Suspension Training Part III – Effectiveness and Efficacy

In this final part of our series on suspension training we’ll examine the effectiveness and efficacy of suspension training. Efficacy is defined as the ability to produce a desired or intended result, for example “there is little information on the efficacy of this treatment.” Conversely, Effectiveness is defined as being successful in producing a desired or intended result, “effective solutions to environmental problems” for example. However, when it comes to science and research the two words have more specific meanings. Basically, efficacy is a measure of whether or not something works whereas effectiveness is concerned with whether or not it can be used practically. That is to say that there are many things (tools, treatments, etc) that are efficacious but due to their cost in dollars or time or other factors, they may not be practical to use or be effective in practice. More on the difference of efficacy and effectiveness here.

Suspension Training Efficacy

One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research called Effect of Using a Suspension Training System on Muscle Activation During the Performance of a Front Plank Exercise found that “abdominal muscle activation was higher in all suspended conditions compared to the floor based plank.” This is in line with the marketing and purported benefits of suspension training. The study found specifically that “The highest level of abdominal muscle activation occurred in the arms suspended and arms/feet suspended conditions, which did not differ from one another.” So, some amount of instability or suspension is beneficial but more is not necessarily better. The study also found activity in the two joint quadriceps muscle that crosses the knee and hip joint and in an important shoulder/scapular stabilizer the serratus anterior, “Rectus femoris activation was greatest during the arms suspended condition, whereas SA activity peaked during normal and feet suspended planks.” The authors concluded that “These results indicate that suspension training as performed in this study seems to be an effective means of increasing muscle activation during the plank exercise. Contrary to expectations, the additional instability created by suspending both the arms and feet did not result in any additional abdominal muscle activation.”

The protocol in the study consisted of performing 2 repetitions each of 4 different plank exercises for 3 seconds each, three of which were using a TRX Suspension System;

  1. floor based plank
  2. planks with arms suspended (TRX)
  3. plank with feet suspended (TRX)
  4. plank with feet and arms suspended (TRX)

21 subjects participated and the muscle activation was recorded from rectus abdominis, external oblique, rectus femoris, and serratus anterior (SA) muscles using electromyography. In practice, trainers and exercisers tend to hold the plank position for more than 3 seconds which brings up the question of what happens as the person holds the plank suspended or unsuspended for a longer time and how applicable are these results if in practice the plank is held for longer periods.

Another study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research titled Activation of Spinal Stabilizers and Shoulder Complex Muscles During an Inverted Row Using a Portable Pull-up Device and Body Weight Resistance found that Four inverted row exercises studied activated the LD (latissimus dorsi), UT (upper trapezius), MT (middle trapezius), LT (lower trapezius, and BB (biceps brachii) at levels conducive to strengthening. This seems to show that a suspension training apparatus, in this case a “portable pull-up device” is an appropriate substitute to free weights for creating the resistance necessary to build strength. 13 male and 13 female subjects participated in the study. Interestingly, the investigators reported that “No statistically significant differences in muscle activation existed between single- and double-leg WB (weight bearing) in any muscles.”

When examining push up exercises the study Analysis of Pushing Exercises: Muscle Activity and Spine Load While Contrasting Techniques on Stable Surfaces With a Labile Suspension Strap Training System also from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that  ” In general, the instability associated with the labile exercises required greater torso muscle activity than when performed on stable surfaces.” The researchers also found it interesting that ” a standard push-up showed significantly greater shear than TRX angle 1 (p = 0.02), angle 2 (p = 0.01), and angle 3 (p = 0.02).” This study used kinematic analysis of body segments and muscle activity in a 3D model of 14 men to estimate muscle force. They compared exercises performed using stable surfaces for hand/feet contact and with labile suspension straps. A metronome was used to control speed of movement for each exercise.

To quantify the load at different angle of the push up, Effects of Angle Variations in Suspension Push-up Exercise in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research examined this question. The study used 28 male subjects and compared forces during push ups at 4 different body angles (0, 15, 30, 45°) while using a TRX suspension training device. The results showed that “as the TRX angle was reduced, the load applied to the TRX straps increased…” This was true during the concentric and eccentric phases of the exercise, e.g. “for both the elbow joint changing from flexion to extension and vice versa.” The greatest forces were recorded at 0°. Forces equal to 50.4% of the subjects body weight were recorded when their elbows were extended and 75.3% of their body weight when the subjects elbows were in the flexed position.

Electromyographical Comparison of Pike Variations Performed With and Without Instability Devices also in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that there were “significant differences between the instability devices and the stable pike. These results indicate that with more freely moving instability devices (e.g., suspension device, Swiss ball, etc.), core musculature may require greater muscular demands.” The study compared the EMG results of 20 men and women performing 5 variations of a pike on varying surfaces –

  1. stable ground [PK]
  2. Swiss ball [SB]
  3. suspension training device [ST]
  4. BOSU ball [BOSU]
  5. Core Coaster [CC]

Two additional studies looked at the influence of suspension training on hormone responses. Both these studies – Effects of Suspension Training on the Growth Hormone Axis and Anabolic Hormonal Responses to an Acute Bout of Suspension Training were publish in the March 2011 issue of Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Additionally, both studies, which were similar in protocol were funded by The Citadel Foundation and Fitness Anywhere, Inc. Fitness Anywhere is the parent company of TRX. The both the growth hormone study and the anabolic/testosterone study used a 60 minute suspension training interval workout that consisted of 23 exercises performed for 30 seconds each followed by 60 seconds of rest. The results of both studies showed positive increases in hormone levels similar to those achieved in high intensity circuit type training with free weights or other modalities. The growth hormone study concludes “These data indicate that a suspension training workout using the recommended 30 sec:60 sec work:rest ratio is sufficient to stimulate the GH axis in recreationally active young adult males. Practical Applications: This evidence supports the use of suspension training as a stimulus for anabolic hormone release, suggesting this is a viable alternative to traditional resistance training for stimulating the anabolic hormones that support recovery and muscle growth. ” The anabolic/testosterone study concludes “A suspension training workout using 30 sec work intervals followed by 60 sec rest periods elicited typical TT and novel T:C ratio responses to moderate intensity resistance training in physically active males. Suspension training appears to stimulate an expected testosterone response with a lower associated stress (i.e. cortisol) response resulting in a positive anabolic profile lasting at least two hours after the workout. Workouts using 30 sec work and rest intervals, 45 or 60 sec work and 30 or 45 sec rest intervals may likely result in more robust hormonal responses.” Both studies state that their results support “the use of suspension training exercise as a viable alternative mode of exercise to traditional resistance training. ”

No studies that I have found have investigated the use of suspension training straps for lower body exercises such as hamstring curls, hip bridges, or squats. Additionally, I have not found any investigations into the use of suspension straps for plyometric or jumping type exercises for metabolic or power training. It seems to me that the use of suspension training straps for these types of exercises is superfluous. A function of choreography and class or session logistics rather than a function of efficacious or effective exercise selection.


When compared to needing a gym with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, it’s clear that the use of suspension training apparatus can be effective as well as efficacious. When compared to a calisthenic program that uses full pull ups and handstand push ups, the suspension trainer can be a way to regress or lessen the loading for those not able to perform full push ups, pull ups or other body weight exercises. Suspension training straps can also be a way to assist lower body exercises like squats or single leg squats making them accessible to those that cannot yet perform them with their full body weight.

However, when looking for a place to suspend a suspension trainer, the effectiveness of the products is not as great as imagined. Note that there are many anchoring systems and frames sold to allow one to use these suspension devices in gym and class settings because finding anchor points is not as easy as one would think. As a person that lives in an old house (see video) the door mounting devices also fall short in utility because I don’t have room in the hallways to use the devices. As someone that works in NYC, the Parks Department is not amenable to using trees to attach suspension devices either.

As debates continue regarding open chain vs closed chain exercises, stable vs unstable surfaces, and functional vs aesthetic exercises it’s also interesting to note the differences between object manipulation and body management skills. Body management, object manipulation and locomotion skill are the three areas of physical literacy suspension training clearly falls under the body management category but doesn’t satisfy the object manipulation or locomotion skill categories. Suspension training shouldn’t be the only source of resistance exercise in a program.



Citations –


Please Stop Saying “TONE”!

Image result for i don't think that means what you think it means meme

If you’ve been around the gym a bit or you’ve been in the health-fitness-exercise field for any length of time you could probably retire if you had $1 for every time you heard someone say “I don’t want to get big, I just want to tone” or its myriad variations.

