I’m reading a book about health and fitness – shocker! – and came across this passage.

“Man is made with a body containing certain separate parts, each of which must be kept in proper use or the others will suffer. This becomes a troublesome question in complex modern life…Exercise, to produce it’s best effect, must be recreation, mental as well as physical. We cannot separate any one part of our economy and produce the best results. There must be well-rounded development…What most of us want is to have our bodies harmoniously developed on the general plan on which they were built.”

The author also bemoans the fact that the modern man gets too little exercise, both city-dweller and farmer alike, even going as far as to write that thanks to modern equipment the farmer now “may be (physically) inferior” to the average citizen.

The book was written by Theo Knauff and is titled, “Athletics for Physical Culture.” It was published in 1894. One-hundred and seventeen years ago.

So nothing has changed since the advent/awareness of the concept of “physical culture” two centuries ago. Physical culture is what we now call health and fitness, and physical culturists from the day of our great-great-grandparents were singing a song that is still being sung today.

You really can learn alot from reading these old fitness books. I like the perspective they provide. In this case I find it incredibly interesting that the affects of the advances of the Industrial Revolution were obvious 120-years ago and the concerns and observations are just as relevant today. Think about the life of a late 19th century farmer as it compares to the routine of people today; wouldn’t you think it was physically demanding, if not brutal? By the standards of 1894, guess not.

Another great observation made by Knauff is the need for recreative exercise and well-rounded development in the pursuit of fitness. This is a point that is still missed today by way too many so-called fitness experts. Knauff mentions that it was (is) a mistake for people to treat exercise as “a business and necessary work.” Whether it’s 1894 or 2011 this condition hasn’t changed, as there are fitness folks who promote this kind of thinking up to this very second. Walking on a treadmill, exercise while sitting down in a machine, mimicking mindlessly in an exercise class, following an externally developed diet that tells you what to eat and drink and when to eat and drink it.

That, my friends, is work. And it’s a big business getting people to work for their health and fitness. So take a step back and look at the elements of your routine, heed Theo Knauff’s advice and make sure you are doing everything possible to work your body harmoniously.

Just to be clear, you won’t be an expert, but you can exercise like an expert if you keep these ten steps in mind.

Can something be both complex and simple? Can it taste great and yet be less filling? Hot and cold? Where am I going with this? Hang on, I’ll tell you.

Working out can be simple – not easy. However, over the past 30+ years as exercising has become more popular, conflicting information and bad information has made things confusing.

There are 10 easy steps you can follow to make your workouts as efficient and as effective as possible. Here in part 1 of the story, I will give you the first 5 steps.

1) Concentrate on body weight exercises – One of the biggest mistakes people make, including many personal trainers, is to emphasize lifting weights. Bad idea. The vast majority of people move poorly and lifting weights with poor mechanics is counter-productive. If you can’t do 4 sets of 20 body weight lunges with proper form, you shouldn’t try to lunge with weights. If you can do 4 sets of push-ups with proper form, you shouldn’t be bench pressing. You get the idea…

2) Push, pull, squat, lunge, bend, reach, rotate and brace in every workout – These 8 moves are the key to human performance. If you perform all of these moves in every workout, even just one set of each, you will be making the most of your workout time. Keep in mind step 1: Push-ups, pull-ups (or any variation), squats, lunges, squat thrusts (and other calisthenics) and planks fill this prescription, as do many dynamic flexibility moves.

3) Quality over quantity – Waaaaaay too many people make the mistake of doing more instead of doing better, spending extra unnecessary hours in the gym. Forty-five minutes of focused exercise is better than ninety minutes of fitness busy work. Someone who exercises every day isn’t getting quality exercise and is wasting time and effort.

4) Buy mini-bands – Mini-bands are elastic bands that are used when performing a series of exercises that will improve your overall fitness level in an efficient and effective manner. Go to PerformBetter.com and search for mini-bands and order a pack of green bands. Included with your order – it’ll only set you back around $20 – you’ll receive an instructional DVD that will show you how to get the most out of the bands.

5) Recovery is key – If you don’t give yourself enough rest in between workouts you won’t derive all the benefits of exercising, and can actually impede your progress. In addition to resting in between workout, you need to change intensities of your workouts, as well. This means that if you hit it hard on Monday, not only should you take Tuesday off, but you should gear it down on Wednesday.

