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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  The beginner’s guide to athletic fitness

The Indian cricket team is a transformed squad under Virat Kohli. A remarkable string of performances made 2016 a very special year for the team: Unbeaten in 18 consecutive Tests, with 14 victories and series wins against South Africa, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, England and West Indies. Kohli led from the front—scoring centuries at will, including three double hundreds in a single year. They finished the year at the top of the international Test rankings.

One of the foundations for this transformation has been the change in the fitness levels of the team. It is evident to anyone who watches cricket just how striking this change has been; from Cheteshwar Pujara to newcomers like Karun Nair, from Ravindra Jadeja to K.L. Rahul, the new Team India is a group of ripped, all-round athletes who explode into sprints, throw themselves into acrobatic dives instinctively, and just don’t seem to tire on the field. As usual, Kohli has led from the front on this aspect as well, posting his Olympic lift sessions on social media, and speaking out extensively about the benefits of increased athleticism, strength and conditioning.

The man behind much of this change is Team India’s strength and conditioning coach Shankar Basu, who began as the trainer for Indian Premier League team Royal Challengers Bangalore before joining the national squad in 2015. Kohli simply calls him “the boss".

Navneeth Krishnan, the chief physiotherapist at Basu’s chain of fitness centres, Primal Patterns, says “the Indian team’s fitness programme has changed to a holistic athletic programme, not just proper exercises and mobility-based training but also proper workload monitoring and recovery protocols." Under the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI) contract regulations, Basu cannot speak about his work with the team.

Now what are these “proper exercises"? Why is there a stress on “mobility"? Why is it that the athleticism of elite sportsmen and women in every sport you can think of—from football to wrestling to track to boxing—has shown such sharp improvement over the last two decades?

It has little to do with technology, or machines (in fact, as most experts point out, fitness machines are detrimental to fitness), or new insights into the human body, and everything to do with an increased flow of information between various sporting disciplines. Take Fartlek, for example—Swedish for “speed play", it is simply a form of running where you mix up the speed at which you run. Though athletes often do sport-specific and individual-need-specific regimes of Fartlek, at its core it is meant to be unstructured. Say, you run 3km every day. Instead of doing it at one, steady pace, Fartlek tells you to do it like this: Start with an easy-paced jog, pick up the pace a little for a short distance, slow down to a walk for a few metres. Go into a sprint for a short distance. Jog again for a few minutes. And so on till you cover 3km. This is a system that was “developed" in 1937 for Sweden’s cross-country running teams. But it is only in the last couple of decades that Fartlek has become an essential training tool across sporting disciplines. The same is true of another running system—High Intensity Interval Training—that has been in use since the 1970s for sprinters. Now no sport can do without it.

Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
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Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Israeli fitness guru Ido Portal, who calls himself a “movement coach", says “someone who is interested in martial arts or gymnastics or in team sports would not necessarily connect with each other (before). In the movement culture, we are realizing that we are more similar than different."

For people like you and me, the vast majority who are not professional athletes, the path to health and fitness has been riddled with misinformation and sales gimmicks. “Twenty years back, fitness was an entirely cosmetic industry," says Krishnan. “Just lift some weights and build big muscles without any notion of fitness. Then on top of that most of us spend our entire days working on a computer, keeping our spines unnaturally compressed. So offices started gyms, and everyone went and started using the treadmill. Lots of cardio, lots of running; it is better than being sedentary, but just running does not lead to overall health, because the repetitive stress that running puts the body through leads to increased tissue damage."

Also Read: Ido Portal: If you’ve abandoned your body, your body will abandon you

As those involved with the strength and conditioning of the world’s finest athletes have realized now, the pursuit of good health involves doing a little bit of everything that the human body is capable of: Run, push, pull, lift, bend, twist, jump, walk, hang, sprint, lunge, climb (you don’t need hills, just take the stairs).