In this piece we’ll examine what tone actually is and it’s positive and negative aspects as well as try to examine what people really mean when they say that “tone” is something they want and what they may think the opposite of tone is – hypertrophy?

muscle tone

syn tonus (1) in skeletal muscle, a state of tension that is maintained continuouslyminimally evenwhen relaxedand which increases in resistance to passive stretch. Pathologically, loss of tone (flaccidity) can be caused,e.g. by peripheral nerve damage, and exaggerated tone (spasticity) by overstimulation, e.g. when the activity of the relevantlower motor neurons is released from higher CNS control in spinal injury. The term is sometimes also used, incorrectly, toindicate general muscle strength. (2) In smooth muscle, steady tension maintained in the walls of hollow vessels; regulatedmainly by autonomic innervation but influenced, e.g. in the walls of arterioles, by local variables: temperature, chemicalfactors or intravascular pressure, contributing to autoregulation of appropriate blood flow. See also stretch reflex.

Dictionary of Sport and Exercise Science and Medicine by Churchill Livingstone © 2008 Elsevier Limited. All rights reserved.
To get a visual of this concept, we have to understand the structure of our muscles and how the nervous system controls them. Skeletal muscle cells are long cylindrical cells that for the most part run the length of the muscle. They have a connective tissue covering called the endomycium. Muscle cells within any given muscle are grouped together into units called fasicles and these fasicles are also covered with a connective tissue called the perimycium. Groups of the groups of muscles cells (fasicles) make up the muscle itself and are covered with a connective tissue called the epimycium.
The connective tissues (endomycium, perimycium and epimycium) combine with each other at the ends of the muscle cells to form tendons which attach the muscle (muscle cells) to the bones and allow the contraction of the muscles cells to rotate the bones around the access of the body’s joints.
The nervous system and it’s nerve cells control the muscle cells. Each motor neuron and the muscle cells it innervates (attaches to) are called a motor unit. Some motor units and motor neurons control 1,000 muscle cells and some only control one muscle cell. In large muscles of the legs and torso where a gross or more general control is required we have fewer but large motor units. In muscles of the face, mouth, and hands where we require a fine tuned control, the motor units are small (one neuron for one muscle cell) and we have many of them so we can exert a very fine tuned control over the contraction (movement and tone) of those muscles.
The resting tone of a muscle is maintained by the asynchronous firing of the motor units within that muscle when it is not being told to contract voluntarily. It would look something like this.
Exercise, especially resistance training does have an effect on tone. But, it is not in the obvious way that the people that would say something like “I just want to tone, I don’t want to get big” may think.

The Motor Learning Effect

The motor learning effect is the reason that people gain strength in the initial stages of a resistance training program. This effect is most pronounced in people that were “un-trained” before they started the program. The gains in strength that these exercises have during the first stages of their program are because of the nervous system finding and recruiting motor units that it hasn’t used in a long time. The individual does not grow new muscle cells, new nerve cells or new motor units. Instead, due to the “overload” or the demands the new program puts on the person’s body causes the person to adapt by finding motor units that they haven’t been using. Now that the person can recruit this additional, previously un-utilized or under utilized motor units they can do more work or are stronger. Additionally, now that they have a larger pool of available motor units, their tone may improve because there are more motor units to do the asynchronous firing that creates the appearance of tone. This new level of resting tone, would be maintained in this manner.

After the first six weeks of a program, additional gains in strength will typically come from changes in the muscles cells themselves. That is the muscle cells must add contractile proteins (actin and myosin) organized in structures called sarcomeres that give them skeletal muscles their stripped or striated appearance. It’s much more difficult to get the muscle cells to hypertrophy or grow larger from adding contractile proteins. It requires taking in the right type, quality and quantity of nutrients, getting the right amount of sleep to maximize hormone levels for recovery and adaptation in the form of growth as well as the consistency of following a challenging resistance training program designed for hypertrophy. Not all resistance training programs are designed for hypertrophy. Programs can also be designed for improving muscular endurance, strength and power. The weight on the bar is only one of the many variables that is manipulated in program design and it is not the most important variable for hypertrophy programs. See also Strength and Why You Need It and The Truth About Body Weight Exercises.

So, it seems that the word Tone has been confused and combined by many with the concept of Hypertrophy. Now that we’ve established the difference, let’s talk about tone and it’s real implications.

Hypertonicity, Hypotonicity, Flaccidity and Spasticity

Tone can be conceptualized as a spectrum, a range or a scale. The middle of the scale would be normal, healthy average tone. The far left would be the absence of tone or flaccidity which is often the result of nerve damage and the far right of the scale would be spasticity or constant contraction of the muscle. The spastic condition is often the result of damage to the central nervous system. When a person says the want to tone, I don’t think they mean that they want to move toward the right of the scale towards a spastic condition of the muscle/s. It’s interesting that a neurological concept and term “tone” or “tonicity” has been coopted into a discussion of asthetics.

Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Strokes and other central nervous system conditions often result in a hypertonic state of muscle or spasticity. Often the flexor muscles or the extensor muscles are hyperactive together resulting in a flexor spasticity or an extensor spasticity and the goal of treatment is to lower or decrease the tone of the muscles. Nerve damage to the nerves in the extremities from trauma or Polio may result in faccidity or hypotonicity where no signals can get to the muscle cells and therefore there is no tone at all or a diminished tone. The concepts of tone and hypertrophy are very different though one form of muscular dystrophy (Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) connects the concepts in it’s symptoms. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is sometimes called the pseudohypertrophic type because the flaccid weak muscles seem to get larger or hypertrophy due to a build up of scar tissue.

Facilitation, Inhibition, Recovery and Contracture

Tone is a function of the nervous system and changes throughout the day, minute to minute, hour to hour. We try to maintain homeostasis of tone when at rest and adjust our tone upward or downward based on the needs of the activity and environment. Despite our best efforts and homeostatic mechanisms our tone does not always meet the demands of the circumstances and can snowball out of control.

 Facilitation, Warm Up and EPSPs –

The neurons that control your muscle cells, the ones that are part of the motor unit and directly connect to the muscle cells get signals from lots of other neurons in your central nervous system telling them what to do. These lower motor neurons, the ones that are part of the motor unit and directly attach to the muscle cells are getting signals from many different upper motor neurons (neurons of the central nervous system) as well as from sensory neurons coming from proprioceptors in the muscles themselves. Golgi Tendon Organs (GTOs) and Muscle Spindle Organs (MSOs) are the main proprioceptors that work as a servomechanism to help maintain normal levels of muscle tone. The GTOs make sure your tone doesn’t get to high by inhibiting the lower motor neurons and the muscle spindles make sure your tone doesn’t get to low by exciting the lower motor neurons.

There are of course times that we want to have more than the normal amount of tone so that our muscles are ready to contract without delay. This is accomplished by signals coming down the spinal cord upper motor neurons to the lower motor neurons and causing the lower motor neurons to fire more signals per second. This in turn cause the tone in the muscle to increase. The motor units are on ready. Facilitation of the lower motor neurons, bringing them closer to threshold and increasing their rate of firing is one of the results of and reasons for doing a warm up, movement prep, or the “activation” exercises that many trainers and therapist talk about. It’s also important to note that stress and worry will also cause more signals to travel down the upper motor neurons and facilitate the lower motor neurons increasing the resting tone of the muscles. This is one reason people often report a stiff, tight, or sore neck and shoulders when under stress for prolonged periods.

An Excitatory Post Synaptic Potential is what we call it when a neuron, in this case the lower motor neuron, is above it’s normal resting potential (-70mv) and closer to its threshold (the level at which it will fire an impulse.) Being close to its threshold or having an EPSP means that the neuron will fire more signals per second and in the case of this discussion, cause more motor units to contract and increase the resting tone.

Inhibition, Cool down and IPSPs –

Conversely, there are upper motor neurons that cause inhibition of the lower motor neurons. Parkinson’s disease illustrates the important function of these inhibitory upper motor neurons because the tremors and the eventual freezing or motor block is a function of too much tone or signals to the muscles because of a lack of inhibitory signals. The GTOs, the proprioceptor that causes inhibition is also important for lowering the firing rate of lower motor neurons, moving them further away from threshold and decreasing tone.

When we stretch and do other cool down activities like deep breathing, guided relaxation or a variety of recovery modalities like heat, cold, compression we can slow the firing of the excitatory neurons and increase the firing of the inhibitory upper motor neurons and the GTOs to slow the firing of the lower motor neurons and decrease the tone of the muscle. In this case, decreasing the tone of the muscle can help to switch it from catabolic energy expenditure mode to anabolic energy conservation and repair mode. Passive stretching and even foam rolling can stimulate the GTOs and increase inhibitory signals. More on this in Part 2.

An Inhibitory Post Synaptic Potential is what we call it when a neuron, in this case the lower motor neuron, is below it’s normal resting potential (-70mv) and farther away from its threshold (the level at which it will fire an impulse.) Being farther away from its threshold or having an IPSP means that the neuron will fire fewer signals per second and in the case of this discussion, cause the motor units to contract less frequently and decrease the resting tone.

Contracture –

Contracture is a condition of shortening and hardening of muscles, tendons, or other tissue, often leading to deformity and rigidity of joints. One way that contracture develops is due to nervous system disorders that cause an increase in tone. The increase tone puts the muscle in a shortened position which eventually causes it to loose its elasticity and the normal architecture of the muscle cells and connective tissue are replace with more inelastic connective tissue making the muscles hard to stretch preventing normal movement. Their can also be pain associated with contracture as well as decrease function. To “just want to tone” becomes even more of a troubling misunderstanding of the benefits of exercise when one considers that increase tone is a step on the way to contracture.

