The hollow rock
Core training has become a real buzzword in the fitness community in recent years. From power plate to bosu balls, there seems to be a never ending stream of gadgets and devices to help us get that seemingly elusive strong core.
As mentioned in a previous post, the core consists of the muscles around the midsection which support the trunk and transmit force. A good example is the golf swing. It is the arms that hold the club, but the power of the swing comes through the hips and is then transmitted through the torso and arms to the ball. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and a weak midsection will absorb, rather than transfer force resulting in less power.
A very simple, yet fiendishly difficult exercise to increase core stability is the hollow rock. You simply lie in a supine position with your hands back over your head. From there, lift the legs and shoulders off the ground at the same time and hold that position (as per the picture).
The goal is to hold that position with no movement whatsoever for as long as possible. A good starting point is to go for 10 seconds and then rest. The gold standard is 3 minutes.
The key is to create stiffness throughout the body in order to maintain the hollow body position. That means doing the following:
- Squeeze the heels together and point the toes forwards
- Squeeze the knees together
- Squeeze the bum cheeks together tight (imagine you have a 5 franc piece in there and you don’t want it to fall out!)
- Contract the abs (imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach you automatically tense up to absorb the blow)
- Take a big breath and try to expand your stomach as you fill it with air
Here is how the full hollow rock looks
The best way to start the movement is to lift the legs as high as possible in the air (remember to keep everything squeezed tight) and then try to touch your toes
From here, gradually lower the arms to behind your head and lower the legs towards the ground. Remember that through this movement, the mid section should stay absolutely still and the only movement is through the arms and legs
If that proves too hard, try this position with one leg extended
If that is still too difficult, try with both legs bent
I get asked all the time about what books or other sources I recommend for fitness. There are endless publications out there on how to get in better shape. A quick search on Amazon brings up nearly 4,000 titles with endless variation. Want to get your info from the macho world of the armed forces? Go for the book by the former Royal Marine. Want to be inspired by an, ahem adult entertainer? There are multiple editions on how to improve your fitness through pole dancing.
I prefer the traditional approach myself and there are several books which have both inspired and guided my journey into the fitness world. These books are all easy to read, and will provide the reader with a deeper insight into fitness than the traditional 3 sets of 10 machine circuit and 30 minute on the treadmill which is unfortunately still so prevalent in the fitness industry. Feel the burn!
This list is in no particular order although they are categorised by fitness and nutrition.
If you are interested in getting stronger the barbell is always the tool of choice. Starting Strength is a fantastic introduction into no-nonsense barbell training. You will learn how to squat, press, deadlift and clean as well as get an introduction into how to program strength training. This book is a must for anyone who wants to take their strength training to the next level.
As strange as it sounds, there is no consensus in the fitness industry of what fitness actually is. Is it cardiovascular endurance or power? Who is fitter, a sumo wrestler of marathon runner? How does this translate into general fitness for those of us who just want to get in shape and feel a bit better? Fit is a rare publication in that it actually produces a sensible definition of fitness and how to attain it.
If you want to understand fitness on a higher level and become fitter across the board, then Fit is a great place to start.
This was one of the first books that broke me out of the old bodybuilding paradigm that pervades gyms the world over. It advocates a complete approach to overall fitness using barbells over machines and full body routines as opposed to splitting the body parts into groups (biceps and triceps on Monday, quads on Tuesday, hamstrings on Wednesday etc etc).
This book is a fantastic resource for those who travel a lot or have trouble getting to a gym on a regular basis. Enamit shows that a lack of equipment is no obstacle to developing immense levels of fitness. For an extra kick to your training, check out his web site which contains hundreds of inspirational stories from the world of fitness.
Eric Cressy is one of the go-to strength and conditioning coaches for baseball players in the USA. He is a prolific writer and one of his best books is Maximum Strength. This is a great book for anyone looking for a simple and effective program to boost strength, athleticism and power in a short space of time.
The Paleo Solution is written by one of the top names in the nutrition industry, Robb Wolf. The premise of the book is that modern man has not evolved significantly since the Paleolithic era where the human diet consisted of meat from hunting and whatever roots and fruits could be foraged.
