Enter the Landmine

My name is Sandeep, and I have bad shoulders. A childhood spent in front of the computer playing videogames, and an early adulthood ambition to do a lot of pull-ups resulted in terrible shoulder mechanics that have caused me pain and frequent bouts of neck spasms. At first, I figured this was a unique problem. I told myself I had a long neck, weak shoulders and all other kinds of rubbish. But it wasn’t. The more folks I coached and saw move around me, the more I noticed that everyone suffered from some version of this problem.

What am I talking about? Obviously, not everyone has shoulder pain or some kind of neck issues. But be it due to our modern lifestyles and all the sitting hunched over, our propensity to being chest breathers or even one too many ‘chest days’, most of us lack the ability to reach over our heads without compensating elsewhere in our body. The most common version of this is a lower back arch. If overhead pressing hurts your lower back, this is probably why.

At the Strength System, before every overhead pressing day, we test our trainees’ range of motion in flexing their shoulder joint (taking their hands overhead) using the back-to-wall shoulder flexion drill.

Here’s a great video by coach Eric Cressey on how to do it –

If their thumbs hit the wall, boom, let’s press. If they don’t, as is common with folks with a hunch or with tight pec/lat muscles, we have them substitute the overhead press with a landmine press. This allows them to comfortably press in the range of motion that their body allows them without creating compensations. This is a movement that, in addition to teaching good shoulder mechanics, allows us to load them up and continue training the pressing pattern, while we also simultaneously work on their shoulder mobility through corrective exercises such as YTWs, lat and pec stretches.

If you’ve been having shoulder pain or back pain when you press, we highly recommend trying out this approach to it. Test, and if you fall short, try the landmine press.

 

Sandeep

sandeep@strengthsystem.in

Finding your own path with Cameron Pratto

So far, our journey has been fairly predictable. We visited and learnt from legends in the field of strength and conditioning such as Mike Boyle and the folks at Cressey Sports Performance, giants in the powerlifting game like coaches Murph and Russ at TPS, as well as Juggernaut’s Chad Wesley Smith, Olympic lifting from the fantastic coaches at Catalyst Athletics and a little bit of everything from Coach Conrad at Bodytribe. The common thread between most of these coaches is that they were true strength folk. They loved the barbell, loved iron and the smell of chalk in the morning.

There’s always been another side to the equation that’s not been as well explored in recent history as the iron game. Since the beginning of time, a lot of training systems have formed around moving our bodies in space. Some built around using leverage in pursuit of mastery of our own body weight and some to effectively navigate and traverse our environment. Gymnastics, parkour and MovNat are some of the incarnations of this kind of training. During this trip, we wanted to visit someone who committed himself to mastering this side of physical culture. We found that in coach Cameron Pratto, one of the founders of Urban Movement.

Where the strength world has rules and patterns that appear strict and sure, the movement realm seems to be much more aligned with the right side of the brain. There is creativity, artistry and room for intuition. With a beautifully minimalist tell-show-do coaching style, coach Pratto walked me and Prashanti through two personal classes where we explored a movement-first approach to training.

Like a ___ stone

Like a ___ stone

The biggest problem with parkour as a training method seems to be it’s lack of scalability to a group class. Skilled parkour coaches are few and far in between, and because it is such a fledgling training method, few coaches are experienced and educated enough to coach it to a group without fear of injury and with emphasis on individualized progression.

With coach Pratto, training primarily takes place through the mastery of individual skills and then incorporating those skills into movement combos or courses. He is a firm believer in letting trainees figure out their own style and their own paths, and only interfering if there is a significant inefficiency or potential for injury. He believes that this minimalist coaching style allows a trainee to figure out the answer to these environmental movement puzzles themselves, and this enhances retention of those skills, rather than him feeding them the answers.

