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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?


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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 –

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 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 ( 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 (

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 ( 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.


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 ( 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



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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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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Building the Squat

When it comes to physical training just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. For instance, I could decide to go and start sprinting up a hill as fast as I could with no warm up. Perhaps my body would cope with it, but the more likely scenario is that it wouldn’t. A far smarter idea would be to begin with some running technique work, if I had no running base. Once that was grooved in place I could do some easy tempo runs gradually building the pace. Only after a few months of building up would it be smart to move onto the hill sprints, and only then once a thorough warm up had been undertaken.

Often in the gym people forget that there are exercises that go before exercises – progressions, or regressions, depending on how you look at it. Two of the most fundamental yet poorly done exercises are the humble squat and push up. Both require you to maintain good trunk alignment while producing force with the extremities. These skills flow into other more complex athletic activities like running, jumping, punching, and throwing. But I’ll guarantee that if you can’t do a squat or push up well you’ll have little chance of doing any more difficult task well so it pays to get the basics right.

How to build the squat:

The first, and most important part of building the squat is the very base layer. That base layer is the requisite mobility to squat well without load. If you can’t achieve a good squat position unloaded you have some issues. And if you can achieve a good position, but need 50kg to push you into position first, you may have more issues.

The three key areas of mobility for the squat are the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine. I like to use a two-part system to free things up of static stretching followed by mobilising the area. For the ankles combine a static calf stretch for 60-120 seconds per leg with ankle mobility work for 10 – 20 reps.

For the hips it’s not as simple as you need to work on multiple muscles to free up their range. Here’s the list:

Hip flexors – kneeling hip flexor stretch for 60 – 120s followed by cook hip lifts for 5 – 10 reps.

Glutes – pigeon stretch for 60 – 120s followed by the active pigeon drill for 10 reps. (

Adductors – frog stretch series by my friend Jon Engum.

The next step is the thoracic spine. For best results lie across a foam roller so that it sits at the bottom border of your shoulder blades.

Follow that up with face the wall squats.

Now that base mobility should have been gained you can move onto actual squatting. But now comes the next problem – where to start? There are so many possibilities from body weight to loaded using a variety of implements.

The first step should always be to assess raw movement unloaded. That means we begin with body weight squats. Our goal here should be three sets of 20 reps with good form. Good form constitutes:

  • Heels stay on the floor throughout the entire movement.
  • Knees track toes.
  • Knees don’t collapse inwards.
  • Hip crease travels below the knee at bottom of squat.
  • Lower back doesn’t curve and pelvis doesn’t tuck under.
  • Upper back remains upright, not hunched.
  • Hips rise at the same speed as the shoulders.

The next step is to add some load. The best way forward is the goblet squat based on the yoga garland pose, which relied on prying the knees open with the elbows to help achieve a solid base position. Holding a kettlebell at chest height squat to the same depth as with the body weight squats.

One of the cool things about the goblet squat is that the slight weight does two things for you. Firstly, it shifts the centre of gravity slightly forward, which gives you the feeling of having your heels raised, making a good squat easier for people to achieve. Secondly, the weight is trying to collapse you forward and your abs need to work hard prevent that flexion. In corrective exercise terminology the kettlebell is giving you core assistance by forcing your abs to engage so the hips can be free to do their thing. (And if you book this workshop I’ll be sharing a special way to do this exercise to amplify this even more).

Our goal with goblet squats is three sets of 10 performed to the same standard as the body weight squats. Suggested loads for males is a 24kg bell, and for females a 16kg bell.

Next up is even more load and we progress to double kettlebell front squats. While the addition of the load obviously adds more stress to the legs it also forces the core to engage even more. Once we progress to the use of the barbell this will become important as trunk stiffness will be the key to preventing the back injuries that are all too common in squatting (as the abs act to control the rotation of the pelvis).

Our goal now is five sets of five with the same standards as for the bodyweight squats. Goal weight is double 24kg bells for men and 16kg for women.

Now we can move onto the barbell and front squats. The reason to put front squats before back squats is that the bar in front of the body position forces that core engagement and teaches the body to do it automatically. That skill will be needed when the transition is made to back squats as it is easy to switch off everything once the bar is loaded on the spine and just have your skeleton support its load instead of maximising the protection you get from your musculature.

Five sets of three with your bodyweight loaded on the bar are the goal. Form should still look identical to your unloaded bodyweight squats.

The final step is barbell back squats where the loading is only limited by how much time and effort you put in. But by the time you have gotten to here you may have found a few things out and realised that you don’t actually need to use back squats as you’re “strong enough” for your sport or hobby. At RPT we don’t even use back squats with our clients as we don’t need to, and I have yet to see anyone perform the front squats technically well enough at bodyweight to satisfy my standards.

But the base of all of this is the mobility work at the very start and the unloaded bodyweight squats. Spend your time there before worrying about all the loaded steps and you’ll likely find new found performance once you progress.