Check back later this week for the second half of the list.

When I go to the gym to workout I talk to a lot of people and lately I’ve been hearing so many of these folks complaining about having to workout. When I ask them if they enjoy training or have fun during their workouts most people look at me like I have three heads.

During the honeymoon phase of working out many people enjoy the idea of getting themselves into shape but really don’t love exercising. Then once the sameness of their training routine sets in, people start to lose interest in their program and working out becomes all work and little, if any, play.

People get bored with their workouts because, quite frankly, they don’ t know what they are doing and most trainers, especially in big box gym, haven’t a clue either. Machine-based exercise programs are the most boring kind of activity imaginable, and since most people and personal trainers gravitate to this style of training, it’s no mystery people get bored with their routines.

If you are one of the denizens of the gym who get on a treadmill, tune in to your iPod and hunker down for a long run or walk you are no doubt bored to tears at some point. You also aren’t getting too much bang for your exercise buck/effort either, but that’s a different story. It doesn’t matter which machine you use, they are all boring and do not come close to providing a challenge.

This is why people think exercise is boring and why many folks bail on their regular exercise routines after a relatively short period of time. The prescription of treadmill (or any other piece of cardio equipment), leg press, leg extension, leg curl, calf raise, pull downs, endless biceps and triceps work and all kinds of seated and lying exercises results in a boring, ineffective workout program.

The cure for a boring workout routine is to find a personal trainer – I use the term “fitness development coach” – who knows how to design and implement a workout using ground-based, compound movements. This kind of fitness professional will teach you how to move properly¸ will improve flexibility, stability and core strength. Because these kinds of workouts are challenging they are effective and fun.

We don’t go through life seated in a machine and unless you’re involved in crew there aren’t any sports that are played lying down, so you shouldn’t exercise this way. And the word routine should be limited to describing the days and times you workout, and not be a reflection of doing the same handful of exercise programs over and over.

Pull-ups are one of the best exercises that you can do, but so many people don’t do them because they can’t do them.  Is Yogi Berra in the hiz-ouse?

Nevertheless, here’s a strategy that will help you do that first, key pull up. And once you can do one pull up you’ll be amazed at the progress that you will make…

The pull up is one of the top-5 exercises and everyone should strive to do them.  Pull-ups can be used to determine, and are an indicator of, a persons’ physical fitness level, as the service academies expect that all applicants be able to perform 8 pull-ups.

The problem is that because some people have a problem doing them, they don’t do them and don’t even try.  Pull-ups are hard and a lot of people who can’t do one – even if they want to be able to do them – don’t know how to go about developing their strength and technique.

First let’s get some terminology straight.  A pull up is done when you grip the bar with a “palms away” grip and chin-ups are done with a “palms facing” grip.  Chins are a bit easier because this grip allows for more biceps involvement.  For the sake of this discussion I will refer to pull ups.  However, you can apply this fitness tip to either variation.  Work on the pull up; they’re harder and ultimately do more for you.

If you can’t do one pull up there are two very effective variations to use; the flexed arm hang and negative pull-ups.

For the flexed arm hang boost yourself up – either have a friend spot you or step up on a bench – so that your chin is above the bar.  Once in this position, pull the elbows down and slightly back, keep your chest up and tighten your lats before you take your feet off the bench. The idea here is to hold yourself in this “chin over the bar” position for as long as possible.  At first shoot for a 15 second hold and take a 2-minute rest before your next hold.  Four sets of holds is a good place to start.  Add time as your strength increases.

When you are hanging, bend your knees so that your feet are behind you and your torso and thighs form a straight line.  Don’t lift your knees up in front as this will develop a bad habit that will retard your progress.  Work to minimize or eliminate the body from swinging as this wastes precious strength.

Negative pull-ups will help develop the strength necessary to perform pull-ups.  Get into the “chin over the bar” position but instead of staying in the flexed arm position, you will lower yourself down to the “dead hang” position.  Try to lower your body on a 5-count and don’t just drop and flop.  There will be a point just before the dead hang position where there’s the urge to relax, but continue to exert control.

