Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Weight Loss Discussion

As is the case for most personal trainers, one of the things I hear from clients most often is "I want to lose weight."

I have a pretty standard response to that, which is to mention that the number on the scale is really pretty arbitrary. Nobody walking down the street can tell if you weigh 155 or 160. I like to tell people to use that number on the scale strictly as a guideline to be able to tell what's happening with their diet/training program.

Instead, I like to get clients focused on body re-composition. That is, changing their body from more fat-than-muscle to more muscle-than-fat. These changes can happen irrespective of how much you weigh. You can have a better body composition at the same weight and look very different. You can have a better body-comp at a higher bodyweight and look even better! The number you really want to be interested in is your bodyfat percentage. Staying the same weight and changing your bodyfat is really what will get you the results you are looking for.

How is this accomplished? Diet, heavy lifting and sprinting. Duh. What'd you think I was going to say?  Yoga and Pilates? Decide how badly you want to get your results, and then put in the necessary work. If you want it: go get it.

Eat right; meat, veggies, fats. Do your squats and deadlifts. Sprint, run hills, push a sled. Stop jogging for 45 minutes and thinking that was the best road to fat loss; it's not. All of your best results are going to come as a direct result of intensity. Remember that, and go bust your balls. Lift something heavy, and be happy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Life Update

Well, it's Summer time here in Boston and for me that means it's volleyball time! Every summer since I was 15 I've been playing in the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament. It's a great event that brings together people from various cities across the country to participate in a form of volleyball that is very culturally based. We are also very serious about it: there are pro players, D1 College players, Club players and guys like me who never even played high school ball.

Needless to say, a lot of my training revolves around what I can do to get better at this particular sport. Mainly, I want to be able to jump higher and be able to continue jumping that height for the duration of the game/tournament. Thankfully, that's what my training has done.

During a discussion the other day, Dan (training partner) and I realized that we had, without realizing it, brought ourselves through a nearly perfect training periodization for the year of 2012. We started off the year with a Christian Thibaudeau designed hypertrophy program, which we did for 2 months. We then moved into 2 months of Advanced German Volume Training where we focused on and developed functional mass and strength gains. The next phase of our training was a pretty unstructured 2 months of ass-kicking savagery. We trained 3-4 times per week and did something heavy every day. We did lots of squats and Olympic lifts, some vertical and horizontal pulling...and we did a lot of it. No idea how many sets we were doing per day, we would just show up, warm-up and then train until we had to leave. Very recently, we started a new training regimen: The Outlaw Way. Coach Rudy writes free programming that is actually aimed at getting people ready to compete/dominate the CrossFit Games. "Oh my God! He's doing CrossFit workouts!" Well, slow your role there Chachi. I'm not exactly doing Fran every day here; take a look at his doctrine. Louie Simmons, Pripelin, Bulgarian Method, Poliquin and Wendler are his inspirations here (several of which are names that I've mentioned here multiple times). This guy just writes really solid programming. The thing he does really well, which I've yet to figure out, is programming for Olympic Weightlifting. Being that I'm pretty new to weightlifting, I've spent very little time learning how to program for it, so it's nice having someone else tell me what to do.

The other thing I'm doing right now, is training as hard as I can regardless of my volleyball practice schedule. Recovery is difficult, but that's ok. It's just practice and I don't need to have fresh legs for every practice. I'm purposely over-reaching, but I'll taper down my training and increase my recovery (eating and sleeping) in the week prior to a tournament, so I can enter the tournament feeling fresh as a daisy. Supercompensation will occur and I'll be a savage.

The most recent results of my testing are as follows: 440# deadlift, 242# clean, 315# Olympic-style high bar squat, 300# front squat, 200# bodyweight and about 11% bodyfat. I will re-test most (probably not all) of these numbers at the end of the summer and see what I was able to maintain, gain or lose. 

That's all for today! Enjoy yourself and go lift some heavy shit!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fixing the Endurance Athlete, Part II: Cyclists

In part I, I went into some detail about the main points to consider when training/fixing a runner. In part II I'm going to talk about what to do with a cyclist. Biking is nearly as popular as running in Boston (No idea why, though; have you ever ridden a bike in this city? It's like playing Russian Roulette.) and quite a few of my clients partake in this activity on a regular basis. It's, again, not my first choice of ways to stay active, but you do your thing and I'll do mine.

The biggest thing to consider when dealing with someone who rides a lot is their posture. I am specifically speaking about people who spend a lot of time on road bikes with aero bars right now. Mountain bike and hybrid-bike position is much different; it's not exactly ideal, but it's not nearly as bad as a road bike with aero bars. First things first, let's takes a look at what I'm talking about.

If we take a look at this guy piece by piece, we will notice a few things. Hips flexed, lumbar spine in flexion, thoracic spine in flexion, humerus is internally rotated/adducted and his cervical spine is hyper-extended. Those things on his shoes also look a little silly. Does this positioning remind you of anything?

Hips flexed, lumbar and t-spine in flexion, cervical spine in hyper-extension and arms are internally rotated and adducted. Only difference is that this guy isn't getting Bike posture is, in my opinion, even more of a concern than a runners posture. Again, we have an issue where someone spends 8-10 hours at work sitting in a shitty postural position at their desk, then will go home and hit an easy 25-mile ride on their bike in the same position. Talk about ingraining a movement pattern!

