Thursday, August 28, 2014

Programming Core Workouts - Putting It All Together

So I've put together a four part series (I, II, III, IV) on core training. That series is a bunch of pieces with instructions for each component. Now let's look at how to incorporate these ideas into a complete program.

Let me get one assumption about planning your training out up front. The assumption is that you are going to have a weekly training program. There is a day or more of technical training at your club. Two or three days of strength work and three or more days of cardio. You strive to have a regular schedule, where each component has a particular day when you do it. There are more complex approaches possible, but this is a good starting point. And, of course, there is progression from week to week.

First, don't try to do everything. I've presented four different types of core training and there are plenty of other options as well. Instead pick a couple of options and do them a couple of times per week each. 

Second, remember that these exercises are not your only core training. Basic weightlifting exercises provide plenty additional stimulus to developing core muscles. Conditioning methods like kettlebells and battle ropes will also help train the core. As will medicine ball exercises (which are a great as a part of the warm-up for class).

Categories of Core Training

To help you decide which exercises to do it helps to start by categorize them by the basic kind of benefit the exercises will produce.

Intensity - the most basic core exercises will help us develop stronger core muscles and progression is achieved through increasing intensity. The most basic are the weighted isometric exercises from part I. If you are only going to include one kind of core work then make sure that this is it. Alternatives abound. For this category exercises should be low reps (<15) or low time (<45 seconds), with enough resistance for muscle fatigue to be the limiting factor. These exercises should be stable and involve only short arcs of movement or no motion.

Coordination - other core exercises are better at developing the integration of our core with whole body movement and/or the integration of sensory and muscular activity for balance and agility. Basic, whole body lifts like the squat will develop integration of the core and movement; medicine ball drills will do the same but with a different emphasis. Agility drills (like ladders and cones) will place a core demand where dynamic stability is developed. 

Specific exercises include those described in parts III and IV. These should be seen as supplemental to other kinds of core exercise. As the other aspects (weightlifting and agility) are more important to include.

Activation - desk jobs, sedentary living and the general frailty of humans mean that we frequently need to help trigger muscles to be more active. These kinds of exercises may be less demanding physically and progress may be noted in improvements to other actions, not the exercise itself. A basic starting point for these are the hip exercises described in part II. 

Lots of alternatives exist in this category, for instance the Turkish Get-up or various carry exercises. Common elements are that the exercise is highly form dependent and the core is used to support the resistance, rather than directly causing the movement. They are also low enough in intensity to be done most days.

Deciding What Goes Where

The different exercises you do should be associated with specific other aspects of your workout, this will help keep things organized and guide decisions about what goes where.

Activation exercises are specifically beneficial as a pre-workout exercise, particularly before weightlifting. 

Intensity exercises should probably follow the same schedule as strength training since they will require a rest day in-between. They should be done at the end of a strength training session since the bigger exercises are more technically demanding.

Coordination exercises can be used as part of the warm-up for any kind of exercise or as part of a circuit. Remember, that when used as a warm-up the volume of exercise will be lower than when they are a primary training goal. 

When it comes to training, everything should be done a couple of times per week or more. Anything you are training only once a week will not see progress and development. More frequent training is necessary for improvement.

Here's a sample schedule to illustrate
  • Monday - Activation and Agility work (coordination) as part of warm-up for class
  • Tuesday - Activation before lifting, intensity work after main lifts (coordination)
  • Wednesday - Activation and med ball work (coordination) as part of warm-up for class
  • Thursday - Activation before lifting, intensity work after main lifts (coordination)
  • Friday -Activation before long cardio session
  • Saturday -  Activation before lifting, intensity work after main lifts (coordination)
  • Sunday - rest
Since activation is on there nearly everyday, I will probably alternate two different activation exercises. Carry exercises can be made into a good warm-up that is focused on structure and is therefore relevant to weightlifting e.g. squats etc. While the hip activation can be done on the other days.

How Much?

Ten minutes. As part of a warm-up five minutes. Since core training shows up in many aspects of a complete training program (like strength and agility) the time spent on dedicated core work does not need to be large. It's actually already in there plenty.


A good program requires planning. It probably even involves a calendar or spreadsheet. This idea will be featured in another blog post. But it shows what is required for success - dedication.

Monday, August 25, 2014

You Can't Trust Yourself

Or the importance of applying the scientific method.

Human brains are fallible. This is well documented. And I want to be clear, I don't mean, "your brain is fallible, but I'm smarter". That's not it at all. My brain suffers the same limitations as everyone else. So it is necessary for all of us to  work against those innate biases and fallacies. Awareness of those limitations is the necessary first step. 

Here is a series of articles by personal trainer Nick Tumminello on common ways in which our brains will trick us.
Part I
Part II
Part III

And here is a good start to strategies everyone can employ to help avoid these pitfalls.

Tradition Based Training in Martial Arts

Martial arts is a field of athletic endeavor more heavily slanted towards tradition and the past than others. We typically assume that past masters are better than we could ever be and therefore their training must have been the best.

This is a logical fallacy though. It boils down to these two sentences:
1. (Person who I consider a success)* used these methods to succeed.
2. Those methods are the best path to success.
* This person could be an ancient, dead master or just the person you learned from.

Logically, sentence 1 does not lead to sentence 2. However, I frequently see the  assumption that it does. However, with this anecdotal observation, we have no way of knowing how the "master" would have fared using different training methods. Perhaps they would have been even better. Without controlled experiments we cannot know.

Thankfully, when it comes to strength training, cardiovascular training and motor training there is a huge body of research stretching back 60+ years. This body of evidence provides a clear guide as to which traditional training practices produce what effects and how efficiently.

