Maxwell Strength & Conditioning Blog
Enjoy a peek at the world through Steve's eyes as he delivers sermons on everything from training to peace of mind.
When new, non-athlete clients tell me their fitness goals, what comes up most is 'I want to get back in shape' or 'I want to lose weight'
While worthy goals, they are also somewhat hollow victories and another example of confusing symbols with meaning. Because the objective of their training is still a certain look. In fact, when pressed for specifics, it becomes clear what the client wants is to look and feel better than they do now. On a deeper level, what they want is to embody beauty.
Laboring at the gym for the sole purpose of getting buff or svelte has never much motivated me, nor has it been a cornerstone of my training philosophy. This is because of my long involvement with combat sports, wherein you must put up or shut-up and results aren't based on biceps size and there is no merit in the look if it can't be backed up.
Thus from my beginnings in physical training, I honed in on "purposeful exercise", ie exercise performed to specifically improve results in the action arena. To me, the objective of a proper fitness program (and working out in general) is to build good health and help the body regain movement lost from childhood.
This is interesting because those movements and exercises which improve performance (eg jumping higher, running faster, knocking dudes out) have a profoundly positive effect on aesthetics. The "look" of genuine power has little to do with the bloated bodybuilding physiques of these modern times, in which it appears a female has strapped on a comic book padded muscle suit and struts around acting "cocky". This is a cheap charade of true masculine essence and extends to the photoshopped covers of bodybuilding "lite" and so-called fitness magazines: you can't ‘shop abs and reproduce the same core results of inner discipline and virtue.
Let's go as far back as we know to the symbols used in antiquity to represent the idealized male aesthetic.
The Greek statues depicting the heroes have been the standard of idealized masculine aesthetics for 2000 years.
How do you acquire these masculine attributes for yourself?
And don't depend on the typical modern journals or publications for your best training information. Or modern advice in general. Anything published post-1960 is likely tainted with drugs, photo-shop or computer-enhancements.
Use movement-based exercises, not isolation movements
I prefer whole-body moves eg deadlifts, kettlebell swings, pull-ups. These functional movements have higher transferability to performance.
(Not so fast! I'm NOT saying there's NO place for isolation movements--there is. Especially in regard to rehabilitation or very specific muscular imbalances...but that's another blog.)
Your exercise selection should also include strength-to-weight ratio aka body weight exercises. There is no logic in being able to hoist or push a heavy load when you can't even manipulate your own body with intelligence.
I've seen many heavy squatters unable to perform a single body weight pistol. They had the strength to do a pistol, sure, but because of imbalances and immobility issues they couldn't use their leg in a most natural way imaginable.
Disclosure: I've met guys capable of both heavy squats and body weight pistols, primarily I've met them in my workshops, which leads me to believe they are fans of my work, but this is a rare phenomenon and I can count the examples on one hand.
Coach's mind trick: I can read your mind and I already know your next question:
Steve, just how functional is a pistol anyway?
This past summer I climbed the Preikstolen in Norway. It was one vast boulder field. Walking up was effectively a series of sequential pistols, while coming back down was even more so.
In any combat sport, you had better be able to survive your heel being forced to your haunch. Being tackled on the football field and the leg forced back in one extreme or another--you'll quickly understand why the full-range mobility and strength augmented by the pistol is highly beneficial.
And guess what: pistols generate a beautiful set of legs--but this is a byproduct of their functionality.
I've found that the more technical the lift or exercise, the less transferability it has to sports performance in general.
Checklist for exercises:
Infrequent? Working out too often is a common offense among trainees. In the zeal and enthusiasm of conversion--and the belief that more is better--trainees will overwork themselves. The problem with this is that the true benefit of exercise comes in quietly--on little cat feet--with the rest between episodes. Which is why I advocate no more than three resistance-training sessions per week (the standard for the last 100 years for drug-free athletes).
If you are simultaneously engaged with other strenuous sports and activities, twice or even once per week strength training will provide superior results to more frequent training. Further, some sports, like grappling, martial arts and rock climbing are in themselves a form of resistance training. In these instances, supplemental resistance training must be added judiciously.
Another precept to my philosophy: to create balance, work those muscles you don't use as well as the muscles you do use. Sometimes, it's even better to emphasize those muscles unused in your primary sport, in order to prevent imbalances. Many sports activities encourage significant muscular and postural imbalances. Look at the kyphotic spinal curve and forward heads among competitive cyclists, competition kettlebell lifters and...desk jockeys. These habituated postures can be mitigated with specific compensatory movements.
For all-around health and well-being, you must work the different energy systems of the body, not just those you favor
For example, strength training for long-distance runners not only improves their performance but their health parameters.
By the same token, endurance training for strength athletes enhances both performance and health, most significantly, body composition.
These factors combined is the genesis of a human body capable of doing stuff in an intelligent way. With this type of functionality comes the look of the classic physique: a body that not only looks good but performs well. A trained eye easily discerns the difference between mirror muscles and the able-bodied man.
As a holiday gift, I've put together for you a workable program using the above principles.
Element: Strength-to-Weight Ratio
1) Alternating Chin-up and Dip sets for 10 minutes
*if you aren't strong enough for chins and dips, sub BW Rows and Push-Ups
These 2 exercises provide plenty of stimulation to every muscle in the upper body.
These exercises exemplify virtue: honest, simple pulling and pushing the bodyweight and pure function. You can neither cheat nor pretend.
Once upon a time, I obtained a severe foot injury in BJJ and for a time was unable to tolerate the slightest amount of weight on the ankle and foot. Thus I was limited to a steady diet of chin-ups and dips--back and forth and back and forth again--sometimes up to 20 minutes!
