While I'd like to sit here and tell you that this is going to be some advanced article on program design, in reality, it isn't (well, at least for some of you).
I'm not going to reveal some secret quasi-functional, homeostatic overreaching, Eastern Bloc pyramid mesocycle you're missing out on. Nor am I going to provide insight on any advanced techniques that will increase your peak power by 87.359%.
Rather, the goal here is to give you a bit of "tough love," and take an objective look at some of the small (yet important) aspects of program design that many trainees (possibly you) tend to overlook, or worse, ignore altogether.
And while I realize I may ruffle a few feathers here and there along the way, just know that I have your best interests in mind. You may not like what I have to say, but it needs to be said. Which is to say, I actually want you to make progress in the gym if for any other reason, so that hot chicks will want to hang out with you.
Stuff You Should be Doing (SYSBD) #1: Do Your Push-Ups for the Love of God
I know many of you are probably thinking one of two things at this very moment.
- "I'd rather swallow a live grenade than read another rant on the importance of why I should include more push-ups into my programming. Come on Gentilcore, push-ups are for wimps!"
Well, if that's the case, it's time to get your mind right.
In their best selling book, Made to Stick authors Chip and Dan Heath go into great detail on why some ideas survive and why others die. Summarily, they explain how we all have ideas we want to communicate and have "stick" to people.
Unfortunately, most people are a-holes and don't want to listen to us. As such, being a strength coach and as someone who generally has to fix what others have messed up, it's often an arduous task to transform the way people think and act towards a certain idea (in this case, getting you to realize that push-ups are the shiznit).
While I'll certainly agree with you that push-ups aren't nearly as sexy as say, bench pressing against chains, it still doesn't neglect the fact that they're an often overlooked and drastically underrated movement.
Additionally, I could easily come up with a hundred and one reasons why you should be including more push-ups into your repertoire (improved scapular stability/upward rotation, improved explosive power, improved upper extremity strength, improved lumbo-pelvic coordination, etc.), but the fact of the matter is, you're still not going to do them no matter what I tell you. Or are you?
It's nerds like me who can go on and on about the importance of doing push-ups and how they can help improve "stuff," like serratus anterior function. That's when a light bulb went off in my head and I realized something; you could care less about serratus anterior function!
All you want to know is, "How will (insert exercise here) get me bigger, faster, or stronger?" Unfortunately push-ups don't necessarily enter that category. Until now.
Push-ups challenge the core in an anterior-posterior aspect and really force someone to learn how to "engage" their core in a functional manner. We all know (or should) that stabilizers can never be stronger than prime movers. However, if we make the stabilizers (in this case, all the muscles that surround the lumbo-pelvic-hip area) fire first, they'll establish alignment and a better axis at the joint (lumbar spine).
With this established, the prime movers now appear stronger because the stabilizers are doing their job and force is now more easily transferred.
I had the opportunity to listen to physical therapist Lee Burton speak awhile back, where he went into great detail on the points made above, and I nodded my head in agreement when he stated that improving one's ability to perform push-ups may in fact help to improve their squat and deadlift numbers. Ah HA! I thought that would get your attention. Alas, that's my sticking point.
We've made push-ups (and all their variations) a staple at Cressey Performance, and I've seen it time and time again; get someone more proficient with their push-ups, and all their other lifts tend to improve as well. It's no coincidence. Do your freakin push-ups!
Side Note: rather than re-invent the wheel, check out Nick Tumminelo's fantastic Everything Push-Ups, which includes videos of tons of push-up variations.
SYSBD #2: Implement Fillers
I touched on this topic briefly in my article, Creating a Training Effect When You're Injured, but I feel it deserves to be reiterated here. In short, people waste too much time in the gym. While I'm all for corrective exercise, and feel it's an important component of any properly designed program, I do feel it tends to get overemphasized at times. Corrective exercise should be a component of a program, not the program.