Recovery –

One of the goals of recovery modalities (see Part 2) is to decrease tone. To benefit from an exercise program, one must adapt to the exercise that is being done. This occurs by rebuilding and repairing the tissues used during the exercise so that they can perform more of the same type of exercise in the future. Recovery between workouts or exercise sessions is something that needs to be maximized to get the benefit of the exercise program. Maximizing recovery entails proper nutrition, proper sleep, proper hormone levels and normal levels of tone. Bringing the muscle tone back to normal after a training session signals the central nervous system that the stress is over and it can now release the rebuilding, repair or anabolic hormones. Normal tone in the muscles also allows the lymphatic and blood vessels to remove wastes and bring nutrients to promote the repairing and rebuilding process. Less tone is good for repair and recovery.

You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Tone is not the opposite of hypertrophy.

Suspension Training – Part II Old School

Here we discuss the history and use of Ropes and Rings.

Stay tuned for Part III where we discuss the research and use of suspension training.

I first came across the suspension ladder called the U.S.A. – Universal Strength Apparatus in 2010. I’ve reviewed it and compared it to other suspension trainers in Part 1. Here is a video of  Larry Betz (Director of Brooklyn Athletic Club) and I using the suspension ladder and demonstrating various exercises. I think it’s a very useful tool and has many features that make it one of the most versatile of the suspension trainers I’ve reviewed and used.

The original U.S.A. was made by Body Weight Culture but they no longer manufacture or distribute it. Here is my affiliate link to Amazon where you can get a suspension ladder made by WOSS. It is much less expensive than the original U.S.A.
Affiliate link:

You can also find the suspension ladder in the Amazon Store above.
It’s well made and a good value.
Thanks for watching.


Suspension Training Part I – Product Review

Welcome to Part I of the three part series on Suspension Training. In this video, we review the main suspension training products on the market based on their ease of use, features and unique selling propositions. Below the video is a product guide and resources for buying suspension trainers.

Part II of this series discusses some Low Tech Old School options like ropes and rings and provides a little historical context.

Part III of the series looks at the research and the application of suspension training.


The Blast Straps from Elite FTS were the first suspension trainer I used. They are rated for very heavy loads and have a very convenient metal clip that is used to attach them to squat racks or pretty much any other piece of equipment in the gym. The straps are separate (two individual anchor points) and so you can adjust the width of the handles.  The length adjustment of the straps is not the easiest as you must pull the thick (heavy duty) nylon strap through a small metal buckle. The length adjustment is very secure and you won’t worry about it slipping but I did find it challenging to get the straps the same length quickly between exercises when working with clients. The main limitation of these straps is that you can’t really use them for hooking your feet into. The handles are basically metal cable crossover handles. On the other hand, you could easily attach them to a sled and because of their weight rating, not be worried about them breaking.

TRX is probably the most well known suspension trainer. They certainly were at the forefront of the revival of suspension training. Therefore, their suspension training unit can be thought of as a gauge or bench mark to measure other suspension trainers against. What TRX has done that most of the other manufacturers have not (the exceptions being CrossCore, Redcord, and Primal 7) is offered instructor training courses and continuing education units for personal trainers/fitness instructors. These courses teach instructors how to utilize the straps and offer programming guidelines for one-on-one and group instructional environments. This approach to marketing, offering ceus and education to fitness professionals, has made TRX the most ubiquitous of the suspension trainers found in gyms and fitness settings. The strap itself has one anchor point and handles/stirrups that allow you to easily use the strap with both the hands or the feet. The strap’s length adjustment is one of the easiest both to lengthen and shorten with an easy locking clip to depress and a tab to pull on. Additional material keeps the excess part of the strap together with the weight bearing piece during exercise. Considering the other options on the market now, I’m not sure these features justify the price of the TRX equipment. Although not every manufacturer offers approved CEU courses, almost all provide manuals and DVD or web-based video resources on how to use their apparatus.

The Jungle Gym XT offers some unique features or upgrades when compared to the TRX. The handles are a formed plastic which makes them easier to get your feet/heels into and is easier to wash or keep clean as they can be wiped down with cloth and cleaning solution. The Jungle gym has two separate anchor points so the width can be adjusted and you can easily do unilateral work without having to secure the two sides of the apparatus together as is necessary with the units that have only one anchor point. The length adjustment is very similar to that of the TRX in its method and ease of use.

The CrossCore 180 changed the suspension game by adding a pulley so that the arms or legs can move independently in alternating or reciprocating fashion. This also increase the instability of the apparatus offering more challenge to stabilizing muscles and increased the number and types of movements (rotational movements) that can be done. Formerly called the War Machine, the pulley system also allows one to use the CrossCore as a cable machine by attaching a weight to one end. The handles allow you to use your hands or feet with the CrossCore and are very similar to the handles on the TRX. The main limitation of the CrossCore is adjusting the length of the straps. One can adjust the height of the pulley itself or one must cinch up the cord that runs through the pulley. Recently, CrossCore has addressed this issue by adding an additional piece of hardware that allows one to more quickly adjust the length of the strap/cord.

The Rip 60 is a suspension training apparatus for which Jillian Michaels is the spokesperson.  If I put aside the 60 minutes to get ripped marketing campaign and ignore the celebrity spokes person and all the problems I have with fitness celebrities in general and this one in particular, the unit itself is not bad. I first encountered it when I was teaching in the Dominican Republic at GoFit Gym. The Rip 60 features a wide strap like the TRX and Jungle Gym that is strung over a metal arch so that you can perform reciprocating and rotational exercises as with the CrossCore. The difference is not only the metal arch instead of a pulley, but also that the Rip 60 features this wide strap and length adjustment similar to the TRX and Jungle Gym. It also features interchangeable handles attached with carabiner clips. How long until the friction on the metal arch frays the strap and the unit needs to be replaced would depend on the usage. All the straps and clips will wear down eventually.

The Pure Motion AirFit Trainer is a suspension training device that offers a pulley and a spring. The spring absorbs force making it “glide on air.” At least I think that’s what the name signifies. What’s most unique about this unit is the large strap like handles that can wrap around arms, forearms, thighs, and other body parts. These large strap like handles can also be grabbed in many different ways. Pure Motion makes a rack system and the AirFit is just one of many accessories one can get to outfit their rack system. This is an important point in that suspension training is not a panacea, it’s just one of many modalities or tools that can be used in an exercise program. Especially with leg exercises in a standing position, I often wonder, why people are holding onto a TRX or other suspension trainer. Unless it’s remediation, wouldn’t that squat or plyometric exercise be more effective if you don’t hold onto something?

The Universal Strength Apparatus (USA) is one of my favorite suspension trainers. Sadly it is not manufactured under this name anymore by Body Weight Culture. Fortunately, WOSS (listed below) now manufactures the BEAST SUSPENSION LADDER which, for all intents and purposes is the same thing. The many handles that form a ladder make use of this unit easy because they all together eliminate the need to adjust the height of the unit. The fact that ladders were a staple of old school physical culture makes this even more appealing to me. With respect to transferability to job tasks and other climbing movements (climbing on ship rigging was an important skill) this unit is hours of fun.

The Truth About Body Weight Exercise

I’ve been seeing a wave of videos and articles on body weight exercises sometimes also called calisthenics. The word calisthenics comes from the Greek kalos beautiful + sthenos strength so it literally means “beautiful strength.” According to Merriam-Webster online, the first known usage of the word was in 1827 and its definition is “systematic rhythmic bodily exercises performed usually without apparatus.” Another definition from Google is “gymnastic exercises to achieve bodily fitness and grace of movement.” The “grace of movement” part is key to this discussion as Burpies and flailing on a chin up bar often look anything but graceful.

Due to the current popularity of body weight exercises or calisthenics it’s important to examine the myths, misconceptions, and most effective uses of these types of exercises.

“Body Weight Exercises Are Safer Than Lifting Weights”
I’ve heard this quite few times and it’s not factHamillually correct. If one compares a very complex weight lifting exercise like a barbell snatch to a simple body weight exercise like a plank then, all other things being equal, maybe. Conversely, if one compared a plyometric depth jump to a lat pull down then clearly the bodyweight exercise potentially more injurious. Both of these seemingly logical arguments are fallacious. Let’s look at the research. In a seminal study by Hamill that examined injury rates in school sports per participant hour, weightlifting and weight training had far fewer injuries than gymnastics or other endeavors using body weight.
Anything that’s done without attention whether it be manipulating an object or not is potentially injurious. One has to apply the principles of Precision, Progression, and Variety to all exercise selection. Applying proper technique to any movement and executing that movement precisely can help avoid injury. Selecting exercises that are appropriate to the level of the exerciser both in complexity and mechanical difficulty (weight, speed, etc) can help avoid injury. Progressing the complexity and difficulty in a systematic way with attention to the progress or adaptations that are occurring in the exerciser over weeks and months can also. Using a variety of movements, methods and techniques can avoid overuse or repetitive strain injuries in a program that isn’t specifically geared towards training those movements for a sport or job task. Even then, variety and doing different types of exercises during different periods or phases of the training program (Periodization) can also reduce the mental and physical wear and tear on the exerciser.

