Open Chain Vs. Closed Chain Exercises

Today’s post is all about open chain vs. closed chain exercises. If you don’t already know, a closed chain exercise is one in which you are moving your BODY in space. That is in contrast to an open chain exercise, where you are instead moving WEIGHTS in space. Let’s use a pushup as an example to clarify. In a push-up, your body moves in space (and the floor is stationary). That makes a pushup a closed chain exercise. If instead you are lying on your back doing a dumbbell chest press, you are then doing the open chain version of the same movement! It may sound like a trivial difference, but it isn’t. Closed chain exercises make you stronger. A lot stronger. This is because they use the whole body, better mimic the movements of real life, and thus are more functional. They are also safer for your joints because they generate compressive forces on the joints which helps to stabilize them. Conversely, some open chain exercises can produce sheering forces on joints which is damaging.

In preparation for an upcoming boot camp class which I’ll be teaching in August, I began focusing primarily on closed chain exercises this summer in my own training. I must say that the difference is amazing. Although I haven’t seen much growth in size, I’ve noticed a difference in muscle tone, and my core strength and overall strength have gone through the roof! I had always incorporated closed-chain exercises into my workout, but really focusing on them has made all the difference.

So should you drop open chain exercises altogether? Of course not! There are many that are close to my heart and that are excellent for strength. Also, because open-chain exercises are often more specific as to the muscle or muscle groups they are working, they can be better for creating hypertrophy (muscle size). Also, you must sometimes know how to modify and progress up to some closed chain exercises because they can have a steep learning curve (pullups for example). Either hit the books to learn the proper progressions, hire a fitness trainer, or join an excellent group exercise class.

Please feel free to ask any any questions about closed chain exercises or share your favorite! Stay strong.

By: Alex Cromartie, CPT, CHC

Mindfulness In Strength Training


I can’t tell you how often I see people at the gym going through their routine focused on the number of repetitions they are completing instead of the quality of the movement they are performing. Sure, reps are important. We want to be consistently pushing our limitations, so creating and meeting rep/weight goals are an important part of that. But I can tell you that if you aren’t paying attention to what muscles you are contracting, to the quality of those contractions, and to what muscles are stabilizing the whole process, then you are missing out on one of the best things you can do to advance your training.

Whether you’re a yogi class calling it “mindfullness”, a professional athlete calling it “the zone”, or a strength trainer calling it the “mind muscle connection”, the fact is there is a very real (if not somewhat esoteric) component to effective strength training that goes a beyond endlessly counting off reps and checking off completed exercises.

Still not sure of what I’m getting at? Take the example of a squat. What do you feel happening to your body when you squat? Is your lower back taking a lot of the weight and fatiguing? It shouldn’t be, if your spine is stacked correctly. What’s going on? Is your dominant leg taking the brunt of the weight and doing the majority of the work? If so, you are further strengthening the dominant side, neglecting the weaker side, and wreaking havoc on your spine. Make a conscious effort to back off of the dominant side and give the other side a chance to work! What if you (or someone observing you) notices that at the bottom of your squat repetition, one cheek dips lower than the other. Chances are you have a lack of flexibility in your hips and/or a weak glute on that side. Again, make a conscious effort to focus on that glue during each contraction of the rep. At the bottom of the squat, make sure to keep your quads and core (including your glutes) tight. Don’t let those muscles take a “micro rest” at the bottom of the repetition! Maintain the focus on the contraction of these muscles and maintain control throughout. Can you contract that flute on demand? If not, maybe it’s time to do a few extra glute bridges or donkey kicks on that side to wake it up! Glutes are notorious for “having amnesia” and going to sleep if you don’t give them a little extra attention on a regular basis.

This example is of course a simple one, for the purpose of getting the point across. The truth is that giving your body the full attention that it deserves is a lifelong discovery process. I realize that this can sound hokey or make me sound like I’m full of granola, but I’m not. Virtually all the best athletes in the world will attest to being in “the zone” when performing their activity. So take a hint from the best in the world and start getting into your own “zone” every time you workout.

Quieting your mind and dedicating this moment to the task at hand (a given exercise) doesn’t come naturally for everyone though. Especially in today’s fast paced, on-demand world where people feel like there getting nothing done if they aren’t doing 6 things at once. If this sounds like you, then it’s all the more reason to really work on this aspect of your strength training. It will add infinite depth to the process, and your body will thank you for it!

