Category Archives: Strength and Conditioning

Avoiding Injuries in Strength Training

Anyone who’s worked out consistently for long enough has no doubt had to deal with an injury at some point. Setbacks can be frustrating, but if you train hard, eventually some type of injury may be inevitable.

In spite of over two decades of strength training, however, I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid anything serious. The worst I’ve had to deal with was a strained rotator cuff, some mild tendinitis and a few cuts, scrapes and bruises (mostly from freerunning and parkour). If you train smart, you should be able to avoid any serious injuries as well.

Listen to Your Body

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “Is it okay to work out every day?” There is no universal answer that applies to everyone, as individual conditioning varies greatly from person to person. As a general rule, however, let your body rest if you feel sore, achy or tired. If you want to work out and you’re still sore from a previous session, you might take a day to focus on flexibility or work around your sore muscles using a split routine. Another option is to simply do a low-intensity active recovery workout.

You might not always like what it has to say, but listening to your body is the best way to avoid injury. When you have aches and pains, you need to back off. Pay attention to how your body responds to different training programs and act accordingly.

Balancing Act
It is important to make sure that your strength training routine doesn’t favor any one movement pattern too heavily. The phrase antagonistic balance refers to maintaining a healthy symmetry between opposing muscle groups. If your routine is all push-ups and no pull-ups, you’ll likely wind up with shoulder problems and poor posture. Likewise, neglecting your glutes, hamstrings and lower back can also lead to joint pain and postural issues. This is why deadlifts and/or back bridges should be a mainstay of any fitness regimen.

Gradual Progress
People who get injured in training usually do so because they attempted something far outside of their capabilities. While ambition is a great asset, you’ve got to be objective about what your body is realistically capable of handling. I’m all for pushing the boundaries of human performance, but you have to do so gradually!

Check out my master list of exercises to get an idea of how to progress intelligently in the world of bodyweight strength training. You’ll typically want to get to about 10 reps of a given exercise before moving on to harder progressions. For static holds (like planks and L-sits), aim for a 30 second hold or longer.

Live and Learn
Injuries may sometimes be unavoidable, but I believe we are all ultimately responsible for our own fate. Be smart, stay humble and pick yourself up when you fall. If you do get injured, perhaps you can learn from the experience and avoid repeating your mistakes. Remember, an expert is just a beginner who didn’t quit.

Sandbag Training

Editors Note: This is a guest post by personal trainer and sandbag enthusiast Matt Palfrey.

For centuries, the sandbag has been used as a means for individuals to build high levels of
strength and conditioning. Far from being a poor alternative to traditional free weights, the
sandbag is actually an effective, versatile tool that offers many advantages. If you haven’t tried sandbag training then you’ve been missing out!

Ultimate Stability Training
The constantly shifting weight of a sandbag is perfectly designed to add instability to your
training program. While many are keen to introduce stability training into their exercises by
using all manner of aids like stability balls, wobble boards and *ahem* the Shake Weight, doesn’t it make more sense to use a naturally unstable load?

Keep it Real
The major advantage of training with an unstable object, rather than on an unstable surface, is that it has greater ecological validity or real world application. Most loads, in real life, are not equally weighted. Therefore, training with the sandbag prepares the body to deal with an unstable load. The craze for stability training typically involves making the surface on which you are standing unstable – the complete opposite of most real world situations.

This is one of the reasons that people often find that they cannot lift as much weight in a sandbag as say, on a barbell. This isn’t a bad thing though – I like to consider it as “real-world” strength as opposed to “gym” strength.

Poor Man’s Weight Training
Another great benefit of the sandbag is that it is inexpensive and readily available for most people. I originally started training with sandbags when I didn’t have the time or money to get to the gym – I started with just a 55 lb. bag of sand and some tape. This cost me just $3. In fact, I now have around 350 lbs. of sand in my garage that cost me around $15. If I had purchased the same weight in plates or dumbbells it would have set me back at least $300. While sandbag training is not designed to take the place of traditional free weight training, if you are on a budget, it is a great weight lifting choice. Sandbags are available from most hardware stores or builders merchants. Or you could fill a duffel bag with taped bags of sand – be creative!

