Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Thoughts On Tempo Prescription

In the last year or so it has become increasingly popular to prescribe tempo to any number of lifts; Charles Poliquin has used them for years and Cal Dietz made them popular again with Triphasic. If you've ever performed one of my programs over the last few years then you know that I personally use a lot of tempo stuff during the A-tier (primary lifts) portion of the lift.

how you feel after tempo front squats
First off, what is tempo? Tempo simply refers to the pace of the lift. Tempo prescriptions (should) have 4 parts: the eccentric/lowering phase, the amortization/isometric phase (ooooh big word), the concentric/lifting phase and the period of rest at the top of the lift. When written out, it could look like this "5873". This would ultimately be the worst tempo in the world: a 5 second eccentric, 8 second pause at the bottom, 7 second concentric movement and a 3 second pause at the top. That would suck donkey balls, truthfully.

If tempo sucks, why do we use it?
Great question! Tempo-ing a lift can do a lot of things for a lot of different people. For beginners, it can allow them to feel their way through the particular positions that you want them to learn on a lift; sitting their hips back, keeping their elbows tight, keeping their core braced, etc. Since they are going to be moving in a controlled fashion, it will limit the amount of weight they can use which will, again, allow them to focus more on their technique than on mashing their way through reps.

For an intermediate lifter, it will increase the time under tension (TUT) of a lift, which will help make you stronger and bigger. There have been a bunch of studies done on eccentric training that show significant increases in strength and force production. This is because your muscles have to produce more force to slowly control a weight on the way down, rather than simply produce some force and using your lever system to lift the weight up. This can help intermediate lifters break through some plateaus in various lifts.

Advanced lifters can use tempo for all the same reasons, and also for a change of pace. You can't just always hit it hard and aim for X reps at Y percentage, you'd run yourself out. Switching it up and using some tempo for a phase or two here or there will keep bodies healthy and keep training fresh.

This has nothing to do with anything.
Con's of Tempo
Despite how much I like using tempo for various populations and at various times in a programming phase, there are some legit negatives to it. The first is that it does indeed force you to use a lower weight, which is good sometimes and bad sometimes. You will, occasionally, want to work at a normal pace to see what sort of weights you can push. If you increase that weight, then the weights you can do a tempo with will also increase (obviously). Another con is that if someone can't control their bodies during a tempo'd lift, they are just going to end up ingraining a poor movement pattern. If you bench with your elbows flared way out normally and don't understand HOW to keep them in, then this isn't going to help clean up your form. It's not a replacement for good coaching.

Probably the biggest con of applying tempo to lifts (dependent on which phase the athlete/client is in) is the overall stress it provides to the body. Heavy eccentric work will often leave the trainee with significant soreness in the affected body parts; I did some tempo front squats yesterday and my legs and upper back are feeling it today. Ask anybody who does 5-second negative pushups for the first time with me how their upper body felt for the next couple of days! The soreness you experience diminishes when you do them more, but if you're doing them right you'll still feel the systemic "tiredness" that you get when you're really taxing your CNS. Make sure your athletes/clients are aware of this so they understand how they are going to feel and make sure you're programming it at the appropriate time of year (i.e. not an in-season prescription).

How to Apply Tempo to Your Lifts
In the most literal sense, you can apply a tempo to any lift that you want to; but you really should be considering the muscle groups and actions before just throwing a tempo at anything you happen to be doing. If you start doing that you're just going to have a lot of sore muscles and a big pot of Shit Soup.

Traditionally, tempo is best with big compound exercises. Some of my favorites include: squats, pushups, pullups/chinups, bench press, bodysaw, RDLs and Trap Bar Deadlifts. These are lifts where you can go (relatively) heavy with good form and reap all the benefits of the increased TUT. Pullups are tough, you've gotta be pretty damn good at vertical pulling to be able do them; I'd more likely start someone on a cable pulldown first.

