How to Use Biofeedback With Any Program

“The death of training programming.” That’s how I initially viewed things when I first learned about biofeedback training. Why would you plan things out that you couldn’t possibly predict weeks in advance when you could make better decisions in real time?

Since then, with experience, I have learned that programming still has tons of value, just not exactly in the same way. I’d like to show you how you can integrate biofeedback testing into any program — even if it wasn’t written with biofeedback in mind — to create the perfect program for you.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve learned that there are two primary problems with not approaching training with any kind of plan at all:

First, I’ve noticed a tendency, especially by busy people including myself, to do what amount to half-workouts without a plan. Of course, when you hit the gym you’re not going to forget to do deadlifts, or squats, or pull-ups. But, you might very well forget or decide to do any accessory or assistance work. Even if you just think you’re skipping it “just for today” you might be surprised when you look back at three weeks of training and realize you’ve never done a single core-specific exercise. The end result is like the opposite of the Pareto principle. You’re already doing 80% of the work by showing up to the gym and doing most of a workout, but without completing the circle you’re missing out on results that would require only marginally more effort to get.

Second, it’s very hard to make adjustments to something that isn’t working when you’re not sure what you’re even doing. Having a template or plan gives you something to work from.

Nowadays when I write a program, I write it completely with biofeedback testing in mind. I usually write three different variations for each exercise so that the client can test them and find the best one. I have little rules for this, such as always including at least one “rotational” exercise to be tested, as well as usually giving the option of unilateral & bilateral work to be tested. It’s a lot more work to write a program this way, but it must be done.

To convert any program into a biofeedback-based program, the first thing I do is go through the movements that make up the program. I immediately substitute movements I know don’t work or test well for me, and then I write in alternatives to test. For example, as of this week I’ve started using Bret Contreras’s 2x4strength program as my base testing template. So far I love it, and I think it’s a really solid strength program – especially when you combine it with biofeedback. The first week of movements looks like this:

 2 x 4 Maximum Strength.pdf (page 14 of 65)-1

So this is what I came up with:

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As you can see, I’ve kept the lower-body work exactly the same while giving myself some other options to test. The upper-body stuff is a bit more tricky for me as one of my shoulders gets perpetually cranky with certain types of pressing, so I vary that more, including some strongman-specific work, and opt for more a bit more pulling than pushing. If none of these tested well, I’d change something on the fly.

A quick aside: People can get carried away with changing a program that an expert put together. There is a fine line here. By all means, make the program work for you, but don’t change things just because you think you’re smarter. Bret has a hilarious FAQ in 2x4strength “Q: Can I do this routine and another routine at the same time? A: Absolutely not.”

People often seem to think that if you combine three programs you will get all the benefits of all three at once. In reality it’s combining different types of soda into a “Graveyard.” It just tastes like shit.

When it comes to sets and reps, I let the testing guide me. I will use the programmed rep range as a guideline for how much weight to use (and I do the same when I write a biofeedback program) but testing always supersedes it. If the program calls for 5 reps, but my 5-rep weight is not testing well, I will find something that tests better either higher or lower weight. In this way, I have a starting point when I walk in the gym, but I am autoregulating via my biofeedback. Interestingly, I’ve seen a lot of people fail miserably on the famous 5-3-1 program. Not because it’s a bad program, but because they adhere rigidly to it even in the face of obvious signs that it’s NOT in sync with their body. Most often I see people not hitting their PRs when it feels good and they feel strong, and then missing their PR lifts when the program says they should be. All it takes is acknowledging that your body does know better to fix this problem.

Suffice to say, I think an intelligent plan training plan is crucial to making solid progress in the gym. To be honest, when I picked up Bret’s 2x4strength program I just wanted to learn something, and see how he was doing things. I took one look at it and immediately saw how I could use this (in concert with some event-specific training) to prepare for an upcoming strongman competition. It’s a solid strength program, and I think anyone who uses it would see impressive gains in overall strength. Check it out if you’re into that kind of thing.

Finally if you have any questions about how to integrate biofeedback into your programming, feel free to hit me up and I’ll do my best to help.

