It’s no secret that I’m a proponent of bodyweight strength training – pull-ups, push-ups and pistols have been staples of my fitness regimen for many years.
What you might not realize, however, is that yoga is also a style of bodyweight training that I practice regularly. That’s right, when you get down to it, yoga is simply another form of bodyweight training. It’s a great way to build strength, improve flexibility and perhaps more importantly, increase your body awareness.
Here are some yoga basics that can help with your strength training:
Chair Pose (Utkatasana) – The chair pose is basically a squat. While keeping your chest up and your shoulder blades retracted, you reach your arms into the air and sit back from your hips until the tops of your thighs are parallel with the ground. The difference is instead of going up and down for reps, in yoga the objective is simply to hold the chair pose for a given amount of time (or a certain number of breaths).
Chaturanga – Chaturanga is best known as a transitional pose in between the plank and cobra (or updog) poses in a sun salutation (I’ll get to those in a second). It is almost the same as the negative (lowering) phase of a push-up, only the elbows are kept closer to the body and the hips are positioned slightly higher.
Practicing chaturanga is a great way for novices to build towards doing push-ups. It teaches you to control your body while keeping your core muscles engaged on the way down, much in the same way that doing negatives helps when learning to do a pull-up. Chaturanga can also be held isometrically.
Half Monkey Pose – The flat back position in this pose (which has a few different names depending on who you ask) is very similar to the bottom position of a Romanian deadlift. To perform this pose, start in a standing toe touch position, then retract your shoulder blades and flatten your back. It’s a great way to learn what it feels like to bend over from your hips while keeping your vertebrae aligned, like you need to do to properly perform any type of deadlift.
The sun salutation strings several fundamental poses together in a smooth-flowing sequence designed to ease your body into your practice. While the sun salutation is often used as a warm-up in yoga, it can be a good warm-up for any type of workout. Sometimes I like to do them first thing in the morning after I get out of bed. You might even throw one into the middle of your day if you find you’ve been sitting for too long. Anytime is a good time for a sun salutation!
There are an infinite number of variations on the sun salutation, but basic poses such as mountain pose, forward fold, half monkey, downward dog, plank, chaturanga and upward dog (or cobra pose) are typically included.
If you’re curious about yoga practice, I recommend going to a class or, even better, getting one-on-one yoga instruction. There are many subtleties to performing these poses, and there’s no substitute for having a skilled professional there to observe and help you.
Check out the video below to see me doing my morning sun salutation.
The world of exercise supplements is full of lies. There’s the obvious bullshit cashing in on pop culture and the gullibility of the masses, like the stuff endorsed by Jillian Michaels or “The Situation.” But there’s also the more subversive lies, the ones that are “backed by science” which sometimes manage to mislead even the most savvy exercise enthusiasts.
We all know that statistics are easy to manipulate, and studies are constantly surfacing that contradict older studies, yet many people still fall victim to misleading claims from supplement companies.
Because people want a shortcut.
Don’t Believe the Hype
All supplement claims are based more on hype than evidence. The next time you read a positive supplement review, check to see if the magazine or website that you read it on happens to sell the product or receive sponsorship from the product’s manufacturer. As for other claims? Don’t underestimate the power of the placebo effect. A lot of people tend to just see what they want to see. Besides, once you’ve spent your money on a product, it’s harder to admit you were mistaken.
There are a couple of supplements that might actually have some impact on your training (ya know, like, if you’re a pro athlete or something), so let’s take a look at the few that are even worth disputing. The first of them is something most Americans are already using.
Anyone who’s had a strong cup of coffee knows that caffeine can give you a temporary boost. Your heart speeds up, your pupils dilate and you feel a sense of heightened awareness. There are numerous studies that have concluded that large amounts of caffeine can help endurance athletes, but hey, studies can be shown to “prove” just about anything.
I’ve tried using caffeine before running but never observed any significant benefits from it, so I don’t anymore. If I’m putting a potentially harmful chemical into my body, it might as well give me some sort of benefit that I can feel.
Even though they taste bad and give most people a stomach ache, protein powders are among the top selling exercise supplements in the world. The rhetoric about how you’ve got to get tons of protein to grow is so powerful that it makes most people ignore the taste (and their irritable bowels) while they continue to shovel scoop after scoop of this crap into their bodies. Oh, and if you don’t have your protein shake immediately following your workout, you’ve just wasted your entire life.
Of course you need protein to synthesize muscle growth, but you can get plenty of it by eating real food. A 6-oz. steak has over 40 grams of protein, plus it feels a hell of a lot better in my belly than a shaker full of sludgy water.
Creatine is a substance that is naturally found in the body (it’s actually a fuel source used during muscle contraction), by supplementing with it, you’re simply stocking up on extra so that you don’t run out as quickly (I know it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’m trying to keep this brief). Studies have shown creatine to be effective in producing short-term strength gains and it will give you “the pump” – your muscles will swell up and retain water, making you a little stronger and bulkier.
After the “loading phase” in which you’re directed to take creatine several times a day, you drop down to a simple once-a-day dosage. Even though my chest got puffed up and I added a few pounds to my deadlift while taking creatine, after several weeks when I cycled off (the long term effects of ongoing creatine use are still unknown and potentially dangerous), all of the strength and mass I gained while taking the supplement went away with it. That’s still more than I can say for the other supplements on this list though; at least creatine actually helped my strength while I was using it.
Amino Acids (Glutamine, BCAA’s, etc.)
Amino acids are often referred to as the “building blocks of muscle” so it would make sense that adding them into your beverage in the form of a powder would mean more muscle. At least that’s what I thought when I started supplementing with glutamine ten years ago. However, after several weeks the only difference I noticed was that I had less money in my checking account (it also made my smoothies taste chalky). Remember that steak with its real-food protein goodness? It has all the amino acids you’ll need.
See For Yourself
I came to these conclusions after my own personal experiments with supplements over the years, but if you’re the type of person who just has to see for yourself, there’s no substitute for firsthand knowledge. Obviously there are a lot of people who disagree with my views, as the exercise supplement business continues to be a multi-million dollar industry.
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Andy Fossett.
The word “fitness” is thrown around a lot these days, usually in conjunction with a new fad or product. We hear the word so often, that it’s easy to overlook its definition:
Fitness – The degree to which one is fit for the task at hand.
