One exercise only to do for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a question on my Facebook page asking my fellow fitness enthusiasts if they had to pick just one, what single exercise would they do for the rest of their lives. I received a lot of interesting responses including popular movements like squat, deadlift and push-ups. The fact of the matter is any exercise is good for the body so from that perspective any exercise is better than no exercise at all. But lets say, hypothetically, we could only perform one exercise for the rest of  our lives, which one would take precedence? Are there certain movements that are more impactful on the body than others?

Without a doubt!

Compound movements will obviously be favored because of their multi-joint actions. But as all-encompassing as compound movements are, they  don’t engage all muscle groups. Regardless, a few muscles will be left unworked. So how does one select the ideal exercise to perform for the rest of their lives?

I can make a case for 4.

1) A Case For The Deadlift: If you deadlift on a regular basis, you know it is one of the most whole-body engaging movements. Its functional impact on the body also makes it a staple in every workout program. The entire posterior chain gets worked from the upper trapezius muscles to the lats, erector spinae, gluteus muscle group and hamstrings. There’s also emphasis on the anterior core, quads, biceps, forearms and grip enhancement. Very few movements offer a barometer for strength like the deadlift due to its biomechincal physiology. The term ‘dead’ in deadlift essentially means picking up a dead weight from the ground which requires a great deal of effort and precision. It is why so many people hurt their backs when picking up items from the floor because their kinetic chain isn’t mechanically aware and alert enough. The deadlift corrects and addresses the problem while strengthening the body over time.

Although the chest, triceps and shoulders don’t get a lot of work, the fact that two-thirds of the body is engaged during this movement makes it an ideal exercise to perform for life.

2) A Case For The Squat: Widely considered as the premier exercise, the barbell back squat remains an essential component for weight loss, strength and lean muscle. It remains an assessment tool for many fitness professionals. Though I’d argue that the deadlift can and should replace the squat in assessment protocols due to the fact that preexisting knee and back ailments can affect a person trying to perform the latter. But I digress. The squat and deadlift are by far the two most functional movements in fitness, partly due to to their hip-hinging similarities  and identical muscle groups that are used. There are over 600 muscles in the body and squat is known to work about half of them! That alone is a good incentive to pick the squat as the ideal exercise to perform. Glutes, quads hamstrings, anterior core and upper back are some of the engaged muscles.

The only drawback, which I mentioned earlier, is knee and back pain can make back squatting difficult and unable to perform. Compressive forces from a loaded barbell on a weak lumbar spine could discourage an exerciser from doing squat. Although variations like the front squat (an ideal replacement for those with knee and back pain) and single-leg squat exist, they require near-perfect precision and execution and can take a while to master (the Bulgarian Split Squat being the exception). All things considered, the squat remains a great exercise and in my estimation, one of the two most important exercises (the deadlift being the other).

3). A Case For The Push-Up: By far the most popular exercise and best for working the upper body, the push-up is as ancient as Greek gods and is here to stay. Simply put, no exercise targets the pecs, anterior core, shoulders and triceps like the push-up. Keep in mind that the traditional bench press is a derivative of the push-up so both exercises are essentially the same. But unlike the bench press, the push-up requires no equipment and no set-up and can be done virtually anywhere so from that standpoint, it is more advantageous to many exercisers. Variations like the one-hand push-up, feet elevated push-ups, plyo push-ups, T-push-ups, atomic push-ups and band push-ups make for unique and interesting challenges, one disadvantage with the bench press.

There is little to no engagement of the lower body during a push-up which could come as a detriment later in life to someone who choses to make it their only exercise. That’s the only case against the push-up. Aside from that, it is the ultimate upper body builder.

4). A Case For Walking: As impactful and popular as the push-up is, not many people can perform it well or do enough of them. Walking is the one activity everyone can relate to. Barring any chronic knee or ankle condition, walking is the simplest and easiest physical activity to do. It is why so many health experts and professionals recommend it as part of an exercise regimen to lose weight, lower blood pressure and high cholesterol and promote a healthy lifestyle because all it requires is for you to just get up and move. Simple! So many people enjoy walking and have reaped benefits via weight loss, mood and overall positive state of mind. Believe it or not, walking can also be made challenging and walking programs do exist for its lovers. For an in-depth look at these programs, take a look at this blog post I wrote a while back.

