Category Archives: Fitness

Why the F#$% Can’t I Sleep? The Most Effective Neural Recovery Methods You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

This isn’t another article telling you to darken your room, sleep in cool temperatures, and stay off your electronic devices – although if you’re not doing this already this might be a good place to start. This article is going to give you methods of recovery that start right from the moment you drop the barbell until the time where you go to sleep to optimize your recovery and get the most out of your nervous system so it can be ready to kick ass and chew bubble gum the next time you throw it into high gear.

The Autonomic Nervous System for Dummies

We’re going to ignore the conscious nervous system for the moment and focus entirely on the nervous system that just does it’s job automatically and thanklessly. The autonomic nervous system has two main branches: the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system. The sympathetic system, also known as the fight or flight system, is the system you need to kick ass in the gym, at your sport, or mud wrestle grizzly bears in the mountains. The sympathetic branch kicks in whenever the body or mind is under significant stress or feels threatened. The other branch is the parasympathetic system, aka the rest and digest system, and is responsible for bringing you back into balance after your sympathetic system has gone bat shit crazy mobilizing energy stores, firing up adrenal hormone output, and redlining your proverbial engine for however long you were stressed for. When it comes to recovery and sleep, the parasympathetic system is the unsung janitor of your body, but in highly stressed people (hard training, Type A personality, athletes) the parasympathetic system is often overpowered by the intense signalling of the sympathetic system, and this is where we need to intervene if we want to be ready for the next session/competition/game.

Methods 

Inversion: Arguably the most powerful of the methods listed here, hanging upside down and taking pressure of the spine (which is a main component of the central nervous system) for about 10 minutes can shift the body out of a sympathetic state and kick start the recovery process. Anecdotally there seems to be an effect at around 5 mins, so even if you’re pressed for time, see if you can make time. Most people do not have access to inversion boots or tables, but most gyms have GHR’s or back raises that allow you to hang upside down from the hips down.

90-90 Breathing: placing your feet up on the wall by making a 90 degree angle at your knees, and a 90 degree angle at your hips (think sitting in an invisible chair but the back of the chair is the ground) and using a specific breathing pattern can also spark recovery and relaxation, and it’s very effective right before bed. you want to breathe into your stomach and avoid taking air high into the chest. Place one hand into the crease of your leg and abdomen, and the other on your chest/collarbone ares, and try to make the bottom hand rise and fall with your breath, while the top hand should remain stationary. Here is an example of 90-90 breathing, albeit without the hands in position to feel the breath.

hqdefault

Since inhaling is governed by sympathetic activity and exhaling is governed by parasympathetic activity, you want to make sure your exhale is at least twice as long as your inhale. If you have trouble breathing low, try taking your thumbs and placing some light pressure just below your sternum on your abdomen (there are some key pressure sensors here) and you should find the breath becomes easier. Again, the magic number here is about 10mins, I’d recommend putting on a couple relaxing songs and tuning out, and don’t be surprised if you get up yawning and a little light headed. If you do further reading on 90-90 breathing you’ll see applications and activations well beyond the scope of this article, just remember, for the purpose of recovery, you don’t need a fancier set up or pattern of activation beyond what is shown above.

Foam Rolling: But not in the traditional sense of digging into super tight tissues and hammering away, here you’re going to focus on the big muscle groups: the glutes, hamstrings, quads, lats, and pecs, and use long sweeping passes along the entire muscle belly. Try to avoid the temptation of digging into sore spots that you’re bound to find, not only will this help with lymphatic drainage if done post training, but if you stick with it for that magical 10 minutes, the moderate but constant pressure on the neural circuitry down regulates the sympathetic nervous system reflexes, and as a result, the parasympathetic system can kick in the recovery process and start recharging. Passive stretching can also accomplish some of the same effects, but ensure you use long exaggerated exhales while holding your stretches and stay away from aggressive tension.

Walking: or other low threshold aerobic work improves vagal nerve output which is like the master pathway to the parasympathetic system. You need to do this a little longer than the other methods, 20-30mins to really see an effect on the nervous system; however, like foam rolling, this one is also good for muscle recovery, but mainly for the lower limbs. This falls under the “seems too simple to work” category, but it’s powerful, and the increase in work capacity is always nice when your program requires you to bang out an extra set of squats beyond what you’re used to.

Ok Cool, But When Do I Do These?

Your two key times are directly post training and before bed. The faster you can get out of a sympathetic dominant state and recovering the faster you’ll be ready to do it all over again, and sooner you let the parasympathetic system take over at night the better you’ll sleep and the better you’ll recover, gain muscle, lose fat, and adapt to your training program. Since you’ll adapt to anything you repeatedly do, it’s best to rotate methods (arbitrarily around a month and I’ll use a different recovery protocol) or at the very least only consider stacking methods for periods of physical or emotional stress. Below are some examples of how to combine these methods for different periods of training stress.