Some exercises that I really don't like doing a lot of tempo on are conventional deadlifts (too big a ROM), vertical pressing (DBs or Barbell), and most rowing variations. The reason for most of these is that it puts your body in such a tough position to create and resist force. You end up compensating a lot and using poor positions that will (again) create bad habits or, worse, put you at risk for injury. There's no serious benefit to adding a tempo to a bent over barbell row.

I suppose you can derive benefits by adding a tempo to curls, triceps exercises and other bodybuilder style exercises, but it's not something that I personally would do. If that floats your boat then go for it.

Regarding the tempo prescription itself; there's no hard and fast rule. I personally prefer 3-5 second eccentrics with various pauses at the bottom depending on the desired training effect. This is enough of an eccentric component to create a change, but not so much that it will drastically reduce the training load or put form at risk. For some more advanced clients, 8-10 second eccentrics can produce some pretty serious strength advantages, but I think that beginners won't really benefit because the load used will be so minimal. All in all, my most used tempo is 31X0 and 53X0.

don't tempo this
Remember that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with tempo, but there needs to be a time and a place for it. Take everything into consideration and as long as you can give a good reason about why you're doing it, then you're ok.

If you have any questions or comments, hit me up below. Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Snatches and Athletes

I love the snatch. It's one of the two lifts I compete in, and when performed correctly it's a beautiful combination of speed and power. But, when it's performed poorly it's an awkward clusterfuck of limbs and joints and barbells.

People (myself included) often debate about doing the snatch with general population clients; I personally never snatched with a client when I was a personal trainer, but that doesn't mean it is inappropriate. It just means that I never saw had a person with whom I said "they need to start snatching". Whether it was a coordination issue, a mobility/flexibility contraindication, or simply that it wouldn't benefit their goals I never saw a reason to teach it.

With athletes, however, I've done quite a bit of snatching. At Boston University a majority of the teams snatched, exclusively the hang-power variation. Many of the teams did the clean-grip or close-grip variation that has been popular in collegiate settings for quite a while. At my current job, too, nearly all of the athletes snatch. But do they really need to?

First off, I'm not a big fan of the clean-grip snatch. Most people, myself included, don't have the mobility to be able to keep a bar close enough to our bodies to have a good bar path, nevermind catching the bar overhead in the power position with a shoulder width grip. This variation promotes a poor bar path and catch position, and to be successful with it the athletes have to use a very low load. There are very few people who do this exercise well, more often than not they are elite level weightlifters. Call me crazy, but I'm not a huge fan of exercises that inherently promote poor form and require an obnoxiously low load.

Now, should athletes be doing conventional hang power snatches? Truthfully, I'm uncertain. It's a fantastic exercise where the barbell has to be moved at a high speed requiring a ton of power. However, this is all sacrificed for the sake of technique. If an athlete has poor snatch technique they will leak power all over the place and their weights be consistently be limited. They could start trying to compensate for poor bar paths with awkward catches and put themselves at risk for injury.

Not that the clean is an easy exercise, but it's certainly much less complicated than the snatch. The mobility requirements are also significantly less which means more athletes can do it and with less time spent on correcting all the contraindications preventing them from doing it in the first place. This means that you can get athletes training earlier, with less time spent on technique, with a training load that will induce more changes.

And yes, I'm aware that you can move a lighter weight faster but I'd still rather have a freshman in college who can hang clean 225 pounds rather than one who can awkwardly hang snatch 95.

I'm in no way suggesting that the snatch is a bad exercise or that athletes don't need to perform it; there are oodles of team sport athletes out there snatching big weights with fantastic technique. But it's not a one-sized-fits-all exercise (none of them really are). When you're deciding whether or not to include this in your athletes programming, please consider if you are a good enough coach to make it effective and if your athletes are good enough to be able to benefit from it.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

New Programming

Now that the Arnold is over, I've started prepping for the next meet. Mark said there might be one in early April and I really want to be ready for it. I'm tired of "being happy about competing", I'm ready to get some motherfucking PR's in this bitch.

