Training With Bands: Ninja Tool of Strength Coaches

Ever wondered if elite strength coaches share all of their best tips on social media, or if they keep some of their best training secrets for their clients?  Of course, they do, and one of those ninja tips is the use of bands.  Yep, those wobbly, elastic strings aren’t just rehabilitation and dynamic warm-up tools, they’re also effective strength building tools.  The reason coaches like them is because of their ability to completely stress and fatigue muscles without adding excessive loads.  Specifically, when you integrate 2 different forms of resistance (e.g., horizontal and vertical resistance) into 1 exercise, it creates a “hybrid tension” effect which is MORE stimulating to muscle growth than traditional weightlifting exercises.  Never heard of hybrid tension before?  Read on.

Benefits of Hybrid Tension

Imagine doing a chin-up and pulling your bodyweight up until your chin is above the bar.  Now, imagine doing the same movement but with bands around your ankles and a partner gently pulling the band and your legs away from the pull-up bar.  What’s the impact?  In order to keep your body in a vertical path, you have to focus on two things:  overcoming gravity and keeping your body upright as you pull up.  In short, an exercise that employs hybrid tension is much harder to do.

‘Hybrid tension’ is not just harder, it also activates and recruits more muscle fibers across 2 planes of motion thereby creating GREATER MUSCLE STRENGTH AND GROWTH.  (Barbell and free-weight exercises, in comparison, create resistance in just one plane of motion.)  A secondary benefit is the ‘stretch’ in the band has the added effect of changing tension across a movement pattern, which can be accelerated or decelerated to build up FAST, EFFICIENT REFLEXES.  This is why many strength coaches include band training into their clients’ programs.  If you consider that our body has to deal with forces, momentum and ground reaction from many different angles throughout the day, teaching the body to handle fast and slow movements under different types of tension is helpful for both athletes and adults.

Types of Bands

There are a variety of resistance bands out there, but the three most popular types are:

How much resistance you’ll get is determined by the thickness and/or stiffness of the band and how far it’s stretched, but generally, the wider the band, the more resistance it has.  Also, of the 3 types, looped bands and mini bands are the ones that are combined with free weights to create hybrid tension.

Applications of Band Training

While most of us have seen exercise videos demonstrating the use of bands for a) bodyweight training and b) dynamic stretching (aka to prepare muscles and joints for work), here are 3 other applications of bands in adult strength training.  They are:

Perfecting the Squat.  The squat is the one exercise that draws out muscular/postural imbalances like no other exercise.  And while many use the squat to develop the quad muscles, the truth is the squat is highly dependent on the glutes which kick in once the hips drop below the knees or past 90 degrees.  Brad Schoenfeld, wrote a great scientific article titled The Biomechanics of Squat Depth.  In the article he mentioned research has shown how maximal gluteal activation occurs with full depth squats.  Partial squats had 16.92 ± 8.78% gluteal involvement; parallel squats had 28.00 ± 10.29% gluteal involvement and full depth squats had 35.47 ± 1.45% gluteal involvement.  The key takeaway being that a “full depth” squat develops both the quads and the glutes when executed correctly.   If you watch most people squat, however, you’ll find an abundance of partial squatters, a handful of parallel squatters and a rare few of full depth squatters.  Why is this?

Well, if you ask most partial squatters, they’ll tell you that squatting too low hurts their knees or back or both.  But this is not the real problem.  The real problem is usually poor hip and/or glute activation, and a simple trick to help correct this issue is to use mini bands.  The approach involves securing a mini band around your legs, just above your knees and then performing the squat with just 70-75% of your 1RM for 6-8 reps.  The band resistance forces the lifter to drive their knees out and activate the outside of the hips, which will stabilize the knees (preventing knee valgus) as well as help activate the glutes.  Likewise, as you develop stronger hips and glutes, you’ll be able to handle heavier loads when squatting.  Makes sense, right?  You cannot improve strength and power if you cannot first stabilize and control a movement under tension.

Now, the technical name for this type of band work is Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT), and it’s often used by physical therapists and coaches like Dr. John Rusin for rehabilitation programming and the improvement of movement patterning and quality.  But I think the terminology muddies the water.  The truth is a movement pattern can look clean on the outside and still engage the wrong muscle chain.  Similarly, the absence of pain is not a good enough indicator.  Properly executed movements under tension, will feel good and not so good through a ROM, depending on how muscles crisscross your body, and this changes as we age.  Hence, you absolutely need exercises that help the brain become aware of what a “good” movement pattern feels like in the body, an creating “hybrid tension” is by far the best tool I’ve come across.  