Low Stress Load:

Post Training: Foam Roll for 10mins

Pre-Bed: 90-90 Breathing or Walking

Medium Stress Load (Start working from active to passive methods)

Post Training: Foam Roll for 10mins then GHR Hang for 5-10mins

Pre-Bed: Walk for 20-30mins, Foam Roll for 10mins with Deep Breaths and Long Exhales

High Stress Load:

Post Training: 20mins Low Threshold Aerobic Work, Foam Roll for 10mins, GHR Hang for 10mins

Pre-Bed: Foam Roll for 10mins, Passive Stretch for 10mins, 90-90 Breathing 10mins (do all this in as dark a room as possible). You can also make time to swing by the gym before bed if really needed to hang off the GHR or back raise, or you can attempt to rig something up at home.

As you may have noticed, all these methods are mechanical in nature, they’re very effective, require very minimal to no equipment, and assuming you already have a gym membership, they’re free. For those who have extreme nervous system imbalances and find they still need extra help recovering, the next time I visit this topic will involve the chemical/hormonal/supplemental side of the equation. Until then, train hard and recover!

 

 

 

 

Why Do You Do This To Yourself?

Right after the question “what the hell are you doing? that usually comes after someone sees me painfully cranking on knee wraps and bruising the back of my legs while putting my feet half to sleep, comes the question “why would you do that?”

I guess I never really step back to think that to the average person wanting to put hundreds of pounds of weight in your hands or on your back might seem a little weird, and maybe it’s as simple as that: I’ve never wanted to be average. There’s no money in powerlifting, you’re not going to become famous from it, aside from people in your close circle who area vaguely aware that you pick things up and put them down, no one cares about what you do. Win a meet, qualify for nationals, set a new record? You’re probably going to get some likes on Facebook, and then get lost in the abyss of baby photos and cat videos.

That being said, I know I that will I be dragged broken and screaming away from the weights that I have given so much to and they have given so much in return. I know I will rage against the dying light of whatever career I have left, but the question remains:

Why the fuck to do you do this?

I sat here stuck looking for the perfect answer, but the more I think about it, it just comes down to who I am. To me, powerlifting is the perfect metaphor for many of the things I value the most in life.

Personal Responsibility

Powerlifting is beautiful in it’s simplicity: it’s you vs the weight, you either lift it or you do not. There’s no teammates, no opponent, no one but you on a platform, there’s no weather or other extraneous conditions to blame a poor performance on. 500lbs will be 500lbs, and it doesn’t give a shit whether you had a bad day, whether you’re nervous, whether you’re feeling sick, partied too much, cheated on your diet or skipped the exercises you don’t like doing. If you don’t make the lift, weaker minded lifters will blame their coach, the bars were too slippery, there was baby powder in the chalk… The strongest lifters will take responsibility for their performance and begin the process of investigating and correcting the error.

Determination, Acceptance of Failure, and the Value of Hard Work

The second you start powerlifting you accept that eventually, given enough time, the weight always wins. There’s a respect among top tier lifters that I believe centres around this very fact. You may have goals and successes along the way, but no matter how strong you are, you’re always after the next 5lbs, and it will never be enough. It’s a relentless search for self improvement that spans beyond just the physical into the mental and emotional realms, and you will be tested in all of them. Stay in the game long enough and you will get injured, you will get scared and lose your confidence, you will miss lifts, you will deal with setbacks and pain that would break many, lifts will go backwards, BUT, through calculation and sheer–I-will-not-be-fucking-broken attitude and determination, you will succeed anyways and you will be better for it.

For me personally the endless pursuit of a goal that is eternally out of reach is the true value that powerlifting provides. To accept that you will never be done, but to devote yourself regardless through whatever trials and tribulations you may face shows not only character, but is the roadmap to success in every worthwhile endeavour in life. Whether you desire to be the best parent to your child, launch a business, or look to make a meaningful change to the world, it requires a process that mirrors the exact same process you will undergo chasing that ever elusive 5lbs more.

Healthy Competition, Perspective, and Community

For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be the best at something, to push myself past any measurable marker, and outperform my peers. I’ve been admittedly hyper competitive to a fault and when I first started powerlifting I wanted to be the best lifter in my weight class in BC, and then Canada, and then see where I could fit in the world stage. If I’m being honest, I never fully believed that I could become the best in the world, but as I close in on the second goal making a run at all three Canadian records in July, I realize I no longer care where I sit among others. Don’t get me wrong I am absolutely hell bent on getting those records, but not to be better than anyone else, to be the best version of myself, wherever that sits me on the world scale, I am fine with.

