A Prerequisite to Lifting Heavy Weights

Ahhh how exciting, my first blog post as a coach at SAPT. I’ve got my cup of coffee, The Best Around playing on loop and I’ll be doing hip mobilities throughout writing this blog entry. Why? Because The Best Around was originally supposed to be for a Rocky III montage, but was replaced by Eye of the Tiger and I think Joe Esposito deserves more credit for the inspiration it brings…. Why am I doing the hip mobilities every 30 minutes while at a desk? Easy, because I want to squat later. Mobility: A Prerequisite to Lifting Heavy Weights

If you’re reading this blog, then it’s obvious you want to get strong, build muscle, and improve fitness in each and everyone of your workouts. You’re the type of person who sees exercises like deficit deadlifts, deep squats and overhead presses and gets as giddy as a little schoolgirl at the thought of trying it in your next workout. You look up the technique, take a few mental notes, begin with light weight for a warm-up, and then finally drop butt-to-heels into that heavy squat.

But what happened? You thought you would drive up out of the hole like superman initiating his flight takeoff, but instead you feel your lower back light up like Iron Man’s arc reactor.

You didn’t check your mobility prerequisites for that exercise did you?

Position is Power

Every exercise requires a certain degree of mobility in particular joints in order to execute the movement safely. If the mobility is not there, then the body will look for a way around it to accomplish that movement. By doing this you are putting yourself into a compromised position, and what’s worse is that if you’re doing it with training, you are reinforcing a compromised motor pattern. Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.

Not only are you actually weaker in these compromised positions, but you are more likely to injure yourself. This needs to be fixed before you can get strong. You can only squat so much weight with a Hyena Butt. You must work on gaining enough mobility to get into whatever position a given exercise/movement requires, WITHOUT compromise, and then you can become strong.

I’m sure you’re probably wishing I’d just shut up and tell you how to get mobile, right? Well too bad! Because first it is more important to understand WHAT needs to be mobile.

Understanding Mobility

Joint mobility is the degree to which a joint can move through a range of motion. When a joint becomes less mobile, it becomes more stable as it can’t move. (Note: Stability is not a bad thing! You just need it in the right places.)

Though it’s not black and white, many of our joints are meant to be mobile while others are stable. Sometimes, due to activities (or lack thereof) in our daily life, injuries or even the shoes we wear, joints that should be mobile become stable and throw off our body’s movements. When these joints that should be mobile are then locked down, joints that are stable then become mobile to compensate for the lost motion. This relationship is constant throughout the entire body and it’s the reason you will see lots of errors in movements that can’t be fixed with simple queues.

The Joint-by-Joint Approach outlines this mobility-stability relationship between the joints and how it could affect movement. Essentially it conveys that the following joints need more mobility or stability:

Arch of Foot – Stability

Ankle- Mobility

Knee- Stability

Hips- Mobility

Lumbar spine- Stability

Thoracic spine- Mobility

Scapula- Stability

Gleno-humeral(shoulder) joint- Mobility

Does anyone else see the pattern here? Our body alternates the needs of our joints from head to toe. So what do you think happens if one of these is thrown off? Then the pattern is broken and they all get thrown off to some extent. If someone is flat footed, they will probably have poor foot stability and it will cause their feet to collapse in movement. This results in a loss of ankle mobility over time, and their knees will almost always cave in when they squat. The reason for this is because their knees are now looking for mobility. The same can be true for losing stability. Lets say Yoga Sue starts stretching out her lower back more and more because she’s been having back pain. By creating more mobility in her lumbar spine through stretching, she is reinforcing her body to move through her lower back rather than hips and will eventually lose hip mobility. I’ll touch more on the stability component in my next post.

If the stability/mobility pattern is thrown off, then it will compromise your movements and thus jeopardize the intended benefits of lifting heavy things and your training sessions will look like poop.

Fix It!

So I’m sure you’ve spent the past few minutes form checking your squat depth in a mirror and are now begging for the answer of how to become a mobility master. Have patience grasshopper; first you must find your weakness.

Step 1. Find your limiting factor

This step will most likely need a coach or knowledgable training partner. You must determine what joint is immobile and causing the issue in your movement. You can use a movement screen for this or you can informally just breakdown the movement to see when the poop hits the fan.

Step 2. Determine WHY it’s your limiting factor

Joints can become immobile for several reasons. More often then not it is because your joint is stuck in one position for a long period of time due to your lifestyle. If you find this to be the culprit you’re going to need to make some changes before you can start seeing results. You may have to stop wearing those 5 inch heels or you may have to start getting up and walking from your desk every 20 minutes.

