7 MOVES THAT WILL REVEAL HOW FIT YOU ARE

If someone were to ask you what your definition of being fit is, what would your response be? Strong core/abs? Be able to squat your bodyweight? Run a mile? The toe-touch test? While these are all ideal indicators of being fit, they don’t necessarily provide an accurate measure of one’s fitness. A lot of guys think they are fit because they can bench press and squat the world (I used to be one of such people) and have washboard abs. The fact of the matter is how fit a person goes beyond physical strength. Don’t get me wrong, being strong is a renowned gift and warrants acknowledgement. There is more to fitness than being able to Deadlift 300 pounds.

There are several assessment protocols that measure fitness and plenty enough to chose from. But the following are 7 simple tests that can reveal how fit you are and can be done pretty much anywhere using just your bodyweight. These tests will identify strengths, weaknesses and limitations while measuring upper/lower body strength, core strength, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility and mobility.

OVERHEAD SQUAT: Using a PVC pipe or a rolled up towel held at slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, bring your hands over your head with elbows fully extended. Your feet should be slightly wider than hip-width. Take a deep breath, brace your core and sit your hips back as far and low as you can while trying to keep your torso rigid.

Things to look for:

-Do your knees cave inward as you descend? (This is caused by weakness and/or poor activation of gluteus medius and other hip external rotators)

-How deep can you squat? Are you able to bring your things to parallel? (Could be a result of tightness in hamstrings and hip external rotators)

-Do your arms, along with the PVC pipe or towel, drift forward during descent? (This could be caused by tight shoulder internal rotators and weak core/trunk stabilizers)

-Are your heels rising off the floor? (Tight/weakness in dorsiflexors and/or ankle instability)

The Fix: Exercises like band-resisted clamshells and side-band stepping are ideal for activating and strengthening gluteus medius which is responsible for knee function and hence better squatting. Regular stretching and foam rolling of the hamstrings and hips can improve depth. Working on external rotation/retraction exercises like band pull-apart and face pull will keep the arms from dropping forward.

 

SCAPULAR WALL SLIDE: Stand wit your back about a foot or slightly less from a wall. Establish three points of contact against the wall : head, shoulder blades and tail bone. Bring your arms full extended in from of your then pull your elbows back to touch the wall. Point your left and right forearms towards 11 ‘o’ clock and 1 ‘0’ clock. From there, extend your arms up against the wall while trying to keep your wrist and forearms pressed against the wall (creating the letter ‘Y’) . Hold for a second and then bring them back down to your starting position.

Things to look for:

-Were you able to extend your arms up against the wall while maintaining your 3 points of contact and keep them pressed against the wall?

-Did any of your body parts come off the wall during ascent and descent?

-Did you feel any pain/ache during the movement?

The Fix: If you answered ‘yes’ to the first question, congratulations! You have excellent shoulder mobility and flexibility. But if you answered ‘yes’ to the lat two questions, your shoulders are internally rotated thus causing limited mobility in external rotation. This can sometimes come with rounded shoulders or a slouch posture. Interestingly enough, this very test can also be used to correct the issue. Externally-rotated targeted exercises and practicing pulling the shoulders back are the best remedies.

 

PLANK: I don’t consider the plank to be the best measure of core strength given the fact that it requires a great deal of shoulder strength and endurance. But it can be a good indicator of how strong the anterior core is. With a stopwatch timing you, hold a plank for as long as you can.

Things to look for:

-Are you able to maintain a neutral spine all throughout? (lumbar hyperextension, dropping the head)

-Did you hold for longer or less than 30 seconds?

-Did you hold for longer than 60 seconds?

The Fix: Being unable to maintain a neutral spine during a plank not only means the anterior core is weak. It also means the posterior chain isn’t activated enough to keep the body upright. The gluteus muscles and lumber stabilizers must be strengthened to help correct this. Although not universally accepted, holding a plank for less than 30 seconds could be a sign of a weak core. I believe 45 – 60 seconds is a moderate standard to aim for. The only drawback to the plank is it can be quite difficult for people with preexisting shoulder injury and chronic pain. Either way, gradually work your way up to 1 minute.