Biofeedback Testing for Rowing

I looked across the gym and instantly recognized the strange lift. There was a guy doing a Jefferson deadlift. I wasn’t in my own gym, so how could this be? I legit had a moment of glory thinking that my quest to make the Jefferson deadlift universally known and adopted was reaching a critical mass before I remembered that the guy doing the Jefferson was my friend Greg Kowal, a physical therapist who is currently working in northern Minnesota, whom I had brought with me to this gym. Oh well, maybe next time.

Asymmetrical training, using lifts like the Jefferson deadlift, is one of the things I have become known for being a big proponent of. The interesting thing is not that I necessarily think that asymmetrical training is ideologically or automatically better, it’s simply that once you start following your biofeedback you find that asymmetrical is often better.

Towards the end of my lift, Greg was finishing up a session on the ergometer. He waved me over and started telling me about what he had been doing lately in his rowing sessions. Immediately I knew this was too useful not to share, so I had him back up and shot a video. I’ll let Greg take it from here:

Big ups to the moron doing half-rep barbell glute bridges and grunting for the sound effects toward the end.

Off camera, Greg and I went on to discuss some of his other thoughts on rowing training. I will be the first to tell you that I know nothing about competitive rowing – but I do know some things about movement and despite what indoctrinated sport coaches like to think, sports are not special — they are just movements.

In addition to testing the slight asymmetry on the actual erg, smart rowers would be wise to test their gym training. When it comes to sport training, the gym is an opportunity to hit contra-specific or opposition patterns. For example, Greg enlightened me, in sweep rowing the athlete is getting hundreds of repetitions per session of a very uni-lateral movement in one direction. This is a prime candidate for testing opposition rotation and extension patterns in the opposite direction to the rowing position.

Greg’s application of biofeedback testing to rowing is a perfect example of asking better questions. Rowing may test well, but Greg wondered if he could make it test even better for him. Better questions lead to, as you heard him say, better results. What if you were to apply biofeedback testing to your sport or activity?

 

5 Fixes For A Common Biofeedback Testing Question

By now I’d estimate I’ve personally taught about a thousand people how to use range of motion as a biofeedback test. I find it incredibly effective, and I think it’s a proximal association to why my clients get better results than when doing whatever they did before (or sometimes after) training with me.

With that many reps, I’ve seen a few patterns or issues that people run into. In Jen’s new coaching group for Get Stronger Faster a question came up that I think can be instructive for a wider audience, since I see it in about 10% of the people I teach testing to. Basically the question goes:

I never see a difference in the testing. My range of motion always stays the same. What am I doing wrong?

Here are five things you should be aware of that will probably help:

1) If you’re not already, make sure to touch on your body (shins, ankles, feet) so that you can get a good measurement of the actual range of motion. It can be hard to tell if you just have your hands hanging out in front of you._D3C2481 Testing 4

2) People’s sensitivity varies. Some people have a very wide range from bad to great, and some people will never see more than an inch total variation. It’s highly individual. If you’re one of the people for whom the range is much smaller you’ll have to pay much closer attention.

3) Some people treat the test as a stretch and push too hard. It’s critical to stop at the FIRST sign of tension anywhere in your body. What this means is that if you’re stretching to the very end of your range of motion, you might be blowing past that first sign of tension. For me personally I note tension with my fingertips right at my ankles, but even then I can push my knuckles all the way to the floor if I force it. Notably, I can ONLY put my palms flat on the floor when I have done something that tests very well.

4) When you very first start testing, it can be good to compare two different tests to make sure that they agree. We call this “testing the test”. You can use the toe touch as well as a side or front arm raise to compare. They should both agree on the increase or decrease, which verifies that it’s a valid test for you. The side arm raise is exactly what it sounds like, just raising your arm out to the side and noting the angle. Very few people can put their arm straight out above their head with no tension. Same with the front raise.

5) Finally, it’s worth nothing that some people WILL test well for nearly everything. This is a good thing! My only clients who test well for a very narrow range of movements, and test out of it quickly are the ones dealing with severe chronic pain, and or rehab situations. You don’t want to be there! That being said, every single client I have ever worked with, even those from whom everything seems to test well, eventually has their watershed moment where something tests badly and they can clearly see the correlation of why that movement wasn’t good that day.

I hope these things to check are helpful. Drop a comment if this is useful or if I can clarify any more on this specific topic.

Why did you do that? To see what would happen.

