Maxwell Strength & Conditioning Blog

Enjoy a peek at the world through Steve's eyes as he delivers sermons on everything from training to peace of mind.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Training for Feats of Strength for the Older Man, or: I'm not Dead Yet!

The true purpose of exercise is to create muscular fatigue in order to force muscular adaptations within the body — a disciplined effort resulting in increased muscular strength, and possible hypertrophy. Stronger, more efficient muscles allow us to do other tasks more efficiently.

For some, performing lifts, stunts, or feats is their entire purpose for training. There are pros and cons to this approach. You must be aware of the inherent dangers of pushing the body to the limit. Aside from increased risk of muscle and connective tissue damage, there is a rapid increase of tension in blood vessels around the regions of the chest, neck, and head. When pushing the limit of a squat or deadlift, the blood pressure spikes at many times its normal level.

That being said, high levels of muscular tension are a requisite for demonstrating feats of strength. Unfortunately, what should be a temporary state of high-tension becomes continuous. Big, stiff guys hold a great deal of muscular tension in their bodies, but it's not just the biceps that get a pump! The internal organs and arteries also stiffen, which can lead to a bad end.

Reducing tension throughout the body outside of training is imperative. Invest equal effort into training and complete relaxation. Relaxation means genuine relaxation, not shopping or socializing. If you're not sure, watch how a dog or cat commits to total relaxation when not involved in athletic pursuits. You should be relaxed and tension-free until you need to create instant tension. This can be achieved through breath manipulations.

Below is a drill I learned in Moscow at a Systema seminar; it's very enjoyable and a good start for more advanced drills.

  • Begin by lying on your back, relaxed, and exhale fully
  • Inhale smoothly and fully
  • Hold the breath on the inhale as long as possible
  • While holding your breath, relax each segment of your body: head, face, neck, shoulders, solar plexus, abdominal cavity, hips, and legs.
  • As you do this, scan for and relax any areas of tension throughout the body, giving special attention to areas affected by previous injury or disease
  • When you can hold your breath no longer, shift to burst breathing or the yogic bellows breath, in a dynamic and intense way, gradually slowing down until you restore your breath and heart rate down to the normal resting level. You will know that your tension has reduced and you have restored yourself when you achieve a natural and free inhale and exhale
  • Take a full breath, and then exhale completely. Now, in the exhaled state, hold as long as possible. Repeat the same sequence of removing tension and burst breathing restoration.

This Break Through Tension drill achieves two objectives:

  • Finding and removing areas of tension
  • Learning to restore poise from stress and physical strain without any compromise of functioning.

This is just one of many drills designed to reduce muscular tensions and to relax the body.

But hey, what does this have to do with performing feats of derring-do?

This same breath manipulation can be applied to create instant tension when needed. The technique involves inhaling and holding the breath to create momentary tension, and sharply exhaling as you perform whatever lift you're demonstrating.

My own go-to show-off moves are the one-arm pushup and freestanding pistol.

I like these because they're the least dangerous to a body that's seen over a half-century of hard training. These movements require no equipment, which is ideal for me as I travel full-time. Moreso, I like the freedom bodyweight training confers. One-legged squats and one-arm pushups represent a high level of physical strength that is readily recognized — there aren't many guys over 60 who can do these types of movements.

These stunts are by no means the source of my credibility. They are more a source of my own entertainment.

Anyone who has attempted a freestanding pistol (the easier version is to hold a weight) knows that if you lose tension, you'll fall over. The pistol is an ideal demonstration of strength, balance, stability... in a word: poise.

photo credit: Kristie Andreula

For the freestanding pistol, I use the following breathing technique:

  • At the top of the movement, when balancing on one leg, inhale through the nose filling the diaphragm
  • Hold the breath in your core while tensing muscles throughout the entire body as much as possible
  • Now descend with control, and, once you've reached the bottom, exhale — slowly increasing the magnitude of breath — and direct as much force into the ground as possible.
  • I don't think about standing up, instead I image pushing the ground away from me.

This technique is different than power breathing — I neither hiss nor try to explode the breath (which spikes the blood pressure). Instead, I release the breath with a "huh" sound as I ascend.

This still gives me plenty of focused muscular tension when I need it, without the accompanying dizziness and blood pressure spike that accompanies power breathing

At no point do I ever tense head or neck — all tension remains from the chest down. And remember: the breath must be regulated in such a way as to not over breathe or you'll get dizzy.

