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A Hierarchy of Physical Training for (Busy) Adults, or “Fitness for the Rest of Us”

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Kurtis Bednarcyk, CFSC

Which of the following have you done most recently?

  1. Slog through an arbitrary number of burpees or [insert any trending “fat burning” exercise here] in the name of caloric output
  2. Skip, somersault, or climb a tree
  3. Spent 30 minutes or more on your smartphone or other tech device

If you’re over the age of about 25, chances are pretty good you haven’t answered with #2. And I can’t say I blame ya; the societal expectation as we progress into adulthood is that we phase out play in favor of responsibility – or at least the appearance of it. A pessimistic view, perhaps, but I know from personal experience that a 30-year-old man crawling around barefoot at the local park is more shocking to some than the average trip to the grocery store, during which one might count a few dozen full-grown adults staring into 6-inch screens while recklessly swerving metal carts through shelves piled high with processed meats and Hostess Cakes.***


***In my own little fantasy a serial cart-wheeler alleges, “But Coach Kurt, I don’t have time to work out!” to which I of course reply, “hold the phone, mister…that’s baloney!” and proceed down the aisle with my own series of cartwheels, roundoffs, and other various tumblings.

All joking aside, I sympathize. Time is precious and responsibilities/bills/etc. can pile up quickly. But all the time or money in the world means next to nothing without your health and well-being, and to that point, physical exertion is a requirement, not a choice. So, the burning question becomes “how do you prioritize training with limited time?” Let’s find out!

A major disease plaguing our civilization is inactivity in general. Desk jobs, ever-improving technology and comfy couches have resulted in far more sitting than any previous time in human history. If you’re mostly sedentary, aim to walk/garden/do SOMETHING ambulatory for about 30 minutes per day. Maybe that means having to set an alarm on your phone to take a lap around the office every half hour. Don’t care how you do it, but simply, ya gotta get it done! This is quite literally steps 1 through ~3000.

I’m a strong advocate of adult “play,” and in my opinion, the goal for 95% of adults should simply be to continually increase the capacity for that physical autonomy; on another day, perhaps, I’ll argue why adding some play to the mix produces a NET GAIN in time and productivity, and therefore is appropriate for, well, everyone. But, when we’re brand new to this earth, we don’t start with backflips and handstands - or burpees, even – so it’d be inappropriate to start there after 10, 20, 30 years hunched over at a desk. Many adults are so far removed from their physical roots that they need to rewire some of the child-like attributes that have been passed over through the years. We’ll call this redevelopment general physical preparedness (GPP). GPP is somewhat subjective over the activities in which one may choose to engage (think rec kickball vs. say, kitesurfing), but for simplicity’s sake we’ll boil it down to basic ability to properly:

  • Squat/Lunge
  • Hinge (bend over)
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Twist
  • Carry external load
  • “Other” – or combination movements such as getting up, breakfalling, rolling, crawling, running (remember, properly!), and climbing.

When walking becomes habitual, the next goal should be attaining pain-free active range of motion, or mobility for each of these patterns. Ankles, hips, upper back, shoulders, wrists, and upper neck are the most common culprits for incapacity here. Simply moving each of these joints through their intended ranges (think big circles!) daily or even multiple times daily is the place to start. Some of the more rigid individuals may benefit from some lightly-loaded passive stretching along with this – for example, alternating hip or ankle circles and goblet squat holds, t-spine rotations coupled and bridging over a stability ball, etc. Low-intensity, light load ROM can and should be accessed as often as possible.

Next, we aim for stability, or the prevention of movement at specific joints. In general, we want our feet, knees, low back, shoulders, and lower and middle neck to be able to resist movement when force is applied to them. Carrying external objects, the “other” category, and various “plank” type exercises seem to lock these down quite well. Note the omission of crunches and sit-ups!

joint by joint

The “Joint by Joint” Concept, popularized by Gray Cook and Michael Boyle

It should be noted that all our major joints need a combination of mobility and stability, but a sedentary lifestyle generally places priority on this joint by joint approach. If all you had was 15 minutes to train a few times a week, joint circles, crawling, and farmer carries would take you a long way. Don’t believe me? Try just those for a whole month and let the magic happen – that’ll be $99, please.

If you’ve got a bit more time (and I think you might), developing some strength in the basic patterns is the next priority. Strength training two or three days a week is perfect for most. Warm up with some light mobility drills. For the squat/lunge, push, and pull, I like 3-5 sets of 3-5. One day may be goblet squat, pushup and row, the next day is split squat, press, and pullup. To be seriously efficient, do something from the “other” category in between sets. For the twist, start by throwing a med ball 10-20 times each way as if you were swinging a golf club or tennis racket. Close out your training day by carrying something heavy 4-6 times while staying shy of failure. The hinge is unique - as Dan John says, “500 swings or one 500# deadlift may be taxing enough.” Play around with this one. For a while, you can increase the sets, reps, or load for all of these things nearly time you train them. When you can no longer progress, change the variation or implement (e.g. kettlebell press to handstand pushup or barbell press) and re-board the gain train!

Just In case I’m losing you, here’s where we’re at so far:

- DAILY walking and joint mobility

- 2-3 days a week (this can even REPLACE the walking if you’re seriously pressed for time)

  • Mobility
  • Squat or lunge 3-5 x 3-5 / crawling
  • Push 3-5 x 3-5 / rolling
  • Pull 3-5 x 3-5 / get ups
  • A bunch of swings OR a few deadlifts
  • Carry something for 4-6 sets

Honestly, if you’re not making a living in athletics this is probably enough to prepare you for some solid play, and since form follows function, you’ll eventually build a pretty bangin’ body to boot. No fancy equipment, crazy rep schemes, or grab-ass for time. In the gym, especially if it’s foreign territory for you, focus on doing relatively few things really well.

If you decide to do more still, metabolic conditioning or training for power, agility, or specific skills are your best options here. Each can certainly be beneficial, but I always recommended defining some specific goals before setting out on these ventures. For more guidance in this regard, ask yourself, “how do I want to play?” More than likely, the answer is “just do it.” Thanks Nike! What I mean is, if climbing mountains is your goal, met-con might fill this time, OR you could just, ya know, start climbing mountains. You’ve earned it, no go play, damnit! Sadly, many popular fitness regimes START here, without first laying the foundation for mobility, stability, and general strength. Far too often this results in frustration, lack of consistency and results, or injury. What I’ve found time and time again, though, is that mastering the basics drastically reduces the time required to develop these higher-level attributes. Read: more fun, sooner.

Folks, I’ve been strength training for 17 years and coaching for 8 and I promise you it really is that simple. Fads come and go but the foundations stay the same! No matter who you are, physical autonomy is within reach; just a few hours per week focusing on the right things may be the difference between “I wish I could…” and “I just did…” Your smartphone can’t do that!

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