It’s very likely that some of my clients think I’m a real pain in the ass to work with. I have to be, at least from their initial perspective, for it’s exactly what makes me seem like I’m being evasive is exactly what gets them the unprecedented results they’ve been looking for.

Here’s a typical conversation: “Hey David, I have a question for you.” To which I respond, “OK, I have questions for you.”

I don’t have (many) answers, but I have a lot of questions. To understand what that means, we have to take a trip back to middle school science.

The Scientific Method

If you’re not familiar with the scientific method, you’re about to get a crash course. The scientific method is currently the best algorithm we as monkeys who stood up have to begin to understand the world around us. It’s far from perfect, but it’s what we’ve got.

The scientific method begins with asking a question.

“If the sun is so powerful but the power is very widely distributed, what could I do to harness the power of the sun?”

or:

“How do I make muscles bigger?”

The next step, perhaps preceded by some amount of research, is to construct a specific hypothesis that can be tested. The hypothesis is an educated guess as to what happens or how it happens. The key to a good hypothesis is that you have some idea in mind, and that it can be tested specifically.

“If I were to use a magnifying glass to focus the power of the sun on one spot it might be powerful enough to create fire.”

Or:

“If I were to do bicep curls often, my bicep muscles would get bigger.”

Notice that the scientific method begins with a question, but a hypothesis is more like a statement of belief.

Next, you would design an experiment to test the hypothesis. Experimental design is important because the results are only as good as the experimental design. You can be perfectly correct in your hypothesis, but not prove it out correctly because your experimental design was flawed.science

“I will take a magnifying glass that combines a 6 inch diameter area of sunlight into a spot one sixteenth of an inch in diameter and determine how much heat is generated by measuring the temperature rise on the bulb of a thermometer. Or just burn some ants.”

Or:

“I will do one set of bicep curls to failure every other day for the next 4 weeks.”

Keep in mind the limitations of experiment design. For example, I rarely if ever train to failure, but if I were designing an experiment for multiple people I would want to control the variables, so I might use failure as a common stopping point for everyone.

Once you’ve come up with your experiment that you’re going to use to test, you’ll perform the experiment and collect data.

Collecting data on your experiment is vital. I am one of the biggest proponents of keeping a training journal or log. This is your experiment data.  You are hopelessly lost without it. If your training results suck I would bet my stack that you don’t keep a training journal.

Second to last you analyze your data. In short, did it work?

“Through a highly accurate analysis of the smoke coming up from the melting ants, I was able to determine that a magnifying glass does in fact enable you to concentrate the power of the sun.”

Or:

“My biceps have grown a half-inch in circumference since 4 weeks ago, proving that 4 weeks of 1 set of bicep curls to failure appears to be associated to muscle growth in my biceps.”

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important step of all: construct a new hypothesis or ask a new question. The fundamental limitation of the scientific method is that when you’re done with an experiment you have an answer that is very limited in scope, most especially temporally or in terms of time. In other words, you only know that what happened, happened right now – you don’t know that it will always happen and you don’t know that it will happen to everyone unless you test everyone. One set to failure of bicep curls might make your muscles grow now, but unless it always makes (your) muscles grow then it’s not really the answer, it’s an answer.

The question you ask could be bigger, such as could the same principle apply to other muscle groups? Or it could be smaller, such as what would happen if you were to change the movement variation slightly.

In any case, the process never ends.

The Experimental Mindset

This questioning or experimental mindset is one of the most fundamental ideas I hope to instill in people I interact with. No one else has the answers, but they’re inside of you if you are willing to ask the questions to find them.

Success-Mindset

Asking better questions, like nearly everything worth doing, is a skill that you will develop over time. As a coach I consider asking questions to be my most valuable skill. When I ask a client if turning their foot out slightly makes their movement feel better or test better I am asking a better question of their body. Sometimes the questions are the more traditional kind such as “how much protein are you eating” but often the questions are for the body, such as “what happens if you eat more protein?”

One of the unexpected benefits of approaching training (and life) with this experimental mindset is the understanding that experiments often don’t yield the results you predict or expect, and that’s an acceptable natural part of the process. Too many people are wrapped up in guilt with what they can and can’t do or change especially when it comes to exercise and health. If you decide that you’re going to start eating better across the board it’s easy to feel guilty and frustrated when you predictably fail a few days in. On the other hand, if you acknowledge that it’s an experiment to see what you’re capable of doing then it’s simply a data point when you realize that you aren’t capable of doing what you had in mind – yet.

