You’re Doing It Wrong: There’s a Better Way to Build Functional Fitness, Avoid Injury, and Improve Performance

by Matt Trinca

It’s inevitable.  If you’re an obstacle racer, or extreme endurance racer, you’re going to get hurt.  It may not have happened to you yet, but chances are that you’re just one tenuous step away from disaster.  Most likely, it will come during competition.

My time came during the Gladiator Rock n’ Run in Irvine, California in the Spring of 2012.  I was determined the run the 5k obstacle course multiple times, in order to train for the first-ever Spartan Ultra Beast in Vermont that September.  But on my 2nd lap, while climbing over some hay bales, I stepped on some loose straw at the edge and “SNAP! POP!” my ankle fractured in multiple places.  

I had surgery to repair the ankle that next week.  I wheeled across the stage at my graduate school commencement ceremony, and I swore that I would be ready to try the Utah Beast that June.  Through hard work, and a little patience, I made it to Utah just 8 weeks later and was able to walk my way through the 2nd-ever Spartan Beast.  3 months after that, despite being told that I may never be able to run competitively again, I lined-up at the start line of the Ultra Beast, wearing a 26-lb weight vest, and proceeded to run the hills of Vermont for the next 12+ hours. 

How did I recover so quickly?  And how does one work to become an obstacle racer, while avoiding the risk of training-related injuries?  The answer is simple, but may require a paradigm shift in the way you train.

For many of us, training for an Obstacle Course Race (OCR) event, or endurance challenge, involves hours and hours of working out at the gym.  There’s the temptation to measure results by what you see in the mirror.  You spend countless hours working on biceps, doing “curls for the girls”, hoping that isolating these muscles will lead to enhanced performance on the playing field. 

Or, maybe you’ll hire a trainer to bark orders at you.  “Give me 100 push-ups,” he/she might yell.  But they never explain to you WHY you’re doing what you’re doing.  Nor do they explain the science and the methodology behind the exercises.  They are, in effect, giving you a fish to eat, when they should be teaching you how to fish.  It will lead to some short-term benefits; but in the long-term, you’re functional fitness will be starving for more, and you’ll still be unable to satisfy your hunger.

And then there are those of us who go into the gym and workout to annihilation.  When it’s leg day, you’re doing leg presses until you can hardly walk any more.  And then forget about trying to do legs again tomorrow.  You’re happy if you can just get up the stairs!

I am familiar with all of these, because I used to do them, too.  Until one day, I walked into a small facility, where I met a teacher, named “Junior” at NDS Kettlebell Athletics.  “This is not a gym,” he would always tell his new students.  “This is a school.  We do not focus on bodily structure here, or bulging muscles; we focus on function.  We do not workout here; we practice!  I am not your trainer; I am your teacher.  I do not teach you to isolate your muscles, but rather to integrate them together to build more strength.  We do not work to the point of annihilation here.  Rather, we seek to stimulate the body and mind, igniting your metabolism and priming your muscles, so you are more quickly able to ‘find your wire’” (more on what that means, later).

You can check out Junior’s business – NDS Kettlebell Athletics – and his qualifications here.  I‘ve studied under his tutelage for over 5 years.  Having played organized sports since the age of 6, and running competitively for 20 years, I can honestly say there’s no other coach quite like him.  Junior developed a template for programming workouts that I have been using successfully for about 7 years.  I use it for myself, and I use it with all the athletes that I work with and train.  And he will gladly share it with you.  He offers free classes at his facility in Lakewood.  

But even more valuable than his workout template is Junior’s philosophy on fitness, which I have also adopted as my own.  I share it with you all now, so that you will know what to look for in an exercise routine and in a facility.  Please note, this philosophy has at its core objectives: functional fitness, athletic longevity, and injury prevention.  If you are looking for a “quick fix”, to get a “beach body”, or to “work until failure”, then this might not be for you.  But I will tell you that in my experience this philosophy is much more satisfying and leads to a better quality of life in the long term.

