Christopher Riley, Contributing Editor
Challenge: Nordic Curl
When some unidentified genius coined the timeless phrase ‘curls for girls’, I’m not sure a nordic curl is what they had in mind.
After all, your hamstrings don’t quite command the same attention as your biceps.
But it’s for precisely this reason I choose the nordic curl as my exercise to master: it may not be the poster child of gym movements, but what it lacks in star power it more than makes up for in usefulness, both in terms of performance and injury prevention.
Honing in on more or less your entire posterior chain, the nordic curl is unparalleled in building hamstring and glute strength, offering a knee flexion workout that your typical hamstring-curl session can only dream about.
When it comes to selecting the coach with the skillset to help me on my nordic journey, I know I have to find a trainer known for going the extra mile. It’s one thing to help a client add a few kilos to their bench press, or shave a few minutes off their 5km time, but understanding the mechanics of the lesser-known nordic curl required a PT of professorial knowledge.
A true student of the game, if you will. Enter Matt Walsh of Ultimate Strength and Conditioning, operating out of Fitness Playground Surry Hills. Applying an academic-like rigour to his coaching, Matt is the sort of PT to help a client initiate life-long training methodologies, rather than simple quick fixes.
My first attempt finds me lowering with steady control for all of half a second before I fall flat on my face. Hamstring strength nil, gravity one.
Thankfully Matt is more optimistic about my chances of mastering the curl within five weeks than I am – though I think his optimism is based more along the lines of ‘he can only get better’.
Over the course of the five weeks, my training revolves around nordic negatives, machine curls, kettlebell deadlifts and lower-back work. (At some point around week 4 I think I hear my posterior chain start crying.)
With Matt keeping me honest, I quickly become more confident in my hamstrings, slowly starting to share in his optimism that this
is indeed possible after all.
With the nordic curl being an intense strength-building exercise, it requires a lot of rest between sets. For someone like me who works out with an obsessive, frantic energy, this was always going to be a challenge. But it’s in these moments that I gain the most valuable insights from this whole experience.
Sitting with a coach and probing the mechanics of the human body, rather than simply scrolling Instagram for my next #workoutinspo, means I’m forced out of my usual gym routine and into the trusted guidance of an expert.
For a long time, my obsession with ‘functional movements’ (a hangover from my CrossFit days, I’ll admit) meant I almost never performed a curl or any other single-use movement. When it came to working my posterior chain, this meant I only ever performed deadlifts or kettlebell swings. This is all well and good, Matt tells me, until you realise the hamstrings consist of three muscles, one of which is utilised only when flexing the knee, i.e. in a curl. Thus, in order for the hamstrings to function at their best, they need both hinge movements (deadlifts etc) and knee flexors (curls). Let me tell you, that blew my mind.
With five weeks of solid training in the bank, when it comes to testing myself I have that smug feeling of a kid before an exam who knows they’ve done the course work. With Matt’s cues playing in my head (‘Eyes up!’, ‘HOLD!’) I pin my ankles in and nordic curl for dear life. The result sure isn’t pretty but technically speaking I get the job done. Mission accomplished. Not only do I leave with a huge sense of achievement, I’ve since found more spring in my step when running and more power in my deadlift. As for the girls? Unfortunately, the jury’s still out on that one.
Do this workout three times a week to pump up your posterior chain
a) Razor curl, 4 x max effort
b) Nordic hold, 3 x 30 seconds
c1) Back hyperextension, 3 x 30 seconds
c2) Single-leg calf raise, 3 x max effort*
c3) Roller curl, 3 x max effort
*C performed as a super set
Ian Brooks, CEO
Challenge: Swim 2km
Swimming has always been a weakness of mine. It has never felt natural or effortless, which I know it does for some people. Even as a kid I could swim maybe a few laps before I’d need a breather. It’s fair to say I didn’t clean up at school swimming carnivals. These days I barely swim, unless you count a dip in the surf.
By contrast, over the years I’ve been a decent runner and rower and had my moments on the soccer pitch. This gap in my athletic competence – swimming like a cat – is something I’m keen to address. Covering a distance of 2km without stopping strikes me as a goal that’s ambitious yet achievable.
I know I’m supposed to enlist a coach, but the truth is I don’t feel it’s necessary. Everything I need to know is available either on YouTube
or in past issues of MH.
My research leads to an inescapable conclusion: my difficulties with swimming all come down to breathing. Basically, I’m messing it up. Specifically, I’m not exhaling fully. As a result, carbon dioxide is building up in my system and my muscles aren’t getting enough oxygen. This is why I’ve felt exhausted on the rare occasions I’ve tried to swim more than a couple of hundred metres.
