In-home strength and conditioning with ISSA Certified Fitness Trainer Tim Ehhalt
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You might remember me talking about Vera back in May of last year. She started working out by walking up and down the stairs in my building.

Since that day I saw her on the stairs, I’ve been working with her and have been amazed by her progress.  She’s lost over 100 pounds, and has really caught the powerlifting bug.

Her favorite may be the deadlfit. You can watch her most recent PR above (I know, iPhone videos shot vertically are horrible, but it was the only way to get the full shot). That’s 220 pounds, by the way.

Vera is a great example of what just showing up day in and day out will do for you.

Vera doesn’t have any previous experience, has a full-time job, and has Erb’s palsy, but she hasn’t let any of that stop her from achieving her goals. So, what’s your excuse?


If you would have asked me five years ago or even six months ago about the hack squat, I would have told you that it’s an out dated, dangerous, half assed squat machine, for people who don’t have the guts to actually squat. The exercise was dead and buried as far as I was concerned.

The Hack Squat Machine is in most commercial and small mom and pop neighborhood gyms. The machine version is derived from the hack squat, which is an exercise in which a person picks up a barbell from the floor behind his or her back and squats. This exercise arrives at its name from the German word hacke, which means ankle. 

The Machine version is a 45 degree angled standing leg press, basically. The big knock on this is that you are locked in a track, locked in a specific range of motion, and the machine stabilizes the weight for you, unlike the conventional barbell back squat, in which YOU have to stabilize the barbell by yourself.

A lot of powerlifters and folks in the ‘functional strength’ community think it’s well, hacky. It mimics no movement in life or sport, and you can load up the damn machine with twice as much weight as you would a conventional squat because of the angle of the machine, thus inflating your ego.All of these are very valid points, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

So what’s your point, Tim?

What if someone can’t do one correct air squat? That is, to proper depth, without having your knees cave in, while keeping your heels pinned to the ground and keeping your chest up.

I have one client who is duck footed, another with terrible valgus collapse, and another with muscular dystrophy, and the hack squat machine has done wonders for all of their squats.

First, it cuts their body weight in half because of the angle of the machine. This helps folks who just don’t have the strength to squat their own body weight.

Second, it locks their backs in an upright position so the don’t fall forward, which is another common problem when first squatting.

Third, IT GETS PEOPLE SQUATTING. I can’t tell you the confidence people gain from finally being able to squat.  In three different cases I have put clients on the hack squat machine for four weeks, and have had their air squat improve.

Now, do I think the hack squat machine is for everyone? No. If it hurts your knees or back, just don’t do it. And don’t get me wrong, I think barbell squats, lunges, and step ups are great. But don’t brush it off because it’s not functional or that it’s just for bodybuilders. 

The hack squat just plain works, especially for building size. Pro bodybuilders like Jay Cutler (4x Mr. O), Dorian Yates (7x Mr. O), and Tom Platz (probably the biggest legs ever in bodybuilding) have all built massive, over 30 inch, quads with this machine. But unless you feel your quads are too big or too strong, is that such a bad thing?

One of the best explanations I’ve come across on the difference between training for strength (powerlifting or olympic lifting, for example) and training for size (bodybuilding, typical gym stuff) is by Coach Nick Tuminello:

"Our general rule of thumb when training for strength is: The reps (predominantly) should be low (6 or less) and the resistance load should be high to create what is primarily an aneuromuscular training stimulus.

Our general rule of thumb when training for size (i.e. Bodybuilding) is: The reps (predominantly) should be medium to high (8 and up), the load should allow you to get those reps with good control w/o using momentum or the help of other muscles, to create what is primarily a physiological training stimulus.”

Oh, and this gem.

"We think of the body as a computer with strength training being more about upgrading your software (your CNS) than it is about the hardware (your muscles).

Put simply, strength oriented training (like Powerlifting) can be thought of as improving your central nervous system’s (CNS) ability to bring more muscle into the game through increased motor unit recruitment.”

I love this. It’s simple and clear. It gives you all the information you need to make a decision on rep ranges based on your specific goals.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t carryover from one rep range to the other. You will get a little bigger, even if you work the low rep ranges. And you will get a little stronger if you work the higher rep ranges.

Read Nick’s whole piece here to get more of his take of the differences between strength and size training.

Plus, you’ll get to sound smarter and more knowledgeable than the meatheads at the gym. Like you’re not already?

It’s another belated PR Friday! Last week, I managed to add 20 lbs on to my Bulgarian Split Squat, for a total of 120 lbs for five repetitions. 

It’s been a little over a month since I did 100 lbs for five repetitions on each leg, and it’s been really tough increasing that weight. But, my low back is feeling great and holding up, and I’m still chasing that 200 lbs goal for the end of this year. Yeah, that’s one 100 lbs dumbbell in each hand.