First, what to look for in an exercise routine & facility.

•       School v. Gym

−        This ties back to the fish analogy earlier.  Go somewhere that will teach you HOW to work out, and you will be able to apply that knowledge wherever you go, wherever you are, in the future.

•       Function v. Structure

−        Focus on developing proper function, and the structure will follow.  Do the exercises the RIGHT way, and you will eventually develop the muscles and the body that you desire.  It doesn’t always work that other way around!

•       Practice v. Workout

−        Continual improvement is key.  You might not get it the first time around.  That’s why you practice.  Gradually you will see your function improve.  Also, practice is more engaging then just plain old “working out”.  Want evidence?  Well, how many of us have gym memberships that we no longer use?  Right.

•       Integration v. Isolation

−        Exercises that integrate multiple muscle groups are more effective for injury prevention.  It also forces your brain to develop connections that help your body work more efficiently.  Isolation is good for body-building, but does not necessary equate to athletic performance.

•       Stimulation v. Annihilation

−        When you exercise, your goal should be to ACTIVATE the muscles and brain.  You do not need to work to exhaustion.  That’s typically when form breaks down, mistakes are made, and injuries happen.  Your practice eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns.  It’s ok to do that once-in-a-while for competition, but it needn’t be a regular part of your routine, especially if you want to stay healthy and be competitive for a long time to come.

Now, let’s talk about the HOW.  How should you practice?  What should you function on?  The most common mistake that I see today’s athlete making is focusing too much on Sports Specific (SS) and Skill-Based exercises.  Don’t get me wrong, this stuff is important if you are playing a sport.  During basketball season, I used to run line-drills ad nauseam and shoot at least 100 free throws per day.  But this was only for 3-4 months of the season.  The rest of the year, we were outside of the gym, playing with our friends, practicing other sports, or just goofing off. 

But as the sports get more and more competitive, as you move into higher levels, you start to see people’s training regimes get more specialized.  But doing the same thing over and over can be a recipe for disaster, and can lead to muscle imbalances and wear and tear on specific joints, bones, and ligaments.  Modern training programs have tried to remedy these by constantly varying the types of exercises prescribed for the athletes.  But if the exercises are all Sports Specific or Skills-based (e.g., Olympic lifting, gymnastics, and running), then you’re still putting yourself at risk for injury because these movements are generally complex or uni-directional (i.e., isolating exercises) that are easy to mess up, especially when you are working to exhaustion and annihilation. 

Think of your exercise as practice.  There are three ways to practice – General Physical Preparation (GPP), Sports Specific (SS) Training, and Skill-based Training.  Now arrange these 3 forms of practice in a pyramid, with GPP at the bottom, SS above that, and Skills at the top (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: 3 Ways to Practice

GPP is like Physical Education (PE) class for adults.  Notice that the biggest piece of the 3 slices of the pyramid is GPP.  That’s because it is the foundational-type work that you need to put it before you work your way up to SS and Skills.  Notice also that the SS slice is a little smaller than the GPP slice below it.  Furthermore, the Skills slice is smaller still. 

When you practice, your training should be done in proportion to this pyramid.  For instance, if you are training for baseball season, you should ideally be spending about 5 months (e.g., the offseason) on GPP, lifting weights, working on agility, flexibility, etc.  About 4 months should then be spent doing Sports Specific drills, like batting practice, fielding grounders, running the bases, etc.  Then, 3 months during the season would be spent honing your actual ballgame Skills by playing your sport, e.g., stealing bases, swinging for the fences, making diving catches, throwing the ball from the outfield to home plate.  Can you imagine if you spent 12 months just throwing the ball as hard as you could from center field to home plate?  You’d probably get REALLY good at it, but you’d probably also damage your elbow and shoulder in the process, and the rest of your game would likely suffer from lack of practice.  Sounds pretty ridiculous, right?  And this is often what we see at gyms these days – people using the same machines day-in and day-out, hoping to target a specific muscle at the expense of true, all-around functional fitness.

