Cardio: Yes or No?

One of the top questions that we get asked as trainers is either “What should I do for cardio,” or “Should I be doing cardio?”  And you’re going to hate this answer, and it’s a total cliche, but….

It Depends

It depends, the answer for any question.  The reason is that it is going to depend on what you are training for.  Training for a marathon, yea you’re going to need some cardiovascular training.  Actually you are going to need a lot of it, like 26 miles worth of it.  However, cardio doesn’t have to be just running on treadmills, sitting on a bicycles, or ellipticalling (I just make up a word) on ellipticals.  Cardio is really anything that gets your heart rate and respiration rate elevated above its normal resting point.  For some people, walking fast gets an elevated heart rate.  For others, it may take a little more work.

Here we’re going to cover some explosive exercises that are going to jack up your heart rate right away, testing your work capacity.

In no particular order, here are 5 exercises that will test your cardio limits:

Sled/Prowler– If you’ve never experienced the prowler or “prowler flu,” you are in for a treat; And by treat, I mean an incredibly difficult workout.  Pushing a prowler or sled is a lot like sprinting, but against a load.  Here you have two options, you can either load it super heavy and work on strength or strength/endurance, or you can lighten it and use it for acceleration, speed, and conditioning.  However, what you choose is based upon you and what your programs goal is.

Here’s your workout: 50 ft. (or space available) Every Minute on the Minute x10.

or

If you’re feeling extra saucy and want to test your upper limits, try 1 minute of work with 2 minutes of rest.

 

Kettlebell Swings- What looks like a squat with a front raise is actually an explosive, hip driven exercise meant to develop full body strength and mobility.  Kettlebell swings are a great posterior chain exercise that will challenge your glutes and your anaerobic capacity when done correctly.  If you’re new to swings, practice and get your technique right before you add quantity to your workout.  Quality beats quantity.

Your challenge: 4x 25 swings with a 20-30 second break in between sets.

Sprints– As a former sprinter, nothing beats going to the track or a turf field and cranking out a bunch of sprints.  But before you jump right into sprinting, you’re going to need to do some warm-up drills and get a little mobility.  Why sprinting?  Spiriting helps you burn fat, increase your metabolism, and increase your bodies’ ability to do work.  Plus rather than jog for a half hour, you can sprint and get a much more efficient, time saving workout.

The Workout: I use this one quite often mostly because the shorter sprints allow my muscles and nervous system to wake up before I go all out (by all out I mean 80-90% effort) for my longer sprints.

6x50m

6x 100m

 

Battle Ropes- One of the great things about battle ropes is that anyone can do them.  It’s all a matter of how much intensity and force you can put into them.  Another awesome aspect is you can vary the waves you make with ease.  As with the sprints, they will help build anaerobic and aerobic capacity.  So think of the ropes as sprints for your upper body.

The Workout: 10 seconds of work, followed by 10 seconds of rest x8

 

Medicine Ball Slams- Pick up a ball and slam it over and over again.  What’s not fun about that?  In addition to getting a great conditioning workout in, you get to take out some aggression on a ball.  Some med balls bounce, some don’t, but either way it requires putting a great deal of force into the ground.  Make each slam as explosive as possible.

The Workout: One of my favorites is a tabata influenced interval of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest x 8 rounds.

All of these have a common theme, they are intense and require an all-out effort which almost always results in an uptick in metabolism which will help burn fat.

Takeaway

Cardio isn’t all about going slow and steady on a treadmill, it can equally be more explosive moves that will help develop your work capacity.  Exercises like the above will provide an intense cardio session that will benefit your entire body.  In addition to doing each exercise separate, you can combine some into a circuit type workout for an even bigger calorie burn.

It is important to note that none of this matters.  What I mean is that none of these moves matter if you’re not putting effort into your nutrition.  That’s what matters most when it comes to losing fat.  Because in the end, you can’t out train a bad diet.


Add These 3 Overlooked Exercises for…

Just about ever fitness magazine cover or website has an article with a title like “The One Exercise You’re Missing,” “Exercises You’re Not Doing But Should,” or “Do This for Flatter Abs.”  It’s meant to be attention grabbing and convey that the reason you’re not seeing the results you want is because you’re not doing this one thing.  But in the end, the exercise is just a variation of the same old movements.  This post isn’t going to sell you on flatter abs or bigger muscles, but with more improved, pain free movement.

We normally associate exercises with something that you can load, something that you can lift.  However, exercise can also be things that bring mobility to your joints, or give you a better way of doing things.

