Upper and Lower Abs

Trainee: "I want to build my lower abs."

Trainer: "Ok! We're going to do leg lifts three days this week!"

Has your trainer said this before? If so, you may want to inform him or her that abdominals don't work like that. We can't just do a ton of leg lifts in an effort to target the lower ab muscles.

You see, the "abs", or more precisely, the rectus abdominis, work as a whole; they operate as a single unit -- from top to bottom, and from bottom to top. It's the obliques that can be activated individually, and it's the hip flexors that aid the stomach area in a number of hip-associated exercises, such as during leg lifts.

According to Kinesiology, The Mechanics & Pathomechanics of Human Movement, "It appears that while the obliques are regionally activated (and have functional separation between upper and lower regions), all sections of the rectus are activated together at similar levels during flexor torque generation. It appears that there is not a significant functional separation between upper and lower rectus in most persons."

Another study, titled Electromyographic comparison of the upper and lower rectus abdominis during abdominal exercises, states: "Eight healthy, adult volunteers completed 6 random abdominal exercises: curl up, Sissel ball curl up, Ab Trainer curl up, leg lowering, Sissel ball roll out, and reverse curl up. Action potentials were recorded and analyzed from the upper rectus abdominis (URA) and the lower rectus abdominis (LRA) using surface electromyography (EMG) during a 2-second concentric contraction. The average normalized data were compared between the URA and the LRA in order to determine the behavior of the different muscle sites and between exercises in order to determine which exercises elicited the highest EMG activity. There were no significant differences (p > 0.05) between the EMG activity of the URA and LRA during any exercise."

So what gives? Why don't you have lower abs? Actually, you have them! It's most likely a result of seeing them. Why is it more difficult to see the lower abs? Well, one of the main reasons is because of belly fat, in particular lower belly fat; this area of the body is one of the last areas to shed adipose tissue (fat).

If you want to build muscle where the 6-pack lies, continue cranking out sit-ups, curl-ups, and leg lifts! If you want to see said 6-pack, try burning away fat through increased conditioning.


Stress. Recovery. Adaptation.

Stress. Recovery. Adaptation. This three-step process is how we become stronger. We apply adequate stress through squatting, for example; we recover from the squatting workout; we can then withstand more stress the next time we squat -- assuming enough time hasn't been spent outside the gym.

Did you know: our lungs operate in a similar manner? We can implement stress on our lungs, and they in turn become better at filling with and processing oxygen. Did you also know: according to the longest study in medical history, the Farmington Heart Study, lung function measures our living capacity. That's right! Strong lungs help up live longer.

As we age, our lungs lose power. Even in the ripe young years of our 20s, maximum oxygen uptake begins to decrease. Have no fear, though! Although we can't reverse the aging process (bummer, right?), we can limit its decline. How do we do so? We challenge our lungs maximum capacity.

Steady-state cardio is fine, but that's not going to do the trick. We must truly test our lungs; we must put them in a position of overreaching. In more precise terms, we must create an oxygen debt; this happens when our body needs more oxygen than it can provide it. Have you ever run an all-out 800 meters or tried performing 50 burpees as quickly as possible? Yeah. Both create an oxygen deficit. Through short, intense bouts of work, we provide stress on our lungs that help increase lung volume.

So if your routine involves only strength work, or if your workouts are filled with only muscle-building parameters, you're likely missing out on a *very* important aspect of training.

Here's a quick bodyweight workout you can try at home to rev up the lungs:

50 burpees
(3-minute Rest)
3-minute Run
(3-minute Rest)
30 burpees
(2-minute Rest)
2-minute Run
(2-minute Rest)
10 burpees
(1-minute Rest)
1-minute Run

The goal: perform the burpees as quickly as possible; run as far as possible.

Stress. Revover. Adapt.

Posterior Strength For Pregnancy

My wife is one of the toughest people I know. Last night while watching the NFL Draft she was prancing around the kitchen as if nothing were bothering her. She's over 40 weeks pregnant, might I add. As she was coming and going, we began discussing her ailments, and we then proceeded to talk about common areas of soreness in pregnant women.

