Author: Hunter Spencer

Personal Fitness Trainer, Seattle Athletic Club Downtown

Tips to Increase Your Strength Safely

Back in January I wrote a goal card to deadlift twice my bodyweight by June 1. I’m very excited to report that I reached my goal by lifting 348 lbs for 1 rep. Over the last several months, I have put in a lot of time working on deadlifts so I thought I would pass along some tips on how to increase your maximum strength in deadlift or any other exercise.

Get in the Groove
Make sure your deadlift pattern is PERFECT under no load and under sub maximal load. Poor deadlift patterns put your vertebral health in jeopardy and hamper performance through inefficiency. The specifics of the deadlift pattern are beyond the scope of this post but check out this video (by one of my former professors) for some general tips. Take the time to develop the movement competency required to deadlift well and then invest in learning the pattern. Make sure to maintain the pattern by including sub-maximal lifts in your training.

Plan for Success

Set a reasonable goal based on your current level and experience. Then expect to spend at least 10-12 weeks working on it. Invest the first couple of weeks in learning the movement and sub maximal workouts. Spend around four weeks in a hypertrophy phase in which you try to grow muscle with sets of around 6-8 reps. Take a week to re-focus on technique and movement ability before starting the next four week sequence, this one focused on maximum strength by employing very heavy sets of around 3 reps and using long (120+ sec) rest intervals.

Try Complexes

A complex is a heavy lift immediately followed by an explosive, exhausting exercise. The explosive exercise is followed by 90-120 seconds of. I reaped great benefit from complexing medium-heavy deadlifts with kettlebell swings. The combination of heavy weight, lactic acid inducing explosive exercises and rest effectively stimulates testosterone and human growth hormone to help increase muscle mass.

Go Heavy-Medium-Light
Try to lift heavy one day per week. This is the day to try a strength workout like 6 sets of 3 or a hypertrophy workout with 4 sets of 6 at 95-100% of your effort. Lift at a medium intensity one day per week. This should still be a challenging workout but the top priority is to maintain perfect technique throughout. Lift light one day per week. Use just enough load that you are aware of it but it doesn’t come close to distorting your technique. Use this day to rest and prepare for your next heavy day and also experiment with any changes to your technique on these days.

Heavy lifting can be very rewarding and a lot of fun. Enjoy these tips and I hope they help you reach new heights! Please contact me if you need help with your deadlift technique: I can’t overstress the value of investing in your movement ability and technique before even thinking about lifting at a maximum intensity. Reach me at Hspencer@sacdt.com.

The Importanct of Evidence-Based Practice: The Example of Exercise for Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis and osteopenia are common issues that affect the life expectancy and quality of life in nearly 40 million Americans. These conditions, which both indicate a decrease in bone mineral density, which we can consider as bone strength, occur in men and women of all ages but are most predominate in post-menopausal women. People affected with osteoporosis or osteopenia have reduced strength and resiliency in their bones leading to an increased likelihood of fractures. Fractures are linked to significantly increased all-cause mortality in older women as well as impaired mobility and quality of life so it is imperative that bone health be maintained.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is through exercise. With every muscle action and every contact with the ground, bones have some force exerted against them and they respond by becoming stronger. Increasing the amount of activity and exercise is therefore a viable way to increase bone strength. But what type of exercise will work best? A review of randomized, controlled trials evaluated various types of exercise to see which would have the greatest impact. The results varied based upon the body part. We will discuss the impact on two common sites of osteoporosis: the spine and neck of the femur. In the spine, bone mineral density responded positively to two types of exercise: Weight-bearing low force activity such as walking or Tai Chi and non-weight-bearing-high-force exercises. In the neck of the femur, a positive effect was observed in response to non-weight-bearing high force exercises. Non-weight-bearing high force exercises include exercise machines (such as the leg extension, leg press, hip abductor, hip adductor and hamstring curl) performed with almost as much weight as possible.

Look at that list of non-weight-bearing high force exercises again. If you have read my other posts or talked with me before, it is obvious that I am not a fan of those machines. In fact, some of them are on my list of top things to avoid at the gym. The motor patterns reinforced by these machines seem unproductive to me and they develop strength in very limited, non-functional actions. Worst of all, these machines allow you to develop more strength than your body can handle, which can lead to terrible movement habits and possibly injury.

