Archive for Functional Workouts

High Intensity Interval Training Cuts Your Workout in Half!

Brian Dick

So I have some good news and bad news…

The Bad News: According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the average adult should undertake at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. This equates to roughly 3 to 5 weekly workouts at 30 to 60 minutes a piece. While it’s obviously important that we put a priority on our health maintenance, it’s not surprising that with our hectic schedules that these 150 minutes a week get avoided or ignored. With jobs, kids, school, etc. workouts oftentimes take a backseat in priority, and we don’t spend enough time at the gym as we should.

But what if I were to tell you that the ACSM also recommends an alternative strategy that could cut your weekly workout in HALF!?

The Good News:

The ACSM offers an alternative workout program, albeit a more intense version, that takes only 75 minutes a week!

What is ACSM’s recommendation? — High Intensity Interval Training

High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, is an intense workout format that will cut your workout time in half. With rotating phases of high and low intensity physical output, nearly any workout method could be converted into the HIIT format. Running, swimming, weight training, rowing, etc., are all candidates for a HIIT program.

How it works:

  1. Select the workout that you want to convert to High Intensity Interval Training. (Let’s use running on the treadmill as an example.)
  2. Perform a short warm up for 3-5 minutes. For example, a brisk walk on the treadmill would suffice. You should strive to achieve a maximum heart rate of 40% – 50%. (Not sure of your maximum heart rate? Luckily we offer a simple heart rate calculator here.)
  3. Begin a high intensity workout phase for 15 seconds to 4 minutes, depending on your personal fitness levels (consult physician for this determination.) High intensity exercise here is defined as achieving and maintaining 80% to 95% of your maximum heart rate.
  4. Return to low intensity phase, aka 40% – 50% of your maximum heart rate. The low intensity, or recovery phase, should be slightly longer than the high intensity phase. Depending on how long your high intensity phase lasted, the recovery phase could last anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for five to seven more repetitions. This should result in six to eight total high intensity intervals.
  6. 5-10 minutes cool down and stretch.

(Total Workout Time: 10-40 minutes)

The beauty of the HIIT method is that it can work with almost any fitness equipment you choose. Also, remember that there are alternate ways to increase your heart rate other than simply increasing your speed. You may try obtaining high intensity levels by increasing elevations or resistances on the various workout equipment you choose. But as always — remember to workout safely, and consult your physician before engaging in any new workout programs.


Squat Variations for Functional Strength

Brian Dick

While I’m a huge fan of the behind the back squat for developing useful athletic functional strength, I’ve recently heard an interesting perspective on squats from an older forum comment.

(FYI – has a tremendous amount of interesting information including a lot of information on things completely unrelated to fitness.)

A person on the forum mentioned his preference towards front squats and zercher squats (where the weight is held in the crook of your elbow) for developing functional strength. His reasoning was that whenever he picks up anything in his everyday life, it is always with the weight in front of his body. Rarely if ever do we lift up weights with it behind our backs, let alone with it sitting on top of our shoulders. I felt that this contributor made an excellent point and I believe a stronger focus should be put on these workouts for this very reason.

Obviously I believe there are benefits to squatting with more weight — as the behind the back squat allows for — but very few people ever engage in front squats, and even fewer with zerchers. I believe there are huge functional gains to be had by incorporating these lifts into your routine more regularly.

In case you are unaware of what zercher squats are (sometimes referred to as scissor squats), I have listed an unaffiliated YouTube clip of the lift – this dude is doing crazy weight:


What are the benefits of doing push-ups and other “functional” exercises like pull-ups in addition to a weight-training routine?

Answer by Brian Dick:

The benefits of functional exercises such as push ups, pull ups, body squats, burpees, handstand push presses, etc. are:

1. They are free or virtually free. You can do them at home, at a park, or as an add-on to your standard gym workouts.

2. They are compound movements (usually the default motion, or there are variations that are) that engage more than one major muscle group in one motion. This increases the speed of the workout and their relevancy to real world applications of strength (ex., picking up and carrying your child, mowing the lawn, playing pick up sports, etc.)

3. They typically require more stabilization from stabilizer muscles than typical gym workouts (especially machine workouts, perhaps less so for free weights). This again helps major muscle groups to function more effectively and safely when engaged in non-gym actions of strength.

4. Being aware and able to control your own body weight is essential for athletic purposes where center of gravity and body awareness are mission critical (ex., wrestling, judo, jiu jitsu, football, basketball, etc, etc.) This functionality not only increases your own self awareness, but also increases a sort of “visceral” understanding of how to affect another person’s balance.

View Answer on Quora

What are some underappreciated bicep exercises?

Answer to: What are some underappreciated bicep exercises?

by Brian Dick:

Overhand Bicep Curls (either with straight bar or easy curl bar). What I like about the overhand grip is the amount of engagement that occurs with the brachioradialis muscle group. This muscle group (which runs along the forearm to the outside portion of the elbow (Brachioradialis.)) when built up gives the optical illusion that the bicep is even bigger than it is. So with this lift, not only are you working out the biceps directly, you are also engaging another muscle group that will make the bicep look bigger by comparison.

