Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Perfect Deadlift Descents and Intervals for High Reps and a Big Back

By Andrew McGunagle

If you want a back that’s big and strong, then heavy deadlifting for multiple reps is undoubtedly the way to go. Sadly, the technique most people employ when they pull big for more than a few reps quickly causes the risks to outweigh the brawny rewards. However, this issue can be rectified with a few simple fixes.

A strict, controlled, and properly sequenced eccentric and an efficient interval between reps can make all the difference when you plan on deadlifting for more than one rep. The perfect eccentric begins with excellent bracing in the top position. The body should momentarily remain stacked in one perfect straight line, and the glutes should be pinched, the torso should be solid, the hands should be clenched, the shoulders locked back, and the chin “packed” into a double-chin position. 

From this tense position, you need to perform a strict hip hinge without losing the tension you created at the top of the lift. Initiate this movement by releasing the pinch of the glutes and pushing your hips way back towards the wall behind you to create a deep thigh angle. At the same time, be sure to get your shoulders out over the top of the bar and slide the bar down the legs in close contact with the thighs, which will properly engage the muscles of the back. 

During this “first phase” of the descent, you must keep your shins absolutely vertical. Dropping the knees forward from the top of the lift will slack the hamstrings, which decreases the amount of stretch and tension in your posterior chain. Think of your hamstrings like bowstrings - the more stretch and tension you get, the more “pop” and power you’ll get going into the next rep.

Once the bar passes the knees, you may drop the knees slightly forward. I designate this the “second phase” of the descent. The trick here is to drop the knees just enough to get the bar to the floor, and not so much that you drop the knees, hips, and the entire torso into a squat-like position that is too low and too upright. As you perform this slight drop and slide the bar back down to the start position on the floor, be sure to keep the bar in close contact with your shins - again, this keeps the lats “connected” and engaged. It’s useful to imagine that you’re trying to “shave your legs” with the barbell.

Both phases of the descent should be controlled. You don’t want to move so slowly that you burn up energy and cause undue fatigue, but you do want to move at a speed that allows you to maintain your positioning and your tension. I typically tell my lifters to lower with a “one-two-three” count descent, which seems to be the proper tempo for this objective. 

It’s common to see lifters release their tension, relax their spinal positioning, and drop the bar quickly during the eccentric portion of their deadlifts. It’s also common to see the same lifters’ technique break down completely when they pull for multiple reps.This is because it becomes increasingly difficult to create tension as you fatigue - it’s better to “hold on” to the tension you initially created and also use the tension the barbell facilitates as you stretch the muscles out and load them up.

When the bar is back on the floor, the intervals between reps need to be tense and quick. Don’t allow the bar or your body to “slack” and relax - not even for a moment. Cycle through a speedy new “power breath” by quickly exhaling then quickly inhaling like you’re blowing out then sucking in through a straw. This enables you to re-pressurize the abdomen without deflating your torso completely. As soon as you’ve topped off your air, simultaneously drive your feet through the floor and pull on the bar like you’re “ripping the head off a lion” to powerfully initiate the next rep.   

This is certainly a lot of info for just about one half of one rep. If you’re having trouble visualizing the quintessential deadlift descent, refer to the following video of my beastly little brother:

Hope this helps - thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Extrapolation-Based Programming

By Andrew McGunagle

When working towards improved strength, it’s very easy to get caught up striving towards one big, lofty, one-repetition maximum number. If you’re not careful, the major milestones you shoot for - 185, 225, 315, 405, 500, and so on - can cause you to make poor programming decisions.

If the gap between your current abilities and your goal is too large, you might have a tough time making a plan that is efficient. Often, people in this situation write out non-specific and indirect programs, they hope for some sort of progress, and they end up floating around in mid-milestone purgatory for years.

Similarly, impatience can cause individuals to create plans that are unrealistic. After achieving a goal that took many months - years, perhaps - to achieve, they get over-ambitious and put together a 12-week plan to, say, take their deadlift from 405 to 500. After a few weeks of extreme workloads, they often lose the precious momentum they built when they busted past their last plateau. Frustration starts to mount, and stagnation usually occurs.

