On Manrockets and Movement
For many people training to perform your best paradoxically provides a safer and easier route to look your best.
(This even puts aside the complex discussions of body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and other self-image issues that commonly arise from spending hours a day dedicated solely to how you look.)
Top athletes often have some of the most desirable physiques around. Their rigorous training requires balanced, athletic muscle, and often an absence of excessive fat in order to be successful. They need powerful legs, strong upper bodies, and a functional core. This is fairly obvious. After all, it’s why all major sports have dedicated strength and conditioning coaches.
Although I’ve met plenty of people who train like bodybuilders struggle to play pick-up sports or even hang with me on the Citi bike, I’ve never met a division 1 athlete who takes training seriously that didn’t also have an impressive physique.
While you can get better aesthetic results from training specifically to try to grow certain muscles or do cardio for the sole intent of trying to lose fat, neglecting your physical performance often comes with other costs. It may set you up for muscle imbalances, injuries, and subpar aesthetics. On the flip side, when you train for performance you’re forced to confront imbalances and potential injuries sooner. Otherwise, you won’t be able to perform.
I’m not here to argue (today) that everybody needs to throw their bodybuilding training split out the window and start doing sprints, plyometrics, and power training in place of it. Today I’d like to share three lessons I learned from training athletes and how they translate for aesthetic goals.
Honestly, it boggles my mind that they aren’t discussed as much in most mainstream fitness realms. It could be because of the obsessive focus on “6 weeks to abs” and other short-term empty promises developed from marketing tactics in contrast to building sound habits that may be boring, but with consistency lead to results.
Mobility doesn’t sell. Better movement doesn’t sell. Long-term progress doesn’t sell the way instant-gratification short-term promises do. And as such, common-sense strategies to strategies go untaught to most people.
Today I want to bring some of those broadly practiced ideas, concepts, even tactics to you so you can apply them to your training right away. Many of them will be covered in my upcoming ebook, but this goes in a different direction than that and explains how to incorporate it into an existing training program.
Within the context of injury prevention, everybody talks about how important it is to have adequate mobility. Although this is absolutely true, not being in pain is a low bar for your movement. Here’s where we can learn from athletics.
In his book Speed Training for Hockey, my friend Kevin Neeld (Head Performance Coach of the Boston Bruins and an all-star dad) explains how hockey players (and this methodology extrapolates to all athletes) can get faster by improving hip and ankle mobility.
Allow me to explain.
Your speed, whether on the ice, on land, or otherwise, comes down to your stride length times your stride frequency.
This is pretty simple physics here.
Well, what if you could make subtle changes to your stride length by improving your ability to “sit” into your stride position and extend out further? Without getting any stronger or more explosive or really putting in much effort into anything besides a kick-ass warm-up, you’ll sprint faster.
However, I know the goal of most people isn’t to be faster. They may just want their squat to feel a little smoother. And here’s where we can take a lesson from elite athletic training and apply it to everybody.
A squat is the same movement pattern as a sprint. I could pull up some photos and show you, but I think you can understand that the simultaneous hip flexion, knee flexion, and ankle dorsiflexion required in spriting is similar to what you need when you squat.
If you’re struggling with your squat, the impulse to either pick a new exercise or change the set and rep scheme may just be masking the deeper problem of insufficient mobility. What you really need may just be an extra half an inch of dorsiflexion or to actually warm up your hips.
To assess whether either is your limiting factor, perform a few simple drills. Test if you can get 4” of dorsiflexion or 90 degrees of strict, active hip flexion. Whatever is lacking is likely holding you back from getting into a deep squat. In both cases, going beyond these minimums will improve your “stride length” and expand your active squat (and sprint) range of motion.
Once you’ve identified either of these as your weakness, here are a few drills you can include as part of your warm-up. Do these at least on the days you squat, but ideally every training day.
Half-Kneeling Dorsiflexion Pulses
Keep your heel on the ground, and bring your knees as far forward as you can. Pulse for about 10 reps.
Tennis Ball on Calves
Grab a tennis ball (or foam roller if that’s all you have) and roll your calves for one minute each.
CAR stands for “controlled articular rotation,” an idea popularized by the Functional Range Conditioning System. The idea is to move the target joint (in this case hip joint) through the full range of motion. Do 3 reps each leg as part of your warm-up.
Band Lying Hip Flexion Holds
Start with the lying variation, as opposed to standing for two reasons. Firstly, you don’t need to balance, and secondly, in order to get true hip flexion you need to keep your back flat. The ground provides immediate feedback so you know if your lower back is flat. Do 2 reps on each side, holding for about 10 seconds each rep, as part of your warm-up.
