Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Willpower vs. Desire

One of the things that I personally think that I'm good at is the psychology of stuff behind fitness and strength and conditioning. I'm pretty good at getting inside peoples heads and knowing what it will take to help them succeed in achieving their goals. I spent 5 years working as a personal psychologist trainer and had to learn a ton of different tricks to employ when people were standing in the way of their own progress.

One of the things that I've been thinking about a lot lately is the difference between someone having the willpower to do something and having the desire to do something. It may seem like I'm splitting hairs to some of you, but I think there's a clear and significant difference between them.

Willpower, as I've come to see it, is a passive emotion. You can have the willpower to not eat the apple pie sitting in the fridge, but that is simply not doing anything about it. The pie will sit there and you will see it and say "nope". This is well-and-good for a short period of time, but eventually willpower will run out. That delicious concoction of apple and cinnamon and pastry will continue to sit there until you finally say "fuck it" and end up balls deep in in while watching Game of Thrones some night after work. Willpower works in the short term, but you can't trust it in the long run.

This is one of my favorite shirts from EliteFTS. Reason 1 is because it's a tri-blend and they hug your traps and lats in all the right ways. The second reason is because of the quote on the back: The will to conquer is the first condition of victory.  It's simple: in order to succeed, you have to be willing to do what you have to do.

This is when I first made the distinction between having the will to do something and having the desire to do it. When you desire to do something, it's an active emotion. You are consciously thinking "no, I'm not gonna eat that fucking pie". You're not just telling yourself "ok, I'm going to get to the gym today and that will be good", you're saying "I'm going to go to the gym and fucking crush it and make some changes".

Just having the willpower to do something isn't good enough. Find motivation (either intrinsically or extrinsically) that you need to go out and actively chase your fitness goals. You're not going to get leaner and stronger by sitting back and waiting for it to happen.

Have a good day and go lift some heavy shit!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How Strong Does Your Core NEED To Be?

Core training is obviously a very important aspect of a training program. Without a strong and stable core your athletes will have a tough time transferring power from their hips into any sort of ballistic movement. Instead, they will end up flaccidly flopping around and looking like a turd rather than an athlete.

I will finally concede that simply doing your basic barbell lifts is NOT adequate for core training. I will tell myself that doing heavy front squats, presses and pulls will help you develop a strong core (they will) but at the end of the day you need more than that ::sigh::.

So now that I will admit to needing more core training, what should you be doing? I've written before about my thoughts on core stability training rather than training your core dynamically. You should be training your core with standard planks, bodysaws, various anti-rotation presses and isometric holds, stir-the-pots, heavy farmers walks and long farmers walks (uni- and bi-lateral, overhead, etc). I could go on and on, but I don't want to. The point is that there are a ton of appropriate exercises to be doing, you just need to pick the right ones for you/your clients and athletes and apply them. If your athlete can't hold a standard plank without a ton of lordosis then they probably shouldn't be doing a stir-the-pot or ab wheel rollout quite yet.

This brings me to the actual point of this post: how strong does your core NEED to be? I'm asking an actual question, not setting myself up to make some grand point. Is there an upper limit to the efficacy of some of the core exercises that we can all see out there? Does training yourself to go from a bi-lateral standing rollout to a contra-lateral standing rollout significantly increase your performance in any fashion? Or is it just fucking cool? I feel like once you've increased your core strength and stability to being able to do a hand walkout on two PVC pipes, you should be pretty much good to go regarding your core strength, right? I've seen some circus tricks being passed off as core exercises and just can't find a time or a place that I'd ever actually consider putting them into a program for someone.

As I sit here and right this, I wonder if I'm not approaching it with too much of a civilian attitude. I use Mark Bell's phrase "strength is never a weakness" pretty often, and maybe I just need to remind myself that it applies to core training as well. If you're still able to make your core stronger through exercises that look ridiculous, then maybe it's still worthwhile.

