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Mountain Biking Fitness at 40+

One of the natural progressions for many as they get older is a change from road running to trail running. The constant change in surface as well as gait is far less harsh on the body than running on hard surfaces.

Cycling is no different. Many get into road cycling initially as their body can no longer tolerate running in the first place. Over time they develop a love for all things two wheels but as we get older still there is often a subtle shift towards trail riding/ mountain biking. Unlike road running this has little to do with the trauma of cycling on a hard surface, and far more to do with local traffic. More and more I hear from guys in my age group that they no longer want to ride on the road anymore because of concerns over traffic. And next thing you know they’ve ditched the lycra for baggies and are looking at mountain biking. In fact, one of Australia’s best ever cyclists – Ryan Bailey who was a double gold medallist in track cycling at the 2004 Games – has said he no longer rides on the road for safety.

Eventually, after a few rides and getting to know the sport, people start to wonder about entering an event and how they should best train for these things. Mountain biking can be roughly split into two categories – cross country (XC) and gravity events like enduro and downhill. While there may seem to be some similarities between road racing and cross country, the physiology required is quite different. And then from cross country to enduro it is different again.

When it comes to figuring out how to train the best place to start is with a simple self-analysis. Included below are the bare bones physiology of road racing, cross country, and enduro. You’ll see that what is required for each sport is different enough that success in one won’t imply success in another. It should also give you the best starting point for where your own training plan should focus to begin with. The statistics below are taken from male elite competitors in each event. If there are two or more numbers listed it’s because I also found non-elite numbers. If there are three figures listed it’s because there was also a “competitive” class listed. This is normal in road racing where you commonly have four or more grades of racing possible, with A or Category 1 being  the highest.

Road Racing:
VO2max – 74.8, 78.7, 85.6
Body mass (heigh and weight)  – 179cm/ 66.9kg, climbers – 175cm/ 62. 4kg.
Power – 332.8, 391.5, 438.5

Cross Country MTB:
VO2max – 70.0, 75.4
Body mass – 177cm/ 67kg
Power – 375.5, 395.4

Enduro:
Vo2max – 63.5, 65.8
Body mass – 69.6kg, 75.1kg
Power – 541w, 658w (between 5.5w/kg and 6.2w/ kg)

Why do these numbers matter?

Numbers matter because they can tell you what can realistically be expected from entering an event. For instance, if I planned to enter a 100km MTB XC event I could never expect to win. I am 15-20kg too heavy. That weight comes at a huge penalty whenever an uphill section needs to be completed as it would be like having to carry a spare bike slung on my back for the entire event. In organised events using short loops where you may have to repeat the same climb multiple times in a single event I could never hope to finish high up compared to someone who had the same fitness but carried less weight penalty. It always strikes me as odd that cyclists in general will spend thousands on carbon to make their bike lighter but spend nothing at the supermarket to buy foods that will help them maximise their functional weight on the bike. Between fancy new carbon wheels and a salad I know which I’ll choose every day of the week for performance gains. In fact, Tyler Hamilton – one of the best cyclists of the modern era, both for his race performances as well as his drug use – has said that given the choice between using EPO to increase his hematocrit 3% or losing three pounds that he would take the three pound weight loss every time.

Looking at peak power you may think that for XC racing that power isn’t so important. Don’t be fooled by the numbers. A road race is performed on smooth roads where tire grip is excellent. On a slippery dirt track that may be covered with slick roots or rocks grip is hard to find. The lower power numbers seen are taken from in race data using power meters, not on an erg. What you do see is that body mass is very similar to uphill/ climbing road race specialists and that makes complete sense given the nature of XC racing that features multiple short climbs in a single event. Looked at as an average over a season of World Cup races the average men’s XC race features 1942m of climbing in a two hour time frame. The infamous Alpe D’Huez climb in the Tour de France has fast times around the forty minute mark, and sees a gain of 1071m, for some reference. So in a two hour XC race the men will cover roughly two climbs up the infamous Alpe made up in multiple short climbs.

It’s these short climbs that tends to really set MTB apart, even when looking at enduro. An Enduro World Series event will typically take in ~55km and feature over 1600m of climbs. While that may sound like not a lot of climbing you have to take into account that more than half of the distance covered in an enduro event will be done going downhill. The Alpe D’Huez climb is 13.8km so that means that again roughly double the height of the Alpe will be done at each event getting your bike back to the top of each hill before your next run. This effort will be combination of both walking your bike uphill as well as pedalling. Because the climbs aren’t timed the body mass of competitors can be a bit higher, aiding their strength and strength endurance for these long punishing days.

How should I train?

The first step in any training plan is to focus on your health first. There’s not much point in throwing away your health chasing performance in your hobby. Usually when I work with clients we focus on fat loss first because I know it will have the greatest impact on their overall health as well as their performance for most outdoors events. The short version is that your doctor will love you and your endurance performance will go through the roof as you drop some weight. Looking at the numbers you’d also need to ask yourself if that is healthy and realistic for you to try to match elite cycling weights. I know that dropping down to 70kg would be unhealthy for me, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to maximise what I can and minimise non-functional mass. That means the first objective of my training plan should be weight management and getting rid of as much fat as possible.

The second part of the training equation is base fitness. Regardless of whether you want to do an XC epic that is 100km or enter your local gravity enduro you’re still going to be on the bike for hours. The best way to develop all day fitness on the bike is… to do longer sessions on the bike. Despite what the modern fitness world will tell you, you can’t gain all day fitness on short interval training. Save that for close to your event to develop event specific climbing ability to allow you to punch out short climbs. One of the most frequent comments I hear from people about their event performance is that they suffered from cramps. The usual suggestions then are to start using electrolytes. A better way to think about it though is that it’s not a chemical problem, but a physical one. Muscles cramp in longer events because you’re asking them to contract more times than they ever have before. The simplest and most obvious solution isn’t to spend money on supplements, but to become fitter.

The best way to develop all day fitness is with low to medium intensity rides lasting two hours or more. There is no reason these can’t have a technical component to them. One thing to consider with technical training is that at high heart rates the brain struggles with fine motor control. In other words, if your heart rate is sky high because you’re going as fast as you can on the descent you’re going to struggle to learn new skills. Calm it down a bit, ride at about 70% of your maximum speed, and work on those technical abilities. remember – if you can’t do it slow, then you won’t be able to do it fast either. Keep the climbs moderate and work on those technical skills on the descents. You’ll be amazed at what deliberate practice can do for you versus just going for a ride on the ragged edge on every descent.

The next part of the training base is climbing ability. As mentioned before, weight loss is a vital factor in climbing ability so step one of developing your climbing will take place in the kitchen. Step two is deliberately working on climbs as part of a normal trail ride. Climbs can be a useful way to maximise your return on training time. They can develop power, fitness, and obviously climbing ability. If you target the right climbs then you won’t need to do much other specific fitness work prior to an event. My favourite hill climb reps involve a hill that is 3-4mins that can be done completely seated. I’ll repeat the climb three times, with just a roll down recovery. On the third climb go and do a technical descent working on your skills and repeat. Keep in mind that enduros and XC races will often feature 1000m+ of climbs for the day so that is a good target for an individual ride.

In the following basic week format I’ve included performing strength training because smart masters’ athletes know they should keep it in their training year round. Strength training is like armour plating your body against injury.

Basic week:

Monday – upper body strength, core.
Tuesday – 2 sets of 3x3min climbs.
Wednesday – Full body strength, core.
Thursday – Easy technical ride working on bike handling skills.
Friday – 3-4 x longer 10-20min climbs.
Saturday – Long easy ride, technical descents, easy climbs.
Sunday – rest day. (Bike washing and food prep).

Conclusion:

While elite endurance athletes are often very different to the rest of us in terms of body shape and size we can still get clues as to what is the best way forward regardless of our passion. Right size your body to fit the demands of the sport so that you can get the most enjoyment from it then tailor training to fill in the gaps in physical performance. Don’t forget that a large part of MTB racing – whether enduro or XC – will come down to bike handling. There’s no point in working on your fitness solely on an erg on Zwift and building a big engine only to have zero bike handling skills. Where possible the most important element is to ride your bike as much as possible

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Fitter at 40.

Let’s be honest about most training advice online. It’s awful.

It’s awful in general, but doubly so if you’re in the forty-plus crowd. And it’s awful for one very simple reason…

…it’s not designed for us.

The fitness industry as a whole is largely based on two things: Making young guys muscular and lean, or making females skinny and hot. Because of the market that all the training is aimed at no one gives a thought to how that training might work in forty or fifty years time. Because at forty-plus we have to ask ourselves some very serious questions about our training time, the rewards we get from it, how it’s impacting our life, and whether that impact is positive or negative.

Every week I speak on the phone with men and women in their forties and beyond all wanting to be in the best shape possible. While many have some experience with fitness they all feel lost and unable to make progress any further because of the burn out created by their training and/ or diet. You know, the program they’re following that was deigned for someone half their age. The reason those programs all fail comes down to one thing…

They’re not sustainable.

Let’s imagine that you decide to get in shape once and for all. You sign up to the gym and commit to going every day. Great job! The first few days are hard but a little uncomfortable for you as you push your muscles harder than they’ve been pushed in years. The only problem is that after a few years of inactivity your muscles aren’t used to doing so much work and within that first week you now have so much muscle soreness you can’t even walk without pain. So within a week, despite your best intentions, you’ve made your fitness journey unsustainable.

A far better start would have been to have a think about this game you’re playing. The fitness game isn’t a short term activity that runs for a few weeks. It’s for the rest of your life.

So if we were going to start a race that lasted from now until you died, how fast would you start running right now? You’d run, because it is a race after all, but you likely wouldn’t start running flat out because you know you need to pace yourself for many years to come. Make no mistake though that this is a race. It’s a race against muscle loss and fat gain. A race against ever increasing poor health. So while you may not need to run hard now, you do need to get moving. But that movement should come with the question, “can I still be doing this at age eighty?”

This question crystallizes our activity into what is and isn’t of vital importance. For instance, most fitness approaches – the ones aimed at younger trainees –  won’t have a care for long term consequences. Female fitness is rife with this. Just drop their calories low so they lose weight and look good in a bikini. Never mind about the problems you’ve just caused to the menstrual cycle or for long term bone density problems by dropping energy availability to dangerous levels. Looking good now is all that matters and to hell with any consequences for this short term diet. Youth comes with a feeling recklessness and invincibility. Mature age not so much, especially for those of us who may have had a few injuries and know how long and annoying the recovery process can be.

So the question about what you should be doing, and how hard you should be doing it, is easily answered when you use this long term view.

If we’re honest about what you’re going to need at eighty we can then work back from there and figure out our short term plan. You can still lift weights at eighty, but your plan will be limited to the most important exercises. My mother still deadlifts and squats. But she only deadlifts once per week, and never anywhere close to her maximum. She still squats, but she does kettlebell goblet squats and not barbell squats. For pushing and pulling we tend to use bodyweight exercises like push ups and rows using either gymnastic rings, or a TRX. The rest of the gym training plan is devoted to performing mobility work to make sure her body stays as supple as possible.

Why is suppleness important? Because the moment you can’t tie your own shoes anymore, or dress yourself, you have lost independence. And both of things require a degree of flexibility that you may not notice when you’re younger, but you certainly will as you get older. Flexibility and mobility are also the things that help you stave off some easily avoided injuries. For those who want to perform any running related activities, there are studies (like this one) that show that reduced ankle range increase other landing forces and make you more likely to suffer injuries. Simply spending time to ensure that you have full ankle range of motion (that’s 3-4″ FYI) will help to prevent most running related injuries then. And it’s the same for strength related activities too. To safely perform a deadlift you’ll need some spare range of motion beyond just being able to touch the bar. A good rule of thumb is to be able to perform a standing toe touch with straight legs to ensure you’ve got enough spare range to deal with the added load and stress of deadlifts.

So we know you need some strength training and we know you need some flexibility work to stave off injuries and retain independence, but what about cardio? Again, think about eighty-year old you and what kind of activities seem likely? Will you really be doing that HIIT class or do you think you’re more likely to be going for a walk? That walk may be “just a walk” to you now, but at eighty walking will likely be enough to get your heart working hard enough to maintain, or even gain fitness. If walking on flat is too easy then add a hill.

So the Fit After Forty plan involves some basic strength work, flexibility work, and some easy to moderate steady state cardio but what diet are you following? Are you going to be following the crash and burn starve yourself beach body diet, or are you going to be doing something sustainable? I was in a fitness group on Facebook this week and a guy on there was asking about his diet. His current diet was seeing him either be extremely constipated or the opposite. So basically either shitting his pants or unable to go at all. Hardly seems sustainable, right?

Let’s go back to our guiding question about what you’ll be doing at eighty… What kind of diet do you see yourself following at eighty? is it the extreme diet you’re on now that excludes whole food groups like ketogenic or vegan diets or is it something that is going to be able to fit into any social or travel situation? There is no problem in the short term for the extreme diets – they can be excellent to change health quickly – but eventually they become problematic for one reason. Sooner or later you’re going to come off that diet. Either by choice because you’ve achieved that short term goal or because you fell off it and found yourself face first in whatever food you’d been excluding. There’s also the social environment to consider when you’ve got a family and kids. Don’t be the guy who doesn’t eat your kids birthday cake because it isn’t paleo. That’s not making your life any better by excluding you from that activity (and humans have bonded over food for a million years). Instead, think back to being eighty and think about if you want to spend more quality time with your family and how you might accomplish that? For sure there are going to be a number of family social events in there that involve food. Wouldn’t it be better to have a diet that allowed you to eat at those meals freely while still allowing you to stay healthy, lean, and fit longer term?

When we look at all the various factors here from training to suppleness to food, it is pretty obvious which one should have your main focus…it’s the food! Sooner or later training is going to have to be diminished. There is no way you’ll be able to train with the same intensity at eighty as you do at thirty or even fifty. I see so many people focus on the wrong things and wonder why they don’t get anywhere and the answer is simple – they’re focused on the wrong things. In order, to stay healthy, lean, and fit after forty these are your priorities:

Diet
Suppleness
Cardio/ walking
Strength training

Don’t do it back to front and wonder why your health seems to be negligible and your results non-existent.

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#1 Diet Tip to Stop Snacking

When it comes to diet everyone wants to make things more complicated, as if the reason they’ve failed is lack of complexity.

Let’s be honest, the reason people fail is lack of discipline.

And when it comes to lack of discipline the biggest downfall for most is snacking after dinner. People can happily go without for breakfast. They can even eat light for lunch. But once the sun starts to go down, and the focus from work starts to disappear they suddenly find themselves famished. At that point they become a victim to whatever is in their cupboards. Boredom and stress are the two biggest drivers of late night snacking.

Diets all work in only one way – they restrict the number of calories you eat over an extended period of time so you lose body fat. Vegan diets restrict calories by eliminating animal protein. Ketogenic diets by eliminating carbohydrate. Fasting eliminates time that you can eat during, and thereby restricts your total intake. But they all work by restricting calorie intake in some way.

Given that the most important thing to losing weight is total calorie intake, does it really matter if you eat all your calories in one meal, or in a few smaller meals during the day? The answer is not really. (Although I need to add that if you’re used to eating one massive meal a day your stomach will be stretched out and give you the appearance of never having a flat stomach, even if you are lean). I usually try to get most people to eat three to five meals a day.

Why the difference between meal how many meals?

Because a smaller female doesn’t have to get in as many calories as a bigger male. In larger guys if they try to eat only three times a day serving sizes become quite large, and it can be difficult to get in adequate protein. By spreading out the number of meals it makes each serve of protein smaller, and easier to digest. It also has the benefit of keeping the stomach smaller, as I mentioned, which will help give a more flattering look. A two hundred pound male will need about two hundred grams of protein a day – that’s the equivalent of almost two pounds (700g) of chicken daily. Trying to eat that in only two or three meals becomes difficult. It’s just far easier to split those meals into multiple smaller pieces. Making it easier makes staying compliant more likely over a long enough period of time for the diet to work.

Given the number of calories per meal isn’t the most important thing, here’s the best tip I can give you to fix that:

Make your meals during the day slightly smaller – it’s much easier to deal with hunger while busy at work. If you need two hundred grams of protein a day and eat three times during the day then eat around thirty to forty grams of protein with each meal. That will leave you around eighty grams for dinner, which will feel like a double serve compared to the rest of the day. Don’t eat your carbohydrate content during the day. You can eat green leafy vegetables and a single serve of fruit but otherwise save all those carbs for dinner.

Make your evening meal slightly bigger. As I said above, it can be as much as eighty grams of protein at this point. Add your carbs in – most guys will be eating one hundred to two hundred grams a day. After having eaten vegetables and a piece of fruit during the day you’ll likely have about one hundred grams spare. That’s the equivalent of five small potatoes. Keep your carb sources to root vegetables (potatoes rate highest for satiety out of all foods), or rice.

That way you’ll go to bed on a full stomach, and not feel like you need to snack after dinner. You’ll still eat the same number of calories for the day but this will be far more satisfying. In addition, the carbohydrate will help you get to sleep. This can be enhanced if you choose a protein source such as turkey, which has tryptophan in it, which also calms you and helps sleep.

I’ve used this strategy successfully, even with guys who are already really lean like Mark here. Believe it or not, even guys in this kind of shape still want the same snacks and treats that you do, we’ve just figured out strategies to keep them still trending in the right direction even when they break their diet through stress or boredom.

That’s the real power of coaching – finding a way for that individual to be successful. If you’re looking for the best way to get your diet and training on track then PM me for more information.

How do you stop snacking?
One simple diet tip helped Mark achieve this amazing physique.

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Where do I start...?

We live in the age of information. At our fingertips lies the collected wisdom of all of civilisation. And a lot of cat videos. There’s so much information it’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed.

So where is the best place to start?

I speak to a lot of middle aged men and women every single week and hear all their thoughts on where they are versus where they would like to be. When I speak to them I even make two headings on a piece of paper – Results and Reality. Results is where they would like to get to, and Reality is where they are right now. I then add a third heading to that piece of paper after we’ve spoken about both of these – Roadblocks. Most of the people I speak to are not beginners when it comes to exercise. In fact, many times they have worked with at least one other trainer, and many times with multiple trainers over a period of years. In their heads they know what they’re meant to be doing.

And yet, that end Result still evades them.

The end Result is usually not very difficult. Most people have tried and failed a number of times before speaking with me. They feel like their age is against then as they’re on the wrong side of forty. Or that it must be their genetics to blame. Or maybe even that because they don’t want to take drugs it’s all impossible. None of those things are true. Many times when I hear their goals I tell them that because of the minimum time I work with people for they’ll need to make their goals more challenging as we’ll tick off all of their goals in the first four to six weeks. In other words, they have tried and failed so many times they have lost all hope of even accomplishing things I think of as basic. As an example, many people tell me they’d like to lose some weight – perhaps ten pounds – and say they think it will take them six months. Nope. That’s four weeks for a middle aged man who does everything right.

And because of this enormous misunderstanding of what is required to actually get in shape past forty I thought I would write a primer for mature aged trainees. For ease of reference, this will be broken into three distinct types:

1) You are a beginner and know you are.

2) You’re still a beginner but mistakenly believe you’re not.

3) You’re actually in shape and want to get whatever extra you can extract from your body.

Most people are in category two. Category one trainees are easy to deal with and happy to be shown what to do. They have faith that they hired an expert and make great clients. Category three trainees are fantastic. They’re the ones that you use for marketing purposes with their awesome topless testimonial pictures and race times. Right now, out of exactly fifty clients, I have seven category threes and forty-three category ones. These days I tend to steer clear of category twos as I know I can’t be successful with them until they change their mental state and allow themselves to see where they truly are and what needs to change. Most simply are too attached to a particular image of themselves, what they perceive as their performance, and their ego gets in the way of any real success being achieved to make it worthwhile taking them on as customers.

So what makes a category two mistakenly believe that they are not a beginner?

Training.

That’s all. They believe that because they are training hard, and have some experience with that, that they are not beginners. However, and this cannot be stressed enough, just because you have a level of skill or experience in one area does not make you advanced or experienced in another. I can remember working with a pitcher in Major League Baseball. This was a lifelong pro athlete earning $2.5mil a year. He was able to throw a 94mph fastball for eighty pitches, eighty games a year. But he couldn’t do a single push up. Luckily, we both understood why we were there. I was there to help him start his season pain free and he was there to build strength and resilience for the upcoming season. We began at the beginning, as that was his level, and he was fine with that approach. That’s the mark of a professional.

In contrast, many category two clients come along expecting that they know what is right or wrong, despite all evidence to the contrary. Let me make some easy distinctions as to what classifies someone as a beginner:

Overweight.

I cannot stress this enough. If you are overweight you are a beginner. It shows clearly that you don’t understand diet and its importance in health. You also quite likely don’t understand the importance of sleep, general daily activity, training stress, and how to balance all of that so that you make progress. Even beyond all of that, being overweight places a strain on your system and predisposes you to multiple different life ending problems. Seven out of ten of the leading causes of death have to do with these misunderstandings. I don’t care if you can train the house down (although I’m yet to meet anyone in this category who can) your inability to understand that health must come first, places you in the beginner category. Until your mindset changes you will always be a beginner.

The second biggest mindset problem is that you tend to think of yourself as an athlete. Many identify with a particular tribe and will refer to themselves as a runner, a martial artist, or any other activity based label they can find. No, you’re not. You’re a human being and those are merely activities that take up small amounts of your week. Because of this misplaced identity you strive to become as specific as you can at your chosen (usually ill-performed) activity. Let me be clear – if you train an hour a day, which would be a fantastic start for most people ( and amounts to an hour a day of exercise), you’d still only train for less than four percent of your week. Can you really count yourself as a runner if you only spent four percent of your week doing it? If you were more honest with yourself you’d identify as a forty-plus year old office worker who runs daily for their health. Until you make the leap to being honest with yourself about your health, lifestyle, and athletic ventures you will always be a beginner.

The final big sign of being a beginner is your inability to perform basic exercises to a decent level. I can recall a recent client suffering from this delusion telling me how strong he was. Meanwhile, my seventy-eight year old mother who weighs nearly half of what he does, can out lift him. He suffered from all three of these delusions – overweight and not seeing how it was holding him back, focused on performance despite having a health issue that needed addressing, and unable to perform basic lifts to any real degree of competency. Not surprisingly, that relationship finished quickly as I realised I had an unteachable client on my hands. Many of the people in this category would be better off saving the money they want to invest into personal training and spending it on a therapist instead to better unravel all the insecurities and stories they tell themselves about their reality. Their lack of self-perception is perhaps the biggest giveaway as to their true status as beginners.

So what should a beginner do once they have identified their status?

First, and most important – drop excess bodyfat. Seventy percent of the world is overweight or obese. You can be fit but fat but you cannot be fat and healthy long term. The leading cause of death for over forties is heart attack, and seven of the ten leading causes of death are controlled through a good practice of diet and exercise. Frankly, that you are currently overweight says that you don’t actually know how to do this, or have several mental roadblocks stopping you from being successful. I know people will automatically react angrily to this and say, “But I know how to eat right”. To them I ask, how come you’re overweight? Is it just laziness, then?

They say actions speak louder than words. It doesn’t matter if you say you know how to eat right when what you’re showing me is you don’t. Your actions, or lack thereof, speak so loudly and clearly it doesn’t matter what lies you tell yourself as I can clearly see whether you truly know how to eat right or not. If you can tell me how far you ran yesterday but not how many calories you ate or how many grams of protein you had, you are a beginner.

Secondly, when it comes to training at forty-plus, more is not better. In fact, usually better progress comes from doing slightly less and backing off the intensity. I know all the fitness websites tell you to train harder, and you have this burning desire to prove that you can still hang with the kids, but the reality is that you can’t. Biology prevents that. The only thing training at high intensity all the time does for you is either burn you out or hurt you. Getting hurt is nature’s way of telling you to take a break and reduce your overall stress levels to something more manageable. Given the choice between adapting to a workout or surviving it, the body will always choose survival first. Adapting – growing muscle, losing fat, or changing structure within cells takes energy. When you are stressed you don’t have an energy surplus. As you get older, and biology is stacked against you, work pressure mounts up, the kids are being annoying…and suddenly you’re up to the eyeballs in stress. Add in even more stress in the form of some really hard workouts and your body has no choice. Next thing you know you’re training hard but you look like a water balloon. That’s stress.

The only way to make progress is actually decrease stress and training intensity so your body is able to adapt. This is something that is easy to take onboard for either a beginner or advanced client. They trust the process and are happy to be coached appropriately. The category two feels he or she knows better and tries to blast through with more volume and intensity, believing the problem is they’re just not working hard enough, and next thing you know they’re sick or hurt. Again, nature’s way of telling you that you’ve yet again over stepped the boundaries of your abilities and need to slow down.

The thing most people should do is simple – hire in a professional to help them and ditch their own ego. The fact you’ve been on the path for a while and seen no genuine improvement should tell you all you need to know about your actual abilities to objectively decide on what you need to do. However, ego doesn’t work like that and we’re all capable of telling ourselves some fanciful excuses to back up our own cognitive dissonance towards our results.

I got so sick of this with new clients that I created the 28 Day Challenge. It teaches people the most important pillars that support health and fitness, and does so in a way that leads to spectacular results in such a short time frame. I’ve had guys in their sixties run 100mi ultra marathons off the back of the 28 day Challenge, and others drop nearly twenty pounds of bodyfat in the month. I’m not kidding when I say that the program has likely helped more guys in their forties achieve a six pack than any other fitness program you can find. The program is designed to be truly helpful but it also weeds out people that I can’t work with. If you can’t follow the plan for a month I have no desire to work with you for months into the future. It’s an audition to see if you have the right mindset to be successful with your training or not.

The real roadblock to this entire thing is always the same – it’s you. It’s the mistaken belief that you are better and more capable than you really are, despite all evidence to the contrary. Until you fix that six inches between your ears, you always be a beginner.

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Confidence, Competence, Comfort, and Goal Setting for the Masters Athlete

One of the biggest things I hear from clients is that they wish they had more confidence. That they wish they could somehow take their hopes and dreams and make them a reality. Usually at this point they start looking at setting some goals.

And then they fail.

Not surprisingly, when they fail, their confidence takes a hit, and they have more fear of any further attempts to accomplish this goal. Let me tell you why they fail.

Goal setting in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. However, most goals are not well thought out. The most common acronym used for goal setting is SMART. That is, to make your goal Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Based. For instance, a common fitness goal to lose some weight is usually seen as a poor goal because while it is entirely sensible and realistic, it has no time attached to it, or way of measurement. Generally, your guru would suggest that a better way to write that would be that your goal was to, “lose 5kg within 10 weeks”. By adding an amount and a time frame it brings it into focus more clearly.

And yest still people fail. In fact, when it comes to weight loss, most people never truly succeed and it’s entirely down to the way they think about their goals.

Most people don’t lose that 5kg and never gain it back. Most people lose that 5kg over and over again, always returning back to the same place as before. A continual cycle of what is called yo-yo dieting, where the cycle just repeats on itself. If you’ve failed to keep that 5kg off several times prior, how much confidence will you have in keeping it off this time?

When we make goals we open our mind to possibility. We can envision this other version of ourselves as fitter, leaner, or faster. However, the rational mind doesn’t allow you to live in daydream land, and this is where the “if you dream it you can achieve it crowd” fail. I can tell myself that I am going to run a sub ten second hundred metres as much as I like. My mind knows that is impossible and will stop me. After I’ve failed multiple times to become a ten second runner I will lose faith in my ability to accomplish my goals, and give up trying to accomplish other goals. Success is an amazing thing and a lot like money – when you have some of it, getting more is easy. When you don’t have any, getting even a little is difficult.

How do you fix that?

Well, for starters, you need to realise that what we often mistakenly call confidence is nothing more than a comfortable competence at a skill. If we think about physical skills – whether it be losing weight or running faster – they all have skill components. In the case of losing body fat the skills are in meal prep, tracking calories, and even cooking skills to make foods palatable longer term. When I hear from people they struggle to lose weight because they don’t like to cook all I can think is that it’s probably about time they learnt. But how do you start making healthy, tasty meals for yourself if you haven’t cooked for years?

You start with a better, smarter goal. Tiny little short term goals that allow you to have incremental wins. Maybe the first goal is simply to eat a high protein breakfast. A simple thing to do is make an omelette that will satisfy those needs. You crack a few eggs, whisk them, chop some vegetables to add to your omelette and it’s pretty easy from there. Sure, the first few may look a bit messy, but compared to a bowl of sugary cereal a messy vegetable omelette is miles better. So here we are, it’s 6am on day one of your diet, and you’ve already had a small win. How motivated are you going to be now versus if you’d tried something more complex and struggled with it? The former makes you feel good about yourself and eager to try something more later in the day. The latter may just be enough already to decide this is too hard and that losing weight is going to be impossible for you.

Getting comfortable with the process is where confidence comes from. Having consistent small wins at the important things is what matters to building competence and therefore confidence in yourself. I used this process myself when I tore my hamstring off the bone in 2001. I’ve been around sport enough to know the importance of having a hamstring for explosive actions. Having a significant injury to one is a death sentence to the competitive aspirations of many. Without one your hopes of running fast or jumping high are over and even with one reattached it will never be the same. Mine was a significant enough injury that only two surgeons in my city were willing to operate on me. So my first goal was actually to get in to see one of those guys quickly, and organise surgery just as quickly. I didn’t worry myself thinking about rehabiltation or what sports I might be able to play later. I just focused on getting in to see the surgeon.

My initial appointment with a sports doctor was a Monday. I had an MRI the next day. I saw the surgeon on that Saturday and was being operated on by Wednesday the next week. Given I knew someone who had been waiting for eight months just to get an appointment to see this surgeon for a first visit it says something about my determination to achieve this goal when I went from zero to an operation within ten days. The same actually held true for when I needed shoulder surgery. I had had to delay surgery due to some work obligations but I had scheduled an appointment with the surgeon on the day they finished and knew he was operating the next morning. I pleaded my case and was being operated on the next day instead of having to wait months.

With my hamstring I knew the road to recovery would be slow taking at least a year before any sort of genuine strength or fitness would be returned. Again, I set an immediate short term goal of making sure the wound healed fully. I had about eighty stitches total in the muscle and surrounding wound so there was a lot of potential for infection. Stitches normally come out between ten and fourteen days and at about the halfway mark I was out for dinner when I noticed my pants were stuck to my leg and I was bleeding through them. A quick trip to hospital showed that the wound was a bit infected and that some of the internal stitches weren’t breaking down as planned. In fact, they were trying to force their way out through the wound like a massive ingrown hair. The next morning my surgeon pulled out the knots much like you squeeze out an ingrown hair and the relief was instant. I got a round of antibiotics and a new dressing and went back to making sure I didn’t get any further infection. A week later and things were back to normal. My stitches came out as planned and I at least got to be able to have a shower without wrapping Glad Wrap around my thigh.

My next goal was to do whatever training I was told to do exactly to the letter. Once the stitches were out I was told I was not allowed do anything for the first twelve weeks. So I did nothing. It’s very difficult when you’ve spent years training regularly and moving a lot to sit still but that’s what I did. I set the goal to heal by following the doctors prescription to the letter.

Once I was allowed train it was very little at first. The first thing I was allowed do was swim with fins to ad some work in extension. So I swam daily with fins on. My simple goal of getting to the pool every day helped enormously. So far, in three months of rehab work I had three goals, if you’re counting – no infection, rest, swim. I made it no more complicated than that, achieved all my goals, and knew that when I was allowed train harder I would do well.

Fast forward to 2012 when I was at a conference and had the opportunity to do some force plate analysis work. I discovered that my left/ right balance was about seven percent in favour of my good leg. That’s actually not that bad as up to a ten percent difference is seen as normal. However, in running athletes less than five percent is desirable. At this point I’d gone from being told that I’d never run again to being within normal, although not athletic ranges. Over the course of the next twelve months I worked on that left/ right balance issue and got it down to within five percent. Oh, and I did an Ironman and several half Ironman races. Fair to say that my goal setting had accomplished what it set out to all those years ago to return my leg to being as strong and durable as possible.

If we contrast my healing and rehabilitation to the normal process we’ll see how powerful this small, incremental win strategy was. How many people do you know who are forty-plus and don’t do anything anymore because of a knee operation or having had a sore back one time? I didn’t just wait for my injury to become pain free. I rehabilitated it so I was able to go back to what was normal life for me.

I didn’t start with a goal to finish an Ironman. I started with a very small, easily achievable goal to get my leg to heal fully. Over time, as my confidence grew, I could take on bigger, and harder challenges. I’ve since translated that into even bigger and more audacious goals and succeeded in all of them. But I did it all by building confidence in myself with small achievable tasks, that ultimately made me comfortable with these new skills, just like learning to cook an omelette opened a doorway to cooking to healthily for me.

So don’t look for confidence. Look to make yourself comfortable with smaller tasks on the way. Break that big goal down into small chunks that the mind can envision. As your competence with these new skills grows, so will that confidence you seek.

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What can a 40-year old expect in a month of training?

I get asked a lot of questions. A lot. Every day I get at least a dozen questions about training for over forty-year olds.

A lot of the questions are about specific exercises or the best ways to accomplish a specific goal. But easily the number one question I get asked is one thing:

How do I get back in shape at forty-plus, and how long is it going to take?


The answer is often a mix of my all purpose “it depends” coupled with my own questions about their own personal health history. Let’s split the answers into two categories – category one will be guys who previously were in fantastic shape and over the last two to three years have found themselves out of shape. Category two will be people who have been out of shape for longer, maybe even their entire lives. When I’m talking out of shape I am really speaking about two main variables – body mass and actual fitness and strength.

The reason body mass is a first priority is simple – being overweight brings an enormous number of extra risks with it. It’s linked to higher rates of cardiac disease, strokes, various cancers, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If I could give everyone in the world one gift it would be to stop them being overweight. The savings alone to our health care systems would be in the trillions of dollars globally. So body mass has to be a concern for those reasons but there is another reason too…

As we age it’s easy to feel invisible. Like our best years are behind us. Having a flat stomach, or arms that bulge from under your T-shirt are important parts of how we feel about ourselves as men. Equally, being seen as attractive in the eyes of our partner is important too. The number of guys I have spoken with who tell me that their partners have flat out said to them that they find them unattractive is overwhelming. There’s simply no reason why we should become less attractive to our partners as we age.

As we age there are some factors that conspire against us. Many people will point to a slowing metabolism as they age as being responsible for the fat gain. While there is some slowing of the metabolism, it isn’t as pronounced as many think – it’s only one to two percent per decade after twenty. In other words, in your mid forties your metabolism is only a maximum of five percent slower than it was when you were at university. That’s not a significant enough difference to account for the fifteen to twenty kilograms of excess weight most carry.

A far bigger factor is food intake. Put into the simplest terms possible, if your metabolism has slowed by five percent then eat five percent less than you did at twenty. But the problem with food is that there is often a lot of tied up emotional baggage with it. For instance, did you ever get hurt as a child and get a treat off your parents to stop you crying? Congratulations, you now have a relationship with food as consolation for any hurt or injury, emotional or physical. That can be a tough bond to break. Do you have a plan in place to do that?

During the 28 Day Challenge we begin with something very different. We don’t start with the program or the diet. We start with listing all of the Risks, Triggers, and Obstacles that you face during your journey to better health and fitness. A common problem is that when you’re in a group setting, either work or social, that you tend to over consume food and alcohol. Once we’ve identified that it makes it easy to start making plans to overcome it. This is the key difference in what makes some people successful versus others as adults trying to get into shape. Very few people will be able to change deep rooted habits overnight into completely new ones. The rest who are successful have seen an area of weakness and then treated it like a work problem and sought to find a way to overcome it through better planning. Perhaps it means learning to say no to some engagements, or making sure to drive to others so you can’t drink. Maybe it means eating a meal before going to the office party so you’re not tempted with finger food as much. Regardless of what the plan looks like, having a plan will always beat not having one. Even if that plan isn’t fully successful it gives a starting point to further change behaviour and modify for next time. It’s very seldom Plan A that works. In diet situations it’s more likely Plan F, G, or even M that sees you finally fix all those issues.


Once you’ve identified why you have negative behaviors, and set plans to overcome them, you need to know exactly what you should be eating. That doesn’t mean you need a nicely made up PDF meal plan. In fact, I never provide meal plans to any clients as I believe there is a massive flaw in the logic behind them. You don’t need to be told that you need to eat two eggs, one cup of spinach, and half a banana for breakfast on day one of week one. While that’s not a bad breakfast it doesn’t explain the reasoning behind it. Because if you have to travel for work suddenly and don’t have access to the foods from that perfect looking PDF, what happens then? I’ll tell you – you’ll revert back to all those bad behaviours seen in your Risks, Obstacles, and Triggers. A smart nutrition system isn’t reliant on specific foods just like a smart training plan isn’t reliant on specific pieces of equipment. They’re both reliant on why certain things are done instead of specifics. When you understand the reasons certain choices are made then you are also free to change things to suit your own life and lifestyle.

When it comes to how much to eat, we already know you need roughly five percent less than you did two decades ago. But what else do we need to know? It’s not enough at our age to try to eyeball the right amount of food. Not if you’re trying to maximise body composition. Many people will tell you that you don’t need to weigh and measure food to be lean. Most of those were born with six-packs and have no idea what it’s like trying to suddenly lose twenty kilograms at forty to avoid a heart attack. I’ll make this easy – if you’re overweight then you have a flawed concept of how much food is the correct amount. Your body mass clearly shows that. Once you’ve worked out how much food you need to eat it is a matter of only eating that amount.

Interestingly, eating the right amount of food can seem like both a lot of food and not much. It’s an odd phenomena because when you start to eat clean you realise how relatively few calories are in most things. An apple and a handful of almonds is two hundred and four calories – or roughly a tenth of what most adult men will need to consume in a day. A Snickers bar and a can of Coke is six hundred and twenty-seven calories – this is nearly a third of a normal calorie intake for a forty-year old office worker. So you actually can be quite full on a relatively small amount of food. However, it’s still likely going to be less than what you’ve been used to thanks to stretching your stomach out eating from too much. That will fix itself within a short time frame, and the new food amounts won’t leave you feeling hungry.

How much can you change just from this one element alone? One of my clients just lost three kilograms in his first week of really watching his food. When was the last time you lost three kilograms in a week and knew you could keep it off?

Food is usually the biggest hurdle to tackle when to comes to weight loss but it’s by no means the only roadblock. Did you know that getting less than six hours of sleep per night doubles your chances of both having a heart attack as well as being obese? In these days of everyone wanting to show how busy they are sleep often gets left out. “Sleep when you’re dead” is the cry, except usually it’s made by unhealthy people holding themselves together with sugar and coffee. You may be able to hold the back the bursting dam that way for a while but sooner or later those flood gates will open and the crash will be massive. Your mother was right – you need eight hours of sleep per night. As a sign of how powerful sleep is when I trialled the 28 Day Challenge program for the first time the client didn’t want to address food. But by getting more sleep, drinking more water, and walking each day he managed to drop twenty kilograms. Pretty nice to lose weight while you’re sleeping, right?

I just mentioned walking, and it’s value can’t be underestimated. The human body is a little bit like a shark’s in that we are designed to move a lot. Far more than many of us do in modern life. It’s estimated that foraging for food took between five and eight hours a day, totally fifteen to eighteen kilometres of movement. That sounds like a fair bit more than most of us get, right? Now I know most people can’t find the time in a day to move for five hours, but adding in a single thirty to sixty minute walk daily can make a tremendous difference. I’ve seen studies on a single outdoor walk daily leading to improved mood, work function, lowered stress levels, and of course, lower body fat. Walking is such a powerful tool in the fitness arsenal it’s even been linked to decreased risks of Alzheimer’s. If you walked an hour a day for a month, with no other changes to your diet, training, or lifestyle you’d lose one kilogram of fat each month.


The guys in the 28 Day Challenge are usually surprised that out of all the elements involved that they enjoy the walking the most. It’s a great time to get some alone time, as well as gain all those other benefits. And who doesn’t want to lose a kilogram of fat in a month?

By now you’re probably wondering what is wrong with me? I’m known for my hard and complete training programs, yet I haven’t mentioned training at all. Instead I’ve written about walking, sleep, food, and underlying psychological traits. The thing is that while training is important, it is just the fuel. Lifestyle – food, sleep, and your daily movement habits – are the spark. A jerry can full of petrol might be dangerous if it’s on top of a spark, but left alone without any way to ignite it it’s harmless. We clearly need both but there is no point in worrying solely about the training – as most plans do. When you make it all about the training you’re focusing on less than one hour a day to get healthier. That’s the time you’ll take to train. Instead, if you focus on sleep, food, walking, and the rest of your lifestyle you’ll be living a healthy lifestyle twenty-four hours a day. When you add the training onto that twenty-four hour mindset, don’t you think it will be more successful?

As the guys in the 28 Day Challenge will tell you, it’s amazingly successful. The training plan within is less than an hour a day. In fact, it works out to about four and a half hours each week. But it doesn’t need to be huge because we’re living that twenty-four hour fitness lifestyle. When we add the fuel on top of the killer spark we’ve got it doesn’t just flicker and go out, like most fitness plans do. It explodes with results. In fact, I’ve never seen anything get results as fast as the 28 Day Challenge does for men over forty. The average result from guys who finish the program would be between four and six kilograms of fat loss. They usually report better sleep, less work stress, and energy levels through the roof thanks to a carefully constructed, well-balanced plan. (They also usually report back to getting more action from their wives too!)

