Mid-Week Musings: Habit Stacking, Jump Variations, Exercise Order and Active Filler.

img_1622As the start of a new series of blog posts I am going to clear up questions I have been asked while coaching the previous week. By the nature of personal training people for a variety of goals from fat loss to athletic performance it highlights the wide range of questions that we get week to week. Sooooo, of we go….

Habit Stacking.

The concept of habit stacking has been proposed in the book Atomic Habits By James Clear. This concept involves layering new habits on top of old habits to help build new behaviours by providing minimal disruption. Undertaking new habits can be really challenging as habitual behaviour is fundamentally hard to change. This sits alongside our concept at Results FAST of focussing upon positive change by not denigrating behaviours that you consider as unideal but instead focussing upon adding new behaviours in a positive sense to foster change. A good example of this is increasing your vegetable intake by always having a green salad with your dinner. Dinner is the habitual behaviour and the green salad can sit alongside dinner easily to achieve positive change. When it comes to exercise adherence and exercising regularly this could be achieved by getting changed in to your exercise clothes before leaving work. When you consider all the things you do daily how could you layer positive behaviours on top of your current behaviours making positive habit change easier. A good example of this is that when people keep a food diary their food intake starts to tidy up. How often also does a healthy eating plan seem to follow regular exercise? Habit change can be about creating a bit of momentum and therefore layering new behaviours on top of others may help you achieve more.

Box Jump Variations For Strength and Conditioning.

Box jumps basically in my mind among the most poorly programmed exercise alongside burpees. Jumps by nature need to be quick as they are primarily a power exercise therefore if they are going to be maximal they need a lot of recovery to be performed well. Simply if jumping on a box is used with minimal rest or supersetted with other demanding exercises it’s a great way to train poor jumping mechanics. There are a whole host of better and safer ways to train lower body endurance if power isn’t the target. Jumping on a box often looks cool and is often part of Crossfit style repetition style workouts- what often looks impressive isn’t always so when there are better ways of working when a good coach can understand exercise choice and ordering.

Exercise Order and Session Pacing.

Programme design and getting exercises in the right order to me are the whole reason you hire a personal trainer. What matters is that after your warm up/ preparation the first exercise or block of exercises you perform should be the most neuromuscularly demanding part of your session. Read that as the most powerful/ heaviest/ explosive. It doesn’t make sense to pace a session and go lighter at the start of training as you will be leaving results on the table (maybe if you are easing yourself back in to a routine but not if you have been training regularly). If the hardest part of your training is near the end of your workout you haven’t worked hard enough at the start of the session.

Active Filler.

Active filler is how we get our training clients to recover between exercises keeping them fresh enough to perform their primary exercise while not feeling as if they are doing nothing in sessions if they need the rest. Good examples of active filler may be mobility work such as three point rotations or calf stretches and low level core drills which may be tough but not ultimately fatiguing such as planks, side planks and deadbugs. In some exercisers who may be chronically tight or have a weaker core they may provide a level of cardiovascular work but after about 6 weeks of regular training it allows you to concentrate more on the primary exercise. Good examples may be pairing a deadlift with a calf stretch, Bench Press with some hip mobility work and single leg work such as lunges with a side plank.



Is the hex/ trap bar better for developing athletes?

The title of this article in itself is a little bit contentious as in most cases the answer will always depend upon the situation.

That said understanding where and when to use the trap/ hex bar should be a priority of most forward thinking coaches looking for best practice. The trap bar in itself is often favoured as the loading and hand position makes it pretty easy for those new to the weight training arena to adapt and adopt without finding that technique may be compromised.

Straight bar deadlifting form can often be compromised by poor hip and lower limb mobility as well as weak spinal erectors meaning it is harder to get into the right positions to develop the movement in a safe and effective way.

A recent study by Camara et al. (2016) used individuals who could deadlift 1.5 times their bodyweight. This is interesting as most studies don’t used trained populations- in this case it means that there was a level of mastery for the individuals involved in testing.

Maximal amounts lifted didn’t vary but the peak force and peak velocity were different. This highlights that from a force production point of view that the trap bar may be superior.