“There are people who exercise and have musculoskeletal disorders—caused by repetitive stress," says Krishnan. “Then there are people with metabolic disorders—irritable bowels, ulcers, diabetes, etc. People think these are different problems with different solutions. But the problems are interlinked. Staying healthy is about being pain-free, without metabolic disorders, and able to be active…how many people can you point out like that?

“The way to that health is to teach and make your body do the things it’s meant to do."

Portal says that for him, the starting point in this pursuit of comprehensive health is the spine. “The spine is where movement originates from," he says. “If your spine does not move well, nothing will move well."

Kamal Chhikara, 31, head coach and owner of the gym, Reebok CrossFit Robust in New Delhi, says equipment and gear are not essential. “One can be absolutely fit and tremendously strong doing just bodyweight training," he says.

Also Read: Essential fitness gear

The simple push-up, he points out, is a spinal exercise, and it can be varied and adapted to work a wide variety of muscles and mobility situations.

“You move up and down keeping your spine straight and it helps train the muscles around your spine," Chhikara says. “Let’s say you can do 10 push-ups on the ground with very good form. Now do variations. With every variation, you target a different set of muscles. Diamond push-ups, wide-grip ones, archer push-ups…they make your body stronger and more flexible.

“Every functional movement also targets the core," Chhikara adds. It is just that many a time people don’t focus on the core. For example, when you do a push-up, you should be bracing the muscles around the spine and the glutes, contracting them. In pull-ups, you can engage your core by just bringing your feet together and keeping them straight."

While adding some free weights to your exercises helps build more strength, improves bone density, and slows down the process of sarcopenia (the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength as a result of ageing that usually begins post the 30s), “it is a very common mistake to advance to weights very quickly as you start training", says Chhikara. You need to first master the bodyweight movements. People who are not able to do proper squats start adding barbells in training. That’s when you see injuries. That is also when you see people who gain muscle but then fail to do one basic exercise."

A screenshot of Virat Kohli’s Instagram post, which has a video of him doing the snatch.
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A screenshot of Virat Kohli’s Instagram post, which has a video of him doing the snatch.

Krishnan uses the example of the squat as a basic exercise that people think they know but actually don’t.

“The full squat is a dying art," he says. “Everyone does half squats. Why? It’s only the full squat that works the pelvic, lower back joint, and the hip joint to go through their entire range of motion. That’s the optimal biomechanics. If you don’t do it, you get lower back pain, you get knee pain, your hip joint, the main hinge on which the squat works, is not working properly. You should not add weights to the squat unless you can do many, many repetitions of the full squat perfectly" (see “Learn To Just Hang" below for a similar breakdown of the pull-up and how it helps spinal health).

Incorporate all sorts of movements in your workout: jump, run, climb stairs. Photo: iStock
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Incorporate all sorts of movements in your workout: jump, run, climb stairs. Photo: iStock

Kohli is nuts about squats. He does hundreds of them in a session. You should embrace it too.

Here are some of the most common ways to build strength using bodyweight exercises, and to work towards improved health and fitness through mobility work. Though the exercises are divided into sections for ease of browsing, all the exercises here work on various parts of the body and push for overall health and mobility.

Self-assessment

“Just like you go for an annual medical check-up, you need to go to a well-trained professional for a full musculoskeletal assessment," says Navneeth Krishnan. “And then the first thing is to do corrective exercises to fix the weak points."

1. Are you able to touch your toes with your fingers without bending your knees? If not, where can you feel the stiffness the most? Lower back? Calves? Hamstrings?

2. Can you go down into a full squat without raising your heels, rounding your back, or falling forward?

3. Bring your right hand behind your back like you are scratching or soaping the back. If you can reach the left shoulder scapula/middle back, then the shoulder mobility is good. Now try the other side. Now try to reach behind your head and touch the top of the opposite shoulder blade with your fingertips. Can you? If you fail to touch the shoulder blades in any of the four attempts, then you are at risk of developing shoulder pain, or you have it already.

4. Can you do 15 regular push-ups? If you can’t, then you need to work on that before doing any other upper-body exercise.

