Category Archives: Ice Hockey

How to get back into serious shape with Burpees

I’m currently on vacation in sunny Britain and with less than a month to go until I return to New Zealand, I can’t see how I’m going to be in decent enough shape to play ice hockey back home. Too many pints, Cornish Pasties and Teacakes.

So to keep things simple, I’ve devised a programme to kick my butt into shape in quick time.

It would be tempting to over-complicate my training with all kinds of exercises. However, I’ve learned through years of frustration that too many exercises just ends in confusion and ultimately failure to reach my goals.

If I had kettlebells with me, I’d use swings to get the job done but with nothing but body weight I have to find an exercise that is:

  • tough
  • produces a nice cardio effect
  • works the big muscles of both the upper and lower body
  • thoroughly tests my core strength
  • pounds the legs like skating does

There is only one bodyweight exercise I can think of that satisfies all of these criteria: Burpees.

How do you know that you can rely on Burpees for maximum fitness gains? Well, they’re universally used and hated by the armed forces, athletes and fitness enthusiasts around the globe.

The exercise, named after American physiologist Royal H. Burpee, traditionally involves a squat down, placing the hands on the ground, a thrust into a plank position and finally kicking the feet back to the squat position for a return squat ascent.

This is a challenging exercise but it can be supercharged by adding a push up from the plank position and a jump on the final squat ascent.

So how can we use it to rapidly increase our power, strength and endurance?

Some would just say “do ’em until you drop” but I find this method to be defeating and sub-optimal.

Instead try this: don’t go near failure, in fact, do short bursts, rest and repeat. The rest period should be short enough to allow your muscles to mostly recover so that subsequent sets are as powerful as possible.

There is no need to tax your muscles to the point they start slowing down. This is why the “as many reps as possible” idea is defeating. I want to build fitness on the basis of power, not on the basis of slow, poorly executed reps.

I’m using the On The Minute (OTM) scheme to do this and here’s how I do it:

  1. Find a number of reps you can do comfortably. I started with just 4. Resist thinking that this figure is too low. The method works because you’re doing a demanding exercise powerfully over multiple sets.
  2. Perform each set of 4 on the minute. I find 4 reps takes me about 15 seconds. This leaves me with 45 seconds of rest.
  3. Perform enough sets to get a good conditioning stimulus. You will instinctively know when this is, BUT don’t fall for the “yeah but I could do heaps more”. I started with just 8 sets of 4, or 32 reps scattered across 7 minutes.
  4. Progression: Add a rep to each successive set each workout. For example, having worked up to my target of 8 sets of 4, I added a rep to the first set so it was 1×5, then 7×4. The next day I added a rep to set 2 so it was 2×5, then 6×4 and so on.

After I reach 8 sets of 5 I’ll add a set each workout to bring it to 12 and then add a rep to each of those. 12 sets of 5 = 60 reps in 11 minutes.

This progression can take 3 weeks, depending on how many rest days I add.

At that point I might shoot for adding an additional rep each workout but I won’t go over 6. For the OTM scheme, 4-6 is good because it gives you at most 20 seconds of work and at least 40 seconds of rest.

The beauty of it is it’s simplicity and the careful handling of intensity. I’m staying relatively powerful across each set so I get a great alactic workout (the powerful movement energy system) while also building my recovery abilities through the cardiovascular system.

Furthermore, I can probably go again tomorrow on most days so I progress quicker than I otherwise would if I’m burning myself too much each workout.

Pace yourself and only do as much as is reasonable. The goal is to avoid the burn and get through a nice volume of work to be effective. I find that’s 6-12 sets, which I encourage you to build up over a month or so.

If the jump and push up Burpee is too much, omit those and just do the basic version. Starting there allows you to work on the progression up to the more intense Burpee. Just use the same OTM scheme for each progression and you’ll be fine.

Give it a try – you never know, you might start to love the exercise most people hate!


