Friday, September 25, 2009

The Serratus Muscle

I can't remember where I saw this as I was cruising around different forums but I saw something that I'm sure that most of us haven't seen very much: a question on how to strengthen the Serratus Anterior muscle. That's hardly the muscle on the body that impresses girls. you can't even see a chunk of it because it inserts on the anterior and medial border of the scapula (n English, on the shoulder blade, near the spine and between the shoulder blade and the rib cage. Yes, i had to double-check to make sure I got this right). Since much of what fascinates people is the muscles is the muscles they can see, it's weird to see someone even ask about it.

An interesting fact about the Serratus is that at the dawn of bodybuilding, many ignorant doctors claimed that the first bodybuilders were malnourished. They were confusing these muscles when they were well-developed for ribs. So, the priority of this muscle has been pretty low on the totem pole for quite some time. That doesn't mean it's insignificant. It's an incredibly important muscle. The fact that this muscle is pretty weak in a lot of people is a huge reason why so many have shoulder pain.

The serratus does a couple of movements. It's responsible for drawing the shoulder muscles forward when punching. It also helps rotate the scapula, enabling you to lift your arms overhead. What might be its most important role doesn't involve movement though. It's most important job is to stabilize the scapula. That's also why the bench press kind of sucks. The bench stabilizes your shoulders to the point where the serratus isn't doing much work. It could become shortened, causing the infamous winged scapula and all sorts of shoulder problems.

So, back to the original question at hand: What's a person do to strengthen these muscles?

The push-up.

Yeah, that's right. The plain-vanilla push-up is good for hitting the serratus, provided that you do it like I've mentioned several times in the past: under control throughout the movement. The problem for a lot of us is that by now, the normal push-up lacks the challenge that it once had. Plus, we've worked it so much that we crave another variety to try.

It's possible to get both by doing the push-up with our hands on something unstable. This forces us to contract our serratus even more (although we may not notice while exercising) in order to stabilize the shoulder blades. A good way to do this without equipment is doing them on our fingertips. One arm push-ups work well too. The key with them is to think of pulling yourself to the ground while lowering your torso. A third way is to bring one of the knees up to the elbow like this while doing push-ups:

If you grow tired of these, or they're too easy, then you could always reach for a few other tools in the BW bag. Yes, the push-up T's are good for the serratus. A better choice are suspension rigs. In my opinion, these are at the top of the list for hitting the serratus hard.

All of these options have been covered in my blog in the past. Run a search and you'll find that I've blogged extensively about ways to make the push-up harder and how to use different tools. Throw these into your training whenever you get a chance and I assure anyone can get a very complete chest workout out of them.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Liars and Fakers

You can't surf around fitness web sites or forums without running into the Internet tough guy who exaggerates his fitness capabilities or outright lies about them. It's been going on for God-only-knows how long in every form of media and word of mouth alike. It sells stuff, it makes heroes out of fools, and it strokes highly sensitive egos the world over. If you look around any fitness forum, I'm sure that you can find someone inflating their handstand push-up rep count, passing off someone else's intensely-muscled body as their own, or lying about the length of the rope that they're climbing in their latest Youtube video.

Outside of the need or want to sell something, I don't get why people lie about their physical capabilities. First of all, one good look at the liar-in-question and you can tell if they can really do what they're claiming. It's almost pointless trying to sell the notion that you can do 25 handstand push-ups (yes, I heard this before) if you're a semi-solid (or semi-flabby)230 lbs. It's also a little foolhardy to think that anyone's going to believe that you're 5'10" and 250+ lbs of solid, drug-free muscle. Most of us who train know better.

Think about it this way: the average, American man can only do 4 pull-ups. 10 pull-ups may not be impressive to some but it's quite a bit above what most can do. So, trying to say that you can do well-over 20 is a little bit of overkill if you're trying to sound like you're in good shape.

Furthermore, why do such people care what others think of them? Walking through life, worrying about how others see your athletic performance shows some obviously high levels of insecurity. For crying out loud, grow a thicker skin and screw what others think of you. If they're going to deride your efforts, then you shouldn't be listening to them in the first place. Don't drop yourself down to their level by lying through your damn teeth!

That's one thing that I swear I'll never do. I'll never lie, or exaggerate, what I'm capable of doing. If I can, I'll admit to it. If I can't, I'll say so. I'll come right out and admit that I have a very difficult time doing Pistols. Before I threw my back out, I was getting 10 on each leg. Now that I'm much better and able to do them without an issue, I struggle to do 5 consistently. I can't do a lot of the more gymnastic-based BW exercises, such as flags and planches either. I know I'm definitely above-average in general physical fitness but I have no illusions about being at an elite level. So, I won't sit before this keyboard and make myself out to be something that I'm not. I'll just train my ass off to get there.