I'm conflicted. Once athletes are able to perform certain core exercises without any level of difficulty I often find it difficult to continue programming any serious amount of core work. I'll still include a few exercises, but I'd much rather use that time to focus on something else that they can continue to see solid improvement with (conditioning, body comp, power, technique).

It's a question I've been pondering in my head for quite a while, and I've mostly made up my mind. However, I love learning and I'm interested to hear anybody's thoughts on the subject! Let me know what you think! Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

My Manifesto

I've written a lot on my blog about my philosophy/style of training. I make no bones about thinking that "my" style is the most effective one to improve strength, power and athleticism. If I knew a better way to achieve these goals then I would be doing that.  Heck, it can even help improve your body composition if you do it with enough gusto. Despite all this, I recently got the urge to lay it all out on the line here anyway.

I've been doing this long enough that I believe that I'm at the point where my style is more or less cemented into place. I don't foresee me suddenly making any huge changes in the way that I design training programs, but I will say with 100% certainty that I will add/subtract things as I deem necessary when their usefulness to me/my clients change.

My style is largely based upon the teachings of Cressey Performance (Tony, Eric and Greg), Dan John and Jim Wendler. If I were to apply percentages to this I'd say it's probably 40% CP, 30% Dan John and 30% Wendler (that's 100%, right?). Truthfully, the 3 sources of practice listed above are really very similar in a lot of ways. The most important (in my eyes) quality that I've learned from these sources is simplicty. So many coaches want to make the programs so unique and perfect that they fuck it all up and make it over-complicated. Training is really a pretty simple thing to do.

From Cressey Performance I've learned the importance of assessing clients so that you can then correct their imbalances. I take a slightly more remedial approach to the types of assessments that I do, because I can get away with it with my particular population. When it's truly necessary for me to learn/apply a more complicated or in-depth assessment, I will. For now, basic assessments and traditional mobility exercises applied appropriately have been working fantastically. From CP I've also learned the true power of medicine ball training (Get it? True Power?). By utilizing this tool, you can teach athletes how to produce more force in an open-chain exercise using "sport specific" (God I hate that term) movement patterns that they can translate to the field of play immediately. I try to apply medicine ball training to every session of every program that I write, even if it's something as simple as slams and vertical throws.

From Dan John I learned the concepts of truly simplistic training and the 5 basic human movement patterns. Coach John has been doing this for a very long time and has moved quite a few pounds of weight in his day, so when he talks you should be listening. At one point in his life, after many years of lifting, he saw some of his best gains ever on a simple 2x/week training program. That's it. Two days per week. While I don't think everyone should be training only twice a week, the idea stays the same: the best progress will be made when applying small consistent efforts over a long period of time. If you go H.A.M. and train 6 days per week for 4 months and then get burnt out and don't train again for 4 months, then you didn't make a lot of progress. If you lift 3 days a week, feel great and make it through a full year of training then your gains are going to be through the roof. Make sure you're training all 5 movement patterns (squat, hinge, push, pull and loaded carry) then you're going to be strong and powerful.

When I heard Coach John talk at the NSCA Ohio Clinic a few weeks ago he also talked about the idea of a "perfect program" in the sense that there isn't one. No single program can account for every variable and apply every little nugget of knowledge that the coach has. It's impossible. Instead of trying to write a perfect program, focus on writing "pretty good" programs. As long as your clients/athletes are getting stronger, faster and staying healthy then you're doing a really good job.

