How to Maximize Muscle Performance and Fat Loss

What you eat before you suit up for the gym can have a profound effect on your performance and results. There’s no shortage of pre-workout supplements out there that all claim to help you build muscle, gain strength, or burn body fat. But do any of those workout boosters you see in muscle magazines actually benefit your muscles?

In my previous interviews with nutrition savant, Ori Hofmekler, we covered post-workout nutrition and thyroid health. So now it’s time for Ori to set the record straight with regard to pre-workout nutrition. Get ready for some surprising revelations!

CW: Ori, is it true that you’ll burn more fat if you train in a fasted state? Is this equally true for cardio and strength training?

Ori: In theory, fat burning is maximized when you train in a fasting state. That’s because exercise while fasting forces a fast depletion of glycogen and an increased utilization of fatty acids for energy. Furthermore, this regimen improves insulin sensitivity, which is essential for burning fat and maintaining a lean body. Nonetheless, training while fasting has a serious drawback: it compromises your peak strength and durability. Apparently with a more profound effect on strength.

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Balance Your Shoulder Strength and Build Power

We could all benefit from stronger, healthier shoulders. Typically a guy will try to make his shoulders stronger with overhead press variations, side raises, and the like. While those exercises certainly have their place in any strength program, they often provide little stimulation to the external rotators.

So a guy will train hard and neglect the external rotation movement. Then one day he tears his rotator cuff or experiences a shoulder injury. One of the reasons this can happen is because there was a significant strength imbalance between the internal and external rotators. Few guys need more internal rotation work because they’re already getting so much of it from a plethora of horizontal pressing exercises.

One thing a guy can do to make his shoulders stronger and healthier is train his external rotators. When you think of training the external rotation movement you probably have visions of isolated exercises with red rubber tubing or 5-pound dumbbells.

However, one exercise that has always been part of my athlete’s strength programs is the upright row with external rotation. The benefit of this movement for power athletes is that it also engages the posterior chain since it starts from a high hang position that engages the hips. Plus, it’s about as explosive as an external rotation exercise can be. Those two factors allow you to train with heavier weights: something every power athlete loves.

I’m not a fan of most upright row variations anymore, thanks in large part to the writings of shoulder experts like Eric Cressey. Nevertheless, in terms of shoulder health I like this exercise for two reasons.

First, the movement consists of only a partial upright row so that reduces the risk of impingement. Pulling any higher can place undue stress on the shoulder joint, even if they’re healthy. Second, the exercise smoothly transitions into external rotation and most of us need more strength in those muscles to balance out the shoulder joint.

Also, the upright row with external rotation is an excellent intermediate step before merging into more complex Olympic lift variations such as the hang snatch. And it’s also a great stand-alone muscle builder.

Before we get to the video, I must clarify which type of athletes should perform the upright row with external rotation because it’s not for everyone. Even though it’s great for strengthening the external rotators, it’s not for someone who recently injured his shoulder or had shoulder surgery. In the early stages of physical therapy slower, lighter exercises should be emphasized.

But if you’re a guy who wants to build some muscle and balance out your internal/external rotation strength while engaging the posterior chain, give this exercise a try. Start with 4-5 sets of 6-8 reps twice per week.

Stay Focused,
CW

Weakness in This Muscle Will Rob Your Power

If you’re a trainer, your job is to have the tools and knowledge to take your client’s performance to the highest level. Throughout that pursuit many underlying dysfunctions can surface. For example, if the deadlift hurts the left side of your low back, the problem probably isn’t the deadlift: the deadlift identified an underlying problem. To paraphrase Gray Cook’s famous line: don’t build performance on top of dysfunction.

The training program a power athlete such as an MMA fighter or running back must follow is replete with explosive strength exercises that challenge full body stability.

An essential component for progressively building an athlete’s performance while keeping him healthy hinges on a strong, stabile foundation of support from the core musculature. I’m not just talking here about building strong abs: your lats and glutes are just as important, if not more. And everyone knows that you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

One muscle that I’m constantly seeing as problematic is the quadratus lumborum, or QL as it’s commonly referred to. Thanks to my work over the last few years with Dr. Craig Liebenson, owner of LA Sports and Spine, I’ve come to realize just how important this muscle is for power athletes, including anyone with back or knee pain.

The importance of the QL becomes evident when you look at its anatomy and function. First, the medial fibers that attach to the spine also connect the ribcage to the pelvis. So these medial fibers play a crucial role in stabilizing your torso in the frontal plane. If you’re holding a heavy briefcase in your right hand, the left QL contracts to keep you from leaning to the right. In fact, research (Knapp 1978) suggests that paralysis of the QL makes walking impossible, even with braces. And when you throw or kick explosively, the QL must fire hard to maintain the correct torso position and provide the spinal stability to transfer power throughout your body.