Since being fit to watch TV is different from being fit to run a marathon, play a game of soccer, or do a back flip, most people have varying personal definitions of fitness. In fact, we each define fitness personally as the ability to perform the specific tasks we choose.
When you look at things this way, it becomes clear that fitness is a skill – the skill to move your body as you desire. But if fitness is really just a measure of skill, why do most fitness programs focus exclusively on work capacity?
Rather than a mindset on improving weight/volume/time/reps/insert your metric here, what if we judged progress by our ability to perform a certain maneuver? It’s nice to push 10 more pounds overhead than you did a couple weeks ago, but how much cooler would it be to pop into a handstand in the office whenever you are bored? Or be able to hop over a fence if that mean neighborhood dog is chasing you?
For many goals, skill is the real key to achieving the particular type of fitness that you are after. These movements take time and practice to develop. For a prime example of how skill training effects the attribute of strength, we need look no further than gymnastics.
Gymnasts continually work to perfect movements of greater and greater difficulty. They start with the basics and add variables – a step, a twist, a less stable base. Though they may perform many repetitions of a particular movement, it’s always done with the goal of perfecting the skill. Quality comes before quantity; there is no gold medal for “the person who can spin around the pommel horse the most times.”
Instead of working to improve our skill in just a few movements that we are going to do over and over again, let’s try thinking like a gymnast. Let’s try working to improve our skill level in a basic movement, then move on and work at improving skill in a more difficult movement. It’s the opposite of most exercise routines, where the key word is “routine.”
It’s refreshing to train this way – mentally as well as physically. We change our goals from more/longer/faster, to better and more skillful. The kicker with this mindset is that training with a focus on skill also brings pretty impressive levels of strength.
How’s that for a side benefit of having fun?
A lifelong martial artist, Andy Fossett began studying fitness and physical training so he could teach his students more effectively. It became a bit of an obsession, and he co-founded Gold Medal Bodies to develop the skill of strength in 2010.
I recently received a message from a reader who asked, “What does a regular week of training look like for you, and how much time do you spend on it?”
As I view training and life as one in the same, it’s hard to say exactly, but since I get asked this question often, I figured an attempt at an answer was due – so here goes!
I formally “work out” anywhere between 15-75 minutes a day, depending on my energy level and the intensity I’m going at. I take a day off if I feel sore or tired, which on average is about one out of every ten days, but I am pretty active in addition to that. And, no, I’m not worried about over-training.
I’ve recently been swimming a few times a week, mostly for skill enhancement (plus swimming is a great form of active recovery the day after a strength training session). While swimming is my primary source of cardio these days, I still run once or twice a week as well, anywhere from around 3-8 miles. I used to do a lot more running but swimming has been taking the place of that. When the weather improves, I will bring some biking into the picture and hopefully start training for my first triathlon.
I also do a weight training day, kettlebell workout or yoga class about once or twice a month each, though I did all three on a regular basis for several years at other points in my training.
Other than that, I walk a lot and I live in a fourth floor apartment with no elevator, so I go up and down the stairs several times a day. I also conduct personal training sessions every day, which gives me extra physical activity. Since I still manage to spend several hours a day sitting in front of a computer, I throw in some stretching throughout the rest of the day too.
I wouldn’t recommend a regimen like mine for everyone, but it works for me…and I work for it!
The deadlift is one of the most cut and dry ways to build or test your strength, you simply grab a heavy object and lift it off the ground.
While there are a ton of variations on the deadlift (we’ll get to them in a second), and a good deal of subtlety to performing it effectively, it really is quite primitive.
When deadlifting, there’s really only two things you have to remember: keep your back straight and your weight in your heels.
Proper deadlift form with the back straight
However, “keep your back straight” is an often misunderstood cue. People think it means they can’t lean forward, but in fact, you must lean forward in order to deadlift properly. The important thing is to make sure that you bend from your hips, not through your spine. You need to squeeze your shoulder blades together to keep your thoracic vertebrae aligned. Your back should not be anywhere near perpendicular to the ground, but it shouldn’t be bent either.
Don't bend your back like this when deadlifting
The most common way to deadlift is with a barbell. It’s easy to grip and the weight distribution makes it ideal for lifting. Stand with your feet about hip width, then squat down and grab the bar with your hands just outside of your legs (overhand grip or alternated, whichever you prefer). Lift your chest, retract those shoulder blades and stand up. Think about pushing your heels down, thrusting your hips forward and squeezing your thighs and butt as you lift up the bar.
The Romanian deadlift puts more emphasis on the hamstrings than the quads because more of the muscle action happens at the hip joint. Since your knees don’t bend very much when you do this variation, you may need to work on the flexibility in your calves and hamstrings in order to achieve a full range of motion. Also bear in mind that most people will have to go a bit lighter on this variation than on a standard Olympic-style barbell deadlift due to the decrease in quad involvement. Sumo Deadlifts The sumo deadlift involves taking a wide stance and keeping your arms inside of your legs. You’ll need to externally rotate at your hips to get into this position, which resembles the stance of a sumo wrestler. These are great for putting extra emphasis on the muscles of the inner thigh and groin area.
As with all exercises, get creative with the deadlift! You can experiment with deadlifting kettlebells, medicine balls, sandbags or really anything! Different objects will present their own unique challenges. It is common in strongman contests for competitors to deadlift anything from huge concrete spheres to the axle and wheels of a hummer.
Every Body Needs Training
This is the part of the blog where I tell you to get a trainer if you’re at all nervous about deadlifting for the first time. This is one exercise you want to be extra careful with. Even though there is a video tutorial below, some people will not be able to properly learn this movement pattern without someone physically guiding them through it. (Thanks to Bell Fitness Company for letting me shoot this tutorial in their facility.)
Hiking is a great way to get in touch with nature, breathe in some fresh air and get a fun workout along the way. In addition to strengthening your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, hiking also provides a cardiovascular workout. It’s a great alternative to biking, running or other forms of cardio, and unlike the treadmill, where every minute can seem like an eternity, it’s easy to get caught up in the enjoyment of the hike and lose track of time.
During my recent visit to LA, I got to hike through Topenga State Park with my friend Mike Lieberman. We hiked around for hours and despite the drizzle and overcast skies, had a great time and enjoyed some beautiful views.
