A few weeks ago, I posted on my blog “10 Things to work on: to be strong, fit and healthy”. I basically wrote this for the general population: especially my friends, family and clients who many are just learning the right way to train for the first time. It was meant to serve as a small guide of goals to work towards. My thoughts were that it doesn’t matter if you actually reach all of those goals but that you are constantly striving to get there. A day after I posted it, I received an e-mail from a coaching friend telling me he loved the blog post but was wondering if I could write one for more advanced trainees. I thought what a great idea for an article. So here goes, 10 things to work on to be strong, fit and healthy (the advanced version).
For the first time in human history, we are the point where learning and communication with the outside world can all be accomplished via electronic means. We can literally sit on our couch changing the channels on our television with our remote control, be talking to our friends on our cell phones, and be scanning the internet for information on our IPAD, with the only movement required of our bodies being to walk to the kitchen to eat and to then to the bathroom to let it out on the other end. 30 years ago, we actually had to stand up and walk to change the channel, answer the phone or go to the library to learn something.
Some people may marvel at this idea of human ingenuity and how technology has made our lives so much easier. To me, it’s my worst nightmare knowing that my children are going to grow up in a world where moving around is secondary to our love affair with technology. It’s almost impossible for all of us, even the most active of people, not to be affected negatively by the ways of the technological world today. The good thing is there is something we can do about it. We can train brutally hard and build our bodies to be strong and resilient to not only survive in this day and age, but thrive. As Paul Uram said in his 1968 book Refining Human Movement, “I believe it is imperative for modern day teachers and coaches to provide programs of maximum value to the individual. These programs must refine human movement, improve skills, reduce injuries, and more importantly, promote lifelong freedom of movement thereby restoring the one natural attribute mans mechanized, affluent society has stolen from him.”
Time to set the bar high. Enjoy!
10 things to work on
- Get really strong in the stretch position. In the book Supertraining, Mel Siff states “resistance training of gradual increasing intensity in any zones of active muscular inadequacy, particularly in the region of full extension, is to be encouraged.” I can’t tell you how many times in the past 15 years certain coaches, therapists and trainers have warned me that I better static stretch or someday very soon I will be sorry. I am still waiting for the fateful day when I blow out my hamstring running at top speed down the football field. Until that day comes I am going to stick to what has been working for me since I started training all those years ago. Good quality strength exercises taken through a full range of motion. One version of training that I have been exploring for the past few years with myself and with my athletes is training at extension. Basically the idea is to train the muscles really hard while they are in the stretch position. When this happens the joint is taken through its full range of motion. The muscles on one side of the joint get lengthened/mobilized and the muscles on the other side of the joint shorten/contract and become more stable. The harder you force your body to work in these positions the better you get: improved mobility and stability. The fundamental principle of animal motion is that all activity is the result of balance between stability and mobility in the body. (Siff P.48) To make things as simple as possible, during movement we have muscles that are contracting or shortening called the agonist these cause a specific joint action to take place and other muscles that are relaxing or lengthening called antagonist that work in direct opposition of the agonists. All human movement happens from this very intricate interplay between these two concepts. So as you can see it doesn’t matter if you are a body builder, athlete or marathoner, if you want to move well in anything you do it’s extremely important to train to be not only strong but mobile as well.
My article here at T-nation explains some of the possible variations of this method:
- Any dead lift variation: I my opinion, the dead lift is the most primal of all exercises. I am pretty sure humans have been picking up heavy stuff off the ground for thousands of years. If you are looking to get some mutant strength and size, the dead lift is a great place to start. With some consistency and effort, there is no reason why the average trainee can’t work up 2.5 times their body weight or more in this lift. One version of the dead lift I use with my strength-power athletes is called the snatch grip dead lift to shin/RDL. The exercise starts from the top and lowers the bar down to shin level. When teaching this lift I use what Dan John calls creating the Bow and arrow. The idea is to think about lowering the bar by pushing your butt back to the wall behind you and your chin out to the wall in front of you. When this technique is done right, it will create some massive tension in the posterior chain. This is also a great way to teach your athletes how to do the Olympic lifts from the hang position.
