Author: Damien Sutanto

Squats, Barbell Cleans and Kettlebell Swings

You have probably heard about the wonders of Squats in developing your lower body kinetic chain, and how it is an incredibly functional exercise that can build applicable athleticism. Is squats always the best exercise for you? In what scenarios would other exercise be more useful?

Squat is King!

Not very elegant execution of the squat

You heard it a lot. In modern times, we tend to sit on our rear end most of the time. Hence our gluteus (butt) muscle became less active. As the result, we tend to walk with our anterior (front) chain of movement. Over-dependence on anterior chain can lead to knee, hip and low back problems. Proper squat exercise will train you to use both your anterior and posterior (back) chain of motion. Allowing you to grow your strength in a joint friendly way.

Barbell Clean for Power!

messy form of barbell clean

The squat is an excellent exercise for beginner and advanced strength athletes. However, any strength coach worth his or her salt will know the principle of specificity. Although the squat is excellent strength exercise, most sports requires a combination of strength and speed, i.e. Power. Squat exercises only train for strength.

On the vertical plane, Olympic Weightlifters are probably the most powerful athletes by bodyweight. In order to bring the barbell off the floor either to your shoulders (clean), or over your head in one single movement (snatch), you must to have the combination of strength, speed and agility. These attributes are highly transferable to different kinds of sports.

This is why some modern day rugby and American football athletes also do barbell cleans. If you want to be able to express your strength in the field, you could also combine your squat regimen with some barbell cleans. Unlike the squat, proper execution of the barbell clean requires you to master the momentum.

Why Kettlebell Swing?

Kettlebell Swing by a chubby chap

You might have heard of kettlebells or seen these funny looking weights at your gym. Believe it or not, most of the people I saw using them didn’t know how to use them correctly. Just like the barbell clean relies on creating momentum to drive the bar up, the kettlebell swing also relies on momentum to drive the kettlebell from the back to the front position.

The difference between a barbell clean and kettlebell swing in terms of athletic gain is the line of action. As you can see on the barbell clean video, the line of action for a barbell clean is straight up. The line of action for kettlebell swing is a forward arc. Based on the principle of specificity, for an explosive forward power, the kettlebell swing can be more transferable to the athletic field.

Another benefit of the kettlebell swing is that it is more forgiving on the joints compared to the barbell clean. A moderately fit person that have received proper training for one month can do 100 swings in 5 minute with extremely low risk of injury. The same cannot be said with barbell cleans. When you train for explosive power, you want it to be able to last for at least last for a short burst of power instead of a single leap or two.

Keen on incorporating the kettlebell swing on your regular training? Try the kettlebell for beginner and have your friend record and comment your movement.

Disclaimer: Improper squat, barbell cleans and kettlebell swings technique can cause injury to your knees and lower back. if your joints feel sore after training, its a good idea to consult with a good trainer.

You need to add a widget, row, or prebuilt layout before you’ll see anything here. 🙂

Just Because it Can Move, Doesn’t Mean it Should be Moved Often

Most of our skeletal muscles span across two or three joints. When the muscles contract, they will move the joints and create movement. To train individual muscles, you simply move the joint against resistance. At least this is the principle behind strength training. Want a bigger biceps? Do more bicep curls! We learn this in highschool biology!

The old classic biceps curl

Based on this understanding, the classic recipe of getting a solid washboard abs is to do lots of crunches and sit-ups. If you want to have strong backs, do Jefferson Curls.

One of the clips you will see on youtube when you search for “Jefferson Curl”

What Is The Problem

As they say, the devil is ALWAYS in the details. Moving individual joints may be great for individual muscle hypertrophy, but it may not always be great for joint health. Any first year biology undergraduate student can tell you that there is a spectrum of joints in our body based on its mobility and stability. The more mobile the joint, the less stable it is.

Some of the joints with varying level of mobility

Some of these joints are built for power production (i.e. speed and strength combined) while others are built for stability. Some joints are simply stronger in certain position than at other position. The spine has many joints that allows movement. Execute too many movement under load, say sit-ups or Jefferson curls, and you will end up with spine disk herniation. There’s a reason why career powerlifters and olympic weightlifters would not move their spine while lifting weights off the floor.

The Solution

Your typical undergrad should also be able to explain that there are three types of work that can be done by muscles:

  1. Concentric. Such as when you curl up in a bicep curl.
  2. Isometric. Such as when you hold the barbell at 90 0 angle without moving.
  3. Eccentric. Such as when you lower the barbell in a bicep curl.

