Monday, September 29, 2008

Knowing When To Say When

"Show me somebody who goes hard all the time and I will show you a career about to end."
- "Powerlifter 54" of the Dragon Door Forum

Milo of Crete, a Greek wrestler of antiquity, is most famous for carrying a baby calf everyday for its first four years of life. The story is often cited when talking about progressive overload training. We all know that while it is a great story, if you were to follow a training plan that continually escalates in intensity and/or volume, eventually (quicker than you might think) the weight would become too great and you would either plateau or injure yourself. So, why then do we think we can follow concentrated loading plans long term? Why do we rationalize our high-intensity, high-volume training plans and think that somehow "I'll be different if I can eat enough, or rest enough, or vary the exercise selection in just the right way"?

Part of the problem is that people start out training gung-ho and see results. Novice lifters, though they don't need it, can handle a relatively large amount of volume at higher levels of intensity and still make gains. It doesn't work so well for intermediate and advanced lifters. Let's look at two hypothetical trainees of different lifting experience: Lifter A has been lifting for six months and Lifter B has been lifting for six years. If the training plan calls for 10 sets of triples with 90% of their maximum single repetition squat, which lifter is going to be able to complete the training session in better shape?

Lifter A
Max Squat = 200lbs
Training = 180lbs x 3 x 10 sets
Total Volume = 5400

Lifter B
Max Squat = 500lbs
Training = 450lbs x 3 x 10 sets
Total Volume = 13,500

At first glance, you might be tempted to think that since both lifters are training at 90% of their maximum, that they should be equally fatigued. However, this is not the case. Very likely, Lifter A will not only be able to complete their sets, but also look around the gym wondering what to do next to finish their workout. Lifter B, on the other hand, if they finish the sets, will probably be barely able to walk.

It is more than simply a question of volume, although that is important in the example given. But, even if we halved the number of sets for the 500lb squatter, it would still be a herculean effort for them to complete the session. There is another reason why advanced strength athletes can't push the pedal to the metal as often as newbies and intermediate trainees and the reason has to do with a fancy sounding concept called the "muscle strength deficit" (MSD). The MSD is the difference between the force your muscles can generate when forced by electro-stimulation and the force they can generate voluntarily in training. The deficit is much greater in sedentary subjects than for trained subjects, and elite strength athletes may have a very small MSD. So, what does that mean for your training? It means that the more experienced you are, the more coordinated you are and the more muscle you are recruiting to your cause to move heavy weights. In very simple terms, as you get stronger, when you push the envelope, the closer you REALLY are pushing things to their limit. An advanced lifter who is grinding out reps will need more recovery time than novice doing the same. Yes, work capacity matters and increases with training, but developing it is a slow process.

Most people who've been training for a while can push well beyond what is best for them. Not coincidentally, most injuries I've had training were after 3-4 weeks of concentrated loading without adequate recovery - just looking at ever increasing training numbers in a log, without any attention to volume or intensity, gave NO clue or hint that I was heading toward injury. As a very general rule of thumb, most people can go balls to the wall for 2-4 weeks and then it's time to back off. Intentional or unintentional, meticulously planned or "instinctive", it doesn't matter, but fail to back off when your body needs it and you could very well be heading for a fall.

"Power has its own rhythms and patterns. Those who succeed at the game are the ones who control the patterns and vary them at will... The essence of strategy is controlling what comes next, and the elation of victory can upset your ability to control what comes next in two ways. First, you owe your success to a pattern that you are apt to try to repeat. You will try to keep moving in the same direction without stopping to see whether this is still the direction that is best for you. Second, success tends to go to your head and make you emotional. Feeling invulnerable, you make aggressive moves that ultimately undo the victory you have gained."
- Robert Green (The 48 Laws of Power)

