Monday, April 27, 2009

Refining Upon the Burpee

There are many ways to strengthen and condition the human body and, to one extent or the other, all of them work. You can get varying results from any number of activities such as Olympic lifting, power lifting, barbell and machine training, odd-object lifting, gymnastics training, body weight exercise, clubbells and kettlebells, etc. It's only a matter of choosing the modality that best suits you, boiling down to what you like and what you're going to stick with. In the last ten years I've predominantly trained with kettlebells, clubbells (including mace swinging) and body weight training. Within the realm of body weight training alone, there are many discrete systems, everything from body building-style movements to yoga postures. I enjoy the freedom of using just my body as the primary tool in training and, because I travel, I can perform my routines anywhere at any time. As much as I enjoy kettlebells and clubbells, they are not conveniently dragged along when traveling.

In my body weight training system I've included exercises for absolute strength (akin to power lifting); strength-endurance; explosive strength; power-endurance; mobility training; static strength and cardio.

One exercise in my arsenal synthesizes many of the above attributes; I have previously written about it, the eponymous Maxercist. There exist many variations on this movement but my latest incarnation is the most satisfying yet.

I specifically created the Maxercist to simulate the rigors of grappling. It was my desire to include all elements of human movement encountered in a grappling match: pushing; pulling; static strength; strong core activation; grip; hip, spine and shoulder mobility; level change...all while under a high cardio stress.

To incorporate a plyometric element, I've introduced the Lifeline Heavy Speed Rope. The rope is heavy enough to provide significant upper body load while simultaneously working ankles, feet and calves, so often neglected in sports training. Jumping rope at high speed intervals provides a tremendous cardio workout, prepping the body for the Maxercist.

In begetting the Maxercist, one concept I used was even placement of stress upon the entire body while under a high systemic load. The idea is not to produce muscular fatigue (although that does happen in the latter rounds) but systemic fatigue (from high level systemic effort) while keeping the muscles as fresh as possible. In this way, you smoke not the muscles, but the system, and by "system" I mean heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, hormonal pathways, etc.

Another important aspect is the full range of motion cultivated in the various articulations used. I want to train my body in the extreme positions encountered in a grappling match. I want my joints strong in sudden, unanticipated leverages.

The high-repetition of the Maxercist movements also develop tendon strength. Many body weight exercise programs are rote, basic movements--which is fine--but I wanted to refine the Maxercist into an elegant kinetic chain, so as to develop other attributes in addition to conditioning. These attributes include:

  • agility
  • coordination
  • balance
  • grace

A good question to ask at this point is, Well, what is conditioning if it doesn't include these elements? Yet most exercise programs don't mention, much less include, these all-important elements. You've heard the acronym KISS (i.e. keep it simple, stupid) and I believe KISS is a step in the wrong direction. Athletes should refine upon their movement.

Then there is the mental factor: you must focus on what you're doing and concentrate on connecting the movements together into a super-flowing kinetic chain. This requires a filtering out of external stimulus--that is, you must be here, now--an excellent practice for high-level athleticism.

While excess cardio (exceedingly commonly practiced) results in a loss of range of motion as well as loss of your hard-gained muscle and strength, the Maxercist is a melding of cardio conditioning and joint mobility with a strength emphasis. Unlike typical zone-out cardio, you get the benefits of cardio conditioning as a bonus with everything else you need.

Here is where I break down the Maxercist step-by-step and include a video performance for your entertainment.

Equipment needed:
a pull-up bar, tree limb or Lifeline Jungle Gym, basically something to pull youself up on.

  1. Facing the bar, drop into a flat-foot squat
  2. Roll back into a bent-leg shoulder stand
  3. Exhale, lowering the legs overhead into plow position
  4. suddenly reversing direction, roll back up into a flat-foot squat, then into an immediate forearm balance (Crane position)
  5. Hold the arm balance for 3-5seconds then,
  6. Explosively donkey kick the legs back, extending into the Upward-Facing Dog position then
  7. lift the hips back into Downward-Facing Dog, then
  8. Sit into a Bear squat
  9. Dive through into a Low Plank Position, continuing smoothly back to
  10. Upward-Facing Dog, then return to Low Plank and finally push up to
  11. Upper Plank position
  12. Sit back to Bear squat, then
  13. Extend the legs into Downward-Facing Dog
  14. Leap forward into Frog position
  15. Stand, or jump, up to the pull-up bar in front of you
  16. Perform a smooth Chin-Up or Pull-Up (your choice)
  17. Hold 3-5 seconds in the top position, throat against the bar
  18. Slowly lower down to full arm's length
  19. Rinse and repeat. Wipe hands on pants.