And here is where wisdom comes into play. Training all the muscles the same way will simply result in chronic pain. For those of you with low back pain, it is easy for the doctor or physiotherapist to say “you need more core strength”. Its another thing to train your core with proper exercise in proper posture. For those that need to train their core to alleviate their low back discomfort, Back Mechanics is an excellent source. The push up is a good exercise to train your upper body and core as long as you train properly.

Use It, Or Loose It

The first thing that pops into your mind when somebody said “elderly”

Bones, just like muscles, became stronger as you train them with combination of adequate rest and nutrition. As you grow past 30, they will plateau and then slowly go on a decline. Finally, for some people, they will experience muscle shrinkage i.e. sarcopenia. Aging and its related loss of strength is natural, hence even world class athletes retire. Common university biology undergraduate textbook will tell you that this gradual loss of strength to be expected.  And some personal trainers would simply advice old people to use barbie weights to avoid injury. But how good is this suggestion?

What the Research Says

Surprise! Multiple research, including at Tuft University have actually proven that elderly musculature responded to strength training just as much as younger people do. In fact researchers at University of Potsdam shows that elderly needs up to at least 85% intensity for the improving the rate of force development. Researchers in Korea have shown that even single joint strength training can improve balance on the elderly.

Some find it sensational, but its proven that old people can beat up young professional fighters, provided that the said old person trains properly

Why Do Most Old People Don’t Train?

Laziness is an easy answer. And its true that many of these elderly don’t even like spending time doing exercise in their youth. However, some of them were physically active in their youth. So what happened?

Very common hamstring stretch that could actually give you low back pain if not done properly

Pain is the answer! Be it low nerve pain caused by lower back disorder or joint pain caused by ligament or cartilage damage. Our spine and our joints are host to different connective tissues such as spine disk, cartilage and ligaments that unlike muscles, don’t have blood capillaries in them. Due to the lack of blood capillaries, these tissues do not recover rapidly. Think of how ankle sprain took longer to heal than a cut in the arms. Years, if not decades of bad movement habits are usually one of the reasons that causes these connective tissues to deteriorate over time. Faulty stretching can also cause ligament pain if it involves ligament instead of muscle stretch. Hence movements that used to be pain free became painful as they age.

What is the Solution?

If the elderly in question prefer a fast, easy solution, then do nothing and slowly use his or her mobility is a solution. If this prospect does not sound enticing to some people, then the only solution is to hit the weight room! After all, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, the research is unanimous that elderly should do weight bearing exercise. Of course for some people, a proper movement coach is needed, and some movement coach are more “equal” than others. As mentioned in my previous article, even the simple compound exercise done correctly can have rehabilitative effect while done incorrectly will damage your joints! This is the way our body is designed, especially for muscle strength, either you use it, or you loose it. For upper body exercise, the humble push up is one of the best exercise you can do without any equipment and can be easily adjusted based on strength.

Master of the Basics

Squats! Everyone knows how to do it right? Just load the bar on your shoulders and start going up and down with your legs. Deadlifts are just picking the bar off the floor. Its so easy that anyone can do it! Its also functional for strength and muscle mass building, surely everyone should do them!

Are Squat and Deadlift All That Simple?

This person was lifting the bar in a bad form while being coached by a bad trainer

Fact is, improper technique for either squat and deadlift will cause injury when its not done properly. Back when I only had an NASM personal training certification, I didn’t realize that my poor squat and deadlift form was harmful to my back. My knee dominant squat movement was damaging my knee. Now that I have properly applied the McGill techniques described in Ultimate Back Fitness and cleaned up my techniques, none of the old injuries became problematic anymore.

Can Anyone Do Standard Squat and Deadlift?

You have probably heard the news floating around on the internet. Some old grandma was having problem simply climbing up the stairs, started deadlifting, and ended up having no problems climbing up the stairs while being super strong in the process. If a grandma can do it, surely anyone can do it too right?

What is the problem with this line of thinking?

There’s a reason why femur head replacement came in different sizes and shapes. Source: The San Antonio Orthopaedic Group

Different hips and spine angle results in different movement range. This is something determined by your DNA and training will not change it. Depending on the depth of your hip socket and your lumbar spine curvature, you might not be able to pick the bar off the floor without flexing your back. Same thing can be said about achieving a deep squat. Hence not everyone can do the standard squat and deadlift movements without high risk of injury. This may sound contradictory to my post on why you should try powerlifting. Just because you can’t do standard deadlift with a perfect form doesn’t mean that you can’t reap the benefits of deadlift exercise.