The first day, our class took place outdoors, where we worked on underbar, wall-running and climbing techniques, as well as various quadrupedie techniques that acted as the first few variations to work towards hand balancing and handstand techniques. Coach Pratto speaks to us about how he would deal with such a session if it was a group class, giving us examples of how classes are divided into groups of more experienced and less experienced practitioners. It is a parkour class though, so he doesn’t face too many folks who are so far out of shape that he needs to work with them personally on basic movement patterns before having them tackle their environment.

The second day, we visited the indoor space that Urban Movement shares with another gym. This is where they get even more creative due to the safer environment and the ability to manipulate the space. They’ve built some incredibly cool climbing frames that you can pull apart and set up using some easy-to-remove joints. It’s like playing in a giant set of tinker toys. He shows us the vault boxes and the variety of two-by-fours that they’ve assembled to have clients work on balancing and low-gait movements before advancing to the elevated movements that are usually associated with Parkour. In this safe environment (because everything is padded), he coaches us through some basic balancing and rolling drills.

I’ve always been fascinated with parkour. In a world like ours that encourages us not to interact with our environments and being passive observers, parkour is a big part of the key to restoring a connect that we once had. Coach Cameron Pratto opened a window of possibilities for us into that world. Climbing through it, is up to us.

– Sandeep

Ultimate athleticism with coach Shank

As we landed in San Diego, I thought about how we almost didn’t do this part of our trip. The plan was initially to go straight from San Francisco CrossFit to my sister’s place in Austin, TX. Coach Max Shank was a last minute addition to our epic pilgrimage. Although he’s been around for a long time, he does seem to keep a somewhat low profile on the fitness interwebz. But when his awesome book ‘Ultimate Athleticism’ came out, he seemed to be everywhere. I came across him when I read his guest post on Tony Gentilcore’s blog, and I had this faint feeling that I had seen him somewhere. And then it hit me. He was this guy:

Shank-onearmhs

He was that crazy model for the photos in Convict Conditioning. The book was filled with pictures that made me go, ‘No way. Definitely Photoshop!’ in my head, and this was definitely the worst offender. A one-arm handstand push-up.  I’m pretty sure that this is a feat that less than 1% of human beings on the planet are capable of doing.

What made it even more nuts was that coach Shank openly admits that when he was 18, he couldn’t bench 95 lbs or do a single chin up. It made me realise the magnitude of focussed, methodical and intelligent work that had been consistently applied over 10 years. This was no accident. Coach Shank was a seriously smart dude, and we had to visit him.

Visiting him at his gym, Ambition Athletics, in the city of Encinitas near San Diego, we were not disappointed. Coach Shank is.. ahem.. a little smaller than he looks in the photos and videos. But he’s built like a pitbull. He looks like he could crush my chicken neck with his pinky.

The plan was to spend an hour with him personally to learn about his training, programming and how he runs a fitness business, and then jumping in to one of their group classes after so we could experience the magic first hand.

Coach Shank is a big proponent of Bruce Lee’s minimalist teachings, and it shows in everything he says to us. His speech is lucid and he seems to have incredible clarity of thought. We hang on to every single word he says and frantically take notes as he explains to us how he organises the different classes at Ambition Athletics and how he programs for them.

His focus for himself and his clients seems to mostly be skill-strength acquisition. They spend a lot of time in the 1-5 rep range and work at a high levels of relative intensity. This combined with his absolutely genius 80% rule (terminate the set when you need to work at more than 80% effort level), seems to produce an uncommon level of strength that is scale-able to a group class.

Another big part of his programming seems to be the mobility work that he incorporates into almost every aspect of the class. Coach Shank is Functional Movement Screen and Z-Health Performance certified and has come up with/made popular again some really cool mobility drills. His thoracic bridge and medial nerve flossing videos have changed my life and resolved neck and upper back pain that I’ve been suffering with since my computer gaming days.

After the private session with him, we workout with the noon group class folks. Our coach is Holly Mersy, whose journey in the fitness industry sounds real similar to our own. She started off as coach Shank’s first intern and then worked her way up to a coaching position. Although the class is pretty big and consists of folks of very different fitness levels, she handles it really well all by herself. It’s a really fun class and a great training environment.

