The Infamous Core Experiment

That training the core is important is sort of one of those “everyone knows” facts of our existence. No is going to dispute the importance of the core, although some will postulate that training the core directly is unnecessary because big and heavy compound movements like the squat and deadlift already train it sufficiently.

First a clarification of terms. When I’m referring to the “core” which is of course a hotly debated and contested term in and of itself, I’m referring to the general area that connects all of our fleshy stuff from below the chest and above the waist, all the way around. The core provides a stable base to produce, reduce, and redirect force with the limbs of the body. Let’s not argue about what we call it, k?

Besides the idiotic debates about what you should actually call this region, what people generally debate is whether or not you need to specifically train the anterior core and how you should do that. While it’s still part of the core, the posterior core gets enough work from deads and squats.

In other words, do you need to train dem abzzzzz?

I’ve always been a big advocate of training the anterior core specifically. I believe that it’s part of what has made me a strong and healthy deadlifter. In our gym training it’s not at all uncommon to have two full movements dedicated to some sort of anterior or lateral core stability training, in addition to squats and deads etc. It’s a primary, fundamental part of the training.

But a few years ago I wanted to challenge this assumption. What if it were true that you didn’t need to train the anterior core specifically, and you could actually get away with just training squats and deads. If this assumption was wrong, I would be wasting a lot of people’s time and effort with my gym programming – which means I’d be getting them worse results than if they spent that time more productively.

I decided to quietly do an experiment. Removing core training from my own programming wouldn’t be sufficient. It would be an n=1 experiment, which would be great to determine if I personally needed to train anterior core, but it wouldn’t tell me what I really wanted to know: do my clients need this?

So I removed all anterior core training from their programming for the next 5-week block of training. I kept everything else the same, and in place of where they would test anterior core variations, I put in sort of innocuous mobility drills that should have a neutral effect like wall slides and easy movement drills. To state what I think should be obvious, our normal programming consists of a lot of big compound movements like deadlifts, squats, kettlebell work, presses, and pulls.

At the end of each cycle we have “Max Week” where those who have trained consistently can re-test their maxes (from a 5rm for newbies up to 1rm for more experienced or advanced trainees). My plan was to observe the training and measure if there was a discernible difference in strength progress without the anterior core work. While far from a perfect experiment, the sample size was big enough that I would have the power to determine what effect it would really have.

That is if I could have continued the experiment long enough to see it through.

Within two weeks I started to see an undeniable uptick in complaints about back issues. Not major issues, mind you. But more people coming in complaining of little tweaks and niggles.

The effect was so immediate and dramatic that I discontinued the experiment, re-worked the rest of the cycle of programming, and reintroduced the anterior core work. The complaints vanished as quickly as they had appeared.

Here are the main types of core movements that we rotate through in our programming at Movement:

  • Anterior Core Dynamic – Movements that generate movement through the core, primarily in flexion. Things like crunches, weighted, standing crunches, leg raises, leg lowers. Yes, we do crunches. Believe it or not the spine is designed to flex and it should be trained in ways it can move.
  • Anterior Core Static – These are mainly movements that resist motion such as planks, farmers walks, weighted planks, body saws, etc.
  • Rotational Core Dynamic – These are movements in which there is a twisting or rotating movement of the spine which is both generating the movement as well as stabilizing. We favor Russian twists, Palloff twists, windshield wipers.
  • Rotational Core Static – These movements focus on preventing rotation through the spine. A palloff press is the most classic example, in which you’re alternating between a short lever trying to rotate you and a longer lever trying harder to make you rotate. The goal here is resisting movement. Side planks also align closely with this category as an anti-lateral-flexion movement, as do single-sided carries and deadlifts.

In every training session we will use at least one but more often two of these categories, and over the course of a block of training we will address all four core modalities in roughly equal rotation. Depending on the specific person and what biofeedback tests bests for them some people will do more work from one or two particular categories.

One of the things I hear most often from my 1-1 training clients and online coaching clients is a combination of “My core is the strongest it has ever been” and “Thank you for making me do the core work, normally I skip it on my own.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this, and you can probably imagine that the two statements are two sides of the same coin.

Eat your spinach, and do your core work kids.


Pick Stuff Off The Floor Every Day Challenge


The PSOTFED (Pick Stuff Off The Floor Every Day) challenge originated, to the best of my knowledge, in May of 2012 with Adam T. Glass on his blog. No strangers to lifting frequently, we kicked around the idea of making it a point of focus to pick something from the floor on a daily basis. The rules are simple:

  • Lift an object (any object) from the floor, every day.

That’s it.

How do you define the floor? Does a rack count as the floor? You tell me. Does lifting a kettlebell from the floor once and swinging it count? Only you and your body get to determine what counts. Do you have to do it every single day? Of course not. Do what’s best, but “keep the goal the goal” and seek to meet the challenge.

Why would you do this? What is the benefit?

Picking things up is one the absolutely most fundamental human movements. This is one of the simple ways we interact with the world. It also happens to be one of the pillars of strength and athleticism. As a side benefit, it’s virtually impossible to train lifting things from the floor without netting beneficial training of the grip and hands.

