FUNCTIONAL AT 40: WHY BORING WORKOUTS PRODUCE EXCITING RESULTS
This time of year, you've got the sights, sounds and smells of fall. Pumpkin EVERYTHING is everywhere and I love it.
Although a recent trip to the pumpkin patch put me behind the "but mommy can do it" 8-ball with my kids. See, St. Mommy can do everything from turning the mere task cutting of a sandwich in to squares or triangles (and you BETTER NOT mix up each child's preference or ALL hell breaks loose!) into apparently something worthy of the Louvre to pouring water perfectly into a glass. Which, apparently she can walk on too if I've read my little audience correctly.
So we got some pumpkins from the patch to decorate at some point, and all the way home my son was telling me "when we get home daddy you can make pumpkin pie like mommy does." We are talking about 20 minutes worth of non-stop requesting said desert delectable be made.
There was the occasional "I LIKE TRAINS!!" thrown in for good measure, because, you know, trains. At any rate, I didn't convert water into wine like mommy can with the pumpkins, lives were shattered and St Madre rose further up the ranks as the patron saint of the house.
So there's that. Weekly. At my house.
Which brings me to the point of the post, much like there's rarely a dull moment at my house, your workouts should be full of them. See what I did there? That wasn't bad for a half-calf segue, yay me.
Workout success is built on movement mastery. Especially after the age of 40. Remember, while we'd still love to be doing 14 HIIT workouts a week, our body has different opinion on why that may not be a good idea.
This is why I get excited about boring workouts. The problem with this is that it is a really simple approach. The process on the other hand is anything but easy.
You see, movement mastery and monotony go hand in hand. That approach isn't the thing that makes the muscular highlights reels. Who gets the headline, the hitter who put down the sac bunt to put a runner in scoring position, or the batter that drove them in for a walk off victory? The boring set up the exciting, same thing with your workouts.
However, that is the key to getting your healthy hopes and dreams a fighting chance of coming true. Want to do burpees until your heart's content? You better have mastered the basics of the slow speed bodyweight squats for reps. You also better be able to hold the pushup position plank for at least 2 minutes as recommend by world renown spine biomechanics expert, Dr Stuart McGill. If he says it, you can take it to the bank.
Want to earn strict pullups that hammer the core as well as the lats? Then you better be able to absolutely OWN your ribs anchored to your hips while you isometrically crank up the heat in your lats to a 90 out 10 standing on the floor BEFORE your hands are anywhere near an overhead bar. Most people rent their ribs, you need to OWN them.
Again, this takes skill. That skill comes from practice. Practice takes place over time.
Add these three things up, and it means if you want to do a Burpee + Kettlebell Swing + Ropes combo, you BETTER be able to stabilize each joint in your body isometrically in as man of the positions those two movements require as possible BEFORE you move with speed.
If you put power into dysfunctional joint movements, the only thing you get better at is moving worse. Good luck getting results with that approach. Not too mention not breaking down at some point.
That's why boring workouts, well, work, very well. Since the Spring, I've become well versed in them. Hmmm, maybe went to the well once too often? Well? What do you think? Anyone?
If you keep reading after that last feat of word Smithery, pat yourself on the back repeatedly, you've earned it.
1) Boring Works Best
We know that your nervous system only let's you put out the amount of force your joints can handle (1). Meaning, the more stable you are, the more strength you'll have and the more force you can produce.
Muscle tension is what gets you that force production. You can't get that tension if you don't know how to turn it on. If you want to get stronger, you need to start here.
Remember, your body doesn't know if you are pulling a trap bar from the floor, pushing a dumbbell overhead or if you are standing still pushing on a stick, the wall, etc. It only knows it is being asked to produce force in the muscles and its all hands on deck to get it done.
One of the best ways I've found to do this is through the use of isometrics. Trying to produce static contractions is one of the most effective ways I've found to not only stabilize your joints while not moving, but more importantly, coordinate them working together a lot more when you do.
A wobbly wheel leaks power. Once said circular objects stabilize, your movement quality goes through the roof and the flood gates of fun for your workouts can fly wide open.
Remember, just because we've reached the fourth decade, it doesn't mean by any stretch you need to get off the gas pedal. There's just a little more maintenance involved to keep your engine purring.
Another way to look this is with this lens. Can you stand on one leg? Yes? Great.
Can you stand on one leg to push and pull in as many ways as you can think of? No? See the previous point made, then do the appropriate boring exercise to make the correction.