Sometimes a joint can become immobile due to overuse in a certain range of motion. You will see this a lot in runners or any other athlete that goes through repetitive motion. If this were the finding, you would just go straight to step 3.

Occasionally you may find that a joint is immobile because it is protecting something. This will take a more educated diagnosis, but if that is the case, then DO NOT MOBILIZE IT. If muscles aren’t firing right or there is a structural issue causing instability, the body’s natural response is to lock that joint down to keep it from being unstable and causing more damage.

Step 3. Soft Tissue Work

You now know what’s immobile and why. You’re about to start training, now it’s time to mobilize it. Foam rolling is one of the fastest ways to increase mobility of a certain joint. Simply roll on the muscles that influence that joint and try to workout the super-happy-fun knots you find. If you’re new to this use a foam roller, if you’re one bad dude, try a PVC pipe or lax balls. If it’s your thoracic spine, try using a t-spine peanut.

Step 4. Mobilities

You’re going to have to lengthen the tissues holding down the joint at some point. I find it most effective to do in the warm up, right after foam rolling and even throw a few into the workouts. If it’s pre or intra-workout, then you will want to use dynamic movements to accomplish this. Otherwise feel free to do the good ol’ fashioned static holds.

Step 5. Activate

If you take one thing away from this process, I want it to be this: Mobility will not stick, unless stability is created somewhere else. If you’re trying to loosen up your hip flexors, do some glute work after you stretch them. If you’re trying to improve ankle mobility, do some dorsiflexion exercises after you stretch the calf. If you’re trying to improve adductor length, do some core stabilization exercises right after loosening up the adductors. I think you get the picture.

Step 6. Use It

In order to keep your joints mobile, you must consistently use the full range of motion in them when you train. This means going to full depth in a squat, locking out that deadlift and overhead press and really grinding the lateral lunges. If you want to get fancy with it, you can even use exercises that are known for creating excessive range of motion like Bulgarian split squats, windmills and arm bars. Whatever you decide to do, don’t cheat yourself and use the full range.

Step 7. Dominate

If you consistently follow the previous steps, you should be in a good position to rip some weight off the floor. Some issues will take longer to fix then others, but be religious with your mobility work and it will pay off to help you feel and perform better.

Build Muscle: Top 5 MUSTS!

How is it some build muscle with, seemingly, little to no effort? Putting meat on the bones comes easy for some: they’ll do a couple curls and drink a glass of milk then BAM, they’re swole.  For the rest of us, it can feel like we have to grind and suffer day in and day out for an ounce or two of muscle.  The methods used and the advice given can sometimes become overwhelming.

Do this program... “Take these supplements... Eat 22.75 grams of protein every 76 minutes... Train each bodypart once every ten days.”

Sometimes you’ll hear fitness experts give advice that can be contradictory or confusing, or just plain unreasonable for you and your lifestyle.

Amongst the sea of information on the quest for building muscle out there, here are my top five tips for beefing up.

1. Make Strength a Priority

If your goal is purely to build muscle and you couldn’t care less about your deadlift max, that’s great!  Good for you, and to each their own.  However, understand that as you get stronger you can increase the muscle building stimulus by utilizing greater loads.  We know we need time under tension via resistance training to stimulate growth, but if you continue using the same loading schemes over a period of time your body will eventually adapt and the stimulus dies.

How do we avoid this?  Focus on getting stronger!  Have a handful of “indicator lifts” to use to track progress.  These lifts are ideally big compound lifts that you strive to become stronger in.  Personally I use the the biggie compound exercises: back squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press to track my progress in strength.  Other good options to use are any squat exercise variation (front, box, goblet), push-ups, pull-ups, single leg movements, row exercise variations, prowler work, or farmer’s walks.  Heck, if your goal is to grow enormous biceps focus on getting stronger at the curl.

The point is we want to look back at our own records after months and years pass and see that we are capable of throwing more weights around.  If you make awesome improvements in strength over a significant length of time I’d be willing to bet that you’ve made progress in your lean body mass as well.

2. Volume

This is where we see a big difference in the typical comparison of how a bodybuilder trains versus how a powerlifter By joining a RED franchise, you could earn in excess of ?1,300 more per year than at other national truck driving schools – and significantly more than if you choose to operate as an independent instructor. trains.  The bodybuilder, whose primary goal is to build muscle, will utilize a ton of volume into their training.  A bodybuilder"s workout for his (or her) chest may do something along the lines of the following:

Bench Press


DB Incline Press


DB Flyes


Pec Deck


The powerlifter, on the other hand, may work up to a heavy single on the bench, do a few sets of rows and go home.

