Last rep, best rep…Strength Training and the Modern Woman.

Close your eyes and take some mental screen shots of what these words bring to mind; strength training, barbells, kettlebells, tension, iron, sweat and work.

Now take those images and layer these on top. Women, persistence, confidence, health, power, beauty and… wait for it- pregnancy. Yep, pregnancy. One would think that pregnancy is the odd word out amongst the collective, and you’re correct. The norm when you Google fitness and pregnancy is that, “Physical activity is good for expecting mothers like swimming, brisk walking, indoor stationary cycling, step or elliptical machines, and low-impact aerobics.” While these modalities are fine, none of these addresses the importance of maintaining mental and muscular strength, healthy bones, joints, ligaments, and moving one’s body in a functional way for a healthier life. Strength training is unique in these ways.

This brings us to three women’s stories – let’s say three heroines’ stories – because when was the last time you grew a human being inside of you, gave birth to it and made a promise to take care of it for the rest of your life? Right? OK, now that we’re settled, back to our heroines, who chose to strength train pre, during, and post-pregnancy. Each of them trained with a different focus, but faced similar challenges and outcomes. Being new mothers, their journeys have only just begun, but we hope that their shared experiences inspire other moms. Hopefully this helps even one women find the strength in training for two.

I’d like to introduce you to Industrial Strength family members Stephanie Duffy, Lisa Joe and Megan McMillan.

“Before pregnancy, I was strength training and olympic weightlifting 3-5 times a week, often before or after work. I had competed in several olympic weightlifting meets as well as a powerlifting meet, and felt strong and capable of many things. I had been lifting weights regularly for a couple years at that point and was in the best overall physical health of my adult life, so that set a great foundation for my pregnancy. When I got pregnant I made a goal to continue training in a safe capacity for not only my own health (and sanity!) but also for the baby’s well being.

While pregnant I kept up a regular gym schedule, maintaining 2-3 sessions a week, as well as walking regularly to just break up my desk job workdays. Friends and staff at Industrial Strength were such a consistent support network during those months! Besides the modifications offered by the Industrial Strength coaches during group workouts, I read a couple books that empowered me with a knowledge of what my body was going through and how to safely remain active without injury. The Pregnant Athlete: How to Stay in Your Best Shape Ever– Before, During, and After Pregnancy and the seminal Exercising Through Your Pregnancy were great references throughout my pregnancy, guiding me towards what I should and should not do. Thanks to the above resources, I lifted weights up until the day before (!) Eleanor was born at 38 1/2 weeks, and came out of it all without injury.

I received a number of critical comments from family, especially older generations, about lifting weights while pregnant. Thanks to the aforementioned resources, I never wavered in my commitment to my health. I confidently told them that what I was doing was great for both the baby and I.

During the labor, I used a lot of mental references to powerlifting, often comparing a contraction or pushing to grinding through a really heavy rep. No joke, I actually told myself “Last rep, best rep!” during the final pushes of labor. (Thankfully, not out loud.) But I honestly think that the knowledge I had of pushing my body through difficult actions like weightlifting helped me get through my natural labor without the use of any pain medication.

Since having the baby, I have struggled with devoting time to myself. Initially there was a lot of healing that obviously needed to happen. My first day back in the gym was 7 weeks postpartum, but my attendance has been inconsistent ever since due to figuring out our lives, work schedules, needs, and priorities in the wake of creating and caring for this tiny human. I know many other moms that have difficulty prioritizing time for themselves– it’s so easy and natural for our needs to take a backseat to everyone and everything else! I admit, I’m still figuring it out.

However, I’ve been able to semi-regularly attend lunchtime kettlebell classes, and occasionally olympic lifting or strength training on the weekends. That’s mainly due to identifying my needs, communicating them with my partner, and us working together to make that happen. If I go too long without physical activity my mood dramatically shifts downward, and I turn into a grumpy, sad, restless person. The moment I get back in the gym, or heck, even take a walk and get outside, my mood instantly improves. That in turn affects the entire family for the better.

I hope that Eleanor grows up with an appreciation for what her body is able to accomplish and how strong it can be. As her mother, I am the first major example of how women take care of and value themselves. By maintaining my health and making it a priority in my life, I am showing her that being active and strong is not only fun and fulfilling, it’s empowering, inspiring, and feminine. ” – Stephanie Duffy

Stephanie is not only a role model for her daughter, but is wonderful example for all women in how she values her self care . Challenging the norm and choosing to prioritize strength training for her overall health and well being, even when met with opposition, is quite a feat.

And now, Lisa’s story:

“I have always been physically active before and during both of my pregnancies. I had taken Barre classes 4-5x a week during my first pregnancy and for a few months postpartum.  When my daughter was about 6 months old I started personal training sessions with Mira at Industrial Strength.  I felt like I needed the extra attention and care getting back in to the gym, and plus I was interested in taking kettlebell classes and wanted to do so safely.  Working with her was so beneficial in getting back in touch with my body, and being aware of the connectedness of movement and breath when lifting heavy weights.  After training with her 2x a week for a few months, I began taking the kettlebell classes regularly 2-3x a week.