This video shows me driving off of the left leg. I did five reps no problem. When I tried the same exercise on the right leg, I was only able to three repetitions, and they were really ugly. 

"I don’t care about performance, I just want to look good." 

Maybe you’ve said this (or just thought it), I know I’ve heard it. But here’s the thing: when you chase performance and health, a nice by-product is good body composition.

It’s not the same when you invert it. You can look great and still be weak and unhealthy.

Karl Gotch used to call these “counterfeit muscles.”  They “look like a million bucks but ain’t worth a dime.” Do you really want counterfeit muscles? Really?

So let’s come to this agreement: how about you chase the below numbers in the gym which, I believe, will conspire to give you pretty good body composition.

1x - Bodyweight Press
1.5x - Bodyweight Bench Press
2x - Bodyweight Back Squat
2.x+ - Bodyweight Dead Lift
25 - Strict pull-ups

.5x - Bodyweight Press
1x - Bodyweight Bench Press
1.5x - Bodyweight Back Squat
2x - Bodyweight Dead Lift
20 - Strict pull-ups

Or how about this one:

1.5x - Bodyweight Bench Press
1.5x - Power Clean
1.5x - Front Squat
   25- Strict pull-ups

1x - Bodyweight Bench Press
1x - Power Clean
1x - Front Squat
20 - Strict pull-ups
I can’t picture anyone with these numbers who wouldn’t look like a superhero.

The eating, sleeping and training you would have to do to attain these numbers are conductive not just to health but to great body composition with thinking about it. I believe you can get rock solid not just if you attain these numbers, but as you train to get them.

But what about diet? You might be asking.  But the prescription is already in there: By eating what you’d have to eat to build enough muscle to do the lifts prescribed above, you won’t get too thin or scrawny.

Conversely, by eating what you need to eat to stay lean and light enough to perform the pull-ups, you won’t run the risk of getting bigger than you might want to be, either.

Will it be easy to attain these numbers? Hell no. In fact, I’ll be hard as hell. 

Think it’s impossible? OK, I’ll bite. Let’s say you shoot for these numbers for a year (Note: it will take longer than that), and you don’t attain them. In fact, you fall waaaay short. After that year you’ll still have made a lot more progress that if you hadn’t tried at all.

My advice: join a gym, hire a a competent trainer, and learn the movements above. Attending YouTube and Google universities is also a good idea.

Check out Nia Shanks: Lift like a Girl. While she is a straight up competent lifter and coach for anyone, she has especially good insight for women starting a lifting program. There are great demos on her youtube page as well.

Now grab one of those groups of movements, and start in on them. 

The other night, I came home from a busy day of training folks, only to encounter one of the most dedicated athletes I’ve seen in a long time.

As I walked to the front gate of my building, my downstairs neighbor came from the other side to open it for me, but she didn’t head outside: she turned back around and went back up the stairs.

This struck me as odd, because typically tenants of my building don’t come down the stairs just to open the gate for their neighbors.

"What are you doing?" I asked her (it sounded nicer than it might here.)

"Oh, just walking some stairs," she replied.

This was inspiring, and just plain badass. Let me tell you why I think so.

This person:

  • Goes to school
  • Works
  • Takes care of her two parents (all three of them live in a one bedroom apartment. She is the main bread winner.)
  • Does not have a gym membership
  • Has limited time
  • Has no finess equipment
  • Has no trainer

And yet,  she has made the decision to start an exercise program by walking up and down the stairs in her apartment building.

When I told her how inspiring this was, she said “sometimes when you really want something and don’t have the means to do it the way you’d like, you have to make do with what you have and adjust accordingly. At least that’s how I try to think about it.”

Like I said, badass.

I’ve been working out since the mid 80s.  I was 14 or 15, got a weight set from the local sporting goods store, and started bench pressing six days a week so I could have the biggest chesticles on the block. I’m still waiting for this to happen.

In the 25 years since then I’ve seen a lot of fitness trends. Some old things came back around (the kettlebell swing was the first exercise I ever learned!), some new stuff comes along, not always to stay (remember Tony Little’s Gazelle?)

Here are my picks that have survived the ebbs and flows of time and popularity:


The Power Lifts (and their variations)

The Press, Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift.

These babies are about as basic as you can get in terms of picking up and moving heavy things. They produce great results, fit well into the natural movement mechanics of humans, and have great carryover into life, work, and most sports. Bottom line: they make you stronger and are just plain cool. Your muscle mass is your metabolism, get more of it. 

While some argue that Olympic lifting may be better (and they may be right), the powerlifts have them beat on equipment needed, space, learning curve, and coaching.


Bodyweight and basic gymnastics movements

The air squat, push up and pull up.