“All You Need To Do Is Body Weight Exercise”
 I like body weight exercises and gymnastics. I like ice cream and Italian ices too. But just because I like it doesn’t mean that that’s all I should do, or eat! There are a number of ways to approach this misconception but the largest, most important concept to apply is that of “Physical Literacy.” Physical literacy is comprised of three components; Locomotion Skills, Body Management Skills and Object Manipulation Skills. Before getting into what each of these is, it should be clear that to be physically literate, one needs all three types of skills. That is, one needs skill in manipulating objects. A bag of cement or dog food, grocery bags, lumber, tools, and even barbells, dumbells, kettlebells, sandbags, medicine balls and other apparatus that are found in the gym to mimic the types of objects we interact with in everyday life.
Locomotion Skills – involve transporting the body in any direction from one point to another. Examples are crawling, walking, running, hopping, leaping, jumping, galloping, skipping and swimming.
Body Management Skills – are usually large muscle activities required for controlling the body in various situations. These skills integrate agility, coordination, strength, balance, and flexibility. Body management skills involve balancing the body in stillness and in motion. Examples are static and dynamic balancing, rolling, landing, bending and stretching, twisting and turning, swinging, and climbing.
Object Manipulation Skills – these skills require controlling implements and objects such as balls, hoops, bats and ribbons by hand, by foot or with any other part of the body. Throwing, catching, kicking, striking, bouncing and dribbling are examples.
“Bigger, Faster, Stronger?”
Can calisthenics make you bigger, faster and stronger? Are they the best way to accomplish any or all of these things? Well, of course it depends on how you use the calisthenic or body weight exercise, what type of body weight exercise you’re using and where you are in your training/conditioning.
In training terms we use the word hypertrophy to describe an increase in size or muscle mass. Although size and strength often go hand in hand, they are actually two separate attributes. When one gets bigger one typically gets stronger but only to a point. When one gets stronger, one typically gets bigger but again, only to a point. Hypertrophy is an anatomical adaptation, that is, it is specifically a change in the structure of the muscle cells and specific muscle organ itself. Additionally, there are different types of hypertrophy of muscle cells. Typically we call these Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy and Myofibrillar Hypertrophy.
As you can see in the diagram to the right, the way in which we train influences the type of adaptation that occurs. Getting bigger (hypertrophy) can be aHypertrophy_transition result of adding more contractile proteins to the muscle cells (Myofibrillar Hypertrophy) or it can occur with more fluid accumulating in the cell (Sarcoplasmic Hypertropy.) The Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy would not result in a gain in strength as there is not an increase in the number of contractile proteins which are needed to increase force production or strength. Conversely, Myofibrillar Hypertrophy, where contractile proteins are added to the cells would result in both an increase in size and an increase in strength. Since calisthenic exercises like push ups, body weight squats, etc. typically require less force and therefore can be done for a long period of time (e.g. may repetitions), they loan themselves more to the development of Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy, that is an increase in size, not an increase in strength. Charles Atlas’ famous mail order program did not use weights, instead it used body weight calisthenic exercises to gain size and some moderate amount of strength. The exception or caveat to this discussion is a specific type of body weight or calisthenic exercises called Plyometrics. Plyometrics are a type of body weight movements performed explosively. Jumping, bounding, clap push ups and the like are examples of plyometric exercises. When performing this type of exercise, we apply the “speed rule”, that is every repetition is performed as fast as possible and the set is over when the speed cannot be maintained. By giving an all out effort during these exercises, they typically fall in the 1-5 rep range and may result in a increase in strength due to adaptations in the way the nervous system controls the muscles without a concurrent increase in size. Lastly, the term hypertrophy described here denotes a relatively permanent adaptation to repeated training, not the “muscle pump” that occurs due to increased blood flow and fluid accumulation around the muscle cells (not inside them) right after exercise which dissipates within a matter of minutes.
As we began discussing above, the type of body weight exercises called Plyometrics do have the potential to make one faster. However, it’s important to note that these plyoVolumeexplosive types of exercise put a lot more force on the joints and muscles and are therefore NOT for beginners. One must create a base of muscle, tendon, and ligament strength before adding Plyometrics to their program and one must be very careful about the volume of plyometric exercises that one does. Additionally, just because “Plyos” can increase speed and force production that does not mean they should be performed year round or be the only exercise technique in one’s program. The National Strength and Conditioning Association has some useful guidelines and criteria for determining if a person is ready to add “Plyos” plyoIntensityto their program, the progression of difficulty of different plyometric exercises (intensity), and the total recommended volume based on one’s training status.

How to Make an Exercise Wand (Health Wand)

Exercise Wands, sometimes called Health Wands or just referred to as Wands were a staple of early physical education and military training. The “Golden Age” of American Physical Education was from approximately 1880 to 1920. During this time, the “four horsemen” of exercise tools were Indian Clubs, Wands, Medicine Balls and Dumbbells. Here is a quick tutorial on how to make your own wand in a quick and cost-effective way. I was able to make 10 of them for my classes for under $100, and that included a nice set of files to add to my tool complement. 20160812_120356

The wands (a wooden dowel) had parallel origins in Eastern and Western physical cultures probably stemming from sword and martial traditions. Various military training manuals including the 1914 – Manual of Physical Training for Use in the United States Army, show that these wand exercises also became rifle exercises and could also be done with barbells.

“The object of these exercises, which may also be performed with wands or bar bells, is to develop the muscles of the arms, shoulders, and back so that the men will become accustomed to the weight of the piece and learn to wield it with that “handiness ” so essential to its successful use.”

In the 1896 book – Gymnastics : a text-book of the German-American system of gymnastics, published by the Normal School of the North America- Gymnastic Union the following description of the wand is given though no mention of its origin is discussed.

“The wand is a round stick, generally of wood or iron. Thickness, length, and weight should be in proportion to the person using it; viz., always long enough to form the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle, when the hands have grasped it at the extreme ends, and the arms are extended at right angles. When of wood the thickness varies from three-quarters of an inch to one and a quarter inches; when of iron, from five-eighths of an inch to one inch. The wand for the adult may weigh from five to eight pounds.”

The weight of the wand and the materials used to make them (wood or metal) suggest that the wand also morphed into the modern barbell as it got heavier. Many of the wand exercises, curls and overhead presses are standard barbell exercises today. Additionally, the resting and carrying position for the wand is describe as being like a gun suggesting the military origins of the wand. “when taken from its place, it should be carried like a gun, either at the right or the left side. The wand should rest on end on the first joint of the first finger, with the thumb brought around in front, pressing the wand firmly against the shoulder.”


Vintage wand exercise picture gallery.

In the video below we demonstrate the winding exercises with the wand. The following WINDING exercises are from the 1896 book – Gymnastics : a text-book of the German-American system of gymnastics, specially adapted to the use of teachers and pupils in public and private schools and gymnasiums / edited by W.A. Stecher. Though it’s likely these winding exercises were very prevalent during this time, this is the primary text with wand exercises that has these winding variations that I have been able to find so far in my research. There are two versions or types of winding, Winding with the Under Hold (reverse grip) and Winding with the Upper Hold (pronated grip.) The start position of the hands (reverse or pronated) and the start position of the wand, chest or hips (order arms) differs in addition to the ending relationship of the arm wound around the wand.

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How to Make Slosh Pipes and Why

Here are two videos on Slosh Pipes. How to make them, and some basic ways to use them. Picking up things that are unstable and shift or move while you hold them may be a more effective way to train stabilizing muscles than standing or laying on a surface that is unstable. See below for details.



The subject of strengthening the trunk muscles and the body’s core has become prevalent over the last 20 years. When we look at the use of unstable surfaces (physioballs a.k.s. Swedish balls, balance disks/platforms, Bosu balls, etc) and the use of unstable objects to lift (slosh pipes, slosh balls, weights suspended from bars, etc.) the topics of upper and lower extremity strengthening, and that of stabilizing muscles at the shoulder joint and hip also have been studied. These investigations go way back to the late 1990’s. Additionally, the subject of using the breath and specific breathing techniques has been studied. To effectively use any tool (slosh pipes, etc.) or method (anatomical breathing, biomechanical breathing or Valsalva maneuver) one must look at the available research to make appropriate decisions.