The brief time that we spent with coach Shank was incredibly educational, and we’re really glad we didn’t miss out on the opportunity.

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– Sandeep

Purpose

Disclaimer: This is going to be a long, rant-y post.

Chip Conrad is like a crazy oyster fisherman. He works really hard and spends years hunting and digging for pearls, and when we approach him seeking to learn, he smiles gleefully and says here, you take it. Trying to encapsulate everything he taught us over the last week wouldn’t just be impossible, but would also be somewhat insulting. Like a great teacher, his teachings aren’t just for here and now, but are going to serve as a beacon that we keep coming back to and realising as we continue on our own journey.

The first time I came across coach Chip’s ideas was in his DVD, building a holistic athlete. It blew my mind. He had the courage and audacity to ask a really important question, something that I felt was on the tip of everyone’s tongue (every fitness/movement person I followed at least) but no one would actually spit out – can there be more to this fitness thingy than just the pursuit of purely physical and selfish motives? And from there, he opened up a can of worms and a world of possibilities. Maybe you don’t have to pick between hippy-dippy movement and flow systems and chalk-eating, shin-bleeding bigger-stronger-faster methods. Maybe it’s okay to have fun when training instead of grinding your teeth and visualising slasher flicks in your head before a set. With his trademark infectious enthusiasm, he painted a beautiful picture of what that world could be like.

Out of all the ideas that he spoke to us about, I am only going to speak about one. This idea permeates through everything he says and everything that we learnt and did at Bodytribe Fitness – purpose.

Purpose, put simply, is ‘the why’ of well.. anything. Why do we train? Why do we want to look a certain way? Why are our training sessions set up a certain way? These questions for me opened up a dialogue with myself that, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy very much. There were some harsh truths that I found myself facing. My training was mostly geared towards two things – getting better at working out, and looking good with my shirt off. And funnily enough, neither of them were things that gave me pleasure in the present – I wasn’t really enjoying the process. Basically, one of my goals gave me happiness from an end result of beating myself up and the other from an end result of improving the way other people perceived me. This wasn’t a fun epiphany.

Over the last week with coach Chip, he made me realise something that I had forgotten. ‘Play’ is awesome. We swung from bars, climbed trees, rolled around on mats and did a whole lot of movement flows. Remember how when you were a kid, you climbed this, jumped off of that, crawled under this, rolled under that and just.. moved? If that was the last time you had fun moving, isn’t there something wrong with that? And if that was so awesome, why are most of us trying to do programs that are reverse engineered from bodybuilding, powerlifting or crossfit training methods?

I’m probably never going to compete in any of those sports.. probably. So why would I train like I was?

So here are my new goals:

  • Train to be bulletproof in any environment or context
  • Train to be capable in any situation
  • Play, and train to to be able to play harder

Whether or not an exercise is ‘functional’ or not will be determined by whether or not it supports these goals.

It’s going to take me many, many years to completely understand and decipher the knowledge that coach Chip has passed on to us, but I’m super glad that Prashanti and I met him now. I think it really has given both of us a much-needed focus for our journey.

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A big thank you to everyone at Bodytribe! You guys were awesome. Special mention to Hank, Lulu, Scarlet and Doug the pug.

-Sandeep

Home of Boston’s Strongest

Loud death metal blares through the speakers. The air smells of iron. A giant one-eyed bulldog stares at me. The largest people I have ever seen are lifting barbells loaded up with what looks like the weight of a small car or a full grown cow. The entire floor is literally shaking from people on the weightlifting and deadlift platforms. This is Total Performance Sports, the baddest gym I have ever seen with my own eyes.

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Despite looking and being as badass as it is, it isn’t intimidating at all. All the coaches are incredibly nice and are very approachable.

The first day, we showed up with no real agenda, hoping to get a fly-on-the-wall experience of a powerlifting gym, but what we got was so much more. We watched the coaches get in their workouts post lunch. It is lower body day.

All preconceptions of ‘heavy’ and ‘hard’ are shattered.

