Sunday, October 25, 2015

Weight Room Design for athletes.

The weight room I currently work in is amazing. I have never seen another high school weight room like it. It is enormous. There are over 10,000 square feet and I have comfortably had teams of up to 40 athletes using the facility at once. Not a dime was spared in its construction and it shows. From the floors to the lighting to the spacious offices in the corners of the gym everything is pristine. Even the equipment is brand new and name brand.

Having heard all of that you would think that this weight room would be everything I could ever dream of as a strength coach, but there are a variety of things I would change. The great equipment fills the room almost wall to wall, limiting space for athletic movement, the dumbbells don't allow for a lot of ballistic movements (we have the adjustable load dumbbells) and the weight room is just generally not built for athletes. It is built like someone at Lifetime Fitness was given a blank check and told to fill the place up.

Building an appropriate interior for any gym is a challenge but the gym should be built to optimize the experience of it's members by catering to their needs and wants. Equinox caters to those who want a great workout but also want to be pampered so in addition to great strength training equipment they also have eucalyptus towels on every floor and Kiehls products in the showers. Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting gyms have chalk bowls to help grip strength and because a little mess doesn't matter if it puts a few extra kilos on the platform . LA fitness has lots of machines because members don't know what to do without them and are often intimidated by free weights. My gym caters to athletes in all different sports so we need a diverse range of equipment. What follows in this post is my ideal gym interior given an unlimited budget and approximately 10,000 square feet (approximately what we currently have)

Squat racks and barbells. This has to be the foundation. You can debate the merits of different methodologies and exercises but any solid strength program has barbells and racks. Whether you prefer high bar or low bar squat, or a heavy dose of front or back squat, or maybe you go full Mike Boyle and only do single leg work and pulls, the rack allows you to safely set up for movements that will load the axial skeleton. Personally I like a rack that comes with a straight pullup bar and the option to have someone squatting in the cage and someone else taking a bar out for pressing or single leg work. Something like this:

Ideally the rack also has attachments for a landmine on one side and can have a bench placed inside. Having  squat racks in one place and benches in another is a poor use of space, particularly when my gym rarely has one group squatting while another benches.

Medicine Balls/Wall - Tennis, lacrosse and baseball are all sports that are won and lost based largely on who can generate more power through the transverse plane. Barbells are excellent for developing strength and power when moving forward/backward or up and down. But to transfer that strength to the field sometimes you need a more precise tool. Medicine ball throws of all sorts can help take strength developed through traditional means and hone it to fit the sport. Medicine Balls canrange from 3-30lbs and vary depending on the drills being used and the time of the off-season. A rebound wall to allow for multiple throws is ideal for developing speed/power in multiple planes. This video illustrates a great use of med ball throws for transverse plane power.

Extra equipment can make storage a problem and can eat up valuable ground space so whenever possible use wall space and vertical storage to allow for maximum floor space to have athletes move.

This is perfect. Although I prefer balls that bounce

No more adjustable DB's - Adjustable dumbbells are easier on the wallet and take up less space in the gym which makes them seem like a fantastic idea. Until you pick them up. The feel is all wrong and for many brands they are bulky and awkward to hold for goblet squats and many other less conventional positions. Your hand is forced to go in between the four corner pillars that hold the piece together. I tried snatching one and nearly broke my wrist off inside the weight. Very disappointing. Make space and spend the money on the real thing. Steel or rubber are fine but the adjustable bells in my experience don't get the job done.

A few other key points on dumbbell purchase and implementation. Get multiple pairs of the commonly used weights (for my population 30-60lbs) and don't feel pressured into getting heavier bells to accommodate the two strongest guys. I have maybe maybe 350 athletes and 5 guys that will need anything over 80lbs. It would be more effective to adjust their workouts than waste the money and space on 5 more pairs of dumbbells for these individuals

Kettlebells - This is one item that we don't have in my gym that I would love to acquire. I work with high schoolers, many of whom have never lifted weights before, at least not properly. So for many this is their first exposure to squatting, hinging, overhead pressing and the concepts of braced core, packed shoulder and so many others that seem second nature to a veteran lifter.

Holding a bell in the goblet position teaches braced core better than any verbal cue I could come up with. The anterior load causes the athlete to sit down and back and deep into the squat. The light weight (compared to a barbell squat) causes less overall stress while still providing a big training stimulus, making it a great in season training tool when recovery is at a premium. You can make similar arguments for the hinge. The KB deadlift is the easiest hinge to learn because it allows for a degree of knee band as well as a wide stance to open the hips. The deadlift then can easily transition into KB ballistics like swings and cleans if the athlete shows aptitude.

The number of people that can squat like that with a bar is almost zero. But it's actually fairly common with the bell. Embrace the kettlebell!

