Category Archives: Strength and Conditioning

The Specificity Principle

Most of the fitness questions that I get asked start off with the same six words, “How do I get better at…”

The answer is always the same no matter what comes next.

“Practice.”

The specificity principle is a fancy way of referring to the simple fact that you get better at the specific tasks that you consistently practice. Whether it’s handstands or pistol squats or running, to improve your skills on anything, I recommend the direct approach.

For athletes, this means that much of their training time must be devoted to their specific discipline. The little bit of supplemental training they do usually consists of things like squats and cleans to maximize their strength and explosive power. After all, the combination of skill and strength is what leads to success in most sports.

For the rest of us, however, the specificity principle means that once we can establish a baseline of strength through basic exercises like squats, pull-ups, push-ups, etc, we can elect to devote our workout time towards whatever we like.

While skill enhancement isn’t the best means towards weight loss, finding new challenges helps keep your workouts fresh while allowing you to build up a skill set that can make you stronger and more functionally fit across different modalities.

Whether it be a sport, a race or just a good old fashioned pull-up contest, pick whatever interests you and devote your fitness time towards that task.

The goals themselves aren’t really important, but working towards something specific might help you stay focused. After all, goals are just a fantasy; the training that you do today is real.

Yoga and Strength Training

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.

Sun Salutations
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 Skill of Strength

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.

Related Posts:
Exercise Vs. Skill
Assessing Your Strength
Training for the Planche

Advanced Bodyweight Workout

My friends at GlobalBodyweightTraining.com are kicking off the new year with a contest and I’ve decided to enter!

The rules are simple: design an advanced bodyweight workout consisting of a dynamic warm-up followed by four additional exercises addressing strength, endurance, trunk and explosive power.

While the rules state that you can use bodyweight equipment such a pull-up bar, parallettes or rings, I decided to keep it simple and use nothing other than the ground beneath my feet.

Check out the official rules if you are inspired to enter the contest yourself.

Ask Al: How Much Do You Work Out?

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.

How it Breaks Down
I do strength training sessions 2-4 times a week consisting of bodyweight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, muscle-ups, dips and pistol squats. I tend to practice feats of strength (human flag, one arm chin-up, etc.) during these workouts as well. If I’m pressed for time, I’ll simply do 100-200 total reps in as little time as possible (like this). I also throw in some parkour training and handstand practice during these sessions.

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!

All About Deadlifts

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

Barbell Deadlifts
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.

Romanian Deadlifts
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.

Strongman Deadlifts
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 in Minimal Footwear

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.



Watch the video below for more:

Snow Workout!

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!

Snow Excuses

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!

Watch the video below for more:

Using Kettlebells as Parallettes

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.

Parallette Practice

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

Grip Training and Antagonistic Balance

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:

  • Poor Posture
  • Rounded Back
  • Slouched Shoulders
  • Neck Pain
  • Headaches
  • Upper Back Weakness
  • Pulled Muscles
  • Cramps
  • 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
  • Stiff Hands
  • 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.

You can find more of Jedd’s writing on DieselCrew.com and TheGripAuthority.com.

If you’d like to find out more about grip competition, check out GripSport.org, the homepage for the North American Grip Sport Association.

The Rest/Pause Method

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!

Crawling Towards Fitness

Before he learns to walk, man must first learn to crawl.

While I don’t consider walking the best exercise, crawling can actually be a pretty intense workout!

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.

Watch the video below for more:

If you’d like an Al Kavadlo/We’re Working Out! T-shirt like the one I’m wearing in the video, they are now available for purchase!

The Clean and Press

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.


The Clean

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.

The Press
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:

Thanks to Nimble Fitness for letting me film in their facility.

Assessing Your Fitness (Part Two: Endurance)

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.

Make sure to check out part three of this series for information on assessing your flexibility.

Assessing Your Fitness (Part One: Strength)

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:

Men

40 Push-ups
10 Pull-ups
50 Squats

Women
10 Push-ups
15 Australian Pull-ups
50 Squats

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

Women
Clean and Press 35% of your bodyweight
Squat 60% of your bodyweight
Deadlift 70% of your bodyweight

Remember that these are not hard and fast rules with which to judge yourself. Simply use this as a way to assess what aspects of your game might be worth giving extra attention – then get to work!