Now this is a very simplified comparison of the two training disciplines but you get the message: if mass is your goal, you need more volume in your workouts.

More volume, however, does NOT necessarily mean that you have to be lifting in the 10-20 range for each exercise.  If you did that, you’d be sacrificing too much tension to get those reps in.  Try some different set x rep schemes that will allow for significant volume with moderately heavy weight.  7 sets of 4, 5 sets of 5, and 4 sets of 6 are all good options, especially for your “main movement” of the day.

3. Eat Better

This is a problem for a lot of younger athletes that stay very active year-round.  You need food to live, and you need food for energy, but you need even MORE food to build muscle.

Be honest with yourself!  You want to be bigger and stronger but all you had for breakfast was… nothing?!  Re-think that strategy.

The nutritional side of muscle gain is underestimated too often, and it needs to be a consistent effort everday.  If you eat like an infant all week, but binge at a Chinese buffet on Saturday it doesn’t count.  Eat a lot of good food every single day.

Sometimes it’s not an issue of eating enough food, but eating enough of the right foods.  A diet consistent with cookies and cokes probably won’t be the key to building a big strong body that you work so hard for.

Keep a food log and make sure you’re eating right.  If your still confused and overwhelmed, just have Kelsey analyze your diet and she’ll tell you everything you’re doing wrong.

4. Aim for a Horomonal Response

Your hormones are the key to growth.  Without them we’d be nothing.  No need to go into a complex physiology lesson right now, but here are some quick tips you should keep in mind.

Testosterone: Stimulated by lifting heavy weights.  Hit it hard and heavy, and get adequate rest between sets.

Human Growth Hormone: Stimulated by moderate weights, higher volume and lower rest periods.

Cortisol: Evil. Catabolic stress hormone that doesn’t want you to gain muscle.  Keep it low by getting enough sleep and doing whatever helps you de-stress your life.

5. Be Aggressive!

Building muscle takes hard work and focus.  You can’t just casually hit the gym once every couple of weeks and expect huge gains.  Lift and eat with a purpose, and be stubbornly consistent.  If you hit a plateau, change something up and keep grinding.

Make your goal important, and put in the necessary effort it takes to make it happen!

Strength: You're Doing It Wrong! Exercise Solutions

The canvas we’ll be working with today encompasses a number of pertinent topics within the landscape of getting stronger and becoming a more structurally sound human being; common training fallacies, pervasive myths, and foolproof strength training principles will all be covered as we move forward together.

On a daily basis - and, fortunately for you reading - I’m exposed to an extremely broad palette of individual scenarios within the respective realms of strength development and human movement, as I have the utmost pleasure of working as a strength and conditioning coach within the walls of SAPT, one of the Washington D.C. area’s finest breeding grounds and incubators for maximizing human movement capacity and enhancing athletic potential.

SAPT training day

Be it teaching young athletes how to perform a proper jump or lunge pattern for the first time in their lives, helping a college baseball player learn to harness and produce power in his hips, facilitating the process of desk jockeys reducing the very knee or back pain symptoms that their doctors told them would never go away, showing young Padawans and Jedi’s-in-training how to construct and wield their first lightsaber, assisting a veteran lifter in adding an extra ten pounds to his or her max deadlift; each and every night I walk away with at least a modicum of new insight on how to help people feel, look, and move better. (And apparently, the ability to produce the longest run-on sentence ever seen on this website.)

I’ve written thousands of programs (literally), and overseen at least three times as many training sessions within the walls of SAPT. Given this, I’ve been able to observe what works, what doesn’t work (as much as I don’t want to admit when I’m wrong!), and collect an ever-growing pile of data. I’ve also had the luxury of being able to test and experiment with countless strength training strategies and modes on people of all ages, training goals, and genetic constitutions.

Essentially, I’m a researcher as much as I am a strength coach, and each and every one of my findings, successes, and failures within the SAPT Lab propels me one step closer to unlocking the gateway to untapped human movement and strength potential.

Since "I'd like/I need to become stronger" is one of my favorite goals to help people with, and given that improving one’s general strength is often (at the least) half of the solution to improved athletic performance, pain reduction, general sense of well-being, increased ninja status, and yes, looking better; that’s where we will spend our time together today.

To guide today’s discussion, I’d like to touch on a few of the common myths and fallacies surrounding the notion of “strength training” that tend to proliferate throughout the interwebz and many public gyms. Hopefully, I’ll be able to help you dispel a few of the fundamental errors many tend to make when embarking on the road of getting stronger, and to provide you a few central philosophies that can guide and direct you in successful training for years to come.

