As a former college rower, it’s hard to stop myself from getting in there and coaching anyone I see at the gym rowing with uncharacteristic technique.
Technique aside for a moment, though, because an even bigger deficiency I witness on a daily basis is a lack of understanding of pace. If you took off on a 5km run, you probably wouldn’t sprint the first 400 meters at your top speed, gas yourself out, and end up walking the last 4.5km. You would most likely aim to run at a consistent pace for 18-30 minutes, or however long a 5km run takes you.
However, when it comes to rowing, I often witness people doing exactly this, as they just aren’t sure what the numbers even mean, let alone how fast they should be going at various distances. Thus, step one of learning how to pace yourself on the ergometer (aka: rowing machine) is to familiarize yourself with the number in the middle of the screen: Your split time.
In this picture, it says 2:00/500m, meaning if you held that same speed for 500 meters, it would take you exactly 2 minutes to row 500 meters.
Understanding and becoming familiar with that various split times is going to be the biggest difference-maker in terms of helping you maximize your efforts during any workout that has rowing. It will also help you avoid that painful feeling of flying and dying—the one that causes you to want to give up and stop.
Understanding the Split: Grade 7 Math In Action
If you’re going for a 2km row and hold an average of 2:00/500m for 2km, it will take you 8:00 minutes to complete 2km.
- 500 x 4 = 2,000m and 2:00 x 4 = 8:00.
If you hold 2:00/500m for 5km, it will take you 20:00 to reach 5km.
- 500 x 10 = 5,000m and 2:00 x 10 = 20:00
Whether you’re rowing 2km, 500 meters or 5km, the most efficient pace is a consistent one. The same way you wouldn’t speed up and slow down at different times during a 5km run, each stroke on the machine should be at a deliberate and consistent speed regardless of the distance you’re rowing.
In fact, experienced rowers performing a 2km test piece would basically hold the exact same split the entire race (minus a sprint start and sprint finish, which would likely be a couple splits slightly faster).
But every other stroke would be the same speed. When I was a college rower, I became so in tune with my speed I could flip the monitor up and hit the exact same split (more or less) for 30 minutes, without even looking at the screen, just based on feel.
The great thing about the ergometer is you can look at the memory on the monitor after your row to check out how consistent you were.
Typically, when I look at the memory on the machines of novice rowers, and many of my clients, after they do a 500 meter row or a 2km row, for example, their split time is usually anything but consistent. More often than not they start out too hard and peter out as the race goes on.
How to Consistently Pace Your Row
That’s the goal here—to help you become more familiar with your pace for a 500 meter row, a 1km row, a 2km row, and a 5km row, and help you develop a consistent pace for each.
Below is a simple way to get to know what a sprint pace feels like, versus a medium effort pace, versus a warm-up speed.
- After a good rowing warm-up, where you get your heart rate up a couple times, set your machine’s monitor for 500 meters and do an all-out 95 percent effort 500-meter sprint.
- At the end, check your memory on your monitor. How consistent was your split? Consistent means each 100 meters of your 500-meter piece was within two to three splits of one another.
For example, if your first 100 meters was a 1:45/500m average, your second was a 1:46, your third a 1:46, your fourth a 1:47 and your fifth a 1:45, you’re right on point.
However, if you started out at a 1:45 split during the first 100 or 200 meters and petered out to a 2:05 and eventually hit a 2:10, you definitely went out too hard and were not consistent at all. After that, look at what your average speed was during the entire piece. Let’s say your average over the course of the 500m was a 2:05/500m.
Next, rest for 5 to 10 minutes and then try another piece where you hit 2:05/500m the entire time, as opposed to starting at a 1:55 and ending at a 2:10. If you’re able to hold a 2:05 the whole time, it will feel a lot easier than the inconsistent first piece where you went out too hard.
Once you figure out what a hard and consistent 500 meter row feels like, you can use that number to figure out how fast to go during a 1km or 2km row to 5km race, or during a multi-modal conditioning workouts that include rowing and other movements (if you’re into that type of training).
As a general rule, if you’re a novice to rowing, you can expect your 1km row to be an average of four to six splits higher than your hard 500 meter row, and your 2km row to be 8 to 12 splits higher than your 500-meter speed.
For example, if your 500 meter effort is 1:45/500m, you can expect to hold between 1:49 and 1:51 for a 1km row and between a 1:53 and a 1:57 split.
As for the 500 meter row, it’s better to use your 2km row as a guide. Aim to hit between 8-10 splits slower than your 2km row. So, if your 2km average split is 1:55/500m, then aim for between a 2:03 and a 2:05 split during a 5km test piece.
Learn Your Numbers
Note that those are speeds for hard, all-out efforts, as opposed to training speeds. But just like lifting, if you get to know your max efforts, then you can choose to go at 70 percent or 80 percent, for example, of your max effort during training. This will only help make your training more effective as you’ll be rowing with intention, as opposed to just hopping on a machine and rowing haphazardly and without a plan.
Best case scenario, you get to know what a test speed and a training speed is for various distances, namely 500 meters, 1km, 2km, and 5km.
When you know these numbers, you’ll be able to approach any workout that involves rowing in a much more calculated and effective way, which will ultimately only serve to boost your performance, rowing and otherwise, to new heights.
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“He who has a ‘why’ can bear almost any ‘how.’
Back in the 1800s, Nietzsche understood how pivotal the question of ‘why’ is to the human experience.
These days though, in the age of instantaneous and abundant information, asking ‘why’ is a lost art. For many, doing the work of digging deep and asking ‘why’ is just not nearly as convenient or comfortable as asking ‘how to.’
This is especially true when it comes to fitness—we never seem to tire of the same old ‘how to’ merry go round. Day after day, year after year, your newsstand and your news feed reads like the greatest hits of some of the most played out questions on the planet:
- How to lose 10 pounds fast!
- How to tone your arms!
