The Anterior Chain

Years ago, we used to talk about back training in the gym as doing the Olympic lifts or the powerlifts. One day, someone cracked out a textbook and decided to call this kind of work “Posterior Chain.” And, that is fine. I still have strong opinions that pulling 600 pounds off the floor is a better indicator for being an elite thrower or football player than lifting one’s torso off of a Bosu ball, but it’s all “Posterior Chain” now.

 

I joked in an article once that we have ignored “Anterior Chain.” I still stand by it: working that great range of human movement is more than just crunches and military sit-ups. Done correctly, this family of movements can support every sport activity and even improve the pull up.

 

I start teaching this with the basic Inchworm. Stand up and bend over. Put your hands on the ground and walk your hands out until you come to the up push up position. Then, walk your hands back to your feet and stand tall again. That is an Inchworm and it takes less time to do it than explain it.

 

If you travel a lot, do an Inchworm with a push up added to get in a nice workout without any equipment. I agree with many good coaches that the push up might be the most underrated abdominal exercise. Adding the Inchworm will cut into your volume of push ups.

 

I love the Ab Wheel. I always have. During January, you can buy them very cheap in the bins at many of the discount clothes stores. That’s where I get mine. Get to your knees, grab the handles and roll out. I have seen a person roll out on their toes to full extension of the arms. His nose was barely off the ground. This person, not surprising, also had great abs.

 

If the Inchworm and Ab Wheel are not enough, add some Hanging Leg Raises from the pull up bar. I recommend that you cross your legs at the ankle and really squeeze the knees together while you try to concomitantly pull the feet apart. Get a lot of tension in the lower body. Then, without any momentum, squeeze the abs and pull the legs to the L position. Learn to control this position first. Overtime, sweep the legs upward until your legs touch the fingers.

 

Always do these under control, like an Olympic gymnast. Don’t strive for reps, try to use the whole front side of your body.

 

From there, walk over to the dip rack. Pop into the top position, then bring your legs up into the L sit again. You must squeeze your armpits and try the leg trick from the Hanging Leg Raise. Breathing is going to be like air coming out of a tire: Tsssssst. Don’t hold your breath nor breath like you are bored watching TV.

 

For the Ab Wheel, the Hanging Leg Raise and the Dip Rack L Sit, consider doing 3-5 sets of 2-5 reps. Focus on the tension and the quality of the movement. Avoid volume and focus on strength.

 

Once these four basic movements are mastered, you can begin to explore basic gymnastic moves. But, for most of us, these four will provide you the work you need for the Anterior Chain in most situations. A small warning: these movements can provide a degree of soreness that can shock you two days after you play around with them. You will learn a good lesson here: the bulk of the ab work you have been doing for years is practically worthless.

 

Enjoy.

 

 

Programming 101…and My Birthday! (Welcome to what 60 looks like!)

 

It’s a rare day that the question of programming comes up. I would love to just say “Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat, Loaded Carry and Groundwork for reasonable reps and load,” but that doesn’t truly answer the key issues.

 

The first issue is simply: “What is your goal?” If you want fat loss you need to up the amount of exercise and decrease the amount of calories (somehow), but if you want mass, you need to increase load and tension and make sure you have enough protein to build muscle. And, like the old proverb: “if you chase two rabbits, you won’t catch either,” it is even more true in training.

 

To begin, we must assess. Goal setting is going from here to there, so we need to find out where “here” actually is. Before and after pictures have great value, measurements are fine and a host of tests have value. Assessment comes down to this:

 

We need to discover what you NEED to do, not what you want to do. If you are 40 percent body fat, you might need to reconsider your mass building program. If you don’t know how to squat properly, learning to squat might be a need. Certainly, you might want to do more curls, but your progress is going to be stalled by your needs.

 

The basics of the programming is three simple steps:

  1. Do no harm.
  2. The goal is to keep the goal the goal.
  3. The Path: Almost universally, someone has done it before you. Follow them!

 

No matter what you want to do, not sending you to the surgeons is universally a good idea. So, let’s make sure the program doesn’t hurt, hinder or kill you. Done correctly, the Olympic lifts can change your career for the better. Done wrong, they can send you into rehab or surgery. There is no good or bad on this, just be careful that you are avoiding harm’s way. Don’t program injury.

