Bring Your Guts but Check Your Ego

In my experience as both an athlete and coach, I’ve found that many trainees fall into various degrees of the following two categories of training mindset:

1. Egomaniacs – These folks have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs and tend to bite off more than they can chew for the sake of feeding their ego. Envision the meathead who stops an inch off his chest in a bench press so that he can put another 10 pounds on the bar. I’m going to guess that decline bench is his favorite exercise…

2. Mental Weaklings – These folks have no guts for the glory and are incapable of suffering discomfort for the sake of progress. Imagine the middle-aged professional on the elliptical whose been going the same speed for the same distance since the first time she discovered the magical hamster wheel. Maybe she’s even reading the latest issue of Cosmo?

Perhaps the scariest thing about each of these extremes is that they’ve likely convinced themselves and others that their approach to fitness actually works. The egomaniac’s friends think he’s jacked and tan, even as the distance from his chest to the bar increases in proportion to his bench press max. A strength coach would spot him and repeat, “zero, zero, zero” for each incomplete repetition. Let’s not even discuss what’s probably going on with his “squat.”

The mental weakling’s coworkers envy her happy hour skinny jeans because they don’t know the difference between being petite and being truly fit. A strength coach would wonder where her ass went while she fails to hold herself up in a single leg glute bridge. As an athlete of mine proclaimed after plummeting to the earth faster than gravity on her first attempt at a pushup, “Oh my God… I’m skinny fat!” Don’t dare ask this person to get her heart rate elevated.

When I own a gym someday (hopefully in the not so distant future), I’ll post a sign above the entrance that says “Bring Your Guts but Check Your Ego.” The fittest people get comfortable with being uncomfortable. They push their mental and physical limits without allowing their egos to compromise the integrity of their training. They step outside of their comfort zone for the sake of self improvement and understand that today’s investment yields next year’s results. If you’re the egomaniac, check yourself and rebuild from a couple notches below where you think you should. If you/re the weakling, pick up a weight or pick up your pace and discover what it means to be uncomfortable.

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Reconstruct vs Reinforce

Property Brothers

You know when you start getting old because you wear sneakers with jeans and your t-shirt tucked in, check the weather at least twice daily (as if it’s ever accurate here in Seattle) and watch HGTV with your significant other, judging every couple on House Hunters and Property Brothers. Not that this is my life, but there’s this guy I know… Anyway, you’ll often hear the realtor comment on a home having “good bones,” meaning its foundation and structure are solid. Often this observation is made as a way to place a positive spin on a location that might be lacking appeal cosmetically. I think we can all agree that a great paint job might mask internal issues within a house and would rather choose a home with a “good bones” and great plumbing/electrical over a place with new shutters that don’t shut and new first floor drywall to soak up the leak from the toilet on the second floor. After all, most of the cosmetic fixes are simple and less expensive, and require less assistance if any from technically skilled professionals. When a home has weak bones and poor plumbing/electrical, it’s time to rebuild it, rather than reinforce existing structure, or redesign it cosmetically. Also, this is probably a job best left to a qualified/certified professional. Your human body is no different.

Foundation & “Bones” = Strength & Capacity

Cosmetic Features = Beach Muscles

Electrical = Movement Quality

Plumbing = Nutrition

What happens to even the strongest structural beam (strong legs) when there’s an electrical fire (poor movement quality)? It burns, sometimes all the way to the ground. What happens to the new chandelier (sexy beach muscles) when the ceiling around it rots away from a leaky pipe (poor nutrition)? It probably crashes to the floor. What happens to your abs (cosmetic features) when you can’t train because your low back (foundation) is pulled due to inability to stabilize your core (faulty electrical)? They likely get mushy like the ceiling around your chandelier.

In training, much like in the world of home ownership, there is a time to reinforce and a time to reconstruct. Heck, there’s even a time to buy new but let’s not make that our goal just yet. Be sure to keep these priorities in order or you’ll pay the price twofold later. Move and eat with quality first. Train to create a solid foundation of strength second. Only once these two objectives are met have you earned the right to paint an accent wall and tack up the crown molding.

Feel free to reinforce and redesign areas of your body not negatively impacted by movement dysfunction while reconstructing the faulty movement pattern. In other words, train appropriately within your abilities while working to expand them. You don’t always need to build from the ground up. Also, keep in mind that the more technical the fix, the smarter it is to involve a qualified professional.