Alex Cromartie CPT, CHC

If It’s Easy, You Can Probably Skip It

By: Alex Cromartie, CPT, CHS

When I first began working in the fitness industry, I remember another trainer telling me that “If it’s easy, you can probably skip it.” in regards to exercise selection. For some reason, it always stuck with me. Although I did understand the basic idea behind the saying at the time, it would take me a bit longer to really understand the depth of it. Let me explain.

At first, the idea of concentrating on exercises that are difficult for you, unnatural for you, and sometimes downright agonizing for you may sound either sadistic, or like one of many overused fitness cliches. And while it may be both of these things, it is also a lot more. It is for me, the essence of training. Appreciating my strengths, but focusing most of my attention on the things I don’t do well in order to improve them.

More importantly though are the physical reasons why concentrating on your weak body parts and poor movement patterns is so important. To understand them, you must understand the length/tension relationships in your muscles. That is to say that when you attempt to move a joint in a particular plane of motion, opposing stabilizer muscle groups contract to stabilize the joint. If these opposing muscle groups are out of balance (whether due to physiology, a history of bad posture, overuse, or most likely a mix of all these), then the path of motion of the limb will be altered. When we exercise over time without addressing these movement deviations, we further ingrain them into our movement patterns. The overactive muscles continue to overwork and get tighter, whereas under active muscles remain dormant (and often continue to lengthen). What starts as one’s natural physiology in childhood, becomes augmented through the effects of gravity and time when left unchecked. Addressing these concerns is for me, one of the most important aspects of training.

Let’s use the tried and true squat exercise as an example to demonstrate this phenomenon. Say you notice that you tend to squat with your feet wide with your toes pointed out (sumo squat). When you try to squat in a neutral position (feet shoulder width apart with toes in front of your knees), you feel much weaker and your knees may tend to bow out a little. Since the sumo squat emphasizes the hip abductor muscle group (the outer thigh), this is a good sign that your hip abductors are under active, and that your hip adductor group (inner thigh) is overactive. By continuing to do wide sumo style squats, you are further tightening your abductor group, and ignoring the adductor group. This will eventually lead to knee pain and/or hip pain. You may instead be better off lengthening your abductor group through stretching and foam rolling techniques and focusing your strength efforts on your hip abductors with an exercise like ski squats.

Of course as with any exercise, listen to your body. Your muscles should experience a dull burning pain, not an instantaneous sharp one. You should never do an exercise that really hurts you, so stop of one does. Although rare, there ARE exceptions to these mechanical processes (such as femoral torsion, and femoral head size in this example). So if something  doesn’t feel right, have a certified health professional help get you started. You’ll be glad you did!

Set SMART Goals This New Year!


By: Alex Cromartie, CPT

Time to start setting goals for the new year! To ensure success, remember to create SMART goals.

S – Specific – Don’t just say “I want to loose weight” or “I want to tone up”. Instead, try a specific goal like losing 10% of your bodyweight.

M – Measurable – Again, goals like “I want to tone up” aren’t measurable, and thus never come to fruition. Instead, make sure you are working with and recording numbers like bodyweight, body fat percentage and caloric intake.

A – Achievable – Setting unrealistic goals is a common cause of failed training programs. Give yourself four months to meet your initial goals. If trying to lose body fat, a 10% reduction in bodyweight is usually a good initial goal.

R – Relevant – Make sure your goals align with one another and support each other. If not, you may have some soul searching to do.

T – Time Bound – Finally, make sure to create deadlines for your goals. If not, your mind finds a way to push the deadline back indefinitely. As mentioned above, four months is usually enough to start seeing some real results from all your hard work.

Anterior Vs. Posterior Pelvic Tilts

pelvic tilts

By Alex Cromartie, CPT

When performing a postural assessment of a new client, the pelvis is one of the first areas I look at to give me clues as to how their body is operating mechanically. The pelvis may not be the root of their postural problems (look a little lower to their feet ankles), but it does seem to be a key to understanding why your posture is the way it is. If your pelvis tilts forward (an anterior tilt), or backward (a posterior tilt), then your lower back becomes unstable, and chaos ensues! Most people tilt one way or the other, and eventually their lower back (among other things) feel the effects. Here’s what you need to know about both of these conditions.