While Coach John introduced me to and helped me understand the concept, Wendler has really helped me apply the "small, consistent efforts" idea with his 5/3/1 program template. He urges you to "start light, progress slowly and break personal records". If you're willing to put in the hard work necessary, then over time you will see a lot of gains. Training is a process, and you have to be invested in it to get to where you want to go. Jim is also a huge proponent of "moving like an athlete", which is a concept I appreciate. Athletes run, jump and throw so you should too. Chuck some medicine balls, sprint and jump over hurdles. These are simple things that will improve your athleticism drastically. He's also one of the biggest proponents of my favorite conditioning tool; the Prowler. It's no secret that I'm not big into conditioning (for myself), but when I do it, it's generally by pushing the sled. Lastly, you'll know this if you've ever written something he wrote, Wendler is a huge "no bullshit" kind of guy: no bullshit reason about poor training, no bullshit reason to not train, no bullshit exercises that don't work, just no bullshit. I like that.

These three sources are very different but have all really taught me the same things, which I apply to my program design. Sprint, throw and jump. Lift heavy barbells and lift them fast. Use basic, compound exercises (clean, snatch, squat, deadlift, press, pull and carry) and get strong as fuck at them and good things will happen. Keep your auxiliary exercises short and to the point. The best corrective exercises are often-times movement based (if you want your squat to get un-fucked, well then squat every damn day). Keep your conditioning short and sweet. There's no need for gimmicks and tricks, and there are no shortcuts to success; just hard work and consistency. Most importantly, that strength is the foundation for everything else you want to achieve. Nobody ever said "Oh, sorry I can't, I'm too strong for that".

With that being said, there's a handful of things that I truly don't adhere to. It certainly doesn't mean that these things are bad or useless, it just means that I have not found them to be as effective with my clients and athletes and have since discarded them. There's a legitimate chance that I come back to these things somewhere down the road and find them beneficial; I'm not too proud to do this. I don't think that we, as strength coaches, need to be doing a dozen corrective exercises with athletes. Two or three specific correctives (to me, mobility and activation drills) should be sufficient and anything more than that should probably be handled by a sports medical professional (AT/PT). I don't think that many athletes need a ton of conditioning outside of their pre-season phase. Athletes (especially younger ones) are playing so many sports so often that they get plenty of conditioning there. I don't believe that we should let athletes get away with sub-optimal technique on their Olympic and power lifts just because "they are athletes, not weightlifters". That's a shitty excuse for poor coaching. Does an athlete need to have a flawless snatch? No, of course not, but they/you should still be striving for it. I like my power exercises to be power exercises and my strength exercises to be strength exercises; your intention should always be to move that bar as fast as possible. Lastly, I refuse to believe that donuts are bad for you; they just taste too fucking good post-workout.

Many people who know me personally think that I'm a cocky bastard (meh), but I'm not so brash to think that I'm the only one doing what I do, or that there aren't a lot of coaches out there doing it better than I am (*gasp* is that humility?). I know there are lots of ways of getting results that I'm not utilizing, but I apply my system well and it's been effective in my utilization. I know I'm really good at what I do, but I can look at other guys on my "level" (Dan Atkinson, Dave Rak, Miguel Aragoncillo, Greg Robins, Mike Sirani, etc) and think to myself "shit, they are fucking good, how do I get there?" I know that I'm on the right track, but there's always more things for me to learn, adapt and apply. It's all a process and I'm really looking forward to it.

Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Training By My Damn Self

This past Saturday I had the chance to go train with my "team"; Mark, Nate and Alex. It's the first time since The Arnold (I think) that I've had the chance to go train with them. I usually lift alone like Stephen Fucking Glandsberg.

It pretty much sucks giraffe ass. For something as monotonous and grueling as weightlifting training can be, it's immeasurably helpful to have a training partner there to help you grind your way through your sets and give you feedback about if your technique was off or if there was just too much bitch in your heart that day. Lifting with those guys made me really miss having a training group. Heck, it was the first time in weeks I saw someone else actually snatch the barbell like a weightlifter. I was able to get some feedback from Mark on some things and was promptly put to shame when Alex (-77kg) and Nate (-85kg) both power snatched more than me.