So, what can we do to take of these issues when we get a client who rides a lot? Let's start at the top and work our way to the bottom.

1) Cervical Hyper-extension: Listen to Charlie Weingroff and make sure that you are packing in the neck during every applicable movement (you should be doing this already). If your athlete is going to spend all of their "competing" time in one particular bad position, you want to make sure to reinforce the good position as much as you can. Make sure you are cueing them to pack their chin down into their throat; I find that telling clients to make a double-chin often helps them visualize it. Make sure they aren't just tilting their head forward, but actively pushing their head back into the right position. Cue this during all deadlift variations, as well as all rowing, overhead pressing and loaded carry variations. Actually, cue them to do this all the time. Brushing their teeth, driving the car, cooking dinner...a good drill to ingrain this is the hip hinge with a broomstick.

2) Internally Rotated and ADducted humerus: This position is part of what leads to Janda's Upper Crossed Syndrome. Spending hours in this position leads to tight pectorals, which pull your shoulders in. Having your shoulders pulled forward by your pecs causes the upper-middle back muscles to stay in a shortened/weakened state.

These factors all work together to leave you looking like Quasimodo, and this doesn't help with the ladies. What do we do to fix this? Step one is soft-tissue work: let's get out a lax ball and mash the shit out of your internal rotators (just below your collar bone). Now that you've loosened up the tissue a bit, go ahead and ingrain the correct movement pattern and do some doorway slides. Another useful drill is the Resistance Band Shoulder Distraction and it comes from Kelly Starret. As Eric Cressey is fond of saying "there's no such thing as a contraindicated exercise, just contraindicated lifters". The contraindicated exercise I'm referencing with these athletes is any variation of overhead pressing. I'd be hard pressed to find a lot of cyclists that I'd be dying to put stuff overhead with; you'd be better off spending your time on horizontal and vertical pulling exercises.

3) Thoracic Spine Flexion: A flexed thoracic spine isn't an intrinsically bad thing; the t-spine is made to flex forward. However, it's not intended to spend the majority of the day in this position. This is part of what leads to that really poor posture that none of us want to have. Add to this the tight internal rotators and you have a recipe for awful posture. What can we do to help solve this? Lot's actually! First off, foam roll your upper back. You can take it a step further and use this trick that K.Star shows us. (FYI it feels miserable/amazing.) I personally think that, for a lot of people, soft tissue restrictions are a piece of the puzzle that prevent them from getting back their thoracic range of motion. For this, I would suggest seeking out a reputable soft-tissue therapist such as a masseuse or licensed ART practitioner. There are literally dozens of drills to employ when trying to restore T-spine ROM, so do a Google search and start trying them out. To go along with your new thoracic extension, you're going want to reinforce the position by doing lots of horizontal rowing exercises, making sure to get a full scapular retraction when doing so. I would start off by doing variations with a vertical torso: seated row, standing 1-arm cable rows and face/neck pulls are very effective. From there I would progress to horizontal rowing with an angled/supported torso: chest-supported row, head-supported row, and batwings.

The final progression is to horizontal rowing with the torso parallel to the floor; the "classic" rowing exercises: barbell row, Pendlay row, 3-point dumbbell row and the t-bar row. I place these exercises as the last progression because using them too early would result in the cyclist wanting to put their back into its most comfortable position (rounded), which would defeat the purpose. Build a solid base of strength and allow them to get comfortable with the positioning.

4) Lumbar Flexion: This is the dangerous one. If the athlete tries to return to a lumbar flexed position during any heavy lift, they run the risk of hurting themselves pretty badly. It's of the utmost importance to the athlete and coach that pelvic control and hip mobility is restored before starting with any axial loading of the spine. Starting off the athlete with glute activate exercises and stretches/mobilizations for the anterior aspect of the hip will be necessary. Since they spend a lot of their time with their hips "tucked under", their glutes will tend to be inefficient and their hips will be tight. Trying to load this athlete up with a deadlift on day 1 would be a poor decision. After they've demonstrated the ability to achieve a lordotic spine, ingrain the proper movement patterns with simple exercises like goblet squats and Romanian deadlifts. You'd also want to perform some solid anti-flexion exercises with this athlete: planks, various isometric Palloff presses and loaded carries. Just like with the upper body, these athletes usually flirt with what's known as Janda's Lower Crossed Syndrome.

To help restore glute function you're going to want to spend your time on glute bridges, x-band walks and slideboard hamstring/body curls. Progress them to all deadlift variations, glute ham raises and 45 degree back extensions (done properly, of course). I would start off deadlifting these athletes since they tend to be very quad dominant but squatting will, of course, be in order. However, I would tend to keep the bar off of their backs; chances are good they will have poor external rotation of the humerus and will probably experience some discomfort when trying to do a barbell back squat or a good morning. Use the front squat or a speciality bar.

5) Hip Flexion: The flexed hips position will tend to exacerbate the flexed lumbar position. Everyone who sits often (read: everyone) will have shortened hip flexors, so these drills are very applicable. Use the K.Star couch stretch or the ubiquitous rocking hip flexor mob. I have found a few of Kelly Starret's banded joint distractions to be extremely useful in my own training to help restore some good hip mobility. Here are the ones that I personally used the most often:

Well, shit. That was a lot. This post was fueled by Dave Matthews Band and Stella Artois. I hope someone out there finds something here useful! Whether you train cyclists, are a cyclist, or just happen to sit a lot, there's something here for everyone. If you take one thing away from this, then I succeeded. Take care, and go lift something heavy!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Fixing the Endurance Athlete, Part I: Runners

The city of Boston is often ranked as one of the fittest cities in the country; we have a lot of well-educated professionals who understand the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle. People in this city want to stay active and, while I may fucking hate it not love it, one of the most popular ways to do that is by going for a run.