Workout Example (Lower Body)

Warm-Up:  A) Low Box Jump (2 x 5) and B) Banded Crosswalks (2 x 10 Steps/Each Way)
A) BB Back Squat (5 x 10@90 Seconds)
B) Banded BB Pause Squats (2 x 6-8@60 Seconds).  Use ~75% of the weight used in your work sets for exercise A.  Place a mini band around your legs and position just above the knees and squat normally.  Focus here is to go as low as you can and hold for 4-5 seconds without concaving the knees or leaning over.  Then, drive through your heels to stand up.
C1) BB Box Squat (3 x 10-12).  Sit on the box or bench for a full second before standing up.  Rest 60 seconds before C2.
C2) Leg Curl (3 x 12-15).  Rest 90 seconds before C1.
D1) Leg Press (3 x 15-20).  Rest 60 seconds before D2.
D2) DB RNT Reverse Lunge (3 x 10/Each Leg).  Secure a band to a power rack and to one leg, just below the knee.  Focus on keeping hips and knees stable (no internal or external rotation) throughout the movement.  Rest 90 seconds before D1.
E1) Cable Jump Frog Squat (3 x 10).  Do D1 and D2 with no rest between exercises.
E2) Cable Squat (3 x 10).  Rest 90 seconds before D1.
F) Abs – Your Choice (3 x 15@60 Seconds)

Power/Speed Development.  Life is really all about accelerating or decelerating force quickly, and without a doubt, bands are the safest way to practice moving weight at different speeds.  The two most popular methods are simply called the ‘heavier’ and ‘lightened’ methods.  With the heavier method (popularized by Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell), bands are attached to bottom supports and then to the sleeves of the bar so that tension is never released (such as with the bench press and overhead press).  Because of this, a quick start is impossible and locking out a heavy weight is really tough.  The lightened method, on the other hand, involves anchoring the bands at the top of the power rack with a slip knot and then attaching to the bands to the sleeves of the bar thereby creating an almost weightless bar.  This allows the lifter to move more load quickly while developing tremendous power at lockout.

Now, if you’re wondering if fast or slow presses is appropriate for the general population, a 2016 study in the Strength and Conditioning Research Journal tried to address this question with a group of, rugby players.  In the study, they compared the use of free weight resistance (FWR) with elastic band resistance (EB) for the bench press and found that a) EB + FWR not only increased the range of concentric movement in which the barbell is accelerated (35% STRENGTH IMPROVEMENT), maximal VELOCITY (aka speed) also IMPROVED by 17% as compared to the FWR group.  The conclusion being when a load is accelerated through a bigger range of motion, it results in improved speed-strength and thus helpful to power/speed-focused sports.

Workout Example (Upper Body):  Strength/speed training is now a staple of athletic and individualized training programs.  A typical upper body workout might include:

Warm-Up:  A) Single-Arm KB Overhead Walk (3 x 20 meters/each arm) and B) Single-Arm KB Rack Carry (3 x 20-30 meters)
A) Rope Face Pull-Aparts (3x15@60 Seconds)
B)  BB Slight Decline Bench Press (5x10@90 Seconds)
C1) Banded Dynamic Effort BB Bench Press (10x4).  Attach resistance bands to the bottom of rack and then onto the sleeves of a barbell.  Use ~75% of the weight used in your work sets for exercise B.  Focus on explosive push and a 1 second lock-out at top.  Rest 60 seconds before C2.
C2) Plyo Push-Up (10x4).  Rest 90 seconds before C1.
D) Pull-up (3xAMRAP@60).
E1) Banded Russian KB Swing (3x15).  Slip-knot one end of the band on the handle of a kettlebell and then anchor the other end of the band beneath your feet.  Note how much or little of the band you secure beneath your feet dictates the band resistance.  Focus on exploding and moving the KB with the glutes and hips.  Control the weight down and/or resist the urge to let the KB just fall down.  Rest 60 seconds before E1.
E2) DB Pullover on Flat Bench (3x10-12).   Rest 90 seconds before E2.

Hypertrophy Through Maximum Fatigue.  Very often when lifting weights, the smaller muscles tire out first and cannot support a weight through a full range of motion (aka reach failure).  Adding a band to a free weight movement, however, allows a muscle to be maximally lengthened during the eccentric movement, which in turn creates conditions to CONTRACT BETTER and MORE FULLY during the concentric phase of the movement.  As IFBB Professional Mark Dugdale says, “I see quicker growth when a fatigued and massively pumped muscle is fully stretched.”  But it’s not just about the stretch.  By using hybrid tension in the super-set” or “giant set” training technique (2 or 3 exercises performed back to back with no rest), a lifter can extend a work set, supercharge cellular volumization (aka “the pump”) while maximizing muscle overload and growth of antagonist muscle pairs. 

Superset Examples: 

Bench Press (3x10) s/s Banded Chest Machine (3x10 or AMRAP)BB Deadlift s/s Band Resisted Trap Bar Deadlift (Lower Handles) (3x10 or AMRAP)
BB Row (3x10) s/s Banded DB Bent Over Row (3x10 or AMRAP)
BB Back Squat (3x10) s/s Banded DB Goblet Squat (3x10 or AMRAP)

Giant Set Examples: 

Partial DB Lat Raise with Pause (2x10) g/s Banded DB Front Lat Raise (Neutral Grip) (2x6-8), g/s DB Lat Raise (2x10 or AMRAP)
Partial BB Behind the Neck Press (Wide Grip) (2x10) g/s with DB Arnold Press (2x10) g/s with Banded
Close Grip Bench Press (2 x 10) g/s Decline KB Skull Crusher (2x8-10) s/s Banded Triceps Pull-downs (2xAMRAP)

Two caveats here.  When using bands for increased hypertrophy, you have to be careful not to overdo it.  The bands produce a large amount of concentric and/or eccentric overloading and thus can cause excessive soreness.  So, start with one FW/BR superset or giant set and then build up to 2 in a single workout but no more than that.  Or if the volume is too much, another expert tip is to incorporate what Louie Simmons calls “mini workouts” throughout the day … such as doing a lot of band press downs, a lot of band crunches, or a lot of banded squats / lunges, etc. whenever you have the time.  Don’t even worry about following a specific set or rep pattern.  Just focus on getting a strong contraction.  When you train frequently with low stress exercises, you’ll get a nasty pump which is what creates those beautiful, plump muscles.