I love weightlifting and I'm going to continue to train it, but I need a little bit of a break. I've found myself having less and less enthusiasm to train it by myself and I know that I need to change it up a little bit or I risk falling into a slump. Truthfully, I'm looking forward to spending a month or two focusing a little less on weightlifting and a little more on good ol' fashioned athletically based strength and conditioning. I think that I will physically and mentally benefit from some time spent throwing medicine balls, jumping, sprinting and doing a litany of exercises that I haven't done in a long time. I don't feel bad doing this because I don't think I'm going to really hurt my total or anything; I'm not so advanced to the point where I'm going to set myself back a ton.

I've got such a long list of useful exercises in my head that I just don't do anymore, so why not spend some time doing them again? Floor presses, chin-ups and barbell hip thrusts all sound like fun things that will ultimately still be good for me as a weightlifter. Strong is strong, especially when you're a non-competitive (I mean, sometimes I'm competitive) athlete like myself.

I would really enjoy getting my hands on some Strongman equipment for the next couple of weeks. Strongman is a really fun way to train that gets you strong (duh) and can provide a pretty serious metabolic effect. If I had my 'druthers I'd have some farmers walk handles, a yoke, a log and a really heavy sandbag or moderate stone. These implements would provide me with a ton of exercises that I could do that are just fucking fun to do. (If you've never done a yoke walk, you need to ASAP).

Truth be told, if I had the equipment available I would enjoy training Strongman just as much as I enjoy weightlifting. I would be as bad at strongman as I am at weightlifting, so it's really a one-for-one switch.

For now, I'm going to be snatching, cleaning and jerking before every training session. I still want those lifts to improve (and they have), but it will be less of a focus. I'm applying the 5/3/1 template to my strength exercises (squat, bench and deadlift) and then doing a handful of auxiliary lifts that I know I'll benefit from (GHRs, prowler marches, pull-ups, step-ups, etc).

Remember, training is supposed to be fun. As long as you're making progress in some way and you're still enjoying it, then you're doing all right. Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Stupid Shit I Did So You Don't Have To

My career as a fitness professional has been short by most standards thus far. I've been working with general population clients and athletes alike for going on 6 years, which isn't really very much time. In this short time I've learned a lot through classes, seminars, simply discussing random shit with other coaches to see if it's dumb or not. Just like everything else in my life, I also had to learn a lot of things the hard way and eat some crow along with it. I thought it'd be interesting to run through some of the stupider things I have done or thought of along the way.

For what it's worth this will be relating exclusively to the dumb shit I've done as a lifter/coach. Even though I'm sure my Dad would be interested in reading it, there's not enough words in the dictionary for all the dumb shit I've done as a human being (lol@ the time I slept through a sociology test at UMass Amherst because I didn't go to class enough to know there was a test).

When I Thought Olympic Weightlifting Was Useless
Even though I know compete and train (mostly) as a weightlifter, there was once a time when I thought it was dumb shit. My thinking was "I can deadlift so much more than I can clean, so why would I want to do a submax lift? I'm all about Da GainZ, bro." I had zero concept of power development and technique and thought max weight was the answer to every question. Fast forward to the first time I did an overhead squat during Show and Go and had to use 75 pounds and thought "this is dumb, I can front squat way more than this". Double fast forward to when we finally decided to start learning weightlifting and (of course) thought we knew every-fucking-thing and wasted 8 months of training slamming the bar off of our hips and maxing out weekly (don't do this, get a damn coach).

When I Made A Ton of Blanket Statements
I was the fucking King of Blanket Statements back in the day. "You do CrossFit? LoL all CrossFit will kill you." "You don't squat ATG? Well, you're a bad person." "If you don't eat at least 6 eggs for breakfast you're a turd." Well, these aren't exactly verbatim quotes from me, but they all sound like something Young Mike would've said at some point. I was pretty very dogmatic in quite a few of my views, and wasn't afraid to tell anybody what my opinion was regarding a subject. I have learned now that the answer, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. No, not all CrossFit gyms are bad, a lot of them are really quite good. No, not everyone needs to squat ATG, shit not everyone needs to even squat to parallel. You don't need to eat 6 eggs, but it's awesome if you do. I don't feel bad about my previous views on things, because it's good that I believed so strongly in something...but was able to change my point of view on it.

