Strong. Lean. Happy.

How to know if you have tight quads

It has only been in the last three years or so that I started to pay any attention to the tonicity of my quadriceps. To be honest, for a long time, I never thought that they could get tight. Hamstrings, sure. Calves, absolutely. But quads? Really?

Today, I fortunately know better. Just as I keep a close eye on my calves and hamstrings, I now pay attention to my quads. And since I’ve done so, my lifting has improved. My squats feel great and even that little bit of scar tissue near my right knee, from way back in my lifting career, doesn’t bother me anymore. My theory is that it isn’t rubbing over my knee with the same tension that it once did. With my quads nice and supple, everything is just moving better.

So, how do you know if your quads are overactive? Admittedly, I should be doing videos for this sort of description, but bear with me. In the interim, please follow these directions: Assuming you have healthy knees and you’re free of injury, begin from a standing position on your knees – lower legs flat against the ground. Now, have something behind you like a block or sofa (if you’re in your living room) and keeping your body straight – imagine maintaining a straight line from your knee, through your hip, up to your shoulder – begin to tilt backwards with your arms reaching for the sofa or block behind you.

Do you feel any tightness in your quads? If not, go a little farther. And if you still don’t feel anything, you’re approaching a bit of a modified reclining hero yoga pose. If you’re able to get close to the ground, I’d say your quads are doing pretty well.

But what can you do if your quads are pulling on you and keeping you from comfortably leaning backwards? If you can barely tilt back on your knees and you feel your quads trying to hold you in place, then I think that the single best thing you can do is to foam roll and foam roll often. Once a week won’t do a damn thing. Twice a week probably won’t even help either. I like strength coach Mike Boyle’s advice: He says that for every decade of life you’ve lived, that’s how many days a week you need to foam rolling. That’s three days a week if you’re in your 20s and four days a week if you’re in your 30s. Yes, we’re rounding up!

But make sure you’re only rolling over your quads and not your IT band. That’s a different topic for a different day, but don’t foam roll your IT band, it will just aggravate it more (you should be going after the piriformis instead). And if you’re new to the wide world of self-myofascial release (i.e. foam rolling), here’s a great introduction.

After a couple of weeks with proper foam rolling technique, and with the proper frequency, I think you’re really going to see an improvement in the tonicity of your quads. When you sit down on the ground with your legs out in front of you and shake your upper legs a little, you’ll literally see them move nice and freely.

The real benefit will come in how your body moves. You may even notice that you walk a little more quietly. And as I did with my squat, you may find that certain leg flexion exercises are easier to perform.

So, try giving yourself the assessment described above sometime, or have a professional help you, and see where you’re at. Take the necessary steps to correct the tightness and see how your body feels afterwards.

Let me know how it works out!

By Ryan Wagner

Two glute builders that don’t get enough attention

Deadlift Monday, I like to say. It’s my little way of avoiding International Bench Press Monday which is known and celebrated the world over. And when I headed into the gym yesterday I realized – as I do almost every Monday – that hardly anyone deadlifts. Which got me thinking. Why are so many people headed to the gym to build a better butt, yet so few are even doing the exercises required to get them that result?

If you’re squatting, you’re doing something right. There are two exercises that I think are really fantastic glute building exercises, but they don’t seem to get the attention they deserve.

I gave one away already, the deadlift, but the other is the hip thrust. Let’s go into a little more detail.

The Deadlift

I’ve written many times on the deadlift and I’ll continue to do so because it’s an extremely important exercise. Athletes, amateurs, boys, girls, young, old, it doesn’t matter – if you’re a human, you should be deadlifting. You may not need to be using a heavy barbell and grunting like a powerlifter, but you should be training the pattern because it’s inherent to how you move as a human. Here’s my deadlift guide for novices if you need a refresher.

But with this article I want to focus on deadlifts. That is, the heavy kind with a barbell and ideally bumper plates so that you can let the weight “drop.”

I admit, heavy deadlifts can be intimidating. They are loud, few folks in the gym give them a try, and those that do rarely lift beyond 5 reps. Plus, they are hard! Even I have to pump myself up for twenty minutes before I even leave my home to go to the gym on Deadlift Mondays. It takes a lot of will power to lift twice your bodyweight off the floor for fun.

But back to those glutes. You want to know what the best way to build your glutes is, right? Well, part one is deadlifting. In my experience, to have any real benefit in the shape and size of your rear end, you need to lift heavy. It may take you some time to get up to a heavy load (and you should take your time to be safe), but when you do I think you’re going to realize that every muscle in your body is being put to work. That this posterior chain exercise is really, really putting you to work. And when you lift with good form, you’re using your glutes to control the movement and lock it out at the top.