It should be noted that technique is a factor in performing these lifts as well. Make sure you understand the mechanics of any given exercise prior to testing your limits.

In parts two and three I discuss my thoughts on assessing endurance and flexibility. Use the comment section below to share your thoughts on assessing strength.

Client Spotlight: John

You might not know it by looking at him, but John is one hell of an athlete, having completed multiple marathons and Ironmans. Since his last marathon, however, John had gotten lax with his training and diet. Nothing lasts forever; if you don’t use it – you lose it!

A few months ago, John decided it was time to get serious again and enlisted me as his trainer. John has since lost over 25 pounds; his conditioning is coming back and he says he feels stronger than ever. Not bad for a guy who just celebrated his 40th birthday!

John loves healthy competition, so when he heard about the 100 Rep Challenge he wanted to give it a shot. I designed the following 100 rep workout to test John’s strength, conditioning and balance.

John’s 100 Rep Challenge consists of:
20 Push-ups
20 Lunges
20 Australian Pull-ups
20 Squats
20 Dips

All that is to be done in succession with as few breaks as possible.

Watch the video below to see if he can make it:

Don’t forget to check out the 100 Rep Challenge official website for more info.

All Kinds of Push-ups (Part Two)

The push-up is one of the most versatile exercises out there. Whether you are a novice or an experienced athlete, push-ups ought to be a staple of your fitness regimen. I already showed you some push-up variations that you can do with just your body weight. Today I’m giving you some options that involve a few pieces of basic equipment.

Medicine Ball Push-ups

Medicine balls are one of my favorite pieces of exercise gear because they’re easy to travel with and have many applications. When you place your hands and/or feet on a medicine ball during a push-up, you’ll have to further engage your core musculature to keep from falling off. Adding multiple medicine balls will make it even more challenging. (For example: hands on one ball, feet on a second ball.)


Stability Ball Push-ups

Stability balls can be used to facilitate additional engagement of the core muscles during the push-up as well. While the basic idea is the same as the medicine ball push-up, the stability ball has a different feel to it and can provide its own unique challenge. Furthermore, putting your feet on a large stability ball will change the angle of your push-up, requiring additional upper-body strength as well as added core stability.

Suspension Straps

Another way to add a stability component is to use suspension straps or gymnastics rings. Performing a push-up with your hands or feet in straps requires balance, strength and total body control.

Remember, these suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. There are endless ways to mix up your routine. Don’t be afraid to experiment for yourself and discover new challenges.

Watch the video below to see me demonstrating these variations at Nimble Fitness in NYC.

All Kinds of Push-ups

The push-up is about as close to a perfect exercise as you can get. Push-ups require no equipment (even pull-ups require a bar) and they can be modified in an infinite number of ways.

If you can’t do a push-up yet, start by practicing on your knees or up on an angle until you build the necessary strength and coordination. Planks and side planks are also great exercises to help with working towards push-ups.

Push-up Grips
The traditional push-up involves putting your palms flat on the ground, but you can also try doing push-ups on your fists, which is more difficult. For an added challenge, you can tent up your hands and perform push-ups on your fingertips. If that’s still not enough, you can start taking some of those fingers off the ground!

Hand Placement
The standard hand placement for a push-up is slightly wider than shoulder width. If you want to add more emphasis to your triceps, try a narrower hand placement. To place more emphasis on your chest, position your hands wider.

Foot Placement
When performing this exercise, you’ll find that keeping your feet farther apart will make the push-up slightly less difficult. When learning advanced variations, start with a wider stance and work your way towards keeping your feet shoulder width or narrower.

Danny gets airborn with a plyo push-up.

Plyo Push-ups
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with traditional push-ups, try getting explosive and pushing your upper body completely off the ground. Once you get the hang of this, start adding in claps, arm waves, or other movements to show your personal style. Eventually you might work up to getting your entire body off the ground!