The dawn of agriculture saw the introduction of refined foods into our diets through grains such as corn, wheat and barley. Wolff questions whether we have evolved to eat those foods. He makes a compelling argument that these refined foods, grains especially, cause more harm than good and adopting a Paleolithic style diet could be the path to health, fitness and longevity.
Mark Sisson, author of the Primal Blueprint, prevents a similar argument to that in the Paelo Solution albeit with a slightly different approach. Could the high carbohydrate, low fat diet recommended by national and international health institutions actually be responsible for the current levels of obesity and heart disease in the western world?
This is another sound argument for adopting natural foods such as meat, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, nuts and seeds as the basis for a healthy diet.
Gary Taubes created a furore in the health industry in 2004 when he published an article in the New York Times entitled “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?”. The article shed a light on the scientific flaws in nutritional research which led to the US government recommending a diet high in carbohydrates and low in fat. What if they were wrong all along and eating fat does not actually make us fat or clog up the arteries and lead to heart disease?
Why We Get Fat is an eye opening look into the science of nutrition and which foods actually make us fat.
Get a workout partner or train in a group
Unless you are something of a gym rat, working out alone can be seriously tedious. That makes motivating yourself to even go to the gym in the first place more difficult. Having a partner can help to stave off boredom and keep things interesting.
A small group can be even more effective in getting motivated to work out. Training then becomes a much more social experience, like playing for a sports team rather than going off and doing your own thing. You get the benefit of the support of the group, as well as competition against others if that is what you need.
Log your workouts
Very few people take the time to record their workouts. How fast they run, how much weight they lifted, how many push ups they did etc. It’s a shame because some simple records go a long way towards maximising your time in the gym. You wouldn’t set off on a long journey without a map, would you? So why spend hours working out without some kind of record of where you have been and where you want to go?
This ties into the above point about logging, but setting goals gives your training purpose. If you have recorded previous workouts you will know exactly what you are capable of. This gives you a baseline so that every time you go into the gym you have a concrete goal.
If you did did 3 sets of 10 push ups last time, you can try to do 3 sets of 11 in the next session. This makes training much more interesting, motivating and rewarding, particularly if you consistently hit those goals. You don’t need to be very ambitious. If you struggle to do 1 push up then it doesnt make much sense to have an intermediate goal of doing a handstand. Instead work until you can do 1, then 2, 3 etc etc. Consistent progress in small increments leads to spectacular results over the long term.
If there was a magic pill to getting fit, lean and healthy I would not be writing this blog. Instead I would be in the Bahamas sunning myself on my own private island, rolling in the luxury that my new invention would undoubtedly bring me. Of course there is no magic pill. As much as you may want to believe the advertising copy and late night infomercials, the secret is nothing less than hard work and consistency.
The thing about staying fit that makes it so hard is for most people is not the actual training. Anyone can get amped up for the gym and put in a tough session. The hard bit is doing that day after day, week after week, year after year. The fittest people I know don’t get that way by accident. They are consistent with their training and nutrition and have years of compliance behind them.
Learn some technique
At the risk of plugging my own product, I firmly believe that everyone should have a few sessions with a good personal trainer at some point. I am not for a moment advocating that you need to drop 1000′s of francs per month on private training. I am talking more about a few classes just to learn some basic exercise technique. It is not rocket science and does not take too long to learn good movement. But picking up those points early in your training career will stand you in extremely good stead in the long term in terms of maximising results and limiting injuries.
I have a bit of an obsession with pull-ups and I’ve just always thought that being able to bang out multiple, full range of motion pull ups is cool. They are simply a great test of upper body strength and body control. 10+ pull-ups for a guy is an impressive number, whereas 3+ for a woman is excellent.
Just to clear up any terminology, a pull-up is performed with a pronated (or palms away) grip whereas chin-ups are done with a supinated (or palms facing you) grip. Chin-ups are slightly easier to perform as the biceps assist in the movement, whereas pull-ups are slightly harder as the biceps are taken out (for the purposes of this article I will use the term pull-up, but this means both movements as they are interchangeable).
When people ask me whether they should do pull-ups or chin-ups the answer is always “do them both as they are equally awesome”.
A proper pull-up is always performed through a full range of motion. That means chin over the bar at the top and arms fully extended at the bottom. Nobody is impressed with half reps so please don’t do them.