And it is usually a matter of what effect and efficiency. One of the most common arguments I get into is folks who think a particular approach is good for strength when, in actuality, it is a good cardio/endurance exercise**. The science does not say, "don't do that!" It simply says that such is good for a particular thing but not another. So, keep doing that traditional cardio work, but add in modern knowledge of effective strength training.

** Usually, folks think a particular approach is good for everything. This is never true. It cannot be true. Biology does not allow it to be true. The way our body works for strength & power versus endurance & cardio are functionally very different.


Don't believe your personal experience when it contradicts a solid body of evidence. It is difficult, and humbling, to say, "my experience is says one thing, but the evidence contradicts me, so I must be wrong."

The willingness to admit you are wrong, when faced with a large body of evidence, is important to all of life.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Programming Core Workouts - Part 4: Isometric Stability

Isometric Stability Exercises for the Core

This is part 4 of the continuing series on Core workouts. If you haven't seen them, or just need a refresher here's Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Our basic pattern continues here with a three part approach - front, back and side. However, these exercises are using various devices to create instability, such as a BOSU, medicine ball or stability ball. 

Instability creates two additional kinds of demand relative to simpler exercises. First, the need to stabilize engages more of the muscles, thereby increasing the intensity of the exercise without having to increase weight. Second, our trunk muscles have a significant role in stabilizing the torso and our body (of course), so a stability demanding exercises is going to help develop that capability. This demonstrates the application of a basic principle: overload. An unstable surface is overload in comparison to regular life, where we don't have to deal with unstable surfaces. Overload is necessary to make regular tasks easy.

Their are four exercises shown above:

1. Medicine Ball Plank - this engages the entire body for stabilization, especially the upper body. Emphasis should be on good posture - as always, a good plank looks just like good standing posture except rotated 90 degrees. This means a neutral spine, instead of letting the hips drop or sticking your butt up in the air.

2. Stability Ball Curl Up - with the small of the back on the stability ball this exercise focuses the demand on the abdominal muscles, unlike the previous exercise. The objective is to hold the shoulders up against gravity while simultaneously stabilizing on the ball to maintain a neutral posture.

3. Stability Ball  Hip Bridge - with the shoulders and neck on the stability ball this exercise places it's demand on the back extensors, glutes and hamstrings. Once again, the objective is to maintain a straight back posture. There is a tendency for people to cheat by letting the hips sag. However, there is no real downside to a bit of over-extension with the back. So I advise people to err on the side of elevating the hips higher than they think they need to.

4. BOSU Side Plank - by elevating the feet on the flat side of a BOSU the side plank gets an added stability requirement. As with the regular side plank the emphasis should be on good posture (which I'm sure you've noticed is the pattern), avoiding the errors illustrated in the video.

Task Complexity

These exercises illustrate another principle for progression, that of task complexity. Task complexity allows us to progress an exercise without increasing weight, by adding additional layers of difficulty in other domains. This does not improve strength but it will improve the cross-over between different exercises. 

It can also provide a way of progressing an exercise in group training when there is a mix of levels. Since not everyone can necessarily do a harder or more intense version of an exercise it can be easier to have some folks do a more complex version of the exercise.


These are supplementary exercises that work best in conjunction with the more basic exercises described in the previous parts of the series. They can be done on the off days since they are less intense than the standard weighted core exercises.

As with the other isometric exercises, aim for a duration of at least 30 seconds and build up to a minute. Much past a minute and it becomes necessary to change the exercise to continue to make meaningful improvement.


These basic exercise variants can improve an already solid core development and strengthening program by adding task complexity through instability.

(Conclusion about programming)

Monday, August 18, 2014

June Link Round-up

Oy! The summer semester was intense. But awesome. And after that I had to move. Thankfully, this was followed by short vacation.

But I'm finally back to posting. This post is the stuff I had put together for the June Link Round-up, but apparently had been left as a draft for two whole months. Honestly, the program was so intense that I didn't even realize that I'd missed posting for that long.

So, what have we got this time?

Tracking your Progress

Jefit is smart phone app for tracking your workout. I've tried a few others and settled on this one.
The advantages of this app, as I see it:
  • Can program in any exercise, if it's not in the database you can add your own
  • Can set-up rest times, sets and reps - makes it easy to create a complete design
  • Can super-set exercises - that is pair them so that you alternate from one exercise and back to another
  • Tracks your progress
Tracking your workouts is incredibly important. If you aren't tracking then you are just working out. Just passing time and burning calories.

But what we want is strength training. We need to be able to check that we are making progress. To set goals and challenge ourselves. This all means you need to be tracking your numbers.

You can also just use a notebook. I did initially. But it's 2014 and I know most of you would rather an app on your phone.

If you have another favorite app, then please share in the comments.

Pell and Bag Work for Power & Speed

This article from Ross Enamait talks about additional approaches to heavy bag training. I feel the advice applies to pell work as well. 

The short version is to include periods of pell/bag work done at maximum intensity, with simple actions, shorter periods. Typical bag work is done on the same timer as a boxing match 3:00 on and 1:00 off. Or a variation thereof. But this never gives you a stimulus to go higher - in encourages you to pace yourself. Sometimes you need to push it though, and this will develop different characteristics than regular bag and pell work.

On Intensity

This blog post from my friend J. Forrest Conway talks about intensity in workouts. It's allure and the dangers therein. I know I've had this problem myself. And I think anyone who gets serious about their training has a high risk of 'addiction' to training and then overtraining.