So my real question is are you losing four to six kilograms of fat in a month and feeling better? Or are your results less, and is it leaving you tired and beaten?

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The Biggest Benefits of Bodyweight Training for Older Athletes

It’s no secret that age will catch up to all of us at some point. No matter how hard you could go when younger sooner or later everyone becomes that old man or woman who is forced to walk slowly and struggles to stand up.

But it’s up to you how fast you get there.

I see a lot of people in their mid to late thirties who are seemingly hell bent on breaking their bodies down as fast as possible. As you get older all that heavy work will eventually catch up with you. Usually around this time people either shelve exercise completely or they try to find less harmful activities as they’re sick of the constant nagging pain. This is where you suddenly see guys who were once hard men turn to yoga and pilates instead of deadlifts and interval runs. If you find yourself with a list of exercises you need to avoid that is longer than the list of exercises to keep doing, you should probably have made the change earlier.

So what is the change and what should you be looking for?

You should be looking for ways to train and stay active that leave you feeling better the next day instead of worse. Those days of trying to lift so much weight you can’t bend over the next day are done, if you want to spend any time playing with your kids. Instead you should be worried about lifting enough to stay strong and healthy and then move on.

The reality for most mature aged trainees is that they’re already close to their maximum potential anyway. Striving to lift more, without the volume or genetics to support it, is a quick way to get hurt. Once built, strength is relatively easy to maintain. A program focused on basic lifts of 3-5 exercises done 3-5 times per week for 3-5 sets at a time is an easy way to remember what to do. But that can be quite quick. My normal strength work takes me about 20-30 minutes. My total gym time also includes a 10-minute warm up. So that leaves me 20 minutes every session. What do I do for 20 minutes?

I mostly do bodyweight circuits.

The benefits of bodyweight as you get older are simple:

1) Reduces stress on joints.
2) Allows muscles to work through more range of motion than most loaded exercises.
3) Helps relearn motor patterning that can become faulty under high loads.
4) Allows a lot of work to be done without risking injury or burnout.

I need to distinguish here between what I am going to call hard and soft calisthenic work. In days past these terms were used to categorise the difference between basic bodyweight training and what would go onto become gymnastic skills. High skill/ high tension work such as levers, planches, and other difficult bodyweight moves have just the same number of injuries and problems associated with them. In fact, I’ve seen way more injuries comparatively from people attempting things like one-arm pull ups than I ever have from regular gym work. So the bodyweight work I am speaking of is basics like push ups, squats, sit ups, and so on.

The problem is that because you can pump out a lot of reps you can still create problems for yourself. Even an exercise as benign as the push up can cause shoulder problems if you do enough of them. So you need some variety and a way to moderate that training so that the volume and intensity vary enough to keep the body fresh.

That’s where programs like Convict PT came in. I initially was writing it as a stay at home workout plan suitable for clients going on holidays. I wanted the workouts to be able to be done with zero equipment in a space as small as a hotel room. Midway through writing it the COVID19 virus really hit and most of the world has gone into lockdown. Some people, who rely on going to a gym for all their exercise equipment needs, have been really caught short so this fills the gap for them. The other big benefit from this is that the CNS is not hit as hard from bodyweight circuit work as it is from heavier lifting. During times of high stress, such as those during the lockdown, you want to stay active, as being fit and healthy is important. The mental benefits you get too are needed during these times, but you don’t want to send training stress too high as stress in general is already very high. The same goes for travel. Flying into a different time zone and sleeping in a different bed is already stressful enough. Do what you need to in order to maintain health and sanity and then get to work or go enjoy your holiday.

So bodyweight circuits like in Convict PT are a great way to fill that need. The workouts are fun, challenging, quick, and contain enough variety to keep your joints healthy. Even if you aren’t on lockdown, away from home traveling for work, but have been hitting the weights hard for a while now might be the best time to give your body a break and cycle through a bodyweight only training period for a few months.

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The Three Best Deadlift Variations for Ageing Athletes

In the world of strength training there are definitely a handful of exercises that are deemed to be “the best”.

If you look at what the human body can do – push, pull, squat, lunge, bend, twist, and gait – it’s pretty obvious that some exercises fit those criteria better than others for older athletes. It’s one thing to spend an hour in the gym performing a push specific workout as a younger guy but once you get a bit older you need to make workouts far more time efficient. So it’s normal to start looking for the exercises that use the most muscle in those movements.

This is where most functional training enthusiasts fall over. They worry about what it looks like and not which movements it helps. I’d much rather spend my time on push press or bench press than on single arm cable press from a split stance if I were worried about improving my function, for example.

When it comes to lower body there are two moves in particular that are seen to rule the roost – the squat and the deadlift. Thanks to misunderstandings by many these have been basterdised as representing two lower body patterns so we should clear that up here. The lower body is capable of three different movements patterns – feet together, as in a squat or deadlift. Feet split as in a split squat, lunge, or Bulgarian squat. And single leg, as in a pistol squat or single leg deadlift. These three movements can then be broken down further into either quad or hip dominant exercises based off a single factor – how far back your hips move during the movement.

People will automatically tell you that the squat is the king of quad dominant exercises. It is if you’re built like a weightlifter with a relatively long torso and short femurs with excellent hip flexibility. However, if you’re six foot tall with a narrow waist and long femurs, as I am, the squat is still a hip dominant movement. It doesn’t matter at all whether I front or back squat, have my heels raised, or any other trick you can come up with. My femurs are relatively very long and I have to sit back a long way to squat. The further back your hips go the further forwards they need to extend. So if you have short femurs and can squat with a relatively upright stance your hips will travel back a short distance and you will end up with big quads. Guys built like me will get a bigger ass from squats.

As we get older this becomes problematic. We end up with a relatively greater amount of trunk angle forwards, placing more strain on the lower back. Sooner or later an older back is going to complain about that. All that extra time spent sitting in the car or at work will catch up with you and you’ll find your body agrees with squatting heavy less and less as you age, and doubly so if you’re built like me.

The solution with the squat, as world famous therapist Grey Cook says, is to maintain the ability to perform it but not to attack it as a strength movement. We can do this simply with either bodyweight, goblet squat, or double kettlebell squats that see far less stress on the spine. So what can you use as a max strength exercise for the lower body if we’re going to avoid loading it with the squat?

The deadlift becomes the obvious choice and has a string of benefits that come with it, as it:
Improves hip and back strength
Improves grip strength, which is positively tied to health and longevity
Has less spinal loading
Is far more useful in the real world as we’re more likely to pick something up from the floor than put it across our backs and squat with it.

However, the conventional deadlift still has problems attached to it for older athletes. Many will have decreased flexibility thanks to more time spent sitting making it harder to get to the ground to grab the bar. The use of a mixed grip places the bicep tendon at more risk as well as places rotational stress on the spine and back. Finally, as an older athlete ego needs to be put aside and other than bench press the deadlift is the one most likely to injure people as they seek to hit high numbers.

So what are the best alternatives to a hip dominant pattern without using the conventional deadlift?

This is where those who look at only at the deadlift and mistakenly call it a hinge fall short. When you’ve only got one alternative to what they mistakenly call the hinge pattern you are stuck with just the deadlift. But the best choices involve optimising stress and hitting as many muscles as possible in the three possible foot positions. As a reminder they are – feet side by side, feet split, and single leg. And we’re looking for exercises where the hips travel back as far as possible and hit other muscle groups and patterns too. Honestly, for this age group and this task, the barbell is the worst training tool you can be using. Because it locks the hands together and forces you to use a symmetrical stance you’re stuck for options with either conventional or sumo stance lifts.

However, if we switch to a single kettlebell we get far more possible options, along with hitting many more patterns. Here are the best choices for the three different foot positions:

Bilateral/ feet side by side – the one hand kettlebell swing

The advantage of the kettlebell swing over the deadlift is twofold. Firstly, you use far less weight. That means less back stiffness, making it unlikely your hip based exercise choice will prevent you from being able to play with your kids. Because ego is not usually involved with swings there is far less tendency to let your lack of restraint cause you any harm. Secondly, because we can train single sided there is a fantastic anti-rotation element to this exercise, along with the requirement for excellent shoulder stability.

The bonus of the kettlebell swing is that most older trainees perform very little speed or power work. That’s usually a good idea as it can often lead to big muscle or tendon injuries as these become more brittle as we age. However, if we don’t use it we’ll lose it, right? So we need to find a safe way to produce power and help slow down the loss of those fast twitch muscle fibers are the swing is a good choice.

When you add the power element to the hip, anti-rotation, and shoulder benefits it gives it is a clear winner for the bilateral stance hip dominant movement for older athletes.

Split stance – the kickstand deadlift

When it comes to split stance work everyone tends to think that there is one version – feet split evenly apart so that joints are at ninety degrees. That’s certainly one option but there are also all the other options from feet side by side to extended out to that ninety degree point. One of the key elements to a hip dominant movement, along with the hips traveling backwards, is that the shins need to be vertical. Because the legs are not in a bilateral stance we’re really only concerned about the front leg in this case.

The set up of this is simple – take a short step back on one leg. I like to position the back front very slightly behind the front heel, with the heel of the back foot raised. Feet set hip width apart so you have a stable base. Place the kettlebell in front of the back foot so that it is in line with the front foot. Grasp with the opposite hand to the front foot. i.e. if your left foot is forward you’ll be gripping and lifting with your right arm. Pack the shoulder into position by pulling it down towards your hips and lift normally.

The lift is basically a suitcase deadlift performed with s short split stance. However, unlike the suitcase deadlift, which is hampered by the weight banging into your side, the split stance here allows you to lift it without impediment. Because of the single sided nature of the movement we get all the same anti-rotational properties that the one hand swing gets, however we get the added advantage of performing this in one of the other key foot positions instead of always just working from a bilateral stance.

Single leg – single leg deadlift

The single leg deadlift is perhaps the greatest option available to the older trainee to gain hip function, aid stability for activities like running, build grip and shoulder health, and decrease stress on the spine. It can even be used to help strengthen feet. I made this short video describing how to perform this lift.

Give these options a try instead of the conventional deadlift and notice quickly how your body feels and how function improves for other athletic tasks.

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Functional Hypertrophy and the Ageing Athlete

The number one thing I work on with clients is maintaining athleticism as we age. My guys are all pretty hard charging, fit, older guys. The kind of guys who embody old man strength and definitely do not fit in the dad bod basket.

So how do I accomplish that?

The first step is in training the forty-plus year old athlete so successfully is identifying the changes occurring as they age, and modifying programs accordingly.

Often the first downturn in performance happens in the mid to late thirties. To be honest, this little slide is noticeable but isn’t like the sliding off a cliff face that happens later on. For me, the first really noticeable downturn was at 38. Suddenly I felt the cold for the first time and staying lean was harder. Muscle soreness after exercise was increased. And that was for regular workouts. If I did a new movement that I wasn’t accustomed to the soreness was next level.

But then you hit your forties and things start to make more noticeable and frequent downturns. First at 38, and then at 43, and 45 things have taken a few noticeable steps back. What are these steps I’m speaking of that may affect older athletes?

VO2max can decline
Max heart rate is reduced
The volume of blood the heart can pump with each heartbeat is reduced
Muscle fibers are lost, resulting in decreased muscle mass and/ or strength
Aerobic enzymes in muscles become less effective and abundant making fat loss harder
Blood volume is reduced

That all sounds very gloom and doom however having spent my entire life as an experimental crash test dummy I can safely say that it doesn’t have to be that way. In the last five years I’ve managed to keep my body fat levels the same, gain 6kg of muscle, and keep my VO2 the same as it was at my peak for Ironman in 2013. So how did I do that?

As I said above, the first steps in successfully navigating these possible backsteps is in being aware of them. One of the problems with what is thought to happen with ageing and what can actually happen is the population that the research is based on. Our grandparents, who this research is based on, lived very different lives to us. As an example, not so long ago doctors told people over forty to stop exercising and take it easy. These days they’re rightly encouraged to do so and you can see the huge change when you look at Masters’ level competition. The men’s 40-44 age group at an Ironman event will likely have a winner only half an hour behind the top pro winner. The Masters’ World Championships for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the biggest competition in the world, far eclipsing the open world championships for participation. These days, it’s quite normal to find fit forty-year olds. So that is going to significantly change what you see in research over the next twenty years.

The key point here is that if you stay active you can offset much of the negatives associated with ageing as long as you correctly identify the biggest issues associated with ageing that can’t be changed.

For instance, connective tissue becomes less elastic as you age. There’s nothing you can do about that, even with hormone therapy. You just lose some of your bounce as you age. So some exercise options, like sprints and jumping, can be fraught without disaster if the body isn’t properly conditioned. I have clients who perform these types of activity but we’ve spent two years or more building them up to deal with them. They are not drills for beginners or casual exercise enthusiasts, despite what fitness magazines will tell you.

The loss of enzymes that utilise fat is a much bigger issue as it means that older trainees will often carry more weight because their ability to burn fat is impacted. That’s further hampered by the use of most calorie charts as they over estimate calorie usage in older athletes. Metabolism decreases by 1-2% per decade after twenty years old. By forty then you will have somewhere between a 3-5% deficit versus what the charts tell you. It doesn’t sound like much but a 5% difference is enough to gain 1kg of fat every two weeks. If you’re over forty and you’ve been eating the same and training is stable but you find yourself struggling to stop that slow, constant weight gain this is why.

That’s easily fixed with the use of smart aerobic training. That’s the good thing about aerobic work – firstly, it burns far more calories than any other workout can. Forget HIIT, forget EPOC as none of that pans out when you look at what the research really says on both. What you’re looking for is something that is sustainable and can be done year round, and moderate, steady state aerobic work is it. The second notable thing about moderate steady state work is that it actually encourages the body to make sure that you keeo plenty of those fat burning enzymes. HIIT doesn’t do that.

The magic thing that people miss about steady state work is the rough percentage of maximal effort that it ends up being. The magic number is 70%. You see this magic 70% number turn up again and again when it comes to training. And this brings us nicely to functional hypertrophy work for the ageing athlete.

As we get older it’s really important to rid ourselves of some of the stupidity of the fitness industry. Don’t forget this is an industry that was built off the back of bodybuilding and the sham supplements that were designed to help people try to pack on muscle. However, if you strip away all the ills of bodybuilding what you really have is a desire to be muscular and lean, and those aren’t bad goals. The caveat is that as we get older, because of our slower metabolism there needs to be a conscious effort not to fall into the trap of the endless bulking cycle that many guys seem to be in. There are a lot of fat, older guys walking about with imaginary watermelons under their arms thinking how swole they are. No mate, you’re fat, and at your age it’s a bad idea. All that perma bulking cycle ends up doing is sending you to the doctors for a chat about your blood pressure, cholesterol, visceral fat levels, and how being overweight has crashed whatever remains of your testosterone levels.

So how big should you be? The answer is simple – you need to be strong and muscular and get away from that size at all costs mentality that many guys get sucked into. Think Spider Man, not The Hulk. Because I hate to break it to you – if it hasn’t happened at forty, it isn’t going to happen. All you’re really doing is stuffing yourself one hamburger closer to that impending heart attack (because these guys never want to do any actual cardiovascular work because they’re worried about losing all their gains).

So what kind of rep ranges should older guys be doing?

This is where it gets really interesting. On a continuum from 1 rep to 15 there are a lot of different possible results that you can get based on what you choose. These results all come about from various types of strength training. Did you know that there is more than one kind of strength? There’s maximal strength, absolute strength, relative strength, speed strength, starting strength, strength endurance, and even a thing called general strength.

All of these types of strength have a blend of what is known as metabolic and neural components. The easiest way to think about what those terms mean is that metabolic components change something within the muscle, such as the number of mitochondria, or even the size of the muscle cell itself. Neural changes are more like swapping the connection from the brain to the muscle from dial up internet to cable. The stronger the neural connection the more strongly that muscle fiber can contract. And all of these types of strength, and all the rep ranges that correspond to them, have varying degrees of each.

So how do you pick the best rep ranges for a forty-year old athlete?

This again goes back to having a think about what is likely to damage an older body. An older spine isn’t going to appreciate max effort reps in the 1-3 range on the squat and the deadlift. Elbows and shoulders will complain in those ranges on exercises like bench press too. The best crossover for strength and muscle gain (both neural and metabolic properties) happens in the 5-8 rep range. But again, too much time spent there performing multiple exercises, will eventually cause joint and tendon issues.

What about that magic 70% number? What happens there? Well, 70% when it comes to strength training is that general strength thing typified by 10 reps per set. Strangely we see that a lot in bodybuilding rep ranges. The difference here is that instead of using it for isolation work we will continue using it for compound work like bench press or similar. It allows a lot of joint friendly reps to be performed and helps keep as much muscle as possible to offset the ageing issue. We even use circuit type work here not discriminating between bodyweight or resistance training with external load. To be honest, it’s the rep range I care about, not what the exercise looks like.

It’s always funny to me when people blast hypertrophy work (ie bodybuilding rep ranges) as being non-functional. Well, if you stand still in a gym, or just sit on machines, and that’s all the activity you do then perhaps you won’t be very functional. But I don’t train those guys. My guys may be standing still in the gym doing supposedly non-functional exercises but on their days out of the gym they’re running, boxing, climbing, and generally kicking ass and looking amazing doing so.

You see, function is not about what an exercise looks like but about how it helps you perform. People say squats are functional. Maybe. But past a certain age squatting with a decent weight is going to make you feel like crap, and that’s not going to lead you to do a lot of other activity. So how is that functional? To be honest, a lot of older guys would be better off performing something like moderate load kettlebell goblet squats in their warm up to maintain that movement, and then do the majority of their leg work on the leg press or with lunges. I know it may sound heretical but I’ve got the results to prove it. In fact, I doubt anyone in the world has more forty-year old guys with six-packs crushing athletic events. And the best part is we’re doing it without pain and in all cases so far having been able to remove blood pressure and cholesterol medication.

So what are the takeaways?

Keep body fat low through eating strictly.
Help maintain cardiovascular fitness and low levels of bodyfat with moderate, frequent aerobic sessions.
Perform one key lift per pattern per week in the 5-8 rep range.
Perform 2-3 exercises per pattern per week in the 10 rep range to maintain joint health, muscle mass, and stay injury free.
The majority of your training should be around the 70% average intensity mark for best effect year round.

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The Fallacy of Specific Training for Older Guys

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

In fitness there is a lot of money to be made from specialization and niche programming. There are fat loss coaches, strength coaches, running coaches, speed coaches… the list is nearly endless. You see, the way fitness is sold to new trainers is that it is better to become an expert in a tiny niche and dominate that than to be an all rounder. You know the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none”? That gets thrown around a lot but the reality, like most things with fitness, is that if you scratch the surface even a little you find the truth to be very different because the full saying is actually, Jack of all trades, master of none, but often times is better than a master of one”. As Heinlein points out above in his classic quote on specialization only insects specialize. Humans are the greatest all-rounders the planet has seen.

Why do I tell you how fitness professionals are taught to market themselves?

Because when they have a single product to sell you – run faster, lift heavier, etc – the only way they can earn money from you is to make you believe you need that product. That’s called marketing. So they create an ad that addresses what are called “pain points” to make you feel bad about yourself. Common ones would be something like, “do you feel low on energy”, “remember when your back didn’t hurt”, and “wouldn’t it be great to fit into your skinny jeans again”? At this point, after having been poked until you’re feeling bad about yourself, the trainer miraculously offers up their program, which will have all the answers you sorely need.

In the case of specific training, and I’m going to use something unusual to prove the point, let’s look at motorcycle rider physical training. Motorcycle racing, like many sports, is skill based. As in, it is not the fittest or strongest who wins, but the most skilled. Can being fitter and stronger make a difference though? The answer to that is absolutely yes.

But here is where it gets interesting… In the strength and conditioning world there are two key parts to the year – general preparation (called GPP) and specific preparation (SPP). SPP is what you do to play your sport better. GPP is everything else that assists it but is not specific to your sport. For example, a motorbike racer might spend some time on a mini bike or motorcross bike to mimic the technical needs of racing without having to cope with the demands of the sport or risk big injury causing crashes. GPP meanwhile might be base cardiovascular training, keeping body composition within the correct levels, and all the other strength work that is not bike specific. At elite levels some of the year will be dedicated to GPP in the pre-season, but when the competition season rolls around training tends to be very specific so as not to needlessly tire out the athlete. At this time of year for MotoGP riders, for example, they have done one test only for 2020 on their new year bikes. The entire rest of their training is GPP at this point unless it is on a bike.

So that’s what the elite guys do – they spend as much time as they can on something with two wheels that has a motor – and then they fit their other fitness training around it. Fitness is clearly an important quality when it comes to high level racing. You can see this simply by having a look at how much they train. Mick Doohan used to train with world triathlon champion Miles Stewart. Troy Herfoss is fast enough on a push bike that he was offered a pro contract last year. Troy Bayliss used to train with an Italian pro cycling team. The Bostroms and John Hopkins used to do Ironman triathlons (minus the run as it would beat up their backs and knees too much). Cal Crutchlow makes sure his push bike is always packed into the LCR boxes so he can ride anywhere in the world. Scott Redding is a keen cyclist and boxes. And even Nicky Hayden (RIP) was sadly killed while on a training ride on his bike. It’s pretty obvious that fitness is a prized commodity among top racers.

But here’s the difference between them and you – you’re not getting millions of dollars a year to ride your bike. You have to look after your kids, pay your mortgage, and you get to look wistfully at your bike and take it out for a track day even now and then. In other words, there are far more important things for you to worry about than that last 0.1 second. You need to worry far more about GPP than SPP.

Don’t think for a second that GPP is weak and that without SPP you won’t be able to ride hard. (Remember that is just fitness marketing to suck you into buying a product). GPP includes:
Aerobic endurance
General strength (typically found in the 8-12 rep ranges)
Maximal strength (3-5 reps)
Strength endurance (15+ reps or the ability to make repeated submaximal efforts over time)

It will also include making sure your diet and body composition are in order too. No one ever wants to address their food but let’s quickly look at why it is so important for production motorbike riding:

A 80kg rider on a 200kg 1000c bike with 200hp will cover the quarter mile in 8.47s. That’s about the distance from the start line to the first corner at Phillip Island. Meanwhile a 70kg rider will do that in 8.37s. It doesn’t sound like much but if you’re pulling out 0.1s out of each corner that rider will be 1.2s in front by the end of lap one. If you’re comparing a typical track day rider at more like 100kg the difference is 0.3s (with a time of 8.67s). 0.3s on the exit of each corner is a 3.6s difference by the end of a single lap, or roughly half the time it will take a 1000c bike to exit the final corner of Phillip Island and make it to the start/ finish line. Lap after lap they’ll pull out that distance solely due to their bodyweight advantage. So if you want to ride fast an important component of that is making sure you are light as possible while not giving up any durability (I’m looking at you Dani Pedrosa).

So at this point, if you’re wanting to improve your lap times as a rider, is it better to spend big on more horsepower and come carbon fiber – both of which are pretty expensive – or maybe just buy a salad? It’s easy to see which one will have the biggest effect and be most cost effective.

Before we look at the actual training we need to understand the three most common types of strength training methods – weight lifting, power lifting, and bodybuilding. All three are sports that revolve around lifting weights. In the case of weightlifting and powerlifting there are two and three lifts respectively that are both competition lifts (therefore performing them is SPP) as well as being used to build general strength (GPP). In the early days of strength and conditioning coaches were usually retired weightlifters or powerlifters and their training programs reflected their own history and what they knew worked to make themselves stronger for competition. So the choice of which lifts to use for your training is largely based on their own bias from their own competition – but weightlifting is not motorbike racing.

For example, do you think it matters that you can squat 10kg more to ride your bike faster? The only way that answer is a yes is if you currently can’t squat at all. For everyone else you already possess enough leg strength to ride. However, the strength coach sells strength above all else and will tell you that if you squat more your performance will improve. I’ve seen these guys on track – they usually end up with leg cramps and having to sit out sessions because they lack the endurance. When you look at riding a track like Phillip Island it is easy to see why endurance is a more prized component than strength. There are 12 corners. There are actually only 8 changes of direction as some of the corners, for instance turn 11 to turn 12, where you don’t need to change body position at all. Over the standard 20mins for a track day session or 6-8 laps for a club race that is anywhere from 48 to 80 squats you need to perform. Easy to see why by the end of the day your legs can be shot if you do 5 sessions as it turns out to be about 400 squats. So strength endurance is a much more prized commodity than maximal strength and you can tell this from observing what the top guys spend their time on. However, the strength coach has his product to sell and he will continue to harp on about the benefits from high load strength work. The only way to test what actually works though is by lap times – either you are able to ride at higher speed for longer or you are not. If you’re talking about SPP for bike racing and trying to figure out what helps you make lap times then the only thing that matters is what helps those times. Everything else is wasting your gym time.

The other downside to chasing strength is the muscle soreness it brings. Gym folklore is filled with pithy captions about leg day and not being able to walk afterwards. That’s fine if you want to sit in your cubicle all day but if you have to go to the track and do 400 squats for the day it’s probably not a good idea to be so sore it hurts to move. It’s also going to impact your ability to stay relaxed on your bike, which is a key element in how it handles.

So what have we really got for a recreational rider or racer to maximise their on track performance? We have a diet that allows us to minimise body fat and keep body mass as low as possible and we have a training plan that is not focused on building as much as size or strength as possible but instead focuses on three types of strength and endurance work. That just sounds like a well structured GPP plan to me, or the exact type of plan that everyone in the world who isn’t an elite athlete needs. Because your job is not to worry about those last 0.1s but to be a good husband/ father/ employee/ boss. Being focused just on one of those elements sees you head down that path of specialization and unless you’re an insect it’s not a great idea. If you’re looking to ride faster you need to ride more and your fitness plan should support that, not see you end up acting like a powerlifter and wondering why you’re not getting any faster.

 

 

 

 

 

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I wish you a Healthy Christmas

I see you.

I see men and women just like you every day.

You’re smart and high achieving and you think you have all the tricks worked out. You’ve got a nice car and a fancy house. Probably got your kids enrolled in a private school too. You take the family on expensive overseas holidays every year. You’re killing it, right?

But a more appropriate statement would be that you’re killing yourself.

All those long hours. The work travel. Eating out with clients all the time. The pressure to succumb to alcohol more often than not. Late nights and long days add up. And you use them all to justify your failing health.

Then you go home and it’s more stress. Kids, housework, bills, a partner who is frustrated you’re away all the time and doesn’t know how to verbalise it. It’s frustrating watching you become more overweight, unhappy, and more stressed. It affects everyone around you but you’re too selfish and self-absorbed to see how your health impacts everyone.

But you’re smart. You read a lot. You’ve been around gyms and know what to do. Or do you? Because your waistline says differently. So does your doctor, because they’re worried about your blood pressure. They’re also worried about your cholesterol and impending diabetes. They’ve been trying to get you to slow down for years but the money is too good, right? You’ve got as much invested in this vision of yourself as a corporate ass kicker as you do in the stock exchange. You’re that go getter who makes deals and earns big. You’re the one who brings home the presents to the kids and pays for the expensive treats. And you’re not prepared to give that up yet despite your body’s protests, are you? You think back to that time you lost a lot of weight. But it was short lived. You soon gained back all the weight lost again.

Up until now you’ve had it easy. Your relative youth has saved you. Below late forties your body will counteract most of the poor choices you’re making. But wait a few years. Get to fifty-plus and see how it all falls apart. Suddenly you’re in front of the doctor and she’s telling you that you need to look after yourself better. Again. Because this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this. In fact, if you look back at your life with any honesty you’ll see that you have been getting steadily more and more out of shape and less and less healthy decade after decade. You’ve heard this before and angrily shut out anyone who mentioned it. It’s not just physical either. You feel stressed when you wake up before the day has even begun.

And everyone else at work is the same. The same grim faces. The same emails going around telling you that Bob from Accounting had a heart attack last week at fifty-five. They can see the writing on the wall even though they won’t admit it, just the same as you.

It’s easy to hide at work. Everyone looks the same. Stressed. Overweight. Eating poorly together and washing it down with alcohol. And then you go home. You buy bigger clothes. Looser. You stop tucking shirts in and avoid tight pants. Females start to spend more time in stretchy yoga pants, despite clearly never actually going. Every meal is a treat because hey, you made it through Wednesday. That clearly deserves a double helping of dessert and half a bottle of wine or more to celebrate that momentous achievement. The days are so long and hard and the couch is so soft and comforting. And hey, you already ate poorly today. Why not have another treat now? You can start eating well tomorrow.

But it’s all been unraveling lately, hasn’t it? Tomorrow never really seems to come. Instead it’s more doctors visits, or maybe even a trip or two to the hospital. And it’s not the small stuff anymore. They’re talking about your heart. Or maybe it’s cancer. So I hope all that money you’ve been earning is enough. I hope it’s enough to pay for all the sick days you’re going to need and all the treatments you’re going to have to pay out of pocket for. I hope it’s enough to cover the school fees and the car repayments. I hope you had enough fun with all that money to justify spending the last decade of your shortened life being sick. I hope it sets your kids up to live well enough without dad or mum around.

So for Christmas this year I don’t hope you get anything fancy. I hope you get healthy. I hope this is the year it really sticks. I could cheapen this message by inserting links here for my own services which would 100% help you, but I refuse to. Money will only distract from what is important here and that is you finally taking charge of your life despite the decades you’ve been unwilling to. That is you getting help on this journey because you’ve proven time and time again that you can’t manage this on your own. I hope I’m wrong. With every ounce of my being I hope I am wrong. Your family is scared and hates seeing you like this.

Make the change. Please.

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Kung Pao Turkey Meatballs

One of the challenges with staying healthy is having good quality food at hand. Meal prep is always a struggle for people when there are kids, work, and other responsibilities sucking up your time. Well, these turkey meatballs fix that. Simply prepare a large amount and have ready made serves of protein that can be added to salads or heated up quickly.

For the Meatballs:

  • 1 lb. ground turkey (93/7) 1 egg, beaten
  • ¼ cup panko breadcrumbs *
  • ¼ cup crushed pineapple 1 tbsp. minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. ginger
  • 2 tbsp. reduced sodium soy sauce 2 green onions, chopped
  • salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 tsp. macadamia nut oil (or coconut oil)

For the Sauce:

  • 1 bottle (16.75 oz.) Kung Pao Sauce
  • ½ cup crushed pineapple
  • ¾ cup water

* You can sub these for gluten-free breadcrumbs if needed.

Directions:

1.    To make the meatballs, in a large bowl add turkey, egg, panko, ¼ cup pineapple, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, green onions, salt and pepper.

2.    Using your hands, mix until fully combined (try not to over mix).

3.    Make the meatballs by rolling into golf ball size pieces and place on a foil-lined baking sheet (sprayed with cooking spray). This recipe should make around 20- 25 (mine made 25). Place baking sheet in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

4.    In the crockpot (sprayed with cooking spray), pour bottle of sauce, ½ cup pineapple, and water and whisk together.

5.    Heat 1 tsp. oil in a large skillet on medium-high.

6.    When the pan is heated, place 4-6 meatballs in the pan and sear for 1-2 minutes on each side (this will lock in the moisture and prevent them from crumbling).

7.    Once all the meatballs are seared, place them in the crockpot and set on LOW for 6-7 hours. Once they are done, you can place the meatballs and sauce on a bed of rice.

Nutritional Information:

Calories: 264

Fat: 8 g

Carbs: 25 g

Protein: 20 g

Serving Size: 5 meatballs

Servings: 5 servings

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Strength Endurance - the key to Old Man Strength

When I was younger I would always watch my father in the garden. He just had this amazing ability to work non-stop all day long. It’s not like he was a lumberjack or worked on a road crew though. He was a normal 9 to 5 office worker. But he came from a different generation that did more manual work around the home and had spent years and years doing it. He had tough hands and a work ethic built on years and years of hard work in the Aussie sun.

In comparison, most men these days have hands so soft it’s doubtful many have ever even held a shovel. My neighbour doesn’t even own a mower or a saw for basic yard maintenance.

How do we reclaim that old man strength and the ability to go all day?

The problem for most is adequately identifying the best place to start. There are many strength groups on the internet who will tell you that chasing max strength is the most important quality because all the other qualities of strength are built from it. For people who don’t know there are many different types of strength – relative strength, absolute strength, speed strength, starting strength… and even strength endurance. To a degree maximal strength does impact the other qualities but at some point it will actually detract from it. For example, I bet the person you know who has the biggest bench press isn’t the person you know who can do the most push ups. At some point the max strength work has detracted from strength endurance and seen their performance get worse. When these groups joke that “anything over 5 reps is cardio” you know they aren’t really taking their endurance work seriously. And that all turns up in testing when guys fail military PT tests or they’re on a hike somewhere and just run out of gas.

Strength endurance is probably the most important factor in being able to enjoy yourself outside. It’s the thing that allows you to carry a pack for hours on end or ski run after run without your legs turning to jelly. It’s a bike ride in the morning and then a run up a hill in the evening to watch the sun set while on holidays. It is the thing that is going to allow you to keep doing all the fun things outside as you age.

At this point it usually all falls to pieces and people start doing all kinds of crazy circuit work trying to mimic the non-stop nature of strength endurance activities with their training. But that’s a mistake too. Circuit training is usually too low load to have any real impact on strength gain. What you end up with a series of workouts that leave you tired and sweaty but that don’t have any genuine impact on long term performance.

So what’s the answer?

To find the answer we need to break down what is involved in strength endurance. The strength side has a few components – max strength, strength endurance, and maybe even power and power endurance. The endurance side has aerobic fitness, muscular endurance, and anaerobic endurance (which can also be split into two sides). It’s no wonder people get lost.

So what’s the priority? Can we just skip to strength endurance work and get the best benefit? The answer is no. To develop a deep reserve of endurance of any kind takes an enormous amount of work – something missing from the world in general today, but especially from the fitness world. People are encouraged to do less as if doing less ever brings a greater result anywhere in life.

The beginning of this process is something called general strength and is best categorised by something normally scoffed at in today’s fitness world – 3 sets of 10 reps of a whole body program performed 3 times a week. Yes, this looks like every old school beginner routine ever written. That’s probably a clue – when a workout method stands the tests of time it’s worth investigating further. While this might look like a beginner routine imagine the kind of beginner you’d be if you could squat and bench bodyweight for 3 sets of 10. That’s a pretty impressive beginner. While you’re developing that kind of general strength base it’s time to get to work on aerobic development. The easiest way to do this is with Maffetone based running/ cycling/ rowing and lots of walking. (A daily walk should never be removed from your program even as exercise volume goes up). This process is slowed by the tissue adaptation needed for running and may take up to two years if the person was not used to running prior. For my clients I usually have a goal of them being able to run for 3 x 1hr sessions each week with no next day muscle soreness. The entire purpose of this period is to slowly build work capacity and get the body used to the new strains being placed upon it.

Many of the strength groups will focus solely on the strength side but they’re doing their clients a great disservice. The biggest killer in the world isn’t a weak bench press. It’s heart attacks. And, with 70% of the world overweight or obese the biggest overall problem facing people is lack of movement and an unhealthy heart led by that. So the best way you can train someone is to give them a healthy heart and work on their diet with them. As a trainer now I spend far more time on those two things than I do on strength. I am not downplaying the importance of strength at all but getting a diet and fitness improvement is something I will chase preferentially over increased strength any day of the week.

The next thing they’ll tell you is that you can somehow combine their much loved strength work with the MAF system to get improved fitness. Except you can’t really. One of the keys for increased fitness (which is more about how well your body can use oxygen) is that the body needs to suck more oxygen out of the blood. This forces the body to learn how to use it better and increases a thing called your VO2max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use while working aerobically. But when muscles are tense, like when you lift weights, blood won’t flow through the muscle. No blood flow, no oxygen uptake. No oxygen uptake, no increased VO2max. In fact, at a given heart rate your oxygen use is no better than 70% of what it would be if you had the same heart rate while running or cycling. There’s just no way around it – if you want to actually get fit you need cardio.

But, because we’re chasing strength endurance we need strength too. It makes sense then to combine some kind of traditional cyclic activity to some kind of strength work. Most people here will again revert back to crazy WODesque workouts that leave them gasping and sweaty but the for maximum aerobic improvement the number we’re looking for is something around 60-70% of your max HR. The MAF formula fits perfectly here for most and should be used as a guideline. The basic rules for cardiac output training are that you want between 120-150bpm and for a minimum of 30 minutes.

The workout:

Set a timer for 30mins. Perform 2mins of any type of moderate cardio like rowing, running, or cycling. Then perform 2-3 strength exercises working at 70% of your max effort. Make sure HR stays within your MAF range the entire time. If you can perform more than 7 circuits in 30mins you’ve gone too easy. If you can only perform 6 you’ve gone too hard and are having to rest too often. Either slow down your cardio slightly or drop the weights/ reps used so you need less rest between stations.

What’s the power of strength endurance work? I have clients in their 40s, 50s, and 60s able to run 100 mile ultra marathons and out work younger men half their age. That’s real old man strength.

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Stress Management for Over 40s Trainees

Training really comes down to one thing: stress management. In the gym you add stress to try to push your body to a new level. Outside the gym, you do everything you can to alleviate the stress imposed in the gym.

When you achieve the right balance, you get what is called super-compensation, or training adaptation. When it’s wrong, you get over-reaching, which could make you too fatigued to train hard enough to stimulate change. If you go even further down the wrong track, you end up with over-training, which can lead to a near total system shut down.

Most people only look at the training performed in the gym or on the track when assessing levels of fatigue. However, the body doesn’t differentiate between mental, emotional, or physical stress. As far as the systems of the body are concerned, stress is stress..

That time your boss dropped a big pile of work on your desk that had to be done before you left the office was just as traumatic for your body as a max effort squat day. The last thing you should be doing if you’ve just had one of those days is head to the gym and max out. This seems counter-intuitive. When you have a bad day, it’s natural to want to take out that aggression in the gym and let off some steam. But when you do, you’ve essentially had what amounts to two max effort sessions in the same day, as far as your body is concerned.

There are two types of stress – specific and non-specific. Examples of specific stress are the volume or intensity of your workout, training frequency, and competition frequency. Non-specific stress includes all of the lifestyle factors such as financial stress, quality and quantity of sleep, travel, and family or work social functions.

Before we get to the actual stress-management solutions you can accomplish at home, let’s discuss some of the problems with most gym training models. Like it or not, anaerobic training produces the same type of energy seen in our fight-or-flight responses. It has to, because we need it to help us run away from predators for survival. But all that energy being produced so quickly has a damaging effect on your body. It is highly inflammatory, just like your stress-filled days at the office.

This is the main reason why people who do the Men’s and Women’s Challenges achieve such great results – we systematically work to reduce their stress levels so they can actually make fitness gains. Most people are so overstressed through poor diet, lack of sleep, being overweight, and then trying to train hard they can’t possibly recover. The Challenges meet them where they are and deliver an appropriate amount of stress, while clearing up all the underlying stressful factors in their lives.

This is where movement quality comes into the picture. Movement quality has both a physical and a mental component. The energy systems and connective tissue are the bodily components, but they are driven by the autonomic nervous system and motor control, which are managed by the brain. The role of the nervous system is to perceive threat through the use of all of your senses and is linked to motor output functions (such as speed and power), and these functions are linked to your motor control.

The sympathetic nervous system drives extension-based postures and activities, such as running and jumping, as well as most lifts. In other words, it is your fight-or-flight posture and supports higher force activities. However, as motor control is based on threat perception, an overuse of both this system and these postures results in negative changes in motor control. These changes to motor control lead to higher levels of fatigue. Those higher levels of fatigue lead to less movement variability – you become more robotic – and that leads to more injuries. In other words, spending too much time in your fight-or-flight postures performing high-force activities leads to greater likelihood of injury. What can you do to fix all this?

The body perceives new activities as a threat. This applies whether it is a new load, new exercise, or a new distance – they will all be viewed the same way by the body. That drives you straight into your fight-or-flight system and instantly turns what is meant to be an educational session into something that is perceived by the body to be a maximum effort. So we need to slowly introduce new stressors to training. This is precisely why you shouldn’t learn the barbell snatch on day one in a gym. There are just too many things that are new if you’re not familiar with barbells and weightlifting.

To counteract all that stress you need a training systems that soothe the body and allows your system to reset. For example, a day where you learn new moves should finish with an easy aerobic cool down to return the body to a suitable resting state that is responsive to training. Just as your warmup should prepare you for stress, your cool down should ready you to absorb the stress. And that is best done with a settled mind and body. The worst thing you can do for workout adaptation is to hit a max effort on a new lift and then walk out of the gym.

But all that could still change if you choose the wrong recovery format. I’ve known beach volleyballers who weren’t great swimmers choose to go swimming for recovery the day after a tournament. Unfortunately, their skill level at swimming meant that their bodies didn’t agree that it would be easy, so what should have been an easy session smashed them further. Walking in cool water would have been a good choice for them, but as poor swimmers there’s not much chance that swimming was going to be a good recovery session.

