Sunday, December 30, 2018

Last Squat Workout of 2018

Made an unsuccessful squat attempt at bodyweight on the bar x age a few days ago. Happy enough with the effort, but a little disappointed that I was a few reps short. Overall, 2018 was a decent year training wise - no huge gains, but managed to put in a lot of good work and stay healthy.

I hope your 2018 went well and wishing you all the best in 2019!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Deep Work by Cal Newport

"An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they're rarely haphazard in their work habits. Consider the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro. As revealed in a 2009 magazine profile, "every inch of [Caro's] New York office is governed by rules." Where he places his books, how he stacks his notebooks, what he puts on his wall, even what he wears to the office: Everything is specified by a routine that has varied little over Caro's long career. "I trained myself to be organized," he explained.

'Charles Darwin had a similarly strict structure for his working life during the period when he was perfecting On the Origin of Species. As his son Francis later remembered, he would rise promptly at seven to take a short walk. He would then eat breakfast alone and retire to his study from eight to nine thirty. The next hour was dedicated to reading his letters from the day before, after which he would return to his study from ten thirty until noon. After this session, he would would mull over challenging ideas while walking on a proscribed route that started at his greenhouse and then circled a path on his property. He would walk until satisfied with his thinking then declare his workday done.

...'In a New York Times column on the topic, David Brooks summarizes this reality more bluntly: [Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants."

'This strategy suggests the following: To make the most out of your deep work sessions, build rituals of the same level of strictness and idiosyncrasy as the important thinkers mentioned previously. There's a good reason for this mimicry. Great minds like Caro and Darwin didn't deploy rituals to be weird; they did so because success in their work depended on their ability to go deep, again and again - they're no way to win a Pulitzer Prize or conceive a grand theory without pushing your brain to its limit. Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer."

Deep Work by Cal Newport, pp. 117-119

Related Squat Rx Posts:
Rituals - Dan John
The Power of Habit

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Long Term Gains & Short Term Profits

A problem working with young people is that they often do not take the long view of athletic (academic, financial, etc...) development. They want it NOW. The sooner the better. While there is nothing to be gained by unnecessarily delaying gratification in and of itself, if the goal is long term development and retention of skills, technique, speed, strength, knowledge, etc., then "go hard or go home" methodologies and mindsets are often counterproductive. 

Many years ago, I was coaching a 9 year old boy who was a very competitive swimmer. Let's call him Mikey. Mikey was successful and won many of his freestyle races. In practice, he would do flip turns when coaxed, but in competition he would always do open turns. Why? Because Mikey was faster with open turns, of course! He was very reluctant to switch from open turns because he had had success ("If it ain't broke,...") and only after I had convinced his dad that the change was needed was he even open to direction. I worked with Mikey during private lessons and regular practices for weeks. Oodles of positive reinforcement and several meets (and some tears of frustration) later, Mikey was hitting personal best times again with flip turns and room for greater and greater future gains.

Interestingly, at around the same time period, I had a similar experience convincing my father to do flip turns. He believed that because his goal was ultimately to become a faster open water swimmer (lakes, ocean), flip turns were unnecessary. Simple logic (more time turning in the pool equals less time swimming vs. faster turns equal more actual swimming) made the argument a short one.

Every competitive swimmer and coach knows that flip turns (done well) are faster than open turns. Much MUCH faster. Can you break 30 seconds in the 50 yard freestyle with an open turn? Yes, but it's harder. Can you become an All-American freestyle swimmer with open turns? Maybe 60 years ago, but almost no one could today.

It sometimes requires sacrifice to make the changes needed for long term growth. In Mikey's case, he had to give up some potential victories, points for the team, and PRs in order to master flip turns. In my father's case, he had to sacrifice some training time and effort on turns that could have been spent grinding out more training miles.

For many young people (and often their parents) it is difficult to see the benefit of making short term sacrifices that lead to long term (and greater) development vs. choosing short term gains that come at the expense of long term development. Technical change can be difficult, especially if you've already been training for years. But, an athlete will relatively quickly reach the limit of their physical potential using less than optimal technique. As athletes (and their goals) mature, technical demands may change and this needs to be accounted for. You cannot cram mastery.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The "Workout I Do When I Don't Want To Work Out Workout"

A few years ago, I started implementing the more often than not philosophy into my 'training'. Generally speaking, I train almost every day, and even on weeks where I have zero motivation to train, I still manage to put in at least a few sessions. I try to do something more days than not. I wouldn't say I've made ridiculous progress as far as training weights go, but I have maintained fitness and strength at acceptable levels and stayed very healthy. After having some pretty significant issues for a lot of years, for me, that's huge.

So, what do I do when I don't want to do anything? I have about 5 "go-to's" based on what I enjoy, what I find (relatively) painless to add, and what I have readily available. I would suggest, if you are trying to come up with your own "go-to's", that you choose things that you enjoy and need, are easy to implement, and don't throw a huge wrench into your day energy or time-wise.

