The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

Training Disasters


Earlier this year I wrote an article titled Dieting Disasters, where I described some of the more common mistakes (or disasters, if you will) that people often make with their diet in regards to their body composition goals.

I figured it was only fitting that I write an article dealing with the training side of things as well.


Running To Get Fit

Mike Boyle has often been quoted as saying, "You can't run to get fit, you need to get fit to run." I couldn't agree more with this statement. Most (read: not all) people shouldn't be running in the first place. This is especially true for women.

What's the first thing that women do to get into shape? They hightail it to the local store and buy a new pair of pearly white running shoes and go for a jog outside. Conversely, what's the first piece of equipment that women will gravitate towards if they've never set foot in a gym before? The treadmill. And more often than not both scenarios do notlook pretty.

I watch some of these women running (you men too--you're not off the hook) and it just looks painful. How can they possibly think this is good for them? I can walk on a floor of broken glass barefoot or listen to Paris Hilton speak and both would be less painful than watching some of these women run.

I'll admit, the girls on the left are rockin the headband.

Why is running not so great for the majority of women? There are a few reasons, but the main one boils down to basic biomechanics and the Q-angle. Women by nature have a greater Q-angle compared to men (wide hips, narrow knees), which predisposes them to a number of problems that aren't normally an issue for men. Research has shown that women are six times more likely to tear their ACL compared to men.

Add that to the fact that many women tend to be very quad dominant and are weaker than a baby's fart (i.e. they don't lift appreciable weights; sorry, pink dumbbells for 20 reps don't count) and you have a recipe for disaster.

Women aside, running is a fairly advanced form of exercise. Within any given mile there are roughly 1500 foot strikes. Ask any strength coach or decent personal trainer (yes they do exist) if they'd ever allow an elite athlete (let alone your average weekend warrior) to perform a plyometric protocol which calls for 1500 foot strikes on a daily basis, and I'm willing to bet you'll get some perplexed looks.

Yet day in and day out I see men and women who are 20-50 lbs overweight trudging over to the treadmill to get their three miles in because this is what they feel will get them fit. Even worse, I'll often hear trainers or internet gurus on various forums tell these same people that they should be doing sprints to get lean.

Bang away

Before you send the hate mail, please understand that I'm not saying that running is "bad" for everyone, nor am I saying that it's "bad" in general. There are a plethora of health benefits to be had by including aerobic training such as running/jogging into your repertoire.

However, I feel there are better options for those people who are overweight and relatively new to training looking to get into shape. And that's the point... you need to be fit to run and not vice versa.


Not Training the Backside of the Core

I'm not a big fan of the word "core." Unless, of course, your name happens to end with "core," then it's completely awesome. However, in the fitness world the term "core" is often misused and misunderstood.

When most people think of core they think of the cover of Men's Health, with the cover model sporting a six pack you could wash your clothes on. In order to achieve said six pack, many trainees will spend hours performing various sit-ups or crunches. I mean we all know the main function of the core/abdominals is trunk flexion. We all learned that in 10th grade anatomy class, right?

While trunk flexion is one of the many actions of the abdominals, their main function is to keep the trunk over the pelvis by resisting hoop stress. Besides, we're missing the big picture here. The core is much more than just the abdominals. The core actually represents the entire lumbo-pelvic-hip complex consisting of over 30 muscles.

In his book, "Form and Function: The Anatomy of Motion," Evan Osar states that only the rectus abdominus and the spinalis portion of the erectors are oriented in a purely vertical fashion while the transverse abdominus (TA) is the sole muscle oriented in a horizontal manner. The large majority of the core muscles are oriented in an oblique direction (i.e. spiral line).

Core Musculature

Vertical

Horizontal

Oblique

Rectus Abdominus

X

External Oblique

X

Internal Oblique

X

Transverse Abdominus

X

Psoas

X

Iliacus

X

Rectus Femoris

X

Sartorius

X

TFL

X

Iliocostalis

X

Longissimus

X

Spinalis

X

Multifidi/Rotatores

X

Quadratus Lumborum

X

Gluteus Maximus

X

Gluteus Medius

X

External Hip Rotators

X

Hamstrings

X

Adductors

X


Why is this important to know?

The muscles of the core are obliquely oriented in order to produce and control rotational movements. As Osar notes in his book, "By nature of its position, the core is able to produce and control forces that are occurring throughout the body. It also acts as a relay station between the upper and lower kinetic chains. The extremities drive core activity, but activity of the core influences movement of the extremities as well."

Guess where all force is transferred by the body? The hips. Strength and power are derived by loading the hips, aided by pelvic and spinal motion, and then transferring it to the extremities.

I'm in total agreement with physical therapist/strength coach Gray Cook when he says that people need to pay more attention to their rear ends and start "training the backside of the core" (ie: glutes, hips and hamstrings). Everyone likes to look at rear ends. Well, they're part of our core as well.

Kim Kardashian has a superb "core."