Another great functional strength movement that engages both the bicep AND the forearms are pull ups. Pull ups are a great upper body workout, and they can be made even more difficult by using various attachments, like: towels, pull up balls, cylinders, rock climbing grips, and gi lapels (from martial art kimonos.) The last suggestion is extremely sport specific, and could be mimicked by simply using a towel as mentioned above. However, for those of you familiar with the grappling arts, this is a great use for an old gi that doesn’t fit anymore.

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What are good assistance exercises for improving your squat?

Answer to: What are good assistance exercises for improving your squat?

by Brian Dick:

I don’t think I’m answering your question directly, because you asked specifically about “assistance exercises,” but assuming positive results will help you overlook the indirect answer, here are my suggestions:

  1. Squatting with chain/band resistance. By adding chains or elastic bands to each end of the squat bar, the weight gets heavier in the easier segment of the lift. This forces increased muscle engagement for longer
  2. Plyo Box Jumps – Increase the amount of fast twitch, explosive leg exercises into your workouts.
  3. Single Leg Squats (On and Off Bosu Ball) – Just as dumbbell bench press helps you to better recognize your weakest limb, and portion of the lift — so too will single leg squats show you your points of weakness. By incorporating the bosu ball you will also shore up strength in the stabilizer muscles, increasing your overall functional strength
  4. Hack Squat/Leg Press Negatives – Performed either as a hack squat or leg press, load enough weight that you would struggle to perform 5 good reps. With this amount of weight, perform negatives for a 20-30 count on the concentric portion of the lift (i.e., let the weight down for a 20-30 count until the machine’s safety block stops the weight.) Perform to failure (i.e., you are unable to resist the weight for the prescribed amount of time.)

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Compound Workouts for Functional Strength Gains

by: Brian Dick

Excuses excuses. So you don’t have time to hit the gym? Try compound workouts to speed your workouts and maximize your gains. Not to mention, compound workouts more closely mimic the functional strength and movements needed in your average day.
3 Examples of Compound Workouts
Burpee-to-Pull-Up: While the burpee is an excellent compound workout by itself, consider increasing the difficulty level with an added pull-up at the end of your motion. To complete this exercise perform your standard burpee under a pull-up bar. When you end the burpee with the standard jump up, simply catch the pull-up bar bar on your way down. From here complete the compound workout by completing a full pull-up and then returning to the floor to perform another burpee. Continue for 10 reps.
Squat-to-Calf Raise-to-Shoulder Press: Grab either a barbell or dumbbells with a weight you can comfortably perform each of these workouts independently. Starting with the weight at your shoulders and your feet shoulder width apart, perform a standard squat. Upon returning from the squatting position, you continue the motion into a calf raise. Once you return to the floor from the calf raise, engage your shoulders with a standard shoulder press. Continue this workout for 10 reps.
Lunge-to-Front & Side Raises: Starting again with a weight (dumbbells) that you feel comfortable performing each of these workouts independently, start with feet slightly less than shoulder width apart. From this position perform a lunge to the left leg and return. Perform a  side-shoulder raise. Lunge again using your right leg, and then return. Perform a front shoulder raise. Continue until you have completed ten lunges to each leg (and 5 front shoulder raises, and 5 side shoulder raises).
Workout Idea: You may consider performing one set of each of these workouts. Or consider performing three sets of one specific workout. You will likely be exhausted, and done, in less than 10 minutes. It’s a great combination of workouts, and also addresses strength training and cardio all in one.

TRX Training Tool

I am a subscriber to Men’s Health (I’m getting the magazine for free by just filling out surveys online – I highly recommend this by the way, it is legit. I thought for sure it was going to spark a lot of junk mail/email, but I just get the magazines I ordered…sorry about the aside, but it’s worth looking into.)

Anyways, to the subject at hand. I have recently seen a lot of people training in the gym with the yellow and black suspension TRX suspension cables, and have wondered about their efficacy. Then in the Men’s Health magazine I see that Michael Strahan (who by the way is in single digit bodyfat %) uses them for his Friday workouts. I am very interested in incorporating these into my workout, and am interested if any of our readers have had success with TRX training. Please comment below.

Also, I was looking into buying one and found this ad:

Buy One Get One 50% OFF On ALL TRX Trainers Now At! Use Code: BOGO50! Hurry Ends 2/18/13!

Granted, I only wanted one so this doesn’t do me much good, but I figure it may be relevant to some of our readers.

Mixed Weights For Functional Gains

One of the biggest benefits of working out with dumbbells is that you can’t “cheat” your workout by having your dominant side take over when you’re struggling. Dumbbells force the lifter to apply equal effort from both sides of the body. While switching to dumbbells for most of your workouts will increase your symmetry and functional strength results, we have explored options for further functionality and balance.