When you’re too worn down or fatigued to train heavy traditional lifts it’s a perfect opportunity to do more grip lifts. Grab a dumbbell by the head and deadlift it, or pinch a couple plates between your thumb and fingers and hold it for time. Challenge your creativity.

As with any challenge, it’s more fun the more people participate. Post what you’re doing on social media with #PSOTFED.

Need some ideas on how to structure your training to deadlift frequently? I got ya covered: “How to Pull of Deadlifting Frequently

What can you accomplish in 31 days?

The False Dilemma Problem

Paleo and pop tarts. Acupuncture and antibiotics. Hypertrophy and hip openers.

What do these seemingly totally incompatible things all have in common?

They all represent false dilemmas that are presented as binary options that are completely exclusive of one or the other. A false dilemma, or false dichotomy, is a logical fallacy in which only two possible options are offered, often between two extremes, without considering that there may be a third or even many more alternatives.

Positioning and thinking about things in this way is easy and effortless to the point of being outright indolent. It saves the presenter the effort of deeply understanding a topic and adequately conveying nuance and the full spectrum that exists in reality, and it saves the reader or listener from having to expend even a modicum of energy thinking critically about what they’re hearing. This fuels a vicious cycle in which those who use the most absolute language engender bigger audiences and more credibility because of it.

As a matter of fact, humans are so hard-wired to prefer concrete and absolute language that we actually deem a source as to be untrustworthy or lying when they use abstract language.

Which means I’m screwed and you all think I’m a giant liar.

Because the world is far less black and white than many people want you to believe.

Lately, there seems to have been an uptick in the amount of arguing and fighting that happens on social media that boils down to presenting false dichotomies where no such binary choice actually exists.

And we’re all so much worse off for it.

In reality, there is far more common ground between these polar opposites than there is difference in the extremes.


Paleo is juxtaposed against If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) and presented as a binary choice between eating pasture raised pork with spinach and donuts, protein shakes, and peanut butter. The reality is that there is far more common ground between Paleo and IIFYM than any trite Facebook nutrition meme poster would ever prefer to admit. Presented with any fit, healthy, reasonable Paleo or IIFYM afficionado what you’ll find is that the vast majority of their diet ends up looking exactly the same. They will eat large amounts of vegetables, protein from whole food sources such as fish and meat, and carbohydrates from plant sources. From my experience attending everything from Paleo f(x) to the Arnold, I can tell you that people from both ends of that spectrum eat donuts, ice cream, and candy and people from both ends of the spectrum eat grass-fed farmer’s market beef.


Alternative medicine has been a favorite target of the evidence-based science-über-alles crowd in recent years, but they’ve failed to acknowledge that in between the false choice of alternative and Western medicine there is a vast gulf of agreement about what constitutes good medicine and what promotes good health. Are there alternative medicine practices and practitioners that are utter scams? Absolutely. Are there Western medicine doctors who are downright criminal in their actions? Yes. But in between you have a wide variety of practices of dubious scientific efficacy when studied in isolation that just happen to work in a clinical setting to deliver the intended results for patients and clients. At the end of the day, virtually every clinician no matter what end of the spectrum they’d place themselves on would agree that the majority of maintaining health involves eating well, sleeping adequately, and exercising just enough.


When it comes to training, there are only two modes, right? Either you’re doing corrective exercises for hours on end, or you’re hardcore smashing weights and crushing personal records, right? That’s certainly how it would seem when you spend any amount of time reading training articles online. You’re either doing everything right in spending all your time trying to “fix” movement problems with corrective exercises, or you’re completely wrong to waste any time on it because you should just be putting more weight on the bar and getting out of your own way. Let’s not even get into the spectrum of exercises that are deemed to range from worthless to Holy Grail. And YET, we often fail to acknowledge that the vast majority of both corrective and performance oriented training lies in the wide band between exclusively corrective and probably-closer-to-destructive-than-corrective. In fact, I’d argue that all exercise is actually BOTH corrective and performance-enhancing – provided it tests well (via biofeedback.)

This Nonsense Is Killing Us

If we can agree that as a collective all the people who care about their health, wellness, fitness, strongness, etc. make up a community (there’s that setting aside the differences of extremes idea again) then we owe it to the rest of the community to recognize that very little of anything is actually more than a couple standard deviations away from the exact same thing everyone else is doing, and there’s no point in arguing about which is the correct answer.

In doing so we add confusion and doubt over the parts that really matter, and add nothing of value by focusing on the one percent of one percent that is different and acting like it’s a matter of kind, not degrees. When people are confused about things that are already intimidating and scary you know what they do? Nothing. We don’t need more people doing nothing, what we need, as a community, is more people doing the stuff that matters — the stuff that we ALL actually agree on when it really comes down to it.

Biofeedback Question: Am I Just Warming Up?

A question that comes up fairly often with people who are new to using biofeedback in their training is about whether or not they are simply warming up as they do movements and things test better and better.