Meeting this challenge is going to come down to improving my technique more so than my fitness. As a smart guy once told me, practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent. You need to do things correctly so as not to ingrain flawed technique.
Also, I slow down my stroke, the same way you do a golf swing when you’re looking for easy power. After all, I don’t need more speed – just more efficiency. I don’t care how long it takes me to swim the 2km. Like Rocky, all I wanna do is go the distance.
Progress is gradual. Some mornings I need to stop six times. But I know I'm getting there.
I’ve done all my training in the ocean at Sydney’s Balmoral Beach and that’s where I head on the big day. At 6.30 one recent Wednesday morning, decked out in Speedos and goggles, I head out about 100m to a line
of buoys and set off, swimming parallel to the shoreline and turning every 350m.
Confident in my technique and distracted by the fish and a majestic sunrise, I cover the 2km distance comfortably, returning to shore weary but not at all breathless, and quietly satisfied with a resounding PB. And at my age, I consider any new PB an achievement.
Brooks’ method was first to finetune his technique, then to apply it over gradually longer distances. To swim like a fish, suit up and follow in his wash
• Swim 800m, nonstop, on 3 separate days
• Swim 800m, nonstop (5 days)
• Swim 1200m, nonstop (4 days)
• Swim 1600m, nonstop (4 days)
• Swim 2000m, nonstop
Daniel Williams, Associate Editor
Challenge: 20 strict-form chin-ups (palms in)
Over several decades I’ve made almost every training blunder in the book. Among the more egregious: overworking the mirror muscles. Predictable result: a back lagging in strength and development. For me, this challenge is a chance to right a wrong.
I figure I could attack my flipside with bent-over rows. But at the age of 56 and with a history of back trouble, the risk of injury is too high. So, I opt for old school chin-ups, palms facing in. My PB for a set of these is 13 but that was set years ago. Nowadays, I do them in sets of five or six.
At a stretch, I can do 10.
To help me double that number I turn to Marcus Bondi, the Bradman of chinning and the king of the North Bondi exercise bars. Recently, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the audience, Bondi did a chin-up with 105kg strapped to his waist.
“Dat was incredible!” Arnie told Bondi, who, unencumbered, can do 40 perfect-form chins at a moment’s notice. And Bondi and I are almost the same age. This union is perfect.
When we meet, he seems relieved.
“You’re fit,” he flatters, glancing at my shoulders. “And 10 reps is a decent base.
“Daniel, you’re going to smash this,” adds my new trainer, who’s as enthusiastic as he is strong. “You will be a human machine!”
His plan for me centres on weighted sets to failure. No time to mess about, he says. [See “Pass The Bar Exam”, below.]
Privately, I don’t share Bondi’s confidence that 20 is doable. I’ve loved training since boyhood. But, gee, it gets harder as you age. Physically, you hurt more and recover slower; energy bursts are rarer and less electrifying. Just as limiting is how the psychology of working out becomes complicated. Unhelpful questions abound. Does anyone give a f*** how many chins I can do? Do I give a f***? Is it even medically advisable anymore for me to go all out? Doubt takes root. You lift less weight, less often. And you wonder, is this age-related decline? Or am I going soft? Or both?
Come judgment day, I’m below par. I’ve felt headachy and slightly woozy for a few days. I fear that a max effort could see me pass out. But what can you do but try?
After nine reps I’m tired and slowing. I grind out six more to reach 15. Afterwards, you can find me loitering somewhere between disappointed and demoralised. The ensuing night is long. I’ve let myself down. Marcus, too.
Next morning I call him, because I have to.
“Daniel, no, no, that’s fantastic! You’ve set a new PB in your fifties,” he says. “You’ve upped your reps by 50 per cent in five weeks. That almost can’t be done. You should be proud.”
I’m not. But thank you. And I do feel better. Enough to set a new goal: 20 by July.
Use this routine from chin-up champ Marcus Bondi to stack muscle onto your shoulders and lats – hello, V-shape – and send your functional strength soaring
Hang from a bar for 10 seconds, first with palms facing out, then facing in. Then do two sets of two reps, emphasising speed.
With 5kg attached, do as many chin-ups as you can. When you fail, do as many half reps as you can. Then quarter reps. Then hang until your fingers are about to slip off the bar. Rest for 3 minutes.
As for Set 1. But add only 2.5kg.
Rest for 3 minutes.
Repeat Set 1. Rest for 3 minutes.
Repeat Set 2.
Optional extra sets
Hang one-armed for as long as you can. Switch arms. Do 6 total sets.
NB: Progressively add weight for sets 1-4.
