Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cliche (But Awesome) Music Post

By Andrew McGunagle

As gym-goers, we tend to listen to a lot of music. The majority of us have lifting playlists on our Ipods, which we crank up loud enough to drown out the Lady Gaga leaking from the speakers of the commercial gyms we frequent. Those of us lucky enough to train at private gyms or in our own homes love to turn our speakers up to eleven and lift heavy weights.

"These speakers go to eleven."
Regardless of the troubles that we may encounter in our day to day lives, we always have good music and iron to lift our spirits. Coming home from a long day at school, turning on and turning up my stereo, and lifting weights is what kept me sane throughout the ups and downs of high school. Nowadays, when I head home for holidays, one of the things I look forward to most is meeting up with all of my buddies at my garage to lift weights to good music.

I have long been a music lover, and I have wide-ranging musical tastes. I cannot guarantee that you will enjoy all of the same songs that I enjoy, but here are some of the songs that like to listen to in the gym:

1. "Tuesday's Gone (Cover)" by Metallica: As I do my soft tissue and mobility work before lifting, I tend to listen to lighter music. I have found that easing in to my sessions rather than blasting heavy music from the onset works well for me. Even if that is not your preference, it is difficult to dislike this song.

2. "Wet Sand" by Red Hot Chili Peppers: This is one of my all-time favorite songs. Like the song above, I often listen to this while I prepare to train. Driving down the 101 listening to Stadium Arcadium with my best friend is one of my favorite memories.

3. "Foxglove" by Murder By Death: Don't let the name put you off to this band. Murder By Death has quickly become one of my favorite bands in the past year. Check out the songs "Shiola", "No Oath, No Spell", "Brother", and "Spring Break 1899" by this band. Also, if MBD ever comes to play in a town near you, do not pass up the chance to see them live.

4. "Let Me Put My Love Into You" by AC/DC: As I move on to lifting songs, I want to familiarize people with tracks that are not very well known. Almost everyone knows and likes AC/DC, but a lot of their more popular songs are played out. This song might just rekindle your love for this legendary band.

5. "China White" by Scorpions: Deadlifting to this song is, quite simply, epic. That is all.

6. "My Michelle" by Guns N' Roses: GN'R is one of my all-time favorite bands. The majority of people have never heard any of their less-popular and, in my opinion, best songs. If you have never heard the song "Civil War", then be sure to check that one out as well.

7. "Bulls on Parade (Live)" by Rage Against The Machine: If you do not want to get hyped up, do not press play. The live version of this song is far better than the album version.

8. "Heaven and Hell" by Black Sabbath: This is one of the all-time greatest songs. That is not my opinion, that is fact.

9. "Breathing" by A-1: I don't want to leave my hip hop fans hanging, so here is an awesome new-ish song by a Bay Area rapper who goes by the name A-1. If you like this song, check out "Circulate" by A-1, "Get Fly" by Atmosphere, "Make That Money" by Macklemore, and "Simple Man" by The Grouch.

I could go on and on, but I don't want this post to get out of hand. I always enjoy new music, so don't hesitate to suggest some songs in the comments section below. Thanks for reading, and be sure to check back next week when I get back to my usual lifting musings.             

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fitness, Fatigue, and Performance

By Andrew McGunagle 

The science of strength and conditioning is incredibly interesting. Well, at least it is to me. Early on in my lifting career, I realized that the majority of people do not share my fascination for lifting information. Most people simply want to look better, perform better, and/or feel better. They don't care about the processes occurring while they train, they just want to lift well and achieve their goals.

The science of, well, this.
Upon understanding the apathetic attitude that most individuals have towards strength training, I resolved not to bombard and bore the people I train with unnecessary exercise info. However, I believe there are instances when a basic understanding of the "why" underlying the "what" can make a session more successful. Keeping the client's lack of interest in mind, I do my best to whittle the concept I need to convey down to the simplest terms without distorting the intended message. While another strength and conditioning professional might think of me as an imbecile if I gave them one of these explanations, these simple statements get the job done when working with the general population.

One of the simplified explanations that I commonly provide has to do with the relationship between performance, fitness, and fatigue. Whenever I run into a lifter or an athlete who is struggling and seems a bit run down, this quick summary helps them to understand their situation.

