All Strength Training Core Challenge July

July Challenge: The Core Challenge

As easy as it is to write off “core training” as just another trendy way to get personal trainers to add another certification to their wall and a few extra letters on their business cards, it’s also not enough to treat core training as another name for abdominal training.  Also, while we often hear that big exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses are great for developing core strength (and they are), that only works if you know how to use your core muscles during those types of lifts.

For our purposes, we’re going to define “the core” as anything responsible for stabilizing the lower spine, the hips, and the pelvis.  More than just the visible abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, if you’re fancy), it also includes the external obliques, the transverse abdominis (the deep abdominals that you can’t see), your erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, and the glutes – medius, minimus, and maximus.

Why Should You Do Core Training?

The primary benefits we’re going to be aiming for during the Core Challenge are going to be:

  • Improved breathing patterns, including better use of the diaphragm
  • Better posture
  • Reduction in back and hip pain or discomfort
  • Stronger glutes and abdominals
  • Better integration of the core into larger lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses

What Is the Core Challenge?

The Core Challenge involves training these muscles 6 days per week, with one full day of rest, using short workouts and steady progressions.  Instead of doing longer workouts less often, training muscles that you struggle to use well allows you to practice more often and retain the patterns better, no differently than practicing a golf swing, playing an instrument, or learning a new language.

Want to get started? Download the Core Challenge program here.

You can find the video demonstrations for each movement on our YouTube page on our Core Challenge playlist.  Videos will be added one week at a time.



Knee Pain Part 1: You’re Doing It Wrong

Knee pain seems to be far and away the most prevalent nagging, reoccurring injury in recreational athletes and trainees that I have worked with, probably more than lower back and shoulder issues combined.  There are a few reasons for this.

First, there is a trend of promoting “knee-friendly” training routines in fitness magazines and blogs, including exercises such as partial squats, Smith machine squats, leg presses (partial range), and leg extensions.  The problem with this is that in reality, most of those exercises do more harm than good, for a variety of reasons.  Let’s break it down.

Partial Squats

Partial squats – a barbell squat to no more than 90 degrees.  Two problems here – the first is that you are shortening the range of motion, which essentially puts more demand on the thigh muscles to decelerate the weight faster because of the shortened movement.  Here’s a good analogy – would you rather have 1000 feet to brake from 75 miles an hour, or 500 feet?  Your brakes are working a lot harder to slow down a ton of weight (it doesn’t help that most people can squat up to 2 or 3 times as much weight in a partial squat vs. a full range squat).

The second downside is that the vastus medius oblique, or VMO, which is your knee’s major stabilizer, is most active during both the first 15 degrees and last 15 degrees of a squat.  It is least active at or just above parallel.  So you’re using more weight, requiring more work from your joints, without the help of the muscle designed to keep the knee safe.

The answer here is just to squat through a full range of motion.  Ideally, a squat should be below parallel, with the hamstrings making contact with the upper part of the gastrocnemius (upper calf).  In conjunction, the lowering stage of the squat should be performed under control, taking three or four seconds to lower the weight, and the overall load should be reduced to ensure correct technique.

Smith Machine Squats

Smith machine squats are usually the quickest substitute for conventional barbell squats that you’ll see recommended in training articles.  “Oh, your knees hurt?  Okay, squat on this”.  If you’re not familiar with a Smith machine, it is essentially a barbell set on two guided supports that allows the bar to move in a single plane of motion – straight up and straight down.

A major problem here is that when you squat, you don’t only go straight up and down, there is horizontal movement of both the hips and the barbell, so having the “safety supports” inhibits the natural mechanics of the movement and actually places significantly more shearing stress on the patella (kneecap) than a conventional squat performed correctly.  And again, as with partial squats, the leverage you gain from the machine usually encourages more load on the bar, making things even worse.