When I became pregnant with my second daughter, I had continued taking kettlebell classes.  They were perfect for me, in that I was getting a cardio and strength workout in a relatively short amount of time without over-exerting myself.  I loved the small class sizes, and the camaraderie that I felt with the lunch time crew.  I continued using the same heavy weights that I had established the previous year in training.  I even did the snatch test 8 months pregnant and still nailed 93 snatches!  Yes, I did have to modify a few exercises as my baby was getting closer to full term with some of the explosive movements that were done in class.  I never really got much criticism from anyone when I told them that I was still taking kettlebell classes, more responses of praise and being impressed.

Being physically active has always been important to me.  I felt so good being strong during my pregnancy, and believe exercise to be important in one’s daily life.

Having babies does a number on your body and self care is so important.  I’ve eased up on myself after having this second child, and know that I will get my body back and me time at the gym in due time.   Working out with other people pushes me to perform at a higher level.  I have only recently been able to start working out again and it feels great.  It’s almost harder getting back to exercising after having a baby; knowing how strong you once were, and how challenging it feels to be back at square one.

These things will not deter me.  You’ve got to start somewhere.  I put myself first, not in a bad way, but I can’t be good to my partner, my kids, or to others if I’m not good to myself.  Exercise helps me feel good, and I like being strong.  It gives me energy, and lord knows I need it!  I know I will get back in shape and be a good role model to my girls to be healthy and strong women, but I’m also going to give myself a break and enjoy this precious time while they are so young. ” -Lisa Joe

Lisa reminds us that small steps can lead to big ones, and that you have to start somewhere in order to effect change. And while it’s important to find the time to take care of yourself, finding the time to enjoy a young family is something worth pausing for.

And last but not least, Megan’s story:

“I did NOT grow up as an athlete. I skipped gym class so many times junior year that I nearly failed–many a round of groveling earned me a GPA-ruining C. I started running when I turned 30, and finally found my way to strength training when I needed a break from racing.

By the time I joined Industrial Strength, I was already hooked on the way strength training made me feel healthier and happier. The family-like community and amazing coaching at I.S. took it to a whole new level. I trained with my friends at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays (best way to start the day!), and was often back in the gym on evenings and weekends for olympic weightlifting, too. The gym was my “me” time and my social hour, all in one.

None of that really changed when I became pregnant, although I opted to work out solo so I could modify exercises without holding back the group. As weird as it sounds, I still miss being pregnant sometimes. I consider myself lucky in that I never experienced pain or reduced mobility. I really just kept living life, including my life in the gym! I delivered my son at 39 weeks in a fast and furious 6-hour birth. That morning I was hiking, the day before I was swimming laps, and two days before I was back squatting. (Reminder: if you think that’s because I am a super athlete, see previous statement about almost failing gym class.) Although I believe pregnancy and childbirth are a little bit like a snowflake–no one experiences it exactly the same way–I also believe that I had such positive experience because I never stopped moving. And let’s be honest: a vaginal delivery is basically the equivalent of maxing out your back squat over and over at the end of a marathon. Nothing can prepare you better than lifting weights.

So pregnancy, labor, and staying active were the easy part (for me). The hard part has been finding the space and time to get back into the gym now that my son is here. I used to think that people who didn’t engage in a sport just “didn’t make time” for it. Now I know that those people are probably just parents, haha! In all seriousness, I’ve really struggled with finding my “me” time and recovering physically from the alterations pregnancy made to my body. My 6:30 a.m. workout has been replaced with breastfeeding. My evening consists of the cherished and all-too-quick minutes between the end of my work day and the beginning of Jack’s bedtime. I had a bit of a false start at seven weeks postpartum and tried to hit the gym like nothing had changed…but the truth is, everything has changed. I know that as Jack gets older, I’ll get more “me” time, but in the meantime, I’m still finding the balance between taking care of myself and giving myself grace for rebuilding my strength (very!) slowly and surely. Knowing that my Industrial Strength family has my health and happiness in mind makes all the difference.” –Megan McMillan

And finally Megan shares how strength training changed her life, in the best way, helping her to find “her” time and how it will help her to find balance in her life as an athlete and new mother.

So here you have it, we hope that these stories enlighten and empower more women to be strong, to share their experiences honestly, and most of all to support one another in leading active, healthy and fulfilling lives. These women show us how it is possible to be both vulnerable and tough. Strength training and motherhood need not be mutually exclusive. In our experience, they’re a perfect pair.

Footwear for Strength Training Part 2: Product Reviews

One of our first blog posts was on recommended footwear for strength training.  It has been a couple years since that came out, so it is a good time for an update including product reviews on a few new shoes.

The 2014 article stated that the footwear chosen for strength training should have three main features:

  1. It should be non-compressive
  2. It should be zero-drop, or at least close to it*.
  3. It should be relatively thin soled.

The first and third items above do not need much explanation.  The idea of a zero-drop may be unfamiliar to some, so it warrants a quick explanation.  For many lifts done in the gym such as deadlifts or kettlebell swings, it is important to have the heel firmly planted on the ground and the weight of the body balanced over the mid-arch or heel (rather than the forefoot).  Many athletic shoes have a heel that is higher than the forefoot, effectively giving the shoe a “drop” and directing the athlete more towards the toes.  This is not a bad thing if the chosen activity has lots of running, cutting or jumping, however it makes it hard to “root into the heels” for lifting purposes.  For the weight room, a shoe with equal heel and forefoot heights is suggested, thus a “zero drop” from heel to toe.  I have used shoes with up to a 3mm drop and had good success with those, however anything higher typically disrupts balance.  One important note is that if the shoe intended for use in weightlifting (often incorrectly called “Olympic Lifting”) or otherwise for lots of barbell squats or front squats, it is a good idea to invest in a solid pair of weightlifting shoes such as the Nike Romaleos or Adidas Adipower.