As Chris McDougall noted in his best-selling book, Born To Run, about 8 out of 10 runners in the United States will experience some running-related injury every year. Yup, 80% of runners will hurt themselves doing an activity that is supposed to make them healthy. Why does this happen? A few reasons: 1) people run like shit 2) people run like shit for a lot of miles 3) people who love running will do nothing besides run like shit for a lot of miles. This is a case of someone putting dysfunction on top of dysfunction on top of dysfunction. Sounds like a recipe for the worst cake in the world, right?

Thankfully there are steps we can take to "un-fuck" (that's the scientific phrase) the damage that people are doing to their bodies out there, mile after mile. The things that happen to runners aren't, for the most part, unique. They are things that we can plan around and either correct or attenuate. Let's discuss.

1) Think posture! Runners posture ends up looking a lot like the posture of someone who sits at a desk all day...which most people do. Awesome, so they get shitty posture sitting at their desk and then compound it by going out and knocking out a 5-miler at the end of the day. Their shoulders are internally rotated and their thoracic spine is stuck in flexion with protracted shoulder blades. A big focus during the warm-up/mobility portion of the session should be on improving thoracic spine extension and scapular mobility. This focus will get someone a lot of bang-for-their-buck. They'll see improvement very quickly, and it will make a difference in the way they look, feel and move.

2) Get them strong! Each stride a runner takes is a sub-maximal uni-lateral effort. They produce low power at a low-level of strength with each leg for hundreds/thousands of reps. The main component of their strength training routine should be heavy (fewer than 5 reps) bilateral lower-body exercises. I would prefer a focus on hip-dominant exercises (deadlifts, low-bar squats) with a spattering of knee-dominant squats as assistance work. Runners tend to have weak hamstrings and we need to bring those up so we can improve performance and get rid of any knee pain that is (probably) present. Plus, strong people are harder to kill than weak people.

3) The hips don't lie! Pelvic stability is a huge issue for runners, especially female runners. All those strides cause some pretty swishy hips, which can lead to some very uncomfortable hip and low back pain. In order to prevent/fix this, we need to train pelvic stability. There are two planes of motion that we want to train the pelvis: sagittal and coronoal (front/back and left/right). The common ways to train the pelvis to be stable anteriorly/posteriorly is with bridges and planks. These are ok for teaching pelvic stability, but with a more advanced athlete you'll need something better. Barbell-loaded hip thrusts and ab-wheel rollouts are a great idea, as are some of the pallof press variations. Your butt muscles are very important pelvic stabilizers and they need to be heavily trained and activated in runners. Remember: no glutes, no glory!

Another great way to teach this stability is by using loaded carry variations. Personally, I would like to see runners do a lot of anterior-loaded (goblet position) carries, along with some offset loaded carries (DB on one side). This will also help someone learn how to control their pelvis laterally, by activating their obliques and their quadratus lumborum, one of your biggest trunk stabilizers. Most of these exercises will also train the anterior core musculature, which will benefit a runner greatly by helping to stabilize the whole trunk during a long run.

4) You can never underestimate the importance of soft tissue quality! Runners put a lot of repetitive stress on their muscles. This leads to tightness and poor tissue quality in a few specific spots. Having your runners doing a lot of self-myofascial release is going to help alleviate a lot of discomfort they may experience. Get them to focus on the bottoms of their feet, calves, IT bands, quads and upper back. Using both the foam roller and lacrosse balls will help get to all those gnarly little trigger points that are limiting your range of motion anywhere. Excessive stretching of the lower body is usually not recommended for runners since that tonicity (especially in their calves) helps propel them along at a faster rate.

5) Train them in 360 degrees! Runners live in one plane of motion; straight forward. Other than dodging the occasional pile of dog poo or a pedestrian, there is very little lateral movement involved in running. Get these people moving as we were intended. Involve lateral lunges, side step-ups, Heidens (skater jumps), lateral sled drags and even lateral footwork with a speed ladder. Absolutely anything you can think of that will get runners moving in different directions. As we know, if you repeat anything enough times you will create an imbalance. Every stride a runner takes brings them once step closer to these imbalances.

Obviously, every runner you encounter will have slightly different imbalances; there's no such thing as a cookie cutter training model for any athlete. However, these 5 things outlined are good places to start. Will some runners avoid this all-together? Sure, but they are the exception not the rule.

You will also notice that I managed to keep my opinion to myself regarding running. I often make it seem like running is the worst thing in the world (for me, it is) but in reality it really isn't so bad if you take the proper precautions. My big beef with running is when people use it for weight loss rather than as another form of exercise. I also didn't delve into stride mechanics as something to consider with runners because, frankly, I don't know enough about it. For something like that, I would outsource to a good running coach. If you're going to run, then go for it. But make sure you do some sprints and lift some heavy shit too!

