Tag Archives: strength

Big Rocks and Show and Go

In the past, I have talked about proper warmup, soft-tissue work, mobility, stability, strength training, flexibility, power (explosiveness), plyometrics, agility and the list goes on.  These are all great characteristics of a sound program but how the hell are you going to fit them all in your 60 minute “no more, no less” workout?

Seriously, if I tried to fit every aspect of training into one of my clients training programs their head would probably start to spin and they would start doing a backwards crawl up the stairs like in The Exorcist.  There is simply not enough time to get it all in and why would you want to?

A good program at some point should have all of these components, just not all at the same time.  It is hard enough to improve on an area of your fitness that may be lagging, nevermind all of them.  So what I tell all of my clients is to prioritize and start with the “big rocks” before starting to remove some of the smaller ones.

When I say big rocks I am talking about the exercises that you suck at.  You know which ones I’m talking about too.  The ones that you have difficulty doing becuase your body just doesn’t want to “move” that way such as deep overhead squats, leg raises, and other mobility exercises.

Hint: Do these first by including them in your warmup.  That way you can’t use the excuse “I didn’t have enough time.” 

For example, lets say you have the hip mobility of a 90 year old woman.  What good is it to avoid doing squats and lunges (or even worse by using the leg extension maching) and ignore lower body training?  A) Your hips are going to get tighter than Lindsay Lohan, Brittany Spears a Catholic nun.  B) That dysfunction is going to affect other areas of your body such as your head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.

Once you identify and remove the big rocks everything else you do will become cake whether your goal is strength, athletic performance, weight loss, speed, or just overall fitness. 

One program that I swear by for myself and my clients is Eric Cressey’s Show and Go training program.  This program was created for anyone interested in getting stronger, faster, and moving, looking and feeling better. 

Eric provides a progressive 4 month program that includes a 2x/wk, 3x/wk, or 4x/wk option which are each packed with a proper mobility/activation warmup, strength exercises, fat-loss circuits, interval training progressions and tons more.  He also provides a complete exercise database with videos of each exercise along with modifications depending on your fitness level.  This alone is worth the money.

Whats more is the program is completely customizable depending on your ultimate goal whether it is athletic performance, to get stronger, burn fat, get ripped or move better.  The whole time it will be helping you to bulldoze over those big rocks with the addition of effective mobility exercises.

I have seen the results in both myself and my clients and can’t speak highly enough about this program.  ===> Check it out.


AAAHH!! Real Core Training

Working in a commercial gym I lay witness to some pretty horrific training practices.  Some so terrifying that I have nightmares of pink dumbbell monsters tying me to an eliptical and forcing me to watch Sweating to the Oldies as everyone around me is doing crunches and 1lb bicep curls.  Trust me, I have had this dream before and woke up in a cold sweat.

I know it is part of my job to educate and inform of the benefits and proper practices of exercise and strength training but there are many who are unwilling to trade in their beloved crunches for stability exercises such as planks.  There are some that I have converted to the faith of core training but they have done so begrudgingly.

Now, keep in mind that I am not bashing the crunch.  Just like any exercise there is a time and place as well as a right and wrong way to do it.  The problem is that most people lack the internal hip mechanics to properly perform a crunch as well as neglect their nether region (glutes) to keep their hips in proper alignment.  Most people sit all day in the flexed position and doing crunches may will add insult to injury.

I’m also not saying that the plank is the end-all-be-all for core training either.  Just like the crunch, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.  If your ass is up in the air (insert joke here) then your hips are in that deleterious flexed position and you are neglecting the proper posture.  When I have my clients plank, I make sure that they are squeezing the shit out of their glutes the whole time to maintain alignment and train glute function.  Believe me, this is a whole different ball game.

Now that you know where I am coming from it is time to maybe shift your paradigm a little when it comes to core training.