For upper body the getup and various bell presses teach a stable packed shoulder far more effectively than DB pressing. The distribution of the weight makes the rotator cuff react in a different manner and builds stability which can later transition to more traditional barbell overhead or horizontal pressing

Space! - My gym is currently overrun with glute ham raises and reverse hypers. I think we have about 10-12 of each. While I think those machines can have some value I have always had a preference for training on the feet, particularly for athletes. Therefore the equipment has become an overpriced place to store training journals and for me to stand when I need to address the whole team at once. One of the things that some of my mentors in this field always tried to push was the idea that athletes need to be athletic in all of their sport preparation. The conditioning, the lifting and flexibility should all look athletic.  Being athletic require space. Crawls, lunges, shuffles, bounds, med ball throws, olympic lifts, circuit training, etc. None of these things can happen with the current set up so I would gladly sell off all of that extra equipment in exchange for some extra room. The clip below is from Train 4 The Game, a facility just outside Austin, where they do some amazing work integrating multi-directional speed, power and reaction work into their strength training programs. Notice how much room the facility has. Weights are against the walls and athletes can always pivot in any direction without running into anything or each other.

As far as organization goes, put your racks and balls against the walls, and dumbells in a large corner. That gives you open space in the center to perform your other work. If you live in a cold weather climate then I think a short indoor track or turf space is a fantastic investment to allow for sprint work to be performed year round. Because I train in Miami and have a football field right outside it isn't necessary where I am.

If I have these things (bars and racks, medballs to throw, dumbbells, kettlebells and space for athletes to be athletes) then I'm set. Large square footage is nice but only if you actually have access to all of it and you aren't overrun with machines. Build your facility to suit the needs of those who use it. And if athletes are using it allow them to do what they do best. Be athletic!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Power Training Prerequisites

As a Strength coach my main responsibility is to make all of my kids stronger, faster and generally more physically prepared for the rigors of their sport. The training includes lifting weights, speed and agility training, maximizing power output, increasing work capacity for the sport and decreasing likelihood of injury.

All of those tasks are of extreme importance but today I want to focus on improving power output, and specifically the prerequisites for entering a high intensity program. Poll 100 different strength coaches and you will likely find a variety of preferred methods for improving power. Regardless of your choice (sprints, jumps, throws, lifts) there are certain standards athletes must be held to and certain rules that must be enforced.

First and foremost we need to establish a goal. We want to improve rate of force production in order to help football players hit harder and sprint faster, allow basketball players to get from the top of the key to the paint or from the ground up to the ball caroming off the rim. Fill in the blank with whatever sport you like. Everyone wants more power in order to have success in the sports most crucial moments, but in order to have longevity in any sport the movements used to improve power must be safe and the major joints must be kept in optimal position. No collapsing knees, no rounded backs etc.


 I have seen many coaches and athletes lose sight of the true goal in order to pursue the immediate gratification of a heavier bar or higher box etc. Even if form is safe and risk is low if the speed of movement is not maintained the goal has been lost and the exercise de-valued.

I see this a lot particularly with box jumps. Kids are constantly trying to one up one another on the box jump when I have my back turned. It's a gift and a curse that we have the soft boxes than can be missed without tearing all of the skin off your legs in the process. I value the safety, but it leads to kids choosing box heights they have no business attempting and me constantly having to preach about the value in choosing a box that you can land on in athletic position. Additionally, there is a real value in building courage and overcoming the fear of shredding your shins on a box that's a little bit taller than you were able to jump last time.

 The second key prerequisite is establishing a foundation of strength. Athletes without proper strength (particularly in the hips and trunk) will find their knees collapsing upon pre-load and landing phases of jumps. This leads to an increased risk of injury during competition. Below is a now famous photo of Robert Griffin III taking off for his broad jump test at the NFL combine. His knees buckled under the force of the jump and ominously predicted how the rest of his career would go.

3 years, 13 starts missed due to injury. This could have been predicted and maybe prevented.

The training does not need to be complex. Establish the basic patterns of squatting, lunging and hinging in the lower body and progressively add load over time. I strongly believe that heavy strength training can contribute to increased speed and power, even if the bar speed isn't necessarily high. However, I think the most important benefit of strength training is not the direct improvement in force output but how strong bodies naturally fall into better alignment during high velocity movements. Fast, explosive players with little maximal strength are at a high risk of injury and don't have the foundation to support their outputs on the field. 

This one is tough because the training feels easy and sometimes boring but you have to teach deceleration first - In field work an athlete must be able to land, stop, change direction and restart again all with proper technique before doing any of those things at full speed. Teaching proper sprint and change of direction mechanics does not have to take long and can prevent unnecessary wear and tear on the joints. In almost any program I write the early off-season has no maximal sprint work but does include track style warmups, stride outs, and lots of change of speed drills. This builds work capacity and teaches athletes the proper mechanics prior to introducing full speed. Athletes that do not have the strength to maintain optimal alignment can be given substitution exercises based on their limitations. When dealing with the weight room the same rules apply. Athletes must be able to receive force and load appropriate structures in order to receive the most benefit with the least risk.

Examples include athletes that are unable to maintain external rotation at the hips being given extra mobility work and less change of direction to preserve the integrity of the joint until the ability to achieve normal ROM is restored. The energy system can be trained in a more linear fashion until change of direction is deemed safe.

