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.