Leg Press

Truth be told, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the leg press.  In fact, for bodybuilders and those only interested in looks, it’s a solid leg exercise, when done right.  However, most of the time you’ll see people going through an incredibly shallow range of motion with far too much weight.  The problems and resolutions are essentially the same as for the barbell squat.

Leg Extension

The leg extension is a bit of a different beast than the others.  Its primary function is indeed to strengthen the VMO, which, as mentioned earlier, is one of the main ways to stabilize the knee.  So what’s wrong with the leg extension?

First, the leg extension is what’s known as an open kinetic chain exercise, meaning the foot isn’t stabilized and the stress isn’t applied the same as a squat or leg press.  The issue with that is that the angle of pressure from the shin pad can create undue stress at the knee joint, so while it’s sometimes a useful exercise for developing the VMO, the trade-off is that it can inherently damage the joint.

The other problem is that I have had problems fixing poor motor patterns with people who have done a lot of leg extensions in their training lifetime.  What does that mean?  It means that the leg extension conditions the muscle to fire exclusive of any other thigh muscles, so the body gets strong operating in isolation.  But when an individual begins squatting or lunging, they can’t apply that leg extension strength to the new movement, putting them at a disadvantage again.

So What Do I Do?

In the next part of this article, I will go over what changes to make to your leg training to spare your knees, as well as why all the training in the world may not save you from knee pain if you neglect these other variables.

3 Deadlift Variations for MMA Fighters

With the increase in popularity of the UFC inevitably comes a flood of information from various strength coaches, trainers and other fitness professionals about “sport-specific” training for mixed martial arts competition. While there are a handful of trainers who advocate a variety of circus-like “functional” lifts, including everything from swinging chains around while standing on a stability ball (yes, this is actually a thing people do) to performing strength exercises in combat gear and altitude masks (again, yes, people do this for real), most intelligent coaches and trainers have taken basic staples of strength and tweaked them to meet the needs of a different sport.

While there will be some disagreement, it’s commonly accepted that one of the best exercises to increase MMA potential is the deadlift. There is not a fighter on the planet who can’t benefit from a stronger posterior chain (low back, glutes, and hamstrings), a better grip, and more power in the entire body. And for a lot of the offseason, the standard deadlift gets the job done. But there are a few variations that can be incorporated into your fight preparation that work either as a main lift or as an accessory lift.

The Single-Leg Deadlift

For sheer glute recruitment, the single-leg deadlift is probably the best exercise out there. It also works well for people who tend to dominate conventional deadlifts with their lower back – since you’re still using all of your lumbar muscles but only half of your glutes and hamstrings, your lower back isn’t moving enough weight to get fatigued easily.

The Zercher Deadlift

The bar position and the wide stance mimics a double-leg takedown. If you can move 300-400lbs for a few reps here you’ll have a lot less trouble taking down an angry 200-lb man who’s trying to beat you in the head.

Band-Resisted Deadlift

I like these because they force you to be fast. You’re less likely to use maximum weights, but with a healthy amount of band tension on the bar, your grip, upper back and traps will get a ton of overload because the band is going to try to yank the bar back to the floor at lockout.

There are a couple of setup options here. The first is with a single JumpStretch or EliteFTS band (light and average bands work the best for this, use more than one if necessary):

The second option is to use a couple of EliteFTS short bands, which are a little easier to set up correctly. The mini, monster mini, and light bands are the best options here, and make sure to choke the bands over the smooth part of the bar, as the knurling can tear up the bands over time:

Program Review: German Body Comp for Athletes

There are a few things that I know to be true about most athletes:

  • They tend to require lots of short, explosive movements
  • They perform better with less fat on their bodies

While there are definitely exceptions to the above rules (for example, marathoners and sumo wrestlers), these are plenty that fit the rule – martial artists, gymnasts, football players (particularly skill positions), track and field athletes, the list goes on and on.  So when choosing training programs for athletes, it’s important to consider what impact it has on one or both of those characteristics.