In my Monday workouts, I deadlift for three work sets, at five reps a piece. I should note that I do a considerable amount of warmup and mobility work, and then quite a few warmup sets before I finally get to the real meat of my lift. Now, fifteen total reps may not seem like a lot, but when the weight gets heavy, trust me, it’s plenty. After these work sets my glutes are fatigued and my back really fatigued. But to build some enviable glutes you need to push it a little harder…

Hip thrusts

I once listed the hip thrust as an underrated exercise that few know and fewer understand. That was back in 2014 and not much has changed, it seems. The barbell hip thrust is an amazing posterior chain building exercise, it’s a great glute builder. Plus, it’ll really get at your hamstrings and back.

As with so many exercises, there can be different variations. The thing to remember, is that just like the deadlift, the hip thrust is a hip dominant movement. When I first started experimenting with it I had always had my back flat on the ground. But to really get a great ROM, I learned that I needed to progress to using a bench such that my torso angle was around 45 degrees or so. Today, the weight has gotten heavy enough that I need to use an airex pad to cushion the bar on my hips.

Here’s a great demonstration from the Glute Guy himself, Bret Contreras:

Wrap up

The front and back squat are revered mass builders and they demand a lot of your glutes. But if your goal is to shape your rear end, I really think you need to spend some time on building your deadlift strength with the hip thrust. And by sticking to the barbell, you can really load up the weight and shock the muscle. Don’t get me wrong, an accessory work glute builder like banded duck walks and pistols are great, but the barbell should be your go-to.

Do you really need protein powder?

I’ve been a gym rat for around 15 years now. That’s how long I’ve been lifting weights and learning about movement. Over this time, I’ve also consumed my fair share of supplements in my attempt to be “bigger.” I’ve dabbled with all the usual suspects: mass gainer, creatine, and protein powder. Let’s talk about the latter. Specifically, let’s try to answer the question: Do you really need protein powder?

In my experience, new lifters are the ones most interested with supplements. At the competition level, the pendulum swings the other way, but for the most part, guys who have just recently discovered weightlifting are the ones most likely to be found perusing the shelves in GNC, one of the clones, or online. Now, I don’t offer up any nutritional advice on Motus because I’m not a nutritionist, but I would like to share my own experience with protein powders.

When I first began lifting weights I was in college. And like most college guys I was looking to build muscle, get bigger, and get a date. My strategy was pretty typical. I was going to lift weights and take on extra protein because I knew that in order to build new muscle mass I needed extra protein in my diet. I started with milk. For a couple weeks, I remember that I was making every effort to drink milk in place of water and the faster that I went through those plastic jugs, the better, I thought. After all, milk was cheap and as a college student I was on a perpetual budget. But all good things come to an end, and being a mere mortal, I wasn’t able to consume large amounts of milk for long.

Enter protein powder.

do you really need protein powder

A google search is revealing of what’s on people’s minds.

I’m assuming you’re familiar with protein powder. Today, it inhabits far more shelving space than just the supplement store. There are variations in Whole Foods, your corner grocer, even most buff celebrities have supplement lines these days. And they all appear to be relatively similar, don’t they? They are a very light powder that is packaged is a huge round bin with an oversized scoop buried somewhere within. But they aren’t all the same. Some brands seem to have more sugar than protein and are covered in shiny labels with overly masculine marketing.

If it seems like there are more brands of protein powders today than there ever have been, you’re right. And interest in “protein powders” in Google continues to grow (the annual spike in the graph below are the New Year’s resolutions folks).

do you really need protein powder

In my weightlifting career, I have generally had two long term relationships with protein.

Firstly, I purchased one of the big name brands. I looked for a label that was relatively boring and a product that wasn’t overpriced or endorsed by any champion lifters. This is because I was always a bit put off by the big flashy labels and brands that had pretty ridiculous marketing. I figured that any brand willing to compete that heavily in marketing wasn’t focusing on the product. Whether I was right in this thinking or not, it doesn’t matter anymore. Long story short, I was now supplementing my diet with a protein powder. I would mix it into my post workout shakes and oftentimes mix up a drink about an hour before my workout. Sometimes I would mix my shakes with two scoops because I wanted to get big fast! And I was always a little torn by this doubling down tactic because I knew that my tub would just empty twice as fast and I’d have to find another forty dollars to keep things going. People would ask me, “Ryan, do you really need protein powder?” I would just shrug and say, “of course, because my muscles need it.”