Summary

If you’re looking for ways to maximize your time in the gym, then creating hybrid tension (with the use of bands) is definitely something you should add to your iron toolbox.  It not only teaches the body to be dynamically and re-actively stable (aka stabilize loaded joints while moving), helps improve speed-strength, it accelerates hypertrophy gains because FW + BR exercises work a bigger cross section of muscles than you would with free weights alone.  And the nice thing is you don’t have to do any special programming.  Just adding 1-2 banded exercises to compliment your daily workout focus will make a difference!

Upping Your Trainability

Every weight lifter knows after a while progress stalls. It’s due to the biological law of accommodation which states “the response of a biological object to a constant stimulus decreases over time.” It means the body adapts, and what was once perceived as challenging is now part of the normal way of doing things. Interestingly, accommodation happens at the cellular level of the body and can be triggered in any number of biochemical processes. For example, when the body continually senses excess glucose in the tissues, it accommodates and stops removing the excess glucose which leads to Type 2 diabetes. If you consume prescription thyroid medication, over time the body adjusts and stops producing its own T3/4 hormones. Likewise, if you’ve been doing the same weightlifting exercises for several months and stop making gains, it’s a sign that your muscles have accommodated. So, how do you avoid accommodation and continue to make progress? Variation. I don’t mean switching exercises. Although that works. I mean introducing new ways to create muscle tension/fatigue that align with your unique strength profile. Just a few of the right changes, every 2-3 weeks can keep your trainability and motivation high making room for muscle gains for many years to come.

Accommodation…Every Weight Lifter’s Nightmare

Weight lifters hate accommodation because it means the body has fully adapted to a certain type of training. The 3 ways the body accommodates are:

Simply stated, the closer you get to being accommodated, the LESS trainability you have. The less trainability you have, the less room for progress and/or the SLOWER progress will be. Ever felt stuck in a performance plateau or lost your motivation to train? It might be due to accommodation.

Variation…Not Novelty

Once your body adjusts to a new demand placed upon it, things that used to work, simply don’t. That’s when weight lifters get creative with programming and change things. But you have to know what to change to keep your trainability high. First, let’s review the not so effective ways.

Variation is a “Finesse” Strategy

Truth be told, most people don’t know how to use variation in a way that keeps them in the “muscle zone.” You know what I mean, right? That sweet spot during a workout when you stop chasing more weight or more sets/reps and are completely focused on doing exactly what your body needs to turn protein synthesis on, stimulate growth factors and produce the right amount of muscle fatigue/tears to signal improvement. Whenever you stop counting reps and can “feel” your body responding to the work you’re doing … even if you’re just working with your bodyweight, you’re in the “muscle zone.” But working in the zone requires a decent knowledge of how your body works and responds to exercise. Some good tips:

Tip #1 – Stay With the Main Lifts (aka Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Overhead Press) – Think of the main lifts as movement training…skills that need regular practice. Even if you are using dumbbells instead of a barbell, always include them in your programs as these methods build up and support your movement foundation.

Tip #2 – Keep Your Muscle Building Switch “On” – When it comes to building strength and muscle, there are 3 variables that have the biggest impact on the body:

First thing to know is you can’t have all 3 elevated at the same time. Why? It stresses the body, spiking cortisol and turning off protein synthesis and muscle growth. So, the rule is to pick 2 and go lower on the 3rd. For mature adults, I recommend increasing frequency first. (For example, it’s much better to do 30 minutes/6x a week than 1 hour/3x a week from a muscle building perspective). Then, vary volume or intensity as you build up your work capacity.

Tip #3: Align Assistance Work With Your Unique Strength Profile – Assistance or isolation work is used to build up specific muscles or muscle groups. These methods are easier to learn and involve shorter muscle chains which means people accommodate to resistance work faster. It also means you can change these exercises more frequently.  But not all changes are equally beneficial to ALL bodies. According to strength coach and author Christian Thibaudeau, the trick is to ONLY change components (aka equipment, methods, sequence, rep scheme, rest intervals, etc.) that align with each person’s strength profile. Over his many years of training world-class athletes and adults alike, he’s identified 5 basic strength types which correspond to whether a person is more nervous system vs. muscular system dominant or some combination of the two. Briefly, they are:

Also, according to Coach Thibaudeau, these profiles have an affinity to motivation. For example, if you are engaging in a type of training that leaves you feeling under-developed, drained…even demotivated, you’re likely doing methods that are not aligned to your strength profile type.

