioned that kettlebells are the hottest topic on their forums. Lightbulb.

So here it is:

  • Build the body you want with this four-week workout programme
  • Compounding your isolation

  • In our recent article on the top 10 muscle-building mistakes, personal trainer Chris Bathke lamented the scores of gym-goers who spend every session pounding specific muscles with ineffective movements while ignoring the bigger picture. Escape from your isolation and use his compound kettlebell exercises workout to build full-body muscle fast. "After four weeks not only will your shoulders and back be more injury proof, but they'll look substantially better," says Bathke.
  • Programme loading…

  • "This type of workout will work shoulder, core, and hip stability that exercises done lying on a bench won't," says Bathke. Do it twice per week for four weeks and choose weights that are challenging but that you can complete with perfect form. Together with chin-up and squat work on another day you'll see good progress.

    Sets and reps
    Kettlebell clean and push press: 3x10 each side
    Renegade rows: 3x5

    Turkish get-ups: 3x3 reps each side

    (Rest 60 seconds in between sets.)

    "Each consecutive week add one rep per set until you can comfortably do an extra 4 reps per set, then increase the weight and drop the reps back to the initial level," says Bathke.
  • Kettlebell clean and push press

  • Begin with the bell in front of you on the floor. Perform a swing and clean the weight up into what’s called “the rack position” with the bell resting in the crook of your elbow between your shoulder and wrist. Next, drive the weight overhead ending with the elbow locked out and arm next to your ear. “Initiate the overhead portion of the lift with a slight dip and leg drive,” advises Bathke. To finish the lift, drop it back into the rack position, then down into a swing and repeat. Try to look as cool asthis guy throughout.

    See an example of this exercise here.

    This movement just about does it all. “The posterior chain is used in the clean portion, while the press hits your pushing muscles. Grip endurance, shoulder flexibility, and shoulder stability will all really be taxed,” says Bathke. 
  • Kettlebell renegade row

  • Assume a press-up position with each hand on the handle of a kettlebell. Do a full range press-up, then while holding your torso and hips still row one KB at a time. Row each side once. This is one rep. “The goal is to not allow your hips to move, nor your body to twist while rowing,” says Bathke.

    See an example of this exercise here.


    “The renegade row is a great movement to work both core strength and horizontal pushing and pulling muscle groups.”
  • Kettlebell Turkish get-up

  • Start lying on the floor. Bring the kettlebell into a locked out position straight up with your right hand. Your right shoulder should be pulled back into the floor to stabilise the joint. Your right leg will be cocked, with your right foot alongside your left knee. Pushing off your right foot, roll onto your left hip and up onto your left elbow. Push up onto your left hand. Holding yourself up on your left hand and right foot, raise your hips up off the ground, and thread your left leg back to a kneeling position. You should now be in a lunge position, right foot on the floor, and KB locked out overhead. “Make sure that your elbow is not flexed,” says Bathke. “From the lunge position brace your core and shoulder and drive through your front heel to rise up to a standing position.” To complete the movement, simply reverse the process until you are lying flat on the ground again.

    See an example of this exercise here.

    Turkish get-ups boost shoulder stability and strength, anterior core strength, and glutes/hamstring/quadriceps. “In other words it works pretty much everything, which is why experts such as physical therapist Gray Cook utilise it with everyone from average Joes to pro athletes,” says Bathke.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Machine vs. Progress

Research corner time. I've had some time to sit down with the latest Journal of Strength and Conditioning and peruse the latest topics. Everyone's favorite, the good 'ol bench press got a few studies this time around, and one of them caught my eye as it is applicable to many gym goers:

"Comparison of Muscle Activation Between a Smith Machine and Free Weight Bench Press"
Done at the Exercise Physiology Lab at Cal State Fullerton, this study looks at how hard certain muscles work during a bench press done in a Smith machine

and free weight bench press with a barbell:
Don't you love cool old school pictures?