Use the same initial position and form doing the negative pull up that’s used in the flexed arm hang.  Lock in with your lats, bend your knees and keep your feet behind you.  Maintain control as you start your decent and keep your lats tight.  If you have a spotter they can help steady you before the drop.

The goal should be to do four single 5-count negative pull-ups with 2-minutes rest in between each.  As you progress – and as your confidence grows – add reps to the routine.

There’s no hard and fast rule as to when you’ll be able to crank out your first pull-up, as the mental component of getting to this point is huge.  You have to be able to make a complete, 100% effort, from both the mental and physical standpoints, to perform a pull-up. Employ both of these strategies in the effort to be able to perform that first, elusive pull-up.

Don’t get psyched out by the pull-up. Be patient and make use of this approach and you will be able to do pull-ups, and improve your level of physical fitness and health – before you know it.

Last week I posted part 1 of a workout using my home-made weighted PVC pipe exercise equipment.  In this week’s video I do squat thrust variations with a 40-pound, 3-inch wide PVC pipe weighted with water and stone.

It’s really quite easy and inexpensive to make the PVC pipe exercise equipment. The unstable weight of the PVC combined with the long length of the pipe makes this home-made equipment quite challenging to perform any kind of exercise imaginable.

When the weather gets nice I try to do as many of my workouts outdoors as possible.  Check out this video where I incorporate PVC pipes, weighted with water and stone, into my calisthenics warm-up.

These exercises can be used as a warm-up or as an entire workout and provide a unique training stimulus beneficial to people of all fitness levels.  People have been using weighted PVC pipes as training implements for a while and I wanted to find out for myself what it felt like to use them.

In this video you will see two basic PVC pipes but check back regularly as I will provide more clips that utilize different sized pipes.

It’s really very easy and inexpensive to make this home-made exercise equipment.  All you need is PVC pipes of various sizes and the appropriate caps, primer, PVC pipe adhesive and a hack saw – just as if you were doing some plumbing work.  A scale will help, as you can load the pipes with the exact amount of weight that you want.

Cap and seal one end of the pipe and then load it with stone and water to the appropriate level.  If you can, place the pipe on a scale as you fill it with water and you don’t want to fill the pipe all the way, as this prevents the water from sloshing around.  Depending on the circumference of the pipe you should fill from half-way to three-quarters with water before adding the stone.

Drop me an email if you have any questions about how to put these babies together as I am glad to spread the word about the benefits of homemade exercise equipment.

Mixed distance shuttle runs are a great way to improve your conditioning level.  If done properly, they can be much more efficient and effective than other kinds of cardiovascular training, and certainly are better than distance running, jogging or any kind of machine-based cardio.

Mixed distance shuttle runs should be an integral part of any team sport athlete’s training regimen, but the rest of us can benefit from utilizing this method of training, as well.  Rather than repeatedly running fixed distance shuttles, for instance a 60-yard shuttle utilizing a 15-yard course completed 4 times, a mixed distance shuttle workout consists of shuttles of different distances in the same workout.

A few weeks ago I posted an item about a 120-yard run.  Mixed distance shuttles are a great compliment to the 120-yard run workout.

Don’t try this workout if you haven’t been sprinting, running shuttles or doing agility drills, as it is a challenging high-intensity workout.  You have to be able to run at full effort for the duration of the shuttle, not just stroll or trot.  If you don’t run the shuttle at full – okay I’ll cut you a break – or near full effort, you won’t be getting the most out of the workout.  Now, I am prone to a bit of exaggeration and over-emphasize certain elements to get my point across, but it really is for your own good. I will admit that you can get a lot out of this workout if you start working at a substantially-less-than-full effort, but I admit to this only if you promise to progress and push yourself as you the workout gets easier.

Okay, so here’s your basic mixed distance shuttle run workout, 12 shuttles and a 1000-yard total distance.  Remember it’s a shuttle run, so you run the distance up and back to complete one shuttle. I’ve put the total yards run per shuttle in parenthesis for you.

  • Run 10 (20y), 20 (40y), 30 (60y), 40 (80y) yards, for a total of 200 yards.
  • Run 10 (20y), 15 (30y), 25 (50y), 40 (80y), 60 (120y) for a total of 300 yards.
  • Run 70 (140y), 80 (160y) 100 (200y) for a total of 500 yards.

