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Rooted In The Fundamentals

Following my recent outdoor conditioning video, I received a few emails from viewers who were surprised to see me working with what they described as basic exercises. For example, one reader was shocked that I still performed pushups and pull-ups. He was expecting to see more challenging variations. Another reader asked what could be done to intensify sledgehammer swings and hill runs. He continued by stating his assumption that I filmed these basic exercises to provide options for novice spectators.

Unfortunately, his assumption is false. I am not of the opinion that once we progress beyond certain exercises that such movements no longer offer anything in return. When performed at a brisk pace or when combined with other movements, I still find traditional calisthenics to be challenging and effective from a strength-endurance standpoint. I certainly don’t limit myself to traditional pushups and pull-ups, but I am also not beyond them. Occasionally working with less intense movements has proved useful to me for many years. I am still able to work at a brisk pace and receive conditioning benefits while my body is given a break from heavier, more intense loading.

As for the sledgehammer swings and hill runs, these are activities that rarely require elaborate modifications. I have performed both activities for over 20 years and I’m still challenged when I work at a fast enough pace. This isn’t to say that you can’t include variety on occasion, but there is no need to significantly alter an exercise or drill that is already effective. Sure, you can run faster or longer or swing faster and heavier, but complex modifications are rarely needed.

Unfortunately, many modern athletes and trainers shy away from useful exercises because they appear to be too basic. The fallacy is that basic movements must always be modified or intensified. Yet oddly enough, I have never seen anyone who has outgrown heavy sledgehammer swings or continuous hill sprints. These simplistic exercises have always gotten the best of me and I don’t expect that to ever change.

Flash vs. Substance

Perhaps it is necessary to remind certain readers that the relevance of an exercise or routine is not based on visual appeal. Speaking as a trainer, I admit that it isn’t very exciting to watch one of my athletes run up and down a hill. It is naturally more exciting to witness a physical display that captures your attention immediately. For example, if you lift a heavy load from the ground, spectators will instantly take notice. The same could be said of a challenging bodyweight feat. Conversely, if you’re running 400 meter repeats, I wouldn’t expect the same attention unless you are a Michael Johnson clone.

Continuous conditioning activities tend to lack visual appeal. It is not that exciting to watch the same motions performed over and over again. In fact, three of my preferred activities could be categorized as such (ie. effective, yet boring to watch). Sledgehammer swings, hill sprints, and heavy sandbag carries are prime examples. Each is challenging and effective, yet will never attract widespread attention.

And while the lack of attention may seem insignificant to some, I have noticed many athletes whose supplemental training has shifted away from fundamental movements and more towards visually appealing exercises. As a result, their supplemental training is based more on achieving certain exercises as opposed to using exercises to enhance their sport performance. The consequence is that the work performed does not always reflect the sporting needs of the athlete. The fact that you have progressed to a challenging exercise doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve improved in your sport.

And please note, I am not making these statements to suggest that athletes shouldn’t set challenging goals. I am also not suggesting that the attainment of a challenging feat offers nothing in return. There certainly can be benefits that assist the athlete. I simply remind athletes to focus their attention primarily towards exercises or routines that offer the most in return based on their sporting needs. For example, a boxer in a 6-week training camp will likely benefit more from hill sprints and sledgehammer swings as opposed to achieving a visually appealing bodyweight feat.

In summary, an athlete’s training is intended to improve his performance when competing. Athletes should seek attention when they perform, not when they train. Often times, it is necessary to work through exercises or drills that lack visual appeal. Don’t confuse the lack of attention for a lack of potential. You may not attract onlookers by continually running a hill or swinging a sledgehammer, but it is this type of work that will allow you to perform in ways that eventually attract the attention of fans in the crowd. Never assume that you are too good for the basics. A strong foundation that is built from the fundamentals will never outgrow the fundamentals.

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The minute you get away from fundamentals – whether its proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing. – Michael Jordan

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21 comments

21 Comments so far

  1. DoomRater February 26th, 2014 11:51 am

    Awesome! I had had a question on your page about if there were any exercises that you felt you had moved past and this answers that with a very resounding NO! It’s actually very reassuring that I can still use basic exercises all throughout life and still get useful results from them.

  2. ChilcotinBuddha February 26th, 2014 11:59 am

    once again volumes of information in a few paragraphs.
    Our training and life success is based on the K.I.S.S. methodology.
    What works for some may not work for others, just don’t get lost in the middle with the flashiness of something.
    Body weight exercises, tires, kegs and sledges are the meat and potatoes of our training, that coupled with training outside pretty much year round ensure that stagnation is not an option.

    train HARD & train SMART!

  3. Aleksander February 26th, 2014 12:04 pm

    Nice post, Ross.