How You Should Train

Move Well

You must first learn how to move properly. When I was young, the ligaments and spine disks still have the capacity to perform even with faulty movement. But as I age, those injuries pile up and causes pain. Even if you are not in pain now, its not an excuse for you not to learn how to move properly. If your back hurts the day after every leg day, your leg day is definitely breaking your back. If you are unsure, get a proper trainer that actually knows how to coach proper movement.

Move Accordingly

If you are born with hips that will not allow you to pick the bar off the floor with a straight back, you could try using a trap bar or by lifting from a higher position. You won’t be able to compete in a powerlifting meet but you can still reap the benefit of lower body posterior chain strengthening from modified deadlifts. Having said this, it could also be a movement engram i.e. software issue but this is a topic for another day.

Ultimately these “basic moves” are not as simple as it seems and unless you want to experience spine and knee injuries by your mid 30’s (like the author of this article), you should focus on the right way to move for your body. Just like in martial arts, mastering the basics is no simple matter.

Mind and Body

Modern people are poor on time and rich on distraction.  We are all about multi-tasking and it would be great if exercise can be one of those things you can multi-task away, say while watching TV and playing with your phone.

Our muscles contracts and relaxes due to electro-chemical signals from our nervous system to our muscle.  This is the reason why our body twitch uncontrollably when we accidentally get electrocuted.  This mechanism is useful in physiotherapy.  Muscles that are not used tend to shrink. When our joints are injured, we cannot do regular exercise.  Pulsed electric frequency can be used to stimulate the muscles and prevent them from shrinking while our joints are recovering.

These days, these mechanism are being used, such as by a product that sounded like “sixpack” to promote a method of gaining muscles without breaking a sweat, allowing you to finally multi-task while gaining muscle!

What is the Problem?

Electrocuting yourself while binge watching netflix might seemed to be a good idea to get six pack abs.  But what exactly are you missing when you skipped the squat rack for electric pad?

Movement Proficiency

People that are properly trained in functional movement patterns (not to be confused with a misguided youtuber with similar handle) will learn how to  move in a joint conserving way.  For example, when they squat, they will know how to engage both the posterior and anterior chain of movement, using power from the hips and how to align the knees.  This skill will enable them to move in a joint conservative way while generating high power.  You will not learn this skill if you simply zap your legs.

My main bread and butter right now is training 70-80 year old grannies proper functional movement patterns as described in Prof. McGill’s Ultimate Back Fitness. These people are people with early knee osteoarthritis issues that have been to the best orthopedic surgeons, acupuncturist and physiotherapist money can buy in Hong Kong and still find it painful to walk, sit and climb stairs. The reliefs they are getting after several sessions with me are caused by their increased movement skills and this cannot be earned by simple muscle electrocution.

Neuromuscular Connectivity

Your skeletal muscles are connected with neurons to your brain.  This connection is what enables you to consciously move your body.  The more you train, the more refined would your connection be.  Think of martial arts masters, olympic weightlifters and powerlifters that are able to recruit high proportion of their muscle fibers at multiple joints to execute a single movement in harmony.  This is connection cannot be built when your training method doesn’t even involve your conscious mind.

Bone Density

It costs USD 22,000 / kg of items shipped to ISS. NASA and CSA is definitely spending way more money sending a glorified treadmill and squat rack into space when they could save a tonne of money in the short term simply sending those muscle electrocuting pads.

Your bone is actually alive.  It has blood vessels and neural network inside.  This is why your bone can heal after fracture.  Your bone can also increase in density with repeated loading-unloading such as squats and deadlifts.  Athletes, farmers and construction workers have high bone density due to this mechanism.  Just don’t expect this benefit if you are a couch athlete.


By all means, if your goal is simple cosmetics, then these type of devices can definitely help you. Unlike training with improper movement, this method of training have no risk of harming your joints.  But proper exercise have far more benefit than simply looking buffed.  You will not get those benefits without putting the actual work.