5. Can you do five pull-ups? If you can’t, your pulling muscles are not strong enough. Your push-pull ability should be equally good (it needs more strength to do one pull-up than to do one push-up).

6. Do you take at least 8,000 steps each day? It’s the bare minimum. If you are not doing that, then that is the first thing you need to do. Start moving!

Do all kinds of push-ups

Once you are comfortable with the standard push-up, add these variations

Photo: iStock
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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock
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Photo: iStock

Close-grip

Get on to your hands and knees. Position your hands so your index fingers and thumbs make a sort of diamond or triangular shape. Bring your elbows close to your body. Lift your legs into the standard push-up position. Brace your core and glutes and lower yourself till your chest reaches the ground. Keep your elbows as close to the ribs as possible, don’t let them flare out. Push yourself back up till the elbows are straight. Do this to build triceps.

Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Pike

The starting position is basically the position for the downward dog. If you don’t have enough flexibility, you can bend your knees to make it easier. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart. The elbows should be straight in the starting position. Now bend your elbows and press down till the forehead almost touches the ground. Hold for a second and then push back up till your elbows are straight. The higher you can keep your hips above your shoulders, the better it is. Do this for shoulder strength.

Photo: iStock
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Photo: iStock

Archer

Assume a slightly wider than shoulder-width position. Keeping your body in a straight line and bracing your core, push yourself towards your right and lower yourself, keeping the right elbow tucked into your ribs. The aim is to touch the top of the right shoulder to the ground. The left arm should be extended straight away from you now. Push yourself up by pushing hard into the ground with your right hand till you are back into the normal push-up start position. Excellent for building strength in each arm separately, and conditioning the shoulder blades to stabilize you in a challenging position.

Photo: iStock
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Photo: iStock

The full squat is a necessity

“The first time they do the full squat, most people can’t keep their heels down, their knees converge, and their backs get rounded," says Navneeth Krishnan.

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Box squat

To address these issues, start first with a box squat. Sit down on a knee-high box by pushing your butt out and lowering yourself without rounding your spine.

Photo: iStock
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Photo: iStock

Wall squat

Then work on holding the wall squat position. 90 degrees everywhere. Build from a 10-second hold to up to a minute gradually over many days.

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Full squat

When bending down, remember that the primary hinge is the hip joint, that’s what’s doing the work and taking the load, not the knee. So push your butt back, squeeze your glutes, keep your back straight through the movement. Don’t raise the heels. At the bottom point, your hips should be touching the heel, your knees should be pointing outwards.

Photographs by Nathan/Mint; courtesy Primal Patterns
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Photographs by Nathan/Mint; courtesy Primal Patterns

Downward dog

An exercise to be done every day, whenever and wherever you get a chance. It stretches the entire chain of muscles in the lower body, activates the weak upper body and spine muscles, relieves lower- and middle-back pain, and stabilizes all the joints in the body.

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Spinal health is priority 1

Counteract the effects of sitting. Keeping your spine supple is the first step to fitness

Spinal twist

This stretches the spine and abdominal muscles, helps in mobilizing facet joints in the spine (the joints in the spine that make your back flexible and enable you to bend and twist), mobilizes the rib joints and enhances the right breathing mechanism.

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Swiss ball stretch

Slouching and sitting eventually leads to tightness of the postural myofascial tissues (chest, abdomen, hip-flexors, hamstrings). This Swiss ball supine stretch completely reverses the negative stress of sitting on all the muscles, spinal ligaments and discs. “A single drug for many disorders," says Navneeth Krishnan.

Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Crawl

This is one of the best strength- and mobility-training exercises you can do. Just ask anyone in the army. This is one of the basic movement patterns that Ido Portal drills into his students as well.

Assume a plank position on your hands and knees, balance on your toes, keep your hips low, and move one hand and the opposite knee forward simultaneously to move forward. The better you get, the lower you should keep your body.

Photo: iStock
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Photo: iStock

Learn to just hang

Ido Portal says he uses “various kinds of hangs to heal the shoulders, strengthen the shoulders".