Just as important as working hard, it’s vital that you have proper rest periods in between shuttles.  In the business we call it the “work-to-rest ratio,” and we determine the appropriate rest in response to a given effort.  More precisely, for every second of work¸ there is an appropriate amount of rest.  For beginners trying the mixed distance shuttle run workout for the first time, the work to rest ratio should be as high as 1:8.

For the sports teams and competitive athletes that I work with the ratio can be as low as 1:3.  For regular folks like you and me, completing this workout with a 1:5 work-to-rest is great, providing the work is done at full to near-full effort.  Jogging 20-yards and back in 12 seconds and resting for a minute before continuing doesn’t cut it.

This workout can serve as the starting point for you and you can make up your own shuttle combinations.  Mix the distances up in any way you wish and even use a mixed work-to-rest ratio, as well.  For the shorter shuttle you can use a lower work-to-rest and use a higher ratio for the longer shuttles.  There is no limit to the ways you can used mixed distance shuttle runs to improve your fitness and capability level.

You might think I’m crazy, my neighbors probably think I’m crazy and if you listen to me your neighbors might think you’re crazy.  And you might be crazy if you listen to me, but you will be in better shape.  Try sledgehammer training.

In the effort to get fit you don’t have to rely on traditional methods of training or standard types of fitness equipment.  Dumbbells and barbells are great, as are kettlebells, but there are other non-traditional implements that can be used to improve your overall physical fitness level.
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Which brings us to the sledgehammer, as in a large, heavy hammer wielded with both hands.  There’s not much technique involved, but there is the need to exercise caution, so don’t go and swing away at something for 20 minutes the first time you try this kind of training.  You need to acclimatize your body to the overall demands that sledgehammer training will put on your body.

I wish I could say I thought of this program all by my lonesome, but alas it is not true.  For this I give credit to a Mr. Reinhard Engels who has come up with a simplistic yet brilliant approach to the indoor use of the sledgehammer.  He has worked out a simple yet effective total body routine that can be performed indoors in a small area in about 15 minutes, with a 10-pound sledgehammer.

Completing Reinhard’s “Shovelglove” routine is the prerequisite for embarking on a full-fledged, out-doors, bash-the-heck-out-of-a-tree-stump training program.

And here’s a quick note on the concept of “hardcore” as it applies to working out.  Hardcore is a state of mind, in that a person is willing to deviate from convention and use all the tools and knowledge available in order to come up with an interesting, fun and effective way to train.

Hardcore isn’t going to a gym and struggling and straining and making loud noises in order to do curls or leg extensions or the bench press.  Being big or wearing old, ripped, tattered workout clothes don’t make someone hardcore.  If you’re hardcore, you don’t train with belts, wrist wraps or spend most of your time on machines.

Don’t be intimidated by the concept of hardcore, embrace it.

Once you’ve spent a month or two with the “Shovelglove” you can venture outside and seek out an old tree stump, log or railroad tie or score an old tire from a local auto repair shop.

All you need is a 10-pound sledge, safety goggles (to prevent anything you hit from shooting into your eyes) and the willingness to work hard.  This kind of training is great for every part of your body from your fingers to your toes, and especially works on your core.  Core training is all the rage these days and nothing will work your core like 20 minutes swinging a sledgehammer.

The first time you head outside, after you warm up with some “Shovelglove” moves, spend only 10 minutes actually hitting something   You will be generating quite a bit of force so you don’t want to overdo and suffer an injury.  Working on terrain, and not on a level gym floor, will force your body to move in ways that you probably aren’t used to, which is another reason that you don’t want to do too much right off the bat.

Do yourself a favor and take your time, as the best approach is to “sledge” for about 10 minutes at a time three times per week.  From here, you can add time to your sessions until you can go for about 25 minutes at the most.

You will be amazed at how sledgehammer training will improve your physical fitness.  Buy a sledgehammer now.

The weather is getting nicer, so get off the treadmill, Stair Master, stationary bike and elliptical trainer and get outside where you can actually move the human body the way it’s meant to move.  If your goal is to get in great shape so that you can give yourself the chance to look your best, give this sprinting/running routine a try.