As ubiquitous as it is, walking just fails to address many of the musculoskeletal needs of the body. While fat loss can occur via walking, so can lean muscle. Power, muscle mass and raw strength cannot be achieved through walking, regardless of the distance covered. On a more encouraging note, walking is the only activity that has the lowest risk for injury and can be done by people of all ages.

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Squats Vs. Hip Thrusts – Which Is Better For The Glutes?

Ask anybody at your local gym what exercise they think is best for the backside. I can confidently say most people will say it’s the squat. From the beginning of time, the squat has been associated with developing and building strong gluteal muscles. The backside of the human body has become an essential part of many training programs. Athletes require a strong posterior chain for optimal performance in their sports. Society’s obsession, though mostly women, for a firmer, tighter and rounder butt is at its highest. In fact, many women I come across these days tell me they want bigger butts. The butt craze is in full effect!

So what is the best exercise for building the backside?

For years, the traditional squat was the go-to movement for butt and still remains a fantastic choice. But in recent years the hip thrust has gained popularity and emerged as a true rival for gluteal development. No research comparing the two exercises and its effect on the glutes had been conducted until Bret Contreras (www.gluteguy.com), the creator of the hip thrust, conducted one. Bret examines 3 key factors that impact muscle growth and development : mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage on the gluteal muscles. Majority of this is based on his findings.

Gluteal Biomechanics During Squat: Glute activation during a sub-max effort on a barbell squat isn’t what most people think it is. With the loaded bar on your shoulder, the glutes are relaxed and only begin to contract during the eccentric phase. Contraction during descent is very low and lowest at the bottom of the squat. In fact, research now shows that a ‘bucket squat’ or going too deep has little to no impact on the backside.  The most amount of muscle contraction and activation takes place during the concentric phase; as you drive explosively upward from the bottom of the squat. Maximal contraction takes place during the middle of the rep, and slowly dissipates as you get back to the top.

Generally speaking, gluteal activation at the lowest phase of the squat is about 10-20% of maximal contraction, 20-30% at the start of the eccentric phase and 80-120% at the start and during the concentric phase. Overall the average gluteal activation percentage is about 60% of maximal contraction.

Gluteal Biomechanics During Hip Thrust: Using a sub-max load, the barbell hip thrust challenges the gluteal muscles a bit different from the squat. At the start of the movement, when the barbell is placed on the hip, the glutes are relaxed.  The lifter thrusts the hips concentrically upwards until full hip extension is reached. Average gluteal activation during this phase is about 160% of maximal contraction. Keep in mind that full hip extension must be achieved (squeezing the buttocks as hard as possible at the top of the lift) for full benefits to be reaped. Unlike a barbell squat where the glutes are relaxed at the top, the gravity effect on the hip thrust (the barbell constantly trying to push you back down from the top) inevitably places constant tension on the gluteal fibers resulting in more of a burn.

There is little to no hamstring activation during the barbell hip thrusts. However, when the drive occurs at the balls of the feet as opposed to the heels, some may get some hamstring work. As a rule of thumb, the heels should always be favored.

Squat:Hip Thrust

Conclusion: Both the squat and hip thrust are excellent choices for building the backside. The fact that both movements keep the knees in a bent position means there is limited hamstring activation due to its shortening and therefore more involvement of the gluteal muscles. The hamstrings can only fire maximally when they’re continually lengthened. Although both exercises require hip extension which forces gluteal activation, the minimal activation during the eccentric phase and the lack of tension at the top of the squat doesn’t cause immediate burn and soreness unlike the hip thrust where there is constant tension. However because the fibers get a deeper stretch eccentrically during the squat more than the hip thrust, a lifter is highly likely to get sore in the days following a sub-max squat workout. The only small drawback is the lower back strength limits the load a lifter can use on the barbell squat and quadriceps and hamstrings activation takes away from maximal gluteal activation. The hip thrust, though easier to perform, is limited by glute strength, meaning once the glutes get tired from firing, a lifter will no longer be able to thrust thereby ending the set.

