Where Do We Start?

In an effort to ‘reset’ my sleep schedule in preparation for student teaching, I’m making a conscious effort to go to bed earlier and wake up at ‘school time’ through my winter break.  I took some ZMA last night around 9pm, shut down the electronics, and was in bed with the lights out just before 10pm.  Considering the 8-hour average sleep requirement, I should’ve been ready to rise and shine at 6am.

That didn’t happen.

When I rolled out of bed at 9:13 this morning, I thought to myself: I wanted to be productive today, so let’s get cracking.  After eating 6 scrambled eggs and some beans, I caught up on my morning reading, wrote 3 training templates for several hoodlums 17-19 year olds at my gym, scripted my own workout for later, as well as a workout for another trainer and my boss.  I’m also working 4 hours tonight.  Seems like a good day so far!  Now, about those programs that I took care of.

In the case of the three fellas I wrote for, they’re all individuals that would find the time to head to the gym regardless of what they’re doing; they don’t need to be motivated to go to the gym; They have Nike’s Just Do It mentality.  Doing it, it seems, is the preeminent factor, and usually the what, why, and how are not frequently asked questions.  This is overwhelmingly common in the 17-19 year old male population, who seem to have more respect for a 135lb supinated grip power clean (usually called a ‘barbell curl’) than a powerlifter hitting a 4x body weight squat in gear.  (The suit does all of the work, right?)

Interestingly, people understand the needs for surgeons and accountants and pilots, but when it comes to exercise, everyone is an expert; especially if you’ve read the forums on BodyBuilding.com.  In the case of 2 of the guys I wrote for, one of them used to have a biceps day, and the other has been doing an ab day.  Buttermuscles may have strong biceps, but he’s a sprinter; wrong biceps buddy! Seth, on the other hand, can probably beat Richard Simmons in a sit-up contest, but knows that he needs to get his deadlift in order.  Now, they’re set for the next month or so.

With all of the information available in fitness magazines and across the interwebz, it’s no wonder that people will spend 2 hours doing bicep curls, or try to power through 500-rep sets in an ab workout.  Feel the burn, right?  Frequently, I’ll experience this when I’m working:

“Hey Harold, do you know any good bicep workouts?”

“Yea, how many chin-ups can you do?”

“Umm…what?”  ::crickets::

I like to consider basic movements as a starting point for people when they first head in to the gym, but it’s impossible to create an accurate list of exercises that everybody should be doing.  In some cases, people won’t be able to perform these exercises, due to mobility or stability restrictions, or if they don’t have access to specific equipment.  I’m referring to a trap bar, and a suspension trainer. (In this case, it’s the TRX, but rings or a Jungle Gym XT work just as well.)  It’s almost 2012, so if your gym is missing out on these basics, I’d recommend you find a facility that is more invested in your success than their bottom line.

If I were to create a list of ‘basics’ that I’d recommend be included in every program, it’s based on movement patterns:  A Hip Hinge, a Squat, horizontal pushing and pulling, and vertical pushing and pulling.  We can include core stability exercises and loaded carries, but that would open a whole can of worms.  For now, the Harold Gibbons Big Six include, in no specific order:

  • Hip-Hinge: Trap Bar Deadlift
  • Chin-Up
  • Goblet Squat
  • Push-Up
  • Inverted Row
  • Overhead Press

I like to include the many variations that exist of each of those in each program I write, and you could find examples of them in the 13+ workouts I’ve written today.  Let me share some specifics with you below.  First though, a chair-flip win:

Let’s go over the exercises which are body-weight in nature first; with those we can discuss strength-to-weight ratio.  Of the chin-up, push-up, and inverted row, I will definitely say that the chin-up is my favorite.  It can be used for to address shoulder range of motion, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and as a general measure of being a boss.  If you’re capable of performing a set of chin-ups and can touch your chest to the bar for double-digits, I’d be willing to put some stock in your upper back strength.

Chin-Ups tend to be forgotten; physical education testing tends to drop it in favor of the flexed arm-hang, and our lat-loving culture opts for the lat pull down in the gym.  I don’t like either of those; we’re forgetting about competency in a classic movement that requires one piece of equipment and provides a fairly level playing field for all participants.  Chin-Ups should be one of your go-to movements.

Push-Ups and Inverted Rows are the same as chin-ups to me; highly effective for training stability in the shoulder and trunk.  Both movements are a dynamic plank, and incorporate a heck of a lot more muscle than their machine counterparts, the supported row or chest press.  It’s also a hot harder to cheat with each exercise, and progression and regression options are nearly endless.  When it comes to horizontal pushing and pulling, you’ll never get bored with row or push-up variations.  Seriously:

The exercise that I mentioned that require external load can be tricky, because we’re sure to address questions about what is strong enough, or what is adequate strength before progression.  Honestly, I don’t know.  I think that setting strength minimums or maximums is too limiting, and should be addressed on a case by case basis.  A football offensive lineman who can deadlift a small horse but can’t perform a body weight squat?  That’s an issue, just as it is that some folks can perform a beautiful body weight squat, but have very low strength levels on top of that ability.  In the grand scheme of things, movement competency should come before strength, but movement competency without strength can be just as dangerous as strength on top of dysfunction.

When it comes to lower-body lifting, I prefer to the trap bar deadlift to the straight bar deadlift, as more people can comfortably trap bar deadlift, and can begin the lift in a safer starting position by avoiding lumbar flexion.  That being said, it’s easier to end in lumbar hyperextension at lockout, as Jason Ferruggia explains in THIS article.  (He makes a great point, and I agree with what he says!)

In a well-written program, barring injury or physical limitations, you’re going to see a hip hinge pattern, a squatting pattern, and an overhead press.  The gung-ho, ‘heavy weights or no weights’ crowd will probably say conventional deadlift, front squat, military press.  Hell, they may combine it all together and say the clean and jerk/press.  When appropriate, definitely; how frequently is it appropriate though?

I find that the goblet squat works the best for most folks, and that a half-kneeling overhead press helps them feel comfortable overhead but helps prevent excessive movement at the lumbar spine; most folks who are unused to pressing in half-kneeling immediately feel they’re thoracic spines extending when they use this position.  There are certainly exceptions when other options work better, but I prefer these two:

In every program, there should be a variation on the hip hinge, the chin-up, the squat, push-up, inverted row, and overhead press.  When it doubt, begin a workout with one of these movements, and follow it up with one or two others.  These bilateral basics offer a nice starting point for you to begin a training session or when developing a workout template, and provide a great bang-for-your-buck.

If you’re knew to any of them, try them out and let me know how they felt.  Now, it’s time to train.

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2 thoughts on “Where Do We Start?

  1. Harold,
    For the half kneeling DB press, you mention that people may experience their thoracic spines extending. Is that another benefit of this exercise or is the thoracic extension implied to be a bad thing? My guess is that it is a good thing because everyone who works at a computer has lousy thoracic mobility. Thanks for clarifying.

    1. John, good question, and thanks for catching that grey area. I think the half kneeling position puts people in a position that allows them to feel stronger thoracic extension, but it’s important for them to note the difference between pain and discomfort. Ideally, overhead pressing (Hell, every movement!) will be proceeded by soft tissue work and mobility drills for the thoracic spine. This is just my preferred position for reinforcing the proper mechanics through the rib cage and scapulae.

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