Let’s fast forward to my mid twenties.

By now, I was working at a large corporate firm earning a healthy paycheck. I was also focusing more on my nutrition and admittedly, looking for the best of the best. I was learning more about my beloved protein powder too. And the supplement market as a whole. Most importantly, I learned that it isn’t regulated by the government. So all that marketing can pretty much say what it wants. But I didn’t want to give up on protein powders because I still wanted to get bigger and impress people, right?! So, I found what I thought was the best. I found an online source that assured me of its integrity and quality product. But what really sold me was that I could create my own protein powder. Seriously! I could choose from grass fed protein, egg protein, a blend, etc. The list went on and on. And then I could even add specific BCAAs or vitamins. There were dozens of knobs that I could turn to create something truly bespoke. Nevermind the fact that I wasn’t a nutritionist or had much clue what I was doing. I purchased this premium protein for a number of years.

Then, about four years ago, I was very honest with myself. I realized that after all these years of taking protein, that it never really had an impact on my ectomorph frame. Every time I stepped on the scale (one of my misguided attempts at recording what I considered to be progress), regardless of whether I had been taking on extra protein or not, the number was usually the same. You see, I wasn’t really getting bigger at all after all that protein. Instead, I had been having digestive issues and flatulence that I largely ignored. I came to terms with the fact that most of this added protein was really just going right through me.

Looking back, I imagine my stomach looking at all this protein powder coming in and saying “Who the hell ordered all of this!? Get it out of here!”

I don’t want to make any generalizations. Protein powders may very well work for lots of people. And my nutritionist friends have explained to me that for vegetarians, there can be real value in supplementing. Nevertheless, speaking for myself, I just never saw any progress. I was very much blinded by the standard perception that in order to get big and strong, one needs to drink shakes and drink a lot of them. Instead, I should have just done a better job of listening to my body.

So, where does that leave me? What am I doing now?

Today, as many of my close friends can testify, I eat a lot of eggs. And a lot of food in general. I’m a healthy eater, too. Although it may seem tempting to bulk using junk food because it’s so calorically dense, we all know that’s not a good idea. And eating real food has been working well for me. Plus, I still make my shakes, but sans protein powder.

Real food. What a concept!

And looking back on my college days, eating a boatload of eggs would have even been less expensive than my failed adventure in lactose loading ;). So, do you really need protein powder?

Food for thought, everyone.

What’s your protein powder experience? Sound off in the comments below.

Find your fitness tribe

We live in exciting times. Why? Because there is a flavor for everyone these days. Twenty years ago, there were only a few dozen brands of coffee. Today there are thousands. There’s a specialty for just about everything. Fitness is no different. And yet a lot of people have a difficult time getting into fitness. This may not be you, but it’s probably someone you know. Or maybe it is you in a way. Perhaps there’s a particular flavor of fitness and recreation that you’ve always wanted to try, but just haven’t yet. Regardless, I think it’s certainly worth your time to find your fitness tribe.

Of all the wonderful reasons there are for having so many different options in the world of fitness, there is one disadvantage. Of the varying branches of fitness, the ones that are the most extreme and shocking in their demand of strength, skill, and iron will, seem to get the most exposure in the media.

The image of a very buff guy bent over throwing his guts up may make for a good story in the news, and even attract some like-minded masochists, but it certainly doesn’t look like fitness to me. It’s tempting to reason that in order to be fit – and to be fit in the way that society apparently wants us to be – that we have to throw our lunch up every other workout. Consequently, if you were looking for a reason that proves fitness isn’t for you, well, there you have it, right?

But let’s be clear. Fitness is movement. That’s all. It’s just how we move our bodies. And there are plenty of expressions of this movement that you can chose from: Yoga, pilates, group personal training, class-based fitness, acroyoga, swimming, rollerblading, team sports, walking, hiking, climbing, etc.

I’m sure at least one of those triggered something positive for you. Maybe it was a sport you played in school. Or something that you’ve always wanted to do. Maybe even something that you’ve never even thought of before now.

The point is, there’s a group of people out there that are just like you. They may be at different stages in their fitness lives, but nevertheless, they have something in common with you. That’s your tribe. So far I’ve been talking about finding a genre of fitness that’s presumably filled with members that become your adopted tribe. But let’s downsize our thinking just a little. Let’s take a look at the people that are already around you. The folks in your office. Maybe it’s the barista that you have a good rapport with. Or the friends and coworkers of your significant other. Take a moment and think about your extended network. Who exercises? Who work outs regularly? Who is a self described fitness person?