Athlete Input – Where Your Bread is Buttered

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Goal oriented processes are driven by a series of inputs and outputs. These two variables are assessed and adjusted throughout the process until achieving the desired end state. Let’s say you wanted to make toast. The inputs might include a couple slices of Wonder Bread and the heat needed to toast them. Several devices exist to generate that heat and each has its own advantages and disadvantages depending on the properties of the bread involved. You place the bread in the toaster and when it pops, you observe that it hasn’t yet toasted to its potential. As the chef (or food coach) in this scenario you make an expert decision based on this premature output to toast the bread for another minute. Upon their subsequent leap from the toaster the slices of bread have reached a golden brown and are begging to be buttered.

Now that you’ve mastered the culinary art of toasting Wonder Bread, let’s take on Texas Toast. Relying on the same system and device used on the Wonder Bread, you cram the thick slices of Texas Toast into that same old school toaster. After a few minutes you hear the springs pop but the bread doesn’t surface. Damn… It’s stuck. Now you need to extract it (preferably without a metal utensil). You eventually wrestle it out of the toaster, only to have created four mangled slices of bread instead of the original two. It’s going to take a colossal amount of butter to cover up your breakfast disaster. Frustrated with the result, you toss the Texas sized toast and return to your Wonder Bread niche. 

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Now that I’ve exhausted my cooking knowledge and made my dietitian friends shake their heads and roll their eyes, let’s connect this incredible culinary tale to strength and conditioning. Training should be a goal oriented process driven by a series of inputs and outputs, continuously assessed and adjusted by the coach until the athlete’s desired end state is achieved. The unique nature of each input and output must be appreciated along the way to be successful. Infinite input considerations exist such as technical ability, physical capacity, nutrition, training, sleep, exercise selection, and the list goes on and on. Various results typically dominate output. Some of these are acute and some of them are delayed, with the intent to eventually arrive at the athlete’s goal (the ultimate output).

What happens when a coach ignores inputs? More importantly, what happens when a coach ignores the two most important initial inputs – athlete assessment and athlete goals? In a best case scenario the athlete wastes time and experiences sub par performance results. In a worst case scenario the athlete suffers an injury due to inappropriate training inputs. Either way, the coach has displayed an ignorant disregard for what should be the primary source of programming inputs – the athlete. 

Coaches – Create a program based on what an athlete brings to the table (assess!) and what type of delicious meal he or she ultimately desires to feast on (the goal!). Do not force feed them.

Athletes – If your coach does not assess (and reassess) you and program your training with both your abilities and goals in mind, find yourself a new coach. Dine on gourmet toast instead of choking down some lazy chef’s Wonder Bread. 

Training Hierarchy: Quality > (Intensity or Volume)

“First move well. Then move often” – Gray Cook

In training, Quality always reigns supreme while the prioritization of volume and intensity depends heavily on desired outcomes. Quality consists of many components. Some of these components include coordination (kinetic linking), range of motion, consistency, mental focus, and technique. Intensity in the context of this conversation can refer to the weight of load, speed of movement, power output, heart rate, and rate of perceived exertion. Volume simply describes how much or how many, whether counting reps, yards, minutes, or miles. I will save the volume vs intensity discussion for another post and focus here on why quality comes first.

Earn the Right

Quality of training should dictate and often limit the level of intensity and total volume in training, regardless of the goals for which the training occurs. Athletes and coaches frequently dismiss this concept because of ego, pressure to achieve, and impatience. Satisfying short term wants by inappropriately accelerating volume and intensity sacrifices both safety and long term performance potential, like a third world nation being handed advanced technology without having experienced the educational and industrial revolutions needed to develop it organically. An athlete must earn the right to train heavily, powerfully, and in high quantities by first demonstrating command the movement, without compensation. This requires patience and practice, two things that do not come naturally to today’s youth, egotistical athletes, or coaches with a “win now” mentality. Unfortunately, it typically takes an avoidable injury to force these folks to reengineer their training approach. A foolhardy approach by a motivated athlete is understandable while a foolhardy approach by a coach is irresponsible.

Consistency over Time

Contrary to popular belief, volume and intensity are not the primary driving force behind reaching genetic potential – It is frequency. Taking it one step further, frequency of high quality training leads to fulfillment of an athlete’s true potential. As previously mentioned, patience and practice are collaborative keys to long term athletic success (in fact, they are keys to long term success in almost everything).  Put in high quality work day in and day out and you will ultimately surpass those who rush into crushing themselves with volume and intensity with little regard for the importance of consistent high quality training. It becomes much easier to ramp up volume and intensity once you have ingrained respectable movement patterns. Replacing consistency over time with high doses of volume and intensity yields short term results, but with the eventual costs of experiencing an injury, a premature plateau, and sometimes even an egomaniacal meltdown (like an athlete I witnessed yesterday try to substitute three months of frequent nutritional and physical effort with one day of an insanely high volume body building after being upset over his body composition results).