Here’s the short answer: no, you’re not just warming up.

But let’s get into the longer answer, just for fun.

First thing’s first, I am going to assume that the testing results someone is getting are accurate, and not hampered by pushing to end range of motion, or ignoring the first signs of tension. See here for some common fixes. 

But what if everything really does test better and better?

The first thing to understand is that warming-up is not happening in the mechanistic sense that we often attribute to it by the words we use. There is no actual change in temperature of joint synovial fluids and any muscular temperature increase is debatable. The effects and benefits of warm-ups are hotly contested, and some studies have shown that injury risks actually increased with the use of a warm-up.

So what IS going on with a warm-up, and why do we do it? Why does it seem like we can move more freely when we do a warm-up? And an important question, why doesn’t it always work?

Warm-ups tend to have an effect that allows you to move more freely most of the time because movement that tests well allows for more movement! That is the entire basis of biofeedback testing. You quantify a movement (the toe touch), you do another movement, and then you quantify the movement again to see if it has increased. Theoretically you could do the same thing with your deadlift 1-rep max as the test, but the error introduced by the testing itself would be prohibitive. Using a brief max effort squeeze of a grip dynanometer is similar, at a lower error and cost of testing.

Range of motion is mediated by the brain, as an output that is generated after all of the various inputs from sesory receptors such as Golgi tendon organ and nociceptors as well as the brain’s own map of the body in space.

So when you do movement that tests well, you very likely ARE getting more range of motion. But if you think that all movement is going to “test well” and allow for more and more, think again. This is best illustrated with one of my favorite stories, as it’s so applicable.

A new client I was working with mentioned that whenever he went out for a run his first interval would be abysmal, but after taking a short walking break, all subsequent intervals felt great up until the end of the workout.

I asked what he was doing for a warm-up, and he told me that he was using a dynamic warm-up for runners that he got out of a running magazine.

So I suggested an experiment. Next time he went out for a run, instead of his usual warm-up, he was to do 3 sets of 10 bodyweight reps of the three exercises that regularly tested best for him in the gym.

Can you predict the outcome of this little experiment?

Sure enough, his first interval felt just as good as the rest of them. As it turns out, his regular warm-up did not test well for him at all, so subsequent movement suffered. The running itself seems to have tested well, so it was only after he took a short break that things reset and he was able to benefit from that movement. Switching to a warm-up of things that tested well allowed what followed to be performed at higher function.

It’s Only a Matter of Time

If you use biofeedback long enough, you are guaranteed to have the seminal moment in which you test an exercise and your range of motion is suddenly and significantly reduced. This may take a few sessions, a few months, or more than a year depending on what you do and how you move. But it WILL happen when you find something that significantly conflicts with what is best for your body.

Until then – keep testing.


This Is The Rep Range You Should Train

You’ve almost certainly seem them, maybe you’ve even committed it to memory. Rep range charts are to lifting weights as cooking temperature charts are to grilling. If you’ve never seen one, allow me to be your first:vary your rep ranges - Google Docs

Maybe yours has slightly different reps, or is represented by a spectrum with some overlap, but the general idea remains as similar as it is misleading. Low reps for strength, high reps for muscle, conditioning, or no results depending on who you ask.

This chart, as a heuristic, is not without value. If this is the first time you’re seeing it, you’re probably learning something useful today. Low reps with heavy weight tends to increase adaptation to maximal strength, and higher reps with necessarily lighter weight results in more hypertrophy as a result of stimulating the mechanisms for muscular hypertrophy.

Looked at from the logical conclusion, doing 20-rep sets of squats or deadlifts is never going to allow you to realize your potential 1-rep maximum.

Likewise, only lifting heavy singles is never going to allow you to realize your maximum muscular potential.

But memorizing this chart that is intended to be a heuristic can be incredibly misleading!

It can lead someone whose primary goal is strength development to never wander past the 5th rep.

And it can lead someone who wants to get swolerjacked to never approach their maximal weight limits.

So the question is what you should do instead?

Do ALL of the rep ranges, some of the time.

The reason for varying your rep ranges is an example of the whole being greater than the sum of it’s parts, or one plus one equals three.

  • Maximum strength potential can’t be achieved without maximizing the physical size of the levers acting on the muscle. All else being equal a bigger muscle is stronger than a smaller one. This can not be achieved by training only low repetitions for “strength”.
  • Maximum hypertrophy potential can’t be achieved without eventually moving bigger weights to increase mechanical tension. Only lifting for “hypertrophy” by keeping reps high and weights low will eventually put a ceiling on your strength.
  • Bone is probably best encouraged to remodel and increase in density through heavy loading.
  • Softer tissues like tendons and ligaments are probably best remodeled by higher-rep training.
  • While even just a few high-load singles or doubles of a large compound movement like squat, deadlift, or bench press may fatigue you enough that further productive training of those movements is impossible, high-rep training of pieces of the whole is almost always still possible.
  • High-rep training in exclusivity fails to prepare you in myriad ways (due to SAID principle) to handle loads at or near your maximum potential. In other words, you specifically adapt to what you do, so if you never work near your limit, you can’t work near your limit.
  • Finally, in terms of scope and breadth function – which I am always trying to optimize – training at both ends of the spectrum gives you the widest range of function.