Frankly, that's what most of these shaved-apes and jackasses who spend their time dreaming up their fanciful feats of strength ought to do. They need to shove away from the keyboard and do some real, honest, and hard training. Who knows, if they actually focused their efforts on their workout rather than on their next line of bullshit, they wouldn't have anything to lie about anymore.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Isometrics the Skeptics can Believe in

Every once in a while, I see someone, somewhere doubt the effectiveness of isometrics. I can see their point too. Isometrics are so basic that they lack the one thing that all exercises have in common: movement. If you're not moving, then how on earth can it be exercise, right? Think about it: when you're not working out hard enough, what does your trainer/partner say? "GET MOVING" There's no movement to do in an isometric. What are you gonna say? "GET CONTRACTING" It just doesn't seem like hard work if you're not moving, does it?

So, on one hand you have those who doubt them. On the other side, you have people who think that their strength building properties are just miraculous. Naturally, that level of hype won't convince any skeptic. To them, that's about attractive as mosquito repellent. Anyone who is serious about strength training knows there's nothing miraculous in this world. It's all about how hard and smart you want to work out.

I've never considered isometrics miraculous but I do consider them an incredibly important part of my workouts. Hardly a training day that goes by where I'm not doing some sort of isometric work. I consider them almost as important as Calisthenics in my overall routine. If I'm flying, you can bet your ass that I'll spend at least part of the time doing isometrics on the seat.

Let's review what they are, and that's right in the name. ISO-metric... one length. They're any exercise which forces your muscles to contract without moving and maintaining that contraction for a period of time(so the muscle never changes it's length, hence the name). Now, there are several ways to do isometrics. You can contract at full force for a short period of time or you can contract at a lesser force for a longer period of time.

What I'm going to deal with are the latter isometrics because there are some brutally hard variations that even the most ardent ant-iso fan would have to concede are awesome exercises. In fact, there are some pretty common exercises that, by definition, are isometrics. They just don't get named as such. One such example is the L-sit. For those of you not familiar with the L-sit, it's pretty simple. Grab yourself two objects of equal height that can support your bodyweight. Place your hands on each and do this...

Then, hold it. Don't move. Don't let your legs down. Hold them at a right angle. For as long as you can. If you've never tried this, let me warn you: IT'S HARD! It's an isometric. If you can do a minute of that, you're a monster (FYI, I have done a minute but I can CONSISTENTLY do 45 seconds.)

Now, moving just a little down the Isometric ladder, one of my favorite Iso's, lately, has been the one-arm plank. The set-up is exactly the same as a One-arm push-up. Instead of lowering yourself to the ground, just hold that "up" position.

Just like it's father-push-up, you can tailor this to your ability. You can make this easier by spreading your feet out wider or you could do place your hand on a block. Also, to make it harder, place your feet closer together or raise your feet up. Make sure to do this with both hands, too. I like to hold both sides for one minute, 30 seconds. You may want to start out much less than that.

The next, most common isometric that i like to do is the wall chair. I'm sure that everyone has seen that one. What I haven't seen are two variations that I like to do with the wall chair. One is doing them with my heels off the floor, forcing my calves into action (ah-HEM). Another, much more difficult version that i recommended to one n8tive is doing them on one leg at a time. You can do these one of two ways. The easier way is to rest your free foot on your knee. The harder way is to simply stick your free leg out straight. Choose wisely. Even 30 seconds of this will wipe you out.

Yeah, they all go by different names but they're all isometrics. All of them can be done in less than 2 minutes. Most of all, they're all hard as hell! There isn't a muscle fiber in the targeted area that these iso's aren't going burn up! The difficulty of these iso's is twofold: they can hammer both slow and fast twitch fiber all in one sitting and they force your muscles to work THROUGHOUT THE DURATION OF THE EXERCISE! There's no cheating on the eccentric movement of the exercise... there isn't any! It's just you, forcing your muscles to stay contracted against the poor leverage and stability of iso posture.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New Video Time!

A while back, some of you asked about a few ab exercises that I referenced: the dragon tail and the inchworm. Instead of trying to explain, I thought I'd make a video of them. I also thought it would be a good time to throw in another exercise that I like to do when I need to suck some major wind.

Hope you enjoy and find it informative!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Random or Structured Workouts?

I read a good discussion prompted by the wise, supreme, benevolent dictator and CEO of Pierini Fitness about random workouts producing random results. I didn't chime in at the time. I opted to sit back, read, and absorb what was being said. My initial reaction was to disagree and to be honest, I haven't completely changed my mind about it. If random workouts don't produce good results, then I probably wouldn't have gotten a damn thing done in all of these years. Yet, I have no doubt in my mind that I'm bigger, stronger, and healthier than I was 6 years ago.

