The Other Core Strength

by Michael Plank

We all know that core strength – that is, strength in your midsection – is super valuable. When we talk about “core strength” at Underwood Park CrossFit, we’re generally talking about the strengthening the area from just under your glutes to the bottom of your sternum and all the way around your body: abs, obliques, low back, glutes, hip flexors, and pelvic floor. It’s the foundation of solid overall strength, and it’s no secret. We call it “core strength” because it’s strength in your center and because “core” means the most essential. And with that definition in mind, there’s another core strength that is not nearly as well known:

Grip Strength.

If you want to get stronger at anything where you’re holding an object, developing grip strength will help you do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, pull-up bars, or rings; if it’s upper body or lower body; pulling or pushing. When you can improve your grip strength, you will see improvements in nearly all strength movements. It’s hard to believe. But try this while you’re reading: make a fist and pay attention to where you feel tension. Now, make a white-knuckle fist as hard as you possibly can. You’ll feel tension in your hand, forearm, bicep, shoulder, chest, neck, back, maybe even your abs and glutes too. And so here’s the takeaway: when you can build tension, you can spread it everywhere. The more tension you can cultivate, the more muscles you can recruit to do work, which means the more work you’re able to do.

There are all kinds of ways to build grip strength, but one of the best is to treat grip strength work like any other strength work: sets of 5 or fewer. We’ve all seen grippers like this one:

We have a set by the medicine balls at the gym. You can also buy them at stores like Walmart or Five Below. But beware: not all grip trainers are the same. You want one that you can squeeze together until the handles touch. Then do 5 sets of 5 each hand. Here’s the one caveat: strength work doesn’t mean do 5 easy reps, it means do 5 hard reps. It should be hard to do 5. So one of those grip trainers that lets you do 100 in a row won’t cut it. The ones we have at the gym are from IronMind and they’re tough enough to keep even very strong people busy for a long time. And if they’re too tough, you can start with barbell clips.

Find a resistance that works for you. Do your 5 sets of 5, 2-3 times each week for a month and then re-test a couple of strength movements like the deadlift or strict press and see the difference!

 

The Second-Cheapest Way to Improve

by Michael Plank

The cheapest thing you can do to improve your performance is sleep more. But there’s a very close second… There’s another thing you can do to be able to lift more, run faster, jump higher, fix restrictions, improve pain, and decrease risk of injury. And that’s to mobilize.

“Mobility” has become a more common word in athletics than “Flexibility,” because it’s a little more comprehensive. Flexibility is about a muscle’s ability to lengthen through a range of motion. Mobility is about a joint’s ability to move actively through a range of motion. They’re related, but not exactly the same. Being able to do a front split is flexiblity (hip flexors, quads, and hamstrings). Being able to do an overhead squat is mobility (shoulders, thoracic spine, hips, ankles). In the functional fitness world, where we’re trying to do a lot of stuff, mobility is what we talk more about because mobility is what we care more about.

There are all kinds of ways to tackle that. You can do yoga or pilates. You can use websites and books. You can look at adjusting movement patterns (for example, pushing your knees out in a squat will often let you go deeper). You can look at doing soft-tissue work (like using a foam roller or a lacrosse ball to loosen up stiff tissues). You can work on joint capsules (using stretches, often with bands, to work on the functionality of the actual shoulder joint, for example). And you can do classic stretching (end range, static holds). All of them are important, and all of them are worth doing.

But today, we’ll talk about the three most popular mobility apps in the CrossFit world.

 

 

GOWOD has a great mobility assessment tool. You walk yourself through multiple tests to determine the mobility of your shoulders, overhead position, hips, posterior chain, and ankles. One of the options then is a customized daily routine that will be built to address your tightest areas. The app will give you silent, short (~10 seconds) video demonstrations, points of performance, and a timer so that you can work through the stretches while you read or watch Netflix. You can also do mobility routines for pre or post-workout and build them around what your workout will be. All routines can be built to be between 8 and 22 minutes long. This is a great app if you want your mobilizing to be something you do passively while you do something else.

 

 

RomWod has great credentials. It’s used by some of the top athletes in CrossFit since its release. Unlike GOWOD, RomWod walks you through your routines with full videos. They have great “paths” depending on your particular mobility goals. Whether you want to improve your sleep, work on something like building a standing straddle, or just generally improve for a specific activity like running or Olympic lifting, they’ve got great routines for you. RomWod does an especially excellent job with recovery. This app is fantastic if you like restorative yoga and guided routines.

