Situps Are Dead

“Isometrically training the rectus is consistent with its architecture and stabilizing function to enhance performance and power development in the hips and extremities.”Dr. Stuart McGill

As a member of SWCC, a Naval Special Operations Force specializing in maritime warfare on small boats, I spent a substantial amount of time on a craft known as an 11-meter RIB. The RIB is an eight-ton, thousand-horsepower jet boat with a steeply angled Kevlar hull capable of speeds around fifty miles per hour.

This is all peachy when you’re on a nice flat bay, but when the boat is going airborne over open ocean waves while you’re wearing body armor, small weapons, ammunition, and a helmet with night-vision goggles, it’s pretty damn rough on the body.

This is going to hurt!

The best analogy I can come up with to describe it would be if you were to ride in the bed of a dump truck while racing down a bumpy road, partially blindfolded with a toaster strapped to the top of your head and an extra fifty pounds or so of awkward gear on your body. Every three to eight seconds, the bed of the dump truck is going to lift completely up and then violently and unexpectedly slam back down while rolling 45 degrees to either side. It’s like being in a car crash several hundred times in a night.

These impacts can reach 20 g’s and literally break bones. They’re rough on every joint in the body and the spine is particularly vulnerable. Shattered vertebrae were not unheard of.

This meant that when it came to physical training, optimal joint alignment and function was crucial, particularly for the spine. Nothing we did was for solely cosmetic reasons, although we developed lean and muscular bodies as a byproduct. We wanted to make it through deployments without broken backs and be able to do our jobs.

Abs trained for spinal stability look as strong as they function

This required a different approach than what most of the civilian world (and the military as well) did when it came to training the anterior core, which you probably refer to as your abs. As it turns out, this approach also works tremendously well for athletes and civilians who train primarily to look good naked.

When it comes to training the abs and the body as whole for visual appearance, it’s important that one develop the entire anterior core and not just the rectus abdominis, which is the primary muscle involved in situps, planks, and crunches. This approach will create a tight, well-balanced midsection with visually striking obliques, along with the sought after six pack.

The other consideration when it comes to visual appearance (as well as spinal stability) is posture. It’s been well established by researchers such as Harvard’s Dr. Dana Carney that an open, upright posture is crucial to creating the appearance of social dominance, also known as “the guy girls want to sleep with.”

For this to happen, the spine must be as erect (no pun intended) as possible, the chest held high, and the shoulders pulled confidently back.

The downside to movements like crunches is that they repeatedly flex the spine forward and pull the ribcage closer to the pelvis. This reinforces the exact opposite of open, tall posture. Movements like situps can also have a negative effect by tightening the hip flexors and pulling the pelvis into anterior tilt, which leads to excessive spinal curvature and a visually shortened, hunched over spine. Not many people think of hunchbacks when they’re trying to imagine a sexy body.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame did sit-ups and he wasn’t so popular with the girls!

Why it works

The joints of the body function along a continuum. Much like a bullwhip, a mobile section is anchored to a stable section that is capable of transmitting force without absorbing it.

The small sonic boom produced by cracking a bullwhip is possible because the handle is completely rigid and the whip becomes increasingly mobile down its length, all the way to a soft, pliable tip.

The spine functions similarly. The lower facets of the lumbar spine are meant for rigidity; they allow only a small range of motion.

As you move up from the lumbars into the thoracic section of the spine, the facets become increasingly mobile, just as a bullwhip becomes more mobile the further away from the handle you go:

No Spinal Flexion

Training the abs with spinal flexion movements such as crunches reverses this continuum. These movements loosen the lumbar spine and diminish the mobility of the upper spine. Therefore, we stay away from any kind of movement involving spinal flexion, and the majority of our ab work also avoids hip flexion.

As Dr. Stuart McGill has famously illustrated in his books and lectures, the role of the anterior core is to provide stability to the lumbar spine and transmit force. It serves to prevent undesirable motion, be it rotational, extension, or lateral flexion-based. To paraphrase Dr. McGill, if the rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscle) was primarily intended to flex the spine, it would look like a giant hamstring muscle.

A Note on Hip Flexion

Hip flexion, the action of drawing the knee towards the chest, is a crucial part of athletic movement, and many people in particular need to strengthen hip flexion with the knee above 90 degrees of flexion.

In many athletes, a combination of immobility in the hips and lack of strength in certain hip flexors causes the lumbar spine to buckle (posterior pelvic tilt) during activities like sprinting or exercises like hanging leg raises. This leads to impaired stride mechanics and a weak spine.