One program that we have found to be extremely effective is Charles Poliquin’s German Body Comp for Athletes program.  It’s a progression on the original German Body Comp (or GBC) program, which is a fat-loss program designed for the general population with emphasis on full-body training session that use big movements, high reps and short rest periods.  However, the Athletes version of the program makes some modifications to help balance maintaining or increasing athleticism with improving body composition.

For example, each day of the 4-day split in the program begins with some variation of an Olympic lift.  Because of their technical difficulty, Olympic lifts are usually best left out of programs for your average Joe or Jane, but are incorporated here because of their ability to generate power without adding excessive amounts of body mass (also known as relative strength).  In general, the repetitions are kept lower than usual to emphasize development of fast-twitch muscle fibers that are important to excel in most sports.

The important thing to note with this program is that there is room to vary things a bit – if you know what you’re doing, it can be used more as a template than as a “do as written or it won’t work” setup, and it’s quite easy to swap out variations on Olympic lifts, squats, pullups and presses that comprise the core of the program.  Charles’ personal recommendation is to stay on it no longer than 6 weeks, and I’ve found that between 4 and 6 weeks is best, depending on recovery abilities.

For the original article direct from Charles himself, click here.


Training for MMA Fighters: Using the Grappler

With mixed martial arts fighting being arguably one of the most popular sports in the world right now, and definitely one of the fastest-growing, there is still very little available on strength training programs for the MMA athlete.  With that in mind, over the next couple of weeks I will be putting up a couple of different articles directed specifically at that group.  This article will primarily focus on what I believe to be the most important variable for both stand-up and ground fighting – core training.

For core work in general, I have found most conventional ab training exercises to be rather useless – things like situps, crunches and bicycle twists done for absurdly high reps does little to develop strength and at best will develop the slow-twitch, endurance muscle fibers in the abs and core, as opposed to the more powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Instead, I prefer to see a mix of both compound (multi-joint) traditional strength movements that can be done with a heavy load (such as squats and deadlifts) that include a significant core component, and direct work done with heavy weight for low- to moderate-rep ranges.  To get the best of both, I suggest using movements based around The Grappler.

The Grappler is a device invented by Louie Simmons of the Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio.  Louie is arguably the greatest coach in powerlifting history, but he has also worked extensively with both fighters and track & field athletes and produced great results.  One of his methods is using the Grappler, which is essentially an anchor point for two barbells so that they can be held one in each hand to mimic various barbell and dumbbell movements while increasing the workload coming from the trunk.

Below are a few of my favorite Grappler exercises.  If you don’t have access to a Grappler or something like it, you can get the same effect by wedging two barbells into the frame of a power rack or in the corner of a wall.  Just add a moderately heavy dumbbell or plate over the end to anchor the bar down and you’ll do just fine.

#1: Landmines

Odds are pretty good you’ve seen somebody doing this exercise or something similar already – it’s by far the most popular movement using the leveraged barbell concept.  My favorite way to do it is to use two barbells, as it incorporates the rotational work of a regular landmine with an extra gripping requirement, since you have to hold onto the sleeve of the bars with each hand throughout.

#2: Standing Flyes

This is pretty similar to the landmine, but with the resistance moving in the opposite direction.  It also adds in some upper chest and anterior deltoid work, which can aid in punching power.

#3: Standing Military Presses

Again, you may have seen this one before with one barbell, but I like the 2-barbell version both from a time-efficiency standpoint and from a difficulty standpoint – I think the two-bar version is significantly harder than the 1-arm because you can’t twist and turn to cheat the weight up.  You can do it both arms at a time, or alternating, and can do strict presses or push presses.

#4: Bent-Over Rows

This is kind of like a T-bar row with a better range of motion.  You can do it as shown in the video, or face the other way and grab the bar sleeve to add some extra gripping work.

#5: Floor Presses

Even though these can be a pain in the ass to get into without a partner, I like these as an alternative to regular barbell or dumbbell floor presses because the bars tend to get pretty unpredictable with their movement and therefore has some good carryover to being on the bottom of a guard or mount position.

