Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Top Ten Considerations in Strength Training - Part 3: Physical Considerations

By Andrew McGunagle

[Originally published on Shredded By Science]

In the first two installments of this series I covered a few of the key technical and mental considerations of the strength training process. If you missed those two parts, please go back and read them now. Proper technique and a particular frame of mind can take care of a slew of potential training issues before they arise, so it is in your best interest to give those matters their due. Having said that, building your strength and enhancing your physique obviously requires you to consider your body and how it responds to exercise. So, without further ado, let’s examine the final four points in this series - the physical considerations...

7) Specificity: Do the lifts! If you want to become stronger in the powerlifts, then you’ve got to squat, bench, and deadlift. If you want to become a better weightlifter, then you need to snatch and clean and jerk. If you want to be able to one-arm overhead press a big weight and do some heavy chin-ups, then do those lifts. These are the points that are made most often when it comes to specificity in strength training, and for good reason. Putting together an intelligent progression for the lifts you want to build and doing those lifts consistently for a long time will - as long as a few other undeniable requisites are in place - enable you to achieve great results. However, there are a few other points about specificity I’d like to touch on.

If doing the lifts you want to build will best build those lifts, then what’s the value of all the other stuff in helping your towards your goals? Well, in many cases the answer is: not much - jumping rope probably won’t help you bench press more weight. Nevertheless, if you break down the lifts you focus on into a set of required qualities and pinpoint your weaknesses, then you can choose general exercises that specifically address those weaknesses. Pick exercises that target muscle groups that could benefit from being bigger, and select protocols that will enable you to maximize hypertrophy in those areas. Identify where you’re weakest within the range of motion of a particular exercise, and do assistance exercises that improve your ability to produce force at those joint angles.

8) Practice: In order to maximize the neural effects of your training, you’ve got to consistently train the same movement patterns. If your set-up isn’t systematized and the execution of your lifts varies wildly, then you’ll end up missing out on a large chunk of the potential benefits of improved coordination. Essentially, you won’t be as strong as you could have been if you had simply done more perfect reps rather than loads of sloppy ones.

Consistent technique regardless of the load, distractions, and fatigue takes time, study, thought, and practice. You need to understand each element of your set-up and each phase of your execution, and you must learn to problem-solve under a variety of conditions. When I was first learning how to lift, I was often frustrated by how much my performance would fluctuate for particular lifts. One week I’d feel rock-solid on the bench, and the next week I’d be a shaky mess lifting less weight for fewer reps. How could I adhere to the principles of progressive overload with these inconsistency issues? When I finally pruned away all of the extra movements from my set-up for each lift and standardized my positions, I found that increasing my strength became a much more straightforward process.

9) Hypertrophy: You must identify underdeveloped muscle groups and, in the alleged words of Dmitry Klokov, "f--- with" them. Volume, fatigue, and a calorie surplus enable you to build muscle, and building more muscle is the most important adaptation for long-term success in the iron game. Your current structure only has so much strength potential and, while the inter- and intra-muscular coordination benefits of specificity and practice will certainly build your lifts, filling out your frame will ultimately enable you to reach a higher peak.

If you have specific strength goals such as, say, bench pressing 150 kilos, then look at how big and how heavy the average individual with your height and structure that can bench that much is. If you’re skinny and lanky compared to those lifters, then it’s reasonable to assume you’ll need to build yourself up to their standard to achieve similar performances. Don’t point to the genetic anomalies that naturally possess amazing relative strength - pinpoint the average physique that has achieved the numbers you desire, and pick up your fork and get to work.  

10) General Development: While specificity reigns supreme for building up particular lifts, that progress can only be sustained with a solid foundation of general development.  Ironing out front to back and right to left asymmetries, taking care of lagging muscle groups, attending to neglected or missing ranges of motion with SMR, mobility, and movement, and improving general work capacity are oft-forgotten requisites that ward off potential issues.