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Rethinking Kettlebell Ballistics

Back when kettlebells first became popular there were three things that drew me to them. Firstly, they allowed you to perform a lot of movements with only a few pieces of equipment – something that appealed greatly to my minimalistic nature. Secondly, they can be a great tool for rehab, strength, and conditioning (although to a lesser degree). And finally, many of the exercises were hip centric movements which would do wonders to help get rid of the lazy glutes many suffer from and help build full body power.

Along the way there has been a lot of knowledge gained about kettlebells. That’s been largely thanks to a few leaders in both the RKC and SFG communities who have looked to exercise science to improve things, rather than rely on the hype surrounding kettlebells, as well as the works of guys like Dr. Stuart McGill and Andrew Lock who are pushing their uses forward in both rehab and strength.

If we could just side step for a moment to speak about the squat – the reasons will be clear later on. If you think about the different types of squat – bodyweight, goblet, kettlebell front squat, barbell front squat, back squat, and overhead squat – and the shapes your body makes do perform them you’ll notice a difference. Your trunk will be in a different position for each, your stance will be narrower or wider, and your toes may even point in different directions. And that’s how we all make the various squat forms fit us based on our own mobility and limb lengths. There is no universal squat shape that will allow you to accomplish all of these variations without modification.

And this brings me to kettlebell ballistics. The swing is the first exercise many learn because it forms the basis of other exercises such as the clean, snatch, and high pull. It’s also proven to be a helpful tool for fat loss, hip strength, grip development, as well as what I’m going to call incidental conditioning.

The way the swing is generally taught at RKC and SFG events is no issue. That is a tried and trusted path to follow that gives proven results. However, when it comes to teaching the clean and snatch science has perhaps shown us a smarter way forward that few are willing to take note of.

When teaching the swing the students are taught to project the bell forward as if punching the kettlebell at an opponent. The RKC/ SFG crowd often talk about the American Swing as wasted energy, saying that if they want to project the bell upward they’ll snatch to distinguish between the horizontal and vertical force differences of the two exercises.

And that all makes a lot of sense. The near vertical shin angle taught during the development of the swing is most beneficial for horizontal force projection, as in a standing broad jump. I say “near vertical” shin angle because there is still an amount of knee extension involved in the completion of the swing and that slight knee forward angle allows for this to be executed with more force. Like our squat we’re going to have a few different versions of the bottom position of kettlebell ballistics so that we can get the most out of them.

Now this is where it starts to get tricky. Bret Contreras wrote an excellent article on deadlifts versus swings on T-Nation back in 2012. To save you the time I’ll just give you the summarised version:

A hip hinge style loading phase for the swing creates ~370N of horizontal force when using a 32kg bell, compared with ~176N for a squat style pattern.

That is a pretty clear reason as to why you should be using a hip hinge/ vertical shin style pattern for the swing – because when you want the bell to be projected horizontally, as in a swing, you get double the force output. But what about if you want the bell to be projected vertically? What happens then?

A squat style pattern gets you more vertical force than a hinge does (by roughly 200N). In other words, if you want to direct force upwards, as in a snatch or clean, then the way you look in the bottom position is going to be different than it is when you swing.

But kettlebell ballistics aren’t as cut and dry as jumping is. Jumping can be broken down into maximum distance either horizontally or vertically. Kettlebell ballistics will always have a component of horizontal force projection because of the arc the bell is forced to travel. While the hinge pattern is needed to develop the swing, and it’s in people’s best interests to improve their ability with it to counter act all the deficits from sitting, it isn’t going to be the text book hinge we should see when doing cleans and snatches.

Instead what should be seen is the slight knee forward position in the bottom and the more vertical the lift the more the knee should be allowed forward to help in the use of heavier bells. Looking at the angles of the arm will help to determine which is the most vertical of the lifts. The swing is clearly the most horizontal of the three and can be performed with the textbook vertical shin. The clean is at the other end of the spectrum as the bell stays closest to the body out of the three lifts, as the upper arm never even leaves the ribs throughout. And that puts the snatch somewhere between the two in terms of how much horizontal force there is versus vertical force, despite the snatch being the most vertical looking of the three.

But how much knee forward is acceptable? Remember that all three have elements of horizontal force projection in them, as unlike using a barbell it is impossible to get a kettlebells to travel a clean vertical path. (Incidentally, this is why I don’t teach single dead cleans or snatches as it allows the student to do this, forces them into a far more squat style stance, and makes it much harder later on to get them to do it right when expecting multiple reps. It’s also why I reserve teaching of the dead swing until after they’ve mastered the regular swing so they don’t form that bad habit initially, as most won’t be able to resist the trap of allowing their knees to drift forward on succeeding single reps as it will be more comfortable for them).