Remember, if your body perceives a threat then it will react as if under threat with that same fight-or flight-response. Next thing you know, you’ve turned your recovery session into another hard session and your system will be depressed even more.

Some activities lend themselves better to recovery than others. Here are three I recommend:

Flexion-Based Postures: The parasympathetic nervous system features flexion-based postures. Activities like cycling and rowing make for far better choices than running, as it is extension based (not to mention most people are poor runners so every run is a fight or flight activity). Yoga is also an excellent choice featuring many flexion based postures such as child’s pose, downward dog, and deep forward bends.

Breathing: The quickest, cheapest, and easiest way to influence the parasympathetic system is to focus on respiratory function. Methods such as FMS have had highly successful results from exercises as simple as crocodile breathing. I have had clients who have found huge improvements for shoulder pain after five minutes of targeted breathing practice, combined with education about how to recognize and manage signs of stress. When combined with flexion based postures such as downward dog it’s easy to begin understanding how yoga has such a good reputation for making people feel amazing thanks to its stress reducing properties.

Meditation: A friend of mine has done some interesting studies on using guided meditation to reduce stress among his Division 1 athletes. He and his colleagues found that following a daily guided meditation made up for poor sleep and dietary habits often seen in college athletes burning the candle at both ends. In my experience, the best time to perform this is before bed so that sleep quality is enhanced. There are plenty of free apps available that will run you through guided meditations if you don’t know where to start such as Omvana and Headspace.

Once you’ve got your recovery figured out, the final step is monitoring training intensity and frequency. Most forty-year old trainees can’t handle more than two or three hard sessions per week, and the days between should be filled with active recovery to stimulate the system, not further deplete or stress it. My clients are often surprised by how little intensity I program in for them, yet how good the results are. The results are all thanks to balancing training stress and recovery. With decreased recovery ability because of their age training stress also has to be decreased.

The goal of training is to improve the body, not test its limits. Focus on adding guided meditation and focused breathing work, as well as aerobic recoveries and cool downs, and you will be surprised at how much better your body feels.

 

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PB Oatmeal Cookies

These Peanut butter and oatmeal cookies are a great treat for over 40s athletes  – all healthy and natural. You can add protein powder ( I suggest vanilla) to your dough to increase the protein amount.

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup natural peanut butter
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1¼ cups old-fashioned oats
  • ¼ cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk

Directions:

1.    Preheat the oven to 180 Celsius

2.    Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

3.    In a medium bowl, use a hand mixer to mix together the peanut butter and brown sugar.

4.    Stir in baking powder and old-fashioned oats.

5.    Slowly start to pour in the almond milk.

6.    Stir everything together until fully incorporated.

7.    Using a tablespoon, spoon onto the baking sheet (12 on each sheet) and flatten out a little with a fork.

8.    Bake cookies for 6-8 minutes, until lightly golden.

9.    They will feel a little doughy still, but they will be just right after they cool.

Nutritional Information:

Calories: 378

Protein: 12 g

Carbs: 48 g

Fat: 18 g

Serving Size: 6 cookies

Servings: 4

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Why lunges are the best leg exercise for over-40s.

It’s high time that the lunge got the respect it deserves. Most strength coaches push bilateral work like squats and deadlifts over lunges but when it comes to real world application for most people these lifts falter.

Let’s break this down into bite-sized chunks:

There are three possible foot positions – standing with your feet together like in a squat or deadlift, a split stance like a lunge, and single legged work. So if you remove lunges from your program you’re deficient in 30% of the possible stances you may end up in. Athletically you will see split stances turn up far more often than an evenly weighted bilateral stance like in squats. Finally, the lunge is a transitional stance. It is the link between bilateral stance and single leg stance. many people who have trained bilaterally for years realise the error they’re making and try to jump to single leg training with no transition steps and wonder why they fail. Add in that middle step of lunges and the transition will be fine though.

Keeping with our transitional theme the lunge turns up as a transition in other ways too. In the developmental sequence you progress from lying on your back to face down, to a quadruped stance for activities like crawling. You then need to get through transitional stances like sitting and kneeling to get to standing, which is our final posture. One of the fastest ways to correct someone in standing is to regress back to a lower posture where they exhibit better control. So you would transition from standing to a position called half kneeling, which is really a kneeling lunge position.

Not only do you regress posture/ stance when trying to correct movement but you can also simplify it. The overhead squat is the hardest movement to get right as it has so many components that all need to work well. You can regress it by removing the overhead component and turning it into a regular squat. You can place the load below shoulder height such as in a goblet squat, which creates better trunk stiffness. But sometimes you need to address each leg individually. The problem is that many people who can squat on two legs are completely incapable of doing it on one. And that’s where lunges come back in as they are halfway between a double leg quad dominant pattern and a true single leg exercise.

Most leg exercises are broadly categorised into either quad or hip dominant. At one end we have an exercise like the squat, which is considered the king of quad exercises and at the other end is the deadlift, which is the king of hip dominant moves. (Although would suggest the snatch grip deadlift is the true hip dominant king over the conventional deadlift). Every exercise has to include a portion of each. A true hip only exercise, for example, would be a straight leg deadlift or good morning – neither of which allow the use of the same sorts of loads as the regular deadlift. In the deadlift there is a degree of knee bend. While the hips do the majority of the work there is an element of knee extension, which is quad driven. So we accept that all exercises have varying degrees of involvement from both of the major lower body patterns why aren’t we just looking for an exercise that hist both equally and saves us time in the gym?

The lunge features a large degree of knee flexion/ extension as well as nearly the same amount of hip extension as the deadlift (on one side). The verticla shin angle on the front leg is far more knee friendly on older joints than what you might see from a squat, yet it has the same amount of knee extension as a parallel squat will. The lunge allows a completely upright torso meaning little load an older backs. And, while many people think that the amount of weight used is the most important thing, as you get older you’re going to appreciate exercises where the muscles are targeted effectively that don’t require large amounts of axial loading on the spine. Put simply – eventually heavy squats and deadlifts are just going to make your older spine feel bad. The lunge allows far more variation in terms of performance and loading that will allow development every bit as good as squats and deadlifts without any of the potential downsides, while adding a better degree of function for most activities.

So let’s get to a smart progression to teach the lunge properly. The first step should be that thing I spoke of before from kneeling, or rather half kneeling. Half kneeling is a super powerful position to learn static motor control of the hip as well as core control. It can have elements added to it to teach upper body control too. More people should be training more often from half kneeling. So now we have a static posture that teaches us static stability we need to add to it.

For many the nest step is to go straight to lunges. However, there is a step prior that needs to be hit. That step is a split squat. The difference between a split squat and a lunge is movement. In a lunge you either step backwards or forwards into the split squat position. That clearly requires movement but you have to earn that movement by displaying control in a less challenging variation, which is where the split squat comes in. After we’ve drilled and proven we can be successful we can move onto lunges.

Again, most people go straight to forward lunges but the alternative to step backwards is far better for older knees. When you step forwards there will be a tendency to allow the knee to travel forwards too. That’s not all bad as the further forward the knee travels the more quad involvement there is. However, the further forward the knee travels the more stress there in on the knee, which can be problematic for older knees that have a lot of miles in them. far better is a reverse lunge where you step back. By stepping back you keep the front shin vertical, which is far safer for the joint. In fact, a vertical shin position is so safe it is used post knee surgery to begin the rehab process.

The next step is not necessarily to add movement. The natural progression for many is to take success with lunges and continue onto walking lunges. There are a number of ways to progress an exercise and movement is not necessarily the best. Walking lunges don’t really fit many purposes other than being hard. While that may make the workout feel effective that doesn’t mean that it was any more beneficial from something else. A far better idea at this point is to remove some of the base of stability. Remember when I said the lunge was a transitional exercise? Well, now is the time to start transitioning to single leg work via an exercise called the rear foot elevated split squat, or more popularly known as the Bulgarian squat. As the name says the rear foot is raised during the performance of this exercise placing more stress on the front leg.

The final step is to fully transition to a single leg squat with the non-working leg behind. This is known as a shrimp squat although another name – the airborne lunge – makes more sense.

Now we’ve talked about all the exercise progressions we need to add on load progressions because with the nature of this exercise it’s possible to load it in a variety of ways. Following are the ways you can load each one, from easiest to hardest:

No load
Double suitcase (ie weight in both hands with arms straight and hands at hips).
Double rack (this can be achieved with kettlebells or a barbell, with kettlebells being harder).
Single suitcase (placed on the opposite side to the front leg. ie if left leg is forwards the weight will be in the right hand).
Single rack (again, with weight held contralaterally).

For people who don’t believe that last bit – take the weight you normally use for a double suitcase position Bulgarian squat and place it in one hand on the opposite side to the working leg. If you’re doing Bulgarian squats with 2 x 20kg kettlebells and suddenly hold 40kg in the rack you’re going to be extremely challenged.

Try it for three months progressing through all the options, developing control and strength, and see how your body feels as well as how your performance goes. I will bet you don’t even notice that you’re no longer doing squats or deadlifts. The thing you will notice will be improved stability in various sporting situations, less back and knee pain, and better core stability.

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The Right Question - keys of progress to lifting after 40.

In the fitness world most people seem overly focused on one thing:

What the exercise plan consists of.

Nearly every single question I see comes down to sets/ reps/ exercises. It’s a shame that those elements make the least difference in changing someone’s health and fitness, especially for those of us past 40.

The number of click bait articles I see aimed at a crowd who should know better is ridiculous. “Top six ab exercises for over 40s”, “The 4 best leg exercises for older athletes”, and “The 4 best tabata workouts for over 40s” are all horrible ideas.

The trap of the fitness industry is this – we want to sell you exercises because we have entire gyms filled with expensive equipment. If we make you believe that this weird contraption over here does something you can’t replicate at home then we have you halfway signed up. If we make you believe that you can’t get in shape without this battery of expensive cardio machines then we’ve got you.

Not only do we want you to believe in the need for our fancy equipment we need you to believe that we have a secret workout plan that will melt your fat away in 3 x 30min sessions you can at home (and then fold away the equipment under your bed). We’re going to lie and swindle you out of your money because this thing right here in my hand is the secret, the magic beans, the answer to all that ails you. No one else could provide you with this because no one else has my magic beans. And only someone new who no one has ever heard of could have those magic beans because if the experienced ones had the magic beans they’d have worked for me by now.

But it’s all a lie. And you, dear consumer, have not only been duped for decades but you’ve allowed it to happen. Instead of searching for people with a proven history of success you’ve held onto your hope that this time, finally, you’ve found the secret. Except we all know that there are no secrets. Most people’s fitness hopes are the equivalent of buying a Powerball ticket every week. Yes, it is possible to hit the jackpot. People certainly do. Except the odds of winning Powerball in Australia work out to be about 1 winning ticket every 7500 years (provided you buy 50 games weekly, 50 weeks a year). So you have a chance to win once every 1000 lifetimes.

And that’s how it is with fitness. People making desperate plays in the hopes of somehow getting that winning ticket this time.

So let’s fix that.

I don’t like to make assumptions based on feelings or fads. I make my plans based off numbers. Cold, hard, undeniable fact. So let’s look at some facts:

1) Most First World countries share an alarming trait – roughly 70% of the adult population is overweight or obese. It’s 1-2% different from country to country but the UK, Australia, Canada, and the USA all share a figure that is roughly the same. That means that the single most important thing anyone should be focused on is diet, not training.

Believe it or not the reason for this is simple – it has nothing to do with aesthetics. It has to do with heart attacks and the other 3 leading causes of death. The first 4 of the leading causes of death can all be controlled via diet and exercise, with diet being more important as being overweight is a major factor in poor health.

I’m sure this comes as no surprise to all the mature readers but you can’t get away with the poor habits from your 20s and 30s. No more weekend long binges. No more junk food daily. It just doesn’t work anymore if you want to stay at a healthy bodyweight. How many of you reading this have felt like you were working hard in the gym but it’s not even obvious? You catch up with a friend and they don’t even say, “you look great, are you working out?”  Perhaps it’s time to start working just as hard in the kitchen and getting rid of your childish poor habits?

For a mature trainee, let me ask – if you are what you eat, why would you choose to be cheap, fatty, and unhealthy?

2) Given most people, even ones who work hard at their fitness, won’t train for much more than an hour a day 6 days a week, is it really the exercise that has the most impact on health or is it the rest of your lifestyle that makes up the remaining 162 hours?

If you want to be fit and healthy then you need to adopt the habits of people who are healthy and fit. Those habits do not include daily junk food, daily alcohol, or late nights. They include water, lean proteins, salads, early bed times, limited screen time, and ample quiet time to destress. These are not once a day things. These are every day things.

Like the Powerball ticket idea when it comes to training we can apply the same here – those who binge drink (classified as more than 5 drinks for men and 4 for women), eat junk daily, and rarely perform exercise are the ones you will find going on sudden “detox diets” in the hopes of magically fixing in a few days damage caused over months or years. Contrast that to the lifelong healthy lifestyle of someone gave up all their self-destructive childish habits and figure out which one do you think will live a longer, healthier life?

3) Before we worry about sets, reps, and how much weight to lift in the gym the first and most important muscle to work is the heart. Again, heart attack is the number one cause of death in over 44s for both genders not having a weak deadlift. While strength training is important for a variety of reasons it comes in a very distant second place to training that makes the heart strong and healthy.

Any trainer who isn’t targeting your heart in this three-pronged manner of diet, healthy lifestyle, and cardio training is doing you a great disservice.

So instead of asking your trainer about whether he uses kettlebells or barbells ask him what kind of diet he wants you to follow. Ask his recommendations to clean up your lifestyle. Ask him about his understanding of cardiovascular training and health. Only once you have those nailed down should you even worry about the magic beans of the actual training program.

For anyone wanting to fix these issues once and for all – to finally not just feel good but look good too – you should consider the entry programs available on this site. For men, the 28 Day Challenge is unmatched for the results it gives. For women the 12 Week Challenge is the only women’s training plan that doesn’t just address the above issues but honours the fact that your hormone levels and body composition are very different to men’s and require a different approach (which is why the Women’s Challenge is 12 weeks and not 4). Don’t be fooled by the term “entry programs”. It has taken me nearly 30 years of experience to be able to create and deliver these programs in such a concise and actionable format. Many very experienced mature aged trainees make incredible progress on these plans because they actually address the most important factors and don’t allow people to try to fake their way to health and fitness.

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Spicy Tuna Burgers

One of my favourite recipes…

Ingredients:
For the tuna cakes:

3 cans of chunk light tuna (in water)
½ cup white onion, chopped (you can substitute these for 3 green onions too, or, as I do, simply use /12 white onion)
1½ tbsp. Cajun seasoning
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes 2 egg whites
½ cup old-fashioned oats (can substitute w/ panko – this is the best option for binding) 1 tsp. hot sauce (Sriracha is the best)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper

For the sauce:
For the sauce, you can use a store-bought remoulade. Just make sure to pay attention to the serving size (in this case, it was 1 tbsp./serving). Sauces can quickly add more calories than you think – in addition to sodium – so it’s best to measure them out.
Directions:
1. Open cans of tuna. Place in a strainer and with a fork press some of the liquid out.
2. In a medium bowl, combine tuna and remaining 8 ingredients and mix well.
3. Form mixture into 6 equal patties.
4. Place in the fridge for about an hour so they can set up.
5. Using a large skillet, spray with cooking spray and cook tuna cakes over medium heat about 3 to 4 minutes on each side (you just want them to be golden brown).
Serve with sauce on top or on the side.
Nutritional Information:
Calories: 200
Fat: 1 g
Carbs: 14 g
Protein: 30 g
Serving Size: 2 cakes Servings: 3

Some notes:

You can use 2 eggs instead of egg whites and it’ll hold together better. It’ll change the macro information slightly though.

Cook off the onion first. For details on how to dice onion go here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCGS067s0zo

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Real World Conditioning

It’s good to be strong. It’s good to be fit. It’s awesome to be both. Most workout plans are really good at one or the other – either size and strength or fitness. Very few deliver on both.

The reasons are actually pretty simple – people think of “fitness” in a single way. It either means something like a MetCon type workout or maybe some prowler pushes for conditioning, or it means mindlessly slaving away at low intensity for hours on an elliptical machine for cardiovascular fitness. But there’s actually four different types of work required to get both a big gas tank and a big engine. And, if we want to really be strong, fast, and durable we need legs that can withstand any and all punishment.

Let’s quickly look at the different energy systems and what they do:

ATP/ CP system – max power output is approximately six seconds. Think an all-out sprint or 1RM. That’s the ATP system in action. Because ATP replenishment is slow – roughly 3 minutes for full replenishment – these sessions feature short periods of near maximal output and lonmg rest periods.

Glycolytic system – 20 – 40 seconds. The glycolytic system is the one that makes the muscles burn and is represented by a 400m all out run. A lot of training ends up using this training zone but gains here are very hard won and limited. This is mindless but fun sweating that often doesn’t produce an improvement in line with the effort put in.

The aerobic system – contributes more and more to total energy from about 75 seconds onwards. Even for events as short as a 2000m row, which is completed in around 7 minutes by most males, is 87% aerobic. [1] In other words, if you want true all day fitness you’re going to need a strong aerobic system. I’ve seen plenty of WOD monsters who can crush short 20 minute workouts be ruined by having to repeatedly put out all day long during selection type events.

Now we’ve covered how your body makes energy there is a fourth factor to take into account – muscular endurance. There are plenty of people who tell you that maximal strength work in low rep ranges will give you better efficiency. The problem is that for some tests, like a military push up test, a higher bench press won’t translate into greater push up numbers. Having a big squat also won’t help you pack march 20km either. You’re actually going to have to develop some local muscular endurance, which means some higher rep training. Having said that, I’ve also seen too many great runners who can go all day but fall to pieces when they have to carry something heavy. Muscular endurance is better termed strength endurance and it bears remembering that you first need some strength before you worry about the endurance part of that equation.

The main factors to consider:

We want to avoid the ugly middle ground as much as possible.
For legs that can truly tackle all tests we need a combination of power, strength, and strength endurance.
There still needs to be longer, low intensity, steady state work that teaches the body how to be strong and durable, helps us recover, and builds that big gas tank.

It may seem at this point that you should just add more intensity more often to get the desired result. However, the opposite is true, especially for athletes concerned about maintaining muscle mass. An all HIIT routine led to a 3.7% drop in body mass (and this was in elite endurance athletes who don’t have a huge amount of extra muscle to begin with).[2] What they found was that in a single week of six sessions the training time for best results were broken down like this:

2 x 60min HIIT sessions.
2 x 150-240min low intensity sessions (that included 6-8 5s maximal sprints).
2 x 90min low intensity sessions. (<80% max heart rate).
If you add all that up what you get is about 22% of the week being HIIT and 78% lower intensity. The down side is that while this training was effective for increasing VO2max and time to exhaustion I’m also sure that most people don’t have 11 hours per week to focus solely on the various elements of energy systems work without taking into account the strength endurance protocol.

So how do you create a plan that provides for this?

The easiest way to get the low-level work in is walking. Not loaded walking like with a pack. Just walking. A recent study by Song et al found that, “A short walk in a forest can have significant physiological and psychological effects on middle-aged hypertensive individuals. Compared with walking in the urban environment, walking in the forest environment significantly increased parasympathetic nerve activity and significantly decreased heart rate. These results are consistent with those from previous studies that examined physiological responses to a forest environment in young adults. HRV responses are often detected during relaxed states such as during rest, a massage, or after performing yoga. Therefore, we concluded that participants who walked in the forest were in a physiologically relaxed state.”[3]

Why is this so important? Because high intensity training can burn you out mentally and physically quickly. In the original Tabata study all participants said they wouldn’t repeat the protocol because it was so draining. Given it only lasted six weeks and our plan needs to be one we can use for years we need something that is more sustainable. Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson’s legendary sprint coach, had this to say about CNS fatigue, “CNS overtraining is caused by high intensity work occurring too frequently in the training cycle, in too high a volume in a single training session, or by the attempt to introduce high intensity work too rapidly into the program when residual fatigue still exists. Symptoms of CNS fatigue include loss of performance or technique, frequent cramps, involuntary trembling or shaking of the muscles after a workout, flickering eyelids, loss of concentration, sleeplessness, and general malaise”. So we probably want to avoid that.

The reason why the low intensity work features so prominently in these plans is because it has a calming effect on the nervous system. The best way to think about HIIT style training is that it represents the icing on the cake. Low intensity work is the cake. If you really want a great end product you better make sure you have some cake to put your icing on.

So goal one of the program is a daily 30 minute walk, five days a week. On the 6th and 7th days, when you presumably have more free time and flexibility a longer one-hour walk is required. That gets us four and a half hours of low intensity work per week, which means we can spend between 50 and 60 minutes each week on our anaerobic and strength endurance work. I can’t stress enough that the walking is the most important part of this entire program. Without it the high intensity work may be too much and you’ll soon find yourself sick or injured.

The following sample program gives an idea on how to set up the time each week as best as possible for maximum return. The conditioning protocol used hits the entire body extremely effectively – you’re likely going to find muscles, particularly around your abs, that you haven’t ever felt. I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve had clients suffer extreme muscle soreness for days the first times they’ve used these protocols.

Because the repeat sprint protocol is so hard on the body, and the primary source of running injuries is a body not prepared for the length, frequency, or speed of a session you should follow the following 4-week break in plan to running:

Sprint length – 50m.
Frequency – two times per week.
Rest – 3mins between sprints.
Sets – 10

Week 1 – 30m
Week 2 – 25m
Week 3 – 20m
Week 4 – —

Rather than try to start from zero and hit maximum speed straight away in week 1 you’ll smoothly accelerate up to top speed over 30m and run the last 20m hard. In week 2 you’ll accelerate a bit harder and build up to top speed over 25m before finishing hard over the remaining 25m. In week 3 it’ll get a bit faster still and you’ll be at top speed within 20m and then blast the final 30m flat out. In the 4th week you go as hard as you can right from the start for each sprint.

Workout plan:

To make the body strong enough to withstand both the rigours of running as well as make it truly strong and fit, our training plan needs to cover multiple fitness qualities. To cover multiple fitness qualities in a single week means that a conjugate training template is needed. The short version of this is that we want to cover speed/ power, max strength, and strength endurance, in that order, in a single week. They are placed in that order because as fatigue mounts up the ability to work with true power decreases so it makes sense for speed and loads to decrease as the week progresses before a rest on the weekend to rejuvenate.

After every sprint strength session perform 150-200 reps of abdominal work. I suggest picking 5 exercises you like and working through 3-4 sets of 10 for each in circuit fashion. Given the size and strength of the spinal erectors it is critical that abdominal strength be developed and maintained at a level that allows effective counter-balancing of spinal erector strength.

There is a caveat to this type of work – you can’t begin this plan until you’ve gone past the beginner stage for conditioning. The beginner phase is two years of 300+ hours annually of low intensity endurance work. That’s 6 hours a week for 50 weeks a year for 2 years to get past the beginner stage. If you are sitting there thinking that perhaps you’ll never get to this workout then you are right – this is not a beginner workout and most people are absolute beginners when it comes to conditioning work. You don’t walk in the gym and start trying to lift as heavy as possible on day one and you don’t earn sprint conditioning on day one either. Spend the time to build the base. You may find, as most of my clients do, that they don’t really need anything beyond the base layer anyway. I have only a handful of clients now who are ready for this type of work and they have been with me for years. If you attempt this without having built the base adequately you will get hurt, or your fitness will actually go backwards.

 

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19707782

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3912323/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4377926/

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The A Game

Recently on social media I saw a post by Craig Liebenson, a well known clinician, regarding comments made by Mike Boyle, a well known strength coach. The summary of Boyle’s comments are that more people should train at a higher intensity. His argument is that most people have never trained hard enough and that they’re wasting their time on lower intensity work.

This is absolutely untrue and anyone who has actually spent a lot of time training people will know why. I know Mike has a great history with college athletes but as his business and reputation has grown he has moved from college strength coach to PT business owner. I doubt very much he is getting up at 5am to be there for his 6am members and run them through their workouts. In other words, like many training gurus online, he is out of touch.

Many people train for many different reasons. Perhaps the most common is aesthetics/ weight loss with performance in a recreational activity somewhere in the mix. However, if we’re being honest with ourselves the most important reason anyone enters a gym is health. To be healthier so that they can live a longer and more fulfilled life. To see their kids and grand kids grow up and to be a good role model for them. Health comes first. If you don’t believe me, try training for a marathon with a broken leg. You need to be healthy before you can worry about anything else.

If I could speak to the trainers in the room for a moment – you want your clients to get the best possible result right? Because you know that if you give them both what they want and what they need you’ll have a client long term. Here’s the thing… 70% of adults are overweight or obese. Of children aged under 19, 60% are expected to be overweight or obese by the time they reach 19. It has become common for people to be well beyond a normal BMI range.

And that’s the thing about common. We begin to call common normal. They are two very different things. 70% of adults being overweight is common. It is not normal. Science has spent a great deal of time figuring out what is and isn’t normal for the human body and we have mountains of research on millions of people that points to a rough size and shape that we should all be. However, as portion sizes have grown and snack foods have become more palatable and harder to resist then it has become more and more common to see people massively overweight.

So if we’re being honest as fitness professionals the most important thing we can offer someone is not higher intensity training. It’s fat loss. Because obesity is a leading cause of death. Not only are the high blood pressures and high cholesterol counts that come with it deadly but being obese has also been linked to 11 different types of cancer. If you’re not addressing this with your customers, turning a blind eye to the obese elephant in the room, you are doing them a tremendous disservice. The number one service we should be aiming to provide is how to exercise and eat consistently to ensure a healthy BMI is reached and maintained.

In weight training, higher intensity means one thing – heavier weights. Heavier weights need to be lifted with a thing called the valsalva technique. It is a natural breath holding mechanism we have to stiffen the core and allow us to lift heavy things more safely. Do you know what holding your breath does for your blood pressure? It sends it through the roof. If you’ve already got high blood pressure you may as well start each set by playing a round of Russian Roulette if your training involves heavy loads and breath holding. Sooner or later those odds won’t be in your favour and you’ll have a stroke.

Looking at the top three leading causes of death – heart and circulatory disorders, cancer, and respiratory disorders – I hope it’s easy to see a theme where exercise may be concerned. The heart and lungs are easily trainable through cardiac output training, which looks nothing like higher intensity weight training. Cardiac output training is usually set at 30-90 minutes at 120-150bpm, which are levels that are easily met by just about everyone. For people who are fans like I am of the Maffetone method you’ll see that MAF sits pretty comfortably within that range for most people. While the link between the heart and lungs is easily recognised when it comes to cardiac output training it may seem that cancer is the odd man out. As I said before, being overweight has been linked to 11 different types of cancer. These include breast (post-menopause), bowel, kidney, liver, endometrial, ovarian, stomach, oesophagus, gallbladder, pancreas and prostate (advanced) cancers.

In the fitness industry these days it’s all the rage to push higher intensity sessions, particularly if you offer those on a reduced time frame. It’s far more common to see people advertising 3 x 30 minute sessions of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) than it is to advocate walking for an hour a day. I get it – people don’t like to exercise and are time poor so many fitness businesses would rather lie to you than try to sell you something they know is more effective. And, doesn’t it sound more reasonable that if you work harder more often than not you’ll be in better shape?

Actually, the converse is true. As it turns out there is no real gain to be had beating yourself senseless week after week. As it turns out far greater gains in fitness can be had by doing easier sessions than harder ones. This scientist, Seilor, did some studies on a lot of athletes over a period of decades and what he found may surprise you. He found that the best athletes in the world spent roughly 80% of their training time below 70% intensity. The remaining 20% they did indeed work hard but as total volume went up, and more and more time was spent at these lower intensities of 70% and below, their results improved. Training volume was dictated by sport more than by anything else with runners having the lowest total training hours per year and cyclists and rowers at the high end, with swimming in between. (That’s quite normal as running is far more stressful on the body than cycling or rowing so it’s not that the athletes don’t want to train more it’s that they can’t as their recovery needs are higher).

At higher heart rates the heart never is never able to fully fill before it is forced to pump blood around the body again. That’s a problem when it comes to developing a bigger, stronger pump. To force the heart to become bigger it needs to hold as much blood as possible for an extended period so that the tissue adapts. Only at these slightly lower intensities in the 120-150bpm range does this happen. Higher intensities do not see this adaptation take place. Nor, interestingly, is it possible from strength training despite the rise in heart rate during training.

At this point people will say that strength training is different in how it forces change in the body and that higher intensities are needed. Well, it’s not. We have one CNS and it responds to stress the same way regardless of whether you go for a run, lift some weights, or fight off a tiger. When your body is stressed all it cares about is survival – that’s why it’s called fight or flight mode. We only improve physically – whether that be dropping body fat, running faster, or lifting more weight – when we are in the rest and digest side of the nervous system. And Russian research on lifting shows this to be true as well with elite lifters averaging 72% intensity year round. So again, regardless of whether we’re talking about strength or fitness this 70% number seems to crop up an awful lot.

So that’s for elite athletes, but what did his research say about recreational athletes like you and me?

Interestingly enough there aren’t many studies done on recreational athletes. But a recent one by Esteve-Lanao showed that recreational runners performing 4-5 sessions per week and totaling 6-10 hours of work benefit with the same polarised training effect as elites do seeing an improvement in their 10km run times at the 7 and 11 week marks. I mention this because what normally happens at this point is that people hawking HIIT will suggest that people don’t have 15+ hours per week to train like an elite athlete and that HIIT is a far better way to get the best bang for the buck in terms of training. That is completely untrue as the science shows.

And where does this leave something like walking – the lowest intensity activity you can do and still call it exercise? As it turns out walking has a lot of good stuff attached to it, and features heavily in my 28 Day Challenge as a corner stone of health based training. Recently, this article here described what happened to a man who spent a month walking all day long. He spent 29 days walking 486 miles along the Colorado Trail. The end results are quite interesting. The summary:

  • Body fat dropped from a healthy 13% to an amazing 5%.
  • Resting heart rate dropped from 48bpm to 40bpm.
  • Blood sugar dropped back to within normal ranges, cortisol decreased, testosterone doubled.
  • He went from burning 66% fat/ 34% carbs at 110bpm to 91% fat/ 9% carbs. At 145bpm he went from 52% fat/ 48% carbs to 70% fat/ 30% carbs. His lactate threshold went from 153bpm to 168bpm.

What does all this mean? Well, he lost body fat and increased performance massively solely by walking for 8-10 hours a day. As an older guy I would love to double my testosterone production while simultaneously nearly halving my cortisol production and body fat.

Here’s the thing about lower intensity training that all the salesmen who are out of touch miss – it’s healthy for you. Higher intensity training raises cortisol. That’s one of the markers typically associated with being stressed. If you’re in your 40s or beyond, with kids, a stressful job, and you’re like 70% of the world and you’re overweight, guess what…? You’re already stressed. The body can only ever adapt to so much stress at once and if you’re up to the eyeballs in stress your chance of increasing fitness is zero. The best thing you can do for yourself is to remove stress and lower intensity training does this. It’s not uncommon for guys in the 28 Day Challenge to drop 4-5kg in a month because of a focus on correct eating and stress reduction. The training is actually incredibly easy – because the focus is on stress reduction so the body can adapt. We make zero effort during the Challenge to stress the body more. Suggesting that an overweight, stressed out, father of three, who is the sole bread winner should come to the gym and smash himself with higher intensity may as well be suggesting that the best thing for him is to let a pro boxer beat his brains out. What he needs is a figurative fitness hug so his body can drop some of that stress and actually adapt to training. In general, in today’s world, people need stress reduction in their training, not stress addition.

If we’re all being really honest with ourselves in this health first training paradigm then what we should also be admitting is that we want daily activity, not sporadic activity. There are plenty of studies that show 10,000 daily steps to be a cut point for health and weight control. There are likewise many studies to show that daily activity is far healthier than sporadic 2-3 times a week hard gym sessions. Again, in the fitness industry there is a split between trying to advise people what is best and what is easy to sell. Many sadly choose the latter, although probably have far less money stress than I do. I doubt the guy who invented P90X worries about money.

The reality is that if you asked a trainer which they’d prefer – a client who trains 2-3 times per week or one who does something every day, I know what their answer will be. Only a fool, or someone with something to sell, would ever tell you that less is better. And the way exercise works is that we adapt to it. One of those adaptations is decreased muscle soreness. So my guy who does something every day will actually suffer less muscle soreness than the person who trains intermittently. Watching people at this time of year try to make change in the gym it is easy to see how discouraging muscle soreness can be to the untrained. I would rather have a client finish a workout and have zero muscle soreness so they could come back the next day than be so sore they need to take a few days off to walk normally again. Because at the end of the day my client who trains 6 times per week will have 300 hours of exercise at the end of the year. Meanwhile your client doing HIIT is going to have 100-150 hours. And who do you think is going to be in better shape? And forget just the first year. As I tell the guys in my 28 Day Challenge it’s not about this month or even this year. This is a game we’re playing for the next 40 years.

So who is in better shape at 60? If we say they start worrying about their health at 40, they’ll accumulate 20 years of training. My guy has 6000 hours of health and fitness activity. Your HIIT guy has 3000. My guy is literally twice as fit and conditioned as your guy despite never having to been destroyed in the gym – as if he has another 20 years of training on top of what your guy has accomplished. Let that sink in – in the same period of time I gave him an extra 20 years of training in comparison. I have gradually, and easily, over time gently nudged my guy’s fitness ever forwards. Meanwhile you’ve savaged him with beating after beating to try to get him there, knowing all along that it is a fruitless endeavor, because volume trumps all eventually.

Circling back to cardiovascular training at low intensities and stress we also need to understand that lower intensity aerobic work has a stimulating effect on the nervous system. It removes stress. If we picture our typical client – over 40, overweight, stressed, and needing to change surely we should be picking a training method that will help him fix all that as fast as possible? And lower intensity, high volume and frequency, continuous output aerobic training is it. It will teach the body to more effectively utilise stored fat as a fuel, burn more energy than any other form of training (especially if really overweight as the body is forced to carry a greater load), and lower stress in the body. While strength training is an important part of the overall fitness equation, if I have to pick one gift in the gym for my client I will pick longevity and health always over anything else.

If you’ve skipped to the end hoping for me to sum things up succinctly, here it is:

  1. Most people are stressed and overweight.
  2. Leading causes of death are more likely influenced by being overweight and having a weak set of heart and lungs so training should reflect that.
  3. Adding high stress workouts to a system already under pressure won’t make things better in the long term.
  4. Higher intensity isn’t actually the most beneficial form of training – for strength, fat loss, or cardiovascular improvements – and will likely slow down progress at best, or cause eventual injury or a health issue at worst.
  5. A focus on intensity and performance neglects what should be a health first focus.

 

 

 

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Running technique 101

As someone who spends every day watching people move and then trying to get them to do it better I am always amazed at the illogical approach many have to exercise. If I asked someone to make me a three-course meal, who had never cooked before, and told them that all they needed to know was how to turn the oven on I’d be laughed at. But somehow when it comes to exercise many people think that all they need to know is how to tie their shoes up and they should be fine from there on.

And the problem with running is that it is supposed to be a natural, instinctive movement – something we’re all born with. But we’ve got the movement skills of a six-year old.

I can’t count the number of times I have heard people say something similar to, ‘How you run is how you run”. But nothing could be further from the truth. Running well is every bit as technical and detailed as any other form of exercise. From foot placement to hand position to how to breathe there is beauty and artistry in running well. Taking the time to do it well will have a reward just as big as improving your squat technique or pronouncing words correctly in a new language.

But, and there is a big but, there is no evidence at all to show that all these supposed “technique” coaches you can now find are actually doing any good. In fact, there is research that shows that altering a runner’s natural stride and form actually slows them down and makes them less efficient.

Lydiard hinted at this in a famous article featured in Sports Illustrated in 1962 where he said, “Forget about form. If a joker throws his arms around, that’s fine, so long as he is fit and relaxed. Then he runs smoother and easier, and form takes care of itself. We want the chap who can run for two or three hours and come back looking as fresh as he did when he went out”.

The thing that separates the best runners in the world from the rest of us is their ability to hold form while running. This skill is hard won over many years of pavement pounding and is one of the main reasons why you don’t see many great young runners in distance events. But the fact remains that the elite have spent many years perfecting their form just the same way a boxer learns the ins and outs of the fight game. As they’ve developed higher and higher skill levels they display this by racing faster and further.

A good runner is one that has learnt what it takes to go fast. When was the last time you went out the door with the sole intention of figuring out how you run and how to make it better?

Before any discussion can be had on training plans, pacing strategies, or which shoes to buy we need to first look at how to run. It sounds so simple, but trust me, it’s not.

My friend Rob de Castella, a former world champion and world record holder, knows a thing or two about running. During one of our conversations about running he gave me the simplest truth I have yet heard.

“Running is about kicking the earth as hard as you can on each stride”.

The physics is simple – the harder you push the earth, the harder it pushes you back which results in forward motion – Newton’s third law in action. But usually people are so distracted while they run that they may not even have realized this is what is happening. Perhaps they’re tuned out by listening to a favourite track, or they’re looking at the scenery to distract themselves from the pain they’re feeling, or maybe they’re busy thinking about how they need to tackle a problem at work. If I can give you one piece of advice immediately to carry through all your training from now it is to eliminate distractions from your running. Focus on making every step of every run more perfect than the one preceding it. Tune into your body and don’t be distracted by your iPod.

Running form discussions are usually derailed by minutiae. One minute some guy stumbles out of the desert saying he’s just been hanging out with some amazing barefooted Indians who are powered by chia seeds, and the next a Russian guy is talking about energy return, while at the same time there’s a guy in a lab coat telling you that the most important thing is the gravitational effect of Mars on earth’s atmosphere and if you time your running to coincide with the alignment of the planets that you’ll be faster.

The problem with a lot of the commentary on running technique is that most of it is based on personal experience. But in today’s world of information overload all of a sudden we have access to a nearly limitless supply of personal experience, albeit by other people.

But let’s make this as practical and based in science and biology as we can. After all, despite all of us on the planet being different, we share the same biology, so what works for one body will largely work for another.

Underneath the body are the legs. While the mass above the legs is largely non-functional mass in relation to running, the legs need to serve a variety of functions from support to shock absorption to force generation. And during each stride they’re performing all these actions at once. Underneath the legs is the ground, and as we said before, we need that so that we have something to kick against to provide propulsion for us.

Running is best described as a series of one-legged hops done in rapid succession.

Propulsion and lift off: When you push off.

Recovery: When you pick your leg up and extend it.

Impact and braking: When gravity brings you back into contact with the ground and friction halts your forward motion.

While we could break out here and discuss enough scientific research to make your head spin the most important take away is that your legs effectively act like springs throughout your run. “Tread lightly” takes on a whole new meaning when you start to consider the impact these forces have on your performance.

Many running coaches will try to shoe horn you into their idea of universal good form. Given that we are all built slightly differently, and that limb lengths, weight distribution, and even previous injury will change the way we run trying to achieve some textbook ideal for form isn’t going to work. Not only that but it will likely lead to injury.

I’m not sure perfect form exists in relation to running for most of us. With individual discrepancies in limb lengths, heights, and even body composition most of us will never move like an elite runner. Trying to shoe horn your body into someone else’s mechanics can be a fast path to injury. That being said there are some consistencies that hold true for all of us that can be worked on.

The Head. Good posture remains the same regardless of where you are or what you are doing. A neutral spine has a head position that is the same whether you are sitting, standing, or running. If your head is pushed forwards because you spend all day staring at a screen or slumped in a chair you’ll carry that same head position when you run. Because the head is so heavy it needs to be counter balanced somewhere else in the body. What happens is that to counter the weight of your head going forwards you tend to push your butt out behind you. This leads to a break at the hips so that you are never actually standing tall as well as heel striking.

With the head held in a neutral position you should be able to look at the ground at a point about three metres in front of you while simultaneously being able to scan for low branches.

The Shoulders. Good running involves little in the way of upper body rotation. In fact, the entire reason for moving your arms is to counter rotation to keep the upper body still. One of my pet peeves is people trying to run with what looks like military posture. If you try to run ramrod straight you won’t be able to use your arms effectively. The shoulders should round slightly, not enough to cause rounding of the upper back, but enough that the arms can swing freely.

The Back. While the back shouldn’t be held ramrod straight, as if you are a soldier standing at attention, it shouldn’t have excessive curve to it. An excessively curved back is a sign that some strengthening is needed to maintain posture while running. Without good posture you won’t be able to effectively counter all the forces created while running.

The Arms. The arms should hang in a relaxed manner from the shoulders. It’s all too common to see runners with their shoulders shrugged up near their ears and wonder why they unduly fatigue when running. The goal of running is relaxed economy and the arms play a big role in that. In distance running the arms swing from a point just outside the body to a point almost in the centre of your body, in line with the bottom of your sternum. As one of my triathlon coaches once said to me you should think of flicking your nipples as you run. As you speed up the arms will move in a straighter line so that they travel more parallel to the hip instead of this slight cross-body action.

The arm action itself is not one of pushing the arms forward, but pulling back and letting it relax on the way forward. It is the elbow drive backwards that pulls the opposite knee up and forward, so focus on elbow drive backwards, rather than on arm swing forwards.