I understand this contradicts some of the points I made about specificity, but I want you to keep in mind that general work needs to be tailored to your specific goals. You shouldn’t be training for a triathlon if all you want to do is lift heavier weights - you need to do things that are reasonable and will positively impact your ability to perform your main lifts safely and sustainably. Think about improving your ability to easily adopt and “own” the positions you need to achieve, and spend some time in positions you don’t train to ensure your body doesn’t start to lock up.

You can get away with a narrow approach for quite some time, but your musculoskeletal health will ultimately suffer if you do not posses the ability to complete a variety of physical challenges more or less successfully. Plus, this general training will break up the monotony of doing the same lifts over and over, and I’ve noticed it can also improve mood and motivation. If you’re stuck in a lifting rut, expand your movement repertoire at the beginning of your next training cycle, then gradually pare things down as you work towards a peak. This is what successful lifters have been doing for decades, and it would be wise to follow suit.

Thanks for reading!    

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Top Ten Considerations in Strength Training - Part 2: Mental Considerations

By Andrew McGunagle

[Originally published on Shredded By Science]

While an overview of the mental considerations of strength training could go off in one hundred different directions, I’m going to focus on three points that, in my opinion, will impact your training and your results most directly and efficiently. Creating a mental model of the training process and gradually adopting a slew of habits that enable you to think the right things at the right times can dramatically enhance your results in the iron game. Here are a few pieces to the puzzle...

4) Focus: How you direct and organize your thoughts has a definite impact on your performance. Sure, you knew that - just think positive thoughts and quit fantasizing about that cute girl on the treadmill while you’re lifting, right? Well, science says we can do a bit better than that. Many studies have demonstrated improved performance outcomes when the participants were given an external focus rather than an internal one.

An external focus is usually a target in the environment. For example, rather than thinking about contracting your glutes and squeezing your hips to finish a deadlift, think about throwing your hips towards the wall in front of you or trying to hit the bar with your thighs. General terms that refer to movements rather than body parts or muscles work best - I often cue clients to drive down through the floor, push up towards the ceiling, or sit back and spread to the walls.

In addition to these beneficial external focal points, I have found it useful to organize and designate a few standardized cues for each complex movement. Everyone who I’ve taught to lift knows to think “tight, drive, pop” during the deadlift, “tight, spread, drive” during the squat, and “breath, pull, drive” during the bench press. Other cues will certainly be used to correct their positions and patterns, but we can always fall back on their basic cues if complexity causes confusion or if fatigue causes distress.   

5) Grinding: Learning how to grind through a heavy lift or the final rep of a set without defaulting to poor positions or giving up on weights is an excellent skill to acquire in the pursuit of maximal strength. While there are certainly physiological factors that influence the execution of  very low velocity lifts, I’ve found that practicing the proper mindset can make a tremendous difference.

Being able to grind through tough reps requires two things: an understanding of how slow you can move and still complete a lift, and the capacity to remain calm and continue to maintain your position and direct your strength when you’re moving slow. Lifters who primarily train using the submaximal effort method rarely encounter reps that aren’t fairly smooth and fast, and they often panic when the weights get heavy and the reps slow down. They often lapse into faulty positions during max attempts in order to complete the lift at a familiar pace rather than sticking with the pattern they’ve been practicing.

If you want to maximize the effectiveness of any high-intensity, nervous system-dominant training you do, then you’ll need to frame your mindset and practice brawling with slow reps. Get an idea of how slow you can move and still finish, predict where you might slow down the most, and commit to straining through your sticking point without rushing into a flawed position. This practice will be rewarded with heavier, cleaner lifts.      

6) Momentum: I believe I first read about the concept of training momentum on Mike Tuchscherer’s Reactive Training Systems website, and I’ve consistently returned to this idea to explain and examine the training process since then. While strength performance and training success will certainly ebb and flow, the sensation of building - and the practice of sustaining or rebuilding - momentum is, in my experience, the key to the entire training process.

Think about the instances where your training is really going great - success begets success, and you can feel every session, every meal, and every good night’s sleep moving you forward. Now, think about the tough times when your training sucks - you’re stressed, you miss sessions, you eat poorly and miss meals, and your sleep quality and quantity suffers. You gradually work yourself into a rut, and it takes time to get your body headed in the right direction again.