The first thing that I cannot stress enough is that your 6-pack (or lack there of) is NOT your core.  In actuality, there are two layers.  A deep layer that attaches to your spine and pelvis as well as a superficial layer that is targeted by doing things like crunches.  The deep core muscles which should be your focus are targeted by dynamic and stability exercises as they aid in spinal and pelvic stability.  You mean crunches don’t aid in stability?!  Hmm…

While we are on the subject of your superficial core and 6-pack muscles I cannot stress enough that you ALL have them.  The problem is that they are buried beneath layers  of processed foods, french fries and fried chicken.  Under this premise doing gazillions of crunches is doing little to no help in digging those bad boys out.

Actually, when it comes to core training it is more beneficial to focus on performing 10-15 repetitions with perfect form than to do 100 bobbing-neck crunches on a stability ball (I see this daily and a little piece of me dies each time).  Taking a minimalist approach and focusing on quality over quantity is much better than trying to impress your friends.  Slow controlled movement of the proper muscles will give you the results you are looking for.

Learning how to plank and control stability is only the first piece of the puzzle.  The rest is learning how to use that stability functionally during exercise and activity.  The core needs to be dynamic and ready to handle whatever is thrown at it in any situation to prevent injury and keep you safe.  With that in mind, do you think that just doing crunches or even just doing planks is enough to train your core?

The fact is that there is no single exercise that will train your core better than the next and you must integrate many different core exercises into your program.  There are specific core exercises such as planks, side planks, anti-rotation exercises, cable raises, cable chops, leg raises, and yes even crunches (but only if your good at the other stuff).

What most people don’t realize though is that exercises such as lunges, squats, pushups and deadlifts train your core and posture as well.  It takes a lot of core control and stability to perform these exercises and perform them well.  One of my female clients hit a PR on the deadlift yesterday of 165lbs.  Do you think she has a strong and functional core?  You better f*$#ing believe it!

One of my personal favorite core exercises (besides deadlifting) is the Kettlebell Turkish Getup.  It is one of the few exercises that trains the entire function of the core as well as hip and shoulder stability and control.  You begin lying flat on your back with a challenging weight above head and sequentially move to a standing position with the weight remaining above head.  Here is one of my 47 year old clients performing a getup as part of his metabolic circuit at the end of a session.  Do you think he has a strong core?  It is f*$#ing bulletproof!

A lot has changed in the world of core training in the past decade and even in the past 5 years.  Heck, I think it might be safe to say that the science behind core training has even evolved greatly in the past year.  One thing that has not changed though is the fact that crunches appear to be deleterious to your core if you don’t already have good core function and pelvic control.  I wrote more about that here.

My final question to you is “Has your training evolved?”  I mean, look at your technology: Iphones, laptops, Blueberries, Ipads, and Kindles.  Look how much it has improved over the past 10 years.  Why shouldn’t your core training?

Rainy Day Workout

I am not feeling very witty or clever today so I am going to keep this post short and sweet…kind of like some people’s attention span during thier workouts.  You know the type, do a set, get a drink of water, think of the next exercise, think about last night’s premier of Conan, watch my client’s actually training and getting work done, then watch sports center on t.v. before starting thier next…oh wait, what was I doing again?

I know it’s rainy out but that is no reason to get lazy by skipping a workout or sitting around the gym pretending to workout.  Both are equally as lame as Justin Beiber live on broadway. 

Here is an idea great workout for a rainy day like today and don’t worry, snow is right around the corner.  As always begin by warming up by foamrolling,

5 Min Warmup

  • One-leg glute bridge                                               10/side
  • Lateral mini-band walk                                         10/side
  • Walking spiderman with overhead reach        5/side
  • Reverse lunge                                                           10/side
  • Lateral Lunge                                                              5/side
  • Jumprope                                                                    2 minutes

15 Min Metabolic Circuit

  • Side plank with weighted fly                                       10/side
  • Jump split squat (or bodyweight split squat)     10 reps (10/side)
  • Kettlebell swings                                                             10 reps
  • Yoga pushups                                                                   10 reps
  • Kettlebell suitcase deadlifts                                       10/side
  • Squat and press                                                               10 reps
  • Reaching plank                                                                 5/side

Complete the circuit and repeat 3 to 5 times resting 1:30 in between sets.  The first round may seem easy, the rest will not.  This is a great mindless workout to get you in hear and training hard with little to think about to kick the habit of standing around.