Cook notes that we should be hip-based creatures. Essentially the hips are the engine of the core. Everything from force, power, to strength is transferred through the hips. The engine of your car does the same thing; gives your car horsepower. Your mid-section (abdominals) can be seen as the transmission or drive shaft of the core. You're not supposed to bend or twist the drive shaft/transmission of your car, so why do we seem to think that is the best way to train our core (sit-ups, crunches, etc)? Why do we totally neglect the engine?

In the end, training the backside of your core (via deadlifts, glute ham raises, pull-throughs, etc.) will lead to better performance. Train for performance and the aesthetics will come in time. Learn to use the backside and your body will thank you with a firm and lean mid-section (assuming your diet is on point). No crunches involved.


Deadlifting Before You're Ready

I can hear the crickets chirping already. Did Tony just say that people should not be deadlifting when he just said that we should all train our backsides? Put the pitchforks down and hear me out.

If there's one movement pattern everyone should master, it's the deadlift. Broken down to its simplest form, the deadlift is essentially your ability to equalize your own bodyweight to get lower to the ground. Many people have forgotten how to perform this basic movement pattern properly, yet will still walk into the gym on day #1 and do something that resembles anything but a deadlift. Does this look familiar?

Let me be clear. Whether you're an athlete looking to improve performance, a weekend warrior looking to add some mass, or a 65-year-old grandmother who wants to be able to pick her grandchildren off the floor, the deadlift is an exercise that will benefit anyone. That said, not everyone is meant to walk into the gym and place a bar on the ground and lift it. Some people just don't have the strength and/or flexibility to perform a conventional deadlift safely right off the bat.

The spine does indeed get into bendable positions in sports and everyday activity. However, look at a football player when he strikes an opponent. Look at a baseball player when he swings and makes contact with the ball. Look at someone who exhibits flawless deadlift technique. The spine always finds its neutral position. When it's not in neutral, that's when people get hurt.

Trainees need to learn how to achieve a neutral spine and groove the proper motor pattern of the deadlift before they start pulling from the floor. The beauty of the deadlift is that it's one of those rare exercises that can be conformed to fit the needs of the lifter (and not vice versa).


Better Options

One of my favorite exercises to use with new trainees is the partial deadlift (or rack pull). Here the lifter gets all the benefits of the deadlift (grooving the proper pattern, keeping a neutral spine, getting massive), without all the drawbacks (a broken back).

Another great deadlift variation that I like to use with new trainees is the suitcase deadlift. Not only is it a great teaching tool to teach the proper movement pattern, but it also serves as a great way to train anti-rotation because you have to brace the opposite side of the body so as not to tip over.

Additionally, for those trainees who lack the flexibility to perform the movement through its full range of motion, you can elevate the dumbbell by using blocks. This is also a great option for really overweight or elderly trainees.

The trap bar deadlift is also a great option. At Cressey Performance, we usually have all our athletes start with a trap bar deadlift and then progress to more conventional variations. The trap bar serves as a pseudo "partial deadlift" due to the three inch elevation that the handles provide (you can also turn it over so that the bar is closer to the floor). Additionally, the trap bar tends to be a bit easier for those people with long femurs as it gets the knees out of the way.


Not Including Single Leg Training

Most people would rather pass a kidney stone than perform single leg training. I realize this is probably a fruitless endeavor, but I am going to say it anyways:

You need to include more single leg training into your programming.

Why?

When we perform a single leg movement such as a one legged squat, we engage what Mike Boyle has called the Lateral Sub System (hip adductors, hip abductors, and the Quadratus Lumborum), which is a "system" of muscles that when "fired," work to stabilize the hip and knee joint (mentioned above). Include more single leg training into your programming and your knees will thank you.

Lateral Sub System.


Training for the Circus

If I never see a BOSU ball again or any other device used for unstable surface training, I would die a happy man. Unless you're training to be part of the circus, I really feel that these foo-foo pieces of equipment have no place in a healthy individual's training program.

BOSU Ball + Biker Shorts = Lame.

I hear a lot of personal trainers tout that using unstable surfaces is great for "functional training." The phrase functional training has gotten a bit skewed as of late, and I think that people have forgotten what the true definition is in the first place. For me, functional training entails anything that improves a real life quality or function.

Examples include: squatting down to pick something up off the floor, walking up a flight of stairs, or drop kicking dumb personal trainers.

Functional training should entail exercises and movements that help to improve everyday life events. Standing with one leg on a BOSU ball while doing arm curls with one arm and holding a body-blade in the other does not constitute as "functional."

She's sitting, so it's only half stupid right?

Conversely, it does constitute being a complete waste of time.

Trust me, your time can be better spent sticking to the basics if you want to lose fat or get stronger in the gym: squats, deadlifts, various lunges, bench presses, chin-ups, rows, etc. These are the staples. If someone can't even do a regular squat with correct form on a stable surface (the floor), why would I want to put him or her on an unstable surface? It doesn't make sense. In the end, all they'll be doing is promoting a faulty motor pattern, which could possibly predispose them to injury down the road.

Staples are what it's all about.

By training on an unstable surface you're shooting yourself in the foot in a few ways.