Right now I am no longer the outright strongest person in my own gym, we have Cameron who actually is the strongest lifter in the world in his age and weight class and will likely set the all-time world squat record at 105kg bodyweight and out squats me by 90lbs, we have our coach Cam Bennet who out benches me by 30lbs, and although we have a bet on who can make it to double bodyweight first (a tub of protein for a 2+year bet, we really should have aimed higher here Cam…), but if either of you two are reading this, there’s no way I’m ever letting you out deadlift me. All kidding aside I would be more than ecstatic to see both those men remain stronger than me forever, so long as we’re all still getting working towards our next 5lbs, and of course I’m going to do everything in my power to put them under as much pressure as possible as both a coach and fellow lifter, and guaranteed we’ll all be stronger for it.

Always Improving

Today I am chasing a 700lb deadlift, in the future it will be 705, and today I tried to do everything I could to get better, tomorrow I will add one more thing and improve on the things I missed.

Imagine for a second that you took responsibility for your actions and performance, were ferociously determined but could accept the lessons that failure provides, you knew the value of hard work, embraced healthy competition with a sense of community, had the courage to re-examine your perspective, and always believed you could be a little better – what could possibly stand in your way?

This is why I am so drawn to powerlifting beyond just the joy of getting stronger, every day I get to challenge myself to be a little better. Some days I will win, and some days I will lose and learn, but guaranteed I’ll be getting up the next day and will be standing next to that fucking bar determined to try again, and I genuinely hope some of you reading decide to join me

See you on the platform and in the gym.

Squat Fix 101 Series: Sam Richardson, Beginner

A little background information on this week’s Squat Fix: Sam is new mother just getting back to the gym, she currently has no competitive strength or physique goals but would like to get back in shape and is using the squat as a tool to do so.

So let’s start with the good. Sam actually keeps a fairly neutral back posture (front to back) that doesn’t significantly change shape in any portion of the rep, she doesn’t display any “butt wink” or posterior pelvic tilt at least at this depth. Knee tracking is pretty good as well, no serious deviations from the hip or the ankle are observed at any time during the reps (small twitches can be ignored unless pain is present), the lower leg joints make nice stacked lines from the hips to the ankles. Although we can certainly optimize a few things, the most important think to note is that this is fairly safe squat that could be progressed, again, so long as no pain is present

Ok so now let’s get into some things we want to fix right away and some things we may want to change/optimize dependent on goals. First thing is we need to get you out of those running shoes! I’ve written an entire article on this and will direct you here https://blacksmithfitness.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/the-best-and-worst-shoes-for-lifting/ but the key points are: Running shoes have large amounts of relatively soft cushioning, this weakens spinal reflexes from the input from the feet that tell you where you are in relation to gravity and where the load is, this isn’t a good thing and makes you unbalanced and reduces the load you can use, leading to less muscle built and less calories burned. Second thing we want to fix right away is turning the head while under load, at Blacksmith Fitness we just call this “pulling a bro” because it’s a move usually reserved for checking yourself out flexing, but we’ll give Sam the benefit of the doubt here and assume that she’s just looking around. Aside from the narcissistic nature of “pulling a bro” the real problem lies in that although the spine can move segmentally (one piece at a time) it’s ability to do so is quite limited, and therefore even to create small movements, relies on several vertebrae to produce the motion. The body will follow the head or the hips, and creating rotation under vertical load is not something the spine enjoys very much – don’t wait for it to tell you! Find a spot anywhere from 10ft in front of you, to the just below the imaginary horizon to fixate your eyes when you squat.

The next thing is Sam is currently showing a more glute/lower back dominant squatting pattern, as you can tell from the forward lean of her torso being greater than the forward lean of her shins. There’s nothing wrong with this except in this case Sam isn’t hitting full depth and glute recruitment isn’t maximized until at least a parallel thigh position is reached (crease of the hip is in line with the top of the knee), leaving some valuable muscle growth on the table. More depth also equals more mechanical work done as well as more time under tension per rep, both of these things have positive influence on muscle growth as well as energy burned. If the lower back becomes a limiting factor later on as loads increase, Sam may want to learn to use a belt or move towards matching her shin angle to her torso angle to continue progressing – this may be a simple as thinking “sit down” as opposed to “sit back” or there may actually be an ankle mobility issue preventing her from doing so. In the case where a mobility issue may be the limiting factor, Sam could use plates under the heels or specific squat shoes with a raised heel while she works on the requisite mobility to hit the desired position without the use of external aids.