Yea, most programs are going to have a mix of loads and variations of the fundamental movements like push, pull, squat, and hip hinge.  In fact, we’ve covered those movements in the past, and you likely do them every day.  How many articles can you read or videos can you watch that show different variations of the squat and how to load it?  For example, a squat can be loaded with a barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell, bodyweight, medicine ball, ViPR, bands, and probably a few more.  Then take that load and place it over head, on your back, in a front rack, unilaterally loaded, loaded in the arms (zercher), or in a goblet position.  So while we could point out that you should do single arm overhead kettlebell squats for such and such a reason, it really wouldn’t add anything to your program, nor does it necessarily mean you could do it.  Although you would look pretty badass.

Let’s move away from loaded exercises and into 3 exercises that will make you moving better, have you feeling better, and have you in less discomfort.  Exercise making you feel better?  Surely you’re joking.

No, seriously I want to highlight 3 exercises you may actually use, and that will actually benefit you.

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  • Breathing
  • Crawling
  • Thoracic Rotation

 

Breathing

Breathing is an essential part of life.  You may even be telling me, “I breathe every single day, without it I’d die.”  You’d be right, you do need to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide or you would in fact die, or at the very least pass out.  However, its way more than an inhale and an exhale.  Short, hard power breathes can trigger the abs to fire quickly, much like you’d see in martial arts, long deep breathes can help relax and calm you much like yoga, or even holding your breath, known as a Valsalva maneuver, can aid in exercise like the deadlift or squat.

If you delve more into the world of exercise and read up on what other people are doing, you’ll see that breathing is important.  In fact, PRI has a whole course focused on breathing.  The more I watch people breathe during exercise, the more I realize people don’t know how to breathe.  Did you know the diaphragm is part of your core musculature?  It makes the top part of the cylinder or box or whatever shape you want to give your “core.”

Are you holding your breath when you do core exercises, like a plank? Do you do it all the time, some of the time, or never?  Just throwing out a guess, but probably at the very least, some of the time, but in most cases, the go to is to hold your breath.  So try to breathe.  When doing core exercise, try to get in a good inhale followed by a forceful exhale.

Two drills when it comes to breathing is laying in a 90/90 position and focusing on deep, expansive breathing, and “crocodile breathing” where you lay on your stomach and try to feel your stomach lifting your body off the ground.

 

Crawls

When was the last time you crawled on the ground?  It’s likely been a while, however, if you have kids, you may do it more often.  But were you comfortable in that position? Crawls have been mentioned previously, in passing on a few articles, most notably how they correspond to ab exercises to add to your program. In reality, crawling on the grounds is much more than an “ab exercise.” It’s a full body drill that requires coordination, finesse, strength, endurance, and good motor planning.  What else does it require?

Keeping a neutral spine!

What else do we need to maintain a neutral spine for? Just about every other exercise.  Deadlift? Neutral spine.  Squat? Neutral Spine.  Pushups?  You betcha!   So not only can crawling help improve core strength and coordination, but it can help to teach you that positioning that carries over into every other exercise you might do in the gym.

Want to really test your ability to crawl with good form?  Do it while maintaining either a ball or a yoga block on the back.  Sounds easy, but I can assure you, that it is not.

Thoracic Rotation Drill

Thoracic mobility is important for back health and this rotation drill is perfect for improving that.  Often times, if there is low back pain or shoulder pain, you need to look at the joint above or below.  Which brings us to the T-spine.  If you lack necessary mobility in the T-spine, something else has to pick up the slack.  This is why some version of thoracic rotation and mobility is in our warm-up.  If you think about it, most occupations have employees sitting at a desk for multiple hours per day.  What ends up happening is the body creates tension and patterns along lines of stress. Sitting in certain ways for extended periods of time forces the body to adapt.  The body adapts in a way that will reduce pain and make it more efficient.  Efficient is not always optimal however.

Even shifting away from common day to day behaviors, move it to the gym.  When you press a bar overhead. If you lack requisite thoracic mobility, you may end up compensating with the lower back, or alter your shoulder mechanics and that presents a problem. Try one of these drills to increase your T-spine mobility and you’ll likely see an improvement in low back issues, shoulder mobility, and posture.


Technique Tuesday: Bent Over Row

standing-barbell-row_2

This edition of Technique Tuesday takes a look at another variation of the row, the bent over row.  The mechanics are going to be similar to the TRX Row we covered a few weeks ago, with some slight differences.  Adding in a bent over row, with a barbell, dumbbell or hex bar will help increase your strength in other big lifts, like the deadlift.  However most people that add rows into their program, botch them up in a few different ways.  So lets clean these errors up a bit.