- How to lose that stubborn belly fat!
- How to burn more calories with exercise!
- How to get better results in less time!
- How to get bigger/faster/stronger!
As if we all haven’t seen these regurgitated queries a thousand times. But there’s always a new sucker who’s captivated by the allure of the quick fix promise of looking and feeling fabulous in five easy steps.
The ‘how to’ movement in fitness is everywhere you look. Fitness influencers show you the steps to your goals backed up by their snazzy before and after pictures. Fitness ‘experts’ show you ‘how to’ in their newest, most efficient workouts.
Supplement manufacturers and marketers promise the genie in the bottle that will solve your chronic weight problem. And fitness entrepreneurs can’t wait to reveal their latest fads and gizmos that will surely lead to your imminent bliss.
Here’s a newsflash: It’s all bullshit without a ‘why.‘
Sort Out Your Motivation
Whether or not we’ll ever tire of the same old story is anyone’s guess. But one thing for sure is that ‘how to’ is both perpetually popular and profitable. ‘How to’ brings people in the door because it’s comforting, easily digestible, and provides straightforward answers (with colorful photos!).
‘How to’ undoubtedly makes business sense, but unfortunately for those of us on the continuum of health and wellness, there aren’t one size fits all answers. Especially when it comes to your fitness—outlining the subsequent steps to achieving a goal without doing the work of ‘why’ is an effort in sheer futility. Achieving a state of sustained health and wellness requires the ability to be introspective and accountable to our own shortcomings.
Photograph by Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas
Don’t get me wrong, ‘how to’ is important. You wouldn’t drive across the country without a map or a GPS. But ‘how to’ is putting the cart before the horse. ‘How to’ will get you somewhere, but it doesn’t solve the root of your problems, it merely informs direction. You can’t expect to know where you’re going unless you know where you’re at (and what got you there). Just ask a recovering addict.
In addiction recovery, there may be 12 ‘how to’ steps, but the real work is about ‘why’—the willingness to look within, find acceptance, and make amends. Peace of mind in recovery is only obtained by leaning into the pain of your problem and wrestling with ‘why.’
It is what informs purpose, passion, and persistence. It’s solving the problem in reverse. You don’t move forward unless you first look backward. In fitness, the parallel is those that are running towards something versus those that are running from something. The former has a ‘why,’ the latter is just looking for a way out.
Some might argue that spending too much time ruminating on ‘why’ is actually a hindrance and life doesn’t happen in the rearview mirror. Fair enough—sometimes you just have to jump. When you’re drowning, you don’t need to figure out what got you in that mess, you need a life preserver and a plan! But it’s also true that if you don’t want your predicament to happen again, the work of looking back is essential.
The Iron-Clad ‘Why’
As we’ve seen time and time again in fitness, ‘how to’ is appealing to many in the short-term. But ‘how to’ doesn’t work when it comes to sustainability. Despite the massive growth in the fitness business in the past two decades, the fitness movement has made no collective impact in combating the root causes of the obesity pandemic.
Millions of people start exercise programs every year, but more than half of them quit within six months. The reason people start exercise programs is because of ‘how to’ questions. The reason they quit is that they don’t have a strong enough ‘why.’ Personally, in my 20+ years in and around fitness, I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands of people lose weight. But I’ve seen no one keep that weight off without an iron-clad ‘why.’
Truthfully, in any successful endeavor, you need a bit of both ‘why’ and ‘how to.’ You also need a bit of ‘what if?’—as in, “What if I never try?” or “What are the stakes of not changing?” But jumping in without a ‘why’ is a sure-fire way to end up lost and/or right back where you started. Especially after a defeat like weight gain, injury, or failure to reach a goal, you must face yourself before facing your next opponent.
The Work Starts With ‘Why’
We are living in a time of epidemic proportions from addiction to obesity to a declining life expectancy (due in a large part to rising suicide rates). A lack of ‘why’ is driving much of this emptiness.
There’s nothing wrong with following a fitness influencer, joining a gym, or hiring a trainer—they just may show you something useful. But real answers to the most important questions in life don’t come in convenient packages with instructions; they come from within. The work starts with ‘why.’
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Be honest now. When it comes to your training, how much time do you spend working on your wrists?
There’s a good chance the answer is, “Not at all.”
Most of us don’t think much about warming up or strengthening our wrists, which is weird considering how many of us have immobile or weak wrists or even experience chronic pain in them.
If you have ever sprained a wrist, you know what I’m talking about—they seem to take months to heal. This is partially because day-to-day life—from brushing your teeth to typing at a computer, to doing dishes—never really gives us a break from using our wrists. Alas, an injury that started out as a minor sprain ends up lingering for months.
I developed tendonitis in my wrists preparing for the 2015 CrossFit West Regional, a competition that had a handstand push-up and a handstand walking event. It literally took two years until the pain had completely subsided. And it only did when I started taking the time to pay attention to my wrists.
Here are five exercises I included in my wrist routine, ones that are useful for those looking to increase their range of motion in their wrists, strengthen the joint itself, or heal a lingering wrist injury that just never seems to go away.
This involves building a simple contraption, but it’s well worth it.
Step 1: Cut a wooden dowel or PVC pipe to about one foot in length.
Step 2: Securely attach a piece of thin rope about 4 feet in length around the dowel so that the dowel doesn’t spin when you rotate it. Make sure when you rotate the dowel, the rope catches and wraps around the dowel.
Step 3: Attach a carabiner to the end of the rope and hang a 2.5 or 5 lb plate from the rope via the carabiner.
Step 4: Hold the dowel with both hands out in front of you and straight arms, and use your wrists to slowly roll the rope and the plate all the way up to the dowel and then back down again. The idea here is to isolate your wrists, move slowly, and go through your entire wrist range of motion as you’re rolling the rope up and down the dowel.
