All posts by josh

Do You Like to Workout Alone? Make the Most of It. Part 2.

In Part 1 of this post I gave my highly opinionated recommendation for rewiring your workouts to cut to the center of your athletic needs by focusing on barbells, calisthenics and plyometrics.

Part 2 is all about how you perform your exercises. It might seem trivial to focus on this but it’s the most crucial element to seeing continued results with your fitness. Most people have chronic bad habits, even with seemingly simple exercises like push-ups: butt down, elbows out, not achieving full range of motion. Don’t be fooled, you’re better off doing 10 gymnastics inspired picture perfect push-ups then you are doing 50 with amateur form.

Focus on barbell technique

Barbells are your foundation for everything. You don’t want to ignore your technique for bodyweight exercises as they all certainly have a good and a bad form. Mastering your form with barbells, however, will build a foundation of proper athletic motor patterns that will guide and improve your bodyweight exercises, your running and jumping and nearly every other athletic movement.

Take time to groove

Grooving in the athletic and fitness world is the term applied to instilling muscle memory. It’s not unlike water grooving a riverbed in the earth. Luckily – you can do it much faster than water can. It takes roughly 300 repetitions to groove a motor pattern and thousands to remove one. The burden of grooving proper motor patterns is yours. Don’t take it lightly or you’ll suffer the injurious consequences eventually.

Why you should socialize at the gym

Professional athletes all have one thing in common: they have coaches and peers to help them get better. Here are three methods I use to substitute what I don’t have as a solo gym-goer.

1. Personal Trainer critique. The more friendly you are with the floor trainers the more likely they are to give you free advice. Get to know them and ask them who is the most experienced with olympic lifting or powerlifting. It’s easy for any everyday trainer to spot bad form but only real lifters know how to help you correct it.

Much of the time the problem with squats and other lifts comes from improper visualization. Cues like “elbows forward” or “screw your feet into the ground” are priceless and can be exactly what you needed to perfect your squats.

2. Peer feedback. Get a friend or someone more experienced than you to watch you and offer their critique. Every gym has at least a few guys and girls who really stand out. More often than not they are happy to help others. Find a good moment to ask them to take a look at your form and offer some tips. Most of these athletes are hard to shut up once you get them going.

3. Record yourself. If you have a smart-phone that records video, use it. If you’re embarrassed about looking vain, get over it. Take a technique day were you lower the weight and focus solely on getting absolutely perfect form through every part of the movement, recording and reviewing every set. This assumes you know proper form when you see it–which might require some YouTubing and Googling but it shouldn’t be too hard.

A mirror doesn’t cut it. You can’t get the right angle and trying to do so will only change your form. It’s a classic Physics observer effect. Don’t rely on mirrors.

Take your headphones off/out

A good way to open yourself up for discussing your form is by taking your headphones off and earbuds out. I’ve started doing this recently and it’s turned out to be a great way to meet others who take their exercise serious. I’ve received a number of helpful cues from new and old peers.

Programming is last

After you’ve rewritten your gym time to include squats, plyometrics and calisthenics and after you’ve evaluated your form and refined your technique, then it’s time to think about how you compose your workouts day-to-day week-to-week. Hang tight for part 3 in this series.

Enough with the Damn Pushups

Every year when spring rolls around you read countless posts from men (mostly) sharing their new goals to get in shape with pushups. If it’s not a new mobile app it’s a facebook page, hashtag or some other mislead effort to get people “in shape” with pushups.

So, what’s wrong with that?

There are, perhaps, a few problems with trying to get in shape with pushups, the least of which is you will likely get sick of doing the same movement over and over and over again and won’t succeed in getting in shape with pushups.

The second and more significant problem is you are only training part of your body. This will certainly lead to internally rotated shoulders and bad posture. See the not-so-sexy posture the guy has in the image above? Yeah, that. As the muscles of the upper chest out-perform the rear shoulder and upper back muscles. Moreover, as these muscle groups get out of balance, you put yourself at greater risk of throwing your back out. For a culture that is already being destroyed by sitting, the last thing we need to be doing is furthering this imbalance.

Anterior vs Posterior Muscles

Your body has two groups of muscles, or chains, that move your body with great efficiency and power. The anterior chain comprises all the muscles in the front of your body (left-hand side of the image to the right). The posterior chain is composed of all the muscles in the back of your body (right-hand side of the image to the right). Your goal is to keep these chains balanced. This will give you that sexy posture you’ve always wanted, alleviate the aches and pains caused by sitting and prevent more serious injuries in the future.