One other item to consider is that of the toe-box of the shoe.  Ideally the shoe should allow the toes to spread wide with space between them.  Unfortunately many shoes are quite narrow in the front, resulting in squishing the toes together.  This can lead to issues such as the arch of the foot collapsing, which can then lead into valgus collapse of the knee and other problems.  When trying on training shoes, be sure there is “wiggle room” for the toes, not only up and down but also side-to-side.

Next, I want to review a few pairs of shoes I personally own and discuss pros and cons to each.  I have listed them in order of my most to least recommended.

Inov-8 Bare-XF 210


These have been my go-to training shoes for the past several years.  They have held up extremely well, and I got over two years out of a single pair even as my daily training shoe.  The shoes meet all the criteria noted above, and are one of the thinnest and lightest shoes on the market.  I use these shoes for everything except barbell front and back squats (for which I have a pair of Romaleos).  In addition to being zero drop and non-compressive, they are only 3mm thick, which give me great feel for the ground and adds no appreciable height to deadlifts.  Due to the thin sole, it is easy for me to feel if I have let my balance shift to an undesirable position, or as a coach, I can see it on my lifters more easily.  This pair is also flexible enough to do some foot & ankle stretching in, which is rare for most training shoes.

Overall, this is an outstanding pair of strength training shoes that are perfect for deadlifts, presses, all the hardstyle kettlebell movements, and various accessory movements such as lunges.

VivoBarefoot Primus


These are a brand new pair from Vivo that debuted less than a month ago.  Mine just arrived yesterday, and I haven’t taken them off yet!  This shoe is the closest thing to the Inov-8 model (above) that I have found.  They remind me of the Inov-8 Bare-XF in every way, except that the Vivos do not have an insole, which gives even more ground feel.  Just like the Inov-8 pair above, these are also a flexible shoe that allow for some stretching of the feet and ankle even while being worn.

Just like the ones above these are an outstanding pair of strength training shoes that are perfect for deadlifts, presses, all the hardstyle kettlebell movements etc.  I can not comment yet on durability/longevity since they are brand new, but my initial impression is that they are well made and will have good life to them.

In my opinion, the Inov-8 above and these Vivos are largely interchangeable.  The fit is similar and the features are nearly identical.  Both are excellent choices for strength training.  The only thing I can say about the Inov-8 is that I KNOW they are durable because I have had them for years, as opposed to the Vivos which are brand new (but feel well made).  Basically, you just need to decide which you like the aesthetics of and go with that one!

Nike Free Trainer 1.0

nike free

Nike came out with this model with the tagline “chalk for your feet” and marketed it as a gym shoe for lifters.  This is one of Nike’s first zero-drop shoes, with most of their previous “training shoes” being geared more towards team sports (running, jumping, cutting) rather than lifting.  It is super exciting that Nike is really getting into the strength training culture and building products designed to support it.

While, in my opinion, these are Nike’s best general strength training shoe, to me this first release from them does not fit what I’m looking for quite as well as the Inov-8 and Vivo models discussed above.  My two suggestions for Nike to improve are 1) the insole and 2) the outsole.  The insole is fairly thick and overly cushioned to be ideal for strength training.  Obviously the buyer could just take the insole out, but it would be nice to have the default insole be a little thinner and more sturdy .  The cushioning provides notably less ground feel compared to the models above, and also creates unwanted instability when performing heavy lifts.    See the side-by-side pictures of the insoles compared to the Inov-8 for an idea on thickness.  Note that the blue part of the Nike insole is the actual height of the insole, compared to the Inov-8 is curved at the edges so the actual thickness of it is at most half of what is pictured.







The outsole has some room to improve in the sense that it is significantly more stiff than the two models above.  While wearing the Inov-8 or Vivo models, when I curl my toes in or arch my foot hard, the shoe tracks my foot and follows me.  This gives great stability and feel for the ground.  The Nikes have a stiffer sole that is not as responsive to movement of the foot, and again does not offer quite as good of “ground feel” as a slightly more pliable sole would.

Don’t get me wrong, these are definitely the best strength training shoe Nike has come out with (not including the Romaleos), and I do think they would do a nice job in the weight room.  I bet when Nike comes out with a version 2.0 they’ll make some adjustments and have a really outstanding shoe for lifting.

Nike MetCon


I got one of the earliest versions of the MetCon when they were first released.  I think it is important to point out that contrary to popular belief, the MetCon is not designed to be a strength training shoe.  With that said, I know a ton of people do wear the MetCons for their lifting, so I figured I would offer what I view to be the pros and cons of using them for training.  Before I get into it, please keep in mind one of my favorite sayings, “Don’t blame a fork for being a bad spoon.”  What I mean by that is that while I do not suggest the MetCon as a strength training shoe, that is because it is not DESIGNED to be a strength training shoe – however, I do think they are a great product for what they are designed for.