A lot of people shy away from pull-ups for the simple reason that they are very hard. Instead they are done through half a range of motion (more like a bicep curl) or the lat-pull down machine gets used and I think this is a big mistake. The lat pulldown has its uses, but the demands on stability and core control are far less when you are seated. As a result developing pull ups will have a far bigger impact on upper body strength than lat pull downs.
But how do you do pull-ups if you cannot even do one? Glad you asked! Getting that illusive pull-up is difficult but far from impossible. There are several ways to approach this and get over the hump to performing 1 repetition.
Ring rows are a great way to develop pull up strength. This is essentially the same movement as a pull up, but because the feet are on the floor there is less resistance. If you don’t have rings, just set up a bar in a squat rack or use the smith machine.
Simply hanging from a pull up bar is a good way to get comfortable in that position and support your bodyweight. Make sure that you are in an active position, the stomach is contracted and squeeze your bum to create a stable body position.
Negatives reps are a great way to build pull-up strength. Start at the top of a pull up (use a box or step to get to that position) and simply lower yourself down to a full hang under control. Don’t go too slowly. The key is to have a controlled descent. Be careful of this type of training as eccentric contractions (anytime you lower a weight) can make you very sore indeed. Initially you want to limit the total number of reps to no more than 10 (2 sets of 5 is a good place to start).
Once you can do this, work on jumping pull-ups. Position a box under a pull-up bar so you can jump to the top position and then lower under control.
Banded pull-ups are really good for getting the feel of a proper pull up with some assistance. The gravitron machine is an option here, although not as good as bands as not as much body control is needed. This is the machine which works together with a counterweight. The heavier the counterweight, the more assistance provided and the easier the movement.
Pull-ups and other bodyweight movements lend themselves well to frequent practice. However, the key is not to go to muscular failure. It is far better to do 10 easy reps every day than grinding out 50 reps once per week.
Here are a couple of easy programs for those with no pull-ups and those with 1-2 pull-ups.
Day 1: 5 sets of hanging from the bar (try for a minimum of 5 seconds). Try to increase by 5 seconds each week.
Day 2: 5 sets of 5 ring rows (add a rep to each set every subsequent week)
Day 3: 5 sets of 5 banded pull-ups (add a rep to each set every subsequent week)
1-2 pull ups
Day 1: 10 sets of 1 pull-up. Rest 30 seconds between each rep for a total of 10 in 5 minutes. Try to increase that total number by 1-2 reps each week
Day 2: 3 sets of static holds at the top of a pull-up. Stay in the top position for as long as possible and try to add 5 seconds each week
Day 3: 3 sets of 10 banded pull-ups (add a rep to each set every subsequent rep)
Summer holidays are in full swing and many people are taking time off to relax and recharge the batteries. One of the questions I often get is “how can I continue my training on holiday without access to a gym”?
First of all I’m a firm believer that holidays should be holidays. A time to switch off, eat, drink and be merry with friends and family. I understand that people get worried about losing any hard earned gains they made prior the break, but a couple of weeks off is not going to do any lasting damage.
Nonetheless, for those that want to keep a basic level of maintenance there are plenty of options to get a sweat on wherever you are.
Running and swimming are going to be readily available for those that go for the beach holiday. Running in sand is particularly tough and a great way to train the legs. Add in some simple calisthenics like push ups, squats and sit ups and you can quickly put together a short but effective training circuit.
A very simple workout would be to do sprint intervals of swimming or running. Try to sprint 100 metres 5 times with 1 minute break in between. If you can find a sand dune to run up, even better!
Some other examples could be:
Run 200m, 20 squats, 10 push ups, swim 200m – repeat 3 times
1 minute of push ups, rest 1 minute, 1 minute of sit-ups, rest 1 minute, 1 minute of squats, rest 1 minute – repeat 3 time
Enter the burpee
The burpee is one of the simplest yet most heinous conditioning exercises known to man.
To perform a burpee start off in a standing position. From here you drop the floor (chest should be touching the ground) to the bottom of a push up. The next step is to explosively push away from the floor with your arms and legs and come back to a standing position. You must finish in a fully extended position (arms and legs straight) and finish with a jump and clap overhead.