If you need a machine to work your abs you’re doing it wrong

There is a never ending supply of new exercise machines that are supposed to build miracle abs. The truth, however, is that they’re virtually all gimmicks and completely unnecessary.

You don’t need any machines to work your abs. None. So turn off the Shopping Channel and get on the floor and work those abs. In the time you’ve made the call and ordered one of those miracle ab machines you could have pumped out 2-3 sets of cross body mountain climbers. You could have done a 3 sets of 30s of RKC planks*.

Part of the problem behind these ab machines and marketing in general is that they create a false need. You’re made to think that normal exercise is hard and ineffective. Marketing serves to muddy the waters and distract you from finding out what truly works.

The typical ab machine advertisement depicts traditional training as arduous and sometimes dangerous. They’ll show some poor guy or girl straining through crunches and situps and holding their back as if they’ve slipped a disc. Trouble is, the way the abs and core work means you don’t ever have to do crunches (many trainers warn against it — for good reasons) and situps are virtually outlawed in many gyms (there are much safer and effective exercises).

Beyond crunches, back pain and poor posture

Crunches involve pulling the neck forward to isolate the abs. In doing so you’re reinforcing poor posture as well as pushing the lumbar spine into the floor. It’s therefore unsurprising that crunches are used as fodder by marketers to show much easier their ab machine is.

What the core and abs actually do and how to work ’em

Biomechanically, the abs and core generally, have two major functions: core stability and rotational power. It is becoming more apparent that the core’s primary function may in fact be to prevent movement rather than produce it.

For that reason, stability planks are great starter exercises for core development as they can be progressed a number of ways. The logical step from planks on the floor is to move them to a stability ball. Providing an unstable platform for the hands and elbows while in a plank posture will help challenge the core to prevent movement through the hips and thoracic spine.

RKC planks mentioned earlier involve a less stable arm arrangement while pushing the arms forward more to provide a greater challenge to the core. Squeezing the glutes forces the core to activate even further. Here is a demonstration.

Ab rollouts are also great exercises particularly for the anterior core. This can be done with a small roller, stability ball or simulated by walking the hands out while in a kneeling or plank position.

Complement these exercises with side planks and you have a great all round routine that will target the entire midsection.Side planks can also be progressed by raising one or both feet on a couch, bed, chair or stability ball.

Additional exercises:

To this point I’ve ignored some of the best challenges to your core — leg raises. Hanging leg raises being the challenging version and lying variations being a great starting point. Start with bent knees and then move to straight legs for more challenge. Try performing a figure 8 with your feet while lying flat on your back, legs extended. This great variation will hit the core muscles from many different directions providing for more muscle activation.

Mountain climbers are simply plank positions with the legs thrust forward (or diagonally) as if climbing. This article is the best I’ve found on how to perform mountain climbers and how to throw in variations for maximum impact on the core. These can also form the theme of a great conditioning workout.

No machines?

If you think a stability ball or small hand roller count as machines, consider that (a) they’re optional but incredibly worth it, and (b) you can pick them up cheaply. Whereas ab machines are designed purely to cost you as much as possible and only for single use, a stability ball will open up an entire range of workout opportunities, from leg work (hamstring curls) to hyper extensions for the lower back. You can use the ball to challenge your push up.

Whatever you do, don’t fall for an ab machine that is promoted as being the most awesome, ultimate machine ever. It is only the ultimate machine ever until the next piece of junk replaces it.

*RKC — Russian Kettlebell Certification.

Bret Contreras addresses bodyweight training in forthcoming book (awesome!)

Bodyweight Strength Training.

Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy — due for release in September 2013. For more, including the book’s contents, head to the Human Kinetics page for the book >>

Bret Contreras — one of the most reliable sources of strength and conditioning information on the Internet turns his attention to bodyweight strength training in his forthcoming book.

I’ve been in around every corner of the Internet in an effort to find the best sources of information on strength, conditioning and sports specific training. To my mind, Bret Contreras aka “The Glute Guy” is the best source I’ve found (

For one, he respects good science and is able to spot nonsense and fake ‘gurus’ when he sees them. Secondly, it turns out he’s studying his PhD in Sports Science at the university I work at (AUT University in Auckland).