Sprinting and agility drills can help you get into better, functional shape than performing any other kind of running drills. However, if you’ve spent a winter working out on cardiovascular equipment or have never really sprinted properly before, you can’t just go out on the first nice spring day and go 100%; you won’t get much out of the workout and could hurt yourself, to boot.

Follow this simple, but effective program and you will be taking a positive step towards turning yourself into a lean, mean, sprinting machine.  From a preparation standpoint, jog a lap, do some stretching and perform 4 or 5 30-yard stride outs.  Stride outs are a running drill where you utilize a slightly exaggerated running stride – it’s a sub-maximal speed sprint where you put a little extra bounce in your step.

I call this workout, “The 120-Yard Run.”  It’s about as simple as you can get.  Run 120-yards in 20-seconds and rest for 60-seconds and repeat pattern 5 times the first week, 7 times the second week and 8 times the third week.  This is a variation of a routine that I use to condition the teams I work with and is a very effective way to improve your fitness level.

When mixed with a shuttle-run and shorter distance sprint workout, “The 120-Yard Run” will get you in top shape quicker than any other kind of running routine.  And you will be functionally fit, as well.

“The 120-Yard Run” is just a part of an overall, sprint/shuttle run/agility program that will do much more to improve your conditioning in a fraction of the time it takes to complete a traditional, low-intensity/high-volume aerobic workout.   Sprinting also puts much less stress on your joints and connective tissue because you are literally taking a fraction of the strides in a sprint workout that are required to complete a jogging/distance running workout.  Running produces impact forces on your body equal to three times your body weight, and a jogger will take upwards of 120 strides per minute.  If you do the math – body weight x strides taken/per minute x total minutes – you will find jogging puts an astronomical amount of potentially damaging stress on the body.

Over the next few weeks, as we enter spring and – hopefully – great weather, I will post details about the other elements in this program so you can get a head start on getting into great shape as we head into the summer.

The hang clean is an incredibly effective exercise that will strengthen everything from your fingers to your toes, and clients of all ages and ability levels will benefit from learning and performing this movement.  Whether or not you work with a personal trainer you should be able to perform hang cleans.

These guidelines are provided by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and can be found in numerous NSCA publications. The organization provides free instructional videos on their web site.  The hang clean is an advanced lift and is extremely challenging.  Whether you are a fitness professional or a fitness consumer, an attention to detail is paramount when learning/performing the hang clean.

If you are learning the hang clean on your own, start with a very light weight – a bar without any added poundage – and do no more than 3 or 4 sets of 5 or 6 repetitions.

This is the procedure for the hang clean (From the NSCA’s Fly Solo Program “Flight Manual”).

From a standing position make sure your knees, hips and shoulders are aligned with the bar and at arms’ length, touching the top part of the thigh. Lower the bar under control to the top of the knees by flexing at the hips.  Do not bend the knees to lower the bar and get your chest over your toes.  For the sake of our discussion, this is the bottom position.

From the bottom position, extend your hips explosively and simultaneously extend up on the balls of your feet. You also must aggressively shrug your shoulders and jump with chest up and shoulders back.  Make sure you keep the bar close to your body. As the bar reaches the top of the pull that results from your explosive movement of your hips, pull your body down and under the bar and lead with your elbows pointed up and out.

Rotate elbows down and then up ahead of the bar so they are pointed in front, not towards the ground.  Lift your feet and move into a squatting stance and as you catch the bar on the front portion of the shoulders.  You have to re-bend the knees to a quarter squat depth and keep your weight on your heels with elbows high.

While “catching” the bar, flex your knees and hips, which will absorbs the weight and impact of the bar while your feet re-contact the floor in a slightly wider stance than the starting position.  Make sure you don’t jump your feet out too wide, not wider than 36-inches. Once you gain control and balance, stand up to a fully erect position.  In this “finish position” your head is facing forward; neck is neutral or slightly hyper extended; wrists are hyper extended; elbows fully flexed; upper arms parallel to the floor; back flat or slightly arched; knees and hips slightly flexed to absorb the impact of the weight; feet flat on the floor; body’s weight over the middle of the feet.

    The hang clean is a great exercise that will help people of all ages and ability levels learn to execute triple extension – extension of the ankles, knees and hips – to generate maximum force and build total body strength.  Take your time when learning and performing this exercise and you will improve your fitness level.