The arms themselves will be held at about a ninety-degree angle at the elbow on the backswing. As the arm swings forward this will close. The main thing to remember is to stay tight and compact without wild swinging motions of the arms that waste energy.

The Hands. The hands should be loosely clenched as if holding a small stick in each hand. One well-known triathlon coach, Brett Sutton, even makes his athletes run with M&M containers in their hands to enforce this. They are easily spotted even years after moving on from him as they all run with imaginary M&M containers in their hands with thumbs suspended midair over where the top of the container would be.

The Wrists. Every time your wrist bends or the hand flops around you are wasting energy. Like with the back we don’t want joints held rigidly but there needs to be some firmness. Think of making the body like a young tree branch – springy and bendy, yet firm enough to give structure. If, on the other hand, we make the joints rigid and hard like an old branch, we become stiff and inflexible, unable to generate the kind of bounce needed to run well.

The Pelvis. Many people spend their days in what is called anterior pelvic tilt – that is with the pelvis rotated forward. While this may be your natural stance it is not ideal for running. This position is often due to overly tight hip flexors. This over tightness needs to be addressed otherwise the thigh is not free to extend backwards on each stride. For many people slightly rotating the pelvis forward will simply bring them back into neutral. A good test for this is that if you push your hips as far back behind you as you can (imagine Beyonce twerking to get this position) you’ll feel your abs are disengaged. If you begin to pull your hips towards your rib cage you’ll feel your abs start to engage. At the point where your abs are lightly activated you are now in a good position to run where the leg can swing freely underneath the body. The pelvis and the back must be working together to allow you to “run tall”.

The Legs and Feet. Before we discuss how the legs and feet operate we need to differentiate between “ground contact” and “landing”. Merely having your foot on the ground doesn’t equal having all your weight on it.

Percy Cerutty believed that running should be a free and uncomplicated movement. Work on relaxation before you worry about speed or distance – think easy, light, and smooth. We’ll get to fast eventually, but to start with let’s work on those three. One of the biggest benefits of running slowly is having the mental space to work on the dynamic relaxation required for running. If you can’t run relaxed and economically at 6min/ km you certainly won’t do it at 5min/ km or 4min/km.

So where do we begin? Tony Benson has this to say:

“First we need to practice getting the landing right. Start by jogging on the spot and feeling the natural landing position. As long as you keep your body vertical you will stay on the spot. If you want to move forward simply push your butt forward (don’t arch your back) so you are leaning from the heel not the waist and you will move forward (actually you will accelerate forward) naturally. Now find a straight line (i.e. as on a track) and start running along it. Have someone check your landing. Your right foot should cover half the line when it lands and your left should also cover half the line on landing. If your feet are not landing in this way or your heel is ok but your toes are pointing out you are not landing under your centre of mass. If you are landing in this way the outer edge of the foot will make contact first because the foot has a natural tendency to hang that way when relaxed while the backward pulling action will automatically align the foot into the correct position. The landing will also be relatively light because the foot is not landing all at once.

If you are landing correctly the foot, lower leg and thigh will have been swept backwards at the time of landing because if your landing is not active the heel will hit first and the braking effects that accompany a full heel landing will occur.

To be successful in achieving a correct landing position you will need to develop the power to be capable of applying a millisecond of downward force as the lead arm is pulled backwards. The corresponding downward drive of your opposite leg then causes your body to rise. This means your foot has more time to swing back into a position directly under your body.

Landing under your body means your foot spends less time on the ground than if you land on your heel with the foot out in front of your body because you do not spend unnecessary time pulling your body forward to get into a position to push off into the next stride. More importantly if you have ever been told to “lift your knees up” or to “run tall” ignore these poorly stated directives because, as per Newton’s law, to focus on lifting the legs will cause the hips and indeed the whole upper body to drop”.

Running is every bit as technical as any other activity you can find. It is not a matter of lacing your shoes up, sticking your head phones in and tuning out the rest of the world while you mindlessly plod around the streets.

Make an effort to make every step better than the one before it. Focus on posture, breathing, hand position, how you carry your arms, footfall, and most of all turnover. Your goal as a runner is to keep the body as a stiff spring to make it an efficient energy return device. A large part of that is a high cadence of around 180 steps per minute as it gives you an increase in stiffness for no extra physical training. There is nothing else you can do that can make you 100% better at running instantly. There are many free metronome apps available for phones these days. I suggest downloading one so you can use it in training to monitor your cadence. It is free speed and injury resistance.
Spend some time focusing on not how fast you run but how well. Make every step better than the one before it. The increase in economy will help you run faster for longer than before.

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Body fat facts for over 40 men

The world has changed. In particular, it’s gotten an awful lot fatter. Australia is now 70% overweight.

Let that sink in for a moment. 7 out of 10 people in this country are now overweight. In fact, it’s become so common that we no longer even recognise what someone should look like versus what they do look like.

Now, we’re all men in here so let me give you a few home truths… Do you want to know what happens when you get overweight?

Firstly, as you add visceral fat (that’s the fat around your organs, not just on your belly) you increase your risk of diabetes, and hypertension. Just so you know, for Aussie men diabetes is one of the top ten killers so we probably want to avoid that if we can. Hypertension is linked to a few of the other top ten so it would be good to avoid that too. This is why your doctor freaks out when your blood pressure is too high – because it leads to things that can kill you.

But it’s not just an increased risk of these things that creates a problem. It also leads to this thing called metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is the name given to the combination of visceral fat, low muscle mass, hypertension, diabetes, and insulin resistance. And metabolic syndrome is linked to low testosterone levels.

Why would you want high testosterone levels? Well, because the following are linked to low testosterone levels:

  • Erectile dysfunction and lowered sex drive
  • Fatigue
  • Back Pain
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • High cholesterol
  • Lowered sperm count
  • Man boobs
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Lack of motivation
  • Insomnia

And all this just from having been overweight.

I’m not going to suggest that every single guy who is overweight has low testosterone levels but given there is already a decline from age 35 onwards it’s a safe bet to say that if you’re in your forties and overweight there may not be much lead in your pencil. And I don’t know about you but I’d really like to still be able to get busy between the sheets for as long as I can.

So let’s call a spade a spade. Go here and check out recommended weight ranges for your gender and height. If you want to add another layer of detail to your findings you should also have a waist measurement under 94cm. (I’m going to add as reference that at 186cm/ 88kg my waist measurement is 86cm and my BMI is 25.4. Last time I had my bodyfat levels measured they were 11% but that could be up or down 1-2% currently).

If you fall outside of those ranges there is a fair chance you will also have low testosterone levels.

So what do you do about this…?

The first step is to lose some goddam weight. Just because everyone around you has accepted being overweight doesn’t mean you have to. Losing weight not only will help you look better but it’ll make you feel better too from inside out. I’m not talking about shallow vanity, although there is nothing wrong with that, but instead I am talking about sleeping better and being a more active partner because you suddenly feel like a younger man again.

How to get started on this path?

Exercise and diet are the two most important tools in your arsenal. If training is the spark that ignites fat loss then diet is the fuel that keeps it burning hot. It is possible to lose some weight with hard training and a poor diet but those gains will be small and short-lived. For long-term, sustained weight loss, as well as a healthy lifestyle, you need both.

Given that diet is the number one issue people face I’ll share with you the guidelines we use with our own clients based off Precision Nutrition’s system.

  • Eat four good meals a day
  • Eat protein with every meal
  • Eat vegetables and/ or fruit with every meal
  • Carbohydrates only after training
  • Drink zero calorie beverages
  • Eat healthy fats
  • Eat from a wide variety of sources
  • Eat whole foods, not supplements
  • Be prepared
  • Break the rules 10% of the time

It’s still possible to eat too much like this, so how much should you eat? As a good rule of thumb take your weight in pounds and multiply it by 12-14 for a baseline number. Use 12 as the multiplier if you have a sedentary job and don’t do much physical activity and use 14 if you’re a bricklayer who does BJJ four times a week. As an example:

I weigh 88kg (193lb). And I’d say I’m active but my job is still mostly not doing much other than watching people exercise. So I’ll use 13 as my multiplier. That gives me 2500 calories a day as my base number. But that’s to stay where I am right now. If I want to lose weight I need to eat a little less and move a little more. I suggest a 10% reduction in your base number to allow for a slight energy deficit and force some relatively painless fat loss. That gives me a 2250 calorie ceiling each day.

What’s that look like for food? Here’s a recent day where I ate slightly over at 2330:

  • Breakfast 3 eggs and 2 pieces of bacon
  • 180g of fillet steak and a small handful of almonds
  • 180g mince meat and 2 pieces of bacon
  • Protein shake made with mixed berries and water and a small handful of almonds
  • 150g chicken thighs, 2 cups mixed vegetables, cooked in 1 table spoon of coconut oil

This was obviously a very low carbohydrate day as I didn’t have an opportunity to train that day so avoided them as much as possible as per the rules above. But you can’t argue that I didn’t eat much food despite deliberately restricting my intake.

Here’s another day with a few more carbs in it to fuel training. This day was only 1940 calories so I was a fair bit under for the day:

  • 3 eggs and 2 pieces of bacon
  • Protein shake with mixed berries and 1 banana
  • 150g chicken with 2 cups of salad
  • Protein shake with mixed berries and a small handful of almonds
  • 150g chicken, 1/2 cup cooked basmati rice, 2 cups mixed vegetables

Again, you’d be hard pressed to argue I didn’t eat enough despite not even cracking 2000 calories for the day. And this was on a day I trained twice – one BJJ session for 90 minutes and a second 40-minute long cardio session.

The message here is clear:

Low testosterone sucks and it’s a byproduct of being overweight. If you want to be one of the rare 3 out of 10 still able to service your partner for a long time then drop some fat. The best way to do that is with a combination of a solid diet plan like outlined above and via a combination of both resistance and aerobic training methods. If you’ve been overweight for a while this won’t be a short journey. I had a client who took nearly a year to shift 40kg of fat. But slowly slowly, week by week, he lost a little more and then a little more. He stuck to the plan. He stayed active. And now he’s a better dad, partner, and has done some things that only a few years ago he never thought he’d be able to do. He’s loving life and his partner is loving the new him.

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The number one fitness activity for over 40s

Man has spent centuries on packaging the world into a neat space with a roof, lights, and climate control. We tell ourselves that we are advanced, evolved beings because of this. But we’ve got it wrong.

The modern fitness world has spent billions of dollars developing machines and advertising these to you in order to keep you fit and healthy. But they’ve got it wrong too.

After sleep and food, which is in the next chapter, walking is the single most beneficial thing you can do for yourself.

A twelve-year study in1998 by Hakim et al found that men who walked less than a mile per day died at a rate double that of those who walked at least two miles per day.

A 2015 study by Zhao et al found that for men without critical diseases found that Walking ?2 hours/day was significantly associated with lower all-cause mortality. For men with critical diseases, walking 1-2 hours/day showed a protective effect on mortality compared with walking <0.5 hours/day.

A ten-year study in 2015 by Dwyer et al showed that increasing your step count to 10,000-steps/ day lowered risk of death by 46%.

A nearly ten-year study in 2013 by Williams and Thompson found some amazing things relating to walking:

Walking slower than 24.19 minutes/ mile (equivalent to 400m during a 6-minute walk test) show the highest risk of death from cardiovascular disease, heart failure, and dementia.

The risk of dementia increases 6.6% with every extra minute per mile. That is to say, that the slower you walk the more likely you are to develop dementia. During their test they found that the slowest walkers had a nearly three times more likely chance of developing dementia than the fastest walkers.

An decrease in min/ mile pace led to a 2.4% greater chance of cardiovascular disease, a 2.8% increase in risk for ischemic heart disease, a 6.5% greater risk for heart disease, and a 6.2% increased risk for hypertensive heart disease.

  •  If you’re not sold on walking yet there’s another factor to consider. Vitamin D is an important hormone in our health. Low levels of Vitamin D can lead to:Depression
  • Increased risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis
  • Muscle aches and weakness
  • Periodontis (bone weakness relating to tooth loss)
  • Birth defects

Vitamin D deficiency has also been found to be highly associated with obesity. That also means that it can be a pre-cursor to diseases that stem from obesity such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

Do you know what the number one source of Vitamin D is? It’s the sun. This is one of those things where modern gyms have almost got things right but then failed right when it counts. They provide a way for you to increase your walking daily by having treadmills available but they’re inside and under a bunch of fluorescent lights that don’t help you get any Vitamin D. While I understand that sometimes a treadmill is useful – like if it’s cold, dark, snowing, or possibly unsafe to walk the streets – then it’s a great way to add some walking to your day. However, if it’s not cold, dark, snowing, or unsafe it’s probably bet to just walk outside so we can maximize the benefits and absorb as much Vitamin D as possible.

But the benefits of walking don’t just stop with Vitamin D and mortality rates. On a short-term basis walking can help to counter regular daily stress. When paired with sleep it becomes a powerful one-two punch to allow you to turbo charge your recovery.

How can adding more movement to your day help, you ask? Surely everything has a recovery cost? In most cases that is true. Loaded walking, such as farmer walks or rucking, definitely has a recovery cost. However, unloaded walking has a recovery benefit. It’s like moving meditation when it comes to lowering stress hormones in the body and gently coaxing us back to a more recovered state.

For instance, a 2007 study by Morita out of Japan found that walking in nature led to a decrease in stress response and emotions. They measured heart rate variability, blood pressure, pulse, and cortisol as well as subjective measurements of comfort, calm, and relaxation. They found a significant shift in HRV towards the relaxing (parasympathetic) side of the nervous system. Walking calmed the nervous system down. In a world filled with stress, instant messaging, and lack of sleep walking definitively calmed the body down.

This was backed up with a 2017 study by Di Blasio et al that found that post-menopasual women had a significant lowering of cortisol provided they walked daily. Those who walked sporadically did not see any significant reduction.

But we’re still not done with walking…

One of the things I always do is benchmark. I take notice of what the best in an area do and try to emulate it. When it comes to being lean and muscular bodybuilders have it right. Forget the excessive drug use and being as big as a house. At its core bodybuilding is about having a lean and muscular physique – something I am sure many would want.

If you ever spend time with a bodybuilder you will notice one thing when it comes to their cutting phase – there is never any HIIT work. None. Zero Zip. Zilch. Nada. The reason is simple – it is too costly and can actually result in decreased muscle mass. Bodybuilders have intuitively grasped the elements of recovery necessary for muscle growth and, in an effort to always optimize growth, spend the rest of the time doing the minimum they can to get the best result. And that result comes from low impact, easy effort cardio. In other words, they will go for a slow walk.

If you’re a 200lb/ 90kg male you’ll burn roughly 400cal/ hour walking. That may not sound like much, and in relation to many other activities like running (~700-1000cals/ hour) it isn’t. However, remember that walking lowers stress, allows you to absorb Vitamin D, and helps you live longer, so maybe all exercise isn’t about the calorie count. But even with all that taken into consideration, if you walk for an hour a day you’ll burn 2800cals/ week (400 calories x 7 days). One kilogram of fat has 9000 calories. That means that an hour of walking a day will help shave one kilogram (2.2 pounds) off your waistline over a three-week period. That amounts to 17lb/ 8kg over the course of a year – and all with no actual food restriction to achieve it. Who wouldn’t like to lose 8kg of fat over the next twelve months?

However, a more likely scenario for hard training individuals is that if you haven’t got your food nailed down correctly it’s very likely you’re going to over fuel slightly. Having a 400-calorie/ day buffer to take care of any accidental over eating might be extremely useful.

From health and vitality to fat loss and cardiovascular training walking is an amazingly powerful tool. We’ve had great success with walking as a species for the last 650,000 years. You need zero equipment and it’s low impact/ high reward. Add walking daily into your week today and you’ll see the benefits almost immediately.

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Top 4 training tips for over 40s men

It’s no secret that training effectively over forty is harder than it was at twenty or thirty. Muscles stiffen up, joints may not work as smoothly as they once did, and it is harder and harder to control your bodyfat levels.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As someone who can barely see forty in the rearview mirror, and will be closer to fifty in just a few weeks than forty, I’m still managing to train well and here are my secrets how:

1. Bodyfat matters

Over the age of forty-four the leading cause of death for men is heart attack. You know how to avoid having a heart attack? Stop over eating, avoid junk food, and get some exercise in. That’s pretty simple, right?

But did you know that higher levels of bodyfat in men lead to lower levels of testosterone? That’s right. Carrying too much fat decreases the hormone that is largely responsible for being strong and lean. And when testosterone is low cortisol is high. And cortisol is linked to weight gain too!

So clean up the diet and add in some incidental activity to help shed the pounds. The human body has been around for a long time and we spent a lot of that time foraging for food. Searching for food is estimated to have taken us 5-8 hours a day and covered a distance of 15-18km. Most of us now sit still for 5-8 hours a day and pat ourselves on the back for three hour-long gym visits each week. It’s no wonder people struggle to lose weight when they’re only moving ~7% as much as we were designed to. So get walking. We recommend at RPT that our clients walk for at least 30 minutes a day, every day.

2. Make sure to lift weights

Lifting weights may well be the fountain of youth if done intelligently. I don’t mean Crossfit nor do I mean power lifting. The overall workout intensity of a Crossfit WOD may raise cortisol levels too high (and remember that can actually lead to weight gain despite you working out) and power lifting can place large stress on joints that may already be showing signs of wear and tear from years and years of athletic abuse.

I just mean lift some weights. There are plenty of studies that show that lifting weights raises testosterone levels in the long term versus sedentary control groups. (Interestingly one study found that strength training increased DHT levels – the hormone that is responsible for male pattern hair loss. Perhaps this is why older guys who still train often end up looking like Bruce Willis?)

Beyond the hormonal response of lifting weights to help you stay younger there is also that strength training will protect joints and, as you get even older, help prevent falls, or damage from falls. Beyond sixty-five a fall that results in a broken major bone (hip, pelvis, or femur) leads to a three times greater risk of death in the next twelve months. Having both the strength to maintain balance as well as some extra muscular padding could literally save your life.

3. Move more, not less

There has been some recent media hype in Australia about activity levels in the over-40 crowd. Sadly, one of our great endurance athletes, Dean Mercer, had a heart attack at 49 and died. Look, no one ever said elite performance was healthy. To gain the type of fitness necessary to succeed at an elite level requires you to step over the line from healthy training to performance training. Because endurance training is about creating a bigger, stronger heart, just like we train muscles to become bigger and stronger it is necessary to stress the heart so that it adapts too. With normal muscles they actually get damaged a bit so that they recover bigger and stronger. Well, the same applies to the heart. Maybe not such a good idea to damage the heart.

But that is for elite athletes to worry about. I’m not talking about going out and running until you see stars and cough up blood. I’m talking about going for a walk outside. Firstly, did you know that low level to moderate aerobic exercise, like walking, has a boosting effect on the nervous system? It’s like therapy for  your body and destresses it while lowering cortisol. Secondly, did you know that Vitamin D deficiency lowers testosterone? Do you know what’s outside? Vitamin D! So walking outside lowers stress hormones, which raises testosterone, it also helps you boost Vitamin D, which also raises testosterone! Winning.

Don’t count walking as part of your exercise for the day though. As pointed out previously walking is something we are engineered to do for extended periods of time, and many features of our body exist because of walking. Take advantage of them and reap the rewards. (And you can tell all your friends how paleo you are by mimicking cavemen by walking every day).

4. Reduce stress, sleep more, cut sugar

I know it looks like I just listed a bunch of things but it’s all the same. Trust me.

Stress raises cortisol levels. Do you know what fuel you use when cortisol is high? Glycogen. Glycogen is what carbohydrate is called when it is inside the body. Rice, pasta, cereal, bread – those are all forms of carbohydrate.

So, you’re stressed. You burn some carbohydrate from the limited stores you have. Do you know what happens next? Because of how clever your body is it signals that it is low in stored carbohydrate (glycogen). And it tells you to eat some carbs. Now, once you’re eating carbs (which are really just various forms of sugar that haven’t been broken down yet by the body), your body is more likely to burn carbs for fuel. So eat carbs, burn carbs. And then, because you’ve burnt carbs your body once again signals you to eat more carbs and the cycle continues…

The best way to stop this cycle is to firstly reduce stress and the best way to do this is to sleep more. Eight hours is the number. Not seven, not six, and definitely not five. Did you know that 18 hours without sleep leaves you with the same losses to motor control that being 0.05% BAC does? That’s right – six hours of sleep a night means you’re effectively drunk. have a think about that the next time you’re behind the wheel of your car on six hours or less of sleep. You are putting your life, your kids’ lives, your partner’s life, and every single person around you at risk because you didn’t go to sleep on time.

Not only is sleep loss associated with loss of motor control but it’s also associated with impaired reasoning, alertness, concentrating, and problem solving. And, to add to the issues, it’s also associated with higher risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure, strokes, and diabetes.

Lack of sleep, aside from all that negative stuff (as if they shouldn’t be reason enough), also puts you in a high cortisol state. And you know what that does by now right…? You’re going to wake up already stressed thanks to your insufficient sleep, reach for some sugar and start the whole cycle of anaerobic glycolysis (what that burn sugar/ eat sugar cycle is really called) and you’re going to get stuck there until you break that cycle by cutting excessive carbohydrate consumption from your diet and lowering stress by getting more sleep.

If you’re currently getting six hours sleep try getting seven. I know that sometimes it’s impossible to get eight. I know guys who, if they went to bed and got eight hours sleep, literally wouldn’t see their kids all week. But if you go from six hours a night to seven you’re effectively getting an entire extra night of sleep every single week. And who wouldn’t want that? You’ll feel like you’ve had a long weekend every single week compared to what you’re used to.

It should come as no surprise that if you want to be in good shape at forty-plus you can’t get away with the same things you could at twenty or thirty. The game has changed. Your body, and your metabolism, have both changed too. It’s time to grow up, quit (over) eating garbage, get in the gym, and take some time to look after yourself by moving more. as you add activity into your life you’ll also notice how sleep quality improves and it’ll actually help you stop wasting time at night and get to bed earlier.

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Training for Spartan Race

Obstacle course racing (OCR) is growing in popularity year-on-year. With this growth in participation comes an increase in the number of people training specifically for OCR events. However, I often see three big mistakes when it comes to their training. Let’s look at what these errors are and how to avoid them.

The 3 Biggest OCR Training Mistakes

The three biggest holes I notice in OCR training boil down to running, loaded carries, and grip training. These issues are also right up there in terms of mistakes that cost people the most time on race day.

  1. Running

The first and worst mistake you can make is to forget it’s a running race. Don’t look at all the obstacles and think you only have to run half a mile between each and think to yourself, “well, I can run 800m, so this will be easy.” Because if you plan to do well, you still need to run the entire course, which could be as much as half marathon distance (13.1 miles.)

  1. Loaded Carries

At the World Championships held on the weekend, the guys doing the crazy Ultra Beast (30 miles of torture) had to carry two 50lb sandbags uphill. I’ve heard it was absolute carnage with people just dropping the bags and walking off the course. I’ve heard accounts of up to 25% of the field quitting because of that one obstacle.

But it’s not just sandbag carries, either. There are often bucket carries at Spartan events – in fact, it’s one of the obstacles you’ll find at nearly all the races. In Australia they use massive 120lb deadballs, which are difficult to pick up with wet, muddy hands, and even more difficult to carry the distance required.

  1. Grip Work

The third mistake, grip strength, is one of those things that everyone seems to think they have enough of, right up until the point they find themselves doing thirty burpees for falling off the monkey bars. In a long race, with rope climbs, Tyrolean traverses, Hercules hoists, loaded carries, and heavy drags your grip takes a pounding. And the fatigue of distance running amplifies how easily fatigued your grip will become.

Here’s how I recommend you train each of these areas to prepare for race day.

Running

Firstly, you need to run. If you aren’t yet at the stage where you can run the distance non-stop, you need to work on that before you worry about how fast you can cover the distance. If you’re using an obstacle race to get up off the couch (the precise reason Joe de Sena founded Spartan in the first place) then please follow my walk/run plan to get started.

If you’re able to run the distance continuously, I’d suggest a plan that has four different runs plus an extra day in it. The four runs are:

  • Easy aerobic
  • Intervals
  • Hills
  • Long run

The extra day is for sandbag or pack work, but done walking. The week should be structured with the long run (up to two hours) on Saturday, with the sandbag or pack work done on the following day. Don’t be shy with the time for the pack day – go up to four hours.

Your legs will be tired after both of these days, so the next run will be Tuesday and be an easy aerobic run up to an hour in length. Don’t push the pace on this run, and don’t worry about hills  – just an easy, flat run to shake the legs out.

The interval run is best done on a track. Something like 20 x 400m on a three-minute-interval will work well. Or 10 x 800m on six minutes. Make sure to warm up and cool down for this one as it will lead to some serious soreness, so give your body the best chance to fight it off.

Finally, the hill run fits well on a Thursday. I like doing this on a treadmill so I can moderate the incline. My favorite hill session is five sets of 1km above race pace at 4-5%, followed by 1km below race pace on flat so you can recover. The average of these 2km is your target race pace. Again, make sure to warm up and cool down before this, and don’t be fooled by this as it is still at least a 12km run.

For running the single best resource I have still seen for most people is my book Run Strong. It contains a lifetime supply of tips and hints on getting better at running as well as a foolproof beginner plan to get you running injury-free for distances of up to an hour.

Loaded Carries

Loaded carries need to be in every training session. If you’re not used to doing them you need to spend considerable time on them to gain proficiency at it. As an example of how efficient you can get at them, I recently had eight minutes to get off an airplane, get to the long-term car park, and then to the pet hotel my dog was at before they shut for the night. I grabbed both my carry-on bag and my girlfriend’s bag (it is easier to be balanced) and took off running through the airport, to the car park, and to the car. This was a ten-minute walk done in three minutes.

Now, I won’t lie, I was spent – my grip was fried, my traps were burning, and my lungs were heaving. But I got it done and we picked up our dog. If you plan to be truly Spartan -ready you will need to build up to loaded running (but that’s probably an entire article right there).

Don’t make the mistake of only doing farmer’s walks with easy-to-handle implements. Use overhead walks, rack walks, and sandbag carries. Load yourself asymmetrically and use odd objects. For Spartan you need to be ready for anything.

For a complete breakdown of all the ways you can and should be doing carries to improve your performance check out my article here on Complete Human Performance.

Grip Training

Finally, grip needs to be addressed. Some grip endurance will be handled with the loaded carries. Some more grip endurance will be taken care of with normal strength work, such as pull-ups and deadlifts. But what you need is high rep work to develop massive amounts of grip endurance – enough to last you the many hours you may be on course. A short set of ten reps isn’t going to do it.

This is a great place for two different types of grip work. High rep swings, both with a kettlebell and with clubbells, will help develop great grip endurance. I’m talking about sets of twenty-plus reps, and maybe even as high as fifty per set. Because clubbells are closer to brachiation than kettlebells are, they may actually be superior for grip development.

The other big thing that is going to develop grip endurance is hanging off objects. If you can vary the grip used, that will work even better. If you can hang off tree branches, stair railings, and the like you’ll wind up with a far better overall grip.

If all you have access to is a pull up bar don’t fret, as you can still change the grip each set. You can fold a towel over the bar to thicken the grip. You can drape the towel over the bar and hold onto the hanging ends. You can hold the bar with hands you’ve deliberately made slippery (putting soap in the hands is a favored strongman grip training method) and do hangs. For more fun, soap the hands and then do some kettlebell swings. Make sure no one is standing right in front of you when you do though.

Focusing on these three things – running, grip, and carries – will take care of your OCR plan.

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Four Pillars of Fitness for the Over 40s

I love it when I get emails from people asking me for a “program”. You know how it goes. They want a deadlift plan, or a triathlon plan, or maybe a BJJ plan. What they never seem to realize is that “programs” are for non-beginners. A non-beginner is someone who has all the most important elements of training nailed down. They eat in a way that is conducive to both recovery and bocy composition, sleep enough, are strong enough, move well enough to be able to perform common exercises, and have a heart that is more powerful than an asthmatic hamster’s. Yet there they are with 25% bodyfat, a deadlift that is barely above bodyweight, no cardio fitness, and they can’t touch their toes.

The fact is that there are only four things you can offer most people, unless they are seeing you for specific rehabilitation. Most trainees, despite their protests, are very much still beginners. As beginners there is no need to prioritize one aspect of fitness over another, as they are all equally poor. These four pillars of training are:

  • Flexibility/ range of motion
  • Strength
  • Body composition
  • Cardiovascular fitness

Here are some basic guidelines:

If you can’t touch your toes you are lacking adequate range in trunk flexion. That means that any exercise like the deadlift or kettlebell swing should be off the menu until this issue is resolved. If you cannot overhead squat with your arms in the air and break parallel while maintaining your arm position you are dysfunctional for the squat. This means that all squat patterns should be off the table until it is resolved. Mobility and flexibility come first always. Failure to develop these will see you getting continually on the injury merry-go-round.

Until men can achieve a double bodyweight deadlift they are beginners at my gym. For females this is 1.5 times bodyweight. Men must be able to do five pull-ups and twenty-five push-ups. Females must be able to do a single pull-up and fifteen push-ups. Men should be able to double press 24kg kettlebells for multiple sets of five, while women should be able to do this with 14kg kettlebells. We also set a minimum standard of 100 reps with a 24kg for men snatching in five minutes and the 16kg for women.

Males with more than 20% bodyfat and females with more than 25% bodyfat stay on fat loss programs, including diet assistance until they reach these goals. BMI cops a massive amount of flack from people yet there is an overwhelming body of evidence to show that a BMI of more than 30 results in a significantly greater risk of diabetes type II, and all the corresponding illnesses that come with being overweight and obese such as hypertension and heart disease. For reference, a BMI of 30 would require me to gain 20kg (45lb). You can use this easy calculator to figure it out for yourself and your clients. (https://www.diabetes.org/tools-support/tools-know-your-risk/bmi-calculator)

While cardiovascular fitness seems to have fallen out of favour in the fitness world I will guarantee you that once your clients get even a little past forty they won’t care about adding another 5kg to their deadlift but they will care about the health of their heart. It’s well know that I am a big fan of running but I understand that many dislike running. However there are ample fitness tests available in the gym through the use of rowing machines. Our benchmark fitness test is a 2000m row. Men must meet a standard of less than eight minutes and females nine minutes. If they fail to meet that standard then they have to work on their fitness.

Many people eschew cardiac health these days. Many will flat out tell you that cardio makes you weak, or that gaining strength is more important. The number one killer for men aged over 44 is heart disease. The number one killer for women of all ages is heart disease. In other words, actual cardiac fitness is terribly important if you want to stick around for a while. While those who normally will point the finger and scream about body acceptance and fat shaming will also debate my points about BMI, as stated above, there is massive evidence to show the links high BMI values have towards heart disease. Having your body composition/ BMI within normal values is part of being healthy and minimizing heart disease risks.

By now you are hopefully realizing that nearly everyone fails to meet most of these standards. That’s fine – training exists to rid the body of weaknesses. It should therefore be directed at addressing those weaknesses too though. I see too many plans focused on adding more strength to a trainee that already can barely move, is visibly out of breath after walking up a flight of stairs, and is clearly over a desirable BMI.

The best way to do this is to create training plans that feature all four elements at once. One of the things that Crossfit very much has in its favour is the number of circuit type sessions (MetCons) within it. Circuit training is a valuable way for people to address multiple fitness qualities at once. For example, an EMOM of power cleans and airdyne sprints, with a mobility exercise during the recovery period, will address all of the four pillars equally.

If this isn’t feasible then the way I do this is to split each session into three parts. I say three because the reality is that cardiovascular training and body composition training can be linked together. Body composition will also be heavily targeted by the use of strength training and through diet counseling.

My belief is that the majority of people I see need to focus on range of motion. As such at my gym it represents nearly 50% of their daily workout time and includes both the warm up as well as mobility and flexibility exercises between every strength exercise they do. I know many will panic here and say that stretching has been shown to hamper power production but you need to remember that study was conducted on elite athletes and we’re talking about people who struggle to deadlift bodyweight, or even possess adequate range to reach the bar on the floor and maintain their posture. Our warm up takes about twenty minutes and includes both joint mobility as well as stretching and dynamic warm ups in various forms.

The strength portion of the session will usually consist of two non-opposing exercises. This can be either a push/ pull set up such as overhead presses and pull-ups or a lower/ upper pair such as front squats and pull-ups. (And if you can’t tell pull-ups are prized at my gym because they reward having your body composition under control as well as possessing a decent level of strength).

From there we go into cardiovascular conditioning. While I am a big fan of steady state work for many the reality is that for those who only train a few days per week the most time efficient form of training they can do is intervals. Contrary to popular opinion the best way to gain cardiac function is not to lift weights faster but to use something like a rower, ski erg, or Airdyne, if running is out of the question. Running should always be the first choice, but again if we’re dealing with overweight beginners unused to moving then one of the low impact options will be a better choice.

A building needs more than a single support beam to hold it up and fitness built on a single quality is a deck of cards that will lead to injury and ill health later on. Developing all four pillars of athleticism will help you become much greater as you progress. Neglecting one or more will make progressing to truly all-round health and fitness next to impossible later on.

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Tactical Truths

Let’s be honest and admit that for most people training begins and ends with vanity. These people make up the vast majority of the training population. On one side are those who exercise for health because they were forced to. These people need to lose weight and get their hearts working again to avoid imminent death. And on the other side, but in equally small numbers, are those who exercise for sheer enjoyment or due to their profession.

For those on either end of that curve aesthetics isn’t their prime concern. Of course if you are obese and start to exercise regularly and watch what you eat you’ll look better. And the same goes for the athletes and exercise enthusiasts – they look good but it as a by-product of their training not the goal of it.

For a very small group that consists of law enforcement, military, fire fighters, combat sports athletes, and paramedics the only concern is how well they can execute their job. Unlike most of us if we are slack in the gym it doesn’t have too much bearing on the rest of our lives. However, if a fire fighter is lazy with their training perhaps they cause their own death, or that of a crew member.

The internet is filled with training for tough guys based on what many people believe to be the best path. Mostly they are so wrong I don’t even know where to start. If you have tactical aspirations the following list should help you weed out the useless from the useful.

Running matters

I know running cops a bad rap from a lot of people. They say it’s got a massive injury rate. They tell you that you’ll end up skinny and fat. They say you’ll lose muscle. Personally I have found none of that to be true.

The simple facts about running go like this:

Most tactical groups have some kind of running test so you need to run at least well enough to stay qualified.
Running is the fastest way to get fit.

Running helps you maintain the correct bodyweight.

Maintaining your running once you’re fit is easy and doesn’t require too much work. However, getting fit in the first place can be difficult, which is why I steer people towards the beginner running plan found within Run Strong.

Bodyweight matters

As a side effect of the bodybuilding craze many people still associate bigger with better. When it comes to actually using your body for something that is untrue. Bigger may be better however it may also be detrimental to your performance.

Like with running there are some simple truths about bodyweight that you can keep in mind to help figure out if you need to gain or lose weight.

If you are unable to run fast enough to meet your goal time try losing some weight. Running speed is greatly effected by body mass and a small drop in weight can lead to big gains in speed.

Most tactical groups have testing centered around bodyweight exercises. In particular, pull ups become substantially easier with small decreases in weight.

Correct bodyweight for each person is a very individual thing. Not only that but it can change depending on your goals. For instance, for SEALFit’s Kokoro camp I weighed 88kg. I was running plenty but I also was heavily focused on strength too to cope with workouts like Murph done while extremely fatigued. Yet for the BJJ Masters Worlds I weighed 85kg to make my weight class. That small change in bodyweight while losing no strength actually made me feel stronger and fitter.

In general law enforcement can get away with being a little heavier than those in the military as their work is far more anaerobic. It’s not likely a police officer will need to ruck for ten or twenty miles ever, yet that is common place in the military.

Stand up fighters will benefit from being slightly lighter than grapplers. Bodyweight plays a huge part in fighting but even more so in an environment where the weight can be used completely, like when you’re on the ground and lie on top of someone. Stand up fighting also often features longer matches than grappling based arts so the fitness requirements will be more aerobic.

Cardio matters

I am yet to meet a successful tactical athlete who isn’t insanely fit. While running should be the cornerstone of your fitness training you can also supplement it with circuit training, rowing, riding, and swimming. If you have high aspirations, whether in the ring or on the battlefield, cardio should be performed daily.

Strength matters

Bodybuilding, as in adding muscle mass to your frame, and strength training are not the same thing. If you need to wear body armor and carry a weapon all day on a foot patrol you’ll need to be strong. If you need to wear body armor, carry a weapon, and hump your 30kg pack all day long you’ll need to be even stronger. If you want to be able to grab an opponent and arm drag them or finish a takedown you’ll need to be strong enough to move a resisting opponent. You get the idea – strength matters.

But strength doesn’t require hours and hours to be spent in the gym. In fact, brief sessions can work extremely well for adding strength. Three days per week performing a handful of the most important exercises for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps is a good start. If in doubt try the following three:

  • Bench press
  • Front squat
  • Weighted chin ups or pull ups.
  • On one day of the three substitute deadlifts for squats.

Perform a warm up and a few warm up sets of each exercise. Hit them hard and get out of the gym. Your goal is neither to make yourself tired or sore but to see progress. Quite often that means doing far less than you think you can because your work stress is already so high that your recovery is compromised.

The mind is primary

If you’re the sort of person who hits snooze five times or needs three alarms perhaps you’re not cut out for the tactical lifestyle. If you’re the kind of person who thinks they need a drink to prevent dehydration after a five minute warm up then you’re just not ready.

All of the fighters and first responders I know share one key skill. None of them have any quit in them. I’ve watched SWAT team members vomit halfway through a workout and come back for more while a normal person would call it quits. I’ve seen fighters train with broken limbs, bulged discs, and literally with one hand while the other arm is in a cast. I know an SAS member who stayed on operational duties for eight years while needing an ACL repair.

Laziness and/ or mental softness has no place in those who choose this lifestyle. While I don’t believe you need to go to your limits daily I think you need one workout a week tests your mettle. Like any skill if mental toughness isn’t practiced regularly it will deteriorate.

Train hard, train often, and never accept anything other than your very best. You life, and those of your team mates, may depend upon it.

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Tactical Periodization 1

“We trained hard – but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing. And what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while pursuing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.” Gaius Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon, 1st Century AD

There are many things I do daily in the course of my job. One of the things I’m best at, courtesy of having some of the best mentors in the field of exercise science anywhere in the world, is writing training plans. I’m not talking about workouts. Workouts are single shot deals that get you hot and sweaty and make you feel like you’ve accomplished something, while simultaneously doing almost nothing for you long term. I’m talking about the kind of thing that takes you from a skinny, weedy kid and turns you into a powerful juggernaut that could run do a suspect and restrain them or ruck all day if needed with a heavy load and still be effective to fight later.

This is one of the most misunderstood areas of training for most people. They seek to constantly change things up, to vary. Unfortunately for most people what they fail to realize is that this is actually slowing down their progress. Yes, I know bodybuilders have been telling you for years that you need to “confuse the muscles” and split the body into parts. But they also think ingesting truckloads of steroids and standing onstage in your underwear with a bunch of other guys in their underwear is okay, too.

So let’s try to map out some sensible ways to program to actually prosper from your training rather than just get sweaty. Because any idiot can you make sweaty. It takes intelligence to make you improve.  And isn’t that the whole point of training? To improve and to build the body?

Continuity of the training process is vital to long-term success. And continuity implies daily, or near daily training. The first thing to realize is that the body can be trained wholly every day. As Dan Gable said “If it’s important, do it every day; if it isn’t, don’t do it at all.”

However, trying to train daily means that load/effort needs to be cycled up and down. You can vary the load, the proximity to failure, the volume, or the density. It is simply a myth that you can go all out every time you train. People who propagate it have never competed at elite level in strength or endurance events, nor trained for combat. I can remember a SEAL I once met telling me how he’d done the famed Secret Service Snatch Test (10 minutes with a 24kg kettlebell) and then been called out on an eight hour long foot patrol in the steep hills of Afghanistan. He was so depleted from his workout that he was a liability to his team. Take note – top athletes hit their max only once or twice per year – when it counts. And you should consider the same. There is no need to test your limits daily.

So enters periodization. So few people truly understand this word, yet everyone knows it can give a massive performance boost if used correctly. Periodization is all about planning to bring about a peak performance on a given day. It is about cutting the year up into chunks to focus on individual qualities of performance. But what if your life defies planning? What if you’re a soldier or a single parent and your daily needs either wildly vary or are relatively stable?

The answer is tactical periodization. Tactical periodization takes advantage of certain laws of adaptation that Russian coaches keep in mind when they plan their athletes’ training. The important element is that adaptation is cyclical in nature. Every complex system operates the same way – lower valleys tend to be followed by higher peaks and vice versa. Even the stock market operates this way, as discovered by Ralph Elliot over a century ago.

In order to be controlled, nature must be obeyed. Tough guy periodization, as opposed to tactical periodization can be categorised like this:

  • If you seek your limits, you’ll always find them.
  • The next step off a peak is always down.
  • One should step down and not fall off.

The general format for tough guy periodization is: heavy, heavier, even heavier, injury, light, light, heavy… Meanwhile the smart person following tactical periodization goes from strength to strength.