So it’s fair to say that I’m excited about diving into Bret’s new book — Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy.

Readers of my previous posts on functional fitness here and here will know I am a big fan of bodyweight training done well and with good progression. Later I found out that Bret also believes that anyone embarking on a strength training programme should begin with basic bodyweight movements before loading plates to a bar. His reasoning is the same as mine — you need to establish a foundation of good form and ensure joint mobility is respected and developed early on. Bret elaborates:

“Bodyweight exercises lay the foundation for future training success, and correct performance requires a precise blend of mobility, stability and motor control”.

Bodyweight training can be progressed to challenge your muscles incrementally and therefore strength and muscle mass can be further developed. **I personally think that the one leg (‘pistol’) squat is one of the most gratifying exercises to master.**

For the past 9 months I have been loosely following Paul Wade’s Convict Conditioning advice and progressing bodyweight movements, so I know it works and it is an incredibly fulfilling way to train (I feel as if I’m ‘gaming’ the system by using the minimal amount of equipment). In fact, my home gym merely consists of a resistance band, foam roller and a 20kg kettelbell I use solely for high rep swings.

The reason I’m looking forward to Bret’s take on bodyweight training is twofold: (1) I’m intrigued by what can be achieved sans-equipment, (2) Training without equipment seems to be a forgotten art.

For all the articles and websites you’ll find on loading plates to a bar you’ll find only a few reliable sources on training without the need for plates. Those that are good stand out a mile and I’m certain Bret’s book will be a tremendous addition to the subject of bodyweight training simply because he approaches training scientifically and walks the talk.

The book is rich in illustrations and from the 8 page sample it looks eye-catching and easy to read. Check out the sample here >>

Functional exercise, functional body (move it or lose it)

How can functional training make you a better human?

As you get older there are several processes occurring that diminish your ability to move as you could 10, 15 and 20 years prior.

Muscles lose their elasticity, strength and flexibility. Joints become less mobile or less stable (depending on their function). All of this adds up to less physical wellbeing.

The symptoms are often made worse by your body’s “history”. Something I heard a few years ago from a 90 year old man really struck me. He said “every bump gets recorded”. His contention was that, while the body can heal from knocks, when one is older those aches and pains come back to haunt us.

Modern society doesn’t help either — sitting down in hunched positions hour-after-hour, day-after-day ultimately trains the body into bad postures and poor function. We sit down for hours, use escalators when we could use the stairs and we slump down on couches for a few more hours to end the day. In short, everyday life is training us to be in bad shape.

strength as a skill versus strength for “show”

Functional strength is more than just about strength in the traditional sense (“look how much I can lift”). Functional strength is primarily about training the nervous system. Renowned trainer and Kettlebell guru Pavel Tsatsouline calls this “greasing the groove”. In other words, strength is created through repetitive training of a specific sequence of movements. Strength is a skill as much as any other physical skill with a specific set of adaptations.

This is why athletes train radically differently to the average gym goer. Professional athletes typically get functional movement screening to see where there are deficiencies in their joint mobility, strength and flexibility.

Because athletes repeat specific sequences of movements at great speed and with great force generation, the risk of injury is always lingering. Minimising that risk while maximising the efficiency of movement is what modern physical training has become for athletes. This is the lesson ordinary humans can take from the pros.

Degeneration interrupted

One thing that always raises my eyebrows is the tendency of trainers to take on clients and give them a vanilla programme to help the client reach their fitness goals. For instance, it is not always a good idea to put a person straight into a weight training program when they can’t even move their bodies properly.

The purest form of functional training is bodyweight training — probably the most underrated form of training there is. What a lot of people don’t realise is that a lot of guys that are gym strong but not functionally strong. This because moving an external load (barbells/dumbbells) is vastly different from moving your own body. External loads can force the body to move through problematic lines.