Hindu and Dive Bomber Push-ups

The Hindu push-up is a challenging variation that involves starting with your hips way up in the air (similar to the yoga pose downward facing dog). From there, lower your face towards the ground, then scoop your chest up while dropping your hips down (ending in a position similar to the yoga pose upward facing dog). Shift your hips back to the start position and repeat. A dive bomber push-up is pretty much the same, except you get back to the starting position by doing the move in reverse.

The One Arm Push-up
The one arm push-up takes lots of practice as well as total body strength. Check out this post on performing one arm push-ups for more info.

Plyo One Arm Push-up?
There is a famous Zen koan which asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I couldn’t help wondering, “What is the sound of a one hand clapping push-up?”

Watch the video below to find out:


For more information, check out my book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

All About Squats

AlKavadloSquatThe squat is the king of all lower body exercises. Squats work every muscle in your legs as well as your abs and lower back. Since your legs are such large muscles, they require lots of blood and oxygen to perform squats. This makes squatting a great way to give your heart and lungs a workout too.

To perform a squat, stand up straight with your feet approximately shoulder width apart. Reach your arms forward and bend from your hips, knees and ankles, lowering until your hamstrings make contact with your calves, while being sure to keep your heels flat on the ground the entire time.

Pause briefly at the bottom before standing back up to the top position. Experiment with different foot positions. Some people may feel better with their toes turned out, while others will prefer to keep their feet parallel.

Don’t Know Squat
A lot of personal trainers might tell you the proper form for a squat requires you to keep your knees behind your toes. However, this is not always the case. Telling a client to keep their knees behind their toes during squats is a cue to help them understand the mechanics of moving from the hips. It isn’t necessarily the literal truth for everyone. As long as your heels stay down, it’s perfectly fine if your knees wind up a bit ahead of your toes.

Al Kavadlo Deep SquatDorsi Flexion
The term “dorsi flexion” refers to the movement that occurs at the ankle joint during a squat. People with more ankle mobility can keep their heels flat and put their knees in front of their toes at the same time because of dorsi flexion. Just be sure to initiate your squat from the hips, keep your heels down and maintain a tall chest. If those requirements are met, then you’re good to go.

How Low Can You Go?
Another common cue for squatters (no, not the punks living in the abandoned warehouse) is to lower down until you’ve reached 90 degrees of flexion at the knees. This is another generalized cue that is true for some, but not ideal for all.

Use as much range of motion as you can, and aim to eventually work toward a full squat if you are not able to get there currently.

Watch the video below for more info:

Al Kavadlo Pistol

Advanced Squat Techniques

Pistol Squats
This is a one legged squat where the non-squatting leg is held in front of the body. Don’t be fooled by the phrase “one legged squat” however, the pistol squat is an exercise that requires full-body strength and tension.

Shrimp Squats
The shrimp squat is a one legged squat where the non-squatting leg is positioned behind the body, rather than in front as it is with the pistol. Some folks might find this variation more challenging, while others may find it more accessible.
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Pyramid Sets

Pyramid sets are a fun way to breathe new life into your workout routine. Without changing any of your exercises, you can use pyramid sets to shock your body and progress your training.

The term “pyramid set” typically refers to multiple sets of an exercise (or exercises) with descending or ascending numbers of reps in concurrent sets.

For example, you might only do 1 rep on the first set, then do 2 on the second all the way up to ten. Then you can start working your way down, like going up and down the steps of a pyramid.

You can do this with a circuit workout as well, performing increasing reps of several exercises in succession. (1 push-up, 1 pull-up, 1 dip; 2 push-ups, 2 pull-ups, 2 dips, etc.)

This type of pyramid protocol can become a serious endurance challenge after a few sets. It’s also a way to make a game out of building up your conditioning. Changing the number of reps not only mixes it up for you mentally, it also keeps your body guessing. But don’t forget, working out is serious business – it ain’t a game!

Pyramid sets are commonly seen in weight training as well. In this context, one will usually increase the weight as the reps decrease. In the weight room you might do your first set of squats with 95 lbs. for 10 reps, then 135 lbs. for 8, followed by 185 for 6, etc. This is a great way to build strength and size.