    As you’ve mentioned before, some top (combat) athletes even today still thrive on the basics. For example, take a look at Khabib Nurmagomedov. 21-0 in professional MMA, 5-0 in the UFC. From the videos of him on youtube, you see him doing dips, pullups, situps, hillsprints, in addition to a ton of sport specific practice. Nothing fancy.

  4. Andre February 26th, 2014 12:14 pm

    Yeah I was wondering too why you are doing pushups although you demonstrated in never gymless that you can
    one arm dands and so on. I know from personal experience
    its very resisting to aim for challenging variations and forget the sport over it. I have an offtopic Question ross: How many Pullups should be able to do in a row, before adding weight?

  5. Cedric February 26th, 2014 1:13 pm

    As I read the blog-I’m thinking about how cool those old Sandow Strong man natural body builders were. Iv’e always heard the masses/chatter heads say you can’t build muscle mass and look really buff after 40-even bodybuilding.com had a program design with this UK trainer named Chris where the attitude was like-sorry guys over 40 you’ll never build as much mass as the 18-30 crowd.
    My point-it would be cool to see Ross do natural body building in the old school way-where it’s about leaness, symmetry, and athletic ability (more like Olympic lifters) and still put on a little mass to disprove that over 40 doom and gloom crowd of arm chair quarter backs. No one with any common sense wants lbs and lbs of gross unfuctional muscle mass but to be well defined and have some mass like the old school bodybuilders (maybe even as massive as a 40yo Jack Lalanne) to show power and definition.

  6. Cedric February 26th, 2014 1:15 pm

    Andre- 20 pullups is what the most elite combat forces in Americas say is quality. Google SPecial forces, and the FBI Swat Team (I think theyr’e called HRRT) fitness standards.

  7. manny hagler February 26th, 2014 2:17 pm

    i actually love seeing basic exercises performed as long as it’s with intensity and purpose.
    like those youtube videos where people do hill sprints or prowler pushes, but they look like they’re really suffering and about to die.
    it’s like: “I understand, brother.”

  8. Richard February 26th, 2014 2:26 pm

    Great post Ross. Even my fittest clients are amazed at the simplistic difficulty of these Standards when they push themselves doing them.

  9. Chris February 26th, 2014 6:36 pm

    Refreshing post. This is why I visit this site so frequently.

  10. Marc February 26th, 2014 10:00 pm

    Great stuff, Ross. I am an old school guy & still love the basics. And for the guy talking about the over 40 myth, it’s crap brother. I am 46 & am still putting on muscle. I usually bury young guys who come over to train & they don’t stay long. :-)

  11. Joe February 27th, 2014 2:38 am

    I agree Chris.

    Ross is a in a league of his own- just old school no nonsense jive free training.

    Ill say it 1000000xs- Ross I hope you can be a Cus DAmato and train a champion top bill prize fighter.

  12. John Cintron February 27th, 2014 4:39 am

    Without the basics you can’t do the fancy stuff. Straight basic hardcore work will get you results and improve performance. Everyone that does the fancy moves still does the baiscs everyday.Just because it’s flashy doesn’t make you a better athlete. The training that or in your videos may not be flashy to some but in order to apprreciate this type of training you must try it first hand.Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.

  13. Eric February 27th, 2014 2:34 pm

    You can NEVER outgrow hill sprints unless you wear a big S on your chest. You can switch it up occasionally and run up hills backwards, talk about a workout, you will feel that one in your quads, glutes and calves, believe me. Standard pushups? I think it takes an ELITE athlete to perform 1,000 gold old fashioned standard pushups in an hour. Talk about a test of strength endurance. Hitting a tire with a sledgehammer is totally up to the individual. It depends on the intensity level. If you took 3 minutes to do 20 burpees it isn’t going to make this exercise very taxing, same thing with swinging a hammer or woodchopping. Chopping wood or swinging a sledgehammer can tire the most fit person out there in minutes if done at a high intensity.

  14. Aleksander February 27th, 2014 3:44 pm

    Hey Eric. Fun fact: Ron Lyle could do 1000 pushups in an hour.

  15. Eric February 27th, 2014 4:18 pm

    @Aleksander, You read my mind. I used to be a big boxing fan back in the day, not so much now, but I was thinking of Ron Lyle when I stated that. Also remember light heavyweight contender James Scott from back in late seventies and eighties. Scott was an inmate in Rahway State Prison who was reputed to do anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 pushups a day depending on the source. Scott also claimed to be able to knock out 500 in a half hour which would put him on pace. Sixties middleweight contender Rubin Carter also claimed to push out a 1,000 or more pushups a day while in training. And slugger Earnie Shavers was a big fan of pushups and chopping wood. 1,000 pushups in an hour is awesome. Whether Lyle ACTUALLY could do that or not is the question. I think a lot of athletes exercise or weight numbers are often exaggerated. Herschel Walker’s “numbers” I would imagine are grossly inflated.