With this in mind, we do specifically train hip flexion, primarily with exercises like wall march iso drills, mountain climbers, or dead bugs, which train ab/glute co-contraction and unilateral hip flexion. In this way, the athlete learns to separate hip flexion from spinal flexion and maintain the structural integrity of the spine.

The Movements

Plank and Side Plank

These are well known by now in most circles and we still use them quite a bit. When in the plank, ensure that the spine is in a neutral, straight line. You should be able to set a broomstick on the athlete’s back and have it touch their upper back, sacrum, and head. Do not allow the lumbar spine to sag into extension.

A common variation is the “RKC Plank” in which you actively contract the glutes and place the elbows close together and further out in front of you than normal.

With the side plank, pay attention to the hips to ensure that they are not flexed during the hold. Firing of the glutes will help to ensure that the hips are extended.

Tall Kneeling Pallof Iso

This movement (and most like it) is generally attributed to the physical therapist named John Pallof who popularized them.  I often drop the Pallof part out of the name, mostly because I can never remember how to spell it right.

Most of these movements are held for isometrics of between five and thirty seconds. We do them with a partner pulling on a band, although a cable machine works fine if you’re training by yourself. Rather than talking and destabilizing your spine by exhaling too much, just nod your head to indicate to your partner that he is pulling with enough tension.

The tall kneeling press can also be performed with a split stance to help train ab/glute co-contraction and stretch the hip flexor and is advisable for people who have a hard time keeping their lumber spine from extending with both knees down.

These are also often done as a press in which the hands are drawn towards the chest and then pressed fully away at intervals. By changing the leverage in this way, you get less resistance with the hands close to the chest and can break a 30-second iso into smaller segments. Try a 30-second bout, with three 10-second holds at the fully extended position and the hands brought briefly back to the chest in between.

Anti Extension Pallof Press Iso

We generally only perform this one with a split stance. The potential benefits of performing it with both knees down seldom outweigh the chances of hyperextending the lumbar spine and promoting poor movement patterns. Ensure that the spine is neutral at all times and pay attention to the shoulders. They should be positioned overhead, tucked slightly forward, and the scapulae should be retracted and depressed the entire time.

Anti Lateral Flexion w Band

This is performed with the resistance coming from the same side as the forward leg and with a split stance only. The scapulae need to be set down and back with the sternum high. Grip the band with the hand opposite to the resistance side and set the hands directly on top of the skull. Ensure that the lumbar spine is neutral. Many people who lack mobility in their thoracic spines and shoulders will arch their lower backs in order to maintain upright posture, so pay attention to the lumbar curve.

Salute Plank

This variation adds an anti-rotation component to the traditional plank, which normally is solely an anti-extension movement. The hips must be kept flat and the glutes should be braced throughout the movement. We typically switch arms every five seconds for 20-second bouts, although we have worked up to switches every twenty seconds for 80-second bouts.

Foot Drops

Years ago, I was talking with Pavel Tsatsouline about drills specifically for military guys working on small boats, and he showed me this drill. It’s a highly effective method for training spinal stabilization and the ability to mitigate impact. Pick your partner up by the feet, shake them slightly so that he can’t predict which foot will be dropping, and let go of one foot. Your partner should be able to maintain a neutral, tightly braced spine and keep both feet at least close to level. Pay attention to the shoulder blades. You’ll find greater stiffness and strength if the scaps are locked down and in, and the lats are tightly braced.

This exercise can also be performed from the pushup position, in which case the glutes must be solidly braced and the abs functioning to prevent extension at the spine. Tension in the lats plays a crucial role here as well.

Ab Lever, Full

These can be performed from rings or a pullup bar. A neutral grip bar allows for the best leverage. Here, the ability to generate full body tension is crucial, and the abs must brace powerfully to prevent extension at the lumbar spine. You can ease your way into it by bending one leg in order to decrease the resistance. If you do so, make sure that you contract the glute on the extended leg and keep your spine neutral.

Plate Slide

Plate slides require both an anti-extension and anti-rotation effect from the abs. The glutes should be locked out in order to keep the pelvis from tilting in the anterior direction. We use 2.5 pound plates and move them every five seconds in order to allow the athlete to reset into the pushup position between each slide.

X Plank

This drill places substantial demand on the gluteus medius while the core musculature must work to prevent lateral flexion. Keep the heel of the top foot at least as high as the toes in order to ensure that the athlete isn’t externally rotating the hip and moving from the hip flexors instead of using the gluteus medius to abduct the hip.

Conclusion

By understanding the function of the anterior core and spine, you’ve got a wide variety of options for training your abs to improve both appearance and performance. You have no reason to do situps or crunches ever again….and your spine will thank you.

