Monday, March 24, 2008

Sandbag Training: Taking it to the Next Level

After reading Brooks Kubik's Dinosaur Training, I was inspired to explore sandbag training. I've long been fond of incorporating sandbag drills into my training since lifting sandbags requires a high level of stabilization and effort compared to most barbell and dumbbell exercises. A 100 lb. sandbag is much more difficult to lift than a 100 lb. barbell. The unwieldy nature of the sandbag creates much more tension in the involved musculature in order to control the bag.

Recently, I've been having fun with a whole new type of sandbag: the Bulgarian training bag. It's a sophisticated sandbag that allows many movements a regular sandbag doesn't. It's a crescent shape, draping nicely over the shoulders. It has handles on the end for gripping and two additional knob handles for pinch grip-style training. The bags come in three sizes. I use the large bag, which weighs in at 37 lbs. It doesn't sound like much but because of the bag's design, 37 lbs. can kick your butt!

I mostly train outdoors. I love the fresh air and sunshine. The Bulgarian training bag is perfect for outdoor training. The stitched leather is really tough and can take a beating. The other day, I pulled the bag out of its storage container in my van. I was at a quaint little park, the sun was out, and I picked a nice spot under some redwood trees. After some joint mobility movements to loosen up a little, I did some Bulgarian bag training.

Holding the handles, I whirled it around my body in a circular motion--in fact, the exercise is called "Around the Worlds". I performed 10 in each direction. At the end of the set, I flung the bag over my shoulders and did 20 butt-to-heels squats. upon standing up with the last squat rep I did 10 Good Morning stretches with the bag across my neck. I contracted my neck hard against the bag, stimulating the neck extensors.

The "'Around the Worlds" are grueling; the trick is to push and pull with the arms and not permit the bag to touch the body. The hands, wrists and forearms work really hard to keep hold of the handles while gaining significant centrifugal force. The bag pulls you off your base; you have to really concentrate on stabilizing yourself, preventing the forces moving you off your feet. You must totally root yourself, just like combat.

The bag is ideal training for many sports, but especially good for combat-oriented sports. Try doing the following routine non-stop for five rounds:

1) 10 Around-the-Worlds each way

2) 20 Squats

3) 10 Good Morning bends while squeezing the bag with the neck
Utter brutality yet awesome! It's amazing how Around-the-Worlds rob you of your breath.

Finish off the workout with five sets of push-ups with the bag on your back, then Bear Crawl for three minutes, non-stop, with the bag balanced across the neck and shoulders. (You have to go slow and deliberate so it doesn't fall off.)

That little 37 lb. bag is a killer.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Portable Rope-Climbing System

My first rope climbing experience was in junior high school gym class--this was back in the 60's when kids were still encouraged to participate in strenuous activities. From the very first moment, I fell in love with rope climbing. I liked the way it worked my grip and upper arms. It was surprisingly cardio. Rope climbing has been a staple conditioning tool of wrestlers for over 2000 years. In a poll of North American wrestling champions, though they varied in choices of workout equipment, all agreed on rope climbing as invaluable conditioning training.

Throughout my high school and college wrestling career, I had access to ropes in the gym. In the military, there were ropes on base. As a junior high school Phys Ed teacher, I had the kids climb and I'd get my reps in as well. Once I got into the personal training field in commercial gyms, finding a decent rope to climb became more difficult. I missed climbing. Towel chins and pull-ups just weren't the same. The added excitement (and fear) of climbing high off the ground makes rope climbing unique.

I bought a rope from a tug boat supply company on the Delaware river in Philadelphia. I'd hang it off the sides of bridges and climb. When I had my own gym, Maxercise, I'd hang ropes off the second floor fire escape in the back alley. One of my jiu-jitsu students lost his grip one day and slid down the rope, taking the skin off the palms of both hands. My wife (at the time) then put the kibosh on all back-alley rope climbs for fear of losing our home in litigation. That's when I decided to build a rope-climbing tower in our back yard...

I ordered two 35' galvanized steel fence posts. They were joined by a cross beam of welded-on angle iron. I got a bunch of my jiu-jitsu guys to come over and help dig the holes and erect the apparatus. It was unwieldy and a nightmare to get up. We almost took out the telephone wires, and worse, we crashed it through a neighbor's window. This was a Philly Row home with a small back courtyard containing a lovely garden. Umm, my wife was out of town so it was the perfect time to get it done. I figured, what could she say once it was erected? Even my son, Zak, said, "She won't be mad forever..."

We hung a nice, synthetic outdoor rope I bought from John Wood's site, and Zak and I had some awesome rope climbing workouts.