Fitness, Fatigue, and Performance
Your ability to perform, whether you are in the gym or on the field of play, is determined by a host of factors. Two of the most important factors regarding your ability to perform are, put simply, fitness and fatigue.

Fitness encompasses the myriad of qualities (strength, speed, power, etc.) that make up an athlete's ability. Your fitness levels can be built up by implementing a well-designed and well-executed training program. Furthermore, the majority of fitness qualities are fairly easy to maintain and do not readily dissipate on short notice.

Fitness, it's what you can do.
Fatigue, in this sports performance context, is a reduction in your ability to do physical work. Fatigue can be both acute and chronic in nature; you can be tired because you just squatted for three sets of five and you can also be tired from getting inadequate sleep for the past few days. In addition to the weariness that can result from exerting yourself and not getting enough rest, fatigue can also accumulate due to mental stressors. You may not have done any intense exercise and you may have been sleeping more than enough, but life stress could still be causing you to accumulate fatigue.

As fatigue accumulates, your ability to display your fitness and perform well is hampered. Most people already understand this in the acute sense of fatigue; you might be strong enough to squat 315 pounds for a set of five, but fatigue prevents you from grinding out a sixth rep. Chronic fatigue, on the other hand, is not as widely understood and acknowledged. Chronic fatigue is fatigue that has built up over a period of time. It is fatigue that masks your current fitness levels as opposed to causing your ability to perform to deteriorate during a single session.

For example, let's say you can deadlift 405 pounds for a set of three. One day, you walk into the gym and start to work your way up towards a top set of three with 405 pounds. You get up to 365 pounds, and that weight feels strangely difficult. Then, you throw on 40 more pounds for your top set. You get set up and you try to lift the weight, but the bar doesn't budge. This frustrates you, because you lifted this weight for three reps just a week before, and you wonder why you got weaker in such a short period of time.

"Ain't you supposed to get stronger when you lift heavy weights?"
Well, you did not necessarily get weaker. Your body is still capable of lifting 405 pounds for three reps. However, at that moment, when you failed to lift the weight even once, you had too much accumulated fatigued to display your fitness. A few days of eating well and sleeping soundly later, you would likely be able to deadlift 405, or more, for three reps once again.

The takeaway from this summary is that you need to structure your training and manage your recovery intelligently if you want to perform well. High levels of fitness mean nothing if they are masked by high levels of fatigue. In the gym, you need to use your strength to build your strength, so being too tired to lift heavy leads to poor results. On the field, the best athletes may appear average if they are too tired to perform well. If performance deteriorates despite steady, well-executed training, then you may need to take a step back and get some rest to be at your best!

Fatigue masks fitness, folks!
Thanks for reading!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Employing Russian Training Principles To Become a Lifting Cyborg, Part 3

By Andrew McGunagle

The Russian philosophy of physical training is astoundingly organized, systematic, and logical. I hope I have made that much clear in parts one and two of this series. In this third and final installment of the cyborg series, I will expand on the final four principles that make up their excellent athlete development system. Once again, keep in mind that the application of these principles is limited only by your imagination.
Imagination, imagin-aaaation!
5. The Principle of Visualization: Visualization can be so much more than simply picturing yourself successfully performing a lift. The Russians emphasize utilizing a variety of tools, such as films, slides, and diagrams, to ensure that every one of their athletes fully understands the movements they need to perform. In my opinion, one of the most useful tools in this regard is YouTube. Thousands of lifters upload videos of themselves lifting weights. While some of these videos are comical, others demonstrate outstanding strength and movement mastery.

This would fall under the "comical" category

I know that some lifters enjoy watching lifting videos before their sessions to pump themselves up. In contrast to this approach, I propose that lifters watch videos in order to better understand the movements that they are going to perform. Watching the set-up, the execution, and the poise that certain lifters demonstrate under outstanding loads can be very instructive. Search YouTube for videos of strong lifters who utilize the technical style that you would like to master. If you squat with a close stance, then videos of wide-stance squatters in double-ply suits will not do you much good. Bookmark the videos of lifters that you would like to emulate and then watch these short videos before your sessions. In the gym, work towards demonstrating the same level of mastery as your lifting idols. I guarantee that, using this method, you will quickly see improvements in your lifting execution. If not, blame Klokov (if you dare).    