 

 

The Ready State (formerly mobilitywod) is pioneered by Kelly Starrett. The app is not as user-friendly as either GOWOD or RomWod, but it is by far the most comprehensive. Where GOWOD and RomWod focus almost exclusively on stretching, The Ready State addresses movement patterns, soft tissue work, joint capsule work, and stretching. As such, it requires some minimal equipment (a few lacrosse balls and a band). Most of the work is guided, but once you’re familiar with the protocols, you can skip or abbreviate the video content. This app also has a mobility assessment, but it will not customize a routine for you. However, if you’re serious about managing pain, reducing injury risk, or improving performance, and you really like diving into the nitty gritty about why things are the way they are, this is the app for you.

All three apps have trial periods, and all three are comparable in price ($10-$15 per month). All three have worked wonders for people and all three are worth trying. It’s not as cheap as sleeping, but spending a few bucks a month on keeping your body running smoothly can be an investment with a huge payoff.

Did we miss one? Is there one of these that you really like? Let us know!

 

One Ab Exercise to Rule Them All

by Michael Plank

 

At this point, most everyone knows that it’s good to have strong abs. They protect your spine, make you an efficient athlete, provide a solid platform for other strength work, and they look cool. But where to start? There are literally millions of articles on how to train your abs. Should you do crunches? Sit-ups? Leg lifts? Bicycle crunches? It depends. It depends on what you like, what you’re willing to do, and what you want to accomplish. But if your goal is to make your abs strong, there is one clear winner in our opinion: the Hollow.

There is nothing we’ve come across that beats the Hollow position and variations for building incredible core strength. Here’s how to add it into your routine…

Begin by finding a variation from the video that you can hold for 20 seconds (If the bent hollow is too challenging, start with a plank off your elbows, or off your hands, or leaning on a table, or leaning on a wall). Then, 2-5 days each week, do a Tabata of static holds. That is, whichever variation you’ve chosen, hold that position for as many seconds as possible in a 20-second interval, then rest for 10 seconds, and repeat 7 more times for a total of 4 minutes. (To make it easier, use an online Tabata timer like this one.)

Once that gets easy, move to the next variation. When you can do a Tabata of full hollow holds, drop back to bent hollow holds and start holding the position for as long as possible. Once you are able to hold the variation for 2 minutes, move to the next variation. An unbroken 2-minute full hollow hold reflects elite levels of core strength! This is just a few sentences, but it represents months, or even years of strength training!

(Note: There are a lot of ways to do gymnastics movements that are almost correct, but not quite. Details matter here. It’s much more effective to do a perfect variation that’s “easier” than a sloppy version of a more advanced variation.)

Whatever your physical goals are, whether aesthetic or performance, a stronger set of core muscles will help. And best of all, the hollow variations don’t need any equipment at all and you don’t need more than a few minutes to work on them!

The Hidden Benefit of Masked Training

by Michael Plank

Look, nobody gets excited about breathing heavy in a mask. When we first started masked training was when we first were permitted by the state to resume training indoors. As vaccine availability grew, we went to a policy where masks were optional for vaccinated members, but then as the Delta variant has spread more rapidly and the CDC recommended masks for any indoors activities in areas of high transmission, we went back to masks. (Our county still has a critical number of cases and is still an area of high transmission as of this writing). We have always followed CDC guidelines at a minimum, and are committed to the health of our members and our broader community. But working out in a mask is undeniably less fun than working out without a mask.

We wear masks because they help limit the spread of Covid (The world is crazy, so here’s a peer-reviewed study from the National Academy of Sciences, just in case). But masks actually give us as individual athletes an added benefit: psychological strength.

We’ve now had 12 months of people working out hard in masks. They’ve done aerobic workouts, strength workouts, skill workouts, long workouts, and short workouts. Nobody has passed out from lack of oxygen. Nobody has developed complications from CO2 buildup. And people have still seen their fitness improve in that time period. BUT, working out in a mask does sometimes cause panic.

You. do. get. enough. air. You CAN breathe. But… it is not as easy as it normally is. And when that happens, and when your face is all sweaty behind a mask, your brain can sometimes tell you that you don’t have enough air and then you panic. But here’s where the unbelievable hidden benefit of masked training lies…

When you hit that panicky feeling, and then keep your mask on while you slowly recover your breath, and then realize that you’re ok, what you are learning is how to keep a clear head under duress. You are proving to yourself that even though it feels like everything is terrible, you’re actually ok. And the more you prove that to yourself, the more you come to realize that discomfort does necessarily have to mean panic.

The benefit of that skill cannot be overstated. If you can think clearly when you are in physical and psychological distress, it is an absolute superpower. It’s a secret weapon in business, in arguments, in emergencies, in parenting, in sport, and in every aspect of life.