Check out this video of me trying a pyramid workout that I got from my friends The Bar-barians. The pyramid goes from 1-5 reps with pull-ups, muscle-ups and dips. Boy were my arms tired!

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cl9EVomoGtM

Jumping Jacks and More!

Jumping jacks are one of the most well known bodyweight exercises out there, but when was the last time that you actually did any?

Just like jumping rope, the jumping jack (technically referred to as the “side-straddle-hop”) is a low intensity plyometric exercise that involves your entire body. And like jumping rope, jumping jacks can turn into a serious cardio workout if done for a long enough period of time.

Jumping jacks are typically performed for a set number of repetitions. You can also do them for time, as counting can become a burden once you get into higher rep ranges. Jumping jacks make for a great warm-up exercise but they also work well as an active recovery exercise in the context of circuit training. Using them in between sets of pull-ups or dips, for example, is a great way to keep your heart rate up while letting your arms recover.

The Basic Jumping Jack
Most of us did this in gym class when we were kids. The basic jumping jack involves clapping your hands over your head while jumping in the air and opening your legs. This action is immediately followed by bringing your arms down while jumping back into a standing position.

Jumping Jack Variations
The “seal jack” involves clapping your hands in front of your chest instead of over head. This is a good variation for people with shoulder problems or other mobility issues.

Another variation is what I like to call the “monkey jack,” in which you jump up and down while alternately raising one arm and lowering the other. The foot movement on the monkey jack is different as well; instead of jumping with both feet together, the leg movement is more like running in place.

Star Jumps
If you want to really challenge yourself, I recommend the “star jump”. A star jump begins with a deep squat in which you wrap your arms around the front of your legs. From there you simply jump as high as you can while spreading your legs and reaching your arms up over head.

Check out the video below for more:

Manual Resistance Training

Instead of using weights to do resistance training, try using a buddy!

Manual resistance is a great way to add a fun, new challenge to a workout. Manual resistance simply means that instead of using weights to oppose your muscles, you are using another person. So grab a friend and let’s go!

Here are 3 exercises that you can try using manual resistance:

Partner push-up:
Have your partner place their hands on your upper back to provide additional resistance on your push-up. They can vary the amount of pressure in order to make it more or less challenging. If you get strong enough you can even try having your partner lie down on your back!

Fireman’s carry: Get your buddy up on your shoulders and try to walk or run a few meters while carrying them. Start with a partner who is of a comparable body weight to your own and remember to lift with your legs. If this sounds crazy, remember that when firemen do it they have the added challenge of a burning building!

Once you get comfortable with carrying your partner, you can try to do squats or lunges with them up there!

Manual resistance leg raises:
Lie on your back, holding your partner’s ankles while they stand over your shoulders. Raise your legs up by engaging your abdominal muscles and have your partner push them back down when they reach the top. Try to lower your legs slowly, resisting your partner’s push. Focus on using your abdominal muscles instead of your legs.

These three suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. Get creative with manual resistance training and have fun!

Split Routines

Split routines are exercise programs that involve working different body parts on different days. The idea is that by breaking your workouts up by body part, you allow adequate rest time for your muscles without having to take a day off. If your arms are sore on Tuesday from working them on Monday, then work your legs that day, giving your arms some rest. Since you’re working fewer muscles per training session, the amount of volume done on each body part increases, and since the volume has increased, those muscles may require additional rest.

A simple way to split things up is to have one upper body day and one lower body day. This is often referred to as a “2 day split.” Another common way for people to mix up their routine is by breaking the upper body down into two days: one for pushing movements (which emphasize the chest and triceps) and one for pulling movements (which emphasize the back and biceps), with a leg workout on the third day. This is often referred to as a “3 day split.”

Bodybuilders typically follow split routines because high volume workouts have sometimes been correlated with higher levels of hypertrophy (muscle growth). Some bodybuilders will break their splits down even further, doing 5 or even 6 day splits in attempts to achieve maximum growth.