Key Takeaways

To sum it up, purposeful change is good. But you need to learn how to vary the right things at the right time in your program to ensure you stay in the “muscle zone” while giving your body adequate time to adapt and grow (aka to progress). That means doing 3 things:

That’s the key to using variation effectively.  Hope you’re fired up to take your training to the next level.  And as always, seek strength!

Torque - The Secret Sauce of All Movement

In last year’s CrossFit Games, we saw several men get injured (i.e., pec tears) while doing kipping pull-ups on rings. Experts speculated it was due to inadequate warm-up or not enough horizontal pressing in their training programs. But something didn’t add up. If that were true, why didn’t any of the female athletes get the same injury doing the exact same exercise? Well, I’m one of those who constantly asks why is something working or not working. And although I’m not a CrossFitter, my curiosity was peaked. I had to know why the men, but not the women, got pec tears? As I talked with my teachers, turns out some of the men were making a common movement mistake. They were applying the wrong force to the wrong muscle chain…in essence not using torque correctly. I also learned that torque is the ‘secret sauce’ that every adult strength seeker can learn, practice and master in order to grab and maintain high levels of strength and performance…even as we age. You just need to learn a few simple tenets.

What the Heck is Torque?

There are many opinions on what torque is. In fact, many strength coaches don’t teach lifters about torque because they think it’s too complicated. Kelly Starrett first talked about it in his book The Supple Leopard. He described it as the way lifters rotate their arms and legs in order to stabilize the joints so that they can receive heavy loads overhead or while in a squat. Movement specialist Julien Pineau, however, thinks of torque as the tension being created during movement. He says, whenever we go through a movement pattern (e.g., push, pull, hinge or squat), we must create torque. Simply put, torque is a force generated through rotation, and this tension is created internally (toward the body) or externally (away from the body). A twisted towel, for example, is denser and stronger than an untwisted one. Same idea applies to muscle groups and joints. When a boxer throws a punch, he turns his arm, wrist and hand inward…with internal torque. Hence, more torque = more tension, which means more power or strength.

Mapping Torque to Muscle Chains

If you think about it, the pec muscle cannot do anything by itself. It has to be activated as part of a movement pattern to do work. And each movement pattern uses a different type of torque. For example:

The key message here is all movement patterns use some form of torque. So, why did so many men suffer from pec tears during the last CrossFit games? It wasn’t because of poor warm-up, shoulder mobility or even too much volume. (Note: Some of the men actually tore their muscles during the first set of 21.) It’s because CrossFit doesn’t include much, if any, methods that are focused on horizontal pushing (aka bench press) or the development of internal torque. Thus, when an undertrained, relaxed muscle is asked to fully contract, repeatedly…for time, it breaks as it simply cannot handle the load. Women, on the other hand, naturally employ internal torque to do any sort of dip work. That is, they engage the triceps, pec minor and teres minor when pressing up on the rings. Remember the twisted towel analogy. Muscles that are entwined together are stronger together.

Torque is a “Feeling”

Interestingly, most people under-estimate the importance of torque in the way they move. They’ve even found a connection between internal/external torque and the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems. That is, some methods will help you sleep better and others make you sleep worse. It’s just another example of the brain-body connection. Additionally, Pineau says most people mistakenly believe if a movement patterns looks perfect, they’re fine. But torque doesn’t work that way. If the wrong force is applied, you’re activating the wrong muscle chain. Hence, he always gives his trainees a physical cue and a “feeling” cue to make sure they're engaging the right torque. Let’s follow an example using the deadlift.

When learning the deadlift, one of the common cues trainers give are to:

1) Spread the floor with your feet and 
2) Initiate the pull by driving the knees out.

When you do that, guess what? You’re recruiting the wrong muscle chain: outside head of the hamstring, internal oblique and glute med. That’s external torque. It works fine for a while, but once you start moving heavier loads, those muscles get tired and pull on the muscles and SI joints of the lower spine. How many people have developed back pain or injury doing deadlifts? It might be because they’re using the wrong torque for that movement pattern.

The hinge (aka deadlift) uses internal torque, and it’s created by loading up the ‘inside’ head of the hamstrings and pushing the obliques out. This means with your toes forward, gently squeeze a ball between your thighs about ¼” (physical cue) until you feel tension in the inside of your thighs (feeling cue). Likewise, where do your hips need to be? If your hips are too high in the starting position (such as in stiff legged deadlift), you lose torque which means less strength. We don’t want that. If you start too low and can’t internally rotate, then you can’t engage the internal hamstring. We don’t want that either. So, the starting position should be one that allows you the ability to create tension in the inner thighs without moving the hips (up/down) before pulling the load. (Tip: if the best starting position is deadlifting off of plates or blocks, do it.) When you deadlift this way, you will feel a completely different sensation in your body…more load on the hamstrings, less on the lower back. Speaking as someone who once dropped deadlifts from her training because of lower back pain, I can now do them again with no issues. For more tips on how to use internal torque to hinge correctly, check out this video.