One often overlooked factor is conditioning level. An athlete who fatigues easily may look great on the first drill (or first set in the weight room) but when introducing a high volume or a short recovery component the technique breaks down and risk skyrockets. When the goal of a session is maximizing power, recovery should be full and movement uncompromised. Early in the off-season I will have some teams do 2-3 bouts per week of aerobic exercise in order to build some general fitness and recovery capacity prior to initiating high volume power training. If the goal is improving the ability to work at high intensity under very short rest (appropriate for a sport like basketball), you should choose exercises that present the athlete with low risk. This will vary depending on the athlete and the goals of their sport.

Having a healthy heart is good for athletes. Shocking, I know

So to recap here is what I look for prior to initiating a high intensity power development program:

- What is the goal? How much strength vs. maximal speed is needed and how can the program design help achieve that?
-  Does the athlete have adequate strength to withstand the rigors of the power program?
- Teach the athlete to decelerate first
- Ensure adequate general fitness and choose appropriate rest intervals to get the desired outcomes.

These principles should be applied regardless of the sport, or even if you don't play a sport at all and just want to introduce something fun and new into your training. Power training can provide a boost to any program, just make sure it is done safely.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Personal Trainer Turned Strength Coach

This summer my girlfriend, my dog, and I, all moved from Chicago back to Miami and with the move came a slight shift in my career. I had been working as a personal trainer, mostly in one on one settings, for a long time (the majority of the last 8 years) but as of this summer I am the head (and only) strength and conditioning coach at a high school with over 300 student athletes. I am now be responsible for more teams than I previously had clients and more athletes per day than I have had in my entire life.

Now that I have established a little more of a routine at work I should have some time to get back to writing and will be attempting to post an article once per week detailing some aspect of strength and conditioning and what I have learned or am hoping to learn.

I have now been on the new job for several months and have made a lot of realizations about coaching, training, program design and athlete management that I never would've learned in the private sector doing one on one training. Despite working towards very similar outcomes the two jobs are radically different.

The biggest difference from one on one training to team training is the level of detail you can put into coaching every movement in a one on one setting. I like to do a lot of  core stability and range of motion drills as part of my warmups and paired with big lifts. When you can work with a client and individualize cues and physically adjust it's easy to get the most out of every movement. I can ask how something feels and know that it is working as intended. That is more difficult in groups, especially the big ones (some are 50+ at a time). If I'm really hauling ass I can have this kind of interaction with maybe 5-10 athletes in a session. If I don't get to everyone and an athlete butchers the movement it can be worthless and potentially even dangerous. For this reason I have had to "idiot-proof" many of my programs and simplify things way more than I did before. I try to limit the pool of exercises and introduce less new movements. Flexibility and core strength are simpler and once I find something that everyone does well we stick with it for longer than I might with a client looking to add variety to their stale training.

 You never know what athletes will do when your back is turned. So instructions have to be clear and exercises simple

In personal training there is more of a relationship with the people you train. It's one hour of you and one other person spending time together and there is a lot of down time that needs to be filled with casual conversation. I knew vivid details about clients families, their personal lives, work lives, financial situations etc. At times it was overwhelming being a trainer and psychologist but I miss the degree of personal interaction I used to have. In a big group there is no time for small talk, it's 45 minutes of flying around the gym trying to have my eyes in 10 places at once.

On a similar note, not only do I not get to have a personal relationship with people I train anymore but sometimes they don't even want to be there. This was the saddest and most sobering realization about strength and conditioning. Personal training clients pay large sums of money to work with you. Generally they are self motivated and they thirst for challenges and will do anything asked of them in the name of reaching their goals. Athletes are often only in the weight room because the coach requires it and while I definitely have some hard workers and some that embrace the process of physically improving there are always going to be others that come in mentally unprepared and have no desire to better themselves. It's a sad reality and not allowing it to bring me down has been my greatest challenge thus far. Finding a way to motivate these athletes will be my primary goal in my next semester because it is many of the most talented kids on the team. They have been the best based solely on natural ability for most of their lives and can truly be special if their work ethic catches up to their genetic gifts.

I don't want it to seem that being a strength coach is not a good job. I love it. Being a strength coach allows me to be a mad scientist in a way I couldn't with personal training. I love sitting in my office crunching numbers and analyzing data from a whole off-season. As a personal trainer I never had a huge client base, definitely not enough sample size to say definitively which programs worked best for which types of people. But now with hundreds of athletes I can test out different ideas and see what works. There are hundreds of philosophies on strength training and while I certainly have my opinions and preferences as to what I think works best I now have a lab to test every idea in large groups and see what works best. I am currently running a modified version of the Texas Method for the wrestling team, a 5/3/1 type system without the + sets for my in season teams and a Juggernaut Method template for my football off-season training. Baseball is modeled after some Eric Cressey programs and Lacrosse, Basketball and Golf were all heavily influenced by the programming style of my mentor at the University of Miami. Obviously a lot of variables are involved so it's by no means a perfect study but I have the ability to compare and contrast and see what works well and what doesn't on a scale I never could have before.

Can't recommend this book or it's author, Chad Wesley Smith, highly enough. It's been hugely influential in dictating my off-season football training both on and off the field.