Being the meathead I am, I asked about back pain, knowing it would lead to an exercise-related follow-up question. She said she felt none; throughout her entire pregnancy, she has had zero back issues. She proceeded to explain that it's more common than not to have these pains. My meathead-y brain then instructed me to ask, "do you think that has to do with your working out? Namely, do you think deadlifts helped?" Her reply: "Definitely!"

I had to explore some more. Here are a few things I found atamericanpregnancy.org:
*50-70% of women experience back pain
*Back pain is a result of 5 primary things:
-Increase of hormones
-Center of gravity (COG)
-Additional weight
-Posture or position

I think she's right! The deadlifts very well could have aided to the zero-back-pain issues. Here's my hypotheses: Three of the five items listed above can be directly combated by deadlifting. Someone with a good deadlift has the strength and musculature to withstand changes in COG; someone with a good deadlift can support extra weight on the body (a/k/a the basketball protruding from the belly); and someone with a good deadlift typically has good, or better-than-normal, posture, especially compared to someone who lacks sufficient training. The deadlift creates a pillar in your posterior chain to withstand stress!

Now, this isn't scientific data, and I'm surely not a doctor telling anyone what to do. (Disclaimer: Any trainer prescribing medical or medical-like guidance is a fool. Run from these people! And always, always, ALWAYS consult with a doctor before entering into any kind of fitness routine when pregnant. Most professionals will say continue to do what you were doing; however, there are always exceptions to the rule, and each person is different.) But I am bringing in a strength-guru's perspective. The deadlift is a powerful tool! One last thing: one can't just start doing deadlifting right before or during pregnancy; like any exercise, it takes time and perseverance to build strength.

Stay strong, moms and moms-to-be!

Weekend Warrior

The term "Weekend Warrior" and the word "stupid" should be synonymous, in our opinion. There's no need to sit on your butt all week and then attempt to display Herculean feats on the weekend. The body isn't designed to withstand this extreme off-on nature.

"...many people compress their weekly exercise volume into long periods of physical activity on the weekend. This intensity gave rise to the colloquial term 'weekend warrior...' Because long periods of intense physical activity on weekends is physically demanding, especially among unfit individuals, weekend warriors may be at an increased risk of injury." (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4035407/)

Did you know: "The Achilles tendon is the most frequently ruptured tendon in the body." (Kinesiology The Mechanics & Pathomechanics of Human Movement) This is *not* something you want. Trust us. Weekend Warriors unfortunately place this tendon and other body parts in harm's way to a greater degree than Weekly Workers. (We just made that up.) Other common Weekend Warrior injuries: plantar fasciitis, tennis elbow, and ankle sprains. A broken bone is also a possibility.

Many people think that a day or two of extreme physical activity on the weekend will offset nearly a week's worth of sedentary behavior. If this is you, you're in for a world of hurt; quite possibly, literally. The body is not equipped to be stationary for 5-6 days and then run, jump, and cut on a dime 1 day.

By following a training program, or applying a routine, the body becomes more healthy, it becomes more equipped to withstand the rigors of daily, weekly, and monthly endeavors. Our muscles, bones, and joints need to progressively load and acclimate to the stresses to be placed upon them.

Think of it like like (and bear with our analogy, as it's not perfect): Which of the two cars would run better or be more prone to withstand a breakdown? (Option 1) An automobile that was started, run, and watched after every day. (Option 2) An automobile that was started, run, and watched after once a week. Now, take both options, start them up, and force them into a quick acceleration, followed by abrupt stop-go movements, lasting for an hour. I'm not sure about you, but I'll go with Option 1.

The point is, some work done throughout the week is better than a whole lot of work done on the weekend. The research backs this up! No, you may not have a ton of time, but some time can likely be spent doing something. 5 minutes of sit-ups here, 10 minutes of push-ups and air squats there, or 15 minutes of walking or jogging there.

It's important to get into a routine, or to follow a plan. No, this won't negate all injuries, but your Achilles is at better odds of not rupturing by progressively overloading it throughout the week!