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Bastardization of Healthy Eating

One of the first questions I ask a client when they mention wanting to lose weight is "what's your diet like?" I get two answers; one from guys and one from the ladies. Guys will always smirk and say "It's not too bad. It could be better. The weekends are tough." Meanwhile, ladies will always say "I eat really healthy! The weekends are tough though."

Great. That gave me zero information. Thanks for that.

The next question is to ask them to describe what a normal day looks like. With slight variability, it usually looks like this:

Breakfast: Coffee, muffin/bagel/refined carbs.
Lunch: Half of a salad with chicken on top for the ladies; sandwich for the guys.
Dinner: Refined carbs with, hopefully, a little bit of meat and some booze.
Dessert: Froyo, because they earned it by having a good eating day, obviously.
Snacks: The ladies, especially, will be good about having small snacks during the day. Dannon Light n' Fit yogurt and Laughing Cow cheeses are particularly popular.

I'll ask about the weekends, but I usually already know the answer. They go out for dinner and drinks with their friends, then they sleep in the following morning and follow it up with a big breakfast/lunch (not brunch) meal filled with refined carbs before they go out and get boozed up again and follow it up with some slices of pizza at 3 a.m. Sound familiar, anyone?

So, what makes people think this diet is healthy? The media. Magazines. Commercials. Ugh, Celebrity endorsements.

At what point did we decide we knew better than nature when it comes to the food that we put in our bodies? Why is it that we are terrified of fats that are naturally occurring in foods, yet we have no concern for the super-processed foods that come in convenient 100-calorie packs? The same person telling me that red-meat and eggs are bad for my cholesterol will turn around and eat a sandwich with "zero grams of fat" from Dunkin Donuts. Is this shit for real?

With the current mindset, people are getting fewer and fewer of their macro-nutrients from real food sources and getting more and more of their calories from fake processed food that we are being told is healthy. Let's take a look at some food labels.

First up, let's take a look at some breakfast foods. Kashi Go Lean Crunch cereal has become extremely popular and everyone seems to think its health food. 

Not exactly amazing, now is it? Take a look at just how many ingredients go into this cereal product. The first half of the list are all products filled to the brim with gluten; something that is pretty certain to fill your guts with bloat-causing inflammation. Next up is  soy, which is a great way to get some gynocomastia if you're a guy. If you're a lady, it's a good way to mess with your thyroid gland and some other hormones.

Next on the list is "evaporated can juice crystals; which is the healthy way of saying "sugar". Sugar is sugar and we don't need to be eating it for breakfast. We then have some more grains, some canola oil, and then the one healthy thing about this product: cinnamon.

Now, lets take a look at my breakfast of choice: eggs.

Not so many ingredients in that guy, are there? An egg is an egg is an egg. I buy organic/cage free/naturally fed/blah blah blah as often as possible, but even the genetically engineered joints are better than the Kashi cereal.

Yup, I can hear them now. "Oh, but eggs are so bad for your cholesterol. My doctor told me not to eat them!" Frankly, your doctor is an idiot. Please show him/her thisthisthis or this. See what he/she has to say about those studies.

So, your breakfast choice can either come straight out of a chickens butt, or it can come from a laboratory where a bunch of scientists had to figure out how to make this food healthy for you. Again, why is it healthy? There's more sugar in it than protein. 37 grams of carbs, 13 grams of sugar and a tummy full of gluten? I'll take the eggs.

Let's move on to lunch; Subway subs seem to be pretty popular and common, and have been marketed for several years as a healthy option for lunch. Remember the commercials with Jared and those ridiculous pants?

Great for him, by the way. Thrilled that he lost the weight and all that; but he didn't lose that weight because he was eating Subway. He lost all that weight because he wasn't eating McDonalds and Burger King and drinking gallons of soda. He lost all that weight because he actually got up off the couch and started moving around and, gasp, exercising!

Here is some nutrition information for the different 6" Subway subs. Some of the better values: 38 grams of, that's it. One of the subs has that, everything else is below it. I'm not interested in any of the other nutritional values. Know why? Because it's all processed shit. None of it is really fresh (maybe some of the veggies). All of the meats are processed to last longer. None of the bread is even close to what I'd consider healthy. These sandwiches contain no good fats, although you can get avocado on some of the new subs. Putting some avocado on one of these sandwiches is really like putting lipstick on a pig, though. It doesn't really make it much better.

Let's compare it to something that I like to eat for lunch (specifically post-workout): beef, rice, guacamole and salsa. Mix it up into a bowl and eat it. The salsa is the most processed part of that meal, and it's only because I buy mine pre-packaged from Trader Joe's. The beef comes from one source. The rice comes from one source (rice is gluten free; very nice source of carbs). Guacamole is some mashed up avocado. Salsa is a bunch of diced up veggies. Not a particularly long ingredients list. I can name where all of those foods come from. Try and name where all of the meats in your Spicy Italian sub came from, I dare you.

I'll let that rant subside and delve into a new one: the many "vegetarians" that we deal with at my gym. So, you've made the decision to be a vegetarian and I respect that. I think it's dumb, but what you eat doesn't make me shit; so go for it.

Ask many (No, not all. Just a majority.) what they eat every day. Coffee and muffin; cheese pizza; meatless meat substitutes (i.e. soy); pasta; ice cream. Vegetables? Almost never. They eat plenty of carbs and fake-meat foods, but that's about it. I've taken to calling these people processed-food-atarians. It's not that they only eat vegetables, it's just that they don't eat meat. If you're going to be a vegetarian, at least do a good job of it. Or, eat fish and eggs and dairy too. Then you'd be a Lacto-Ovo-Pescatarian...and that sounds about a million times cooler than just plain "vegetarian".