As a personal trainer I constantly had to go to the gym and either watch meathead gym members or other personal trainers that had no clue what they were doing and have them consistently turn down my offers to help. It was infuriating. As the only strength coach on campus I have full autonomy over every workout decision for every team. No exercise gets performed without my orders. It places a lot of responsibility on my shoulders but I'm confident in my programs (and in many cases my execution of other people's programs).

In the long term I want to have even greater control of the teams practices or at the very least have better methods of tracking intensity in practice. How hard someone goes at soccer practice influences their performance in the weight room and during conditioning workouts. With 300+ student athletes and a gym that's only open 5 hours per day I often can't be present for every workout and building better management systems with the sport coaches is a primary goal over the next year.

I miss personal training. The attention to detail, the personal interaction. The Christmas bonuses and relationships I developed. But my career felt as though it needed a change and this is a new challenge for me that I am going to embrace and chronicle through this blog. My goal is to take what I learned as a personal trainer and apply some of those skills to a larger audience and hopefully I can be a small part of a couple of state championships this year.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rolling, smashing and mobility training explained

Someone once told me that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time a trainer has to blog and the amount of time he actually spends coaching people to get better. I couldn't agree more. About two months ago I resigned from my duties coaching at a Crossfit gym and now work full time as a personal trainer. The hours are about double what I was working before and my blog time has gone out the window. However, I decided to take the afternoon off today and hopefully  I can use this time to provide you all with some quality content for the first time in almost 2 months.

In the last month I have seen the following things

- My old CF gym hosting a workshop on foam rolling

- a trainer at my new gym reaching tremendous levels of success by building his entire business around various myofascial release techniques, with very little application of any real training [1]

- Kelly Starrett, a very popular physical therapist in the CF community, released another bestselling book aimed at restoring mobility and movement quality to the general population largely through the use of myofascial restoration techniques

Kelly Starrett has been a huge influence on my training. I probably agree with about 95% of what he says. I'm looking forward to checking out his new book. 

Clearly mobility is on peoples minds. Specifically self myofascial release or SMFR (foam rolling, lacrosse ball rolling or any other form of applying pressure to various tissues of your own body). This is a good thing. Being mindful of range of motion and quality of movement should theoretically lead to improved performance. However I think many people are over/misusing  or simply not understanding some of these fantastic techniques.

When I started in the fitness industry (6 years ago) none of these things were particularly popular. Throughout my entire coursework in college we hardly ever mentioned myofascial release. And my program was very heavily focused on mobility. We focused heavily on dynamic warmups and full range of motion resistance training in conjunction with static stretching after each workout. As far as I was concerned tissue quality was the job of physical therapists and massage therapists. I was a strength coach and I was supposed to make people strong through a full range of motion.

The first time I actually heard of any of this was when I was hired to work at Equinox in 2011. Trainers looked at me like I was crazy because I wasn't having my clients hop on a foam roller for 5-10 minutes before lifting. "Dude, their fascia is gonna be so tight!" So I did what the veteran trainers told me to do and I made all of my clients hop on the roller. And they got better. Flexibility, strength, alleviation of minor pains etc. But what was I actually doing? What happens when one applies tension to a muscle with a foam roller, and why does it make you more flexible and able to lift better?

Let's break down the science behind SMFR in the simplest way possible. In your muscles there are receptors called GTO's (Golgi tendon organs) They sense changes in tension. When tension is extremely high the GTO's basically pull the plug and force the muscle to relax so that nothing is permanently torn or damaged. When we foam roll we are applying tension to an area of the body. The GTO's in that area sense tension and then cause the muscle to relax, allowing for greater range of motion following the foam rolling session.

With regard to pain management there is also the idea that rolling simply provides a counter irritation effect. I will explain further. If a segment of the body is in any way irritated it will send signals up to the brain, which can be interpreted as pain. One way to decrease the discomfort is to send a second signal to compete with the original noxious signal. This is why when we bang our elbow on a door frame we immediately rub it. The rubbing of the painful area sends a second signal to the brain to interfere with the original signal that is leading to our pain. So if your hip is causing discomfort sometimes rolling it with a ball or foam roller can provide a secondary message to the brain, thereby decreasing the pain response.

So, to summarize, what we are doing is allowing for muscle tissue to relax and be restored to it's normal length and/or providing secondary messages to the brain from a painful area. Either way we are creating temporary change in the nervous system by providing a novel input. We are not stretching or lengthening anything. I would even be skeptical of the idea that we are "breaking up adhesions" "untying knots" or whatever other analogy you want to use. If we were really doing that we wouldn't have to repeat the process every single day. The "knots" would just be untied and then we could happily go about our squatting (or sprinting, or down-dogging, or whatever it is you do). We are simply changing the neural input to the muscle in order to reduce tension.

When we foam roll we create a change, but this change isn't forever. This change lasts only for a brief window following the exposure. Studies looking at foam rolling alone (no stretching or strength training in conjunction with the foam roller) have not shown that foam rolling has any positive effect on long term flexibility improvements. Only when used in conjunction with other training modalities is foam rolling useful. So all of that foam roll while watching TV advice doesn't help unless you follow it up with something useful like movement drills [2]

With that window we have a variety of techniques that we can use to make mobility "stick". Some options include

- Yoga: this has the benefit of utilizing full range of motion through most movements, and the added bonus of incorporating deliberate diaphragmatic breathing, which is one of the most underutilized methods of improving movement quality

Some yoga poses are silly and ridiculous. And some are awesome. This falls into the latter category

- Weight training: Obviously this is my personal favorite. Resistance training gets a bad rap for making muscles tight but that's really an issue of correlation vs causation. A lot of dudes like to lift weights and don't like to do it through a full range of motion or perform logical, intelligent programs. Therefore, a lot of dudes lift and are also very tight.