What to do instead?

Pushups are fine (particularly when proper form is respected) but balance them out with something that strengthens your posterior chain. Try a few of these bodyweight exercises to achieve that balance:

Plyometric Lunges

Hyperextensions

Bridges

Hamstring Curls

Note: Engage the glutes by pushing your butt up (perhaps higher than he does in the video).

Crab Walks

Eccentric Hamstring Curls

These are my personal favorite. Make sure you have some really solid padding under your knees.

Do You Like to Workout Alone? Make the Most of It. Part 1.

I’ve been going to the gym solo lately as I’m injured and can’t really go to CrossFit. It’s not all-together unfamiliar as this used to be my preferred means of exercise. However, after experiencing a thoroughly more exhaustive, functional and effective methodology, it’s radically changed my outlook on how to get the most out of my solo gym time.

I see that most gym-goers have two factors in common: they are stagnant and they are unbalanced. They focus on external physique and “problem areas” without understanding how to build an athletic foundation to transform their body and achieve a higher level of fitness that cuts across a broad range of movements and techniques. In my opinion it’s a problem for the intellect. You have to identify your biggest challenges and tackle them directly. I’m speaking from experience here. I chased a carrot-on-a-stick for many years trying to build fitness piecemeal and I’ve only recently begun to tackle it holistically. It’s rewarding yet humbling to be sure.

Your biggest challenges to overcome as a solo gym-goer are not how many exercises you can do in one session or how long can you stay on the treadmill. Your true challenges are:

  1. Selecting the right exercises. Rather than trying to perform the most number of exercises or an increased duration of them, pick exercises that cut to the heart of your athletic needs. (covered below)
  2. Performing exercises correctly. There’s only one right way to perform most exercises. Unfortunately it might take some time to learn it and groove that movement into your muscle memory.  (covered here in part 2)
  3. Workout programming. Rather than doing the same tired exercises day after day, learn how to mix them up properly day-to-day week-to-week to build your athletic potential to new heights. (this will be covered in part 3)

Selecting the right exercises

Everyone enters this gym with at least some idea of what they need to do to improve their fitness. Unfortunately these notions are usually nowhere near the center of their athletic needs. Hitting the bulls-eye of your athletic needs is step 1 of exercising smartly and it all starts with a willingness to learn new things.

Despite being somewhat fads, the BeachBody workouts have done a great job of getting people to hit that bulls-eye–something CrossFit takes to a whole different level.

There’s a common phrase in the nutrition community that you should shop near the perimeter of the grocery store purchasing mostly fresh meats and produce and avoiding the aisles which are littered with processed foods that do more harm than good.

If there were a similar adage for the gym it would also advise avoiding the “aisles” of machines, gravitating toward the squat racks, medicine balls, pull-up bars and open floor spaces.

If you’re new to the gym it’s very likely you’re embarrassed to a significant degree and are probably going to steer toward machines because they are less intimidating and hard to do wrong. Unfortunately, as is the case with most easy things, machines yield the least results. Most of them target specific areas when it’s more critical to have a strong foundation of proper motor patterns, core and leg strength than it is to have nice biceps or chiseled delts. There’s a reason painters start by blocking out the entire canvas.

What should comprise the foundation of your exercises? Barbells, Plyometrics and Calisthenics.

Barbells

I sense this is going to be an uphill battle–trying to convince you of the merits of barbells. I’m listing this before plyometrics and calisthenics because it’s more likely you have stigmas attached to barbells and those who use them. Barbells are probably the best way to instill proper athletic motor patterns, transform your body and gain strength from the inside-out. Barbells, and more specifically back-squats, are where I would start if I could go back in time to my 15 year old self. The problem with back-squats, however, is that they can be intimidating and they suffer from association with bulk.

Thankfully this is changing in no small part because of CrossFit. (There are plenty of high-performing men and women in the CrossFit community who have slender athletic physiques.) This is a good thing because squats give you a rock-solid core, powerful hips and legs followed by strong arms. Performing squats well requires and supports flexibility and contrary to popular belief will not make you bulky. Specific workout programming and diet make you bulky; exercises can’t do that on their own.