Though this won’t necessarily help you improve your wrist flexibility, it’s a great way to build tension on your wrists through your full range of motion, helping you access your current range of motion with more control.
- Add five wristies (up and down) to your warm-up or cooldown, or even between sets of a lift.
2. Slow Wrist Rotations
The key to these slow wrist rotations is to make sure you rotate only through the wrist, as opposed to the elbow (a very common mistake).
To do this, take a seat and anchor your forearm (forearm faces the sky) with your other hand. I like to rest my arm on my thigh and let my wrist and hand hang over. Then slowly rotate your wrist in one direction, trying to recruit as much range of motion as you can, almost like you’re trying to scrape the corners of a box.
- Add 10 slow wrist rotations in one direction and 10 in the other to your warm-up or cooldown.
3. Dynamic Wrist Stretch
On all fours, flip your hand upside down so the back of your hand is on the ground and press your elbow straight into a deep wrist flexion. Bounce back and forth a couple of times in this wrist flexion position.
Then flip your hand and place it flat on the ground with your fingers toward you in a traditional wrist extension stretch. Bounce back and forth a couple of times into full wrist extension.
Then internally rotate your hand 180 degrees until your fingers face toward your body and place your palm flat on the ground. Again, push your elbow straight and bounce back a forth in that position a few times.
Tip: If you have a hard time keeping your elbow straight or you find yourself in pain, then simply bring your hand closer to your body into a position where you can challenge your range of motion without pain and with a straight elbow.
- Spend one minute per wrist in your warm-up or cooldown, continuously shifting between the three positions.
4. Wrist Flexion Stretch
On all fours, place one hand flat on the ground and the other hand in a wrist flexion stretch with the back of your hand on the ground and your fingers facing your other hand.
Press your elbow straight (think about pushing your inside elbow bone as far forward as you can without rotation your arm). If you can do this without pain and get the back of your hand completely flat on the ground, then try this with both hands at the same time.
- Spend one minute on this stretch per hand in warm-up or as a cooldown.
5. Lateral Wrist Rocks
We rarely work our wrists laterally, yet when we sprain them this tends to be where we experience the most pain.
On all fours, make a fist with one hand and place your knuckles on the ground. Keep the other hand flat. Then rock back and forth moving your wrist laterally, trying to gain as much range of motion as you can.
- Add 10 to 20 lateral wrist rocks to your warm-up.
While you might not have the time to give your wrists enough love every single training session if you can find 10 minutes twice a week, your wrists will return the love through greater mobility, increased strength, and best of all, less wrist pain.
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“I made brownies! Here have one.”
“Oh, they smell so good! Thank you, but I had a big breakfast and I’m still full.” (a white lie)
“Come on. It’s just a little brownie.”
“Really, I appreciate it, but no thank you.”
“Really? You’re such a health freak that you won’t even eat the brownie I made?”
That escalated quickly. Another example of the oh-too-frequent social guilt of not consuming what others want you to.
We live in an odd world. If your experience is anything like mine, treats are such a common staple of every event where humans congregate that you couldn’t possibly eat them every time they were offered without gaining a good bit of unwanted weight.
Even with the best of intentions, it is common to find yourself losing all control to guilt—your buddy who wants you to have beers when you stop by or Grandma who always has cookies on hand. Their offer is full of love, but you don’t want what they are offering. Saying no is interpreted as a rejection of them, not the offer.
In day to day interactions, the only responses that have a chance of not offending are:
- I don’t feel very well. I think I’m sick.
- I’m having a colonoscopy this afternoon and can’t eat anything.
- Or, I’m doing 20 day cleanse. Yeah, right now I can only eat alfalfa grass, beet juice, and this $72 meal replacement shake. (People totally understand a diet with a deadline. What tends to upset them is actually changing your lifestyle.)
Food can be emotional. People often feel legitimately offended by your decision not to consume what they want you to, but that is on them. They are responsible for their emotions, not you.
You haven’t physically harmed them, dissed them, or even gone on a rant about how sugar is the devil. If you respectfully decline and their feelings are hurt, that really is not your problem. This is much easier said than done, but it is an essential understanding for living authentically in this bizarre world.
Guilt is a form of manipulation. When people try to make you feel guilty they are trying to coerce your behavior to fit what meets their desires, irrespective of what you want. This is especially problematic when it comes to food.
The Western diet has brought society to epidemic poor health that is hard to truly appreciate. The decision to reject common norms and value your own health is one of the best things you could ever do. Anyone coercing you to break your own rules and weaken your habits is not a benign force, but a negative one, at least at that moment.
This is all very general and overly-dramatic. They certainly aren’t evil, but we have to clearly understand that making them feel better is not our job. Certainly, you should feel free to have treats, but if you’ve decided this isn’t the time (as health will often require you to), then that is a mature decision that they should respect. Any other response is a reflection on them, not you.
You are not responsible for their emotions. The opposite is also true. No one is responsible for your emotions, except you. Good relationships are built on this understanding. People interact honestly and support each other in the pursuits they find meaningful. It is not that there is a sociopathic disregard for the emotions of other humans. Empathy is intact, yet that empathy is founded on the understanding that personal responsibility precludes lasting fulfillment.
Dysfunctional relationships tend to feature one person (the needy) frequently guilting the other (someone needing to be needed) into acquiescing to their every wish. This dynamic isn’t good for anyone. The needy needs tough realities to help them take personal responsibility.
Being “kind” to him by giving in is actually a veiled form of cruelty that keeps him immature and dependent. Alternatively, the needed must learn to resist the guilt that controls her so she can feel peace and invest her energy more fruitfully.
I get that you could take this too far. For example, my grandfather has been having a hell of a time with his prostate cancer and he recently moved into a senior living center in Florida. I went down to see him and we had a great morning full of good conversation.