With regard to strength training specifically, the MetCons do not meet my ideal shoe in any of the three primary criteria – they are too compressive for my liking, they feel like they have too much drop from heel to toe, and most notably they cause the foot to sit substantially higher off the ground than any of the three models above.  Out of all four models reviewed, these definitely have the worst ground feel.

So, if they’re not good for strength training, then what are they good for?  What I’ve told people is that if I got dropped into an action movie where I had to fight, shoot guns, run, jump, climb, lift etc all in one shoe, these would be my first choice.  In particular if there was going to be a lot of running or jumping involved in the activity, the MetCons offer significantly better foot protection than any of the three shoes above.  I would say that these are a “pretty good” shoe for many things, just not an “excellent” shoe for strength training.  In my opinion, this is exactly what they were designed for anyway: the person who likes to workout and be ready for anything (including surprises) the coach throws at them, as opposed to a planned and periodized strength program.   With that said, they could definitely work as a strength training shoe in a situation like traveling where it is too cumbersome to haul around multiple pairs.  For example, someone who is flying does not want to bring Nike Romaleos for squats, Vivo Primus for deadlifts and kettlebells, and a third pair of shoes for running, and instead it is more reasonable to have the MetCons as the “swiss army knife” shoe that will cover all bases.

The only real knock I have on this original version of the MetCon is their (lack of) durability.  I primarily wore these while coaching (only used these to lift in a handful of times), yet they are already falling apart enough that I recently got rid of them.   Please see the attached pictures for the tear between the interior lining and exterior shell, as well as a spot near the right foot pinky toe that is almost worn completely through (despite only being worn indoors and to coach in, almost no actual training/lifting).   Again, my pair is one of the earliest versions of the shoe, and they are now on the version 2.0, so there is a good chance that these issues have already been addressed and improved.







I hope you have found this information helpful!  Please feel free to share with friends who you think would find it beneficial! – Tony Gracia Head Coach and Co-Founder

The Push Press I Heels Up or Heels Down

A popular exercise in many gyms is the push press (PP). At Industrial Strength we use barbells or kettlebells to execute the drill, but dumbbells, sandbags or other specialty equipment can be used as well. For those unfamiliar with the exercise, the cliff notes version is to hold a weight in the rack position (so the weight is near the collar bones), to dip at the knees and use some leg power to then help shove the weight overhead, and receive it with straight arms above the head. It is a fantastic builder of upper body strength, and also teaches the upper and lower bodies to work in a coordinated fashion.

One thing to keep in mind is that there are two different styles of push pressing, each with their own benefits. This article will outline the purpose of each version.

The lift can essentially be broken down into four parts: 1) Rack position; 2) Dip; 3) Drive; 4) Lockout. Positions 1, 2, and 4 should look the same regardless of which style is used. It is position #3, or more accurately the “drive phase” that will change depending on which style of the lift is performed. The big difference is whether the heels are kept firmly planted on the ground, or if the heels are allowed to lift off the floor during the drive.

Why would a lifter choose one versus the other? The heels down version will “feel” more like a standard military press. Spending some time training with a heels down PP can allow the lifter to gain confidence with a given weight, and eventually work towards a strict military press with it. This is a strategy often employed by those striving for a new PR on the kettlebell military press, since the jumps between sizes are large and this version allows the lifter to get a feel for the new, heavier weight. The heels down PP is also a solid choice when lifting odd objects or specialty bars that may be harder to stabilize, such as axles or logs.

The heels up PP typically allows the lifter to get more drive from the legs, thus get more weight overhead compared to the heels down PP. This version is typically used by weightlifters (“Olympic lifters”) and other barbell junkies who just want to get the most weight overhead. It definitely offers better carry-over to the jerk, which is why weightlifters will primarily use this version. One important note with this version is that even though the heels will come off the ground momentarily during the drive phase, they must return back to the floor immediately. A common error would be to stay up on the toes and try to press to lockout from there, which is not nearly as stable (or strong) as returning the heels back down and pressing from a flat foot.

To summarize, the heels down PP is a great option if the goal is to get confidence and carry over to military pressing that weight, or if the object being lifted is hard to stabilize such as a log or an axle. On the other hand, the heels up PP allows more weight to be lifted (especially with a barbell) and has better carry over to jerks.

Both versions of the lift are awesome, and the discussions should not be about which one is better. The important thing is to identify why the lift is being performed, and to select and use the appropriate variation based on the goals.  – Tony Gracia  // Co-Founder and Head Coach

Benefits of Unilateral Training – Part 2

In Part 1 of the article I highlighted a handful of the many benefits of unilateral training, and why it can be beneficial to include it in your training program.  In this second part I will discuss a few exercises including technique pointers and which ones to try first if you are new to unilateral training.

First, a general piece of advice that is applicable to all of these exercises.  I encourage you to use a tempo and load that allows you to perform all the drills with excellent control.  Do not prioritize speed or weight lifted over control – that defeats the purpose!  Additionally, I always encourage these to be performed in either bare feet or minimalist footwear to help develop the muscles in your feet and ankles, along with improving their proprioception.

Secondly, the following exercises are listed in order of where to start if you are new to unilateral training.  If you have ample experience you may be able to move right to some of the more challenging ones.