When I Thought Bodybuilding Was Lame
Well, the sport of Bodybuilding (to me) is still lame. I just can't get down with the idea of training to get on stage and let someone else decide if your body is good enough or not. Just seems like a big ball of body issues to me.

But I used to think that bodybuilding exercises were dumb and useless. There was no need for biceps curls; that's what chin-ups were for. Lateral raises were a waste of time, just do more deadlifts. High rep DB presses weren't doing you any good, just use heavier DBs for 8 reps. I didn't see the value in increasing the cross-sectional size of a muscle if it didn't have a direct impact on strength/power. Then I learned how bodybuilding exercises could work to help prevent injuries, as well as acting like a recovery day workout to move blood all around the body and flush out all the crap you build up from training. Now I'm on that Swole Patrol.

When I Did A Diet Completely Devoid of Fat And Carbs For 11 Days
I went into this knowing it was going to be dumb as fuck, but I needed to try it anyway. Four of us undertook this adventure together and it was 50x more miserable than I thought it would be. Basically nothing but lean protein for 11 days...and fucking mustard and Mountain Dew Zero and oodles of salsa. Things I learned from this:
- I will yell at people in line at Trader Joe's
- Fat is really important for certain things. Dan and Luis know what I'm talking about.
- When you scramble egg whites they have the consistency and flavor of whale boogers.
- No amount of salsa will make whale boogers appetizing.
- Don't do this fucking diet. For serious.

When I Thought I'd Learn Everything I Needed In Exercise Science Classes

Hopefully you guys can learn from some of these mistakes. Don't forget to keep an open mind and keep learning on your own though. Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


This past weekend my bosses and I drove the 3 hours down to Columbus, Ohio to attend the NSCA Ohio State Clinic being held at The Ohio State University.

First off, OSU was fucking amazing. Schools don't look like this back in Massachusetts. It was easily twice the size of the biggest campus we have (UMass Amherst?) and it was an absolutely gorgeous campus.

The conference was hosted by Mark Watts from EliteFTS and featured a fantastic lineup including names like Dan John, Cal Dietz, Bryan Mann and Meg Stone and was attended by about 150 people from all over the state (it's a big damn state).

Truth be told I was most excited to hear Dan John speak (I even shook his hand!); I've been reading and digesting his writing since I first become interested in getting strong and I base a large portion of my training philosophy on his teachings (the other part of my philosophy is Cressey Performance stuff). Dan presented on his 5 basic human movements and why they are important; stuff that I've read about 100 times, but it was great to actually hear him talk about it in person. He also talked about the utilization of standards and "gaps" to round out a training program for a team. Basically, if your strength standard for your team is "205 front squat, 205 clean, 275 squat" and you have one kid who squats 465, cleans 315 and front squats 330 then that is great; you have a stud athlete and he probably performs really well on the field. But, if you also have 10 kids who squat 165, clean 115 and front squat 120, then your TEAM isn't goin to be as good as it could be. If you "lift the bottom" of the team and get them stronger, rather than getting that one stud up to a 500 pound squat, then your whole unit will perform better.

Cal Dietz (University of Minnesota) was the other guy I was really looking forward to hearing speak. His system, Triphasic Training, has taken the strength and conditioning world by storm in the last two years and with good reason. Cal has an abundance of national titles and championships and various other awesome accolades under his belt. I wanted to hear Cal speak to get "sold" on the Triphasic system. I've read the book and I understand the premise of the system and why it works, but I really don't understand how I'm able to apply it to athletes that I work with. Even hearing Cal talk about it, it sounds like a pretty advanced program that is best applied to advanced/elite athletes. However, he made it seem as if it also wouldn't be as effective with a guy who'd been a pro for 10 years since his body has made so many adaptations that he'd be better off with some block periodization that was explicitly focused on one training effect.