He then grabbed a Dove chocolate from the bowl next to his chair and asked me, “Do you allow yourself an occasional chocolate square?” Absolutely! I’d have been a real jerk to pass on that.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do things for other people or that you shouldn’t ever have a spontaneous cookie at grandma’s. The problem is when we are constantly pulling ourselves away from our self-development goals in order to please others. This is almost always bad and it is a particularly large problem when it comes to food.
What you eat matters. It affects your health, your energy, and the way you live your life. You have to have boundaries that you’ll stand for in order to be healthy. Boundaries are, in effect, rules we set for ourselves. I am determined not to let other people dictate what foods I consume. Sure, I’ll allow myself to be pulled in by the fun of an evening out, but only on my terms. Not through guilt. That is my rule.
This goes further than just our boundaries with other people. Every healthy and successful person I know has strong boundaries in their fitness and work as well. They set rules for themselves and follow them, because you can’t rely on motivation or feeling “locked in,” to accomplish an objective.
If you want to be healthy you’ll have to start workouts even when you aren’t “feeling it” and eat well even when you are having cravings. Boundaries free us from the tyranny of deliberation. They create clarity in our values and help us act as we’d want to, absent of impulse. For more help clarifying values and creating systems to help you act, check out my free ebook, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery.
How to Say No
To me, good living boils down to our motto at Inspired Human Development: Define values and act accordingly. It is simple, but it isn’t easy. Saying no when you feel pressured to eat something that you don’t want to is great practice.
It tends to follow these simple steps:
- Say no, thank you. Any pushing after that makes them the jerk, not you. If they have a problem with your decision to control what you put in your own mouth, they are the problem.
I guess that’s just one step, and that is it. You don’t need to explain yourself, just smile and say “No, thank you.” You don’t have to have an excuse. You aren’t doing anything wrong. Still, the more respectful and unemotional you are, the more diffused they’ll become.
In the past, I’ve found that my defensiveness tended to incite a reciprocal hostility on the other end. Meditation has helped me not to project my fears and fuel the fire. This isn’t a failsafe, however. There will be those who just can’t understand why you are doing this to them. That is life. We can’t please everyone.
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So, you’re going on vacation and are stoked about the mental and physical break from the gym.
But you also know an entire week of drinking and a lax diet, all the while not getting your heart rate up or doing a single push-up for a week, is only going to make you feel emotionally low during the days on vacation—days that you’re supposed to be enjoying!
And that low, depressed feeling is often just magnified when you return home feeling guilty for all you ate and drank while you struggle to find the motivation to return to your normal life.
Get Past the Lows
While this certainly isn’t how everyone feels when they take a week off, it’s usually what happens to me if I do nothing physical for a whole week. And many of my clients have reported the same experience.
Thus, I have discovered over the years it’s better for my mind to do some kind of fitness on vacation—not necessarily everyday—but some days. And I’m not talking about walking or hiking. As a one hike per vacation kind of person, there’s only so much of that I can tolerate.
My solution: Devote just 20-30 minutes maximum in the morning when I first wake up to some kind of fitness.
Here are the keys to making this work for you:
- Key 1: Make it emotionally easy and let yourself lollygag. We’re talking 70 percent effort. You still want to log some volume and get your body moving to get your mind feeling good, but don’t crush yourself. This is still a vacation.
- Key 2: Do it the moment you wake up—like even before your morning coffee if need be. I know if I don’t do it first thing, then it’s just not going to happen and I end up feeling emotionally off all day. But when I wake up and commit to just 20-30 minutes of fitness at about a 70 percent effort before I do anything else, everything just feels a little better—body and mind.
What does this look like in practice?
Recently, I was in the Okanagan—beautiful wine country in British Columbia—so amidst live CrossFit Games streaming, BBQ-ing, going on wine tours, and tasting delicious reds, whites, and bubbies, I ensured I took the time first thing in the morning to hit the backyard and get a sweat on. It made all the difference.
If you’re looking for ideas for some balanced bodyweight training you can do anywhere (i.e. you don’t do tabata burpees every single day for a week), here are five days of backyard workouts I did that include some conditioning, some strength work, some core work, and some light accessory-type work.
After a consistent dynamic warm-up that I kept the same each day (check out the video below for my simple five minutes of warm-up), I did the following workouts for the seven days of my vacation.
Vacation Workout: Day 1
Cycle through the following for 20 minutes:
- 200m run (I didn’t measure it, but I ran 30 seconds out and 30 second back)
- 15 Burpees
- 15 Hollow Rocks
Vacation Workout: Day 2
Cycle through five times (not for speed):
- 10 Push-Ups
- 10 V-Sits
- 30 second Plank
- 20 Lunges
Vacation Workout: Day 3
Actually, not really a workout but mostly a day of rest—because it’s still important. Go for a walk if you’re into that. I walked from one winery to the next and did just 5 minutes of abs in the yard.
4 rounds, no rest:
- 10 Tuck Ups
- 10 V-Sits
- 10 second Hollow Hold
Vacation Workout: Day 4
20 seconds on, 20 seconds off x 6 rounds:
- Jumping Squats
- Glute Bridge Hold
- Jumping Lunges
Vacation Workout: Day 5
Active recovery type of day (break up as needed)
- 100 Bird Dogs
- 100 Shoulder Taps
- 100 Glute Bridges
- 100 Sit-Ups
Vacation Workout: Day 6
Every 30 seconds x 10 minutes:
- 4-8 Burpees (pick a number you can hold for 10 minutes)
Vacation Workout: Day 7
Keep Your Mood Up
These are, of course, just some ideas of types of things you can do with no equipment on vacation, whether you’re in a big backyard in the sun like I was, or crammed into a small hotel room.
Because if you’re like me, your emotional state will be much improved if you continue to stick to some sort of training routine through your sips of wine on a much deserved week off from the gym.
You might also like:
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Every gym has at least one of them (OK, more like 10 of them)—the people who want to improve a specific skill or movements so their answer is to practice that skill every single day.