Here are examples of 2 day and 3 day splits:


2 day split:

Day 1 – Upper body day – Push-ups, dips, overhead presses, pull-ups, barbell rows
Day 2 – Lower body day – Squats, deadlifts, lunges, steps ups

3 day split:

Day 1 – Upper body pulling – Pull-ups, pullovers, Australian pull-ups, barbell rows, reverse dumbbell fly
Day 2 – Upper body pushing – Push-ups, dips, overhead presses, tricep extentions, dumbbell fly
Day 3 – Lower body day – Squats, deadlifts, lunges, step ups

Related links:

Squats and Deadlifts
Pullovers
Australian Pull-ups

Mastering Your Body Weight

Al Kavadlo One Arm HangWhile there’s no such thing as true mastery, it’s great to strive for ideals as long as we realize they are just that–something to reach for. On the road to superior fitness, it is good to have a sense of your place so you can determine the logical way to progress.

In gymnastics (which is just a highly advanced style of bodyweight training) skills are generally ranked A through F, with A skills being the easiest. The standards are quite high, as back levers and front levers are only considered A level skills and muscle-ups are simply listed under “basic skills.”

I thought a similar type of rating system might be nice for the rest of us. I decided to break down some of my favorite bodyweight exercises (and some that I aspire to one day have in my arsenal) using a 5 level system to assign them a difficulty rating. I’m not holding to the same standards that a gymnast might. Here is what I’m proposing:

NYC HandstandLevel 1 skills:
Squat
Plank
Dip (Bench)
Lunge
Push-up
Australian Pull-up

Level 2 skills:
Single Leg Deadlift
Hanging Leg Raise
Dip (Parallel Bars)
Back Bridge
Elbow Lever
Handstand
Pull-up

Level 3 skills:
L-sit
Pistol Squat
Handstand Push-up
Dragon Flag
Clutch Flag

Level 4 skills:
Back Lever
Shrimp Squat
One-arm Push-up
Human Flag
Muscle-up

Level 5 skills:
One-arm Pull-up
Front Lever
Planche
One-handed Handstand

It’s important to have a good foundation before trying advanced exercises like the planche and the human flag. Getting comfortable with basic skills allows you to progress in a safe and effective manner. Obviously, this list is not all inclusive so feel free to suggest additions. Furthermore, as different people have different strengths, you may find that you make quicker progress with some skills than with others. As always, strive to keep the beginner’s mind. No matter where you fall in the continuum, there is a new challenge ahead!

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Water Jug Workout

When training at home, it can seem daunting to try to implement a successful workout strategy that doesn’t involve lots of expensive equipment.

However, you don’t need to feel limited by the fact that you might not have a lot to work with at home. The key is to get creative–an everyday object like a jug of water can be a useful workout tool. (A gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds.)

Using a water jug for resistance training is efficient, practical, and it can also make for a damn good workout!

I recently did a water jug workout with my client Armen at her apartment. She doesn’t have any workout equipment (or a ton of space) but that didn’t stop us from getting it done.

Water is readily available and relatively cheap. After all, it’s the world’s most abundant resource. As a resourceful trainer, I’m happy to take advantage of that fact.

Watch the clip below to see highlights from the workout:
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8eOSh60780

What to do First–Weights or Cardio?

When clients ask me about how to organize their exercise regimen, they usually want to know how to break up their strength training and cardio sessions appropriately.

There are basically two questions that come up: first, do I think it’s a good idea to do them on the same day; and second, which one do I do first?

The simple answer to the first question is, yes, it’s fine to do them on the same day. However, it’s a matter of priorities. This brings us to the second issue–what to do first?

Think of it this way; after you run 5 miles, you probably won’t have as much energy to devote to your strength training. Conversely, if you lift weights for 45 minutes first, your cardio session is not going to be as productive.

Life is like that though, there is no one best way to do anything. All situations have pros and cons.

This is why I typically like to alternate my strength training and cardio workouts. (Although that system isn’t perfect either!)

If you want to experience the best of both worlds, another possibility is to combine strength and conditioning at the same time by doing circuit training or kettlebell workouts. Just don’t get limited by only doing kettlebells or circuit training. They’re great ways to maximize your time, but they’re not the be-all-and-end-all of fitness.

