Root. Foundation. Base. These terms are interchangeable when talking about becoming a complete athlete. The most prolific athletes of our time have two intangible qualities that are the underpinning to their success: root and body awareness. Explosiveness, speed, agility, balance, strength, and power are a product of root and body awareness.
All of us want our training to be high quality. If you have followed Kelly Starrett’s work, he uses the term structure all the time. Every squat, deadlift, Olympic pull, kettlebell swing and plyometric are dependent on our structure. Starrett’s philosophy revolves around the idea that power and speed are a product of sound structure, and he’s not wrong. He’s referring to not only organizing the muscles, joints, and bones to create stability, but without directly saying it, he’s talking about an athlete’s rootedness.
The Cal Poly Armor program came out of necessity. I was out with my football team teaching change of direction work and noticed a disconnect with their footing and turns. I spent weeks coaching specific things, saying the same cues a hundred different ways and couldn’t get them to display what I was asking. And then it dawned on me: we didn’t have a solid root. We had to go back to the most fundamental basics so all of the fancy stuff could flourish.
Before I go any further, I must give credit where credit is due. This article and my subsequent testing of these ideas are a product of time I spent with Dan John. If you have ever been around Dan, you know that he is a coach like no one else. His delivery, line of thinking, and teaching style are exclusively his. There’s only one Dan John, and I want to recognize his contributions to my line of thought.
Thanks to conversations with Dan and listening to him instruct, I went back to my kung fu days. I trained baguazhang and taiji for years and we spent many of those years working root. Root is where we find our stability, our structure, our power. All of our strikes, throws, and defenses are going to be established by how solid our root is. Whenever I indulge in a pay per view, my eyes are almost always drawn to the fighter’s feet. Their feet will tell you the story of what they are going to present to their opponent. Watch José Aldo’s leg kicks or old videos of Tyson’s punches. What you will see are two iconic strikers whose attacks come from the ground up, established solely by their relationship with the root they possess. Likewise, fighters who are not known for vicious strikes are likely lacking root to a certain extent.
To address this missing quality in my athletes, I looked for the most structure-developing exercises I could find. Then I put them together in a way where the athletes were getting force-fed opportunities to become intimately connected to the ground. These are the four main exercises.
I don’t claim to be a powerlifter or know the first thing about coaching a high-level powerlifter. What I do know is that most of the strongest men and women in the world come from this discipline, and most of them perform their deads from a sumo stance. After meeting Dan Green (likely the coolest dude in the game) a few years ago, and then reading Andy Bolton’s articles about his approach on getting injured lifters back on the bar, the sumo deadlift became a focal piece.
There are some inherent fundamentals when pulling with this style. First, since the stance is so wide, you tend to have a genuine sense of groundedness. Hiking your hips up and then pulling your ass down with your hamstrings helps to establish a wedge before you pull that will reinforce your connection to the ground and the bar. Last, drive your feet down rather than pull the bar up. It’s a subtle cue that can help cultivate a sense of feeling rooted into the platform. Remember, you and the floor are partners in every lift.
Heavy Double Kettlebell Cleans
If you have the opportunity to train with heavy bells, do it. Get an RKC to teach you how to do it right and then get to work. Kettlebells cleans take serious work to get the smooth, sexy groove you want to have, but when it happens, look out.
Heavy double cleans force you to do two distinct things. First, you have to be able to brace yourself to accept the load into your structure. The RKC style limits the “crash” of the bell, but in this case, I am looking for a degree of crash. You need to feel the impact of the bells as it’s your job to carry enough tension to not have the crap knocked out of you. Second, you need to be able to redirect that energy into the ground. Becoming comfortable and familiar with impacts helps your joints, fuels your nervous system, and increases your muscular tolerance.
Barbell or Wheel Rollouts
Dan John would tell you to pick loaded carries next. Things like waiter walks, farmers walks and what we call Jesus Walks (racked double kettlebells carried for distance – the name comes from the impulse to drop the bells from exhaustion and say, “Jeeeeeeesus”). Due to our limited space, we do rollouts instead.
If you want to build true abdominal armor, rollouts are the way to go. We teach a hardstyle plank variation where the lifter holds a hollowed out low back posture for the duration of the rep. Keep your lats fired like crazy, contract your abdominal wall as hard as possible, and drive your low back out so there is zero sag at any point in the rep. Try to keep a statue-like posture from the rollout to the roll back. Pull with both your lats and your knees when you come back. You will smoke your lower abdomen if you over-emphasize pulling with your knees as if you were trying to bring your knees to your chest.
Inverted Ankle Walks
I would venture to guess that your ankles suck. If you just said to yourself, “My ankles don’t suck!” then you are exactly who I am talking to. Nearly every one of us has hip or glute issues that need addressing and because of that, our ankles, feet, and toes have become pathologically weak and tight. Time to wake your ankles up.
This drill was introduced to me by my assistant Chris White. The idea is to walk and intentionally roll your ankles to the outside. It’s awkward and a little uncomfortable in the beginning, but it’s mobilizing and strengthening your ankles in one tidy, slightly creepy motion. We have the kids at Cal Poly walk laps around the room. Be sure to wear shoes, as the sole of the shoe helps in rolling the ankle completely over.
We are in the final four weeks of a ten-week program. Programming is very basic:
- Weeks 1-4: 3 sets of 10
- Weeks 5-7: 3 sets of 5
- Week 10: Sets of 3, 2, 1
Double Kettlebell Cleans
- 5 sets of 10 for the entire ten weeks
- Try to increase load each week, as able
- Start with three sets of five
- Add reps as the weeks go on. We will be doing three sets of 10 or more by the end of the cycle.
- 3 laps around the room for the entire ten weeks
We aren’t done with this program and I’m already over the moon with what we are seeing. We are a historically undersized football team. We win with speed. After this program, my guys will be able to outrun their opponents and take whatever is dished out. If you want to develop a deeper root, and become more impact-proof, this is a great way to do it.
While you’re at it, why not make your back more resistant to injury?