Written by Craig Weller

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Situps Are Dead discussion thread.

About Craig Weller

Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.

The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.

This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness with facilities in South Dakota and Denver.

You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.

The Ultimate Guide to Tire Training

There’s nothing better than getting a great strength and conditioning workout while outside on a beautiful day (or on a brisk December morning!).  The only problem with training outdoors is that you’re limited on equipment, which makes it tough to use the heavy loads needed to put on serious muscle, unless you’re at the legendary Venice Beach gym where all the equipment is already outside!

In this article, I’m will show you a fast, cheap, and easy way to build bigger, stronger legs while drastically improving your level of conditioning and burning off some serious body fat (not to mention all while getting a great suntan). Get ready for the ultimate lower-body workout using a big ole tire!

Mentors, Friends, and Big Tires

Before going any further, I’d like to thank my good friend and mentor, Coach JC Santana, for showing me the ins and outs of tire training.  If it weren’t for Coach JC putting me through my first ever tire training workout over ten years ago, I would not be able to write this article. I also would have missed out on all the amazing fun and challenging tire workouts I’ve had with friends and clients since then.

JC Santana and I in 2001 – After my first Tire Training Workout

What’s NOT in this Article

I know what you’re thinking when you see the words “big tire” and “workout” in the same sentence: tire flips and hammer slams.

Wrong! First off, using hammers is not tire training, it’s hammer training.

As far as tire flips are concerned, I don’t have any of my athletes perform tire flips, and I recommend against using tire flips as an exercise regardless of your fitness level.

Tire Flips?

I don’t use tire flips because I don’t feel the risk is worth the reward. Due to the shape of the tire, it’s very difficult to maintain the optimal spinal alignment needed to minimize possible low back injury while lifting the tire. Most folks who perform tire flips lose their lumbar curve and end up in a more kyphotic position, which is asking for a back injury!

This is poor tire flipping form and can put you on the back surgeon’s table fast!

Lifting a tire trains the same muscle and movement pattern as a deadlift. However, using a barbell to deadlift is a better exercise in my book because it’s much easier to keep good spinal alignment while still training the same movement pattern and strengthening the same muscles.  So, why not just deadlift? There’s less risk with the same (if not better) reward!

The Right Way to Train with a Big Tire

Instead of using the big tire for flips, I like to use the tire as a sled. Using the tire as a sled has a number of benefits:

It’s cheap! –  Not everyone can afford a weight sled or a prowler. The tire gives you the same training benefits without the drain on your wallet.

No storage space, No problem! – Sleds and prowlers are made of metal and need to be kept inside somewhere where they won’t rust out. You can keep a tire outside.

Note – Someone stole all of our training tires here last year, so take a lesson from our mistake. If you keep your tires outside, keep them chained together like we do now.

Tire training Is fun! – Everyone loves the feeling of hooking themselves up to a big tire and pulling that tire around. It’s an empowering feeling of you vs. the tire, and you win each time (we hope)!

It looks bad-ass – What looks tougher to onlookers than watching someone pull around a tire that is double their size? We all love to train hard and look hard doing it…the tire does just that!

The weight load is easily adjustable – You may not think it’s possible to make a tire feel lighter or heavier without cutting it apart. It IS very possible, and I’m going to show you how at the end of this article.

Tire Training Works for EVERYONE!

No matter who you are, what your fitness level is like, or what your training goals are, the tire sled can get you results!

For bodybuilding – The tire sled is fantastic as a finisher to a traditional bodybuilding-style leg workout. There’s nothing you can do in the gym that trains the legs in the same manner as the tire. Therefore, the tire is a great way to shock your body and stimulate some new muscle growth by doing a new activity!

For sports performance – Just look at the driving angle used by a football lineman, the body angle required for optimal acceleration by a sprinter, or the angle of a MMA fighter’s body while shooting in for a wrestling takedown. These positions are all analogous to the angle of the body while pulling the tire sled, which leaves no doubt about the sports carryover of training with the tire sled.

For exercise enthusiasts – The tire sled is a great way to add some variety to your training. It will also help you add a new, fun, and challenging element to your boring, one-dimensional gym workout.

For knee and back injuries – Almost all of my athletes who suffer from aching, painful knees and/or backs can still go hard with the tire sled while pulling some heavy loads. The tire sled is a great knee- and low back-friendly strength training tool. Read my “Big Legs with Bad Knees” article for more on how to train around knee issues.

Getting a Tire!

You can usually get a big tire for free at any local tire recycling center. Here’s a picture from our last tire pick-up trip. They’ve got plenty to choose from, in all shapes and sizes!