So which is the better choice for the backside?

Based on what the research shows, both exercises build and develop the gluteal muscles effectively and should be incorporated in a training program. Though the hip thrust offers more gluteal bang-for-your-buck results, it shouldn’t be necessarily favored over the squat nor should it replace it entirely. The barbell squat engages more of the lower gluteal fibers than upper fibers whereas the hip thrust fully activate both fibers. If you want a fully developed butt, you’ll have to routinely perform these two exercises. Performing only one and not the other will rob you of the full results. Both can be performed during a workout session or on separate days. The load must be challenging enough in order to illicit good gains. Generally speaking, a sub-max effort of about 75% of 1RM should suffice. Ideal rep range should be between 8 and 15.

Keep in mind that the front squat and goblet squat, which place emphasis on the front side of the body and anterior core, has very minimal impact on the backside and therefore can’t be relied upon for maximal gluteal development. While both exercises are low-back and knee friendlier than the back squat, they don’t fire the glutes nearly as hard due to the placement of the load.  As a bonus, the deadlift along with other gluteal isolation exercises like the reverse lunge, stiff-legged deadlift and hip abduction movements will yield one heck of a backside.

 

Why You Should Box Squat

By now we all know the squat is arguably the most important exercise of all partly because of its functional benefits and whole-body engaging work. Over the years, many variations have emerged as a means to accommodate conditioning levels, injuries and embrace newer challenges. The Front Squat, Overhead Squat, Goblet Squat, Bulgarian Split Squat, Zercher Squat and Pistol Squat are versions that have made their way into the realm of strength training. But there is one that many people still rarely do. The Box Squat.

Although it came to fruition at a Polish weightlifting facility in the 1950’s, the box squat was popularized by legendary powerlifting coach Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio.  Simmons began box squatting in the 1960’s and is the chief reason the exercise is utilized my many fitness enthusiasts today, including olympic and recreational athletes, powerlifters and bodybuilders. It is a simple exercise that requires squatting down to a plyometric box (for the remainder of this post, ‘plyo box’ will be used as a replacement) that’s low enough so the thighs are beneath parallel. Yet it remains misunderstood and underappreciated by many. Let’s take a closer examination at this unique exercise.

Simmons’ discovery is based on the theoretical fact that by squatting down to a low plyo box that puts the thighs beneath horizontal, there is greater muscle recruitment by the hamstrings and glutes, which subsequently improves the depth on a traditional barbell squat. A majority of the people who do traditional squats almost never make it to parallel while others don’t have the flexibility in their hamstrings to squat deeper. This can eventually limit strength and gains potential due to the fact that the posterior chain of the body isn’t getting challenged enough.  The box squat effectively addresses these issues. So how can one successfully do a box squat? Are there more than one way to box squat?

According to Simmons and contrary to other unsubstantiated claims, there is only ONE way to box squat. With the barbell resting on your trapezius, hinge your hips and butt rearwards and slowly descend towards the center of the ploy box. A descent towards the front of the box with cause the heels to lift off the ground greatly affecting your drive back up during your ascent. The knees should stack over the ankles or even slightly over. Both the knees and ankles should be in a slightly wider than hip-width stance for easier descent and better muscle activation. When fully seated on the box, the glutes, hamstrings and lumbar region are relaxed. Gravity forces acting downwards  and the loaded resistance will inevitably lead to an explosive firing of the aforementioned muscles during the concentric phase.  During ascent, push the bar into the traps first and tighten the abdominal muscles first to create rigidity in the torso. The forceful drive through the heels of the foot is the final step. Keep in mind that driving through the heels without pushing the bar into the traps first will cause the trunk to lean forward putting the body in a ‘Good Morning’ position.

Here are 5 benefits of the box squat:

1.) Quicker Recovery, Less Soreness & Frequent Squat Sessions: During the eccentric phase of a box squat, the kinetic energy slowly goes away during descent. Some of it remains isometrically stored in the glutes and hamstrings, but most of it is gone. This means when you’re seated on the box, most of the working muscles are going to be relaxed with a few in isometric tension. They only engage during the concentric phase. This leads to an efficient utilization of the energy systems of the body and better recruitment of the muscles of the entire lower body. Essentially the nervous system is only challenged during the concentric phase which helps minimize energy.