I have a client—bless her heart—who was frustrated that her deadlift hadn’t improved in 12 months and proceeded to deadlift heavy every single time she came to the gym for six months. At the end of it all, her deadlift weight hadn’t increased, but frustration certainly had.
Here’s the thing: You can improve your squat without squatting and improve your deadlift without even deadlifting a barbell.
Awhile back, I interviewed Sam Dancer—a CrossFit Games athlete who famously pulled 655lb at the CrossFit Games in 2014. He revealed to me that he actually rarely deadlifts heavy in training. Most of his time is spent doing accessory work to be able to lift a heavy deadlift when he needs to.
In my experience as a coach, and as a former CrossFit Games athlete myself, I have found that whenever I find myself on a plateau—be it my squat or my deadlift—the best thing to do is take a break from focusing so closely on the movement itself and turn my attention to appropriate accessory work for six weeks—and then voilà, I magically PR when I return to the movement I want to improve.
I’m not alone. In the same interview, Dancer casually mentioned he pulled his then all-time best deadlift of 695lb without having deadlifted heavy for eight months.
In light of this, here are five accessory work exercises you can do (especially if your deadlift hasn’t improved in a while) to help improve your deadlift without even deadlifting with a barbell.
1. Hamstring Curls
There are a few variations of these. They can be done with a band, with a medicine ball, or with a physioball. Check out the video for a demonstration. These are also effective when done with a deliberately slow tempo.
- Try 3 sets of 20-25 reps.
2. Single-Leg Kettlebell Romanian Deadlifts
Single-leg RDLs are valuable for improving posterior chain strength and especially for improving single-leg glute strength and ironing out any left-right muscle imbalances you might have.
Focus on keeping a neutral back and a long torso and keep your hips square.
- Try 3 sets of 8 reps per leg as heavy as possible. Can you do 8 reps with 50 percent of your body weight?
3. Sled Pulls
Heavy sled pulls are an effective way to spend some serious time under tension and build strength pretty much everywhere in your lower body, including your glutes and hamstrings, calves, lower back, and your quads.
- Try 3 sets of a 30-meter sled pull as heavy as possible where you can maintain constant movement.
4. Hip Thrusts
Hip thrusts are especially beneficial because they allow you to really load up and get used to lifting a heavy. In fact, some people can even hip thrust more than they can deadlift, which goes a long way to prepare your nervous system and build your confidence when you return to deadlifting a heavy barbell.
5. Glute-Ham Raises
While glute-ham raises are a fairly challenging movement for most, you can make them easier by pushing your hands off a box at the bottom, sort of like a plyometric push-up.
Try to keep a perfectly neutral spine and avoid breaking at the hips throughout the movement.
Check out the video for two versions of these.
If your deadlift has hit a wall, don’t fret. Add the latter five pieces of accessory work to your training routine for six weeks and then return to the deadlift to see where you’re at.
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Let me tell you about a character. A character you’ll find many times over in different independent gyms. This person is passionate, not only about their training but the idea of it. The type of training doesn’t matter. It could be:
Passion Transforms Into Desire
It’s the same heart found in many. For this character, passion transforms into desire. The desire to create another place, maybe like the gym where they first got their spark, or a different place, where more people can come and feel what they feel.
Sometimes the person will think to immediately seek out teachers, courses, education, and experience coaching. But, the clock is ticking in their head as to when it’s time to open their gym.
Other times, this individual wants to create a place, however small it may be, with no intention of offering the coaching and instruction. They may want to bring in someone else to do the training or open a place where people can work out.
This person may not have the capital to create the type of place they imagined. And they also may not want to owe anything to anybody. I can speak to this person because I had the same attitude when I first opened my gym.
I’ve grown careful about the type of advice I give. Business is one of those matters I tread softly before speaking. A professional is one who has extensive practice.
I’m also more attentive to someone’s knowledge and experience when they advise me. Those who receive money for telling others how to run a company but haven’t practiced in a real business are not business professionals.
My gym has been operational and profitable for three and a half years now. Because of that, I feel like I can now confidently speak on how to start and drive a gym business forward. I have practiced. So to the person who has the passion for creating a gym focused on people and not things, but has a strict budget, these are my opinions.
Bare-Bones Means Service Is the Amenity
If you’re opening your gym with minimal equipment, you’ll have very few people sign up to use the space to train. When I opened my gym, I started simply with:
- Squat stands
- Bumper plates
- Wood for platforms
Few people are as romantic as I was about simplicity and focus on the practice of movement rather than equipment and amenities. So that meant I needed to pique people’s interest in my gym and draw them in with the promise of a better experience and an inclusive gym culture. Everyone I spoke to needed to have a clear understanding of what the value was in being a part of the gym.
It wasn’t the equipment or the place; it was the instruction. What mattered to the clients was:
My gym had to be known for instruction for it to be successful, and for the people to find value and commitment. It wasn’t going to be known for how little I started with or the amenities. Admittedly, I may have started a bit too bare-bones and blunted future growth in some ways.
You have to decide for yourself how much money you want to put in from the beginning and where this starting budget can take you. But whether you’re the head coach of training or you bring someone else in, you need first to research what the other facilities around you are doing.
See where the gaps are in your area, and become something that’s truly needed and aligns with your devotions. Ask yourself if what you’re offering speaks to enough people, or is the reason this type of service doesn’t exist in your area is lack of interest.
Confidence in What You’re Providing
I strongly disliked the way I was taught to sell personal training services during my brief employment at a health club back at the start of my career. I was told to find a way to get potential clients to give up their inhibitions toward buying.
I’ve found that if you believe in the quality and effectiveness of your service, based on real, repeated successes and not a prideful delusion, selling can be a conversation. Talk about what you love, followed by a quick ask of their opinion. If you are providing real value, those who see it will buy. Those who don’t see it don’t need to be bothered. Manipulating them into buying against their initial judgment will create a problem more significant than their dollars are worth.