You don’t walk into the gym squatting the universe.
Maybe after a few years of sustained training, you’ll be strong enough to squat one of Neptune’s small moons, but even then the universe is a bit too heavy. Rather, you start with a goblet squat. Even the goblet squat may be too difficult for strength or mobility reasons, and you can regress it further by elevating your heels onto plates.
If you haven’t been training for very long, please for the love of god do NOT copy any programs you see people doing on Instagram or on bodybuilding websites. There are exceptions, but on the whole, the exercise selection, volume, and frequency will be too difficult. You’ll wind up either frustrated or injured.
Going from training zero days a week to four is a terrible idea, as is doing a back squat if you can’t goblet squat, as is doing 50 reps of anything if you’ve never done a set of 8.
If you’re starting out, or getting back into a training routine, start by training twice per week. Do that for at least 6 weeks. Then you can think about adding a third. If you can’t do a goblet squat, you have no business squatting with a barbell.
Many people can’t do a pull-up, because, well, pull-ups are hard. Start by placing a bench underneath the bar, and doing pull-ups with as much assistance from your leg as you need. Work through the variations which we’ve outlined in this article on how to double your pull-ups before worrying about normal pull-ups.
This is just one example, but it’s true for anything. If you can’t do the absolute basics, you shouldn’t worry about the fancy exercises you see on Instagram.
Team sports are played in all directions and planes of motion, and the training should adequately prepare them for that. I come at this with even more bias from hockey, where the act of skating requires lateral push-off, and therefore heavy use of the groins, gluteus medius, and other muscles responsible for side-to-side (frontal plane) movement.
Even if you have no athletic goals though, training in different planes of motion trains different muscles. The groins, side glutei (yes this is the plural of gluteus), obliques, and more are all neglected if you never train in anything but the sagittal plane. These muscles in particular play a key role in balancing your posture in the sagittal plane, a somewhat complex concept I explain here. Training these muscles, which are often called “accessory” or “stabilizer” muscles but which I think doesn’t give them nearly enough credit, will aid in activating the big muscles we often think of when it comes to aesthetics.
Neglecting other planes of motion also sets you up for injury. Not only will weak frontal and transverse plane muscles plot against your posture, if all of the sudden you have to shuffle to the left or change directions because you’re late for your flight and running through an airport or something, you won’t be prepared for it.
In your warm-up add lateral squats and transverse plane squats. For the next level, do a dynamic warm-up made of all lateral exercises.
On your leg days, change the exercise selection a bit. Firstly, incorporate more single-leg training, as this requires more stabilization in all planes of motion. In a strict one-leg squat, your groins and side glutes keep you from falling to the side. Additionally, add in exercises like lateral lunges and mini-band walks in between sets of major exercises.
Mind Band Lateral Walks
In your core training, don’t just do front planks and other forward-backward movements. Make a plank a transverse plane exercise by adding a reach one arm at a time. Add chops and lifts, or Pallof presses, or other core exercises and require you to resist lower trunk rotation.
These are just a few programming elements I learned as common sense when I first starting training people when I was 18.
Over the coming years as my knowledge and network in strength and conditioning continues to grow, I have a unique opportunity to do is take lessons from top strength coaches and distill the essential into a language that everybody with any gym goals can understand and apply.
A great example is Kevin Neeld, whose book, Speed Training for Hockey, I mentioned here. He works for the Boston Bruins (a pretty good hockey club if you haven’t heard of them), and is well-regarded as one of the best minds in hockey. I’ve personally but luck to learn a lot from Kevin.
Even though I’ve hated the Bruins since I was about six years old, I can’t help but respect what an incredible job he’s doing with that team.
In addition to his duties with the Bruins, he’s also found the time to make incredible resources like Speed Training for Hockey, which I refer to constantly, not just for hockey players. The principles (and even some of the specific drills) apply to anybody who wants to get faster or just improve their strength or how they feel.
But this book is not for everybody. However, if you’re one of the following people it will be one of the most useful, applicable books you find in strength and conditioning.
If you play hockey or train hockey players, I don’t know how you’ve made it this far without it. You should definitely get this book unless you hate being faster for some reason.
If you coach athletes of any kind, the principles will carry over anywhere. Especially if you find training and teaching speed to be a challenge (as I did), you’ll find it very useful.
If you’re a nerd and like learning about the human body, Kevin is your guy. He’s an exercise nerd among exercise nerds.
It’s also incredibly digestible (you can read it in a day or two) with prescriptions to apply right away. I personally would not be as good a hockey player without it, and none of my athletes would be either
If any of those sound like you then pick up Kevin’s book, Speed Training for Hockey.