End the Year Strong

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Crank out your first pull-up. Do a handstand pushup. Jump higher than you thought possible. Here are three kick-butt exercise programs that will help you pull off a fitness victory before the year ends.

For the fitness enthusiast, New Year’s is a day of reckoning. As January approaches, many of us are haunted by memories of the previous year’s resolutions: Run that marathon. Lose 20 pounds. Work out three times a week. It seemed so doable with 12 months ahead of us, but now, with a scant few weeks left on the calendar, we may feel more inclined to throw in the towel, grab a slice of holiday fruitcake, and resolve to do better next year.

But don’t write off 2011 just yet. If you start now and choose the right program, there’s still time to reach a significant fitness milestone before this year runs out — and to rack up plenty of new functional strength and athleticism in the process.

To help you pull out a buzzer-beating fitness victory even as the year’s final days tick by, we asked top fitness experts to come up with three tough-but-doable programs, each designed to help you reach a particular goal in record time.

Follow their tips and you’ll tack some height onto your vertical jump, nail your first pull-up, or perform an impressive handstand pushup.

Choose the program that looks right for you (they’re listed in ascending order of difficulty), and get to work. Commit to the program and, come midnight on Dec. 31, you won’t just be toasting what you hope to accomplish in 2012, but what you’ve already achieved!

1. Get Some Air: Improve Your Vertical Jump

“If you can jump high, it’s a pretty sure sign not only of strong legs, but that your overall coordination, reaction time and agility are pretty finely tuned as well,” says Philadelphia-based volleyball coach and AA-league player Tim Moyer, MS, CSCS. In other words, add even an inch or two to your “vert” and you can be fairly certain that your overall fitness has improved, too.

So whether you’re looking for an edge in your basketball or volleyball league or just want a little more spring in your step by New Year’s, Moyer’s twice-weekly jumping program will help get you there. If you’re a novice jumper, Moyer says that you can expect to gain an impressive 2 to 4 inches of jumping height in four weeks. So get hopping — and prepare for some serious air.

The Program

Before you start, test your vertical jump. You can do this with a special device available at some gyms, or by creating a self-test version (see “DIY Vert Test,” below). Either way you choose, note your results and retest yourself every two weeks.

Perform the exercises in Phase 1 twice a week. Transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 only when you can comfortably complete the highest number of sets and reps of each exercise without soreness or serious fatigue.

Observe the following guidelines during each vertical-jump phase:

1. Warm up thoroughly.

2. Never work to exhaustion. Explosive-style workouts sneak up on you: You often can’t tell how hard you were working till the next day. To keep progressing, always finish a workout feeling like you could have done just a little bit more.

3. Make sure each rep feels powerful and explosive. The goal is to increase your speed under resistance (also known as power). It’s not a cardio workout — rest between reps so that you can give each jump your maximal effort.

4. Land softly on the balls of your feet.

5. Stay aligned. Keep your back straight and your knees lined up over your toes.

6. Bounce when you hop, but stick your landings when you jump. On both single-leg and double-leg hops, control your landings, but launch into your next rep as quickly as possible after making contact with the ground. For jumps, avoid bouncing entirely, holding your landing position for a moment before moving to the next rep.

Phase One: Laying the Ground Work

 

Double-Leg Forward Hop: Hop repeatedly forward on two feet, 6 to 12 inches with each hop.
Sets and Reps: Two to three sets of 20.

 

Double-Leg Side-to-Side Hop: Hop on two feet laterally 6 to 12 inches; left, then right.
Sets and Reps: Two to three sets of 20 reps to each side.

 

Double-Leg Broad Jump: Jump forward approximately 18 to 24 inches on two feet, sticking your landing.
Sets and Reps: Three to five sets of five.

Double-Leg Broad Jump to Vertical Jump: Jump forward, then immediately upward as quickly and powerfully as possible. Pause, then repeat.

Sets and Reps: Three to five sets of three.

Jump Rope: Alternate your landing foot with each revolution of the rope.

Sets and Reps: Two sets of 30 seconds.

DIY Vert Test

• Smudge chalk on your fingertips.

• Stand with shoulder facing a wall.