Starting with some older studies, research by McCool FD et al (1997) concluded that the cross-section of the diaphragm was increased (made stronger) by general (weight lifting) and specific (breathing) exercises.  This increase strength of the diaphragm should aid in increasing intra-abdominal pressure and assist in trunk stabilization. Mel Siff in Facts and Fallacies of Fitness (2002) further states that the holding of the breath and timing of breathing during exercise allowing the belly to distend automatically is of greater relevance than trying to pull it in (navel to the spine) during heavy lifting and pushing. He further suggests that reactive transversus abdominis activation is set off by changes in breathing pattern and tension changes in the diaphragm.  Similar evidence has been put forth more recently by Stuart McGill who also prefers the “bracing” maneuver to the “drawing in” maneuver for trunk and spine stability.

A full body approach to training the trunk and spinal stabilizers is currently overtaking the specific abdominal crunch and transversus abdominus activation methods. This is in part because the only time the trunk muscles will work independently of the limbs is when the body is suspended in water or air.  During activities, the body stabilizes as a whole which includes contributions from the periphery and the muscles, ligaments and soft tissues that stabilize the adjacent vertebrae. The speed at which the body must stabilize is very important and so a specific internally focused conscious activation of muscles may slow down the automatic processes by which we stabilize.  Although we may prepare and be able to stabilize slowly before some activities, many times (during falling, being pushed, etc.) we must stabilize in a dynamic, fast, explosive, or ballistic manner.  This recruitment of stabilizing muscles all over the body is under the control of preprogrammed processes (feed forward) and ongoing feedback from the proprioceptive and vestibular systems.  The proprioceptive system plays a larger role when the support is stationary and the vestibular system when the supporting is moving.

Balance on an unstable surface requires that the feet remain in a fixed position. Typically when a perturbation (destabilizing force) moves our center of gravity (COG) off of our base of support (BOS) we step to widen the base of support to stay balanced. When we do activities on balance apparatus, we now keep the feet and the space between them, the base of support, fixed so we must use another strategy to maintain our upright position or balance. These other strategies are different than what we use in life, work, sports where we would move the feet and change the base of support. Research has shown hip and ankle strategies to maintain balance when the feet are fixed in position on a balance apparatus in trained dancers. Studies showed may differences in the hip and ankle strategies used by subjects including inclining the trunk to maintain balance.

This post however isn’t about balance training, it’s about lifting unstable objects. When we begin to explore the research on lifting stable vs. unstable objects we find studies that compare barbell (stable) to dumbbell (unstable) exercises. One such study looked at changes in muscle activation during a barbell (BB) (coupled) and dumbbell (DB) (uncoupled) chest press exercise performed on an unstable surface. The results suggested that demands on the core musculature to provide stability are increased with the use of DBs (uncoupled) as opposed to a BB (coupled).

A similar study states that “Many believe that the most effective way to recruit the core stabilizing muscles is to execute traditional exercise movements on unstable surfaces. However, physical activity is rarely performed with a stable load on an unstable surface; usually, the surface is stable, and the external resistance is not.” In this study, the results indicated that as the instability of the exercise condition increased, the external load decreased so there was little support for training with a lighter load using unstable loads or unstable surfaces.

Two studies looked specifically at unstable load devices. The first examined a biceps curl exercise with a type of slosh pipe or unstable water filled tube.  The findings indicated that though bicep activation remained unvaried, compensatory activation of postural muscles contribute to postural stability and thus, the device may be a useful tool for neuromuscular training leading to improved stability and control. The second examined the differences in ground reaction forces and muscle activation in the trunk and leg muscles during unstable load (weights suspended from the bar by an elastic band) load training and a stable condition (a normally loaded barbell). The unstable load resulted in a decrease in ground reaction force compared to the normally loaded barbell condition. The unstable load id however produced greater muscle activation in the rectus abdominis, external oblique, and soleus. The authors concluded that “The findings of this study suggest that squatting with an unstable load will increase activation of the stabilizing musculature; and while force decrements were statistically significant, the decrease was so small it may not be relevant to practitioners.”

A third study compared holding a slosh-pipe-like device called the Attitube to lifting while laying on a swiss ball. A standard bench press on a stable bench was performed as a control. The effects of the location of instability (under the shoulders vs. in the hands) on kinematic and electromyographical patterns during the bench press exercise were examined. The results found trunk muscle activation was greatest during the bench press with the slosh-pipe-like tube and smallest during the standard stable bench press. Range of elbow flexion was decreased with the slosh-pipe-like tube and the pipe itself showed increased medial-lateral movement. The authors concluded that “The results further support the notion that instability devices may be more beneficial for trunk muscles rather than prime movers.”

As the position paper of the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiologists suggests, using instability exercises (whether balance like exercises or lifting unstable objects) can be part of a program but should not take the place of other traditional exercises as the results of the different types of training tools and methods are different.

“Since the addition of unstable bases to resistance exercises can decrease force, power, velocity, and range of motion, they are not recommended as the primary training mode for athletic conditioning. However, the high muscle activation with the use of lower loads associated with instability resistance training suggests they can play an important role within a periodized training schedule, in rehabilitation programs, and for nonathletic individuals who prefer not to use ground-based free weights to achieve musculoskeletal health benefits.”

Here are links to the studies mentioned above as well as some others comparing exercises on stable and unstable surfaces.

cut to the chase

Suspension Training

Do You Have Exercise ADD?

Do you LiveSocial, FitPon or GroupPass?

Do you move from class to class to find a bargain?

Do you rate a class or trainer on;


How tired/wrecked you are after?

How much yelling and loud music there was?

How much fun you had?

If others seemed to like it?


If you answered yes to any of the above, you may have – EXERCISE ADD.

Now, ask yourself this – Do you think you may be missing something? Do you have a nagging feeling that you’re “not getting it” and that there is actually something to “get.” Do you think there may be a big joke that you’re missing, and it may be on you? What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. Is this you?

If you answered yes to any of this second set of questions, then read on. If you answered yes to the first set of questions and no to the second set, then this article probably isn’t for you. If you answered no to the first set of questions, and yes or no to the second set, you may still want to read on, even though you probably don’t have EXERCISE ADD.


Truth be told, I just made it up. There isn’t really such a diagnosis in the ICD-10-CM but, maybe there should be. We all hear, and see, that there is an epidemic of poor fitness and health in the U.S., obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypokinesia, poor movement patterns, back-pain and other orthopedic issues. Approximately 20% of Americans exercise regularly, which means that 80% don’t. I’m not talking about the 80% here, I’m discussing the possibility that the 20% is actually much less because of EXERCISE ADD.Attentionanigif

There are many similarities between the way most people approach exercise and the characteristics of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.) The problem is that this stops most people from getting the true benefit of exercise as opposed to the benefit of activity. The irony is that the non-pharmacological treatment of ADD/ADHD that has been shown to be one of the most effective is EXERCISE! Or at least lots of physical activity.

According to HealthLine, there are 3 main types of ADD/ADHD; Inattentive, Hyperactive-Impulsive, and Combined. As a trainer, coach, instructor and entrepreneur/solopreneur working in “fitness” for more than 20 years, I have noticed these behaviors or symptoms in the way a majority of American Adults approach health and fitness. Fortunately, I”m not trying to make a living training the majority. Here are some examples of the similarities between adult American’s fitness behaviors and symptoms of ADD/ADHD.

Some other behaviors such as getting up from a seat when remaining seated is expected and running around or climbing in inappropriate situations are appropriate for exercise situations but they would be classified as activity, not exercise and when done at inappropriate times, even in a gym or fitness setting can create potentially injurious situations for all involved. Likewise, the benefit of a program is mitigated by the inappropriate application of work (climbing) and rest (sitting) intervals. Possibly more insidious is the likelihood that these behaviors preclude the individual from more focused skill based pursuits because they are unable to quietly play or take part in leisure activities.

According to HealthCentral, some of the manifestations of Adult ADD/ADHD include; beginning, but not completing tasks, being easily distracted and missing important details of conversations, and a lack of self motivation, even if the project sounds like something you would like to complete. Additional symptoms of adult ADD/ADHD that make participation in any meaningful (involving progression and requiring precision) exercise pursuits include;

AdultADDEmotionanigifSelf-efficacy and coachability are things we look for in those attempting to learn and become expert in sport or other pursuits. Coachability is a criterion and section in most sports combines. Certainly someone that doesn’t deal well with frustration, is easily stressed out, is hypersensitive to criticism, and has trouble staying motivated will have difficulty participating in any meaningful (again, involving progression and requiring precision) fitness pursuit. Our society and the fitness industry especially has taken the path of least resistance in its approach to exercise and catered to this EXERCISE ADD/ADHD problem instead of trying to fix it. This starts with participation trophies and extends to walk-in classes with no progression or precision that use the most simplistic movements/exercises to cater to the masses. It continues with fitness organizations that advocate “finding something you like and sticking with it” as if any and all exercise has the same result and benefit. Methods that claim to teach proper technique, movement, posture and strengthen the core are also at fault as they cater to those that don’t know that have been fooled into thinking these things are an end in themselves and not a foundation for actual work/exercise. The problem is further compounded by a blurring of any distinction between activity and exercise and completely distorted by fitness gurus that offer quick and easy solutions and explanations to a problem and process that is neither quick nor easy to explain or solve. Quite literally, this is a form of HEALTH/FITNESS CENSORSHIP.

