Thursday, December 25, 2008

Body Fat Takes No Holiday!

In my line of work I hear the same story over and over again: people dreading their upcoming holidays and vacations and the ensuing derailment of their workout schedule. Of course, some people don't care, those who aren't serious about their fitness but only playing at it. For those who like to stay on track, I offer you the gift of one of my favorite workout systems--and one I return to often--which I call the Hotel Akhara. Basically, it's a program of body weight exercises used for thousands of years by wrestlers to prepare for the stresses of mano a mano combat.

A minimalist by nature, I love that I can get a workout anytime, anyplace or anywhere with my body weight as the primary form of resistance. Don't get me wrong, I like kettlebells, club bells, mace swinging, etc... but if I were forced to choose just one system, it'd be body weight exercise. The two pieces of equipment I like to get a complete full-body workout are my trusted Lifeline Jungle Gym and Heavy-Weighted Speed Rope. Both slip into my backpack, taking minimal space and allowing me to do dozens of extremely productive exercises.

In my travels as a fitness professional, conducting workshops far and wide, I've observed most people neither correctly, safely nor efficiently perform body weight exercises. Time and again I see horrible technique and hear complaints of sore shoulders, knees and elbows. With women, add aching wrists. Yet with a few seemingly minor adjustments of body mechanics, people can learn to perform body weight exercise pain-free and with great results. I've had people who've given up on push-ups come to my workshops and they're amazed at how much better they feel doing simple push-ups while utilizing my techniques. Body Weight Certification attendees are typically themselves fitness professionals yet totally lost when challenged with teaching de-conditioned beginners. Any mediocre-to-poor personal trainer can get a client going on a machine, but it takes a true teacher getting someone performing a chin-up who heretofore never dreamed of such a thing. There's a tremendous amount of satisfaction in mastering your own body weight.

Have you ever seen a gymnast with a poor upper body? Almost never, and the mainstay of gymnastic programs are various pulls and pushes with body weight as the source of resistance.

Take the basic chin-up or pull-up, for example. You never see fat people doing chin-ups--and people who do chin-ups are never fat. It's a self-regulating movement. Body weight exercise is a de facto body composition machine: you are greatly penalized for a gain of even a few pounds of body fat/and or muscle loss and greatly rewarded for any increase of muscle and loss of body fat. I've seen people go from zero chin-ups to four or five reps with just a 6-10 lb. fat loss. As a matter of fact, I use the pull-up as a measuring stick for my own leanness: I know when my pull-up numbers are down--even a little--the Old Coach has been hitting the feed bag too hard! When my numbers are up, you better believe I'm looking ripped and lean. People get hung up on the amount of weight and the number of repetitions with body weight exercise programs. I don't worry about the actual amount of weight lifted. For those of you who do like to calculate such things, it's simple:

Handstand push-up: 0.98% of your body weight.
Dip: 0.96%
Chin-Up: 0.96%
BW Row: 0.68% (depending upon the angle of the straps to the pivot point. The closer the shoulders are to the ground, the higher percentage of body weight lifted)
Regular Sit-Ups: 0.54%
BW Squat: 0.64%
Regular, Plank-Style Push-Up: 0.68%
Pistol: 0.96%

These are fairly accurate approximations. Much depends upon the angle. Obviously, in a regular Plank-Style Push-Up, the higher the feet, the greater the percentage of body weight lifted.

The only thing I keep tabs on are my Pull-Up numbers. For everything else, I like to go for time, instead of reps. I don't even count my reps but set a time and try to survive it, resorting to static holds as a rest, as a I fatigue. This allows me to work the ever-important static strength.

One reason I don't like to use rep counts is because they encourage people to use poor form. I've had guys come to me for private sessions claiming to be able to do 80+ Push-Ups and when I ask them to demonstrate a push-up for me, it's God-awful! Collapsed spine, forward head, partial ROM, half-reps, arms exaggeratedly flared out to the sides, upper arms severely internally rotated, no lock out at the top...basically they're doing fast, crappy push-ups and any benefit they're getting from it is accidental!

When I show them the proper technique, these hundred-rep wonders struggle to get fifteen! There's a world of difference between proper and improper form. Try this experiment right now:

  • set a timer for two minutes
  • start at the top position, with the elbows tucked in, not flared
  • pit of the elbow forward, point of the elbow points back toward the feet
  • hands shoulder-width apart
  • abs and glutes tight
  • slowly lower yourself down until the chest grazes the floor
  • (if you don't have the range, lower yourself within one inch of the floor)
  • push yourself up back up to the count of two
  • lock out the arms in the top position for a count of one
  • Slowly lower down to a count of two

This means you are performing one single repetition every five seconds, or twelve per minute.