A key point is that the descent should be relatively fast, although still under control. If you drop down into the top of a push up position, do a push up, then jump back to standing it will get very difficult very quickly.
Burpee combinations are endless. You can add them to other circuits of you are really masochisitc, just do burpees. Set a clock for 5 minutes and see how many you can do (if you can reach 100 you are in seriously good shape), do sets of 10 with 1 minute rest in between or just try to do 50 as fast as possible. You are only limited by your imagination.
Burpee step 1 (the easy part!)
Burpee step 2 – drop to the ground under control
Burpee step 3: finish in a full prone position on the floor (chest should touch the ground)
Burpee step 5: push yourself away from the floor and jump your feet forwards
Burpee step 6: finish the movement with a small jump and clap overhead to reach full extension
The emergence of the barefoot running movement has been a very interesting emerging trend in the world of fitness in the past couple of years. The concept was really brought into the mainstream by Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, which looks at the greatest ultra endurance runners in the world, the Tarahumara of Mexico.
Despite having no access to the latest scientific advances in training or equipment, Tarahumara men and women have regularly entered and won ultra endurance races (anything between 50-100 miles) wearing nothing more than a toga and sandals.
This has led to the a further investigation into the efficacy of running shoes. If the Tarahumara can run faster than most other people on the planet either barefoot or with a couple of pieces of rubber lashed to their feet, why do the rest of us need specialised shoes? The debate becomes more interesting when looking into the high instances of injury rates among recreational runners. A recent BBC Panorama documentary took a detailed look at the science behind modern day running shoes and found that there was almost no credible evidence to back their efficacy.
A point I think we should remember is that the human body has evolved over millions of years to perform certain tasks. Our feet our designed to support our bodies and allow us to walk and run both slowly over a long distance or quickly over short distances.
Shoes should be designed to protect the foot from injury and infection. They should not be designed to support the feet or change walking or running patterns.
We know what happens when you break a leg and it is wrapped in plaster for a couple of months. The muscles of the leg atrophy and once the plaster is taken off, that leg will be smaller and weaker than the other. We effectively do the same thing when we wrap our feet in big, padded shoes with cushioning. We lose the connection of the feet to the ground and as a result the muscles of the foot and ankle atrophy. This creates weakness which has an impact all the way up the body’s kinetic chain. The body works as an entire unit and issues in the feet or ankles can create upstream problems in the hips and even shoulders.
Running shoes have become ubiquitous for all forms of fitness and most people use them for all their training, including gym work. I am not a running expert by any means, but I would like to weigh in on the debate with regards to what type of footwear should be worn in the gym. I always recommend clients to ditch the running shoes as they are not at all suitable for strength training.
In the gym, it is important to have a shoe which provides stability and a good connection to the ground. If I asked somebody to lift a heavy weight over their head whist standing on a mattress, the lift would be harder because of the instability of the surface. If you wear padded shoes, it is akin to having a mattress strapped to your feet. A more effective shoe will have a flatter, thinner heel and provide a safer and more stable position.
Interestingly enough the best shoes for the gym are often those that are marketed for fashion, rather than fitness. One of my favorites is the good old fashioned Converse cons as they have a completely flat, thin sole which is good for lifting weights.
If you want to really stand out, you could wear a pair of Vibram Five Fingers which are also known as toe socks. Personally I find them a little creepy looking, but I know plenty of people that swear by them!
Barefoot training is an option, but don’t just rock up to the gym take off your shoes and start lifting. Remember that there are hygiene and safety concerns with regards to training without shoes so make sure you respect your gym’s policy on this.
Almost everyone has a pair of Converse or a similar type shoe with a flat heel somewhere in the closet. Next time you go to the gym try them instead of your bulky running shoes. I think you will be surprised by the results.
One of my absolute favourite exercises is the kettlebell swing. It’s an easy movement to learn and can be used to burn fat, increase cardiovascular fitness and improve strength levels. You need minimal space and equipment to perform the swing and although it is unquestionably challenging, it is a fun exercise to incorporate into your training.
Th swing can be performed with a kettlebell or dumbbell, or if you want to get really creative a rucksack filled with books could do the trick.
A great way to start is to do 5 sets of 20-50 swings with a light kettlebell or dumbbell with 1 minute rest between sets. Try to progress this by using a heavier kettlebell or adding additional sets or reps.