From a muscle activation point of view the vastus lateralis (part of your quads down the front of your leg) was more active compared to the erector spinae and biceps femoris (part of the hamstrings down the back of your legs). It brings home the point that the hex/trap bar is not as posterior dominant as the deadlift is when looking at things from a muscle activation point of view.

So is there a reason to remove deadlifts from programming? Not necessarily, the use of any exercise depends upon the context of the athlete. This study highlights that force production may be developed more favourably for a while with the use of hex bar. The role of the quads is obviously enhanced here as it is somewhere between a squat and deadlift. As there is less erector spinae activation (back) it means that there is less stress placed upon the musculature of this area which may be a limiting factor in developing the deadlift e.g. poor hip mobility and weak erector spinae make full deadlifting a bit of an issue.

The trap bar in my opinion tends to be easier to coach than a full deadlift and it makes it an easier catch-all lower body drill. It is a good compromise to help develop physicality especially if mobility issues limit the performance of an effective deadlift. In turn deadlifting may be considered a progression from hex/ trap bar lifts as it challenges the posterior chain and therefore may be a good advancement.

Form Fixes- Pulling Exercises.

It could be said that all you need to do in the gym to be successful in the gym and build your strength is to do the simple stuff well. Adding complexity to an exercise isn’t really necessary if it doesn’t develop your physicality in some way- that means doing something because it appears hard may not give you the desired result.

One such exercise is pulling based movements specifically rows- either with both or single hands. Typically, you see when the movement is going a bit wrong it’s usually due to the loading being a bit too much for the muscles around the scapular to control the movement so range is shortened and you end up pulling to the arm pit. Now this will still burn your arms out but makes it pretty redundant for training the muscles you are primarily targeting- in this case the lats, rhomboids and traps. It’s what I sometimes term an “intermediate” mistake in the sense that you recognise the exercise but you are trying to push the intensity but by doing so you ruin the primary goal of the movement.

In the following video notice how the elbows are slightly to the side of the rib cage, the shoulder blades are retracted at the end of the movement and as the movement is controlled outwards the shoulder blades stay stuck to the rib cage and tuck under the arm pit. You can perform high rows with higher elbows but to complete the movement it is generally desirable to get retraction of the shoulder blades. Just as a side point adding too much load could also be termed not strong enough to do the movement properly. It’s sometimes hard to point this out to people as they start to progress and want to work hard.

The same movement in-efficiencies happen on bent over rows as well as dumbbell rows and also TRX/ Suspension trainer rows. In order to challenge the upper body you can add in an element of instability. As a side point adding instability works a lot better for the upper body as opposed to the lower body (perhaps apart from ankle and knee rehab/ prehab situations). The carryover to developing strong and stable shoulders is a lot more effective.

We often use variations of supported rows which are sometimes termed renegade rows (this name came around in the functional fitness trend of the early 2000’s… which also meant people gave names to exercises which to the uninitiated where unable to translate). On this following example we add a challenge to stability on one side of the body on the supporting arm while aiming to maintain control on the rowing movement. The same thing applies for this movement getting retraction of the shoulder blade at the top of the movement. What can often happen is that the setup position is wrong and then the hips lift and supporting hand does not remain directly below the shoulder on the floor.

So overall, the goal with rowing movement is to build strength while not sacrificing form. It’s sometimes simple tips that can make a big difference to coaching but also understanding what poor form looks like is also key to getting the most out of your training.

From a progression standpoint complexity varies by “form” not strength. This is the rough protocol we follow from least complex to hardest.

Cable rows both standing and seated/ single and double arm.

Chest supported rows.

DB single arm rows

DB single arm supported rows

Angled TRX rows.

Bent over rows.

Horizontal TRX rows or Inverted rows from a supported barbell.

3 point rows on a step/ elevation.

3 point rows from the floor.

Some of these exercises are quite close complexity wise so we may use variants in programmes. Hopefully this explains why exercise selection is important and how load and relative strength levels will influence your exercise choices.