Less is More
I wore my Invisible Shoes on the hike and found them to be ideal for traversing the uneven footing. In general, “athletic” sneakers seem to weigh me down, making me feel clumsy rather than enhancing my performance. Since acclimating to the barefoot running technique, wearing anything more than a vans slip-on tends to feel cumbersome. Mike kept his footwear minimal as well by sporting his Vibram Five Fingers.
Hiking generally means more pounding on your feet than running or jogging on even terrain, so don’t start minimalist or barefoot hiking before getting comfortable with minimalist footwear in other contexts. Additionally, there are a lot of small, sharp rocks and other things to potentially cut your feet on during a hike, so I don’t suggest full-on barefoot hiking to anyone who isn’t a seasoned barefoot runner. Even with my Invisible Shoes, after three hours on the trails at Topanga, the soles of my feet were achy.
Take a Hike!
While hiking might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Los Angeles, there are a lot of places out there to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life while having a moment with nature. Even at home in NYC, I recently got in a hike at the Mohonk Preserve with the rest of the team from Nimble Fitness.
No matter where you live, it’s worth your while to find a place where you can go for a recreational hike. It’s a great way to get fit, have fun and expand your horizons. Oh, and feel free to wear whatever footwear you prefer.
I’m always on the hunt for cool new places to train outdoors, so while visiting my friend Mike Lieberman in LA a few weeks back, I made sure to hit up the world famous “Muscle Beach” in Venice.
With pull-up bars, parallel bars and rings for bodyweight training on the sand, and barbells and other gym equipment in a nearby area by the pavement, the set-up there has the best of both worlds.
Leave the Fire Behind
While it was great to check out Muscle Beach, the beach in Santa Monica has a workout area that I liked even better!
In addition to pull-up bars and parallel bars, Santa Monica had some new toys for me to try out! It was a lot of fun swinging around on the rings and going up the rope climb, though both were harder than I expected. Working out at this fantastic free gym right on the sand at the beach reminded me a bit of my recent workout at Coney Island.
All in all, my visit to LA was a blast! Here’s a few more photos from my trip. If you want to see the rest of them, join the facebook fanpage!
Watch the video below and check back later this week for more from my LA visit.
NYC just got hit with the biggest snowstorm we’ve had in over a decade, but that didn’t stop me from working out at Tompkins Square Park yesterday morning.
In fact, the snow made my workout a lot more fun!
In addition to my usual regimen of pull-ups, muscle-ups and dips, I also did some parkour training. After all, parkour is about overcoming obstacles and a blizzard is just another obstacle to work around!
If you’re serious about getting in shape or improving your fitness, there is no reason that you can’t make time for a workout no matter what else is going on. Even if you have to fit in a quick at-home workout with no equipment, you can always dedicate at least a few minutes a day to improving your body.
I’m not saying you have to go out in a blizzard in order to get some exercise, but if you do, make sure to dress warm and layer your clothing. Once you get moving out there, you might be surprised how fun and invigorating cold weather workouts can actually be!
I’m not making any New Year’s resolutions for 2011 and you shouldn’t either. No, we’re not already perfect, I’m simply taking issue with New Year’s resolutions as a concept.
Why They Don’t Work
Most resolutions fall into one of two categories, they’re either overly vague (I’m going to get fit in 2011!) or unrealistically rigid (I’m cutting out all grains and simple sugars for 2011!). These types of resolutions are problematic because they don’t hold you accountable and/or they set you up to fail (which can sometimes be a good thing, but not in this case).
Even “better” resolutions (I’m going to exercise at least three times a week in 2011!) are still useless. Why? Because the calendar is just something WE MADE UP.
We made it up so we can know to meet at a certain time on a certain day and keep track of history to the best of our abilities (and it’s very helpful for those things) but it’s not real. Days and months and years are based on the actual cycle of the planets and stars, yes, but we made up the details.
What You Can Do
Every day is just a day, but it’s also a new opportunity, regardless of whether it’s January 1st or December 27th. It doesn’t make a difference when you start making changes in your life. Your body reacts to the signals you give it every single day, so stop waiting for things to fall into place and start taking action today.
For those of you who may be new to fitness, remember to ease in slowly and be patient. Those of us working out every day and/or following healthy eating plans didn’t make drastic changes overnight.
Setting idealistic (unrealistic) goals is a waste of time. Focus on the process and take it step by step instead of looking ahead an entire year. The next 365 days will likely go by even quicker than the last, but if you set your sights on taking it one day at a time, you may be surprised by what the future brings.
Savvy fitness enthusiasts know that doing endless amounts of crunches isn’t the smartest way to build a strong midsection. Planks and side planks are the most fundamental exercises to develop your core, but if you want to work toward advanced exercises like levers and human flags, the dragon flag can help you get there.
Though best known as a trademark move of legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, the dragon flag has become a popular training tool amongst anyone who is serious about calisthenics and bodyweight training.
A dragon flag is typically performed lying face-up on a bench or on the ground with your hands grasping a sturdy object behind your head for support. From here, the objective is to lift your entire body up in a straight line, stacking it vertically over your shoulders in the top position.
Protect Ya Neck When performing a dragon flag, focus on using your abs, lower back and glutes to control the movement. Your hands are there for support, but don’t pull the bench into the back of your neck! Instead, use your core strength to roll up onto your shoulders.
Just like learning to do a pull-up, start by practicing the negative (lowering) phase of the dragon flag. Once you get confident with negatives, try doing a static hold at the bottom with your body hovering an inch or two over the bench. When you can hold this position for 2 or 3 seconds, you’re ready to start working on full dragon flags.
While a dragon flag technically requires you to maintain a straight line from your shoulders to your feet, it can be helpful to practice a modified version where you allow your hips to bend. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different progressions and variations on your way to mastering this exercise.
If you aim to master your bodyweight, the freestanding handstand is an essential skill. More than developing any one area, the freestanding handstand will help you learn to use your muscles together, allowing your entire body to function as a single unit. Developing this ability is important as you progress towards more difficult bodyweight exercises like levers and the human flag.
Before attempting a freestanding handstand, I recommend getting comfortable with simpler inversions like headstands and handstands against a wall. From there, move on to practicing basic hand balances like the crow pose.
Off The Wall
The freestanding handstand can be intimidating because there is nothing to catch you if you fall. You must take a leap of faith and go in with confidence that your body will know what to do if you tip over. If you’re having a hard time getting over your nerves, it can help to have a spotter. I also recommend practicing on a soft surface like grass or rubber.