Each of these ends of the spectrum, taken alone, may be beneficial. But together they form Voltron.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that the single fastest way to jump start someone’s flatlined progress, if they have always been training in a particular rep range, is to change it up. A perennial 5-3-1 lifter can start making almost astonishing gains when they start including 8, 12, and 20 rep sets.

Which will inevitably bring up the idea in some people’s minds that you can’t do high rep, or 20-rep sets of deadlifts.

This is nonsense.

One of the things that helped me build an indomitable deadlift (and back) was doing outrageous feats of volume in the deadlift. Workouts of 100 reps, or sets of 20 were not at all uncommon (although I’ll note that over all my training my deadlift average reps per set is 5.9). In 2014 at Juggernaut’s BUS3 Brandon Lily told me that one of the things that helped him build his deadlift is the “stupid shit” they would do with it. Sets on the minute, high rep sets, etc. In other words, lots of volume, lots of density, and lots of variability.

All of this to say, sometimes do a lot of reps, sometimes do one rep.


How to use Wendler’s 5/3/1 with Biofeedback

The following tutorial is a an explanation by Tucson fitness trainer Eric Frey. Eric owns and operates Quality Strength in Tucson. This post was originally shared as a reply to a question in my public Biofeedback Training group about how to use biofeedback with 5/3/1. The answer was so good that I wanted to archive it here for people who are curious about how to use a program like 5/3/1 but integrate biofeedback. I’ve edited it for clarity and legibility as an article, but all the ideas are his.

5/3/1 is often the foundation of my program. I love it and have found it to be very flexible, more so once I started adding in the biofeedback. I can’t speak to other programs, but here’s how I do 5/3/1. Your mileage may vary.91q5+t+JRGL

Wendler says that
the goal should be to set rep records on the main lift every workout. This is in line with the goal of setting a PR every day, but it may be too specific for what your body wants to do on a given day. So first off, I throw that imperative out the window.

Let’s assume your main lift tested well. Even on the third wave your first two sets, which should be submaximal are only 75% for 5 and 85% for 3. Keep in mind that these are percentages of a training max, and not a true 1 rep max. Training max should always be 90% (sometimes it will be less than) of your 1RM. So, these sets, on most days, are still not going to be very hard. I find they serve very well as work up sets. Again, all of this is assuming your main lift tested well, which I test while warming up. I do test after each warm up set and those first two sets to see if there’s a reason to stop. For me, if the lift tests well, the weight usually isn’t the deal-breaker. If for some reason, I have to stop increasing the load, then I do and just work with what tested well for the main lift. (ddn note: this is a key point – you may not be able to hit your “target” weight, but you can often get more volume in at a lower intensity – and still set a volume PR for that weight.) 

The max set of main lifts in waves 1-3 are all just that, undefined “max” sets. Here is where I focus on the elements of effort and use those to tell me when to stop. I find that works exceedingly well.

If the main lift doesn’t test well, I test variations or if no macro variations work well then I might try to break it up into smaller pieces or components of the lifts. I’ll work up to a good set of five, or a triple and move on. Close enough is good enough.

When planning my next cycle, if I find I’ve done well then I’ll increase the training maxes by small increments, as Wendler recommends, and keep pushing. If I find that I’ve had to make a lot of substitutions, then I will plan my next cycle to accommodate that. Usually, however, I try to make the changes in the assistance work, since I’m often using 5/3/1 to prep for a meet, and so I don’t want to deviate too far from the basic 4 lifts.

The assistance work is where you can be really flexible and rock the heck out of the biofeedback. I figure as long as I’m getting about 50-100 reps total of assistance work choosing exercises and loads by testing, then I’m ok. I try not to overthink it too much. I do less volume the closer I get to a meet. Wendler 5/3/1’s is fairly saggital plane dominant, so the assistance work is where I really try to squeeze in things that I know are lacking in my daily activities and transverse plane stuff.

There are days when the main lift and a few variations don’t test well. Let’s say this lands on squat day, I’ll take it to mean I ought not do squats today, and I’ll bail on that workout. If I think I can re-arrange the week, say flip squat and bench day, then I’ll see if that tests well. If I don’t think I can do that, I’ll do some stretching, rolling, mobility, tai chi, or what not, and try again tomorrow.

Early on in my playing around with biofeedback I had this one workout. Main lift didn’t test well. Variations didn’t test well. It was a squat day. Tried deadlifts, didn’t test well. Bench and push-up variations, didn’t test well. Rows and chin ups? Nope. I spent a half hour testing things to see what I could do. Nothing tested well and I felt like crap the next day. Since learning that lesson, if things don’t test well I don’t push it. I just do some active rest and pick up the next day.

