Functional Strength = Functionable Ass-Kicking

Posted: November 19, 2012 in Gym
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One of the challenges I experience in the off-season training is that of weight training.  When I first started going to the gym, I really enjoyed working out with the weights – pumping iron – or, as in my case, ‘pumping aluminum’…whatever.  At first I simply ran the gauntlet of the usual resistance machines and assumed that I was giving myself a complex all-encompassing full body workout.  Gradually, I managed to wean myself off the machines altogether and graduated to the ‘Big Boy’ area of the gym and started using free weights instead believing they were more ‘functional’ in that they had a better crossover to working those muscles that I used in everyday activity.  Of course, back then I didn’t know my ass from a dumbbell.  I just thought it was cooler and more likely to attract hot chicks in leotard.  It didn’t, of course.

In the last few years of competing in triathlon, I’ve learned a few things though.  I’ve figured out that real strength comes from the core.  By ‘core’ I’m really referring to those muscles deep within the abs and back, attaching to the spine or pelvis, from which all movement and stability originates.  That’s not to say that using the machines or free weights to strengthen my overall musculature strength throughout the rest of my body isn’t important, but if I don’t also exercise those important stabilizer muscles that make them all go, well, let’s just say all the strength in the work isn’t going to get me to the finish line.  So throughout the winter months I fumble my way through a series of exercises and weights workouts whenever I could (hence, ‘The Market Workout’) with no real focus or plan.  I would approach my strength building routine like I would a ‘Build your Own Sundae Bar’.  I just throw everything at it in order to make absolutely the bestest sundae ever; sprinkles, chocolate chips, nuts, cherries, fudge, caramel, cookie crumbs, what have you.  I call it the ‘Dairy Queen’ method of working out.

This year, I want to make a conscious effort to get stronger and faster; the onus being to go fast for shorter distances.  To do that I need to put down the cheeseburgers, lose more weight and develop those muscles to be as efficient as possible using a specific plan.  So when the opportunity came through my TryForce group to have my current strength-building plan evaluated and an overall plan developed specifically for me based on my goals I jumped at the chance.  What the hell?

Enter Natalie, a current ‘Exercise Science for Health and Performance’  Graduate student at Niagara College with a past BA in Kinesiology and Physical Education from Wilfred Laurier University.  You may as well say she is currently working her way towards a PhD in ‘Ass-Kicking’ based on the first weeks’ routine she put together for me.  I thought I had leg up (no pun intended) for strength-building in that I’ve dabbled in it for a few years now and it wouldn’t pose as any real challenge but, as it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Shocking, I know.

Super Set I (3 x 12 reps)

Split Squat (on Boscu)

Straight Leg Curl (using Swiss ball)

Single Leg Glute Bridge (using Boscu)

Single Leg Calf Raise

The first super set of exercises focuses on the lower body.  Typically, I would use the leg press machines and the like but the only equipment this routine called for was a matt and the half Boscu ball.  Easy, right?  Wrong.

Any Musclehead will tell you, “Do lunges”, “You need to do more lunges”, “You should do lunges you know”, etc.  I know, I know already – lunges.  Got it!  Lunges strengthen your hip flexor muscles and thereby alleviate lower back pain, reduce your risk of injury and add power to your forward leg movement.  Likewise, besides opening up and strengthening your hip flexors, lunges are also excellent lower body exercises to shape, tone and strengthen your glutes, hamstrings and quads quickly and effectively, as well as improving overall balance and coordination; all important considerations to have in mind in order to be able to accomplish the whole motion of exploding forward.  Well fuck me…that sounds absolutely perfect for runners, right?  Supposedly, the more you strengthen your hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes, the faster you will be…or so they say. Okay, whatever, sign me up.  I did them religiously.

And here they were on Natalie’s plan; with a twist, of course.  She called them ‘Split Squats’ and it was like waking up from a dream into a nightmare.  Read that as: they totally sucked.

Lunges weren’t so difficult before, but when you place your front foot on a half Boscu ball and attempted to do the same lowering of your body into the typical lunge posture with your knee bent at 90° keeping your back straight until your back knee nearly touches the ground (being sure to keep your front knee from reaching over your toes) while remaining fixed in a stationary position with your feet split apart, wow, what a difference.  Suddenly, my entire mid-section, or ‘core’, as well as my quads and calves screamed in agony where, before, they simply went out for tea apparently.  Amazing what a difference such a little tweak can make.  Eventually, the plan (I think) is to add dumbells to this this maneuver but first I have to manage these babies.