In Closing

It is tough to stay short winded on a concept that warrants (and has many) entire publications emphasizing and supporting its extreme importance in training for athletic development and fitness. Examples are abound of what can go awry when athletes and coaches dismiss training quality in favor of more weight, miles, minutes, reps, etc. Sacrificing quality in competition is inevitable but sacrificing quality in training is inexcusable. Check your ego, be patient, put in high quality practice consistently over time, and laugh your way to athletic success while your peers impatiently inflate their own egos only to burst, hopefully picking up the pieces and rebuilding with a better approach to training.

 

 

Bypass Bi’s and Tri’s

 

We all wish we could return to our glory days with the knowledge we’ve since gained. Imagine being a strength coach as an adult and having to recall the asinine weight training you wasted your time with from probably 16 until too far into my early 20’s. I missed my opportunity to build a solid base of strength in favor of standing with my back against the wall to isolate the biceps and maximize the pump. Had I only known that a healthy dose of pullups and pushups accompanied by squats and sprints would have provided size and strength I never achieved through the beach muscle bullshit in which I invested.

Here’s a message to the youth (and their well meaning parents):

BYPASS BI’s AND TRI’s AND BUILD GLOBAL STRENGTH

Use simple compound movements such as pullups, inverted rows, pushups, lunges, and squats.

First use isometrics (positional holds) to obtain command of the often difficult positions these exercises require instead of rushing through partial or sloppy reps.

Next use eccentrics (controlled movement with gravity like a squat, pushup, or pullup lowering executed at a very slow pace) to gain strength through the full range of motion.

Then combine or follow eccentric training with assisted versions of the movements to teach the body the contractile component of these movements without having to cheat the reps and compromise position.

Finally combine the strengths earned through isometrics, eccentrics, and assisted movements to execute these exercises unassisted.

Many coaches love the barbell for rapid strength development. While I certainly don’t disagree with its effectiveness, athletes must EARN THE RIGHT to use the barbell by demonstrating the strength and coordination necessary to manipulate their own body weight. I wouldn’t put cargo on a boat that doesn’t stay afloat when empty and I won’t add external load to an athlete who doesn’t have strength developed from the inside out. That’s a recipe for injury and falsely inflated ego, both consequences a strength coach should never be responsible for creating. Quality of movement always trumps volume and intensity.

In Closing

Giving isolation exercises to youth athletes is like giving them dessert before they’ve had their dinner. They might provide instant gratification but lack the long term benefits offered by the meat and veggies of compound strength movements. Focus on global strength developed from the inside out (core before appendages) by using a progressive approach to compound body weight movements.

Need proof? Check out the guns and strength of Martin Rooney’s (www.trainingforwarriors.com) daughter:

 

 

 

Why Not Air Squat?

ArmyAirSquat

While running my athletes through an interval training session on the track at military installation recently, I had the painstaking privilege of setting up shop with my stopwatch adjacent to a station within a physical training circuit that an Army unit was executing. Station #9 – The Air Squat.

Somebody. Please. Help. Me. Now.

Even in the days when I dabbled in poorly designed programs I never really understood this exercise or how it became so popular. I mean heck, even in my weakest, stupidest workout life of leg extensions and countless crunches I can remember my buddy Monkey and I closing out our back squat sets by seeing who could knock out more reps of 225#. In the first few weeks we might have hit the high teens and by the end of a month we were pushing 30+ reps a piece. As far as the competition, whoever went second always won. Here we were, a couple of kids who didn’t know what strong was, probably maxing at 315# unless you count the ego boosting 3/4 squats we “achieved” at higher weights and yet we could rep out 225# for an absurd amount to finish off a leg day. Why in the world would we even consider adding an AIR squat into the routine? I still detest the air squat and witnessing it in all its glory at 6 am reinforced my hatred for this exercise. However, as a performance professional I’d be remiss if I did not explain sound reasons why I choose not to air squat.

Why Not Air Squat?

1. Reinforcement of a Poor Movement Pattern

Many trainers will argue in favor of the air squat as a safe alternative to squatting under load. However, it’s likely not the weight that causes somebody to squat poorly. There are a host of other reasons such as poor mobility and stability and improper motor control. Rarely is lack of strength the culprit. Taking away additional load does not solve any of these issues. I’m willing to introduce another reason why body weight squatting often looks like garbage – a lack of acute consequence. Who cares how they squat when it seemingly won’t hurt them to squat poorly? Coaches should realize that the repeated microtrauma suffered during high volumes of poor movement still add up quietly until it sneakily manifests itself when someone throws his or her back out picking up an empty beer can. I like to think that I have a technically sound squat but if you asked me to knockout 50 air squats, or even 10, I can guarantee I’d quickly revert to the path of least resistance because there’s no fear of getting buried under a barbell or collapsing in pain to the sounds of my spine snapping like a twig.