In my mind, well coached and well-performed squats, deadlifts, hip hinges and farmers walks would be way more helpful for developing bone density. But, the evidence is right there, pointing at me, saying that these much-maligned-machines may have some usefulness after all. Perhaps the machines were only helpful for the subjects tested because they didn’t have good coaching. Perhaps the researchers simply found it easier to compare exercise machines. Perhaps I am a good enough coach that I can overcome these obstacles and increase my clients bone density without using the machines. So, I find myself in a quandary: Follow the evidence and use the machines or trust my own education, intuition and instinct. The question is best answered with humility. I honestly don’t know if better results can be obtained without using the machines. It seems likely to me but at the end of the day, there is not evidence to directly support it. So, I would like to take a moment to apologize to all machine advocates out there and also endorse the use of these machines for increasing bone mineral density in the spine and neck of femur.

If you have osteoporosis, osteopenia or are at risk, this discussion was likely very useful for you. But if you don’t, it still offers a valuable lesson. No expert can know everything. Even strictly within the field of exercise, there are countless complicated decisions that cannot be answered through logical reasoning and intuition. When it comes to your health and fitness, you deserve to know that you are making the best decision. Always ask your trainers, instructors and health care providers why they are doing what they are doing. Ask about the evidence they have supporting them. There are a lot of things that don’t have clear evidence-based answers but it never hurts to ask. It will make you a better client and make us better trainers.

Genuine Movement Lunges

“Get under the ball!” Racquet sports athletes have probably heard this ad naseum from their coaches and with good reason. Getting low to receive and re-direct an incoming ball in squash or tennis allows you more control of your shot as well as help to control your momentum and change direction. Broken down to its essence, this movement is a lunge pattern. Yet when I screen beginning, intermediate and even advanced squash players I frequently see difficulty in getting into a lunge position as well as maintaining stability in a lunge. Test your self: Align your feet in a straight line with your feet about as far apart as the length of your foreleg. Lower down until your rear knee contacts the ground and your knees are both at 90 degrees. Return to the starting position. If you can’t get into the bottom position or if your chest is strongly leaning forward in the bottom position, you are immobile in this pattern. If you can get down to the bottom position but you lose your balance, you are unstable in this pattern. If either applies, your ability to stop, change direction, change elevation and bend to the ground are impaired for racquet sports, field/court sports and daily life. If you are immobile, go back and do the Genuine Movement Mobility Routine.

If you are unstable, don’t worry. The following exercises can help stabilize you and, with frequent practice, you will see a difference in your performance in 2-4 weeks.

½ Kneeling Cable Chops

  • Get in the ½ kneeling position: one knee down, opposite foot directly in front of the down knee
  • Use wooden dowel on cable machine
  • Chop across your body from high to low
  • Return to start by reversing the pattern
  • Don’t move hips, trunk or shoulders
  • 2 x 10

½ Kneeling 1 Arm Curl and Press

  • In ½ kneeling position, hold one DB in the hand on the opposite side of the front foot.
  • Curl and press DB while maintaining balance and position of hips and shoulders.

1 Arm Lunges

  • Stand with feet in a straight line
  • Hold DB in the opposite side of the front leg
  • Lower rear knee to floor to perform lunges with your feet in place
  • 2 x 10

1 Arm Lunges Overhead

  • Identical set up as 1 Arm Lunges but the weight is held overhead.
  • 2 x 10

Test yourself as you did previously to evaluate your improvement.

Practice these exercises about 2-3 times per week for 2-4 weeks and you should notice dramatic improvement in your lunge ability and your performance. If you don’t see an improvement, make sure to contact me to determine if another movement issue is preventing you from lunging. Please contact me at hspencer@sacdt.com for all your movement needs!