The way I work the sequence is as follows:

A1) Heavy speed rope x 120 skips
A2) Maxercist x 5
A3) slow, smooth stability ball crunch x 10

That's one round, which should take about 5 min, depending on speed and fluidity. Perform 5-10 rounds according to your strength and ability.

Your goal is smoothness, flow, and full articulation. Do not rush.
This is a phenomenal routine combining the best elements of joint mobility and conditioning and I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do!

The Maxercist is one example of many tools I carry in my kit bag. You can learn more about the Maxercist and much, much more at my upcoming Body Weight Trainer's certification 3 May in Philadelphia. Or, join me and my teen aide-de-camp in Frankfurt, Germany 14 June or Kevin Buckley's great new gym, Dynamic Strength & Conditioning in Nashua NH 12 & 13 September or later on in Reykjavik.

I'm looking forward to it!

In Strength & Health,


Q:I am a 41 year old trainer living in the Highlands of Scotland... I bought a 24kg bell...In short, 3 weeks ago, on the 2nd rep of a set of kettlebell snatches, I broke my forearm, clean break of the radius, which required surgery and implantation of a steel plate and 6 screws. I had no idea... that such an injury was possible...I had sustained not even a bruise in... 9 months of kettlebell training. I have written to the people whose books and dvds I had used, and they tell me I am the first person in the world to have done this...I would be grateful for your opinion on what has happened to me. Perhaps I had some sort of blind spot for this ballistic training, which was new to me. In the 23 years of uninjured training I enjoyed previously, there had been no ballistic swinging exercises, and no tools like the kettlebell which could hit me, even if I had it fully gripped ...I have always been very careful and risk-adverse (until this anomaly...), so I would never have taken up snatching the kettlebell if I had heard it could break an arm.

P.S. you know of anyone who has recovered full strength after a radius fracture and steel plate in forearm? My doctor advises leaving the plate in permanently, have you heard of anyone getting back to full strength in that case?

A: A 24kg is a very big KB to start with, even for strong guys and I always advise even strong guys to start out with a 16kg or even a 12kg. It's EVEN MORE IMPORTANT to seek out proper, professional instruction.

Be that as it may, I myself did neither and, in retrospect, started out with too heavy a KB at a time when there was no KB instruction available and they were entirely new to the US.

I only mention this so you don't feel criticized. My theory is this: You were likely using bad form for quite some time and your forearm suffered repeated insults that were just below the radar.

You're probably a tough guy with a high pain threshold and the cumulative damage wasn't registering. Add to this possibly not allowing adequate recovery between those bouts of physical insult. Systemically and energetically you may have felt recovered, but my sense is that the limb hadn't recovered locally from the trauma of sudden loading inflicted upon it.

I believe there was probably an underlying chronic condition of which you were unaware, possibly weakened at some previous time. Kind of like smoking cigarettes for years, seemingly fine, then suddenly diagnosed with cancer or whatnot.

This is utter conjecture on my part, and I may be off base, but I'm attempting to make some sense of this terrible injury for you.

Sometimes even the safest of things can still result in mishaps and injury, especially when you're pushing physical limits--I mean, something's got to give.

For example, I used to be involved in the Super Slow training movement, done on Nautilus and Hammer Strength machines, and also static contraction training, which was at the time considered the safest of all training methodologies because of the lack of momentum and force on the muscle. While using the protocol on a Hammer seated leg curl, on my last rep, where I reached a momentary failure (which supposedly was the safest part of the set because the muscles are in such a weakened state they can't contract hard enough to produce an injury) I began the static part of the rep after reaching positive failure.