173 Reasons

"You don’t get to redefine the exercise and then claim that it’s dangerous. Driving a car is dangerous if you drive it into a great big rock."
-Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength

Recklessly driving a car is bad; it's also incredibly stupid. Improperly lifting weights is bad; it too is also very stupid. Unfortunately, lifting seems to have a lasting stigma on so many people. "It's bad for your knees," they say. Perhaps it's because they don't enjoy lifting, or maybe they've never lifted, or it's possible they're incredibly insecure around lifters. Maybe I'm wrong. But what I do know is that when lifting is done right, there is far more good that comes from it than bad! Far more. When a car is driven right, the automobile serves a wonderful purpose, right? Or could you go about your day without it? (Public transportation folks, I hear you.)

Just for fun, here is one of 173 (I pulled that number from thin air, it's probably more) rebuttals we "lifters" can make about lifting being bad for the knees.

Sports and many of life's activities require abrupt stopping and quick turning. The impact of the immediate stop-go-turn activity can place a lot of valgus stress on the knee (see photo). On top of that, many of us are already predisposed to increased valgus; and, unfortunately, ladies actually have approximately 5 degrees more of this due to their anatomy. (Be careful the next time you're playing tag with the kids in the yard, ladies and gents!) How do we combat this? How do we lessen the likelihood of a sudden injury? We make the structure around the knee stronger. We lift! We deadlift and we squat.

There is something called the pes anserinus, and it is made up of three muscles, the sartorius, gracilis, and semitendinosus. These are muscles of the leg. According to the text Kinesiology, The Mechanics & Pathomechanics of Human Movement, "these three muscles together appear to contribute to the dynamic stabilization of the knee against valgus and rotary forces." How do we get these three muscles and their accompanying tendons stronger to withstand greater amounts of stress? Once again, we lift. We deadlift and we squat. Strength withstands greater stress.

Again, this is just one of *many* examples as to why lifting is beneficial to not just the knee, but the whole body!


1-Week High Intensity-Hypertrophy Program Sample

Yesterday we received a few messages about our High Intensity-Hypertrophy (muscle building) post. Here's a week-long sample of the program:

Deadlift: 4 Sets x 8 Reps
*Sets 3 and 4 should be heavy. Hypothetically, if you were to perform more than 8 reps (which you're not), you should be able to execute only one or maybe two more reps on set 3 and 4.

Strength Stamina: 
10-Minute, 5-Rep Squat EMOM
*Weight should begin to feel heavy around set 5 and 6. The sets should get difficult around 7 or 8. If you're unable to manage 5 reps across for the 10 sets, the weight was too heavy to begin with.

Conditioning Hypertrophy:
100 Dumbbell Snatches
*If you can execute 20 DB Snathces without fatigue, the weight is too light.

Bench Press: 4 Sets x 8 Reps
*Sets 3 and 4 should be heavy. Hypothetically, if you were to perform more than 8 reps (which you're not), you should be able to execute only one or maybe two more reps on set 3 and 4.

Strength Stamina: 
10-Minute, 5-Rep Overhead Press EMOM
*Weight should begin to feel heavy around set 5 and 6. The sets should get difficult around 7 or 8. If you're unable to manage 5 reps across for the 10 sets, the weight was too heavy to begin with.

Conditioning Hypertrophy:
20-Minute, AMRAP Pull-up-Burpee EMOM
Minute 1: AMRAP Pull-up
Minute 2: AMRAP Burpee
Minute 3: AMRAP Pull-up
Minute 4:AMRAP Burpee
...and so on and so forth, until the 10 sets of Pull-ups and 10 sets of Burpees are through.
*Scale Pull-ups with Inverted Rows


Squat: 4 Sets x 8 Reps
*Sets 3 and 4 should be heavy. Hypothetically, if you were to perform more than 8 reps (which you're not), you should be able to execute only one or maybe two more reps on set 3 and 4.

Strength Stamina: 
10-Minute, 5-Rep Deadlift EMOM
*Weight should begin to feel heavy around set 5 and 6. The sets should get difficult around 7 or 8. If you're unable to manage 5 reps across for the 10 sets, the weight was too heavy to begin with.

Conditioning Hypertrophy:
100 Plate Squat Presses
*Male 45#; Female 25#

Overhead Press: 4 Sets x 8 Reps
*Sets 3 and 4 should be heavy. Hypothetically, if you were to perform more than 8 reps (which you're not), you should be able to execute only one or maybe two more reps on set 3 and 4.

