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Exercises of a True Physical Culture
In my article Routine vs. Ritual, I mention that a workout should never be a routine. Routine meets base requirements so we can then get on with important stuff, while a ritual inspires and creates progress.
The modern workout routine is steeped in aesthetic conquest, gleaned from years of too many Muscle and Fitness magazines promoting workouts that zoom in on body parts for the main purpose of pageantry. Someone following these common ideas may look prettier but will have little function to their movements, since the body works as chains, not as parts. Larger movements involving multiple joints seem to confuse bodybuilders because they aren’t sure what day to include these motions.
Through emails, on forums and often in person the question has been asked ‘what day should I do deadlifts? Leg day or Back day?’ Well, 100 years ago, when the Saxons (Arthur, Kurt, Herman and Arno, not the dreaded crusaders from Northern Europe), Louis Cyr, George Hackenschmidt and Eugene Sandow were wowing the world with feats of strength (some of which, to this day, haven’t been duplicated) no one was asking what day a deadlift fell on. Or a Bent Press, or Saxon Bend or any of the common lifts of the day that are all but now forgotten.
By the way, these men were huge, sans drugs, and phenomenally strong. So what happened? Over the course of the last 70+ years, the quest for pretty muscles has dominated over the ability to actually move the body. Then the fitness world became a squishy, marshmallow industry promoting the ‘safest’ techniques possible, which actually has been leading to spineless, weaker clients and gym members who think they have a strong back because they can do 300 crunches.
Give some of these exercises a try and see where you stand. What day do you include them into? The day you decide to start getting stronger.
The Burpie is a holdover from gym class, the one exercises every kid hated doing. It involves placing the hands on the ground from a standing position, kicking the legs back and the returning them before standing again.
The versions here are a bit more advanced and include a pushup and jump. The goal of a Burpie is speed (I think I just heard a 24-Hour Fitness trainer pass out and the entire IHRSA convention groan in fear). Yes, speed. It’s not the evil hobgoblin of broken backs and ruined joints that everyone thinks it is. In fact, if you have any desire to play any sport or participate in any athletic activity, guess what you need?
To make a Burpie work, the speed, although important, is second to form. The ultimate goal being to be fast and functional.
Our advanced Burpie looks like this:
Once the hands hit the ground, the feet kick back quickly. Then drop into a pushup before yanking the feet back under you and then, from that position, jump as high as possible before landing right into the next one. There are no pauses from motion to motion, especially the jump. Too often the body wants to stand before jumping and then land in a standing position before moving into the next Burpie. To conquer this, as soon as the feet hit the ground from bringing them back from the kicked-out position, jump up, then as soon as they hit the ground again, absorb the landing right into the next Burpie.
Before the ego overrides the brain, yes they look silly, but they are quite challenging. Start with a small number before doing larger sets, based on either numbers or times (a thirty or sixty second set can be pretty brutal).
The second version involves a medicine ball, or, if you want to be truly DIY, a sand bag (or two, one in each hand). Place the ball on the floor instead of your hands, kick the legs out a little wider for the pushup (which will involve mostly triceps…don’t let those hips drop!), then, when jumping up, swing the ball up with you (an easier version is to press it up with the jump, but a swing, with straight arms, is more fun). Dumbbells or kettlebells work well too, as shown, although balancing on the kettlebell for the pushup takes some practice.
“But what does it work?” Your body, darn it. Enjoy.
Otto Hennig, under the stage name of Arthur Saxon, was part of the aforementioned group called ‘The Saxons, a Trio of Muscular Marvel.’ Although all were quite strong, Arthur gained the most notoriety by being the standout, eventually gaining fame with a 300+ pound Bent Press (which we will learn below). He was quite famous for being a wonderful ambassador for the iron game, visiting gyms in towns where he performed to demonstrate exercises and meet with the local physical culture. One of these exercises is making a come- back with strength athletes, though anyone who touches a weight should be familiar with it. Strengthening spinal muscles in a unique and wonderful, the Saxon Bend will be your new best friend, once you get over the ego-destroying sensation of using tiny dumbbells reserved for folks half your size.
These are done with an embarrassingly light weight since the length of your lever has become very long. The trick to this exercise is to focus on the hips. Their first reaction is to shoot out in the opposite direction of your bend, like some dance move (or the ‘model tilt,’ which we actually advocate later). That’s a dance you won’t forget, since the stress on the lower spine could be something to write home about, from the comfort of your couch while you recuperate. So keep the hips still, as you would for a standing overhead press. Squeeze the ground with your feet, tighten the tush and bear down on the other trunk muscles (don’t ‘suck in’) like someone’s going to punch you in the stomach (one of my clients colorfully said it is like trying to pass a watermelon).
So all you are really doing, outside of holding the hips tight, is “opening up the ribs” by leaning in one direction, then the other without the hips dancing. Let the arms move with the body, not as individual entities that can keep going after the spine has reached its limit.
Just think of waving lighters during your favorite hard rock ballad, except the lighters way several pounds and the song is really short. Want it a little harder? Get your stance narrower, but again, check those hips.
Now none of these exercises are unique, and although I occasionally add my own twist, they have old roots. The resurgence of these lifts is being brought to light through the efforts of a small group of folks; among them are Coach John Davies and his Renegade Training Crew, Coach Scott Sonnon of Clubbell fame, Mike Mahler and his Aggressive Training system, John Brookefield and the Iron Mind gang, and, of course, Pavel Tsatsouline, the crowned prince of the modern kettlebell movement. There are many more, the point being that the info exists. We just have to search for it.