In other news, since my blog has grown over the months (much thanks to you all for reading and sharing my humble blog) I will be adding video to my posts in the very near future.  I am working hard on getting video of various exercises to help you guys learn while I am away.

Any suggestions on what my first video should be? (get your mind out of the gutter please, this is a family site)

Recovery…. From Training, Life and Tackle Football

Maybe not one of the best ideas I’ve had in a long time but yesterday I went back to my alma mater to play in my alumni vs. actives flag football game.  It was all in good fun and regardless of what shape each of us was in I don’t think we were prepared for the hurt that was to follow.  Blood, sweat, a wet field, a black eye, and a potentially broken collarbone later we are all layed up today.

All in all I’m happy with my 2 TDs for the day and multiple tackles.  On the down side I am finding it difficult to move my legs and do things such as standing up.  Now I know how Jay Cutler feels having no offensive line.  Needless to say I will be on the couch all day where I belong watching the Pats take on the Browns.  Although I will not be playing in the Super Bowl anytime soon I will own this year’s Tecmo Bowl.

Since I plan on doing as little moving today as possible I thought I would share a few of my thoughts on recovery.  It is something that I did little of in my early days of lifting which is something that I totally regret.  I got results from completely hammering my body 5-6 days a week but looking back and knowing what I know now my results would have been far superior had I recovered properly.  I mean it is what we do outside the gym and on our off days that helps your body grow.

Whether you are an athlete, a runner or just a weekend warrior recovery is important to help prevent injury, strengthen your immune system, and get you the results you are looking for.  Sleep, diet and proper training all play a role in how your body recovers.

One of the first questions I ask all of my clients when we meet is how much sleep they get and how well they sleep.  It is one of the easiest places to improve not only your training but also your quality of life.

Here are a few easy ways to increase the quality of your sleep:

  1. Take a shower before bed to warm the muscles and help you relax.
  2. Do some static stretching or soft tissue work to help the body relax.
  3. Don’t watch T.V. in bed, rather do some easy reading or listen to soft music.
  4. Make sure your room is dark.  Cover the windows and turn off the electronics.
  5. Don’t drink caffeine or Jager bombs before bed.
  6. Try to get in a routine.  Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each night.
  7. Use clean sheets (my girlfriend appreciates this one).

Your nutrition also plays a huge role in your body’s recovery as well.   After all, you are what you eat.  Do you think that if you continue to suck down diet sodas and house desserts and fastfood that your body is going to look and perform how you want it to?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the term post-workout nutrition but what exactly are you refeuling with after your workout?  What do you have for breakfast when your body is starving for quality calories?  What is the last thing you put in your body before you go to sleep?  Everything you put in your body is going to aid in recovery.

Here is a sample day of eating:

  • Breakfast: 2 egg omlette with peppers, onions, and garlic.  A banana and a glass of orange juice.
  • Meal 2: Oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts and a glass of skim milk.
  • Pre-workout: smoothie -1 scoop of whey protein, 1/2 cup milk, frozen berries, banana, 1 cup spinach, chia seeds, and 1/4 cup oats.
  • Post-workout: 1 scoop of whey protein (or chocolate milk…I prefer organic) and a banana.  Gatorade also works well for recovery.
  • Meal 5: A sandwich…lean meat, pb&j or whatever floats your boat.  Throw some veggies in there too, baby carrots for an added crunch can be satisfying.
  • Dinner: Meat and veggies.
  • Pre-bedtime snack: Yogurt as it contains probiotics which aid in digestion and is also a good source of protein to aid in recovery.

You can substitute most of these food items for something of equal or greater value but try not to stray too far from the recipe.  The nutrients and frequency of meals all aid in proper recovery whether you are trying to get stronger, lose weight or perform better.  I eat the same foods whether I am bulking up or trying to burn fat, it makes food choices easier and I know I am getting proper nutrition to reach my goals.