Common Mistakes

There a few mistakes that you want to look out for when doing a barbell row.  The biggest among them is “cheating” the bar up by lifting the hips and/or chest.  This often occurs when you attempt to lift more weight than what your strength levels can handle.  Drop the weight, and keep your form in check.

Second would be rounding the back as you row or even in the set-up.  This is an easy correction, in that all you have to do is put yourself in a better position.  Take a second to set yourself up properly and go for it.

Make sure that the movement is coming from the upper back, specifically the rhomboids and lats.  With a well executed row, the shoulder blades come together and move, as opposed to the shoulders just moving back and forth.

Next on the list is cheating the row by bending the wrists at the top.  This is usually done to get the bar closer to the chest without actually having to engage the upper back.  I will tell you right off the bat that it will get you nowhere except maybe with some wrist pain.

Lastly, elbow position can get funky during the row.  You don’t want your elbows to flare out too much, but you don’t want them to be too tucked into your body. Find a happy medium between the two, almost similar to how you would approach your movement during a bench press.

 

What’s is it Good For?

Rows are great for posture and for creating strength in the upper back.  The barbell row in particular will strengthen your upper back, your lower back, core, hips and arms, in particular the forearms.  So if you’re looking to increase your grip strength, the barbell row will perfect.

This will lead to a more resilient back, which means less back pain.  And who doesn’t want less back pain?

The Set-up

The set-up for a barbell row and its close cousin the trap bar row looks much like a deadlift in it’s setup.  And if you’re asking “what’s a deadlift?”, then you need start deadlifting.  Anyway, here’s what you’re going to do to set up your row:

  1. Walk up to the bar, standing with your feet somewhere between hip and shoulder width apart and your feet slightly under the bar.
  2. Grab the bar slightly wider than where your legs are with a double overhand grip. Make sure the wrists stay straight throughout the entire movement.
  3. Bend forward from the hips and set your back up so it is horizontal or almost parallel to the ground. You should see a straight line from your head to your hips with the lower back in a neutral position.
  4. Row the weight up by squeezing your shoulder blades. You want to aim for the bottom part of your chest.
  5. Avoid allowing your body to rise up or drop down. Keep your head in neutral as well.  The tendency is to look up as you row, but this is kind of inefficient.
  6. You’ve done ONE rep. Keep going!

 


To Squat or Not to Squat..That is the Question

The squat is one of the fundamental movement patterns that we use on a daily basis, and utilize just about every muscle and joint in the body.  That’s what makes it so awesome!  To let you in on a little insider secret, it is why most fitness professionals use it as part of their assessment or screening protocol.  It can tell you so much about how well a person can move.  From ankles, to hips, to thoracic mobility, you can get all sorts of information from watching someone squat.  Chances are, if they can squat well, they can probably move well.

“Squats are bad for your knees.” 

Have you heard that phrase before?  I’m sure you have, and it’s can come from anyone in any setting from the neighbor down the street to your doctor during a check-up.  This, the most common misinformation about squat, gives squatting a bad reputation as a knee killer.  Most of the time it’s because we’re squatting with poor form.

“Squats aren’t bad for your knees,

squats with bad form is bad for your knees.”

 

Think about how many times a day you squat.  Anytime you sit in a chair, or go to pick something off the ground, you’re using a squat pattern.  Are you going to avoid doing any of that?  Probably not.  I mean how are you ever going to go to the bathroom?

However, learn to squat with proficiency and you will be introduced to a whole new world of potential benefits.

Benefits of Squatting:

