Posted by on Jun 20, 2014

Eric and Ryan Johnson are the Sons of Strength. They’re brothers and New York City based coaches. Do you want to get trained by Eric and Ryan? Experience first hand how the Sons of Strength, Eric and Ryan Johnson, prepare their clientele of A-List celebrities and champion fighters for feature films, photoshoots, and title matches. Check out their new group fitness program, The Next Action Hero.

Childhood fantasies set the stage for our journey to the ultimate physique. We grew up up with dreams to have guns like Arnold as the Terminator, do a split like Van Damme in Kickboxer, throw a punch like Bruce Lee, and be a total bad ass with the body to go with it like Rambo. These movies and their characters molded our young minds. We wanted to be action heroes too.

These guys and gals like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft were ordinary people just like me and you. They didn’t rely on superpowers to become heroes. Instead, these icons relied on their physical bodies and intelligent minds to get the job done.

As the action hero has evolved over the decades, a few golden rules still remain. The key to any action hero coming out on top of the bad guys is the blend of performance training with physique enhancement. We’re talking pure movement, powerful muscle, and the Bruce Wayne-like self discipline.

Here are our training principles behind The Next Action Hero:

1. Moves like Chan.

You don’t have to be able to stretch your legs into a split between two trees (or moving Volvo trucks!), but you should be able to move with efficiency.

Action heroes like Jackie Chan or our personal favorite, Thailand’s Tony Jaa, always showed off their skills with mobility and killer stunts. So how does that help you in the gym?

We start our principles like our training sessions; with some focused mobility and stability exercises. In order to get the most out of the workout ahead and target the specific muscles you intend to build and strengthen.

For instance: You cannot touch your toes but still attempt to deadlift. Most likely, you will be either using poor technique or the wrong musculature to get the movement completed. Instead of reaping the benefits of strengthening the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and upper back, you will rely on your lower back and potentially spinal flexion. This may not cause damage right away but after many repetitions and a night of poor sleep, bending over to tie your shoe could put you on the injured reserve.

Here is a simple and super effective way to improve your toe touch and subsequently, all hip hinge patterns:

2. Enter the Breath.

Breathing is a direct link into our nervous system. We can use it to calm our nerves before a stressful event or to ramp up and perform to the max on the other end of the spectrum. The perfect example is how Bruce Lee used breathing in his mediation to be like water or in his one-inch punch to produce insane amounts of power.

In traditional bodybuilding, the stomach vacuum was a technique used at the end of one’s workout to contract one’s transverse abdominus while portraying the smallest waist circumference possible. Great in theory and part of being a champion in the sport.


However if you are not competing in a bodybuilding show anytime soon, we preach a different modality. As you can see in the above picture of the one and only Arnold, his ribcage is elevated during this pose with the stomach vacuum. This posture leads to an inverted breathing pattern or “chest” breathing. Accessory muscles like the upper trapezius, SCM, and scalenes take over for the primary respiratory muscles.

Instead, we want to see depression and lateral expansion of the ribcage. This will allow the diaphragm and core to function properly. Not only will your posture improve, but so will your performance.

This is called diaphragmatic breathing. Our workouts begin with the specific mobility and stability described above and the integration of correct breathing drills. An action hero will also use his or her breathing to:

  • Relax and breath into his or her stretch and mobility work
  • Improve recovery between sets (especially intervals) by focusing on his or her breathe to lower the heart rate.
  • Complete his or her workout with focused belly breathing on his or her back as a parasympathetic recovery modality.

3. Before You Go Commando…

Abs are made in the kitchen but training sets the dinner table. A lot of the time, we see that individuals come to us with a lot of SHOW and NO GO. Meaning they may have a visible six pack, but their core does not function properly. The core musculature is meant to stabilize the spine and prevent movement.

Our first priority is teaching these muscles to stabilize the spine through anti-rotation exercises. Once we can establish proper sequencing of the transverse abdominus and external obliques, our focus then shifts to more difficult abdominal exercises. Let’s go with planks before Rocky’s hanging dragon flyes in the fourth installment.

Here is a sample of a progression we use:

1. Kneeling Pallof Press

2. Standing BB Landmine

3. 1 Arm Farmer Walks

By training the core to brace automatically, these muscles can then improve your performance in other major lifts. You don’t need to actively brace the rectus abdominus, which will chip away at your nervous system and its recovery ability. Instead opt for movements that will cause the core to actively engage.

We dare you to try to perform a stability ball stir the pot and not have your core fire.

4. The Rock Before Pebbles.

We have an unwritten rule at Sons of Strength. During the summer months, bicep curls are mandatory. At least one set. Even if you did them the day before.

Now even though we completely appreciate the necessity of being able to show off the arsenal when it’s sun’s out, guns out, we still stick to our foundational principles.

Multi-joint, compound movements are a priority and almost always completed before isolation movements. That means pull-ups before biceps, bench press before triceps, and military press before lateral raises.

However, there are times when we will strand away from this golden rule. In the case where a lagging body part needs to be improved, we bring out the pre-exhaust method. This technique calls for the fatiguing a more dominant yet small muscle before performing a large movement.

To do so you will complete a single joint exercise followed by a multi-joint, compound exercise. Two common ways we use this is by performing a hamstring isolation exercise like glute ham raise or reverse leg curls before deadlifts or triceps pushdowns followed by barbell or dumbbell bench press. You may feel a little bit weaker in the second lift; however we are after muscle fiber recruitment here.

5. Move Fast and Furious.

Even though you are training for aesthetics, we don’t want you to lose your athleticism. You never know when you will have to buck up and play a pickup game of football or basketball. Remember even though the Rock is a monster of a man, he still played Division 1 football at Miami. To stay fast and agile, we included two methods in our training:

First, we always emphasize moving the weight as fast as possible in a controlled fashion. Now the bar may not look like it is moving “fast”, but the intent to do so is the key here. Especially as your intensity and weights increase.

Through this notion, more muscle fibers will be stimulated and in return we will arrive at increased strength gains and accompany hypertrophy adaptations.

Now this does not mean we do not believe in time under tension. So throughout our program, we will emphasize tempo in the eccentric (negative) and isometric phases of the exercises.

Second, we incorporate a Reactive Warm Up that involves upper and lower body plyometrics. These movements are explosive in nature and will stimulate your nervous system for the training session or battle ahead.

Here’s an example try before your next leg day.

6. Recover to Train Another Day.

Like James Bond, we must know when to “die another day”. An often overlooked variable in your training is your recovery. Most individuals don’t overtrain, but under-recover.

Looking to crush yourself every single workout and going until you are on the floor in a pool of sweat and vomit is very counter-productive towards your goal of an action hero body.

Instead of attempting to burn as many calories as possible within a 45 minute time frame, your efforts would be better spent on developing your aerobic energy system, incorporating parasympathetic modalities like infrared saunas, meditation, and myofascial release work,

In this next week, schedule one day of a brisk walk outside where you keep your heart in the 120 to 150 beats per minute range. Throw on a weighted vest if you find it difficult to maintain in those parameters or find a route with more hills.

Can’t get outside? Set the treadmill’s incline to 6 to 10 percent while watching your favorite action movie!


Need a training program and diet strategy that puts these principles into one system? Sons of Strength is on the search for The Next Action Hero. Over the course of the next 12 weeks, you can join us to experience first hand how we prepare our featured film stars to become a better version of themselves, fill the big shoes of their hero roles, and step into stardom.

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