 

No matter how perfect the plan and program, something fun and fantastic is going to appear around the corner. We have all seen this before: someone is trying to get a goal like make the Olympic team in the discus. You see on their Social Media feed that they are doing weekend races in the mud. You ask: how does that get you to the Olympics in the discus? The answer: “Oh, all my friends are doing it and it is fun.”

 

The coach’s job, or Mister Big Kid, is to remind the athlete that “this” is the goal and all the other crap and stuff is pulling you from the goal.

 

Frankly, I know of no harder thing than to keep someone focused on the goal we all agreed up in the beginning. If you dipped into your retirement funds to buy a boat and you live in the desert, you probably understand this as well as anyone.

 

Finally, the best way to program is to simply study those who have done it before you. I have argued for years that to learn about fat loss, ask someone who has posed on the dais with practically nothing on. A famous bodybuilding coach states that it takes a dozen contests to figure out how you lean out best. Ask someone with a dozen contests not the lady in the office who read a book about dieting last week.

 

Talk to someone who has been there.

 

Finally, every so often, usually two to six weeks, reassess. Make those small changes early to get you back on the path. Take another round of photos, re-measure that waistline and review the original numbers in your tests. If there is progress, keep on keeping on. If you are not, review honestly the past few weeks.

 

Programming is more than sets, reps, rest periods and exercise selection. It is a living thing that needs constant care. If there is a secret to success in fitness, it is understanding that programming is all about the “to” in the “Here to There” of goal setting. Knowing where you are is the key to programming.

Glutes…

If you live an active lifestyle, you begin to take a few things for granted. Vacations seem to bring out the big issues. I have a few warning signs: if I find that I cover up more at the pool or beach, if suitcases need to be roller bags if I am more than fifty feet from my destination or if the idea of a hot, panting vacation experience is climbing the steps up to the next floor to get ice, it might be time for me to reflect on the basics of fitness.

On this last trip, I didn’t have those issues. But my good friend, Edna, did. Edna has been gaining weight for the past few years and her concerns lead us to a discussion by the pool. And, like most people who have lost condition she had one big problem and she was sitting on it.

If I had a magic wand of fitness, it would be to grant a set of glutes to each and everyone. I gave Edna a simple assessment: holding both of her hands, I asked to squat down between her legs. Not only could she not achieve the position, she had to lean forward, fold forward really, to stand back up as I pulled her into a stand.

The glutes are the big engines of the human body. They literally make us human in comparison to our primate brothers and sisters. Ignoring them leads to more than just a saggy bottom, ignoring the glutes means less power, less speed and, frankly, the look of old age. Let’s wake them up again.

Ideally, if you are squatting deep and heavy, practicing your deadlift and doing your Farmer Walks, much of you butt work is being addressed. If you need to relearn your squat, let’s take care of this first. I have a theory that there are three tests that can give you an insight on your fitness age:

Can you Standing Long Jump at least your height?

Can you hang from a bar for at least 30 seconds?

Can you sit in a deep squat for 30 seconds and stand up without any help?

If you can do all three, maintain those “yeses” for as long as you possibly can.

The first key to waking up your glutes is remember how to squat. There is one big concept: you don’t squat ON your legs like an accordion, you squat between your legs. I teach this with two drills. First, stand tall and hold a weight (a light dumbbell is all you really need) in your hands straight down. Your hands should be just inside your legs. Now, squat down feeling your hands then forearms then upper arms push the thighs apart as you “find space” between your legs.

This skin on skin contact will allow you to trust yourself to slide your body between your legs. I call this the Potato Sack Squat because it looks like how you gently put a heavy sack on the floor. For many, this single exercise will illuminate the road for future squatting.

The next, of course, is the Goblet Squat. I came up with this exercise years ago attempting to teach a deep, authentic squat to a group of 65 fourteen year old athletes. It is this simple: hold a weight in front of your chest. Now, using your right elbow, push your right knee out. Then, use your left elbow to push your left knee out. Then, make your chest tall and, congrats, you are in a deep squat.