Second, the lateral fibers play an important role in lateral bending mobility. When you lean to the side, the lateral fibers must lengthen and then contract to pull you back up. Although, from a training standpoint, Dr. McGill demonstrates that it’s best to strengthen the QL with static exercises to preserve the intervertebral discs. Bending to the side, especially under load, is very stressful to the discs so that movement should be avoided. Another key point I learned from Dr. McGill’s research is that the QL needs endurance strength since its primary role is to provide lumbar stability.

The QL, like many muscles in the body, can have far reaching, deleterious effects when it’s weak or spastic. Through Dr. Liebenson, I learned a series of compensatory actions that can occur when people have patellar tendonitis, that annoying dull pain directly below your knee cap.

You see, the QL works with the contralateral glute medius muscle when you’re walkig. So if you’re walking with a heavy briefcase in your right hand, the left QL and right glute medius are firing hard to maintain correct posture and gait. However, when those muscles are weak excessive stress can be put on the right knee because the hips and core can’t stabilize the movement pattern.

Put another way: when someone has right knee pain the right glute medius is usually weak. And since the right glute medius works with the left QL, there’s usually weakness or trigger points in the left QL. In other words, if you have right knee pain, strengthen your left QL and your right glute medius in order to take stress off the knee.

Indeed, the QL is a vastly important muscle that must have plenty of endurance strength, and even more important, that endurance strength must be balanced as you test the QL on each side. If you can hold a right side plank for 70 seconds and a left side plank for only 4o seconds your left QL needs help.

A strong, healthy QL is essential for everyone from fighters to those who have knee pain. That’s why I shot the following 12-minute video with Dr. Liebenson to teach you how to test and strengthen this often neglected muscle. If you missed my discussion with Dr. Liebenson on the role of the QL for performance, you can check out the YouTube video at this link.

Strengthen the QL and you’ll become a stronger, healthier, more explosive athlete!

Stay Focused,
CW

Should You Bench Press?

Here’s a question I recently received:

Question: Hi Chad, I have read many of your articles and books and I appreciate the insight that you have provided me and others. My question is regarding the standard bench press. I am an amateur mma fighter with aspirations of competing at the pro level and an avid weight lifter. It is no surprise that I have become attached to the bench press, but after reading some of your work I question its usefulness.

So my question is this: does the bench press or exercises like it (incline, decline, db) have a place in a fighter’s program? Would you recommend I focus on vertical pressing movements, dips, and maybe standing cable presses. Any info you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,
Ryan

CW Answer: The bench press is a very polarizing exercise, much like the barbell squat. On one hand, the bench press has been a mainstay in strength building programs for 50 years, and most guys love to do it. On the other hand, when you consider the alternative exercises to train the same muscle groups, the bench press is not a very good choice.

The problems with a typical barbell bench press arise when you look at the structure and function of the shoulder joint. The shoulder complex consists of the scapula, clavicle, and humerus. It’s the collective movement of these three segments that lead to the greatest gains in strength while preserving or improving joint health.

So what’s wrong with the bench press? Your scapulae (shoulder blades) are locked into place during the movement. This creates imbalances since the muscles that move the scapulae aren’t recruited. Second, the lack of scapular movement puts excessive strain on the soft tissue around the anterior portion of the shoulder joint. Anyone who’s spent any effort on the bench press knows exactly where this shoulder pain is.

Even though there are dozens of bench press variations that incorporate dumbbells and various angles, the overriding problem is still the same: there’s very little scapular movement.

One muscle in particular, the serratus anterior, is essential to build punching strength and improve your shoulder health by holding the scapulae in their proper position. When you throw out a long jab toward your opponent, the serratus muscle is what gives you that powerful “pop” at the end of the movement. The bench press when performed with the shoulder blades pulled back and locked into place all but eliminates this important muscle.

So does a fighter need the bench press? No. There are more effective ways to strengthen the muscles that surround the shoulder complex. You should focus on upper body pushing exercises that allow your shoulder blades to move freely, thus activating the serratus anterior.

Now for a simple drill. Make a knuckle with each fist and hold your arms straight out in front. Next, push your knuckles another 3-4 inches forward and feel your shoulder blades move apart. This is the movement that recruits the serratus anterior.

Any typical barbell or dumbbell bench press, when you’re lying on your back, doesn’t allow for full scapular movement. Plus it doesn’t engage the core and hips as much as some of the other alternatives. To have a strong punch you must have strong hips and a strong core.