I’ve found that one of the best strategies for building momentum, keeping momentum, and preventing losses of momentum is the structured incorporation of novelty and challenge into the training process. Building strength demands a high degree of specificity and consistency, but this can be difficult to sustain both physiologically and psychologically. Therefore setting a date to shift your training focus, test your lifts, try cooking some new recipes, or just do something new, fun, and interesting can make it easier to continue moving towards your goals.

Thanks for reading - and be sure to check out Part 3!

The Top 10 Considerations in Strength Training - Part 1: Technical Considerations

By Andrew McGunagle

[Originally published on Shredded By Science]

For many of us lifters, the barbell can be a best friend or a bastard, depending on the successes or setbacks experienced during training. Weights we dominate one day may randomly pound us into submission the next, and this reversal can be incredibly frustrating. As dedicated lifters’ careers advance, they find that the remedy for this inconsistency is knowledge. Understanding affords a degree of control that can allow experienced lifters to avert bad days in the gym - or at least make the most of them when they inevitably arrive. These productive sessions add up, and eventually amount to impressive results.

The goal of this article series is to outline the ten considerations that - in my opinion - comprise the bulk of training mastery. Please understand that each of these points could constitute an entire article, so I am simply doing my best to introduce them and prod you in the right direction. As I’ve learned from the people I’ve trained, you don’t need to dive too deep down each of these rabbit holes to become a better lifter. However, a bit of exploring can certainly be useful, so I encourage the curious to investigate. Let’s get started with the first three points…   
Technical Considerations

1) Position: For the majority of lifts, you can break things down to a Position 1 and a Position 2. Position 1 is almost always going to be the start position for the lift, and Position 2 is going to be the bottom position (squat, bench press, etc) or the top position (deadlift, overhead press, etc), depending on the exercise you’re doing.

Ideally, you’re going to optimize those positions based on the fundamentals of biomechanics, which demand you arrange the weight and your bodily segments over the middle of your base of support in a way that is strong, safe, and balanced. Once these positions are organized, then you will need to figure out the strongest, safest, most efficient path from Position 1 to Position 2. The better your two positions are, the easier this will be.

The keys to optimizing position and the transitions between positions lie in two basic concepts: the neutral spine and joint torque. The neutral spine is the natural orientation of your spine - not rounded over and not excessively arched inwards. While there are certainly examples of strong lifters who don’t comply with this convention, the evidence supporting the importance of maintaining a neutral spine is difficult to ignore. Coach enough people out of painful deviated spinal positions and into a pain-free neutral position, and you’ll have to agree.

In addition to the neutral spine position, creating external rotation torque is another vital detail. Push your knees out over a stable neutral foot when you’re squatting, and break the bar and tuck your elbows slightly when benching, and you’re going to be in safer, more stable joint positions.          

2) Tension: The ability to create and maintain large amounts of tension in your torso, shoulder girdle, and hips can make a big difference in your ability to display the strength of your prime movers. Tension in these key areas allows you to lock in the optimal positions previously mentioned.

Knowing how to tense your glutes to set your pelvis in a fairly level orientation, having the awareness to use your abdominal wall to prevent rib flare and lumbar extension, and being cognizant of using your lats to lock your shoulders back are three powerful skills you must possess. Additionally, breathing correctly is an invaluable skill you can utilize to pressurize your abdomen and reinforce the rigid torso position you skillfully create.

While most lifters routinely take a gulp of air before exerting effort, there are a few tricks that will improve the effectiveness of your breath. First, understand that a forceful exhale can create abdominal tension and help set your rib position - think of the tension you feel during a really big sneeze. Once you’ve locked your ribs down by blowing air out, you’ve got to take some air in to create pressure. I prefer taking a quick breath in through my mouth like I’m sipping through a straw, but I know other lifters who find they can get tighter with a few forceful sniffs of air in through the nose.

Figure out which method works best for you, and be sure to employ it before beginning a lift, hold it while you’re doing work, and - if necessary - take a new breath when you return to Position 1. Using air optimally can enable you to lift more weight, so become a skilled breather and you’ll see some solid improvements.     