However, lifting through a full range of motion can actually be one of the most effective forms of flexibility training available. Try doing Bulgarian Squats, Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell presses or overhead squats with a pause in the deepest position and watch your mobility go through the roof.

- Movement quality instruction: This is intentionally a very vague category. I just want to be clear that you don't need a bar on your back in order to make lasting change. Just learning to hip hinge, or even performing simple patterns like rolling, crawling and stepping can be fantastic starting points. This can be whatever you deem "corrective exercise", it can be stability drills or basic locomotor patterns. The key is that we use the window of opportunity created by the SMFR work in order to explore new movements and provide a stressor that will get the body to adapt in a permanent manner

These methods all apply some form of stress on the muscle/joint in it's newfound range of motion. That newfound stress triggers adaptation from the body. The common analogy is that foam rolling is like working on a document on the computer but resistance training is like hitting save on that document (all the more reason to not resistance train with poor patterns. Some documents are better off not being saved). Going to full range of motion with some form of loading provides stability in these new positions. It's like telling the brain that a position is safe, and it's ok to go back there.

So when doing your mobility training please don't lose sight of the bigger picture. We do mobility work so that we can use that mobility for a purpose. Maybe you run marathons, maybe you put big weights over your head, but either way your foam rolling session don't need to take more than 5-10 minutes. Get on the ground. Roll out chronically tense/tight/painful areas then get the real work started.

I wonder how much of his time is spent foam rolling?

[1] You could make the argument that the tissue quality work is "training" in some sense but I mean big weights in your hands or heart beating out of your chest type of training, not movement prep

[2] It may help with temporary pain relief but not really provide anything additional in terms of long term movement quality enhancements

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Brief Intro to Pain Science and a Change in Coaching Style

In the last couple of months I have been studying, and plan to study further, the science of pain. It's a fascinating topic and one I admittedly have only just scratched the surface of. But the things I have learned so far are very intriguing.

Pain is a complex beast; trying to explain all of its intricacies is not something I'm prepared to do but there are a couple of interesting points that I want to note

- This first point is not so much science as it is a disclaimer. As a fitness professional you should not be responsible for treating pain. There is an entire field of professionals trained in how to do that. Trainers/coaches should be responsible for body composition and improved performance. However, a series of circumstances can put non therapists in a position where they need some knowledge of pain. Even when working with a client who is pain free, we want to keep it that way, which requires some rudimentary knowledge of how pain works. Some clients will refuse to go to Physical Therapy based on previous experience (or financial circumstances) leaving their trainer as the only line of defense [1]. Often times clients will be finished with PT and need someone to “bridge the gap” between therapy and high level fitness. Additionally many injuries do not have to prevent fitness gains. No one wants to get fat and weak while undergoing rehab. I have had many clients who simultaneously worked with a Physical Therapist and me. By understanding pain on a basic level and having a good working relationship with the therapist, trainers can improve fitness qualities while therapists decrease pain. Both parties are actually helping each other be more effective. 

- Pain is not synonymous with injury. Sometimes people get injured and feel no pain. I don't know the statistics off the top of my head but there is a large number of people walking around with herniated disks who are completely unaware of it, because they are pain free. Herniated disks are so commonplace and unrelated to pain that the American College of Physicians has actually said "Clinicians should not routinely obtain imaging or other diagnostic tests in patients with nonspecific low back pain". In fact, 95% of back pain is idiopathic- meaning that there is no diagnosable cause for it [2]. Which brings me to my next point: Many people have pain despite no structural damage. This is evident in many cases of chronic pain in which the tissues are completely healed but patients still have pain with certain movements. My dad still has ankle pain during certain movements despite not rolling an ankle in over a year. Ankle sprains, even for people in their 50’s don't take years to heal. The tissue and joint should be fine, so why is there still pain?

- The body alone does not sense pain. Pain is primarily a function of the brain [3]. The body, specifically nociceptors, senses threat or danger. The nociceptors relay that message to the brain. The brain then processes it along with a lot of other information (beliefs, past experiences, stress, etc) and decides if it is dangerous enough to warrant causing a pain response.

There are two primary models of what causes pain:

- The PSB model (postural structural biomechanics) - The PSB is what most people are familiar with. My hip is weak so my knee caves in when I run and now it hurts. You can tell the same story for the back or the shoulders. This model treats stimuli from the body as the primary means of pain and treats them accordingly with traditional biomechanical fixes (stretching, strengthening, manual therapy etc.). This is the basis for how I have treated every client that I have ever worked with, although the specifics of the training have obviously evolved. Posture, structure and biomechanics are still the foundation of all of my program design. But a different viewpoint has come to my attention that has changed some of how I implement my programs. 

