A few weeks ago I attended the Perform Better Summit about an hour north of here in Long Beach. It’s a great event, hundreds of trainers, coaches, and fitness enthusiasts attend and there are 4 different experts in different rooms every hour for 3 days discussing all things strength, conditioning, fitness, and nutrition.
I’ve attended the one in Providence several times, but this one was my first on the west coast. Great event. I strongly suggest attending if you train people for a living.
Anyway, the event has really grown in size and depth, and one of the great things about attending is the swag they give you. They’ve gone from giving out drawstring bags years ago to sweet backpacks with a shirt, Nike discount code, and various discount offers to other seminars and certifications.
The long winded reason that I bring this up is because the T-shirt we got this year was a sick Nike dri-fit, and it said “Stop Exercising, Start Training.” In the big scheme of cheesy gym T’s, this one is pretty tame, but it got real estate in my brain. I started thinking about all the people I see in the gym who just come in to do random things in an attempt to get tired. This isn’t just the spandex clad casual gym goer either, either. I see athletes of all levels and professional (and really good) trainers fall into the same trap. It’s like when you take a dog to the park and they just need to burn off the pent up energy they have from a day of watching Judge Judy reruns while you were at work all day.
Now, I value randomness in people’s lives and fitness. I’m far from the belief that every little thing needs to be structured, and there should be things that we do just because they feel good or they’re different and hell, if our body can move a certain way, let’s move it that way, and often.
But if all we do is randomness, we never actually make progress, and if you’re reading blogs on the internet about fitness instead of chasing skirts or poring over TPS reports, then progress is probably pretty important to you.
I remember coming across the idea of indicator lifts years ago, and I forget where, but I think it was something Jim Wendler wrote about. Jim is the creator of the very effective and popular 5/3/1 program and is a no nonsense dude that has squatted 1000 pounds. When he says things, I listen. I might not agree with every single bit of it, but I listen nonetheless.
Indicator lifts are the few lifts that you find are really important to you. They’re the ones that over time you are looking to improve, because they have the most carryover to whatever your long term goals are. If you stray too far from making progress, you’ll know when you do an audit and find that your indicator lifts are suffering, and you need to get back on course.
These aren’t going to be lateral raises or dumbbell skullcrushers. These are going to be the big rocks-compound movements that make up the backbone of your program. The Big 3 you decide on would be 3 of your indicator lifts.
I have a spreadsheet on my computer where I track my rep maxes across my indicator lifts:
|1RM||2RM||3RM||5RM||X8RM||X10RM||BW Max Reps|
I’ve chosen a few presses, a few squat movements, a few deadlift movements, an olympic lift, chin ups, and a few conditioning protocols.
So what does this really tell me? It tells me that if my bench press goes up, but my chin ups go down significantly, it means that I’ve gotten too fat and I need to get myself in check. If my times on the Airdyne go down but my front squat goes up, it means that I have to sack up and stop skipping conditioning. There are checks and balances involved so I know whether or not I’m actually getting better or just staying busy.
During the week of my birthday every year, I put myself through a battery of tests to make sure that I’m better than I was the year before. This consists of bodyweight chin ups for max reps, a bodyweight bench press for max reps, a 3 mile Airdyne for time, a 3 rep max front squat, and I get my bodyfat checked. This assures that my relative and absolute strength are being checked, my conditioning is in order, and that I haven’t spent too much time in the buffet line. I compare my results to previous years so that I know that I didn’t waste the last 365 days not getting better.
Last year, I wasn’t able to do it. Why? Because I hurt my hip. Why? Because I was a fucking idiot and strayed too far away from what I know works for me. I clearly wasn’t better than I was the previous year. I took note, got back on track, and am having a much better year of training because of it.
We can be our own worst enemies, and spend too much time analyzing every single rep and training session we do. That’s why self audits are crucial. Put together a plan, execute, and if it works, great-rinse and repeat. If the things that matter to you aren’t improving, scrap it and get your shit together.
Find out which lifts have the biggest carryover to your goals and make them staples. I don’t mean max out on them every month, or even every year. That’s why it’s important to have a number of different rep maxes for each lift. As long as those are improving over time, you’re getting better.
