Monday, December 31, 2007

When It Counts

When It Counts

Training is great and most of us, if we’ve been in the iron game (or any kind of athletic endeavor) for a significant amount of time, love it. But, unless our goals are purely aesthetic, training is practice and there is no guarantee that we’ll be able to apply all that training in a test, competition, or real-life situation – in other words, when it counts.
The solution, of course, is to simulate “tests” in training and/or to seek out competitions and real-life challenges often enough that we are confident our practiced skills are giving us what we want or need.
Keep in mind though, the test must be different than training. How disparate or similar the training and test are may vary according to needs and training goals. For example, to a powerlifter, a live audience and judges may be the only difference between much of their training and the actual performance. On the other hand, for a CrossFit trainee who, on the spur of the moment, decides to hit the slopes on a weekend road trip, the training and the test may look totally different.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Learned Helplessness

Often, in the classroom and in the weightroom, I work with kids who just give up. They come to a question that is not immediately answerable, or the weight starts to get heavy and, instead of grinding through, they immediately stop and say "I can't do it."

"Success breeds success" is a saying we're all familiar with, but the flip side of this is "failure breeds failure". For those who cannot separate performance from outcome, repeated failure in the classroom or gym becomes internalized, eroding self-esteem and leading to a state of learned helplessness. This can carry over into other areas of life and become part of an individual's psychological make-up.

If you find yourself in a mental rut, here are some tips that may help you get out of it:

*Have a Dream
A dream is the passion that fuels long-term effort. Without a dream, most sustained work will be half-assed at best. If you don't have a dream, get one. Find inspiration whether it's a competition, a test, or a cause, and get after it.

*Separate Performance from Outcome
The most successful entrepreneurs and athletes separate performance from outcome. Tiger Woods does not cry when he misses a put, or shanks one into the drink. Michael Jordan does not start to second-guess his shot if he air-balls one - and they're not jumping up-and-down for every good shot either. We can't always control the outcome - even when we have our very best performances we may still fail and sub-par performances can be victorious. But, if we allow the outcome to control our future performances and practice, we may give up performing altogether. Learn to separate "the performance" from "the outcome". (Overachievement, John Eliot)

*Don't Train "To Failure"
In the gym, many successful bodybuilders "train to failure", meaning that they do repetitions until they cannot do another. As a short-term training stimulus, this is fine. As a long-term training plan, it's horrible. Even the advocates of this type of training suggest that you rotate in weeks of "less intense" training every month or so. Again, "success breeds success". If your philosophy is to "empty the tank" in every training session, you are going to be running on fumes very soon. "Leave something in the tank". Leave yourself some room for improvement in your next training session.

*Shoot with a Shotgun, Not a Laser
Olympic athletes need laser-like focus, especially when they are peaking for a competion. But, to have a laser-like focus without exceptional planning ('sights' if you will) could put you more than a few degrees off target. With a laser, a few degrees off might as well be a mile. A shotgun, on the other hand, is shorter range, but the spread makes it easier to hit the target. In gym-talk, this means diversifying your training. Vary your reps. Use dumbells instead of barbells once in a while, and vice-versa. Use a stop watch. Do circuits or complexes. Include some odd lifts. Train your weak points. It's ok to have all your eggs in one basket, but for God's sake, try to have more than one egg.

At the end of the day, or the set, remember that it is consistency that will reap you rewards long term. Stay in the game - we're rooting for you.

"Remember no man is a failure who has friends."
- Clarence, from the movie "It's a Wonderful Life"

Monday, December 24, 2007

Always Watch the Horizon

"...O.K. now you'll be coming out here and you'll be doing a stable fall face down frog modified. Now out here comes the static line 'cause it goes like from this to here see, and then the pilot chute will open and it'll pull the bridle out and then the main canopy will be open see, 'cause they're all connected, and then you'll be down here and you'll be looking up here at the WDI indicator and you'll also going to check for Mae West and if that's not there then you need to check here for 4 panels and a hole. Then when you come down you're gonna find the piece and you're gonna land over here and you're going to get in this position - except you don't wanna do that - because that means you in trouble, so what you want to do is you wanna get right here and then you're gonna come round here and you're gonna fold up and you're gonna do a toggle and jettison and always watch the horizon O.K?" - from the movie Fandango