If you are training for improved performance in a given activity, be it a one rep max on a deadlift, doing 50 pull-ups, or running a race, you need to train specifically towards that goal and make it a priority. However, if your goals are more loosely defined, then feel free to experiment with different approaches to see what works best for you.

Like I always say, there is no better way to learn than through your own firsthand experience.

Plyos at the Park

Today I am going to show you three great upper body exercises (with variations) that you can try without a gym membership.

All you need to do this workout is a little warrior spirit and a park with some monkey bars and/or a jungle gym area. You can get creative with where you choose to work out as long as you get it done.

With springtime (hopefully) around the corner, I think you’ll find getting outside for plyos at the park to be a lot more fun than another go around on the stationary bike.

Active Recovery

After a hard workout, you might be dreading the soreness which will inevitably ensue over the next 24-48 hours. Your instinct could be to take the next day off from exercising altogether. Not so fast!

Active recovery allows you to keep the momentum in terms of your fitness AND can potentially decrease the lactic acid build-up that’s partially to blame for muscle soreness.

Instead of taking the day off, try following your high intensity training day with a low intensity workout. For example, if you did sprints on Saturday, you might just want to do an easy jog on Sunday.

The principle behind active recovery can also be applied within the context of a single workout. When used this way, active recovery refers to following an intense exercise with a less intense one.

Rather than simply resting in between sets of pull-ups, an active recovery workout might have you alternating pull-ups with a lower intensity exercise that allows your arms to rest while keeping your heart rate up, like jumping jacks.

While I am a proponent of daily exercise, that doesn’t mean that every workout has to be an all-out balls-to-the-wall effort. Varying your intensity is the key to maintaining a daily workout regimen without over-training.


Trainer Tip:

Remember to listen to your body–use active recovery when it feels appropriate–but don’t start using it as a rationalization to slack off.

High Intensity Interval Training

track signInterval training is often touted as the best way to burn fat and expend high amounts of energy during a workout. It is also great for people who don’t feel that they have a lot of time to devote to fitness. A high intensity interval training session (sometimes called HIIT) can be completed in under 30 minutes.

HIIT alternates between rounds of high intensity exercise immediately followed by a low intensity recovery period. That recovery period allows you to renew your focus (both physically and mentally) before having to go all out again. While interval training can be done using any cardio modality like running, biking, or stair climbing, I’m a runner, so I’ll use running as an example.

After a 5 minute warmup (a brisk walk to a light jog depending on your fitness level), you would begin your first high intensity interval, consisting of running as hard as you can for at least 30 seconds. You can push yourself hard for 30 seconds, right?

Following that, your intensity goes back down to where you were during your warm up. Psychologically, you can use this rest to help get through the hard part. Repeat this process several times and end with a 5-10 minute cool down (and some stretching).

The thing with HIIT that a lot of people tend to overlook is that it only works effectively if you really push yourself on the high intensity portions. When you get to the recovery portion, you should be out of breath and totally gassed. You also have to be prepared to turn the heat back up right away once you are recovered, which can be very demanding mentally as well as physically. Remember, though, you can’t get fit without doing the work.

HIIT is one time when I do advocate the use of treadmills because of the convenience of the timer and the ease of measuring speeds and distances. Nothing beats doing an interval workout at a track with a stopwatch, though, if you have that option.

Trainer Tip:

While HIIT cardio is a great way to maximize your time, it should not be the only type of cardio in your routine. Threshold training and active recovery days are also important components of a well rounded running program.

The Caveman Workout w/ Lenny Lefebvre

Tree situpIf you’ve been keeping up with me, then you’re probably already aware that it doesn’t take much equipment to get a great workout.

People in the know have been doing “caveman workouts” in parks and playgrounds for years, mostly going unnoticed, until recently. Now the idea of keeping it paleolithic is starting to catch on–and not just in New York.

Last week, an Italian reporter got a hold of me (and my good buddy Lenny Lefebvre) to find out more about how we do it in NYC.

We showed her some caveman workout basics, like climbing a tree, throwing rocks, and some good ol’ fashioned running around.

Here is the segment as it aired in Italy:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNpsEJqV02k