1) Split squat

The basic split squat, performed with both feet on a level surface, is a great starting point for your unilateral training.  If you lack experience with this, I would suggest starting here.  The primary reason I suggest starting with this is because both feet are on the floor at all times, minimizing the balance and stability demands – in other words, it lets you ease into it.

To perform the exercise, use a hip width stance with one leg in front of the other (a “split” stance).  You want to use a stance that when you squat down you can touch your back knee to the floor while keeping your front foot completely flat on the floor, and your back straight and mostly upright.  To clarify, you will be on the toes of the back leg, but the entire front foot needs to be flat on the floor.  Additionally, you want your front knee positioned in line with and above your foot – if you stand with your feet too far apart, your knee will be behind your ankle, which is not as desirable.

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2) Step up onto a box or bench

This is a great introduction to truly single leg training because it requires less balance than some of the more advanced drills, and it is also scalable both as far as range of motion and weight lifted.  It is a great “next step” after getting proficient at the basic split squat above.

To perform the drill you’ll need a sturdy box or bench.  Start with a height that allows you to perform the drill with confidence and good balance, and as you get better increase the height.  Eventually a good goal is to have your knee joint be higher than your hip joint in the starting position.

When stepping up onto the bench, try to use the front leg (the one on the bench) as much as possible, and let the rear leg contribute as little as possible to the effort.  This will probably be hard at first, and you’ll want to “spring” off the toes of your back foot to help propel you up.  While this is normal at first, do not let yourself get into a habit of doing this!  Stay disciplined and remember you are trying to train the front leg – make it do the work!  Just like in the spilt squat drill the front foot needs to be flat on the bench and the knee needs to track the toes.  Do your best to keep a strong core and tall posture – try to minimize “sway” in your torso as you move up and down, and be sure to not let your chest drop and shoulders cave in.

As a progression, first select a height you can do with good form but is somewhat challenging.  As you get better at it, you can choose to either increase the height or add more weight.  I generally prefer increasing range of motion over adding weight, since the priority is to get better at controlling your body.  However, if you think adding two extra inches of height may be more than you can handle, try doing some extra weight at the same height for a couple weeks before then moving to a higher box.  Eventually you want to use a box tall enough that your knee is at or above hip height in the starting position.

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3) Traveling lunges

There are many different types of lunges, all of which have their time and place in training.  From time to time we’ll do step-back lunges, step-forward lunges, sliding lunges on a furniture slider, and also do our lunges laterally.  To keep things simple, let’s just go over traveling lunges, which is the version where you start at one end of the room and do your lunges across the floor towards the other side of the room.

There are a lot of similarities here to the basic split squat, but now we have the increased difficulty of balancing and stabilizing through both a gait pattern and landing.  While the two exercises may look similar, make no mistake that these are significantly more demanding than the basic split squat, and should not be taken for granted.

Start by assuming tall posture and a hip width stance.  Take a stride similar in length to where you do your split squats, and as you land take care to keep your knees tracking your toes, your front foot flat on the floor, and your posture tall.  Dip down to allow your back knee to touch the floor without slouching or swaying your torso in any direction – your back should be nearly vertical at all times, and should be straight with a tight core throughout.  Once your knee has gently touched the floor, stride right into your next lunge on the other side.  For added difficulty, you can elect to pause and balance on one leg between each lunge, and bring the airborne knee up high to your chest.  This version forces you to really own the movement and display solid control.

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4) Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (RFESS)

This exercise, more than just about anything else in my repertoire, is one that my trainees love to hate.  The balance demands are fairly high, the range of motion is fairly big, and yet you can also lift heavy enough weights to make it all around miserable … in all the right ways.

For this one you’ll need a weight bench or something similar.  Begin by standing with the backs of your legs touching the bench.  Take a large step out (bigger than your normal stride) and get your front foot set in place.  Next, put the foot of your rear leg up onto the bench in such a way that the TOP of the foot is on the bench, NOT the ball of your foot.  From there, with one foot on the floor and one on the bench, perform the same split squat technique as in #1 above.  The range of motion will be bigger than with the basic split squat, so expect a big stretch in the back leg.  One technique point on this exercise is that there should always be a straight line from the knee of the rear leg, through the hips and through the shoulders.  If the knee does not line up with the hip and shoulder, you probably need to adjust your distance from the bench.

Once you get the hang of these, they can be loaded very heavy and build amazing strength.  An ambitious, but achievable, goal is to perform 3-5 reps per leg with half your bodyweight in each hand (or use a barbell equaling your bodyweight).  Needless to say, you’ll need to take lots of time to build up to this, so don’t be in a rush and do something silly.

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5) Single Leg Deadlift (SLDL)

The SLDL is a wonderful exercise to train the hip hinging motion while also including balance, stability and proprioception into the movement.  The balance demands are greater on this exercise than any of the preceding ones, yet if you have enough experience and skill you can lift heavy weights with it.  In fact, there are people out there who can SLDL over 300 lbs with textbook technique!

The exercise is usually initiated by starting fully upright with your feet together.  The leg you are going to balance on should have a slight bend to the knee, and the other leg should be as straight as possible.  While maintaining a neutral spine, you will hinge at the hip of the plant leg and reach your airborne leg behind you, trying to touch your heel to the wall.  Continue to descend down until a) you lose your balance, b) you cannot maintain a neutral spine, or c) you reach a horizontal position with your airborne leg and torso.  From there, drive through the plant leg, in particular by squeezing the glut, and return to the starting position.

