Thursday, August 28, 2014

Death By Variation

Every good strength and conditioning program, regardless of goals, should have a few basic exercises that make up the brunt of your work. Cleans, squats, presses and pulls and the like are the basic building blocks of every program that has gotten people seriously strong.

There are very few people (notably: meatheads) that are comfortable or happy to be performing the same exercise over and over and over. I can squat 4 days a week and be happy as a pig in poop about it but many athletes/clients would find that boring and tedious, which is perfectly fine. Not everyone has to like to train the same exact way that I do; what I eat won't make you shit.

This is where variations of a lift come into play: instead of back squats you can front squat, instead of bench press you can do incline or military press, instead of a clean you can do a hang power clean. Variations of lifts allow you to train the same movement pattern or training effect that without overloading the client mentally (even physically in some cases). A front squat is still a squat, however it will load your body in a much different way using a much lower overall load than a back squat.

This is one of the easiest ways to alter a clients training volume/intensity without having to actually deload them. They still get a high training effect while working hard. But when does it just become too much?

As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. You have to have enough variations of an exercise that you can cycle through them and prevent the mental fatigue that a lot of people can get during long-term training. However, if you're cycling volume/intensity/variations appropriately then you really shouldn't run into this issue.

The problem that you can quickly run into, though, is trying to apply pretty ridiculous exercises to a client simply because you need a new variation. While I'm sure there's a solid benefit to doing band resisted pushups with your feet in a TRX and your hands on a stability ball and a weight vest while listening to Bring Sally Up and breathing exclusively through your left nostril, I don't think its such a significant benefit that you should take the time to coach it with your athletes. While it's imperative that you make your clients enjoy their workouts with you it is ultimately not your responsibility to keep them entertained with circus tricks instead of exercises. Get them an appropriate training effect and keep it moving.

I personally believe that each of your main movement patterns should have 5 or 6 barbell variations that you can rotate around. For instance, in no particular order - Hinge: deadlift, RDL, snatch grip RDL, glute bridge, TBDL, rack pull. Beyond that you can move to your assistance work where you can include a few more variations...even though those first variations are still legitimate. It's not a problem to deadlift and then do rack pulls as an accessory exercise! But you can also include things like KB swings, pull-throughs, GHRs and back extensions. That's a total of 10 posterior chain exercises to cycle through, and that's not even including things like manipulating volume, intensity and tempo of the exercises.

Admittedly, it can be fun to show off the ridiculously complex and difficult exercises that you learned in an obscure Russian manual written in 1943 and translated for the first time in 2011, but that doesn't mean it's necessary or worthwhile. Stick to the basics and learn to appreciate the process.

Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pros and Cons: Bulgarian Split Squats

The Bulgarian or Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (henceforth RFESS) is an exercise that I've had a love-hate relationship with for a long time. It's a really good exercise for a lot of reasons, but there are some cons to it and I'd like to discuss both here today.

There's not going to be a lot of fluff to this post, just some facts and opinions. Let's get started.

- The RFESS is a great single leg exercise with many opportunities to vary the way you load it.
- It is an exercise that takes significant advantage of the bilateral deficit and can allow you to use greater than 50% of your max back squat for a certain number of reps.
- It provides a good way to load the lower body for a client with an contraindication to supporting a barbell on their upper back.
- It is able to function as either a primary or an auxiliary exercise.
- The positions you create force the majority of the stress into the quads with little ability for the posterior chain to take over.
- Since you can load it effectively with dumbbells or weight vests it's a viable option for large groups of athletes.
- Since the overall load is lower compared to a barbell squat, it's "safer" to prescribe early on to someone who is getting started with lifting.
- Due to the unilateral nature of the exercise, there is a built-in metabolic effect that can be beneficial to your clients.

-This is a cumbersome exercise for the vast majority of people who weren't blessed with the coordination and proprioception of a high-level athlete. There are a lot of moving parts to coordinate before the exercise feels comfortable. Where do I put my foot? What about my other foot? I can't hold the dumbbells for that long! 
- Until you figure out the proper way to coordinate all of the moving parts, you'll be stuck using awkwardly light weights.
- If you have lower-body mobility restrictions they will appear quickly and aggressively. Try doing these with tight hip flexors and see what I mean. Too, many people will experience severe cramping in the bottom of the elevated foot.
- It's difficult to reproduce consistently, something that I feel is very important. In one gym the benches are 18 inches tall and in another they are 15 inches. On set one your foot is 23 inches away from the bench and on set two it's 26 inches and set 3 is 21 inches. Changing the angle of your shin on every set will eventually add up and result in some pain.
- It doesn't replace the squat! I don't care what Boyle and his zealots think, the traditional barbell squat will do more to increase athletic performance than any other exercise.
- Due to the unilateral nature of the exercise, there is a built-in metabolic effect that can take away from the rest of the clients training session.