I was confident that with a high level of coaching, program design, and team dynamic, I could create something in the area that people needed. People who came to see the gym and speak with me could see my enthusiasm, self-belief, clearly thought out responses, and easy to understand ideas.
If you’re starting a gym with a similar model to mine and you haven’t thought all this through, I believe the business will fail. You can’t be confident in your ability to sell your product if the product isn’t clear, and of real quality, even if you are charming. Part of this planning includes:
- The type of training you’ll provide
- The area best suited for this type of training
- Most Importantly- Are you worth the payment for the service?
Ask yourself if you or your head coach truly has the expertise to do what you say you will. Experience builds confidence, and if you don’t have it, you need to start there.
First, Make Yourself Worthy
Some remarkable people can figure things out quicker than the rest. These outliers can open a gym with almost no professional coaching experience and learn everything on the fly not only theoretically but also practically. They quickly develop a reputation as an expert from the start.
I’m not one of them, and you probably aren’t either. This isn’t negative thinking, its healthy self-scrutiny. For you and me, opening a gym without experience coaching elsewhere would have revealed our inadequacy, and our lack of confidence would have been easy to see.
By the time I opened the doors to my gym, I had already had around a decade of professional coaching experience. I’d worked in college strength and conditioning, health clubs, and other independent gyms. I had helped collegiate athletes perform better and built a following in NYC of people dedicated to barbell sports who improved under my coaching.
When the first, potential member came though my doors at JDI Barbell, I had the confidence to speak to him as a professional because of my experiences and successes.
Impatient as we all may be, we have to spend time working at the best places under the best teachers we can find. Before you have people come to you, you have first to seek out the best people to learn from to make yourself someone worthy of being sought out yourself. Your time is the only thing you have to offer when you’re young or inexperienced. Give it to employers who can give you the experience you need to be of real value.
Once you have shown yourself and others that you can produce results in people repeatedly, you will have a polished product to offer and the enthusiastic confidence to do so.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.
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What is your “why?”
No other question pops up in the self-improvement world quite so frequently. As all clichés that get beaten to death, there is actually a lot of value in exploring this question. The more clear we are on what we want and why want it, the more we’ll be able to get momentum on the planning we need to see an effort through.
But planning is one thing and executing is quite another. Daniel Kahneman’s landmark book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, revealed a breakthrough in behavioral economics. Your brain is run by two very different systems: the logical mind (a slow, methodical system) and the emotional mind (a fast, immediate system).
And while we like to think of ourselves as especially rational, it is our emotional brain that is usually in charge. In fact, the logical brain is most often employed to rationalize whatever the emotional brain is feeling at the time.
For example, after the holiday seasonal binge, your emotions desire a change. Maybe the desire comes from seeing thin, beautiful actresses in movies and magazines, and maybe it comes from those change-your-life posts all over social media.
Regardless, your emotions want you to be the type of person who ate better, was in better shape, or just looked better. Thus, the logical mind is called upon to help craft or select the perfect plan. This is when that question about your why might be helpful.
So, you get a plan that your logical mind feels great about, but there is a problem. The logical mind won’t be present once the exercise starts. Nope, just the emotional mind and he is a fickle little boy. He wants to be like Hercules one moment and then cries to his mama the next.
In fact, the behavior of little boys and girls is the most evident display of a mind completely controlled by the emotional system. Maturation is the process of harnessing those emotions with the help of your logical system and learning to act despite emotions. We train our willpower to grow our maturity and become capable of being the people we’d like to be.
When it comes time to train, logical self-talk means nothing. In fact, the only thing that might be effective is harnessing a powerful emotion. Say, I’m your friend and I know you’ve decided that you want to work out in order to be a model for your kids and to live longer and be more active for them.
When I see you skipping out on a workout I might mention how I’ll be happy to walk your daughter down the aisle, if your health gives out before then. Calm down. We’re friends. I can say that. But even emotional jabs like these would only be effective once or twice.
People who eat well and train consistently aren’t successful because they know what their why is and they think about it when the going gets tough. The why is helpful in the planning, but something else has to take hold if we are going to be successful. Even Simon Sinek’s popular book, Start With Why, indicates just that. The why is where you start.
Even more, his book is for leadership. The reason a leader’s why matters isn’t because she is getting people to care about what she cares about, it is because sharing her why makes people feel connected to her.
They feel like they are part of something bigger because she got vulnerable, showed she cared, and invited them into her world. She appealed to their emotional mind in a way that was palatable for their logical mind. That’s good leadership, but not a good strategy for ongoing success.
You Must Move Past Toddler Mentality
For children there always has to be a why for what they are doing. This becomes quite evident in their why stage. Even in early adolescence, we are driven by why’s, just more complex whys. Adolescents can appreciate more than just immediate gratification and the avoidance of immediate pain. They might train hard to earn a starting spot on the football team, for example.
Adulthood, however, is characterized by doing what is right just because it is right. Adults pick up trash even when it isn’t their own, just because it needs to be picked up. They put up a grocery cart rather than leaving it by the car because it is the right thing to do.
They go the extra mile on a project, just because they believe in giving their best effort. Sure, there is probably some self-interested unconscious drive—an identity they are seeking to live up to—but they basically do what is right because they’ve determined this is the right thing to do.
And they are happier because of these actions. They have projects and missions that pull them to keep growing, but mostly their growth and consistent fulfillment is stoked by establishing great default habits. They exercise, intentionally learn, and work on their emotional intelligence, just because this is what adults should do.
Ask a 50-year-old who has been working out consistently for the last 25 years why they exercise and they will shrug before coming up with a list of the obvious benefits they probably never actually think about. Any whys that got them started have been internalized and long forgotten.