A couple important points to consider on this are: 1) You should never let your spine move into flexion.  This is a common problem when people are overly concerned about reaching down to a certain height, rather than the quality of the movement.  2) Your hips should be level at all times.  When you are hinging, do not let the hip of the airborne leg twist up towards the sky.  One good cue is to have the toe of the airborne leg point directly down to the floor at all times – if it starts pointing to the side you are probably twisting your hips.

This exercise can be performed with no weights at all, or you can load it up heavy as long as your have proper experience and good technique.  If you choose to use weights, you can load it contralaterally (this is my favorite way, meaning if your left leg is your plant leg, then the weight will be in your right hand), you can load it ipsilaterally (I don’t use this often, but would be with your left leg being the plant leg and the weight being in your left hand), or you can use a pair of weights or barbell held in both hands.

11 in benefits of untilaterla training part 2

12 in benefits of untilaterla training part 2

OK, so there is a starting point for your unilateral training!  There are many other exercises not discussed here, such as pistol squats, airborne lunges and others that many people use with great success.  Based on your experience level, select an exercise to start with – either off this list, or choose a different one – and try to make some progress.  As you gain experience, either keep progressing the exercise or add complexity/challenge by moving to a more advanced one.  As with all of your training, take your time and don’t rush it – you should really feel like you “own” one movement before moving onto the next one.  Enjoy!

The Benefits of Unilateral Training – Part 1

Unilateral training, or essentially training on one leg at a time, is a great way to complement the bilateral (two legged) training you already do.  It offers an array of benefits across the spectrum of health to performance.  Regardless of whether your goals are general health, sports performance, or competitive strength training, just about everyone can benefit from including some unilateral work into their training plan.

If you are unfamiliar with the terms, “bilateral” refers to exercises where both legs are being used and are both performing the same task.  Exercises like squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, front squats and two-handed kettlebell swings are examples of bilateral movements.  When we use the term “unilateral” it refers to exercises where one leg is doing all of (or the majority of) the work, or that the legs are doing different tasks within the drill.  Some examples of unilateral exercises would be lunges, step ups, rear foot elevated split squats (RFESS for short), single leg deadlifts (SLDL) and pistol squats.  Every now and then you hear these terms used for upper body exercises as well, but without a qualifier it is pretty safe to assume they are referring to lower body.

Bilateral exercises, when used wisely, are great for building muscle and developing strength and power.  At Industrial Strength we include them in almost all of our training programs in one fashion or another.  However, we also see the value in training unilaterally, and using those drills to fill the gaps left by their two-legged counterparts.  Here are a few reasons why we like unilateral training:

  • Balance

Whether you are training for general health or sports performance, balance is an important consideration.  This could range from minimizing the risk of an injury due to a slip-and-fall, all the way to having the balance to counter an opponent’s throw in a grappling match and reversing it with a throw of your own.

  • Alignment and stability

Unilateral training is more “self limiting” than bilateral due to the balance and stability demands.  For example, a common problem in a squat is to have the knees collapse inwards (aka “valgus collapse”).  When this happens, the lifter can usually still finish the lift, just with less than optimal technique that may take its toll on the knees.  If you tried to do most unilateral exercises (such as a lunge) with that same valgus collapse, you probably couldn’t complete the rep and might even fall over.  So, in order to actually perform a unilateral exercise, your joint alignment and stability needs to be reasonably good.  If you develop this well enough, it will likely carry over into better positioning in your bilateral lifts too.

  • Back sparing

Your lower back can only take so much volume of squats and deadlifts before it starts to get irritated.  How much it can take depends on the individual based on training experience, strength levels, functional mobility, exercise technique, core stability and some other things.  One way to keep training the hips and legs without asking too much from the lower back is with unilateral training.   In exercises like RFESS, lunges and step ups the legs can be trained hard while keeping the back more upright compared to deadlifts or bilateral squats.  Additionally, you can use ample weight to challenge your legs, but it will be only a fraction of what your back can tolerate.  If you normally squat 200×5, you could work up to single leg squatting 100×5, which would effectively be about the same weight on your leg, but now your back is only supporting half the load.  If you have a touchy lower back but still want to strength train, this benefit is something that should not be overlooked.

  • Functional strength and power

Most athletic movements are performed off one leg at a time – sprinting, cutting, many types of jumps and bounds – they are all performed from a unilateral stance.  By including some unilateral strength & power training in your program, you can help to bridge the gap between the bilateral strength built with squats and deadlifts with the specific movements of your sport or activity.

  • Increased range of motion

Many people are not mobile enough to squat below parallel with good technique (parallel meaning the crease of the hip is lower than the top of the knee).  However, many of these people can achieve parallel depth or even lower in exercises like step ups, lunges and RFESS.  When trained on a regular basis, this should result in improved mobility, strength and joint function at new-found ranges of motion.

