Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Futile Search For The Magic Exercise. (Gestalt Training)

While flicking through Verkhoshansky's Special Strength Training Manual For Coaches, I came across this line in the preface which struck me as fundamentally important:

"In the past, the coaches were searching for the 'best exercise' which could assure an easy way in achieving the higher increase in athlete's performance. Later, it was understood that the single exercise cannot assure by itself the best increase in specific performance, but that it can be achieved by a group of different exercises integrated into a system."
This is an issue that reverberates throughout commercial fitness facilities, people want you to show them the magic, secret exercise that will change everything. To a lesser extent you still see this mentality in strength coaches as well, all we need to do is the Olympic lifts and everything will be fine regardless of the individual, their background or their sport.

Often times I will write a program for someone, and when they look at it, there is a sense of disappointment. Where are the secret exercises that will transform their body, where is the secret special ops bullshit that will make them throw up and therefore feel like they've had a real workout. Instead they see deadlifts, squats, presses, pull ups etc blah etc, all that stuff that has worked for thousands of people for at least a hundred years.

The point is not necessarily the individual exercises, however good they may be. The point is the accumulated effect of doing all these exercises together over several weeks, months & years. The workout is not just a list of exercises on a piece of paper, it's the effort you put into every single rep, every single hill sprint, the sessions you blast through when you don't feel like training, the focus, the tenacity, the push outside of your comfort zone. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Not technically gestalt, but you get the idea


"Boring stories mister"

These are all examples of real world conversations I have had, some happen on such a regular basis, as to become generic, some are recent specific examples.

The bicep guy: "I'm looking for an exercise to hit the outer head of my biceps brachii, I've heard that semi supine 135 degree partial rep band curls are the answer, I was thinking of adding them onto my bicep day?"
Me: "How many chin ups can you do? And how big are your biceps now?"
Bicep Guy: "I don't do them. About 9 inches pumped"
Me: "You don't need a  bicep day, you need to do some chin ups and total body training, and stop drinking freakin lucozade while working out"

A real conversation I had a couple of weeks ago when someone walked into the gym
Woman: "I'm on holiday for 10 days, which one of these is the best machine to lose weight and get rid of this (pointing to stomach)."
Me: "Only 10 days, hmmm, none of them, eat less" (okay, I padded that out with some blah talk about nutrition and long term exercise, but you get the drift).
Also bear in mind that this woman wasn't a pre contest figure athlete in need of Lyle McDonalds stubborn fat loss protocol and a shipment of yohimbine, she was the standard fat loss client.

Six pack guy or gal: "Whats the best exercise for this? (pointing at stomach). At this point they want you to tell them about some secret ab-curl variation, do 100 of these and you will get a six pack, instead you ask

"Do you want to get your core stronger or you want to see your abs?"

Nine times of of ten, they want to see there abs. So you tell them its about nutrition really. But if they like, you could show them some total body training that's going to hit the core, as well as everything else and burn more calories than sitting on the recline bike. No, no, no! They don't want that, they want the easy answer, they want the magic exercise.

Magic functional core exercise - this will give you a 6 pack in 6 days: Or just do some squats, asymmetrical carries and buy an ab wheel


Or the person who thinks Pilates is a panacea for all their woes - back pain, posture, lose weight, get that stomach they always dreamed of while lying down, with this secret set of exercises (but that's a whole other blog post).

Last example, Running guy came into the gym because he wanted to work on his upper body and because of some long term intermittent non specific back pain. So I give him the SFMA, Mcgill, full assessment screen (included in his membership, no extra charge!), then take him through cat camels, bird dogs, glute activation drills, body weight squats, goblet squats, one arm DB press,the works. Next time he comes in he tells me he wants to only use machines because there safer and he thinks he hurt his back doing the other stuff. So I tell him all the downsides of machines, and the one or two that are the exception & may be worth him using, and then take him through hip hinges & golfers lift. And the next time he almost believes me, but he can't quite bring himself too, because I'm just a guy in the gym and not his physio, and he tells me he wants to use the leg press machine for his legs, so I tell him about the lumbar spine flexion on the leg press, and how the goblet squat is superior and safer, as is all the unilateral leg stuff we've been through, and how more functional it is to his needs blah blah. And how Dean Karnazes and Scott Jurek both lift weights etc etc.

And he looks at me like I've started speaking Vogon and the babel fish has fallen out of his ear. Because all he wanted to do was come to the gym and use some of those magic upper body machines and core machines and not have to think, and not really change the way he is moving at all. And carry on being a kyphotic runner with upper crossed syndrome and spindly legs who is forward flexion intolerant.

Did you not hear me when I said the Leg Press is not good for your back. Am I speaking Vogon or something?!


"I don't believe you, you're a liar". Magic machines.

Some people think they've joined a gym or facility and the money they pay is for the machines. Its not. You're paying for the expertise of the trainers. I think it was Stuart McGill who said you can tell how good a facility is by how few machines it has. A cable column, some kettlebells, power rack, barbells & prowler is the sign of a good gym.