In our training and our lives, it's pretty easy to get caught up in the minutiae and forget about the big picture, the goal, why we are doing things in the first place. We should "sweat the details", but it's important to take time to refocus on the big picture. Oftentimes, our needs change, and without a vision of where we are going and how the pieces fit in the larger puzzle, we can find ourselves on a path of, at best, marginal benefit. For example, I often read on forums people freaking out because they didn't hit their programmed numbers for the day. "OMG! What should I do? Should I start the entire mesocycle over, or should I substitute pull-throughs for the glute-ham raise?" With a larger vision of where they are going, a off-day here and there should not be cause of great concern. Have a vision. Establish some benchmarks to guide your training. Get busy. Occasionally stop and reevaluate your progress and vision. And always watch the horizon, O.K.?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Winter storm front moving in today. Got some "GPP" work in with the little guy and with the sandbags. Merry Christmas everyone.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bench Pressing in Japan

A few summers ago, I had the opportunity to visit a small gym in rural Japan called "Takei Power Gym".

I learned of this gym from my wife. She normally has no interest whatsoever in powerlifting, but noticed an article in the paper about a young girl who was a world record holder in the bench press, living and training in the same prefecture. The girl's father was her coach and the gym owner.

I went, not knowing what to expect exactly, but hoping that I might some tips for my horrible bench.

The first thing I noticed was everyones' outside shoes in the entryway... Oops, I was already wearing the shoes I was expecting to train in. I ended up taking them off, taking them to the changing room and rinsing off the soles before beginning my workout.

The gym itself is pretty bare-bones. Three extremely sturdy benches w. safety bar attachments, one power rack, a deadlift platform and loader, a few assorted machines, dumbells, stationary bicycle, treadmill, and a TV. One thing in particular catches my eye - three pieces of large diameter PVC tubing ranging in diameter from 3 - 10 inches. I know it is for one thing - to develop the arch that Japanese benchers are so famous for.

Ai Takei, a former IPF Junior world bench press record holder, is a thin girl, 5'2" maybe 105 pounds. Her father, took third place in the IPF Worlds Bench Press Championships in 1995. He is a very thick man, probably 5'5" and weighing about 220. They are both very friendly, modest people.

During the two sessions that I spent at Takei Power Gym, I talked with Ai and her father (both also Karate instructors by the way) a lot about training, equipment, and technique. Her are some of the highlights:

*Crain bench press shirts are a lot more popular here. According to Mr. Takei, Japanese benchers just don't like extreme gear. He has always used Crain bench shirts and loves the fit. He tried competing in an Inzer EHPHD, but hated it. I tell him that, for Americans, the more painful the gear, the better - he just laughs and it's pretty clear he doesn't agree.

*Almost all meets follow IPF guidelines, so everything is single-ply poly. The Rage X, when I visited, wasn't being sold in Japan yet. He mentions the F-6 too, but I didn't ask him follow-up questions about it.

*Japanese benchers maximize bench grip width. As soon as I put my hands on the bench, both Ai and her father immediately mention that Americans tend to bench close grip and they are a bit puzzled why they do that.

*Mr. Takei does a lot of rep work in the off-season, usually in the 8-10 range. Pre-contest work generally starts 8 weeks out with the last three weeks using equipment. His athletes usually do no workouts 10-14 days before a meet so they are fully recovered.

*His benchers take a lot of time to recover in-between sets. He recommends 10 minutes.

*He recommends an elbows-out bench press style. I know, I know... I mention rotator cuff injuries and he says that he has had a few, but that the shoulder and pectorals are underutilized by elbows-in benchers and that tricep-dominant lifters are limiting themselves. He says that opening up your elbows even a little will make a big difference with your bench press.

*They use large diameter PVC to help develop their arch. When I try using a 5" diameter tube, my back immediately cracks and then starts in with mild shooting spasms... I eventually settle into it and later, without the PVC, when I set myself with the bar, Mr. Takei pushes my shoulders towards my feet, saying "Down, down!". My upper back immediately tightens, solving an upper back tightness issue I've been battling on the bench press for years!