Strength Stamina: 
10-Minute, 5-Rep Bench Press EMOM
*Weight should begin to feel heavy around set 5 and 6. The sets should get difficult around 7 or 8. If you're unable to manage 5 reps across for the 10 sets, the weight was too heavy to begin with.

Conditioning Hypertrophy:
19-Minute Work-Rest EMOM
5 Barbell Rows
5 Box Jumps
AMRAP Dumbbell Overhead Presses

Minute 1: 5 Barbell Rows, followed by 5 Box Jumps, followed by AMRAP Dumbbell Overhead Presses for the remainder of the minute. 
Minute 2: Rest
Minute 3: 5 Barbell Rows, followed by 5 Box Jumps, followed by AMRAP Dumbbell Overhead Presses for the remainder of the minute.
Minute 4: Rest
...and so on and so forth, until the 10 sets of work is through.
*Barbell weight should be moderate; you should not be able to hypothetically perform 12 reps in a row of the weight you're using. Dumbbell weight should be light to moderate; if you're performing over 20 reps in your AMRAP, you're either absolutely crushing it, or your weight is too light.

20-Minute Run



Firm Foundation

Clay. Bricks. Both are comprised of the same material. However, if we were to build a house out of one, the brick's firm structure would be the most logical, and safest method for construction. Similarly, we want to build our "house," our body, with firmness. A loose muscle and a contracted muscle are both muscle, but only one provides functionality and protection during loaded movement.

When we lift, it's important to have zero loose ends. Our body should be rigid throughout a lift. If we execute a deadlift or an overhead press, for example, while not fortifying our core, two things can happen. (1) We can lose the ability to transfer power throughout our kinetic chain, as there is a force leak in our mid-section. (2) More importantly, we can injury ourselves. When weight is lifted, it applies pressure on the body. When a strut -- our in this case, contracted musculature -- is not locked in place, pressure produces undue stress on the unfortified area and can cause injury. In our example, a back injury is possible due to the lax in the core.

So the next time you pick up a weight, think brick, not clay. Contract your muscles for a stronger, safer lift!


The Often Forgotten Adductors

Try touching your ceiling. (After a brief warmup, of course.) Assuming your ceiling is higher than 8 ft., you likely had to take drop your hips slightly before leaping into the air. Why did the dip allow you to jump higher than a non-dip hop? Two words: stretch reflex. A stretch reflex is a muscular stretch immediately followed by a contraction. The stretched muscle stores elastic energy, and it is then released upon contraction.

You use this same stretch reflex during the squat (and most other lifts, for that matter). As you squat, a number of muscle groups work together as they stretch then contract -- the hamstrings, the glutes, the quads, and ... the often forgotten adductors.

The adductors, the muscles that line the inner thigh, play a vital role when extending the hips. Their importance shouldn't be neglected. But how do you garner their full force -- or, how do you put them into a stretched position? Answer: (1) Point your feet out at a 30-degree angle. (2) Shove our knees out over the line of your feet. As the thighs rotate outward to mirror the feet, the adductors elongate; and during the descent, they become fully stretched. After reaching full depth, a bounce out of the bottom occurs and the stretched adductors contract sending you to the upright, finished position. (If you were to squat with straight feet, would your adductors fire? Absolutely. But to a much lesser degree.)

Angles, positions, and placements matter when lifting. This is just one example of how a tweak here and an adjustment there result in greater muscular activation.


Busy Schedules Happen

Busy schedules happen, and business calls. In order to care for our health and wellbeing, we sometimes have to work in training around life's many hurdles. My approach when chaos knocks: get in what I can when I have time; if that means 15 minutes here and 15 minutes there, so be it. Training is ingrained in me, and it's a part of who I am. Do I have it easier than many? Sure, I'm a strength and conditioning coach who has access to equipment. But we all can take measures to squeeze in a few minutes of fitness. Perhaps it's 5 minutes of sit-ups before a business call; or maybe it's 10 minutes of push-ups and air squats during an afternoon break. The point is, time can be made. (I can hear the naysayers now: "that's being obsessive." I disagree. It's caring for longevity; it's catering to self-obligation; it's not letting the demands of daily activities throw me wherever it wishes. It's not just physical, either, it's for my mental health, too. Training helps me with stressors and anxieties that creep in during a week; there are alternatives to working out, but those are paths I don't want anything to do with.) Time is a commodity we can't gain more of. Do the best you can with the time you've been given.