Again, this is what works for me. Keeping the training max low is important in the main lifts. Hope that helps.

ddn’s note: Wendler’s 5/3/1 is a tried-and-true time-tested programming template for strength and muscular development. That said, I’ve known enough people who have been frustrated with their 5/3/1 results to know that it leaves something to be desired in terms of results for some people. It’s my experience that these folks are following the program too rigidly and not taking advantage of times when they could do more than what is called for while simultaneously forcing it when they should be doing a little less than what is programmed. Using biofeedback to bespoke this template gives you the best of both worlds – a proven paradigm for progressive strength training, and a way to customize it to make it work even better for you.

What Corrective Exercise Can’t Tell You

The truth is there is no such thing as corrective exercise. There are exercises, and they cause one or more of three effects:

  1. Desirable and desired adaptations and outcomes.
  2. Undesirable or undesired adaptations and outcomes.
  3. Immediately painful or harmful injuries or outcomes.

To be more accurate, any exercise is going to have outcomes that exist on a spectrum with some desirable and undesirable adaptations happening at the same time, with hopefully no immediate injury. The degree to which it’s skewed towards desirable depends on the programming – and how appropriate it is for the goal.

An example of this would be the classic bench press. While it will certainly build greater strength and rigidity in the chest and horizontal pressing musculature, at some point those ranges will be so strengthened that other various ranges of motion will be so disused as to be compromised – usually an undesirable outcome at least when it gets to a certain point.

If your shoulder mobility gets so compromised (or it started out that way) that you can no longer perform some other thing you need to be able to do (press overhead, reach in the back seat of a car, take off your bra) then you’d do some “corrective” exercises to bring about this new desired outcome.

So you see, there is no such thing as corrective exercise. There are exercises, and they either do what we want them to do or they don’t.

That being said, for the sake of argument, I’ll use the colloquial word corrective exercise to describe an exercise you do to elicit a very narrow and specific adaptation, usually to improve a specific movement function.

Let’s say you want to increase your ability to dorsiflex your ankle. A lack of dorsiflexion can hinder a squat, by forcing the shin to have to stay too vertical, pushing the hips back and shifting the center of gravity behind your base of support. Not strong.Ankle-Dorsiflexion

A simple and common ankle dorsiflexion drill is to simply (either from standing, or kneeling) push the knee over the toes, sometimes with band pressure around the ankle either pulling anteriorally or posteriorally.

This is a perfectly fine drill – with a caveat:

Is it good for your body to do?

We already know that you have limited ankle dorsiflexion and it’s negatively affecting your squat. Improving it would be helpful to the squat. But there’s a reason it’s not moving or at least there was, at some point. Is moving it going to make you better or worse?

You can certainly jam the square peg into the round hole, but you may be doing more harm than good.

Fortunately there is a very simple, very easy, and incredibly effective way to determine if this is good for you to do or not.

Enter biofeedback testing.

Biofeedback testing can be used for any movement, big or small. While the most common application for most people is going to be testing their macro movements (bench press, incline press, close grip bench press) I always encourage people to test EVERYTHING.

The video walks you through the exact example above, testing an ankle dorsiflexion drill to determine if it’s good for you to do or not. What’s more, I go through testing a common modification of the drill that is often used but I have found does not test well for most people with limited mobility. From experience I’ve learned that doing drills that don’t test well actually does more harm than good.

Are you still blindly doing things that you think are good for you, or are you testing it so you’re certain?

Why Different is Different

One of the more catchy things I’ve said, that has been quoted and attributed to me is this phrase, “Different shit is different.” Had I known how often I would be cited on that, I probably would have chosen something a little more elegant to be my legacy, but so it goes.

But, I want to formally clear up what the true intention behind this statement is, because it’s not exactly what some people have taken from it. What a lot of people take from this quip is that “Well, back squats and front squats are different but they’re both good so you should do them.” Sure, yes, but that’s not what I meant.

To understand where I’m coming from with this statement, you have to understand a certain mentality that some coaches have. It is often expressed in statements like “If you can’t squat below parallel with your body weight, you shouldn’t ever barbell back squat.”

Well, see, here’s the problem with that:

Different shit is different.

Truly, we have only began to understand the complexity of the human body. Not only does changing a single joint angle change ALL of the joint angles in the body as well as all associated muscular and connective tissue levers, but there is a nervous system change as well. These certainly well-intentioned coaches subscribe to a flawed philosophy of movement, that there is right and wrong, and moving “wrong” is a sure path to pain and injury.

Movements of the body don’t fall on a nice tidy spectrum where one leads to another which leads to another. It’s not a chain that relies on each link before it, where if one link is missing nothing can be done beyond that point.

Every movement is simultaneously discrete and connected.

Every movement either potentiates or inhibits another movement, but at the same time has it’s own independent effect on the body.

It’s for this reason that any assessment system that is predicated on the idea that the ability to do or not do one movement is predictive of another is inherently flawed.

It may well be that if you can’t do a bodyweight squat, you also can’t do a back squat. It also may not be true.

It definitely isn’t true that if you can’t do a bodyweight squat you’re guaranteed to get hurt doing a barbell back squat.

Because, different shit is different.