While a freestanding handstand can be a challenging shoulder and arm workout when held for long enough, the balance is typically the most difficult part to learn. It takes a lot of time to find the “sweet spot” between over-balancing (tipping over) or under-balancing (falling back to your feet).
Unlike your foot, which was made for standing, your hand doesn’t have a true heel, so it’s best to put slightly more weight in your fingers than in your palms when balancing on them. If you are a tiny bit over-balanced, you can stay up by pressing your fingers into the ground. When you’re under-balanced, there is less you can do to keep from coming down.
A Tale of Two Handstands
In modern gymnastics, handstands are performed with a perfectly straight line from top to bottom. For this reason, a lot of people will tell you that arching your back during a handstand is bad form. In my experience, however, it is helpful to allow your back to arch while you are learning to find the balance. In time, you can work on reaching your legs upward, pressing into the floor and tightening your abs, lower back and glutes to achieve an aesthetically pleasing straight line from head to toe (or hands to toe as the case may be).
Practice, Practice, Practice
Transitioning from a handstand against a wall to a freestanding handstand is a challenging and potentially discouraging process. I was terrible at hand balancing when I started out, but I’ve been practicing for a while now. For me, the key has been consistency; I rarely miss a day of practice, even if it’s just a couple of minutes at the end of a workout. Some days it comes harder than others, but when I fall, I just get up and try again.
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Timothy Bell, PTS.
Kettlebells – we love lifting them, we love flipping them, some of us even love throwing them around! But did you know that you can get a workout without even picking them up off the floor?
Parallettes are low parallel bars used by gymnasts to practice static holds such as L-sits and training the planche. Not all of us have access to a set of parallettes, but fortunately a pair of kettlebells makes a great substitute.
Due to its fat, heavy base and raised handle, the design of the kettlebell makes it a suitable replacement for parallettes. The kettlebell’s height from the floor allows for ample space to pull your legs through when transitioning between the plache and L-sit, as well as going deep with handstand push-ups. When using kettlebells for parallette work you’ll want to choose two kettlebells of the same weight. The heavier the kettlebell, the stronger the base, and therefore the more stable it will be for your training. To reduce the risk of tipping over, I recommend using 50 lb. bells or heavier.
Note my use of the word “practice” when talking about parallette or any gymnastics training for that matter. In my experience, training both myself and my clientele, it is best to approach your parallette training as a practice rather than a workout in itself. There’s a few ways to put this concept into action. You could simply place your parallette training at the beginning or end of your workout, performing 5-7 sets of either L-sits, tucked planche holds, handstands, or a combination of the three. Putting them at the beginning allows you to take advantage of your full strength before you are fatigued from other execises. Doing them at the end forces your body to work very hard in an already weakened state, which will help you perform at a higher level next time you’re fresh and warmed up.
Another approach is to practice these techniques throughout the day, doing a few sets in the morning, and a few more later on (what Pavel Tsatsouline refers to as “greasing the groove”). This can even be done on rest days as a form of active recovery. Practice these basic holds daily, conquer them, and then move onto more advanced versions of each. There are endless variations you can use to strengthen yourself from head to toe.
Timothy Bell is a heath/fitness educator, founder of Jungle Fit Personal Training, and author of the Jungle Fit Body Weight Solution. For more information on Timothy Bell and Jungle Fit, visit www.Jungle-Fit.com
While running down a flight of stairs trying to catch a train, I was recently made aware of a phenomenon that prevents many of us from reaching our potential. At the top of the stairs I could not run quickly, not because it was crowded, but because my body was afraid of mis-stepping.
When your body senses the risk of danger to be higher, skills that would normally be performed with no hesitation will suddenly cause nervousness. This is essentially why a fear of heights can be paralyzing for some.
If you’ve ever stood on the balcony of a tall building with a relatively low railing, you might have felt tentative approaching the edge. While you would never worry about falling over a low fence that was on level ground, as soon as that same scenario is 20 or 50 feet in the air, your perspective can change.
Nature or Nurture?
This fear of heights is likely an evolutionary defense mechanism built into humans to prevent us from falling, but since childhood, most of us have also been told by parents and teachers not to jump, climb or hang from things that are high up, so it’s hard to determine where to draw the line between intuition and conditioned behavior.
Whatever the reason for it, our fear holds us back more than it helps us. I’m not saying to disregard what your intuition is telling you, but rather to gradually push the limits back.
Face Your Fear
To reprogram yourself to move beyond this performance inhibiting behavior, you must start slowly. Go to a park and try doing a precision jump on ground level. Just a long jump with both feet taking off together and landing together. No running start. Now count how many feet you jumped.
The next step is to find two sturdy, elevated objects several feet from the ground that are closer together than the distance you just jumped. Since you know that you can cover this distance (you just did a longer jump on the ground!), you should be able to quiet that fear enough to give it a shot. Once you get comfortable with that, find a place to practice jumping a slightly longer distance. In time, you’ll be able to jump just as far while up high as you can on the ground, maybe even farther!
I also suggest experimenting with other parkour moves, like vaults to help you overcome your fears. Climbing a tree is another great way to build confidence.
Continue to push back your perceived limitations with consistent practice and in time, you’ll eventually be able to shut out fear and replace it with courage. You might even find that confidence sneaking into other aspects of your life.
Last month, my brother Danny and I finally finished building his backyard pull-up bar. It wound up being a bigger project than we originally envisioned, but in the end, Danny was left with an amazing home gym.
I recently got to work out on the backyard bar during a visit to Danny’s house in Brooklyn. I’ve been trying out some advanced muscle-up techniques like plyometric clapping muscle-ups and slow, no-hands muscle-ups (technically the hands are used, but they aren’t gripping the bar), while Danny’s been continuing to practice the human flag and human flag pull-ups.
The bars in Danny’s set-up have a 2″ diameter, which is even thicker than the bars at Tompkins Square Park. The thickness of the bars adds an extra challenge to exercises like pull-ups, muscle-ups and levers, so practicing on Danny’s set-up is helping my grip strength. Training on the fat bars makes going back to standard ones feel easy.
It was a bit cold out but we still managed to heat up those bars!
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by grip expert Jedd Johnson.