Back to the study. They used EMG sensors attached to the deltoids, triceps, and pec major to measure how hard the muscles has to work to accomplish the task. Long story short the free weight movement elicited greater muscle activation than the machine version.

And as you can tell the dude above is way more jacked than the woman in the Smith machine.... ;)

But another important point is that the free weight exercise requires greater stabilization of the glenohumeral joint (shoulder) - which means that the muscles such as the medial deltoid that do the stabilization will get better at this task, which will help keep you healthy.

In other words, stay off the damn machines if you want to get stronger and have healthy joints.

And briefly, another study looked at the effect of stretching before pressing, and found that contrary to some beliefs, stretching had no effect on strength and power production.

Seeing as most guys have shoulders tighter than steel cable go ahead and get all the flexibility work in you can. Yeah yeah...if you are a powerlifter than you will want to refrain from a lot of stretching 2 minutes before you lift... otherwise keep working on shoulder mobility as it will pay off big time down the road.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Arnold Madness

A week and a half ago I ventured to the Arnold Fitness Festival in tropical Columbus, Ohio. As you read in my previous post a recurring back injury prevented me from competing so instead I judged the kettlebell sport competition, which turned out to be very enjoyable and not as monotonous as it would seem.

The competition consists of 2 events, the biathlon which is a 10 minute jerk set, followed by a ten minute snatch set, and the clean and jerk (long cycle) event, which is a single 10 minute set.

This is a video of a colleague Londin Winters (on the left in the white tank top), whom I have been coaching for about a month. She stepped up and did a great long cycle set with a 12kg (25lb) bell, hitting 104 reps in 10 minutes with only one hand switch allowed.

Notice the smoothness of movement all the athletes display, which is really what separates good from great performances moreso than strength. The average gym goer or athlete could learn much from this. As I've heard from many collegiate strength coaches the strongest guys in the gym are rarely, if ever, the best players on the field.

Look to improve your movement quality along with other aspects of fitness. It's often more important than strength or endurance when it comes to keeping healthy in the long or short term.

After the competition is when one can really engage in some learning, and this time was no exception. The following is a video of my friend John Wild Buckley hoisting various people overhead with one arm in front of a Mongolian BBQ joint. Needless to say we got some attention from the people inside!

Getting back to movement quality, imagine picking up a 150lb dumbbell and putting it over your head with one arm. Now imagine doing that with something that is off balance and hard to hold onto, such as a person, and you'll have some idea how hard that is. And it's not only strength that makes it possible, but coordination and structural integrity - stability from the foot thru the shoulder.

In other words things people will never develop sitting on a machine, doing curls, or cardio classes. Get on your feet and pick things up.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Get Smarter

It's been too long since updating my blog, but with good reason. A little more than a week ago getting out of my car triggered some back spasms that knocked me off of my feet for a few days. Only yesterday did I get back to some rudimentary training in the gym, and so far so good.

I've had spasms a few times before, and it is caused somewhat by congenital issues to do with the curvature (or lack thereof) of my lumbar spine. And past sports injuries/ poor mechanics. But there are some things I could have done to prevent the most recent flare-up. Hopefully it can serve as a lesson to others.

#1: Better control workload/volume in training. I simply went too long without deloading or taking a break from training. A chance to compete in a kettlebell competition at The Arnold Classic came up so I decided to forgo a break and try to train through until just before the competition.

Didn't work out too well...

The bottom line is I was training at too high an intensity and volume for too long, and not enough rest and balance in training. I scaled back my normal array of hip mobility movements and paid the price.

#2: Not going to get active release treatment when needed. I could feel some tightness in my hips/SI/low back but decided to delay going until right before the competition. I had learned previously that to stave off problems I need a chiropractic and ART treatment every 6 weeks.

My job involves demonstrating exercises, picking up weights, unloading bars, and being on my feet for most of the day. This adds up over time. As osteopath Lenny Parracino said in a workshop the summation of stresses on the body must be taken into account.

Pay more attention to preventative treatment and listen to your body.