I did something that I always say not to do and I wrote my own program. I learned quite a bit during my time doing Risto Sports programs, and I've learned just as much during my time so far in Ohio training with Mark. Mark has been brutally delicately dissecting my technique flaws over the last few weeks and I'm using certain exercises to address those issues in this next month of training.

I'm also addressing my strength issue. My squat max hasn't gone anywhere in a long time, and that bugs me. Will it make me a better lifter? Not directly, but when your squat goes up it always has an indirect effect on your lifting.

My snatch technique was super-fucked, to put it bluntly. Now, after some work, I think it's just regular fucked. My bad habits have been whittled down and are now (as far as I know): my second pull, my extension, bar path and"frozen feet". During the second pull, I was bringing my hips forward to the bar rather than bringing the bar into my hips. This is short changing my power and creating a shitty bar path that makes me miss forwards. It also causes the second problem, which is my extension. I'm early onto my toes every time which causes an even shittier bar path. I didn't realize it was an issue, but I suffer from "frozen feet", which is when my feet never leave the pull position. You often hear "pull position/squat position" but those were the same for me, which I thought was ok because I squat with a really narrow stance. Mark has been working on correcting this and I'm finally starting to get the hang of it. 

You can see in that picture that when the bar is in my hip crease, I'm already extending through my ankles (i'm also throwing my head back). At that point my feet should still be flat on the ground while I push through my ankles. 

To address and correct these issues I'm going to be performing a lot of hip snatches, power snatches, "no hook no feet" snatches (a full snatch without using a hook grip or moving your feet at all, Mark wants me staying completely flat on my feet the whole time) and some 3-pause snatches to work on my positions (just off of floor, at knees, final position). These are all pretty lightweight training lifts (I've been performing them so far at just less than 80%) but working on my technique will have the biggest benefit for me right now. 

Clean and Jerk:
My clean technique isn't nearly as bad as my snatch, but I'm still early into my toes and bringing my hips to the bar and not bar to hips. I think one of the culprits of this is the way that I performed RDLs for such a long time. I have a "frozen foot" when I clean because my right foot will shoot out but my left stays planted. My jerk is my weak point (I out-clean my jerk by probably 15kg), and it all starts with my dip. I have a tendency to let my chest fall forward and my hips drift back, which causes me to push the bar out in front of my body. This happens at heavier weights, so my plan is to spend more time working with weights closer to my max than I would have previously. I also want to spend more time performing the jerk in a more fatigued state, like you would be after hitting a max clean.

To address these issues I'm actually going to be doing a few combo exercises and a lot more jerks. The reason I'm doing some combos is because of the difference in my clean and my jerk. I can use a lighter weight and still get a training effect for my clean while working at a high percentage of my jerk. The exercises I'll be training are: power clean+2 jerks, clean pull/power clean/full clean and jerk (did this yesterday and loved it), BTN jerks, and clean pull/hang power clean. I'll be able to work on some positional stuff and get in some good jerk volume at a good percentage. We'll see how it works!

I'm just going to do a fuckshitton of squats this month. Whether it directly helps my lifting or not, I really want to squat 200kg this year. No real plan this month for that, just a lot of triples and a volume day of sets of 5. And probably some ammonia.

That's what I'm up to. Any new plans from you guys?

Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Will CrossFit Be The New S&C?

This will be a bit of an inflammatory post, but it's not meant to be that way. I'm taking an honest look at the landscape of the industry that I love and where we will all be in the next several years. If your butt is hurt by this, well...

There is always a ton of anti-CrossFit posts going around by strength and conditioning types lambasting the system for all of its faults; a lot of with which I agree. I don't think Joe Schmo should walk in off the street and start doing snatches on day 1, or learn how to kip a pullup before being good at strict ones...but those are rarely issues in CrossFit gyms nowadays. 