Stop exercising. Start training.
Ask 10 people what their opinions of front squats are, and 9 of them will tell you that they would rather sit on a parking cone decorated with broken glass than do them. That’s fair, because they are really f’in hard. From feeling like you’re going to suffocate with a bar up against your throat, to keeping your elbows up as the bar tries to roll forward and collapse you, all while squatting big weights is no easy task, but the rewards, if you’re willing to pay the price of admission, are plentiful.
Front squats will build big legs and a thick back, and even with the above struggles, are still generally easier to perform for most people than traditional back squats. With the bar on the front of the shoulders rather than behind the head, you have to keep a more upright torso, so they tend to be more low back and knee friendly and allow for a deeper squat. If you can’t keep position, then you just can’t complete the lift, so there are really no ugly reps-you either do it right, or you aren’t able to do it at all.
Having a history of knee issues (I’ve had operations on both), these feel significantly better for me than back squats, and I’ve included them in tons of programs over the years, for both athletes and everyday peeps looking to get #jacked and #tan. Here’s how to do them for maximal benefit and minimal risk:
Start by putting your arms out straight in front of you. On the top of your shoulders, you’ll feel a little divet, and thats where the bar will go, just above your front delts. I like starting people with a hands free front squat, so they get a feel for keeping the bar stable. Here’s an old school video of one of my mentors, Mike Boyle having someone perform it:
This is just a learning tool so that you understand that any lowering of the arms is going to result in the bar rolling, which is obviously going to lead to a failed lift. Get a few sets of these under your belt before proceeding.
A clean grip requires quite a bit of wrist and finger mobility. Having all 4 fingers under the bar is best, but realize that its just the fingertips under the bar, not the whole fingers, and you’re going to want them to be just outside your shoulders. Otherwise they’ll be getting crushed between the bar and your front delts. If you don’t have enough mobility to get a good clean grip, I prefer to have people use straps as opposed to the old school bodybuilder cross grip. It seems to help people keep a more stable upper body position as the weights get heavier.
Front squats are one of my personal big 3’s, and I’ve worked up to a max of 290, which won’t break any internet records, but is still relatively strong. The big reason why they’re a staple in my personal programs is that they don’t beat me up like heavy back squats do, and it’s a big bang for my training buck, and that’s why I love them for my clients and athletes, too.
Give them a shot on your next lower body day and really utilize the cues and execution I laid out. They’ll be a lot more comfortable than you remember and you’ll be well on your way to building some big wheels and a cobra like back to go with it.
Often, when guys start training with me and don’t see traditional bench presses, deadlifts, and squats in their program right away, they immediately think that I’m some kind of Richard Simmons type who isn’t about getting them as strong as an ox.
All they’ve known from playing sports in high school and college is the big 3. They’ve been shoved down their throats for years, and for good reason: they’re all great lifts, and a lot of really strong fuckers have utilized them for a long time.
The issue is, not everyone is equipped for these lifts. After we do a functional movement screen, I can see how they move and where their limitations are. This often times tells me that doing the traditional powerlifts is a recipe for disaster. Compensations will occur, and at some point or another, either progress will stop, or worse, injuries will occur.
The concept of basing your strength training around multi joint presses, pulls, knee dominant, and hip dominant lifts is 100% correct. The ones you choose should fit you and your current situation, though, not the opposite.
This might mean you front squat, neutral grip bench, trap bar deadlift, and crush chin ups. Get brutally strong on those lifts and you’ll have a physique that not only looks great, but performs just as well.