In the coda to a reprinting of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury discusses the more insidious form of censorship that occurs in the interest of mass-appeal and, sadly, profit and market share;

“Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ’em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?

Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito – out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch – gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer – lost!

Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like – in the finale – Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention – shot dead.”

Ray Bradbury

Other fitness experts admonish Personal Trainers for being biased in the programs they design. They accuse other trainers of not focusing on the clients’ goals and needs but instead using the methods and exercises the trainer likes regardless of the clients’ goals. This is an oversimplification. Is the Trainer, Coach, or Teacher a servant pandering to the wants of the client or participant? Or, is the Trainer, Coach or Teacher an Expert Physical Educator leading the clients and participants on a journey to self actualization through a curriculum of physical education, culture and skill? Many of the same fitness experts fail to call “foul” on the Method gurus that clearly teach one biased method as that is all they are trained to teach. The marketing and pseudo science of these Methods overshadows principles and research but somehow that is okay in the fitness industry. Has our fitness industry and physical education system succeeded in making good consumers but failed in making a physically literate population? Are exercise and fitness simply entertainment or are they more profoundly linked to the very core of what it means to be human? Certainly Physical Educators would agree to this profound linkage between physicality and our humanity but the fitness industry instead promotes or even takes advantage of the EXERCISE ADD/ADHD of our population and compounds it with a pandering, slederized, demarrowed version of exercise that won’t demand so much as one instant of attention. We have succeeded in making good fitness consumers but failed in making a physically literate population. Planet Fitness epitomizes how far we’ve strayed from meaningful exercise pursuits. Look here to see just how bad it’s gotten.


 “The great thought of physical education is not the education of the physical nature, but the relation of physical training to complete education, and then the effort to make the physical contribute its full share to the life of the individual”

Thomas Wood, 1893



There’s a difference between exercise and activity. There is a difference between programmed, progressive exercise and activity masquerading as exercise. The definition of exercise is “activity requiring physical effort, carried out especially to sustain or improve health and fitness. Physical Activity on the other hand is defined by the World Health Organization as “as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure.” Notice that in the definition of Physical Activity, there is no mention of its purpose of improving health. Also, notice that neither definition mentions anything about progression, precision, variety, quality or quantity of exercise or activity. In order to begin to examine the aspects of quantity and quality (intensity necessary to make a change) of exercise or activity we have to look to American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM and most authorities define moderate exercise as 40-60% VO2max: 3-6 METs (an intensity well within the individual’s capacity, one which can be comfortably sustained for a prolonged period of time (45min). Whereas, vigorous exercise is > 60% of VO2max; > 6 METs; exercise intense enough to represent a substantial cardiorespiratory challenge.

Although one should start of slow and progress (e.g. low to moderate to vigorous) and although the main disease prevention benefits are obtained by those at the lowest end of the fitness spectrum adding a minimal amount of activity, this certainly does not make better citizens ready for labor and defense or citizens able to live lives filled with quality experiences and pursuits. Instead of raising people up, we’ve lowered the bar for all but the elite few with athletic potential. When ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) released its first recommendations regarding quality and quantity of exercise for development and maintenance of fitness in adults, Military Readiness was the established criterion for their recommendations of exercise frequency, intensity, duration and mode. These recommendations would achieve in healthy adults the development and maintenance of a level of fitness similar to that required by all Military Troops for readiness. Note the change in goal or objective in 2000 from fitness to health and the concurrent change from the recommendation of continuous activity to a cumulative total.

ACSM’s recommendations for Frequency, Duration and Intensity of Cardiovascular Exercise 1975-2000.


Starting with ACSM’s position stand in 1990 and subsequent exercise recommendations there was a shift away from an exclusively “performance-related fitness” paradigm to one that includes activity recommendations for both performance and health-related outcomes: “ACSM recognizes the potential health benefits of regular exercise performed more frequently and for longer duration, but at lower intensities than prescribed in this position statement.” This was repeated in the 1998 position statement. Additionally, over the years, ACSM has added more complete recommendations for Resistance Training, added flexibility training guidelines and most recently added recommendations for and about Neuromotor exercise.

Neuromotor Exercise

  • Neuromotor exercise (sometimes called “functional fitness training”) is recommended for two or three days per week.
  • Exercises should involve motor skills (balance, agility, coordination and gait), proprioceptive exercise training and multifaceted activities (tai ji and yoga) to improve physical function and prevent falls in older adults.
  • 20-30 minutes per day is appropriate for neuromotor exercise.

Despite all this useful scientific inquiry the split between recommendations related to “performance based fitness” and public health related “disease risk reduction” activity and the lesser known swept-under-the-rug because it will discourage people weight maintenance recommendations, we still lack a realistic and sustainable system of exercise. The aforementioned Institute of Medicine study recommended  60 minutes per day for the purpose of weight maintenance going against other public health recommendations for 30 minutes per day. The primary recommendations, for health and fitness tend to focus on cardiovascular exercise, probably because it is easier to study and quantify, the fitness and/or disease prevention recommendations for resistance training, flexibility and neuromuscular exercise are not as well established, reported on, or disseminated. Conversely, methods of exercise such as Pilate’s, Yoga, Crossfit and others are advertised but lack evidence to support their effectiveness, efficacy, or the underlying principles that make them effective. If they are effective.

“After the release of the IOM report, headlines and articles in the popular press focused on “twice as much exercise as before.”

Although the ancient Greeks, early European exercise systems and early American physical educators understood the connection between physical education, fitness and the whole human. Instead of appealing to our better nature, we’re being duped by a fitness industry that caters to the ADD/ADHD, edutainment, reality TV, exertainment basest side of our nature. Which wolf wins? The one you feed.


runAmokAlthough the ancient Greeks, early European exercise systems and early American physical educators understood the connection between physical education, fitness and the whole human. Instead of appealing to our better nature, we’re being duped by a fitness industry that caters to the ADD/ADHD, edutainment, reality TV, EXER-tainment basest side of our nature. Which wolf wins? The one you feed.


I’ve often had potential students/clients that introduce themselves as “experienced boot campers”, “experienced exercisers”, or say they “just need a few sessions to get started” because they “played ball” in college. I’d like to have a Fitness-SAT or Exercise-SAT to measure these people with. Or, more importantly, use as a mirror by which they could measure and see themselves in a more realistic way. Just because you participate in the things that you are good at and have success in them because they are the things you have an aptitude for and therefore like them does not mean you are good at everything else. Nor does it mean that you will continue to grow beyond your initial success. This is a form of cognitive bias is called illusory superiority. The Dunning-Kruger effect is an extension of the behaviors of those with illusory superiority which seems, by my experience to be rampant in fitness settings – once a person knows a few exercises and has achieved some minimal result, they fancy themselves and expert. Additionally, the advertising and acolytes of a specific method or technique tend to be very vocal while the experts tend to be more quite. Fitness marketers and advertisers seem to prefer incorrect information disseminated loudly with confidence over correct information that is complex delivered with humility and deference.

Wait!!! I almost forgot. There is a way to determine what “level” a potential client is at with respect to fitness and physical literacy, it’s called fitness testing. Sadly, though there are many appropriate fitness testing batteries (FitnessGram, YMCA, Eurofit, and many customized batteries for specific populations most commercial gyms do not use these tests because it may create a barrier to entry. A barrier to entry. Actually educating someone may stop them from participating. That in and of itself demonstrates how far our exercise ADD has gone. We don’t want to make people think or have them understand where they are in relation to fitness or even understand what fitness is.

Fitness testing batteries typically focus on the main aspects of fitness; cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal (endurance, strength, and flexibility) and body composition. Since most exercise ADD sufferers don’t have the bandwidth to devote to ALL these aspects, they just want to do ONE of them. They just do “cardio”, they just do “weights”, they just do some method for “flexibility” and “core strength” but they miss the complete picture. Their ADD distracts them from attaining a full, balanced picture of health and the fitness industry supports this. At least their buying something. Most fitness clubs don’t want to pay trainers more than a minimum wage and dismiss college educated physical education, exercise science, or fitness management majors as being over qualified and too expensive. Instead, the foster the prolific sales people and the prolific sales people typically sell by appealing to the basest nature of the populations ADD. Keeping them ignorant and happy.

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Even within the realm of resistance training, the microscopic focus on one way to use weights (e.g. bodybuilding) nscatableas opposed to the way weights can be used to foster many different aspects of human performance (muscular endurance, strength, and power) is fostered by a lack of an understanding of what a true “expert” in weightlifting really knows. The NSCA has a developed a table which can be found on page 350 of the Essentials of Personal Training, 2nd edition by which a clients’ weightlifting experience can be determined, yet the distraction of big biceps draws the limited attention of most exercisers and puts acolytes on a pedestal while the true experts must be sought out. Seeking out experts is beyond the attention span of most of the population and so they are relegated to the substandard pandering product of commercial gym chains.