Squats and other barbell exercises teach you how your body mechanics work; how an elegant and graceful motion allows you to move weight with ease. These movements transfer to almost every other athletic movement. Barbells are to athletes what tuning forks are to musicians.

Whether you’re completely new to squats or just a little rusty it’s best that you get a session or two with a trainer or coach who has experience with track and field, football or of course, CrossFit. Learning proper form is imperative (more on this in part 2) and standard everyday trainers aren’t always well versed with squats–thankfully this is changing. Odds are better than not that your gym has a trainer who loves barbells. Find him or her and setup a session.

Fun Fact: women have a natural inclination to proper form and technique when it comes to squats and other barbell exercises. Men have to work at it a lot more, mostly due to limited range of motion.

Calisthenics

Also knows as “bodyweight exercises,” these are exercises performed without any equipment or added weight like: push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. There are a million different calisthenic exercises each favoring a different part of the body and they are infinitely scalable. They integrate multiple joints and muscles, forcing them to work in unison rather than isolating them as machines do.

No matter how weak or athletic you are there’s always a bodyweight exercise to challenge you. It’s worth learning and mastering as many as possible to keep your workouts from getting old and tired.

There’s one device that deserves special mention here as it helps you bring your bodyweight to a number of different exercises. TRX training is great for beginners and professional athletes alike. You can compose entire workouts with the TRX suspension straps.

Plyometrics

Plyometrics are exercises performed at maximum intensity like jumping over or on top of something, sprinting, et cetera. These exercises are the glue for the barbells and calisthenics. They ensure that the strength and power you are developing is transferred to functional real-world movements. They are also a lot of fun and often give you an excuse to get out of the gym.

Combining calisthenics and plyometrics is the foundation of the BeachBody workouts and nearly every bootcamp and fitness fad since the beginning of the fitness industry. Most of them try and insert some “irreplaceable” contraption to compound the effects. Don’t believe the hype, it’s the same old calisthenics and plyometrics at work.

Rather than setting a goal to spend 45 minutes on the treadmill, try a few sets of good form squats followed by few rounds of mountain climbers and russian twists.

In summary, avoid targeting “problem areas” until you have a strong foundation based on functional movements and strong motor patterns. True fitness is built from the inside-out.

What’s in Part 2?

Now that you’re willing to challenge yourself with new exercises you’ll need to focus on form and technique, but as a solo gym-goer, how do you do that? Read part 2 now.

Warming Up with a Foam Roller

Foam rollers are extremely popular tools in most modern gyms. They are typically used for either core and balance work or myofascial release: breaking up scar tissue and mobilizing joints.

However, they can be a great warmup tool as well. In addition to your warmup routine, rolling out on a foam roller is a great way to loosen up problem areas, increase mobility and prepare specific muscles for exercise. This can be a great way to obtain full range of movement or ensure you’re engaging the right muscles.

Many athletes new to squats have a hard time firing their glutes. They end up squatting predominantly with their quads and/or lower back. Rolling out the glutes and upper hamstrings is a great way to warm up those muscles and signal the brain to rely on them for the coming task.

Pro Tip: Got sore knees? Roll out your knees with a Rad Roller.

Between sets, rolling out can also be a good way to keep muscles warm while you wait for the next set. This is particularly helpful with long sets between heavier weights.

It’s good to know that there are at least two types of foam rollers (hopefully) in your gym. Soft and hard.

The hard ones are typically used more for balance or trigger point work (i.e. after workout) and the soft ones are ideal for this warming up. Hard ones tend to be black, while softer ones are either white or blue. My personal favorite for warming up are the blue, like this one.

Cut Through the Noise: 4 Tips for Better Squats

If you’re learning how to squat, you may find yourself overwhelmed with the plethora of cues and tips from an ever-increasing community of “experts.” Many of them may indeed be experts but when you’re learning how to squat, many of these tips may not apply. If you’re having a hard time hearing the signal through the noise, here are 4 quick tips to better squats:

  1. Squat deep. Make sure the top of your legs (not the bottom) go below parallel.
  2. Sit back. Put your weight on your heels and sit back into an invisible chair.
  3. Fire your glutes / Knees out. These two cues are really one in the same. Once you hit the bottom of your squat, fire your glutes which should (better) push your knees out. If you’re firing your quads too early you’ll notice your knees pulling inward (super common mistake).
  4. Chest up. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and try to keep your torso as upright as possible.