You are all probably well on your way toward including proper hand flexion exercises in your program if you are doing the variety of exercises that Al does here on his site.
However, I am willing to bet that almost none of you train the opposing movement patterns. In fact, it’s probably never crossed your mind before now, unless you’ve sustained an injury and done work with a physical therapist.
What is Antagonistic Balance?
The term “antagonistic balance” refers to maintaining a realistic balance of strength between opposing muscle groups.
For example, the shoulder needs to maintain a proper balance between the work and force used in pushing and pulling exercises like push-ups and pull-ups. Without proper antagonistic balance, shoulder problems can occur.
Here are some examples of conditions that can result when there is an imbalance, such as too many pushing movements and not enough pulling movements:
Upper Back Weakness
Poor Performance in Sports
Poor Results in the Strength Training Program
The shoulder, however, is not the reason I am writing today. Instead, I want to talk about your hands.
Antagonistic Balance and Hand Health
No doubt about it, a lot of the training we do is heavily dependent on grip strength. This is very important to take into consideration. After all, when you are in the middle of “skinning the cat” the last thing you want to have happen is to lose your grip and crack your skull on the pavement.
Just like the health of the shoulder joint, hand health from proper antagonistic balance should be a part of your training. This involves proper balance between flexion and extension movements of the hand and wrist.
Over time, being in a state of antagonistic imbalance can lead to many problems from the elbow down to the fingers.
Misalignment of Carpal (Wrist) Bones
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Tingling in the Fingers
Weakness in the Hands, Fingers and Thumbs
The easiest way to maintain balance between the antagonists of the hands is by including finger and wrist extension movements.
Here are three ways you can include extensor training in your routine without breaking the bank.
1. Rubber Band Finger Extensions
A good set of rubber bands can be picked up at any office supply store. I like #84 Rubber Bands from Staples.
String them over your fingers and thumb and open your fingers against the resistance. The primary purpose of rubber band work is for endurance, so hit them until your forearm heats up and feels like it might just burn the next person that rubs against it.
2. Protein Container Extensor Training
Protein powder jugs and other similar-shaped containers make for great tools for working the extensors. Just throw some sand, steel shot, or bent steel from nail bending inside and you have a great tool for extensor training.
Stick your fingers and thumb in, open up all the way, and lift the container up off the ground. If you have monstrous hands, you may need something bigger. I use an Utz Cheese Ball container. I’m not sure how it made its way into my house…
3. Sand Bucket Take a large bucket and put some sand in it. Dig the fingers down into the sand and open your hand against the resistance. This will work the extensors more intensely than the other two, so be ready for a pump. Call me a wuss, but I can’t stand getting the sand under my finger nails, so I usually wear leather working gloves while I do this. You may like this better as well.
These three methods of training the extensors are very cheap, probably costing you less than $10 in total, but they enable you to hit the extensors under light resistance for lots of reps (rubber bands), isometrically with heavier loads (candy container), and dynamically with heavier loads and fewer repetitions (sand bucket) so you are able to strengthen the extensors and maintain the antagonistic balance that is so important for hand health.
How Often to Do These Movements
Since I compete at grip sport, I do rubber band extensions every single day I train in an effort to maintain my antagonistic balance. Because the resistance is light, you can probably do these multiple times a week as well, probably 3 or 4 times, even.
I will do the sand bucket or the extensor lift once a week and I rotate each week. This frequency is probably good for you as well.
These methods should keep you going in your workouts, enabling you to progress more quickly and stay “in the game” for many years to come.
Jedd Johnson, CSCS has competed in numerous strongman and grip contests and holds the world record for the two hands pinch. Jedd is also a regular speaker & presenter at the Pennsylvania State Strength and Conditioning Clinic.
The mind is the most powerful muscle in the body, for without the mind, your physical muscles are useless. The rest/pause method will test the limits of both your body and your mind, while allowing you to push your strength and endurance to new heights.
The rest/pause method involves taking short breaks during a long set in order to get more total reps. Instead of stopping after you reach a pre-determined number of, let’s say, push-ups, just rest at the top with your arms locked out once fatigue sets in. Take a breath or two, then keep pushing out one rep at a time, with several seconds in between reps if need be. This will allow you to push the boundaries of muscular failure.
Incorporataing the Rest/Pause Method
Push-ups are one of the best exercises to use this technique with, but rest/pausing works great with pull-ups, squats and even muscle-ups.
After an intense session using the rest/pause method, it’s important to have a rest day or a recovery workout the following day. Rest/pause workouts are best used as a shocking technique, so they shouldn’t be done more than once or twice a week.
The power of using your mind and taking it one rep at a time can often lead to groundbreaking workouts. The rest pause method recently allowed me to set a new personal best in muscle-ups. Luckily, I was able to get it on film!
Check out my brother Danny rest/pausing his way to an epic set of over 100 push-ups!
By now, most people have heard of the barefoot running movement. You probably even know some wacko at your office whose got a pair of “the feet gloves” or better yet, those Born to Run style huaraches. Maybe you’re even thinking of trying it for yourself. Here are some things to consider before you jump on the barefoot bandwagon.
To Shoe or Not to Shoe
Barefoot running is appealing not only because it taps into our primal caveman instincts, but more importantly, because it encourages forefoot running, which is generally considered the safest, most efficient running technique. Forefoot running lessens joint impact and facilitates a higher stride frequency, which is often correlated with faster race times.
Will Barefoot Running Make You Faster?
Maybe, but probably not. However, barefoot running will help you learn how to run with less impact, which will reduce the likelihood of pain and injuries – at least in the long run (pun intended).
Transitioning to Forefoot Running
While running barefoot or with minimal footwear is a great way to learn the forefoot technique, it isn’t absolutely necessary. Even though I like to run in my Xero Shoes, you can learn to run on your forefoot in any comfortable sneaker (I still like to run in Vans, too).
When making the transition to forefoot running, it is common to experience severe soreness in your calves. This doesn’t mean that you’re doing anything wrong. It just means you’re using muscles that you aren’t used to using. In time, those muscles will become stronger and the soreness following a run will subside.
Keep your knees and ankles bent.
Other than the obvious, there are a few key differences between the forefoot running technique and the heel-to-toe technique.