Busy Schedule.jpg

Drivers Of The Squat

The Squat: What's going on? How do we drive up all that weight?

(Below the surface, yes, there's much more happening: knee flexion; downward forces; proper alignments; etc, etc., etc. Heck, what are the traps doing besides being a shelf for the bar? These are all nuances that will be discussed later, but for this picture's purpose, we're illustrating the engines that drive the machine.)

What's going on.png

Training Is Like Tanning

Training is like tanning. Let me explain.

(Before going any further, I want to write that I did not create this analogy. This has been stated several different ways by a number of different people.)

Summer is here! So naturally, it's time we regain that golden brown look. Let's catch some rays! But what's the best way to optimize our time spent in the sun?

Day 1: Ambition has gotten the best of us. Instead of easing into it, we went all out. One hour spent on our front side, and one hour spent on our back side. Two hours total! When coming inside, we find we're red as a lobster. And we're already sore! Day 2, day 3, and day 4 are unbearable. We can hardly move, let alone go out in the sun again. Luckily, day 5 and day 6 allow some reprieve. We give it one more day, but we're ready to get back after it.

Day 8: The "tan" we had hoped to acquire went from red to flaking, and now we've peeled everything off. We're back to square one. We won't make that mistake again! This time around, we've decided to go outside for 20 minutes -- 10 minutes front side, and 10 minutes back side. When going inside and looking in the mirror we see a nice shade of color. A success! The following day we notice that we're not sore, either. Yes! We need to keep it up, but we don't want that soreness we received after Day 1. No way. We'll wait a few more days to play it safe. Day 9 we lay low.

Day 10: 10 minutes and 10 minutes was successful, so we'll do it again. Smart, right?! We lay low the following day, and we also notice we're a little darker. Another win! Let's stick with this strategy.

Day 12: 10 minutes and 10 minutes.
Day 13: No sun.
Day 14: 10 minutes and 10 minutes.
Day 15: No sun.
Day 16: 10 minutes and 10 minutes.
Day 17: No sun. But a problem has emerged. We're not seeing *any* more color. Nothing. We're no darker than we were on day 10. Huh? I thought we had a good strategy in place. What's the deal?! Back to the drawing board.

Day 18: We have a base -- something to now build off of. Today we're spending 12 minutes and 12 minutes. 24 minutes total seems to be about right. The next day we appear to be tanner. Great! No sun on day 19, though.

Day 20: 15 minutes and 15 minutes. We're even darker! It's working. (We contemplate switching things up and using a front-side day followed by a back-side day followed by a no-sun day, *which would work*, but we have a plan in place so we'll see it out.)

Day 21 and Day 22: We've been getting after it, so two days off in a row might do us good... And guess what, it did! All the time spend accumulating sunshine is paying off. We're now over three weeks in, and despite an early setback, we're tanner! Week four will be promising!

By now, I think you get the picture. Training is like tanning. If we want to get strong, build muscle, lose weight, or improve performance, we must do so one day at a time. We can't capture everything we want in one training session. We also can't be scared of the work required to make progress; doing the same thing every so often will leave us spinning our wheels -- without progress. A program must be put in place (and there are a number of great ones out there!). The plan must build upon itself weekly, incrementally increasing in difficulty. That's how we get results! Sure, it's much more complex than this, and nuances line progression, but the building blocks of success are simple. Plan + Progressive Overload = Results.

Happy tanning ... I mean training!

"Knees out!"

"Knees out!" One of the most widely used cues in lifting. It is especially utilized during the squat.

But why knees out?... Injury prevention. Of course! But let's take a deeper look.

The knee is the largest joint in our body; it is a complex system composed of ligaments, tendons, bones, and muscles. Our knees enable movement, and in order to move well throughout our life, the system needs to remain healthy.

When squatting, many people have a tendency to let their knees collapse. (See the picture surrounded by red.) When our knees fall inward, they are compromised. In this position, called valgus, we're more prone to both acute and long-term damage -- ACL tears and patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner's knee or jumper's knee, to be less specific) are a few commonly seen valgus-related injuries.