Here are my 5 nominees for the best "Workout I Do When I Don't Want To Work Out Workout":
  • Push-Ups (usually 4-5 sets of 20-40 reps) I'm convinced that for a lot of people, if the choice is between bench press or push-ups, push-ups are the better option. Why? Because a push-up is, more or less, equivalent to bench pressing half your body weight for higher reps + a plank. If you're like me, ab work is a neglected area, so any exercise that incidentally includes abs is a plus.
  • 45 Degree Hyperextensions (usually 3-5 sets of 20 reps) I bought a cheaper 45 degree hyperextension bench a few months ago because I knew it would be an exercise that would be both hard to overdo and improve glute and hammy strength.
  • Tricep Extensions w. Bands (usually 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps) I started doing these about 20 years ago after seeing a Louie Simmons interview where he recommended them as a bench press supplementary exercise. I can't honestly say they are always in my exercise rotation, but every time I remember to include them, I think "Wow, what a great exercise!". I anchor the band from a chin-up bar and use a mini or average strength band.
  • Twist Yo' Wrist and grip work (usually 1-3 sets of 2-5 completions of radial and ulnar extension) I find that unless I'm trying to PR something, some light grip work is pretty easy to commit to emotionally. When doing grip work, I often end with some finger extensor work. The extensor work takes, literally, only a few minutes to complete 3-5 sets of 20 reps.

  • YAT Pulls w. microbands (usually 3-5 giant sets of 20-30 reps each of Y-pulls, A-pulls, and T-pulls) I don't know exactly what other trainers and coaches call these shoulder exercises. I know that the last exercise (what I call 'T-pulls'), most people call "pull-aparts". I used to call them that too, but I found that it was just easier to call these Y, A, and T-pulls when I was prescribing them as a giant set for the swimmers I work with. I try to keep my head in a neutral position (don't let your chin go forward) and work through a good range of motion.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Coaching By FEEL

Shigeo Nagashima is one of the greatest Japanese professional baseball players of all time. He became a very successful manager of the Tokyo Giants after his playing career ended. He is famous for many Yogi Berra-esque anecdotes and quotes. One of the many stories about him center around his teaching of batting form to young players: While guest coaching at a youth clinic, he reportedly said:
"The ball's going come in like zooot! There you gotta get your stance like hrrrummph and then go VOOM with the hips! After that, you hit it like BAH-BOOOOM!
「球がこうスッとくるだろ!」、「そこをグゥーっと構えて腰をガッとするんだ!」、「あとはバァッといってガーンと打つんだ」- From
If the story is anything close to true, Nagashima was probably a very gifted athlete who could not (at least at the time) articulate how he developed one of the most devastating swings in Japanese baseball history. This scene from the 2015 anime hit, The Boy and The Beast, is likely based off of that same story. In the clip, Kumatetsu (the bear) is giving his first instructions in the way of the sword to his pupil, Kyuta.

It's interesting, but we all know great athletes that turned out to be (relative) duds as coaches. Probably not surprising that athletes that "get it" very early do not understand "not getting it". They see a novice struggle and think the problem lies in a lack of motivation or aptitude, rather than in a lack of proper instruction and progression. Admonishments like "You've got to feel it in your soul!", or "Just DO IT!" will not be enough for your athletes unless you are working with the truly gifted .

In today's era of information overload, approaches like Nagashima's (and Kumatetsu's) can be refreshing and, at times, revelatory. But for the analytical athlete, an approach based on "woo-woo" can be frustrating. A good coach can vary instructional method and tasks to suit the needs of the athlete and (relative) complexity of the task.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Motivation, Self-Control, and Why We Should Stop Worrying About Them

A while ago, I wrote a post entitled "Motivation is Overrated". It didn't exactly go viral, but other articles and books similarly themed, like "The Power of Habit" did later. I thought it was a pretty good, concise piece. This article - "Why Self-Control is Overrated", shares information that compliments it well. Enjoy!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Parable of the Raft

"Monks, I will teach you the parable of the raft - for getting across, not for retaining. It is like a man who going on a journey sees a great stretch of water, the near bank with dangers and fears, the farther bank secure and without fears, but there is neither a boat for crossing over, nor a bridge across. It occurs to him that to cross over from the perils of this bank to the security of the farther bank, he should fashion a raft out of sticks and branches and depending on the raft, cross over to safety. When he has done this it occurs to him that the raft has been very useful and wonders if he ought to take it with him on his head and shoulders. What do you think, monks? That the man is doing what should be done with the raft?"
"No, lord."
"What should that man do, monks? When he has crossed over to the beyond he must leave the raft and proceed on his journey. Monks, a man doing this would be doing what should be done to the raft. In this way I have taught you Dharma, like the parable of the raft, for getting across, not for retaining.  You, monks, by understanding the parable of the raft, must not cling to right states of mind and, all the more, to wrong states of mind."
- adapted from the MAJJHIMA NIKAYA, translated by Christmas Humphreys