My left upper hamstring, where it attaches to the hip bone completely pulled in such a way that my entire hip tilted and was skewed. it was a very bad hamstring pull which left me in terrible pain for months. It just goes to show there are no guarantees in anything, even something supposedly as safe as Super Slow training and static contraction. There was simply some structural weakness in there which may have been exacerbated by my other physical activities and sports and was just ripe and ready to give out.

I've been teaching KBs in the US longer than anyone else. I've taught thousands of people how to use these productive tools. I have seen a few injuries but far fewer injuries than I ever saw with machine training at the height of Nautilus and Hammer Strength. This runs counter to what you might think and I can only explain it that the people with whom I worked received excellent instruction and training. There were, however, a few people with tweaked shoulders, elbows (and most notably, lower backs) but these can always be traced to over reaching, over training and a breakdown in form. I don't believe there needs to be any more warning for using KBs than there needs be for riding a bicycle. Countless people are injured on bikes every year but you don't see a warning on them other than using proper safety and common sense.

I have long been a proponent as the KB Swing as the primary movement, and for the very reasons you describe. I am not at all enamored with the Snatch. In my experience, all the benefits of KBs can be had with the Swing and for most people it's totally unnecessary to do the Snatch at all. In my corporate/mainstream fitness classes, I've always avoided the Snatch unless it was a group of extra-athletic folks.

I don't see any reason to subject the body to the the additional stress of Snatches.

I have a friend who was badly wounded in the military service by a land mine. His arm was fractured in multiple places and is now held together with plates and screws. Even though he's in his sixties, he's in impeccable shape and lifts his KBs and does his BW conditioning exercises as well as martial arts training virtually every day. He's a true inspiration.

So it is possible to come back from even a setback as this. Much of this has to do with your mind and its assumptions. Rather than assuming a negative outcome to this thing, assume the best outcome as a possiblity and use this as a way to correct any negative inclinations. Visualize your arm whole and strong and perfectly functional. If you see this clearly you'll be amazed how the body will respond.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Ladder to Mastery

In any field, domain, or endeavor, there are unavoidable steps in achieving a high level of success. It all begins with the learning process. At the bottom rung is blind incognizance, a state of total unawareness, i.e., not knowing what you don't know. The next rung is awareness without any clue of what needs to be done. The third rung is declaring yourself a beginner: a beginner is someone who doesn't know something but has the desire to learn...and willingness to learn depends on an open mind. As a new student, you enter the realm of barely competent, i.e., you know the basics and rudiments but nothing more. The following rung is competence, wherein the basic skills have been mastered and results are produced. The competent are self-directed but still seek guidance as needed. Next up this ladder is "highly competent"--the stage of the beginner teacher. This candidate not only performs at a high level but ably shares knowledge with others--and this is where most students get bogged down, never passing this phase of the learning hierarchy. And too often, these same people pass themselves off at a higher level than they've rightfully earned. They are typically the best in their local group and isolated and otherwise insulated from other higher level practitioners. This is often by design, since this someone at this level tends to fear--and is intimidated by--practitioners at higher levels of competence. These are the proverbial big fish in a small pond and they may remain stuck at this level for years.

My friend, Mike Mahler,
in his latest news letter, made a great point about experience: Just because a person can boast many years of experience in a domain doesn't automatically indicate equal a high level of success. The majority of experienced people in any given field are merely competent (or highly competent) and content with coasting and collecting an adequate paycheck.

Back to our ladder! Near the top end is virtuosity--and the virtuoso is an outstanding performer. These are the champions--or at least highly ranked performers--in athletics. Their skills can be extraordinary and these individuals are often mistaken as masters, but masters they are not. The virtuoso performer is typically mediocre as a teacher and coach because he is unable to break down and analyze his own prodigious skill set in order to teach others. Further, he can be impatient with beginners, capable only of teaching other virtuoso, or highly competent, students. I've seen this time after time: the teacher with amazing personal skills coupled with poor coaching skills.