The last thing we’re going to talk about it is Sam’s bar set up. First, let’s get away from the preloaded barbells, they force you to shoulder press the weight into position, which limits the amount of weight you’ll be able to use, and even if you don’t have any competitive goals, to get anything out of the squat you’re going to need more weight than what you can shoulder press into position. Definitely find a squat rack to do your squats in. Right now the bar is in a high bar position (meaning the bar sits on top of the upper traps) this is probably one of the most comfortable places to put the bar, and also the easiest to prevent rolling down the back, however, it’s not a license to leave the bar there passively. Instead of leaving the bar sitting in place, instead think “break the bar over my back” and you should feel the whole back light up, this engages the lats, which attach all the way down into the sacral fascia and an exert a force on the hips, keeping you from folding forward as you start to use heavier weights.

All in all you have fairly safe progress-able squat that needs a few tweaks to get a bit more out of it, and definitely to change your shoes or just take them off, and to find a spot to fixate your head and eye position, and may need to make some long term tweaks to ensure continued progress. Happy squatting!

If you’d like to see a powerlifter’s squat broken down, check out our last article here:

https://blacksmithfitness.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/blacksmith-squat-school-case-study-bryan-wong/

 

Squat Fix 101: Bryan Wong, Powerlifter 

A couple weeks ago we sent out a post looking for people wanting to improve their squat technique by sending us some videos of them squatting, and today we’re breaking down Bryan Wong’s squat, so if you have more advanced strength or powerlifting squatting goals, sit down, strap in, and get ready to learn about the squat!

The basics:

  • Mid-bar narrow stance squatter
  • Competing in powerlifting, goal is to move the most weight possible, an important distinction between the main goal being to build the most amount of muscle in the quads or glutes
  • Weak point, 3-4inches out of the hole

Bryan is a coach’s dream in the sense that he already has developed an appreciable level of strength for his bodyweight, but has a huge potential to improve his squat by modifying his techniques to take advantage of his leverages. Here’s some of the videos that Bryan sent us

 

Now you can either work from the ground up or the top down, but in Bryan’s case we’re going to work from the top down. If you watch Bryan’s competition squat, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the weight of the bar collapses his chest position, pushing the upper back into kyphosis (an exaggerated forward rounding of the upper spine). This moves the bar in front of the centre of his ribcage and causes him to unrack the bar with the weight on the balls of the feet, not only does this make the weight feel way heavier and destroy lifter confidence, it actually IS HEAVIER because of the longer lever from the bar to the centre of the chest. This also causes you to unlock you hips backwards or lean the torso forward to centre the weight over the mid foot, which creates a longer lever between the bar and centre of the hips at the start of the squat, meaning that a full glute contraction cannot be achieved before commencing the squat (maximum voluntary contraction happens at a fully hip locked position); this is of particular note as Bryan falls forward 3-4inches out of the hole in his squat, and a full activation of the glutes could potentially clean up his weak point through the post-activation potentiation effect of a maximum voluntary contraction, without requiring him to actually strengthen that muscle group, which takes significantly longer time. Below is a video of how we would change Bryan’s bar position to a more advantageous position

 

The next thing we’re going to look at is how Bryan is breathing in the squat. If you take a look at all of his squat videos, you’ll watch the shoulders rise before he squats. This rise is a function of using the upper respiratory muscles to draw the ribcage up to increase the volume of air in the upper portion of the lungs, the problem here is that the ribcage is already highly stable, and is supported by bone on bone structure; however, the space between the bottom of the ribcage and the top of the hips is only supported by the lumbar spine, and relies heavily on the forceful contraction and compression of the abdomen for support. In his videos you can tell his belt is too tight, restricting the downward movement of the diaphragm and not allowing the lower abdomen to expand into his belt. The expansion before contraction allows you to take advantage of the stretch reflex and achieve higher intra-abdominal pressure, which acts almost as hydraulic support for the spine, it also allows you to push out against an immoveable object, which increases the force of an isometric contraction beyond what you could do if you just flex the muscle as hard as possible. A great illustration here is to flex your biceps in a classic “which way to the beach?” fashion, as hard as you possibly can, now try to lift an immoveable object using a bicep curl motion, which contraction did you feel was harder? The same thing happens with a belt if you use it correctly. Here’s a quick tutorial on how to breath for the squat, although it’s important to note that although many people grasp the concept in theory, undoing years of improper breathing often takes a more targeted approach, so don’t get too frustrated if you can’t get it right away, and if you really struggle with this, feel free to give us a shout and we’ll try to point you in the right direction

We also happen to know that Bryan has suffered a minor peroneal strain, which by the way is a very uncommon squat injury, however if you watch Bryan’s squat, and if you understand the role of the peroneal group, it starts to make a bit more sense. The peroneals act to evert the ankle, aka turn the soles of the feet outwards and the pinky toe rotates towards the shin, but if you fix the ankle in place by planting it on the ground, the peroneals can act upon the shin to create a varus force (think bow legs).