First, in forefoot running, your foot lands right under your hips instead of in front of your center of gravity. This does not mean that you’re up on the tips of your toes the whole time, but rather that your foot will land almost totally flat, with the heel just barely making contact with the ground. Maintaining good posture while bending your knees and leaning forward from your ankles will help facilitate this.
Kick out the back, Jack!
Forefoot running technique is more about using your hamstrings and glutes to kick out behind you, as opposed to using your quads to reach out in front. Don’t think about lifting your knees, instead just think about picking your foot up off the ground. The rest should take care of itself.
Another difference with barefoot running technique is that you aim to keep your foot in contact with the ground as briefly as possible. Rather than leaving your foot down there while you roll from heel to toe, in forefoot running, you strike down quickly and move into the next stride immediately.
Whether you choose to wear shoes or not, relax, focus on proper posture and listen to your body to avoid pain. Ease in slowly and gradually, allowing yourself time to adapt.
The pistol squat is a challenging exercise, but with consistent practice, it can become relatively easy. Once you can do 10 repetitions on each leg, you should try adding a new challenge.
My two favorite ways to do this are by bringing weights into the picture or adding a balance component. If you want to use weights, I recommend kettlebells, but dumbbells or barbells can also be effective. Start by holding the weight in front of you in the rack position. Once you get that down, you can try holding a weight overhead during a pistol squat.
If you choose to add a balance element to your pistol training, start by standing on a bosu ball or a half foam roller. For an extra challenge, you can try a pistol while standing on a bar.
Once you are ready to try a one legged squat on a bar, you’ll need to practice catching yourself so you can land safely if you lose your balance. For this reason, it is best to begin practicing with a low bar. Knowing how to bail out of a botched attempt without getting hurt is essential before trying a pistol squat on a high bar.
Attempting an exercise like a pistol squat on top of an 8 foot high bar might sound crazy, but with gradual progression it doesn’t have to be risky. Build your confidence little by little and you might find that the ability to overcome your fears on the bars will carry over into the rest of your life. When you find yourself doing things you once thought impossible, remember that our only limits are the ones we impose on ourselves.
The NYC marathon always attracts a crowd and this year was no different. In addition to the 37,000 entrants, there were millions of friends, family and fans lined up to cheer on the racers, giving the entire city Marathon fever!
This time around, I was excited to be a spectator. Being part of the crowd is almost as much fun as being in the race itself! It was a beautiful day and the positive energy was overwhelming.
The popularity of distance running is undeniable and everyone is welcome to participate. With entrants from all ages, nationalities and body types represented, it proved to me that anyone who sets their mind to it can run a Marathon.
Check out the photos below for more:
Age is just a number. So is 26.2.
Heel striking in Vibrams? Oh and he's in a funny costume, too.
Crawling works your upper body, legs and core muscles, plus it can help improve your coordination. It can also turn into an intense cardio session if you keep it up for long enough!
One of the most basic crawls is the bear-crawl, which involves keeping your hips high in the air with your arms and legs straight. If you haven’t crawled since you were a baby, the bear crawl is a good way to ease back in.
The spider-crawl is a lot harder than the bear-crawl. Instead of keeping your hips up, the spider-crawl has you bending your arms and legs while keeping your hips down. Imagine you are trying to get through a narrow tunnel without letting your belly touch the ground.
You can also split the difference between these first two variations by keeping your arms straight but still bending your knees. This type of movement is sometimes used in parkour training and is similar to what Mark Sisson calls the “Grok crawl.”
Whichever variation you choose, crawling makes a great warm-up exercise, conditioning drill or active recovery technique. Feel free to experiment with different ways of incorporating these crawls (and your own versions of them) into your workouts.
When I first met Katie, she had worked with trainers before, but hadn’t been able to maintain long term fitness. Like many people, she seesawed back and forth with her dedication and often let life get in the way of her health. As a result, she was never able to make any significant gains in her strength and endurance.
Having shed a considerable amount of fat and built a healthy amount of lean muscle since we began training, Katie now recognizes that fitness can only be maintained with dedication and consistency. There are going to be bumps in the road, but Katie knows to keep the car moving.
When Katie and I started working out together, the idea of her doing a pull-up was out of the question, but now she can do one with confidence! We’ve also started working on more advanced leg exercises, like pistol squats.
Man has yet to fly without airplanes or helicopters, but performing a back lever feels pretty close! Practicing this exercise can help you build total body strength while giving you the sensation of being suspended in mid-air. Back levers are fun and functional, plus they look bad-ass!
Skinning the Cat
Before you attempt a back lever, you’ll need to learn how to “skin the cat.” Don’t worry, I’m not advocating harming any felines! In this context, the phrase “skinning the cat” refers to rolling your hips and legs over and around to the other side of the bar from a pull-up position.
Start by hanging from a bar with an overhand grip, then begin raising your legs with your knees bent. When your knees are all the way up to your chest, rotate your body around to the other side, keeping your legs tucked tight so they don’t hit the bar as you pass through. From here, extend your legs and let your body hang before reversing the movement.
Performing a Back Lever
Once you can get your legs over to the other side of the bar, you’re ready to start practicing towards a back lever. I like to get into position by straightening my entire body so that I’m hanging almost completely upside down with my legs above the bar and my torso below.
From there, start to lower yourself one inch at a time while pitching your chest forward. The objective is to get your body parallel to the ground with your hips directly under the bar. It’s helpful to have someone watch you or videotape you while you are doing this as you’ll likely have a hard time feeling when you are in position. Remember to contract your abs, lower back, hamstrings and glutes while performing this move. Your arms are only one small part of the equation.
There are many paths you can take when putting together a home gym. Throughout my life, I’ve owned free weights, benches, push-up bars, and a pull-up bar mounted in a doorframe. However, as we progress in fitness and life, our goals change and so do our needs. Like our bodies, our minds and creative forces need to be challenged (it just feels good to make something). So when the itch to create a home gym struck again, it was a no-brainer: a backyard pull-up bar was the only way to go.
Why Build A Backyard Pull-Up Bar?
The way I train, a door-frame or stand up (power-tower) design would not meet my needs, which include plyometrics and aggressive kipping. I needed something that could withstand hundreds of pounds of explosive force.
The basic design is a bar supported by two posts dug deep in the ground; it needs to be SOLID. The plan was to leave 8’ of pole above ground and 4’ below. I wound up going about 6” deeper for extra stability. But even within that simple layout, there are a lot of choices to make.