Looking at the video (and I apologise for the poor quality but that’s how slow motion videos come out often under halogen lights) you’ll see a difference between the knee position for the swing and the snatch. But this isn’t a heavy bell – that’s only a 16kg and the model usually snatches a 20kg. If we put that up to the 22kg or 24kg, which are “heavy” for her then you’ll see far more knee shift during the snatch as she’ll need extra vertical force to power the bell to where it is.

Despite the bottom half of swings, cleans, and snatches looking the same there should be some differences to a trained eye when working heavy. Because of the vertical forces needed to power the bell to a different place for cleans and snatches you should accept that some deviation in form is acceptable. The idea that the clean and the snatch are swings is correct. Sort of. The truth is that while they look very similar the powering action of them is going to be different compared to their root swing.

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Rebuilding the BJJ back part 1

If you’ve been involved in BJJ for any length of time you probably have a story that involves hurting your back. Maybe it was your lower back or maybe it was your neck, but likely you’ve hurt it at some point. It’s no secret that BJJ despite being named the “gentle art” is far from it.

The back is unlike most other joints in the body. Most joints are pretty simple – a few bones meet and are held together by some muscles. The action of the muscles pulls on the bones on one side and levers them to bend the joint. If you look at our limbs we have two types of joints. The closest to our center, the hips and shoulders, are multi-directional joints that move in all directions. Then we have joints that move in only single directions. Our elbows and knees are called hinge joints for this reason, as like the hinges on a door they only work one way. Then, at the extremities we have another set of multi-directional joints for our hands and feet, or more specifically our wrists and ankles.

While the dexterity of the hand speaks volumes as to how many muscles and nerves are involved, and the huge array of muscles around our hips and shoulders allows them to work in any direction, the back is different again. The back consists of twenty-six vertebrae. That’s twenty-six joints that all link up and articulate. Holding this in place are an enormous number of muscles. To move the spine through flexion, extension, or rotation is the job of all these muscles.

As non-clinicians we want an understanding of back mechanics that allows us to quickly figure out what is wrong, and address is appropriately. An easy to use system breaks the back into three segments – the neck or cervical area, the rib cage or thoracic spine, and the lumbar or lower back. Three chunks.

The neck or cervical section has seven vertebrae. The mid back or thoracic spine has twelve. And the lower back has five plus the sacrum. So just saying to someone, “I’ve hurt my back” isn’t going to cut it from a treatment perspective. You’re going to need to be a little more specific with your language. This, by the way, is why you should run a mile from anyone who diagnoses you with “non specific back pain” – they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about if they can’t narrow down what your problem is. You should run a mile from these charlatans.

There are a lot of myths surrounding backs as to what you should and shouldn’t do. Sadly most of these come from someone with a product to sell. Pilates springs to mind as the likely biggest culprit when it comes to snake oil methods of back care. Comments like “you shouldn’t flex your spine” always seem to spring up without taking back mechanics into account.

Given the nature of BJJ it is unlikely that you will significantly hurt your thoracic spine during training. The reason for this is simple – it’s designed to flex far more than the neck and lower back, and has bigger muscles to control its action. Instead, we are far more likely to injure the neck and lower back. The neck is pretty easy to figure out – you’ve got a little thin thing with seven joints in it supporting a bowling ball. That’s a lot of stress at the best of times, let alone when you are curled up in a ball with someone trying to smash pass you with all their weight driving into you. And that’s not even taking takedowns into account.

The lower back is the other chunk of your spine that is likely to get hurt. That makes sense, right? We learn to control the head or the hips, and in many cases to even twist them to control our opponent. Well, the lower back doesn’t deal well with being flexed or twisted. In fact, noted physiotherapist Shirley Sahrmann says that flexion and rotation of the lower back is the worst thing you can do it from an injury perspective. And that makes sense too. Have you ever had someone do a can opener guard pass to you and noticed how everything is fine until suddenly it isn’t? And at that moment when you are being crushed into a little ball your brain basically shuts down, your legs fly open, and your opponent is able to casually walk past your legs.

The problem with BJJ is that much of our sport occurs during moments of spinal flexion. Add on to that many people who practice the art are coming from a deskbound perspective and they are already turning up to train with a compromised spine. One of the leading back specialists in the world recommends a simple solution – perform work in back extension to reduce flexion based pain.

This video shows the early version performed prone.

The next step is to perform standing extensions, as shown below.

And finally, perform these neck glide plus extensions to regain normal function in the neck.

In part two and three we’ll cover more extensive ground based spine and neck work to use once you’ve settled the pain down.

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So you want to be in shape at 40?

The fitness industry is designed around a few big myths:

  • You need supplements to do anything – both fat loss or muscle gain.
  • A six pack is the defining criteria for fitness.
  • Once you’re no longer young and beautiful there’s nothing for you to do but wait to die.