All you have to do is go there and pick it up yourself; they’re usually happy to give it to you. Here’s a picture of Marc’s (my business partner) truck loaded with tires. Be sure to bring some straps to hold the tire in your truck bed!

Before you leave the tire yard, I recommend finding the tallest, most stable tire pile to do your best super-hero pose on, like this:

All you have to do is go there and pick it up yourself

Additional Equipment Needs

In order to perform all of the tire exercises and workouts featured in this article, you’ll also need a few more things:

  • A thick chain (to go around the tire)
  • A length of long climbing rope or a heavy-duty dog leash
  • Handles from any cable machine
  • A shoulder harness

You’ll see what the general setup with this equipment looks like in the videos and exercise pictures below.

Tire Training – Performance U Style!

Here’s a list of the most popular tire training exercises that I use here at Performance U to get my athletes into sick shape!

Tire Dragging

This is the most pure tire sled exercise you can use to crush your legs and build insane levels of conditioning. Also, as I mentioned above, you can’t find a better exercise for improving the forward lean / driving angle needed for optimal sprinting ability, MMA/wrestling, and football performance!

I love using the Abs straps around my arms for this exercise to increase the demand on the upper-body and core. My MMA and NFL athletes love this version with the Abs straps!

The Tire (Prowler) Push

I love the using the Prowler! Prowler Pushes are one of my all time favorite total-body exercises for increasing strength, conditioning, and mental toughness levels. That said, not everyone can afford to buy a Prowler and others just don’t have the storage space.

The tire can be kept outside and is free or low cost. Plus, due to the instability created by the handles, it can give you an even more intense workout than the Prowler!

Check out this video to see what I mean:

Reverse Tire Drag

If you’re looking for a great way to crush your quad muscles and build some sick new muscle size in the front of your legs, the reverse tire pull will deliver big results!

Wrestlers and MMA athletes can use the Abs straps (as shown in the picture) to make this exercise even more grappling-specific!

Crossover Tire Drag

This movement is great for hitting the lateral muscles of the leg that are often neglected in most traditional gym exercises. It’s also a great way for athletes to improve lateral power and change-of-direction ability.

Adjusting The Load of the Tire

It’s easy to make the tire feel lighter or heavier if you use the physics principles of angles, forces, and friction.

Put simply, the shorter the rope/strap connecting you to the tire, the lighter the load will feel because you’re reducing the vertical force of the tire on the ground (because part of the weight of the tire is being held up by the rope/strap), which reduces the friction and thus the perceived dragging load.

To make the tire feel heavier, simply lengthen the rope/strap and position yourself farther away from the tire.

This places more of the full weight of the tire on the ground instead of being held up by the rope, which enhances the friction that makes the tire harder to move.

I explain and demonstrate these concepts in great detail in this video:

Tire Sled Workouts

Now that you’ve seen the tire sled exercises, here’s a few sample lower-body workouts that put them into real-world practice.

Workout #1 – Use this workout for improved lower-body strength

1. Deadlifts: 4x 4-6
2. Tire Sled Drag: 4 x 20-25yds (use large/heavy tire)
3a. Reverse Tire Drag: 4×15-20yds (use large/heavy tire)
3b. Glute/Ham Raises: 4x 8-10
4. Barbell Calf Raises: 2×20

Workout #2 – Use this workout for increased lower-body power

1. 10-15yd sprints: x6
2. Long Jumps: 5×5
3. Tire Drags: 4 x 15-20yds (get to finish line as fast as possible)
4. Crossover Tire Drag: 2x 10-15yds each side (get to finish line as fast as possible)

Workout #3 – Use this for improved conditioning and fat loss

1. Prowler Tire Push: 4x 25yds
2. Cross-Over Tire Drag: 2×15-20yds each side
3. 300yds Shuttle Run: x2 (sprint 25yds x12)

What Are You Waiting For?

I’ve given you everything you need to know in order to get a safe, fun, and super effective workout using a big tire.

I’ve done my part…now it’s time to do yours!

Go get yourself a tire, get yourself out of the same old gym routine, and start “getting after it” outside for all the spectators to witness!

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – The Ultimate Guide to Tire Training discussion thread.

About Nick Tumminello

Nick Tumminello, the director of Performance University, is a nationally recognized coach and educator who works with a select group of athletes, physique competitors, and exercise enthusiasts in Baltimore, Maryland.

Nick is rapidly establishing himself as a leader in the field for his innovative techniques and “smarter” approach to training. As a coach, Nick works in the trenches testing, developing and refining his innovative techniques with clients and athletes of all ages and levels.

Go to his website NickTumminello.com to get your free “Smarter & Stronger” video course.