Ben Jhoty, Deputy Editor
Challenge: Improve vertical leap
As a keen basketball fan, I’ve long been interested in vertical leap, aka hops. Possessing hops increases your likelihood of being able to perform basketball’s most celebrated and emphatic move: the dunk. At 173cm with small hands, the chances of me being able to dunk have always been slim, but that’s never stopped me dreaming.
In Year 12, as part of a physical education assessment, my standing vertical leap was measured at 50cm. Back then, with a running jump, I could touch the ring. Almost 30 years on I wonder: can I touch the ring again? Can I get my hops back?
To assist me in my mission, I recruit the services of Corey Bocking, strength and conditioning coach for the NSW Waratahs. Bocking’s a man used to taking raw muscle and sinew and refashioning them into potent and precise instruments of athletic endeavour. Hopefully he can do something similar for me.
We meet at the Waratahs' training facility in Sydney’s Kensington, where Bocking takes me through a program heavy on squats, plyometrics and something I hadn’t actually foreseen: jumps. “Just the act of jumping develops a muscle-stimulus response,” Bocking explains. To depart the earth also requires explosive power, he adds. “You need to have a solid base of strength that you then convert into a jump, which is a measure of power. It’s about how fast you can express your strength.”
As I absorb Bocking’s physics lesson, I picture myself as a human projectile, blasting into the sky. Bocking quickly grounds me. “As we get older the ability to develop power is one of the things that goes,” he says. The risk of calf injury – or the dreaded Achilles tear – also increases.
We take a baseline measurement of my standing vertical leap. To my surprise I manage 46cm, not far off my high school mark but light years away from New Orleans Pelicans' force of nature Zion Williamson’s 114cm – despite weighing nearly 130kg.
I begin training and am staggered by how exhausting the sessions are. Jumping is a full-body exercise, Bocking explains. It doesn’t take much to spike your heart rate. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. As a kid I was always jumping, every branch, awning or street sign an invitation, every fence, gate or boulder an obstacle I needed to conquer. Sometime in my twenties I stopped. Now I realise what I’ve been missing.
When launch day arrives, I feel ready. Bocking advises that at my age, cracking 50cm again would be an achievement, so when I touch the wall at 54cm I’m satisfied.
There happens to be a ring in the gym. Admittedly it’s lower than regulation but I decide it’s now or never. At 45 years old I soar into the air and for a few fractions of a second I’m a teenager again, leaving the years, fears of fading muscle strength and the pessimism and caution of middle age on the ground. I dunk. Then I cramp.
Do these sessions three times a week to reach new altitudes
Weeks 1- 3
• Trap-bar deadlift x 3
• Box drop and jump x 3
• Bulgarian split squat x 5 on each leg
• Borzov jump x 3 on each leg
• Jump squat x 5
• Vertical leap x 3
• Goblet squat x 4
• Vertical jump (arms down) x 3
• Eccentric loaded DB jump x 3
• Vertical jump (using arms) x 3
• Bulgarian split squat x 5 on each leg
Jason Lee, Creative Director
Challenge: Ring Muscle-Up
I started CrossFit back in February 2017 and it’s pretty much taken over my life ever since. I train in classes five times a week and am constantly pushing, prodding and massage-gunning my body in recovery the rest of the time.
Back when I started there was no way I could see myself pulling off a move like the muscle-up, be it the ring or bar variety. I couldn’t even do chest-to-bar pull-ups. But I kept training, kept improving and in the 2019 CrossFit Open I managed to do a single bar muscle-up. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards
I had a snowboarding accident and suffered
a shoulder subluxation and partial dislocation that took 15 months to heal properly.
Muscle-ups were something I avoided until late last year when I began trying the bar muscle-up again, managing to work up to a single rep. It made me wonder how much more I could challenge myself. There was another carrot, too. I knew that ring muscle-ups and double-unders are the two hardest technical moves in CrossFit. And I’m a sucker for technical moves other people can’t do.
To help me in my quest I enlist the help of Patrick Fitzsimons, a former CrossFit Games Regionals athlete and owner of arguably Australia’s premier box, CrossFit Active in Sydney.
“The ring muscle-up is tough,” Fitzsimons warns me when I show up to his box on the first day. “It involves going into the deepest dip position that you’ll ever do. You need a solid foundation of strength. You should be able to do six to 10 strict-form pull-ups and the same in dips before attempting it.”
Fortunately, after four years of training I already possess the necessary strength. I can do ring dips with ease. I can do pull-ups. My problem is the transition and linking these movements together.
Fitzsimons gets me to do a series of false-grip movements – false-grip hang, false grip pull-up – that I find really awkward. I get a lot of bruising around my wrists. I’m also struggling to pop my hips – in the kipping motion you really need to engage your glutes to pop your body up onto the rings.