The best way I know to work the glutes is to work them in circuits. I like combining squats with Proper Push Ups. The Proper Push Up, from Gym Jones, is simple: It is a normal Push Up, except when your chest touches the ground, you extend both hands out into the T position. Then, return them into the typical Push Up position and press up. With every rep, you go to the floor and make the T position.

 

Try this:

10 Goblet Squats/ 10 Proper Push Ups

9 Goblet Squats/ 9 Proper Push Ups

8 Goblet Squats/ 8 Proper Push Ups

7 Goblet Squats/ 7 Proper Push Ups

6 Goblet Squats/ 6 Proper Push Ups

5 Goblet Squats/ 5 Proper Push Ups

4 Goblet Squats/ 4 Proper Push Ups

3 Goblet Squats/ 3 Proper Push Ups

2 Goblet Squats/ 2 Proper Push Ups

1 Goblet Squat/ 1 Proper Push Up

 

If you really want to wake up the butt, try this complex, part of the “Buns and Guns” complex we do at my gym:

 

25 Hip Thrusts on the Floor

10 Goblet Squats

15 Kettlebell Swings

Lateral walk with mini-band around the socks (basically to failure…or until you run out of space)

Do this for two to five circuits.

 

I do this workout without equipment on many of my trips. I generally toss a mini-band in my luggage as it takes no space. In the hotel room, I do

25 Hip Thrusters

10 “Free” Goblet Squats (No weight)

15 Swings (Without weight, we call them “Stop and Pops,” focus on the plank at the top of the swing)

Lateral Walk with the Mini-Band

On this, you can use the Goblets as a “count down” to keep track of reps. On the first set, do 10, then 9,…all the way to One. If you want less work, try 10-8-6-4-2.

 

Keep your glutes alive but mastering the squat and training them hard. As you walk away from people on the beach, they will appreciate it, too.

 

Lacking Weights

Sometimes lacking something leads to new insights. I began lifting weights in 1965 and I have had the best facilities one can imagine. I have also trained in rougher situations.

 

World class gyms that cater to sports performance often get pushed out of business by the box gyms. Like Thom Plummer says, “If all the gym does is rent treadmills, the customer is going to look for the lowest price.” Olympic lifting platforms, Kettlebells and sleds don’t attract a lot of wealthy clients.

 

So, every few years, I find myself back in my garage with limited resources. Oddly, it is also the time I make my best progress. You can mimic the best lesson I have learned in any gym or situation in the world.

 

With limited equipment, you have limited load. And, this has one great hidden value: with this “fixed” weight, you can explore the great strength training tradition of strength first, then power, and then hypertrophy (bodybuilding). Today, most trainees skip steps one and two. The results of skipping these steps is obvious: you might train in the gym three days a week, but no one can tell!

 

I grew up with something called “fixed weights.” There was a rack at most gyms with barbells in assorted sizes usually from about 15 pounds up to 150 or so. When Kettlebells were first rediscovered 15 years ago, there were very few sizes. With limited options, you have to master a weight before you move on.

 

With your limited selection at home, you might take a few weeks to press the Ted Williams Sear’s Barbell that weighed 110 pounds. Without additional weight, you would practice for a few days to add additional strength.

 

That’s pretty simple, but that is also how we build strength. We slowly add reps to a load. With only one choice of load, we can’t scurry off and find new toys.

 

As you add reps, you slowly build power, the quality that carries over into most sports. As you sneak those reps over eight and up to twelve to fifteen, hypertrophy (the increase of lean body mass) will be your reward.

 

Some of my best training happened when I moved and only had one 28 kilo Kettlebell to train with for a KB cert. I needed to do 100 snatches with a lighter bell (the 24), but I had what I had. Like I trained in my garage with my brothers during LBJ’s presidency, I just locked down and began getting my reps in.

 

Although this example is for the KB snatch, I discovered that this principle of finding a single weight and striving over time to up the reps works across all goals. Pick some exercises that are big, global moves:

 

Military (Overhead) Press

Bench Press

The Squat Family

Deadlift and deadlift variations

The Pull Up (the load might just be you!)