Our workout:

Use dumbbells of different weights (a difference of five to ten pounds at most) and perform workouts on an unstable surface such as a Bosu ball or workout ball. We perform at least two of the three of the reps with the heavier weight in the non-dominant side.

Not only does this increase the strength of our non-dominant muscles, but the unbalanced surface and weight differences require intense concentration and balance. This results in a tremendous amount of core muscle activation and a number of other “stabilizer” muscles being brought to the party.

If this feels unnatural at first, start with a smaller weight difference between dumbbells, and begin on a flat surface. Work your way up to a ten pound difference and the unbalanced surface.


Plyo Pull-Ups?

As we’ve mentioned numerous times, pull-ups are some of the most important exercises to incorporate into your workouts to gain functional strength. While some advanced pull-up advocates choose to add weight to make their pull-ups more difficult, our team always opts for adding explosiveness for difficult rather than weight.

Examples of pull-ups that include explosive components:

(Beginner) Pull-Up Pop-Ups: Starting from a hanging position retract to the top of your pull-up motion and explode high enough to release your grip and fall back onto the bar and return to starting position in a controlled fashion.

(Intermediate) Overhand/Underhand Flops: Start with a standard overhand pull-up grip and at the top of the pull-up motion explode upwards to release your grip and flip to underhand control on the decline. Repeat to the opposite overhand grip the next time you return to the top of your  motion.

(Crazy-Advanced) Power-Ups: Perform standard pull-up, and explode over the bar far enough to continue pushing down with your hand until the bar is at your belly-button/waist and your arms are entirely extended. Return to starting position, and repeat.


Top 5 Dynamic Core Workouts (We’ve found for functional strength gains)

Core Strength

The base of all functional fitness movements is a strong core. When discussing the core, many people simply think of ab crunches or sit ups. There are two major flaws with this thinking.

  1. The core includes all muscles from the upper thigh to just below the nipples — INCLUDING your BACK MUSCLES.
  2. Static (laying on the ground) or single directional movements such as sit ups or crunches rarely mimic functional movements, especially the twisting motions commonly required in most sports.

It is import that your core day include both back and ab workouts, as well as dynamic (or multi-motion) workouts. Is it going to be more difficult? — YES. Will it take as much time or as many reps? — NO. If you do these correctly it will be difficult to hit the rep/set count I’ve provided. Perform to failure and get out of the gym.

The top 5 dynamic core workouts that I include in my workouts are listed below:

  1. Side-to-Side Sit Ups: These “sit ups” entail sitting rocked back on your butt with your knees lifted to a 90 degree angle to your body and your hands in a prayer position in front of your chest. From this position you turn your chest and core to the left and reach your hands down to touch the ground. Return to center and repeat to the right, always remaining in the same seated position. Repeat this motion for 20 times to each side. (Advanced: hold a 6-25 lb medicine ball while performing this exercise)
  2. Core Plate Turns: Standing, start with feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart and grab a free-weight weight plate (25lbs-45lbs) to hold like a steering wheel in front of one of your hips (with your arms extended). From the hip location and with your arms remaining straight move the plate in a motion to the opposite shoulder. Continue for 2×20 reps, and do the same for the other direction. Be sure to start with a light weight and work up when first starting to avoid shoulder injury.
  3. Hamstring Curl (Medicine Ball): These are brutal and effective. Laying on your back with your feet extended, position a medicine ball beneath your heels. From this position thrust your hips/pelvis to the sky while retracting the medicine ball to your butt (using your hamstring muscles to pull the ball towards you and your heels for downward pressure.) Perform to failure for 3 reps – Trust me, it’ll be less than you think.
  4. Planks (Flat and Side) with Leg Raise: These exercises likely engage more muscle groups at once than any of the other options. Positioned in a normal plank position (ab workout version, not the internet meme version), lift your straight right leg 10-12 inches from the floor. Return your right toe to the starting position and then raise the left leg in the same fashion. Perform 3 sets of 10 with both legs. Try to keep you ankle bent as much as possible during the movement to further engage your glutes. The same motion can also be done from the side plank position, but from here you are doing leg/hip raises…same sets and reps though.
  5. Side-to-Side Reverse Sit-Ups: I love/hate these sit-ups for my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu functional strength. I always notice a small performance increase in my game when I burn out on these a few days before sparring. Starting with your back on the floor and the bottom of your feet to the sky (in a laying “L” position), splay your arms palms down on the floor about 1.5 feet from your hip. Thrust your hips and feet into the air to raise your but off of the ground 5-7 inches. Upon returning to the ground bring your hips to the floor by one of your hands. Thrust back into the air and return to the ground by your other hand. Perform 3 sets of 30. They’re brutal if you’re doing them correctly (with your abs flexed throughout.)

You’re welcome, and I’m sorry all at the same time. Enjoy your next core day!

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