Integrating Sandbags
The best advice for individuals who want to add sandbag training into their existing workout is to simply make substitutions. Just take basic exercises like squats, deadlifts and overhead presses and perform them with a sandbag instead of a barbell, kettlebell or dumbbell. Don’t be surprised if your poundage drops, this is natural and is testament to the challenge that the sandbag provides.

Matt Palfrey is a strength and conditioning coach who specializes in working with MMA athletes. Matt holds a degree in Sport Science and Biomechanics and is the author of Sandbag Fitness – the low-cost, high tech resource for developing strength and conditioning using sandbags and other exercises.

Handstand Push-ups

You can train every muscle in your body without ever going to a gym or lifting weights, you just have to be creative!

The overhead press is one of the most fundamental strength training techniques out there – and for good reason. Overhead pressing is a great way to build upper-body strength as well as a strong core. Barbells and kettlebells are great for pressing, but no matter how strong you are, handstand push-ups are a unique challenge and must be treated as such. Get ready to flip the classic overhead press on its head – literally!

Pike Press
If you aren’t strong enough to do a handstand push-up yet, the pike press is a great way to ease in. Pike presses allow you to train the movement pattern without having to bear your entire body weight.

Rest your toes on a bench or step and get down in a push-up position. From here, walk your hands back toward the bench while you pike your hips up in the air over your shoulders. You will wind up looking like an upside-down letter L, with your body bent in half from the waist. Try to keep your back straight by taking the stretch in your hamstrings. You can bend your knees a little if you need to in order to keep your hips up over your shoulders. Lower yourself down until the top of your head touches the ground and then push yourself back up – that’s one rep.

Wall Assisted Handstand Push-up
Once you can do ten consecutive pike presses without too much trouble, you’re ready to try a full handstand push-up against a wall. Kick up into a handstand with your back slightly arched and your fingers spread out. Engage your core muscles and keep your body tight as you lower yourself down and press yourself up. Make sure you touch your head to the ground on every rep to ensure a full range of motion. You can also try touching your nose to the floor instead of the top of your head to allow yourself to go a bit lower.

Handstand Push-ups on Parallettes
If you want a bigger range of motion for your handstand press, you’ve got a couple options. You could use a set of parallettes or you could set up two benches (or other sturdy objects) alongside each other with enough room for your head to fit in between. Any method that allows you to drop your head below your hands will add a new challenge to your handstand push-ups.

Freestanding Handstand Push-up
The freestanding handstand is a tricky move to get the hang of on its own, adding a push-up to it takes things to a whole other level!

The freestanding handstand push-up requires tremendous strength, balance and total body control, so before you think about training for this move, I suggest getting to the point where you can do at least ten wall assisted handstand push-ups and hold a freestanding handstand for a minimum of thirty seconds.

When performing handstand holds, I’ve often found it helpful to look in between my hands. With the freestanding handstand push-up however, I’ve found it better to look a few inches in front of my hands. Since the balance changes throughout the range of motion, I recommend practicing static holds at the bottom and middle positions of the range of motion to help train for this feat.

The One Arm Handstand Push-up
Often discussed, though never actually executed, the one arm handstand push-up is the holy grail of bodyweight strength training. In theory, the one arm handstand push-up is the ultimate calisthenics exercise. However, a full, clean rep has never been documented as far as I know. I have no doubt that someone will eventually perform one (and get it on video), but in the meantime the rest of us will just continue to train hard and keep the dream alive.

Watch the video below for more:

How to Increase Your Reps on Pull-ups

I get lots of emails from people who’ve gone stagnant on their pull-ups asking for my advice on how to improve.

The only way to progress at pull-ups (or anything for that matter) is consistent practice. There has never been another way and there never will be.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, there are specific methods that can be more effective than others.