Try out a few of these different movements and figure out which ones work the best for you.  Keep the reps in the low-to-moderate range (as low 3 reps, all the way up to 12) and keep the technique clean.

Building Mass for Life: Part 2

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

People ask me all the time: Why did I do it? What was the real reason why I added so much weight when I was already “healthy”?  I didn’t want to be the skinny guy, that’s why! But when I stop and think about it, I realized what influenced me the most to make changes. I am currently a competitive athlete so my sport and performance was a huge influence. My career as a strength and conditioning coach was another thing. Would you really listen to a skinny strength coach? I didn’t think so. And you know what? I’m not gonna lie. The Kid wanted to look damn good!

And looking good does not mean "look like Will Smith's little cousin."

Currently I am a competitive mixed martial mrtist who has aspirations to turn pro in the near future. In my mind MMA is the greatest sport in the world. But before I even began to train in MMA I boxed competitively as an amateur in Chicago. From 2005-2008 I competed at middleweight, which in boxing has a maximum weight of 165 pounds. I’m 6-feet tall, so as you could imagine, as a 6-foot, 160 pound guy I was the definition of bean pole. I was so skinny that my legs looked like the number 11 when I walked. I was a naturally thin guy, but not quite that thin. It was hard work to keep my weight in that range. I had to do a lot of cardio, minimal resistance training and, to be honest, my nutrition sucked. After training sessions I always felt sluggish and weak. I knew there had to be a better way.

By this time I had began training in MMA and I noticed something – those thick wrestlers who look like the mini fridge in a college dorm were tossing everyone around!

At times these guys might not have had the best technique but their quickness, explosion, athleticism, power and overall strength got them through. It was impressive to say the least. I had to ask myself, “Self, how are you going to improve as an athlete if you’re not doing everything possible to be successful?”

I saw firsthand how the stronger athletes fared in sports. Look at any major sport and literally only the strong survive. And even though I knew it wasn’t going to be easy I had to make it happen. I had a goal of being a successful athlete since I was a young child and I love to compete at the highest level possible. I was going to do it.

If you look at the world’s top athletes, take their best traits and find the common denominator. Well besides great genes – it’s true; none of us got to pick our parents. But not all of the world’s best athletes were always known as the best. Both Jerry Rice and Michael Jordan are both currently considered by most to be the greatest players of their respective sports but they both had setbacks in their rise to greatness. What separated them? Hard work!

I started getting into the weight room hard in the spring of 2008, and I did predominantly bodybuilding workouts to start – that is all that I knew. But I got stronger, and I gained a little bit of weight! I was even starting to walk around with imaginary lat syndrome (ILS). You know, when the skinny guy gets done working out and walks around like he’s holding two oversized duffel bags under each arm pit. And even though I looked goofy looking back, my performance improved!

Now when guys tried to take me down, not only was I able to shrug them off, I had more explosion in my step and more quickness in my strikes.  It surprised me more than anyone else because I was always told that lifting weights would slow down my hand speed, and in reality it had improved.

I soon began helping out with the high school strength and conditioning program in Skokie, Ill. I was able to work with their strength coach Mark Feldner, who was a former assistant strength coach at Penn State. Through him I began to learn more sports specific workouts. He showed me that in every sport there are different ways to train so there is no one specific workout for every sport and not to focus on individual muscles as much, the “show me muscles.” You know, the ones that make you look sexy when you get them all pumped and cut up.

Now at 25 I’m bigger, faster, stronger and WAY more explosive than I’ve ever been. I kept training and evolving not only as a mixed martial artist but as an athlete as well. I can also begin to see a change in my body because of my sport, thicker torso from my twisting and kicking, more pronounced shoulders from my strikes; there has even been a calf sighting!

Now I have figured out the things that are most effective for me and cut down on the fluff. I love my powerlifting base (bench, squat, deadlift). With that there has been a noticeable difference in my glute and hamstring size and strength which directly translates to my leg drive and power, which equals SPEED.