I take it with a grain of salt when someone says to me: “I can’t deadlift.” I refuse to believe that there isn’t some way, shape, or form in which you can pick up a weight from off the ground. There are truly very few people who actually can’t pick something up off the ground. If you bend over and pick up a pencil, you are doing a deadlift. It may not be a lot of weight, and it may not follow the conventional form of a deadlift, but make no mistake that you are lifting up a dead weight. That’s where we’ll start, and where we go from there only your body knows.

Sometimes the smallest tweak to one thing such as hand or foot position  is all that is needed to significantly change a movement, from something you can’t do without pain to something you can do completely pain free.

In fact, there is evidence that chronic low back pain is associated to reduced variability in movement. Of course, it’s hard to know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but I would offer that in my experience, the more variability in function you introduce to a person who is in pain, the more quickly they find themselves out of pain.

While I’d like to pretend to be all Eric Cressey up in this b and tell you exactly which nerves are innervating which muscles and explain exactly why one change causes a specific result the reality is that I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. In the end, my less-than-couth quip is about as good an explanation as any, and it doesn’t matter why because it doesn’t change the outcome.

Being able to move pain free in more ways begets moving pain free in more ways.

Once I had a client who couldn’t do a pain-free squat with any implement I handed her. Barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, it didn’t matter – pain. Until I swapped the kettlebells in a front rack for a sandbag. Pain free squat. Was it the slightly different shape of the sandbag? Maybe. Or was it the fact that the sandbag was the only non-conductive implement she tried and this had an effect on the electrical impulses in her body? I don’t have a clue, but I know she could squat pain free.

Because, again and again we see, different shit is different.

So the next time that someone, or your own ideology, places an artificial limitation on you based on the idea that everything is the same stop and ask more questions. With better questions comes more progress and better results.

Fix Your Squeaky SI Joint

This is a guest article by Doctor of Physical Therapy, Erika Mundinger, who gave a tremendous talk at The Fitness Summit in 2015 on how to deal with back pain caused by SI joint dysfunction. Her talk was one of the most popular of the weekend, and I knew this information would be helpful to other lifters and coaches so I asked her to put together an article for me. While there can be myriad causes of back pain, among experienced lifters it very often comes down to a lack of complete function in the SI complex, which these alternatives do a remarkably effective job at resolving. Hit us with the science, Erika…

It’s not news that 70-80% of the population has or will at some point experience dysfunction related to back pain. But back pain can come in many forms which can make dealing with it a bit tricky.  Somewhere between 15-30% of the people with back pain of these people will have either an accompanying sacroiliac joint (SI) dysfunction or an isolated SI dysfunction. This can range from a minor ache to a completely disabling. When it comes to lifting weights, having SI pain can be downright scary. I hear weekly in the clinic “I can’t work out until this goes away.” Unfortunately, what we need to help our clients understand is that not exercising will certainly not help in resolving back pain. It doesn’t “just go away and fix itself” as some may want to believe, or as they may have been misinformed from an outside source. Most often there is a faulty movement pattern that occurs through the pelvis that will keep the problem at a low level smolder that may be almost undetectable only to have to it come back again a week, a month, a year later. On the other hand, exercising incorrectly will often aggravate back pain, putting people in a bit of a catch-22.

So we have no movement aggravating symptoms, yet moving may aggravate symptoms.

So what do we do? Ignore it? Hope it goes away anyway? Push through it? No pain no gain?

Where’s the middle ground? There has to be a way for not just physical therapists, but also for trainers and coaches, to help clients exercise both around pain and to CORRECT the associated causes of the pain in the gym aside.

While the typical home exercise program that involves just piriformis stretching, foam rolling, and clamshells is effective, there are more effective paths a lifter can take. (Note: These are beneficial exercises for SIJ dysfunction. Stay tuned for part II with more on at-home self  maintenance exercises.)

First, it helps to understand how the SI joint moves mechanically.Sacroiliac_Joint

The SI joint and pelvis, like any other part of our body, moves on a three-dimensional axis. We can isolate each axis individually but for daily, functional movement, it moves simultaneously forward/back, side-to-side, and up/down. Think of walking for example. As one foot is forward the other foot is behind, the trunk rotates, the pelvis rotates, and one side will lift while the other side drops. Our muscles form “slings” around the pelvis working on longitudinal, horizontal, and oblique axes creating stability, also called force closure, from all directions.

Ok, so that sounds fancy and can get infinitely more complex if we were to break it down further. But what does this mean? In simple terms, to restore optimal mechanics in three dimensions it can help to train multi-planar movements.

How do I know it’s my SI, and not something else?

First, see your doctor. Typical SI symptoms will involve pain offset from the lower back, just above the hip and buttock. Pain will refer to the buttock, top of hamstring, and possibly around to the side of the hip. Symptoms will typically worsen with prolonged sitting, bending forward, bending forward and lifting heavy loads, and standing. Most people will feel better with walking and a bit of rotation. If this sounds like you, give these movements a try and see if you notice reduction in pain and better mobility. But again, these are “typical” symptoms and there is still variance from person to person. If symptoms are more localized to the spine itself, include pain shooting down the leg past the knee, or if you have numbness and tingling in to a specific area of your lower leg and foot, these may not be appropriate or productive exercises to try. And of course, if things aren’t improving, seek medical advice.