That’s why I use the one-arm floor press with rotation to build a fighter’s punching power. This exercise allows for full scapular movement and it builds strength in the hips and core.

In addition to the one-arm floor press with rotation, I use many variations of the push-up, handstand push-up, and standing cable chest press. The key with those variations is to push past the normal end range of motion to spread your scapulae. Remember, the humerus, clavicle, and scapula are designed to move together so you should train exercises that allow for natural, fluid motion in the shoulder complex.

I’m also a huge fan of dips from rings. With rings you can gradually increase the range of motion to the point where your thumbs touch the outside of your pecs when you’re in the bottom of the movement. Building strength through this full range of motion is excellent for improving shoulder mobility strength that lasts. Ever since I started using the rings exclusively for my upper body work I haven’t had to stretch my pecs and my shoulder health and mobility is better than it’s ever been in my life.

That’s why I use rings with all the athletes I train.

The only people who should train a traditional bench press on a regular basis are powerlifters. If you’re not a powerlifter stick to variations of the push-up, handstand push-up, standing cable chest press, dips from rings, and the one-arm floor press with rotation.

If you want to learn my system for building explosive power, check out my upcoming seminar in Phoenix, AZ on February 2-4 by clicking this link.

Stay Focused,
CW

Neuro-Muscular Development (NMD) for Legs

As an athlete, there are two different types of training. First is a bodybuilding style where your focus is primarily on the muscles. Performance doesn’t really matter in terms of building your speed, reactive ability, etc. What matters is that your muscles are getting bigger through high tension exercises.

Then there’s performance development. With this style of training the primary goal isn’t bigger muscles. Sure, you can enlarge your muscles with performance training if the parameters are right. However, when you’re training for performance you’re basically training your nerves. In other words, simply making your muscles bigger won’t make you explode off the line faster or jump higher.

Both types of training have their place whether or not you’re an athlete. For athletes, rate of force development (RFD) reigns king, as I mentioned in my previous post. RFD is your ability to quickly reach peak levels of force. This requires “nerve training.”

Now, gaining mass through a bodybuilding style of training won’t make you reach your peak force faster, but it can help you develop higher levels of force. There’s a positive correlation between cross sectional area (muscle mass) and force production if you hypertrophy the right muscle fibers. This requires “muscle training.”

So through science and my own data with athletes I’ve developed a system of training that takes advantage of muscle and nerve training. Enlarging the muscles enables you to reach higher levels of force, while enhancing the nerve transmission helps you reach those higher levels of force faster.

I took the three ways science demonstrates that you can improve RFD and manipulated the parameters enough to grow your largest muscle fibers. This training will be known from here on as my NMD system, which stands for Neuro-Muscular Development.

I want to continue with the leg training example I gave in my previous post. Why the emphasis on the legs at first? Because that’s where most of your full body explosive power comes from.

The NMD system consists of three different types of training in a specific order for each workout. You’ll start with a sensorimotor (balance) exercise, followed by a ballistic or plyometric exercise, and finish up with a maximal strength exercise.

Balance Strength
For the legs, there are many ways to challenge your balance. For some, standing on one leg without shoes on a padded surface for 20-30 seconds is enough. Better conditioned athletes can stand on one leg and move their opposite leg around in a 180 degree motion from front to back with their eyes closed.

I have my athletes make the single leg balance more difficult by using a balance beam. They stand on one leg and perform a 1/4 squat in order to make the exercise more dynamic. Not so dynamic that it loses sight of the focus of developing balance, but dynamic enough to increase the challenge of the exercise.

Importantly, the balance portion of the NMD system isn’t supposed to make you tired. The purpose is to enhance sensory feedback between the muscles and spinal cord which sets you up for more powerful contractions in the ballistic exercise that follows.

Here’s a sample of me doing the single leg balance squat. You’ll start with three reps for the right, then three reps for the left. Next is two reps for each leg, followed by one rep with each leg.

The sequence in the video takes most people around 40 seconds to complete (20 seconds of total time under tension for each leg). Perform three sets of the sequence with one minute of rest between each.

Ballistic/Plyometric Strength
Ballistic and plyometric training are similar in the sense that they both use submaximal loads for fast, explosive muscle contractions. The difference, however, is that plyometric exercises always rely on the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). For example, jumping up to a high box and then stepping off is a ballistic exercise. On the other hand, quickly jumping up and down with minimal ground contact time is a plyometric exercise.

I always start my athletes, or anyone who is new to the NMD system, with a ballistic exercise because it consists of lower impact forces and it’s less fatiguing. Remember, this part of the workout is followed by a maximal strength exercise with enough volume to hypertrophy the targeted muscles so fatigue must be managed. The goal of this part of the workout is to potentiate the nervous system, not fatigue it.