  1. Improved Mobility– This specifically happens at the ankles, knees and thoracic spine. As you work on your technique, your body will adapt to the new movement, and usually this means better mobility through the hips and ankles to get to adequate depth.
  2. Improved Strength– Squatting just makes you stronger. You’re using just about every muscle in the lower part of your body.  No matter how you squat and what rep ranges you’re training in, you are going to see a strength adaptation.  Especially if you happen to be transitioning from one rep range to another.
  3. Improved Stability– Squatting requires a great deal of stability, especially in the torso. If you think about a back squat, the weight is trying to make you fold and collapse.  It takes a great deal of stability to stay upright.  The more you improve your squat, no matter what version you choose, the more stability you’ll get through the hips and core.
  4. Increased Muscle Mass– Being that the squat is a full body movement; you’ll be using a lot of muscles to complete it. By stimulating the muscles with a proper load, you can easily increase the amount of muscle on your body.
  5. Decreased Fat– In the same way that squats can build muscle, they can also help to decrease body fat. Just like above, it uses a lot of muscle to perform, and muscle is highly metabolic.  This doesn’t mean you have to lift heavy to lose body fat, but by doing exercises that require multiple muscle groups, you’ll end up burning more calories.  More calorie burn = more fat lost.
  6. Increased Performance– Now that we’ve gained mobility, strength, stability, and muscle while losing fat, our performance should improve. This applies to not only in whatever our chosen sport is, but life in general.  Think about running.  If you improved all the above, you’ll be able to put more force into the ground, which will propel you forward harder and easier.  You’ll cover more distance in less time.  Now let’s look at life.  That heavy bag of dog food or case of water you once couldn’t pick up is now a breeze.
  7. Increased Bone Density– By doing exercises that are weight bearing or loaded, like the squat, the body is forced to adapt to a new stimulus. As the muscles get stronger, then tend to exert more force on the bone.  The bone adapts to this by laying down more mineral deposits, thus making the bone stronger and thicker.
  8. Healthier Joints– When you’re able to move the joints through full ranges of motion, they become healthier. You’re joints actually prefer going through their entire range of motion.  So when you short it, for example doing half squats, your body adapts and will lose that full range.  So do yourself and your joints a favor, use your full movement, whatever it may be.

 

It’s All about the Technique

It all starts here with learning how to squat.  Try to avoid getting ahead of yourself when first trying to squat.  Even if you’ve been squatting for a long time and you think you have it nailed down, chances are there are things you can work on that will take you squat to a new level.   Remember, correct range of motion and form are absolutely essential in order to not only avoid injury but to gain an advantage in strength.  Better technique, better movement pattern, better chance of engaging the necessary muscles to lift the weight (if that’s what you’re doing).

Every time you squat, make sure you go through a mental checklist starting from the feet and ankles, then working your way up.

  • Feet- They need to be flat and stable, with heels on the ground. You want to avoid rolling side to side or having the heels coming up.  If you’re unable to do this, start working on ankle mobility.
  • Knees- They should be in alignment with the hips and feet. As you squat there should be no excessive movement out or in.  If there is an issue, you may need to look at mobility at the hip or knee, or strength in your stabilizing muscles.
  • Hips-They should be stable with no side to side movement while staying in line with the knees throughout the squat.
  • Low Back- The spine should stay in neutral with minimal to no movement or rounding.
  • T-Spine- Slightly extended or neutral
  • Head- Straight ahead

 

Take a look at our good squat on the left versus our poor squat on the right.  Notice the differences in where our checkpoints are.  Keeping these check points in order is a good way to ensure that your squats won’t be knee killers any longer.

 

 

 

Takeaway

Hopefully you see that the squat has a lot to offer you in terms of your overall fitness level.  Ignore the hype that squats can cause problems with your knees.  Avoid being afraid to squat because they once hurt your knees.  Chances are your form was off and all you need is a few tweaks and cues to fix the issue.

Your first step should be to hammer down technique before piling on weight and intensity.  Much like you wouldn’t build a house on a shaky foundation; avoid piling on top of the shaky foundation that is your movement pattern.

There are so many versions and variations to squats that you can experiment with how you do them each time.  Don’t get caught up thinking about just the barbell back squat.  Start adding some variations into your program with:

  • Goblet Squats
  • Safety Bar Squat
  • Front Squats
  • Plate Squats
  • Split Squats
  • Single Leg Squats

Each variation will have its purpose in your training and provide its own unique benefits outside of the ones listed in this article.

Happy Squatting!


Are You Strong Enough to Run?

What does strong enough mean?  Or in the case of this title, strong enough to run?  Would deadlifting 200lbs make you strong enough to run?  Maybe, maybe not. When it comes to running and being strong, expressing strength is more a matter of resisting forces put on it, than creating them. although you will create force into the ground to push you forward.

Everybody runs or can run, but not everyone that runs does so efficiently with good form.  Sometimes it looks a little wonky, like Elaine Benes trying to dance or like a calf trying to walk for the first time.  While running is a natural movement (for some), it does require a number of things to work synergistically so as not to get injured.  How often are you thinking of stride length, frequency, how your foot is landing, hip shifts, arm movement, etc when you go for a simple run or jog.  Or maybe its yogging, it might be a soft ‘J.”  Probably never.

Strength has more to do with running than you think, and it doesn’t just stop at the legs.  Think of running as a full body exercise, where all your muscles are coordinated to fire to ensure you absorb the forces appropriately.  And if there is a weak link in the chain, you can bet that your body will find it, and expose it.