“You’re Doing It Wrong” #1 – Maxing Out Too Frequently

There’s a big difference between maxing out and training your max. The former should be reserved for a few select times in the year, while the latter should be employed on a regular basis. The former will invariably lead to stalled progress and becoming weaker, while the latter will lead to surefire progress and actually getting stronger.

sean healy deadlift

Knowledge Bomb: You don’t need to max out regularly to make your max go up!

Oftentimes, well-intentioned people become so caught up in the “if I’m not moving forward, then I must be moving backward” mentality that they feel they need to max out every single week during their barbell lifts. It’s one thing to make weekly incremental improvements in your assistance work  – for example, adding an extra chain weight to your back for a set of pushups, or using ten more pounds for a lunge variation – but pushing the limits of the “big lifts” on a regular basis will lead to frustration and fatigue at best, and missed lifts or injury at worst.

This isn't to say one should live in trepidation of performing anything over 90% of their max, but there's something to be said for treating strength as a skill and not as something to be trifled with. It's obviously okay to train around 90% from time to time, but understand there's an immense difference between 90-95% loading parameters, and 100%; the difference in neurological output and mental strain is unreal, not to mention the recovery time.

While I hope it goes without saying that this is imperative for the recreational “Joe or Jane” lifter who is training for fitness and general wellness, seeking to become stronger while remaining injury free,  it’s also extremely important for the competitive athlete who has a plethora of competing demands outside the gym walls.

Since an athlete is regularly practicing skill work, sprinting, and competing, the strength coach has to carefully construct their resistance training program so that it still develops their strength and power while yet not interfering with the countless other demands (physical and mental) they undergo outside of the training facility.

Believe me, I understand and respect the drive to get better each day. But “getting better” isn’t necessarily synonymous with banging your head, repeatedly against a brick wall in workout after workout. Just because you may be using submaximal loads – honing technique and working on rate of force development – doesn’t mean you’ll fail to get stronger simply because you aren’t regularly pushing the literal limits of your body. In fact, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find you’ll end up where you want to be much faster this way. 

Dan John and Pavel said it best: "'Coax' the 80% poundage up, instead of forcing the 100%. This is the patient approach of the professional."

There's a reason the strongest individuals in the world rarely (if ever) miss lifts and only go for TRUE maxes on a select few times per year. It simply works!

"You’re Doing It Wrong" #2 – Pigeonholing Yourself Into What a “Main” Movement Is

Just because you may not be prioritizing a powerlift (barbell squat, bench press, deadlift) or Olympic lift (power clean, snatch), in your training doesn’t mean you still can’t build muscle and get stronger.

Don’t get me wrong, the powerlifts and O-lifts are phenomenal from an efficiency standpoint - you can pack on large amounts of muscle, strength, and power while keeping your exercise quiver relatively small – but remember that many individuals, you perhaps included, simply may not be in a place where it’d be prudent to perform one or all of these lifts on a regular basis. This could be because of structural changes (i.e. femoroacetabular impingement, reactive bony changes on the acromion, etc.) immobility, poor stability, or anthropometry concerns.

Have some sort of structural pathology going with your hips? Unable to maintain a good mechanical position while squatting, due to poor stability and/or mobility? Try subbing out all barbell squatting exercise variations for a unilateral exercise, such as a barbell stepback lunge with a front squat grip:

This way you receive all the benefits of axial loading, can garner plenty of strength and stability benefits, while yet satiating your palate for placing a loaded bar on top of you.

Have an insanely long torso and short legs, so you find conventional deadlifting problematic? Try pulling Sumo-style or using the trap bar.

(Note: As I noted in this article, you can find a deadlift variation to suite ANY body-type, age, or ability level)

Shoulder bothering you? Perhaps it's time to take a mini break from barbell pressing (it's okay, the earth will continue to revolve on its axis). Become really proficient with landmine presses and dumbbell bench presses with a neutral grip:

Experiencing low back pain, and bent-over barbell rows are giving you trouble? No worries, you can still pack on plenty of muscle and strength using a dumbbell row alternative or seated row to tide yourself over.

Back pain so severe that any sort of bilateral squat or deadlift is irking it currently? Get some work done with heavy sled pushing!

The possibilities are nearly endless. Many times it’s not worth it to fall into the bravado that surrounds the various barbell lifts if one (or a few) of them don’t fit well with you. Find what exercise* works for YOU to use as a strength exercise and as a gauge for measuring progress.

Well, I’m already at well-over 1,000 words, so I’m going to cut it here for today. Stay tuned for Part 2 in which we’ll continue where we left off!

*Except for the leg press.