- The BPS model (biopsychosocial) - The BPS model is more relating to how the brain perceives threatening stimuli and how psychology influences pain. Seems like soft science at first but there are mountains of evidence supporting the role of psychology in pain, and it has been around since the 1980’s. It relates to how perceptions and past experiences can affect the processing of stimuli from the body.

Both models are relevant, and these are not necessarily competing systems. The "B" in BPS stands for biological, which is the foundation for all of our traditional pain management methods. The two models are probably best used in conjunction with one another, but most trainers only take into account the structural model when dealing with clients. Even without being a psychologist or PT educated on the psychological model you can still take from that research and positively affect training any client. I want to discuss how I've used this philosophy to improve my own coaching and how you can do the same.

A huge part of being a coach is recognizing poor movement patterns and being able to correct them to put clients in the best position to succeed. How a coach goes about making these corrections and the language they use goes a long way in determining how effective that coach will be in both the short term and the long term. Let's take a look at two examples of correcting a valgus knee position in the squat exercise (let's assume this is a post-set correction. Mid-set cues should be extremely brief, preferably 2 words or less, and yelled over loud music in the gym)

Coach A - Drive your knees out, letting them fall in like that is going to tear up your meniscus

Coach B - Drive your knees out, it's a stronger position and it will transfer better to your golf swing/jumpshot/whatever

Coach A and Coach B are both correct. A valgus knee position under load is related to a host of knee injuries. Being able to resist that position is also related to increased gluteal strength, which allows for a greater expression of power in just about every activity. Both coaches probably got their clients to do what they wanted, assuming that exercise selection and progressions were appropriate. 

However there is a big difference between what they said. Coach A created a threatening situation to fix his clients position. Now when Coach A's athlete finds himself in a valgus knee position he or she will sense a threat or a danger. As we discussed previously, feeling threatened or in danger is a great way to trigger a pain response. These feelings are part of the thoughts, beliefs and past experiences that contribute to the pain message from the brain. Essentially, if an athlete feels as though she going to get hurt and perceives a position as dangerous, the brain will cause pain in order to get the athlete out of that position. This can trigger fear avoidance behaviors and chronic pain issues.

For this reason, I have eliminated all pain based coaching cues from my vocabulary. Telling an athlete she is going to get hurt is one of the easiest ways to put them in position to actually do it. I don't have any hard data proving if this has decreased rates of injury or pain in my clients but the current pain science all supports avoiding fear-based coaching cues. Telling someone to stop something before they get hurt is well-intentioned and likely gets the desired short term response, but as trainers and coaches, we need to have an eye toward the future. Not only do we need to increase strength in foundational patterns and follow sound biomechanical principles, but we also have to decrease the perception of threat to allow for pain free training and living. 

You can do this by avoiding the fear mongering coaching style and cueing or by any method that increases clients’ confidence in movement. Find a style that works for you but make the goal improved performance, not catastrophe avoidance through fear.

[1] Based on the crap I've seen in some PT offices, I don't blame a lot of these clients. There are good PTs out there, but you have to look hard for them. 
[2] This fact was provided by my lovely girlfriend Jocelyn. She’s in medical school, is way smarter than me and likes when I put her name in my blog.

[3] So if someone says that pain is "all in your head" they are correct, but that doesn't mean your pain isn't real or that you are conjuring it up for some ulterior motive. Pain is in your head because that's where your brain is and your brain controls everything.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Lateralizations and Regressions: Product Review

I have spoken in the past about people in the industry who have inspired me in my training and coaching. Near the top of that list is Charlie Weingroff. He recently released a DVD series called Lateralizations and Regressions

Charlie's first DVD set furthered my knowledge of a lot of concepts that I still use (FMS, joint by joint, core pendulum theory etc.) Because I knew this new resource would be full of good material I watched the whole set (all 13 hours) with pen and paper in hand and took lots of notes.

For today's post I have taken those notes and compiled a list of what I found to be important or interesting takeaways. Because this encompasses many topics this will be less of a coherent article and just a series of bullet points that I found interesting. If any of these topics interest you drop a comment in the box and I'll try to expand on them in my next post. Thanks

- We often discuss fitness and optimal means of achieving it but rarely define what "fitness" is. Lateralizations and Regressions defines it as becoming resilient to stress. I love this definition because it allows for fitness to be flexible depending on the needs of the individual being trained. We all encounter different stressors and therefore we all have different fitness needs.

- General fitness is a part of any good rehab program. Aerobic conditioning decreases sympathetic tone. Someone who is sympathetically overtrained will not respond well to more aggressive manual therapy techniques. This is actually something I heard a few months ago from Patrick Ward but it was reiterated here. FMS is a system for pointing us in the right direction as to how we can safely accomplish that general fitness. Using heart rate variability or other less advanced methods of athlete tracking can tell us if we are using appropriate intensities.

- Exercises should make you move better or make you faster/stronger. Otherwise it's a warmup or a waste of time. This thought runs through my mind now every time I design exercise programs.