Wood Posts Vs. Metal Posts If you are working with wood posts, I’d recommend going no smaller than 6×6. A 2×4 is not going to cut it. Be sure to use “treated” wood (it’s the one at Home Depot with the green tint.) It’s worth the extra money to have something that will stand the test of time. Be aware that you’ll have to purchase circular metal flanges to affix the bar to the wood. These flanges range from $8-$20 depending on the style.
Wood is cost efficient, solid and looks great, but I looked forward to practicing the human flag on my bar, so my posts had to be metal. Generally plumbers’ galvanized 2” pipe is about $7 per foot. However, you can’t get anything larger than 8’ at a hardware store (even giants like Home Depot or Lowes). To make a 12’ post, you’d have to buy 20’ directly from a supplier, pay for each cut and buy 90 degree fittings (also about $8-$20) to attach each post to the bar itself. Instead, I contacted a local gate manufacturer to build the initial design (two 12’ iron posts welded to a 4’ bar up top, plus another 4’ bar 3 ½’ from the bottom—this lower bar gets buried for stability) for $180.
Another factor influencing stability is the amount of concrete used in the foundations. Most websites I consulted expressed remorse about not using enough cement. I decided to avoid that problem by using 600 lbs. per post. Remember, I said AGGRESSIVE KIPPING!
A standard pull-up bar is 1”-1 ½” in diameter and 2-3’ in length. To get the most out of mine, I did 2” diameters and 4’ across. The 2” grip makes for a harder workout and is excellent for building grip strength.
Be aware that raw metal bars are open on the ends so you’ll need to seal them. I filled mine with cement and painted over them, but you can use nylon or rubber stoppers.
Aside from the posts and bars, if you’re making a backyard pull-up bar you’ll need the following:
– Post Hole Diggers – Shovel – Cement (I used twenty-five 80 lb. bags) – Something to mix it in (You don’t need a wheel barrow. I got a huge planter for $18. Next year I’ll grow fresh herbs in it.) – Leveler – Six 2×4’s and some screws (for building a frame) – Oil-based enamel paint (or lacquer for wood posts)
Building Your Bar Make sure you have plenty of space. My posts were affixed 4’ apart so I set the holes 4’ apart. If you are using wood posts, I recommend building the 1st post completely and then measuring the 2nd one from it to ensure accuracy.
My holes were about 12” diameter at the bottom and about 18” on top. I also dug a trough about 18” deep from one post to the other, which when filled with cement, surrounded the bar at the bottom of the frame. Even with post-hole diggers, digging 4 ½’ holes is extremely challenging, which made for a great workout!
Each post has to go in perfectly straight. The bar connecting them must be level, and needs to remain so until the concrete sets. The best way to ensure this is to build a wooden frame out of 2×4’s around the structure before you put the concrete in. Take your time! This step is important and will require a lot of trial-and-error.
Once the structure is level, straight and properly framed in wood, fill the holes with concrete. When the concrete dries, remove the frame and you’ve got your pull-up bar!
A New Life
Even with four and a half feet in the ground and a ton of cement, explosive muscle-ups caused my backyard pull-up bar to vibrate. It was just a tiny bit, but that wasn’t part of the dream. Changes had to be made. The bars needed diagonal support against one another. Vertical and horizontal were not enough.
I decided that in making it more stable, I’d change the whole shape and make it better! I had a smaller post/bar combo fabricated and set it up 4’ behind my initial bar (This one was 10’ high; I buried just shy of 4’ of it). It had to be parallel to the first structure, as well as level with the ground. Once it was in, I used four 7’ diagonal cross beams to mount the two structures together and two 4’ horizontal crossbeams for extra support. I purchased used scaffold clamps (“cheezeboros” in the production world) for $10 each to secure them. Finally, when the concrete dried and the smoke cleared…THIS BABY WASN’T GOING ANYWHERE!
The best part of this new design was that it wasn’t limited to pull-ups, muscle-ups, and flags. It could accommodate Australian pull-ups, dips and an unlimited variety of grips. My backyard pull-up bar had exceeded my expectations!
In this world, things don’t always go as planned. But when we move forward and roll with the changes, we may find ourselves grateful for the unexpected. That’s part of what makes life beautiful. I’m proud to say I have Brooklyn’s finest home gym – and proud to have made it with my own two hands!
If you’ve ever watched weightlifting in the Olympics, you’ve likely seen the clean and press. There are many variations on this movement, but in its most basic sense, it simply involves lifting a heavy weight off the floor and over your head in an explosive fashion.
There are many ways to fit the clean and press into your routine. You can load up the bar and do a single rep as a test of strength, or use it as a conditioning exercise by doing high reps with a low to moderate weight. In spite of these two terrific applications, I hardly ever see anyone doing them at the gym.
I’ve often thought of the movement involved in the clean to be the opposite of a muscle-up. Instead of using your explosive power to get your body up over a bar, when you do a clean you’re using it to move the bar up over your body.
The clean starts like a deadlift, but continues all the way up until the bar is caught in front of your chest (similar to a front squat). The movement is initiated from the hips; as you pull the bar straight up in front of you, your heels should come off the ground. When the bar is as high as it can go, you drop down underneath it, making a shelf with your arms to catch it.
Just like the clean, the press is initiated from the hips and lower body. The arms should almost become an afterthought. The power from your legs should transfer up into your arms seamlessly as you complete the lift.
Kettlebell Clean and Press The balance of a kettlebell is different than that of a barbell due to its shape. Get comfortable with the proper kettlebell swing before learning cleans. You must learn to use your hamstrings, glutes and core muscles to generate power from your hips.
Since kettlebells aren’t connected, you can rotate your forearms when you’re doing cleans with them. If the barbell clean and press is like a bar muscle-up, the kettlebell clean and press is more like a muscle-up on rings. Turn your wrist through to prevent the kettlebell from flipping over and smacking your arm too hard.
The clean and press is a complex movement; it takes practice to get the feel and the timing of it, so start with light weight. It is best to have a trainer present when learning a difficult new exercise.
Watch the video below for more on the clean and press:
I once knew a guy who threw out his back while getting a beer out of a cooler. Seriously.
If you don’t take care of your body, at some point you’ll wind up getting an (easily preventable) injury.
Flexibility is often the most overlooked aspect of fitness, but without a full range of motion in your joints, basic exercises like squats, overhead presses and even pull-ups can be problematic.