After the divorce, I found myself living in an RV and traveling the country and I really missed my rope climbing sessions! I devised an ingenious portable rope climbing system. Once again, my friend, John Wood, provided one of his excellent manila climbing ropes. Mine is custom-made at 30' and beautifully finished. Manila affords the best gripping surface, but isn't good for outdoor ropes because it's prone to dry rot. Since I take mine down after climbing and store it in the RV, manila was my first choice.

What I came up with was to attach a life line to a rescue ball on one end and the climbing rope on the other. The life line has a 2000 lb. breaking point and is what actually holds me up. The rescue ball is a large rubber bell through which the life line threads. I find a suitable tree limb, do a couple under twirls, then throw the rescue line up and over. The weight of the ball pulls the rope down to where I can grab it and I double-check the knot connecting the climbing rope to the life line. Then I simply haul the climbing rope up the tree limb and tie off the lifeline by wrapping it around another nearby tree trunk. When I'm done, I unwrap the line and let it fall to the ground. I store my portable system in a large, zippered gym bag with zip-lock baggy containing a sock full of rosin to get the hands dry and sticky for maximal grip.

Last weekend, I found a redwood tree on a cliff overlooking San Francisco Bay. The sunlight broke through the evergreens above therhythmic sounds of the waves hitting the rocks below. The Golden Gate Bridge stood in the distance. I set up my portable climbing system and had at it, alternating sets of 20 Hindu push-ups with a 25' rope climb. After six sets, my arms became dysfunctional.

Next, I did 100 flat-foot Russian squats with my Bulgarian training bag. I finished with one hundred 20 lb. sledgehammer swings on an old stump--ten right, then ten left. I felt great! Here I was in paradise, climbing an ancient tree, working my body, breathing the fresh air and getting the workout of my life. I love working out in nature and find it difficult to go back to the gym after a day like this.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Ten Reasons I Don't Do Aerobics

I spend my days at a corporate gym. It's a sweet gig and a temporary livelihood.

One morning, while observing a female member endlessly running the treadmill-to-nowhere-fast, I realized I see the same people returning day after day, iPods silently blaring or, worse, mindlessly captivated by one of the ten wall-mounted television screens, while grinding away on those steppers and treadmills.

The drudgery of their Sisyphean tasks compels their attempts to lose self-awareness by inundating themselves with external stimuli. Often, their bodies reflect this lack of self-awareness in skewed gaits and other imbalances.

These same people come in religiously to get the feel-good fix, believing somehow their mindless, movement addiction is in some way benefiting them. Interestingly, they stay fat, show no progress, and sometimes even get fatter, especially after holidays. Most of these people are loathe to touch a weight, much less engage in any kind of productive strength-training. You see this same phenomenon in gyms all over the country.

Some will say, "Well, some exercise is better than none,"

But I say, if you're going to spend the time, why not produce something worthwhile?

Here are ten reasons why I don't do aerobic exercise:

But first, what is aerobic exercise? Any steady state locomotion elevating the heart rate into the zone for twenty minutes or more. The zone is determined by formulas based on age and resting heart rate.

Now, ten reasons why it not only doesn’t work but is a poor use of exercise time:

  1. Oxidative Stress
    Which causes a breakdown of tissues. It also predisposes one to cancer and heart attack.

  2. Elevated cortisol production
    Which causes a breakdown of muscle tissue and increases fat storage or depot fat. People do aerobics to alleviate stress yet end up creating more stress.

  3. Lowered testosterone and HGH levels
    For men, aerobics are a form of chemical castration. Low T-levels are associated with lowered libido, depression, anxiety, increased body fat and decreased muscle tissue. This contributes to muscle-wasting and lowers the basal metabolic rate.

  4. Increased appetite and a tendency toward binge eating patterns
    Aerobic exercise makes people hungry!

  5. Excessive Muscular Fatigue
    Making it difficult to do other more productive forms of activity. Aerobics creates muscular weakness.

  6. Conversion of fast-twitch muscle fibers to slow-twitch
    The loss of fast-twitch muscle fibers contributes to aging and the loss of explosive power and speed. People become slower and slower.

  7. Burns a relatively small amount of calories vs. the time spent
    One large meal completely offsets the pitiful amount of calories burned in an hour aerobics session.

  8. Overuse injuries to the feet, ankles, and knees from excessive, continual force transmitted throughout the body
    This is exacerbated by over-engineered running shoes which cushion the feet in such a way to create a neural amnesia.

  9. Shortening i.e., deformation, of the muscle tissue from repetitive mid-range (partial range) movements
    This creates inflexibility, immobility, and muscle imbalances. Besides being tight, the bodies postural alignment becomes compromised. Aerobics create tight, inflexible bodies that are in chronic pain.

  10. Adrenal burnout
    A consequence of the “feel good” neurotransmitters which also stimulate the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the fight or flight hormone. Excessive adrenaline creates an addictive response and people going routinely for the so called “high” of running end up with adrenal burnout, e.g., chronic fatigue and depression.

Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobic exercise (and the person who coined the term) completely recanted his assertions regarding aerobic exercise. After observing a disproportionate number of his aerobic-enthusiast friends die of cancer and heart disease, he reversed his ideas on the benefits of excessive aerobic exercise. He now claims anything in excess of 20 minutes has greatly diminishing returns. In fact, he's now an advocate of scientific weight training.

In strength and health,


Monday, March 3, 2008

Kettlebell Controversies.

Let me start with my own history in the field of kettlebell training, so you can understand how the whole thing unfolded.

More than nine years ago, long before RKC certifications--and before anyone had ever heard of Pavel Tsatsouline or Valery Federenko--I was busy experimenting with a crude pair of homemade kettlebells at Maxercise in Philadelphia.

I was on the ground floor of Pavel's first certification in St. Paul MN where I introduced many of the movements and concepts now a part of the RKC curriculum. I was the first person to be asked to be a Senior instructor and of the cadre, I was the only full-time professional teacher and trainer. My personal training gym, Maxercise, was the first kettlebell gym in modern times, and the first one to specialize in kettlebell classes. I had a huge advantage over others in the field because I was able to guinea pig my own clients and experiment with them to test out my theories. I learned through trial and error (the best way) how to train large groups of health and fitness seekers with kettlebells. Another advantage: I was trained as a teacher of physical education and had years of coaching and teaching experience behind me.

Most of the clients I dealt with were not athletes, though there were plenty of athletes at all levels of sport, but everyday people--mostly deconditioned. At that time, the RKC was the only game in town, but as with most good ideas, competition soon arose.

First, there was little concern, because of the strong core cadre. But because of internal conflicts, mostly based around money, all of the top instructors left. Around the same time, the AKC began to gain a foothold. Valery Federenko was unquestionably one of the world's top kettlebell competitors.

Suddenly there's this AKC espousing GS Sport--and both the RKC and AKC undermined each other's ideas about training.

On the RKC side, the idea is the kettlebell is a versatile training tool that can be used for a whole range of fitness and strength training purposes--everything from fat loss to maximum strength. Basically, they claim that pretty much anything that can be done with a dumbbell can be done with a kettlebell.

The AKC philosophy promotes the use of kettlebells as a tool for high-rep, strength-endurance, primarily in the form of four exercises.

The claim was put forth, by the AKC, that the kettlebell is only suitable for high-rep, strength-endurance training--that the hard-style promoted by the RKC was nonsense--the wrong use of kettlebells--and that in Russia there's allegedly only one style--the correct style--which is the AKC style.

Many people--politically motivated--jumped off the one bandwagon and onto the other to denounce the RKC and support the new organization. I, myself, was swayed and took the AKC certification and have since flip-flopped my ideas several times. Admittedly, part of this schizophrenic reaction stemmed from my resentments with the RKC, and feelings I'd been treated unfairly, and I'm coming clean about that.

Still, the story of the true Russian purpose didn't quite make sense. For one, I'd been shown a large number of interesting and productive exercises by a Ukrainian five-time national wrestling champion! I also saw some interesting moves by a Georgian, a former bodyguard of Vladimir Putin.

While Girya Sport is a competitive sport, though obscure even in Russia, kettlebells as a whole don't appear to even be very popular in Russia! I can't tell you the number of times I've trained Russians nationals who've wanted to learn more about this fine exercise form because they couldn't get the information from their own, native sources.

There are clusters of athletes training with kettlebells in Russia who have no competitive aspirations in GS, yet they're getting excellent health and performance benefits. One thing for sure, 99% of North Americans couldn't care less about the sport of kettlebell lifting. North Americans are interested in the health and fitness aspects of kettlebell training--primarily in regard to fat loss. There's no one better qualified than myself when it comes to teaching kettlebells and training the general public. I find it interesting that the AKC, after making their sweeping comments regarding the proper use of kettlebell training, is now forming their own fitness branch. I guess they've finally realized what I and some others have known all along: that kettlebells can be used in a wide-variety of results-producing applications outside narrow confines of the sport.

For this and other reasons, I'm now leading my own teacher-training certifications. By now, I've distinguished myself as the best man for the job. There aren't too many things I haven't tried with akettlebell! And I'm prepared to show the health-fitness-and-truth-seeker everything I've learned along the way.

My motive? A fair exchange for the money to pay my bills, just like everyone else, whether they want to admit it or not. If you really want to learn from someone who's been out there in the trenches and taught people from every walk of life, you're going to get the best return on your dollar from training with Steve Maxwell.

Contact Maxercise for more details on my kettlebell refresher course and teacher training 19 & 20 April 2008 or email me your questions.