Hard Core

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about what exactly it is I’m doing for training. Given I’ve one of the few people around actually looking to stretch my limits, try new things, and not just sit in my little rut and do the same thing I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising. So what do you do when you’re an Ironman, RKC, want to be spartan racer who needs who needs a huge blend of qualities to just get through a “normal” week?

Some fitness experts will tell you that you should narrow down your focus and do just a few things. Well…yes, if you want the highest level of performance possible in a single thing. I’ve been there. Pre-Ironman I did little else other than swim, ride and run except for some maintenance work and core work to keep me strong enough to handle the long distance work. Before the RKC I did little else other than worry about being strong enough to perform all the skills well with test weights, then I made sure I was fit enough to handle the weekend by doing little else except train with kettlebells. And given I’ve translated that approach into training every single HKC, RKC and SFG in the country that seems to have worked. When i work with elite ahletes like pro beach volleyball player Sange Carter we work on just one thing in each training block. So, if you have a single goal you need a single focus.

But life isn’t single focus. Life is run-across-the-road-carrying-your-bag-and-not-tripping-over. There is never a point where your body says ‘Now I will be strong for the next fifteen seconds. Now I will be fast for ten”. It just blends it all together. And this is where people get it wrong. Functional fitness is about getting the body to do the right thing when it counts.

One of the most important things in getting the body to function right is core work. For a long time I believed that I was getting enough core work indirectly via the variety of training I was doing. Training with a single kettlebell gives you both resistance to flexion and rotation. Training with two kettlebells gives you a lot of anti flexion and is actually used to teach bracing at the RKC. Then add in push ups – more midline stability – and a variety of other drills such as single leg work and in general my power transmission was working well. Because if the core is weak then the force you generate through the limbs will be lost. It must be able to remain stiff enough to oppose those forces so that posture is kept – without posture being ideal balance is lost and power too.

But since Ironman about two months ago my training has been revolving around some very hard bodyweight work. And the thing about hard bodyweight skills like planches, handstands and the like is that every single drill is actually a core exercise. There’s a reason that gymnasts have such amazing midsections – it’s because every training session is non-stop core work from go to whoa. My current training plan has me doing a workout three days per week that is about two hours long. How many of you are doing six hours of core work each week?

So a normal workout may consist of some Primal Move warm ups, including some easy rolling and crawling. Don’t discount these easy core movements. One of the things people forget is that we have both a soft reflexive core – used for movements like crawling and rolling – and we have a harder core, which we use for planks, sit ups and any other higher tension exercise. If you’re like most people you need to go to your higher tension strategies to do what should be simple tasks like crawling, then you really need to spend more time on them. That’s a warning sign that your innermost level of function is under developed and may well be the reason why you struggle with what should be easy moves.

There’s a knock on benefit from this too – time spent on crawling gets the abs to brace the spine properly and means that the hip flexors actually release and do their job properly. That usually means an instant increase in hamstring flexibility and a sudden release of pressure on the lower back as they psoas quits tugging on the vertebrae. Better quality of movement is an instant result for many from a few minutes of these simple drills.

But then where to after the warm up? Well, I do hollow body holds, various forms of planks, handstand holds (which again is hollow position), push up/ planche work (which again is a plank) and finally dips and pull ups (again hollow). All this work is interspersed with mobility drills so that I spend an equal amount of time on movement skills as I do on strength skills – an ideal set up. What good is being as strong as an ox when you can only display your strength over a tiny range of movement? And don’t think that ten minutes done at the end of a workout a few days per week will be enough to keep you moving well. If you only spent thirty minutes on strength each week would you expect to see much improvement? If your answer is a no, and it should be, why do you expect the answer to be any different when to comes to mobility?

What’s been the benefits of all the extra core work? Well, on a limited study, we do two hard body weight sessions per week in our classes. The people coming to these classes who are also attending our regular kettlebell raining classes are seeing massive progress. Girls who have been training only a few months are pressing beyond RKCII requirements, guys are squatting with nearly bodyweight with kettlebells (a huge feat) and everyone is starting to get that WTH kind of thing going on. That’s what happens when everything works together.

For me, I have barely run since Ironman and have only just started again in the last two weeks. The difference it is making in how my body feels running is amazing. Rob de Castella said to me that running fast is all about learning to kick the ground hard. If you don’t have a strong core when you kick the ground you’ll just flop on it instead of bouncing off it. Well, now I can actually feel what he is talking about when I run. Obviously, at distance efforts I am not kicking as hard as I can compared to sprinting so the extra strength gained makes holding that low level of continual tension needed in my midsection easier.

I’m left wondering how come I’ve never felt this way before when I’ve done hard abdominal training blocks and the reason, I think, is down to doing abdominal exercises. You know, standard sit up, V Sit, kind of stuff, that trains you to flex or rotate and not to resist those things. I’ve believed that all the other work I was doing was enough but it’s clear to me now that it wasn’t. And this is why our group classes are so popular – we are still learning. Even though we’ve got the most experienced RKCs and FMS practitioners in the country, even though we’re the leaders in Primal Move, even though we’ve got more experience as trainers than all of the StrongFirst instructors in the country combined we’re still learning and trying to figure out ways to improve. I’m pretty sure that looking at how much my body has improved over the last year that if I’m getting significant fitness improvements in my forties that we’ll be able to make our clients even better,