What do I do for cardio?

Ah, cardio! In other words, anything over five reps. My favorite forms of cardio include deadlifting for between 20 and 50 reps per set, one-arm rowing heavy dumbbells for 20+ reps, and loading atlas stones to a platform or my shoulder for as many reps as possible.

If that doesn’t sound like anything remotely resembling something you’ve considered cardio before allow me to explain. In short, we’ve learned that the commonly held belief that there is a dichotomy between resistance training and cardio is completely false. In reality, these systems overlap and in the gaps between intense exertion you have, essentially, “cardio.” Or what my wife, Jen Sinkler, has been credited has having coined “Lifting weights faster.”

After my email yesterday about the amount of distress I was under during the Lift Weights Fasterlaunch a few people emailed me and asked how I can reconcile the idea of doing circuit workouts with set time or rep frames and the idea that you should be doing exactly what is best for your body. It’s a great question and I’m glad that some people reached out so that I can expand on it for everyone.

The type of strength training I advocate is primarily eustressful. If you’re not familiar with the term it is colloquially considered “good stress” but we use a more useful definition: stress that is easily resolvable. On the other hand, distress is stress that is not easily resolved. Another way to say that is that distress has a high cost, whereas eustress has a low cost.

While I absolutely hold that you should be optimizing for the maximal effective amount of eustress training, a minimal effective amount of distress training is also important.

The reason why is a matter of adaptability and specificity. Specifically, if you never ever train in distress you will not be able to handle any amount of distress. However, if you train a minimal amount relative to your needs, you’ll be better equipped to handle a distressful situation. The more distress you are likely to encounter in sport or life, the higher your minimal effective amount is.

Throwing in an untested, potentially distressful circuit at the end of a workout on occasion provides you an opportunity to train for the position you might find yourself in. Sometimes you just don’t have a choice and you need to gut it out, whatever it is. Training that ability is exactly what you’re doing when you grit your teeth and keep going in a tough conditioning workout.

I don’t usually particularly enjoy conditioning workouts, but I recognize the necessary role they fill.

A primarily eustressful training model combined with a minimal effective amount of distress training is a recipe for unparalleled success.

Which is why it’s the exact model we use at my gym, The Movement Minneapolis. In fact, for the past 6 months my members have unwittingly been the guinea pigs for over a hundred of Jen’s Lift Weights Faster workouts. Doing so gave us an unparalleled sample size to tweak and tune the workouts so that they’re just right.

I can’t say enough good things about the library Jen has put together. It’s absolutely massive, and comprehensive:

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Whether you love that a quick circuit workout can provide a great stand-in for a more traditional strength workout, don’t have the facilities or equipment for more involved workouts, or like me, simply recognize the necessity for a little heart-pumping lung-burning action you will love Lift Weights Faster.

And if you’re stuck, frustrated with a lack of progress and need a complete overhaul of your training you might want to pick up Get Stronger Faster while the opportunity lasts. During the launch special it is being offered as a $29 add-on to Lift Weights Faster which is something I only did as a favor to my lovely wife! Afterwards, I will be offering it alone at a higher price.

Today is the last day of the 50% off launch sale, so grab it while it’s on sale.

Taken together, these two programs are as close as you could get to training at my gym without setting foot on Minnesota’s frozen soil. Call me biased, but the results I get for my clients who range from people lifting their first dumbbell to athletes at the highest levels of their sport speak volumes about the efficacy of what we’re doing. It’s certainly unconventional, but perhaps that’s exactly why it works.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

stress-hitting-head-on-keyboard

The past 72 hours have been some of the most stressful and intense of my entire life. In fact, things got really bad starting on Monday morning but things have been spiraling slightly out of control for the past several weeks.

This Monday morning around 11am was when I got the semifinal sales page from our web designers for Lift Weights Faster, the amazing workout library my wife, Jen, is launching. We were supposed to go live the next morning at 10am. Things looked dire.