In Russian there is no word for “periodization” they refer to it as “waviness of load” and it is this concept that is most useful to a tactical athlete, whether they be combat or sport oriented. It’s a classic wave loading method that has been around for decades and works exceptionally well to add high levels of strength in any demographic – even in clients aged into their seventies.

A side benefit of this type of training is that it almost virtually guarantees occasional overtraining. This small amount of over training is often referred to as over reaching. While many may think this is a bad idea, the fact is that the body adapts to stress such as this and learns to recover and adapt faster. Not only that, but remember what I said about peaks and troughs? A dip in ability is swiftly followed by a new peak.

Consider the candidate during Special Forces selection. If he were to wait until full recovery before every PT session he would still be in bed while his teammates were out busting their humps. And not only that, but by the end of the course, despite sleep and food deprivation, these same candidates are not only fitter than previously, but they have often gained muscle, too.

This deliberate decision to train in a state of incomplete recovery at least some of the time is necessary for any combat training personnel. But how do you plan this all out and not wind up tearing yourself to pieces? Let’s put this in martial terms:

Let’s say you’re an avid BJJ competitor and train five days per week on the mat. But you have to fit in some strength training too, and maybe some fitness work as well before tournaments. It would be easy to crush yourself in two weeks with a timetable like that so some thought needs to be given to how to best train.

An easy session on Wednesday wouldn’t destroy you for Thursdays class, provided you kept the tempo easy and went at roughly 70%. However, if you did go all out Wednesday you would be sore and stiff for Thursday. Now, this option can be useful, as you could then elect to go all out again on Thursday. While you would be likely to perform sub-optimally on Thursday you could then have an easy day Friday and the body would likely recover. This back-to-back hard session concept can be used once a month or so to see how recovery improves, as well as performance under fatigue. But what about when you add in strength training too?

Let’s look at combinations of volume (sets x reps) and intensity (load lifted, which partners you may have trained with that night, or how many rounds of free training you did):

  • Medium/Medium – Pavel’s “to a comfortable stop” or as Joe Lauzon’s trainer, Steve Baccari, says, “putting money in the bank for fight nights.” These workouts are the bread and butter of training.
  • High/ High – can lead to great gains if followed by a taper, however be cautious and do not stay on High/High for long.
  • Low/High – sets PRs in strength.
  • High/Low – sets foundations for stable gains and is perfect training for beginners.

Intelligent application of these concepts will bring far more improvement from your training than random changing of exercises. In fact, the exercise itself is the very last thing the body adapts to.

The reality is that there aren’t that many exercises. When you strip it down you’ll see you need some kind of push, probably two pulls, squats, and once a week deadlifts. For most people on this kind of schedule they’ll find two or three strength sessions per week to be all they need. Here’s how an entire week might look:

Monday:

AM – strength – bench press 3 x 5, front squats 3 x 3, dumbbell rows 3 x 6-8, pull ups 4 x 3. Intensity = moderate.

PM – BJJ – 90 minutes including 30 minutes of live sparring at the end. Intensity = moderate.

Tuesday:

AM – rest.

PM – BJJ – 60 minutes. Drill only. Intensity = light.

Wednesday:

AM – strength – overhead press 3 x 5, front squats 5 x 5, deadlift 3 x 3, pull ups 4 x max reps unweighted. Intensity = high.

PM – BJJ – 90 minutes including 30 minutes of live sparring at end from standing. Intensity = high.

Thursday:

AM – rest.

PM – walk for 30 minutes, stretch for 30 minutes. Intensity = light. Recovery day.

Friday:

AM – strength – bench press 5 x 5, front squat 3 x 3, dumbbell rows 5 x 10, pull ups 3 x 5. Intensity = moderate.

PM – BJJ – 2 hours open mat. Intensity = high.

Saturday:

PM – BJJ – 2 hours class/ open mat. Intensity = high.

Sunday:

Rest and recovery.

The natural flow from a high intensity day to a lower intensity day allows the body to recover naturally within the week. The distinction between what makes a day light or hard comes down to how many total reps you choose to do. 3 sets of 3 are far easier to recover from than 5 sets of 5. In order of difficulty common rep schemes go from least intense to most like this:

  • 3 sets of 3
  • 4-5 sets of 3
  • 3 sets of 5
  • 4-5 sets of 5

A genuine 5 x 5 is a very tough workout and you may not want to stress the body out like that in more than one lift per session if you have plans to do something else later on. When it comes to deadlifts you’ll find that 3 x 3 allows you to make constant small progress and won’t beat your body up too much. You’re far better off choosing to do a little less in the gym so that you’re fresh enough to fight, ruck, run, or fight off the zombie hordes later. In simplest terms a hard day is always followed by a light day. If you choose to add more training the preference is to add more easy sessions, not more harder ones.

“Tactical Periodization is short term training planning characterized by sharp and near random variation of intensity and volume and showing a bias towards high density. Its purpose is greater fitness, reduction of injuries and simplification of the training process.” – RKC Manual, Pavel Tsatsouline

It must be stressed that tactical periodization does not apply to beginners. They will make better gains on low volume/low intensity, nearly daily practice for a long time.

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Appearance and Performance

I barely ever talk about training because honestly it’s not that hard. Turn up to the gym 2-4 times per week and work hard for an hour at a time and you’ll get stronger and grow some muscle. However, diet isn’t like that. Diet needs to be thought of 24/7 if you want to really get results with it and you need to continue thinking about it 24/7 until you’ve gotten to your desired body composition.

Let’s break down some of the most common myths when it comes to diet and performance so we can start from the right place though.

Appearance Does Not Lead to Performance

One of the biggest myths in the training world is that it’s the type of training you do that determines how you look. You know, that tired old “If you want to look like a sprinter, train like a sprinter” garbage.

If you believe that adage, then taking a look at a picture of Jessica Zelinka and Brianne Theisen-Eaton, you’d have to ask how come two athletes who do the exact same sport look so different? And how come the one who won, Theisen-Eaton, actually looks in worse shape according to what mainstream fitness media would have us believe? Surely Zelinka with her rippling six-pack and better muscle definition should have performed better?

The idea that appearance leads to performance has sidetracked Western strength and conditioning for most of the last four decades. Back when we all started to think you needed to look like Tarzan, the only thing the Russians and Chinese cared about was beating Tarzan on the field. You know, where it counts.

As a result of our focus on appearance, an entire subculture of fitness sprang up around bodybuilding and the hoard of training programs that accompany it. But all of these programs suffer from the exact same thing – a lack of honesty. Honesty would tell you that if you want to look a certain way, then you better hope you have the right parents. Honesty would tell you the amount of fat you have, to show off what your parents gave you, is largely determined not by training, but by diet.

Muscle Is Difficult to Grow

If you’re really after muscle growth, then what you need is a diet focused on getting a calorie surplus. Muscle is incredibly difficult to grow and without a hardcore eating plan you are likely to never gain much irrespective of how scientific your program is. I always have to wear my protective face-palm helmet when I start working with new clients who tell me how easily they pack on muscle. You need to be in a tremendous surplus to gain genuine muscle – 4,000 calories per kilo – as opposed to fat or water. To put that in perspective most people I work with come in the dor eating about 2000 calories a day. In other words, they need to at least double their intake to see significant muscle gain.

Old-school bodybuilders understood that to gain muscle you had to accept the addition of fat and water, though. They would deliberately go through periods of bulking up, assured that when they cut up for a show they’d have new muscle they could show off to their advantage.

How Much Food Do You Need?

Consider that at his peak Jay Cutler was eating a breakfast of nearly 1,000 calories. That should put it into perspective for you. His first meal of the day was:

15 egg whites

2 whole eggs

4 slices of Ezekiel bread

1 cup dry Ezekiel

Total calories: 923

Fat: 18g

Carbs: 103g

Protein: 86g

When you think that most people’s base need is around the 2,000 calories per day mark, it goes to show why your lack of muscle gain has little to do with your training. Hardcore training must be buffered by hardcore eating. Cutler’s second meal of the day was 1,121 calories (10oz steak, 2 cups rice). In his first two meals of the day, he already ate more than most do in an entire day.

I’m sure some people will eat this much after a heavy day of training. But this kind of eating is required seven days a week. I’ve even seen recommendations on bodybuilding forums that people go and eat two to three Big Macs, large fries, and a shake two days a week to help them crack 10,000 calories on those days to help with mass gain.

Still think it’s the training and not the eating? Then explain how top CrossFit competitors manage to stack so much lean muscle on relatively small frames with a training regimen that has far more conditioning work than any bodybuilder would ever dream of. Rich Froning is well known for his non-paleo diet consisting of large amounts of peanut butter, whole apple pies, and thousand-calorie shakes.

You Need Quality Carbs

And if you think you need to ditch carbs to get shredded, then you need to think again. The top bodybuilders will eat carbs close to their competition, only cutting them out in the final stretch to get as lean as possible. But at no point do they consider getting rid of them completely. And they’ll add them back into their diet right before the show to help the muscles look fuller, as well as use them regularly once they return to regular training post competition.

CrossFitters need carbs, too. You simply won’t be able to fuel those intense workouts without them. The difference is that both successful bodybuilders and CrossFitters choose from clean sources like sweet potato or brown rice, rather than sugary treats like desserts (except in Froning’s case).

The saying “you can’t outrun a doughnut” has been around forever, and is completely true. At a certain point it might be possible, such as with Froning or with the amount of training Michael Phelps was doing when he won his record medal haul in Beijing. But most of us don’t have the ability to train for six hours a day in order to justify our doughnut eating.

That means we need to pay more attention to our diet. And sorry to say it, but the mature athletes (those over 35) need to pay even more attention than everyone else. As the body slows down and hormone levels change, you can’t get away with what you could in your twenties.

Tracking and Planning

I am yet to meet anyone who was eating enough on our first meeting for their hypertrophy goals. But because they’re not tracking how much they eat they have no real idea. At our gym we tell people that if it isn’t recorded it never happened. If I see a food diary that isn’t filled in I will assume you ate nothing for the day. It’s only once people start to record and track how much they are eating that progress becomes possible.

As a side note – if you can’t be bothered taking the few minutes daily needed to track your food consumption then how do you think you’ve got the discipline required to eat well and train consistently for long enough to get to your goals?

Like with every well-fought battle it starts with a plan. A good rule of thumb is to take your current bodyweight in pounds and multiply by 12-14 to get a baseline figure. This is your minimums if trying to gain weight.

To begin with, if you haven’t done this before, split your diet evenly into 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrate. If you don’t know how much of what macronutrient is in which food then go to www.myfitnesspal.com as it’ll do it all for you.

Eat like that for a month and see what happens. If you’re not gaining add another 250 calories/ day. Eat like that for a month. Keep adding 250 calories/ day until you start to see the scales budge. (If you have an active job you will need more than an office worker. The same goes for younger trainees versus older trainees.)

Once you’ve gotten to your target weight you can begin adjusting your macronutrient intake for optimal appearance while keeping performance. This doesn’t mean dropping your carbohydrate or fat intake completely but moderating them for the best combination of both appearance and performance. You’ll likely find that your best performance isn’t at your leanest.

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Build, Bend, Breathe

As a coach you always want perfect. You want people to eat right, sleep well, and train often and hard. You want them to get massages regularly and pay attention to how they walk when not at training.

In your head you know that if you can get them to do everything right then your perfect plan will make them more successful than in their wildest dreams. But the real world doesn’t work like that. Work, kids, decreased hormones, and a body that may be seizing up from too much or too little activity, and suddenly perfect goes out the window.

No plan in the world is going to make up for a forty-year old who trains twice per week and eats well maybe one meal per day. And to make matters worse often these two days aren’t evenly placed in the week. I have a client who trains Thursdays and Fridays. It’s not ideal but it works for his life and he’s been training with us for three years now so it’s working for him.

If we lived in the perfect world with these problems we’d still be able to find a way to get these people to train two hours at a time. But that won’t happen either. My two-day per week guy has barely an hour he can spare in the mornings before he rushes home to help his wife get their daughter ready for school and then get himself to work too. So I needed to find a way to get as much as possible from as little as possible, and I came up with three elements that are the cornerstones of programming for maximal results:

Build, Bend, and Breathe.

Build refers to any type of strength work whether it is resistance training or bodyweight work and whether it is higher rep muscle building or low rep strength building. Bend is flexibility and range of motion work. Breathe is the ability of the heart and lungs to operate effectively. Despite what many will try to tell you no single part of the triad is more important than the others.

However, despite all three being of equal importance I can tell you which area the majority of people lack and it’s bend- especially once they’re past their mid thirties. No one ever stretches enough to maintain optimal range of motion as they get older. Out of all my clients I have three who are adequately flexible to do harder skills. For the rest we aim to make half of each session mobility related. Here’s how we structure things:

  • Joint mobility warm up – this takes roughly ten minutes.
  • Flexibility block – this can be a yoga flow, movement puzzle such as some locomotion drills, or straight flexibility work like Jefferson curls and bridging (which is a great pair to use here). Total time is twenty minutes, including the joint mobility block.
  • Strength work – pick two exercises that don’t compete with one another such as front squats and pull-ups. Perform five sets of the first exercise. In between each set perform a targeted mobility drill for a different part of the body. i.e. if you’re doing pull ups perform a lower body stretch. After finishing all five sets plus the mobility work move onto the second exercise and do the exact same thing picking a different mobility exercise. A total of twenty minutes is to be spent here.
  • Breathing work – If you’re smart and have read Run Strong you know that the magic number for how much hard work you should do in a given session is 20%. That leaves you with four hard minutes of work to do in a twenty minute breathing block. One of the most productive would be 4 x 30s hard: 30s easy on a rower for two full rounds taking a short break between the first and second rounds.

Things not to do:

Don’t get tied into worrying about how perfect this plan is because it isn’t. But if you are only going to train twice per week you’re already dealing with suboptimal. Better to accept reality and understand the compromise that has to be made so you can get the best out of the situation.

Don’t berate yourself for not coming more. Life changes. It may be the only constant in life. Work, kids, partners…all require an adaptable mindset to make the most of the cards you are dealt on any day or week. Do what you can with what you’ve got.

Don’t stress about how much progress you are or aren’t making. Be happy You’ve found some time to come and work at being healthier. The best way you can help yourself is to think about the lifestyle factors that will help you the most – diet and sleep, in particular. With not much training during the week you need to make sure those two things are as good as can be so we can do as much as possible in the gym. If you turn up for two hours a week on two hours of sleep and having had nothing to eat all day except a Coke and large fries my hands are pretty much tied at that point.

Overall you need to keep in mind that this is a compromise. At least if you accept that it is a compromise you can plan around it and minimize the damage versus wishing for optimal and never getting it.

For those who aren’t time constrained but still unsure of how to structure their sessions this plan will also work well – even if you train five or more times per week. Keep the high mobility focus in every session and split the time evenly between all three corner stones. Don’t forget the additional mobility work in between the strength work too as most people need as much mobility work as possible.

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Run right and reduce injuries

Running is weird. Considering that you learn to do it as a child with no coaching at all and that running itself is hardwired into us and was a major reason for our survival as a species, most of us just plain suck at it.

All you need to do is go for a drive early on a weekend and see the horde of zombie-shufflers out there “running” to see for yourself that most people have no idea how to run. But hang out with runners for a little while and you’ll still see that many don’t have any real idea what they’re doing. Even worse are the internet strength coaches “teaching” running who have both no background in running. Their usual advice is so far off the mark it should be illegal.

Heel Striking Versus Forefoot Striking

While there are many basic faults in running, the thing that seems to elicit response on par with a jihad is heel striking versus forefoot striking. “Natural” running proponents will tell you that you should run like you do when barefoot, as that is the way that nature intended and is the way that allows all the structures in our foot to do their jobs properly.

The problem with this approach is that we run differently on different surfaces. Imagine how you’d run across the road barefoot on a hot summer’s day versus on a football field that you knew was flat and where you had no risk of striking glass or little feet-destroying pebbles. They’re two completely different things.

And what you’d probably find, if you checked the bottoms of your feet after running barefoot across the grass, is that you’d have grass stains on your heels, too, not just the balls of your feet. But you ran barefoot. So should you be landing solely on the front half of your foot or is it acceptable to land on your heels, too?

Running Doesn’t Hurt

Most of this debate comes from a particular type of heel strike that happens when running. In a lot of cases, those who land on their heels first do so on a straight leg with the foot in front of the body. This stiff leg acts like a brake and actually slows the body down momentarily, until the body is able to coast up and over the stiff leg.

It’s not until the hips go over the leg that the body can begin accelerating again as you create the next step. Over time this continual action of step-brake-acceleration is terribly inefficient and slow (not to mention the jarring caused by not being able to use your legs as shock absorbers will likely lead to a sore back, knees, and hips).

But, like most things, we want to have this very black-and-white view of what to put where when we run. Forefoot equals good, heels equals bad is what ends up in people’s minds and we then see people try to run landing exclusively on their forefoot.

I’ll tell you now that unless you’re tiny this will likely be a great way to set yourself up for all kinds of lower leg injuries like torn calves or inflamed Achilles. The reason is simple – every step done this way amounts to a single-leg explosive calf raise done with three-times bodyweight. At over a thousand steps per kilometre, that means a simple run around the block for half an hour can see you force your lower legs to deal with over a thousand tons of accumulated force. No wonder people think “running hurts them.” What really hurts them is running poorly, or not being able to deal with all that force.

What Forefoot Running Actually Means

To run safely and properly, we first need to differentiate between what is needed for sprinting and what is ideal for distance running. Let’s be clear: I’m only talking about distance running here. If you ever get an opportunity to watch an elite distance runner land, what you will see is that their heel actually kisses the ground.

The video below has some exceptional slow-motion footage of Mo Farah showing his heel actually making contact with the ground.

Farah’s technique is different to what we spoke of above – the landing on a straight leg with the foot extended in front of the body with the heel as the first point of ground contact. What you see with Farah is that the outside of the foot makes contact first, the foot rolls in slightly, and the heel kisses the ground, before toeing off and repeating on the next step.

This is where people start to get confused. “Forefoot” running doesn’t mean just landing on your forefoot, but focusing on having your balance there. If you stand still you can try this. Focus on putting your weight on different areas of your foot while keeping the entire foot flat on the ground. James Dunne of Kinetic Revolution has a great piece on this forefoot cueing, along with a video by John Foster, which helps to explain it visually.

People always want to argue that the best runners don’t have any kind of heel touchdown at all. But this video below of one of the greatest runners of all time – Haile Gebrselassie  – shows plenty of heel action.

Pain Free in One Session

I recently witnessed firsthand how effective this single change can be for someone. My girlfriend has been suffering from an inflamed Achilles for nearly two years now and any time we try to add some serious running into her training, she suffers greatly.

While on our training vacation to Thailand, triathlon great Jurgen Zack was able to get her to change her running stride (because, of course, she’d never listen to me) to follow the pattern detailed above and work on a flatter foot strike with the foot under the body. She worked on it during a single track session and came away pain free, despite running at a higher pace than normal. She was also 100% pain free the next day – unheard of normally. In the two weeks since that single change, she’s run more and more often and has been pain free both during and after.

Make One Simple Change

All this debate on forefoot versus heel strike is unnecessarily confusing people. For the “truth” about how to run well, watch the Gebrselassie video and do your best to mimic that. Alternatively, read our guide on running form here.

As you run faster and faster and tend more towards a sprint, you will come up on the ball of your foot more and more. But for distance running economy, you’re looking for a fairly flat foot position in the stance phase that has the balance on the forefoot. This one change alone will make the world of difference to your comfort and economy when running.

For a much more detailed breakdown of all things running from injuries to form to training we suggest Run Strong as the best source available.

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The runner's guide to plantar fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis, or more correctly plantar fasciopathy (as an –itis suffix denotes inflammation of the area), is so common in runners it has even been called “runner’s heel”.

The Plantar Fascia is constructed of the same thick tissue type as the ITB, and shares some common traits with ligaments and tendons. Pain for many suffering from this often first forms near the front of the heel on the bottom of the foot during running and later becomes more noticeable when getting up in the morning forcing him or her into a painful flat-footed shuffle, trying not to extend at the ankle or push off with the big toe.

The PF itself is made up three strands, with the central one being the largest and most prominent. As the foot bears weight the PF undergoes a tightening, and it’s been estimated it carries as much as 14% of the total load of the foot.

During gait the PF elongates during contact, storing energy like a spring. As the toes are dorsiflexed in the propulsion phase the PF tenses, shortens the foot and acts as a windlass. Its function is often tied to that of the Achilles as there is a continuous fascial connection between the two. As such the Achilles is often a target for treatment of PF conditions.

Like with most running injuries the most likely causes are often a sudden increase in mileage or intensity, or a shoe change. However a number of other risk factors have been linked such as: obesity (BMI >30), Achilles tendon tightness, reduced ankle dorsiflexion, and foot posture, with high arched, stiff feet being more problematic than a flatter foot.

PF issues can take a long time to resolve – six to eighteen months is common. Perhaps the number one reason for this is that affected runners are not discouraged from running, as long as the pain is stable. On a scale of zero to ten with ten being unbearable pain, runners are actually encouraged to continue as long as the pain doesn’t go beyond five out of ten. Given the way pain can change motor control I feel that this is setting people up for further trouble in the future.

Common treatment is to stretch the calf complex on the belief that the Achilles tendon needs to be unloaded. I would suggest that what is most important is that people’s feet work properly. When the feet are inflexible the muscles are forced to work over time to deal with the lack of range from within the support structure itself. Stretching the muscles responsible for ankle range is fine, but only addresses 50% of the problem – the other 50% of your plantar and dorsiflexion comes from movement within the foot itself. We’ll look at some drills later to address this issue.

One of the biggest culprits of causing PF is a switch to barefoot or minimalist running. I know it’s really sexy right now to run in the thinnest, flattest shoes possible but you’re not a Tarahumara Indian, and chances are you’re too heavy and that your feet are too weak to deal with that kind of stress right now. Barefoot running can take years to get your body ready for, and with the increased loading on the forefoot when running in minimal shoes, particularly on harder surfaces, the calf complex is overloaded. And if your feet are tight and stiff that problem will be doubled.

The best strategy should be to reduce training load by using softer surfaces such as grass and dirt to train on – but not sand as that may make the problem worse – decreasing volume, and adding in stretching for the calf complex as well as mobility exercises for the foot. During this period care will have to be taken that pain isn’t increasing in the PF, and this may mean an abbreviated schedule for an extended period of time until it heals.

But you can make the lower leg strong enough to better deal with running quite easily. Barefoot calf raises will help to strengthen the entire chain that contains the plantar fascia. Often when a part of the body complains it is doing so because a neighboring part is weak and it is forced to over compensate. If the calf is too weak to properly deal with deceleration forces involved in running the plantar fascia will tighten up to cope. Next thing you now you’ve got PF.

The normal protocol is to raise up on two legs, take one foot off the ground, and then slowly lower the heel to the ground. Repeat for sets of thirty reps, three times on each leg. These are actually part of my ongoing maintenance plan for myself these days and I will randomly do sets throughout the day to safeguard my lower legs from any more troubles.

With the obvious reduction in fatigue tolerance to high reps, there’s an association between reduced calf endurance and medial tibial stress syndrome. My take on it – if you get a calf strain/tear, rebuild fatigue tolerance to minimise likelihood of suffering shin pain after the calf tear. (The following comments are by my good friend and super physio Greg Dea).

The association was those who averaged 3 sets of 23 reps were more likely to suffer MTSS than those who averaged 3 sets of 33 reps.

So for me I use the max reps for 3 sets as a test from time to time on myself. If I don’t get over 30 for 3 sets, I’m working on it

 And after achieving 3 sets of 30+, the transition to hopping in training is obvious, or double leg skipping to single leg skipping. But a test of risk for future injury is a lateral hop test performed as follows:

Get two strips of tape, lay them parallel 40cm apart.

Have the athlete hop from outside one strip of tape to the outside of the other strip of tape repetitively as many times as possible in 30 seconds.

Count the reps.

Repeat the other side.

Normal is 5% or less between both sides.

Conclusion

If you start to get PF problems don’t swap shoes as it may cause another issue elsewhere. Instead swap the surface you are training on and look for a softer surface such as dirt or grass. Finally, make sure your lower legs are strong enough and add in the three sets of thirty calf raises. Once you can hit 3 x 30 reps test yourself on the hop test to make sure that injury risk is minimal as a deficit of more than 5% from side to side is a big indicator of possible future injury.

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Achilles tendon injuries and running

For many runners the first sign of an Achilles injury “comes out of nowhere” as they take their first steps in the morning. As we sleep the feet are pointed and the calf muscles tighten up making it feel as if we’re walking with blocks of wood on the ends of our legs. As athletes we tend to ignore minor aches and pains as consequences of an active lifestyle, however many of the warning signs of impending Achilles issues are there, if we look for them.

Firstly, we need to distinguish from an –itis and an –osis. When you see the phrase tendonitis it infers that there is inflammation of the tendon by micro tears through overloading. This is entirely different to a tendinosis, which is a breakdown of the structure of the tendon in response to chronic overuse. While both present as pain the treatments for both are different, and it is important to make sure the diagnosis is correct. To further complicate matters it is also possible to have the pain caused by where the tendon itself runs through the sheath. Again, treatment is different for an Achilles issue – either micro tears or degradation – versus an Achilles tendon sheath issue.

A final issue that can occur is the complete rupture of the tendon itself. Trust me when I say this – if your Achilles tendon snaps you will not be left in doubt. You will fall to the ground as if shot by a sniper. Recovery from a complete rupture will require reattachment or repair surgery and will be around twelve months before you can even be ready for regular training again.

Achilles issues, both –itises –osises, are simple to detect. Pain will be localized to the area of the Achilles tendon. If you pinch the area between thumb and forefinger you’ll find it incredibly tender. A partial tear of the tendon will feel the same way so you’ll need a professional diagnosis and scans to differentiate. However, a complete tear will be obvious as there will be a gap in the tendon and you’ll be unable to walk with normal gait on the affected side.

Over the last decade or so there has been a considerable change in the understanding of Achilles injuries, which has followed from the finding by Khan et al. (1999) that inflammation (tendonitis) isn’t present. On microscopic examination it has become evident that the collagen structure itself has begun degenerating and that scar tissue has begun forming. My belief is that many patients suffering from Achilles issues worldwide are being diagnosed incorrectly and therefore treatment for their issue, which never seems to go away, is also wrong.

Peak age for Achilles troubles are between 30 and 50 years old. Given most of the problems are to do with degeneration of the collagen structures, and this occurs as we age, it is natural that the issue should be evident in ageing runners. There are studies to show that runners who have run far and fast are most likely to suffer from these problems compared to others who either take up running later or who have not pushed the limits as much.

One of the possible causes is that we tend not to use the muscles for propulsion as we run, but tend to bounce off our tendons. There is a correlation between age, how much stretch can be achieved in the tendons due to loss of collagen, and running speed.

There are other factors though, usually cited as: tight, inflexible calf muscles; hypermobile feet; and overly stiff feet. In other words – every single person who runs may get Achilles tendinosis. Having suffered from Achilles tendinosis for a period leading into Ironman – brought on by a big increase in mileage – I’ve been through all the tests and treatments you could imagine. My feet are stiff, and the calf is forced to take the brunt of much of the shock absorption that my feet won’t.

Looking back what strikes me as odd is that not one therapist did much other than offer me what amounted to a band aid to treat the issue. One therapist did some great work on breaking up my feet so that they were more flexible, however, there was no plan in place to try to make my feet more flexible long-term. Just this idea that my feet were stiff and they would remain that way forever.

Tendon problems should be treated with care as they can quickly go from an –itis to an –osis, meaning that long-term damage has been sustained. Immediately at the realization that there is pain in the area rest must be taken. However this shouldn’t be a few days, or even a few weeks, but is much better as a few months. I know this is painful news for runners (excuse the pun) but isn’t it better to take a few months now rather than risk not running altogether in a year or so?

Studies have shown that eccentric strength training in the calf muscles is an effective way to rebuild tendon cells. Work on these heel lowering exercises should already be in the arsenal of all runners, but if they’re not they need to be immediately added in if these issues arise. These same studies have shown that in injured runners eccentric calf strength – the strength that stops your foot slamming into the ground on each step and helps you absorb the impact forces – is lower than in healthy runners.

Remember that an inflammatory condition – actual tendonitis – will settle in three to six weeks. Anything that takes longer is not an –itis, but has formed into a degrading condition and needs to be addressed differently. Given that the majority of Achilles problems are not inflammatory the use of ice and anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, etc. is unproven as part of a treatment plan.

The first step has to be to limit or stop running immediately. My personal preference with people is that at the first signs of soreness in the area that the runner is rested for anywhere from one to three weeks. During this time use activities that do not load the Achilles as much such as cycling and swimming, although you may need to alter cleat position for riding to prevent any further damage being done, and you’ll also need to make sure to only ride sitting as standing may make it worse too.

A note on cortisone injections into an area that is suffering from a tendinosis. Given the condition is one of degradation and a cortisone injection is designed to breakdown tissue to prevent further inflammation it is entirely possible that a cortisone injection could make the Achilles more likely to rupture in the injection site.

Like with most of the injuries discussed, keeping it in stage 1 is vital if you are keen to resume running soon. Injuries that are managed well in stage 1 do not usually linger and no great changes need to be made to training plans. One thing I have found particularly useful for myself as well as those I train who have also been down this path is to never wear minimal shoes. Many “functional” trainers these days get their clients to wear barefoot or wearing minimalist footwear with zero drop soles. In my experience this puts the calf and Achilles on stretch all the time, not just during running and stops it healing quickly. The best bet is to find a shoe that you can lift weights in that has a bit of a heel, but that isn’t too cushy. This allows the calf/ Achilles to relax a little when not running. For me, this little change allowed my Achilles to go from painful to pain free in just two weeks.

Noakes has this as a guideline for Achilles problems in Lore of Running:

Stage 1 (morning discomfort in tendon)

Rest one week before resuming running training as before.

Stretch calf muscles for a total of 20 minutes daily.

Try new running shoes that prevent pronation.

Add 7 to 15mm heel rise to running and street shoes (either by using shoes with higher heels or by using inserts).

Monitor injury progress with pinch test.

Use physical therapy and drug therapy if costs permit.

Stage 2 (pain during running, but not affecting performance).

Continue approach for stage 1.

Modify training to reduce speed work, hill running (particularly downhills) long runs, and weekly distance.

Try an orthotic.

Physical therapy.

Stage 3 (pain during running that is affecting performance).

Continue as for stage 1 and 2.

Rest for 3 weeks.

Try regular cross friction massage to break up scar tissue build up in area.

After 3 week rest, resume jogging, cycling, swimming (no serious running) until injury reverts to grade 2, then try serious running only when injury reverts to grade 1.

Stage 4 (running impossible)

Try approaches for stage 1, 2, and 3.

If these fail, visit an experienced orthopedic surgeon.

Consider surgery only when all other techniques, including repeated sessions of cross-friction massage, have not worked.

(The following comments and suggestions are by Greg Dea, one of the world’s leading sports physiotherapists).

Often, the tendon pain occurs after a temporary increase in tendon loading, for example – increase in speed, volume, frequency of running, or even something as sneaky as running on a cambered surface, like road running where the road slopes a little to drain water, then when you run back home, you cross the road only to end up having the same camber. Be careful also of the “usual run” that has no change in any of those parameters, but follows on from a period of stress in other ways, eg. When you’ve not fully recovered from a fatiguing event. Here’s the responsible advice – don’t be the person whose Achilles tendon pain comes from a medical problem where a fitness solution isn’t right. A quick check with your responsible health practitioner is the first step.

 The good news is that tendons don’t like to be rested, so you’re not going to be expected to simply not do anything. They don’t get better with rest, they get better with modified load. They get better with better movement and better load tolerance in other parts of the body. They will, however, benefit from direct treatment, so get ready to step up and help your little buddy.

 In the Functional Movement Systems, one of the principles that guide clinicians and coaches through injury and movement problems is the three steps paradigm of Reset, Reinforce, and Reload. This applies to Achilles pain too. The Reset means when someone does something to you that removes pain or restores movement you couldn’t do yourself. With advances in self-help, we can use many tools to reset ourselves.

 When it comes to pain in the tendon, for mine, it comes down to whether you have just had pain in the last 24 hours, or whether it’s been hurting beyond 2 days.

 If it’s a fresh Achilles pain, within a day, the active ingredient in simple over-the-counter medicine Ibuprofen has been shown to quieten down the tendon cells that spew out a different water-attracting-protein – the reason for the swelling. You’ve got to block these cells right away – if you miss using ibuprofen straight away, you’ll have missed the opportunity to minimize the tendon swelling in the short term.

 If it isn’t a fresh Achilles tendon pain, the biggest bang-for-buck thing you can do is consider, with your local doctor who’s experienced in sports injuries, the use of GTN patches. GTN, or Glycerol Tri-Nitrate, is usually used to treat angina, as it releases nitric oxide, which opens blood vessels. It’s not clear why opening blood vessels helps Achilles tendon pain, but it certainly does. So many of my Australian Football player athletes with Achilles tendon pain have had their pain abolished within a couple of weeks – if you think that’s a long time, it’s not – these tendons can be painful for weeks to months. You’ll need a prescription from your doctor, who should be familiar with its use in Achilles tendon injuries. If your doctor doesn’t know about it, go to one who does, or provide them with this article to study.

For more comprehensive information on running and how to cope with and treat the most common injuries get your copy of Run Strong here.

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Running 101

Running gets a bad rap from most in the strength-training world. Trainers love to cite high injury rates and point to marathon runners as skinny fat in order to justify their lack of love for an essential human movement. But at some point you may need to run. It could be a marathon or just a 5k. It could be Spartan or Tough Mudder. It may even be a full Ironman. Or it may be for military or law enforcement recruit training. So it’s in your best interest to have some background knowledge on how to run.

Like most things in the fitness world running has also been affected by fads and marketing. While there is definitely some technical detail to running beyond “just run” it also isn’t rocket science.

I’m not sure perfect form exists in relation to running for most of us. With individual discrepancies in limb lengths, heights, and even body composition most of us will never move like an elite runner. Trying to shoe horn your body into someone else’s mechanics can be a fast path to injury. That being said there are some consistencies that hold true for all of us that can be worked on.

The Head. A neutral spine has a head position that is the same whether you are sitting, standing, or running. If your head is pushed forwards because you spend all day staring at a screen or slumped in a chair you’ll carry that same head position when you run. Because the head is so heavy it needs to be counter balanced somewhere else in the body. What happens is that to counter the weight of your head going forwards you tend to push your butt out behind you. This leads to a break at the hips so that you are never actually standing tall as well as heel striking.

With the head held in a neutral position you should be able to look at the ground at a point about three metres in front of you while simultaneously being able to scan for low branches.

The Shoulders. Good running involves little in the way of upper body rotation. In fact, the entire reason for moving your arms is to counter rotation to keep the upper body still. One of my pet peeves is people trying to run with what looks like military posture. If you try to run ramrod straight you won’t be able to use your arms effectively. The shoulders should round slightly, not enough to cause rounding of the upper back, but enough that the arms can swing freely.

The Back. While the back shouldn’t be held ramrod straight, as if you are a soldier standing at attention, it shouldn’t have excessive curve to it. An excessively curved back is a sign that some strengthening is needed to maintain posture while running. Without good posture you won’t be able to effectively counter all the forces created while running.

The Arms. The arms should hang in a relaxed manner from the shoulders. It’s all too common to see runners with their shoulders shrugged up near their ears and wonder why they unduly fatigue when running. The goal of running is relaxed economy and the arms play a big role in that. In distance running the arms swing from a point just outside the body to a point almost in the centre of your body, in line with the bottom of your sternum. As one of my triathlon coaches once said to me you should think of flicking your nipples as you run. As you speed up the arms will move in a straighter line so that they travel more parallel to the hip instead of this slight cross-body action.

The arm action itself is not one of pushing the arms forward, but pulling back and letting it relax on the way forward. It is the elbow drive backwards that pulls the opposite knee up and forward, so focus on elbow drive backwards, rather than on arm swing forwards.

The arms themselves will be held at about a ninety-degree angle at the elbow on the backswing. As the arm swings forward this will close. The main thing to remember is to stay tight and compact without wild swinging motions of the arms that waste energy.

The Hands. The hands should be loosely clenched as if holding a small stick in each hand. One well-known triathlon coach, Brett Sutton, even makes his athletes run with M&M containers in their hands to enforce this. They are easily spotted even years after moving on from him as they all run with imaginary M&M containers in their hands with thumbs suspended midair over where the top of the container would be.

The wrists should not be loose and floppy. Every time your wrist bends or the hand flops around you are wasting energy. Like with the back we don’t want joints held rigidly but there needs to be some firmness. Think of making the body like a young tree branch – springy and bendy, yet firm enough to give structure. If, on the other hand, we make the joints rigid and hard like an old branch, we become stiff and inflexible, unable to generate the kind of bounce needed to run well.

The Pelvis. Many people spend their days in what is called anterior pelvic tilt – that is with the pelvis rotated forward. While this may be your natural stance it is not ideal for running. This position is often due to overly tight hip flexors. This over tightness needs to be addressed otherwise the thigh is not free to extend backwards on each stride. For many people slightly rotating the pelvis forward will simply bring them back into neutral. A good test for this is that if you push your hips as far back behind you as you can (imagine Beyonce twerking to get this position) you’ll feel your abs are disengaged. If you begin to pull your hips towards your rib cage you’ll feel your abs start to engage. At the point where your abs are lightly activated you are now in a good position to run where the leg can swing freely underneath the body. The pelvis and the back must be working together to allow you to “run tall”.

The Legs and Feet. Before we discuss how the legs and feet operate we need to differentiate between “ground contact” and “landing”. Merely having your foot on the ground doesn’t equal having all your weight on it. Some great coaches have had the following to say about ground contact versus landing:

Toni Nett, a West German sports scientist, stated that all good runners, at all distances, land first with the outside edge of the foot. In faster races, such as the 800m, the foot lands high on the outer edge of the metatarsal arch – what can easily be thought of as the forefoot. Yet at greater distances such as 1500m or more the runner will contact somewhere between the heel and metatarsus, which we can think of as the outer, forward edge of the heel.

This landing should occur close to directly under the centre of mass. Many runners have a tendency to try to position the foot directly under them, and for slow running this will work, but as you get faster you’ll see the landing take place slightly in front of the body, but with the foot directly under the knee with a vertical, or near vertical shin angle. Dr. Manfred Scholich, another East German scientist, said that, “the landing should be as close to the centre of mass, i.e. as close to under the body in both the longitudinal (head to toe) and transverse (side to side) plane as possible”. This puts the runner in the best position to utilize the body’s elastic recoil system and avoid the braking effects that can accompany landing on an extended leg in a typical heel-striking stride.

To reiterate the point on the landing position, which many will claim is heresy having been told that the foot should always land under the body, Bill Bowerman said that “the point of contact should be directly under the knee”. You’ll note nothing there about the exact placement of the foot under the body, only that the foot should be under the knee. If you spend some time videoing yourself running you’ll note that the only way o run with the foot landing directly under the body is to run in a completely upright, high knee style that offers little in the way of propulsion and looks like you are trying to step over small hurdles while running.

There is lot of total BS written about footfall by people who don’t WTF they’re talking about. No, your forefoot shouldn’t be the only part of your foot landing if you’re running distance. That is a one-way ticket to tearing a calf in inexperienced runners. Developing calves strong enough to deal with landing forces takes some time. But regardless of that the whole foot touches down. The heel doesn’t touch first, as I wrote above, but it will touch with a light kiss. Rather than spend time trying to explain this just watch the video below showing one of the all time greats running in slow motion.

Percy Cerutty believed that running should be a free and uncomplicated movement. Work on relaxation before you worry about speed or distance – think easy, light, and smooth. We’ll get to fast eventually, but to start with let’s work on those three. One of the biggest benefits of running slowly is having the mental space to work on the dynamic relaxation required for running. If you can’t run relaxed and economically at 6min/ km you certainly won’t do it at 5min/ km or 4min/km.

Like with all training there needs to be a focus on quality of movement. I am lucky enough to have many friends who are very fast. One of the fastest, a 2.20 marathon runner, told me that he tries to make every step better than the one before it. That means no ipods – don’t let tune out from what the body is doing. If you need to be distracted from your running it is because you’re trying to run too fast or too far for your current level of fitness. Focus on getting all the points above right and breathing in a calm, relaxed fashion.

The final point is that many focus far too early on running fast with a focus on intervals and sprints. This is a huge mistake and is a large part of the reason for such high injury rates in runners. If someone is getting hurt running it is usually because they tried to run too fast or too far for their level of fitness. Start with easy and light before worrying about hard and fast.

If you’re looking for the best possible start to your running purchase Run Strong here.

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Gain strength endurance in one session per week

The nature of humans is to be unbalanced. We like black and white but not grey. We speak of people who are good or bad or place those labels on our food. It’s rare that we have a moderate stance on much.

The thing about training is that the moderate stance is probably the one that will get you the furthest provided you’re prepared to keep working at it. As it turns out moderation is quite a powerful training plan provided you give it enough time to work. Because the reality of most people is that they’ll kill themselves for a few weeks – most Internet training plans are twelve weeks – and then on day eighty-five they’ll fall in a heap having exhausted themselves mentally and physically.