Without further ado, here are a few common exercises with correctional and rotational modifications to try with your current lifts.

Single Leg Deadlifts

Why it hurts:

This is a fantastic exercise to train the glutes, core, and hamstrings not to mention pelvic stability and balance. However, if we have a weak glute max and glute med, which is typically seen with SI dysfunction, the we get uneven closure of the SI joint from an unbalanced force locking system. We get excessive longitudinal pull through the SI without enough diagonal/oblique stability. The result is even more compression and shearing on an already painful joint.

The Fix: Single Leg Rotational Deadlifts

This exercise utilizes more glute med and piriformis than the single leg deadlift to help provide more uniform force closure. To perform this exercise, start with a kettlebell or dumbbell at the side of the foot, bend down rotating slightly to pick up the bell, and then stand up to a neutral position.

10 single leg rotational deadlift start

Please note, if you lack hip or spine mobility to comfortably twist to pick up the bell, or if balance is poor, elevate the kettlebell or dumbbell by placing a yoga block or a small step under the bell at the side of your foot so you don’t have to bend as far.  The exercise will still be beneficial and will prevent any straining.

This exercise can also be done on two feet if balance is poor.


Why it hurts: As with the single leg deadlift above, this is a single plane movement that relies on glute max, glute med, and hamstrings. While EMG studies have shown that there is more glute med and max activation with the single leg squat compared to the lunge, looking at activation alone can be misleading. In a single leg squat there is higher activation of glute med than the lunge, but there is a much greater activation difference between working and non-working leg. The result is a force differential that is significantly greater across a system that is already lacking the function to stabilize opposing forces. In other words, the single leg squat is too stressful and looking at activation of one muscle in isolation can be misleading as to how it contributes to the system. The net result is that the lunge is a better exercise, but we need to make it activate more glute med than in a normal lunge pattern – that only exacerbates the singular plane problem.

The Fix: Curtsy lunge

Similar to single leg rotational deadlift above, this exercise helps to activate more glute med and piriformis for SI mobility, not to mention the rotational movement of the exercise helps to retrain normal SI mechanics and rotation. Start with your foot on a Valslide, or furniture slider, or if on a hard floor have a towel under your sliding foot. As you slide your foot back, cross it behind you. As you stand back up think about engaging all the muscles around your hip to pull yourself back in to standing.

curtsy lunge

Kettlebell Swings

Swings are great for glutes, not to mention great for simultaneously getting a quick burst of cardio. But SI dysfunction sufferers tend to approach this move with a bit of trepidation and fear. This is one exercise I have heard clients at the gym commonly say “I wish I could do swings, but I always hurt too much after.”

The Fix: One-Handed Lateral Kettlebell Swings

This motion utilizes the spine’s natural rotation and fires a ton of muscles along the diagonal planes, engaging the glute max and med, obliques, and lats to name a few. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip distance and staggered with one foot forward and one foot behind. Grab the kettlebell in the opposite hand of the forward leg (so if stance is staggered with right foot forward use your left hand to swing the bell). Perform a one-handed swing keeping the torso pointed forward but allow the hips to rotate slightly following the bell at a 45 degree angle from midline.

KB swing startKB swing end

Fix Yo Biz

You may notice that when performing these movements that one side may feel easier on one side than another due to natural asymmetries and muscle imbalances. Also (disclaimer time) if you have limited rotation, be sure to start with low weight or no weight and focus on just doing the motion. Also never force more rotation than you can comfortably do. Starting with heavy loads or more rotation than available right off the bat with underlying dysfunction may exacerbate symptoms, but working through them with the focus on mobility can absolutely serve as a means to correct.

 P.S. If these tips are helpful to you, you might find these tips helpful as well which are based on the same concept of how the SI functions and what causes and fixes this type of back pain. 

Powerlifting Attempt Selection for Not Dummies

I recently coached seventeen lifters, the majority of whom had never competed before, through their first powerlifting meet at the Minnesota State Open. They all did very well, had a great time, no one got hurt, and most importantly to me completed more lifts than the rest of the field. This isn’t because they were necessarily stronger, which in most cases they weren’t, but because they chose their lifting attempts more wisely.

The successful lift rate for my lifters was ~82% versus 75% for the rest of the field.

JVB checks-in on her next attempt with me.TJ Turner

JVB checks-in on her next attempt with me.

Attempt selection is easily one of the biggest factors that will not only determine how well you perform overall in a meet but how much you enjoy the experience. Leaving a meet knowing you could have lifted a little more means you’ll be hungry and excited to do it again. Bombing out or missing a lot of lifts will make you feel like crap and ruin your experience. Missing that first squat opener will set the tone for the day.