Here are a few techniques that may help you bust through a plateau:

Greasing the Groove
This technique was made famous by Pavel Tsatsouline and it is especially helpful for beginners who may still be learning to do a pull-up.

Greasing the groove simply involves doing multiple sets of an exercise throughout the day, rather than doing all your sets in succession. If you have a pull-up bar at home, you can take a workout like my 50 pull-up challenge and spread it out over the course of an entire day. A beginner, on the other hand, might grease the groove by doing a couple of flex hangs and negatives in the morning, a few more throughout the afternoon and then hit it one more time in the evening. Greasing the groove is as much about training your central nervous system to learn a movement pattern as it is about building muscle. While consistent practice is key, don’t try to do too much too soon. If you start getting pain in your joints, back off and give yourself time to recover.

Supersets
A superset involves taking two exercises and performing them back-to-back with no rest. Typically the harder exercise goes first and when fatigue is reached, you switch to the easier exercise and continue repping out. By sequencing it this way, you’re essentially pushing your body beyond failure.

Try supersetting Australian pull-ups after going to failure on standard pull-ups, or do pull-ups while wearing a weight vest, then remove the vest when you reach failure and continue with just your body weight.

Pyramid Sets and The Rest/Pause Method
These old school techniques will test your body, as well as your mental fortitude. See my full articles on pyramid sets and the rest/pause method for more.

Zef’s Warm-up
This is a routine that I got from Zef of the Bar-Barians. I’ve been using it recently in an attempt to increase my numbers on muscle-ups, but it’s been helping my pull-ups, too.

The routine consists of 5 muscle-ups, followed by 5 straight bar dips, then without coming down from the bar, you proceed to do 4 more muscle-ups and 4 more dips, then 3 of each, all the way down to 1 rep of each. If you can make it to the end, you’ll have done 15 muscle-ups and 15 dips, all without coming off the bar. I’ve been adding a set of pull-ups to failure at the end as well before finally dropping down to rest.

You must be willing to push your body’s limits in order to effect change and experience growth. Get creative with different patterns of super-sets, pyramid sets and anything else that you can come up with to challenge yourself. Just don’t get too hung up on chasing progress, instead try to enjoy the process.

Check out the video below for my version of Zef’s warm-up:


For more information about pull-ups, pick up a copy of my book, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics.

The Best Exercises For Abs

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “what’s the best way to work your abs?”

Most people who ask are concerned about aesthetics – they want to get a six pack – but core training can be functional too. That’s why the best ab exercises will do much more for you than just help you get the washboard look (which has more to do with diet anyway).

Abs and Functionality

In order to understand why certain exercises are better than others, you must first understand the role that your abs play in the musculoskeletal system. The abs (or rectus abdominus as they are technically known) function primarily as a stabilizer muscle – they keep your torso upright while you’re standing, walking or performing other movements. For this reason, the best way to work your abs is to use them to stabilize your trunk in difficult positions. Rather than attempting to isolate them with crunches, I’ve found it more satisfying (and effective) to work my abs in the context of my entire body.

Top Three Exercises for Abs
While it’s hard to say any one exercise is the best for abdominal training, these three are all arguably in the running:

The Plank
Think of your abs as a bridge that connects your upper body to your legs. Since you’re in a horizontal position when performing a plank, your abs will have to work considerably harder to keep your body properly aligned than when you are simply standing or walking. The plank is typically held isometrically while balancing on your elbows and toes, but part of what makes planks so great is that they can be modified to suit all fitness levels.

Novices can start on their knees, instead of their toes, while intermediate level trainees can try lifting up an arm and/or a leg. When you get the hang of that, you can start experimenting with planking on an unstable surface. For another variation, try bringing your knees to your chest one at a time while holding a plank.

Hanging Leg Raises
Hanging leg raises require tremendous abdominal strength and stability. In addition to keeping your body stable (swinging is a no-no), the abdominal muscles must also work to lift your legs up during this exercise. See my hanging leg raise exercise tutorial for more information.