1. You'll burn fewer calories. You won't be able to use nearly as much weight on an unstable surface as you would on a stable surface performing the same exercise. Burning calories (and hence, fat) is all about progressive resistance/overload (stressing the body). BOSU balls and the like are inferior in this regard.

2. You will actually make yourself weaker. Gaining strength is all about force production (i.e. being able to transfer force from the ground up). By training on an unstable surface, you're promoting "leaks" and really limiting the amount of force you can generate in any given exercise. For athletes, this is crucial.

Additionally, unstable surface training undermines all three phases of the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), especially the amortization phase. Using devices such as BOSU balls actually delays the amortization phase. From an athletic standpoint, one seeks to minimize this phase as much as possible to prevent loss of a significant amount of the energy accumulated and stored as a result of the preloading (eccentric) phase.

World's best coach... at making athletes weaker.

3. Core Strength? Please don't be that person who claims that unstable surface training is great for training the core. I can have someone do the same movement on a stable surface and activate the "core" just as much.

4. Safety. On more than one occasion I've seen people fall and injure themselves while performing exercises on an unstable surface. For example, squatting on a SWISS ball. Every time I see someone attempt this, I cringe. Free-weight exercises have been proven safe when performed on stable surfaces, but there isn't much data out there which showcases the efficacy of unstable surface training in regards to safety.

In the end, I just don't think training on unstable surfaces is worth it. Again, if you're training for the circus they're great! However, I feel that people would be much better served steering clear of them in the long run.


Following the "JT" Workout

Not too long ago I was training a client of mine and looked over my shoulder and saw Justin Timberlake (JT) training with a few guys from his entourage. My initial reaction was to crank the radio and challenge him to a Michael Jackson dance off. But upon observing his training routine, I decided to back off and use him as an example in this article instead.

You may be wondering what the "JT" workout entails. In short, it's any program which only exacerbates your already less than spectacular posture. In JT's case, we have a training routine which included roughly 12-15 sets of exercises that internally rotate the humerus (flat bench press, incline DB press, decline BB press, lat pulldowns) and zero that externally rotate the humerus. For those who aren't anatomy savvy, the humerus is the upper arm bone.

Who knew internal rotation could be so sexy? Damn you JT!!

I'm willing to bet the above routine looks familiar to many people reading this article. I'm also willing to bet many of you have the same postural issues. If you're not necessarily sure, perform the following simple test popularized by strength coach/personal trainer Mike Meija:


The Pencil Test

If they're pointed straight ahead, you have optimal shoulder posture and you're awesome. If they're pointed inward diagonally, you have slight internal rotation and you're less awesome. If they're pointing towards each other, you have severe internal rotation and you're completely not awesome.


What to do?

If you fall under the category of slight internal rotation, I'd include a healthy dose of static and dynamic stretching for the pecs and lats and include two pulling exercises (rows) for every pushing exercise (presses).

If you fall under the category of having severe internal rotation, I'd include a healthy dose of static and dynamic stretching for the pecs and lats and three pulling exercises for every pushing exercise.

Whether it's including more exercises that promote external rotation and scapular retraction or realizing that leg presses should not be the staple of your leg training, the sooner you learn to balance your programming so that you can achieve optimal postural balance and joint health, the better off you will be.


Not Including More Soft Tissue Work

Everyone always talks about how stretching/lengthening our tissue (muscles) is the best thing you can do to increase your range of motion and improve flexibility. I don't agree entirely. A good example would be someone who is in anterior pelvic tilt, which is about 95% of the population:

In this example, we see a predictive pattern of tight/overactive muscles and weak/inhibited muscles (also called Lower Cross Syndrome).

Tight/Overactive

Quadriceps, TFL, Psoas (hip flexors)

Weak/Inhibited

Hamstrings, Glutes, Abdominals

Most people like to stretch their hamstrings because they always feel "tight," when in all actuality they're anything but. Why would you want to stretch an already weak and inhibited muscle? The hamstrings are already lengthened in this scenario (hence why they "feel" tight). By static stretching them, you're just making them more weak and inhibited.

What if I told you that you don't necessarily need to stretch in order to improve your flexibility?

I like to get people in the mindset that working on tissue quality is paramount in how they feel overall. We can stretch till the cows come home, but if we don't take care of all the knots, adhesions, trigger points, and scar tissue that build up in our muscles from all the weight training, running, and daily grind we put them through (even sitting at your computer all day), we'll never get full range of motion. A great analogy I like to use is with a rubber band.

Suppose I took a band and put a knot in it. Now I pull the band to emulate stretching, what happens to the knot?

It just gets tighter/smaller. Eventually, the band will break either above or below the knot; kind of like what your muscle does when you strain it.

Using a foam roller or something as simple as a tennis ball can go a long ways in helping you achieve improved tissue quality. By breaking up all those adhesions, you will automatically improve your flexibility without even stretching.


The End

Hopefully I was able to shed some light on a few of the more common "disasters" that I see many trainees make with their programming. In the end, sometimes we need a little dose of tough love to set us straight and to set us up for success.


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