Eat real food, people! As coach Dan John is well known for saying, "eat like an adult"! Cut out the cereals and candy and all that shit; eat real food from real sources. Stop worrying quite so much about what's in your whole-food sources and be more concerned about the science-experiment snacks you're eating. And, please, go find something heavy and pick it up!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lessons From a Personal Trainer

I'm a firm believer that learning can happen anywhere. Nobody should ever be above the opportunity to learn something new. Especially in this industry; when you stop learning, you're dunzo.

There's usually a hierarchy in the strength world, in terms of whom is learning from whom. Guys like Gray Cook, Charlie Weingroff, Stuart McGill and Louie Simmons tend to be on the high end of that hierarchy. The next level down are the guys like Eric Cressey, Tony Gentilcore, Dave Tate, Dan John and Kelly Starret (just to name a few; there's lots more). There's another level of strength coaches under those guys; the up and comers, the coaches who have great ideas but haven't "made it big yet" and the such. Then there's the personal trainers; my people (for now). We are at the bottom of the barrel; nobody really looks to us for anything. Sure, there are lots of good strength coaches that started off as personal trainers. But that's not what we are known for, we are generally regarded as the Bosu-using, bicep-curling, intelligence-lacking, girthless wastes of space in this industry. Obviously there are really good personal trainers out there who have been accepted into the Strength Family, but they are the exceptions not the rule.

What, then, could a lowly personal trainer in a commercial gym teach a strength coach who works in a facility outfitted with every toy from the EliteFTS catalog? You may be surprised.

First off, something that we have become extremely adept at in my gym is doing a lot with very little. Do you know what we have for equipment to get people strong? A few barbells, a trap bar, dumbbells up to 100# (thank God), a TRX, a few kettlebells up to 45#, a bunch of iron plates and only 160# worth of bumper plates. No speciality bars, no sleds, no sandbags, no heavy medicine balls, no chains, no bands, no plyo boxes, no nothing. On top of that, it's a commercial gym! Weights must be placed gently on the ground. Grunting must be kept to a minimum. Chalk isn't even allowed. With all of those limitations placed upon us, we have had to find innovative ways to continue getting people stronger and fitter. How do we do this? Constantly varying the stimulus. A squat is a squat is a squat, but we can vary it just a little. Load it differently (front squat, zercher squat, Anderson squat, etc), we can change the tempo, we can add a pause at the bottom or we can change the stance width. I also went and bought my own EFS bands so that we can add a dynamic effort effect to some lifts. I need to be constantly inventive so that a guy I've been training for 3 years doesn't get bored with lifting. I don't have the luxury of simply being able to reach out for a different speciality bar. 

The need to constantly vary your training stimulus is so important because you need to keep clients. It's not really like the strength and conditioning world; when someone leaves our doors they aren't exactly running around telling their friends how many pounds I added to their deadlift or squat; nobody in their life cares how strong they are. These people are teachers, lawyers and doctors.  An athlete would leave the gym and brag to his friends about something like that, and they would all listen and think "well shit, I need to go train with this guy too". The only person who cares about my clients results are me and them. New clients don't exactly come pouring in based on referrals, so in order to keep a full roster of sessions I need to get tangible results and I need to get them fast. 

Mike Boyle wrote an article titled "My apology letter to personal trainers" a few years ago, where he outlined the reasons that being a personal trainer was harder than being a strength coach. The point that I agree with the most is that personal trainers see a client for 1-4 hours per week (4 hours if you are super lucky). The rest of the time belongs to the client, and they can do with it what they want. If they train with you twice a week, and then eat pizza and drink beer the rest of the time their results will not be amazing. We need to be able to convey the importance of proper diet and recovery without breaking any scope of practice laws; if they can't grasp that importance then their results will be poor. When their results are poor, they will blame you and stop training. An athlete going to see a Strength Coach has already made the decision that they need to devote the proper amount of time and energy to get better at their given sport and will be willing to do whatever he needs to do to achieve his or her goals. 

Another point that trainers need to be especially good at it selling themselves. A strength coach has the ability to refer back to other clients (athletes) and point to how much they improved during their time with them. Most athletes are after the same general things, after all (get faster, jump higher, get stronger, reduce injury). Every client, for a trainer, is a new client. They all lead very different lives and very few of them can follow a cookie-cutter approach to training. Sure, I do self-myofacial release, foam rolling and the same basic lifts with everybody; but the approach is constantly varied. I need to be able to quickly and accurately portray why my "style" of training works and how it will get results for them. I need to be able to sound like I know what I'm talking about, yet keep the terms simple enough that I don't sound like a pretentious dick who is trying to impress them with big words. I may be a dick, but I'm certainly not a pretentious one. 

In my opinion, the thing that a trainer has to be able to do far better than a strength coach is to be able to play therapist. Athletes trying to get to a D1 program or to the pro's don't often come into the gym with baggage. In a commercial gym, most people come in carrying it. The stress of their day, the stress of their family or just general malaise. On a daily basis I need to be able to listen to a clients problems, offer some sort of comfort/sympathy/empathy (without crossing any boundaries) and still be able to motivate them to get their workout in. Thankfully, this is something that I think I'm pretty good at. One (of the many) things that my wonderful sister instilled in me was the ability to genuinely listen and understand someones problem. I can listen, empathize and offer my opinion without ever coming off as condescending or disingenuous. This is one of those times where I really do give a fuck!