  • Reducing asymmetries

This one may sound obvious, but most people are more proficient moving on their dominant leg than their non-dominant one.  By including unilateral training, it can help reduce the gap between the two legs, thus offering more balanced movement.  This is also crucial if you’ve ever experienced a notable injury on one side, since that will often impact movement even after it is healed.  Training each leg individually will help get things straightened out and get you moving in a good direction.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, where I will share a few of my favorite unilateral exercises and explain where to start with them.

And as always, thanks for your time!

-Tony Gracia, Head Coach

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Heavy Metal, Free Throws, Armbars and Barbells

One of the toughest parts of being a strength coach and gym owner is that when people join they expect to be able to learn “proper form” with a 45 second crash course on the exercise they are doing.  The truth is that “proper form” does not exist – not in the sense that it is cut and dry or pass/fail.  Think about it like this: what other activities or skills could someone learn “properly” (whatever that means) in the matter of a few minutes?  Probably none.  Let’s look at some examples:

Playing the guitar? Nope.  You definitely won’t be playing Metallica the first time you pick up a six string; it will take years of training to get there.  Even when you do eventually learn to play some of their songs, do you think you’ll be doing it as well as Kirk Hammett ever did?

Shooting a basketball?  Again, no.  Sure you might make a couple baskets your first time, but you can’t teach someone to do it “right” in 5 minutes if they have never done it before.  Nor can you in 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or 30 minutes.  Again, it will take years of dedicated practice to get good at it.

Let’s look at one more example.  In addition to coaching strength training, I also coach Jiu Jitsu.  Never once have I had a student come in to learn Jiu Jitsu that expected to “do it right” in their first class … or first week, or even first month.  That is because even the most basic techniques in Jiu Jitsu take lots and lots of practice to develop and refine.  People inherently understand the technical nature of Jiu Jitsu, and they come in with a mindset conducive to studying the art (which takes LOTS of time and focused practice), rather than a mindset of expecting to “get it right” within 5 minutes.  My students don’t get frustrated when the don’t “get it right” their first try, they embrace the grind of hard work and consistent practice to get better at it.

So, then, why do people come into a strength training program and expect to “get it right” immediately?  What makes strength training different than learning to play the guitar, to shoot a basketball, or learning Jiu Jitsu?  My answer: nothing!  In fact, really, it is all the same.  In all these cases you are learning a SKILL and any skill takes time to build and polish.    There is so much more to “proper form” than simply the alignment of your joints … you need to consider bracing, tension, tempo, breathing and a host of other things.  All these things take a lot of dedicated practice, often years of it, to get good at.

What is the point of all this?  The point is that if you are starting out on a new exercise program, or maybe even starting for the first time, I strongly encourage you to approach your endeavor the same way you would as if you were learning the guitar or learning Jiu Jitsu – treat it like a skill.  Skills take focus, dedication, and patience to learn.  If you go in expecting to “do it right” on your first day, then you are setting an unrealistic expectation for yourself, and ultimately setting yourself up for disappointment and failure.  You will see much better long-term progress, as well as enjoy the experience much more, if you embrace that strength training is a journey and enjoy the ride.  Rather than allowing yourself to get upset with where you aren’t yet, make sure to celebrate the little victories and milestones along the way to remind yourself of how far you have come.

Thanks for your time to read our blog, and if you find this valuable, please be sure to share it.

– Tony Gracia | Co-Founder / Head Coach @industrialstrengthgym

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Slow Down Before You Speed Up | by T. Gracia