6. The Principle of Specialization: When discussing specialization, the Russians are referring to having athletes specialize in a single sport once they reach a particular age. Though you may be past your sporting prime, specialization can still be an important principle to keep in mind for your lifting. You see, one of the problems that a lot of young lifters run into nowadays is information overload. There is so much strength and conditioning information available, and there are so many cool things to try. If you are a young guy and you are not training for anything in particular, then go ahead and try it all. The problem with this smorgasbord-style of training is that, eventually, it becomes difficult to excel. Newbies will include the Olympic lifts, the power lifts, intense conditioning circuits, yoga, track workouts, kettlebell moves, and a host of other things in one week of training. This is a fine plan if your goal is to be decent at everything, but it will likely be ineffective if you want to get really good at a few things in particular. At a certain point in your lifting career, you will have to trim your training sessions and focus on the things you really want to accomplish. If you want to get good at A, B, and C, then including D, E, F, G, H, I, and J in your program will hamper your progress. Sure, certain things can be added to aid you in reaching your specified goals. However, once you have clear cut training goals, make sure that the things you add have a purpose. If your goal is to deadlift 500 pounds, then why are you doing 400 meter sprints twice a week? You only have one ass, so pick a saddle and get to work.
This monkey gets the message.
7. The Principle of Individualization: Individualization seems to have become a buzz word in the field of strength and conditioning. I applaud the individuals that tout this principle, as I also believe it is vital to lifting and athletic success. However, I have noticed that a number of lifters who are aware of this principle do not seem to fully grasp its meaning. The common misconception about individualization is that it entails some sort of mystical genetic quality that determines what will work for a particular person. This idea, quite simply, is complete rubbish.

"I have to do three board presses, man. It's in my genez."
While genetics certainly play a role in both lifting and athletic success, they do not necessarily dictate the means and methods that you must use to be successful. For example, many lifters will swear by certain exercises and protocols as the eternal keys to their success. Guys will adamantly assert that they must always do close-grip three board presses to build their bench, and they will stick with this exercise for months, even years, on end. These lifters seem to believe that they were predestined to need to perform select exercises to get strong. This belief leads to inefficiency, as lifters will get locked in to doing a standard slew of exercises because they think they have found what they must do to improve. Individualization is not about finding the exercises or protocols that you were "born" to do, it is about identifying needs. What movements will you perform in your sport of choice? What are the physical requirements for success in your chosen sport? Do you need to build muscle? If so, where? Also, where are the low-force areas in the range of motion of the lifts you want to improve? Where are you at in your training cycle? Should you be focusing on morphological qualities or neurological qualities? You see, individualization starts with needs. Needs, in turn, are matched with objectives. Once you have your objectives, then choosing exercises and protocols becomes easy. It isn't about finding what works for you as much as it is about determining what you need to improve upon and then matching your needs with exercises and protocols that address them.            

8. The Principle of Structured Training: Structured training and the preceding principle, individualization, go hand in hand, as a lifter's needs largely determine how their training program should be designed. For example, take a powerlifter who needs to focus on morphological qualities (essentially, they need to build muscle). Looking at the research and at guys who have been successful building muscle (bodybuilders), we see that lower frequencies with higher volumes of work are ideal for addressing this issue. Therefore, the lifter would plan on performing the power lifts less frequently and would look to use moderate intensities and higher volumes in order to perform more mechanical work during each session. On the other hand, if a lifter wanted to peak for a meet and, therefore, needed to focus on neurological qualities, then their training would be structured much differently. The frequency at which they perform their main lifts would increase, and their intensity would be high while their volume would likely be kept in the low to moderate ranges. These examples are certainly simplified, but they highlight how training can be organized differently depending on an individual's needs.

"Hmmm, what are my needs?"
In the end, you can make planning your training as simple or as complex as you like. If you understand how to identify your needs and you know which exercises and protocols take care of those needs, then planning your training is easy. Being a student of your sport, as the Russians highlighted in their very first principle, is what makes this ease of planning feasible.