I want to stress that I’m not trying to trick you into finding a role model or a mentor. Rather, I want to help you find a gym buddy that you already know. Even if you only go to the gym with this person just once, it was probably worth it.

If you are an aspiring lifter, seek one out. It doesn’t matter if they are a bodybuilder or a newb, so long as they regularly hit the gym and lift weights, they are ahead of you on the fitness continuum and can therefore be an asset to you.

And be honest with them. Be clear with your intentions. If you’re not looking for any guidance or coaching, say so. Odds are, that lifter friend was in a position just like yours once upon a time. I know I was. Back in college, the guys and I would go to the gym every evening. My roommates Brian, Jeff and I were a tribe. We would start getting ourselves ready around the same time and shout down the hall to one another to get moving. And if we didn’t, well, we were left behind. We had a schedule, and each one of us made sure that we were ready to go.

But even if your tribe is a la carte, so to speak, and ever changing, this support system of fitness friends can still be an invaluable asset. Think about the random people you meet on a plane when you travel. When you have a good conversation with someone seated beside you, you’re always happy afterwards that you said hello.

I think people are best when they are connected. Whether it’s bonding over your favorite yoga class or the beers after your Crossfit workout, finding like-minded fitness travelers is a great asset.

If your level of fitness isn’t quite what you want it to be, I think you should consider putting some thought into finding a fitness tribe. You’ll meet some new people, get in better shape, and have a good time. There are so many options out there today that I’m sure there’s a good fit for you!

By Ryan Wagner

Here’s what you need to know about adult gymnastics

I’ve trained in two adult gymnastics gyms in the Boulder and Denver area over the past several years. Fortunately, both are very successful gyms so there’s obviously a market for this type of training. And if you read Motus with any regularity you’ll know that I am an advocate for all things calisthenics and body weight. The simple act of manipulating one’s body weight can be both humbling and a hugely effective strategy to stay healthy for years to come.

But calisthenics training is a continuum. On the lighter end, you have the simplest and safest of movements – the push up and the pull up. On the other end, you can ratchet up the intensity in a hurry with movements like the planche and the most demanding of all – the iron cross. It’s these movements that live in the realm of gymnastics. Even the “easier” gymnastics variations, like the handstand and the muscle up are still pretty intense, even for your typical strong guy or girl. So, it’s with quite a bit of interest that I’ve been watching this new industry plant its roots. I’ve been especially curious to learn how these gyms are planning to train the masses. That is, people with less than perfect shoulders and bad knees. Can the average deconditioned gym goer do adult gymnastics? Can they do it safely?

I’m not without my biases, of course. Firstly, I live in the Denver area – a part of the country that is filled with fit people. Colorado has the nation’s lowest obesity rate and the highest percentage of people who have a gym membership. Also, my philosophy on personal training has always been very conservative. I’m a huge believer in correcting movement dysfunction before getting into any sort of serious lifting or demanding compound movements. And finally, I only have experience with two gyms offering adult gymnastics. That being said, please take the following with a grain of salt. It is not my intention to make any generic conclusions, but rather to give you an idea of what to expect in a Colorado gymnastics facility.

Expect an emphasis on skill training

Adult gymnastics training is much more skill based than any other group exercise I’m familiar with. And although it changes from day to day, it doesn’t change nearly as often as the programming in other gyms. Consequently, you’ll hear “do 10 rounds of…” more frequently than “do two sets of exercise xyz and then we’ll move on to…” And 10 rounds is a lot. I’m a sucker for hardcore training, but 10 rounds of planche tuck holds was intense enough to make even me glance at the clock.

However, there are strong elements of circuit training. I never trained gymnastics in school, so I can’t speak as to whether or not this is standard practice among the elites, but my suspicion is that it’s an attempt to squeeze a full body workout into an hour for busy people.

Predominantly class based

Both the gyms I attended centered their business model around their classes. Very similar to the bread and butter of CrossFit boxes or other small fitness studios. You are allowed to work out during “open gym time,” but I’d really only see one person taking advantage of this opportunity now and again, as it’s usually offered only during inconvienent times. Also, both gyms encouraged their members to attend class often – very often. In fact, members who came in every day were rewarded with praise. This absolutely blew me away. I’m a fitness geek and even I don’t go to the gym daily. Phil Heath, 6-time Mr. Olympia champion doesn’t lift seven days a week (he lifts six during his competition cycle).

You should be fit

Now, I’m sure that both gyms would disagree with me on this statement, but I really do think it’s true – that if you’re considering adult gymnastics, you need to be fit and healthy to begin with. You need to have good knees, healthy shoulders, and strong joints overall.