2.) Teaches Proper Squatting Technique (Parallel) & Improves Flexibility : Not many people can achieve the parallel depth on a conventional squat. I still see many squatters stopping miles away from hip-knee alignment. And of course it becomes extra miles away as the weight gets heavier. Lack of flexibility in the hamstring is a big reason for this. Simply squatting onto a plyo box addresses these problems. If a lifter successfully achieves the beyond-parallel depth on the box squat, the traditional squat depth will improve automatically because the kinetic chain will proprioceptively adapt to the stimulus over time. Hamstring flexibility is also improved via the static-dynamic sequence. The working muscles relax statically when the lifter is fully seated on the plyo box and dynamically stretches during concentric phase. When this is repeated at the right intensity and over a period of time, the muscles of the hamstrings will effectively stretch themselves out. Keep in mind that ample time must be devoted to box squatting training sessions in order to see an improvement in traditional squats.

3). Safety & Injury Prevention : Generally speaking, the box squat is safer than the traditional squat. Although the load and form are the two key determining factors for injury prevention, the box squat is more knee and lower back friendly. Explosively driving up from the heels creates rigidity in the torso and fills the diaphragm with air which leads to less spinal compression. The knees are also forced to stay at a 90-degree angle with the ankle during descent thereby protecting the patellar tendons.

4). Better Hamstring, Gluteal & Hip Muscle Recruitment : As mentioned earlier, the below parallel depth on the box squat forces the lifter to explode from the heels concentrically. This means the muscles of the lumbar region, hamstrings, glutes and hips will work much harder than they would in a traditional squat. These muscles will become stronger leading to better performance in other posterior chain exercises like deadlift, reverse lunge and hip thrust. This is also key because most exercisers are anterior dominant and are usually at a disadvantage in exercises involving the posterior chain as well as some day-to-day activities.

5. Development of  Absolute Strength & Power : Power is defined as maximal force generated instantly or rapidly. It is impacted by strength and speed. In a traditional squat, power must be produced during the eccentric (descent), isometric (bottom of squat) and concentric (ascent) phases. This greater effort usually limits the power potential of the body and can thus affect the long term development of power and strength. In a box squat, the eccentric and concentric phases are broken apart so that the muscles of the hip and lower body relax and rest a bit in the seated position. This allows for a better utilization and redirection of power during the start and execution of the concentric phase. By breaking up the eccentric-concentric phase, box squatting provides a power and force output three to four times greater than traditional squat. It also helps build starting strength in sports and increases pulling power in the deadlift off the floor.

Anyone can box squat. However there are 3 key factors squatters must consider:

Factor #1: Deconditioned and less experienced squatters should start with just their body weight initially. Simply squatting onto a plyo box that puts the thighs beyond parallel will illicit a good physiological response by the body. A barbell can be used after successfully performing the exercise for a period of time or a lower plyo box (2 to 4 inches shorter) for an increased challenge.

Factor #2: The plyo box must be low enough so that the thighs are beyond parallel. Most plyo boxes (usually wooden or steel) have a depth height ranging from 12 inches to 30 inches. Taller individuals will fare well with the boxes in the 12 to 18 inch range. The underlying factor is that the lower the plyo box, the better the challenge. However an ideal format to use is to first sit on any box and see how parallel the thighs are to the ground. Any box that puts the thighs at parallel or beneath will work just fine. Yoga and pilates mat can be placed on boxes for much taller individuals who have a hard time sitting on the lower boxes.

PowerSystemsPlyoBoxes

Factor #3: Box squats should be done periodically and scheduled between traditional squat programs. This means if you box squat once or twice a week for 3 weeks in a month, you should return to traditional squat for at least 3 weeks to test your depth and range. Many people I know, including Simmons,  have completely replaced traditional squats with box squats, doing the former only once in a blue moon. If the goals are pure power, strength and explosiveness, as is the case with powerlifters and athletes, then box squats should be performed routinely. Everyday fitness enthusiasts should box squat at least every other 2 months for 3 weeks straight at a training frequency of 1 to 2 days a week.