Due to my travel schedule, my ability to train certain things changes with the environment that I go to. I was doing a lot of rope climbing work back in March and April when I worked in Maine and New Hampshire. Then, when I went to Reno, I started training a lot with rocks and stones. After that, I moved to Oregon City, OR where I did a pure BW routine in my hotel room. When I was in Portland, Maine I was working 12 hours a day, and I only had two 20-30 minute periods a day to commit to a workout. In Reno, I could easily scratch out 45 minutes to workout since I worked about 9 hours a day. So, even if I wanted to focus on, say, improving my rope climbing, where my feet are planted changes the way that I have to work out. Randomness is a fact of life for me.

If you train one thing constantly, obviously your body adapts to that specific movement, getting stronger at that movement. Let me put this out there: in the bigger picture, does that make you stronger overall? Let's face it: a specific exercise hardly encompasses what strength is all about. Plus, your body isn't designed to specifically move in one way ALL THE TIME. Bucket loaders are made that way.

One thing that was a revelation to me when I started reading about the human body was the notion of tension integrity. All of the joints in the body where movement occurs don't directly interlock. To keep them in place, they're held in place by the pull provided by your muscles. So, if a muscle is stronger on one side of the joint than it is on the other, then imbalances that can cause injury develop.

Switching it up on a regular basis goes a long way towards keeping this issue at bay, or at least this is what my experience has taught me. Keeping yourself strong in all directions, rather than a select few is a key to making for a strong body. I've done a pretty good job so far doing it that way and like it or not, that's the way my training will have to continue. I don't have have much of a choice as I gear up to head to Pennsylvania for work.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Chip Conrad, Gubernatrix, and the Squat

I was all ready to throw up another blog entry that I have drafted up here at the Bodyweight Files. I was just waiting to get some pictures taken. Then Gubernatrix threw up her latest blog entry and it just grabbed my attention. I was going to post a rely but realizing I had so much to say on the subject, I realized that I had a timely blog entry instead. Plus, this interesting article in T-Nation kind of dovetails nicely into the topic at hand. More on that later...

Now, my favorite feminine-fitness blogger is usually pretty lenient in her assessment in how far down someone should squat. I'm far more opinionated. I think that, regardless of the demands or rules of your sport, you should always squat all the way to the ground. Ass to grass. If you can, you should. If you can't, then you should be working to get yourself there.

If you can't do that, then there's a problem. I never thought about this until I read yet another, really good article about it in T-Nation a while back. We were all born capable of achieving ATG squatting. If you watch young children, most of them can do this without a problem. However, us Westerners and office dwellers i do so much sitting that we lose the ability to ATG squat. We're only capable of ass-parallel squats because that's pretty much the extent of what we need our hamstrings to do for us. Since when did muscle weakness, shortness and stiffness become acceptable? Maybe it was the iron gamers who realized that you can lift more weight in partial, parallel squat than an ATG squat. Oh, ego has always been a good reason to pass along bogus training information! To top it all off, nobody's ever picked up a date from having well-developed hamstrings. Wow, NICE HAMSTRINGS!!!

Why the focus on the hamstrings? Follow the muscle and remember, a muscle pulls its ends together or releases them in a controlled manner. So, if you're going to get your tush to the turf, your hamstrings are going to have to bring you down there. If you've got short and/or stiff hamstrings that never do anything but get you to the seat of the chair, then this is the reason why you can't ATG squat. Keep something else in mind too: your hamstrings are in the same line of fascia that your lower back muscles are in (FYI, superficial Back Line). They're tied together. If your hamstrings aren't right, then your lower back could suffer as a result. So, this goes beyond simple Squat PR lifts.

There's a lot of good advice out there on how to re-develop this all-important capability within your hamstrings, including in the articles that I hyper-linked to. The one that I liked best was to kick aside your chair now and then and drop down into this squat whenever possible. Or, get yourself as low as possible. Practice it more often. If you need to look at something at knee level, then this is the perfect opportunity. I did this at work when doing some of my rounds and it's really served me well. I could get down there but I couldn't stay there comfortably. Now, I can stay down there for prolonged periods of time, if needs be.

I'm sure that this will continue to spark hot debates by armchair quarterbacks and PR-obsessed squat freaks but as far as I'm concerned, there's not a whole lot or room for conversation. ATG isn't a gift that some are born with, it's something that we lose from inaction. That never flies with any other physical endeavor in the fitness world and squatting should be no exception. That's wrong and runs contrary to what fitness is all about.