A person with enough experience in resistance training to be considered “advanced” would need to know >15 free weight and machine core (multiple joint, load the trunk, safely test a 1RM) and assistance (single joint) exercises and most power/explosive exercises. Most commercial gyms don’t allow lifting chalk, much less have bumper plates or qualified staff to teach these exercises. Yet so many adults that have taken a few circuit classes or know how to do a few dumbbell exercises consider themselves advanced and nobody calls foul on them or the industry that allows them to have this distorted view of their own level of expertise. Once again, though them measurable elements of musculoskeletal fitness can be qualified, it’s only the Method Gurus that hold the ersatz credibility of teaching something deep, meaningful and worthwhile.

In addition to being able to qualify what it means to be advanced as a “weightlifter” or resistance training participant, we can also quantify it through fitness testing. Based on one’s body weight there are strength ratios considered to be average for specific lifts which can be adjusted by age and gender. With other methods, the discretion of what is advanced in either quality or quantity is left to ersatz experts and subjective assessment. It maybe too far to say these subjective assessments are designed to keep students needing the instructor instead of fostering their journey to self actualization, so I’ll let you decide. Not giving criteria, a road map, lesson plan or specific learning outcome for exercisers to focus on appeals to the ADD nature of the typical American fitness consumer.

The man who grasps principles can successfully handle his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Methods are a million and then some, but they appeal to those that want simple answers and can’t muster the attention to take control of their fitness- those with EXERCISE ADD. A better solution would be to run gyms and fitness education like a dojo. Starting in grade school physical education class children should be taught the basics of Physical literacy: Locomotor skills, Object Manipulation skills and Body Management skills. This can be done through a structured curriculum that includes gymnastics, track, and swimming as well as various martial arts and weighted objects such as Indian Clubs, Medicine Balls, Dumbbells and Barbells. Sports and games as well as free play can be part of recess while PE classes focus on education and structured movement. Perhaps then, we’ll have an adult population with a better appreciation of how the physical is a means to the full life of an individual. There was a golden-age of physical education in the U.S. we need to get back to it and stop letting corporations, venture capitalists and private equity make money by taking advantage of our EXERCISE ADD.

“With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”

Ray Bradbury




Five Reasons I Should Love CrossFit


1- It’s the Punk Rock of the Fitness Industry

There are two main areas in which CrossFit is like Punk Rock. The first is that it seems to be a reaction to the the mechanized, commercialized, corporate owned fitness industry in much the same way as Punk was a reaction against the Prog Rock bands of the 1970’s. Many a rock historian and article has described the stripped down composition, instrumentation, and delivery of Punk Rock as a reaction to the oft described self indulgent virtuoso guitar and drum solos of the Prog Rock era. The bare bones garage gym aspect of CrossFit tools and workouts is very similar in its juxtaposition to the rows of treadmills, elipticals, and selectorized equipment found in the corporate owned chain gyms that have become the industry standard. Punk’s roots in the garage band era make the garage gym aspect of CrossFit a poetic connection further supporting the analogy.

The second similarity between CrossFit and Punk Rock is the any-man, every-man inclusive nature of both. It’s often said that every Ramones’ show spawned a number of local musicians or music fans to start their own bands. The idea that forming one’s own band and creating one’s own music became accessible through early Punks as opposed to only virtuoso musicians getting corporate backed record contracts is a hallmark of the Punk era. This is parallel to the CrossFit affiliates opening their own garage gyms and boxes with little formal education in fitness but just an enthusiasm and love for exercise and movement. 

2- A Modern Turnverein

In 1811 the roots of American Physical Culture were laid down in Germany. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn started an open air gymnasium called a turnplatz to build the spirit of his countrymen after their defeat by Napoleon. The Turnplatz (later Turnverein or Turner Hall) aimed to develop the moral and physical powers of Germans through the practice of gymnastics. The German Gymnastics System founded by Jahn was became the basis for physical education and military training in the United States. There are many similarities between this Turnverein or German Gymnastics movement and CrossFit, not the least of which is the seeming cult-like following or loyalty that Cross-fitters have for CrossFit. The Turnverein movement was largely used to build Nationalism in the German people and to train them to resist and defend against FrMilwaukee_Bundesturnhalleench and other invaders. Group gymnastics and training is a well utilized method for creating esprit de coure and loyalty amoung groups which countries around the globe have used to train their soldiers. The Turnvereins are the start of the modern use of this technique for building loyalty and gave birth to United States physical readiness training with military units of German Turners fighting in the Civil War and becoming some of the first to be responsible for physical training of U.S. soldiers. It’s no wonder that this type of group training would inspire loyalty among Cross-fitters or that the largest concentrations of CrossFit boxes is in the areas around Washington D.C. and San Diego where so many military families are stationed. The development of loyal members and brand ambassadors is something CrossFit has accomplished better than the corporate owned gym chains and mainstream fitness industry which sadly focuses on the individual (Personal Training) instead of on developing better citizens which was the goal of the Turnverein movement.

The similarities between the German Gymnastic System and CrossFit are also found in the tools and methods used. Crossfit uses gymnastics and German Gymnastics clearly used tumbling/gymnastics (which is what the name Turner comes from.) Turner Halls were filled with bars, horses, ropes and ladders. The Turnplatz o1800Gym(medium)r outdoor exercise parks originally created by Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths  a contemporary of Jahn before they moved indoors (Turner Hall or Turnverein) had large rig-like climbing structures the basis for children’s jungle gyms, monkey bars and now the “rigs” used in many CrossFit boxes commonly known as “CrossFit Rigs”.


Jahn and GutsMuths German Gymnastic System required complicated movements or exercises and used external resistance like dumbbells. The use of barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls, complex gymnastic and Olympic Weightlifting movements in CrossFit is more in line with the German System than the Swedish Gymnastic System of Per Henrik Ling which utilized slower exercises that could be corrected more easily by an instructor than the more complex exercises of the German System. Both Systems, Swedish and German were based on creating a sense of Nationalism and training citizens to be ready for labor and defense of their countries. These Systems became the foundation for military and physical education training in the United States.

As a “modern turnverein”, CrossFit has possibly brought us back to a focus on the group and not the individual. It has brought back exercises, tools, and methods that ready the individual for labor and defense, not just decreasing disease risk, improving quality of life and personal satisfaction or the aesthetic goals that are inward and individual as opposed to focused on being a contributing member of society. The Turners often served as the firefighters in their towns and this social responsibility aspect of fitness is something CrossFit may be leading us back to.


3- Low-Tech High-Effect

The idea that people need complex computerized equipment in order to be strong, mobile, healthy and fit doesn’t make sense. Clearly it makes money, the equipment manufacturing business is going well, but it doesn’t make sense. Recently we’ve capitalized on this nonsense and managed to monetize it by creating a new term “functional fitness.” Of course, I’m not sure if you can call it fitness if it’s not functional but the point is that we did very well for 1000’s of years without treadmills, ellipticals and a separate selectorized weight machine for each movement/muscle group at each joint.

During the golden age of physical culture and education in the United States (1885-1920), the Four Horsemen of fitness were Dumbbells, Medicine Balls, Wands, and Indian Clubs. The wands eventually became barbells, the dumbbells transitioned from wood to iron and got heavier, the medicine balls morphed from their origin as an animal bladder filled with sand, to stitched leather, to rubber and synthetic materials that can bounce or not depending on your preference. Sadly, the Indian Clubs got lost in the basement storeroom of many a YMCA and schoolhouse only to be taken out occasionally and used as bowling pins until they we’re finally discarded or ended up as a curio on someone’s shelf or coffee table. The point is that these implements for external resistance and gymnastics (calisthenics, tumbling, climbing and hand balancing) are more than sufficient for development of body, mind, and spirit. CrossFit certainly has brought back this Spartan low tech equipment. Event Indian Clubs or Clubbells are making a comeback in the CrossFit boxes across the country and in some cases even the Health Wands.

Part of the effect of using these low-tech tools comes from the concentration it they require. It seems that somewhere along the way, the concentration and mental aspect of training was put into the design of the equipment so that the exerciser would not have to focus, think or be present in anyway other than in body.

This certainly increased revenue for equipment manufacturers and commercial gym chains with membership fees and at least in theory decreased litigation as the machines are often designed to be “dummy proof.” However, it’s the very stimulation of the nervous system that increases the effectiveness of most types of exercise. Whether that is recruiting more motor units in a given muscle or requiring the nervous system to plan and execute complex and organized movements requiring many different muscle groups and body segments. At the very least the attention to breathing during skilled movements adds to their effectiveness.