*I mentioned Westside and Metal Militia to Mr. Takei and he apparently was not aware of their methods. I don't know if Westside and Metal Militia methods have caught on in Japan since my visit or not.

*They don't do board presses, use bands or chains, do floor presses. Everything is pretty basic.

*Most of their off-season basic training is fairly high rep work (10-6). Training sets are determined by hitting a goal set and then subsequent drop sets are determined by performance in those sets. I can't remember the %s exactly, but basically the main set was a set of 10 and then subsequent sets were reduced reps or poundages from there.

Some time after visiting Takei's gym, I bought The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline and it was nice to see someone echoing the same karateka techniques I learned in Japan.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Positive Coaching by Jim Thompson

A lot of coaches and teachers come from a relatively successful background in their field and they never suffered from a lack of interest or motivation. Or, they weren't particularly successful and consequently have a my-students-won't-make-the-same-mistakes-I made attitude. Because of this, it can be tough to empathize with a student who is low on volition and motivation.
I would say that one of our primary roles as teachers, trainers, coaches, mentors, and parents is that of a motivator. When I start to get exasperated that a student isn't motivated to learn the difficult subject or skill I'm teaching, I just have to remember that I still have to motivate my 4 year old to take a bath and I simmer down... Now, I know that many will say "Well, I can't do anything if they don't want it themselves!", and yeah, it's true that "A mind is like a parachute - it only functions if it's open." and "You gotta want it!". But remember that adults, just like kids, have motivation levels that sometimes gush, and sometimes wane.

About 7 years ago, I was starting to get back into coaching after a long hiatus and was in the bookstore looking for books that pertained to competitive swimming and coaching in general. I found some great ones, among them was the latest edition of Ernest Maglischo's classic "Swimming Faster", appropriately titled Swimming Fastest, and another that came to be one of my favorites, Positive Coaching by Jim Thompson. Although the book's primary focus is on age-group coaching, I think this is an incredible resource for anyone who teaches, coaches, mentors, trains, or parents. Pick up a copy if you have a chance.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Thoughts on Caffeine

I'm a caffeine addict. Without much thought, I can easily put away two 20oz. bottles of Mountain Dew, a cup of coffee, and some green tea throughout the course of a busy day. I suspect that I am not alone in this consumption of "mass quantities" and I would guess many, many people consume more caffeine than that on a daily basis.

I have no facts or statistics whatsoever to base the following statement on, but I would bet a good chunk of change that Americans today, on average, consume twice as much caffeine than they did 30 or even 20 years ago. Think about it - twenty years ago had you even heard of Starbucks? Redbull? The closest thing to any of that was Jolt! cola and even though it had a cult-like following, I didn't know a single person that drank it daily. One has to wonder what kind of consequences our speed freak culture will reap from long-time excessive consumption of caffeine.

It is no secret that Americans have sleep problems. Certainly caffeine consumption isn't the root of all of them, but it's probably a factor in most of them considering the half-life of caffeine is 3-4 hours. Now, I know I'll get some flack for saying this and everyone will bring up "tolerance" and the "caffeine is the most studied drug in the world" argument, but do we honestly believe that years of overconsumption will have no negative consequences? No consequences to sleep? to mood? to cardio-vascular health?

About two months ago, I was doing some high-rep work with kettlebells - this was after a long day at work with more than my usual dose of caffeine. I was tired after I finished the training session and, honestly, I felt dangerously tired. If it's possible to feel "heart heavy" in a very literal sense, that's the way I felt. I have since stopped drinking soft drinks almost entirely - not a small feat for someone who LOVES Coca-Cola and Diet Mt. Dew. I still drink my share of tea and have an occasional cup of joe, but I'm on the road to moderation and plan to stay on it.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Happy Birthday (to me)

Yesterday was my birthday. I had a pretty uninspired training session, but tried to keep it interesting. I think I'll do a lot better with this complex when my hamstrings aren't riddled with DOMS...

Friday, December 14, 2007

"The Trade"

"If you keep too busy learning the tricks of the trade, you may never learn the trade."