I spent the next 23 hours working to put together all of the tech pieces that were still outstanding. At some point around 4am I realized that I wasn’t shivering because I was cold — the space heater was dutifully keeping the room toasty warm — but because I was running on pure adrenaline. I finished around 9:15, just in time for the 10am launch time.

By 1pm when it seemed like things were relatively stable (I would eventually be proven wrong) I was facedown on the hardwood floor passed out. I wasn’t just tired, I felt like I had been through an ordeal. My stomach hurt, my head hurt, and I felt stupid.

Beyond dealing with the unexpected and simply having to finish things at the last minute that various parties hadn’t delivered earlier, this launch was so nerve-wracking because it represents perhaps the biggest moment in Jen’s career, and certainly the biggest step forward. Putting something you created out there and saying “I made this” is an enormous risk. I had to make sure everything worked, and besides the fact that we had more work to do than there were hours in the days for the past two weeks it was terrifying and nerve racking to be in that position.

Listen, I realize this is a pretty soft situation in the grand scheme of things. I have friends who are special operations forces who would get a good laugh out of this. There are probably single moms for whom this would be a welcome respite. Nonetheless, the demand placed upon me was far outsidemy limits and what I’m accustomed to.

The point of telling you how awful I felt after staying up for 30 hours straight, believe it or not, applies directly to training.

Put in the terms I use to discuss training, this event was fully distressful for me. I was operating way outside my limits (I make no apologies that I’m a 9-10 hours of sleep per night guy) and I had to pay a high cost for it. This is not stress my body easily resolves, and I pushed fully into distress.

It was the training equivalent of choosing a weight I can’t truly handle and doing it for more reps than I should with no rest. And then doing some more.

It all came to a head when, on Monday afternoon, I took a break from putting together the sales page to shoot a video to tell you about the strength training component I wrote as a companion piece to Lift Weights Faster. About six months ago, Jen asked me to create a program that people could use in conjunction with her conditioning library, which of course I was very excited to do.

I had a complete and total meltdown during filming.

I couldn’t think of words, and the more takes we did the more stressed I got. Even with sticking cue cards on the wall behind the camera, I was having a complete breakdown. After every bad take I contemplated saying, “I can’t do this” and throwing up my hands.

But I didn’t have much of a choice. Emails had been scheduled, promises had been made, and there was no turning back. The ball was rolling.

So when you see that video, you now know the inside scoop. I apologize in advance for it. The state I put myself in with the lack of sleep and pushing harder and harder meant that when I was called on to perform the result was miserable. I was beholden to external control, rather than doing what was even remotely best for me and my body.

Which is an anecdotal way to say that distress is not a good place to be. The cost is high and the result is often terrible.

Yet, the distress model of operating represents exactly how most people train. An arbitrary set of exercises with no regard for how they interact with their body. Reps and rest and other parameters based on a math formula, not modulated by the response of their own biological systems. Frankly, it’s a recipe for disaster so it’s no surprise that a lot of people haven’t set a personal record since back when Mark Wahlberg was Marky Mark.

I got into the fitness industry in the first place because I want to change exactly that.

When I learned the method of training that I employ and teach, called Gym Movement, I truly felt an obligation to teach other people. I want people to know that it can be easy to make incredible progress in the gym. Not only can it be easy, but by making it easy you do exactly what enables you to make the most progress possible. And believe me, it’s incredibly satisfying to hit PRs every single time you train. How much better would you be a year from now if you set multiple PRs every day?

The strength companion program I wrote for Lift Weights Faster is, appropriately, called Get Stronger Faster. For foreseeable future, it is available exclusively as an add-on to Lift Weights Faster, which is fortunate because Jen has put together an absolutely astonishing resource in Lift Weights Faster. She can tell you more about it on the site, but suffice to say that if someone who hates conditioning work as much as I do can enjoy the workouts Jen designed, anyone can. It’s a massive resource: The manual includes 130 workouts, with 225 written exercise descriptions and photographic demonstrations, and nearly 20 how-to videos.

Get Stronger Faster is an application of the Gym Movement protocol that you could say is a distillation of a lot of what we’ve learned over the years of training clients at The Movement Minneapolis. I looked at what worked, what didn’t, what people enjoyed, and what people disliked and formulated a template that fully integrates your biofeedback into the plan. Your next 3 months of training might looksimilar to someone else’s on Get Stronger Faster, but it would also be incredibly different.