So, what does it mean to have “all-around functional fitness”?  For this, we consult the “Human Performance Pyramid” in Figure 2 (below).

Figure 2: The Human Performance Pyramid

Similar to the “3 ways to practice” in Figure 1, the shape of this pyramid is meant to indicate the amount of emphasis you should place on each slice.  Notice any commonalities with Figure 1?  Yes, “Skill” is still at the top!  What’s great about this is that we no longer have to risk injury by participating in a sport, in order to get better at that sport.  If we are OCR athletes, we don’t have to be out there doing a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder every single weekend in order to improve our finish times.

Notice also that the pyramid in Figure 2 starts with Balance.  Like Mr. Miyagi said on the “Karate Kid”:

“Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home.

Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better. Understand?”

There are a number of easy ways to practice balance, e.g., standing on one leg, walking a balance beam, etc.  You probably practice it every single day without even knowing it.  And yet, this is something that many pieces of gym equipment seek to eliminate by forcing you to sit, lay down, or stand in a particular manner for the exercise.  Balance work needs to be part of each and every workout session, and if it is not, then you need a new routine!

Next, as we move up the pyramid, comes stability.  Stability is often associated with the core, and this is true – the core is key to keeping good stability.  Good exercises for developing stability involve holding a plank and/or fighting against an external force that is trying to move you.  This force could be an oddly shaped weight, someone pushing you, or a weight held off your center of gravity.   These forces try to move you from your stable position, e.g., a wave pushing you off your feet.  You must tighten every muscle, bracing your core as if preparing for a punch to the gut.  That’s how you build the tension to remain stable.  And the faster you can wire your brain to create this tension, the less likely you are to be thrown off your feet in an unexpected situation, e.g., tripping on a crack in the sidewalk.  That’s what we mean, when we say “find you wire”.  Practicing stability actually builds neural paths and connections in your brain to more quickly wire-up the muscle groups required to perform a certain function.  This is what is commonly known as “muscle memory”.

Functional movement means that you must practice a range of motion that challenges the ways in which the body normally moves throughout the course of the day.  You should be practicing movements that involve pushing, pulling, bending over, twisting, squatting, lunging, and walking / running.  Most of this can be accomplished using body weight exercises.  Practicing these daily is a good way to not only prevent injury, but also move more proficiently.  These kinds of exercises can be done anywhere, anytime, with little to no equipment being necessary.  If you want to challenge yourself, then you can add weight, but using gravity alone you can still get a really good workout just by practicing movement patterns that emulate each type of human movement.  And the more you practice them, the more proficient you will get at moving.

Strength and power come next as we move towards the top of the pyramid.  What’s the difference, you ask?  Well, imagine you are holding a 45-lb weight plate.  Strength is being able to hold that plate over your head for a really long time.  Power is being able to throw that weight really far.  Strength comes from tension in a particular string of muscles.  Power is the explosive exertion of strength.  You have to develop strength, before you can find your power.  Not to say that you can’t work both simultaneously, but if you spend the time to develop your strength, then you will find that you also have more power when the time comes to use that strength explosively.  Strength does not necessarily mean that you have big muscles.  Sometimes long, sinewy muscles can provide just as much strength as big, bulky ones.  And if taught the proper technique, these same sinewy muscles can also create vast amounts of power. 

This leads to an interested sidebar.  Distance runners often have lithe bodies, composed of many “slow twitch” muscles.  These muscles are very efficient and are built for endurance.  They need only produce small amounts of power per movement, but must do so over many repetitions.  Think of how many steps a runner must take in a marathon, and you get the picture.  A 100-meter sprinter in a 26.2-mile race would probably cramp-up with a case of extreme muscle fatigue.  Their bodies are comprised mainly of “fast twitch” muscles, which can produce vast amounts of power, but for fewer repetitions.  These muscles are usually bigger and bulkier.  So one would could then deduce that bigger muscles = faster runners.  But if this was the case, then why aren’t body builders amongst the fastest runners in the world? 