How To Fix It!
Believe it or not, I think it's an exercise worth rescuing...with some parameters. Firstly, I think it's an exercise that should get relegated exclusively to the realm of accessory exercise (unless the client requires it because of a contraindication that prevents them from doing bilateral squats). Secondly, I like to take a chunk of chalk and mark a line where the client comfortably places their feet during the first set of the exercise; this way they can have a bit of a standard position from set to set. Lastly, John Meadows has shown a variation of the exercise where he uses one heavy contra-lateral loaded dumbbell and uses his other hand to support himself gently on the frame of the squat rack. This allows him to (mostly) forget about the balance issue that many people experience and focus on chasing the pump dragon.

These are just my thoughts; what are yours? Let's hear them.

Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Dark Side Of The Fitness Industry

I love what I do. I've spent the last 6 years working with people and helping them achieve fitness goals. I've helped people lose weight, get leaner, bigger, faster and stronger. I've been blessed with the fortune to work with an amazing array of people: world class doctors, Olympians, world record holders, prolific businessmen, well-known authors and a Holocaust survivor. Any of my awesome (former) clients who don't fit into one of those categories: you're also badass.

While I've written a lot about all the things that I like about this industry, I've never really written about the other side of the industry. The stuff that isn't so much fun that people wouldn't understand until they got into this as a career. While this post isn't intended to dissuade anyone from pursuing strength and conditioning / personal training as a career, it is intended to let people know that there are things that they might not love.

The Hours
Any personal trainer or strength coach will tell you that their schedule fucking sucks. I know VERY few people who will say "oh yeah, I love my schedule"; that's a feeling generally reserved for the owner or head of an established facility. I remember when Kelsi was training in Cambridge and was taking the train to and from work. She'd routinely get home well past 9 p.m. and then have to be up at 4:30 a.m. to get ready to catch the first train of the day. Dan used to drive 45 minutes too and from Brookline to get to work, and he'd get home late at night and eat his "coach's dinner" over the kitchen sink: bite of beef, handful of blueberries, chug of raw milk. Repeat until satisfied.

If you're a personal trainer who intends on having a full schedule, you're going to be expected to be available at the butt crack of dawn (sessions at our gym started at 6 a.m.) and for the sessions after the civilians leave work (we stopped training at 8 p.m., unless the trainer wanted to keep going). This can very easily turn into a 15 or 16 hour day. If you work in a college strength and conditioning facility the same hours hold true. Swimmers and rowers usually start training before the sun comes up and the evening lifts at BU went until close to 9 p.m. Just like in a commercial gym, this can lead to long days. I know that after Dan left our gym to run CrossFit Resilience, his days didn't get any easier. In fact, it's not uncommon for him to sleep in the gym since he will get more sleep that way.

The Money
Strength and Conditioning coaches don't exactly "get rich". Sure, there are a handful of coaches out there who've turned themselves into a brand and have achieved great financial success: Eric Cressey, Mark Verstegen, Mike Boyle and Joe Dowdell are some names that come to mind. These are extremely well-known coaches who've released products and become ingrained with collegiate and professional athletes. But for the most part, it's not a position you take because the money is so fantastic. You do it because you're interested in working with the particular population the facility caters too and because you love the industry.

As a personal trainer you can make some fairly legit money (very much gym dependent), but it all comes at the cost of your schedule. I have a few weeks of 40+ hours of personal training sessions under my belt, and I'll tell you that it's not a lot of fun. You can pound out those sessions but you'll notice that your quality begins to diminish. Personally, I found out that if I stayed at about 35 sessions a week I could make good money and still produce quality sessions that I was proud of. I wasn't quite ready to start giving out shitty sessions just to make a few more bucks.

By nature, it is a results oriented industry. This is both a curse and a blessing. You can be a great trainer with a great style of training who see's a ton of results with one group of clients and zero fucking results with another. The reason? The first group does all their homework, but the second group of clients doesn't do anything when they leave the gym besides crush Whoppers and sixers of Yuengling. Regardless of the reason, the second group of clients will go to their friends and say "that trainer didn't do shit for me, I actually gained weight while I was working with him!". And now people think you suck. However, if people adhere to your programming and consistently see the results that you intend, then you're building a solid name for yourself.