For Further Reading:
Dan John's Nautilus, Crossfit, and "HiHi" (T-Nation Article)
Charles Staley's The Classic Things You Will Do In The Gym To Shoot Yourself In The Foot (Online Article)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Work Your Weaknesses Month (Wrist Work)

I've been doing some extra abdominal and wrist work this month, trying to bring up those weaknesses. One of the tools I use for wrists is the "Twist Yo' Wrist" wrist roller from Ironmind. It differs from a standard wrist roller in that it works radial and ulnar wrist extension which are the motions you make when you are opening a jar, or twisting a door knob. It is basically a very big yo-yo that you can attach weight to.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Cardio With Kettlebells

The other day, I did 200 continuous 1.5 pood (53lbs) snatches with the "Beep Test", switching hands every 10 reps for the first 60, and every 5 reps after that. About 20 minutes of continuous work. It's a good cardio workout, but unless wind is your major weakness, I'm not sure that this kind of training has a lot of application to girevoy sport or the "Secret Service Snatch Test ("SSST")".
Girevoy Sport, where the objective is to snatch a kettlebell as many times as possible in 10:00 with only one hand switch, a huge part of the game is the local muscular fatigue you experience in the shoulder and grip. With multiple switches, as I am doing here, most of the localized fatigue dissipates in the non-working arm. One arm is always getting a breather and is never required to work anywhere close to exhaustion.
For the SSST, the objective is similar to girevoy sport - 10:00 as many reps as possible, but multiple hand switches are allowed and you may set the bell down as often as long as you'd like as well. Pacing is the name of the game with the SSST and, quite frankly, the Beep Test protocol, designed for shuttle runs, just isn't fast enough for SSST preparation until about 14 minutes in or unless you are using a really heavy bell. You could easily remedy this by doing more repetitions per chime though.
In any case, it's a fun challenge and great general conditioning. Having the caller and chimes makes it easier to just let the mind go and focus on each repetition - almost hypnotic and it reminds me of all those years I spent staring at the bottom of a pool, swimming back and forth for miles. The beep test protocol I'm using, by the way, goes until 247 repetitions - I've done 220 with this, but usually put the bell down with gas still in the tank - towards the end my hands are pretty slick and it takes a lot of concentration not to lose the bell on a hand switch. Let me know what you think.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Words of Wisdom from Yagyuu Munenori

Today's words of wisdom come from the master swordsman Yagyuu Munenori (1571-1646), a contemporary of Miyamoto Musashi. This passage mirrors the idea of "mushin" (no mind) and "Being the Squirrel". It also predates the idea of declarative vs. procedural knowledge by about 300 years...

From "The Book Of Family Traditions On The Art Of War":

In all things, uncertainty exists because of not knowing. Things stick in your mind because of being in doubt. When the principle is clarified, nothing else sticks in your mind. This is called consummating knowledge and perfecting things. Since there is no longer anything sticking in your mind, all your tasks become easy to do.
For this reason, the practice of all arts is for the purpose of clearing away what is on your mind. In the beginning, you do not know anything, so paradoxically you do not have any questions on your mind and you are obstructed by that. This makes everything difficult to do.
When what you have studied leaves your mind entirely, and practice also disappears, then, when you perform whatever art you are engaged in, you accomplish the techniques easily without being inhibited by concern over what you have learned, and yet without deviating from what you have learned. This is spontaneously conforming to learning without being consciously aware of doing so.
...When you have built up achievement in cultivation of learning and practice, even as your hands, feet, and body act, this does not hang on your mind. You are detached from your learning yet do not deviate from your learning. Whatever you do, your action is free.

--Yagyuu Munenori

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Thoughts On Deloading

Except when tapering for a competition, I've never personally had much luck with deloading. Usually, my deload weeks turn into just another training week. The difficulty is that, if you're like me, you hate to feel weak. To combat feeling weak, you train harder even when what you really need is rest. It is a vicious cycle that can very quickly lead you into overreaching, overtraining, and/or injury if you're not careful.