- Sometimes you can fix a sport problem with a fitness solution (being able to jump higher will allow a basketball player to get more rebounds), sometimes it requires a movement solution (greater ankle range of motion will allow a basketball player to maintain a more upright torso to release a jumpshot and avoid having it blocked). Figuring out these types of problems can make a strength coach an invaluable asset to a sports team.

- Our training can be looked at as a pyramid with movement quality at the bottom, capacity as the middle and sport skill at the top. A pyramid cannot be built tall (highly skilled technical athlete) without a wide base of movement competency. Gray Cook has referenced similar concepts in his books.

Performance Pyramid

- Just because there is pain or dysfunction in one position does not mean that you have to eliminate fitness altogether. Sometime a shoulder that has pain overhead will feel better after a few weeks of deadlifting and lower gripping positions like rows, and loaded carries. This is really just a more specific example of using FMS principles. FMS screens movements and tells you what not to do but you can still crush heavy lifts in patterns that you pass the movement screen. I have seen this theory in practice countless times.

- Ground based patterns like crawling and rolling "switch" the joint by joint theory, meaning that segments that are usually mobile become stable and segments that are usually stable become mobile. During crawling movement occurs at the lower back and scapula with stability coming from the thoracic spine. This reversal allows for the swishing of synovial fluid through the stable segments and restores normal range to areas that don't usually get that sort of movement and shouldn't under load.

- EMG is horse shit. Not sure if those are his exact words but that seemed to be the sentiment. I would have to agree. EMG only tells us what muscle is firing but not whether that is the most efficient path. Sometimes movement is optimized with a lower EMG of a particular muscle and higher output from it's synergist. If we were to compare squatters with identical weight and bar speed but one has higher EMG of the abdominal muscles does that mean that they have "stronger" abs or that they had to call upon higher threshold strategies while the other squatter had a lot left in the tank?

- Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, creates a fixed lumbar spine which allows for greater mobility at the thoracic spine and hips.

- Keep your damn neck straight when you lift weights. Read more here.

Perfect neck position for lifting heavy weights

- All of the rotator cuff muscles have a specific role(s) stated in your biomechanics and anatomy textbooks, either external or internal rotation as well as some secondary actions. However the true function of all of these muscles is to work synergistically to create a suction effect that pulls the glenoid into the fossa and stabilizes the shoulder. You can't train that with a silly yellow band

- The same concept just mentioned applies to using any stabilizing muscles as a prime mover. That means lateral band walks, IYT's and many of your favorite "corrective exercises". This is a tough one for me to swallow as I've long been a proponent of many of these movements. It's really just a matter of whether you think independently strengthening stabilizing muscles will make them function better in full body movement patterns, where they have a totally different role. I'm not certain what the answer is but it certainly warrants consideration.

- Muscles don't get longer. It takes 30 minutes in a static position to add sarcomeres in series. Muscles operate more like an old radio antenna when you pull it all the way out. Yes it appears it's getting longer but really that length was there all along you just didn't know how to access it.

That's how muscle "stretches"

- "tightness" in certain positions is really just a product of the brain perceiving threat in that position. If we can eliminate the perception of threat we can access a fuller ROM. There are many ways to do this but traditional static stretching is one of the less effective methods. Lifting weights in with full range of motion seems to work well.

A lot of what Charlie talks about is different from the mainstream thought process in regard to training so many of these bullet points may sound different from what you are accustomed to, although if you have read this blog before some of it hopefully sounds familiar. I can't recommend highly enough that if you are a coach or trainer and unsure of how to allocate your continuing education money this year there may not be a better product on the market. Let me know if you found any of the points interesting and I'll try to write more about them.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Programming for Crossfit

A little over a month ago as a part of a managerial shake up, I was given the job of designing the exercise programming at my gym, Rowfit Chicago. I have been highly critical of many traditional CF programming strategies before (you can read by clicking here) but I think CF has the potential to induce dramatic changes in body composition and a whole host of athletic measurements, if done properly, so I was looking forward to this opportunity.

There are a few things to keep in mind before we address the specifics of this program

  • We are a crossfit gym, but we also offer a variety of other classes, including Bootcamp, rowing, basic strength, Olympic weightlifting, and squats (or as I prefer to call it SQUATZZ!) and plenty of open gym hours for members to do whatever they would like. This variety of classes makes programming challenging, as all of our members have a slightly different training week. I have tried to work around it by matching training stresses between classes. For example, because our Olympic lifting classes are on M,W,Saturday those days will usually have a more lower body heavy focus in CF as well.
  • Bootcamp is a class for aerobic development and for people to go and have fun without the mental focus required to pull a heavy snatch or any other technical lift. For that reason Bootcamp does not have a complex periodization scheme. Skills involved will build throughout the year but it will always be light weight and 30-40 minutes of near continuous work, aimed at developing cardiovascular endurance. For that reason most of this article will be focused on how I program specifically for the CF classes, and not bootcamp.
  • Our member base is, with a few notable exceptions, not interested in any sort of crossfit competition outside of maybe a local event or just bettering their scores and improving their results compared to previous months/years
  • In surveying members what people are interested in achieving at the gym is the following:
    • Get stronger (this is music to my ears). People want to be able to pick up their dog, their kids, their groceries and carry them up a flight of stairs without feeling exhausted.
    • Lose weight. I can’t emphasize enough how this goal has almost everything to do with the kitchen. However, there are strategies we can employ in the gym for maximizing caloric expenditure. This is an area where CF does not need my help. People have been getting ripped with CF methodology since before I even knew what it was.
    • Reduce pain. Pain is a complicated beast and I know when something is out of my league and when to outsource. With that said a lot of aches and pains have simple explanations. If your squat looks like crap and your back hurts and we fix your crappy squat the back pain has a good chance of going away too.
    • Perform. For some people this means triathlon. For some it’s running a 5k. For some it’s a CF competition or weightlifting meet. General programming will improve general fitness but to truly excel in a given sport you need programming specific to that sport, especially with regard to energy systems development. If you are interested in training privately for a competition or sport feel free to contact me directly at
So with those caveats out of the way let’s examine our programming. The traditional model of CF programming calls for random implementation of strength, endurance, and anaerobic threshold work throughout the week and throughout the year. It also uses random implementation of skills from Olympic Weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, kettlebells and endurance sports (rowing, running, sometimes swimming etc). I think encouraging competency across all athletic qualities and skills is admirable but trying to do everything at once is a recipe for doing nothing well. So let’s take a look at how to create a program that enhances all of the qualities.