3) Control: For each lifter, there is going to be a particular tempo that allows them to maintain their positions and their tension most effectively and lift the most weight. Some people need a very controlled descent and a smooth drive back up, while others can dive-bomb descents and heave the weight back up without getting out of their groove. Usually, new lifters need to move slower as they learn to optimize position and maintain tension, while experienced strength athletes might move towards more aggressive tempos.

When I am teaching newbies how to lift, I usually have them focus on taking their time to create tension in the start position, controlling the bar during a 2 or 3 second descent, then lifting as explosively as possible without losing their position or their tension during the ascent. If their technique is off, we go slower and gradually work towards moving quicker. I’d rather sacrifice the muscle activation benefits of bar speed in the short-term in order to accurately grease the groove between their two positions. However, the benefits of Compensatory Acceleration Training (lifting as fast as possible) and the stretch-shortening cycle (taking advantage of the elastic qualities of skeletal muscle) cannot be ignored, so we will always work towards moving faster over time.

Thanks for reading -and check back for Part 2!

Crawling Towards Size & Strength

By Andrew McGunagle

[Original published on Shredded By Science]

Trust me, I was as skeptical as you. Crawling? That’s for babies, I thought. I’m a man who lifts to get bigger and stronger, so why would I waste my time shuffling around on the floor? I believed crawling was silly and useless - until I read more about the benefits and gave it an honest go.

Now, I’m a believer, and a bit of a crawling fiend. Crawling, in conjunction with a few other movements, makes my body feel better than it has in years. Over time, as I lifted more and moved less, I began to lose my movement capacity, and my pre-training warm-ups got longer and longer.

I would do foam rolling and other self-myofascial release techniques, a variety of stretches and mobilizations, and I would need a number of work-up sets to get my big lifts to feel right. I often spent over 30 minutes getting my body ready to move, only to find the same tight spots the following session. I was sick of doing all the movement prep bullshit, as I was not seeing significant lasting improvements.

I wanted to find the root cause of my restrictions and employ a few high-yield movements that would address my issues efficiently. Luckily, as I researched and discussed my dilemma with other strength coaches, I stumbled upon the book Original Strength. The authors, Tim Anderson and Geoff Neupert, introduced me to the concept of reflexive stability, and suddenly everything I was dealing with made sense.

Reflexive stability, in the words of the authors, is your body’s subconscious ability to anticipate movement before it occurs and prepare the joints and muscles involved in a particular movement to execute the maneuver. On the other end of the spectrum is feed forward tension, which is the voluntary motor control to prepare muscles and joints for anticipation of a movement, or create purposeful tension for a movement.

You see, over the years I’d gotten great at utilizing feed forward tension. I could brace and power breathe and lock down all of my joints, but I couldn’t move naturally anymore. My body seemed to sense I was overriding my original movement mechanisms to pursue maximal strength, and it didn’t want me to explore ranges of motion I could no longer control. All of my warm-up drills were addressing symptoms, but the root cause of my stiffness I needed to confront was a lack of reflexive stability.

Since learning how to use basic human developmental movements to address my personal movement issues, I’ve been incorporating a variety of crawling variations into my clients’ training programs. In addition to the reflexive stability benefits, I’ve learned that crawling is fairly easy to learn, rarely contraindicated by existing movement restrictions, and can be used as an enjoyable low-impact full-body conditioning tool once a person achieves competency and can begin to build capacity.

Crawling is not nearly as cool as a big deadlift or bigger arms, but it can be used to support the pursuit of those goals. Substantial specific adaptations are built on a bedrock of general development, and it doesn’t get more general than the developmental movements. Movement capacity and movement skill enable you to avoid injury and train harder more consistently, and I’ve yet to find a handful of exercises that promote these qualities more effectively than crawling and other drills outlined in Original Strength. So, get down on the floor and crawl like a baby, a bear, a leopard, or even Spider-Man. You might feel stupid at first, but you’ll thank me later. 

Thanks for reading!