What is more “functional” than squatting down to pick something up, pushing yourself off the floor,  or pulling yourself up onto a tree branch or higher surface? Functional training at its core.



The 50, 100, 200, 400, and 800 meter.

Notice I said sprinting, not running. We are built for short bursts of sprinting. You don’t want to tell(trick) your body to think you are running from a bear for 90 minutes.

Don’t buy it? I urge you you do your own research. Look at the physique differences between the short distance and long distance athlete.

And for you calorie counting, cardio junkies out there saying “sure the sprinters are bigger. But I don’t care about that, I just want fat loss.” You’ll aso notice the sprinters are much LEANER as well. Sprinting is just a great time saver over distance running too.

While I listed these movements as the clear winners, that’s not to say that I don’t think yoga, pilates, dance, olympic lifting, kettlebells, core specific work, or bodybuilding don’t have value. In fact I believe that they have tremendous value. I just think that in terms of minimal equipment, learning curve, time, results, and plain bang for your buck, these three movement groups are the best.

You could just do these movements (and many have) for the rest of your life. It would be a little boring, but it would work.

So what’s more important: Tried and true, and almost guaranteed, results OR not being bored?

It’s a belated PR Friday!  I was too transfixed by the events unfolding in Boston Friday afternoon to write a blog post.  But on Friday morning at the gym, I hit a personal record (PR) I want to share with you.

Lately I’ve been doing “finishers” after my bench workouts consisting of weighted pushups. So Friday I decided to push it and find my five rep max on this. It ended up being an even 100lbs. 

I wrapped two 45lbs. plates and one 10lbs plate in a yoga mat to keep them from sliding around on each other or off me. I then had a colleague load it on to me.

The interesting and challenging part of doing this exercise is obviously the pressing, maintaing a good midline position, and making sure to get to a proper depth.

For me, the first thing to fail in the weighted pushup is my midline, in contrast to the bench press, where the first thing for me to go are my triceps.

If you can easily do a full set of push-ups already, give these a shot! I think they are a great lie detector and give you some great feedback on where you may be lacking strength.

I see this everyday at the gym. In terms of inefficient training programs, there are basically two types of people:

The Old Faithful Workout

I’ve been working out at my neighborhood gym on and off since 1994. There are people there that have been doing the same program since I have been going there. For example, there is one guy in the gym I see a few times a week, nice guy, who has been doing the exact same bench press routine for at least a year. Three sets of five repetitions with 165 lbs. He hasn’t added any weight to the bar in a year. That’s not progress.

Exercise bunnies

These folks are the exact opposite. They are always hopping from one program to the next. They say they are “bulking” one week, “cutting” the next, hitting the “core” the week after that, and then they announce that they are taking a “dyno-max functional stability ball course” the next.

Oh, by the way, they are ALSO training for a powerlifting meet and a marathon…on the same weekend.

The one thing these two groups have in common is that they never make progress. They either have been on the same program for months or even years OR they never stay on a program for more than a couple of weeks.

So, what is the solution? What’s too long to stay on a program? What’s too short? 

What’s too long to stay on a program?

Too long is when it’s worked for a while and now it’s not, or hasn’t for a couple weeks. Take a week off, tweak or change your program a bit, and hit it hard again.

How do I tweak it?

Depends. A good way to tweak a strength program is to back off the weights about 10%, change one or two exercises (example: switch barbell bench press to dumbbell bench press), or maybe exercise order, and then start up again.

What’s too short?

One or two weeks is too short, in my opinion. No real progress can be made in that time. There may be a nice honeymoon period every time you start a new program, just because it is so new, but if you give it six weeks and some real, lasting progress will be made.

The bottom line is, if a program isn’t working for you, why keep doing it? 

This is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series called PR Friday.

Friday is the day I go for a PR (Personal Record) in a lift or movement.  I did not invent this type of post. A lot of people shoot for PRs on Fridays, and lots of people write about it.

I started doing the R.F.E.S.S. (or Bulgarian Split Squats) a while back to replace my normal back squatting. They are easier on the lumbar spine and really hit the quads. For the time being, this is my bread and butter leg exercise.

Today I went for and hit 5 reps with 100lbs. This was a huge PR for me. While not a huge lift for some, or by any powerlifting standards, it was for me.

While the 100lbs. dumbbell may look big and intimidating (I’m shooting for 200lbs. for 2013), like every beginner, I started with only a 5 lbs. dumbbell a few months ago. [Correction: I started with zero weight and only 5 reps on each leg, and my legs were completely destroyed for a few days]. I can’t recommend them enough. You’ll be shocked at the kind or progress you make.

But enough about me, what PRs did you hit today or this week? It can be a lift, distance, time, or walking around the block. Email me or @ me on twitter

I always think ANY PR is the biggest PR in the world… to one person.