The same holds true for those of you working with athletes. You can't control what they are doing outside of the gym, and if the athlete you see on Monday, Wednesday and Friday is going home and crushing beers and pizza 3 days every weekend then the results they see from your program will be skewed. While this may not be your fault, their performances will still reflect upon you and your ability.

Too, in a college strength and conditioning facility, shit rolls quickly downhill. Very often when a team does poorly during a season the head coach will turn around and point the finger at the S&C coach. If the team is experiencing an abundance of non-contact soft tissue injuries then that's probably the right decision; but if your wide receivers have a case of the dropsies and the basketball teams only shoot 45% from the free throw line the finger should probably be pointed in another direction. It's fairly common, rightly or wrongly, for college strength coaches to get canned simply because a team performs below expectations.

Probably not the S&C coach's fault.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret: everything is bullshit. Every blog you read (I mean, except mine), every coach you listen to, every program you read: bullshit. You're reading, listening to or reading the opinion of the particular coach involved. I can share the same opinion as 10 well-established coaches that I know, but that doesn't mean that it's still just an opinion. It may be an opinion shared by smart people who can back it up with both academic and anecdotal evidence, but it's still an opinion. Despite the fact that we call it "exercise science", it's also an art that requires careful application to each individual client. A particular established protocol may work perfectly for 99% of people, but will have to be finagled for that last 1%; that's where a good coach comes into play.

It seems like I can open up Facebook any day of the week and find a thread where coaches and trainers who don't actually know each other are internet fighting about a particular theory or training method that really doesn't matter. The saying "what you eat doesn't make me shit" comes to mind whenever I see things like this. If you want to train your athletes/clients a particular way, then fantastic, that doesn't affect me even a little bit. Do you, Boo Boo.

Since everything in this industry comes down to a particular persons opinion, that ultimately means that everyone is right at some point. I may disagree with following a strict bodybuilding style program, but there are a ton of coaches/trainers out there having a ton of success doing just that. Just as I believe that foam rolling and mobility are necessary evils that all clients/athletes need to be doing, there are a ton of coaches out there who see no need for it and have clients who are training pain and injury free. I think Tracy Anderson is a total idiot who can't train her way out of a paper bag, but there are people out there who see significant "success" (however they define it) via her system. Coaches and trainers fucking love to bag on each other. It's very easy to tell your athletes that the guy in the next town does an awful job and isn't worth paying because it's your opinion. He's a direct competitor to you and you want to keep as much business with you as possible. Whatever your own opinion about various other coaches/trainers out there, the fact remains that there is a population of people out there who will find success with those people; isn't that what we ultimately want? For people to find success and happiness through exercise?

CrossFit works. Powerlifting works. Pilates works. Bodybuilding works. Soul Cycle works. Even Zumba fucking works. Anything will work if you bust your ass and consistently put everything you have into your training. A shitty program performed with full adherence is always going to be more effective than a "perfect" program performed with a lackluster attitude.

Some of these are things "we" can change (infighting, maybe even better pay!) and some are just the nature of the business. All in all, they don't change the way that I feel about being a performance coach, but I know that some of these things end up being a big deal for other people. Take everything I said with a small grain of salt and find out more information if it's of interest to you.

Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Getting Big On A Budget

Most people are trying to get leaner all of the time, which is cool. But there's something insanely fun about going through a few months of just focusing on getting massive and girthy and strong as hell.

The list of things that are awesome about being Big is long: t-shirts fit better, you don't need blankets at night because you sweat so much, small children will want you to throw them in the air and you'll get a ton of pizza and beer from friends asking you to help them move. The worst thing about trying to get as big as a Mountain (see what I did there?) is how much it costs. Eating a shit ton of calories can get pretty costly, especially if you're trying to maintain some semblance of a reasonable body composition. Well, this blog post isn't going to be for those people. The topic of this post is getting gigantic and strong and doing it as cheaply as possible. There will be nothing remotely "healthy" about the food combinations and eating strategies that I talk about. If you're concerned about your fiber intake or if you're getting enough green veggies then this probably isn't the post for you.

Get Your Moneys Worth
When you're on a budget and trying to gain some weight, you need to concern yourself mainly with the amount of protein and/or carbs you're getting per dollar from a particular food source. This might cut out some of the foods you normally love to eat, but that's a sacrifice you'll need to make.