Let’s start with the anterior pelvic tilt (also known as lower-cross syndrome). If your butt  seems to stick out, and your lower back is overly arched, this may be you! In my experience, people who’s pelvis tilts forward tend to be more active in their youth (of course genetics play a major role here too). Without training though, the abs and hamstrings become lengthened and weak. Likewise, the opposite muscles (the erectors and the hip flexors) become tight (and also weak). Over time, gravity and lack of training take their toll and make the excessive arching in the lower back (called lordosis )worse and worse, eventually causing back problems.

On the other end of the spectrum we have have the posterior pelvic tilt. In this case the pelvis tilts backward (imagine you are tucking your tailbone between your legs and pushing your groin forward). This causes the lower back to not be arched enough, again putting excessive pressure on the spine. I find that this condition occurs more in people who were sedentary in their early life (myself included). The muscular imbalance in a posterior pelvic tilt is the exact opposite of an anterior pelvic tilt (the abs, hamstrings, and in particular the glutes are tight and weak, and the erectors and hip flexors are lengthened and weak). Of course in reality there’s a bit more to it than this, as the complexity of the body is never-ending. Knowing which direction your pelvis tilts (if any) will give you a starting point though to begin stabilizing this crucial area.

Try doing a cat/camel stretch. Do you have considerably more range of motion when doing one than the other? If you’re a lot better at the “cat” stretch than the “camel” stretch, you may have a posterior pelvic tilt. If the “camel” is much easier, thats a clue that you have an anterior pelvic tilt. Remember though that this is just one clue in a complicated puzzle. Find a qualified fitness trainer to help you address your specific needs.

Both anterior and posterior pelvic tilts need to be addressed with physical training. Tight muscles can be lengthened with proper stretching, and overly lengthened muscles can be tightened though weight training. Both interfere with your training progress, as they cause an inability to stabilize the the lower spine. Even more worrisome though are the serious problems the can cause you down the road if you don’t do anything about it. So get busy!


Barrage Training


By Alex Cromartie CPT

“Barrage Training” is an unorthodox training schedule assigned to some clients by Awakened Fitness trainers during the first six weeks of training. It consists simply of cramming three workouts into the first three days of your week (e.g. Monday, Tuesday, Wed.), and then resting the other four days of the week.  Although sliding a workout day back to Thursday or Friday to accommodate busy schedules, the goal should be to get in three workouts the first three days of the week. This schedule does not allow time for muscle recovery because the days are back to back, so you will have to work a different muscle group each day to allow time for your muscles to rest. I suggest working your legs on day one, the back side of your upper body (pulling exercises) on day two, and the front side of your upper body (pushing exercises) on day three. Finally, it is imperative that you get in three workouts a week for the first six weeks. Excuses other than death or serious bodily injury (really) won’t cut it! It’s only for six weeks. You can do it!

So what is the reasoning behind Barrage Training? To understand that, you need to understand that the first six weeks of an exercise program are about training your brain as much as (if not more than) your body. During this time your brain is building neural pathways to your muscles. It is also during this time that your brain solidifies exercise into your daily routine, making it a habit right around week six. You might have to really have to force yourself through the first six weeks of training though, because your brain isn’t yet making the extra serotonin that exercise enthusiasts thrive off of. Because of this, many people drop out of their routine around week three or four. The Barrage Training schedule allows clients to meet their weekly workout goals, but condenses their workouts into the first part of the week, giving them an extra long four day period to recover. This will keeps things intense on training days, but still not seem overwhelming because of the long rest period. Clients come back the next week, restored and ready to work. Eventually their bodies want more exercise, at which point we will come up with a more customized routine. But in the beginning, this schedule can help solidify the habit.