The Wisdom of Sidney Deane or Why You Don’t Need Your Camera in a Museum

The Natural History Museum in Manhattan is practically in my backyard so I’m trying to develop a habit of sketching there while I have some down time. The museum is known for having some of the world’s best dioramas: realistic sculptures of animals with a surrounding habitat.

The amount of detail and artistic precision put into these dioramas is incredible. If you get close enough you can almost convince yourself you’re really there.

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During this time, I noticed that visitors spend anywhere from 3 to 15 seconds observing the dioramas. This was not consistent across all age demographics, however. The groups that spent the most time were older visitors, mostly 50 and older. The second most attentive were young children who took the time to proudly point out the detailed characteristics of the dioramas, practically having to be pushed along by their parents. The group that observed the shortest time, however, was the 18-45 demographic, what I am calling the smartphone demographic.

There was one distinguishing aspect of this group. They don’t actually look at the sculptures themselves; only their cellphones do. They briskly walk by with their smartphones and tablets in front of them, pausing long enough to still the frame before they move on to the next.

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I know what you’re thinking. “Yes Josh, smartphones are ruining our attention span.” And while as a mobile engineer I might indeed be more old-fashioned than most, I do value the omnipresent ability to look up information, rapidly communicate and easily snap photos of memorable events.

Museums are different though. Artists have taken the time to create a real-life representation of what they see for our benefit. We are meant to see through their eyes, directly. And while we’re in a museum we have the unique and fleeting opportunity to do exactly that. To make a second and lower-fidelity carbon-copy, often constrained to a paltry 3 or 4 inches, when we could fully experience the original life-sized creation first-hand, is a shame.


I’m reminded of this classic line Sidney Deane (played by Wesley Snipes) says in the popular ’90s movie, White Men Can’t Jump:

“Look man, you can listen to Jimi but you can’t hear him. There’s a difference man. Just because you’re listening to him doesn’t mean you’re hearing him.”

Well, I think it’s the same with the smartphone generation. We can look at these sculptures but we can’t really see them.

Joshua the Music Maker: a Busking Success Story

Riding the 2 train through Harlem today, a young chubby kid–probably around 12–boarded sporting a NY baseball cap, a clean tee and a harmonica around his neck. He was rolling a small cart with 2 buckets filled with drumsticks; some broken, all used.

He took the buckets off the cart, turned them upside down, sat on one and cradled the other between his short legs. He looked up and caught the curious gaze of an elderly woman and smiled a huge cocky grin.

“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen!” he belted with confidence far beyond his years, “please excuse the interruption. My name is Joshua the Music Maker. When you hear something you like, you clap. When you hear something you don’t, you still clap.”

He went on to drop an early Public Enemy-esque beat using his sticks, the bucket and one of the hand-poles. Then he kicked in with the mouth-harp, laying a nice tune on top.

After playing for a minute or two, he stopped, stood and called back to the audience:

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Applause is kindly welcomed” and waited for our applause. We clapped like trained monkeys to our 12 year old master.

“Any donation is welcomed. I’ll take a penny, I’ll take a dollar.”

He pulled one ratty dollar bill out of his pocket, and straightened it in his hand. I thought to myself: “Damn, that kid is impressive, he deserves a dollar” and I handed it over. He was so sure of his ability to make donations he didn’t even look at me when he took it. He continued around the train-car accepting dollar-bills until he came back to his kit. I saw him count the ratty dollars out in his hand: $10 dollars! The train stopped at 135th and he exited, hustling his way towards the next car.

If he can make $10 in 5 minutes in one car, that’s roughly $120 dollars an hour if he can keep that up! Suddenly I want to take back my $1. I think I might need it more than he will.

Preventing Shoulder Injury in CrossFit

It’s Your Responsibility to Avoid Injury

People love to bash CrossFit. In my experience, the most common critique relates to the high rate of injury. I won’t even argue that people don’t injure themselves more often in CrossFit than they do in a globogym. Unfortunately, I’ve learned first-hand that it’s true that participants push themselves past their limits in CrossFit. The other side of the coin is that CrossFit can take a decent athlete and make her great or take a total lazy-ass who hates exercise and make it fun for him, challenging and motivating him to achieve a healthy level of fitness.