Here's a list of some foods that will give you a lot of macros and calories per dollar:
Eggs: a dozen for about $2.49
Tuna: you can usually find tuna for a buck per can (about 44g of protein!)
Rice: super carbs and you can get big-ass boxes of it for not a lot of money
White Potatoes: no idea what a 5 pound bag costs...but it's not a lot
Ground Beef: you can always find giant family packs of it on sale
Rotisserie Chickens: if you go to BJ's or Costco at like 9 p.m. on a Friday you can buy them 2 for 1!
Whole Milk: oodles of macros and it costs like 3 or 4 bucks
Turkey Breast: specifically the "hotel cut" (as my Dad calls it), but this takes some cooking
Peanut Butter: you can find big ass jars of it for cheap; plenty of calories
Beans: you can get them in any variety for cheap, and they are full of good stuff

Some notable foods left off of the list:
avocado: I adore them, but they are not particularly cost effective.
steak: if you can get them on sale, great, if not it doesn't fit the bill.
bacon: delicious and full of good fat, but expensive and provides very little protein per serving.
veggies: just not enough calories to make it worth your money.

Pro Tips
As someone who's been eating for Girth for a while (and been around other people doing the same) here are some tips that I've picked up along the way.
- Food prep: always important, but twice as important when you're eating to be giant. Always having the necessary food with you will keep your weight up and costs down. If you can cook food in vast quantities it will be even cheaper.
- Bowls and Spoons: probably the two most important things for someone looking to achieve significantly body proportions. Given the amount of food that you'll be eating, your best bet is to mash everything up into a bowl and consume it quickly with a spoon.
- Metamucil: might be a worthwhile supplement to help expel all of the incoming food products
- Condiments: food can get less delicious when you're consuming vast quantities. A bottle of ranch dressing will go a long way in getting things down your gullet.

photo credit: Lift Big Eat Big
Protein is a beautiful thing, but in order to gain some real mass you're going to need oodles of carbos as well. To the uninitiated, it may seem tough to continuously get that many calories into a meal at a time, so I'll share with you some of my go-to "recipes".

-Cup of Oatmeal with maple syrup, peanut butter and chocolate protein powder. Stir it up and get awesomer. 6 scrambled eggs with shredded cheese on top

- Bowl of Success: ground beef, beans, salsa, rice. Stir it up and get awesome.
- Tuna sandwiches (2). Make your tuna normally with mayo, spread peanut butter on both pieces of bread and put the tuna on. Consume it and get huge.
- 2 cans of tuna fish made normally. A sleeve of Town House crackers. (Thanks Cam)

- Shepherds Pie. Find a recipe and cook it. Go do front squats. Eat it with a big ass spoon.
- Meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
- Beef Stew. Not intrinsically "cheap", but becomes cheap when you cook 3 gallons of it and pour it over rice. Eat it with a spoon. Fucking gains for days.
- Box of Macaroni and Cheese with ground beef mixed in. Consume with a large spoon.

- Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
- Quesarito from Chipotle (if it fits your budget)
- Protein smoothies: protein powder, peanut butter, banana, ice cream, donut. You're welcome.

As you can see, as many meals as possible should contain both protein and carbs for maximum girth acquisition. Sure, there will be times when you can only get your hands on 6 or 8 hard boiled eggs for a meal, and that's fine. You're still getting good macros, but probably a little light on the calories that you'd normally want.

Any cheap meals that have a high gainz quotient that I need to know about? Let me know!

Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Random Awesome Things

Every once in a while I like writing one of these random posts about stuff that I've been using in my daily life that I really really like. Some of these things may be old hat to you, but that's why it's my blog and not yours, turd.

Tri-Blend T-Shirts
If you train hard and have any moderate amount of muscle mass on your upper body you're going to want to start investing in American Apparel Tri-blend t-shirts. The material is a combination of Gods beard hair, the tail of a unicorn and cotton. They are readily available from companies like Rogue Fitness and EliteFTS and most other fitness-related companies have begun printing t-shirts on this material or a similar one. Not only do these shirts feel amazing but they fit just the way you'd want if you've spent the last several months training hard. I own (to Kelsi's dismay) about 15 or so t-shirts in this material and wear them constantly.

Pyrex Containers
After working in gyms for a long time, I've really learned the importance of prepping meals ahead of time. I've used several types of containers over the years but for the last year or so I've used almost exclusively Pyrex containers. Truthfully, you'll end up spending a little more up front for these suckers but they are worth it. You can get them in a variety of shapes and sizes and they will last forever (I mean, it's glass; don't drop it). The best thing about them is that they won't retain flavors, scents or stains from anything that you had in their before. They also won't release any chemicals when you heat up food in the microwave.