We live in an age where we’re allowed to stay children forever. Society once demanded adulthood. We were courageous and contribution-oriented because we had to be for the tribe’s survival. Now, survival is guaranteed. Luxuries have become necessities and the age of marketing has made it very clear that the only reason we should do anything is for an outcome. Get this car, because it will make you feel socially superior. Drink this soda, because it feels good.
Even our schools are based on this immature model. Kids don’t come home and talk to their parents about what they learned. Parents convey to their kids that they better get in there and get the grade so they can go to the college they want and get the job they want. There is no concept of the value of discipline, organization, study habits, and finding an interest in learning.
These are inconveniences on the route to an outcome. The process is purely transactional. The only reason we can conceive of for anyone to study or learn anything is for a grade and an eventual job. Likewise, the only reason to volunteer is for the college application or points in that community service class and the only reason to work out is to look good at the pool. Right?
Social norms have programmed us to see every activity as a means to an end. Everything has to get us something. Ironically, we will be far more effective in achieving fitness or life goals if we focus on the process rather than the outcome and treat the process as an end in and of itself.
Discipline, perseverance, effort, learning, honesty, integrity, courage—these things are valuable for their own sake. They aren’t sexy, but they make us far happier than a new Apple watch. The route to sustained fulfillment and success has always been focusing on the right values. That has always been what growing up was about.
Transcending the Why
Hypothetical Person: “Why do you exercise, Shane?”
Me: “What do you mean? That’s like asking why do I feed my dogs. Because they need food. I’m an adult. My body, mind, and emotion need exercise, so I exercise.”
Hypothetical Person: “Why don’t you eat fast food or ever take a cookie from the staff lounge?”
Me: “I’m an adult. I pick and choose my treats, but overall I’m going to eat in a way that makes me better. What’s the alternative? Destroying my health to serve impulses?”
This may be blunt, but it is an accurate worldview of the consistent exerciser. I could sugarcoat the message, but that would be treating you with kid gloves. We have to be able to discern between productive and unproductive behaviors.
This doesn’t require a sense of superiority. Just as we are better off focusing on the process rather than the outcome, we are far better off judging actions and not people. After all, we all have giant gaps we need to improve. You may eat well consistently, but have no patience and a raging temper.
What consistent practice are you doing to work on that emotional control? Likewise, you may exercise and eat well, but never read a book, learn a skill, or seek to educate yourself in any way. I’d argue that neglecting the mind is an equally large gap.
The point is that understanding why something has merit is a good place to start, but we have to move past that. Every great society and philosophical system has understood the need to train the mind, body, and emotions. Some days you won’t want to and your why won’t move the emotional system at all. Oh well, you’re an adult, so you do it anyway. When you think about it, being a real adult is a pretty awesome thing to be. These adults really get stuff done.
And you don’t need to be an extremist in training anything. As I posited in my piece, Fitness for People Who Aren’t Into Fitness, the best route is probably doing a small dose of daily physical exercise. The path to success isn’t in demanding that you workout like a UFC fighter, study like Ph.D candidate, and meditate like a Buddhist monk.
That would break anyone. Balance matters and we must all take ourselves where we are. You need a simple, consistent plan and the mindset that you will follow through. Just make things as easy and simple as possible, plan them, and do them. Slowly add a modicum of difficulty as things become easier. Over time you’ll make amazing progress.
You Must Build Powerful Habits
These consistent actions aren’t built from willpower alone, however. They are built through powerful habits, environmental design, and social support. Ideally, society itself would have more appropriate expectations that pull us all toward a path of consistent growth. This may not be the case, but communities and mentors are available if you seek them out.
For more help understanding the process of installing habits, environmental design, and creating sustainable effort, I recommend my free ebook, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery. It comes with a four-week willpower training protocol that is a great place to start.
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Just like your poor little forgotten wrists, you probably also pay very little attention to your ankles and feet, unless you have experienced a major foot injury. Yet, ankle mobility could be the number one reason your squat, well, kind of still sucks.
All this time, you thought it was your hamstring flexibility or tight hip flexors that were preventing you from squatting well, but if your ankles are tight, you’re going to have a really hard time squatting to depth, and an even harder time getting your torso into a good position, especially on a front squat.
As someone who tore her Achilles and had it surgically repaired, and then had the same foot run over by a car a couple of years later, I know firsthand what it’s like to feel tightness in my right ankle and foot. And if I don’t give my feet enough love before (and after) a big squat day, my squat is considerably worse.
Below are three ankle prep exercises to add to your warm-up.
1. Simple Achilles/Ankle Stretch
Set yourself up in a lunge with your back knee on the ground and then lean into your front leg by driving your knee as far forward as you can, all the while keeping your front foot flat on the ground.
You should feel a good, deep stretch in your Achilles. Then oscillate back and forth, pushing your knee further forward each time if you can. To get an even deeper stretch, place a plate on your front knee and do the same thing by leaning your body weight into the plate.
Spend one to two minutes per foot in the warm-up.
2. Ankle Rotations
Ankle rotations or CARS (controlled articular rotations) are a great way to access your usable range of motion.
Simply place your foot on the opposite knee, or hold it out in front of you and off the ground, and then rotate your ankle in a circle slowly, thinking about hitting all the edges like you’re scraping a bowl with a spatula.
Take 5-10 seconds for one full rotation, trying to gain access to your greatest range of motion as possible.
Add 5-10 ankle rotations in each direction on each foot to your warm-up.
3. Banded Ankle Flexion and Extension Stretch
Place a band on the bottom of your foot and hold the other end with your hands. Straighten your knee so there’s tension on the band and then go back and forth between dorsiflexion and plantar-flexion, again trying to gain as much range of motion as possible.
You can also do to work your ankle laterally in a similar way, but by placing the band around a post and then driving your foot back and forth from left to right, again trying to access as much range of motions as you can.
Spend on minute working dorsiflexion and plantar-flexion, and one minute working your lateral ankle range of motion in your warm-up.
And don’t forget about your cooldown—below are three exercises to do post-workout for your feet, ankles, and Achilles.