The acme of the success ladder is the master. The master isn't just a virtuoso performer--he gives back to the body of knowledge. He is a co-creator in developing the art or skill in which he's involved. The master adds new twists and developments to his chosen art or profession. The true master is also a master teacher--able to explicate to--and teach--the novice. A excellent analogy for this is my chosen avocation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Someone doesn't know it even exists, then they hear about it and decide to check it out. Entering a few beginner classes as a white belt, they're typically confused about the goings on, but eventually things start sorting themselves out and our player gets the basics of the game. A year or so later, he's promoted to blue belt, indicating basic competency. A few years after that, he is highly competent at the purple and brown belt levels. Eventually, he may achieve virtuosity, winning championships and titles at the brown and black belt levels. Yet only a very few acquire true mastery--incredible skill doesn't equal genuine mastery in the game of jiu-jitsu.

This same hierarchy can be applied to any domain, including the field of personal training. For example, I, haven't seen people learn best from their successes but found they have more to learn from failures. In fact, I've seen people ruined by success while in pursuit of mastery. Sometimes--especially in the field of personal training--a trainer is successful using a certain programming and,
not realizing there's a better way (or even several ways) gets so caught up he's afraid to try anything else! This is something especially unfortunate: a trainer--because of a quick, initial success--completely stuck within a system and winding up complacent.

Here's another story: there was a guy who used to come into my former gym who LOVED the bench press. As a kid, he'd built a decent upper body using the bench press, so he stayed with the same routine for decades! He could get 10 reps with 225, which ain't bad for a guy weighing 168 lbs. Thus he used the same load, sets, and reps year in and year out, making zero progress whatsoever. He experienced
very sore shoulders as his rotator cuffs began deteriorating from the overuse. Yet, after carefully explaining to him there were better exercises for upper body development and even superior, newer, techniques in the bench press movement itself (not to mention the importance of balancing the bench press movement with other, compensatory exercises to minimize wear and tear on the shoulder girdle) our guy, convinced he'd lose his hard-earned gains, refused to give up his beloved routine. This, despite his utter lack of progress in the bench press for 20 years! This man was ruined by his initial success.

The situation I've described above also occurs in other domains, perhaps you can think of a few yourself. I've been a teacher, trainer, and instructor of physical fitness for over 36 years but when I first started out, my models were hard-core, get-in-yer-face drill sergeant-type coaches and teachers. You know what I mean, the ones who get up in your face, belittle your manhood and make you out like a wuss if you're not putting out the kind of energy and output they think you should be putting out. In those early days, I experienced a great deal of success in replicating this style of instruction. It seemed to work well and got me results. Those clients for whom it didn't work, I turned a blind eye and convinced myself they didn't have what it takes and that I didn't want to work with that type of client. You might say I'd been ruined by my initial success. Later, I had a client who worked as a sports-performance psychologist and he pointed out to me the harm negative feedback can do. Interestingly, even people who think they respond well to yelling and screaming actually perform better when encouraged with positive reinforcement. I began experimenting along these lines and consequently revamped my thinking with what I'd observed. Suddenly I my client list grew, with more clients staying on longer, and I experienced a concomitant increased joy in my work. This is an example of learning from failure and using it to transform a personality-driven teaching style.

In my upcoming Master Trainer Certifications, I go into great detail about the personal transformation along the steps leading to mastery. These workshops are designed for the highly competent and borderline virtuoso seeking to take their personal practice in the domain of kettlebells and body weight training to the highest level.

I've been called a master trainer, but I consider myself primarily a student, since I'm continually learning and adding new skills, failing at times, and--ideally--transcending my mistakes. There are still those times the ol' Coach doesn't think his cunning plan through! (Shocking, I know.)

If you desire to explore the path reaching the highest level in teaching, training and honing your own personal skills, I invite you to join me for my Master Trainer Certification at Maxercise in Philadelphia, the weekend of 17-18-19 April, which includes a Level 1 KB certification. I greatly appreciate that most of of my wrkshop attendees hold certificates from various other instructors and organizations yet describe a general lack of preparedness in leading group and individual kettlebell classes. For years, I've applied my considerable experience wisely, continually refining my original ideas into the penultimate formula for leading group kettlebell and body weight exercise classes. It's a gift I've always had, since honed through dedication, hard work, and learning from my success as well as failures.

So, thanks for reading and I look forward to seeing you in Philly! Enjoy the slideshow of the Wichita KB Workshop and Body Weight Certification on the right.

In Strength & Health,