A good side benefit of Pyrex is that they all tell you the size of the container on the top lid, so you know that if you fill it up you have two cups of chicken and (if you need) can use it to figure out whatever nutrition information you may need for a meal/day.

Cold Brew Coffee
I'd noticed this stuff a few times but didn't really pay attention to it until my sister started raving about it a month or so ago. It is, essentially, coffee that is brewed with cold water rather than hot. The result is a cup of coffee that is much smoother than you're used to and without any of the acidity that people might notice with hot coffee. Since I'm cheap, I've been brewing my own at home instead of buying it at trader joe's like my sister does. Kelsi and I drink it iced and I think we both really enjoy it (she prefers different beans than I do). I'm told you can heat it up but I've yet to try.

- Fill up a large container/jar with a cover with 9 cups of cold water.
- Use whole beans (I like darker roasts, Kelsi prefers light) and coarsely grind 2 cups. (2 cups of ground beans to 9 cups water is the best ratio I've used).
- Dump the grounds directly into the water. Cover it up and give it a shake, then let it rest. I'll shake it once or twice later on to mix up the grounds. Let it sit for at least 12 hours
- Strain the liquid. I cut the bottom off of a 2-liter bottle of coke and then rolled up a little piece of felt and stuffed it into the neck of the bottle. This acts as my strainer. Fill up the bottle and let it strain.
- I've found that it stores the best in the fridge, it gets a weird film on it if you let it sit out for too many days.
- Serve over ice and enjoy!

Ace Bandages
After 32 years of sports and lifting my knees get a little achey sometimes. In order to keep training I've tried a few different products to keep my knees feeling good with various degrees of success. I have the Hookgrip knee sleeves and like them for light days when I'm doing power snatches and stuff. I got blue Rehbands for Christmas a few years ago and love everything about them...except the constant mustyness that comes with wearing them a lot. If I were able to always shower right after lifting I'd be prone to wearing them more often. I also bought a pair of light knee wraps from EliteFTS and like them a lot, but find that they are just a little too bulky to wear consistently for weightlifting movements.

During a conversation with my buddies a month or two again, Dan mentioned that he'd been using Ace bandages to wrap his knees and loved them. I felt comfortable investing the necessary $12 and gave them a shot. They are way less bulky than knee wraps, provide much more compression than the Hookgrip sleeves, and don't leave me smelling like Big Foots taint like my Rehbands. They also cost about a tenth of everything else I tried combined. Fuck me, right?

Risto Sports Compression Shorts
Weightlifters love wearing spandex. It allows you to keep the bar super close to your body and makes your ass look gigantic. My old coach Ivan Rojas started making these for us when we said that we wanted a shorts option of spandex to lift in when it got warmer out. He basically had his manufacturer take the bottom half of the singlets we have (which we all really like) and turn them into shorts. The bottom of them are lined with a rubber material which prevents them from sliding up your legs while you're lifting, and the front is double stitched with heavy duty panels to prevent any wear and tear from the bar sliding up your legs during snatches. I don't like lifting in my singlet very often and prefer spandex and a t-shirt. It's often too warm to wear my full-length Under Armour pants, so these are a fantastic option. I love them and wear them all the time!

High Rep Accessory Work
I've talked about this before, but I've been doing it more and more and can't say enough good things about it. Whether it's for me, a client or an athlete I've been including a few sets of very high rep work targeted at a few specific spots and I've seen some good success with it lately. It's not intended to be add a ton of extra stress to the lifter, but it should hit some pretty specific target areas. In my opinion, the areas that I want to hit mainly are the glutes and the lats. These are the two biggest muscles in your body (glutes are the biggest in cross-sectional size and the lats are the biggest in surface area) and there's a reason for it. They both play a huge role in trunk stability and the ability to resist/transfer forces. I've been including 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps of some of these exercises lately:
- Reverse Hyper
- Face Pulls
- Resistance Band Pull-Throughs (the glute contraction feels much different than with a cable)
- Straight Arm Pulldowns with a resistance band and a PVC pipe
- Lu Raises
- Fat Grip Biceps Curls
- TRX Mechanical Drop Set (Y's, T's, Rows)

That's it for today! If anyone knows anything awesome that I'd enjoy, leave a comment! Have a great day and go lift some heavy shit!