More Torqueing, Please

The role of internal torque is not just underrated, it’s completely missing in most adult training programs. I gave one example around the deadlift, but I’ve noticed it’s not well used for other hinge movements like the barbell or DB bent over row, BB good morning and many overhead pressing methods. I’m quite sure many adults are developing muscle imbalances and don’t even know it. Fortunately, the vast majority of these imbalances can be prevented through a fairly simple prescription of exercises: rope pulls, sled drags, sled pulls, DB farmer’s carries, Trap Bar carries, timed holds, goblet squats and specific isolation work.

To keep things simple, I recommend adding a few exercises at the end of your low stress training days (aka not heavy or max days).  Basic guidelines: 

What makes these exercises so effective is besides being very low in skill and involving no eccentric movement, they target the inside of the legs, teres minor, triceps and external obliques very well (aka develop internal torque).

So, here’s what I want you to take away from this. In your upcoming strength training sessions, pay attention to whether you are doing a push, pull, hinge or squat movement pattern and whether you are using internal or external torque. If you’re not sure, simply think about and engage the prime muscle mover first.

Julian Pineau continues to hold seminars for strength seekers and coaches alike. For dates, check out his Principles of Movement and Coach’s Week seminars on his website. So, hope you remain curious. And always…seek strength!!

Transforming Your Body Into a Lean, Strong and Vibrant Machine…Tips from a WNBF Bodybuilder

I’m blessed to be in a circle of smart, generous … and yes, strong women who are always willing to lend a hand. So, not surprising, when I asked my good friend Arlene Lurey if she would share insights gained from her bodybuilding journey, she immediately said yes. Whether you’re male/female, an experienced weight lifter or just starting out, you’ll want to read this as Arlene gets into the details of what bodybuilding is, lifestyle do’s/don’ts, her nutritional mainstays and why every adult can benefit from incorporating bodybuilding methods into their exercise routine. Do you have bodybuilding on your bucket list?  Arlene says, "Just go for it."  #CountMeIn!

What led you to become a bodybuilder, and what did it teach you about your body? I became a bodybuilder by accident! My husband hired a personal trainer to help me lose my pregnancy weight. After 6 months, I entered a local Ms. Bikini Northern California competition and won. I was hooked! I continued to work on developing muscle and definition and eventually transitioned from Bikini to the Figure Bodybuilding category where I earned my Pro Figure card with the WNBF in 2006. After that, I competed for the next 5 years and earned several Pro Championship titles before finally switching to the Bodybuilding category in 2010. I earned my Bodybuilding Pro card with the IFPA in 2011 and am now a judge on the WNBF circuit.

Regarding the 2nd question, bodybuilding has taught me a lot about commitment, perseverance and self-discipline. Bodybuilding is not just about time in the gym. It's about planning your workouts, nutrition and rest to continually improve. Through trial and error, I learned to incorporate foods that help muscle growth and recovery and avoid foods that lead to inflammation and fatigue. Bodybuilding is not just a sport to me. It’s truly an integrated part of my lifestyle.

Bodybuilding is a very specific form of weightlifting. What makes it different? Muscle power and strength is essential to every sport, but its focus varies depending on the performance goals required. CrossFit focuses on mastering strength and endurance skills for time. Powerlifting is about pursuing your 1 rep max. Bodybuilding is a display of muscle fullness, definition and symmetry through coordinated poses of precision and grace. The upper body must match the lower body in terms of size and fullness. The front of the body must match the back of the body. (Make sure you have excellent glutes to match your six-pack!). Hence, much attention and care is spent creating an individualized strength training plan that results in a balanced muscular physique.

What does it take to get results (aka become competition worthy)? Besides having well developed muscles, a bodybuilder must have low enough body fat to display their muscles…somewhere in the 7-9% range. (You can't show muscles if they're under 3 inches of body fat!) Hence, the amount of time it takes to prepare for a competition (get muscular and lean) depends on your genetics. Each person has unique genetic gifts and challenges. If you are an ectomorph and have a difficult time gaining weight and muscle, you may have to eat more to build and keep muscle. If you are an endomorph and find it difficult to lose body fat without sacrificing hard-earned muscle, you will have to avoid taking in too many carbs per meal that can be stored as fat. I happen to be a mesomorph, which means I can quickly gain muscle while losing fat. In other words, if I’ve done my training correctly, all I need is 8-12 weeks of focused dieting leading up to a competition. Then, in the final month, I incorporate 45 minutes of posing each day to cement the best ways to artistically showcase my muscular physique. The key is knowing your limits. If after 6 weeks of dieting, you hit the wall and go on a pizza binge (because of glycogen depletion), then you know you have to schedule high-carb days along the way to avoid sabotaging yourself.

What does one of your workouts look like during the peak of competition season?Typically, I’d train a different body part 4-5x a week: Chest, legs, back/shoulders, arms, abs and calves. With the chest, for example, it would be some combination of compound and isolation movements, usually no more than 7.