The goal of the program is to make you stronger, faster, of course. To do so, I have you do exactly what is best for your body based on your biofeedback and work just within your limits by avoiding excessive effort. Skeptical? So was a new client I just started working with a couple weeks ago. He emailed me before our session the other day saying:

“I have to admit that I was skeptical of your ‘stop a few reps short’ mentality but I’m finding that I’m actually firing better in the appropriate muscle groups and having better lifts.”

It’s a common thing I heard from people who are shifting their mentality from what they used to do, which didn’t work very well or they wouldn’t have sought me out, to a better way of training.

Big surprise though – when you work within your limits you do better than when you push through and work for 30 hours with no sleep.

So, do as I say, not as I do. As I type the final words in this post it’s 3:14am, and in all likelihood I’ll be up another hour or so making tweaks to the various parts of our campaign. In my view, this is a necessary distress that I have to do, regardless of the toll it takes. When the launch is over I’ll pay the cost and rest and recover.

The gym is always optional, always flexible, and never a necessary distress. Treat it like the opportunity that it is to get better in exactly the way that is best for YOU.

Writing Bad Checks

One of my favorite movies of all time is Top Gun. Any opportunity for a Top Gun reference will be seized immediately.

The wonders of modern life are an ever-present temptation to write checks your body simply can’t cash.tom-cruise-top-gun-photograph-c10-242x300

A typical cheeseburger and small fries at the popular chain Five Guys weighs in at a whopping 1400 calories. Now if you are a 180lb male with under 10% body fat, that meal is less than half of your daily calorie expenditure. Is that you?

However if you’re a average size female and your primary goal is fat loss, then a burger and fries is more calories than your body can consume in an entire day. You can eat it, in fact you might not even feel too full afterwards, but you are writing a check your body can’t cash.

Guys, you’re not off the hook. Unless you’re the above-described specimen, the burger and fries are already 70% of your daily need. Is that all you’re eating?

The modern food industry has made it possible to consume more calories in one meal than your metabolism ever imagined possible. Not only can you do it once, but you can do it several times a day every single day. Sure, you can keep writing those checks and getting away with it, but at what cost?

More than likely you’re reading this blog post at work right now, sitting at your desk. More and more Americans spend the vast majority of their day at a desk. Sitting in a chair is one of the most unnatural things you can do to the human body. In fact, the amount of pressure on the disks in your spine is similar in a sitting position to the pressure while lifting something heavy off the floor.

If you are spending 8 hours a day sitting at a desk, 2 hours in the car, and 2 more hours on a couch watching TV you are simply writing a check your body can’t cash.

It is only a matter of time before you will run into back, hip, knee, ankle, heart or other problems. A body out of balance will break.

Keep this in mind next time you are eating in a way that doesn’t support you and your goals or skip the gym for the 3rd week in a row:

Are you writing checks your body can’t cash?

You Don’t Get to Be Bored

“I’m bored.”top-things-to-do-when-bored

You are connected to the largest, most easily accessible repository of information in the history of time by so many orders of magnitude that words are insufficient to convey the significance of the difference. In less than half a second you can watch a tutorial video on nearly any topic from gunsmithing to philosophy. You can take courses from Ivy League institutions that people pay tens of thousands of dollars for – for free. There is a device that is smaller and lighter than a paperback book can hold over 2000 books at a time and access over 1 million books including approximately 42,000 classic books that have stood the test of time and are free. You can start a business in any number of directions ranging from selling arts and crafts to an enormous marketplace of buyers to charging $5 for quick digital tasks. There are online communities for every hobby, fetish, disease, sport, addiction, job, or desire imaginable filled with people who have a desire to connect on the topic they have in common.

But you’re “feeling weary because one is unoccupied or lacks interest in one’s current activity?”

No, you don’t get to be bored.

As I get a little bit older the aphorisms my parents taught me as I was growing up have bubbled to the surface. One of the things my mom would say was “I’m bored is something idiots say.”

You’re not an idiot, are you? I don’t think you’re an idiot.

If you’re bored you have the choice to change direction and do something to occupy your mind or body.

There are some things that don’t give you a lot of choices. If you’re tired you have to go to sleep. If you’re hungry you have to eat. If you’re bored you have a million and one different ways to change that.