The same technique for one-arm pushups:

Corkscrew the hand into the ground surface, in order to activate the lats, and quite literally pull myself down as if doing a one-arm row

Hold your breath to create tension throughout the entire body — specifically gluteals, abdominals, and thighs

Then, at the start of the positive portion of the rep, release the air in a controlled, natural manner, with a deep abdominal "huh"

With the one-arm row, I angle my body and position my feet so that the move is hard, yet not too hard. I really concentrate on not allowing my hips or shoulder girdle to rotate or twist in any way. It's more difficult that it sounds as the entire upper back and posterior chain gets quite a workout. The movement also works the biceps and rear shoulder, thus making it the perfect complement to balance out the one-arm push-ups.

Here is a decent feat-of-strength routine for a man in his more senior years. Make sure to warm up with mobility drills, with consideration to the shoulders.

1. One-arm assisted chin-ups, single reps only

I use the other hand holding somewhere between my wrist and elbow. I do between 5 to 10 single reps. I stop once the move starts to bog down.

This is the progression I use for the one-arm chin-up. Right now, I'm at picture 3.

2a. One-Arm (OA) Push-Up
2b. One-Arm Body-Weight Row (w/ suspension device)

I alternate between left and right sides in a ladder format:

1 OA push-up/ 1 OA row

2 OA push-ups / 2 OA rows

3 OA push-ups / 3 OA rows

A typical workout might look like this: 1/2/3 1/2/3 1/2/3 for 18 reps total. Occasionally, I go for broke and do an all-out set with a few slow negative reps at the end. Still, I usually keep it sub-maximal and practice the movement as a skill.

3. Pistol Squats

My legs have always been very strong, but I once suffered an injury to the left knee in jiu-jitsu training, and it's never been the same since. Until I'm really warmed up, the range of motion on the left side is limited; for instance, the first few pistols on the left side are always just shy of rock-bottom.

Because the exercise is relatively easy for me, I perform them bottoms-up in ladder format:

  • Start from a close-stance squat and sink down. With feet and knees almost touching, extend the right leg, and then stand up. I've found that doing a minute of hamstring and low-back stretching prior to the pistols really helps with getting the leg up and extended.
  • Don't use any breath-holding or tension here — you don't need to. Lower down to the squat and switch legs at the bottom. I repeat with the opposite leg. So do two left, two right, three left, three right, etc... I rarely go beyond three reps, but occasionally I'll push it up to five.

Once in a while, I test myself with an all-out set. You must have full control over each rep, i.e. don't fall victim to inertia, twisting, or bouncing! Be sure to descend to rock-bottom every time time with the front leg extended straight-out. The leg must never be sideways.

With this routine, any additional abdominal or back work is unnecessary, since it's pretty core-intensive already. Once a week I'll do hanging leg-raises (toes-to-bar) with straight legs.

This little routine is fun and I enjoy it. It's pretty safe on the joints and can be done anywhere, anytime, anyplace. And even if there's no horizontal bar around for chin-ups, I can still get plenty of work done with the other exercises.

I shut my suspension strap in the door and lean back. I keep a watchful eye on the elbows, as the one-arm chin-up can be tough on the inside elbow. To balance things out, I do plenty of finger and forearm stretching, plus rubber-band finger-extensions.

In Strength & Health!

Revgear University November 2014
Sacramento, Califiornia

Steve will be presenting three events at this great convention

Friday, November 7th   9am - 6pm - Level 1 Kettlebell Certification
The Level 1 Kettlebell Instructor Course is not for rank beginners. It is assumed you are already competent in the basic lifts. You will experience Steve Maxwell's system of training -- and come to know its superiority to the other systems out there.

Saturday, November 8th   4:30pm - 5:45pm - The Kettlebell Class
Master trainer Steve Maxwell, the first individual to teach group KB classes in the US and US authority on the topic, leads you through a model kettlebell conditioning class to provide you with programming ideas and firsthand experience training with an American master. In this course Steve reveals the best of the best! **read caveat here**

Sunday, November 9th   10:00am - 11:15am - Medicine Ball Class
Learn first-hand about using this venerable implement. Steve Maxwell, master trainer, wrestling and Jiu Jitsu champion, gives lessons in old-school techniques and methods that have worked through the ages.

Click here to register for this great event