It may seem harsh but if you look through any fitness magazine or website that’s what you’ll see perpetuated over and over again. From the covers sporting airbrushed, starved and dehydrated, trainaholics to the ads inside the message is loud and clear – get buff, buy our stuff, and we care about the young and beautiful. Too bad if you don’t fit that mold, as we have nothing for you

But life isn’t like that. And to be honest being in shape in your twenties is actually relatively easy. Not so much when you’re in your forties or beyond. You’ve got more job stress. You’ve probably got kids who need a fair bit of attention too. And time isn’t so kind in terms of how easy it is to get back in shape after even a short layoff.

And with the way the fitness industry presents itself the workforce is filled with relatively young trainers tying to tell you how to live your lives. I know this because I was one of them. I used to believe that when I was in my twenties I did a good job with my more mature clients, that I was empathetic, and understood how hard it was for them to balance life and training. Looking back I probably did reasonably well because my client retention rate has always been high, but I also will admit that as a now forty-year old I sucked pretty badly at quite a few things.

I had no idea how hard some days would be for an older athlete. There are days where I can crush it in the gym and look super impressive. For an hour or two. What people don’t see, but what older athletes go through, is that behind closed doors they spend the next two days hobbling around paying the price for that session. Muscles recover slower, joints hurt a little bit more, and it can be easy to accidentally skip a nourishing meal in the rush for work to get done slowing recovery further. And then there’s that younger trainer expecting them to bring 100% to the gym for the next session. It’s unrealistic.

And that’s why my own training isn’t shaped like that anymore. No more two hard days in a row. No more two hard sessions in a single day. It just doesn’t work anymore. Most athletes and trainers understand this, yet when it comes to passing on this knowledge to their clients this seems to go out the window. As if the training that is good enough for them needs to be somehow modified for their clients. None of the training at RPT is like that and the sessions vary individually flowing from easier sessions to harder ones to allow the body a chance to recover and adapt. This is what has allowed me to keep up with kids heading off to BUDS, or to train with others half my age in BJJ classes and keep up.

This doesn’t mean the end of hard sessions. Because that’s the other side of this – trainers who seemingly refuse to actually make anyone sweaty or even the slightest bit sore. Those are necessary side effects of the transformation process from unfit to fit. Yet I see plenty of trainers who baby their clients and then wonder why those same clients never seem to actually get in shape. I’ve had people say to me after their first session at RPT that they’ve never worked so hard in their life, despite having been a member of a gym and having had personal training for over four years. Our bar is set high to help you become the best that you can be. But it ain’t going to be easy.

And then there’s what happens in most group training now – everything is a competition. As much as we like to think that we can be as good at forty as we are at twenty that isn’t realistic. There’s a very real reason why the average age of a medal winner at the Olympics is twenty-eight and that there are masters’ competitions – because age related declines in performance are very real. And yet there these classes are, denying this fact, and expecting that the older clients mix it in a competitive workout with the younger ones. Sooner or later what usually happens is the older clients either get hurt trying to keep up or burn out and give up, walking away from their fitness goals. The alternative is to follow a program that fits where you are and have goals that are realistic for you, not for the other ten people in class.

There’s no BS at our place. Just an expectation that when you come you’ll work hard to accomplish the challenges we set out for you. But that is balanced by the reality of understanding the stresses and realities of no longer being a twenty-year old. We don’t promise to cure cancer or regrow cartilage – we’ll leave that to the snake oil salesmen in our industry – but we will get the best out of your body that is possible.

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Why you need kettlebell swings

If you’ve been around exercise for any length of time you’ll have heard the hype surrounding kettlebells by now. Over the last few years even the mainstream gyms – usually the slowest to adopt any new training equipment that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg – have started buying kettlebells. But put your fears aside – kettlebells have been around for hundreds of years. far long, in fact, than any of the other equipment found in your gym such as barbells, treadmills, and TRX.

Like with all exercises that are effective kettlebells have struggled to compete against the many myths that surround their use. I see recommendations frequently from people as to how best to use them and frankly many are just jumping on what they hope will be a profitable band wagon, with little real experience or knowledge to offer.

If there was one exercise that exemplifies kettlebell training it is the swing. All the other major exercises can be done to varying degrees of success with other pieces of equipment, however, it is the swing that can only be done with a kettlebell. Let’s look at the facts regarding kettlebell swings:

They are a fantastic exercise to build posterior chain strength. That is, they develop the hips, hamstrings, and lower back as well, if not better, than other exercises, including those that use a higher load. If taught properly to hike pass the bell there is a “virtual” load placed on the muscles eccentrically that can be as much as four times the weight of the bell. In other words, that 24kg bell you’re swinging may feel like it weighs 96kg to your glutes.

The swing involves these muscles in the posterior chain – rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, both gluteus medius and maximus, rectus femoris, and biceps femoris. If you’re not an anatomy whizz that means it involves all the muscles of your core, your upper back and the biggest muscles in your legs.