The alternative is to work steadily along for your entire life. Now, who is going to be in better shape long term? The person who works very hard for short periods or the person who always works out, just not as hard? It’s the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare and I’ll place my money on the slow and steady to win that race every time.

Within training people are most often concerned about two things. The two that always get the prime attention are maximal strength and anaerobic fitness and/ or power. They’re sexy. They create good images and videos for social media and people get fired up when they get swole or sexy.

On the other hand there are two things that aren’t often sexy in the strength and conditioning world and they are strength endurance and aerobic fitness. The long duration type training, whether in the gym or outside, just isn’t sexy. It’s hard, painful, and often done solo. It takes genuine toughness to get through many of these sessions. I can say with my hand on my heart that I have had days on a bike where I wanted to cry they’ve been so bad. Even the worst day in a gym with the heaviest weight just can’t create the same kind of deep-seated suffering that endurance work can.

Because of how uncomfortable much of this style of training is it often gets skipped by many, which is a great shame. Older trainees, for instance, will discover that the lighter weights necessitated allow their joints to deal with training far better. Suddenly the elbows, knees, and spines that used to complain during training won’t be a problem. The added benefit for them is that current research is showing that the number of reps per set done doesn’t actually matter for muscle hypertrophy as long as you reach failure. So strength endurance work for older trainees will be helpful not just for their joints but also for their muscle mass. One of the best ways to avoid the pitfalls of aging is focus on muscle preservation and strength endurance work can help while sparing the joints.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of strength endurance work is its real world carry over. Forget tire flipping and standing on wobble boards. The truest test of functional fitness is helping a friend move house and not being crippled the next day. While there is an element of maximal strength involved in moving a couch you won’t be very helpful if you can only lift a single item and then be done. Far better to be like a pack mule and able to work at high capacity for an entire day or more.

Taking cues from typical military training you can see how highly prized this facet is. The Romans used to have to carry heavy bronze armor into battle and for a long time modern soldiers moved relatively lightly. Those days are long gone with the use of helmets, body armor, load-bearing vests, personal comms, plus water and ammunition. Standard load for a modern soldier starts at about 60lb before mission specific gear is added. If you’ve ever walked up a steep hill with a heavy load you have a deep appreciation for how important strength endurance work can be.

Not surprisingly then the military has long prized strength endurance because it is such an important quality in successful operations. Of the best known military style workouts Murph is probably at the top of the tree with it often being performed out of respect for the fallen on Memorial Day (or ANZAC Day in Australia). For the uninitiated, Murph consists of running, pull ups, push ups, and squats, with a bonus run. In full it is:

  •  1mi run
  • 100 pull ups
  • 200 push ups
  • 300 squats
  • 1mi run

Men – done with 10kg weight vest/ women – done with 6.5kg.

No kipping pull ups.

For someone just starting to look at strength endurance work as a good addition to their training for long term success this appears quite daunting. So let’s break it down into manageable chunks to begin with:

If you’re not already running I suggest you purchase Run Strong, which I believe to be the best beginner running book available on the market. It’s got a plan in it which will help you go from not running at all to pain free running for up to an hour – far more than needed for Murph.

Secondly, you can opt to begin without weight. For anyone who hasn’t been around high-level strength endurance athletes/ military some of these numbers may seem a bit over the top but a well-conditioned athlete should be able to do the entire thing, unloaded, in five to ten sets total.

To build up to that I suggest starting with the simplest progression of 5 x pull ups, 10 x push ups, and 15 x squats for 10 sets – half of what is required. If necessary you can walk or run/ walk the running portions but I do suggest you perform them as the workout is very different without the running. If you have some kind of issue that prevents you from running (other than laziness) then you can row 2km instead of the 1mi runs.

  •  Week one – perform 10 sets of 5/10/15
  • Week two – perform 12 sets
  • Week three – perform 15 sets
  • Week four – perform 18 sets
  • Week five – test week for unloaded Murph.
  • Week six – begin pattern again but this time with the correct weight.

SEALFit use a 70min cut off as their test time for Murph. The addition of strength endurance work like this into your training will help you become even better in your other lifts. The extra work capacity and fitness will be a boost in terms of helping you recover as well as add some size to arms and back thanks to all the reps you’ll be doing. And as much as running gets demonized as a gains killer, running with some weight, or rucking as well, will help to keep your legs thick and strong.

Murph has been one of my favourite workouts since I first read about it. The differences it made to my overall strength and fitness when I first started it have been amazing. People who know its history know that the workout was essentially a battle test for one of the most heroic warriors of modern times. Lt. Michael Murphy felt that when he could get through this quickly and easily he was ready for combat. I have a friend in the SEALs who has completed this in 33min – 5 minutes faster than the winner of this event at the Crossfit Games in 2015. At 41 he exemplifies what a tough, strong warrior should be. Most of us will never get close to that kind of time but a sub-70min Murph is possible for all of us and will offer a host of benefits.

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8-7-4-3-2

Success leaves clues. No matter the subject if you want to be successful you only need to look to someone who has travelled that path before you and copy what they have done to achieve success too.

Somehow when it comes to fitness we all want to believe that there must be another way. A short cut. A trick. A way to game the system. We search endlessly for hacks and supplements when what we should be doing is nailing down basics.

At this point in my career, after more than three decades working out and twenty-five years training others, I must seem like a dinosaur to younger trainers. I see them all the time at the workshops I’ve taught all around the world.

Everyone does one of two things. Either, they over estimate their ability, which is very common, or they under estimate the power of the basics. As an example, Usain Bolt runs. Lance Armstrong rode his bike. And Michael Phelps swims. I don’t imagine Phelps turns up at the pool and complains to his coach about having to swim freestyle again. Funnily enough, if you watch the truly advanced what they have are extremely polished basics. It’s when people have a little success they go nuts and want more advanced things to work on.

As an example, the deadlift is probably the most simple of the lifts. Yet I’ve heard Andy Bolton speak about various technical elements of that one lift for three hours without repeating himself. Just because something is basic doesn’t mean there isn’t great depth to it.

Over the last year I’ve been running workshops that are unlike anything else in the fitness industry. See, unlike many who run workshops I couldn’t care less about certifying people and cashing in off them. The certification process has gone too far when I see, and this sadly isn’t a joke, a two-day certification in Australia for walking. I’m not kidding. Spend two days and a few hundred dollars and you too can learn to walk. So I haven’t bothered going down that path. I am a trainer and I work with people. So I developed a workshop that was for regular people training at home on their own.

These people don’t need bells and whistles. And because space is limited and equipment cost needs to be kept at a minimum I had to be very smart about what exercises we teach and how we piece it together. We needed not just basics but caveman basics.

And that was when I realized that for many people the entire way we speak about training is wrong. Most training plans are wrongly focused on trainers. The answer, when you think about it, is pretty simple to understand. Trainers are firstly very passionate about exercise. But more importantly, they are the ones purchasing the training workshops. If you cater to them you’ll always sell your program. So as much as I made fun of the walking certification, given the massive health benefits of walking perhaps it is the best certification you could do for your clients.

Because so many people are:

Overweight – in Australia the obesity rate will be 35% by 2025, costing our economy $60 billion dollars. Our current obesity rate is 28%, which forms part of already 2/3 of our population being overweight or obese – 62.8%, in fact, and it’s going to get worse. The number one cause for death in an over 44 year old is heart disease.

Move poorly – FMS research shows that only 16% of the people who walk through the door have any kind of pain or movement restriction. 41% of those who turn up wanting to train will have some kind of range of motion/ mobility problem.

Stressed – Nearly 10% of the population is on anti-depressants. With the number one cause of death in under 44-year old males being listed as suicide this number hints at a growing problem linked to poor health and increased work and relationship stresses that previously weren’t there.

And all of this gets us to the actual training. I’ve come up with a simple formula to reduce stress, increase health first, restore movement and then add performance on top. Many think they need more but if you look at how this all adds up, and are realistic about what will happen if you do this, you’ll see few will ever need to go beyond this.

 8-7-4-3-2.

8 – get 8 hours sleep every night.

7 – walk daily for 30-60 minutes to get 7 walks in a week.

4 – eat 4 good quality meals daily according to Precision Nutrition’s 10 habits.

3 – 3 cardiac output training sessions lasting 30-90 minutes each.

2 – for every strength session you do you need to stretch twice as much.

Sleep

Why wouldn’t you want to get 8 hours of sleep every night? Every night I jump in bed I am smiling like a little kid about to go to Disneyland. It’s like a little holiday I get to have every night.

The benefits of sleep are pretty clear. If you sleep less than 8 hours you have an increased hunger response meaning you are more likely to gain weight. That’s compounded by another study showing that if you get 6 hours of sleep per night you are 27% more likely to be overweight. Cut that to 5 hours and that number shoots up to 73%. And, sleeping less than 5 hours a night or less causes a 1.7 times increased risk of mortality.

If being overweight and dying faster weren’t enough reasons to get more sleep consider that this study here showed that after 17-19 hours without sleep (i.e. what happens on 5-7 hours of sleep) performance on some tests “was equivalent or worse than that at a BAC of 0.05%. Response speeds were up to 50% slower for some tests and accuracy measures were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol.” In other words, driving your car on less than 8 hours sleep gives you the same level of impairment as if you were legally drunk.

So it’s kind of important for the safety of everyone around you in your car that you are adequately rested. In fact, some of the biggest disasters in history have all had significant contribution from fatigue as a factor. Three-Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez, and Chernobyl all had operators working under extreme fatigue.

Walking

Katy Bowman notes in Move Your DNA that, “Walking is a superfood. It’s the defining movement of a human”. Perhaps the greatest benefit of walking is that while walking you can’t be sitting. Along with lack of sleep, sitting is one of the biggest problems faced by our world. Sitting for more than 8 hours a day is associated with a 90% increase risk of type 2 diabetes, along with increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and all-cause mortality.

I tell my clients I want them to walk for a few reasons beyond getting them out of a chair.

Vitamin D is right at the top of my list for the simple reason that no one goes outside enough anymore. We are designed to be outside and move around. The human body evolved to cover 15-18km a day walking while foraging for food and Vitamin D helps us in so many ways. Its number one benefit is its effect on the immune system. Not only that but it can help to buffer the system against cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, and common infections such as the flu.

Beyond the health aspects it gives us a stress free, repeatable way to burn some extra calories. It boosts aerobic system function, which is severely lacking in most people. In addition, while everyone thinks of walking as perfect for older clients, it may be in younger (under 44 year-olds) that it has the best effect. That is because low-level aerobic activity can stimulate the hippocampus. That’s the part of the brain that is responsible for spatial awareness, so it is very helpful in the elderly, but it is also responsible for moods. Remember above where I said that the number one cause of death for males under 44 is suicide? Now do you see how maybe walking each day might be helpful if it can help prevent suicide even by just a little?

Eating

Diet is so easy. Everyone over complicates it. When I first read the Precision Nutrition Ten Habits I instantly recognised the power in its seemingly simple guidelines. I’m not going to replicate them here but do yourself a favour and read this. A well-constructed diet plan forms part of the bedrock of both healthy living and athletic performance. That bedrock is formed by your lifestyle, not your training. No matter how hard you train or how fancy your plan is you cannot out train a poor lifestyle.

Cardiovascular training

I suggest, if you haven’t already read The Big Man Cardio Primer  that you do so. Everyone seems to think that anything that raises your heart rate is “cardio” and that simply isn’t so. As my friend Kenneth Jay says, “if that were the case I could scare you into being fitter”.

Having a healthy heart is a good thing if you want to live past 40. You don’t need HIIT. You don’t need to worry about speed. You need to worry about having a pump that is big enough and strong enough to last you a lifetime.

Stretching

Stretching gets a bad rap. Mostly it gets blasted by people under the age of 30 who have yet to experience what happens to muscles as they age. Usually these same people will often suggest that what is needed to improve exercise performance is a regression. That’s like saying that if your car is about to catch fire what you need is to go back to driving school.

FMS research shows that 41% of people have mobility restrictions. That means that there is about a 1 in 2 chance that you are one of them. Basic guides such as being able to get both arms overhead without having to do something goofy to your posture, being able to squat without any kind of form breakdown unloaded, and being able to touch your toes are all considered movement minimums. If you can’t do those you have a mobility restriction and should work on it.

Where most people go wrong with their range of motion work is in looking for quick fixes. Yes, it is possible to get a quick band-aid solution right now with a foam roller and an activation drill in some cases. However, that is unlikely to stick and you’ll have to perform the same drill every time you train from now until you die. Or you could stretch.

Flexibility, like strength, fitness, or power needs to be worked on diligently. As you age you will lose range as muscles lose their elasticity. When you strength train you will compound this by shortening the muscles. If you plan to retain even whatever limited range you have right now you will need to re-lengthen those muscles.

The added bonus though is that flexion based postures, such as downward dog in yoga, have a powerful effect on mitigating stress. When you add in focused breathing work while stretching we again get a powerful combination not just to improve ROM but decrease overall stress and improve health.

And for everyone who is about to say, “Yeah but that one study showed that static stretching had a negative effect on force production”. Well, don’t work on your splits and immediately go try to lift your 1RM. Fixed.

Conclusion

I’m aware that this plan looks basic but consider the following:

You’ll be walking daily for 30-60mins.

You’ll have 3 x 30-90min cardio sessions at a heart rate of 120-150bpm.

Given you’ll be doing cardio three days per week that leaves three days for strength training.

Given you will be doing three days of strength training that means you need six days of stretching to get a 2:1 ratio. For every hour of strength work you need 2 hours of stretching.

On top of that you’ll be eating four good quality meals per day.

You’ll sleep 8 hours per night.

Let’s be honest and say that if you had a client or a friend who walked daily, went to an hour yoga class daily, hit the gym three times week, and ran three times per week they’d be a stud. That right there is a gold-star client. Add in the proper sleep and nutrition and they’d have good body composition and be in top health.

So forget the advanced ideas. Give 8-7-4-3-2 a try and see just how “advanced” such a simple plan really is. The best bit is that it’s not limited by age by many training plans as this one will last you well into retirement.

To learn how to put all of this information into your own training, and which exercises you should or shouldn’t be doing, attend the Foundations of Strength workshop.

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How to lift weights faster for maximum effect

If you ever want to be anything other than a show pony at some point you’re going to have to do some type of training to develop your work capacity. Work capacity can be a fuzzy catch all term for many things. It combines aerobic endurance, muscular endurance, and is the sort of thing pictured when people talk about Hell Week during BUDS.

Everyone gets all tangled up over trying to define the terms, as if there is any appreciable difference to cardio or conditioning. Both require you to have an elevated heart rate and both teach you to work for extended periods of time. And truthfully, there is no one exercise that is builds work capacity that is exclusively one or the other.

Cardio comes from the Greek word kardia, for heart. For lack of a better definition anything that makes your heart work harder is going to be cardio work. Sure, in some minds cardio is what you do on an empty stomach to try to lose some fat. It is mind-numbing and boring to many and people are worried about losing their hard earned muscle.

Cardio has copped a bad rap over the last twenty years in response to the jogging craze of the 70s. Even worse, with a rise in popularity of fitness classes we saw the rise and fall of the lycra-clad, big-haired aerobics craze – something no self-respecting man would ever do in lieu of bench press. But there’s nothing wrong with making your heart bigger and stronger and you don’t need to wear pastel lycra to improve your conditioning.

You may think that if anything that gets your heart rate up can count as cardio training that you will be fine just doing high rep squats. Well, no. Just like you can have concentric and eccentric muscle contractions when doing curls and presses, your heart can have the same training adaptations.

It makes sense that the hearts of endurance athletes and strength athletes differ, just like their physiques do. In endurance training, the athlete’s heart must pump large quantities of oxygen to the working muscles for extended periods of time. To cope with this the main chamber of the heart, the left ventricle, gets both larger and slightly thicker.

However, in strength-trained athletes, there isn’t the need to pump such large quantities of blood. In stead the heart is subjected to higher blood pressures, and in response the left ventricle thickens up, and can actually even reduce the internal diameter of the heart. What that means is even though you’re spending time performing exercises that raise your heart rate instead of seeing a fitness benefit you’re effectively reducing your possible horsepower, just like trading down from a V8 to a 4-cylinder car. Perhaps the reason why you huff and puff walking up a flight of stairs has little to do with the bulking cycle you’ve been on and everything to do with your heart struggling to pump blood to all the muscle you’ve got?

When it comes to conditioning there is a very clear hierarchy. Like it or not some exercises are just more effective. In tier one are the classics – running, swimming, cycling, rowing, cross-country skiing, and the versa climber. Tier two includes kayaking, boxing, and kettlebell snatches. It’s not until you get to tier three that you find the exercises most try to use for conditioning – skipping rope, circuit training and kettlebell swings.

The reason why circuit training is in tier three comes down to one factor – blood flow. When a muscle is tensed beyond 50% all blood flow is stopped. That means that less oxygen is being used by the working muscles because less is being provided. And when it comes to getting that adaptation to the heart that helps it grow it’s all about the need for high levels of oxygenated blood to be pumped to the muscles.

This is one of the big disconnects when it comes to conditioning work – your goal is to end up with higher levels of work capacity. While circuits may help to develop high levels of strength endurance they do little to boost the ability of your heart to pump large quantities of blood. Further, because of the low loads used they do little to develop muscular strength. Frankly, if you’re looking for ways to improve functional horsepower there is a far better way.

There’s a saying in sports performance that “if it fires together it wires together”. That means if you really want a way to get real world conditioning, the kind that helps you not just out work your opposition, but crush their heads like a grape, you need a combination of heavy lifting and tier one conditioning.

Pat O Shea in his book Quantum Strength and Power Training first talked about interval Weight Training, or IWTs. The basic setup goes like this:

  • Perform a full body athletic movement such as the power clean, power snatch, or snatch pull for 8 – 12 reps. Immediately following the strength movement move to a cardiac conditioning effort for 2 – 4 minutes and work at 90 – 95% of your MHR. After completing this round, rest for two minutes and begin again, performing three total rounds.
  • Following the three rounds take a five-minute complete rest. Let’s face it – you’ve earned it by now, but you’re only 30% done.
  • Following the five-minute rest repeat the format first used, again using a whole body strength movement, but this time use a grinding type movement such as the front squat. Perform three total rounds again and take another well-earned five-minute break after.
  • The final stage is a bodyweight circuit using exercises performed at high pace, with minimal rest for 6 – 12 reps each. Rest no longer than one minute between circuits. Complete 3 – 5 complete circuits.

I’ll be honest and say that after you’ve earnestly done one of these workouts you’ll never think of a few mindless laps of farmer walks and prowler work as conditioning ever again.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t substitute small exercises for big ones. Lat pull downs aren’t a replacement for power cleans.
  • While the loads should be relatively light – O Shea recommends 70% of your 3RM – don’t skimp. The strength component must tax the muscles so you learn to display strength as well as high levels of conditioning.
  •  90 – 95% of Max Heart Rate is hard. Like collapse on the ground hard afterwards. If you don’t despise these workouts you’re just not doing them hard enough.
  •  If you think running for two minutes will make you skinny then stick to the big guy options – the Airdyne, rower, and ski erg – although a two-minute incline run on a treadmill is the hardest option you could do.
  • If using a heart rate monitor don’t expect to see your heart rate at 90%+ for the first thirty seconds. It takes about that long for it to really jump. Instead expect to see it peak right near end of your effort.

Bonus points – if you’ve spent some time already addressing your fitness and know that while strong you suffer with endurance work, then use slightly longer intervals of 3 – 4 minutes. Three-minute efforts, in particular, are heavily used in training methods designed to peak VO2max abilities – that is the kind of training that gets you comfortable with being uncomfortable and increases your top end fitness dramatically.

More is not more when it comes to IWTs. A single session each week done following the full format is enough to see great improvements in real-world conditioning, and see you ready to kick some serious ass when needed. Trying to do multiple IWTs in a week will see you burnt out very quickly.

Try this IWT once a week for four weeks before taking a break:

First round:

Power clean x 8 – 12 reps

Row 2 minutes.

Rest 2 minutes.

Repeat for three rounds total.

Rest five minutes before beginning round two.

Second round:

Back squat x 8 – 12 reps

Airdyne 2 minutes.

Rest 2 minutes.

Repeat for three rounds total.

Rest five minutes before beginning round three.

Third round:

Mountain climbers x 10

Push-ups x 10

Burpees x 10

Squats x 10

Box jumps x 10 (jump up and step down).

Rest one minute.

Repeat for five rounds total. Crawl into a corner and curse my name.

Your goals for this workout each week should be as follows:

Record the distances rowed on each interval. At the end of the four weeks you should cover 10% more total distance than you did in the first week. A good starting goal is 550m per two minutes. That means you should break 600m per interval in the final week.

Record total calories on each round for the Airdyne. Each Airdyne model records calories burned slightly differently. On the newer AD6s we expect to see 40 calories or better for two minutes, while on the older AD4s and the Stair Master Air Bike we see roughly double that. In either case, just like with the rowing, your goal is to add 10% over the four weeks.

What you’ll see to begin with:

If you’re really out of shape you’ll notice a tremendous drop off in the number of reps you can get with the strength exercise as well as how far you can go on each tier one effort. Over time, as you become fitter and better adapted, you’ll see that all your efforts stay very close to one another. At my gym we expect to see less than a 10% drop in performance from one interval to the next.

When choosing your weights don’t pick a weight that you can just get 8 reps with for the first set. That’s too heavy and the likelihood is that you’ll then get only 5 – 7 reps in the second and third sets. Instead pick a weight that you are confident you can get 10 reps with and try to get at least 8 reps each set. If your three rounds see you hitting 12 reps each time add some weight for next week.

Don’t be scared of conditioning. You won’t lose muscle. In fact, as you get better conditioned and your heart gets stronger you’ll find all sorts of other benefits such as faster recovery between sets of your regular workouts as well as increased recovery between workouts too. A strong, healthy heart is the most important muscle in the body.

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Talking Tabata

One of the more popular exercise regimes over the last two decades has been the Tabata protocol. Originally tested by Izumi Tabata in 1996 it was immediately latched onto by many as superior to other training regimes for fitness and fat loss. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin with we should take a look at exactly what the Tabata regime consisted of. After having been out for so many years it has been well and truly bastardised like a game of Chinese whispers.

What Tabata was:

The original test had two groups. The first group performed a one-hour ride at moderate intensity (70%MHR) five days per week. The second group, the one performing the Tabata protocol, performed the interval sessions four days per week with an additional fifth day performing a thirty-minute 70%MHR ride too.

All work performed was on a cycle ergometer fitted with a power meter.

The warm up for the Tabata days was a ten minute 70%MHR ride.

The intervals were performed for between six and eight reps at an intensity of 170% of the power seen at 70%MHR. If the athlete failed to achieve that power output the training was stopped for the day. (Which is why it is six to eight reps as failure usually occurred before the eighth rep).

Training lasted for six weeks at this volume and intensity.

What Tabata isn’t:

The original test varied from three to four minutes in length depending on the athlete and the day. If they could no longer hold the required power the test was halted. If each work interval can’t be sustained at 170% of power at 70%MHR then it’s not Tabata.

As the original test was performed on a bike you could reasonably argue that if you try this at home with any other method that isn’t a bike you’re not doing Tabata. However, as both rowing and ski ergometers have power readings I believe it would be possible to perform the Tabata protocol on them too. However, running would be impossible as there is no reliable way yet to measure power running.

Given oxygen uptake is lower when performing loaded training (i.e. resistance training of any kind) you cannot perform Tabata with weights/ circuit training. You can be following the same interval format, however it is not Tabata. Perhaps a better phrase would be “Inspired by Tabata” but it certainly won’t be Tabata.

The original protocol was never intended as a fat loss study. In fact, I can’t find a single reference to a decent fat loss paper using Tabata as the training protocol.

Before I really get into the most important thing about the Tabata program, and the single thing that I have never seen anyone else realize, I want to bust a few myths.

Fat Loss

Everyone always wants to claim that interval training is superior for fat loss compared to steady state efforts. It is, but not by as much as you think. The difference, as Lyle McDonald points out in this article here is only 7%. Aerobic training nets you a 7% EPOC (post exercise fat burn) of 7% and anaerobic/ interval training nets you 14%. So the difference is 7%.

To put that in perspective, at 70%MHR I burn roughly 30cal/ km on my bike. I know this because I have a power meter and it measures this among other things. Energy utilization is more about distance covered than speed. A thirty-minute ride will see me cover about 15km, which equates to 450cals. As anyone who rides will tell you a thirty-minute ride at that speed is a pretty easy session, so it’s no surprise that I don’t burn a huge amount of energy.

But my interval session – and it doesn’t matter what format that takes – isn’t going to burn substantially more. In fact, it’s only going to burn 31.5cals more. The downside, that everyone misses, is that it’s actually going to take longer too. To do an interval session that covers 15km I will need to do something like 1km hard followed by 1km easy, giving me 7-8km of hard riding from my 15km. But because I have to go so hard during the interval I will be crawling in my recoveries. Assuming I ride at roughly half of my normal aerobic pace in order to recover I would need to ride at 1.5 times my normal pace as a minimum during the work intervals to finish this workout in the same thirty minutes. Ask anyone who rides just how hard it is to ride solo at 45km/hr for a single kilometer and then see if you actually even know a single person who can ride seven or eight of them.

In other words, you may burn more calories – a paltry 31.5 of them – but you’re going to spend more time doing it anyway. Over a given week, when you had to destroy yourself to gain those extra 126cals of fat loss (assuming you are doing intervals four days per week as written of in the original Tabata research), how long do you think you can keep that up?

In fact, one of the points the researchers actually noted in the original paper was that those performing Tabata style training found it incredibly unpleasant making it unlikely to be a long term solution. And, for the record, that 126cals is the equivalent of burning an extra 45g of fat each week – the same as half an apple.

So given the extreme levels of discomfort and the fact that most stated they couldn’t handle following the protocol for extended periods of time, and that any extra potential fat loss is limited, can we finally put to rest the notion that Tabata is a potent fat burning workout?

Fitness

In the original research both the steady state control group and the Tabata group trained for a total of six weeks. Here’s where it gets interesting…

Over the first three weeks the Tabata group saw far more improvement than the control group did. But then they saw almost no further improvement for the last three weeks. That resulted in a net difference between the Tabata group and the control group of… nothing.

VO2max in both groups increased the same amount. What the Tabata group did find was that they saw improvements in their anaerobic capacity because of the SAID principle.

Here’s the Two Things Everyone Misses

I’ll cover the easy bit first. When it comes to peaking for an event what the Tabata study showed is that you don’t need much. The Tabata group tailed off their improvements around the three-week mark. Because we’re all slightly different let’s say we need between two and four weeks for individual variances. In other words, you only need to kill yourself with this style of training if you’ve got an event within the next two to four weeks. Otherwise you’re better off just sticking with mostly base building with maybe a single interval session per week to keep the anaerobic endurance at a decent level. I’d even suggest that if your sport is highly anaerobic in nature such as BJJ, wrestling, Judo, soccer, etc. that as long as you’re training regularly you’ll be getting all the anaerobic training you need and you can spend your other training time on recovery/ base building methods.

Now we get to the really important bit. My last blog – 70% at 80/ 20 – talked about how the training load should be spread out so that the vast majority of sessions are designed to boost the system.

Think of the easy sessions as pushing your fitness up fro underneath while the harder sessions pull it up. To gain as much fitness as possible we need a combination of pushing sessions as well as pulling sessions. Research and practice both point to the ideal make up being far more easy pushing sessions than harder pulling sessions. Seiler showed in a long term study that an 80/ 20 mix was ideal for long-term gains.

Let’s do some math…

The Tabata program consisted of four days per week doing ten minutes of easy warm up, plus an additional thirty minutes on day five. That’s seventy minutes of easy work each week.

The daily interval structure, and let’s use eight reps to give the maximum value, was a total of four minutes. But it really wasn’t because the athletes only worked for twenty seconds out of every thirty. That means that total work time in the hard zone is 160 seconds per day, or three minutes and ten seconds. Over four days that equals twelve minutes and forty seconds.

Now when you divide 70mins of total aerobic/ easy work by 12mins and 40secs, do you know what it equals? It’s 18%. The total amount of hard work completed in a given week was 18% versus the total amount of aerobic work. That seems remarkably close to the magical 80/ 20 I spoke of in the last blog.

The missing bit of information is not that Tabata is better for fat loss. Because it isn’t. It’s not that Tabata is better for fitness gains. Because it isn’t.

The missing concept is that without the 82% of easy work being done the Tabata intervals will not be as effective. You need the accompanying easy work to pull your fitness up gently while the Tabata intervals pull it up painfully.

Conclusion

Despite claims to the contrary the Tabata method probably isn’t any better for fat loss than any other type of hard workout. In the long term it may be worse because compliance will suffer the longer you use this training method for. If you really want to see your abs don’t look for the workout will nearly kill you while only burning a few extra calories. Instead get your meals squared away and stop eating shit and trying to out train your poor choices.

While the Tabata method may be a great peaking tool to increase you to maximum fitness quickly you will only need it for a few weeks – two to four, depending on individual make up. Having said that, there are plenty of other interval methods, which may be superior in the short term.

If you do decide to run a hard interval scheme for a period make sure to do enough easy work to buffer it out. That magic 80/ 20 formula pops its head up again and again when you start to look at how the fittest people on the planet got to be that way and the Tabata protocol shares that same make up. Ignoring it because you think you don’t need it is foolhardy and likely counter productive.

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70% x 80/ 20

The fitness world is a strange one. Despite people finally starting to understand that washboard abs don’t necessarily mean someone is a bad ass we still have this idea that someone who looks like a beast performs like one.

But if you’ve spent any amount of time at all around martial arts you’ll know that it’s not unusual for someone who looks like they couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag to beat an opponent who looks like a GI Joe doll. The first Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock fight springs immediately to mind. But so too, does Phil Baroni vs. Mat Lindland as well as all of Fedor’s fights. (Because Fedor looks like a teddy bear. That can kill you. While seemingly half asleep).

In our heads, thanks to the fitness media and the pervasiveness of social media, we still seem to think that more strength training equals better performance. Am I the only one who remembers what happened to Ivan Drago who spent all his time pumping iron in the gym while Rocky ran in the mountains?

The bottom line is that people confuse the three elements of fitness/ conditioning. Performance on the field is made up of four factors. The first is technical skills and the ability to use efficient technique. It doesn’t mater of you have the internal biology of Lance Armstrong if you have no skill in the sport in question you will lose. Skills are always first. But the next three can be made up in varying quantities depending on the athlete. Those three are cardiovascular fitness, strength endurance, and mental toughness.

Mental toughness is not something you are going to develop in the gym. I know various people will tell you that it is possible to develop it in the gym, but they’ve clearly never been on a six-hour heavy ruck. Or ridden up a 13% gradient for 28km. Because in comparison to those everything in the gym is a peace of cake. What I’m trying to say is if you or your athlete lack mental toughness there are faster ways to develop it than on workouts that last a single hour in an air-conditioned gym.

That leaves two main elements we need to address – cardiovascular fitness and strength endurance. The two often get accidentally linked via the mechanism I spoke on in the introduction – the fallacy that weight training is the most efficient means to develop any component of fitness, whether it be speed, power, or endurance. I will make this simple – at every heart rate weight training produces less cardiovascular improvement than traditional aerobic training methods. Running, rowing, cycling, swimming, and cross-country skiing are all faster ways to develop a big engine.

The big question at this point is why do you want a bigger engine? Along with the myth that six-pack abs equal performance is the one that says that most sports are played in an anaerobic zone. The old breakdown of the way the body creates energy is split into three parts. It looks like this:

  • ATP-CP system – responsible for short bursts of explosive activity for up to 6-8 seconds.
  • Lactic system – Takes over when the CP system runs out of steam and can power efforts up to around the 2min mark.
  • Aerobic system – The longer the event goes the more the aerobic system will influence how you create energy.

All these systems work all the time. But here’s where you need to have a major rethink – at approximately 70 seconds the aerobic system becomes the dominant player. The longer your event goes for, or even the more intervals you may do in a single session, the more you’re going to need a strong aerobic system. That rugby player who runs at low speeds for 80 minutes with repeated sprint bursts? Heavily aerobic. The ice hockey player who may only be on the ice for 30 seconds at a time, but plays in matches that last an hour? Also heavily aerobic. The BJJ competitor who has matches that last 5 minutes, but then has further matches to advance in the competition? The more matches he has the more aerobic strength he needs.

The bottom line is that unless you’re involved in something that is a one-off effort that takes less than 70 seconds to complete you would do well to spend some time on aerobic development.

The good news is that you don’t need to mindlessly smash yourself to do so. In fact, doing so may be counter-productive. As I wrote about in Run Strong, the best athletes in the world spend 80% of their training volume around 70% max heart rate. If you look at the formula given for cardiac output training – the kind designed to bring up a lagging aerobic system and boost ventricular hypertrophy – it’s between 120-150bpm. 70% of my MHR is 128bpm. A walk up a steep hill will cover that nicely with very little stress to my body.

But, if I spend 80% of my time on relatively easy fitness work I need to spend 20% of my time on hard work, right? This session here is where you put in the hard 400m intervals, or 500m repeats on the rower. But remember – it’s one in every five sessions that you need this, not four out of five with a single easy session. In other words, for the person who does daily fitness work you need a single hard session each week. If you do only three cardio sessions weekly then you do this single hard session once every two weeks.

That decision to selectively use intensity can be applied to your strength endurance work too. While traditional cyclic activities are better for aerobic gains an element of sport conditioning will always come down to muscular endurance. Even once people wrap their heads around the selective use of intensity while running or cycling they can never seem to understand that the same CNS that powers you outside is the same one that you use in the gym.

The texts on Russian weightlifting, which pretty much all of modern training knowledge is based on, all limited intensity to a single number. Until a lifter cleared Candidate Master of Sport (roughly a lifter who would be heading to nationals but not good enough to win) their average intensity year round would be 70%. That doesn’t mean that they never lifted heavier. It means that they spent a lot of time on easier lifts and used volume to do a lot of the work for them.

So looking at this, we have a combination of the best aerobic athletes in the world choosing to spend the majority of their training time at 70% as well as the best lifters in the world doing the same in the gym. My question to you is why are you trying to train harder when you are not even close to world class?

The body can only handle so much stress. It has no way to differentiate between work stress, family stress, sickness, relationship stress, and training stress. It just feels stress. Given the way most people under recover through poor sleep and diet they are already behind the eight-ball when it comes to how hard they can train anyway. So wouldn’t it make more sense to drop the intensity and actually have sessions you can recover from?

To make this system work is simple. Whether you’re in the gym lifting weights or you’re out running the hills drop the intensity to 70% for four out of five sessions. To begin with you’ll feel like you’re cheating, like this can’t possibly be hard enough to help you get any better. Then, one day out of every five sessions go to the wall. Test for a new PR whether it’s in the squat rack or on the track. Think of the 70% sessions as building sessions and the max effort session as a test session. Spend the majority of your time building fitness and then test it. Sounds a lot like what athletes do, doesn’t it? Maybe there’s something to that…

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The no BS kettlebell swing guide

The kettlebell swing can be a fantastic exercise when done correctly. It can be used to increase vertical jump, improve muscular endurance, and even to help fix bad backs. But the way I see most people doing them isn’t going to do any of that. The only real benefit from the way I see most kettlebell swings done will be your to your physiotherapist’s bank account.

The two-hand swing is the first version of the swing you learn and often the one people return to most simply for its convenience. But there are two other versions of the swing that should get used far more – the one-hand swing and the double swing.

The Problem With Using Two Hands

For starters, and this opinion is never popular, kettlebells are not designed to be used with two hands. I am well aware there are many exercises you can do with two hands with kettlebells that are great, but these are all patterning exercises for more advanced variations to come later on in your training.

Take the goblet squat as an example. The goblet squat was invented by necessity to quickly teach a room of high school kids the correct mechanics of squatting without needing to give an hour-long lecture on the subject. It is a patterning exercise.

Having said that, you still need to pattern this exercise correctly to receive maximum benefit. Here’s a proven four-step plan to have you swinging well quickly.

1 Wall Touch

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart facing away from a wall. Make sure you are about half the length of your thigh away from the wall.
  • Take the blades of your hands – the part you’d karate chop someone with – and place them on the creases in your groin where your underpants sit.
  • Push back your hips with the blades of your hands until your butt touches the wall.
  • Now, this next bit is important – do not put any weight on the wall. Your butt should touch the wall but all the weight should be on your feet – not leaning against the wall.
  • Perform ten reps of this wall touch.
  • Once you can do that, edge your feet away from the wall by about the length of your big toe and repeat the drill. You’ll notice you probably need to bend your knees a little to actually touch the wall – that’s okay. But make sure the first body part that bends is your hips and not your knees.
  • Perform another ten reps.
  • Edge away from the wall a bit more – probably about half the length of your big toe by now and repeat. You’ll have to really work hard to push back from the hips and not squat into it. Hips bend first, knees bend incidentally but they do bend. The hips need to travel down and back – do not make the common error of just bending at the waist.

2 Deadlift

The next step is to add a kettlebell, but perform this same action slowly. We used to say on the racetrack, “If you can’t do it slow, you’ll never do it fast.” It applies here, too. You need to be able to keep that same hips-down-and-back position and maintain a flat back while you deadlift.

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart again and place the kettlebell between your feet with the handle running across you and in line with the knuckles of your big toes.
  • Do the exact same thing you did with the wall touch, reaching down and back with the hips until you get to the kettlebell. Don’t just bend over and reach for it. Make the movement at the hips get you to the point where your hands can grab the kettlebell handle.
  • When you take hold of the kettlebell, you need to take the slack out of your body. To do this hold the kettlebell and pull yourself slightly towards it, deliberately trying to shorten the space between the joints and compress yourself.
  • Reverse the motion making sure to stand tall at the top. Shoulders should be down and back, making a big chest (as if you are proud to be working with kettlebells, and you should be). Tense the glutes firmly, imagine drawing up the kneecaps to the groin while simultaneously pushing down into the ground as hard as you can through the feet.

3 Dead Swing

Now it’s time to get things swinging. But only a little to begin with. While the deadlift teaches you the mechanics of the swing it also creates in a way a false position, as you will never need to go that low when swinging.

  • For the dead swing, set up like for the deadlift except the kettlebell will be just in front of you – about the length of one of your feet away.
  • Once you have lowered yourself to the bell, positioning the hips down and back, grab hold of the kettlebell and again take the slack out of your body.
  • Now simply hike the bell back hard – force plate analysis of the swing shows far more force should be generated on the backswing than on the upswing so don’t be shy. Make sure to keep the alignment of the body and not crumple as the weight of the bell pulls you back.
  • Perform a single swing and return the bell to its starting position.
  • Perform ten single reps.

4 Continuous Swings

The only thing you need to do now is to continue swinging instead of stopping after each rep. You will find that sets of ten to twenty reps are about right. Anything more will likely lead to poor form and maybe a sore back.

Time to stop patterning and train

However, we use the two-hand swing to initially teach the swing, but one-hand and double swings are far more beneficial in the long term. Don’t make the rookie error of predominantly performing two-hand swings for the rest of your life when there are better variations to use.

While the two-hand swing teaches us how to brace and create midline stability in the sagittal plane, the one-hand swing adds an anti-rotation component. Meaning, we are effectively killing more birds with the same cannonball with a handle than if we do two-hand swings. If training time is short, you’re better off getting more done in a single exercise.

Not only that but the one-hand swing allows us to work the grip harder, which in turn means we need to stabilize the shoulder more. In the FMS system, the one-hand swing is the final proof of a stable shoulder due to this grip-stability relationship that is derived from packing the shoulder properly.

And when we add in the control of rotary forces, what we have is an exercise that covers other FMS domains, such as the active straight leg raise (as the swing in any form is the final proof of that being adequate), shoulder mobility, the trunk stability push up, and rotary stability. Because these four elements make up the fundamental patterns in the FMS test, we know if we address these, or at least prove our ability to do them, then we will be able to do a host of other athletic movements, too. In other words, if you can perform a one-hand swing well you are likely able to perform many other more complex tasks well too.

 A Simple Progression for One-Hand Swings

For many people, the toughest part of learning the one-arm swing won’t be the swing action itself. That should have been adequately covered in all the initial pattering work you did with the two-hand swing. Instead, the thing they’re going to most struggle with is learning to pack and control the shoulder properly.

1. Side Planks

In this position, we are unloaded and close to lying – our most basic posture for learning patterns. All the work is done by learning to keep the shoulder stable and linking that through the rest of the body to prevent the body sagging to the ground.

2. Kettlebell row from bilateral stance

Hinge at the waist to get into the correct posture for rowing. Where side planks work shoulder stability with a compression strategy the one-hand swing requires stabilising with a distraction strategy. For that we need a pulling motion.

Hold the kettlebell in one hand. Pack the shoulder and focus on pulling the elbow as far back as possible while keeping the shoulder packed at all times. Unlike a regular rowing exercise we’re not doing this to build the back but to reinforce shoulder packing on the working arm. The purpose here is not to smoke the arms and back with rows, but to make sure the trunk stays braced and the shoulder packed.