Some classic symptoms of overtraining are:

*Washed-out feeling, tired, drained, lack of energy
*Mild leg soreness, general aches and pains
*Pain in muscles and joints
*Sudden drop in performance
*Decreased immunity (increased number of colds, and sore throats)
*Decrease in training capacity / intensity
*Moodiness and irritability
*Loss of enthusiasm for the sport
*Decreased appetite
*Increased incidence of injuries.
*A compulsive need to exercise

For my own training, the first indication of doing too much for too long is moodiness.... I have found that 5-7 days of complete R&R away from the gym (with maybe a smattering of ab or cardio) works just as well as a solid week or two of deloading.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"NO BUTS!" (Jim Thompson)

From Positive Coaching by Jim Thompson (p. 137):


Once at a dinner with a group of Stanford MBA students, I raised the notion of mistakes being central to development and success. Every person at the table agreed with me but not a single person was able to agree without putting a qualifier on it:

"Yes, mistakes are good as long as they aren't thoughtless mistakes."
"Yes, mistakes are okay, but certain kinds of mistakes can't be tolerated."
"Well, sure, mistakes are acceptable, but not the same mistake twice."

My position is that mistakes are good - period! Saying that certain kinds of mistakes are okay but others are not is really just saying that some mistakes really aren't mistakes at all.
Fear of making a mistake is a paralyzing force that robs athletes of spontaneity, love of the game, and a willingness to try new things. It is the no-buts approach to mistakes that gives the sense of psychological and emotional freedom that can unlock the learning process and occasionally release truly inspired athletic performance.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Working Weaknesses (cont'd)

I've designated September "Work Your Weakness Month" and so far, it's been going fine. I've managed a few focused sessions for abs, squats, and wrist work. For ab work, I'm doing "Pike-Ups" with an ab wheel that can be attached to the feet. It's a great exercise.

How is your training going?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Training Tip: Front Load Your Training Week

A while back now, I wrote an article for Dan John's newsletter "Get Up" entitled "New & Expecting Fathers: Tips for Training and Time Management". One of the tips I gave in the article was to "front-load your training week". It means to plan your most productive training sessions for early in the week (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday). By doing this, even if your week becomes a bear and you miss training later in the week, you will have gotten in at least two or three good sessions.

If your having trouble making your training commitments, give the "front-load your training week" idea a try and let me know how it goes.

Monday, September 8, 2008

10:00 of Training

Last night I did 10:00 of snatches (5:00) and clean & jerks (5:00). I had a minor back strain over Labor Day weekend, so things are still a little tricky, but I was happy with the effort even though the numbers were not in the least bit impressive.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Making An Atlas Stone

It's been a few years since I made an Atlas Stone, but it wasn't a difficult process. I remember finding directions on the internet from Dennis Ruygrok in 2000 and have made at least 3 or 4 since then. Stone lifting is a lot of fun and an amazing workout.

You can find good step-by-step directions at

The basic materials needed are: a ball, plaster of paris, cement, and a shovel...

The mold is made by covering the ball with plaster of paris. After it has dried completely, a hole is cut in the top and the ball is removed.

After filling the mold w. cement, some reinforcing w. more plaster of paris might be a good idea. Give it a week of "curing", then the mold can be chiseled off and the fun begins.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Work Your Weakness Month Is ON!

It's September and "Work Your Weakness Month" is a go. Yes, I know that we should be working our weaknesses all the time, but most of us, quite frankly, don't. So, here's your push if you need it to get down with some exercises that you've been neglecting or avoiding.

I'm starting the month a little out of sorts. I blew out my back on Labor Day but still managed to teach two classes at a local CrossFit affiliate and do the workout with one of them as well. It was a very long continuous 10 minutes of 5:00 snatches and 5:00 jerks with the 1.5 pood, but I was happy to hold everything together.

Feel free to post your workouts and progress as we move through the month and I'll do the same.