Genuine Movement: Mobility Routine


Mobility is the ability of a joint to move in a functionally adequate range of motion. It is the foundation of movement ability because it allows your body to be comfortable in stable positions. Mobility is the opposite of the stiffness, tightness and restriction that many of us experience everyday. I have noticed several lower body “hot spots” in SAC members lately. Ankles, knees, hips and even upper backs (thoracic spine) are commonly tight which leads to difficulty in squats, jumping and sports. Many people assume that these malevolent joints are caused by muscles being too short but mobility is actually much more complicated. Mobility is in part determined by nervous system control of all the tissues surrounding a joint which means that increasing mobility at a joint really depends on changing the neuromuscular system. The bad news: this means that passive stretching will probably not make a long lasting improvement. The good news: using smarter mobility exercises can help you overcome immobility in as soon as 2-4 weeks of consistent practice. Genuine Movement is a program that teaches great movement ability in a semi-guided format. Here are some Genuine Movement mobility drills to get you moving naturally and spontaneously. Please contact Hunter Spencer at Hspencer@sacdt.com with questions or for more information about Genuine Movement.

½ Kneeling Stretch

  • Targets: Ankle, knee hip
  • Lean forward until you feel a moderate stretch in the thigh or calf
  • Return to starting position. Repeat.
  • Oscillate continuously for 10 reps
  • 2 x 10

Rib Pulls

  • Lying on your side with top knee pressing into the support
  • Keep knee above hip level
  • Rotate shoulders away from bent knee
  • Hold 3-5 seconds and return to starting position
  • 2 x 6

Squat Progression

  • Targets: Ankles, knees, hips, upper back
  • Use small silver box
  • Start with arms overhead
  • Bend down and touch box with straight legs
  • Continue pressing into the box as you drop your hips down into a deep squat
  • Lift one arm and look at your hand, hold 10 seconds
  • Switch sides and repeat
  • Lift both arms overhead and return to starting position
  • 3 x 6

Please contact Personal Fitness Trainer Hunter Spencer with your questions.

Glycemic Index and Weight Loss

If you have ever seen a Nutrisystem commercial, you are missing out. In fact, check this one out before you go any further, it’s worth watching.

Did you catch the bit on the “proven science of the Glycemic Advantage?” I love that line. The good folks over at Nutrisystem have found a way to scientifically determine which carbs are good and which carbs are bad, and created a weight loss program around that premise. At first glance it may seem that the judgment on some carbs is too harsh. Maybe the “bad” carbs had a rough up-bringing and they never had an appropriate role model to teach them any other life-path.

Jokes aside, Nutrisystem , and may other diets are based on the notion of the glycemic index. Glycemic index (GI) is a way of ranking carbohydrates in terms of how quickly your body can break them down into usable sugar in the blood. Pure glucose, the most usable form of sugar, has a GI value of 100. Low GI foods have a value of around 0-30 and are found in foods like legumes, lentils and bitter fruits. Medium GI foods, like sweet fruits and whole grains have a value of around 30-60. Processed bread, food with added sugar and dried fruit are high GI foods with a value over 60.
Glycemic Index is important because the rate that carbohydrates are converted into glucose impacts your blood sugar levels. High GI foods increase blood sugar rapidly which triggers a large release of insulin. Insulin reduces the level of blood sugar by storing some of the sugar as fat. This roller-coaster effect on blood sugar is problematic for those with diabetes or pre-diabetes, but it is also bad news for people concerned with their weight.

Making some substitutions to replace high GI foods in your diet with low GI foods can help you lose weight. A 2009 review of randomized, controlled trials found a consistent effect of weight loss for those who followed diets rich in LGI foods. One study from the review showed equal weight loss for those engaged in an energy restricted, low fat diet that included high GI foods compared to an unrestricted low glycemic index diet. The people on the low GI diet were allowed to eat until they were full for the duration of the diet whereas the conventional dieters where compelled to monitor and restrict their food intake. And there was no difference in weight loss between the two groups! If you do not like the hassle of dieting but need to lose weight, consider incorporating more low GI foods into your diet. It is by no means a magical solution or an excuse to overindulge in fatty foods but it just may be a kick start your weight loss. Look at the GI table below for some examples of common foods and think of some meals and snacks where you can swap a high GI food for a low GI food. This is far from a complete description of how to use glycemic index to your advantage.