Left: Lucas demonstrates the varus knee position, right shows a more stacked joint position

Bryan does this at the bottom of his squat most likely to create space for the femurs to clear the bone of the hips, but is still unsuccessful, as you can note by his “butt wink” or posterior pelvic tilt that is evident the deeper he attempts to squat. Although we would need Bryan in person to assess whether this is actually a bone on bone limitation, a soft tissue flexibility issue, or a lack of stability causing compensatory movement, the clues are there that this is actually a bony impingement caused by the angle and position of his hip socket and femoral neck; therefore the solution here is going to be to widen his stance. As noted above this should also allow him to stack his joints to the line of force and produce force in the same direction.

One of the ways you can check to see if you have a soft tissue flexibility issue, a stability issue, or a bone on bone issue in the hips is to check your stance with a rack supported squat, pictured below

rack-supported-squat

If you can drop right into position, with a neutral back, no significant change in your hip position in the bottom position, and can let go of the rack and hold that bottom position without any shifting and stand straight up, you’re awesome, you have an appropriate stance, and I hate you. If you need to pull yourself down into position and push on the rack or hold it for support but can hit the bottom position or close to it and keep a neutral back and hip position, you likely have a soft tissue flexibility issue in either the hips or elsewhere in the chain, like me and my achilles tears (you’ll notice that I can’t hit depth, and if i let go I comically fall over backwards, sorry we didn’t film this). If you can’t hit depth and feel a pinch or go into pelvic tilt even in a supported position, most likely you have a bone on bone impingement and no mobility drill in the world will make this a useable squat position for you, most likely you will need to widen you stance and turn your toes out, or some combination of the two until you can hit depth comfortably in the supported position. This is an oversimplified test, but, it will help many of you find a useable squat stance

Ok next we’re going to make the case that Bryan should switch to a low bar squat with more torso lean, Lucas an I are also going to show you our white ass legs and some absolutely horrific mugshots, so at least that part will be entertaining. The number one mechanical advantage you can have in the squat is a short femur, not very many of us are blessed with this trait and sorry to say Bryan, you aren’t one of them, but don’t worry you’re in good company of many great squatters. What Bryan does have is a short torso, so lets take advantage of that. First and foremost, the low bar position brings the bar closer to the hips and shortens the lever whenever there is forward torso lean (the bar is now closer to the hips) if you need an example of why this is an advantage, try holding a 20lb dumbbell outstretched in your arm, now have someone place that dumbbell and stabilize it at your elbow, how much easier did that just get? in this case the fulcrum is the shoulder joint and the lever length is how far down the arm the weight is placed. The same thing happens at the hip with the back being the lever arm, although it’s not as easily envisioned. The low bar position causes the hips to shift backwards further than mid or high bar position, it also requires less forward travel of the knee, which means that the centre of the bar will be closer to the centre of the knee, this creates a shorter lever arm between the centre of the weight and the centre of the knee, negating some of the disadvantage of having a longer femur. Doesn’t this technically create a longer lever at the hip than mid bar? Technically yes, but we’ve shortened the lever by at least an inch by moving the bar down the back, and Bryan’s leverage is much more advantageous at the hip, and since the upwards force on the bar is the SUM of the hip and knee joint, we should get a larger net force once he adjusts to the new position. Below is comparison between Lucas and I showing the difference in our seated height and femur length.

super-hot-seated-height-photolucas-and-joel-femurs

Above: Lucas is about 2-3inches taller than me, but you can see our seated height is about 4+inches apart, showing that I have a shorter torso, below: you can see our legs are almost identical in length despite our difference in height. My short torso and long femur suggests I’ll do better with a low bar squat, where Lucas’ more even ratio will allow him to use whichever squat works best with his current strength ratios.

So that’s it for Bryan’s squat, he’s got some work to do, but if he implements these changes he should see a large increase in his squat numbers and efficiency. Stay tuned for the next one in this series, we have squatters with varying abilities and goals, and you’re sure to find someone you relate to! Thanks for reading and be sure to fire us any questions in the comments section!

 

Do You Want to Look Better for 90 days, or Forever?

Probably the most common fitness related goal is weight loss, more specifically fat loss, and every one wants the fastest route there starting yesterday, I get that, but not many people pause to think that if they get there, how hard will it be to stay there and not rebound like the majority of flash-in-the-pan crash dieters and over-exercisers? Do I know how to do this without an all or nothing mentality?

Let’s clear the air really quickly: the fastest way to fat loss is through dietary restriction and through large energy expenditures. At the start this will mean a fairly radical dietary overhaul, and various weight training circuits, intervals and other high intensity methods that put out large amounts of energy in a relatively short period of time, BUT, is this the most sustainable way to transform your physique? Probably not.