2. Insufficient Load to Force Strength Adaptation

There are very few people so weak that squatting their own body weight provides sufficient resistance to stress the body to a point where it makes changes to overcome this stress in the future. Depending on training age and experience, driving strength adaptation requires lifting 70, 80, or even 90+% of your 1 rep maximum. If you encounter an athlete who appears too weak to squat their own body weight for fairly high reps, test their strength in an exercise with a lower skill component than squatting before making an assumption that this is truly a strength issue. We all have that buddy who can’t knock out 10 solid air squats but will easily load four times his body weight on the leg press and “do work.” Is he weak? No, he simply lacks the skill component of squatting. Teach him how to squat correctly then begin load him up so he can lift weights like a real athlete.

3. It’s a Gateway Exercise

I walked into the gym on a Monday about a month ago to find an athlete waiting on my arrival like a school kid on the front steps who’s excited to show his dad a report card filled with A’s. He wanted to brag his coach about this “functional” exercise he did in a circuit over the weekend. I won’t go into detail but I will say that it involved an inverted BOSU ball and you guessed it, the air squat… in sets of 10. WHAT?! Here is a 200+ pound former soldier with an affinity for bicep curls and a relatively weak lower body and he decides that he’s going to elevate his game by knocking out air squats on an inverted BOSU ball. How long until he moves on from the soft stuff and dabbles in a more dangerous exercise drug like this:

squatonphysio

In Closing

Friends don’t let friends back squat on stability balls and parents should really talk to their kids about this kind of thing. And remember, parents who do silly exercises have children who do silly exercises. In all seriousness, I’m obviously not the biggest proponent of using air squats in my programming. There are too many more effective alternatives that I prefer to use in getting an athlete’s performance from where it is to where it needs to be. That said, I’m not an absolutist. If it’s appropriate and performed correctly, even an air squat has value.

In my next post I’ll discuss air squatting alternatives that I use to develop strength, power, and movement quality in my athletes.

Revitalize Your Pushup: #2 – Change Tempo

This post is a sequel to Revitalize Your Pushup: #1 – Add Load and discusses changing tempo to breathe new life into an old favorite.

2. Change Tempo

A) Increase Power Output

Recruiting more type II muscle fibers can also be achieved through increasing speed of movement at lower percentages of a one repetition maximum. Utilize low reps of explosive pushups to increase your upper body power output. Maintain quality in favor of quantity and ensure your strength, technique and shoulder health allow for safe absorption of force upon landing. Medicine ball chest passes can provide a great alternative for those not suited for plyometric pushups. An explosive concentric action can also be performed without actually leaving the floor.

B) Slow Down

Slowing down the pushup often exposes a slew of technical issues masked by speed of movement during faster reps. Compensations such as forward head posture, anterior humeral glide, poor scapular humeral rhythm, upper trap dominance, anterior tilt of both the pelvis and scapula, and many more typically surface when an athlete is forced to control his or her tempo. You can even take note of postural mistakes I unconsciously made during a deliberately slower eccentric component in Revitalize Your Pushup: #1 – Add LoadA pushup is a core exercise first and an upper body strength exercise second. No population has butchered this concept more than the military. Since leaving the service for coaching I would rather watch my own open heart surgery than witness the pushup portion of the PT test.

Slowing down the pushup also increases time under tension, an essential variable to increasing strength, endurance, and size. Be prepared for the impending pump and soreness. Combining a slow eccentric (lowering) with an explosive concentric (raising) yields the benefits of a slower tempo without cannibalizing strength and power. For a novice, slow pushups likely facilitate strength development, particularly during the eccentric phase. Meanwhile, a more experienced athlete can achieve longer time under tension to develop sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and endurance.

C) Add Pauses (Isometrics)

When an athlete struggles with specific positions, he or she will subconsciously (or consciously) blow through them because they are difficult or uncomfortable. Prescribing a pause in these positions forces an athlete to either demonstrate total command or learn an appreciation for his or her weak points. Pauses also allow time for a coach to correct postural errors while the athlete remains static.

A major proponent of systematically using tempo focused lifts is the University of Minnesota’s Cal Dietz, as discussed in his book Triphasic Training (written with Ben Peterson). Part of the coach’s recipe for success has been the layering of eccentric, isometric, and concentric components of weight training. The pushup represents only one of infinite lifts that can capitalize on this approach.