- Squat: If anyone reading this has children, then you know that squatting seems almost effortless to a small child. My son will literally sit for minutes on end in a squat position while he plays with his toys. There is no other exercise that can train the major muscles of the lower body as effectively as squatting can. These days though, it seems squatting has fallen out of favor for some coaches because so many trainees are presenting with bad genetics, poor training habits, injury or a combination of all three. This can make teaching the squat movement a very daunting task at times. For some, finding a healthy squat alternative is the best option.
If you are healthy enough to train the back squat, then an obvious goal to work towards is the coveted double bodyweight squat. If you choose the front squat as your squat exercise of choice, than a range of 80%-85% of you max back squat is an attainable goal. If front and back squats do not work for you, than variations like Zercher squats, elevated DB sumo squats, and when everything else fails, the Db Wall squat. By using the wall to put the body in the right position, we can safely train the lower body. The idea is not to simply hold as long as you can in one position, but simply to fight gravity and slowly let it pull you down to the floor. Please be forewarned that this is not for the faint of heart.
- Learn to Olympic lift: I am not writing this to start a fight between Olympic lifters and power lifters. Both athletes are very impressive, and if you want to be truly strong and fit, I believe it is important to use at least some elements from both sports, but particularly the former. Olympic lifting has so many variations that they can be used in some form by just about anyone. If you are healthy and have decent flexibility, there is no reason why one can’t learn the basics of the clean and jerk and the snatch. These dynamic lifts train the entire body from head to toe and one exercise can train more muscles than an entire row of exercise machines. If someone has issues with the catch in the clean and snatch, then simply using the different variations of pulls from different heights and grip widths can help add some serious backside size and strength. For those who are interested in taking their bodies one step further, you can try one of the most athletic and dynamic lifts on the planet: the hang split snatch.
- Sprint Steep Hills: “The introduction of resistance in the form as sand and hill is too important to be ignored.” Percy Cerutty
Tell me another exercise that can work on speed development, running form, leg strength and conditioning better than sprinting hills. The best part about sprinting up a hill is getting to the top. There is something special about how it feels to conquer as steep hill. You can guarantee that when you reach the top, your legs will be burning and your heart will be racing. Find a nice short steep hill for speed-strength development, or a less steep long hill for some serious conditioning. If you really want to push the envelope, find a large sand dune; you won’t be disappointed.
- Tempo runs, also known as old school wind sprints: A tempo run is not an all out sprint or a slow jog, but somewhere in between. It’s more like a hard run at 75%. Just enough to tax your cardiovascular system but not enough to drain you of your nervous energy that you need to stay strong in the weight room. A tempo run is exactly as it sounds. The idea is to keep the same pace throughout the entire run. Most tempo runs are usually in the distances of 50 -200 yards spaced out with 30-40 sec. active rest periods. They are usually done in sets of 3 or 4 runs in a row and then given a rest period of up to 2:00 min. A typical tempo run on a football field may look like this: (adapted from Charlie Francis Training Systems)
100 yds/walk 30-40 sec/100 yds/walk 30-40 sec/100yds /walk 30-40 sec/100yds
Then rest 2:00
Repeat for 3-4 sets
Remember this is just a basic version. You are ultimately only limited by your imagination and experience.
These tempo runs are great for the development of the cardiovascular system and allows he joints to move through a great range of motion compared to jogging. They can also aid in recovery from heavy lifting as well as aid in fat loss or staying lean.
- Pull-up strength: This is another simple movement that most people simply cannot do well. The pull-up is a great display of relative upper body strength. So if you are not very good at pull-ups, you either need to work brutally hard at getting stronger, lose weight, or both. My idea of being strong at pull-ups is to be able to pull-up an extra 40-50 pounds at least. Once you get to this point, you will have an upper body that will not only be strong but will possess the musculature that looks strong as well. One of my favorite forms of resistance for pull-ups is band resistance. Attach a band to a heavy db on the floor and the other end around your waste. What’s nice is due to the accommodating resistance, the highest tension will occur towards the top of the movement where people tend have the most leverage.