Get to know your strength level intimately beforehand, and choose ALL your attempts before the day of the meet. This is critical. Don’t show up to the meet with a bunch of numbers in your head or even just your openers. During the meet decision fatigue will set in and you’ll find it harder to make smart decisions. Choose all your openers, and then “bracket” your choices for 2nd and 3rd based on if the previous lift went better or worse than expected. I cringe every time I see a lifter go up to the scoring table after their attempt and run their fingers up and down the conversion chart trying to decide what to do next.

Never, ever, ever miss your opener.

One of my lifters, Kate Gallagher, designed this super useful PDF template for laying out your lifts. Some of my lifters used a notebook, and some used this worksheet, but every single one of them had their lifts picked out before meet day.


How Much to Lift

1st Attempt: Your opener should be a weight you can lift 10 times out of 10 with a cold and a headache. In most cases it will be a weight you could do for a triple, and not in a best-case-scenario PR in the gym kind of day. Think of it like your very last warm-up rep under the exact conditions you’ll be competing in when you go for your two attempts that actually count. There is no reason to go for a 1st attempt weight that you would be satisfied with in terms of your total. If you only make your opener and miss your second and third attempt you should go home and think about what you’ve done and not repeat that mistake in the future.

Specific heuristics for each lift:

Squat 1st: This is your very first lift of the day and will set the tone. Consider being cautious and conservative.

Bench 1st: The data shows that the bench press eats lifter’s totals. Many, especially new lifters, make technical mistakes on this attempt. Guys especially who haven’t practiced with a pause tend to exaggerate their strength and are surprised how much harder a bench in competition is.

Deadlift 1st: My recommendation is to open at about 80% of your expected max lift. This leaves more in the tank for this demanding lift at the end of a long day.

Misses here: If you miss your 1st attempt due to a technical failure (a rules violation, not a failure to complete the lift) you should take the same weight again or the smallest possible increase (2.5kg). Missing this lift means your whole plan is out the window. I have seen people who miss and go up to their planned 2nd attempt bomb out of the meet all too often.

2nd Attempt: This is your first money lift and should represent about 90% of your maximum potential for the day. Making this lift but missing your third should still leave you with a solid total, but should NOT be a PR attempt or close to your predicted max. Don’t make this mistake of thinking that this is your first crack at a PR and the 3rd attempt gives you a second shot if you miss. Plan for success, not failure. If you have competed before, this attempt could be your 3rd attempt from the previous meet, depending on your progress.

Misses here: A full miss here puts you in a bad position for the 3rd attempt and will be extremely costly to your total. I’d recommend re-trying the same weight and hoping for the best. A technical failure on a completed lift puts you to a decision. You can go up to your planned 3rd attempt if you feel absolutely confident that you’re going to make it, but in my opinion you haven’t earned the right to go up by making your lift, so I would consider taking the lower end of your planned 3rd attempt.

3rd Attempt: Here is where you maximize the potential you brought on game day. This might be a small personal record, or otherwise 100% to 102.5% of your max. It’s not the “go for broke” attempt or the “pray that the crowd pumps you up and you put 50lbs on your max” attempt. Making this lift is what wins meets and increases totals.

Specific heuristics for each lift:

Squat 3rd: At this point in the meet you do not know what the competition is doing relative to you so it’s most important to execute your plan and make your lift. Get some feedback on how your 2nd lift looked from your coach and watch video to inform your perception. Sometimes a lift that felt slow flew up and it’s important to know when choosing your 3rd attempt. When in doubt go with a smaller jump. A lower white-lights lift adds more to your total than a miss at any weight.

Bench 3rd: By now you may have some idea who you are going heads-up with. If you are closely matched with someone else then it might make sense to be more conservative with this lift to ensure a successful lift. 3rd attempt bench presses tend to fail at an astonishing rate, so whatever you think you can do it’s pretty safe to say it’s probably a little bit less than that. In the meet I analyzed that had a large sample of lifters, 33% of 3rd attempt bench presses were successful. Part of this is technical failure due to rules violations, but part of it is just people grossly overestimating their actual strength. Know that a more conservative lift is more likely to add to your total.

Deadlift 3rd: This is the most strategically significant lift of the entire meet. You should know exactly where other lifters in your class stand and how the attempts will play out in the overall results. “If they make this, I need to make this – if they miss, I only need to make this.” It can be the difference between winning and losing, and due to the high-arousal and low technical skill of the lift it’s possible to pull out something you otherwise wouldn’t be capable of especially if you’re a lifter who excels under pressure. That being said, it’s still important to recognize your limits and execute your plan. If this is your first meet, I’d argue that regardless of the difference between winning or losing you should go with the attempt that you’re 95% sure you can make. However, a more experienced lifter might go with a slightly higher attempt (no more than 5kg) if it means the difference between 1st and second place, or winning and losing.

Final Thoughts

Aside from training properly and consistently to prepare, I don’t think anything has a bigger effect on your meet enjoyment and success than attempt selection. Your goal for every meet should be to go 9 for 9 and consider anything other than that a mistake that you should do everything you can to fix next time.

Don’t forget to have fun.