The use of these low-tech tools has been made popular again in large part due to the popularity of CrossFit. The ubiquity and notoriety of CrossFit has attracted many to Olympic lifting and “strong man” type training. Since most people don’t know what a Black Iron Gym is and they are hard to find, a CrossFit box is where someone looking for a place where they can drop weights, do Olympic Lifts, use chalk, climb ropes, and do other things that aren’t allowed in Planet Fitness can go.  United States Weightlifting (USAW) has seen a resurgence in the popularity of Olympic Lifting and many other instructors and educators of these “Old School”, “Low Tech” methods have seen an increase in the number of workshops, speaking engagements, and participants in the disciplines they teach.  Where the average exerciser used to “do the elliptical”, now most advertisements for fitness related products feature kettlebells, ropes tire flipping and other images the general public now associates with CrossFit type training.


4- Do It Yourself (DIY)

I like building, making and the sense of accomplishment I get from doing something myself. Although it’s beyond the point of this post to discuss the lack of art and shop in schools, these, along with the lack of funding and emphasis for music and gym have created a deficit in problem solving skills and three dimensional thinking in our population. The skill set of citizens 100 or 200 years ago was much larger and varied than that of our current population and I think we’re poorer as a society for it. But I digress, the point is that I have not since the early days of the NSCA seen the volume and emphasis on how to build one’s own equipment and training tools that CrossFit has brought back.

The goal of the Turner Movement mentioned above was to create better citizens and develop their moral and physical power. More skills, more problem solving, more attention to learning and expanding one’s scope with respect to things outside of the actual physical exercise makes for a more robust experience and culture. Making one’s own equipment and setting up one’s own “garage gym” certainly fits this bill especially when compared to the economy of scale, compartmentalized, operating procedures of commercial fitness chains and franchises.

I fondly remember an article in the NSCA journal on how to build your own plyo boxes and one from on how to outfit your team training facility on a budget with items from the hardware store. There are many CrossFit journal articles, youtube videos, and blog posts that show how to make your own equipment. This explosion in the DIY equipment has at least in-part been fueled by CrossFit.

The other DIY aspect of CrossFit is it’s business model. The barriers to entry and cost is very low compared to franchise opportunities in fitness which can make opening a “box” very much a DIY proposition. CrossFit operates as an affiliate system with a licensing agreement.


So, Why Am I Not a CrossFit Affiliate?

Because I am a teacher and Dean at a health professions college, because I teach continuing education courses for fitness professionals, and have been in the “fitness industry” for 22 years, students and other professionals as well as clients often ask me what I think of CrossFit. Like most things about health, fitness and exercise, this is not an easily answered question for me. The easy answer is that I simply wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member. There’s more to it though, as I’m conflicted by the positive and negative aspects of CrossFit as well as by the positive and negative aspects of National Certifying Agencies for Personal Trainers, the Health and Fitness Industry, Physical Education, and Commercial Health Club Chains, our healthcare systems, etc and they are all related.

The Ramones are more popular now than when they were making records and touring. It’s better to be the first than to be the best and being part of a group or movement can have both positive and negative results. There are many interviews and articles that discuss the possibility that the nefarious behavior of the Sex Pistols made the radio stations shun the Ramones. This may have set the Ramones up for not having the commercial success they might have otherwise achieved. I don’t think that commercial success for a band or a fitness brand is a mark of “selling-out”. Regardless of the amount of financial success a business or venture achieves, it should remain true to itself and, as Simon Sinek says “Start with Why.” What that “why” is and what the actual beliefs, mission, and purpose of a brand, business or venture are versus what their marketing and advertising say they are is important and influences who I associate myself with. What is their Noble Purpose? How brands and businesses actually represent themselves in public speaks more to me than what they say they believe.

In the 1920’s we moved away from the structured physical education based on the Swedish and German Systems to a physical education system based on sports and games. Now we have a physical education system that is geared toward identifying and developing athletic talent instead of improving moral character and making better citizens. The mainstream fitness industry, national exercise organizations, and corporate fitness gym chains have not addressed this, but CrossFit a reaction against this fitness status quo, hasn’t either. The slogan “The Sport of Fitness” takes the potentially powerful similarities CrossFit has with the Turner Movement and directs them toward perpetuating the actual problem as I see it – we need to use exercise to build moral and physical power to make better citizens NOT to funnel a select few into sports or create a new sport by turning fitness into a sport. “The program prepares trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown but for the unknowable, too.” sounds good but based on what I feel the real issues are regarding Physical Culture in our country- Sports Culture not Physical Culture is contradicted by calling CrossFit “The Sport of Fitness.”

The more low-tech the tools are the more high-tech the execution progression, variation, and precision needs to be to use them safely and effectively. With great power comes great responsibility and these low tech tools are certainly powerful so the responsibility of teaching people to use them increases exponentially. The low barrier to entry for coaches and trainers is a problem with the fitness industry in general that CrossFit has not addressed though they claim to the alternative to the mainstream fitness industry. Few national certifying agencies required more than a high school diploma to qualify for exams and the few that do only require secondary education for some of their certifications. Only one organization still has a practical exam requirement for certification. The original Swedish and German Systems were taught at Universities and those physical educators and physical education majors were actually the equivalent of today’s premed students. That is, students that studied phys ed could go onto medical school and practice medicine or go on to teach physical education in schools. Exercise was medicine and still is medicine but the practitioners (today’s personal trainers and coaches) are often just acolytes following a prescribed method or technique with no real understanding of the underlying principles and natural laws. CrossFit is not very different from the fitness status quo in this respect.

“Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss. As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

 Ralph Waldo Emerson

01principleIn any field including the fields of exercise physiology, training, coaching and exercise instruction there are certain principles or “law or facts of nature” that underlie why things work and why we organize or do things the way we do them. One of these principles is the SAID principle- Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. Adaptation means that you will adapt or get better at what you are doing or practicing. However, if you always do the same thing, the principle of accommodation will become relevant as the system stops adapting, plateaus, or becomes more efficient and is able to use less energy to do the work. The system will settle instead of continue to change or grow. Staying in the phase of adaptation and not moving into accommodation requires that the stimulus (exercise) increase in its intensity or duration. Randomly changing the type of exercise doesn’t cause us to continue to adapt be cause of the principle of specificity. That is, you’ll specifically adapt based on the type of demand or stress you put on the system (provided it is not too great a demand to break the system.) If 03methodyou run you get better at running but not swimming or cycling though they could all be considered cardiovascular or aerobic activities; if you lift lighter weights for many repetitions you get good at lifting weights for many repetitions but it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to lift a very heavy weight one time though in both cases you are using weights. Likewise if you consistently do something to exhaustion (As Many Reps As Possible) you learn to become slow and fatigued instead of fast and powerful. So, although I agree with the statement “The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree, not kind.” I cannot agree with the statements “CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity.” and “Our specialty is not specializing.” because these statements go directly against the laws or facts of nature (e.g. principles.)

02systemThe website DifferenceBetween describes the differences between a system and a me04techniquethod as “While system is all about principles, method does not revolve around principles. This is the main difference between method and system.” and that “Method refers to a special form of procedure especially in any branch of mental activity. Method is all about orderliness. In other words it can be said that method is related to regular habits.” So, CrossFit is a method in the same 05toolway that Pilates, Feldenkrais, Alexander, and Yoga practice in the U.S. are methods. These methods can be useful at different times but they do not offer an answer or way to fully actualize all aspects of health, fitness, and social responsibility the way the older Systems did. These methods often employ powerful techniques and tools but their effectiveness is due to the principles they may in some cases by accident, luck or by intuition stumble across. This is not okay. Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said, and clearly I agree

“If you want to think the world is flat, go right ahead. But if you think the world is flat and you have influence over others, as with successful rappers, or even presidential candidates, then being wrong becomes being harmful to the health, the wealth and the security of our citizenry.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

definitionsThe Germans, the Swedish, The English and The Americans had Systems in the 1800’s and there was a “Battle of the Systems” in the U.S. as physical education was introduced into the public schools in 1855. But, systems are based on principles and principles are laws or truths. Somewhere along the way we’ve become too focused on methods and have stopped seeing the forest because we’re too focused on the trees. Any “method” that causes us to move away from the principles that can actually allow us to help people is something I cannot condone.

Do it yourself is great if and when it leads to self expression, growth and self-actualization. But when downloading workouts and following along with videos takes the place of structured, precise programs, when variety for the sake of variety becomes the norm, when the systematic approach of professionals is considered to be on par with the application of methods and techniques by enthusiasts and amateurs, we need to be cautious and stand for what is most helpful for the health, the wealth and the security of our citizenry.

I will continue to use circuits, Olympic lifts, gymnastics, Pilates’s and Feldenkrais exercises as they fit the needs, goals and level of the people that I have influence over. I will continue search the past and the present to view, understand, organize and catalogue exercises, methods and technique based on the principles, laws and research in the fields anatomy, physiology, neurology, motor learning and exercise physiology that I have studied. I won’t be spending large amounts of time and money to gurus and false profits that created methods but don’t understand principles and though in some ways it is has parallels and similarities to my philosophy and system, I won’t become a CrossFit affiliate.

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