Being a personal trainer is easy. Being a good personal trainer is hard as a maw'fugga. Anybody can make you tired; it's much more difficult to cut through all the bullshit that comes with living life and get down to the business of getting results with a general-population client. If your trainer has managed to do this with you, feel free to give him/her a high-five or a pat on the tush. They're of a rare breed.

Now, go lift something heavy (or at least make sure your trainer is making you lift heavy shit!)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Overtraining: fact or fiction?

Overtraining is something that coaches and athletes have been worried about for years: push your athlete/client too hard for too long, and their performance will drop. The state of being overtrained manifests itself as fatigue, a lack of interest in training and diminished performance in the gym and on the field.

The current thought is that overtraining and overreaching (the former being long-term, the latter is short-term) are a neuroendocrine response to an imbalance between training, recovery and non-training related stressors (i.e. women and all the problems that come with them. I'm not jaded, don't worry). The neuroendocrine system controls the release of peptides, hormones and neuroamines. Hormones, as we know, are extremely important for many things.

What is the importance of overtraining? If you're an athlete or coach, it's what you want to avoid more than anything else. It produces a drop in performance both in the weight room and on the field of play, both of which are suboptimal scenarios. It will also cause the coach to have to put training on hold, which will result in a lower baseline level of performance when the athlete returns to the gym.

As a personal trainer, some of my clients who are a little more educated in the ways of training have been concerned about the possibility of overtraining. How real of a possibility is overtraining? For gen pop clients or for athletes? Let's discuss.

I believe that overtraining is a real thing, but is pretty rare. The imbalance between training and recovery will need to be pretty significant in order to create this actual state of being overtrained. The saying that has been floating around the strength and conditioning world is that "there's no such thing as overtraining, just under-eating."

While this isn't exactly 100% true, I think it's pretty close. You don't actually get stronger in the gym, you get stronger when you recover. Too many athletes and clients spend all their time focusing on what is happening in the gym rather then focusing on what happens when they go home. Recovery begins as soon as your training session is finished. If you finish your training, and then just go home and continue your day you're missing out. The first thing you need to be concerned about is feeding your body with the things it needs: protein and carbs. You have a 30-45 minute window post-training when your body is starving for nutrients and will partition them out to the places it needs them the most. This is the idea behind bringing your post-workout shake with you to the gym. Please make sure, though, that you have some quality protein if this is the road you're going to travel. Cut the bullshit with Muscle Milk and the nasty weight-gainers; those are just filled with sugar, fat and nasty chemicals. Spend the dough and buy a higher quality protein from a reputable company like BioTestOptimum Nutrition or Stronger, Faster, Healthier.

The next step in recovery, and arguably the most important, is to get some sleep!! This is when your body actually performs all of its recovery processes, so when you cut sleep short you cut out a really important step in the recovery plan. 5 hours of sleep doesn't count, if you really want to recover. Especially for athletes. For general population clients, you're not doing yourself any favors if you're out boozing till 1 a.m. after a tough training session and don't go to bed until 2:30 in the morning.

Not getting enough sleep is a two-fold problem. The first is that you cut short your recovery time, the second is that if you don't get enough sleep you're going to feel like dogshit during your training session. I think some of my clients (you know who you are) are more than well aware enough of how you feel during a Saturday morning training session after a late night of beers.

So, can you overtrain? I think so. With that being said, it takes a lot more work than most civilians are capable of putting in. The more likely scenario is that you are under-recovering. One of my clients, a guy who see's me four times per week, read a few articles on T-Nation and was suddenly very worried about the possibility of overtraining. I had to lay it out for him that he really didn't work hard enough to overtrain, and that if he was feeling tired and run-down it's because he doesn't get enough rest. We do a deload every fourth week, and he never trains three days in a row. If you're sleeping enough and getting enough food then you will be juuuust fine. I promise.

One of the main reasons I'm so confident of this? The abundance of people who have no idea what overtraining is and never achieve it. How many guys in prison do you think know what overtraining is? My guess is very few. There are lots of strong guys in prison who just go as hard as they can every day, with little respect for the "laws" of strength and conditioning as we know them. They train, they eat whatever they can, and then they sleep a shit-ton. Thats about it. The other population that doesn't know about overtraining? The CrossFit community. I've read a lot of their literature, and there is very little (if any) talk about overtraining and deloads. Say what you will about the reasoning behind this, but there are some seriously beastly CrossFit athletes who haven't had a "deload" in quite some time. They train hard, and they eat the right food.

Go lift something heavy...then take a nap afterwards!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

CrossFit for Hypertrophy?