3. Suitcase Deadlifts

We use the deadlift to teach the two-hand swing because the deadlift is done at a much slower pace and it allows you to really feel what you should be doing without the stress of the high speed of the swing. So why aren’t we using the suitcase deadlift to teach the one-arm swing for the same reason?

When doing this movement, focus on drawing the shoulder blade into the opposite hip corner and shortening the body by contracting down the obliques. The key to this movement is that body shouldn’t tip sideways or lose posture in any way. If it does, then either the weight is too heavy to learn with or you need to regress a step until better control is possible.

 4. One-Hand Swing

Keep all the things worked on up until this point consistent – the hinge taught in the two-hand swing, neutral spine, full hip extension at the top of the swing, breathing, and the shoulder packing learned during the three preceding steps. Do all those pieces and your one-hand swing will be great.

If you want to learn the fastest and safest way to use kettlebells make sure to book into our Deep Six Kettlebell Workshop on June 25! Book now to save $100.

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The big man cardio primer

In my mind the sole reason that anyone would go to a gym is to get stronger. While these days gyms are filled with a host of expensive cardio equipment the reality for many is that they could just as easily run, walk, or ride a bike outside as at the gym. However for many there is no way you could reasonably purchase and store a huge amount of strength equipment at home.

Obviously strength training is a good thing and many people need it. Well planned resistance training can help prevent all kinds of things from falls to bone wasting to not looking good in a tight T-shirt (perhaps the worst ailment to suffer from).

So you go to the gym. You get stronger. Muscles gain size. Then next thing you know you are struggling for breath after walking up a flight of stairs. All that muscle you’ve gained is quite costly and needs to be fed with oxygen to keep it going.

At this point most of the hardcore lifter types will turn their back on any form of cardio training for fear of losing their hard won gains. But no matter how much muscle you have, and no matter how important it is to you to be big and lean, sooner or later you’re going to realize that you need to look after your heart too.

Most big guys make the decision to “condition” using some type of loaded movement such as farmer walks or sled pulls and pushes. Maybe they even fit in a WOD or two.

But there’s a problem with this. Loaded work doesn’t get the same heart response as unloaded work does. Just like your pecs or biceps your heart has concentric and eccentric adaptations. Normal cardiovascular exercise, such as running or rowing, stretches the main chamber of the heart eccentrically and allows it to hold more blood. Essentially it turns your pump into a bigger pump. That’s a good thing. On the flip side of this the strength trained heart gains thickness, just like your other muscles do. That makes sense, right? Your heart responds to training in the same way your other muscles do by becoming thicker and stronger.

While a thicker, stronger heart may sound appealing this isn’t necessarily the case. A thicker heart wall can impact the internal diameter of heart. That’s right – your big thick heart can actually end up with a smaller internal diameter meaning that it can actually hold less blood. That’s bad. That means that despite looking like a Mack truck on the outside you’re being powered by a Prius engine on the inside. Because what happens when the heart thickens is that unlike your other muscles which swell outwards, the heart can swell inwards too.

And when you end up with that Prius engine your aerobic system is going to be underpowered. I know what you’re about to say. “But bro, I’m a strength and power athlete. I don’t want to be a skinny armed aeroba geek”. Well, the aerobic system under pins all of your training, even the strength and power work that is only performed for seconds at a time. The side effects of being deficient aerobically are as follows:

Fatigue – The most common symptom is the need for sugar to maintain function. Even just sitting still. Ever wondered why you feel the need to reach for chocolate mid-afternoon? You’ve stopped burning fat effectively and need to get into sugar burning mode because you’ve spent so much time practising burning sugar for fuel with all your anaerobic work.

  • Increased body fat – Commonly caused by increasing carbohydrates in the diet to cope with all the anaerobic work being done.
  • Chronic inflammation – Can trigger injuries and ill health.
  • Physical injuries – The structures that support our movement, the slow twitch stabilizing muscles, the ligaments and tendons are all fed by our aerobic system.
  • Hormonal imbalances – Most commonly seen as high levels of cortisol and low levels of DHEA. The signals for these are cravings for sugary foods, insomnia, and high levels of body fat.
  • Reduced performance – Seen as fatigue, loss of speed, and general overtraining.

Add on to this that for many the lengths they go to in order to gain weight are likely to place their system under more stress too. Like it or not those ideal height and weight charts are based off decades of research into mortality rates and you are not so special that you are likely to fall far from the center of the curve. Even if you’re built like Lee Priest in contest shape I will wager you had to make a choice about your supplementation routine that is very unlikely to increase your health at all. Steroids such as dianobol and trenbolone have documented negative effects on the heart and that’s before you add a ton of weight and spike the blood pressure.

Cardio, or cardiovascular exercise, comes from the Greek work kardia, which means heart. In other words, if we want to best benefit the heart by doing cardio then we need to use a method that best benefits the heart. What usually ends up happening is people say “cardio” when what they mean is “strength endurance”. Strength endurance is a very important part of the overall picture that conditioning represents but is driven by two parts – maximal strength and aerobic endurance.

When it comes to adding load to our cardio by working on strength endurance as opposed to aerobic endurance one very important thing happens that actually prevents it from helping us gain fitness. When muscles tense up beyond 50% of their capacity blood flow is restricted. While occlusion training can be beneficial for hypertrophy work it doesn’t do much for your oxygen uptake to the working muscles. And without that oxygen uptake the heart isn’t forced to get larger and pump more of that precious gas to the muscles. And this is exactly why if you want to improve your fitness and gain a healthier heart the usual big guy options of the sled and loaded walks are out. The same goes for kettlebell swings too.

The only activities that allow the muscles to uptake more oxygen are the normal low load cyclic activities that people have used for gaining fitness for centuries. You know, walking, running, cycling, rowing, or riding a bike.

Running is the top of the tree when it comes to cardio. But running comes at a cost for those who want to be as big as possible too. Not only that but one of those increased risks that comes from an increased bodyweight is to the joints. At 2-3 times bodyweight per step running, and at 1500 steps per kilometer a big guy weighing 120kg is going to destroy knees, hips, and back pretty quickly as they’ll need to deal with 360kg of stress on every step. Over a short 3km (2mi) run that equates to 1.6mil kg of force to cope with.

So where does that leave big guys for cardio?

If you want to preserve your mass and have a heart that will serve you well for the rest of your life you need to look beyond what the normal endurance folks do. The more weight you have to carry in an activity the more likely it is to shed weight and damage you. Your best friends in the gym for cardio are going to be rowing, hill walking, bike, and the ski ergometer.

These big man cardio options are just as taxing on the heart if used correctly as running, with the added benefit of not placing any strain on your joints. But, and it’s going to be a painful but, you can’t do intervals. HIIT isn’t your friend. By adding all that muscle you’ve already spent a massive proportion of your time on anaerobic work. You need to do some aerobic work.

Luckily for you, with your Mack truck chassis and Prius heart, aerobic work won’t be very difficult to begin with. A basic formula for aerobic work, devised by the guy who basically invented heart rate training, is to subtract your age from 180. Here’s how it works:

  1. Subtract your age from 180.
  2. Modify this number by selecting from among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:
  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
  • If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
  • If you have been training consistently (at least four times per week) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180 – age) the same.
  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

To begin with, if you’re not used to this type of training, you’re going to find that upper threshold pretty quickly. I’m going to add one small adjustment to this formula – because this formula is devised for running if you use a rower or a bike subtract another 5bpm.

To make this work is simple. You have a Prius engine and it needs to get bored out and turned into the big V8. No more looking like Tarzan but playing like Jane. To make that happen you want the heart to be stressed enough that it is forced to enlarge that main chamber of the heart, while not being too high as that will actually counter act everything we’re trying to achieve.

Yeah, you read that right. Cardio, actual benefit your heart cardio, isn’t all about go hard or go home. When you go too hard the blood is ejected from the heart before the main chamber can even completely fill up. That means that there is no need for your Prius engine to ever adapt to that stress and you’ll still find yourself with an undersized engine a year down the track despite having hammered yourself into the ground with the world’s hardest “cardio” sessions.

Instead of trying to make your heart explode through your chest we’re going to apply that 180 rule to our sessions. Now comes the bit people don’t like to hear. To encourage that chamber of the heart to expand you’re going to need to get it working for 30+ minutes. In fact, the general recommendation for this type of work – called Cardiac Output Training – is 30-90 minutes at 120-150bpm (which the 180 rule falls well within for most). You do not need to train any harder than that to get this benefit. In fact, as explained above, if you train much harder you risk never getting that adaptations you need to make your heart a bigger, better pump.

If the idea of 30+ minutes on a single piece of equipment bores you to tears try breaking it up in five-minute chunks. A very easy way to get through these sessions mentally is to do five minutes of rowing, jump on the Airdyne for another five minutes, and then back onto the rower for another five minutes. Alternate back and forth in five-minute chunks until you’ve been at it for more than thirty minutes. Don’t rest between each piece of equipment, as you need to keep the heart rate elevated to elicit that response. Do this workout three times per week.

The benefits to all of this aerobic training will be:

  • Better recovery between hard work sets of strength training.
  • Better recovery between workouts.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Better body composition.
  • Increased use of fatty acids as fuel.
  • Healthier heart.

For those interested in reading more Run Strong is available here.

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Eat like a man

Things are pretty easy when you’re under thirty. You can party all night and get up and go to work on only a few hours sleep. You can drink and eat pretty much whatever you want. A few weeks of eating well and hitting the gym and you can melt your poor choices right off again.

But then you hit your late thirties and things change. Your body slows down. And suddenly you can’t get away with anything anymore. Suddenly you’re one of the many men who will soon be at risk of heart disease thanks to your expanding waistline.

Make no mistake – being overweight kills. And with more than 60% of the Western World being overweight or obese the odds are not in your favour. As society becomes more and more out of shape our own perspectives change. What we view as acceptable in most cases is still overweight and brings with it many, many health risks.

Men struggle for many reasons when it comes to eating well. Here are the four biggest problems:

You follow the wrong diet advice

When it comes to trimming the fat most men go to one of two sources. Either they grab the first bodybuilding magazine they see or they ask their partner.

If they grab a bodybuilding magazine they’re going to follow a diet for someone who is (a) training for up to two hours a day, and (b) is on a supplement program that has raised their testosterone levels to as much as forty times what is normal for an adult male.

Heavy training breaks muscle down. The more you train, and the heavier you train, the greater your need will be to repair and rebuild muscle. But you’re not training ten hours a week. You’re training three. You’re not deadlifting two or more times your bodyweight for reps. The damage just isn’t being done to justify the volume of food suggested in most bodybuilding magazines.

This doesn’t even take into account the effects of huge amounts of supplemental testosterone and growth hormone. I’ve seen competition bodybuilders talk about eating 10,000 calories a day to get into competition shape. For some perspective, Tour de France riders eat around 8,000 calories a day. To think you could eat 10,000 a day and get super cut is ludicrous unless you’re taking more hormones than the entire Kentucky Derby field.

But the problems don’t stop there. If you turn to your significant other for advice you may well be steered towards Jenny Craig or one of the various detox diets on the market. If you want to turn into a sedentary housewife then by all means eat like one. Most popular diets are designed around the caloric needs of a middle aged, medium sized woman with low activity levels. If that sounds like how you want to be built, then go for it, otherwise you may need a different strategy.

Eating to bulk

Another throwback to bodybuilding is the idea that to gain muscle you need to gain some fat too. It’s true, you do, but you’re not bulking. Like I pointed out above it’s likely you’re not actually in the gym enough to gain significant muscle mass. When you add in the difficulty in gaining muscle naturally once you pass your mid thirties all you’re really doing is gaining unnecessary body fat.

Forget a number on the scales that you think you should be. Judge how fat you are or aren’t by simply looking in the mirror. Can you grab more than an inch of fat around your waist? Then you’re too fat.

The side effects of carrying too much weight are compounded by age. Heart disease, diabetes, insulin resistance, gut inflammation, and atherosclerosis are all some of the fun things you can look forward to by permanently being on a bulking phase.

Drinking too much

Like it or not alcohol is a big problem for many. At some point in life you need to make a decision about the type of life you want to lead. If you choose a life of health and fitness then alcohol has little part in it.

Beyond the caloric and fat burning implications, which I’ll get into in a moment, drinking at night makes training well the next day nearly impossible. It makes getting up early harder. And on a side note, when you turn up for work bleary eyed and a little cranky again, everyone notices. If you want to be treated like an adult then learn to treat alcohol like an adult. That doesn’t mean the complete cessation of drinking but it does mean that alcohol is a treat to be enjoyed sparingly.

When it comes to losing fat alcohol packs a one-two punch that makes it hard to get any real traction. This twofold problem goes like this:

Alcohol contains a ton of energy. A single gram of alcohol has seven calories in it. Fat, for reference, has nine. Protein and carbohydrate on the other hand come in at roughly half that at four each. The maths on drinking isn’t pretty once you start to dig.

Let’s say you decide to drink a mixed spirit – something like a scotch and coke. Now, a normal shot of alcohol is roughly 30g. A 30g shot of scotch has 64 calories in it. That isn’t so bad, but the coke that you’re having with it? In a standard 300ml glass that means you’re going to pick up an extra 195 calories in sugar water. So each drink is roughly 250 calories. For reference, that is about the same as 100g of chicken breast. And which one do you think is more in line with your physique goals?

And don’t think that beer is a better choice. A single can of beer comes in around 150 calories. That six-pack you just drank watching the footy on Sunday afternoon? It has the same amount of energy in it as half a day’s worth of food for most men.

If, and it’s a big if, you’re disciplined enough to be able to just have a drink or two you might be able to get away with it. However, I’ve been to very few social situations where people limit themselves to only a drink or two.

But the problems don’t stop there. Drinking alcohol severely limits your ability to burn fat. And by “severely limits” I mean it stops it completely. For up to three days. So those drinks you had on Sunday afternoon at your kid’s birthday party mean that no matter what you do in the gym or the kitchen your diet doesn’t start again until Wednesday afternoon. And that’s from a single drink.

Complacency

Many men simply roll over and die past a certain age. They don’t bother making any effort with their food preparation, as if cooking well is beneath them. I know plenty of guys past forty who will either starve to death if their wives die, or go on an all-takeout diet as their basic food preparation skills are so bad. Cooking doesn’t have to be fun. Part of being an adult is manning up and doing things you don’t like – that’s why we go to work, pay taxes, and visit the in-laws. Add food preparation to that list.

For many years there has been less social stigma attached to being an out of shape male. However, if you’re reading my blog you’re not one of those people. If you’re reading this you care about how you look and how you perform. As such you need to recognise that athletes don’t carry any superfluous body mass. If it doesn’t help you go faster, hit harder, or compete better then get rid of it. It doesn’t mean you need to have a six-pack – a level of body fat likely below ten percent – but it does mean you should fall on the lean end of normal, or around the fifteen percent bodyfat mark.

Solutions:

If you’re carrying too much bodyfat get rid of it. It makes everything else so much easier. Don’t worry about any kind of performance goals until you’ve nailed down this health goal. Get bodyfat levels down to the lean end of normal – around 15% – then worry about the rest.

Eating well is not as hard as you think but does require some effort. What a surprise that something worthwhile requires effort, right? This is especially true in the beginning as you’ll need to form new habits.

Limit alcohol intake. No, you don’t “need” alcohol. You need oxygen. That’s the difference. Quit using alcohol as a reward or medication.

Eat like an adult male keen on remaining athletic. Here’s what a sample day may look like:

  • Breakfast (pre-training) – protein shake with 1 cup frozen berries made with water.
  • Second breakfast – 2 eggs, 2 cups of spinach, mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes.
  • Lunch – 120-150g serve of some kind of meat such as beef, chicken, or fish. 2 cups of salad mix.
  • Afternoon snack – 1 apple, almonds (about enough to cover half your palm).
  • Dinner – as for lunch but replace the salad mix with vegetables like broccoli, peas, beans, and other leafy green vegetables.

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How to program for over 40s athletes

Training would be easier if we were all honest about our motives. While a few athletes would say they train for sports performance because their livelihood depends upon it, many others would finally be forced to admit the truth. And the truth is, the majority of people train for vanity.

Whether we want to admit it or not, the idea of being more attractive to potential mates is hard to get past. That’s no slight on training for vanity as without it our species wouldn’t have survived – there’s a definite plus to being seen as attractive to a potential partner. But there’s another reason that comes in a close second place, and that’s delaying the aging process. A lot can be done in the gym to prevent the losses that come with increasing years.

The decline in physical ability begins in the mid-30s and continues until we die. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s just how it goes. While there are some impressive older athletes around, they’ll be the first to tell you that what they can do now is nowhere near what they could do when they were younger.

The physical slide affects everything, from fitness, to speed, to power. The heart loses roughly a beat per year from its maximum capacity, which is reached in the mid to late 20s. The heart’s ability to pump blood diminishes by 5-10 percent per decade, too. This is matched by a loss of aerobic fitness of roughly 10 percent per decade.

Strength has been shown to drop by 25 percent at age 65 after peaking in the mid-30s. That’s about 8 percent per decade. Interestingly, power also drops by about 8 percent per decade from ages 20 to 70. We also lose 8-10cm of lower back and hip flexibility as we age due to the changes in both lifestyle as well as loss of collagen.

But the news isn’t all bad. Newer research shows much of these age-related declines, like loss of muscle or bone density, could be offset if you continue training. I would assume if you’re reading this, you’re keen on staying as fit and strong as possible for life. Like most of our clients at RPT the game becomes one of avoiding unnecessary losses to our fitness base. So the real question isn’t whether you should continue moving, but what the best choices are to keep as much of your movement as you can for as long as possible.

Looking at the relatively similar losses across the major areas of fitness, it makes sense to address them all equally. To recap, they are:

  • Flexibility
  • Power
  • Strength
  • Aerobic fitness

These elements are not listed in order of importance, because I believe they are all equally important. I have simply listed them in the order they should be performed within a training session. Don’t get tied to a specific program or a group of favorite exercises. Yes, I know you’ll make faster progress if you follow a set plan. But let’s be realistic – unless you’re a rank beginner, you aren’t getting better at 50+.

Flexibility and range of motion are the bedrock of all performance, regardless of age. I recently made a post on Instagram that said, “I wish I’d spent less time on mobility, flexibility, and soft tissue work when I was younger. Said no one over the age of forty ever.” That pretty much explains how you’ll feel once you turn forty, if you aren’t already feeling that way. If you don’t pay attention to maintaining adequate ranges of motion you’re going to find even simple tasks like getting up and down from the ground to become problematic.

“Your primary goal is to maintain as many physical qualities as possible. For that reason, you should use as many different movements as possible every time you train.”

I have been paying more attention to yoga in my own training. Yoga has been around for 5,000 to 10,000 years. I’m inclined to believe that if something has been around that long it probably works, or else it would have vanished like Nautilus. Along with spending an hour focusing on your movement and breathing, the added bonus of yoga is that it rebalances the nervous system. Many of us operate from a place of stress in daily life, whether we want to admit it or not. Spending time on yoga and breathing practices helps release a lot of the built up tension from the body.

Flexibility by itself often an unreachable goal. Muscles work in opposing pairs – when one contracts the opposing muscle has to relax to allow it to do so. If you flip that on its head, for a muscle to elongate fully the opposing muscle needs to learn how to adequately contract. And it is this element that most flexibility programs do not address – the dual pronged attack necessary to increase flexibility through increasing strength, often in odd or extreme ranges. A well designed yoga and mobility plan will do just that for you, along with the positive effects of focused breathing work.

Power is next on the list. Power and its cousin elasticity are important physical attributes. Power can be represented by a single standing broad jump, with a single foot take off and two-foot landing. As a general rule of thumb, the jump should be equal to your height. Elasticity can be represented by a triple jump or triple hop sequence. The sum of the second and third hops should be double the first if you have good elastic qualities.

Gaining power and elasticity is relatively easy and can be accomplished with low-level plyometric drills and medicine ball work. These low-level plyometric drills are what Mike Boyle refers to as Phase One work because they are done only off the floor, with no depth-jumping component.

For mature age clients I would get rid of the vertical component for trainees who are new to jumping and completely remove any rebound depth jumping. Begin with two-leg variations before progressing to single-leg movements, and remember it takes a long time for connective tissue to adapt to new stresses. It may take months to safely progress from double-leg drills to single-leg exercises.

The medicine ball is another fantastic tool to gain both power and elasticity. And I suggest Gray Cook’s book Athletic Body in Balance for some ideas on elasticity training using a medicine ball.

Strength is quite easy to program, and there are many good systems to use. From Pavel’s 3-5 x 3-5 system from Beyond Bodybuilding to Wendler’s 5/3/1, the basic rules remain the same. Pick 3-5 exercises for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps, and perform this 3-5 days per week. If you are an active masters athlete I would even drop this to two main exercises per workout. My personal favourite combinations are squats and upper body pulls such as rows or pull ups and a second workout of deadlifts and either shoulder press or bench press. Finish each session with some hard core work such as renegade rows, work from half kneeling, and various offset walks.

Choose big exercises such as the squat, deadlift, bent over row, and pull up, over exercises like bicep curls and lateral raises. The only caveat is to pick fewer exercises rather than more. Recovery ability is limited as we age, so you might find you progress faster by doing less. Counterintuitive I know, but when recovery is hampered you need less work to recover and improve.

The final piece of the puzzle is fitness work. An easy formula to remember is three sessions per week for 30-90 minutes at a heart rate of 120-150bpm to enhance cardiac output. This can be done any number of ways – running, rowing, riding, or hiking up a hill. My advice, as with most of the choices, is to not limit yourself to any one method but instead use as many as you can to maintain as much athletic ability as possible.

A Weekly Template for Older Athletes

Remember, your primary goal is to maintain as many physical qualities as possible. For that reason, you should use as many different movements as possible every time you train. If you don’t use a movement pattern for a while, you’ll find getting it back as you age is far tougher than it was in your twenties and thirties. The basic format for a week of training looks like this:

Flexibility, Power, Strength

Three days per week, total time 60-80 minutes

Flexibility: 30 minutes of yoga

Power: 2-3 different jumping, bounding, or medicine exercises work to maintain power and elasticity

Strength: 3 strength exercises for 3-5 sets or 3-5 reps

Strength training examples:

Session one: Single leg squats, renegade row, single arm bench press

Session two: Deadlift, bench press, single arm rows

Session three: Step ups, overhead press, pull ups

Aerobic Fitness

Three days per week, alternating with flexibility/power/strength

Perform 30-90 minutes of steady state work at a heart rate of 120-150bpm

Take the seventh day off to relax and enjoy life.

To learn our full system for training and programming please come to one of our Foundations of Strength workshops.

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Health before performance

In the last week I have had two people become extremely confused about where they were and what they should have been doing. I don’t mean they were suffering from dementia and couldn’t figure out whether to have their shoes on or not. I’m talking about the understanding of where they were physically and what was needed to get them to their goal. And the problem wasn’t as simple as, “My goal is to run at pace X for Y,” but far more complicated.

For example, one lady came to me complaining about a variety of things. These things included not being able to squat, weak glutes, and her feet hurting if she ran more than two kilometers at a time. These were all her words that she said to me over the phone. And then the next thing out of her mouth was that she wanted to run a fast half marathon and she wanted me to check over her running form and suggest a pair of shoes that might stop her feet from hurting.

In my head I got an instant image of that Heath Ledger meme as the Joker where he says, “Not sure if serious.” I mean, your feet your hurt after a few minutes of running and you think an appropriate goal right now is to run for an hour and a half? We could just speed up the process and I could just hit your feet with a bat right now if your goal is to end up with really sore feet.

This was only a few days after another runner came to me who was honestly a complete mess – with an asymmetrical stride pattern, a body that was dysfunctional in just about every way I could measure, and a sore calf. Somehow the calf was the real problem and that was what her team was focused on fixing. They thought her calf was what was holding her back from running 80km/week.

Never mind that she couldn’t even breathe properly, and no, that’s not an exaggeration. Never mind that she had nearly zero movement to one side and about fifty percent of what she should have had the other way. It must be the calf.

Your Health Is the Problem

People often come through the door with a goal that is performance related. But the fix isn’t fitness or performance related. It’s health related. If you have a bulged disc, then you don’t get to have a performance goal until you have fixed your health problem. If your feet are so dysfunctional that you can’t stand being on them for any length of time without them hurting, then you have a health problem, too. And if you can’t breathe, and your entire body is locked up in an effort to help you get life-giving oxygen, then you most certainly don’t get to have a performance goal until you learn how to get some oxygen into your body in a way that won’t cripple you.

Another recent client had to hold her breath while walking because her shoulder hurt so badly. Holding your breath makes everything tight and creates more stability. But this lady, while being unable to walk pain free, decided a good way to spend her weekends was doing three hours of archery on a single day. You know, with the shoulder that was so painful she couldn’t walk. Because pulling on a bow string hundreds of times with a shoulder than can’t even stablise itself while walking is a good idea.

Before we can be a specialized human, like an athlete, we must first be a human being. That means we should be able to twist, bend, squat, move pain free, and be in good general health. Human being, before human doing. That means that if you can’t walk without pain you don’t get to think about running fast. It means that if you can’t walk with your feet pointing straight ahead that you don’t get to worry about how heavy you can squat. And it certainly means if you can’t display normal ranges of motion you don’t get to worry about lifting heavy.

But many people have confused this due to fitness machines and gadgets. We’ve found ways to add strength or conditioning that actually need no underlying human qualities. If you can’t brace and stabilize the body to press overhead, that’s no problem because over there we have a machine that allows you to sit, braced by the seat, and move the load in a fixed plane. No tricky stabilizing or other skills needed. Just do, do, do on this machine and see what happens. For many, they end up looking good, but with bodies that aren’t very good for anything other than standing still. By losing their ability to move, they lose the thing that actually makes us human.

The First Goal of Training Is Health

The first goal of training has to be to improve health. If you’re not better because of training, then you’re doing it wrong. And you most certainly shouldn’t be causing health problems during training. It’s one thing to be hurt by a tackle playing football and another thing entirely to suffer a disc prolapse during a controlled training session.

(And for all the people who say that you must walk the edge and push the boundaries in training, I ask two questions: First, are you actually competing at a level where ruining your health has a substantial enough financial payoff to make up for being disabled for life? And second, if your argument is that you need to expose the body to the same risk in training as you face in competition, then how come boxing trainers don’t just knock their athletes out in training so they can experience it, too?)

Going back to my runners for a moment, I asked them both whether it was more important to run now, maybe for a year or two, before the problems became so bad that they would likely prevent ever running again, or whether it was better to take six to twelve months off now, fix their health problems, and then be able to run for the rest of their lives. Sadly, neither answered with what I thought was a smart answer.

Because the fitness world will find ways to “hack” performance, to offer shortcuts, to help you sit and grind when you can’t stand, it is incomprehensible to many that you may need to cease all current training to address your problems. Gray Cook has a magnificent saying, “You can’t stack performance on top of dysfunction.” Well, you can. And I see clients every week who try. What he really should be saying is that “You can’t stack long-term performance on top of dysfunction.”

You Need a New Approach

For some people this concept will be a major paradigm shift. It may mean many months of having to address some underlying issues that may have been there for decades. So, the next thing I get at this point is, “But if I can’t X, then I’ll gain weight.” Well, maybe that means you’ll have to learn to address your diet, too, and eat like a responsible adult rather than relying on X to keep you in shape. And won’t addressing your diet go a long way towards developing better health? I’d say it’s a coincidence, but I don’t want to downplay the importance of something seemingly as simple as diet on overall health.

I know many will feel like they can bluster their way through things. Try to outwork it. You know, just add an extra mobility session, or maybe watch MWOD a bit and find the secret missing ingredient to fix all their ailments. To those people, I say go for it. Go nuts. Just realize that you’re also going to spend a lot of time at the physiotherapist’s, and later on with the orthopaedic surgeon, and then again with the physiotherapist. Then you’ll probably go back to what you were doing and repeat the process.

If you want to be one of those recreational athletes that feels like you’re somehow tougher or more committed because you train through bad injuries, then that’s on you. But know that the rest of your friends are asking themselves why you don’t just sort it out now so you can enjoy the rest of your life pain free.

Health before fitness. Fitness before performance. Don’t try it the other way around or all you’ll be doing is sending your doctor’s kids to school.

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Do you need extra grip work for BJJ?

Anyone who has ever trained in judo or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for any length of time will know this simple truth – if you can’t hang onto your opponent, you can’t control them. Grip is a large part of any match, especially if you attempt multiple chokes during your bouts, which adds even more stress to the forearms and hands.

You’d think this would leave grapplers with a set of strong, resilient hands, but often the opposite is true. Outside of training, many grapplers can’t even manage simple tasks like shaking hands or opening jars without some small pain. Once they reach a certain age they need to put more tape on their hands than a mummy to protect their fingers from getting worse.

But if you’re serious about grappling, sooner or later you start thinking you need better grip strength. You think if you just made your grip a little better, you’d become a more difficult opponent. Well, yes, but quite possibly no.

Reverse the Damage

To figure out if you really do need extra grip work, you must first consider your training load. If you train infrequently (or are a beginner without a strength training background), it is possible you could benefit from a stronger grip. However, most BJJ guys I know train on the mats a lot – four to six times per week is common – often with multiple sessions on a day at least once per week.

If I spent my entire week cycling as my sport and went to a strength coach, the first thing a good coach would do would be to try to get me out of my sport position and reverse some of the damage from the sport itself. And this is exactly why adding more grip training for grapplers is often detrimental. They spend so much time with their hands flexed that adding in more flexion-based work is akin to getting a cyclist to do more quad-based work in a sitting position.

Stretch Your Digits

I’ve found that the single most helpful thing for me in relation to keeping my hands working well is simply stretching them out after training. Make sure to stretch the forearms in both directions, as gripping is a fixating action, making both the extensors and flexors work simultaneously. But even more importantly, make sure to stretch the fingers. Simply bending the fingers on each hand back individually will result in an enormous stretch if you’ve spent a lot of time on grip work.

The next step in this process is to revert to the RAIL system as per many of my previous articles on fixing body issues quickly. In RAIL, the “R” stands for Release, the “A” for Activate, the “I” for Integrate, and the “L” for Locomote. We really only need the RAI part, as there’s no way to locomote on the fingers.

R – Release: Stretch both the forearms and fingers.

A – Activate: Perform active finger extension work, either by extending the fingers as fully as possible, or against light external resistance like a rubber band. This short video shows a smart way to train extension while going through wrist extension, flexion, and rotation to make sure the fingers are moving through the full range of motion you use in training.

I – Integrate: Any part of your regular strength training that involves gripping: deadlifts, pull ups, club or bag work, or grappling itself.

People usually have no problem getting enough integration in training. The issues usually lie when not enough time is spent countering that training through release or activation work.

Build Strong and Supple Wrists

The next link in the chain for a strong grip are the wrists and forearms. Seasoned grapplers don’t need to add extra direct forearm work as, like with the fingers, they will already be stressing that area enough in regular training.

A better option is to focus on wrist mobility and strength. Martial artists have spent centuries developing wrist strength and suppleness and there are many systems that will all work. My preference is to follow the wrist preparation from Gold Medal Bodies and then the wrist push up series from Ross Enamait to get everything fired up and well integrated.

A Grip for Every Situation

Now that you’ve got strong, supple wrists and fingers, you’ll probably find that your grip works better, and your hands are feeling less riddled with arthritis. If you still feel like you need extra grip work, then you may want to think about the type of grip that needs the most work. There is no point in working on a rotational grip exercise if your issue is not being able to hold an open grip. Let’s look at the different type of grips and how they are related to grappling.

Open grip – Imagine holding onto a fat bar or a tennis ball where the hand isn’t closed. This kind of grip is often used as a friction grip, when cupping the back of the elbow or head, or attempting a kimura. Wrist strength plays a big factor in your ability to keep and hold this grip.

Closed grip – Your normal grip used in strength training. Very rarely used in actual grappling, but is gentle on the hands.

Tight grip – Almost a fist. Your hand is as closed as it can be while still holding something. This is the normal grip you will find yourself using while grappling, and the one that damages hands the most.

Pinch grip – Not often found in grappling, but very common in strength sports. As a type of open grip, it is characterized by pinching two objects, such as two weight plates, together and being held for time.

Rotating grip – Usually employed as a tight grip, although can be found in open form too while looking for submissions. The ability to keep the fingers flexed hard while the wrist rotates can take a while to develop.

If, after all this, you still genuinely find yourself needing extra grip strength work, one of the best tools to train the wrists and forearms as well as the grip is a Bulgarian bag. Rather than do multiple sets at some point in your training, I prefer to spread sets throughout a session so the grip is accustomed to working for extended periods of time. Pick an exercise you like, such as halos, and use a variety of grip options on the bag throughout.

Old-school trainees may recognize this technique as the same method Arnold Schwarzenegger was said to have used to build up his calves when he first moved to America. He performed a set of calf raises in between every set of his other training in the gym. Considering the pair of iconic calves the Oak managed to build from this method, you’ll be following a tried and trusted path if you decide to adopt this approach.

Consider What You Really Need

If you are a grappler, it’s unlikely that you need extra grip work. Focus on restoring full range of motion in your fingers first in extension, both by adding specific stretching as well as strengthening. Then work on wrist strength and suppleness.

And if you still find yourself losing grip fights due to lack of strength, add in the Austrian Oak’s method of blasting your grip after every single set of strength work. Keep it up for four to six weeks and watch as you develop gorilla-like grip.

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BJJ competition strength and conditioning

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has become the karate craze of the 2000s. With celebrity students such as Keanu Reeves and Kelly Slater it has gone from an underground pastime to a popular fringe sport.

What sets Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) apart from its other martial cousins is that the entire focus of the sport is on the ground. While Karate, Kung Fu, and Taekwondo seek to kick or punch the opponent from standing – the actions most associate with fighting – a BJJ match may only see the competitors on the feet for seconds of the entire match.

From a visual perspective it seems to have more in common with the other grappling arts such as Judo or wrestling, yet that is also untrue. The main focus of Judo is on the throw, and matches can be finished with a single well-executed throw. Wrestling differs again as both throws and controls are the main focus to score points.

There are two things that separate BJJ as a sport from its grappling rivals. Much like a knockout punch in boxing the submission instantly ends the fight via one competitor securing an inescapable choke, arm, or leg lock. The other is that BJJ matches are fought for a single continuous round of varying lengths depending on the skill level of the competitors.

As a new sport with less than 100 years of competitive history competitors have done their best to model strength and conditioning on other sports such as wrestling, Judo, and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). But there are significant differences in the style of competition and rules when compared to BJJ and these significantly effect how one should train for a tournament.

Wrestling

Wrestling is a logical place to start as it has the distinction of having been one of the original Olympic sports. While not viewed as a typical combat sport wrestling is often seen as perhaps the toughest sport on the planet. With a unique mix of needs from strength and power to flexibility and endurance wrestlers often top many performance charts when comparing sports.

The current match length for Freestyle Wrestling at the Olympics is two 3-minute periods with a 30-second rest between. As such it is really performed as two highly anaerobic efforts split with a short recovery and training methods and physiology of the top competitors reflects that. It has been estimated that physiology alone contributes as much as ”45% of the variance seen between successful and less successful Freestyle wrestling Olympic contenders” (Callan et al., 2000)

The strength demands of wrestling are extremely high. As such wrestler have long trained to gain as much strength as possible. In fact, the history of modern resistance training dates back to Milo of Croton who was said to have walked the length of the Olympic stadium carrying a calf on his back every day. As the calf grew to be a cow so too did his strength. Such was his strength that he was undefeated for seven Olympiads.

Looking at the table below you can clearly see the strength levels required for elite wrestling competition. I’ve selected what is essentially the middleweight division for both males and females to give some perspective as to what is required.

Wrestling standards (German team)

Gender/ Class Bench Pullups Squat Prone Row Power Clean Deadlift
M <82kg 115 72.5 195 115 120 *
F<63kg * * 99 76 77 123

* not tested.

The fitness requirements of wrestling have changed substantially since 1988, when matches were a single five-minute continuous round. Perhaps it is here that we can start to get a clue as to what will help make a great BJJ competitor. Back then it was common to see high-level wrestlers with VO2max scores in the 60-70+ml/kh/min range (Sharratt 1984). However, with the change to the two three-minute rounds it is more common to see athletes these days with scores in the 50-60 ml/kg/min range (Horswill, 1992 and Yoon, 2002).

In other words, BJJ athletes are more likely to need the same high levels of VO2max development because their matches are more likely to mimic the demands of wrestling in the late 20th Century. As the rules of wrestling have changed to make it more exciting for TV and appeal to the Olympic audience wrestlers have become stronger and more anerobically trained. But BJJ doesn’t have those same needs due to the change in demands of match length and less stand up grappling, which places a much higher demand on maximal strength.

Judo

As the other Olympic grappling sport Judo holds the distinction of being the root of BJJ. While there are many stories as to the origin of BJJ what everyone agrees on is that the family credited with the growth of BJJ were initially trained by a Judo player named Maeda. (For the unadulterated version gleaned directly from newspaper transcripts at the time I recommend “With the back on the ground” available here – http://www.amazon.com.au/With-Back-Ground-Brazilian-Jiu-Jitsu-ebook/dp/B00N1BX9NU)

The key difference between Judo and BJJ is that while a BJJ match starts on the feet it will always end on the ground with the match being won by points or submission. However, a Judo match can be won with a singular perfectly executed throw for an Ippon.

Like BJJ the matches in Judo are continuous in length and international competitions are a single five-minute round. A useful study by Goncalves, 2015 showed that Judoka require high levels of grip strength and that power and anaerobic capacity are the main physiological characteristics required.

Below is a table depicting strength standards for elite judo competitors based off a spreadsheet form www.judofitness.com The three numbers in each column represent the necessary strength required at local, national, and elite levels respectively.

Judo strength standards

Gender/ weight class Press Bench Press Power Clean Squat Deadlift
M <81kg 105/ 135/ 160 160/ 195/ 270 155/ 190/ 260 215/ 265/ 360 270/ 310/ 430
F <63kg 55/ 65/ 85 85/ 100/ 125 80/ 95/ 125 115/ 130/ 175 140/ 165/ 230

So where does that leave BJJ?

Perhaps the best place to start is with Judo as that is played over a similar time frame for beginners and Masters. As these matches are held over the same short five minutes duration as Judo it is reasonable to follow on that defining characteristics in white belt and Masters matches will need high levels of grip strength, power, and anaerobic capacity.

However, as a competitor progresses through the belt ranks and matches increase in length things will change dramatically. The demands at each belt level increase the needs for higher levels of fitness. Match lengths are as follows:

White belt – 5mins

Blue belt – 6mins

Purple belt – 7mins

Brown belt – 8mins

Black belt – 10mins

The first and biggest conditioning error that many make is the exclusion of longer, lower intensity work while trying to build fitness. This study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11547894) shows that the aerobic system becomes a major factor in energy production far earlier than many believe – likely around the 75-second mark. Considering that an event as short as a 1500m race is around 50/50 for aerobic versus anaerobic energy contribution this means that longer matches, such as the ten-minute black belt matches will have a far higher requirement for aerobic energy production. But don’t think greater aerobic function is necessary only for black belts.

In Ultimate MMA Conditioning Joel Jamieson writes about the importance of the aerobic system. He notes that the aerobic system is important because it effects your recovery ability as well as how much blood you can push around your body. At his Certified Conditioning Coach course he also notes that the aerobic systems triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which has direct effect on calming the body, which is necessary to prime your system to adapt to training. This ties in with all the work Maffetone has done on aerobic conditioning. Maffetone’s entire work could best be summed up as aerobic training leads to better health.

While this may not seem important when performance is the end goal, and many sacrifice it in the search of greater performance, without health there is no cornerstone for true elite level performance. The high stress nature of BJJ training can lead to an over stimulated body. Whether you want to admit it or not, the body only perceives stress as a threat. It doesn’t distinguish between work stress, family stress, and training stress. It only knows how to behave to counter stress.

That process of countering stress begins with the production of the stress hormone cortisol. The inflammatory process that creates cortisol is the result of the use of our anaerobic systems – our fight or flight response. These systems have to create huge amounts of energy to save us from life or death situations. While that could mean escaping a burning building or running away from a tiger, it can just as easily mean that big brown belt who always gives you a hard time and you spend the entire time trying desperately not to give up a submission. Your body still sees that as a threat.

The bonus here is that the best way to reduce that inflammation, reduce the body’s perception of the threat, and boost your own fitness and health all come to a single point – the development of your aerobic system. Corrective exercise specialists such know that one of the quickest ways to influence the nervous system is to work on breathing. Now, we can find evidence that aerobic exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect too (http://www.omicsgroup.org/journals/has-aerobic-exercise-anti-inflammatory-effect-for-asthma-2165-7025.1000e108.php?aid=4612).

In Ultimate MMA Conditioning Jamieson recommends up to three sessions per week of moderate heart rate activity for durations of 30-90 minutes to build cardiac output. If done correctly, with a focus on diaphragmatic breathing, these training sessions will reduce stress levels in the body, boost health and fitness, and allow you to recover faster between bouts and training sessions. Recommended heart rate is between 120-150bpm.