These were the only two exercises I did for four weeks while the foot and ankle slowly healed. At the end of this time, I went to a seminar and ran into some people who hadn't seen me in a long while They were stunned with my appearance and interrogated me about what secret exercises I'd been doing. So stunned, in fact, I was commanded to remove my shirt in the middle of a business meeting. A little bro-rotic, perhaps, but my exhibitionist nature complied.
Talk about simplicity! Two exercises and I also rode an AirDyne bike with a brace on the foot.
Behind the physical attributes resulting from this program you discover the discipline and virtue of the mind that refuses to quit and stop training even faced with significant disability. Do you see where I'm going with this?
You don't have to be a male model or genetically gifted. You do need to work with what your own raw materials and refine, refine, refine.
Element: Absolute Strength and Power-to-Weight Ratio
2) Tri-set of Sumo Deadlift, Alternating KB Swing and Box Jumps (for height)
DL: whatever you can lift for 5-8 reps
Alternating KB Swing: 3-5 rounds of heavy weight/low reps with 20-30 second intervals on the KB Swings;
Box Jump: 5 - 6 at a minimum height of knee-high
Do the above exercises back-to--back, then rest for 60-seconds and that is one round.
Do 3 - 5 rounds, depending on your energy.
Right now: Bend over and pick something up. A rock, a sandbag or even another human. You don't go about these lifts like a barbell deadlift. No, you bend down with a wide stance and the arms between the legs to grasp whatever you've decided to pick up. This is the honest way to pick up heavy stuff.
An important attribute of physical fitness is the ability to jump and the KB Swing and Box Jump is a great and fun way to groove in and practice this all-important movement. The explosive, fast-twitch are easily lost without reinforcement and often given up by the aging athlete. Hey, use them or lose them and I don't want to lose mine. They can come in real handy for keeping your feet dry for one and fast-running woods streams.
I like to think of kettlebell swings as a variation on explosive jumps and I'll do everything from heavy load/short-duration to lightweight/long-duration swing sets.
There's no finer movement for the entirety of the posterior chain. Few whole-body movements hit the hamstrings like the KB Swing. See? I like to tell people why to do things, not just to do them.
Element: Spinal Stability
The primary function of the abdominal muscles is...spinal stability. Strength and mobility in this area is the key to having a pain-free back.
I like to use static holds. Static strength is crucial in martial arts especially, where there are many opportunities to grab and hold static positions. If you analyze popular sports, you will find the same static strength employed. One of the finest whole-body exercises for this kind of static strength development is...the Rolling Plank.
*Important: this plank series is performed on fully extended arms NOT the elbows
3) Rolling Plank
Assume the upper Push-Up/Plank position and hold for 15-seconds
Smoothly flow into a left-side Plank position
Then, Rear-Plank, not commonly used in plank sequences
Then Right-Side Plank
The goal is to complete 5-minutes total of this flowing sequence, alternating directions each round or every other workout so you don't develop a groove to the favored side.
The Rear Plank in particular strenuously works the lower back and hamstrings and shoulder stability.
I prefer strengthening the mid-section through such whole-body movements.
Last round, we work a different energy system altogether, which is the aerobic system. Many people neglect this system altogether because they despise running and its associations. I also hate running on treadmills, which is arguably not running at all.
There are ways to harness and develop this system without running at all or even stressing the joints...but that is another blog!
I like to finish up with the aerobic system and the following makes a nice finisher for this routine. Running is a natural human movement, a part of humanness, since our evolution depended upon it.
Certainly, in ancient times if men couldn't run they were sorely handicapped.
You don't need to run much to keep the running skill sharpened; even an all-out run of can be plenty at the end of an intense enough workout. I like to do a 10-minute run at the end of my own workouts. For a run of these short durations to offer benefit however, it MUST be an all-out event: you must run as fast and as hard as you can.
For the next month, I challenge you. At the end of your workout, no matter what workout you do, run as hard and as fast as you can for 10 minutes. Caveat: you must inhale only through the nose and exhale only through the mouth--no mouth breathing!
Each workout, attempt to best your previous distance, if only by a car length or so. I think you will be amazed at how effective, short, high-intensity runs like this can be.
Note: This above is merely a sample routine; there are myriad variations on how to hit the whole body.
But there is still something something more: why do some athletes have a functional-yet-ugly appearance and others have beauty?
The answer lies in the minds of both the seer and the seen.
To create something truly beautiful, you must begin by stripping the mind of ugliness. For example, the ugly desire to get something for nothing (or more accurately, at the cost of something or someone else) which may take form in the desire to win a match at any cost or some other variation of what is called “cheating”. You can win the match by any means, or like plastic surgery, you can get the tape measure reading and proportions you imagine you want...but something will be off.
You can't display ugliness and call it beauty...while also fooling everyone.
You can certainly fool enough people to make a lot of money, but who cares?
The desire to make money in this way is in itself ugly.
This something-for-nothing/win-at-all-cost mentality is ubiquitous in society. It's in the gyms. But it can't be done, no matter what the social people will tell you: beauty and ugliness can't co-exist side-by-side. One or the other must exit, must disappear. Ill-gotten physical attributes are easily discernible to the more-sensitive out there but this fakeness has become so prevalent and the virtuous versions so rare, that people have en masse forgotten the recognizable signs of what's real and begun accepting the false in its stead.
People have become so inured to the artifice, and the genuine so rare, there is a mass forgetting.
My theme, in case it's become too hidden, is that in order to personify the natural and classic physique, you must not only train like a natural, all-around athlete but also train the mind in the classical way of truth, virtue and...beauty.
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