The answer is – that’s a totally different sport.  Body builders work mostly at the top of the human performance pyramid, lifting vast amounts of weight to develop even musculature that they can flex and hold in poses for the judges.  They don’t need to practice the balance, stability, and functional movement that an OCR athlete, track athlete, soccer player, or basketball player needs.  Again, form (or a muscular look) does not necessarily equal function.  Concentrate on function, and form will be a by-product (depending, of course, on your diet).

And that brings us back to skills practice.  We still need to practice our skills.  True, you can be like Dennis Rodman and be extremely athletic, able to grab rebounds and run the court, all without spending hours in the gym working on your shot.  But you still need to practice “boxing out” opposing rebounders, positioning yourself, seeing the ball, grabbing the ball, and throwing the “outlet” pass.  In most sports, all the athleticism in the world won’t get you to that elite level, unless you have some skills.  In the world of OCR, that means practicing your spear throw, wall climbing, monkey bars, rope climbing, etc.  If you are just interested in staying injury-free, and not looking to go pro, then you will probably spend limited time practicing your skills, but you will still be able to jump into most any game of beach volleyball, playground basketball, or flag football game with a reasonable amount of success.  At least you won’t have to worry about breaking a hip, if you get tripped up. 

In conclusion, I’d like to share with you one of my OCR workouts.  I have included (in brackets) a note about the piece of the human performance pyramid being utilized for each exercise.  This workout is organized according to the template taught to me by Junior Nartea at NDS Kettlebell Athletics, but personalized based upon my OCR training experience.  With a little bit of studying and practice, you can create your own workout program using this template as well.  Looking at the workout, you’ll notice that all the pieces in the human performance pyramid are exercised, but if you notice the durations of each, then you can begin to see that pattern for how the proportions of each component are factored in.  Approximately, 1/3 of the workout is balance and stability, 1/3 is functional movement, 1/6 is strength, and 1/6 is power and skill.

Warm-up (3 minutes)

- 60 seconds of jump rope [Balance] [Stability] [Power]

Dynamic stretching (12 minutes)

- 10 x Face the Wall Squat [Balance] [Stability] [Functional Movement]

- 6 x Hand Walks [Stability] [Functional Movement]

- 6 right side / 6 left side x Reverse Lunge Twist [Balance] [Stability] [Functional Movement]

- 6 right side / 6 left side x Forward Lunge Stretch [Balance] [Stability] [Functional Movement] [Power]

- 6 right side / 6 left side x Side Lunge Stretch [Balance] [Stability] [Functional Movement]

- 6 right side / 6 left side x Inverted Hamstring Stretch [Balance] [Stability] [Functional Movement]

Agility (10 minutes)

- Gorilla Running (a.k.a., ape walk) [Stability] [Functional Movement]

- Bear Walk [Stability] [Functional Movement]

- Low Crawl [Stability] [Functional Movement]

- Crab Walk [Stability] [Functional Movement]

Complete 20-yards of each movement

Gym workout (10 minutes)

- 3 right side /3 left side x Walking Kettlebell (KB) Racks [Balance] [Stability] [Strength]

- 2 x 10 KB Deadlift [Strength] [Power]

- 2 x 10 KB Hike Pass [Strength] [Power]

- 6 x 10 KB Swings [Strength] [Power]

Park workout (30 minutes)

- Run to the park (1 mile), while carrying sandbag/KB [Functional Movement] [Strength]

- 3 circuits of monkey bars, over to balance beam, then to lunges (10), and then burpees (5) [Balance] [Functional Movement] [Skill]

Core Stability (5 minutes)

- Front bridge (45 sec) [Stability]

- Side bridge (30 sec one side / 30 sec the other side) [Balance] [Stability]

- Back bridge (45 sec) [Stability]

Cool Down (10 minutes)

- Run back to the gym (1 mile), carrying the sandbag/KB [Functional Movement] [Strength]

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this blog are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or practices of NDS Kettlebell Athletics or Team SISU. 

Posted On: 06/27/2015

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