Strength, Muscle and Habits are yours to keep

These three things are the most important long term predictors of a transformation that is yours to keep forever, not just rented for 90 days before your trip to Mexico or 10 year reunion, so let’s talk about each one of them in a little more detail.

Strength

“I don’t care how strong I am I just want to look better!”

At the base of this sentiment, I get it, you didn’t come into the gym to be the world’s strongest man or woman, you just want to look better, but, your strength has a whole lot to do with how quickly you’ll lose fat. Thanks to Greg Nuckols for highlighting this in one of his articles, but the energy expended during a workout is highly correlated to how much resistance you’re overcoming (aka how much weight is on the bar) and lifting a 300lb deadlift for 8 reps takes almost perfectly 2x as much energy to move as 150lbs for 8 reps, but they both take the same amount of time. So the person who is consistently getting stronger over time is actually expending progressively more and more energy in the same amount of time as the person who stays the same strength but just does endless circuits. The person getting stronger is also building muscle to boot, which brings us to the next key piece of the puzzle

Muscle

The more of it you have, the more energy you burn at rest, and the more energy you burn while you move. So long as you keep training, and don’t do any crazy starvation diets, the muscle you build is yours to keep, and there it will sit, silently pushing up your metabolic rate 24/7, and giving you better return on your workouts. Compare that to the person doing cardio and interval training only, who will likely be losing some muscle tissue and therefore slow their metabolism over time, and because of this they will have to train longer, or eat even less to maintain their fat loss efforts. Eventually this practice becomes prohibitively restrictive, downright unenjoyable, and unsustainable; you can’t eat nothing and run forever.

Habits

Building muscle takes time, actually significantly longer than it takes to gain or lose fat, and to do so takes consistency. You’re going to need to show up to the gym at least 3x per week and make that a habit, you’re going to need to eat enough of the right foods to recover from the muscle damage you created in your workouts and probably take care your hydration. You’re going to notice that sleep affects your strength, and that’s pretty damn important too.

The weight on the bar never lies to you, you can’t fake strength or pretend you’re working harder by grunting, if you’re hungover, eating poorly, and half-assing your workout, the weight won’t move, simple as that. By measuring your progress with objective numbers instead of subjective sensations, you take responsibility for your own progress and will have to look introspectively if something stops working – this is where true progress happens! It’s the same process and habit formation you can apply to your nutrition, your sleep, your health, and any other important facet of your fat loss/physique transformation journey.

We have had some incredible transformations at Blacksmith Fitness, people who have lost up to 100lbs and stayed there for months and counting, and every single one of those people are stronger, have more muscle, and better habits than they had one day 1 – it’s not a coincidence!

 

Article Request Series: If You Could Only Do 5 Exercises for The Rest of Your Life, What Would They Be and Why?

Man, I’m glad you picked that number, because there are essentially 5 basic human movements

  1. Hip Hinge
  2. Squat
  3. Press
  4. Pull
  5. Torso Stiffness

Now there are other subcategories like rotational movements, the press can be divided into vertical and horizontal planes, as can the pull, however, at the bare bones it all comes down to those 5 movements. I’m going to extrapolate a little and assume the person is essentially asking, what are the 5 most effective exercises? Because the truth is my 5 might be slightly different than your 5 depending on goals, individual differences in structure, and other limitations, so I’m going to give you the 5 that I believe will work for the most people reading this

Exercise 1: Front Squat

Why it’s awesome: Due to the front loaded position requiring a more upright torso, axial load and shear force are reduced on the lumbar spine, it makes it a more low-back friendly option than back squats for the long term. It requires less shoulder mobility and external rotation than the back squat, doesn’t put any lateral stress on the elbow (which doesn’t tolerate lateral stress very well) and is a self correcting exercise in the sense that if the weight is too high, and you lose torso position, you’ll be forced to ditch the bar. The front squat can be modified to be made more comfortable for almost every upper body joint, meaning it’s a great exercise to work through aches, pains and injuries that can occur over a lifetime of lifting.