The barbell curl

 

That last exercise, the curl, is often done for lots of repetitions to build a “Pump.” For some lifters, that is like putting a new paint job on a car without an engine or wheels. In college, we had a football player who could strict curl 225 pounds. Trust me, he had “guns.”

 

So, find a weight that really tests your limits and take your time to build your reps with that test weight. For many of us, it might be the natural numbers like a 200 pound bench press or “two big plates,” 225.

 

True, adding load…more plates, more weights…has great value. But, I think we have forgotten this wonderful gem of adding reps to fixed weights.

Assessing and Testing (and some training ideas)

Part of my career is assessing other programs in schools and gyms. I use a pretty simple system when looking at weekly and monthly training. First, I simply just circle and note the number of times each of the Fundamental Human Movements appears in the training. My list is this:

 

Push

Pull

Hinge

Squat

Loaded Carry

Everything else! Usually, I am looking for groundwork here which includes Get Ups, tumbling, rolling and anything that gets people on the ground and back up.

 

My first review is simply to highlight the gaps in the training program. Generally, the answer inverts the above list. Missing from the programs is usually any kind of work on the floor, no Farmer Walks and the like, and lack of authentic deep squatting.

 

I have yet to find a program lacking in Bench Press and Curls!

 

Then, I tally up the variations of each movement. Often, I find perhaps five or six push exercises a week, but rarely more than a single squat type. It’s understandable as there are few squat variations that most can truly use. That’s an issue for further discussion, but getting coaches to teach Front, Back, Zercher and Overhead Squats does take a level of commitment.

 

The groundwork is important, literally, for survival. Learning to deal with slips and falls might save your life better than a peaked bicep. The Hinge work, from the deadlift to the Kettlebell swing, is the foundation of explosiveness and athletic movement. Loaded Carries supply work capacity better than anything I have discovered in training.

 

Groundwork, hinges and loaded carries make good football players great. They are hard work and demand a lot of time and energy.

 

But for many of us, we need the hormonal changes that come with strength training. We need the increases in strength, hypertrophy and mobility that come with proper strength training. The amount needed to do this is far less than most people think.

 

The research has been clear for sixty years: about 15-25 quality reps are all you need for strength, hypertrophy and power. In fact, this number might be too high for experienced strength athletes.

 

The following is a minimal approach to strength and hypertrophy training. There is a limited amount of variety with vertical and horizontal presses and pulls and two squat variations. Lean Body Mass increases are all about the big movements and increased load.

Strive to increase the load, but only if you are getting all the reps. Lift three days a week (M-W-F or T-Th-S). Warm up, cool down and do other work as appropriate.

 

Workout A

Bench Press: 3 sets of 8 with one minutes rest (between sets)

Lat Pulldown (or Pull Up): 3 sets of 8 with one minutes rest

Back Squat: 3 sets of 8 with one minutes rest

 

 

Workout B

Military Press: 5 sets of 5 with two minutes rest

Barbell (or appropriate machine) Row: 5 sets of 5 with two minutes rest

Front Squat: 5 sets of 5 with two minutes rest

 

Workout C

Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 with two minutes rest

Lat Pulldown (or Pull Up): 5 sets of 5 with two minutes rest

Back Squat: 5 sets of 5 with two minutes rest

 

Workout D (The next week)

Military Press: 3 sets of 8 with one minutes rest

Barbell (or appropriate machine) Row: 3 sets of 8 with one minutes rest

Front Squat: 3 sets of 8 with one minutes rest

 

Week One

Day One: Workout A

Day Two: Workout B

Day Three: Workout C

 

Week Two

Day One: Workout D

Day Two: Workout A

Day Three: Workout B

 

Week Three

Day One: Workout C

Day Two: Workout D

Day Three: Workout A

 

Week Four

Day One: Workout B

Day Two: Workout C

Day Three: Workout D

 

Now, assess your progress. If you feel better and look better, you might want to ask yourself why you do all those other things during your training time. Focusing on the right movements for your goal (in this case hypertrophy or lean body mass increases) simplifies the whole training process.