Case in point, not too long ago a gentleman walked into our facility complaining of nagging shoulder pain. He explained how he felt one shoulder was more internally rotated compared to the other, and even went into detail on downward rotation syndrome, and how that may be something that we needed to address.
I was actually fairly impressed with his knowledge base, and I'm a huge fan when people are proactive and go out of their way to educate themselves. However, the dude couldn't even bench press his own weight for one rep, let alone perform ten proper push-ups. His problem wasn't so much a weak rotator cuff or poor scapular stability (although both needed to be addressed), as it was he was just plain weak everywhere!
Unfortunately, many people in this situation will do nothing but spend 30 minutes performing a myriad of band rotator cuff exercise while totally neglecting the fact that what they need most is a training effect.
Just to be perfectly clear, I'm not insinuating that corrective exercise isn't important. On the contrary, depending on the individual, sometimes it must be prioritized. Yet, in my experience, I have found that most will get all the corrective exercise they need just by being diligent with their soft tissue work (foam rolling) and including fillers into their programming.
Simply put, fillers are nothing more than low level, flexibility/activation/self-myofascial release drills that I like to sneak in between sets. I'm currently training around a pair of bum knees, so for the heck of it, lets use myself as an example and see how I would implement fillers into my program.
Sample Training Day
- A1. Trap Bar Deadlifts: 3x1, 3x3
- A2. Knee Break Ankle Mobilizations (10), Half Kneeling Wall Hip Flexor Mobilizations: (x8/leg), alternate between each set of A1.
- B1. Chest Supported Row-Neutral Grip: 4x6
- B2. 1-Legged RDLs: 3x8/leg
- Filler (to be done during rest period) Lying Knee-to-Knee Stretch: 3x30sec
- C1. Forward Sled Push: 4x1
- C2. Band Resisted Push-Ups: (HA!...even I do them) 3x10
- Filler (to be done during rest period) Knee Punches: 3x5/side
- >A1. Walking DB Lunge: 4x8/leg
- A2. 1-Legged Prone Plank: (immediately after A1) 3x30s/leg
- Filler (to be done during rest period) Bent-Over T-Spine Rotation: 3x6/side (maintain neutral spine)
- B1. Pull-Throughs: 3x12
- B2. Low Incline Dumbbell Press: 3x8
- Filler (to be done during rest period) Kneeling Rockback Mobilization: 2x10 (maintain neutral spine)
- C1. Neutral Grip Pulldowns: 3x10
- C2. Pallof Press: 3x10 (see below)
- Filler (to be done during rest period) Quadruped Extension-Rotation: 2x8/side (maintain neutral spine)
Conversely, here's how I would structure a day for someone dealing with low(er) back issues
Pre Work: Dynamic Warm-Up
As you can see with both scenarios, we're not just performing cute, little "functional" exercises with pink dumbbells and bands for 45 minutes and calling it a day. We're training and utilizing our time in the most efficient way possible. With a little thought, fillers can be an invaluable component of any "corrective" program.
SYSBD #3: Find a New Gym
Raise your hand if any of this sounds familiar:
- John Mayer/Coldplay/Jessica Simpson/or anything that makes your ears bleed is on regular rotation on the stereo.
- There are more Smith Machines than actual power racks. Even worse, your gym doesn't even have a power rack.
- There are signs placed throughout your gym warning patrons that anyone caught "deadlifting" will have their membership revoked. Clearly said establishment has their patron's best interests in mind. Totally pathetic and completely unacceptable.
- You hear crickets chirping when you ask the gym manager if they'll ever consider buying a glute ham raise.
- "You want to use chalk? Here? Hahahahaha."
- There are no dumbbells that go above 80 lbs, but every year there are brand new elliptical machines and treadmills, with plasma TV's attached, no less.
- You've been a member for two years, and can count on one hand the number of people who actually know what it's like to squat to depth.
- You often wonder whether or not the trainers actually lift weights.
- The walking bag of douche next to you is talking on his/her cell phone.