One of the really cool things about the swing is that even with moderate loads they have recorded 50% MVC (maximum Voluntary Contraction, or the maximum amount the muscles could contract) in the muscles of the back and 80% in the glutes. Because you are able to perform many swings during a training session you are able to effectively flush an often troublesome area with blood and allow it to heal or recover.

A correctly taught swing isn’t a squat. It’s what is called a hip hinge. A hip hinge is the action you would perform if you wanted to jump as far forward as you can, as opposed to a vertical jump which will see you need a more squat like starting position. This is where people often go wrong utilising a squat motion for their swing instead of the correct hip hinge.

The value of the hip hinge is that far more force can be projected horizontally. In a hip hinge swing you can see forces of 340-400N projected horizontally versus only 165-185N for the squat swing. For many athletes, such as runners, whose sport involves horizontal force projection that makes swings a far better choice for training than even an exercise like deadlifts. While deadlifts are a fantastic exercise for raw strength they can lead to a lack of explosiveness in athletes due to the grinding nature often used in the lift. Secondly, the high loads can be problematic for endurance athletes who likely don’t have the core strength or stiff backs of seasoned lifters. With the swing they can get a better training effect with less stress on the back.

For grapplers, the swing provides a fantastic tool that also builds grip while building the power needed for an explosive penetration step for takedowns. The addition of incidental grip training is useful both for hand fighting as well as being part of a system that helps shoulders stay healthy.

Kettlebell swings are a great option for those wishing to get some heart rate/ energy systems training yet are unable to perform better variations such as running. An ACE study on kettlebell swings puts it at 1200 calories burned per hour. That’s based off a much shorter study, and no one is going to be able to swing for an hour non-stop, but the energy used is on par with running, and given all the other benefits if you had a choice of a short run or a choice of doing some swings you will be likely better off choosing the swings.

If you want to learn how to achieve all these benefits of kettlebell swings then book now for our Introduction to Kettlebells Workshop. We’ll also cover essential drills to keep the body healthy and supple regardless of sport, as well as three other core kettlebell moves.

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Mature aged guide to buying a personal trainer

So you made it to forty and noticed some things weren’t as they should be. Gravity has started winning the battle. Keeping up with the kids has become harder than it was previously. Napping is a perfectly suitable past time for an afternoon after spending the morning in the garden.

You’re not alone with this – time marches on and with it come small inevitable declines in ability. For some of us at least. Recently I thought it would be interesting to check under the hood on my own 43-year old body and see just what was really going on. The only way to truly do this is via blood work as cosmetic detail can hide a lot – do you think Lance Armstrong was unhealthy looking when he was found to be riddled with cancer? Checking out the blood tells you the real facts about how your body is coping.

What I found was eye-opening for two reasons. Firstly, my testosterone levels were the same as they were when I was 28. That’s a pretty good thing. But it also means that sadly as a 28-year old I wasn’t that special. But what it says to me now is that there is a lot of great reasons to engage in strength training and endurance work – they are literally the fountain of youth.

That’s all well and good for me. After all, it’s my job to know about this stuff and I’ve spent my life figuring out the best ways to get in shape and stay that way. It’s as natural for me as waking up every day is. But I recognise that for many people that isn’t the case, and that means one thing.

You’re going to need to pay for professional help.

So here’s the scoop on personal trainers in Australia. And this is for all of Australia, not just Melbourne, and not just in our suburb of Moorabbin. These are the stats for our fitness industry:

30,000 personal trainers

15,000 new trainers each year

Every year 10% of the trainers leave for a variety of reasons. So if you start with 100 trainers by the end of the first year you’d have 90. At the end of the second year you’d have 81. The end of the third year would be 73, and the end of the fourth year would be 65. But then something really bad happens. At the end of the fifth year 70% of those remaining leave. That means that of the 65 who made it to the end of the fourth year only 20 will be left.

I’ll be honest and say that because of how easy it is to become a personal trainer it’s also easy to leave the field too. Doctors probably feel very differently about a six-year degree course that cost them somewhere in the vicinity of $100,000 to obtain than someone does about their six-week course that cost $4,000. The low barrier to entry also provides a low barrier to exit too.

That’s not all bad because in most cases the ones who can’t survive shouldn’t be in the field in the first place. There’s a lot more to the job than enjoying being in the gym and frankly most 20-year olds don’t have the maturity, common sense, communication skills, and business sense to be running their own business. Not only that but these are the guys who often end up hurting clients. Clients like you who are a little older and not in the same shape as a twenty-something. Because twenty-somethings aren’t that good at empathy, are they? They don’t know what it’s like to have the boss throw a big stack of papers at them at 6pm and say that it all needs to be done by tomorrow. They don’t know what it’s like to have to go home and spend time with the kids or make sure the bills are paid, or maybe even go and work the second job to pay for the kids’ schooling. And that lack of empathy is usually the thing that ends up hurting you.