Choosing the right lift for the right person at the right time is the key. Below is a list, while not all encompassing, where you can choose one from each category as the bedrocks of your training. Pick some other assistance lifts to go with them and you’re good to go.
|Knee Dominant||Hip Dominant||Upper Body Push||Upper Body Pull|
|Front Squat||Trap Bar Deadlift||Close Grip Bench||Chin Up variations|
|Safety Bar Squat||RDL||Dumbbell Bench (flat or any incline)||1 arm Dumbbell rows|
|Kettlebell Front Squat||Single Leg RDL||Ring Dips||Pendlay Rows|
|Goblet Squat||Hang Clean||Military Press||Bent Over Row|
|Rear Foot Elevated Split squat||Hang Snatch||Overhead Press with Dumbbells or Kettlebells|
|1 Leg Squat||1 arm DB Snatch|
Show me someone who rear foot elevated split squats their bodyweight for 5 reps a side, trap bar deadlifts 450 for reps, presses 100 pound dumbbells for 8-10 and cranks out 15 strict chin ups, and I’ll show you a strong sonofabitch.
Don’t get caught up in the dick swinging contests with idiots on the internet that claim to lift video game numbers on the traditional big 3. Pick the right ones for you, attack them relentlessly, and you’ll be fine.
Remember, the bench, squat, and deadlift are all great lifts if you have the capacity to do them pain free and correctly. Most of us don’t, though, so keep that in mind. Train with the long game in mind. Training is a means to an end, so pick the right tools for the job, and just get better. That’s what it’s really all about. What good is a 405 deadlift if you’re walking around with a sore back for 6 days afterwards anyway?
Training is fluid, and there are no black and whites. Maybe at some point, 1 or more of the powerlifts will fit into your program after you’ve improved your movement capabilities, but if you’re not being tested on them, it doesn’t matter. Reaching your goals is the important thing, the lifts you use to get there are purely arbitrary. Keep that in mind, train hard, train smart, and good things will happen.
I was texting with my buddy Tom recently and we got on the conversation about what kinds of things he likes reading when it comes to training and fitness. Tom is an early 40 something guy who likes to train hard, feel good, and not sacrifice every waking minute of his life to do it. I expected that we’d talk about the benefit of using the trap bar over conventional deadlifts, or why Planet Fitness has so many fucking treadmills, but then he sent this and it really surprised me:
That really made me think. For a few days even. Why do we, the people in this industry, think that everyone is a machine and will just follow directions when it comes to eating and training, when none of us can even follow directions to put together a fucking desk from Ikea?
The fact is, food is meant to be enjoyed. It’s why we share meals and drinks with family and friends, get popcorn at the movies, or have ice cream after a day at the beach. That doesn’t mean that it’s all Cinnabuns and Dr. Pepper though, and, for the most part, following Dan John’s advice is pretty foolproof:
“Honestly, seriously, you don’t know what to do about food? Here is an idea: Eat like an
adult. Stop eating fast food, stop eating kid’s cereal, knock it off with all the sweets and
comfort foods whenever your favorite show is not on when you want it on, ease up on
the snacking and— don’t act like you don’t know this— eat vegetables and fruits more.
Really, how difficult is this? Stop with the whining. Stop with the excuses. Act like an
adult and stop eating like a television commercial. Grow up.”
Eat like an adult. Eat more fruits and vegetables and less garbage. I go with the 90% rule. If you’re eating the right things in the right quantities 9 out of 10 times, you’re probably going to be at a pretty healthy bodyfat percentage. This takes discipline, which I love the definition Jim Wendler gives:
“Discipline is doing what you don’t want to do when you don’t want to do it.”
I use that with my high school wrestlers all the time. But I digress.
So we know eating like an adult is the long term solution, but how the hell do we get a decent amount of vegetables in every day when there’s so much more gooey, chocolatey, awesomeness in the world? I could go Nike on you and say, “Just do it,” but Tom’s texts above really made me think-how can we take action so that we do the right stuff more often?
I came up with 5 actionable, easy to implement ways to get more vegetables in your diet. The more vegetables you eat, the less likely you’ll be to overeat other stuff that makes our brain happy, and it’ll keep us fueled up and energized as an added bonus.
I know I said earlier that directions of “just eat less,” only works for a bit, and then it doesn’t. Or maybe it doesn’t at all. These aren’t directions, these are actionable steps that are relatively simple to implement.
I personally shoot for eating 8 different vegetables each day, on advice from the aforementioned Dan John. That’s really hard. By adding in a side salad at dinner a few nights each week, and eating a salad for lunch on the other days, it’s way easier. And it becomes routine. Just like eating pop tarts for breakfast can become routine. Either way, it’s routine, so figure out what you like and make the healthier one your routine.