Chances are some of the things listed above sound a lot like the place you're training at now. Listen, you have every right in the world to complain about your shitty gym. However, with that complaining comes the responsibility of doing something about it.
A few years ago while we were both living in Connecticut, Eric Cressey and myself would drive an hour (both ways) to train at South Side Gym, one of the world's most respected powerlifting gyms. Sure traffic was a nightmare at times, and it certainly wasn't fun to pay for gas and put mileage on my car, but it was worth every minute.
Nothing could replace the atmosphere and attitude of training around like-minded individuals who, in between sets of 405 lb speed benches, would make fun of me because I was too "veiny." I thrived on it, and it's no coincidence that my time there was probably the best training year of my life.
Nevertheless, both Eric and myself have talked extensively on how training environment is such an underappreciated factor that many trainees fail to take advantage of.
Obviously we don't beat our clients, but we have gone out of our way to instill an attitude that they're there to train, not workout. It's no wonder we have quite a few clients who drive out once per week just so they can train around other strong people, use chalk, listen to loud, belligerent music, and have access to equipment that they otherwise would never be able to utilize. For some, it's the highlight of their week, which is pretty cool.
Do yourself a favor and find a new gym to train at. Even if it's only one day per week, suck it up and go; I'll guarantee you won't regret it.
SYSBD #4: More Crunches/Sit-ups (Note Sarcasm)
There have been a lot of smart people on this site who have gone out of their way to explain why crunches and/or sit-ups are completely worthless. In spite of this, it still boggles my mind there are trainees out there who still feel there's some benefit in including them in a program. To be honest, I can think of a host of other things that would be more beneficial:
- Passing a kidney stone
- A nuclear holocaust
- Another Sex and the City movie
- Getting kicked in the balls, repeatedly
I haven't programmed a crunch/sit-up variation in well over three years, and they're essentially banned from Cressey Performance. In the past, I've explained why I'm not a fan, so I won't belabor the point here. Okay, maybe a small rant is in order:
- Cliff Notes Version (Professional Explanation): When one performs a sit-up and/or crunch, they're essentially pulling the sternum closer to the pelvis hundreds, if not thousands of times, promoting a kyphotic posture (rounded back), as well as a host of other postural dysfunctions.
- Cliff Notes Version (My Explanation): they suck.
Furthermore, in Low Back Disorders: Evidence-based Prevention and Rehabilitation, Dr. Stuart McGill notes that the traditional sit-up imposes approximately 3300 N (about 730 lb) of compression on the spine.
Incidentally, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set the action limit for low back compression at 3300 N; repetitive loading above this level is linked with higher injury rates in workers, yet this is imposed on the spine with each repetition of the sit-up! If you're still not following me, let me paraphrase: stop doing freakin sit-ups!!!
As much as I despise sit-ups/crunches, I think it's equally silly when people try to tell me that all one needs to do is perform some squats and deadlifts to train their core. While there is some merit behind that statement, I feel it's a little short sighted (not to mention a bit too simplistic), and still believe that some dedicated core work is a necessary component of any complete program.
That being said, keeping in mind that the main function of the "core" is to prevent rotational forces and provide stability, here are some of my favorite exercises you may or may not be familiar with:
Coaching Cues: Popularized by physical therapist John Pallof, the key here is to stay in an athletic position (chest up, butt back, feet shoulder width apart). Resisting the rotational force of the weight stack, "press" the weight away from you until your arms are fully extended. Return back to starting position (just below the sternum), and repeat.
Coaching Cues: Setting up next to a functional trainer or cable pulley system, start in a side plank position and simply row the weight back and forth. Make sure to squeeze your glutes and maintain a neutral spine position. There should be absolutely no movement in the hips or lower back.
Coaching Cues: This is one that I got from fellow strength coach Jim Smith of Diesel Crew fame. Certainly to raise a few eyebrows around the gym; have a partner take two bands for added resistance and perform a standard bar roll-out. Try to get as low to the floor as you can without "dipping" or "sagging" your hips. Essentially you should be able to maintain a neutral spine position throughout.