You’d think that those who go and get degrees in exercise science would be slightly better choices but that isn’t necessarily the case. Consider a young graduate, fresh from their three-year degree course versus a three-year personal trainer. The degree certified trainer has a fancy piece of paper and close to zero work experience while the six-week trainer has nearly three full years of work experience. I know who I’d choose in that face off.

But let’s put it all in perspective. My accountant has about twenty-five years experience in handling taxation and small businesses. I pay quite a bit (I’m sure that’s not how they feel about it, but they are one of my bigger expenses yearly) for that experience. The day to day work is done by a kid who has a degree and three years of experience. In fitness industry terms that kid would be highly thought of – a degree plus three years work experience would put him or her above 70% of the industry. But he can’t even sign off on a single thing on my accounts without the final clearance from my actual accountant. But in the fitness industry you might be seeing that kid three times a week year round, giving him 150 different chances to hurt you.

There’s a lot of BS in the fitness industry. Most of it comes from the mouths of trainers and concerns how many bits of paper they have. The only thing you need to be focused on when interviewing a potential trainer is how much experience they have helping people with your background. It doesn’t matter what classes they used to run, or how they look in a bikini. What matters is how many people they have right now who are in the same boat as you, or who have been in that boat previously. A great test is simply check how long their current clients have been with them – if they can’t keep clients there is a very big reason why.

At RPT there are three of us working. I’m at the weird end of the fitness industry – the 1% who have been at it for over 15 years. Our other two staff have both been at it for six years now. In other words, under our roof you’ll get better advice and more experience than you will from at least 70% of the fitness industry, and when it comes to what we specialise in – kettlebells, movement, and functional strength – you won’t find any who can match us. No false claims, no damaged or hurt clients, just continual forward progress that comes from a systematic approach that we work with you on in a way that is appropriate for your level.

Be smart when you’re looking for a new trainer. I have some genuine horror stories of trainers killing clients with inappropriate exercises and training methods, hurting them in a way that requires surgery, and belittling and humiliating them. You’ve got one body so make sure you treat it with the respect it deserves and take the time to seek out a genuine high-level trainer. Don’t purchase on price or convenience – your body deserves better.

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Freedom of Expression

Imagine living in a country where you weren’t able to speak your mind for fear of punishment? Now imagine that your body is one of those places – locking down what can and can’t be done athletically, all in the name of what is good for the whole body.

The freedom to move in all directions is one that we take for granted as children and then lose as adults. The mainstream fitness media do little to help this situation. There are plenty of articles about how stretching is dangerous, lowers power production, or is ineffective. None of this is true. The bottom line is that range of motion gives us the ability to better express our athleticism. As we get older our ability to move freely becomes worse and worse. All those years of sitting down teaches the body to only work to a certain point and then stop, which limits our full potential. Even if you’ve been active there can be problems because muscles need to be stretched again to regain their length after all the contraction of athletic activities, especially resistance training.

When we move without load we can see our full range of motion. Now, load can also be speed in the context of movement so it is possible that even unweighted you lose range once you try to speed up a movement. The more load (or speed) we use the more limited our range will become. If you have a hard time getting into a squat without weight, once we add load to that it’s not going to get better. This is how you can always find that guy in the gym who has about 400kg on the leg press and is doing quarter inch reps with it – the load has diminished his ability to express how much range he has.

There can be a dangerous side to range of motion. Imagine someone with contortionist flexibility. Now imagine that at the extreme of their already extreme range of movement we add a big load to them. That’s not going to end well. So yes, extreme flexibility an be a problem if you decide to add load/ speed to it at extreme ranges. But how many of you are circus contortionists? How many of you can’t actually touch your toes?

In terms of basic movement ability touching your toes is a pretty good test for a lot of things. But how do you go about it? And is gaining flexibility different for kids than it is for mature adults?

If you go to PubMed and search for articles on stretching for both adults and children you will get a fair idea of the differences. The search for adults will show that the vast majority are related to performance with a few that are for injury rehab purposes. However, the search for stretching for kids shows that all of them are for children with a disability of some sort such as cerebral palsy. What that says to me is that (a) there is no money in researching flexibility in children so we see it only being conducted in medical settings, and (b) it’s likely that children have a CNS that is much more responsive to all types of input. That makes sense as children learn by moving and their body adapts to all movement.

The situation isn’t the same for adults. Once you pass the age of twelve the CNS is largely set in stone. Making significant changes becomes much harder and learning new skills becomes more difficult. If we view stretching as the same as any other athletic skill, such as ball skills, you always see the most advanced athletes in any sport were the ones who took it up the youngest. This, in part, has to do with the 10,000 hour concept, but it also has to do with learning of fine motor skills. But none of this helps us as adults.