For those of you who train and train hard every week it is extremely important to take a week to deload or decrease your training frequency at least every 4-6 weeks or so.  It may not be as important  for beginners as it is for intermediate or advanced lifters but you should still be finding time to decrease training intensity by either sets, reps or number of days.

I also prefer my clients as well as myself to take a day off in between training sessions to allow for full recovery.  Now I don’t mean doing nothing at all but rather not lifting heavy things repeatedly 5 days in a row.

A good recovery “off-day” could still be used for focusing more on soft tissue work, mobility drills, light body weight training and cardio such as a metabolic circuit or interval training.  Instead of playing contact football on your day off like I did, play something like basketball or another sport with your friends that will not have you layed up the next day.

Tomorrow I plan to do some extra foam rolling as recovery from using my body as a human battering ram in yesterday’s game.  As for the rest of today?  I plan on doing as little moving as possible.

The 3 M’s of Warmup

If you would have asked my 10 or even 2 years ago what I did to warm up before lifting I would have said either nothing or a few warmup sets before my working sets.  Looking back I believe that this approach is about as useful man with no arms with an itchy ass.

Although there is some validity to doing a few warmup sets I was missing other and potentially more significant aspects.  For one I was only randomly stretching in between sets which I found out years later would cause much male patter tightness from doing heavy bench and leg presses.  The other key ingredient I missed out on was any time of mobility work to help ensure I maintained proper stability and range-of-motion (ROM).

A great analogy to skipping a proper warmup would be starting your car in the dead of winter and hopping on the highway without giving it adequate time to warm up.  It’s a good idea to let the oil circulate and start down the road slow before taking off like a bat out of hell.

I believe that only temporary success can be achieved by taking shortcuts.  To that extent I have put together the 3 Ms of a good warmup:

  1. Movement
  2. Mobility
  3. Muscle Activation (Stability)

“To be ignorant of motion is to be ignorant of nature.” – Aristotle

Gray Cook wrote in his book Athletic Body in Balance that modern science tells us that the brain does not recognize individual muscle activity-it doesn’t need to.  Instead, the brain looks at movement patterns and creates coordination between all the muscles needed.

Movement defines us as humans and athletes and yet we are moving less and less.  We sit at during our commute, sit at a desk at work then go home and sit on the couch to watch prime time T.V. and Sports Center.  Even worse are those who make the effort to go to the gym then sit down on the machines and bikes.  No wonder your hips are tight, your back hurts and your ass is flat and/or fat.

Isolation is all fine and dandy for gaining size and strength but the goal of training should be to improve how the body moves as well.  At the very least we should get the body moving in multiple ways to counteract all the sitting that we do all day.  Allowing your body to move before your workout (whatever it may be) is an integral part to warming up muscle tissue which has been shown to help prevent injury and increase the effectiveness of your workout.

This leads right into the next component which is mobility. Mobility can be described as freedom of movement through the intended movement or exercise without restrictions with strength and stability.  Your body is designed for mobility and due to a mostly sedentary lifestyle, muscles such as your hamstrings and hip flexors become tight and restricted.  Dynamic stretches and mobility work will help these muscles return to their original length to aid in posture, correct techniqe, and to help prevent injuries.

Mobility warm-ups can include soft tissue work, stretching and mobility exercises designed to increase joint ROM.  If you are not mobile during your workout, the risk for injury significantly increases.

Personally, I begin every workout by spending time on soft tissue work such as foam rolling and using other implements such as a soft tissue or tennis ball.  Not only are you enhancing the quality of the tissue but you are on the ground and moving.  Next, I include several mobility and/or flexibility exercises focusing on generally tight areas such as the hip flexors.

These exercises might include:

  • Half-kneeling hip flexor stretch or mobilization
  • Spiderman lung with overhead reach
  • Wall slides
  • Split squats
  • Leg swings

The final hallmark of a proper warm-up is muscle activation in which I will include stability work.  There are varying studies on whether or not muscle activation is necessary or even beneficial when done prior to a workout.  My own personal belief which stems from what I have seen with my own clients is that by warming up the stabilizers such as the glute medius prior to doing an exercise such as the squat will cause them to fire more efficiently.