Please contact Personal Fitness Trainer Hunter Spencer with your questions.

Attention Squash Players: Don’t Warm Up

At least don’t warm up in the typical fashion: No 5 minutes on the elliptical, no just jumping onto the court. If you are playing the Seattle Open Squash Tournament this weekend, prepare yourself for success with Purposeful Movement Preparation. A Purposeful Movement Preparation routine facilitates movement patterns common to squash, namely lunges, shoulder rotation and rotational stability. The emphasis is on perfect movements and drills that offer ample feedback. Let’s compare three warm-up options to better understand the benefit of Purposeful Movement Preparation.

Option 1: 5 minutes of light cardio exercise on a bike, elliptical, treadmill etc. combined with static stretching of any muscles that feel “tight.”

Option 2: 5-10 minutes on the court hitting

Option 3: 5-10 minutes of Purposeful Movement Preparation

No single strategy is perfect, but the advantages of Purposeful Movement Preparation are apparent. 5-10 minutes focusing on performing perfect repetitions of the movements most necessary for squash will overcome stiffness and soreness while allowing you to play to your potential. After this, a few minutes hitting on the court will provide adequate cardiovascular and skill preparation.

Performing your Purposeful Movement Preparation will require that you execute drills that foster perfect movement through patterns like lunges, shoulder rotation and rotational stability. First, focus on attaining mobility through a full range of motion and then work on stability in the legs, hips and shoulders in progressively more challenging postures. To make your Purposeful Movement Preparation most effective, tailor it to primarily address the movements that you find most challenging.

If you would like to create a personalized Purposeful Movement Preparation routine to facilitate your performance, please contact Personal Fitness Trainer Hunter Spencer at hspencer@sacdt.com. Hunter will also be available during the Seattle Open Tournament on Saturday Jan. 18. He will be leading complimentary group Purposeful Movement Preparation routines and providing complimentary Functional Movement Screens to identify your area of greatest need. More in depth corrective exercise sessions are also available to ensure that you maximize your potential at this tournament.

Two Approaches to Increasing Range of Motion

A healthy range of motion (ROM) around each of your joints is critical to your optimal function. Immobile joints feel stiff and tight, predispose you to injury and rob your body of efficiency. People often assume that the best way to increase ROM is by static stretching. Holding a position as in this picture for 10-30 seconds constitutes a static stretch for the hamstring muscles and tendons group.

Static stretching attempts to increase ROM by increasing the physical length of the tissues. It is slow, passive, confined to a single plane and can produce muscle fibers stretched beyond their optimal length. Thus, static stretching prior to activity is not recommended and static stretching is of only limited benefit for people who want to gain stability, strength, speed, agility and coordination in conjunction with increased ROM.

Mobility training promotes increased ROM in a different manner. Mobility training involves the active exploration of a range of motion at variable speeds. One of my favorite examples is the exercise below. This page is excerpted from the workbook for Genuine Movement: Lower Body. Click to download.

Similar to the static stretch stated above, this exercise helps to increase ROM around the hip joint. Unlike the static stretching example, it requires full body movement while promoting mobility in multiple joints in multiple planes of motion. This exercise is moderately difficult and includes aspects of mobility and stability, making it a perfect option for an effective warm-up. The most significant difference between mobility training and static stretching is that mobility training does not attempt to physically lengthen tissues. Instead, it teaches the neuromuscular system to better control activation and relaxation of muscles. By focusing on the neuromuscular system, mobility training produces rapid results and teaches the body how to use its new-found ROM safely and effectively. Mobility training can be used at any joint and applied through several different techniques. If you find yourself stiff, sore and tight and your regular stretching routine has not addressed the issue; consider learning and practicing mobility training. If you are looking for a more efficient way to prepare and recover from strenuous training or competition, mobility training could be the key to new levels of performance. You deserve better results than static stretching can provide, start your mobility training today!

If you are interested learning more about mobility training or the Genuine Movement program contact Personal Fitness Trainer Hunter Spencer.