Bench Press – Flat, Incline, Decline w/Varying Grip Widths
Machine Chest Press
Push-up – Elevated Feet or Hands, Weight-Assisted
Chest Dips
Fly – Flat, Incline, Decline w/DBs or Cable
Cable Crossovers – High or Low
Pull Overs – DB, EZ Bar or Cable
Pec Deck Machine

When training for a show, I’d increase the intensity and do more mechanical drop sets or slow down the pace of the movement. I really like drop sets because lowering the weight a little each set without rest allows me to fully fatigue the muscle group without compromising good form.

During gym sessions, how do you know you are training hard enough to stimulate muscle growth?

As long as I can feel the pump…feel the muscles filling up with blood and the hormone rush, I know I’m ok. And the more you practice the mind-muscle connection, the better. There would be times I’d be working out and thinking about my ‘to do’ list…mentally drifting. I’d lose the connection to my body. That’s when my coach Johnny would lightly touch the muscle I was supposed to be working and say, "Here…stay focused here.” Then, I’d snap back and focus on my training. It’s really important to mentally think about and feel every centimeter of the movement.

What is your self-talk like, and/or how do you keep yourself motivated? One of the hardest things about being a natural competitor is that you can do all the right things and still not make progress or be competition ready. My coach was very direct with me, and one time he said, “I see 2 inches of back fat.” I was devastated and cried while driving home because I was doing all the right things, and yet it wasn’t enough. It was very discouraging, but after my cry was over, I picked myself up, ate my next meal and chose a show that was farther out so that I could work on getting leaner. That’s why some athletes turn to drugs–to get bigger faster. Natural bodybuilding takes years, not months. That’s why I only participate in drug-tested, natural bodybuilding competitions… to make sure it’s a level playing field.

Many bodybuilders use both steady state cardio and high intensity training (HIIT) in their workouts to increase metabolism and burn fat. What’s your preference and why?During my earlier competition days, we did speed skating as a family, and that worked for me. Now, I like steady state cardio, but low intensity. I know a lot of experts say you need to do 1-2 hours of running, climbing stairs or some sort of high interval circuit several times a week to burn fat. Now that I’m in my 40s, I’ve learned my body likes to chill after weight sessions and to stay balanced throughout the day. So, I walk the dogs…mostly on hills so I’m taking in lots of oxygen. That works for me. HIIT is not for everyone.

What are some of the lifestyle and nutritional mainstays of the natural lifter? What are the “no no’s”? It’s important to enjoy what you’re eating. I’m a gluten-free, dairy-free pescatarian. So, I eat a lot of fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, plant-based fats, quinoa…and drink 3 liters of water a day. I don’t count calories but instead count macros (e.g., protein, carbs and fats), and I divide my requirements into 5-6 small meals that I eat throughout the day. I eat every 2-3 hours to ensure I’m taking in all the nutrients my body needs. I don’t have cheat days, primarily because I don’t feel good afterwards. Cheating for me means bigger portions, not eating bad foods. As far as “no no’s”, it’s all the basics—no sugar or empty carbs. No alcohol, sodas or juices. I’m addicted to coffee though and use stevia as my sweetener.

What have you’ve learned recently (could be programming, methods, nutrition, supplements, equipment/technology, etc.) that you would have incorporated into your training? Right now, my goals are all about health, longevity and avoiding injury. So, I tend to pick methods that are less risky. I don’t do stuff like standing on a Bosu ball while doing bicep curls, for example. In terms of new methods, my husband and I watch YouTube videos from ex-athlete and trainer Jeff Cavaliere. (AthleanX is his YouTube channel). He’s great at showing modifications to weight lifting exercises that reduce joint stress or prevent aggravating old injuries. We like him a lot because his methods often create a much better sensation in the muscles we’re working.

What makes for a good bodybuilding coach? What are some red flags? Find someone with a proven record for helping clients compete at both the local and national level. Talk with them to make sure he/she is someone you admire, trust and have a rapport with as you’re going to spend many hours with that person. If you pick someone you don’t click with, you’re not going to be focused on the right things. So, do your homework. Find someone who is promoting a natural show and email them. Ask if he/she trains clients or could recommend someone in your area.

As far as red flags, most qualified trainers are very professional, but they need information. Listen to your body. If you’re doing an exercise that hurts you or makes you uncomfortable or you don’t like a trainer to touch you during the session, communicate with them. If you have a past injury or did 5 hours of gardening yesterday, let them know. Most trainers and coaches want to help you, but you have to be up front with them to get results.

As a WNBF judge, when you’re faced with two finalists with equal muscle development and symmetry, what’s the deciding factor in choosing 1st place? It comes down to two things…posing and muscle development. A lot of people do poses that don’t display their muscles well. You can tell who’s been posing every day because their bodies look like a work of art. That’s what we want to see because bodybuilding is a visual sport. The other factor is muscle size. There’s a reason it’s called bodybuilding, not body dieting. So, if it comes down to 2 contestants with equal symmetry and leanness and one looks like a borderline cadaver, the one with larger more developed muscles will likely win.

What’s something about strength or the human body that you’d like all women to know? Strength and muscles are beautiful. Many women are afraid to get strong. Don’t be afraid. Try weight training…preferably with a whole body focus. When your whole body is strong, you have more energy, sleep better, and you’re less likely to get injured. It helps maintain bone density. Bodybuilding can be incorporated into any sports training. Don’t worry about getting too big or too bulky. Not everyone wants to look like a professional bodybuilder, and that’s ok. Do what feels right for you.