I included stability in this category not only to make your exercise more efficient but to also aid in injury prevention.  If your smaller stabilizers are not doing their job then your prime movers are likely to take over causing a certain amount of stiffness.  If that made no sense to you then keep this in mind: if you are stiff during your workout you could end up like this guy

Some great muscle activation warm-ups include:

  • Lateral Mini-Band Walks
  • Shoulder-Tap Pushups
  • Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Overall, a proper warm-up should take anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on your workout, time, and current abilities.  Your in the gym to move and feel better so a solid base is essential to your overall success and longevity.

Exercise of the Week: Sumo Deadlifts

If you all haven’t been able to tell yet I am a big advocate of lifting heavy things for a set number of reps and thus am an even bigger proponent of the deadlift.  As a strength coach, one of my main jobs is to get people stronger (duh) and there are not many lifts that compare to the deadlift for measuring overall strength.  Starting out though, there may be some people who do not possess the proper flexibility to get into the proper setup for a conventional deadlift.  Also, working with all types of clients I have found that some people are mechanically at a disadvantage from the start due to the relative length of their femurs and/or arms.  In this case I use the sumo deadlift.

The big difference between a conventional deadlift and a sumo deadlift is the stance and more specifically the position of the feet and legs.  Picture a large (very large) half-naked Japanese man setting up to do battle with another very large half naked Japanese man.  Sexy huh?

The Benefits:

  1. Strengthen your back, legs, hips, and forearms.
  2. Grip strength.
  3. Teaches you how to pick up heave objects off the floor without screwing up your back.

The Setup:

  1. Your feet should be positioned wider than shoulder width with your toes pointed out.  I have seen this done multiple ways so you will have to do some experimenting to figure out what works best for you.  I have seen obnoxiously long stance with the toes pointed straight out. I myself prefer a comfortable “reasonably wide” stance with my toes pointed out at about 45 degrees.
  2. NOTE: make sure the bar is close to your shins.
  3. Keep your chest “tall”, get your air and keep your abs braced (as if you were going to get punched in the stomach)
  4. Instead of squatting down, focus on pushing your hips back as far as possible so you can “sit” in the stance.
  5. Keep your shoulder blades back and down (I tell people to visualize putting your shoulder in your back pocket) to engage your lats and activate your thoraco-lumbar fascia to stabilize your spine.
  6. NOTE: you should feel tension in your hammys at this point.
  7. Keep your chin tucked and you should find a spot on the floor about  10-15 feet in front of you and stay focused on it.

The Pull:

  1. Keep your core tight and drive through the heels, pulling the bar with your elbows locked.  Shoulders should still be back.
  2. DO NOT: bring your hips up first!
  3. Your hips and shoulders should rise simultaneously while keeping the bar close to your body.
  4. NOTE: remember to slowly breath out while lifting.  Think: hissing by letting the air out of a tire.
  5. Finish in the lockout position by firing your glutes and getting your hips into extension.  Many people fail here but it is very important.

The Descent:

  1. This part is very important as I see many people finish a great set then finish by bending over at the lumbar spine.
  2. To descend, start at the hips and push your but back (just like in the setup) while maintaining a slight arch in your lower back.
  3. Breaking with your hips rather than your knees (the knees can bend, don’t confuse this) and keeping the bar in contact with your body control the weight back to earth.

A Few Recommendations:

  1. You should pull frequently but only pull heavy once a week or once every other week.
  2. Find and fix your weaknesses whether it is your back, your shoulders, your glutes, or your core.  I wrote an article on this a few months ago.
  3. Go barefoot.  Your body will learn better neurologically and you will get better ankle mobility.  I think barefoot is the way to go but flat soled shoes work just as well.
  4. Get your ass into the picture by doing extra hip extension work such as glute bridges and barbell hip thrusts.
  5. Do speed work such as speed deadlifts or kettlebell swings.

My own deadlift PR stands at 405 lbs and is slowly rising.  If you want to get stronger then I recommend a great program such as 5-3-1, westside barbell, and Eric Cressey’s Maximum Strength which I highly recommend for beginners.