I have a special treat for you guys today, the first ever guest post! This was written up by my good friend and co-worker Dan after we visited the CrossFit Northeast Regional Games this past weekend at the Reebok headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts. Dan is extremely knowledgeable and I've been bugging him for some time to write a guest post. These are his thoughts, not mine (even though we often share the exact same thoughts). Enjoy! - M.A.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Northeast Regionals for the CrossFit Games.  I say pleasure because it was really an incredible experience.  As an athlete and avid lifter/meathead/training junkie, it was everything I love all wrapped up in one.  Vendors selling barbells, protein shakes, cool shirts with awesome sayings (the winner of the weekend was a shirt that sported the famous Rippetoe quote "Strong people are harder to kill"), attractive well-muscled women in spandex, and awesome athletes pouring their heart and souls into competition.  It's easy, and fairly common, for people in the strength and conditioning world to bash CrossFit, but those who do are usually un-educated as to its inner workings and purpose.  CrossFit, as a sport and fitness modality for the general population (when applied properly), is fantastic and entertaining. Only when they try and apply their training principles to other sports does an issue arise. I am familiar with the whole CrossFit scene, as I am a "Level 1 CrossFit Trainer," but something struck me a while ago and I could never figure it out..the awe-inspiring levels of hypertrophy possessed by many of the elite athletes (males and ESPECIALLY female).

I am a student of science: I've spent a lot of my time with my nose in the books, and would like to think I have a fairly solid grasp of the physiological mechanism of hypertrophy.  Traditionally, hypertrophy has been defined as the physiological adaption of increasing the size of a sarcomere or sarcoplasm (or both) of a muscle in response to an imposed mechanical demand; ultimately resulting in increased muscle size.  Countless textbooks and meathead library essentials like Arnold's "Encyclopedia of A Bodybuilder" have been written talking about various methods for building muscle size and not one of them mentions wall-ball or double unders. But the more closely I examine the over-arching principles of hypertrophy, the more I realize CrossFit has many built into their sport. Lets take a closer look, shall we?

It has long been thought of that hypertrophy comes from training in the 8-12 repetition range, with sets lasting between 40-70 seconds achieving the "ideal" time under tension (TUT) for muscle growth, but is this the only way to get bigger? I personally don't think so. I don't want to get too far in depth into the science of muscle growth so I'll try and be as clear as possible.  Studies have shown that a hypertrophy stimulus is best achieved with the aforementioned time under tension. Any longer and the load is deemed too light to illicit that response and becomes muscular endurance work. Fair enough. But In most of these studies they used single joint exercises and had subjects that probably weren't willing to go until the point of developing rhabdomyolysis. (I don't have the exact studies on-hand, and don't feel like digging them up at the moment so feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt). CrossFit may not obey these guidelines, but their system possesses many elements that can potentially lead to hypertrophy.The following is a quick list of some of what I deem the ...

"Hypertrophic Element of CrossFit" 

1) Full body barbell movements for a shit-ton of reps: The human body is unaware that you are only exercising when you lift weights, it views this act as necessary for survival and function, and adaptation occurs accordingly.  So when you do a workout like "Grace" (30 Clean and Press for time) the body doesn't know you are trying to beat a PR; it sees a load that needs to be moved and it recruits the necessary motor units to do that job.  The mechanical stress on the body will, in fact, cause an adaptation to occur, and the sheer repetitive volume/TUT of the lift will in fact produce a favorable hormonal response leading to the hypertrophy. Its no surprise to anyone that a high volume of the tried and true barbell lifts will result in lean mass gains so lets continue on to our second hypertrophic element of Crossfit.

2) Constant Variation: Part of CrossFits' central defining tenant is that it is "CONSTANTLY VARIED high intensity functional movement."  If you survey any top bodybuilder, or any strength coach in the know they will tell you that one of the most important factors for hypertrophy is a program that offers ample variation of one training variable or another.  When I asked a now very controversial strength coach what the most important factor in hypertrophy program was his response was (loosely quoted) "Variety and hard work." By attacking different motor units through working in different rep ranges and movements you force the body to adapt into growth, this is the same principle we see when a bodybuilder may go from a high rep volume intensive phase to a lower rep intensity focused block, except in CrossFit this happens on a much more frequent basis.

3) Proper eating: If there's one thing CrossFitter's and CrossFit nailed, it's diet.  They largely espouse the "Paleo Diet" which consists of meat, veggies, fruit, nuts, and not a whole lot else.  If we look at diet as the raw material for hypertrophy to occur, this covers that need pretty well. The "glaring" weakness this diet has in comparison to a traditional bodybuilder diet is the lack of starchy carbs, which certainly have their place when one is looking to gain LBM (lean body mass). However the diet does make concessions for things like sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and squash, which if eaten in proper amounts would sufficiently bridge that gap. I don't want to focus too much on nutrition, I only want to note that many CrossFitter's pay ample attention to nutrition and food quality, and cover their bases for essential amino and fatty acids.   

4) Advanced Body-weight/Gymnastics Movements: Look at a high level gymnast. Now, feel like a small pussy. Ok, now back to reality.  Gymnasts sport impressive levels of hypertrophy (specifically in the upper body) especially those involved in the ring and parallel bar events.  While the movements CrossFit incorporates aren't exactly Maltese holds and Iron Crosses (totally savage movements), the muscle up and hand stand pushup aren't exactly anything to scoff at (I used to...then I tried them). By using the more difficult bodyweight exercise variations for a large volume CrossFit has once again stacked the deck to promote hypertrophy.

