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.