Come judgment day I’m sad to say I’m not quite there. While I’m disappointed, I have made progress. I can now link my bar muscle-ups during class WODs, which basically means I can do two in succession. This is no mean feat, Fitzimons tells me, as it’s the second muscle-up from the top of the bar that is the real challenge.
Athletically, this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted. But it’s given me the tools and the self-belief that I can take on anything inside a box. I’d call that a gain, wouldn’t you?
Already got pull-ups and bar dips in your bag? follow this regimen to become a lord of the rings
• 15 Band pull-aparts x 3
• 15-sec Bottom of dip hold x 3
• 30-sec Hollow hold x 2
• 20-sec Superman hold x 2
10 min EMOM
• 10 Supine bent-over barbell rows
• 20 Barbell skull crushers
• 4 Russian dips x 3
• 5 Floor-to-low-ring transitions x 3
• 1 Kipping hips-to-tall-ring transition x 8
Scott Henderson, Editor
Challenge: 10ft (3m) Handstand Walk
After dabbling in CrossFit for almost five years, it’s down to pure luck that I’ve never been dealt a handstand walk in a competitive workout. One of the sport’s most essential skills, the handstand walk is a vital component in the arsenal of any CrossFitter, as crucial as butterfly pull-ups or the ability to tell the world you do CrossFit. With only six weeks until the 2021 CrossFit Open I know my luck can’t last forever. It’s time to add this next-level skill to my admittedly limited repertoire of gymnastics-based moves.
To help me master the art of walking upside down, I turn to long-time pal and Australasian CrossFit Masters champion Andy Ginn. Based on the Gold Coast, Ginn has been my coach since long before he migrated north. His knowledge of human movement exceeds that of almost anyone I’ve been fortunate enough to train under, but perhaps even more valuable is his understanding of the human psyche. He knows my strengths and weaknesses. He knows I respond only to internal motivation. He understands my fragile ego and he programs to navigate these quirks of my personality.
Thanks to a background in swimming, my shoulder strength is greater than anticipated heading into my first session. Competent in the handstand push-up, I’m also no stranger to the sensation of seeing the gym upside down and supporting my bodyweight through my shoulder joints.
With shoulder strength sorted, Ginn is quick to identify thoracic mobility, or lack thereof, as my first major hurdle. Despite what my obnoxious Instagram account might suggest, as a magazine editor much of my day is spent hunched over a computer, resulting in extreme tightness across the upper spine and shoulders. Thankfully, Ginn is confident it’s nothing a few mobility drills can’t solve.
The next flaw Ginn pinpoints is that I’m not actively engaging my core while upside down. With my focus on locking my shoulders up and out, as well as technical imperatives such as eye position, hand position, and not-falling-on-my-head position, I find myself forgetting to activate the muscles that hold almost every human movement together: the abs and obliques.
Our final challenge is slightly larger and requires me to get used to the feeling of being inverted, yet unsupported by a wall. Incremental ‘regressions’ on the handstand walk, such as starting only 30 cm out from a wall and essentially falling onto it, mean that piece by piece I find comfort walking on my hands, vertically unassisted.
With five weeks up, so is my confidence. Truth be told, being 188cm means that with enough momentum, some core strength and the ability to hold my weight through my shoulder joints, it’s possible to propel myself over 10 feet (3m) through pure momentum.
Though I can get inverted and take ‘steps’, a handstand stumble is perhaps a better description of my current ability. Poor mobility and lack of core activation are still holding me back from truly ‘walking’. Heading into my next competition, however, I feel confident I can probably ‘Bradbury’ it over the finish line. Or at the very least, link two 5-foot (1.5m) handstand walks together. I guess you could call that baby steps, right?
Do this workout 5 times a week to turn your world topsy-turvy.
• Shoulder Floss - 3 minutes per side
• 20 Gentle Kip Swings
• 15 Empty Bar or DB Press
• HS hold - 20-40 sec
• T-Spine Peanut Smash - 3 minutes
(Hug a 20kg plate while lying on a peanut massage ball)
Perform 5-8 forward rolls
Focus: Practise safely forward dismounting and orienting yourself to being upside-down in case of a fall. Use a mat or perform
Handstand Walk Into Wall
For five minutes, assume the inverted position and practise walking toward a wall Focus: Start as close to the wall as needed.
Even if it’s one step and then you hit the wall, that’s fine. Record distance.
Handstand Hold with Weight Shift
3 x max duration
Shift weight from one hand to the other
Focus: Maintaining a perfect hollow position against the wall.