In the past two years since opening IFAST, I've easily written well over 1,000 training programs for clients of all shapes and sizes. More importantly, I've had the opportunity to coach these clients, to see what works in the real world, and what just sounds great in an article on the Internet.
This has fast-tracked my programming and coaching abilities. It's made me truly reflect on what works, what doesn't, and how to get the most out of any given client or athlete who comes to me.
Here are seven steps you can use to improve not only your programming, but the results you get as well. While many of these ideas aren't necessarily "new," I don't hear about them being employed all that often, either.
1. Develop progressions for everything
A while back, I wrote an article here at T NATION titled Exercise Progressions for Bigger Pulls. The premise of the article was simple: Too often, people jump into big-bang exercises such as deadlifts without being physically prepared to do them safely and effectively.
That's why developing progressions is key. Let's be honest, we know what works. Squats, deadlifts, military presses, pull-ups, rows, bench presses—these are the exercises that will get us bigger and stronger.
But "preparedness" is the key word here. Just because you want to do something, doesn't mean you're ready to do it.
Let's say I have a client who can't squat well. (You probably fall into this category, too. Just a warning.) I'll start them with a goblet squat, progress over time to front squats, and then, as their mobility and stability improves, we'll move into back squats.
This is also the reason I created my new Single-Leg Solution training package. I was tired of watching people jump right into complex exercises like walking lunges and Bulgarian split-squats without having the requisite mobility and stability to perform these exercises correctly.
Start with the first progression then move on from there. It's not sexy, but really friggin' effective.
2. Static stretch antagonists between sets
The concept of reciprocal inhibition is simple: if a muscle group on one side of the body is short and stiff, the antagonists are stretched and unable to produce optimal contractions.
In practice, we understand that if we static stretch our hip flexors before a set of glute bridges, we get a better glute contraction.
So why aren't we doing this with big bang exercises such as pull-throughs, hip thrusts, and other glute-focused exercises?
Another great option is for people who have tight pecs or slouched shoulders. Try static stretching your pecs prior to your work sets for rows. You'll not only notice a better contraction, you'll see a more pronounced change in your posture and alignment as well.
These methods typically work best for chronically short and stiff areas such as the hip flexors and pecs, so give it a shot before blindly dismissing it.
3. We need better core training
Believe it or not, core training is still a buzzword both in the fitness industry and with the lay population as well.
And some trainers still have their clients crunch their way into oblivion.
I'd like to think that with all the information out there, we could do something more effective for our core training than crunches. More importantly, we need to focus on core stability versus core strength. (If you want a primer on all this, please read this article.
Here's how I've been breaking up my core training for someone who is training four days per week:
- Anti-Lateral Flexion
- Hip Flexion with Neutral Spine
Let's do a brief rundown of each and I'll show you some exercises that train each specific function of the core.
Anti-extension exercises resist extension of the lower back and core. These could be ball or ab-wheel rollouts, blast strap flutters, or any other exercise where your core actively resists extension.
Anti-lateral flexion exercises resist side bending of the lower back and core. In this case I'm a huge fan of suitcase carries and waiters' walks (which we'll discuss more below), suitcase deadlifts, kettlebell windmills, or any kind of standing exercise with an offset load.
Anti-rotation exercises resist rotation around the lower back and core. Favorites here include Pallof Presses, tornado ball work, and chop/lift variations (although these could belong in the previous sections, too).
Finally, hip flexion with a neutral spine is a movement pattern that I think far too many people forget about. If you want to squat below parallel with a neutral lumbar spine, this is something you should have in your programming. The goal here is to produce hip flexion and maintain a neutral spine throughout. Too often, when people try to squat deep (i.e. more hip flexion), they simply round their lower backs (i.e. lumbar flexion).
To train this function of the core, I like jackknifes on a ball, band resisted jackknifes (both legs in the same band), and alternating band jackknifes (each leg has its own band). The key to these exercises is to keep the chest up and out, the back flat throughout, and to only move as far as you can before losing your spine alignment. Over time, this will improve, and so will your alignment (and performance) in the squat.