In conclusion...
This series was fun to write, and I hope you learned a thing or two along the way. If you haven't already, go back and read through parts one and two of the series. Also, help make the world a better place to lift by sharing this series with your lifting buddies. At the very least, show your friends a video of Klokov and tell them he preys on people who curl in the squat rack. Thanks for reading!
Bros beware.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

My Squat Story, Part 2

By Andrew McGunagle

In part 1 of My Squat Story, I discussed my squatting history and the feats of strength I witnessed that prompted me to start down the path I am currently traveling. Transitioning from a hip-dominant powerlifting-style squat to the more balanced Starting Strength-style wasn't easy. But, the insights that I gained during this process can ease the transition for others interested in making a similar change. In addition, the tips that I provide below can be instructive for anyone who simply desires to squat better.
Putting a picture of a random jacked dude in the article thumbnail doubles my views. America.
 I still have a long way to go in order to reach my squatting goals. However, I feel like I have finally reached a point where I am squat-competent. With this article, I hope to help you reach that point as well. Here are five tips to get you started.     

1. Read Starting Strength: As you may have been able to infer from a couple of my past articles, I am a big fan of Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength book. I can't say that I have always been a believer, though. When I read through Starting Strength for the first time, I was still entrenched in the hip-dominant squatting nonsense that the rest of the Internet was wild about. I tried out a couple of the squatting tips from the book, but I never made an effort to fully adopt the style Rippetoe was advocating. The truth is, while I read the book and thought I understood it, I was too stupid to understand that the book is a advocating a specific squatting style rather than presenting a collecting of technical tips. I was trying to combine Rip's style with information from other entities and, in the process, was creating a Frankenstein power squat that was just plain ugly. From what I see on the interwebz, this is actually fairly common. Everybody claims to have read Starting Strength and is quick to proclaim it's brilliance. But, when you actually see these people squat, it is clear to see that they have not taken the time to understand the information. If you really want to learn how to perform a well-balanced squat, then buy the book or, at the very least, read through the abundance of free information that Rippetoe has published to the web. I wish I had done this sooner because, now that I know how to squat, making progress in this movement is as simple as showing up and squatting.        

2. Consider buying squat shoes: In addition to buying in to the wide-stance, sit-back squatting hype, I also adhered to the standard footwear recommendation that accompanied this style; I squatted in Chuck Taylors. Everyone on the Internet said they were the best shoe to wear when lifting, and they certainly worked better than my old running shoes. But, as anyone that has made the transition to squat shoes will tell you, you don't realize how soft Chucks are until you put on a pair of squat shoes.
Conveniently, VS Athletics has a retail store in the town where I go to school. 
For those of you that don't know, in addition to having a slightly elevated heel (which allows for greater, albeit artificial, ankle dorsiflexion), squat shoes are designed to have virtually zero sole compression. Compression, when lifting, leads to instability and inefficiency. In turn, these issues prevent lifters from maximizing their force production while squatting. It took only one set with my new squat shoes to understand the difference they can make. While lifting shoes are not for everyone, I highly recommend them to any dedicated lifter with decent mobility, adequate technique, and a desire to squat heavy with a closer stance. Don't expect the shoes to work miracles, but they can aid you in your squat positioning and stability. Squat shoes start at about $80 dollars and can get up to as much as $200 dollars for a high end pair. But, keep in mind that they will only be worn in the gym and are built to last a very long time.     

3. Learn to shove your knees out: When I first attempted to make the transition from a power squat to a Starting Strength-style squat, my biggest issue was my inability to shove my knees out. All of the squatting movements I had done up until that point had been initiated by pushing my hips straight back. I thought that forcing the hips back was what Rippetoe advocated as well, as one of his main points was that lifters should utilize "hip drive" on the ascent of the squat. In my mind, it only seemed logical to focus on the hips on the descent as well. During the first training session that I did with Ian and Jake (who I mentioned in the first article of this series), they cued me over and over again to force my knees out to the sides to initiate the descent. Due to my old habits and my faulty beliefs, I had a lot of trouble doing this.
A perfect example of shoving the knees OUT.
After watching Ian and Jake squat and rereading Starting Strength, I realized that I had to figure out how to shove my knees out if I was ever going to use a more balanced squatting style. Getting the knees out sounds like such a simple thing to do, but it took a lot of dedicated work for me to learn how to do it. The things that enabled me to finally initiate my squats correctly were doing goblet squats (more on that below), improving my hip mobility (particularly my hip external rotation), improving my ankle mobility, and buying squat shoes. In addition, putting a bar on my back and doing my best to squat correctly week after week certainly helped, as learning to control my new ranges of motion was very important.   