Go for two minutes--or 24 reps--one for each hour of the day. Most people can't do it though I know there are plenty of studs out there who can!

You will agree there's a world of difference from the jack-off style passing as push-ups in fitness and PE classes and a strict observance of technique. You'll get an amazing pump doing push-ups this way and it feels fantastic. Even better, once you understand the basic principles of protecting the shoulders in the push-up, this translates into safer Dips, Chins, Pull-Ups, Rows and
push-up variations, including One-Arm Push-Ups.

Another subject of overwrought concerns is high-repetition body weight squats and the supposed danger to the knees. Anything can be dangerous if you don't know how to do it. Just as I teach shoulder stabilization in my workshops, I teach how to use the hamstrings and hip flexors to stabilize the knee joints. I see overwhelming numbers of quad-dominant people unable to activate their hamstrings in flat-foot body weight squats and pistols. Always emphasized in my workshops is how to fire the hamstrings and glutes. Even squats done on the toes (such as Hindu squats, where the quads are dominant) can be made very safe if you learn to activate the hammies.

A similar problem: people overusing the hip flexors when performing basic sit-ups. Bigger and stronger than the abs,
the hip flexors take over and the results are muscular imbalances and low back pain. The basic crunch movement was introduced as an attempt to eliminate hip flexor activity, but it's a step in the wrong direction since people quickly become very efficient at doing the crunch, then cease to get any benefit. Try this simple test to see if you have a hip flexor imbalance:

  • Lie down on the floor with the back flat
  • with knees bent at approximately 90-degrees
  • thigh bones 45-degrees from the torso
  • folding the arms across the chest
  • each hand holding the opposite elbow
  • with feet UN anchored,
  • slowly roll up, starting with the head and one vertabra at a time
  • until the elbows touch the knees
  • Now, reverse the roll-down, beginning with the lumbar and slowly lying down

Don't be surprised if you can't manage a single rep! I've seen many an otherwise strong athlete unable to do more than two! When you anchor the feet, the thighs and hip flexors take over most of the movement but when unanchored, the thighs and hip flexors still function but the abs take on a much greater role...and often
they're not up to the task!

If you're interested in learning the real secrets of body weight training and--perhaps more importantly--how to teach them to others, I'm offering three upcoming Body Weight Training Certifications: 7 February at Body Tribe in Sacramento CA, 7 March in Wichita KS and 3 May in Philadelphia.

As you know, I stand behind my work and the proof is below, my own Christmas Day celebration-hotel-jacuzzi-workout. I don't just talk the talk!

The purpose of this workout was strength-endurance, cardio conditioning, detoxification (Coach had an immoderate dinner the night before) mobility and flexibility.

Lifeline Jungle Gym
Lifeline Heavy-Weighted Speed Rope

1) Jump Rope Intervals
40-sec on/20-sec off
Repeat 10 times (ten min total)
Skip as hard and fast as humanly possible for 40-sec!

2) Hindu Squat
10 min straight set of Hindu Squats
No break (if possible)
I did these in my hotel room while watching Bad Santa on the television

3) Hindu Push-Up
5 min straight, continuous set
Do not put the knees down!

4) Jungle Gym Leg Curl
3 min straight set
Smooth and slow
Emphasize pushing the hips UP into a low bridge
Take care to NOT spread the knees

5) Jungle Gym Body Weight Row
3 min set
Smooth and slow, keeping the body in a tight plank

6) Leg-Raise-to-Shoulder-Stand-to-Plow
3 minutes

7) Sit-Ups--non-anchored
3 minutes

8) Elbow Plank
3 minute hold

Finished with resisted stretching sequence for neck, shoulders, forearms, hip flexors, adductors, glutes and hamstrings.

The reward was being served an ice cold diet soft drink in my en suite jacuzzi by my own scantily clad Santa's helper. This in front of a cheery fireplace overlooking the Pacific ocean. I poured 8 lbs of Epsom salts in the tub. What a phenomenal way to recover those sore muscles and sweat off excess water weight, especially when you wrap up in a thick robe afterwards. Every bit as good as a sauna.

So this is how your coach spent his Christmas, shacked up in a coastal hotel with my aide de camp, enjoying the Pacific panorama. Enjoy the evidence!

In Strength & Health!
Coach Steve


Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas Steve,

I always look forward to your blog updates.


Liljeros said...

Hi, thanks for a excellent blog!