The L-Sit
Try doing a hanging leg raise and stop when your legs are extended at a right angle to your torso. While an L-sit is typically performed with the hands resting on the ground (or holding parallettes), holding your body in the “L” position is a difficult task in either position.

Though most commonly seen in gymnastics, the L-sit is a great exercise for anyone who is serious about building core strength. Like the plank, it is often held in a fixed position for a given amount of time. When you get comfortable with the L-sit, you may be ready for advanced core exercises like levers, dragon flags or the planche.

ABS – Always Be Stabilizing
Any time you have to stabilize your torso, your abs get a workout. That’s why core strength is such a huge part of performing even basic bodyweight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups. With bodyweight training, you’re always working your abs.

Watch the video below for more:

Weight Vest Training

From push-ups to pistol squats and, yes, even muscle-ups, there’s hardly a bodyweight exercise out there that can’t be cranked up by wearing a weight vest.

Sure, some of you guys (and gals) are still learning to do a pull-up, but I know lots of you can peel off 15 or 20 of them in a row (I’ve seen your videos on youtube). If you’re looking to add a new challenge to your bodyweight regimen, weight vest training could be for you.

It’s All Good
While working towards higher reps on basic exercises like pull-ups, dips or squats can lead to progress in your training, wearing a weight vest when performing these exercises can shock your body and stimulate new growth.

That’s not to say you can’t continue to increase your strength with just your bodyweight. If you continually work towards harder exercises, no equipment workouts can still be very intense! However, it is helpful (and fun!) to vary one’s training stimulus on the road to a well-rounded, functionally fit body.

“Weight” For It
Only once you can perform a given bodyweight exercise for ten or more reps with proper form should you consider adding resistance. Better to wait until you are ready than to get injured because you were overzealous.

Do the Math
Keep in mind that the amount of weight in your vest must be relative to your body weight. A man who weighs 135 pounds might find doing dips with an additional 25 pounds to be very challenging, whereas a man who weighs 235 might barely even feel a difference with 25 extra pounds. It’s better to base your decision on a percentage of your bodyweight, rather than a catchall number. First timers should add between 10-20% of their bodyweight (depending on the difficulty of the given exercise). When you can get at least five reps with clean form, feel free to gradually ramp up that percentage.

Maybe This Weight is a Gift
Weight vests are not the only way to add resistance to bodyweight exercises. You can use a weight belt, have a training partner provide manual resistance, or simply toss some free-weights into a backpack. Just don’t do that last one at your gym or they might get the wrong idea; free-weights doesn’t mean free weights!

Watch the video below for more:

All About Triceps Dips

One of my most vivid adolescent memories is the first time I ever attempted a parallel bar dip. It was my freshman year of high school and I had just started to explore the wonderful world of working out.

I signed up to take weight training my second semester that year, and there was a dip station in the weight room, so I decided to give it a go. I understood the task at hand and felt confident approaching the dip bars.

Once I began lowering myself though, it suddenly felt like someone had punched me hard in the sternum. Rather than being able to press myself back up, I instead fell to the ground and recoiled in pain, feeling like I would NEVER be able to do a single dip on the bars. The few kids in gym class who could do one suddenly seemed like super-human deities.

I Dip, You Dip, We Dip

I didn’t let that early experience stop me from trying again, however, and a few weeks later, I got my first real dip – it was a very exciting time! I’ve done a lot of dips since then and learned a lot of different variations. Dips are a great exercise and there are endless ways to keep them fresh and challenging. Keep in mind that while they emphasize the triceps, dips also work your chest, shoulders and core muscles. Pretty much any time you use your arms to press your bodyweight while in an upright position, it’s a dip. Here are the basics:

Bench Dips
As I discussed in my previous dip tutorial, the best way to start out is to do dips with your hands on a bench and your legs resting on the ground straight out in front of you. Try to keep your chest up and your back straight when performing bench dips.

If you find it hard to stay upright with your legs straight, it’s okay to bend your knees and put your feet flat to make it easier. On the other hand, if bench dips with straight legs are not difficult, try putting your feet up on another bench for an added challenge.