After that, Coach Russ Smith (the nicest man I’ve ever met) spends all afternoon with us. He explains his workout to us and walks us through some of the awesome equipment at TPS. The gym is stocked with top-end equipment from Westside Barbell and EliteFTS. We try out the belt squat machine (best-machine-evarr!), the reverse hyper machine and the sleds.

He also changes my life by cueing me on maintaining a neutral spine. And later that day, he runs their ‘Gutts and Butts’ class for just one person – me. Due to the crazy weather outside, no one else showed up.

The next day, I get to workout with coach Kevin Cann, the only person at TPS who doesn’t seem to weigh over 200 pounds or make the floor tremble as he walks. The workout is power cleans and squats (never say back squats). We finish up with some single leg circuits.  That evening, I get to watch the TPS Method class, a semi-personal training class aimed at regular folks who want to get in awesome shape. The class is pretty packed, and about 20 people show up early and start warming up. The pace of the class is tight, quick and controlled. The culture at TPS is reflected in every aspect of this class. All trainees have their own workout logs, everybody watches everyone else’s sets and while there is enough time to rest, there is no real down time.

The next day is our last day there, and we show up early to sit down with coach Kevin. He patiently answers all our questions about programming, nutrition and the running of a gym like TPS. We then watch the coaches get in their afternoon workout. Later, coach Russ takes the time to coach us again, me on the OH press and Prashanti on the back squat. Coach Russ is an amazing coach and teaches us everything we need to know to adapt these moves to the population that we’re going to work with.

That evening we watch their 5-3-1 group class coached by coaches Russ and Chuck. It’s a packed class, and it’s awesome to see that there are more women than men.

The few days that we spent at TPS have made such an indelible mark on us and have definitely set a tone for this trip. The culture is so thick in the air here that it’s impossible to miss it. From the signs on the walls to the cold, well-used barbells and plates, everything screams purpose and function in the service of strength. If you want to get stronger, TPS will embrace you. This is definitely a big part of what we’re going to take back with us.

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And it’s convinced Prashanti to compete in powerlifting when we go back home.

A big thanks to coaches Murph, Russ, Kevin and Phil, Jane (who Prashanti will introduce in the next post), Tarik and Anthony at the front desk and everyone else that we ran into!

– Sandeep

 

 

Strength System

Before all the bookings, before all the planning and the emails and scheduling, Prashanti and I had a few hard questions to answer. A trip of this magnitude is no small undertaking. Thirteen cities over two and a half months in a country we weren’t familiar with. We had to know exactly what we were getting into, and more importantly, we had to know exactly what we wanted from it.

MovNat practice

MovNat practice

Figuring out what we were getting into was the easy part. Almost everyone we contacted was extremely nice and so helpful, that figuring out accommodation and logistics was a lot easier than we expected. It took some time, but all things considered, we were pretty happy with how things turned out.

Answering what we wanted was a lot harder. It made us aware of the enormity of the undertaking at hand, and helped bring home the commitment that the task would demand. We knew that figuring this out would give us the conviction that we needed to stand by this decision.

The answer was simple. Kind of.

Systems.

In the words of renowned strength coach Dan John, “A system.. is a set of parts.. that come together.. to form a whole.” Almost everything that we take for granted, every formal learning process, every organisation, every unit, every family is a system. To coach people, you need a system. And honestly, this is one of the most exciting things about being a teacher. Figuring out your own method. Through learning, researching and experience, you develop your own personal system that is an effective way for you to teach.

I believe that a good system has to be built on strong principles and values. In absence of principles and values, goals and methods mean nothing. They achieve nothing real.

For Prashanti and me, these core values were our starting point. I don’t think either of us are crystal clear about them as yet, but they stem from the same place. Honesty. Personal relationships. Hard work. But we hadn’t the slightest clue how to build around it. And this is what we needed to learn. To see. To feel. We needed to experience other successful systems that were making a change in people’s lives and doing more than just getting people fit. Systems that were truly making a difference.

So hopefully, that’s what we find.

– Sandeep