4. Do goblet squats: Goblet squats were an absolutely essential component of my successful squat transition. Before every session I did while retraining my squat, I grabbed a 20kg kettlebell and drilled my new technique. Doing this helped me gain the mobility to adopt sound squatting positions while simultaneously improving my strength and my ability to hold sound squatting positions. When I first started doing goblet squats, I had trouble getting my knees out, particularly in the bottom position. My adductors were tight and I did not have the hip strength to keep my knees out to the sides. Therefore, I initially had to use my elbows to force my knees out as I sat in the bottom of the squat. Over time, my hips and ankles loosened up and my hips got strong enough to keep my knees from caving in. These improvements carried over wonderfully to the squats I did with a barbell on my back.
DJ, the goblet squat originator?
I didn't abandon goblet squats once I could squat well. In fact, I still do them before every single session. Nothing gets me more prepared, both physically and mentally, to squat than a couple light sets of goblet squats. The trick is to use the same mental cues that you use while squatting with a barbell while you warm-up with goblet squats. Despite not having a bar on my back, I think "(upper back) tight, (take a big) breath, spread (the knees), drive (the hips)" during every single squat that I do. The consistency that I get from this mental and physical drilling has helped me tremendously, and I urge all lifters to grab a dumbbell or a kettlebell and goblet squat before their training sessions.     

5. Get your shoulder mobility under control: Having the requisite shoulder mobility to hold a bar on their back is not a problem that every lifter faces. But, it was a pretty significant problem for me and, from what I see in other lifters' videos, is something that others struggle with as well. Poor shoulder mobility makes it difficult to maintain upper back tightness during the squat. A lack of upper back tightness, as I have stated in the past, can cause your chest to drop and your torso positioning to falter as you fatigue. The more shoulder mobility that you possess, the easier it is to create and maintain upper back tension.
Mob', adopt this position, squat.
When it comes to squat-specific shoulder mobility, there are a number of factors that can contribute to poor range of motion. While I believe it is often inefficient to prescribe general mobility drills as universal cure-alls, I can tell you about a couple of mobilizations that caused change for me. First, roll your upper back and your lats with a foam roller. Then, use a lacrosse ball to knead your pecs against a wall. Follow this with three drills: the side-lying extension rotation, the lat EQI stretch, and the no-money drill. You should see range of motion improvements during each of these drills, and you should continue doing them until you are no longer making improvements. During the side-lying extension rotation, one of the tricks that I use is to use the hand of my non-working arm to knead the pec of my working arm when it is flexed at 45 degrees overhead. Also, during both the side-lying extension rotation and the lat EQI stretch, you can use a tension-relaxation technique to improve your range. All you have to do is flex all of the muscles surrounding the joint you are stretching for about five seconds, and then relax into what should be a greater range of motion. Cycle through these periods of tension and relaxtion until you are no longer seeing changes. Lastly, when doing the lat EQI stretch (which can be done with or without light weights), make sure that you keep your back flat against your foam roller and your rib cage down when you are in the stretched position. Allowing the spine to extend and the ribs to flair are compensations for poor shoulder flexion, and allowing yourself to succumb to them does not help your cause.
Rib cage down, son!
Lastly, if you have trouble with squat-specific shoulder mobility, understand that being tight during your first warm-up set is not always a big deal. I almost always feel tight during my first couple of warm-up sets, but I am always ready to go by the time that I get to my work sets. If your mobility does not improve by the time you do all of your warm-up sets, then you might have to settle for a slightly wider grip. As you do your mobility work and your mobility improves, gradually move a finger-width closer until you reach the grip width that you desire. Keep in mind that a closer grip (up to a point, pinkies on the rings is good enough for most lifters) makes for a tighter upper back, so getting to the point that you can adopt a fairly close grip is a good objective. 