Secrets of Shoulder Success Part Two: Secrets of Training

As discussed in Part 1 the shoulder complex is designed to allow both force generation and force transmission from the legs, hips and trunk. It can only perform these vital functions if adequate mobility and stability are maintained. To quickly evaluate the mobility throughout your shoulder complex, simply try to touch your hands behind your back with one elbow pointing up and the other elbow pointing down. Can you get anywhere close to touching? Do you notice a difference between the two sides? This motion requires full range of motion in the gleno-humeral joints, the scapulas and the thoracic spine and failing to touch or nearly touch the hands behind your back can indicate immobility at one or several of these joints. Re-gaining adequate mobility requires much more than static stretching because the underlying issue may not be the structural length of the tissues but rather the coordination between the brain, spinal reflexes, muscles and proprioceptors. To account for these variable explanations, a successful mobility routine must incorporate several modalities such as self myofascial release (SMR), proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching (PNF) and dynamic stretching. SMR includes massage-like activities such as foam rolling and increases mobility by relaxing fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds muscle bellies. PNF is a general type of stretching that involves a pattern of contraction and relaxation, for example stretching a muscle, contracting that muscle against a force and then relaxing to stretch the muscle more. Performing PNF at the beginning of an exercise session provides dramatic transient improvement in range of motion which allows improved mobility for the remainder of the session. Dynamic stretching includes anything that gives the shoulder an opportunity to explore a maximally large range of motion (ROM) at variable speeds and provides practice at incorporating the shoulder into whole body movements.

After acceptable mobility has been established, the ability to maintain a position within this ROM must be developed. Stability is not as dependent on strength as much as coordination; your neuromuscular system must work in harmony to quickly react to a perturbation. Training stabilizer muscles, such as the rotator cuff, for strength (with exercises such as rotator cuff rotations) does not train these muscles for stability and can even contribute to a dysfunctional, unstable shoulder complex. Instead stability exercises should challenge the shoulder to maintain position before, during and after a movement. Exercises such as a one arm bench press, reverse rows from a bar and even pushups can be used to evaluate and develop shoulder stability. The key to stability exercises is that they provide a stimulus-rich environment to teach the body what position is stable and how to maintain this position. Whatever exercises are being used, proper feedback is critical to avoid development of faulty motor patterns and ensure stability.

Both mobility and stability depend on the neuromuscular system to function properly. Several methods can be used to increase mobility and stability but it is imperative that any exercises designed to improve these traits provide an opportunity for the body to learn about moving through a complete ROM and maintaining a stable position. Because the neuromuscular system controls these traits, a chronic adaptation can be made within just 2-4 weeks. Adequate mobility and stability provide a safe and efficient platform from which to develop strength and then power. Mobility and stability in the shoulder are key to pain free, efficient movement and improved performance in racquet sports, golf and daily activities. There is no better investment for your shoulder function than to spend 2-4 weeks developing the mobility and stability you need to thrive! To learn more about shoulder and see if your shoulder mobility and stability are adequate, contact Personal Fitness Trainer Hunter Spencer.

Worse than SmokaDiaBesity?

Smoking, diabetes and obesity; this ugly triumvirate of chronic health problems, nicknamed “smokadiabesity,” strains our health care system, reduces quality of life and accounts for hundreds of thousands of American deaths annually. If asked the question “what kills more people than smoking, diabesity and obesity combined?” most people would struggle to come up with an answer. But there is a more potent risk factor for mortality and most of us struggle to overcome it on a daily basis. As the figure shows, low cardio-respiratory fitness is responsible for more deaths than any other major cardiovascular risk factor. Even more startling, low fitness is responsible for more deaths than even the sum the effect of smoking, diabetes and obesity. Low fitness is undoubtedly a plague to our health.

Health Factors

These data come from a study of over 50,000 people including men (colored bars) and women (white bars). The risk factors were compared based on the attributable fraction of all cause mortality. This means that if a risk factor was not present, a percentage of deaths due to all causes would have been averted. For example, if all the people with low fitness had instead been fit, about 16% of male deaths would not have occurred.