Super Healthy Ingredients That Are Not So Super (4 of 4)

And here we are. Although this is the last installment of the not-so-super ingredients, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other super food, super essential oil and the likes on the market that aren’t what they seem. What you, as the customer should really think when reading fancy marketing claims are:

  • Who makes the claim? Independent study or the manufacturers?
  • How was the claim proven? Double blind study or small, biased study?
  • Has it been proven by unrelated third party? Or this “proof” cannot be replicated elsewhere?

So without further ado, let us discuss the last of our super ingredients:

Red Wine

Alleged benefits: Super Anti-Aging, Anti-Cancer Elixir

The French has always extolled red wine as their secret of longevity known as the French paradox.  Ever since people started isolating resveratrol from the red grape, different research groups have been getting positive results on isolated researches on how it would react to the body.  This includes Italian researchers in 2006 who obtained positive results in fighting colon cancer, German researchers in 2008 on its genetic stability effect, and even University of Hubei in China confirmed in 2018 on its anti-aging impact.  All this research is done in isolation, using isolated resveratrol.  The most recent population study done in Chianti in 2014 on men and women over the age of 65 actually failed to show any direct correlation between red wine consumption and markers for cancer and tumor.  Chianti is a famed red wine producing region in Italy

Conclusion: Drink red wine if you are a wine drinker and savor the flavor, and drink in moderation (1~2 glass per day at most).  As for the longevity effect of red wine, the effect seems minuscule on the actual population compared to a host of other known factors.  Hong Kong and Japan are two places with longest life expectancy and both population do not traditionally consume red wine.

Painkillers and the Gift of Pain

Nobody likes pain.  This is why we invented painkillers.  Are painkillers useful?  Of course they are.  People entering surgeries, just experiencing major trauma and and mothers about to deliver babies are just a few of many justified uses of painkillers.  But how about in the field of rehabilitation and chronic pain?

Trauma and Painkillers

Recently I experienced grade 2 ankle sprain caused by my own carelessness.  It was painful for me to simply put my feet down, let alone walk.  What follows was a merry go round of 2 X-Rays and one MRI.  Three ligaments were torn severely but not completely.  Some foot tarsal bones were also severely bruised but none were broken.  The orthopedic surgeon happily prescribed me a list of prescription medicine that includes strong painkillers up to the third week after the incident.

My case may not be typical.  However, it cannot be denied that when a patient just experienced trauma, painkillers would be on the top list of drugs the doctor will prescribe.

Why This is Good and Bad

Traumas cause pain.  Of course painkillers would be useful to help the patient get a decent rest that helps in recovery.  However, every sane doctor will admit that painkillers have side effects.  And painkiller dependency is not something any patient would want.  In my case, the injured ankle was no longer causing any pain when it is in neutral position and not bearing any weight within 3 days after the incident.  Continued dosage of painkillers in my bloodstream at that stage can cause more harm than good

Why Painkillers Could Interfere With Rehab

Believe it or not, pain actually has a function in our body.  We even have specific tissues called pain receptors simply to perform this function.  In the case of ankle and knee rehabilitation, it actually helps tells you which particular position, movement or loading that will worsen your injury.  I was able to tell which particular ligaments were injured before the MRI result came in.  Skilled physiotherapists can use pain as information to devise a training regimen that will best suit the situation.  The training regiment can help improve your recovery and prevent repeated injury in the future.  If you are on a heavy painkiller, your sense would simply get dulled, and it will interfere with your proprioception and rehab work. Proprioception is the muscle and ligament’s capability to sens its surrounding without the aid of vision.

In many cases such as mine, the general consensus by the American Orthopedic Association is that the patient should start basic physiotherapy once it becomes pain free to a certain range of motions.  Keep in mind that rehab and gradual pain free motion and weight bearing is essential to your recovery.  The keyword here is being gradual and pain free.

Chronic Pain and Painkillers

By definition, chronic pain is a type of pain that you experience either continuously, or on and off over an extended period of time.  As Dr. McGill lamented in his book, Back Mechanics, the problem is that too many doctors are using painkillers to simply stop you complaining.  If you are only getting painkillers without any treatment to address the underlying pain, then over time you will only become increasingly dependent on an ever increasing dosage of painkillers.


As Dr. McGill mentioned, whenever a doctor started prescribing you painkillers, you should ask the following questions:

  1. Why?  What is the underlying problem that is causing the pain that needs to be addressed
  2. How long?  What is the action plan to taper the usage of these painkillers.