If you are starting an exercise program, incorporating Barrage Training will help you through these critical first weeks. Naturally, I suggest having a trainer here to help keep you motivated. Bet even without the benefit of having a professional guide you, you can make exercise part of your lifestyle by beginning with this schedule. Inevitably, life will try to get between you and your workout routine. When it does, it’s okay to move a day to Thursday or even Friday, but just be careful. If you find yourself waiting till the end of the week chronically, know that it is a slippery slope. It’s probably a good idea to stick to the plan until after the initial six week period. Whatever you do, make SURE you get in your three workouts every week. Setting and meeting weekly goals is crucial to making exercise a habit, and truly making it part of your lifestyle. Don’t worry, such a rigid schedule won’t be necessary forever. In fact, you will begin to look forward to your daily exercise routine after you make it through the six week “initiation”. Stay strong!

Drop Sets

By Alex Cromartie CPT

Looking to add a little spice to your workout? As you train, your body quickly adapts to the challenges you put before it. This is one reason why having a trainer to systematically adapt your workouts for you can be such an effective way to train. Drop sets are a great way to push your muscles beyond failure, while still having a relatively low risk of injury IF you keep proper form though out. This is because as your muscles fatigue, you lower the weight proportionally. This keeps the weight modest, but the burn is like no other! Let me explain.

I’ve seen drop sets done in a variety of ways, but they all have one common theme. The person performing the set continues to lift AFTER achieving muscle failure by immediately lowering the weight and continuing the set with the lighter one. Because weights have to be changed very quickly, plate loaded machines and barbells don’t work well with drop sets. Stick with dumbbells and selectable weight machines. When performed using correct form, drop sets allow you to push yourself far beyond the ever-so-important point of failure. Here are two of my favorite drop set techniques.

Progressive Drop Sets

Progressive drop sets are something you would do at the end of a workout. That’s because the completely drain your muscles of glycogen, their primary fuel. To perform them, do three sets the way you would normally perform them. Next, do a fourth set at the same weight you did in set 3. Perform as many reps as you can while maintaining proper form. Upon completing (or attempting) the last rep, immediately drop the weight down 20 – 30% and continue performing reps until your muscles fail again at that weight. Again, drop the weight down, and continue your reps. Work the weight down until you are barely lifting anything at all. It will feel like a thousand pounds though! Getting the weight right when dropping down might take a few tries. But with a little practice, you can get an extra four or five sets beyond your normal failure point. Don’t overdo these though. Any more than one or two of them per workout can be to taxing on your body’s energy systems.

Progressive Drop Sets work really well if you have one or two areas you want to give extra attention to. There’s nothing like ending a back day with a little extra “bicep blasting”. They work really well for getting a “pump”  in a specific muscle group too.

Cycling Drop Sets

I like to cycle drop sets if I decide to do a “drop set day” with a client as a means of changing things up. For every exercise we do, we will perform three sets that each consist of a “heavy set” at 8 to 10 reps, immediately followed by a “light” set at 12 to 15 reps (for a total of six sets). While not as intense as Progressive Drop Sets, Cycling Drop Sets are a great way to throw something completely different at your body.  Be warned though, the “light” part of the set can be nasty! Remember to keep your form and not curse in the gym 🙂

Engage Your Core!

core trainingCheck out the “Fit Minute” podcast at

By Alex Cromartie, CPT

If you’ve spent any time reading or talking with people about fitness, then you’ve undoubtedly heard the term “core training”. It’s quite the buzzword these days, and rightfully so as learning to engage your core is really a key to unlocking your body’s physical potential. But it’s not enough to add a few core building exercises to the end of your workout. You need to engage your core in EVERY exercise you do! I always know when I’ve had a good chest workout when my abs are sore the next day from keeping them engaged throughout my lifts. By engaging your abs when exercising, you will be able to exercise harder, lift heavier, and reduce your risk of injury.  To understand why, you need to know a little bit about how your body generates power. Read on!

When exercising or lifting heavy objects, it is imperative to maintain proper form. This doesn’t just mean keeping your limbs in nice parallel lines and right angles, but more importantly, keeping your chest up, your lower spine straight, and your bellybutton drawn in toward your spine while tightening your abs. Do this all while breathing normally, and you are golden! Seriously though, this posture not only creates a stable foundation,  it also creates a natural “spring” in your abdomen. This spring is how your body generates power. I don’t mean this in a metaphysical sense either, When you hold the correct exercise form (chest up, back straight, bellybutton in and tight) and bear down, your body actually creates a power center by contracting four muscles in the abdomen (rectus abdominus, transverse abdominals, the diaphragm, and the pelvic floor), to create a box of air which it can use to its advantage when moving objects in space. Athletes know this posture very well, either learned or instinctively. If you lift without creating this box of air, you risk injury because your limbs don’t have a solid foundation from which to move weight. A good analogy to this is trying to run in sand. Because your toe has no foundation from which to push off from, any attempts to run or walk are very inefficient. The same is true when your limbs try to push off of an unstable core.