There’s literally over 2,000 articles on stretching in PubMed alone. All of them show that stretching has a benefit of some kind. That’s some pretty compelling evidence as to why you should be stretching. Forget what you’ve heard about how it decreases power production. While studies such as this one by Yamaguchi et al do show ” that relatively extensive static stretching decreases power performance” the reality of how you train is different to what is being researched.

Firstly, this study, and others like it, are on peak power/ maximum intensity training. As in, perform static stretching and then go immediately to a max effort. How many people do you know who actually train that way? A far more likely scenario is that they might stretch, then perform some activation type drills before moving onto their warm up sets. At this point, maybe thirty minutes after their stretching was completed they will be starting to work towards their maximum efforts. The short-term loss of power is a small window of minutes, not hours or days.

Secondly, for many trainees they will never, ever get close to a real maximum effort. At RPT we rarely work towards 1RMs as I don’t believe they’re that useful for the majority of people. Our typical rep range is between 5-8 reps. That corresponds to an intensity of 75-85%. Do you know how many studies show a drop of performance in people lifting at 80% after static stretching? The number is zero.

Another common comment people make regarding static stretching is that it doesn’t do anything for injury prevention. Yet this study by Small et al, taken from cross-referencing 364 studies from four different resources shows that stretching does reduce the risk of musculotendinous injuries. Things that make you go hmmm…

The missing link here is talk about types of flexibility. Research is often done just on either passive static or dynamic flexibility, so we need to understand the difference. Static and dynamic are opposite ends of the movement continuum. Static obviously means that there is no movement at all during the stretch, while dynamic is the opposite and includes exercises like rhythmic arm and leg swings. But there’s some missing information here too. You need to take into account both passive and active flexibility as well. Passive flexibility is displayed when you have an external force acting on you. An example would be sitting on the ground and trying to reach your toes while a partner pushes you forward. The combination of your relaxation and their assistance enhances the stretch. Active is the exact opposite. A good example of active flexibility would be lying on your back and lifting a straight leg as high as you could in the air without using your arms to assist the movement (because using the arms would be passive stretching). What you’ll see is that there is a difference between passive and active flexibility.

This difference between the two is what a dynamic warm-up tries to reduce. A well-constructed dynamic warm-up consists of dynamic stretching as well as active range of motion exercises. The combination of the two is superior to static stretching in both warming the body up so that it functions better as well as activating muscles so that everything is switched on and ready to go. For people keeping a close on things this is exactly what I wrote about above describing going from stretching to activation drills, to specific warm up sets. To those of us who have been around a while it’s just called warming up and we have always known that this is the best way to go about things based on what we feel and see going on with ourselves and our clients.

But still none of this helps our aging athlete gain movement. As my man Ido Portal says, “You won’t foam roll your way to the splits”. When you look at a cross section of the world’s best movers you will see one common theme – they all stretch, and they do so in a variety of ways but static stretching is always part of that practice. The biggest problem with using static stretching is that it can feel like it takes forever to achieve any kind of appreciable results. In today’s world of instant gratification that obviously isn’t popular. Charles Poliquin believes that it takes roughly an hour of flexibility work daily for six weeks before the effects of your program will be noticeable.

Ido Portal has great results with what he terms his Corset protocol. The Corset is a blend of concepts taken from martial arts, gymnastics, and dance and uses all the various types of flexibility as well as mobility/ activation work, which is then followed by strength work. The continuum is to gain range, activate the muscles so that you are protected within the new range, and then strengthen the entire range. One of the key features of the Corset is the use of loaded stretching. The adult CNS is quite resistant to change and often overly protective. Trying to get the attention of the CNS with light static stretches is like a mouse trying to hump an elephant. No matter how hard that mouse tries the elephant isn’t going to notice.

The use of loaded stretching speeds up the process of encouraging the body to embrace new range. It has the added benefit of being an activation drill at the same time because you are strengthening at the same time as you are developing new range. Keep an eye out soon for our own workshops that go through the main problems of the body and how to address them by tying together drills from various sources with a knot made from the FMS system.

One final point is that static stretching has a calming effect on the CNS. After spending time winding it up with performance training it makes sense to spend time after training allowing it to wind down too. All those negative points about static stretching being damaging to power production if done pre-workout are the exact reasons why you should put it at the end of each session to regain movement and settle the body and mind.

The bottom line is that stretching is always beneficial. Don’t over think it, especially if you’re an old dog trying to stay athletic. You need to keep as much range as possible and can’t risk losing more – you’re already going to be stuff from years of desk work and training. High degrees of movement are the fountain of youth so work to retain as much suppleness as possible at all times. Gain movement pre-workout with a combination of active and dynamic flexibility exercises and then activation drills. Settle the body post-training with relaxed static stretching. Done regularly you’ll find regained athleticism, even as you age.

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So you want to be a 40 year old bad ass?

Ask yourself the question – do you want to be a show pony or an ass kicking bad ass?