The Windmill takes minimal practice but is a fun addition to any program. With feet comfortably wide and turned away from the weight at about 45 degrees, the weight, be it a dumbbell, kettlebell (pictured), clubbell, barbell (way fun), small child or woodland creature, is held in one hand straight up from the shoulder. Unlike the Saxon Bend, the hips get to move on this one, pushing back and out as the free arm crawls down the other leg. The body has to corkscrew under the weight a little as it bends. Then shoot back up. Loads o’ fun. Try to keep those legs straight, although bending the front leg is allowed if you have yet to feel comfortable with the movement.
The Windmill Kickback starts like a windmill, with the hand ending up on the ground on the inside of the leg. Then, like a Burpie, except for the weight straight up from the shoulder, the legs kick back and wide. Then they return and you stand back up, never letting that weight waiver. GO LIGHT, since this requires an element of coordination that some of us have forgotten from our childhood.
The Bent Press
Pick up a Weider publication or any number of the other muscle rags out there and you’ll see the same words on the cover month after month: Blah blah abs, blah blah chest, eat like a pro, etc.. 100 years ago you’d probably see something every month about the Bent Press and the benefits it can produce, from increasing your Weightlifting (in the traditional, clean and jerk sense of the word) to making your spine a solid piece of steel.
The Bent Press, called ‘the greatest lift in the sport of Weightlifting’ by George Sailor in an article from 1937, was originally scoffed at as a mere balance act. Then Arthur Saxon threw up over 300 pounds (his official record eventually being over 370) and the physical culture of the day quickly accepted the Bent Press as legitimate, soon being praised (at least by George Sailor) as being able to ‘make one better at all his lifts, and I will say any weight lifter should study and practice the Bent Press, which to my mind, is the King of all lifts.’
Advocates can get a little enthusiastic of what ‘proper’ form is. For instance, from a great website called Iowa Strong Man, the following is the intro to proper
Bent Press stance:
The placing of the feet is very important. They should be spaced about 18 inches apart. If you are going to perform with the right arm then the toes of the right foot should be turned in slightly, (Fig. 1) the right leg should be perfectly straight with the hip thrown out to provide a formidable bolster and support for the weight. The left leg should be bent at the knee and the toes of the left foot should point straight forward. Practice getting the proper foot stand before doing anything else. This is very important. Most Bent Press enthusiasts fail through improper foot position.”
This is a pretty classic technique, one that works well, but I’ve found that a little liberty in foot placement, depending on upper leg length and hip flexibility, can be slightly altered per person. Perhaps I’m not a true-ist, but set rules always scare me a little. Other opinions of stance differ, as in the following from Alan Calvert:
‘The lifters stands with the heels 18 or 20 inches apart, and the toes turned out, so that the feet are at right angles to each other.’
I personally find that the foot under the weight points straight ahead or turned in slightly and that leg is straight, while the other leg is turned out and slightly bent. I like to play with foot width, anywhere from 18 to 26 inches apart (roughly, who the heck measures foot distance?) and then the fun begins.
Here I do it with both a dumbbell, although, as with the other lifts, anything can be used. Really. Grab a vacuum cleaner, try it with a file cabinet, whatever is at your disposal.
- Take the object up over one shoulder with your elbow at your side, under the weight.
- Position those feet in the desired distance and angle (after the above mentioned ideas, you have many options)
- Do what I call a ‘model tilt,’ which is jutting the hip out and back slightly under the weight, like a runway model shifting her weight and posing.
- Line the hip, elbow and ankle up with each other
- “Squeeze the KB handle, and flex the lat on the lifting side
- Imagine trying to tightly hold a newspaper under the armpit, this is the idea. Keep it tight. You should feel the KB float upward about 1″ if this is done properly.”
Now, with the model hip-tilt and the dumbbell in place, start leaning towards the outside foot (the one not under the weight) by pushing the hips back and bending. Although called ‘press,’ the weight will be forced up on it’s own, by letting the lat push it up. Quite a unique feeling. Chris, again, puts it best:
“Do this slowly, and try to feel the lifting arm naturally straightening. Think of doing a negative-only one arm chin here. The body moves away, the arm straightens. The KB rides on the flexed lat throughout. Very, very important. You should feel the KB floating up, effortlessly.”
It’s true. You are not actually pressing the weight as much as the weight is being pushed up by the downward movement of the body. The arm will eventually straighten out if you lower your body enough. Then stand up, either by bending both knees and squatting up, or simply raising your torso, proud with the weight still high. Lower it, and start again.
“The “bent-press” is a combination of bodily strength and acquired skill. It is not a lift which a man will do instinctively - he has to be taught. It is possible to lift so much more weight by this method than by any other, so the lift is well worth learning.
Any real expert at the bent-press can press aloft more weight with one arm than he can with two arms; and there are some men who can raise almost as much in the one-arm bent-press as in a two-arm jerk.”
This is called a DB Swing simply because that is what is pictured. Again, anything can be used for weight. Try this one with the cat. This was one of the original Olympic lifts about a century ago, along with a host of other one- and two-handed exercises, including the two that are still around today, the Clean and Jerk and the Snatch. This is one of my favorite exercises for explosive power of the posterior chain.
Start in a deep squatted position reaching between your legs for the weight behind your feet. Pictured is a one handed version, although two hands could be used.
Drive the feet into the ground and snap the hips forward in one explosive move, forcing the arm to swing the weight up.
Some versions of this, especially the kettlebell, will have you stop at chest level, but today, with the dumbbell, we’re going up over the head. Now the tricky part: as the weight swings back down (not lowered gently), you’ll beat gravity by trying to get the hips down even quicker. As the weight swings back through the legs, keep an extended back (the weight will want to round you, but fight it) as the momentum stretches the hips and hams nicely. As soon as the swing gets to its furthest position, change directions explosively and do it again.
Written by Chip Conrad
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