4. Bottom of Foot Care
The bottom of our feet get a lot of abuse—especially if you’re getting those 10,000 steps a day—so it’s important to give them some love. A simple soft tissue massage with a lacrosse ball is a great place to start.
Stand up and place a lacrosse ball under one foot. Then just shop around for any particularly tight spots and massage your foot into the ball. This should feel good, as opposed to painful, just like a comfortable massage.
Spend 1 minute on each foot after your training session.
5. Dowel Sit
Sit on your knees and place a dowel right behind your knees. Then slowly start to move the dowel down your leg until it gets all the way to your Achilles. Put as much weight on your calf as you can without it being excruciating. This should feel like “good pain.”
This is especially good to do after a workout with a lot of jumping, to keep your calves from getting super tight the next day. Tight calves only make the ankles and Achilles feel even tighter, in my experience.
Spend 2 minutes working the dowel from behind your knee all the way down to your Achilles.
6. Plantar Flexion Sit
Sit on your knees—the same way you started the dowel sit—but without a dowel. Then sit back until you feel a deep plantar flexion stretch.
Keep your heels as close together as you can (ideally your heels are touching each other, however, that’s difficult for most people to achieve). Only lower your body weight onto your feet as much as you can without pain, and with your heels as close together as possible.
Spend one to two minutes stretching your feet into plantarflexion after a training session.
Commit to 5-10 minutes of ankle love before and after the days you’re running, jumping, and squatting for 8 weeks and then report back with how your squat feels.
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Whether your neck pain stems from a car accident or other acute injury, a lifetime of bad posture, sleeping on your stomach with a giant pillow, or sitting at a computer with your head tilted forward for hours each day, in my 10 years of coaching I have discovered neck pain is a common complaint.
Before I get into some exercises you can do to alleviate neck pain and build stronger, bulletproof neck, let’s talk about some lifestyle changes you can make, as well.
- Rethink Your Pillow: You might love that big, poofy pillow of yours, but the reality is it’s probably stopping you from sleeping with a neutral spine and neck, which could be causing you neck pain. A thinner pillow that supports your neck’s natural curve is a better bet, especially if you’re a stomach sleeper (or an orthopedic pillow that has a deeper depression to place and support your head and neck). Also, consider sleeping on your back. All the experts say it’s the best position for your spine.
- Rethink Your Laptop Position: It’s probably not something you think about too much, but if you spend a lot of time at a computer, it’s a good idea to position it at eye level, so you’re not spending hours looking down or up, which can place undue stress on the neck.
- Rethink Your Texting Position: You might look silly holding your phone higher than everyone else, but the same is true of your phone when you’re scrolling. Looking down and logging hours upon hours scrolling those social media feeds could be taking a toll on your neck.
- Consider a Supplement: Magnesium is commonly used as a sleeping aid, and it’s also a great muscle relaxant. If you find your neck, and the muscles around your neck, perpetually tight or tense, consider adding a magnesium supplement to your nightly routine.
- Hydration: Drinking enough water is important to keep you hydrated, and also to keep the discs of your spine hydrated. Hydrated discs help keep them strong and pliable.
Okay, now on to five exercises you can do at home or at the gym to help improve your neck health.
1. Straight Jacket Sit
Bad posture is one of the most common reasons for neck problems. A straight jacket sit is a great way to practice having perfect posture, which can essentially help re-program your bad posture. It will also tell you where you’re weak, as people tend to feel the weakest part of their body break down the fastest during a straight jacket sit.
Sit with your legs stretched out straight, hip-width apart, and your back, spine, and head perfectly neutral. Pull your shoulder blades together and down and tighten your thighs. Dorsi-flex your feet by pulling your toes toward you.
Then cross your arms and gently place your thumbs and pointer fingers on the opposite shoulder. From there, simply sit and maintain this perfect position for 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, etc.
Can you work up to five minutes without breaking form? Where do you feel it first? Your low back? Your neck?
It helps to have a coach present to watch so he/she can correct you if you start to lose that perfect position.
2. Feet-Planted Deadhang Hold
Stand on a box at a height where you can easily reach the bar above you. Grab onto the bar with your body directly underneath the bar. Then bend your knees and sink your weight into the box as if you’re trying to let all your weight sink into the box.
You should feel a good stretch and release all throughout your neck and back, helping release any tightness running through your spine.
Hang out for 1 minute at the end of a training session.
The cat-cow is a classic yoga pose that gently moves your body from spinal flexion to spinal extension, all the while helping you gain control and postural awareness over the movement of your spine.
On all fours, focus on controlling your movements and moving one vertebra at a time until you’re at your max spinal flexion. Then take a couple of deep breaths and see if you can push the range of motion a little further. Then, starting at the lower back again, move in the opposite direction, one vertebra at a time, until you’re at your max spinal extension. When you do this, keep your head neutral the entire time, especially if you have neck pain.
Spend 2 minutes working the cat-cow positions in your warm-up.
4. Prone Plate Neck Raises
If you experience neck pain doing this, then abort this exercise for now. But if your neck is healthy and you’re looking to strengthen it, this is a good one for you.
Lay prone (face down) on a bench, with your head and neck hanging off the bench. Place a 5lb plate behind your head, holding onto it with both hands, and slowly lower and raise your neck through a comfortable range of motion.
Keep that plate right against the back of your head as you move your neck by dropping your chin and raising your head. Keep a nice, slow tempo on these. No sudden movements.
Do 10-20 of these at the end of your workout.
5. Supine Plate Neck Raises
This is essentially the opposite of the above. Lay on your back on the bench and place the plate on your forehead and then raise your neck as high as you can by tucking your chin to your chest, and then return to a neutral position.
Again, if you experience pain, do not do this one.
Do 10-20 of these at the end of your workout.
Good luck turning your neck into a strong, stable, bulletproofed one!
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