In order to avoid overuse injuries we use a simple scheme of alternating muscle group emphasis for our strength training. We follow a similar template for conditioning but low intensity lower body exercise can be done every day. Currently it looks like this:

Exercises or rep schemes change every 3 weeks.

Monday: Power exercise full ROM + Heavy Lower Body + Heavy upper pulling

Tuesday: Olympic lift from the hang (because with the right intensity you can lift from the hang just about every day) + upper push + core exercise

Wednesday: Power exercise, partial ROM + single leg lift + moderate intensity upper body pull

Thursday: Skill development/Core exercise + long Metcon

Friday: Upper body Push + Pull

Saturday: Heavy bilateral lower body + Unilateral lower body

Sunday: Upper Push + trunk development


A general yearly calendar would look like this


May, June, July: Deload/Prep work.

  • Overall phase goals are flexibility, core strength and technique development
  • Olympic lifting is light and technique based.
  • Strength training is lighter and includes pauses for position development and control. There is also a big emphasis on range of motion through single arm and single leg lifts
  • Core stability is developed by using direct trunk exercises like Rollouts and landmines as well as a big emphasis on asymmetrical loading
  • There is very little squatting or pulling from the floor as both movements require a degree of flexibility that many members simply don’t have yet
  • Metcons have very little complexity as the goal is minimizing risk. We teach the complex movements in untimed situations
  • This is a great time of year to develop cardiovascular system through independent training or bootcamp classes

August, September, October

  • This is our strength cycle. If all of our athletic abilities (speed, endurance, power, etc.) are buckets, then strength is the hose that fills all of the buckets. Everything is easier when you have tremendous strength. A metcon with 95# front squats is a joke if you can front squat 3 plates. Our whole summer builds to this point. We have developed mobility and stability through single leg training and light technique work and paused work as well as dedicated mobilization time. Now it’s time to put some plates on the bar and begin building maximal strength.
  • Olympic lifting will be involved but at submaximal weights. It’s simply too fatiguing to Olympic lift and strength train at high intensity simultaneously
  • Gymnastics training is still minimal during this period. The strength developed through this part of the year will allow for easy gymnastic exercise in the winter. If you find me a person that can do pullups with load tied around their waist a good coach can get them doing muscle ups in no time. An athlete that can’t do strict pullups at all is wasting their time with muscle up skills practice. The same analogy holds true for pistols and a variety of other gymnastic skills
  • Energy systems training will emphasize moving heavy loads under fatigue. Metcons will be used to address lactate threshold as well as posture/trunk strength through specific exercises such as heavy single leg work, strict pullups and pressing as well as some cardiovascular modalities for short intervals

 November, December, January:

  • This is the heavy Olympic lifting Cycle. Our strength from the previous 3 month block is now transferred to Olympic lifting abilities. Because we did Olympic lifting technique work all year the transition should be smooth.
  • We also start a heavier gymnastics emphasis in the winter months.
  • A 5/3/1 type of scheme will be used for strength maintenance while we emphasize other qualities. 
  • Conditioning will be very short and intense with nothing exceeding 10-12 minutes.

 February, March, April: CF Open, Regionals.

  • This is the time of year where we aim to bring together all of the qualities we trained up to this point. This will most closely resemble what people are accustomed to seeing from CF programming in terms of intensity and heavy conditioning workouts.
  • Gymnastic skills are at a premium. Olympic lifting and strength training will be on maintenance cycles and challenging metcons will be occurring several days per week. The goal is to peak athletes for competition.
  • An important note is that even for members with no desire to compete in any CF event this periodized program will yield the greatest results. Emphasizing one or two qualities simultaneously while maintaining others allows for the greatest development of a variety of qualities. And that leads back to the goals we discussed previously.
I recognize that this is a lengthy post but this is what drives the programming in my gym. I have seen these methods work extremely well in private training and I expect the same results on a broad scale.

Please drop a comment below or message me directly if you have any questions.