Afterwards, I completed the same set of 12 reps doing straight leg curls on a Swiss ball.  I have seen this done before at the gym by chicks with buns you could crack walnuts on but I had just chalked it up some sort of girly exercise and therefore turned my nose up at it in favor of something more manly, like, the lever-seated leg curl machine.  Swiss balls were for Jane Fonda types, not manly-men.  Again, my dumbassery know no bounds.  These things hurt when done slowly and deliberately and I could literally hear my glutes and hamstrings cry for their mommies where they didn’t seem to before on the leg press machine.  I’ll never underestimate the girly exercises again.

Next were the single leg glute bridges.  I’ve done these before in my yoga classes so I was already familiar with this exercise and they weren’t so difficult, however, Natalie upped the ante a little and had me before them with my foot on half Boscu ball.  This new adaptation now called into play a whole host of other muscles I didn’t even know I had and added a newer, more ‘ouchie’ element to it in my hips.  Well played, Natalie, well played.

Lastly, I finished the first set – *sigh* – with single leg calf raises.  I’ve only ever done these on the machine before but, really, how hard could they be.  Well, once you get rid of the machine or, say, a wall to lean against, they’re pretty damn difficult.  Like, impossibly difficult.  Turns out this is more of a balance exercise that requires use for all the stabilizer muscles throughout your hip, abdomen and spine.  Likewise, I guess I need more practice so I used the wall in order to complete my sets.  Sorry Natalie.

Super Set II (3 x 12 reps)

Seated Row

Bicep Curl (on Boscu)

Lateral Shoulder Raise (on Boscu)

Skull Crushers

So after feeling a little self-conscious after my seemingly first “simple” – yeah, right! – Super Set, I happily retired to the He-man portion of the gym for some actual weights of which I feel a bit more acclimated and experienced.  Seriously, what dude can resist engaging in something called ‘skull crushers’?  None of these upper body exercises, even when performed on the Boscu ball gave me much difficulty.  I’ve used the Boscu many times before and I am quite comfortable with it when utilizing weights and these exercises aren’t new to me either.  Time to get my ‘Man’ on!

However, my key learning point from Natalie for this set (as with the others) is to perform these exercises more effectively by going slowly and much more deliberately.  After all, it’s not a race.  Maybe I felt rushed for time before, or I was trying to fit in as much as possible given what time I had, either way, I used to power through these exercises lickety-split in an effort to get to the steam room quicker.  Now, I’m going to try and refocus in order to each rep for a full two second count and, therefore, correctly isolate and utilize the intended muscle group, or, to ‘stop and feel the burn’  so to speak.  And burn there was I assure you.

Super Set III (3 x 12 reps)

Plank (with Swiss ball)

Side Plank

Bird Dog

Push-ups (on Medicine balls)

The last Super Set required me to the iron and go back to the floor again.  Gee, I simply can’t wait to see what new element of suck Natalie throws at me this time.

On paper it doesn’t seem so hard.  I can plank; I can bird dog; and Lord knows I love me some push-ups.  Let me tell you though, planking on a Swiss ball while – get this – “stirring the pot”  ain’t so much fun.  In fact, after my first attempt at ‘stirring the pot’ for a full minute, I’d rather gouge my eyes out with a hot spoon a la Slumdog Millionaire than do two more sets.  My abs ‘abs-solutely’ ached (get it?).  Honestly, what Nazi concentration camp fitness guide did she cull this from?  Ouch!  Throw in a few side planks for good measure and you have the perfect form of self-inflicted Gitmo-style torture!

I already do a lot of bird dogs and medicine ball push-ups, so they provided a good way to end off the session. Having said that, trying to do 3 sets of 12 reps on medicine balls is infinitely harder given you’ve already worked your core to within an inch of its life!

All in all, it was a hell of a workout; definitely worth inclusion in the new chapter of the Big Suck.  As opposed to my other strength building plans, I felt there was a bit more structure and discipline provided that I didn’t have before.  And given that today I feel like I’ve been stretched over a medieval rack, I’m assuming it all worked the right places…including that elusive core everyone keeps yammering on about.  Hopefully, over the coming months, with Natalie’s assistance I can build my functional strength to the point where it is ready to perform more regularly and effectively when I adopt into the endurance training phase of training come the New Year.


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