One caveat that needs to be mentioned – this isn’t best achieved with circuit training methods. While it is certainly possible to get the heart rate to the required level using circuit protocols the mechanics aren’t the same as via normal cardiovascular training activities such as running, rowing, and riding.

During what I will call strength aerobics the amount of oxygen used by the muscles is lower. That is because beyond 50% tension blood flow is stopped to the muscle. That stops oxygen being used by the working muscle – it is working anaerobically – which ultimately means your body requires less blood to be pumped around the body. This study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6513767) showed that, “high-intensity, variable-resistance strength training produces no adaptative improvement in cardiovascular function. The physiological responses measured during a training session provide evidence that this lack of cardiovascular adaptation may be due to the low percentage of VO2max elicited by this form of exercise”. In other words, there is a very good reason why fighters have always done roadwork, logging steady miles. But those cardiac training benefits are now showing to have just as much benefit in lowering stress levels in the body.

Given the different match lengths seen in high level BJJ compared to wrestling and Judo it is important to develop the cardiovascular system as fully as possible. This requires teaching the heart to pump blood efficiently for extended periods of time. This has the effect of increasing the size and strength of the heart to cope with these demands. The added bonus for BJJ athletes is that it has a calming effect on the body as well as being lower intensity, which means you can fit a lot of it into your week.

The next part of the puzzle to piece together is mobility and flexibility work. Competition BJJ requires very high levels of flexibility to achieve some of the positions. A healthy, supple spine is one of the highest priorities for success at BJJ and this can only be achieved through making the hips and shoulders extremely strong and supple too. Great mobility requires a combination of both strength and flexibility so that extreme ranges of motion can be achieved without damaging the body supporting ligaments. For the back this means that not just the 26 joints of the back need to be strong and mobile but that the major joints above and below must be too.

While there are many options available for joint mobility the simplest solution is to use Pavel Tsatsouline’s Super Joints. We use this on every single client at my gym daily and these seemingly simple exercises make everything else work better. The joints of the body are like mechanical parts that need to be lubed to move properly. The only difference is that we add lube by moving them frequently through full ranges. These exercises have the added effect of soothing the body after hard rolling and can be used as part of a cool down as well as a warm up to return the body to a state of rest post training.

Flexibility is something that requires the same effort as improving any other facet of fitness. I often see people with terrible flexibility that bemoan their lack thereof and can’t help but ask if they’re training their flexibility as often as their strength or fitness. To improve flexibility is a daily task in the beginning but the rewards are highly worthwhile. The buffer that you give yourself when accidentally caught in extreme positions during training will be able to be absorbed by the body instead of resulting in muscle tears.

Forget all the nonsense that you may have read about stretching being bad for you. Great martial artists, of any discipline, all possess great flexibility and the only way to get there is to stretch. Start with thirty minutes of targeted relaxed stretching every day. If you focus on breathing at the same time you will get that same soothing effect spoken of earlier regarding settling the nervous system post training. This rested state allows the body to better absorb the stress from training resulting in greater levels of performance.

If you think that targeted relaxed stretching with a focus on breathing sounds familiar you’d be right. There is a very real reason why BJJ greats such as Rickson Gracie speak so highly of yoga and its benefits for martial practitioners. Along with the improvements in range of motion and injury prevention the focus on flexion-based postures amplifies the calming effect as it triggers the para sympathetic nervous system.

And this leaves us with strength training. A basic strength-training template is as simple as looking at the key exercises favored by its more well studied cousins, wrestling and Judo, and adopting their favorites too. The squat, power clean, bench press, deadlift, pull ups, and prone row make for a great all-round athletic training plan.

However, there are a great many options for similar exercises that can be done from ground-based postures. These postures – lying, quadruped, and kneeling – mimic many of the positions found within the sport. Additionally they are a useful way to train around the many injuries that come from hard grappling.

These exercises often target multiple qualities of movement as they’re done from a reduced base of stability. Exercises such as single leg deadlifts over deadlifts greatly improve strength and stability in single leg positions. Renegade rows allow the body to learn how to pull hard while the abs have to brace at high levels to resist the rotational forces. Here are some alternatives for traditional strength exercises that will help ground fighters more, as well as reduce training time by hitting multiple needs at once.

Pushing exercises –

One arm bench press

½ kneeling press

Pulling exercises –

Renegade rows

Sled pulls from plank

Sled pulls from ½ kneeling

Sled pulls from tall kneeling

One arm rows with bilateral stance

One arm rows with spit stance

One arm rows from single leg stance

Hinge exercises –

Single leg deadlift

Split stance deadlift

Suitcase deadlift

Deadlift with asymmetrical load

As noted earlier in the Judo section, high levels of grip strength are required for competition. There are two possibilities here. Firstly, that an athlete lacks adequate grip strength. The second, and more likely option, is that the athlete does so much grip work already through regular training that adding to it will overly stress the hands and grip.

Here is how this should be addressed:

If you lack grip strength perform all your normal strength work such as bench press and power cleans. However for your pulling work, such as pull-ups and prone rows, use a rope or gi grip. At my gym we favor sled pulling over barbell or dumbbell rows using a rope as it taxes the grip more, and we use rope climbs or towel pull-ups over holding the bar.

The second option – the over worked grip – is better addressed by doing finger extension exercises. The muscles of hands and fingers get so tight from grappling and working on the various grips that it is easy for them to become overly tight. Just like tight muscles in the back or legs can lead to injury so too can they lead to injury in the hands. Taking time to stretch the fingers back post training can be enormously helpful, along with rubber band finger extension exercises. Simply pinch all your fingers together and place a rubber band around them. Now open the fingers outwards so that the fingers become as open as possible – the reverse of your grip. I tend to do these all day long and often carry a rubber band in my pocket so I can spend time on them while on the phone or even coaching.

Programming

The biggest hurdle for any serious BJJ competitor to handle is managing your program. Between work, on the mat skill training, and accessory work there is a lot to fit in. Most serious BJJ athletes spend at least five sessions per week on the mats. Given the class schedule at most gyms that means every evening is usually busy. That means the morning is your best choice to add in extra training. This splits your sessions up by as much as possible and allows for the best possible recovery.

Many will try to cram two sessions together in an effort to save time. This study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18296973) shows that it is certainly possible to work on both within the same session, however, during periods where you wish to improve a specific aspect of your fitness it is best to have a targeted training session solely on that focus. The main areas that need to be addressed are:

Cardiac output

Anaerobic endurance

Maximal strength

Flexibility

Recovery

One of the biggest changes in sports training theory over the last two decades has been the growth of concurrent training. Concurrent training addresses multiple fitness qualities at once as opposed to a traditional linear model that was previously used. In the traditional model the athlete would work on a single quality at a time building towards a final peak event.

However, in the world of combat sports this is often unrealistic, as the nature of the sport requires many qualities to be addressed at once. This allows for multiple factors of fitness to be trained not just within a week, but within a session too. As discussed above, most BJJ athletes will train five-plus times per week, and most classes are evening classes. The following is how a sample week may look.

Time Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
AM Max strength + Anaerobic endurance Cardiac Output + flexibility Recovery Max strength + anaerobic endurance Cardiac output + flexibility Recovery Cardiac output + flexibility
PM BJJ Class BJJ Class BJJ Class Recovery BJJ Class BJJ Class Rest

Sample plan for BJJ, full workouts:

 Monday – Maximal strength + anaerobic endurance

Warm up – 5-10mins of easy cardiovascular work

Dynamic warm up

1A. Deadlift

1B. Bench press

Perform 3 sets of 5 reps, with each set heavier than the one before. The final set should be hard to complete all reps.

2A. Renegade rows 3 x 5

2B. Get up 3 x 1

3A. One arm row from split stance 3 x 5

3B. ½ kneeling press 3 x 5

Complete 3 rounds of 6 x 30s work: 30s recovery on a rower. Rest 5-6mins between efforts. To be done at maximum intensity to replicate tournament fighting.

 Tuesday – Cardiac output + flexibility

30-45mins of steady state cycling or rowing. Heart rate should be 70-75% of max heart rate.

Finish with 30mins of targeted yoga work focusing on your breathing to relax the body.

 Wednesday – recovery

30mins of easy swimming/ treading water.

30mins of targeted yoga work focusing on breathing to relax the body.

 Thursday – Maximal strength + anaerobic endurance

As per Monday

Recovery – as per Wednesday AM

Friday – Cardiac output + flexibility

As per Tuesday AM

 Saturday – Recovery

As per Wednesday AM

Sunday – Cardiac output + flexibility

As per Tuesday AM

Many will be tempted to add in more hard conditioning type sessions, believing that more is better. But the nature of regular BJJ training is that it is already very high intensity. While you may be able to cope with added high intensity work in the short term you will find yourself burnt out or hurt in the longer term. Think of accessory training as a way to make your body better instead of a way to test your fitness – allow tournaments to do that.

With a focus on maximal strength and steady state cardiac output training there is limited interference if the sessions are split up. If you choose to mix maximal strength and cardiac output training be aware that you won’t get the full benefit of either. However, the maximal strength and anaerobic endurance training go well together.

The focus on quite a few extra easy sessions (recovery, flexibility, and cardiac output) allows you to add many extra sessions in per week with little risk. Over time these easier sessions add up, giving you a much greater pool of strength and conditioning to draw from come competition time.

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Simple programming tips

Back when I first started training, things were easy. We read bodybuilding magazines because they were the only thing available, and followed all the routines in them. That usually meant picking a big exercise like squats, bench, or rows for the big muscle groups, followed by lighter accessory exercises.

Then functional training happened, and with it came Instagram. With the advent of what I call Insecuregram (because everyone on it seems to be stronger, leaner, and faster than me), suddenly we all want to do everything. No longer are handstands and levers just part of a gymnast’s training, and no longer do bumper plates only exist in a few dusty old weightlifting clubs. Now, everything is everywhere.

This increased access is not necessarily bad. There are a great host of benefits to be had from following programs like Gymnastic Bodies Foundation series or 5/3/1. Both have produced many people who have gained strength and power.

But how do you know whether it’s in your best interest to sling heavy weights around or do bodyweight exercises instead? Some will say both, particularly if you compete in CrossFit-style competitions, as you will have to perform complex skills like muscle ups and handstand walks. But what if you competes in something else?

Here’s a simple rule to follow:

If your sport involves moving an external load, like wrestling or football, then you will need to lift some heavy weights. If your sport involves moving your own mass, then just use bodyweight training.

If you are in a sport where you needs to move an opponent around – like wrestling, BJJ, Judo, or rugby – then you’ll need maximal strength. This means you need to focus on exercises based on moving an external load. He also needs what you might call a strength reserve. While you can manipulate leverage in bodyweight exercises to make them harder, he will still only ever get good at moving his own mass. If he develops some horsepower in the gym and gets used to moving loads far greater than his own mass, then when it comes to taking someone down he will have enough juice to do so.

If your client is a runner, cyclist, triathlete, or stand-up martial artist like a kickboxer, the situation is different. You need to focus on exercises based on moving their own massIf your client spends a lot of time lifting heavy things, he is going to gain weight. And every kilogram he gains means being slower. Your client will still benefit from a little bit of strength work, but he will probably be able to gain all the benefit he needs for maximal strength from a single exercise per session. The rest of his gains will come from sport-specific strength drills like hill running, sprints, and jumping rather than chasing big numbers in the weight room.

There is another group that straddles these two – the masters athlete. Masters will always benefit from the addition of strength work to help avoid any age-related loss of muscle and bone density. I am always amazed at the sheer lack of strength training by older athletes. The loss of speed and power associated with ageing are well documented and even more prolific amongst endurance athletes.

The problem is that if you have been a lifelong athlete and have a body riddled with aches and pains (like me), a lot of heavy lifting isn’t going to help. In fact, it may make the issues much worse. If this is you then you need a combination of the two to allow you to keep training despite all the old battle scars you may have.

Simple formulas:

External Load Athlete

3-5 big exercises per session, for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps. Whatever mass is gained in the pursuit of improving performance in your sport is acceptable, as long as strength goes up in accordance with weight gains.

Bodyweight Athlete

One big exercise per session. Use a maximum of 3 sets of 3-5 reps. Rest as long as possible. A major reason for mass gain is accumulated lactic acid in the muscle, which drives growth hormone production. Avoid anything that even starts to resemble a heavy conditioning circuit.

Prescribe as many bodyweight accessory drills as needed with a focus on core work. Bodyweight drills don’t need to be performed for low reps. In fact, a focus on higher reps will be useful, as most who fall into this category are involved in some type of endurance activity and muscular endurance is important.

Masters Athlete

Pick two big exercises that don’t compete, such as front squats and pull ups, and prescribe them for 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps each. Pick another exercise and use a hypertrophy range of 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.

Prescribe as many bodyweight accessory drills as needed, focusing particularly on those that improve range of motion, such as handstands, pistols, and core work. The addition of functional range of motion and flexibility will do wonders, and the core work will help stave off the back complaints suffered by so many in middle age.

For the majority of other sessions, get out of the gym. Make sure to spend enough time on sport skills and/ or participating in athletic activities. If you want to be athletic, then you needs to train like an athlete, and that means more time playing and less time training in the gym.

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Common sense strength and conditioning for the masters' athlete

Life is funny. You start off unable to look after yourself, and then after decades of doing so revert back to needing someone’s help again. This circle of life got me thinking about how things change as we age when it comes to our training too.

The Normal Progression

When we first walk into the gym we are weak and stiff, in most people’s cases. In some cases people are weak and hypermobile, but honestly these people are becoming more rare these days. The overriding problems people have are lack of mobility and strength.

So we begin training them, addressing these issues with things like the FMS as well as a systematic strength plan. This strength plan will hopefully go from slow and controlled movements with minimal load to movements with load, and then finally into speed and power work. An example of this could be to learn the hip hinge pattern and then progress to a light deadlift. As the client progresses this becomes a heavier deadlift and then, maybe, at some point we add in exercises like the power clean.

The point is that we’d have this general formula for progression that starts slow and unloaded and builds up to slow and loaded before moving to fast, heavy, and explosive. Never the other way around because beginners will simply have too much to think about if we give them fast, heavy, and explosive while trying to get them to learn a new pattern. That’s poor coaching, and an injury waiting to happen.

The Other End of the Progression

But what if we’re at the other end of the spectrum? What if we’re someone who has been around training for a long period of time and can do most lifts with decent skill, but we find that some of these lifts no longer agree with us? Ask trainees over forty how their body feels after a big squat or deadlift session, or even after a two-hour run, and they’ll likely not have much to say other than those things make them stiff and sore.

And where does our explosive work fit into all this? If slow and controlled is making us feel stiff and sore, what’s going to happen when we try to go faster? As much as those of us in the second half of our lives try to fool ourselves, we need to admit that things just aren’t like they used to be. My forty-two year old body is in pretty good condition – like a 1970s race car that is kept under wraps in the garage and only hauled out to do some fast laps every now and then – but run my vintage engine too long and too hard and I’ll be looking for spare parts. The only difference is that instead of heading to swap meets to try to find parts I’ll be booking in to see a surgeon.

The last two years has been a journey of self-discovery. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the programming department. The problem when you’re making these mistakes with yourself is that the only real warning sign is the sudden twinge of injury because you lack objectivity. And the problem with getting older is that you take longer to recover from these injuries, and the problem with that is that it then takes you even longer to get back on track with your training. A week off due to injury could be four weeks more until you’re back to where you were at the onset of the injury. And the problem with having a lower capacity is that you never remember how hard it was to get to where you were, only what it felt like to be at that level of fitness. So you start pushing hard again and the cycle starts all over again.

The Solution

The real issue, to me, of getting older and being athletic, is that in your head you don’t feel old at all. Until the next day, when you realize the workout you did the day before is what is suddenly causing you to walk like an old man, not the paragon of fitness you clearly are. And so I started looking for ways to get the same effect from training, but without some of the risk involved in the fast and explosive exercises – because that was what was usually hurting me.

My program now centres on a few concepts – mobility, stability, strength, and fitness. The overall goal is to be strong and healthy in the second half of my life and avoid another round of surgery.

Mobility

I’ve deliberately done two things to make sure my mobility stays at least at the level it currently is, or improves. The first is a whole day of training where the only goal is mobility and flexibility. For me, this logically comes on Monday to set up my whole week well. It is also a great active recovery day after long sessions over the weekend.

It’s split this work into two parts, with the first part being about forty minutes of Primal Move and get ups. This could just as easily be a yoga class or an hour of stretching but the point is the same – spend time on your mobility because you’ll want to keep as much range as possible as you get older. It’ll also help your muscles retain elasticity, which is essential for when you do decide to do some fast and explosive work.

Stability

I look at stability training differently than most do. I couldn’t care less what your BOSU single-leg squat cable kickback 1RM is. But I do care that you can stand on one leg and display good core, hip, and shoulder stability.

To that end I favor a few exercises that really work. The first is single leg deadlifts. Every time I train I do a variation of these. If it’s my mobility day then I do them unloaded and walking forwards and backwards. On my other days I do them with varying loads from sets of three up to sets of ten, but I do them daily. Shoulder and hip stability are vital too and this is where get ups, overhead holds, push ups holds, and lunges all come in. The final piece of the stability puzzle is core work and I mix this up with a variety of static holds like planks, hollow holds, and lever variations, as well as FMS based chops. But again, I do some kind of stability work in every single session.

Strength

There comes a point where you just realize that some lifts just don’t feel good anymore. Your shoulders might be a bit tight to snatch with a bar, or maybe your wrist hurts from that time ten years ago when you broke it doing BJJ. Whatever the case, it’s important that you make training fit your body as you age and not try to jam your body into a training plan that your ego says you should be doing.

For me, I still do quick lifts, but now I do them predominantly with kettlebells, or if I work with a bar then I do the power versions either from the hang or off blocks. As far as I am concerned I can get nearly all the benefits I need from deadlifts and kettlebell ballistics, but without the high risk of injury.

I don’t do much heavy pressing these days either. I’ve got a bit of an issue with heavy pressing anyway, given that roughly a third of the planet has an AC joint that isn’t set up well for pressing. I’ve found that if I do wish to press then I am better off using a hard bodyweight variation like handstand push-ups or one-arm push-ups instead of loaded pressing.

One of the other big things I’m starting to realize is that the low rep schemes – like twos and threes – aren’t so easy for me to handle anymore. It’s been a long time since I did a lot of reps above five, but more and more I find that those are the rep ranges that really allow me to work hard and keep my joints moving well.

Fitness

I have never been an advocate of high intensity cardio training. My issues with it are far too many to name in this article, but let’s just say that as you get older you only have so many hard sessions per week you can do. It’s your choice if you want to use the one or two genuine hard efforts in you for the week on a conditioning session or a strength session. I would advise that unless you have competitive aspirations, you’d be far better off saving your hard efforts to lift more weight than you will on dropping five seconds off your 2000m-row time.

The best choice for fitness that builds your health is “easy” aerobic work. If you don’t know about the 180 minus your age rule for determining your aerobic zone you should. Strap a heart rate monitor on and don’t let it go above that. You’ll find more and more that when you build up the quantity of “easy” fitness sessions you may actually be able to fit in another hard session per week. But the best part about aerobic work is that the recovery cost is nearly zero. Once your heart rate returns to normal, unless it’s a new activity, you’ll be ready to go again for the next session.

The 180 minus your age rule

Here are the rules, taken from Maffetone’s Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing:

  • Subtract your age from 180.
  • Modify this number by selecting from among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:

If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.

If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.

If you have been training consistently (at least four times per week) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180 – age) the same.

If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

Following this rule will help make sure your easy sessions stay easy. The benefit of this is that these sessions are relatively easy to recover from while boosting your overall recovery at the same time. All that oxygen you bring in during these sessions does wonders to restore the body and clam it down from your other harder sessions. The final benefit is that these sessions work towards developing your heart into a larger more powerful pump. That is in direct contrast to the damage that heavy lifting can cause to the internal diameter of your heart.

I ask myself one question before every session, “Is this going to make me fitter and healthier?” If it only makes me fitter then I need to rethink my plan for the day. The goal in the second half of life should be to move well and with strength so that you can spend the second half of your life enjoying it, not recovering from surgery or illness caused by overeager training.

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BMI and You

One of the things that always gets people riled is when I point the finger at their waist line. That’s understandable. No one likes being told they’re overweight or obese.

Why is BMI important? Because it is a quick and easy measurement to assess your risk factor for a variety of future health problems. Obesity usually travels hand in hand with diabetes and heart disease – both of which will have major ramifications on your life, even if the weight gain doesn’t in the first place.

Recently, this study came out. Despite what many say the results were pretty clear. For the vast majority of people – over 80% – BMI is an accurate measurement of whether or not you’re carrying too much body fat. What it says, if you’re one of the 18% who are outside the normal ranges, is that you can have too much body fat and still be in the ideal range, or have a BMI slightly too high but still have acceptable levels of body fat.

This is where the fitness crowd usually throws up their arms with a cry of, “gainz bitch!” Umm…not likely. In fact, only 11% of the 5000 people studied fell in that category of having a BMI that was considered high while having normal body fat levels due to increased muscle mass. That doesn’t put the odds in your favour. More likely it means if your BMI is high you need to lose some fat mass.

The topic of diet has been known to lead to arguments that could almost be described as religious. While I don’t think anyone is going to commit a jihad over whether or not to eat paleo, you know exactly what I mean if you’ve ever tried to steer people in a better direction with their diets. From crazies like Food Babe, to people who scream about fat shaming, to those who seem to be on a permanent bulking cycle, and everyone in between – talking diet makes people crazy.

Like most things in health and fitness, the problem stems from a simple fact: you were lied to. Lies form the basis of the fitness industry. Included among them are ideas like needing to join a big gym that has an army of treadmills and two of every machine created in order to get in shape. Or that you need to consume four different protein concoctions to help burn fat. Most of it is just designed to sell things – usually supplements or gym memberships.

The truth is simple: the quality of your diet dictates your body composition.

A Growing Epidemic

These lies have propagated because the modern world is getting fatter and fatter. The rate of obesity has increased 214 percent since World War II. Three out of five people are overweight, and one in five is obese. That leaves only one in five with a healthy body mass. (Or one in five that the BMI charts are incorrect for).

Like everything in our modern world, we have access to a lot of information about diet. Probably too much information, because the reality is, diet isn’t that difficult. The biggest problem is that many people wrongly interpret their needs. Figuring out the type of diet you need starts with an honest assessment of where your body composition is right now.

If you’re one of the five who isn’t overweight or obese, congratulations. Your task is to train the house down and increase athleticism. Make yourself as strong as you can while keeping your body weight in a healthy range.


Be honest with yourself about your needs and get your health and fitness on track.

You’re a Ticking Time Bomb

For the other four out of five people, listen up. Your body composition is indicative of your overall health. If it’s too high, your system is under extra pressure. Sooner or later you will suffer some kind of problem. Whether that is diabetes, a heart attack, or knee problems from being overweight, I don’t know. But I do know that when the odds are against you, the house always wins. So sort it out now. If you are overweight, you don’t need another bulking cycle. Nor do you need a strength cycle. You need a weight-loss cycle.

This is where that information overload becomes a problem. There are so many weight-loss programs to choose from – Zone, paleo, vegan, Atkins, Lemon Detox, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Buddhist, Kosher, Body for Life, South Beach, Grapefruit Diet, Israeli Army, gluten-free, ketogenic, alkaline, Blood Type, intermittent fasting, and more.

And the weird thing is, they’ll work. Maybe. The one factor that determines success on any ideal eating plan is compliance. It’s easy to write down a New Year’s resolution that says you’ll finally get a healthy body composition this year. But actually eating the salads and doing the food preparation ahead of time is much harder.

5 Steps to Get Your Body Composition Under Control

1. Get Rid of Junk Food

“I’m having a hard day. I deserve a beer.” What a complete load of crap. Food isn’t a reward system for showing up for work and doing your job. Nor is it a form of self-medication to deal with your idiotic boss. If you want to be an athlete, food is your fuel. If you want to rev your engine hard, then you need to use quality fuel.

That means fast food and highly processed snack foods need to go. Alcohol too, for the most part. Replace calorie-containing beverages with water. At this stage, what you replace these things with hardly matters, as long as you replace them with actual food.

2. Minimize Carbohydrate Intake

Don’t get rid of your carbohydrate intake all together. That’s like trying to run your race car on fumes. Carbs fuel hard efforts in training and help keep your system running properly.

If weight loss is your goal, be mindful of timing. The best time to take carbs is post-training when the body is primed to store the glycogen gained in the muscles rather than as excess body fat.

3 Eat More Salads and Vegetables

The root of this whole conversation is health, so you should be concerned about how many vegetables you get every day anyway. At Read Performance Training, we tell our clients to eat a minimum of four cups of vegetables and one piece of fruit daily.

4. Add Daily Walking

Low-intensity activity, such as walking or easy cycling, won’t burn up the small amount of muscle tissue you already have. It also won’t leave you flat and unable to repeat it the next day due to soreness. I watched someone lose 100lb in a year with 10,000 daily steps as the cornerstone of the program, so I can attest to how well it works. For myself, I am always at my leanest when I get in daily walks.

5. Add Resistance Training

This is actually the easiest of the five, which is why I’ve placed it last. For many people, the hardest part about weight loss is preparing meals and eliminating bad food choices. Daily long walks can also seem difficult for those who don’t believe they have time. We’ve all got the same 168 hours in a week. The problem is usually down to laziness, not lack of time.

Lifting weights, on the other hand, is easy. You show up, work hard for an hour or so, and then you’re done with it for 24 hours or more.

Undoing Damage Takes Time

The one piece missing from the four points above is hunger. I mean actual physical hunger. It is perfectly fine to be hungry all day long. Learn to deal with it. This is the price you pay for having not been hungry at all for however long you’ve been overweight.

Remember, you are covered in excess energy stores, and the only way to get at them is to be in a caloric deficit. There are no secrets, just the constant application of basics over enough time to get the results you want.

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Starting running pain free

Whether it’s events like Tough Mudder, a marathon, or a local sprint triathlon many people decide to take the step to get into running each year. They search online for free programming (because running is so simple no one should need to actually pay for advice) and find something called a “couch to (insert name of distance here).” The problem is these programs are usually terrible and make a few false assumptions.

Why Would I Need A Plan For Running?

The first problem is they assume everyone comes into them with a clean bill of health. Most people assume that means that they have no heart or lung problems. But they’re missing one vital aspect of the equation – the body. If you’ve done nothing but sit at a desk for years and moved little you’re not going to be ready to run until you can get the kinks out of your body. Something as simple as the amount of ankle dorsiflexion you have can make tremendous differences to your running.

Try this test – place one foot flat on the ground and push your knee as far forward as you can until the heel is just about to come off the ground. Make sure to push the knee out in line with the little toe, not over the big toe or inside of the foot. Measure how far forward your knee has moved. If it’s less than 4” or 10cm you have a deficiency. If you’ve got a significant difference left to right that’s even worse.

So let me tell you what happens. Because you lack adequate movement at the ankle your body needs to find that extra range somewhere else. Maybe it’s in the toes or foot, maybe it’s the knee, maybe it’s the lower back. But somewhere else along the line your body is going to create extra inches of movement that you don’t have in your ankles – and at 1200-1500 steps per kilometre that can add up to a massive amount of potentially damaging movement being created in the wrong place.

And all this made me realize that starting running isn’t as easy as lacing up your runners and heading out the door. There’s three distinct phases you need to go through, and the older you are and the less history of running you have the longer you’ll need to spend on each of these stages.

Running Stage 1 – Walk/Run Intervals

This is the point where you decide that despite never having run significantly you’re now going to enter a race or maybe just begin running to help get in shape. But let’s be realistic. Are you actually ready to race? Probably not, if you’re like most of the first timers I meet when they walk through our doors.

Stage 1 actually has two parts. The first part is to get an FMS screen, such as offered by us when you sign up at RPT, and begin working on getting the body to a solid starting point while simultaneously building form. Because every body is individual I will not go into what you may need as far as corrective exercise goes, however what I will do is talk about the process to starting running.

The best step is to go and buy Run Strong. It contains an amazing amount of information on safe practices, injury prevention, which shoes to choose, and structuring training plans.

I am not a huge believer in any of the popular running methods. There is no evidence that people who run with POSE, Chi, or any other style suffer fewer injuries or go faster. There are some basic guidelines to form and this article by Tony Benson remains the best I’ve seen. Unlike most so-called running coaches, Tony has been there with the best, both competing with and coaching athletes at the top level. Ingrain what he says and focus on those points while running – resist the urge to zone out. Every single step should be an effort to make the next step better than the one before it. (I also advise no music for the same reason, as it’s too distracting).

If you were a beginner in the gym no one would think to load you up with a maximum load straight away. Yet when you tell people you want to run the first thing they say is, “You should do sprints.” I have to say I believe that to be the single stupidest piece of popular fitness advice in today’s fitness industry. Running fast puts an enormous strain on the body – far more than a heavy squat or deadlift session ever could, with loads of up to eight times body weight recorded in sprinting. Compare that to a “heavy” squat session for a beginner that wouldn’t even have full body weight as load on the bar and you start to see how damaging urging an underpowered and poorly aligned novice to sprint can be.

The top minds in movement all say the same thing – develop mobility, stability and proprioception, then endurance, and finally add strength and power. You can build mobility and stability concurrently while learning about how to run at the same time. The best way to do this is a walk/run program.

I like to begin with sets of five minutes. The first stage is thirty minutes total – jog one minute and walk four, repeated six times. Perform this three times per week.

Week 1 – Jog 1/Walk 4 x 6
Week 2 – Jog 2/Walk 3 x 6
Week 3 – Jog 3/Walk 2 x 6
Week 4 – Jog 4/Walk 1 x 6

Now we start adding time to the intervals and push that out to ten minutes:

Week 5 – Jog 6/ Walk 4 x 4
Week 6 – Jog 7/ Walk 3 x 4
Week 7 – Jog 8/ Walk 2 x 4

Increase interval time again:

Week 8 – Jog 12/Walk 3 x 3
Week 9 – Jog 13/Walk 2 x 3
Week 10 – Jog 14/Walk 1 x 3

Increase interval time again. You’ll notice we’ve gone from thirty minutes total time to forty to forty-five minutes. Now we extend out to an hour of total time.

Week 11 – Jog 17/Walk 3 x 3
Week 12 – Jog 19/Walk 1 x 3
Week 13 – Jog 60 mins.

That gets us to the end of phase one. While it may seem like it’s a long way to get there, trust me when I say if you’re taking up running later in life (and sorry to say but that is 35+) this will be an injury free way to get you to running non-stop for an hour. The injury issues can be compounded more if you are either overweight or carrying a high amount of muscle. Take your time getting through stage one.

Running Stage 2 – Build Strength, Endurance, & Stability

This stage is simple. Now you’re running an hour and you need to get to the point where you can run an hour twice a week with a longer run of 90-120 minutes on another day. For people who question the long run this is one of those “you just have to trust me” things. Until you’ve done the long sessions and see what happens as a result, you won’t understand. But once you do these weekly for a few months you’ll understand.

The mid-week runs are to be easy, nasal breathing runs. The weekend run is easy as well, but run the last twenty to thirty minutes a little bit harder. At this point there is to be only a limited amount of intensity. In gym terms, you’re still in the three sets of ten phase, of needing easy volume to further hone form and build the body. We still need a solid bed of strength endurance before adding intensity.

Before people jump all over me, realize the most important thing about running distance is that you can maintain midline stability and foot and ankle control for periods of time. The stabilizing muscles of the body are all slow-twitch and need to be trained that way. As well, attachments take a long time to adapt so this is still part of our breaking in process. I would stick to this phase for six months. It makes an ideal winter preparation period for a summer event.

Running Stage 3 – Speed Work

Now we’re ready to get serious and add some speed work. Don’t be foolish and decide to go run 400m intervals. The purpose of speed work is not to run flat out, but to teach the body to run at a slightly higher pace than what you can right now. Most people do not ever get faster; they simpler run further. So their 5km is half of the 10km time, which is only marginally faster than their half marathon time. The goal of a speed session is to do some quality work at higher than target race pace.

I like to only use one quality session per week for most people. At this stage we’re up to four runs per week – 2 x 45-60min easy runs, 1 x longer run of 120mins with last 30mins hard, and a interval or hill session. Here’s how both of those work:

Intervals:

1-2km warm up including some 5x100m faster efforts building up through each.
3-5 x 1km efforts at above race pace with 1-2min easy jogging in between.
1-2km cool down.

Hills:

Find a slight hill of 2-4%. Just like with the speed work don’t be foolish and go and try to find the steepest hill you can.
1-2km warm up.
Run up the hill for 500m at above race pace, run down the hill at below race pace. If you averaged your speed for both up and down the hill it would be equal to your goal race pace. Do 3-5 reps.
1-2km cool down.

This whole process may take a year just to get to the third stage, but trust me when I say you’ll be injury free and enjoying running. Not only that, but you’ll likely be covering a half marathon every weekend in your long run, so longer events won’t pose a problem (like Tough Mudder, which is averages 18-19km). Don’t be in a rush, as that way leads to the doctor’s office.

The best step is to go and buy Run Strong. It contains an amazing amount of information on safe practices, injury prevention, which shoes to choose, and structuring training plans.

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The Big 4 for 40 Year Olds

I've written many times about what are the most essential components of health and fitness for those over 40. You can even read in depth my thoughts about it in my Fat Loss at 40 book. 

One of the bigger issues with this is due to my personality. You see, I don't like wasting time or words. I want to cut to the point, get the message across and move on. 

That can be problematic because people then think I have somehow missed something. They confuse word count with effectiveness. Back when I wrote for various magazines I would sometimes be forced to write more than I really wanted because the articles had to be a certain size for optimal SEO. 

So when I write about things like 8-7-4-3-2 people think that what I have laid out is something ineffective. They mistake my seemingly simple answers and assume that there wasn't mountains of study that went into those answers. That I chose to not bore the reader by placing endless scientific studies to back up my ideas is more my desire to not waste anyone's time than it is an effort to overly simplify things. 

This can also be problematic during the 28 Day Challenge. People take my stripped down ideas that have removed all the fluff and try to remove more. They don't understand that it took me thirty years to bare the essentials back to just what is contained within the 28 Day Challenge. Stripping it back is like trying to save weight on a race car by taking one wheel off. There's nothing in there that doesn't need to be there. 

As an example for how powerful the original idea of 8-7-4-3-2 is let's look at what a week of training following that system is actually like: 

  • Sleep 8hrs a night. 
  • Walk at least half an hour a day, or 3.5hrs/ week. 
  • Eat clean, healthy food daily in line with your calorie needs. 
  • Train your cardiovascular system 3 times per week. 
  • Train strength 3 other days per week. 

Adding this up it means that we're already up to 9.5hrs of activity per week. For some perspective, the government guidelines for exercise are 150mins per week or 2.5hrs. So this is nearly 4 times more than the minimum recommendation. But it doesn't end there because the 2 is for recovery work. It says that you need to spend twice as much time on recovery as you do on stressful training. So if you train an hour a day then you need to spend 2hrs a day on some type of recovery method like massage, foam rolling, meditation, yoga, etc.

As a bonus, your daily walks do count towards this, but we still need to find 12hrs total to counter the 6hrs of actual training. If you walk an hour a day instead of half an hour, then you need another hour per day, 6 days per week, taking your total time focused on your health up to 18hrs per week, or over 7 times the amount of activity for the week that the minimum guidelines recommend. 

Despite its seeming simplicity, that is going to get amazing results when you tie in the sleep and diet elements. 

To get a new result that is far beyond anything you've accomplished before, you have to be prepared to do things you've never done before. As the saying goes, "if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got". 

The Big Four are: 

  • Fat loss/ body composition
  • Aerobic fitness
  • Maximal Strength
  • Flexibility

So what does it take to make these elements work? 

Let's dig into diet to see what might need to change for you to go to the next level with your diet: 

Alcohol likely needs to be either reduced drastically or removed completely. It stops you burning fat effectively making your diet work much harder than it needs to be. It causes poor sleep making training the next day harder. 

You will need to eat with a purpose every meal instead of making your choices based off emotions. Your food will need to be chosen based upon your desire to achieve a goal, not on how tasty or satisfying it might be right now. 

To go along with that, can you put off short term reward for longer term achievement? Many cannot. They seek to soothe the insecurity they've felt during the day with food and alcohol. 

Boozy lunches and weekend brunches will likely be replaced with chicken salads and hikes or runs. Are you prepared to be mocked for your food choices at work functions and choosing health over conformity? (This genuinely happens yet you could order a bucket of KFC and a beer and no one would say a word out of fear of fat shaming you. But they'll happily fit shame you for trying to better yourself). 

Late nights will need to be reduced or removed too. Poor sleep makes you crave bad food choices the next day making it twice as hard to stick to your diet. 

Snacking in front of the TV will need to be removed too. So will TV time actually. No one with a six-pack is eating a bowl of chips or ice cream while watching House of the Dragon. Instead, they're probably tucked up in bed so they can get up early and train before work. 

Are you mentally prepared to accept that most of the so called muscle you built is nothing more than fat? It's very common in the gym to hear people talk about their weight as if it's a badge of honour. Most people are carrying far less muscle than they think they are and when they strip it back it's eye opening for them. In general, most people are carrying double the body fat they believe they are. Are you mentally prepared to appear much smaller? I can think of many clients I have had who would rather be fatter to appear bigger than to actually be healthier and leaner. 

So now we look at what seems to be very simple diet advice and see that what it entails is a very large number of things to consider, plan for, and overcome. And this list is by no means exhaustive. 

Let's look at the cardiovascular training:

Firstly and most importantly, what is your BMI? If your BMI is 30+ then some choices will be no good for you, like running. It'll simply expose you to too much risk of injury. Because you won't have a heavily engrained training habit yet it'll be easy to give up on yourself and quit at the first niggle. Instead you'll need to choose a method that is less load bearing. That will mean you need a big focus on food. Whether you like it or not, you're going to have to change there eventually to get what you really want. 

Do you have any injuries? If you've got knee or back issues then cycling and rowing may not be good choices. Are you prepared to go and get them treated, however long that takes, so that you can tackle them with a healthy body? If you don't have the money for treatment readily available, what will you give up so that you can afford treatment? 

To really gain fitness you're going to need to push these sessions out for time, especially on weekends when you should have the flexibility to train longer. It's not unusual to do a 3-4hr session on a weekend. Again, late nights Friday that prevent you getting up early to get that in, boozy nights, and piggy brunches will need to be sacrificed to make this happen. 

Because you're going to be out running, riding, hiking, and otherwise enjoying yourself, are you prepared to lose friends? Your friends who focus all their catch ups around food and not the company will fall by the wayside. Are you prepared for them to tell you that you're no fun, need to loosen up, and then eventually just stop speaking to you as you make them feel insecure about their own lack of health? (Again, this is no exaggeration as I have seen all of these things happen). 

Do you know how to structure your training for maximum effect? If not, are you prepared to pay the money for coaching or spend the time reading up on how to do so? Or are you more tied to the cult of busyness and how tough you appear to others than a result? 

 Now let's look at strength training:

Are you injured? If yes, have you got the time and resources to get treated? You cannot build much strength or muscle on an injured body. 

Given you are seeking to go to a new level, the knowledge you already have won't be enough. If it were, then you'd be at the new level you aspire to. Are you prepared to pay the money to learn or to spend the time to learn? Either way you're going to spend something to gain the knowledge you require. Personally, I can always earn more money. However, the clock is always ticking and I can never get back time. I would much rather pay for that knowledge right now than potentially waste my time learning the wrong things. (Again, I can't count the number of times someone can tell me all this crazy stuff they know but can't explain why their workouts haven't progressed in a year - they've focused on the wrong things and wasted that time). 

Are you prepared to be challenged? Many aren't. They seek confirmation of what they like rather than actually achieving that next level. I have had people tell me that they aren't sore at all from workouts and are unhappy while telling me they've achieved a new level of fitness. They're not actually after that new level of ability, rather they seek to demonstrate their manhood or toughness as a badge of honour. Are you prepared to open your mind and take on new lessons, or are you stuck in your ways and more concerned about how your workout appears on social media? 

Will you do the work properly? Pull ups are a great example of this. No one cares how many half pull ups you can do with a bent arm starting position and your nose barely clearing the bar. But are you tied to a number that makes your ego feel better, or are you tied to progress? Most people's egos cannot handle a big slump in their numbers. 

Will you work hard? Most people coast. By far, the most common message I send a client is to tell them to add weight to an exercise. Most are coasting at about 60-70% while patting themselves on the back for even making it to the gym in the first place. Are you prepared to do the work every day? 

Flexibility is such a massive subject it would require its own post to do it justice. Suffice to say that because the basic formula is that you will spend twice as much time on recovery methods as training methods that your attention to detail, knowledge, and consistency is twice as important as for the others (with the exception of food, which is probably two times more important again). 

Look at the list above. The seemingly simple advice I wrote about initially years ago in 8-7-4-3-2 comes with dozens of behavioural changes that need to be made. Does that seem so simple now?

But that's the real power of the program and the Big Four. If you change them you will change the person you are. That way you're now doing something different, which means you will get that new result that has always eluded you. 

No more trying to cram a new habit on top of the rest of your life. Rather, create a new life and mindset that focuses on these elements and craft new habits around them that support that lifestyle. 

 

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