What’s next for Arlene, and how can people get in touch with you? After a 6-year hiatus from competing, I am hitting the stage in 2018. My motto for 2018 is “Count Me In!” I’m not worried about winning every show. I just want to get on stage and be a part of natural women’s bodybuilding. Friend me on Facebook if you want to hear about upcoming competitions, view past bodybuilding pics, or see pictures of her pugs. Best of luck to everyone!

And …if you want to see Arlene’s body transformation, click here.

Restorative Workouts…My “Go To” Method for CNS Drain

One of the most interesting ideas from the strength and conditioning world is the concept of restorative workouts. It surfaced when coaches noticed that certain athletic types don’t recover easily from high stress training simply by resting and refueling. In fact, whereas many still subscribe to the old-school philosophy of “the more you train, the better the results,” others now say “the more you do, the more you need to rest.” They also say that while the amount of recovery needed is in direct proportion to the intensity and volume of a particular workout, most adults tend to go to extremes by either doing too many, back-to-back high intensity sessions, or taking too many days off. The trick is using a different type of stress so that a lifter’s nervous system becomes more tolerant of neural fatigue allowing him/her to do repetitive intense work without crashing. Answer: the restorative workout.

Muscular Versus Neural Fatigue

Before jumping into what a restorative workout is, it’s important to understand some basic concepts about nervous system fatigue. As you already know, muscular fatigue is the declining ability of a specific muscle to produce force (aka can’t do 1 more bicep curl). Its impact is limited to a specific muscle group…in this case, the muscles that make up the bicep. Neural fatigue, on the other hand, affects the whole body. In short, when local nerves that join the CNS and muscle together are drained, strength and functionality of muscles across the whole body are affected. If you’ve ever done a hardcore leg workout, and then found you’ve lost strength in the bench press the next day, the bench press weakness didn’t come from muscle fatigue. It came from neural fatigue.

The MOST CNS-Draining Methods

In general, there are three factors that create central nervous system fatigue: 1) intensity level, 2) # and size of muscles activated, and 3) amount of micro-trauma or muscle tears created during a given workout. In other words, any activity that requires you to lift with intensity, use more muscles or extend the time under tension to the point your muscles “burn”...activates the CNS. The methods that are considered the most draining to the central nervous system include:

1. Strength work (anything above 85% of 1RM and “whole body” movements such as deadlifts, squats, etc.)
2. Lower body hypertrophy work (8-12 reps to failure)
3. Maximum effort speed work with full recovery between reps
4. Maximum effort plyometric work (e.g., depth jumps, box jumps, etc.)
5. Maximum effort agility and deceleration work will full recovery between reps
6. Maximum effort conditioning work (e.g., timed max effort intervals, skills for time, etc.)
7. Combat sports – sparring, boxing and mixed martial arts
8. Strongman activities (e.g., atlas stone carries, weighted wheelbarrow walks, max weight yoke carries, etc.)
9. Any activity performed with heightened psychological intensity (e.g., competitions, etc.)
10. Any activity performed under the influence of artificial stimulants (e.g., ephedrine, various energizing supplements, etc.

How to Recover from CNS Drain

When the CNS is drained, there are 2 options for recovery: rest or doing a restorative workout. While rest helps with general fatigue, a restorative workout is ideal for days when you want to exercise, but your body feels a little worn down ... like you're coming down with a cold.  Hence, these workouts are comprised of low-intensity activities that will get your heart rate up...even make you sweat, but don't require a lot of force/power production to overtax the nervous system. Typical activities include:

1. Steady state, low intensity aerobic work (e.g., walking, hiking, jogging, stationary biking, etc.)
2. Sub-maximal conditioning work with full recovery periods (e.g., bodyweight circuits, sled/prowler work, etc.)
3. Dynamic warm-ups and form/speed drills
4. Smaller muscle isolation bodybuilding work (e.g., curls, triceps, calves) 
5. Sub-maximal speed work with full recovery periods (e.g., run less than 80% of top speed)
6. Easy plyometric work (basic unilateral and bilateral hops etc.)
7. Footwork drills (agility ladders and dot drills)
8. Yoga and Pilates (for increased balance and flexibility, not for power)

The key is to not do too many exercises, and don't go all out. All you need is 3-5 methods for a total workout time of 30-45 minutes.

When to Use Restorative Workouts

In general, any high strain activities (e.g., max effort/strength, skills for time, weighted intervals, etc.) will create whole body fatigue that lasts around 24-48 hours.  Those are the types of sessions that can be followed with a restorative workout. Standard upper body bodybuilding workouts and high intensity cardio would fall right in the middle and will vary in terms of how it affects systemic recovery. Listen to your body. I, for example, often plan a restorative workout after 2 moderate strength or hypertrophy days to ensure I’m giving my body ample time to recover.  (If it helps to see a template, see a sample week's hypertrophy + restorative workouts below.)