Stress does come. Discomfort comes. Distress comes. And when our minds spin out of control, it makes things infinitely worse. When we can keep our wits about us, we can think clearly to find solutions and to help ourselves and those around us. And that’s a skill that can be learned and developed just like double-unders or power cleans. And so as much as the world might not be how we wish it was right now, even in this mess, we still have an opportunity to improve.

Go get it.

Go Slow to Go Fast

by Michael Plank

Yesterday we wrapped up a 4-week Upper Body Push strength cycle. We spent this month working on barbell strict presses and yesterday we had the option of going for a new Personal Record or trying to level up in the Upper Body Push category on the Level Method Map of Athletic Progression. What happened a couple of times is what always happens when we test Upper Body Pushing… one or two people set massive press PRs but don’t level up!

Here’s why…

The Level Method (which we use at our gym) is the best systematic approach we’ve seen for improving overall fitness. We’ve been using it for several years and the results have been fantastic. But it can be frustrating! And the reason it can be frustrating is that it demands a strong foundation. If you build a house and rush through the foundation, it doesn’t matter how well-built the roof is, that house is going to fall down because the foundation isn’t as solid as it needs to be. We focus on a strong foundation with all kinds of things at our gym – strength training, skill training, nutrition coaching, and habit coaching. One of our core values is Client Service – which means being able to get our members results. Sometimes that means you have to go slow to go fast. You have to really nail the basics before you progress to intermediate and advanced movements. That takes time, but it will make the higher level skills much more solid down the line. Looking at the Upper Body Push category a little more closely gives a good example of this approach.

Our progressions are designed to be universally applicable. The flow of the Upper Body Push category is this: the first thing we want to do is build the required strength to do a strict, gymnastic-style push-up off the floor. Once we can do that, we want to start to be able to do some bigger sets. Once we can do that, we want to see if you can continually do sets of 4, or 6, or 9, for several minutes at a time. Then we move to barbell presses. Then we move to handstand push-ups and increasingly large sets of handstand push-ups, and then finally back to barbell presses.

If you’ve ever done a workout with a lot of push-ups in it, you know that when your arms get tired and start to give out, you are in trouble. When your arms fatigue in any kind of strict pushing movement (presses, push-ups, dips), they take a comparably very long time to recover enough to do more reps (minutes as opposed to seconds in something like squats). When we develop the Upper Body Push, we want to see some basic strength first, but then we need to see a solid stamina base – in other words, we need to see that your arms can keep doing stuff for awhile and don’t just have flash-in-the-pan moments of glory. Once we see that solid stamina base with push-ups, then we start to be interested in what you can do with raw strength on a barbell. But stamina will come back into play when we get to increasingly large sets of handstand push-ups. And at the elite levels, we’re back to looking at very high levels of raw strength again. In the Upper Body Push category, we are constantly walking the line between stamina and strength as you progress, because the ultimate goal is that your arms become more useful to you – that they can do more stuff for longer than you can right now.

Is this the slow way? Kind of. But it depends on the timeline you’re looking at. If you want to race your friends to see who can get the biggest bench press in 6 weeks, ours is not the best approach. But if you want to start today and be as strong and injury-free as possible 1, 2, or 3 years from now, I don’t think there’s anything better.

How a Coach Helps You Reach Your Goals Faster

by Michael Plank

Maybe more than ever before, people are realizing how incredibly important good health is. Even before COVID-19, rising rates of chronic disease were causing doctors to raise alarms all over the world. Basically everyone knows that to be healthy (or healthier), you need to move your body and give it nutritious food. But if that’s all it takes, why do people still struggle?

There’s no shortage of information out there. A Google search for “how to get healthy” will return over a billion results. The trick is sorting through the information to find what next step will have the biggest impact for youand then (and this is the really important part) actually doing it.

And that’s where coaches come in. A good coach will get to know you, what your goals are, and what makes you tick. A good coach knows the techniques needed to accomplish goals, but just as importantly knows how to simplify that knowledge to give you only what you actually need to do right now.

Imagine that you’re driving cross country to a place you’ve never been. Your coach is your navigator; the person in the passenger seat who has the map. But she doesn’t say “Take 197 to 9S to 87S to 90W to 80W…” She says “In one mile, turn Left on Bridge Street.” Now you could for sure just get in the car and keep heading west and you’d get there eventually. But having a navigator will make that journey a lot shorter and a lot less frustrating.

That’s what you need. You don’t need more information (you probably need less), you just need the right information: the thing that you need to do that you actually will do. A coach will help you see that. And what that really means for you is that those goals you want to reach will come a whole lot faster.