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In order to really move well you should be able to perform activities at a variety of speeds. Most sports are played at high speeds, so being able to go fast is obviously important. What I think gets overlooked is the value of really slowing down sometimes, and going “uncomfortably slow” during your practice. Going slow, really slow, painfully slow can really teach you a lot about the movement you are practicing and how proficient you really are at it. On top of that, being able to effectively decelerate is helpful in injury prevention, so you literally need to practice “slowing down” to get good at it.
One analogy I have been playing with is thinking about your muscles like gears. People who are really strong or good at a movement have their gears sync very well throughout the entire range of motion of their lift or movement. People who are more novice often have their gears “slip” throughout the motion. When I am practicing my slow speed training this is what I am visualizing: are my “gears syncing” correctly as my muscles lengthen and shorten, and are they able to do that smoothly and consistently throughout the full range of motion? Most of the time if I am struggling with something I end up finding spots in the motion where my gears start to slip, and I end up not being able to control my speed and have to catch myself. The “slip” may be the prime mover, or it may be a bracing/stabilizing muscle, but regardless, going slow allows me to really pay attention to that and feel it, which is the first step in getting better at it.
One movement we see this on a lot is a basic squat. We use barbell squats quite a bit in our Strength & Conditioning classes here at Industrial Strength, but we view that exercise as a privilege, not a right. If someone can’t safely and consistently hit parallel or greater depth (with all the other basic form markers as well), then we have them practice other variations of squatting until they can get there.
One thing we see a lot from the people that have trouble hitting parallel is that when they try to achieve depth they have to “dive bomb” their squat. They have no ability to go slow or display control at end range of motion, even with a bodyweight squat. For clarification, an experienced lifter who does have control/ownership over the full ROM may choose to dive bomb his/her squats as a personal choice – BUT, it needs to be a choice, NOT the only option! Back to the people who have trouble hitting depth – many of them have been trying it this way for years before coming to us. Our first thing we work on is to have them SLOW DOWN. If we go back to the analogy of gears, basically as they start their descent their gears are syncing well, but as they get closer to parallel the gears completely slip, resulting in them having no tension or control. It essentially turns into a free fall, which of course is not the goal. So, one of the projects we work on for this person is to slow them down and help them “keep their gears in sync.”
Another good example of this is when I first trained for a one arm one leg push up (OAOLPU). I had good success achieving this quickly because I really focused on control and linkage from the very beginning. I focused on keeping my muscles “on” the whole way down and up, rather than trying to drop fast then spring out of the bottom. This, more than anything else I have ever done, is what really taught me to contract my lats and use them during presses. Up until then I had always been thoroughly confused about how the lats were a pressing muscle, but once I got the hang of my OAOLPU it made all the sense in the world.
So, how then do you apply this type of training? There are, of course, many different ways. Generally I like to think of it as skill work. My strongest recommendation is to be able to “own” the full ROM of an exercise with control before you start doing it quickly. If you can’t get to a deep squat with good alignment with no additional weight, then trying to dive bomb a squat with a heavy barbell is probably going to catch up to you sooner rather than later. First, work on the skill of the deep squat, keeping your gears synced the whole time, then once you are good at that, then you can load it. Taking your arms overhead is another good example. If you can’t get your arms overhead with straight elbows and good alignment then why would you add speed and force to it with jerks? Make sure you can own the position slowly with control first, then once that is established you can train to add weight, speed, reps, etc. To come full circle, speed definitely is very important for athleticism, so once you have great ownership over a movement or position, then by all means add speed and power to it. Just make sure you’re not trying to shoot a canon out of a canoe.
As far as the specifics of sets, reps, tempo, etc that is a bit out of the scope of this article, but I will offer some general advice. When you are training a skill, which this is, make sure you avoid fatigue and practice frequently. When I was doing my OAOLPU training I practiced 1-3 reps at a time, 5-10 times per day. I also tried to go really slow, 10 seconds down and 10 seconds up. This style of training allowed my muscles to stay fresh, my mind to stay fresh (there is no room for zoning out with this kind of training) and for each rep to build off the one before it, rather than being hindered from fatigue from the preceding rep. Many people call this “greasing the groove” style training (many sets of low reps throughout the day), which I first heard from Pavel Tsatsouline. If you are interested in more in depth information about how this works I suggest looking up his body of work.
The other big thing to keep in mind with this is that your body can only get really good as so many skills at the same time. I think the “right” number is probably 1-3 of these types of skills at once so that you can really have good focus on a singular goal. If you try to do this with every exercise that you do I bet your focus will not be where you need it to be, and you will not get the progress you’re hoping for. Start with one exercise, try it for a week or two, then evaluate if you want to try it with something else too. You can try it to improve a movement you already do (squat), learn a new skill (OAOLPU) or pick one of each.
Thanks for reading and please share your feedback with how your training goes!

– Tony Gracia | Co-Founder / Head Coach @industrialstrengthgym

Perspective on Conditioning | T. Gracia

I just want to share a quick thought on “conditioning,” or broadly speaking “endurance training,” for sports and activities that have some level of speed, strength, and/or power demands.  In particular I work with a lot of Jiu Jitsu athletes, but this concept would also be largely applicable for everything from law enforcement to football players.

I think one thing that people really miss is that for these types of activities there is a minimum acceptable amount of strength/speed/power you need to be effective.  Let’s use a wide receiver in football as an example.  In order to be effective in a game, let’s say he needs to be able to run a 4.8 sec 40 yard dash.  If he is any slower than that, he isn’t able to run his routes effectively or create separation from the defense to be open for passes.

We certainly expect that over the course of a game he will get fatigued and be slower in the 4th quarter than in the 1st.  If our receiver runs a 4.6 second 40 when he is fresh, then he can still be effective even with some fatigue, as long as it doesn’t slow him down past a 4.8 time.  In this case, it makes sense to use an appropriate conditioning program to help him keep his speed at 4.8 or better over the course of the game.

The problem comes when you can’t yet meet that minimum even when fresh, but instead of training to get there, you focus on endurance training instead.  If our receiver runs a 5.0 as his best time, then it doesn’t matter what he runs in the 4th quarter because he’ll be doing it from the bench.  His training needs to prioritize getting his time down to a 4.8 at all before he worries about conditioning to do it repeatedly.  If he is only running a 5.0 as his best time, he is not effective AT ALL, let alone in the 4th quarter.

Let’s look at another example.  Let’s say you are an MMA fighter and want to be sure that you have knock out power in the final round of your fight.  First, you need to be sure that you have KO power to begin with, and only once that is established should you worry about keeping it over the course of the whole fight.  If you lack KO power from the get go, and your technique is sharp and is not the limiting factor, then you need to get stronger and more powerful before you can even start thinking about knocking out your opponent.  Once you have your punching power where it needs to be, only then should you start worrying about training to keep it into the final round.

The take home message is to figure out what minimum levels you need for the sport or activity of your choice and train to: #1) get there at all, then #2) be able to do it repeatedly and in a fatigued state.  Don’t put the cart before the horse and train for #2 without being able to do #1 first, otherwise you’ll just be spinning your wheels wondering why you’re not getting anywhere.

– Tony Gracia | Co-Founder / Head Coach @industrialstrengthgym