"I see overwhelming numbers of quad-dominant people who unable to activate their hamstrings in flat foot body weight squats and pistols."

How du I know if I do it properly or not?


Peter said...

love your posts Steve but you do realize of course that you have an uncanny resemblance to Kirk Douglas...? Its all good mate :)

Adam Steer said...

Hey Steve,

It is great to see you giving bodyweight exercise the attention it deserves! So much can be done with absolutely no equipment. We've been conned into thinking we need machines that cost thousands if we really want to get and stay in shape. But some of the most impressive and natural looking physiques were formed long before the evolution of our modern-day gyms.

My colleague Ryan Murdock and I have finally made public our own collection of innovative bodyweight exercise programs. They are all based on the 4x7 Wave approach; a periodization protocol developed by our mentor Scott Sonnon, who I know you've had the pleasure of dealing with in the past. The book is called Bodyweight Exercise Revolution.

I wish you the best with your certifications. More and more people are discovering the power of the gym that they carry around with them 24 hours a day, their own bodies!


Mr. LowBodyFat said...

Good post Coach. I look forward to seeing you in Sacramento!!!

kettlebells Sydney said...


Damn I love your posts.

I'm running to the hot tub now.

Please come to Australia and run a few of your courses....


Anonymous said...

did u just hang the jungle gym on the door? How'd u do that? I usually have to find a tree or a steel bar..

Kristopher said...

Mr. Maxwell,

Is the first jungle gym in the link you provide in this post adequate?



Steve Maxwell said...

Hi Bruce, Thanks for writing!

Steve Maxwell said...

Liljeros, One way to tell is if you feel pain and pressure in the knee while squatting. Pain and pressure in the knee is almost always a result of pushing off the ball of the foot. You must learn to push off the heel of the foot.

In my workshops, I go into great detail teaching people how to do this. It's a very common problem. - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Thank, (I think!) Peter! Feel free to call me "Spartacus"! - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Adam, Congratulations on your program. Please send me your new book to review for the web site! - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Thanks for stopping by, Muata! Looking forward to Sacramento! I know you're a busy man! - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Kettlebells Sydney, I've got many fans in Australia and I'd love to do a workshop. Are you up to hosting? - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...


Here's the link:

I'm using the original JG in the photos.- Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Anonymous: the red "bead" in the center of the JG strap catches on the back side of the door and holds the JG in place. - Steve

Kristopher said...

Thank you, Mr. Maxwell for your quick reply.

On a side note, do you ever train with Rey Diogo in California?

Martin Escobar is my instructor, a black belt under him.

My biggest regret in life is that I didn't find BJJ earlier. I'm 34 and have only been training for two years.

Jordan said...

Steve, how do you do body rows with the Jungle Gym? A pic or vid would be great if it's hard to describe, if that's not too much trouble, of course. :-)

Lee said...

hey coach,
looking for advice here. I workout at my house usually - bodyweight and I have a few dumbells and a jump rope. im looking into buying either a jungle gym or a kettlebell, which one should I get? or perhaps you have another equiptment in mind that would be even more beneficial?

Steve Maxwell said...

Hi Lee, I recommend you get both a KB and a Jungle Gym. If you can truly only afford one, get the Jungle Gym for now. Get the basic model, that's what I use. - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Jordan, you can find a lot of demo video clips on my youtube page:

I added the BW Row clip to this blog for you. - Steve

Yash said...

Hey Steve,
I've been reading your blog for a couple of weeks and I love it. some of the best looking guys are not the 20-somethings who lift weights to be pretty, but the more mature guys whose experience you can see through their physiques. I can only hope to look as good as you do when i get to your age, and i'll definitely try my best!

"There's a tremendous amount of satisfaction in mastering your own body weight."
That was one of the things that really struck me. I remember working through progressions to be able to do unassisted pullups and the pride and sense of accomplishment when i knocked out my first set of 6 or 7 solid pullups. Being able to control your own bodyweight with ease, poise, and explosiveness really gives you much more of a sense of athleticism than being able to squat or bench large amounts of weight.


zevenesh said...

dude, that is a sick, sick workout Steve. You are not human, ha ha! Love this stuff! Thanks for sharing!


Jordan said...

Thanks, Steve. I just subscribed to your Youtube page. :-)

I see what you're referring to now. I was thinking about the variation of the body row where one's body is horizontal, and I couldn't figure out how one would do that with a Jungle Gym. But you were referring to the variation where the body is more diagonal. I understand now.

My plan was to start with the horizontal body row, but now that I think about it, I'm pretty out of shape at the moment, so I should probably start with the "diagonal" variation anyway. Thanks again.