“Even if you could do extreme feats of pulling strengths like a one-arm chin-up, but you don’t do something as simple as hanging passively from a bar for a minute, you are abandoning a certain position of the shoulder where it is under full traction," he says. “This position has a lot of potential to heal your shoulder, heal your whole spine. We have forgotten or don’t have knowledge of these things and we go straight to doing many sets of pull-ups. Hanging creates traction from the palms of your hands all the way down to your feet. The gravity stretches the body exactly the way it needs to be stretched. It starts to open up the tissues and realign them. It can heal the lower-back pain people carry for years."

Portal recommends a simple programme of hanging for a total of 7 minutes a day, broken up into many sets through the day. Start by just hanging passively. Focus on keeping yourself relaxed and straight. Don’t swing. Keep the elbows locked.

Once you get comfortable with this, add an “active hang" to the set. From a passive hang, pull the shoulders down, activating and squeezing your scapula while keeping the elbows locked. Do not point your chest up towards the bar, work only with the shoulders. Hold for a few seconds. Relax into a passive hang.

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Rope-assisted anterior posterior stretch

To activate and strengthen your scapula, assume this position using a rope or a towel and hold it with comfortable tension, making sure the bottom hand stays at the opposite scapula.

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Activate the shoulders

The shoulder is the most flexible joint in your body. You take advantage of that flexibility every time you scratch your back, throw a ball, or stretch to reach the top shelf in the kitchen cabinet. Yet few people take care of it or use its range of motion. Fewer still activate the scapula, which leads to shoulder, middle-back and upper-back pain

Photographs courtesy Primal Patterns
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Photographs courtesy Primal Patterns

Wall slides

To train your scapula to activate when you do anything that involves reaching upwards, try this therapeutic move. Keep your scapula pulled down at the start of the movement. Keep your forearms on the wall as you slide it from the start (left) to finish (right) position. At the finish position, lift your arms off the walls and bring it back a couple of inches by squeezing the shoulder blades together. Don’t shrug your shoulders when you are raising the arms.

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Horse-stance dynamic

Get on your hands and knees, keeping your hands directly below your shoulders. Reach outward with one hand, straightening it completely, while lifting the opposite leg. Keep your core braced. Your spine should be in a straight line throughout. This is great for strengthening and stabilizing the shoulders and the core.

Add the ring to your regimen

Gymnastic rings are the ultimate training tools; they can move through 360 degrees and lean towards the weakest link in your exercise pattern. The ring will strengthen your weakest points as you try to stabilize yourself while using it. Plus, it’s cheap and portable. Just take it anywhere in the park and set it up, or set it up on your terrace.

“For the upper body, complex exercises are much more important than just sheer load," Kamal Chhikara says. “The rings are great for this. For beginners, I will start with pushing and pulling exercises on the rings. I will start with ring push-ups and then go to ring dips."

The gymnastic ring will open up a new world of fitness. Explore it.

Photographs: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Photographs: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Ring rows

Start with ring rows. Set the rings at a height so that you can be almost parallel to the ground; set it higher if you think a position this low is too hard, and progress downwards. Pull yourself up, keeping your body in a straight line, till your chest is touching the ring. Keep the elbows tucked throughout.

Photo: iStock
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Photo: iStock
Photo: Ryan J Lane
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Photo: Ryan J Lane

Pull-ups

Hold the rings so your palms are facing each other. Pull your shoulder back (contract the shoulder blades towards each other), and then pull yourself up. As you pull up, turn your palms so that they face your shoulders.

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Top position hold

Grip the rings tightly, pull your shoulders back, raise yourself and straighten your arms out till the elbows are locked. If you can’t get off the ground completely, that’s fine, assume the straight-arm, elbow-locked position while keeping your toes on the ground. Gradually increase the load on your arms till you can get off the ground.

Progress to doing dips on the ring.

Progress to holding the top position and tucking your knees into your chest.

Progress to holding the tucked position and then straightening out the legs into an L-position.

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