- Multi directional movement skills: My friend Jim Liston coined the term “4 cones and a pair of shorts” in which he was describing that you don’t need an extravagant training facility to get strong and fit. You simply need an open field, some cones, and some creativity. When we were younger, many of us played lots of sports that allowed us to move around in many different directions. As we grow older, decide to have kids of our own, and acquire more responsibilities, like jobs that force us to sit for long periods, however, we just don’t have time to play much anymore. Because of this, our bodies don’t move in the multiple directions and positions that you would find yourself in during the good old days. You can call yourself a body builder; power lifter, athlete or whatever you want, and some of you will tell me you don’t need this type of training in your program. I will tell you that you are full of shit, because all of us at some point in our lives will find ourselves in a situation that requires us to move our bodies with nimbleness, dexterity and deftness. Imagine if you find yourself in a life and death moment and your body fails you because you can’t move well? It now becomes imperative that we spend some time doing some specific multi-direction movement drills. Not only will this allow us to keep our movement skills, but this type of training is one hell of a metabolic workout. The list below shows just some of the many different ways the body can be trained to move. You are largely limited by your creativity and imagination.
I will break down the list under a few different subtitles to show all the different variations:
Running Drills: Skips, high knees, butt kicks, carioca, galloping, wide running, crossover running
Guerrilla exercises: bear crawls, crab walks, Butt Rolls, duck walks, low lunge walks
Pattern Runs: Combine different running patterns together like sprints with changes of direction, backpedaling with rotations, running in a circle, or over obstacles like cones, bags and hurdles
Jumping exercises: Broad jumps, vertical jumps, 1 and 2 leg hops, tuck jumps, star jumps rotational jumps, skipping rope, trampoline work.
The idea is to take a small amount of time each week and fit these exercises in.
- Train Unilaterally: In my mind, unilateral exercises are a great ADDITION to the heavy basic bilateral exercises often used for strength development. The value of training one leg at a time with exercises like lunges, split squat, step-ups and single leg squats comes in the form of strengthening certain muscles imbalances or weaknesses, Kick starting some new muscles growth when other exercises get old, metabolic demand of having to train each limb one at a time and the obvious carrying over to the multi-directional movements of many sports where the athlete often find themselves on one leg during sprinting, cutting and jumping movements.
- Tough Mudder: consider this one of those bucket list type things.
At some point in all our lives, I feel it is important to put ourselves out of our comfort zone and attempt something that truly challenges us physically, mentally and emotionally. During my college football days, I played wide receiver, ran the sprints, and did the throws in track and field. My life revolved around strength and power training. Four years ago, my brother asked me to run a 10 mile trail race with him. We ran through trails, in the mud, across streams, and up mountains. Although I consider myself pretty fit, this was truly a challenging endeavor considering my training history and downright hatred for running anything over 200 yards. There were numerous times during this race (particularly when my shoe got stuck and almost lost in the mud) that I wanted to call it quits. Its events like these that you really find out what you are made of: when you tell that little voice in your head urging you to stop to “shut the hell up” and you go on disregarding the pain you feel. Events like these can teach yourself something about you that you never knew and can open new doors to what is truly possible.
If you have never heard of the Tough Mudder race, I encourage everyone to check it out. The website explains what the race is: http://toughmudder.com/
“Tough Mudder is not your average lame-ass mud run or spirit-crushing ‘endurance’ road race. Its Ironman meets Burning Man, and it is coming to a city near you. Our 7-12 mile obstacle courses are designed by British Special Forces to test all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. Forget finish times. Simply completing a Tough Mudder is a badge of honor. All Tough Mudder sponsorship proceeds go to the Wounded Warrior Project
How can you beat that! I think I can handle three hours of pain and discomfort of dirt and mud in order to help some soldiers who decided to put their life on the line to protect my ass and this countries’ ass.
In conclusion, not everyone is going to want to work on all of these at the same time. But one of them might just be your weak point. For example, you might have weak legs. So for the next couple of months, focus on the squat, the deadlift and hill sprints. Someone might get sick of running on the treadmill, so they focus on tempo runs, hill sprints and some of the stretch position exercises for mobility. For me personally, I want to be as well rounded as I can, so I try to cover all of these each week in some shape or form. Good luck and stay strong!
1. Francis, Charlie. Training for Speed. Canberra (A.C.T., Australia): Faccioni Speed & Conditioning Consultants, 1997. Print.
2. Uram, Paul, and Dave McKinnis. Refining Human Movement. Butler, PA: Paul Uram, 1971. Print.
3. Verkhoshansky, Yuri Vitalievitch., and Mel Cunningham. Siff. Supertraining. Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky, 2009. Print.