Parallel Bar Dips
Eventually, bench dips will get easy even with your legs elevated. That’s when you’re ready for parallel bar dips.

When you perform a parallel bar dip, keep in mind that the movement pattern isn’t just straight up and down. You’ll need to pitch your chest forward as you lower yourself or you’ll likely put unnecessary strain on your shoulders.

If you’re having a hard time when starting with parallel bar dips, ask a spotter to help you. Have them grab your ankles while you bend your knees so they can assist you on the way up.

Straight Bar Dips
While the parallel bars are the most common place to work this movement pattern, dips can also be done on a straight bar, which most people will find more difficult. It’s also a great variation for anyone working on muscle-ups.

When you are dipping on a straight bar, you can play around with placing your hands wide or narrow. A wide grip puts more emphasis on your chest, while a narrow grip places more of the burden on the triceps. For this reason, the narrow grip tends to be harder for most people.


Korean Dips
You can also do a straight bar dip with the bar behind your back. This is sometimes referred to as a Korean dip.

Korean dips are a very challenging variation and you’ll really need to concentrate on keeping your entire body engaged in order to perform them properly. Keep your abs and lower back tight while squeezing your legs and glutes in order to prevent yourself from swinging around excessively while practicing this variation.


Plyometric Dips
Like all the basic exercises, you may eventually build up enough strength and power to get airborne at the top of a dip. My favorite way to do plyo dips is by exploding across a long pair of parallel bars. Clapping dips are another great way to amp up this classic move with some plyo-power!

When you do plyometric dips, you’ll need to get your whole body into it. There’s nothing wrong with using your hips and legs in order to utilize your full explosive power.

Less Lip, More Dip
Talk is cheap – if you want to improve at dips, it’s gonna take time and practice. However, keep in mind that people who try to do too much, too soon often wind up burned out, injured or just plain ol’ frustrated. Always remember to progress gradually and stay humble. Take it one rep at a time and enjoy the ride.

Watch the video below for more:

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The Specificity Principle

Most of the fitness questions that I get asked start off with the same six words, “How do I get better at…”

The answer is always the same no matter what comes next.

“Practice.”

The specificity principle is a fancy way of referring to the simple fact that you get better at the specific tasks that you consistently practice. Whether it’s handstands or pistol squats or running, to improve your skills on anything, I recommend the direct approach.

For athletes, this means that much of their training time must be devoted to their specific discipline. The little bit of supplemental training they do usually consists of things like squats and cleans to maximize their strength and explosive power. After all, the combination of skill and strength is what leads to success in most sports.

For the rest of us, however, the specificity principle means that once we can establish a baseline of strength through basic exercises like squats, pull-ups, push-ups, etc, we can elect to devote our workout time towards whatever we like.

While skill enhancement isn’t the best means towards weight loss, finding new challenges helps keep your workouts fresh while allowing you to build up a skill set that can make you stronger and more functionally fit across different modalities.

Whether it be a sport, a race or just a good old fashioned pull-up contest, pick whatever interests you and devote your fitness time towards that task.

The goals themselves aren’t really important, but working towards something specific might help you stay focused. After all, goals are just a fantasy; the training that you do today is real.

Yoga and Strength Training

It’s no secret that I’m a proponent of bodyweight strength training – pull-ups, push-ups and pistols have been staples of my fitness regimen for many years.

What you might not realize, however, is that yoga is also a style of bodyweight training that I practice regularly. That’s right, when you get down to it, yoga is simply another form of bodyweight training. It’s a great way to build strength, improve flexibility and perhaps more importantly, increase your body awareness.

Here are some yoga basics that can help with your strength training:

Chair Pose (Utkatasana) – The chair pose is basically a squat. While keeping your chest up and your shoulder blades retracted, you reach your arms into the air and sit back from your hips until the tops of your thighs are parallel with the ground. The difference is instead of going up and down for reps, in yoga the objective is simply to hold the chair pose for a given amount of time (or a certain number of breaths).