4. Drill the neutral spine
You want to know why so many people injure their backs?
It's not the one big blowout that many people assume it to be. Instead, it's the repetitive poor posture on squats, deadlifts, and other lifts that get guys into trouble. They slowly wear down the ligaments, tendons, and discs in their lower back until their spine has had enough and shoots out their backside on a set of deadlifts.
To combat this, you need to make drilling the neutral spine a key component of your programming. If you can't squat below parallel without rounding your lower back, don't squat below parallel. If you can't deadlift from the floor without rounding over, don't pull from the floor.
Now, before you run your mouth and say I lose my powerlifting man-card, I want to reiterate something: I'm not saying to never do these exercises again. All I'm saying is don't do 'em until you can maintain good alignment throughout the movement.
Take two to three months and focus on getting your hip mobility up to snuff, or simply back off the weights until you can really dial in your technique.
I know this point may be a little underwhelming, but this could be the simplest tip I give you that keeps you healthy.
5. Focus on tempo
A few months back, I wrote an article titled Old-School Tempo Training for More Muscle.
Look, tempo training works. Far too often, people who are unstable and move poorly try to move too quickly.
At the very least, try slowing down your eccentrics for a month or two. Focus on feeling what your body is doing, what muscles are working, and what you have to do to perform a movement optimally.
It's hard for some people to take a step backward, but if you really learn to feel what's going on with your body, I promise the ensuing months will lead to some of the most beneficial training you've ever had in your life.
Then you can jump back into the fast movements.
6. Use more "reflexive" training
Dan John is smart. (But we already knew that.)
After reviewing his DVD series several months ago, I started incorporating more "reflexive" work into my training, which are exercises that force your body to naturally do what they're supposed to do, without having to think it.
For instance, if you perform an exercise such as a suitcase carry, your body has to naturally correct itself and stabilize your core. If it doesn't, you'd fall over!
This is the essence of reflexive training.
Another great example here is the Goblet squat. I see too many people who can't front squat correctly, let alone back squat. These guys need to become best friends with the Goblet squat.
A well-executed Goblet squat teaches you to open up the groin and push the knees out. It teaches you to stay tall and lengthen your thoracic spine when squatting. Quite simply, it teaches you how to squat effectively.
I honestly feel that reflexive training should be everyone's end goal. Every time you go to sit in a chair, you shouldn't be reviewing your technique like you're hitting a PR squat in a powerlifting meet.
"Chest up, butt back, knees out, arch, Arch, ARCH!"
Instead, the movement should be natural, fluid and reflexive.
7. Include more hip extension work
Back in the day, they used to call me the Ass Master around here.
I knew then, as I still know today, that well-functioning glutes are critical to clean and efficient movement.
Regardless, I still see far too many people whose hip extension is horrible. Their hip flexors are ridiculously short and stiff, and their idea of a glute contraction is merely lumbar hyperextension.
As such, we've put a premium on hip extension work in our gym. While I don't agree with everything he has to say, I think Bret Contreras has done a great job of bringing this point to light.
Obviously, low-level exercises such as glute bridges are the starting point. After all, if you can't contract the muscle in low-level exercises, there's no way you're going to magically do it under load or in a compound exercise.
But after you've developed that motor control, you need to lay strength on top of it. Exercises such as pull-throughs, hip thrusts, and even back extensions and reverse hypers (performed with a neutral spine) can really start to get the glutes firing and strong again.
Sometimes, I feel like a broken record. I think I started talking about the glutes back in '03 or '04 here at T NATION, and the message hasn't changed.
If you want to run faster, jump higher, or simply squat and pull more weight, get your glutes back into the game. You won't be sorry.
So those are my seven simple tips you can apply to your programming and training to get consistently better results, but I'm curious what you have to add to the list. Let me know in the comments!