Someone may well be able to squat a 300 pounds but they probably can’t do a one-legged squat for 1 rep let alone 6-10 reps. As a general rule, why not getting people to train their bodies to move themselves properly before overloading the body with weights?

Relics of a bygone era

In the move from aesthetic, bodybuilding paradigms to a more functional, athletic training ethos, there are inevitable casualties and cast offs. Some exercises — once thought to be staples in any gym goers trick bag — are now relics of the past. Others are borderline but tough to get rid of because they’re so ingrained in the collective psyche.

Leg extensions, leg presses, peck deck flyes, chest flyes, machine squats, leg curls and bicep curls (heresy!) are often ignored by athletes. Why? For the most part, these exercises take the target muscle out of a position of strength, compromising the ability of the muscle to perform as it functions normally. Leg extensions and leg curls are two prime examples of exercises largely useless to athletes.

Functional rules of thumb

Muscles are evolved to fire holistically — as part of a sequence. In the previous example, both leg extensions and leg curls take quadriceps and hamstrings out of their strength and put them into isolation. This is also a way to create functional imbalances, which is a surefire way to invite injuries.

So with all that in mind, here are a few guidelines:

  • Forget isolation exercises (movements that involve one joint and isolates specific muscles).
  • Discard the body part approach to programme design and take a movement-centric approach instead.
  • Address structural and movement asymmetries.
  • Use bodyweight training to condition muscles, joints and tendons to move through full ranges of motion (a full depth squat is difficult for many people). Train the body to move through natural body motions.
  • Use progressive bodyweight exercise to increase functional strength (see Paul Wade’s excellent book: “Convict Conditioning” for more on progressing basic bodyweight movements. View some sample workouts).

The vision

I want to be clear about the last point — developing functional strength via bodyweight training. The main point is thus: If you can’t move your own weight properly then that’s where you need to start.

Bodyweight training will help you move properly, through full ranges of motion and stave off body degradation that happens as one gets older. Getting stronger in these movements will enable you to be the best human being you can be while avoiding the kind of self-induced “paralysis” that hits most people later in life. Move it or lose it is the name of the game.

The functional fitness revolution

Fitness and health is such a massive industry that the conventional advice is often never questioned. Despite this, a quiet revolution is happening in the fitness industry.

[This is the first in a 2-part series of posts on how the fitness industry has changed and how you can avoid bad advice and hokey marketing gimmicks].

It was bound to happen. After the heyday of the muscle bound bodybuilding hulks in the 1970s and 80s, physical training had to change.

When I began looking into training and physical fitness in the mid-1990s, pretty much the only resources you could find were of a bodybuilding nature. Many fitness programmes relied on weight training and a bit of aerobics to develop that cardiac-respiratory system (aka heart and lungs!)

While all this is great and the average guy or gal could improve their fitness, these routines were limited in scope and therefore may not have been entirely appropriate for the average gym goer.

Recalibrating fitness goals

Muscle growth in and of itself is great but there must be something more to training than that. Whether this was an overt observation of the fitness community or not I can’t be sure of. What I do know is that sports science and the study of kinesiology (how humans move) have come along way since weight training really took off in the period from the 1950s–70s.

The fitness industry as a whole owes a lot to the pioneers of bodybuilding and strength training. The musclebound hulk like figures (such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno and Lee Haney) were poster boys for an entire generation of trainers.

Bodybuilding is awesome, but in some respects it is a victim of its own success. The huge bulging over-bloated bodybuilders that have become the norm now are such extreme outliers that most guys don’t want to look that way, don’t have the time and simply the perseverance to develop such massive physiques.

Muscle isn’t the end of the story

At heart, all guys are secretly wannabe superheroes. While bodybuilders no longer represent the ideal that most guys are after, professional athletes do inspire awe and respect in the general populace.

It is hard not to admire a Usain Bolt, a Sidney Crosby or a Lebron James. These guys inspire awe in what they can do, rather than in how massive their biceps are.