Now even though I love my powerlifting, I’ve had to do a bit more for my explosion, so Olympic lifts such as cleans have been added as needed. So if anyone says lifting doesn’t assist in being a better athlete just get your five chuckles on and keep it moving, there is no need to try to rationalize with irrational people. I’ve learned a lot in the time that I’ve made my transition and in this time my experiences have helped me become a better strength coach. The last thing anyone wants to hear is some skinny 155-pound guy telling them how to get “jacked!” That’s kind of like the guy who flunked out of school telling somebody how to study. It just doesn’t add up.

Altitude Training at Sea Level

Those of you who have been in the garage at AST in the last few weeks may have seen me pushing the Prowler while wearing a mask that, upon first glance, might look more appropriate on the set of Pulp Fiction than in the gym.  Lifestyle preferences aside, there is actually a significant cardiovascular benefit to using such a mask, called an altitude training mask.  In mixed martial arts and other combat sports, athletes have regularly used high altitude training to take their performance to the next level.

Going into the mountains and training at higher elevations has been a favorite training tool for years, not only for the seclusion and ability to focus on an upcoming event, but from the physical changes made in the body and the blood from training in the thin air of the mountains.  Then, when the athlete returns to their regular elevation they find that they are stronger and faster for longer.  One explanation is that the lack of oxygen forces the body to produce more red blood cells, which are the body’s primary way of delivering oxygen to muscle and other tissues.

So how does this “freak” mask help bring these gains without having to move to the Alps?  The mask helps by creating pulmonary resistance, in other words limiting the flow of oxygen through the mask and forcing the body to increase RBC production to adapt.

In the short time that I have used the mask I have noticed that when in training (sparring, conditioning, weight training, etc.), I’m subconsciously slowing down my breath and I have been able to last a lot longer, with more productive training sessions.  This is important to me because as an MMA fighter, my sport is all about maintaining speed and power longer than the other guy.

High altitude training has also been shown to help those with asthma, since asthma tends to force hyperventilation, and using the training mask requires slowing down breathing and increasing use of the diaphragm muscles.  There is benefit for all types of endurance sports, including running, cycling, triathlon competition and others.  So strap on your “gas mask” and get to work!


Overspecializing Young Athletes is a Mistake

As a kid, I remember playtime well.  We did everything from play sports basketball, football and baseball (although I was never very good at any of them), to riding bikes and skateboards, to climbing trees and hills.  Even during Iowa winters, my brothers and I would amuse ourselves (and likely our parents) by going into the pasture behind our house and sledding/tobogganing/sliding down the giant 300-yard hill on our butts, only to have to begin the slow march all the way back to the top to do it again.  Sure, we had video games, but those were usually reserved for when the weather was bad or when the sun was down.  When we could, we played, and we did a TON of different things.

Now, as a father of two quickly-growing boys, my job is to make sure that they receive that same experience.  The problem is that it’s significantly harder to give kids that time nowadays, for several reasons.  First, I live in the city limits of Chicago, so I am in no way able to just let my kids roam free without worrying about them the way my parents could in a rural Iowa farm town.  Second, the rapid growth of entertainment-oriented technology is way, WAY above what I can ever remember.  My not-even-4-year-old son Ethan can work my smartphone, turn on our computer and find his computer games, and operate our Netflix all by himself.  With all of those temptations, who wants to have to go outside and move?

Combine that with extreme budget cuts for most schools that have required the reduction or complete elimination of most physical education programs, and young athletes (and young adults in general) are not being exposed to as wide of a variety of stimuli as in years past.  That is why I am a firm believer that kids younger than high school have no business in being single-sport athletes.

I’ve seen it a lot lately, talking with parents when they come into our facility looking to have their son or daughter train with us to improve their sports prowess.  “But,” they’ll say, “we don’t have a lot of time, because Johnny plays soccer year-round, and this summer he’s going to a soccer camp where they’ll have him do conditioning drills for 7 hours a day for six weeks, then he’ll start his fall league where he’ll practice 5 days a week and have 2 games a week, usually double-headers, then he’ll play indoor soccer during the winter, then in the spring he’s back in an after-school soccer camp and then he has to practice 500 kicks before he goes to bed.”