Here’s a video of me demonstrating the high box jump. Since I don’t immediately jump down and quickly reverse the movement, it’s a ballistic exercise.

You’ll notice in the video that the box I’m jumping on is padded. This helps reduce the impact forces even more. I know virtually none of you will have access to such a large, padded box, but don’t sweat it. I use it because I have access to it. Any elevated, solid surface will work.

Perform 3 reps in a row (step down between each rep), then rest for one minute. Perform 5 sets of 3 reps with one minute rest between each set.

Maximal Strength
This is the most straightforward part of the workout so it needs little explanation. You’ll use any lower body strength exercise and perform 3-8 sets of 3 reps. If the athlete is weak and needs plenty more maximal strength I’ll do 3 sets of 3 reps in order to keep the load as high as possible. If hypertrophy with a secondary emphasis on strength is the greater goal, I might do 8 sets.

For 3×3 I’ll use one exercise such as the front squat. Rest three minutes between each set. If hypertrophy is what I’m after I’ll use 8 sets and often alternate between two exercises such as the front squat and glute/ham raise (4 sets of each). Rest 90 seconds between each set when alternating between two different exercises.

Here are two examples of the NMD for Legs workout:

NMD Strength Emphasis
Single leg balance squat for 3/2/1 rep sequence for 3 sets with one minute rest between sets
High box jump for 5 sets of 3 reps with one minute rest between sets
Front squat for 3 sets of 3 reps with 3 minutes rest between sets

NMD Hypertrophy with Strength Emphasis
Single leg balance squat for 3/2/1 rep sequence for 3 sets with one minute rest between sets
High box jump for 5 sets of 3 reps with one minute rest between sets
Front squat/GHR pairing for 8 sets of 3 reps with 90 seconds rest between sets

This should give you enough information to experiment with my new NMD system. Start with the legs and we’ll build from there!

Stay Focused,
CW

Rate of Force Development is King

The difference between the winner and loser in a race, fight, or game usually boils down to one fitness quality: rate of force development (RFD). This is a measure of how quickly you can reach peak levels of force. The guy who can land a roundhouse kick or explode off the line or elevate for a jump shot first is the dominant force.

It works the opposite way, too.

When an aging athlete is trying to hang onto his illustrious career, you’ll never hear a commentator say, “Well, he’s faster than he used to be but he’s no longer at the top of his game.” Quickness and athletic proficiency go hand-in-hand. There’s a reason why 42 year-old athletes aren’t breaking world records in the 100 meter or winning a slam dunk contest. It’s because their RFD has diminished. Every power sport you could possibly think of hinges on your ability to produce high levels of force at the flip of a switch.

So as a performance trainer I’m most concerned with how my power athletes improve their broad jump score since it’s one of the simplest and most effective ways to measure RFD.

But jacking up your RFD does more than just improve your jump. Indeed, enhancing your RFD can help you build more muscle, too. We all know that adding load or speed to the barbell will upregulate protein synthesis. What’s often overlooked is that lifting heavier or faster requires you to tap into your force-producing capacity quicker than before.

Now, for the essential question. How do you improve RFD?

Research demonstrates three separate ways. First, and most obvious, is through explosive strength training with a submaximal load (Newton et al, Med Sci Sports Exerc 1999). So you’ll start with a load you could lift, say, 10 times but only do three super fast reps. The second scientific way to boost RFD is through maximal strength training with a heavy load and low reps (McBride et al, J Strength Cond Res 2002). The third way to improve RFD is the one that’ll surprise you most.

In physical rehabilitation settings it’s common for physical therapists to prescribe balancing exercises to retrain muscle firing patterns after an injury. These exercises such as standing on one leg on a wobble board are known as sensorimotor training (SMT). Therapists knew it helped patients regain their balance, but it wasn’t until research dug deeper into SMT that another surprising benefit surfaced: balance exercises improve RFD (Gruber & Gollhofer, Eur J Appl Physiol 2004).

So I started experimenting with different combinations of explosive strength, maximal strength, and sensorimotor training. My goal, of course, was to enhance their RFD as primarily determined by an increase in their broad jump.

I found two different sequences that produced outstanding results. The first sequence is covered in the current (October) issue of Men’s Health magazine. You’ll start with a balance exercise, followed by a ballistic exercise, and then you’ll finish with a maximal strength exercise.

Here’s a sample sequence for the lower body.

Single leg balance on a wobble board or thick padded surface for 2 sets of 20 seconds
Box jump for 5 sets of 3 reps
Front squat for 3 sets of 3 reps

I’ll be discussing much more about this style of training in upcoming blogs so stay tuned!

Stay Focused,
CW