Leave your ego at the door as you begin to become aware of engaging your core. I can tell you now that if you’ve been lifting/exercising without an engaged core, you will almost certainly have to back off of the amount of weight you’re using. You should be able to keep your bellybutton in and tight throughout each exercise you do (including at the bottom of a squat). If you catch your abs taking little brakes at a particular point in the rep, you need to back off of the weight. Remember to breathe too (it can actually be tricky)! It may take you a few weeks of visualization and practice during your workout before you really “feel” what I’m talking about. But keep at it. Having a trainer to watch your form is invaluable. Once you get the hang of engaging your core, it will make your workouts exponentially more effective.

Training To Failure


By Alex Cromartie CPT

If you spend any time reading about fitness or strength training, then chances are you will run across the term “muscle failure” or what is more formally known as “momentary muscle failure”. But what exactly is muscle failure? Should you try to achieve it during your workouts?

Simply put, this means the point at which you can no longer perform another repetition of an exercise while still maintaining proper form. By “proper form” I mean keeping a tight core with the abdomen drawn in, the spine straitened, and the chest held high. If this form is not maintained when approaching muscle failure, the body will attempt to jerk and twist (often into a crunch position) in an attempt to recruit neighboring muscles to help move the load. The problem is that these neighboring muscles aren’t designed for this purpose, and often get strained in the process. This is how many lifting injuries occur. Maintaining proper form forces your body to operate correctly, using the correct muscles to move the load (agonist), and the correct muscles to stabilize it (synergist).

So how should you incorporate muscle failure into your workout? Should you always lift to failure? Probably not, at least not in every set…  While it is crucial to the development strength and the building of lean muscle, training to failure can be taxing on the central nervous system and should be eased into. There are those that insist on training to failure on every set, usually by compromising their form. This may work well for a time, but like most things in life it can be overdone, which can lead to over-training, injury or both. There are many different methods and techniques for achieving muscle failure, but to begin I would suggest approaching muscle failure in sets two and three, and lifting to complete muscle failure in your fourth set. Advanced techniques, such as incorporating drop sets into your routine even go beyond initial muscle failure to really shred apart those muscle fibers!

Your first set of an exercise should be considered a sort of warm-up set. Make it challenging, but don’t go to failure. Try to get between twelve and fifteen reps. For your second set, you will notice your muscles are a bit stronger, so you will want to add a little weight, and get between six and fifteen reps, depending on your goals (lower reps and heavier weight is geared toward strength, while higher reps and lighter weight is geared  towards endurance). I find ten to twelve reps to be my sweet spot. Also in sets two and three I always try to approach failure by my last rep, meaning that if my goal is ten reps that I get the tenth rep but could not do an eleventh successfully. I find that if I push too hard on set two, then set three will suffer, so my sets tend to get incrementally closer to failure each time (you may find though that you have to back the weight off a bit on set three and four to keep your reps in the same range as the previous set). Hitting your rep goal right before failure takes a little practice, but you will get the feel of it quickly. Additionally, you can increase or decrease the difficulty of the set by changing both the  speed at which you perform the rep, and the amount of time you rest between sets. Slower reps produce more time under tension making them more difficult, as does less resting time between sets. Finally, for the fourth and final set, bring the target rep goal back up to between twelve and fifteen reps, but keep going past your goal on this set until you reach true muscle failure. When you get to this point it is crucial to keep proper exercise form. Resist the urge to twist into a different position to recruit more muscle fibers to assist in get the weight up. If you fight through the discomfort you will get to a point to where your muscles simply can’t move the weight up any more. THAT is true muscle failure.

Training to momentary muscle failure is an excellent tool for increasing strength and building quality lean muscle, and is recommended for healthy individuals. Remember to ease into them though, and that exercising with proper form is fundamental to your long-term success.