• With your feet flat, reach your hand as far up the wall as possible.

• Lightly smudge some chalk on the wall at the highest point.

• Repeat, this time jumping explosively and reaching your hand as high as possible.

• At the apex of your jump, again smear some chalk on the wall, and land as softly as possible.

The distance between the two chalk marks is your baseline vertical jump — and the number you’ll be striving to beat!

Phase Two: Twist and Jump

Double-Leg Jump With 90-Degree Turn: Perform a max-effort vertical jump with a 90-degree turn.

Sets and Reps: Three sets of three in each direction.

Double-Leg Jump With 180-Degree Turn: Perform a max-effort vertical jump, turning 180 degrees and sticking your landing.

Sets and Reps: Three sets of three in each direction.

Double-Leg Broad Jump to Double-Leg Jump With 90-Degree/180-Degree Turn: Jump forward approximately 18 to 24 inches, then immediately upward as quickly and powerfully as possible, adding a 90-or 180-degree turn.

Sets and Reps: Two sets of three to five reps of each type of turn in each direction, for a total of 12 to 20 reps each set.

 

Single-Leg Forward Hop: Hop 6 to 12 inches forward standing on your right foot, six times in fast succession. Repeat on your left foot.

Sets and Reps: Three to four sets of six reps on each foot.

Single-Leg Side-to-Side Hop: Hop 6 to 12 inches laterally, alternating sides.

Sets and Reps: Three to four sets of six reps in each direction on each foot.

2. Clear the Bar: Master the Pull-Up

Remember those preternaturally fit kids who could nail the pull-up test back in middle school? There’s still time to join their ranks — even if you were one of the many youngsters who had to settle with the “bent-arm hang” back in the day.

As with any fitness goal, the key is to get there a little bit at a time. That’s pretty straightforward when you’re talking about lifting an external weight like a barbell: Just start with a light weight and build up. But you’ve got to get creative when you’re working with a fixed quantity like your body weight.

Fortunately, Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD, founder of the women’s resistance training site www.stumptuous.com, has some clever ways to make pull-ups more accessible. “You might think you could never get your chin over that bar, even with a drill sergeant yelling at you,” she says. “But with a gradual, progressive program, you can — and you will.”

You can get your chin over the bar in one of two ways: either with an underhand grip, usually called a “chin-up,” or an overhand grip, usually called a “pull-up.” From here on out, we’ll be using the term “pull-up” — but choose the grip where you feel strongest. Master one and other variations will come! Meanwhile, use the suggested variations and “Ready to Advance” guidelines to evolve your strength and form.

The Program

Phase One: Standing Lat Pull-Down

• Fold a length of elastic band over a pull-up bar and stand under it, holding the doubled-up band in each hand. Bend your knees slightly.
• Grab the band with your hands about shoulder-width apart or a little wider.
• Pull the band down to the top of your chest, so that your hands are near your armpits.
• Slowly return the band to the starting position.

Sets and Reps: Two to three sets of eight to 10 reps, two or three times a week.
Ready to Advance:
When you can comfortably use a thicker band, and pull it all the way to the top of your chest.

 

Phase Two: Band-Assisted Pull-Up

• Secure an exercise band in a loop around the top of a pull-up bar so the band hangs down in a “U” shape.
• Place one knee through the band (stand on a bench or box if necessary), which will act as a counterweight and give you a boost during the exercise.
• Minimizing swinging in the lower body, pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar.
• Lower yourself under control.

Sets and Reps: Two to three sets of five to eight reps.
Ready to Advance:
When you can do five solid assisted reps.

 

Phase Three: Eccentric Pull-Up

• Grab the pull-up bar with your grip of choice (stand on a bench or box if necessary).
• Hop directly to the top position of a pull-up, arms fully bent and chin over the bar.
• Lower yourself down as slowly as possible, trying for a slow three or four count on the way down.

Sets and Reps: Two or three sets of three to five. (Do these in addition to one or two sets of standing lat pull-downs or band-assisted pull-ups.)
Ready to Advance:
When you can do four or five slow, controlled reps.