Gone are the days of everyone following the apparently random WOD's posted on the mainsite; the vast majority of boxes write their own programming. On top of that, much of the programming is being written by qualified coaches who have degrees in exercise science and a background in strength and conditioning. Off the top of my head, I can think of 8 CrossFit coaches that I know personally who have either a Exercise Science degree or a background in S&C, or both. These coaches are setting up intake assessment protocols for their gyms so they can provide more individualized programming, they are setting long-term goals for clients and setting up periodized programs to help them achieve these things. 

What is CrossFit and what makes it different than traditional strength and conditioning anyway? The famous saying is "A regimen of constantly varied (CV)functional movements (FM) performed at high intensity (HI) in a communal environment leads to health and fitness.So let's break that down: "constantly varied" means they change the exercises a lot, "functional movements" relates to compound barbell lifts and gymnastics movements and "high intensity" means that you go hard. Well, truthfully, that's not so different than strength and conditioning. If you train 5 days a week with a trainer or a coach, you're going to be doing different exercises every day, and hopefully they will be barbell lifts performed at a pretty significant intensity. Sooooooo how's it different again? I'd say the big difference is that traditional strength and conditioning programs train athletes for specific contests and seasons...but what if you're a 26 year old office worker with no season to speak of? Then you might want a program that increases your General Physical Preparedness consistently over time, right? That's what I did with people as a personal trainer; work consistently to get them stronger and fitter with (often) no specific time frame. 

So, it's the idiots, I think. The CrossFit idiots make themselves pretty obvious and it annoys people. 

There are plenty of idiots in the CrossFit world, but there are plenty of idiot personal trainers, and even idiot strength coaches. For a long time the strength and conditioning world focused their vitriol onto crappy personal trainers (and there was/is a lot of them). But what happened? Trainers started to learn more and more and now there's a ton of really good, qualified personal trainers in commercial gyms out there.

Here's an interesting thought; CrossFit gyms far outnumber traditional strength and conditioning gyms, by a lot. I know, I was recently looking for work. What does this mean? It means that more and more classically trained strength and conditioning coaches will be finding jobs at CrossFit gyms. The level of coaching at these gyms will get better and better and more post-grad athletes will start finding their way to a CrossFit gym for training programs. They will probably end up doing normal CrossFit classes either, but following traditional performance programs. 

Athletes will see a CrossFit gym with good coaching, where they can get faster and stronger, that has bars and bumpers and sleds and ropes and all the good toys that any strength and conditioning facility should have, that commercial gyms do not. Many CrossFits are already training athletes who just don't have any other place to go; there isn't exactly a Cressey Performance or IFast on every corner of each city. 

I'm not suggesting we all go run out and get our level-1 certifications, just some food for thought. What do you guys think?

Have a great day, go lift some heavy shit!

Monday, March 3, 2014

My Day At The Arnold

This past Friday, Kelsi and I took a trip to Columbus so that I could compete in the weightlifting competition at The Arnold Classic.

Gotta say, it was pretty fucking awesome. I really wanted to lift there because of the size of the event, the whole thing is massive. Let's be honest, I'll never make it to the Nationals or American Open. I'm not exactly what I'd call a "good lifter"; a few weeks ago Dan Bell said "you're not exactly what I'd call a lightning fast guy". Lifting at the Arnold will pretty much be my only chance to lift at events of that size, so I'm going to take it where I can get it.

When I first got there, I got lost trying to find the weightlifting event and ended up walking around the expo and it was awful. There were a million people there and it was cheesedick central; an absurd number of bro's in affliction shirts or v necks with fake tans and tight jeans. The sleeve monster had apparently come through and eaten a large majority of the sleeves and also deposited a ton of hair gel. I was surprised at the ratio of skinny guys with fake tans vs. huge guys with strong beards.

I finally found my way to the platforms and it was really cool. My coach Mark had just finished lifting so I found my training partner Nate and went into the training room to get weighed in. When we walked in Nate started telling me who he'd seen already, I asked if Jon North was going to lift without warming up and then I realized he was sitting directly behind me tying his shoes. This ended up being the coolest part of the meet for me; I got to sit in the training room and see a ton of the best American weightlifters go through some light training. All in all I ended up seeing North, Farris, Spencer Arnold, Natalie Johnson, Sam Lower, Holley Mangold, Caleb Whitby, Collin Burns, Lidia Valentin (she was so fucking fast) and the whole MDUSA team.

