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Foundation Training with World-Class Athlete & Fitness Guru: Ben Greenfield (Part 1)

“Wow, this is tough!”

Twenty minutes into our workout, Ben Greenfield --- one of the top personal trainers in the US --- looked up at me and expressed his surprise. Ben is well-known in the fitness community: he writes about health and wellness, hosts a renowned podcast, and is on Greatest’s list of the top 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.

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Obviously, Ben is fit; he is active and knows the importance of muscle balance. Though his lifestyle is far from sedentary, even the fittest individuals are not exempt from the havoc done to one’s posture by our modern lives. Sitting at a desk all day deflates the glutes and posterior chain (don’t worry, I’ll explain in Part 2!); in addition, it can be quite easy for the front side of the body to be overdeveloped, with the back side weak and dysfunctional.

Ben is no stranger to Foundation Training (FT), a series of corrective exercises designed to strengthen the core. He discovered FT through Dr. Eric Goodman’s book, Foundation: Redefine Your Core, Conquer Back Pain, and Move with Confidence (2011). It was Ben who introduced me to FT as I struggled with chronic foot and back pain; his invaluable advice started me on an incredible journey with FT and freedom from years of chronic pain.

I’ve completed two FT certification courses, learning everything I could from Dr. Goodman and his team of talented master instructors. Shortly after my second certification, Ben and I worked together, allowing me the opportunity to show him the latest improvements to the exercises. Dr. Goodman constantly adapts and tweaks the FT core moves.

Small Tweaks, Huge Changes

Ben began to incorporate FT into his daily routine several years ago. In an interview with Mind Body Green, he referred to the Founder (FT’s signature exercise), as “the single most potent exercise move you can do.”

This photo shows Ben’s original Founder exercise:

Though outside the view of this frame, Ben’s knees are over his heels, rather than behind them, making this a quad-dominant exercise, rather than a posterior chain exercise (a critical FT distinction). Also, note his head position. The chin should be drawn in, which lengthens the back of the neck in order to avoid shortening the muscles in the posterior chain.

When the video of Ben’s original Founder exercise was released, the FT community quickly offered suggestions to improve his form. Through our work together, Ben focused on the two issues noted in the photo. Ben began to feel how even the slightest adjustment can make a huge difference.

Good shakes

Ben’s exclamation was prompted by the Woodpecker (a glute-focused exercise). I reminded him that shakes are a good thing --- according to Dr. Goodman, shakes and trembles identify weakness within our posterior chain. Trembles are a sign that reprogramming is taking place in the neuromuscular system. 

Here are four tweaks we made to Ben’s Woodpecker form that day:

1.     Squaring the hips: Ben’s former Woodpecker form left his hips too open, one of the most common tendencies with this exercise. Tight hips (glutes) force the hips into external rotation, pulling them open. By squaring his hips, Ben could effectively lengthen his glutes. Once the glutes were lengthened, we added tension, addressing dysfunction and tightness rather than adding to it.

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2.     Weight shift: The front knee position is key in this exercise. Ben’s front knee was bent a bit too much, so we shifted his weight back by straightening the knee. When the knee moves forward, the hips go along as well, shortening the glutes and hamstrings. This small adjustment changed the target of the exercise from the front body (quads) to the back body (glutes).

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3.     Breathing: In our session, Ben and I focused on expanding his ribcage. Filling the chest wall with air activates the muscles that create more space in the torso and decompress the spine. When breathing, the intercostal muscles contract and drag the ribcage up as the diaphragm moves down. This elevation creates an upward force (decompression).

4.     Head position: By using FT-specific decompression breathing, we improved Ben’s breath and also adjusted his head position, one of the most common mistakes with any FT exercise. The cervical portion of the spine must remain long to avoid shortening of the posterior chain. This addresses forward head posture and takes decompression to another level. It can be difficult to feel whether or not the back of the neck is long, which is why help from a trained perspective is valuable.

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The most significant and impactful compression along the spine comes from head position. When the chin juts out and the head falls forward from the shoulder, the cervical spine is compressed. The goal of FT is to reposition the head to allow space at the base of the skull. This is accomplished by drawing the chin in, creating more distance between the base of the skull and the pubic symphysis.

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These four adjustments resulted in huge difference in Ben’s body. The next day, I received a text from Ben --- his butt was sore! FT effectively lengthens each muscle before it is tensioned. If you take a weak, tight muscle and “strengthen” it without first lengthening it, you contribute to muscle tightness and dysfunction. If instead, you take a tight, weak muscle and lengthen first, then strengthen, you address the root cause of tight, weak muscles. Lengthening the muscle, THEN adding tension is a great way to create not only stronger muscles, but also longer muscles --- muscles that glide and have the functional ability to contract and move within a healthy range. It’s like killing two birds with one stone.

And, yes, this can make you very sore! Even if you’re Ben Greenfield.

Please see Part 2 for the nitty gritty details of FT.

movementCassidy Wendell