 

 

Phase Four: Partner-Assisted Pull-Up

• Hang from a pull-up bar.
• Bend one knee to 90 degrees, and have your workout buddy place his or her hands under your shin and apply gentle upward assistance throughout the movement as needed until you complete a pull-up. (Often, just a little boost at the bottom is all it takes.)

Sets and Reps: Three to five sets of one or two reps, supplemented with standing lat pull-downs (from Phase One).
Ready to Advance:
When it feels like your partner isn’t helping much.

Phase Five: Your First Pull-Up

 

• Hang from a pull-up bar with your arms nearly straight.
• Keeping your muscles tight throughout your abs, back and arms, pull your body upward until your chin clears the bar.

Call your old gym teacher! You just did your first pull-up.

3. Defy Gravity: Do a Handstand Pushup

We’ll admit it: Kicking up to a handstand, lowering the top of your head to the floor and pressing your bodyweight back up — even once — requires no small amount of physical chutzpah. The inverted position alone presents a challenge to the stability and mobility in your core and upper back. And once you bend your arms, look out: Your shoulders, triceps and chest have to work for all they’re worth to keep you from whacking your noggin on the gym floor.

But that’s what makes it a perfect end-of-year fitness challenge. Nail this one and you’ll have bragging rights to arguably the toughest basic body-weight exercise there is. Adam Steer, NSCA-certified personal trainer and body-weight training specialist, shares the step-by-step method he uses to turn clients from inversion-averse scaredy-cats to handstanding heroes in the space of a few short weeks.

Remember: Even superfit types find this exercise challenging. Strengthwise, it’s nearly the equivalent of doing a barbell press with your full body weight. Take your time with this program and realize that getting even a little better at the handstand pushup will translate into greater athleticism in everything you do.

Work the following exercises into your regular routine two to three times a week, advancing to the next phase when you reach the “Ready to Advance” benchmarks described in each section.

The Program

Phase One: The Pike Pushup

• From a pushup position, walk your feet toward your hands a couple of steps, raising your hips high in the air so that your body forms a straight line from your tailbone to your hands.
• Keeping your hips high, slowly bend your arms, lowering yourself until the top of your head lightly touches the floor.
• Reverse the movement, pressing yourself back up to the starting position with as much explosive force as possible.

Sets and Reps: Start off with five sets of five, and work up to three sets of eight to 12.
Ready to Advance:
When you can perform three sets of eight to 12 reps.

 

Phase Two: Pike Hold, Feet on a Box

• Use a box approximately 12 to 24 inches high.
• Locking your arms and bracing through your core, step your feet up onto the box, forming an inverted “L” with your body: hands on the floor, feet atop the box, torso and arms vertical, legs straight and roughly parallel to the floor.
• Use an incrementally higher box, countertop or other stable surface each time you perform the move.

Version One: Hold this position isometrically.

Version Two: Do partial pushups in which you lower your head just a few inches.

Version Three: Perform the full pushup, lightly touching the top of your head to the floor each rep.

Sets and Reps:
Version One: Work up to three holds of 60 seconds each.

Versions Two and Three: Five sets of five, working up to three sets of eight to 12.

Ready to Advance:
Version One: When you can do three sets of 60-second holds.

Versions Two and Three: When you can do three sets of eight to 12.

  

Phase Three: Isometric Handstand Hold

• Find a wall space at least 3 feet wide, with plenty of space around.
• Bend at the waist and place your hands flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart, about 12 inches from the wall.
• Keeping your arms locked and both legs straight, kick your dominant leg over your head, as if trying to touch the wall with your heel. When you do this correctly, your hips and nondominant leg will follow, and you will be in a handstand position with both heels against the wall.
• Once inverted, squeeze your legs together, tighten your glutes and core, and push away from the floor with your hands.
• Breathe as normally as possible and hold for as long as you comfortably can, coming down one leg at a time.

Sets and Reps: Two to three holds, each up to 60 seconds long.
Ready to Advance:
When you can hold the position for three sets of 60 seconds each.

 

Phase Four: The Wall-Support Handstand Pushup

• Kick into a handstand against the wall as described at left.

Version One: Perform partial repetitions, lowering your head a few inches to the floor.

Version Two: Perform a full repetition, lowering your head all the way to the floor and pressing yourself back up.