Exercise 2: Barbell Deadlift

Why it’s awesome: Want to work almost every muscle in your body save for your pressing muscles? Deadlift. Want to gain a ton of muscle? Deadlift. How about burn a ton of body fat? Deadlift. For most people, the deadlift will be the highest load they can use on any exercise not named the partial leg press, and no single move recruits more muscle fibres at high threshold than the classic barbell deadlift, more muscle fibres stimulated means more growth potential activated, and also more energy expended per repetition. The real determinant of whether you put on loads of muscle or strip away tons of fat will be your nutrition. The ability to pick heavy stuff off the floor is an ability that never gets old, even as you do, and as a bonus, a strong deadlifter is usually decently strong in just about every other exercise out there, except the press variations

Exercise 3: The Military Push Press

Why it’s awesome: Most of you were probably thinking I’d pick the bench press, but I’ve already blasphemed against powerlifting with the front squat, so why not keep the streak going? The military push press is a full range movement at the shoulder, whereas any horizontal pressing motion uses only a portion of the total range that the shoulder can move through. Although this may not seem super important to you now, once you lose some range in the shoulder you’ll miss it more than recess and someone else packing your lunch for you. Despite the military press’s reputation as shoulder killer, it only wrecks shoulders that are predisposed to or are already injured. For those with healthy shoulders, using all your range can actually keep you healthy over time. Why the push press over the standard military press? First, the amount of weight you can handle is higher (see the deadlift for why that’s awesome), second, the explosive nature of the movement trains the fast twitch fibres to a higher degree, and fast twitch fibres do all the cool tricks like grow more, and burn more energy, and make you stronger.

This is the one exception I’ll make, if you already have shoulder issues but are cleared to train, then replace this with the dumbbell bench press. By using dumbbells instead of a fixed bar, you can manoeuvre around sticking points and painful ranges in the shoulder joint, and because most shoulder issues occur at the extreme end range of motion, the horizontal press walks right down the middle of the road. For really beat up shoulders you might need totally free shoulder blade motion too, in which case the banded pushup would most likely be your best option

Exercise 4: Chest Supported Barbell Row

Why it’s awesome: The low back can take a lot of abuse from even the most perfectly executed front squats and deadlifts once you are handling high loads, and sometimes you just need to give those muscle a damn break, but you still need to work those muscles that act on the shoulder blades and keep you from crunching into the gym-bro hunchback that presses way too much. The chest supported T-bar row kills the two most common types of cheating that even the most seasoned of athletes can be guilty of with the standard barbell row: driving with the hips/using momentum, and getting more upright as the weight gets heavier. By keeping the chest pasted to the pad, you’re not going to be able to do either of these things, and the work is going be done by the targeted muscles.

Exercise 5: Single Arm Farmer’s Walk

Why it’s awesome: Well, I firmly believe the ability to carry groceries into your house in one trip is the true measure of a man, but even if you don’t agree the single arm farmer’s walk is still a killer exercise: It crushes your grip, it’s an anti-lateral flexion aka a don’t let me fall or get pushed over sideways drill, it’s anti-rotational aka don’t let me twist myself into a pretzel, and it strengthens the entire chain from the ankles to the shoulders in unilateral fashion, much as you’d use them when changing directions or sprinting or playing whatever recreational sport you end up getting roped into. The farmer’s walk also makes your torso stiffer and more resilient for big lifts like the squat, deadlift and military press, and it also burns a ton of energy, oh and it’s high load too so you’ll probably grow some muscle. All that adds up to being a whole lot cooler than doing 100 sit-ups and having nothing but some back pain to show for it

Now let’s plug a loophole; someone is going to say “what about cardio, you can’t just lift and stay healthy!” true, but I’m not willing to give up one of my 5 precious exercises for the stairclimber, so if you want a cardiovascular effect, lighten up the loads and keep moving for 20+ minutes, the heart and the lungs are pretty dumb tissue, they don’t care what creates the demand, they just respond! Now get training!

 

Article Request Series: How has Instagram Changed Strength Training, Body Image Expectations, and Motivation?

Welcome to your front row seat to the world’s most impressive strength feats, abs shredded beyond belief, narrow waists, augmented breasts, and the world’s fittest and most attractive people at your finger tips, all you have to do is pull out your phone and scroll.

Instagram has become the unofficial home of fitness on the internet, it seems that every amateur powerlifter (guilty), aspiring bodybuilder or bikini competitor has a page and is publicly documenting their progress. On top of all these amateur and aspiring athletes, we have instant access to the world’s top lifters posting their training and competitions, and the world’s most attractive nearly-naked fitness models posting motivational photos with quasi-inspirational quotes. I would argue that no single platform has changed the landscape of fitness more than Instagram. Some of these changes have been positive, some have been negative, and for the most part, Instagram’s role in the fitness industry is still being written.

Instagram’s Positive Influence

People are starting

So has all this exposure actually inspired anyone to take up fitness and get after their goals? I’d say a resounding yes. I still remember when one of the lifters I was training told me the meet he wanted to enter sold out in 6 minutes… wait what? I missed a couple years in the powerlifting world due to a bad injury, and just 3-4 years earlier meets didn’t sell out, you signed up a couple weeks before the meet because you kept on forgetting to go online and actually fill out the form. Now there’s an explosion of new lifters looking to get their chance on the platform to test themselves, and there are even a few people in the general public who know what powerlifting is.