 

TOE TOUCH: Arguably the most premier assessment flexibility test, the toe touch has pretty much been eradicated from many fitness testing protocols. I still consider it a good measure of hamstring and trunk flexibility. So many people have tight hamstrings and not even know it. This simple test will tell you. Standing with your hands along your sides, bend at the waist (trunk hinge) and reach your hands as far as you can towards your toes.

Things to look for:

-Did your hands get past your knees and/or shin?

-Were you able to touch your toes, or better yet the floor?

-How much did you have to bend the knees?

The Fix: If you were only able to reach to your knees and shins, your hamstrings are tight and most likely your lower back too. Being able to touch the toes or the ground indicates great trunk and hamstring flexibility. Although the knees can bend slightly during execution, too much bend devalues and diminishes the test. Correcting the above miscues is simple : lots of passive stretching and foam rolling.

 

PUSH-UP: Probably the most ancient exercise of our time, the push-up remains a staple in fitness programs. While it can be used as a workout, it can also assess upper body strength and muscular endurance. Perform as many push-ups as you can. When you start getting tried, drop to your knees and continue until exhaustion.

Things to look for:

As with the plank, so many standards exist for the push-up. The way I look at it is the more push-ups you can do without having to kneel, the better and stronger you’ll be. The modified push-up, though a regression of the standard push up, can help build some upper body strength. But it’s alway going to pale in comparison to the regular version in terms of improving and developing strength and endurance.

The Fix: Incorporating lots of anterior core work can help improve push-ups. Doing push ups on higher surfaces like a bench or Reebok STEP can be a precursor to the push-up. Strengthening of trunk stabilizing muscles like the shoulder and triceps can be beneficial also.

BODYWEIGHT SINGLE-LEG RDL:

The Romanian Deadlift is a popular exercise for targeting the posterior chain but can also a good way to assess balance and strength in both legs when done unilaterally with just the bodyweight. With your hands resting along your sides, stand on your right leg and lift the opposite left foot slightly off the ground. Hinge the trunk forward while reaching your hands towards the ground as your left leg lifts up. Aim to perform 6 to 10 reps.

Things to look for:

-How much shifting is occurring at the hips?

-Is the balanced foot/ankle wobbling and/or pronating too much?

-Does your hamstring fatigue enough so much you’re forced to stop?

-How high is the non-balanced leg when fully hinged? Is it in line with the trunk?

The Fix: Hip shifting and lateral movements could be traced to weak and under-active hip external rotators. Band-resisted clamshells and side-band stepping will help with that. Another challenge with this test is wobbling and pronation at the foot and ankle. Doing inversion, eversion, dorsiflexion and plantar flexion with a Thera band is a great way to address this. Generally speaking, single-leg work like lunges, step-ups and single-leg squat variations are vital for strengthening the legs individually. Keep in mind that traditional squats done on both legs, while associated with tons of perks, do not identify which of the legs is working the hardest and and the least.

STAIR CLIMB:

Find a stairwell with lots of floors and climb up 3 to 4 flights at your regular, walking pace.

Things to look for:

-Did you get out of breath?

-If you got out of breath, how soon did it happen?

-Did you find climbing these flights of stairs overly exerting?

The Fix: Stair climbing can be a good way to measure cardiovascular endurance and VO2 Max. The latter is the amount of oxygen available for use during activity. Here’s a simple way to look at it: If after walking 2 or 3 flights of stairs you found yourself breathing heavy, it indicates there wasn’t enough readily available oxygen in your body which means your V02 max and cardiovascular endurance are low. Obviously there’s a limited number of stairs we all can climb before we get tired. Assuming the knees and hips are in good condition, I believe we all should be able to climb a minimum of 4 flights of stairs without getting out of breath. Strength training the lower body and doing a wide variety of cardio activities like HIIT, bootcamp, cycling will surely help improve cardio endurance and VO2 max.

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5 exercises you should stop doing

For a lot of us fitness enthusiasts, working out is an integral part of our lifestyle. We enjoy the sweat, the burn, the pump and more importantly, those endorphins that we release and stay with us long after we leave the gym. By now we know resistance/strength training is essential for weight loss, muscle gain and strength. But with a plethora of exercises out there, it can be overwhelming to find the right ones. The fitness industry is always evolving and newer exercises continue to hit the scene.