4 Popular Exercises With Progressions For Better Gains

About a month and a half ago, I wrote a blog post on ways to make your workouts more fun and challenging. In that blog I mentioned increasing volume, decreasing rest periods and changing the sequence of your workouts as some of the ways to achieve that feat. In this week’s blog, I’m going to dig deeper and show you how to make some of your favorite exercises more challenging.

So many popular gym exercises need to be fine-tuned every now and then to yield more bang-for-your-buck gains and to avoid boredom and monotony. If you’re an avid exerciser who works out at least 3 days a week, chances are you get complacent with your workouts regularly. It’s inevitable, even if you’re the strongest and most conditioned person at your local gym. The fact of the matter is the body needs continual challenges for continued upward progressions.

Here are 4 popular gym exercises that can be progressed to a greater degree of difficulty:

1. TRX Push-Up: Suspension training has completely taken the fitness industry by storm and has become an essential part of all exercise programs. The TRX Suspension Trainer is by far the most popular and most utilized amongst fitness enthusiasts. The Push-Up is arguably the most common exercise done with this exercise accessory tool.

The Challenge : TRX Decline Push-Up: Place a plyo box or aerobic step (knee-height high) 4 to 6 feet in front of a fully extended hanging TRX. Assume a decline stance by placing your feet on the box as you simultaneously reach for the handles with your hands. Perform decline push-ups. The extra elevation will force your anterior core to work harder due to increased contraction via anti-extension. Your pecs will also get a deeper stretch at the bottom of this movement. This is a very advanced movement so you must be able to perform regular TRX Push-ups before attempting this.

2. Hip Abduction Machine: A very popular exercise machine that works the glutes and used mostly by women who regularly work out at gyms. Although it’s not a ‘women-only’ exercise, majority of its users are women who are in relentless pursuit of a nicely, shaped butt. The term ‘hip abduction’ is a joint action that uses the gluteus minimus and medius, the muscles on the side of your butt.

The Challenge : Partial Squat On Hip Abduction Machine: Place your feet on the foot cradles on the hip abduction machine but do not sit. Instead drop down to a partial squat and perform the movement. The isometric squat stance will bring your, gluteus maximus, quadriceps and hamstrings into play, which you wouldn’t get sitting down. The added external rotation of the hip will force your gluteus minimus and medius to work harder also. You should try to achieve a considerable isometric squat stance to reap the full benefits.

3. Deadlift: I’ve talked about this exercise in many of my blogs so I’ll keep this short. The Deadlift is one of the important compound movements for building strength, power, fat burn, lean muscle and improving posture.

The Challenge : Deadlift With Strength Bands: For those unfamiliar with strength bands, they’re basically rubber bands in larger sizes and with greater tension. They are mostly used by elite athletes and powerlifters but can be incorporated into just about any workout program. Place a medium or heavy strength band over the middle of an olympic barbell. Step on the part of the band that’s resting on the floor with a hip width stance. The band should be right on the arches of your feet. Place your hands on the barbell, just outside the 2 points where the band is over the barbell. Explosively drive through your feet and deadlift. The tension from the band will constantly try to pull you down during both the concentric and eccentric phases. This forces the use of more power, force and speed which will yield more calories burned, improved strength and size. The tension of the strength bands is the key to achieving these benefits so the weight on the barbell should be kept to a minimum.

4. Reverse Lunge: The most knee-friendly of all lunges, the reverse lunge is the only lunge variation I do these days. We all know it isolates the muscles of the butt and thigh but it also stretches the hip flexor at the bottom of the movement. If you have back and/or knee pain, this exercise is ideal for you!

The Challenge : Reverse Lunge With Front Squat Grip: This is highly advanced progression that should be done with caution. You must know how to do a barbell front squat before attempting this. Using fairly light load, assume a barbell front squat stance in a squat rack. With the barbell resting on your fingers or shoulders (depending on the grip you use), do alternating reverse lunges. Because the center of gravity is being moved upward, farther away from the base of support, the balance challenge becomes much more difficult. The anterior core is engaged a great deal that you literally will feel a ‘burn’ in your abs while doing this movement. You’re going to wobble every now and then so be very slow and controlled on your decent.