Happy sumo deadlifting!

Strength Training For the Fall

It’s that time of year again in Boston so start breaking out the hoodies and adding the layers because it is about to start getting chilly.  The fall is my favorite season not only because football is in back in high gear, hockey is starting and great fall T.V. shows like Fringe are starting up again but because I worry less about what my abs look like.

To me this means I can stop training like a flea on crack and start focusing more on strength training and packing on some muscle.  This year especially since I have come to realize that I have been 170 lbs and lifted the same weight for the past 4 years.  Talk about a plateau.

So this year I am changing up my program, quite a bit I might add, and doing some powerlifting and decreasing my volume.  A lot.  The other half of the equation is lifting heavy.  Very heavy.

Lift Big, Get Stronger

I don’t care who you are, male, female, hobbit, if you are training for strength you should be lifting above 90% of your max.  This means keeping your reps below 8, for me 3-5 is sufficient for most lifts (I keep deadlifts 3 or lower).

Rachel Cosgrove showing whats up

The key is to focus on progressive overload and getting stronger either each workout, each week, or each month.  If you are not increasing your lifts (and yes, the 2.5 lb weights are o.k. to use) then you should rethink your training.  It could be your program OR your diet which I will get into in a bit.

If you have seen me around the gym over the past few months I have been on a mission to increase my deadlift so many of my workouts have revolved around just that.  Using my own variation of a 5-3-1 program I managed to increase my deadlift from a meek 335 lbs to 405 in just two months.  My bench went from 235 to 295 and my squat…well we won’t talk about that but it is floundering around 315.

Last week was my deloading week where I focused a bit more on mobility and the technical points but today starts a new day.  I am excited to say that I will be going through Eric Cressey’s Show & Go program which was designed not only for strength but to get you to move, feel, and look better as well.  I will keep you updated on my progress.

For the most part, each training day focuses on one of the big lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench, rows, pullups, and overhead pressing.  This should be the majority of your workout and include at least 3-5 sets of low rep work.  The rest of your workout can include single leg work (lunges, single-leg rdl’s), good mornings, close grip bench, push presses, face pulls, suspension rows, farmer walks and tons of core (planks, side planks, anti-rotation holds, and rollouts).

Eat Big, Get Big

The other half of the equation is to add more calories which some people, like myself, is easier said than done.  I don’t mean eating crap calories either, you should still be consuming mainly nutritious foods just in massive quantities.  I don’t care who you are, if you are eating like a 12 year old girl then you are not going to get big.  Period.

My diet doesn’t change much  between bulking and cutting down but there are a few changes I make to the food I consume.  I obviously increase my caloric intake and the easiest way to do that is to eat whole foods that contain more calories.

The first change I make comes at breakfast and is going from eating an egg or two with the addition of some whites to eating a butt load of whole eggs.  The fat content of the yoke not only provides more calories but extra vitamins as well.  I could get into the egg debate on whether or not yokes are good for you but I believe they are and I will continue to eat them until research proves me wrong.

The next addition comes from milk.  Any other time of the year I almost cut milk out of my diet completely and opt for the more nutritious and delicious almond milk but that just won’t cut it when I am trying to get in the calories.  But if you are working on building some muscle, then milk does provide extra calories as well as protein, some electrolytes, and extra vitamins.  I recommend at least 2% milk and for the hardgainers whole milk works pretty well.  My personal favorite is a nice glass of chocolate milk as a post-workout recovery drink.

In addition to continuing to eat boat loads of fresh produce, a few other ingredients that I add to my diet during this time are tons of peanut butter, cheese, red meat, and truck loads of tubers.  Sweet potatos still work well here, but white potatos add tons of extra nutrition and good carbs to aid in the battle.  Remember: even though you are trying to increase your calories, you are what you eat.  Eating a little less clean is ok but junk food and overly processed foods are still off limits for this guy.

Getting big is a battle and my weapon is a fork” – Dr. John Berardi

Add your questions and comments below because I would love to get a discussion going on this one.

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