Sets and Reps:
Version One: Work up to three sets of eight to 12.

Version Two: Begin with multiple sets of one or two repetitions and go up from there.

Congratulations! You did it. Next year? The freestanding version!

Phases Three and Four of Vertical Jump Training

Add these moves to your routine to get some serious air.

Phase 3: Getting Serious Air
Warm up on a mini-trampoline or with a jump rope, doing both double- and single-leg hops for two sets of about 40 reps per leg.

Double-Leg Forward Hops (described in the main article), three sets of 20 reps.

Double-Leg Side-to-Side Hops (described in the main article), three sets of 20 reps each direction.

90-Degree and 180-degree Double Leg Jumps, three sets of five reps of each type of turn (quarter and half) in each direction.

Seated Box Jumps

  • Sit on a plyo box or aerobic step 12 to 18 inches high (the lower the box, the more difficult the exercise).
  • From the seated position, explode up into a max-effort vertical jump.

Sets and Reps: three sets of four.

Box Drops

  • Paying close attention to your jumping and landing mechanics, jump off of a box that’s approximately the same height as your vertical jump (measured before Phase One).

Sets and Reps: Four sets of three.

Depth Jumps

  • Stand on a box that is approximately a third of the height of your vertical jump.
  • Step off the box, landing softly with both feet simultaneously, and then immediately jump vertically off from the floor as quickly as possible

Sets and Reps: Four sets of three.

Single-Leg Forward Hop to Side Hop

  • Standing on your right foot, hop forward and then immediately to the left, staying on your right foot the entire time.
  • Pause and repeat, completing all your repetitions to the left side.
  • Switch feet and jump to the right for five repetitions.
  • Perform the entire drill again on your right foot, this time jumping to your right; then on your left foot, this time jumping to your left.

Sets and Reps: three sets of five reps in each direction on each foot.

Single Leg 90-Degree Hops

  • Standing on one foot, hop high, turning yourself 90 degrees to the left.
  • Pause and repeat, turning 90 degrees to the right.

Sets and Reps: Four sets of five reps in each direction on each foot (20 reps in all).

Phases Three and Four of Vertical Jump Training

Add these moves to your routine to get some serious air.

Phase 3: Getting Serious Air
Warm up on a mini-trampoline or with a jump rope, doing both double- and single-leg hops for two sets of about 40 reps per leg.

Double-Leg Forward Hops (described in the main article), three sets of 20 reps.

Double-Leg Side-to-Side Hops (described in the main article), three sets of 20 reps each direction.

90-Degree and 180-degree Double Leg Jumps, three sets of five reps of each type of turn (quarter and half) in each direction.

Seated Box Jumps

  • Sit on a plyo box or aerobic step 12 to 18 inches high (the lower the box, the more difficult the exercise).
  • From the seated position, explode up into a max-effort vertical jump.

Sets and Reps: three sets of four.

Box Drops

  • Paying close attention to your jumping and landing mechanics, jump off of a box that’s approximately the same height as your vertical jump (measured before Phase One).

Sets and Reps: Four sets of three.

Depth Jumps

  • Stand on a box that is approximately a third of the height of your vertical jump.
  • Step off the box, landing softly with both feet simultaneously, and then immediately jump vertically off from the floor as quickly as possible

Sets and Reps: Four sets of three.

Single-Leg Forward Hop to Side Hop

  • Standing on your right foot, hop forward and then immediately to the left, staying on your right foot the entire time.
  • Pause and repeat, completing all your repetitions to the left side.
  • Switch feet and jump to the right for five repetitions.
  • Perform the entire drill again on your right foot, this time jumping to your right; then on your left foot, this time jumping to your left.

Sets and Reps: three sets of five reps in each direction on each foot.

Single Leg 90-Degree Hops

  • Standing on one foot, hop high, turning yourself 90 degrees to the left.
  • Pause and repeat, turning 90 degrees to the right.

Sets and Reps: Four sets of five reps in each direction on each foot (20 reps in all).

Andrew Heffernan, CSCS, is a Los Angeles–based fitness coach, writer and contributing editor at Experience Life. He blogs at www.malepatternfitness.com.

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