Everyone can run, but not everyone SHOULD…..right away.

As a runner you may think that strength training doesn’t necessarily apply to you as running is all you need to either stay or get in shape.  I had that thought once, and it didn’t work out too well for me.  Achy knees and a lot of hip pain from poor mechanics.  Don’t let my mistake be your downfall.  Let’s learn from it.

Mechanics or Phases of Running

Breaking down the mechanics of a stride, it’s a series of single leg exercises, with 2 different phases:

  • Stance- This is where the all your bodyweight is on a single leg and typically where breakdowns occur.  This phase can also be broken down into smaller phases:
    • Initial Contact- Your foot first hits the ground, and as you touch down, the knee and ankle flex a little to absorb the force of the ground, and the foot pronates or turns in slightly.  This can create the first break down if we don’t have a requisite amount of strength or motor control.
    • Midstance-  Once the foot and leg are underneath the hip, you enter what is the midstance phase.  This is where all your weight is on the one leg.  Again, there is potential for injury here.  An over pronation at the foot can cause a chain reaction up the leg into the knee and hip.  Hip stability is also vital here as you need to be able to load the base leg in order to set yourself up for the propulsion phase.  It’s a basic load and explode situation.  Your muscles, tendons, and fascia are all storing up elastic energy from the previous phase, waiting to use it.  Lacking necessary joint stability and strength will hinder your stride, and really, your ability to run efficiently.
    • Propulsion- The final stage where the foot starts to come off the ground, starting with the heel.  This is where you will use all that stored/absorbed energy and push off to get into the next phase.  The ankle, knee, and hip all go through extension in order to achieve this.  Additionally, your foot/ankle should supinate, however this doesn’t always occur due to poor mechanics or poor shoes.  Either way, this is another instance in which we need to corrections during running.
  • Swing- From the moment your foot loses contact with the ground, till the moment it touches down again is the swing.  In this phase, your body needs to prep the leg and foot for that initial contact phase again.

There is a third phase where both feet are simultaneously off the ground, and if you freeze frame a runner, they appear to be floating or hovering off the ground.

So as you can note above, each phase of running comes with the potential for injury if the right mechanics aren’t in place.  This means a combination of strength, stability and mobility.  Thankfully we can incorporate strength training that focuses on those three aspects, and we can likely avoid injury or any aches and pains.  Then we can get back to doing what we love, which is running.

The Training

Putting together a strength program for a runner is a little tricky as you want to build as much strength as you need to avoid injury and resist the forces of running, but without putting on weight that may potentially slow you down.

Single Leg Exercises–  Being that running is largely a single leg exercise repeated over and over again, it’s important to include these into your program.  That doesn’t mean eliminating bilateral exercises like squats and deadlifts, as those will set a large strength base.  It just means adding in more single leg variations to maintain or improve hip stability.

Examples:

  • Lunges
  • Single Leg Deadlift
  • Step-up
  • Split Squats

Core Strength & Stability– Everyone uses these terms, but no one really knows what they mean.  In terms of running, the core needs to be strong and stable in order for the body to transfer forces from the lower body to the upper body, otherwise we just look like one of those wacky inflatable tube guys outside car dealerships.  And no one wants to look like that when they run.  Nor do we want to have any injuries or pain when we’re running.  If we lack the necessary core stability, meaning the control of the movement of the hips, it could result in hanging out on passive structures instead.  Have you ever gone for a run and your back was killing you halfway in or when you finished?  Yea that’s one, poor mechanics, but also lack of muscular strength and the ability to stabilize the hips.

Examples:

  • Anti-Extension – Plank
  • Anti Lateral Flexion – Side Plank
  • Bird/Dog
  • Anti Rotation – Pallof Press
  • Chops

Hip Extension Activation & Strength– The main mover for hip extension should be the glutes, however many end up predominantly using their hamstrings.  Hamstring injuries occur in part because they aren’t strong enough to control the eccentric contraction of the muscle, meaning a contraction as the muscle lengthens.  But also because the hamstrings compensate for a lack of glute strength.  It’s vital to the health of your hamstrings to get your glutes strong.  Then you can focus on strengthening the hamstrings via eccentric exercises.

 

Running is a simple way to exercise and probably one of the most accessible to those of all levels, from beginner to advanced.  Now that the weather is getting nice, more and more people will be out there running.  Just because you can run, doesn’t mean you have to run or should.  Take account of your strength and stability, but also look at your own mechanics to see if running is for you.  Then you can move on to what could be the most important, whether or not you actually enjoy running.