There’s nothing wrong with big biceps and this post is not an attack on bodybuilding. I’m keen to bloat my chest, shoulders and biceps through training as much as the next guy. An awesome physique is well, awesome! But there is something about a guy who can move like a cheetah, jump like Mike or power his way through opponents like a charging rhino.

What is this functional buzzword anyway?

Modern life combined with the growing realisation that training for just muscular development has led to this functional fitness revolution.

So functional simply refers to the idea that the average person can reach their physique potential in size and ability. Guys can be powerful athletes; ladies can be nimble like a dancer. In fact, these are powerful reasons for why training has gone the functional way — people play sports, hike, cycle, mountain bike and run marathons. Unfortunately for many of us, we spend hours a day de-training ourselves for basic movement by sitting hunched over desks or other suboptimal arrangements.

The sea change in the way training is done can in part be attributed to a number of popular gym disciplines: Pilates, Yoga, Military training approaches and the emergence of Crossfit. Popular exercise magazines are Men’s Health/Women’s Health and Women’s Fitness/Men’s Fitness magazines. There are many more but these publications capture the essence of fitness as a lifestyle rather than an aesthetic only.


Blackhawks prevail

I, like many international hockey enthusiasts was plugged in and listening to the Chicago Blackhawks win a well deserved Stanley Cup. On paper, the Blackhawks are a great team. On the ice, they were unstoppable.

The result of the Stanley Cup finals was hardly a foregone conclusion when the two teams were decided. Philadelphia were worthy opponents. The way they dismissed the New Jersey Devils in the first round was an emphatic statement. Coming back from a 3-0 deficit against Boston was sublime brilliance.

In the west, Chicago were making waves of their own. In none of the series the Blackhawks played did they ever look troubled. Their stiffest test was sure to come in the West Finals against San Jose. Four straight wins later Chicago were becoming the red hot favourites.

Philadelphia were a tough test and no one can deny they were well-coached and passionate about their quest. Stars like Daniel Briere came to the fore and had sensational series. Ville Leno was perhaps their most effective player (not bad for a rookie). Ultimately, Philly couldn’t match it in net. While Niemi was solid in net for Chicago, Leighton was inconsistent and shaky. As Niemi made the big save, Leighton let an easy on slip through. Still, Leighton was greatat times, as the latter part of the series against Boston proved.

I suspect the Blackhawk’s young stars are committed to hoisting the silverware this time next year. They have the talent no doubt. Backing up is a tough thing to do; just ask Pittsburgh.

The Fabric of the Hockey Universe is Warped

The Czech Republic lose to Norway in the IIHF World Championship ice hockey tournament. Canada loses to Switzerland; and now the NHL team that scraped into the playoffs at the last post (Montreal) defeats the reigning champions. Something is seriously amiss in the hockey universe.

Credit must go to Montreal – in both playoff series they were up against vastly superior teams if talent and the season’s performances were taken into account. In both series, they defeated their foe in game 7 in the other teams building by coming back from 3-1 series deificts.

They will face either the Boston Bruins or the battling Philadelphia Flyers in the conference finals. That series teeters on a 3-3 knife edge with Philadelphia verging on a hockey miracle of their own – coming back from a 0-3 series deficit.

Whatever weird stuff happens in the east, the west is shaping up to be a battle for the ages. The two top teams square off in what will be a crucial series for both Chicago and San Jose. Both have been building for sometime – Chicago made it this far last year. San Jose have looked promising for the past 10 years but have repeatedly failed to deliver. This will be a big series. Both sides are stacked with stars including a number of Olympic finalists.

The difference could well be the strength of the goaltending. Can Evgeni Nabokov finally achieve glory with the team he has failed with for several years? It’s hard to tell. I do know, without the benefit of a crystal ball is that the young guns on Chicago will be firing. The question for them is will they get support from the veterans like Marian Hossa? One thing is for sure – we wait knowing anything can happen, as this playoff year has shown emphatically.