WORKOUT #1- LEGS
A) BB Box Squat – (3 x 10). Practice standing explosively from the seated position. Use a light to moderate weight (75-80% of 1RM). We’re just trying to activate muscles in the legs not fatigue them.
B1) Leg Press (5 x 15-20). Reps to failure, increasing load each set.  Don’t let knee to get in front of toes.
B2) 
Walking DB Lunge (5 x 10). Keep DBs close to hips. Chest up. Push with the heel.
B3) Lying Leg Curl (5 x 10-15). Reps to failure, increasing load each set.  Keep hips on pad at all times.  Focus on slow eccentric.
B1-B3 are a compound set, on the clock, with no more than 45 seconds rest between exercises. Also, heart rate tends to increase with very demanding leg work. So, take sufficient time to slow down your heart rate before starting the next set...2-3 minutes.
C) Calves (3 x 20)

WORKOUT #2 – CHEST/BICEPS
A) BB Bench Press – (5 x 6; 2 x 3). Don’t lock out at top; keep the range of motion (ROM) smaller so you always have tension on the chest.
B) DB Incline Flye – (3 x 10). Focus on turning wrists/pinkies inward at top to help fire the chest muscles. Squeeze hard at top and hold peak for 2 seconds.
C1) Cable Flye (5 x 10-12). Keep hands open during the exercise. By last set, weight should be challenging enough that finish in the 7-9 range.
C2) Incline Push-up (5 x 10)
C1 and C2 are a compound set, on the clock, with no more than 45 seconds rest between exercises.  Rest 60-90 seconds between super sets.
D1) Bicep Curl w/EZ Curl Bar – (3 x 10). Squeeze at peak contraction; eccentric in 4-5 seconds.
D2) DB Curl on Incline Bench – (3 x 10). Focus on slow, controlled movements. Squeeze hard at the top of the contraction; slow eccentric.
D1 and D2 are a compound set. Rest 60-90 seconds between super sets.  The key to proper bicep development is to focus on all parts of the movement:  concentric, isometric and eccentric.  Don't go too heavy, and don't rush it.  
E) Standing Cable Rope Curl – (3 x 10)

WORKOUT #3: RESTORATIVE WORKOUT
A1-A4 are a circuit with no rest between stations. Rest 1 minute between rounds. Do 10 rounds.
A1) Treadmill Jog or Brisk Walk – 2 minutes
A2) Assault Bike – 30 seconds
A3) Hand-Release Push-ups – 5 reps
A4) Abs (Your Choice) – 10 reps

WORKOUT #4: SHOULDERS/TRICEPS
A) BB Strict Press – (5 x 6; 2 x 3). Don’t lock out arms at top. Use reduced ROM to keep tension on top of shoulders during the whole set.
B) Cable Rope Face Pull – (3 x 10)
C1) DB Front Lat Raise With Isometric Hold (5 x 10-12). Start with DBs in front of you at shoulder level, parallel to floor. Keep tension on 1 raised arm while slowly lowering/raising the other arm.)
C2) Rope Front Raise (5 x 10-15).  Don't swing the body.  Should be a controlled movement.
Note:  C1 and C2 are a compound set, on the clock with 45 seconds rest between exercises.
D) Lying Triceps Overhead Extension (w/EZ Curl Bar) (4 x 10). Eccentric in 4-5 seconds; focus on getting a deep stretch behind the head.
E) Cable Rope Triceps Overhead Extension (4 x 10). Don’t swing body and keep chest/head up. Be sure to turn wrists out at full extension.

WORKOUT #5: BACK
A) BB Bent-Over Row (Suprinated Grip) (5 x 6; 2 x 3). Don’t use momentum. Keep elbows back and head up. Don’t let back round or drop below parallel.
B) Low Cable Row (w/Handles) (3 x 10). Turn wrists inward and pull elbows into your sides and squeeze your lats hard. Hold peak contraction for 2 seconds; release in 4-5 seconds.
C1) Straight Arm Cable Pull-down (5 x 12-15). Make sure to fully stretch at the top.
C2) Pull-up (With or Without Resistance Bands) (5 x 8-10).
Note:  C1 and C2 are a compound set, on the clock, with no more than 45 seconds rest between sets.
D) DB Pullover With Bands (4 x 10). Eccentric in 4-5 seconds.
E) Metcon Circuit – Repeat circuit 3x.
- Sled Pull With Harness (2 x 25 meters).  Squat down and push from leading foot/heel on every step.  Rotate facing forward and backward in harness to switch tension from quads to hamstrings.
- Goblet Squat (10 reps)
- Abs (Your Choice - Pick the one you feel the most) (10 reps)

WORKOUT #6: RESTORATIVE WORKOUT
A1-A4 are a circuit with no rest between stations. Rest 1 minute between rounds. Do 10 rounds.
A1) Treadmill Jog or Brisk Walk – 2 minutes
A2) Assault Bike – 30 seconds
A3) Hand-Release Push-ups – 5 reps
A4) Abs (Your Choice) – 10 reps

Like I said, some people need rest days.  Others find these sorts of workouts provide the right amount of challenge for an off day.  If you've been wanting another way to recover from a hard workout, give restorative workouts a try!  They work!