Sitting around watching these athletes all train let me see little differences in everyones technique, which helped me realize how silly all of the internet debates about technique are. Every lifter is different, and thus there is no single technique that is right for everyone. As you advance, you'll find out what is the most efficient way for you to move the bar and complete the lifts, the minutiae isn't so important. I also got to see how they warmed up and prepped for lifts; Sam Lower would step away from the bar and "re-set" herself before every rep, even during triples. Jon North makes the same noises for an empty bar snatch as he does for 155kg. James Tatum did more pre-lift mobility than anyone else. Lidia Valentin is embarrassingly fast and is way bigger than you'd expect.

Valentin snatching 115 kg...which is what I clean and jerked. Photo: Hookgrip
As for the competition itself, it could've gone better for me. Truthfully, I should be "happy" about it, but I expected more out of myself. I ended up snatching 90kg and clean and jerking 115kg for a 205kg total at 94.47kg bodyweight. This was my second competition; 90kg ties my meet PR (training PR is 95) and 115kg ties my training PR and becomes my new meet PR.

I'm pissed at myself because 90kg was my opening weight for the snatch and I had to use all 3 attempts to make it. In the warm-up room, 85kg felt like nothing; I smoked it and went to the main platform extremely confident. I caught it too far behind my head and couldn't hold the weight. My head was all fucked for attempt 2 and I wasted it. I finally made the lift on attempt 3 and the announcer said "well that looked easy"...because it WAS easy. I wanted to give myself a chance at 100kg but I fucked it up. Mark and Dan Bell have been drilling my snatch technique a ton since I started lifting out here, and while I think I've shown improvements I didn't get to realize it on this day. I was pissed but was able to clear my head going into cleans.

When I was warming up my cleans, everything felt easy. Mark noticed that I was basically catching 100kg as power, and it was because it felt light. Jerks were crisp (for me) and fast. I was super confident going out to open at 110kg and it felt like a great lift. The lifter going before me had also dropped his ammonia tab on the ground right next to me, so I had a whiff of that before going out. I went back and power cleaned 90 to stay ready and grabbed an ammonia tab out of my own bag. When I stood up with 115 on the main platform I felt lightheaded but made the jerk anyway. As I walked backstage I guess I looked glassy because Mark had to ask if I was going to pass out. I had given myself the opportunity try 120, and was pretty excited about it. The clean was easy, but my form turned to shit and I basically pushed myself away from the bar during the jerk.

Overall, I'm pretty unhappy with how I did. I really want 100/120/220 and I know that it's in my grasp. But that's the "fun" part about training; there's always more work to be done. Even if you're the best in the world, you can always improve.

My new program starts today. I'm going to cut the volume of my competition lifts a little and focus on quality reps on exercises that will help me clean up my technique. My snatch technique needs a ton of work (always early into my toes, have trouble moving my feet out when I receive the bar) and I'm going to make a big push on fixing that before I compete again. With my jerk, my technique feels pretty ok at lighter weights but falls to shit when it starts to get heavy. I need to get more comfortable jerking heavy weights, and my next month of programming will help to fix that. Above all that, I want to get stronger. I don't feel strong enough right and I really want my squat numbers to go up. I know this added strength will aid in me feeling more stable with heavy weights overhead.

All in all, I'm really happy I went to the Arnold, and I'm looking forward to getting better. Loving the process of training is the best part of competition. I really want to thank Mark Hansbrough for taking me under his wing and helping me out, and congratulate him for taking 3rd in his group with a 268 total. I also want to thank and congratulate Nate Napolitano for training with me and for qualifying for University Nationals as an 85kg with a 208 total. Great job guys; when's the next meet?

Have a great day, and go lift some heavy shit!