Here is a guide on how to perform the swing.
The Turkish get-up
As with so many other areas of life, the fitness industry is always looking to be bigger, faster, better. Exercises become more and more complex and gym equipment must be state of the art or else considered useless and obselete.
The reality is that we have both the knowledge and equipment we need to get fit, but you can only sell so many barbells, dumbbells and treadmills. Why do a simple squat with your feet on the ground when you can do it standing on a vibrating platform so you can really “activate your core”?
I’m a big fan of simplicity and using methods which have been tried and tested over the years. People managed to get fit and strong before the advent of Jane Fonda, commercial gyms and zumba with nary a powerplate in sight!
One of the oldest, yet most complete and valuable exercises around is the Turkish get up. Physical therapist, strength coach and all around movement guru Gray Cook says that if he could do just one free weight movement for the rest of his life, it would be the Turkish get up.
The Turkish get up is simplicity itself. You lie down, press a weight overhead and then stand up with it. Done correctly, you will work on posture, side to side symmetry, shoulder and neck movement and hip and low back interaction. You also add flexibility and core work to your training in a very natural way – through movement. Rather than trying to isolate areas by stretching the hamstrings or doing sit ups or planks for the core, why not work everything together? After all this is exactly how our bodies move.
As an added bonus, all you need to perfom the movement is a bit of space and a kettlebell or dumbell (kettlebells can be hard to come by in commercial gyms, but either are fine).
Here is my guide to the Turkish get-up. Start off light, a 3-5kg dumbell is all you need at the beginning.
Start out laying on the ground as below. Imagine that you are holding a glass of water in your hand, and the aim is to stand up without spilling that water.
From here roll up onto the elbow. Make sure the arm is fully locked out and in a solid position. Don’t let the arm bend or shoulders wobble.
Now push up so both arms are straight and stable.
From here transition into a side plank. Make sure to stay tight and contracted and don’t allow the hips to sag.
From the side plank, bring the front leg under the body so the knee is planted firmly below the hip.
Now go into a fully kneeling position, being careful to keep the lead arm straight and locked out.
The final step of the first phase of the movement is to simply stand up, again keeping the lead arm in an overhead position at all times.
Having completed the first part of the movement, everything is now reversed. Each step is identical but from the top down.
Incorporate the get-up into your warm-up routine or use it as a diagnostic tool. Any side to side imbalances or stability problems will become readily apparent. The get-up is a slow, considered movement and as such does not lend itself well to lots of reps or high loading at high intesity. Use it judiciously to prepare yourself for heavier work to come or even as an every day exercise to incorporate more movement into your day.
I see a great many people come through the doors of the gym and they all have various goals. Whether or not they are successful in actually achieving those goals (regardless of what they are) depends on many different factors, but there are certain trends which tend to set apart those that reach and surpass their goals and those that just spin their wheels.
I call those that tend to be successful “trainers”, whereas as those that usually make some progress, although not as much as they could, are “exercisers”.
Now let me clarify something here by saying that there is nothing wrong with being either an exerciser or a trainer. I applaud anyone who makes an effort to work on their health and fitness. However, if you want to be successful, I would strongly argue that training as opposed to exercising is the way forward.
Here is what differentiates the trainer from the exerciser:
- Trainers track their progress. Whether that be how much weight they lifted last time to how much fat they lost in the last 2 weeks – everything is recorded
- Trainers master the basics of each movement before progressing
- Trainers set themselves regular, achievable goals
- Trainers pay attention to nutrition and recovery
- Trainers attack their weaknesses
- Trainers leave their egos at the door and don’t get injured by going too fast or using weight that is too heavy for them
- Although they are social with fellow gym members and like to mess around as much as anyone, trainers focus when it is time to actually hit the workout
Exercisers, on the other hand tend to come into the gym looking with no specific aims or goals. Their measurement of a good workout is whether or not it leaves them exhausted at the end. There is, however, no real quantification of whether or not they actually got fitter.
It is hard to change habits and go from being an exerciser to a trainer. Nonetheless, a few, easy-to-implement steps can make all the difference. You don’t have to live like a monk and focus your entire life on training – far from it. But something as simple as recording workouts and striving for improvements from session to session (more reps, more weight, faster times etc) can be extremely powerful. If you can make the effort to go to the gym 3 times a week, you can surely make the effort to write a few things down.