- John Wooden

This is exactly what Dr. Squat was saying when he talked about the futility of "routine whoredom". The "trade" for strength and conditioning coaches is to make their athletes and clients stronger, faster, more resilient, BETTER. There are no "tricks", unless you consider proper programming and consistent effort, recovery and attention to skills "tricks".

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Today was a snow day. Enjoy the pain.


Most sports movement require isometric stabilization of the core, so why are most core exercises centered around flexion, extension, and rotation? It's not that you can't create stability through these movements - of course you can, but isometric contractions are also very effective and underutiilzed tools.
Some core exercises that require isometric contraction include: sit-ups, the plank, suitcase deadlifts, one-arm farmer's walks, and Turkish get-ups. I hope I don't have to point out how great deadlifts and squats are at building an iron core...

Isometrics can be a highly effective tool in correcting glaring sticking points or for strength training individuals too weak to perform full range of motion exercises safely or effectively. A personal trainer friend of mine uses isometrics extensively during initial phases of training with detrained and elderly clients. I, personally, used isometrics almost exclusively for a period of time while I was learning how to perform a full range of motion Pistols.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Words of Wisdom from JM Blakely

J.M. Blakely was an elite bench press competitor. In addition to his pressing power, he was famous for his ability to manipulate his weight to make or change weight classes. Here's what he had to say about gaining weight (from his article The Big Boy's Menu Plan - Powerlifting USA):

I am reminded of the time I was complaining to a friend about how hard I was trying to get my weight up to 300 pounds and how tough it was for me to eat so much, and boo-hoo-hoo. The friend looked at me, clearly fed up with my whining, and remarked "I see several people over 300 lbs at work (he was a physical therapist) and they really don't seem to be trying all that hard! They weigh 300 and they don't try!"
This put it in better perspective for me. I even had the advantage of working out with weights to help boost my weight and these guys were out eating me and my best effort without so much as a second thought. If people can do it on accident, I could certainly do it on purpose! And I did. So can you.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Quick Gut Check - The "Secret Service Snatch Test"

When I was 17 or 18, I watched the weightlifting competition during the Seoul Olympics with my old man (a former Olympic-style weightlifter who trained in York back in the day). As we watched a personal profile of the great olympic lifter Anatoly Khrapaty, there was a clip of he and his coach having an improptu kettlebell pressing contest, which his coach won. My dad said, "Those are kettlebells! There were some of those lying around in York. We used to dust the cobwebs off and fool around with them once in a while." Needless to say, my interest was piqued and 15 years later I bought my first kettlebell from Pavel and eventually became a certified kettlebell instructor.

Obviously, I've gotten a lot more proficient with kettlebells in the past 2 or 3 years, but it's easy to maintain a "beginner's mind" when the surrounding world kettlebell community is so well-practiced and conditioned. Yesterday, I did the "Secret Service Snatch Test" (aka, the "SSST"): 10 minutes of snatching a 53lb kettlebell as many times as you can. I managed to get 156 reps even though I was huffing and puffing at 50. Not bad, I guess, but apparently 200 is the standard of excellence with this test. 200 repetitions in 10:00 is one of my personal training goals for 2008 and I'm looking forward to the journey.

...and just for fun, here's the master, Anatoli Khrapaty, cleaning up at the 1988 Seoul Olympics:

Moron's Gym

Years ago, I posted the rules for a fictional gym, affectionately named "Moron's Gym" to Dr. Squat's message board. It was amended and corollaries were added later, but here are the original 20 rules:

Welcome to MORON'S GYM! Here are the rules:

1) Screaming as if achieving orgasm is encouraged on every repetition of every set. This will add "intensity" to your workout and will aid your progress.

2) At the completion of a set, weights must be dropped from a height no less than 4 feet. This will bend the weights, making them more ergonomically correct, as well as add "intensity" to your workout.

3) No sweating is allowed, unless you are wearing a tanktop or no top at all. In this case, only profuse sweating is allowed. Members may not wipe benches or equipment after use.

4) Machines are preferable to free weights. Free weights will be provided, but their use is highly discouraged for fear of injury or unsightly muscle gain.