 

 

 

 

The Most Underrated Strength Exercise You’re Not Doing

There are two exercises that have the lamest of lame connotations when I think of them. Maybe you too. The step-up and the clamshell. At least when I think of the clamshell, I think of the Eric Prydz Call On Me video:
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But the step-up. Holy hell what a lame exercise, right? Invariably you see it demonstrated like this:

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How many repetitions do you think our friend would have to complete to affect a stimulus? My guess is somewhere between 1500 and 15,000.

Almost any time you have an exercise that seems lame or ineffectual, you can find out if that’s true or not by making it heavier. When it doubt, go really heavy.

What happens when you go really, really heavy on a step-up? You get:

  • Massive core stability demands due to the offset position and asymmetrical force transfer.
  • Huge end range hip extension requirement.
  • Less ankle dorsiflexion requirement than a comparable squat – can be good for people with poor ankle movement.
  • Depending on the loading position & implement, upper back recruitment comparable to a similar squat or carry.
  • Less lower back stress than a squat or a deadlift due to the more upright torso position.

You’ll find many people raving about heavy carries and for good reason. Ambulating with a heavy load is a fantastic way to build strength in a useful, usable range of motion. Heavy step-ups are like dialing carrying up to 11, and I think they’re an underrated strength exercise.

If you have access to one my favorite way to do heavy step-ups is with a safety squat bar. The next heaviest option is in a back squat position. Finally, if you want to work on your grip strength or you already have ferocious grip strength then very heavy kettlebells or dumbbells can be a good option as well.

It seems like a simple exercise, and it is, but there is a coaching point that I think is useful that I picked up from Nick Tumminello. In short, Nick teaches to lean forward onto the working leg, and then lift the heel on the non-working leg. This combined with driving through the heel of the working leg virtually eliminates the cheating, double-leg step-up you often see.

Here is a guideline I tell my gym members when it comes to the relationship between box height and weight:

If a tall box tests well, go lighter.
If a short box test well, go heavier.

Tall-light, short-heavy.

Different heights have different benefits and are in many ways very different movements from each other. Do what tests the best.

Get it on with some heavy step-ups and let me know what it does for you.

Here’s a demo of a heavy-ish set:

 

The Instagram Battle of 2014

A few weeks ago I noticed my friends Hunter Cook and Jen Comas Keck posting videos on Instagram of themselves doing various fun feats of strength and challenging the other to attempt what they had just done. It looked like they were having fun, I liked the photos, and didn’t give it  much more thought.

Then a couple days ago my training partner and colleague Mark chimed in and asked, “Are these challenges open to anyone?”

Mark is one strong S.O.B. so I decided that if he was going to throw his hat into the ring I would  beat him to it. At the moment, the challenges involved rope pull-ups, so I laid my cards on the table with this:

Since that moment, this little challenge has absolutely EXPLODED. As of this moment there are over 40 videos on Instagram with the tag #instabattle2014 and Facebook is littered with the posts as well. You can see all of the tagged entries (Hunter went back and tagged the ones that pre-dated having a hashtag for it) by searching on Instagram for #instabattle2014.

The general idea is that someone posts a video of a challenging feat of strength, and you seek to one-up it in some way. It might be more weight, or it might be a variation like today I riffed on Jessi Kneeland’s very impressive barbell Sots press with a one-arm bottoms-up Sots press. Not least because I don’t have the mobility to do a barbell Sots press. Everyone has been incredibly encouraging and respectful of others, often reiterating that you should just try it before saying “I can’t do that.” I have to say it pairs pretty well with Jen’s post about the question “Can I do that?” 

There’s no one keeping score, there’s no governing body. Just people having fun training “together”, separately.

I’ve said this on Facebook but I want to reiterate it here .The camaraderie that has emerged is a perfect representation of physical culture and what it should be about. Using your body for one of the things it is best suited to doing: playing and being physically active. Coming up with new ways to challenge and push the limits is the best part of having training partners. I often miss training with Adam T. Glass in part because he had such a knack for coming up with creative changes to make things more challenging to constantly drive our strength forward. I made almost unbelievable progress during that time with the questions he’d ask that usually started with “Can you…”

My challenge to you is: Can you join in?

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