If your only measure of progress is the next big number, then it can be difficult to know if you’re headed in the right direction if you aren’t regularly testing your max. Unfortunately, constantly testing your max isn’t always the best way to build that lift. Therefore, it is important to create a multitude of high-carryover mini-goals that will provide you with the conviction you’re on course and moving forward while you do the higher-volume work that will actually spur progress. The kicker is that these mini-goals must accurately indicate that you are, in fact, on course and moving forward. If they don’t correlate with your main goal, then you’re wasting your time working toward them.

The value of mini-goals is best measured by their specificity to the main lift and the weakest points in that lift. If your main milestone goal is a heavier 1RM in a certain lift, then improving your 2RM, 3RM, 4RM, and 5RM for that lift will be the best indicators of progress for that max. If you’re going to able deadlift 500 pounds, then you should be able to deadlift 455 pounds for a certain number of reps and a certain difficulty (RPE). Think beyond rep maxes into various rep-RPE combinations, and you’ve got lots of mini-goals to shoot for.  

This contention shouldn’t be revelatory for many of you, but I would like to offer that having a broad swath of concrete numbers to work towards and ensuring that these numbers remain in balance is a unique and valuable way to approach your training plan. In order to easily generate concrete numbers to work towards, I offer the table you’ll find in the excel document linked below.

Use the table to brainstorm options to creatively program in ways that ensure each rep-RPE value in the 1 to 5 rep range improves and no combination lags behind. Insert a few future 1RMs into the 1RM cell and look at the multitude of PRs you can work towards. Quit obsessing about just one ultimate number – extrapolate and suddenly you’ll have plenty of momentum-building mini-goals that actually relate to the one big, glorious lift you envision.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Leave Your Comfort Zone

By Andrew McGunagle

At the beginning of this month I quit my job as a personal trainer at a commercial gym. After a few weeks of prep back at home, I packed up my car and set off on a solo road trip around the United States. Today was my first day on the road and, honestly, it’s been a long day. It’s been a great day, but long nonetheless.

While my departure on a solo road trip might lead you to believe I’m adventurous, honestly, I’m really not. I’m not consumed by wanderlust, and my life doesn’t look like a commercial for cheap beer. In reality, I’ve long been a bit of a homebody. Most weekends of my life I’ve stayed in rather than going out to explore and meet new people.

Despite my timid tendencies, I made a commitment to embarking on a journey that would force me to expand. I’m off to see new places, meet new people, do new things and, above all, escape the cycle of the same old comfort and familiarity. If this exhausting first day of travel is any indication, it’s not going to be an easy transition. Nevertheless, I’m confident the novelty of my travels will move me closer to becoming the best version of myself I envision.

Astro van showdown in San Simeon...I lost.
Now, this isn’t an article about quitting your job to roam the earth. Regardless of whether or not you identify with my self-improvement trek, I want you to consider your fitness comfort zone. I know my propensity to resist the unfamiliar extended into the gym, and helping a number of people towards their fitness goals has taught me I’m not an outlier.

All too often many of us get caught in a routine of exercises we’re comfortable with and a training plan we’ve gradually molded to match our preferences. It’s certainly important to enjoy your training and feel adept during your lifting sessions, but I reckon many of us take this too far. If your progress has slowed, then take a step back from your plan and think about it – when is the last time you did something different?

I’m not really an advocate of employing endless permutations of basic exercises, but there are plenty of other variables to manipulate. Rep ranges, RPEs, tempos, rest periods, periodization schemes – the list goes on and the options are countless. Those things you tried and had trouble with as a beginner and swore off forever? Maybe it’s time to revisit them now that you’ve got more experience. Or, simply start to do a few things you’ve never done.

While we can certainly become creatures of habit in the gym, this phenomenon is far more frequent when it comes to eating. We tend to eat the same foods, make the same recipes, adhere to the same meal frequencies, serve the same portion sizes, and generally do about the same things for years and years regardless of the effects our habits have on our physiques.

Awareness can break this cycle, but sometimes becoming mindful isn’t enough to prompt change. This is why working with an experienced coach can be so valuable. Beyond providing expertise and increased accountability, a coach often supplies the extra push to confidently pursue untested options.

Coaching can cause avenues you never considered to suddenly open, and you can quickly be set back on the path towards progress. Your new path may not entail a cross-country road trip, but it will be new, exciting, and rewarding. Send me a postcard from the land of strength and health.

Thanks for reading!