  16. John B February 27th, 2014 11:19 pm

    As always, great post Ross. Funny thing, I’ve learned that in order to focus on the things I know I’m supposed to do, I have to cut myself off from any potential spectators. In my case, that means unless it’s 100 degrees outside, I keep my garage door closed so I never get the urge to do a more “impressive” lift over the basic lifts I’m scheduled to do. It’s kind of dumb really because I don’t really give a damn what anyone thinks. People (me) are weird.

  17. Aleksander February 28th, 2014 3:03 am

    @Eric: The thing that I find hard to believe is not that someone could do 1000 pushups in an hour, but when a top level athlete claims to do it EVERY DAY in addition to their sport specific practice, I just can’t understand how they don’t burn out. 1000 pushups once a week? Okay. Every day? Hmm… Freak humans or exaggerated stories? I don’t know.

    Johny Hendricks from UFC used to do a couple of hundred pushups every day when he was a kid. Recently in an interview he got asked whether he still does that. He answered that he can’t, because he is so tired after practice. From what I see in videos, he now uses a more “modern” strength training routine.

    In my early teens, maybe even before that, I did 50 pushups every evening. I also remember doing 600 in an hour without too much struggle. I just watched TV and did 10 at the start of every minute. I would also run regularly back then.
    Today, I’m stronger and bigger, but my pushup endurance and conditioning probably isn’t better than when I was a young boy, hehe. Maybe I need to step it up a little.

  18. Stan Martin February 28th, 2014 1:22 pm

    In a somewhat similar but slightly different vein, I believe that it was one of Ross’s writings that enlightened me to the fact that lifting even a very modest amount of weight can become extremely grueling with enough reps. I never fully appreciated that until I tried it. As always, a great post.

  19. peter yates March 2nd, 2014 11:25 am

    WHEN I STARTED BOXING OVER 50YR AGO WE DID HILL SPRINTS, INDIAN CLUBS, WALL PULLEYS, PUSHUPS, PULLUPS AND SITUPS.LATER WHEN I STARTED WRESTLING WE DID PRETTY MUCH THE SAME. STILL LATER WHEN I BEGAN ASIAN MARTIAL ARTS THE BODY CONDITIONING WAS ABOUT THE SAME AGAIN. ALTHOUGH NO ONE WAS TRAINING FOR BODYBUILDING SOME MIGHTY FINE PHYSIQUES WERE DEVELOPED. AT 63 ALTHOUGH I DO USE WEIGHTS THE ABOVE EXERCISES STILL FORM THE CORE OF MY CONDITIONING WORK. BY THE WAY I AM STILL BUILDING MUSCLE AND GETTING STRONGER, NEVER USE AGE AS A LIMIT TO WHAT IS POSSIBLE. MY FRIEND WHO IS 80 IS STILL DEADLIFTING 300LB AND SQUATTING 20 REPS WITH 2OOLB. REGARDS, PETER.

  20. RossTraining.com Blog March 18th, 2014 11:36 am

    [...] therefore is simple. Exercise quality has nothing to do with flash and visual appeal. As discussed recently, many of the best movements appear quite basic. Contrary to what social media may suggest, training [...]

  21. richard May 12th, 2014 10:45 pm

    once again Ross…the nail was hit on the head! i am not a ‘trainer’ however tons of people come up to me and ask all sorts of questions!( which seems to bother all the trainers in the mc Gym my female partner and i work out in sometimes!) i always tell folks about bodyweight exercises, circuits, ladders etc. and mixing stuff up…..at work i am called ‘the weird kettlebell guy! even though i utilize bands ,chains tires ,sledges, med balls,sleds, suspension systems , ropes of all manner, indian clubs and maces, sandbags, sprinting, martial arts isometric ex. and …”GASP!’ barbells and dumbells!! real exercise is just that ” too real for most folks”!!! i will mention 2 instances from work : a group of women heard about the results my training partner was getting and decided to become involved. they lasted about 7-8 days and constantly complained i was trying to hurt them and that the exercises were not what their bodybuilder male friends told them would ‘work’…. a 20 something male at work informed me that my workouts were ‘ fun and games’ compared to his marathon sessions!!! he only worked out twice with me and my female partner and did’nt last20 minutes,, frequently excusing himself to pass on sled drags or gator pushups in order to …’ toss in some curls or tri’s!!!! i should be noted he was using less weight in ‘triceps extensions’ than me female partner and at 61 years old i used 3 times the weight he was using!!! stick to the basics as mentioned in your article and you will never go wrong!! keep up the good work Ross!

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