The most common areas where people tend to become overly tight are the hips, hamstrings, shoulders and back, though tightness in the wrists and ankles can also pose a problem when performing exercises like push-ups and squats.
If you’re inflexible, you need to devote as much attention to improving your range of motion as you do to increasing your strength. After all, without a healthy range of motion in your joints, you can’t fully work your muscles.
The standard way to assess hamstring flexibility is the sit and reach test. (See photo above)
After warming up, have a seat on the floor with your legs extended straight in front of you. Without bending your knees, reach forward for your toes. If you cannot touch your toes, you need to work towards loosening your hamstrings.
To test the range of motion in your hips, you’ll need a sturdy table or ledge just below waist height. Pick up one leg and place the outside of your ankle on the table. Now rotate your hip to try to touch your knee to the table as well (your shin should be perpendicular to your body.) If you cannot touch your knee to the table, your hip mobility could stand to improve.
Shoulders and Back
Shoulder mobility can also be easily tested. Lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Reach both hands overhead and try to touch your wrists to the ground without raising your lower back off the floor. If you cannot do this, guess what? You have poor range of motion in your shoulders and upper back.
While men generally tend to be stronger than women, flexibility is one area where the ladies get the long end of the stick. Most men will not be able to pass all three tests (I can’t – my shoulders are tight!) so don’t feel bad. Luckily, there is a simple solution to this problem – stretch!
Improving your flexibility takes time, especially for older individuals as your body has had more time to get used to being stiff. You must be patient and dedicated if you wish to increase your flexibility.
Right: I’ve found this stretch, which I like to call a “wall dog,” to be helpful for my upper back, but it can also be useful for stretching the hamstrings and calves. Start by grabbing a bar or a ledge that’s a bit higher than waist level. Next, step back, push your hips out and press your chest to the ground. Try to avoid bending your knees or rounding your back.
In my early twenties, I could deadlift almost twice my bodyweight, but I couldn’t even run one mile. My weak link was exposed when I attended a personal trainer workshop that included a barrage of fitness tests, one of which was a 1.5 mile run.
Even though I didn’t finish last, it was a bit embarrassing for me. The experience prompted me to shift my focus from strength and hypertrophy to working on overall fitness. I started running and practicing yoga and in 2009, I ran the NYC Marathon.
The spectrum for endurance sports is quite large and it is constantly increasing. When I first heard of the Ironman, I couldn’t conceive of how that was even possible! I now know many people who’ve finished Ironmans (yes, regular people just like you and me!). There’s even a DOUBLE Ironman for those rare individuals who think 140.6 miles just isn’t enough. I’m not proposing that we all go out and start competing in triathlons, but developing your cardio conditioning can make everyday activities easier and more enjoyable.
Testing Your Endurance
The funny thing with cardio is that it doesn’t always carry over from one activity to the next. This is part of the appeal of triathlons, as they test your endurance over three modalities. It’s amazing how sometimes a person can be good at one activity and very bad at another. Take me for example, I’m a decent runner and cyclist, but I’m a weak swimmer. (I’ve recently started practicing more though – I’m hoping to do my first tri in 2011!)
I’ve also known a few good runners who couldn’t even ride a bike, so skill specificity has a lot to do with it. You get better at what you practice; it’s really that simple. Wanna be a good runner? Run!
With that in mind, here are some guidelines to judge your aerobic endurance. (I’ve decided to make these gender neutral.)
Swim 750 meters (just under half a mile) in under 20 minutes Bike 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles) in under 40 minutes Run 5 kilometers (about 3.1 miles) in under 30 minutes
I’ve chosen these distances because they are the standards used in most sprint triathlons. You don’t need to be able to do all three in order to test your conditioning. However, if you can’t pass at least one of these requirements, you ought to work on your cardio. (Serious athletes can do these requirements in less than half the time.)
One more thing, I’m not talking about running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. If you want to truly test your cardio, don’t use machines! For the swim, feel free to use a pool.
There are generally three categories used to assess physical fitness: strength, endurance and flexibility. Within each of those groups, however, there are many variables to consider.
The strength required to throw a baseball 90 miles-an-hour is very different from the strength used to deadlift 700 pounds or that which is needed to perform a back lever. (I challenge you to find one person who can do all three of those things!)
The same is true of endurance; climbing stairs requires a unique type of stamina when compared to swimming or running.
Even flexibility gets tricky to gauge; throwing a roundhouse kick at eye level requires flexibility, but it’s different than the flexibility needed to perform a back bridge.
While specific skills like the ones mentioned above can be used to assess strength, endurance or flexibility, I believe an individual should meet several requirements to be deemed fit.
Notwithstanding my belief that goals are far less important than the actual practice of regular exercise, I’ve decided to put forth the following guidelines to use for self-assessment. Let’s start with strength.
Assessing Your Strengths (And Weaknesses)
There are basically two ways to measure or improve your strength: move your own bodyweight (my favorite) or, as Mark Sisson likes to say, “lift heavy things” (which is also very effective).
To meet my standards for basic strength, an individual should be able to perform the following:
You might be thinking, “Al, doing 40 push-ups is a test of muscular endurance – not strength!” And you wouldn’t be wrong to think that. I told you these types of assessments can get tricky!
If you are looking to test your strength for one rep, then use weights. Keep in mind that even with weight training, it is best to judge your strength relative to your body weight. A 250 lb. man should be expected to lift a lot more than a man who weighs 165 lbs. With that in mind, anyone who I consider strong will likely meet the following minimum criteria:
Men Clean and Press 50% of your bodyweight Squat 90% of your bodyweight Deadlift 100% of your bodyweight
October 2010 marks the one year anniversary of AlKavadlo.com. My blog has grown a lot over the last 12 months and so have I. Thanks to everyone who’s been supportive, followed this blog and left comments.
This blog is as much for you as it is for me so please continue to tell me what you like and don’t like, as well as what you want to see here in the future.
In order to commemorate this milestone, I put together a video montage featuring some of my favorite moments, along with outtakes and other never-before-seen footage. Enjoy!
Al Kavadlo is not liable for any injuries or damages that individuals might incur by attempting to perform any of the exercises or feats of strength depicted or discussed on this website.
Any individual attempting to does so at their own risk. Consult with your physician before beginning an exercise regimen.