Now for more info on common gym mistakes check this article I contributed to in Men's Health UK: 10 Muscle Building Mistakes.

1 Get with the programme
"Without a doubt the foundation of many troubles people have in building muscle/getting fit is not using a programme designed by a professional and sticking to it," says personal trainer Chris Bathke. "I've seen hundreds of guys over the years do the same chest, arms and ab exercises and get literally nowhere. If they had been working with a programme that utilises the overload principle, periodisation and other facets of an intelligent scientific programme then progress would be constant." Work hard. But also work smart.

2 Focus on food
Even if you're armed with the best workout programme in the world, it's all futile if you fail to kick that Big Mac habit. "Without addressing your nutritional approach, and tweaking it to meet your goals, you are unlikely to ever make much progress in changing your physique," says Derran Langston ( "Sure, you might get stronger and a little bigger, but you're never going to look good." Spend at least as much time sorting out your diet as you do planning your workout.

3 Good manners cost nothing
It's also useless getting ripped only to get ripped apart by furious gym-bunnies. "If you're strong enough to lift 100kg on the bar, you're damn well strong enough to put it back on the rack," says Dr Elesa Argent, personal trainer and ex-bodybuilding champ. "Don't squat on a piece of equipment either – let people jump in during sets if the place is busy." And say please and thank you.

4 Compound your mistakes
People who neglect the biggest muscle groups, wasting time and effort on relatively ineffective isolation movements, are a personal bugbear of Bathke. "If you want to build serious muscle then you need to make compound movements that work across more than one joint, such as the deadlift, pull-up, squat and press-up staples of your training. It is no coincidence that athletes in strength sports who have physiques we all envy built their foundation upon such exercises," he says.

5. Know your limits
"A lot of people try to copy the routines of professional bodybuilders, doing 15-20 sets for each muscle group," says sports scientist Christian Finn ( The problem? "You can't take a programme used by a heavily drug-assisted and genetically gifted bodybuilder and assume that someone who trains without the same level of pharmaceutical assistance will get the same results." Stimulate, don't annihilate.

6 Watch your form
"Too many trainees throw weights around with poor form and no regard for controlling the speed of the reps," says Scott H. Mendelson ( "Manipulating the length of the set by assigning a time in seconds for the lowering, bottom position, lifting and pause on top is an important strategy for increasing muscle-fibre stimulation. Lack of control is most evident with those using loads that are way too low to produce any benefit."

7 Squat like a baby
Squats, in particular, are a valuable muscle-builder often rendered near useless through poor technique. "Watch a baby move and they will easily perform a deep squat while transitioning into tiny footsteps," says MH online fitness editor Neil McTeggart ( "As adults the deep squat has been replaced by two-inch knee tremblers: guys attempting to impress everyone by squatting triple their bodyweight in front of their chest dominate their peers." Go deep to build both size and power.

8 Back yourself up
"The Monday night bench-press session is a ritual in gyms up and down the country," says McTeggart. "Unfortunately a routine rich in push and poor in pull can lead to all sorts of problems. To keep the shoulders healthy and add visual size to the chest, work the back with more volume and frequency than anything else."

9 Leg it
One of the most common sights in gyms everywhere is huge-chested behemoths waddling around on spindly legs, risking injury and looking ridiculous. "You can't get great symmetry without well-developed hamstrings, quads and calves," says Dr Argent. "Substitute some benching time for squats, curls and lunges and you'll look so much better."

10 Use kettlebells correctly
As anyone who's recently checked into the MH forums will know, kettlebells are big news at the moment – but that doesn't seem to have led to an increase in the knowledge of how to use them. "Time and time again I see PTs getting new clients to use kettlebells for side bends or floor presses, or any other number of exercises that would be better carried out with other equipment," says Langston. "Kettlebells are designed to be used for dynamic moves like snatches, clean and presses, and swings. If your PT doesn't know how to teach those moves or claims they are too advanced for you, find a different PT!"