I'm sold on Triphasic, I am. I understand that it's a fantastic system that utilizes some pretty nifty tricks to train the body to accept and adapt to more stress. But for a high school aged (or even a young college athlete) I don't think that it's a more effective way of training someone than the way I've been doing it. If your athlete is only able to squat 225, then he probably needs to get stronger so that he is able to produce more force (horsepower is useless without more torque). I hope to God that I someday get an athlete advanced enough to apply Triphasic to their program.

It was a very cool event and made me realize a few important things:

  1. I need my back to bigger in a fucking hurry. #bodyimageissues
  2. Everyone who's stronger than me (read: a lot of people) have hands that are as thick as a porterhouse steak
  3. I'm on the right track with my training philosophy.
  4. I've still got a ton of shit to learn.
Going to conferences are a great thing only if you're able to decipher what is useful to you and what isn't. Not everything that is presented is applicable or necessary for you and your athletes. If you start throwing all of these principles into your training programs willy-nilly then you're going to just end up with the proverbial "shit soup". 

Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Training or Displaying?

When it comes to strength and athleticism there are two things you can do with your ability: you can train it or you can display it. They are separated by a thin grey line, but the path you choose will largely influence your outcome.

What you're seeing in the image above is an overhead pistol squat while balancing on a kettlebell. This is a fucking ridiculously difficult exercise that requires an absurd level of proprioception, stability, mobility and every other quality that makes an athlete amazing. This athlete is displaying an astounding level of athleticism, but I don't consider this a training exercise. Here's why.

A training exercise is an exercise that you can do consistently, in a "controlled" environment (any environment involving your body and dynamic movements is inherently turbulent) that you can consistently improve upon and progressively overload in order to reap more benefits for your desired outcome.

Training exercises are uncomfortable and tedious and arduous and only meatheads find them "fun". But they make you better for when you want to actually display your ability. If you're not careful, though, training exercises can become displays in and of themselves. If you take a simple exercise like a deadlift or a box jump and start performing it exclusively to your maximum capability, then you've started to showcase your ability rather than train it.

People fall into this trap all the time; I know I have. Putting on a display is fun! Rather than taking the time to load an exercise incrementally and get better at it, I spent several months where I would just go max out on the lift once a week (snatch and deadlift). I increased the weights on both exercises, but it wasn't that I got better at them, it's that I took enough attempts that the percentages were on my side. If I tried snatching 200 pounds enough times, I was bound to get it eventually.

Kelsi trained incrementally for her marathon and displayed her ability when the time was right. Going to the gym every day and maxing out your clean, bench and 40-yard dash isn't going to do much more than crush your CNS and leave you flaccid and weak.

While almost any exercise can be turned from a training exercise into a display, there are some (generally variations) that become displays inherently because so few people are legitimately able to do them. The DB Snatch is an exercise that I think carries a ton of value, but is better served as a display of power or a conditioning exercise rather than a legitimate training tool. The nuances of the exercise are so minimal that it's really just a "here you go, have at it" kind of exercise. I also don't think that being able to snatch a 150 pound dumbbell has any impact on your barbell snatch, but you also can't snatch a 150-pound dumbbell unless you're a strong fucker already.

Many core exercises also become so difficult that they aren't exactly trainable. Ross Enamait is a strength coach in CT and is one of the most legit savages in the industry. However, just a look at some of his core exercises let's you know that for 99% of the population this is a party trick rather than a training exercise you can do consistently over time.

There is nothing wrong with displaying your ability from time to time; that's why we train in the first place, right? But you need to make sure that you're training is appropriate to get increase your ability to display safely and sustainably.

I hope this made sense to everyone! Have a great day, and go lift some heavy shit!