“Oh, and his ankles always hurt.  I think it might be genetic.”

Really?  It’s a miracle his feet aren’t detachable at this point.

Even worse, beyond just being single-sports athletes, I’m seeing lots of kids who are now single-sport, single-position athletes, at the ripe old age of 9.  “My son Billy is going to be a pro pitcher some day, give me some drills so he can throw faster.”  What he really means is “give me some drills so I can destroy his rotator cuff so badly that it’ll look like melting swiss cheese left out on a hot summer day.”

There is no way around it – overspecialization at a young age increases the risk for injury.  10-year-olds should not be capable of tearing a hamstring, yet they occur in dramatic numbers now.  There needs to be balance in activity, and it’s not happening anymore.

I have a simple request for parents who might read this: please, PLEASE, make your kids play more than one sport.  I don’t care if it means you go out into your driveway and play H-O-R-S-E with them every night after soccer practice.  I don’t care if you take your kids to the park and let them climb the jungle gym and the monkey bars.  Just don’t pigeonhole them into one activity or sport and set them up for potentially life-altering problems down the road.  Let your kids be kids.

Of course, it never hurts for parents to get involved with their kids’ activities, too.

Quick Tip: Build Your Back for a Bigger Bench

The bench press is often thought of as a chest-specific exercise, but when done properly with near-maximal loads, it can become a full-body movement.  And as is often the case, the chest is not the limiting muscle group in how much weight you can move.  In fact, many times a bench press plateau can be caused by a lack of upper back and lat strength.

The reason this is the case is that the body has several automatic reflexes that it will use to limit imbalances between antagonistic (opposite) muscle groups.  So when you reach the point where your lats and back can no longer help stabilize the weight, your body will shut it down and progress will come to a halt.

One simple solution is to superset chest movements with back movements, matching exercises set-for-set and rep-for-rep.  Not only will this help ensure that your back stays balanced with your chest, but there is also evidence that training antagonistic muscle groups in a superset fashion can help you lift more weight than if you had done conventional sets.  Here’s a sample approach:

Sample Chest/Back Workout:

A1.*  Incline Barbell Press – 5×6-8, 40X0 tempo**, 90sec rest
A2. Wide-Grip Pullup – 5×6-8, 50X0 tempo, 90sec rest
B1. Neutral Grip Dumbbell Press – 3×13-15, 30X0 tempo, 60sec rest
B2. 1-Arm DB Row – 3×13-15, 30X0 tempo, 60sec rest
C1. Incline DB Flye – 3×13-15, 2210 temp0, 60sec rest
C2. DB Pullover – 3×13-15, 2210 tempo, 60sec rest

*Complete a set of the A1 exercise, then rest, then complete a set of A2, then rest, then continue back to A1.  Continue until all sets of each pair are completed.

**The first number is the eccentric rep speed (i.e. the lowering part of a bench press), the second number is the pause in the bottom position, the third number is the rep speed up, and the fourth number is the pause at the top of a lift.  X denotes “as fast as possible.”

Quick Tip: Stay Hydrated with Electrolytes

As the temperature increases, so does sweat and water loss. Conventional wisdom dictates that for every hour of physical activity, you should consume 1 liter of water to maintain adequate hydration.

However, just replacing water is not enough. If you’ve ever gotten sweat in your eye, you know that it stings. Why? Because you don’t just lose water when you sweat, you lose electrolytes, or minerals that help maintain fluid balance in the body.

A good electrolyte product should contain sodium, potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium. However, avoid added carbohydrates, especially if your goal is to lose bodyfat. At AST, we use Electrolyte Px 2.0 by Poliquin Performance. Mix one packet in at least half a liter of water and sip throughout a workout.