The reason I ask is simple. Right now bodyweight training is a big deal. In fact, it’s one of the highest-ranking Google searches you can do in regards to fitness. But what kind of bodyweight training do you want to do?

If you want to be a circus performer there’s one type of bodyweight work you should do. If you want to actually be able to use your fitness for something other than drinking games then there’s another way you should train instead.

And if you want to be a forty-year old bad ass then you also need to stop and think for a second. The reality for us older guys is this: we have jobs that are serious, limited time, and probably have bodies that are banged up thanks to some extra athletic miles on them compared to the youngsters you see on Instagram.

That means that you need to choose wisely what you spend your time on. A decent handstand could take you years to learn. Or you could spend those years continuing to kick some serious ass athletically and be like Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge.

Back in the early days of gyms they categorized gymnastics into heavy and soft training. These terms had nothing to do with actual load but the difficulty of the skills. Heavy gymnastics was the use of rings, pommel horse, and vaulting. Light gymnastics on the other hand was the use of dumbbells, clubs, and wands.

I think calisthenics needs to go the same route and start terming heavy and light calisthenics. Heavy calisthenics would be all the show-off, circus tricks you see – handstands, levers, pistols, and planches fit here. While impressive feats of strength they don’t really lead to anything. On the light side of the equation you have all the real work. Burpees, push ups, squats, lunges, pull-ups, and even star jumps – all the exercises that have been used to help create bad asses since Sparta.

The thing no one ever mentions about the impressive looking stuff you see on Instagram or people’s Facebook pages is that like all hard physical skills the risk of injury is high. Want elbows that don’t work properly? Try one-arm pull-ups. Want wrists that hurt to bend? Start doing planches. No one ever seems to want to tell you that to get to the point where your body is supple enough to deal with that kind of work might take you two years. If you’re hell bent on doing those things then have at it, but in two years time I’m still going to be fitter and stronger than you thanks to the two heard years of work I’ve been able to put in while you worked on gaining wrist flexibility every day.

Want proof that bad asses are made from higher reps of more basic exercises and not low rep circus tricks? Here’s the current Physical Screening test for entry into BUDS (SEAL school):

Minimum –

Push-ups – 42

Sit-ups – 50

Pull-ups – 6

550yd swim – 12.30min

1.5mi run – 11min

However, those are minimums and you’re unlikely to get much notice from a recruiter looking for potential frogmen with scores like that. Here are the “competitive” standards:

Push-ups – 79

Sit-ups – 79

Pull-ups – 11

550yd swim – 10.30min

Run 1.5mi – 10.20min

You’ll note nowhere does it list “max effort front lever” or “max handstand hold”. In other words, real bad asses don’t care about how many fancy tricks you can post on Instagram. They care about real-world fitness useful for hauling yourself and your gear for hours and hours. They care about the kind of strength endurance that allows you to crawl, climb, ruck, run, swim, and move for long periods of time.

The over emphasis of maximal strength started in opposition to the jogging trend of the 70s. Overnight coaches started telling athletes that cardio made them weak and that they needed more strength. Strength is a great asset but it is not the be all and end all of physical qualities despite what some gurus will try to tell you. When it comes to battle nothing is more feared than an enemy that will not stop. Stamina, or strength endurance is what allows you to attack hard for as long as needed to drive the enemy into submission.

I tend not to train in anything other than an integrated fashion. My workouts always include strength and cardio as well as bodyweight and loaded movements. The reason is simple – done this way the whole becomes greater than the parts.

My all-time favourite workout was one I created back when I competed in BJJ. I would set the timer for twenty minutes and perform as many swings and push-ups as I could in that time frame. I’d swing a 32kg kettlebell for ten reps at a time then I’d “rest” by doing hindu push-ups for ten reps. My goal was always to hit a hundred reps of each in that twenty minute window, but I never made, and neither has anyone I’ve ever trained.

They actually pair together better than you might think at first glance too. The hindu push ups are very similar in action to the swing – flexion at the hip followed by extension. Done properly the breathing will be the same too with an inhalation on the flexion aspect and exhalation as you go into extension. The other benefit is that you’ll stretch your forearms out while doing the push ups. Believe me, they’re going to get smoked swinging the 32kg for that many sets one-handed.

What you will notice if you do this for a month or so is massively increased GPP. This was my base conditioning routine for BJJ and gave me a big head start on everyone when I started competition specific preparation. An added bonus of this method, and one fighters will understand, is that you switch between power and economy breathing. If you try to fight for even a few minutes doing only the type of power breathing you use for swings you won’t last long. The forced relaxation of the breathing and hindu push-ups will recharge you to go again and get more work done in the same time frame.

Don’t turn your back on high rep calisthenics. It’s a method that has been creating warriors and world champions since we crawled out of the ooze. For best results combine it with high rep, heavy swings and become fitter than you thought was possible.

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