Getting fit could very well extend your life but 30 minutes of jogging and 23.5 hours of sitting and lying is an unlikely formula for truly improving cardio-respiratory fitness. Instead, a lifestyle of activity should be sought. If you work in a sedentary job this can be a challenge. Give yourself a goal to move 10 minutes every hour at work, and schedule it in. Walking to a colleague’s office instead of emailing, walking around the block on a break and taking the stairs are great ways to give your body a break from all the sitting. Also give yourself some time to intentionally exercise using a combination of moderate, sustained exercise and high intensity, interval training. Moderate cardio exercise looks like a long bike ride, jog or elliptical excursion of at least 30 minutes. Intervals consist of short bouts of high level exercise lasting anywhere from 10 seconds to 2 minutes followed by rest. If you are inexperienced with this type of exercise or you have any underlying health conditions, be sure to talk with a Personal Fitness Trainer before adding it to the mix.

Blair, S.N., 2009. Physical Inactivity: The biggest health problem of the 21st century. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 43(1): 1-2.

Secrets of Shoulder Success

Some people train their shoulders to attain the ideal of two cantaloupe shaped protrusions on their upper arm. Other people appear to delight in abusing their shoulders, repeating throwing or swinging motions until their arm nearly falls off. Others fear injury and refuse to do any shoulder exercise other than rotator cuff rotations with the band. To determine a sensible approach to training the shoulder we will focus on the structure and optimal function of the shoulder and related body parts (Part 1) and then delve into the training implications of these findings (Part 2). As an example, we will discuss the situation in which the shoulder acts to move the hand with speed, as in swinging a racquet or club, striking and throwing.

The gleno-humeral joint is the true “shoulder joint”, where the arm articulates with the trunk, and the point of action of the famous rotator cuff muscles. But movement at the shoulder is directly influenced by movement of the scapula, or shoulder blade, and the thoracic spine, the large middle region of the spine. For example, at the end of a throw like Mr. Johnson’s, above, the gleno-humeral joint is flexed forward, adducted across the body and somewhat rotated internally. This is accompanied by forward movement and external rotation of the scapula and rotation in the thoracic spine. If only the gleno-humeral joint were involved, the range of motion would be limited but the interaction of each of these regions accounts for the unparalleled mobility of the shoulder complex. Importantly, even these three regions are not isolated. The muscles and related connective tissue in the front and back of the shoulder complex are interwoven with neighboring tissues to link the whole body together. The rear shoulder tissues connect diagonally across the back to the opposite buttock (Take a gander at Figure 1 below). The front shoulder tissues are closely related to the abdominals and the front part of the hip on the opposite leg (Figure 2 below). The physical connection between the shoulder complex and the hips indicates that the shoulder serves as a point in the transmission of force generated from the powerful legs and hips. Indeed, the position of Randy Johnson’s legs in the photo hint at the interplay of the shoulder and legs. A well functioning shoulder then cannot only generate force on its own but it can also impart the force of the whole body into the hand or implement while also controlling the hand.

If the shoulder is to allow maximum force to flow into the hand, it must maintain adequate mobility and stability. Limited mobility in the entire shoulder complex, or at any of its constituent regions, will reduce the shoulder’s effectiveness by reducing the range in which to generate force. In the same way, cracking a short whip will generate less energy (i.e. sound) than cracking a long whip.

Furthermore, limited mobility in the shoulder complex can contribute to injury if the legs and hips can generate enough force to compel the shoulder to move beyond its restricted range. Likewise, instability at the shoulder will reduce force transmission as energy gets consumed at the joint. Consider the can and string telephones that kids can make. These only work when the string is tight because energy is wasted on excessively vibrating the loose string. An unstable shoulder joint acts the same way; the joint itself consumes energy instead of transmitting it to the arm. Instability can contribute to injuries that involve physical movement of the structures, such as a shoulder dislocation, and also injuries that result from decreased ability to control the hand. Mobility and stability interact to generate, transmit and control force going into the hand and are the foundation for increased performance in any activity requiring throwing, striking or swinging.

Next blog we will explore how to train the shoulder to succeed in generating, transmitting and stabilizing force. For more questions on shoulder movement and actions please contact persona fitness trainer Hunter Spencer.