Two things surprised me in these gyms. In the Boulder gym, most classes began outright with all of the attendees sitting into a deep squat. This is easy for me now, but it took years to earn back this mobility (I say earn back because we could all do this as kids!). Surprisingly, about 9 out of 10 class members were able to do it as well! I would later learn that most people who frequented this gym were literally off duty yoga instructors.  The second thing that surprised me was that neither of the gyms put me through any sort of movement assessment prior to exercising. Not even a simple overhead squat assessment.

If you have a history of injury, I think it’s wise to really understand your movement limitations before trying gymnastics.

It’s a different type of training for a different type of results

With the emphasis on skills training I think you’ll find yourself burning far fewer calories than you would in something like a HIIT class or spin class. Consequently, adult gymnastics isn’t the best choice for weight loss. It’s not a bad choice by any means, but I think there are better options out there. What it comes down to, is whether you have an interest in doing handstands, working towards a muscle up, and the like.

You should also understand that in order to get good at something challenging like a handstand, it’s going to take a lot of practice. Your workouts aren’t going to be changing all the time. Similar to weightlifting, to see results, you need to be almost monk-like and train the same movements.

Wrap up

Joining an adult gymnastics gym can be a great experience. There’s a lot of benefit in training calisthenics and learning to control your body weight. However, at least in the case of Colorado-based adult gymnastics gyms, the coaches often assume that you have proficient movement and strength. You may be surprised at the level of mobility that is expected of you.

If you goal is to get your handstand dialed in or learn to train on the rings, be ready for a long and skill-based process. But if you put the effort in and you have the enthusiasm, I think you’ll have a great time.

By Ryan Wagner

Make your workout more effective with these 4 tips

I’ve always had an eye for efficiency. Perhaps it is my engineering background, but I am always on the lookout for a better way of doing things. This week I want to talk about ways that you can make your workout more effective. These are the “macro” strategies that will help you to become a better lifter and help you to build a sustainable fitness habit.

Track your progress

Whether your goal is to lose fat, build muscle, or do both, recording your progress with a fitness journal is a smart move. It’s far too easy to just go to the gym and go through the movements. For those times when you find yourself daydreaming or aimlessly wandering around the free weight area, a fitness log can help keep you on track. It’s your roadmap, your guide. It’s also a reminder that you’re serious about this whole fitness thing and that you have a plan to get where you want to be.

Begin your workout with one big movement

I like beginning my workouts with one or two big compound movements. This could be the squat or the deadlift or something else entirely. A good rule of thumb is that you should begin your day with the more complicated and skilled movements while you’re fresh. As you grow more tired and your body fatigues, you can focus your efforts on the smaller muscles and the exercises that don’t demand too much of your attention.

If you save these big movements for near the end, you’ll be more prone to making mistakes and/or programming poor movement patterns since other areas of your musculature may be worn out already.

Last set, best set

This is one of Martin Rooney’s many wonderful sayings. Last set, best set.

The idea being that even though you may have three or four sets of an exercise planned, you should aim to only get better as you go. Too often we tend to see our planned workout, and each individual exercise, as an obligation. And when we’re halfway through, we say to ourselves, “OK, I’m just about done with this.” And what do we do? We start to lose focus on the task at hand and look towards the finish. We forget that the process is the most important thing. This is a great philosophy to adopt to make your workout more effective.

When you’re in the gym next, I want you to focus on that last set and that last couple of reps. Those are the whole reason you are in the gym, so make sure they’re the best ones.

Don’t work out on an empty stomach

In my opinion, one of the worst things is going to the gym when you’re just a little bit hungry. And when you start to move and lift weights you only grow more hungry. Pretty soon you start to feel tired and worn out. This certainly doesn’t make for a fun time in the gym or on the racquetball court.

The topic of nutrition before a workout can be a bit of a controversial one. An entire industry of supplements has grown out of the need to optimally eat prior to exercise. The Internet is full of nutrition advice suggesting just about everything under the sun. And we’re all unique, so there really is no single best food to eat or supplement to take prior to your workout. What works for me may very well be different for you.

That being said, and speaking from my own experience, I think it’s important that you don’t work out on an empty stomach. Not only can it make you weaker – and under a loaded barbell, this can be a very bad thing – but if you make a habit of it, you’ll begin to associate your workout with negative feelings. Hopefully, that’s not the case already!

Wrap up

All of us can improve the quality of our workouts. We all get into ruts sometimes where we just feel like we’re doing the same thing over and over again without making any progress. But taking a step back and looking for ways to make your workout more effective can really help to keep you in the game.