5) Competitive Atmosphere: Watch Joey Jack-off do a set of curls at the local Gold's watch the same ass-clown do a set of curls when there are two really big dudes near him and a smoking hot gym bunny...chances are good that he pushed a little harder than normal.  While a comical example, this is valid and viable reason why CrossFit athletes are so big and lean. You have contending Alpha Males looking to beat you and win the heart of the lovely lady in the cheek-squeezers and knee-highs, so you empty the tank in an effort to stop that from happening. A simple evolutionary instinct at work. This comes back to what I mentioned earlier about the one of the keys to a hypertrophy program being hard work. If you are, quite literally, giving everything you have in every workout, your results will show it.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and is really just the result of a little reflection on my part. I know I didn't give any citations or get too in-depth, but my goal wasn't to write a scientific article, so calm down. Although, that may come later. 

So whats the bottom line here? CrossFit Games athletes work their balls off: they lift heavy, they lift for high reps, they sprint, and they do challenging bodyweight exercises for high reps. Then they do it all over again trying to get a better time.  Basic movements done for a high volume, with proper eating and recovery, will result in growth and these athletes are living proof. They may not obey the "rules" of hypertrophy training as we know them, but they certainly respect it's LAWS, and you can't argue with results.

Dan is a graduate of Springfield State College where he received his BS in Applied Exercise Science. He is certified as an NSCA CSCS, ACSM CPT, CrossFit Level 1, PICP and Level 1 BioSignature. An athlete his whole life, Dan has competed in both power lifting and strongman competitions. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

On the 31st of May in the year of 2012 I participated in what was one of the best training days I have ever experienced. Personal Records (PR's) were broken, loins were girded and, you guessed it...

Several things culminated in order to make this day epic. The first of which is that it was the birthday of my friend and training partner, Dan. The second big thing is that it was our last day having a private weight room at the Boston University Athletic Enhancement Center. One of our other training partners, Justin, has been working there for almost 2 years and yesterday was the last day it was open. We've been training there for the last 2-3 months, and it has been fan-fucking-tasting. We have a weight room all to ourselves 2-3 times each week. I guess it's sort of like having your own garage gym, with a great group of guys to train with.

The four of us (me, Dan, Justin and Luis) would go in there on Tuesdays and Thursdays and just go hard. Almost every lift was a barbell lift. Most of them were lower body lifts. Even more of them were Olympic Lifts. Almost all of them were heavy...and a lot of them were performed shirtless. Why? Because testosterone goes up when you don't have a shirt on. It's broscience.

Yesterday was an end of an era. This training group was perfect; nobody was so much further ahead than anybody else that they didn't benefit, and nobody was so far behind that they couldn't keep up. Weights were almost always in the same neighborhood, and we pushed each other. The competitive spirit was alive and well an that motivated us all to get stronger and faster and better. Since we are all trainers, we had enough technical proficiency in the room to make sure our form (almost) always looked textbook. If you were doing something wrong, you'd be corrected and expected to fix it. Excuses were not something we used a lot of, because they weren't needed. Everyone could tell if a weight was just too heavy, or if someone was being a pussy and needed to HTFU (Harden The Fuck Up). With this training mentality, gains were being made left and right. Old maxes that seemed to loom over your head were suddenly vanishing in the distance.

I'll quit babbling and just go ahead and show you the videos of all the big lifts we had on Thursday. Luis, you should be sad you missed this one, bro.

First up is Justin demolishing his PR on the clean by 20 pounds. Previous best was 220, this is 242. It took him  a few rips to get it, but when he finally did it went up easily.

Next is me tying my personal record in the clean at 242. A few weeks ago I posted a video of my first time doing this weight. They look just a little different. I'm wearing the same shorts in both videos, but I swear to God it's different days, and that I washed them.

Attempt 1:
Attempt 2:

I'm extremely happy with that result. The difference is astounding: attempt 1 looks like I might shit my spleen, and attempt 2 looks like it's just another day in the park.

The next video is me hitting a new PR of 440 pounds in the deadlift! At the beginning of the year, I stated that my goals were to deadlift 45-500 pounds in the deadlift, and to clean 250 pounds. Well, I'm pretty damned close in regards to both of those achievements! Yes, before you ask. I am wearing straps for this pull. Why? Because my right elbow gets mad at me and I can't supinate my right arm in order to do the mixed grip. Hook grips don't work for me at this weight. I'm not happy about it, but it had to happen.

It went up pretty smoothly. My next attempt was at 460, and I barely budged the barbell. 450 is right around the corner.

Last, but certainly not least, is the birthday boy. Dan has the strongest deadlift out of us all. He says it's because he spent more time training that than any of his other lifts, but I think a big portion is that he just has great levers to pull. When he stands up straight, his arms reach down to just a few inches above his kneecaps. Regardless of the reason, this kid is a beast on the deadlift.

Yup, that's 606. Six hundred and six pounds. It didn't take very long for it to get up, either. (Note: Justin beat his training PR with a 374 deadlift, but has a meet PR of 402.)

The most interesting thing about these new deadlift maxes? We haven't done any conventional deadlifting in 2-3 months. Not a single one. A week or two ago we did some snatch grip deadlifts. I've done trap bar deadlifting once or twice. Heavy conventional pulls from the floor? I honestly couldn't tell you the last time I did it. Yet, I blew the doors off of my old PR by 25 pounds. The power component of the Olympic lifts has to be entirely at play here.

I hope you enjoyed these videos and got motivated a little bit. Find some people to train with who are dedicated as you are, and go lift something heavy with them. You'll be surprised at how important your training partners are you to. Justin, good luck with your next job, bro!