If you can't do the fundamental first thing, find out why, then work on it so you eventually can. Only then should you move on to exciting things.
See, blast boring to oblivion FIRST, then do all the fun stuff. Eat your vegetables before desert and all that.
To accomplish this, its hard to beat the boring of isometrics to build a rock solid movement foundation.
The people I train are constantly working on producing force standing still with one arm, one leg in every combination I can think of so they can then can do it with authority when they move. Lucky for them, I've got a treasure trove of mundane muscular movement tricks stashed up my sleeves.
This means they get to groove movement on two legs by working the diagonal connections standing on one quite a bit. For instance, we'll do a single leg RDL with the Sticks driving force into the swing foot to light up the kickstand glute and opposite oblique to get a much better result in the rack with the bar. I've seen hips explode through a hinge doing this.
Again, basics work best.
2) Do Boring Workouts
While variety is the spice of life, if you want to nail that first pullup, learning how to statically contract the right muscles BEFORE you ask them to move is the key.
If you vary your movements in each workout, you never really get a chance to get good at any of them. Most of the time, I'll keep the workouts for my clients the same for upwards of four weeks at a time. We make things harder by varying load, rest periods, rep counts or muscle tension to spice things up. The core movements however, remain the same.
I've gotten people doing pullups and pistol squats with this approach. It works. Dan John has written several books on why this works. He's a pretty smart guy and its why I follow his methods, they work.
3) Do Boring Diagonal Isometrics
Our movement quality is largely dependent on the connections of our hip to opposite shoulder and vice versa (2). Train accordingly.
The first place you start is by getting an eval to find out if you can connect your right foot to your left hand and vice versa through the core and the glutes. In a split stance position, can you do a single arm pull hold with your right hand and feel your obliques on the right fire up while the left foot anchors your glutes to support the movement?
If not, find out why. Reconnect the appropriate dots. Then try again.
In a squat pattern, if someone's hips shift to the left as they descend, why? Is it lack of involvement from the lower right abdominals? Is it the lateral stabilizer muscles of the glutes on the left?
What are the feet doing? What about the knees?
There's realistically a diagonal connection offline causing that dysfunction. Find out what it is, address it, try it again.
If you can't find the answer, when in doubt, refer out. Always.
Crawling on the hands and knees in every direction possible might be one of the better ways to reconnect diagonal dysfunction. I've used this a ton to put myself back together when my inner 16-year-old takes over. Luckily, the actual 46-year-old has several contingency plans when the former's lack of planning becomes the latter's emergency.
It is almost impossible to screw up, most populations can tolerate some version of it and it is a movement pattern that is hardwired into our brains. Once reconnected, it can help you move well, build strength not to mention blast your heart rate in a pretty joint friendly way.
You can easily turn this into a diagonal isometric by getting on all fours and lifting the right hand and left knee and vice versa off the floor, then holding. People who experience knee discomfort on all fours are good candidates for the supine version of this, dead bugs.
If you can support yourself diagonally on one hand and knee, your chances of moving well go up. If this is hard, or you lose balance, you know where you need to start: further back toward a more fundamental version of the exercise.
"Don't Just Stand There, DO SOMETHING!"
Speaking of split stances, You can get more hip and core activation if you actively drive your feet away from each other in a split stance. If you want to drive your heart through the roof without moving, this will do it.
For instance, in a split stance one arm row with the right hand, drive the left (front) foot forward as you drive the right (rear) foot behind you. At this point, the core and glutes should kick in.
NOW start pulling, at the end range of the motion, when the elbow is at 90 degrees, smash your elbow into the ribs and try to fire the lats that much more. If there is a way to put more tension into the muscles doing an exercise, find it! Then do it repeatedly.
Building Magically Mundane Muscles
That's how you do it. Actually, maybe you don't do it that way, but you should think about it. It might just help you build a more stable movement platform allowing you to do a whole bunch of not boring things. However, there is still a place you should start, keep reading to find out what it is.
ONLY after you get a proper eval from a trusted trainer, physical therapist or your physician and they clear you to start a new boring workout so you can move toward exciting results should you do it. You always want to make sure you are ready to try new exercise programs before you do at the level that is appropriate for both your movement skill and strength levels. Discretion is the better part of valor, especially in the gym!
1) “To The Max: Functional Training for Endurance Athletes,” Gary Lavin BS, CSCS, USAT II, Juan Carlos Santana MeD, CSCS
2) “The Essence of Band and Pulley Training Companion Guide,” Juan Carlos Santana MeD, CSCS