Bearing that in mind, there’s only so much your coaches and boxes can do to prevent you from injuring yourself. You have to know the difference between a pushing that will help you achieve elite fitness and a pushing that will lead to injury. In some exercises, that’s easy. In others I’ve found it to be more difficult. Especially while in the middle of a WOD and my heart rate is jacked and my endorphines are masking all signs of pain that might develop from poor movement, it’s not until the workout is over that I might feel any pain.

About 4 weeks in to my CrossFit career I injured my shoulder and this is how I could have prevented it.

Your Hips Can Write a Check That Your Shoulders Can’t Cash.

It all starts with the Kip. A Kip is a gymnastics movement. Integration of gymnastics movements is one of my favorite components of CrossFit’s programming. It balances the OMG Not Again feeling of the barbell and Olympic Lifts with a playground-esque feeling that makes the WODs tons of fun.

Back to the kip. The kip is the term for a horizontal movement of the hips applied to vertical movements performed while hanging from a bar or rings. Take a look at this video of the Kipping Pull-Up or this one of the Kipping Toe-to-Bar to get a better idea of what the kip does.

One of my first CrossFit instructors told me to be careful with the kip. His exact words were “Your hips will write a check your shoulders can’t cash.”

Sadly I wish I had asked him to elaborate.

A Nagging Pinch Somewhere In My Shoulder

While I’m not 100% sure when my shoulder problem started, I think it was probably a rotator cuff impingement from sleeping. If you sleep on your shoulder wrong for too long, the bones in your shoulder can pinch one of the heads of your rotator cuff causing a sharp pain while performing overhead or shoulder rotating movements.

Starting with this small nagging pain that I didn’t listen to, I continued going to CrossFit WODs and eventually was prescribed a lovely 20 minute AMRAP of:

I have a lot of back strength and a lot of hip strength so I can knock out quite a few kipping pull-ups before getting tired. But 20 minutes of c2b (chest-to-bar pull-ups) and I quickly reached my limits. What happens when you fatigue during kipping pull-ups is you rely on your hips to get you up to the bar, thrusting them powerfully. The key to a good kipping pull-up is to push away from the bar at the top using your chest, not unlike a pushup, which transfers the vertical drop to a horizontal movement and helps you drive up again on the next rep. When you’re fatigued, this “push off of the bar” is the first thing to go. You get up to the top of the bar and then you just fall down to a hang position. This is the point where you should get off the friggin’ bar, take a breather and start again. Your body isn’t going to tell you that you’re ruining your shoulders while you’re doing this but you are.

Always Keep Your Shoulders Engaged

When performing any kipping exercise you want your arm-pits opened at the bottom of the rep and closing inwards when you drive up to the top of the pull-up. More importantly, when you lower from the top to the bottom you should be using your shoulders to control the movement so you’re not applying detrimental force to the structure of your shoulder. Open the sockets of your arm-pits in a controlled manner at the bottom of the pull-up as your body moves forward. This doesn’t mean you can’t do it fast–just make sure it’s controlled. If you find yourself losing that control, you’ll notice that your lowering phase will become a dropping phase. Avoid that and you’ll keep your shoulders in fighting shape.

Learn from my mistake. If your shoulders fatigue while performing toe-to-bars or pull-ups, get off the bar and take a breather. Don’t go nuts with the kipping.

Rehabbing the Shoulders

While I will be having my shoulder looked at tomorrow by a sports medicine doctor, in the meantime I’ve taken to these measures to rehab it and avoid further injury.

  1. Rest. I’ve stayed away from all overhead movements including pullups, presses, handstands, etc. It sucks but it’s giving me a chance to work on my olympic and power lifts.
  2. Mobility. Hopefully this is a no-brainer. I’m rolling it out with lacrosse balls and stretching what I can with bands.
  3. No Ice, no NSAIDs. If you haven’t heard that Icing is terrible, read this post by KStar or watch this video on YouTube. The same goes for Advil, Tylenol and all other NSAIDs. “Seriously, do you honestly believe that your body’s natural inflammatory response is a mistake?”
  4. Vitamins and Supplements. I’ve upped Vitamin C by a factor of 3 and started taking Collagen. Collagen is the natural protein that makes up most of the fibrous tissues in your body including tendon, ligament and skin, and is also abundant in cornea, cartilage, bone, blood vessels, the gut, and intervertebral disc. Generally, anything you can do to increase your body’s ability to heal will help you rehab a shoulder injury.
  5. Exercises I’ve identified some exercises to help rehab the shoulder but prior to having a good diagnosis I’m going to continue with rest.