Ultimately, pain in itself can be a gift even among elite athletes.  You should not simply bury your pain in painkillers without understanding the cause and how to deal with the pain.

The next time you feel pain, don’t think of it as something bad.  Your body is actually telling you what is wrong.  Treat it as a gift.

Super Healthy Ingredients That Are Not So Super (3 of 4)[:id]Bahan Alami Super Sehat yang Tidak Super (3 dari 4)

So tea tree oil is not a super cornucopia to cure all your ailments. And chia seeds have its limits. Surely soy milk is a great dairy milk replacement right? After all the Chinese has been drinking this for over 3000 years right?

Soy Milk

Alleged benefits: healthier alternative to dairy milk that is low in saturated fat.

So what if dairy milk is high in saturated fat? Coconut oil has far greater saturated fat content than soybean oil but it’s been proven to be far healthier.  In fact, based on a study done by Soochow University di China, 40 grams of cheese consumption per day actually reduce the risk of stroke by 14%!  Have you ever tasted plain soy milk processed traditionally with no added sugar?  It tastes horrible!  This is why manufacturers dumped truckloads of sugar in soy milk to make it drinkable.  And although milk naturally has sugar in it, this is at far lower concentration, and the presence of fat in milk slows down the sugar absorption into the body.  The same cannot be said on soy milk.  Not to mention the fact that children fed exclusively on soy milk later develop abnormal secondary sex organs.

Conclusion: soy milk can be part of the occasional cold sugary beverage treat healthier than coca-cola, but is NOT a healthy substitute for dairy milk.

Super Healthy Ingredients That Are Not So Super (2 of 4)

So we are done with the reason why tea tree oil is not so much of a super ingredient t all. Perhaps we should be refering to it as standard oil instead of essential oil. Now we move on to Chia seeds. This wonderful food was first dubbed as the perfect food by some foodies and now, some claim that they are “intolerant” to them. Lets learn more on why its not so perfect and why it causes problems to some people

Chia Seeds

Alleged benefits: Other than being a great source of fiber and protein, chia seeds are also a great source of vegan Omega-3.  The perfect food replacement.

Browse any wellness blog promoted by anorexic looking Instagram model and you will see no shortage of chia seeds infused meal replacements.  Yes, the high fiber content of chia seeds makes it longer to digest, suppressing a person’s appetite.  This is great for people who want to lose weight.  This is why they are incorporated as one of the ingredients of Magnus Breakfast Mix.  However, this high fiber content can be problematic if you simply ingest too many, and not leaving the seeds enough time beforehand in adequate drinking water for it to absorb water, i.e. it can cause constipation or being bloated if consumed excessively.  Another thing is that the Omega-3 content in Chia seeds are in the form of Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), instead of DHA or EPA that is abundant in seafood, free range chicken and beef.  ALA conversion to EPA and DHA in the human body is under 1%, the rest are just thrown away.

Conclusion:  Chia seeds are not suitable Omega-3 supplement for vegans, contrary to most marketing materials.  Consumed sparingly combined with plenty of water can help relieve constipation.  Consumed excessively with inadequate water will cause bloating and constipation.

Super Healthy Ingredients That Are Not So Super (1 of 4)

In this age of “Back to Nature”, we love to share the news about how certain essential oils, traditional food of exotic culture or drink will help us become healthier and younger.  But how much of this is actually true and how much are just rumors?  Are superfoods really that super? Let’s have a closer look based on what science actually says.

Tea Tree Oil

Alleged benefits: super disinfectant, anti-dandruff, anti-acne, anti-virus cure-all

Talk to any essential oil salesman or google search tea tree oil benefit and you will see or hear a stack full of purported benefits from this super ingredient.  What makes it even more interesting is American Cancer Society statement that there has been no statistically significant, double blind study that actually proved any health benefit of this super ingredient.  Research in 2012 actually showed that Tea Tree Oil should not be used on children as it can cause skin iritations and allergic reactions.  Surely this is all a collusion done by the medical-health mega-industry to maintain their market share right?  Except for the far cheaper and more widely available eucalyptus oil has already proven research that shows it’s beneficial.  If this is all medical industry conspiracy, how come the medical industry openly acknowledge the efficiency of eucalyptus oil that is produced and marketed by companies big and small?

Conclusion: If you are looking for natural oil disinfectant, use eucalyptus oil instead of tea tree oil.  They are cheaper, proven effective, and even proven to help repell mosquitoes, perfect for the summer.