5) If free weights are to be used, their use is limited to the following: barbell curls in the only existing squat rack, shrugs in the only existing squat rack, bench presses to the jugular, trampoline-chest bench presses, EZ bar curls, dumbbell curls, hammer curls, running man curls, curly fries, cable curls, french curls, zottman curls, and preacher curls.

6) Free weights are not to be returned to racks if used. This will take away jobs from gym staff and likewise hurt the national economy.

7) Weight lifting belts may be worn, but if used, they must be used for every set of every rep. They must not be taken off inbetween sets or when at the juice bar.

8) Spotting of others while lifting is generally discouraged, as this will be a liability concern. However, proper spotting technique dictates the generous usage of the following phrases yelled at maximum volume while deadlifting a barbell off of another member’s chest: “IT’S ALL YOU!!” and “YOU GOT IT, YOU GOT IT, YOU GOT IT!!!” (Note: Deadlifts are not allowed in Moron’s Gym, UNLESS when spotting someone doing jugular bench presses.)

9) Members must watch themselves in the mirror on every repetition of every set, as well as in between sets. In fact, more time should be spent looking in the mirror than working out. Failure to follow this rule will likely lead to overtraining.

10) Moron's Gym has a strict dress code. Gym wear is limited to the following articles of clothing: tanktops, baggy shorts pulled down to mid-thigh, colorful print baggy pants, bright neon lycra, do-rag/bandanas, T-shirts advertising beer, fraternity baseball caps, apparel with “Big Dog” or “No Fear” logos, high school championship commemorative T-shirts, and sunglasses.

11) More time must be spent talking about training, supplements, and other gym members than actually training. This is to be done by shouting at each other in a boisterous, arrogant manner. Failure to follow this rule will likely lead to overtraining.

12) Silent hostility among gym members is mandatory. Exceptions can be made for lovers who grope each other in between sets, when giving unsolicited advice (See Rule #15), and when following rule #11.

13) Time not spent lifting or staring at one's self in the mirror shall be spent viewing other gym members of the opposite sex in a lecherous manner. However, if eye contact is made, you must pretend that you were not looking at said gym member.

14) No chalk is allowed in Moron's Gym. However, gloves are encouraged to be worn at all times while in the gym and washroom facilities.

15) Unsolicited advice should be given to other gym members at any time you deem appropriate. Unsolicited advice will be most helpful when given WHILE someone is lifting. Advice can be based purely on conjecture or opinion and need not be based on experience or research.

16) Sharing of equipment and weights is prohibited at Moron’s Gym. There is to be no “working in”. If another member asks to “work in”, you must reply “I just have a few sets left.”. Monopolization of gym equipment is encouraged as progress is directly proportionate to the amount of time spent near fitness equipment.

17) Deodorant is discouraged at Moron’s Gym. Natural body odor which has been allowed to ferment for several days is preferable. However, copious amounts of cologne, perfume, or body splash are also encouraged. Perfume and cologne may be reapplied in between sets or glimpses of self in the mirror.

18) The all-weather cardio theater has been provided for gym member use and members are encouraged to use the cardio equipment when the weather is sunny and pleasant.

19) All gym members must insist that they could be professional/world-class athletes if they used steroids, creatine, protein, Cell-Tech, Hydroxycut, ginseng, or vitamins. This is the only reason why every member at Moron’s Gym is not a professional/world-class athlete.

20) Rules may be changed in any manner deemed appropriate or inappropriate at anytime for any reason by Moron’s Gym management.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Squat Rx #19: Dave Draper's Top Squat

I used to hate squatting with anything but the bare bar, plates, and collars. Fancy bars and accoutrements never suited me. I hated the Manta Ray the first time I tried it. I hated the Safety Squat Bar, hated bands, hated chains - you name it. Over the years (not to mention the many Westside-style templates), my attitude towards these things have changed dramatically and now I'm always excited to try new "squat toys". The "Top Squat" was no exception - the first time I put it on my shoulders, I thought "Hmm, maybe I should have gone with something else...", but the more sets I did with it, the more I liked it.

Dave Draper's "Top Squat" is a great piece of equipment that any lifter who has banged up shoulders and/or is looking for a new max effort exercise should look into. It does put the bar in a very high-bar position and, as with any squat variant, there is a learning curve with it, but give it a shot if you have a chance.