So which are you, an exerciser or a trainer?
Low, low calorie
If you want to lose fat you need to be in a caloric deficit, i.e. taking in less calories than you burn. The question is, how much of a caloric deficit is necessary to stimulate fat loss? There are plenty of online tools to help you calculate how many calories you burn per day and what you would need to take in. A good example can be found here. Just remember that they are guides and may not be 100% accurate. You will need to monitor things along the way to see if any adjustments are necessary.
The important thing is that you make an estimation on your own needs and don’t follow a pre-made generic diet plan of 800, 1200 or however many calories. A lot of people want to lose fat as fast as possible so go on extreme, low calorie diets. This is a mistake for a number of reasons, but primarily because it will make you absolutely miserable and be very hard to maintain. It might work for a short period of time, but is not a sustainable approach to fat loss and it is really not necessary. Slow and steady wins the race so make sure you are taking in less than you need, but not so little that you you feel like gnawing on the edge of your desk between meals.
As previously stated in part 1, the goal of a fat loss plan is to lose fat. But how do you know whether the plan is working? This is where you need to have cold, hard and accurate data to assess whether the plan is indeed progressing as it should.
A couple of mistakes people make here is to use the scale and the mirror as objectvive measurements. The scale can tell you if you have lost weight, but it does not tell you whether that weight loss is fat. You may have lost some water weight or even muscle mass if calories and/or protein are too low, neither of which are ideal. The mirror is a very subjective measurement. We all have our favourite mirrors where the right combination of light and angle seems to show us at our best.
The best measurement you can have is bodyfat, but it is hard to get an accurate reading unless you can find a very skilled practicioner to do the testing. Just as effective, and far easier is the humble tape measure. If you want to be comprenehsive, take measurements at the chest, arms, thighs, calves and stomach and re-test every week to see if the numbers are going down. In most cases a simple arm/stomach measurement is enough to indicate progress.
If you want to be really clinical and track progress, photos are great. The camera does not lie and a simple front and side shot will suffice.
Don’t obsess over measurements and take them incessantly – once per week is more than enough. But do make sure that you are using them so you have a good idea of whether your plan is working well or needs some tweaking.
Stay on the bandwagon
Staying on a regimented nutritional program can be hard and life tends to get in the way of even the best laid plans. Work lunches, travel, dinner parties and other scenarios will always happen and it then becomes much harder to stay compliant. Wherever possible try to plan ahead and make good choices whether it be at a restaurant or party. However, there will be times when you will go off the reservation slightly. Don’t be the guy who goes to a friend’s house and refuses to eat the food on offer because it is forbidden. Kick your heels up and enjoy yourself once in a while and it will not have a major impact in the big picture.
However, don’t use a dietary slip up as an excuse to go on a 3 day junk good binge as this will certainly derail any progress. You can still get good results with 95% adherance to a plan, but make sure that if you do fall off the wagon, you get right back on again afterwards.
Rest and relaxation
This is perhaps the hardest factor to control in our busy lives. Nonetheless, 12 hour working days, a boss who constantly bombards you with unreasonable demands, money worries and all the stresses of modern day life take a toll on health and body composition. Taking steps to combat these stresses will go a long way to speeding up fat loss.
Proper rest is important in this regard, particularly sleep. Staying up until the small hours watching TV or surfing the internet and sleeping for 5 hours will not get it done. Instead aim for a minimum of 8 hours sleep per night.
Dealing with the boss from hell is a little more difficult, but at least try to counteract that with as much quality time as possible with friends and family.
Keep things simple
I want to finish off this post on a positive note. Rather than talk about mistakes, the easiest way to improve health and start fat loss is to eat a diet rich in nutrients. It is a well accepted fact that meat, fruit and vegetables are the most nutrient dense foods available to us. It is also very hard to overeat these foods. Think about how many times people say they ate an entire tub of ice cream or several bars of chocolate – quite often. How many people say they ate 2 kilos of steak or a kilo of broccoli? Never! These foods are both palatable and satiating and unlikely to create cravings or trigger overconsumption.