But how do you know you’re doing the right exercises? I’m not talking about proper form but rather the selection. While any resistance training exercise is better than none at all, some have better bang-for-your-buck value and will yield more dividends. As a fitness professional/fitness enthusiast who’s been a part of fitness for nearly 15 years, I can say confidently that there are some exercises better left alone.

Here are 5 exercises you should stop doing:

LEG PRESS: A lot of guys are going to balk at me for this but the leg press has zero functional or core value. The seated, upright version may be ideal initially for elderly and deconditioned individuals. But the traditional, incline version can be hard on the knees not to mention its high risk of injury because of the angle. Although most guys, especially bodybuilders who want to build extreme mass, may be able to load a lot of weight, they also risk knee pain and back injuries later on.

ALTERNATIVE: The traditional barbell back squat offers way more bang for your buck while utilizing your core and trunk stabilizers. Also, because you’re moving a load through space, as opposed to your back fixed against a chair, you’ll build more strength and power. As an added bonus, how’s this for a fit nugget: There are over 600 muscles in the body and the squat is known to work at least half of them!

UPRIGHT ROW/BEHIND-THE-NECK LAT PULLDOWN: The upright row is a popular shoulder exercise that made its name during the early era of bodybuilding. It is thought to work the rhomboids and other mid-trap muscles. The behind-the-neck lat pulldown is kind of a modern modification of the traditional lat pulldown. Those who do it routinely claim it targets the mid-trap region very intensely. However several studies have linked these two exercises to acromiclavicular joint injury. The clavicle and acromium make up the AC joint. When the aforementioned exercises are performed, the ligaments around those joints stretch further away causing laxity. This is what ultimately leads to AC joint injuries like a fractured collarbone or torn labrum.

ALTERNATIVE: Face Pulls and Band Pull-Aparts (front or behind the body) are safer bets. They put very little pressure on the AC joint and don’t require a lot of weight to feel the burn.

SEATED HIP ABDUCTION/ADDUCTION MACHINE: I really wish fitness manufacturing companies would stop making these machines. Ladies, you can’t spot reduce! It’s virtually impossible. What’s more alarming is these are two of the most popular and utilized machines in every gym. Yes you may feel a burn when you’re on these machines but the muscles you’re targeting (hip external rotators/adductors) are not getting the proper challenge they need. Being glued on a chair with a back support robs the trunk stabilizers and glutes of adequate firing.

ALTERNATIVE: Band-resisted clamshells and band-resisted side stepping are arguably the two most effective exercises for working the glute medius and other hip external rotators. The sumo squat, sumo deadlift and various lunge variations all do a great job of targeting the inner thighs and several other hip adductors.

DUMBBELL SIDE BEND: I still don’t know why people think the dumbbell side bend target the obliques. Simply put, it doesn’t. In a nutshell, the anatomical motion of the side bend is lateral flexion of the spine. When this movement occurs, the primary muscle that is targeted is a deep muscle on the side of the lower back called Quadratus Lumborum or QL for short. Although there’s nothing wrong withe using the dumbbell side bend to work your QL, you’ll get more perks and benefits with compound movements like the squat and deadlift.

ALTERNATIVE: The side bridge, in my estimation, remains one of the most effective exercises for the obliques. If you have preexisting shoulder pain or just weak shoulders, try doing the side bridge with a hip drop to the ground.

DONKEY KICK-BACKS: Popularized by Jane Fonda in the 80’s, this exercise was the premier movement women used to shape their butts. I still see many women doing it today with ankle weights or resistance bands. The problem with this exercise is 9 out of 10 women I see doing it grossly compensate lumbar hyperextension for hip extension, thereby making it counterproductive. Also, it takes an insanely number of reps to be able to feel a good burn.

ALTERNATIVE: I don’t know if the donkey kick-back will ever be extinct but current literature shows and endorses the hip thrust as the most effective exercise for pure glute activation. Unlike the squat, the hip thrust relies a great deal on the gluteal muscle than the hamstring and lower back during maximal contraction.

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.