Just take action, and don’t beat yourself up if you eat nachos while Tom Brady rains havoc down on the NFL. Just don’t make pizza rolls and donuts staples in your diet, either. Think 90%, routines, and strategize how to utilize both.
It’s one of the biggest buzz words thrown around when it comes to training, and I fucking hate it.
Maybe I’m not that smart, but I just don’t know what people are referring to when they use the word. Are we talking about just the abdominal muscles? The abs and low back muscles? Everything between the shoulders and the knees? Everyone has a different definition, and it leads to very vague training recommendations.
When I refer to the trunk, I’m referring to all of the muscles involved in keeping the spine in it’s natural position, which are the pelvic floor on the bottom, diaphragm on top, with the internal and external obliques, multifidus, quadratus lumborum, spinal erectors, rectus abdominus, and the transverse abdominus forming a cylinder between .
These muscles act as stabilizers, not movers like your glutes or pecs and they need to be trained as such. Thanks to tireless research by Dr. Stuart McGill, we’ve learned that the trunk musculature is designed to keep the spine stable so we can create motion at our joints, and to transfer force between our lower body to the upper body, and vice versa.
Also, his research has shown that repeated spinal flexions lead to disc injury. This is why endless crunches aren’t the answer. So what the hell are we supposed to do?
Well, first of all we must classify all of the ways that the spine can move, and understand that the trunk muscles are working to resist those forces. These are:
With 4 different ways we have to resist forces to keep our spinal alignment, we need to set up progressions so that we have a systematic way to improve our strength all around. After listening to Alwyn Cosgrove speak recently, I was able to see a better way to classify these than I had been using before:
At the bottom of the pyramid we have pure stabilization. This is where you build your strength on planks, side planks, and Pallof holds. As you can see, the rest of the pyramid is build on this, and the wider your base, the higher the peak can be.
Next, we have dynamic stabilization. Think side plank rows, front planks with overhead reaches and kettlebell pull throughs, dynamic Pallof presses, and carry variations.
At the top is where we are going to be challenging the core through movement. This is where medicine ball throws, heavier deadlifts, and higher level movements will be challenging the trunk musculature to a high degree.
Now, how would this look in an actual program over time? Glad you asked.
|Anti Extension||Anti Lateral Flexion||
Pure Stabilization 1-3
|Push Up Plank 3x:15/3x:20/3x:25||Side Plank 3x:10/3x:15/3x:20||Tall Kneeling Anti Rotation Hold 3x:10/3x:15/3x:20|
Dynamic Stabilization 4-6
|Pushup Plank with Overhead reach 3×5/3×7/3×9||Side Plank Row 3×8/3×10/3×12||Tall Kneeling Anti Rotation Press 3×8/3×10/3×12|
Integrated Movement 7-9
|Ab Wheel Rollout 3×5/3×7/3×9||Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift 3×8/3×10/3×12||Half Kneeling Medicine Ball Side Toss 3×8/3×10/3×12|
After you’ve progressed through the 3 levels of the pyramid over the 9 weeks, begin again at the bottom with more advanced pure stabilization exercises, like feet elevated pushup planks, feet elevated side planks, and half kneeling anti rotation presses, and work your way back up the pyramid week after week. This system of progression is literally infinite in it’s options.
Too often, once people get to the top level of integrated movement, they feel like they are too advanced for the bottom level stuff. The reality is, the wider we continue to make that base, the higher level of movements we’ll be capable of at the top. Don’t lose sight of that.
Lastly, I didn’t include any anti-flexion exercises, because quite frankly, if you have a sound strength training program, you already are getting a lot of that anyway. Any time you are resisting curling over at the spine you are getting some work here, so I believe in most cases, extra is unnecessary.
Obviously, training the
core trunk musculature is absolutely pivotal for performance, injury prevention (and sometimes treatment), and aesthetics, but like everything, there are best practices-utilize them to simplify your training while getting better results with less back pain. Seems like a no brainer to me.