If a large enough force were placed on an internally rotated knee, acute damage may occur. Think: a sudden change of direction after moving at a high speed while playing soccer; or landing from an elevated position. If a number of small forces were placed on an internally rotated knee, chronic damage may occur. Think: a runner or walker who puts on mile after mile of poorly executed steps; or a businessperson who regularly climbs several flights of stairs.

As for the squat: we definitely don't want to cause harm to the knee (or any bodypart for that matter) during the exercise. So there's one reason for the "knees out" cue. As for the other reason, well, we want to properly build strength around the joint so that when every day activities ensue, we're better able to withstand the stresses placed upon the knee. (This is what we call "functional fitness.")

(I can hear the "squatting-is-bad-for-your-knees" crowd right now. This unfortunately ill-informed and ignorant number of people are doing themselves a disservice. A biomechanically efficient, properly executed squat performed on healthy knees is not a bad thing. It's a good thing! In fact, it can easily be argued that it is foolish to not squat, and that when done correctly, the squat improves the knee and helps with longevity! Ok, rant over.)

With stronger hips, legs, and muscles surrounding the knee, we're able to not only lift better, but also handle life better. Walking improves; running improves; climbing stairs, getting off the toilet, standing up from a chair, getting out of bed, remaining upright (the list goes on and on) ... everything improves! And as for our athletes: by appropriately executing a strength-building tool, such as the squat, (1) motor engrams reinforce the right movement pattern when running, jumping, etc., and (2) the knee is more prepared for and better capable of withstanding a sudden change in direction or position -- added stress.


So, just remember, "knees out!" *They should mirror the feet.* (Knees that are too wide is a different issue meant for another story on a separate day). And keep improving on that squat. Your future self will thank you.


I've been working with Johnny for a little more than a year. When we started training together he was pulling 315#, with straps, for a single. Today, he's pulling 350# for 5 reps, strapless! Dude is becoming an oak tree. Proud of you, brother! Keep doing work...

Love hearing from y'all! Keep the messages coming.


New Stimulus & ROM

Question: I am an avid biker, so I use my legs quite intensely. Nearly daily, in fact. A week ago I squatted; I was incredibly sore, for nearly the entire week. What's the deal?! I use my legs ALL the time!

*Followup questions: Do you squat often? If so, did you perform an unusual amount of volume? More than you're accustomed to?

*Followup answer: This was my first time squatting in nearly a month.

Answer: Any new stimulus placed upon the body will usually result in some type of soreness. Since you hadn't squatted in a month, the novel movement shocked your system. More importantly, though, although you use your legs "intensely" on a regular basis, you're not taking them through a full range of motion -- the range of motion a squat would take your lower extremity through. When you bike, your knee and hip joints remain in a somewhat flexed position. Because of this angle, your muscles aren't activated while stretched; you're used to hours of concentric contraction. (Check out the Concentric-Eccentric video from a few days ago.) When you squat, you've performing a contraction that is not normal to you. Because you're not used to the stretched state while under load, you experienced trauma to your muscle fibers. This could have happened with something as simple as 2 sets of 5-8 reps. Someone who only executes the leg extension then performs a squat for the first time in a month would experience the same result, FYI. In the future, I would incorporate more squatting, and other compound movements into your routine. The increased strength you gain will give you just a little more force on each revolution as you pedal. And you won't be as sore if you get into a more regular lifting routine.

Arrow vs. T

When taking a bird's-eye view of the Push-up and the ground portion of the Burpee, one's elbows should point back and to the side as opposed to directly to the side. The form should take that of an arrow, not that of a T. Why is this important? When the humerus (the top portion of the arm) extends directly to the side of the shoulder -- T form -- the rotator cuff tendons can get caught between it and the acromion process (a bony ridge on the scapula). When this happens over and over and over again during the exercise's full range of motion, wear and tear begins to accumulate on the tendons. In time, damage can occur, leading to possible surgery and reconstruction of the shoulder. Not good! So give your shoulders a break. Think "arrow" when you're executing these push movements.

Push-up and Burpee.png