Now I realise there is a sub-set of gym goers, or more specifically health club users who specifically pay for the machines and the exclusive environment. They don't care that the poor sap minimum wage gym instructor doesn't know anything about training because they come to the gym to tell people they go to the gym. For them staying fat & unfit is not an issue, they can have their post workout caramel latte in the cafe afterwards and get the fat lipo-sucked out at a later date.

Some people look genuinely disappointed when you don't put any machines in their program. They don't believe that the floor exercise you gave them for their core is the best one they can do, they don't believe that those bodyweight exercises are really what is going to get their legs in shape, or that dumbbell exercise the best thing for their arms. No, one of those shiny machines must do the job better, they look so new and expensive, why would someone go to the trouble of building those machines if bodyweight & free weight exercises were all that was needed?! There must be something I can sit down on, some kind of vibrating platform that will do this for me? No, there isn't. Welcome to the lie of the fitness industry my friend. Trust me, your membership fee should have nothing to do with the amount of machines in the gym, it should be about the results the trainer can get for you.

Bang for your buck exercises (note to all American trainers and coaches, stop using this phrase in your writing and work, it's worn out and trite)

Some exercises achieve so much that they are worth a thousand machines. There is an exchange in the DVD secrets of the shoulder between Gray Cook and Bret Jones which goes something along the lines of: so what do you do for you posterior chain? Swings. And your cardio? Swings. And explosive power? Swings. And shoulder rehab? Swings.

So I guess somethings do border on magic exercises. The swing is a gestalt exercise, so much more than it first appears. There is more going on than most of your clients will ever know.

Cue perfect opportunity to have a Neghar Fonooni video clip of some kettlebell swings. (After the few reps it looks like Neghar is even doing some neck packing - good work & technique!)



Yes, the hip hinge, goblet squat and bird dog may look simple. But you have no idea how much more beneficial they are going to be than the adductor and ab crunch machine. Yes, not only are you paying me for the stuff I show you, you are also paying me for all the useless crap I don't make you do.


You are not a snowflake, but you are an individual



Copying other peoples training can be a mistake. They are not you, you may have specific needs, injuries and time constraints. You should have an assessment, or at least honestly ask yourself what you need to really work on. This doesn't mean, however, that in general there aren't some commonalities in training that work for everyone. Yes, its a worn out phrase but success does leave clues. For example, with running, intervals, hills and sprints all work. This doesn't mean you need to go and sprint up a hill on your day 1 session, but what it does mean is walking for 10 minutes on the treadmill is never going to get you to that 10k run.

The same with weight training, you might think you are the only drug free individual in history who needs a bicep day, and a tricep day and fifteen different pec exercises. The reason we know time travel isn't possible, is because if it was Arthur Saxon and Eugene Sandow would be here now, hitting every wannabe bodybuilder over the head with a weighted sandbag.

Sandow: Back when men could wear leopard skin pants, while sporting a moustache when it wasn't movember and somehow managed to build a physique without access to a smith machine


Now this doesn't mean training has to be boring. Go ahead try new things, have crazy sessions where you do random stuff, drink NOS explode until you pass out. But never lose sight of the basics, because they work. Basic heavy compound movements, explosive lifts, intervals all work, but they don't sell products on the Internet.

"We didn't start the fire, its been burning since the worlds been turning"

I guess people want an easy life and quick results. Why stand up when I can sit down. Why put effort in, if there is possibly an easier way. Why bother changing, its too hard. The comfort zone is warm and cosy and people don't want to come out of it (see I did learn something on the 10 min gym training,  bridge model course: in joke).

If you are training for 5k or 10k and you've never run before, at some point you have to stop walking and running. And it will hurt, not in an existential way, but in a real 'my chest is going to explode' way because you body likes homeostasis.

There isn't some secret running schedule that no ones told you about, there's not some special barefoot shoes that will help you. At some point you have to go and run further than you've run before, and then run faster, and those individually sessions will build up into something magical, greater than one mere training session or method could achieve.The whole program gets results not the individual days

And sometimes you have to break out of your mental comfort zone. Tell a guy who has been doing 3 x10 on all his weights exercises for years that maybe he should try 10 x 3, or 8 x 2 or 5 x 5  and he will look at you like you just set fire to Arnies Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. But why not try it, what the hell have you got to lose.

Will a deadlift alone change you? Probably not. The back squat? Maybe. However, put them together with presses, some kettlebell conditioning, pull ups, bodyweight exercises & a few hill sprints and 'you will become more powerful than you could possibly imagine'.

So stop searching for the magic exercise, or the magic programme. Its already here, you just haven't done it properly yet.

You gotta have a system, go and find one that works for you.

1 comment:

  1. One of the most important things about good abdominal exercise is that it needs variety to be effective; with a treadmill, you can only change the grade of the platform, while with a elliptical machine.

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