Chaturanga – Chaturanga is best known as a transitional pose in between the plank and cobra (or updog) poses in a sun salutation (I’ll get to those in a second). It is almost the same as the negative (lowering) phase of a push-up, only the elbows are kept closer to the body and the hips are positioned slightly higher.

Practicing chaturanga is a great way for novices to build towards doing push-ups. It teaches you to control your body while keeping your core muscles engaged on the way down, much in the same way that doing negatives helps when learning to do a pull-up. Chaturanga can also be held isometrically.

Half Monkey Pose – The flat back position in this pose (which has a few different names depending on who you ask) is very similar to the bottom position of a Romanian deadlift. To perform this pose, start in a standing toe touch position, then retract your shoulder blades and flatten your back. It’s a great way to learn what it feels like to bend over from your hips while keeping your vertebrae aligned, like you need to do to properly perform any type of deadlift.

Sun Salutations
The sun salutation strings several fundamental poses together in a smooth-flowing sequence designed to ease your body into your practice. While the sun salutation is often used as a warm-up in yoga, it can be a good warm-up for any type of workout. Sometimes I like to do them first thing in the morning after I get out of bed. You might even throw one into the middle of your day if you find you’ve been sitting for too long. Anytime is a good time for a sun salutation!

There are an infinite number of variations on the sun salutation, but basic poses such as mountain pose, forward fold, half monkey, downward dog, plank, chaturanga and upward dog (or cobra pose) are typically included.

If you’re curious about yoga practice, I recommend going to a class or, even better, getting one-on-one yoga instruction. There are many subtleties to performing these poses, and there’s no substitute for having a skilled professional there to observe and help you.

Check out the video below to see me doing my morning sun salutation.

The Skill of Strength

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Andy Fossett.

The word “fitness” is thrown around a lot these days, usually in conjunction with a new fad or product. We hear the word so often, that it’s easy to overlook its definition:

Fitness – The degree to which one is fit for the task at hand.

Since being fit to watch TV is different from being fit to run a marathon, play a game of soccer, or do a back flip, most people have varying personal definitions of fitness. In fact, we each define fitness personally as the ability to perform the specific tasks we choose.

When you look at things this way, it becomes clear that fitness is a skill – the skill to move your body as you desire. But if fitness is really just a measure of skill, why do most fitness programs focus exclusively on work capacity?

Rather than a mindset on improving weight/volume/time/reps/insert your metric here, what if we judged progress by our ability to perform a certain maneuver? It’s nice to push 10 more pounds overhead than you did a couple weeks ago, but how much cooler would it be to pop into a handstand in the office whenever you are bored? Or be able to hop over a fence if that mean neighborhood dog is chasing you?

For many goals, skill is the real key to achieving the particular type of fitness that you are after. These movements take time and practice to develop. For a prime example of how skill training effects the attribute of strength, we need look no further than gymnastics.

Gymnasts continually work to perfect movements of greater and greater difficulty. They start with the basics and add variables – a step, a twist, a less stable base. Though they may perform many repetitions of a particular movement, it’s always done with the goal of perfecting the skill. Quality comes before quantity; there is no gold medal for “the person who can spin around the pommel horse the most times.”

Instead of working to improve our skill in just a few movements that we are going to do over and over again, let’s try thinking like a gymnast. Let’s try working to improve our skill level in a basic movement, then move on and work at improving skill in a more difficult movement. It’s the opposite of most exercise routines, where the key word is “routine.”

It’s refreshing to train this way – mentally as well as physically. We change our goals from more/longer/faster, to better and more skillful. The kicker with this mindset is that training with a focus on skill also brings pretty impressive levels of strength.

How’s that for a side benefit of having fun?

A lifelong martial artist, Andy Fossett began studying fitness and physical training so he could teach his students more effectively. It became a bit of an obsession, and he co-founded Gold Medal Bodies to develop the skill of strength in 2010.

Related Posts:
Exercise Vs. Skill
Assessing Your Strength
Training for the Planche