Coaching Cues: This one comes from strength coach Will Heffernan. Stack 5-10 five-pound plates to your side. While in a prone plank position, reach over with your opposite hand and stack the plates to your other side. Again, you should try to stay as stable as possible. There shouldn't be any movement in the hips and/or lumbar spine region. Bonus points if you happen to throw a plate on a personal trainer's toe.
SYSBD #5: "Un-Balance" Your Training
Don't use a balanced routine if you want to become more balanced. This is a phrase that I "stole" from my good friend Jonathan Fass, and is a concept I feel many trainees would be wise to incorporate.
We've all been made to believe that we must "balance" our training in order to ensure a well-rounded program, where we hit every movement pattern equally in the hopes of alleviating or preventing any structural/muscular imbalances we may exhibit, as well as any postural deficiencies that may exist. In light of some of the atrocious programs I often come across, this is generally great advice to follow.
Likewise, most of us realize that there is an inherent advantage in following a routine that is designed specifically for us, as opposed to a "generalized" cookie-cutter routine. However, few people fail to understand what that really means, and feel that haphazardly throwing a few exercises together in a "balanced" routine (one pulling exercise for every one pushing exercise, for example) is all it takes to suddenly make it an individualized program.
According to Fass, "The problem is that almost no one is actually balanced in terms of muscle, posture, joint position or flexibility. Good programs are those that take into consideration a person's particular needs, whether those needs are postural improvements, muscle dysfunctions, weak points in your movement, strength and/or conditioning needs, or any combination that might be deemed appropriate for you. In short, a routine that would appear grossly imbalanced on paper is exactly what you need to become more balanced as a result."
I couldn't agree more. A great example would be someone with a kyphotic (rounded back) posture. In this case, I may have this individual perform two to three horizontal pulling exercises (think row variations) for every horizontal pushing exercise (think bench press variations). Not balanced by any means (3:1 ratio), but exactly what this person may need in order to see any improvements in their posture and overall movement quality.
Similarly, when writing programs for our baseball guys in season, we'll have them perform additional sets on their non-throwing/hitting side when performing medicine ball drills.
So if I'm working with a right-handed pitcher, I'll have him perform three sets of the above exercise on his dominant/lead leg (in this case, the left), and four sets on his non-dominant leg (the right).
Whether it's to counterbalance the fact that we tend to sit in front of a computer screen all day, or to ensure we don't develop asymmetries that can lead to injury, it's subtle tweaks like the examples above that showcase why it's sometimes necessary to follow more of an un-balanced approach to program design.
This article is long enough already, so here are some other bullet-point thoughts:
- Invest in some bands. They're relatively cheap and will undoubtedly allow for a much greater degree of variety for those of you who train in a commercial gym setting. Additionally, do yourself a favor and make yourself some 2,3,4 boards for board pressing. You can easily put them in your gym bag, and you can use the bands you bought to hold them in place for when you train alone.
- Count calories if you're trying to lose some fat. Seriously, it's that important. You're not the lone exception in all of human history that can miraculously ignore the Law of Thermodynamics (calories in vs. calories out). Trust me, you're not that special.
- Pre-workout nutrition is just as important as post-workout nutrition. Don't neglect it.
- Fat people shouldn't sprint or do depth jumps. However, they should include more movement training into their programming. Various low-level skipping drills, medicine ball work, and dedicated mobility/flexibility circuits should constitute the bulk of their "plyometric" training.
- If you can't perform at least five pull-ups with your own bodyweight, then you have no business including an "arms day" into your program. The reason you can't do a pull-up isn't because you're not doing enough arm curls.
- Since you're done reading this article, it's the perfect time to go find a new gym. Once you realize that your 300 lb deadlift is speed weight at other gyms, you'll understand why.
- Call your mother, you big jerk.