In conclusion...
If you want to get big and strong, then you should want to squat well. Squatting well rarely happens on accident; it takes a good plan and hard work. If you are unsatisfied with your squatting style, then the five tips that I shared can definitely get you pointed in the right direction. Additionally, I have five more tips to share in part 3 of this series. Make sure you return for the final installment, as the last five points will be especially helpful. But, in the meantime, get squattin'.

Monday, April 2, 2012

My Squat Story, Part 1

By Andrew McGunagle

The first time I ever squatted, when I was a skinny high school freshman, I got pinned by 135 pounds.

I wasn't this skinny, but I was pretty damn skinny.
I descended, couldn't get back up, and let the bar crash loudly onto the pins of the power rack. It was my first spring lifting session of my freshman year of high school. My freshman football coach and a couple of upperclassmen that were also lifting watched as I picked myself up off of the floor.

I had to ask one of the juniors to help me re-rack the bar.

I wish I could tell you that I regained my composure, nailed a couple of sets of five with that weight, and then went on to squat in the mid-four hundreds by the time I graduated from high school. Unfortunately, my squatting story isn't that simple.

You see, I loved lifting when I was in high school. The problem was that I did not know how to do it correctly and there was no one available to teach me. The lifting program at my school was a disaster; the only time it was ever organized was when we did puke-inducing Crossfit-style circuits the summer before my senior football season. After my initial squatting debacle, I erroneously stuck to high box squats and light front squats. My technique was terrible, my knees hurt, and I did not get big and strong. Not knowing how to squat wasn't my only issue, to be sure. But, it certainly was the missing factor that would have made the biggest difference.

Circuits sure did me good, lol.
Since high school, I have been lucky enough to learn a lot about lifting and a lot about squatting. When I first began to read articles online, I was influenced by the wide-stance, sit-back squatting that was, unfortunately, widely propagated on the interwebz. With this popular style of squatting, you can quickly squat (relatively) decent weights with minimal amounts of mobility. Due to my poor mobility, long legs, and past knee issues, I eagerly adopted this style. I couldn't squat like those perfectly-proportioned, genetically-gifted Olympic lifting guys, and I did not believe my long legs would ever allow me to. To be honest, I was content with that. I was squatting decent weights with what I deemed to be decent technique; I thought I knew what I was doing.

Until I met Ian and Jake.

Ian and Jake are a couple of guys that I met at my college's rec center. We had a couple of kinesiology classes together, and they seemed to know some stuff about lifting, so I asked them if I could meet them at the gym for a training session. They were a bit more muscular than I was, but our builds were comparable enough. Thus, I thought that I would have no problem hanging with them in the squat rack.

Boy, was I wrong.

My best squat at the time was 315 pounds. It was done with a feet outside of shoulder-width stance and my depth was probably just about at parallel. I thought that was cool, until I saw Jake do deep high bar squats with my max for sets of five and Ian do the deepest, cleanest front squats I had ever seen with something like 365 for sets of 3. I was simultaneously crushed, in awe, and curious. I had never seen such beautiful squats in person, and I immediately wanted to learn their secrets.
I thought this kind of squatting was cool...
...until I saw this kind of squatting in person.
Their secret, they told me, was really no secret at all. Read Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength book, learn how to do his style of squatting, drink a gallon of milk every day, squat three times a week, and squat five more pounds than you squatted the session before.

Being the genius that I was, I didn't really believe them. I thought my legs were too long to ever squat with a fairly close stance. I thought I would never have the ankle mobility to shove my knees out. I thought linear progressions were for newbies, and that beginner gains only lasted for the first 6-12 months of your lifting career. I thought that drinking a gallon of milk a day would make me fat.

It took me about a year, but I finally did begin to understand that they were absolutely correct. About everything. I am here to tell you that doing squats and drinking milk works. Revolutionary, I know. But, my utter stupidity and my journey to rid myself of it can be very informative. I hope that my failings, and the time it took me to rectify them, can make the strength training process more efficient for you.

In the next part of this series, I will tell you how I relearned how to squat. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and, therefore, it was a long process. However, in the past year I have learned more about how to perform and how to teach the squat than I ever had in the past. My trials and tribulations can be your reward, so stay tuned for part 2!