How about the bodybuilding shows? Right now the sport at the grassroots level is being financially kept afloat by the explosion of Insta-inspired bikini competitors and men’s physique category, outnumbering the bodybuilding, figure, and physique classes by at least 2:1 combined! The explosion of popularity in the strength and physique sports has been nothing short of phenomenal. Never before has it been more possible or in-vogue to start your fitness journey, document the entire thing, and attempt to inspire others to do the same.

Bigger goals and dreams

I know personally that Instagram has shown me that my initial goals were actually too low, and opened my eyes to what kind of strength feats are possible even at my current weight class. I can see what the top in my sport are doing, and expect better of myself. Seeing what world class lifters are doing has inspired me to chase higher goals myself, and even if I don’t hit them, I’ll have ended up further ahead trying to achieve them had I not changed my perspective in the first place

A chance to interact with the elite

I’ve actually had conversations with world’s top lifters and most successful strength coaches. Alice Matos pointed people towards an article I had written and offered some advice for my female clients, Paige Hathaway (pictured with the boxing gloves in the main picture) responded to my questions about her supplement line. I’ve learned from top physical therapists like John Rusin who has taken the time to point me towards further learning resources and answered questions about a shoulder injury, and I could list countless others, and all of this happened via Instagram. The best information and the best people in the world have never been so accessible, and you’d be surprised how many of them will take time out of their day to help you.

The Dark Side of Instagram

It’s not real

Most people know that the photos of Anllela Sagra (pictured left) and Devin Physique (pictured right) are heavily photoshopped, use professional lighting and photographers, airbrushing, hell they even shrink the skin with ice and apply other crazy industry tricks all to get the best photo possible. Even with all those tips and tricks, they’re still going throw away 80-90% of the photos they took, using only the best angles that portray a completely unrealistic image of what the model actually looks like. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “stop trying to look like the girl on the magazine, the girl on the magazine doesn’t even look like the girl on the magazine” it couldn’t be more true; however, that doesn’t seem to stop us from comparing ourselves to these caricatures of our favourite fitness models.

It can obscure your view of your own progress

I should be celebrating, so should Cam, and so should Marina, but we’re not, we’re all struggling with confidence issues directly related to our relationship with social media, specifically stuff we’ve seen on Instagram; Let me explain. Marina signed up for her first powerlifting meet in January, she’s been training hard and she’s made incredible progress, putting on 30+ pounds on her squat bench and deadlift in a matter of a couple short months, and despite her relatively short training cycle, she’s going to be competitive in her weight class at her upcoming meet in January. By all measures she’s making incredible progress, but like many others, she follows some of the best lifters on Instagram, and every time they post a video of their new PR, she just feels further behind. Cam recently added 100lbs to his bench press in record time, hitting the 4 plate mark for the first time in his life, which is something that not many people ever do, regardless of bodyweight; however, with the world at your fingertips, it’s one thumb stroke away to see someone doing 4 plates or more with ease, and it can seem like this is the norm and allow it to cheapen your own accomplishment. We tend to lose perspective of our own significant achievements with this skewed perspective that 4 plate benchers just grow on trees. I had a similar experience after missing a 635lb deadlift, and there was Jesse Norris, a weight class underneath me, pulling it for an easy 8 reps. The reality is not everyone who starts their fitness journey can end up in the world’s elite, the best are the best for a reason, but that shouldn’t stop you from celebrating your accomplishments along the way.

Mistreatment and misinformation

“you can’t even see the difference in those photos, you’re still fat! haha” – ready for these kind of interactions? That was a real comment taken from a transformation picture that trainer had posted online of one of her clients. People can be ruthless when they’re sitting behind the safety of their phone screen, and if you make your profile public, be prepared for some abuse. I personally can’t stand to read the comments on popular Instagram posts anymore, perhaps I’d like to ignorantly keep some faith in humanity. Making a change to your lifestyle or chasing a grandiose performance goal is already incredibly intimidating, the last thing anyone needs is some asshole keyboard warrior talking shit to make themselves feel better about whatever short coming of their own they’re overcompensating for.

Although Instagram is going to give you the chance to interact with some of the world’s best, for every knowledgeable person, there’s at least 20 others aggressively marketing the most ridiculous of quick fixes and lacklustre fitness products and supplements, so beware and have a strong bullshit filter on at all times.

So has Instagram had a net positive or negative effect on fitness as a whole? I’m not sure, but as an individual you can use it as motivational tool, and a chance to interact with like minded people. If you feel the negative side effects starting to creep in, feel free to check out, unfollow, go private, and take a moment to reflect on just how far you’ve come.