It's interesting that, as I've gotten older, certain people, interests, habits, exercises, training protocols, etc. just simply don't do it for me anymore. It is not surprising really. The only constant is change and sometimes change is hard. It can be difficult, even frightening, to let go of the familiar, especially when the familiar brought you this far. However, letting go of the raft may be the only way to progress further.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Growth is an Endlessly Iterative Process

Growth is an endlessly iterative process. When we learn something new, we don't go from "wrong" to "right." Rather, we go from wrong to slightly less wrong. And when we learn something additional, we go from slightly less wrong to slightly less wrong than that, and then to even less wrong than that, and so on. We are always in the process of approaching truth and perfection without actually ever reaching truth or perfection. 
We shouldn't seek to find the ultimate "right" answer for ourselves, but rather, we should seek to chip away at the ways we're wrong today so we can be a little less wrong tomorrow.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, p.117

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Be The Bully

"Bullies operate on a tilted playing field. They are freelancers who attack people who can't stand up for themselves. In the schoolyard, that's disgusting and unacceptable. In the athletic arena, it's absolutely phenomenal!... 
"Winning always involves the conquest of an opponent. And to conquer someone means to make that person unhappy, exactly what you've been brainwashed not to do. The rules of competition are like the black outlines in  a coloring book in the hands of a seven-year-old. For the most part the crayon is going to stay inside the lines. But that crayon will still make occasional forays outside the lines. That's where the dirty work is. Often times the margin of victory can be found along the fringes of those lines.
"Winners understand that not  everyone is willing to do the dirty work that is required of conquest. Not everyone can switch off the personality that has helped them grow into a socially well-adjusted, likeable person. Not everyone can step into a character whose sole mission is to dominate and conquer another human being. Not every player can make herself genuinely believe that second place is genuinely unacceptable. Winners give themselves permission to conquer. Winners will do the dirty work and happily ezploit the opponent who can't or won't make that same emotional sacrifice. Winners don't mind breaking hearts."
(pp. 79-81) 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


"The science of how we pace ourselves turns out to be surprisingly complex (as we'll see in later chapters). You judge what's sustainable based not only on how you feel, but on how that feeling compares to how you expected to feel at that point in the race." (p. 11)
"In 2012, Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein recounted  the ordeal of Rhiannon Hull, a talented distance runner who had competed for the University of Oregon's fabled track and cross-country programs. Six weeks after moving to Costa Rica in 2011, she and her six-year-old son, Julian, headed to a local beach on an overcast day when no one else was around, and got pulled away from shore by a riptide. By the time two teenage surfers spotted them and managed to paddle to the rescue, Hull, a wiry 5'2" marathoner who at age thirty-three still ran twice a day, had been holding her son aloft in the water for nearly half an hour - he was "standing on Mommy," he later recalled." (p. 118)
From Endure by Alex Hutchinson 

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Deadly Wandering

"Researchers said that when parents talk to their children less, engage less - in a nutshell, put their attention to the television not the children - it can eventually retard language development. As the 2009 study concluded 'The evidence is growing that very early exposure to television is associated with negative developmental outcomes.'
...The children who watched the fast-paced show were less able to follow directions and, in a separate set of tasks, showed less patience. These are 'executive function' tasks, meaning they engage the prefrontal cortex, that all-important part of the brain involved in focus.
The researchers wrote that the toll taken on executive function came not just from the fast pace but perhaps from the fantastical nature of the cartoon, which gave the children's brains a lot of information to digest, thus potentially depleting cognitive resources. The researchers wrote: 'The result is consistent with others showing long-term negative associations between entertainment television and attention.' Among those studies, one published in Pediatrics in 2004 found that children who watch more television in their toddler years are significantly more likely to have attention problems by age seven. 
A Deadly Wandering by Matthew Richtel (pp. 175-176) 
As with most things, there are critical periods in your life - periods of time when the mind and body are at their largest potential for growth. Periods, that if missed, may never come again. The child raised by wolves and misses the critical period for language development may never learn to speak human languages well. A child who grows up in an environment where they cannot run or jump or swim freely may never develop athletically. A child who grows up without books will never learn to read at a high level. There are probably very long-term, dangerous consequences for our modern lifestyles of constantly being plugged in and caffeinated. I only hope that the grown ups will notice and make the changes needed before it's too late, but that may require killing the babysitter...

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Pace Ladders (This Time with Squats!)

A few years ago, I was spending a lot of time training with kettlebells and happened upon a work-rest scheme that, as far as I could tell, no one had hitherto written about - pace ladders (2009 blog post).

The idea of pace ladders was to have an interval scheme that started at a slow cadence then, over succeeding sets, progressed to a fast pace, then dropped back to the slow cadence to begin the progression again. This would be repeated as many (or as few) times as desired.

For example, one set I did for kettlebell snatches with a 53lb kettlebell was 30 second intervals, resting in the overhead position, 2 reps - 4 reps - 6 reps -8 reps -10 reps - 2 reps - 4 reps - 6 reps, switch hands and repeat. That's 84 reps in 8 minutes with one hand switch at a pace that varied from 4 reps/minute at its slowest to 20 reps/minute at its peak - not bad for one extended set!

I've recently started doing this rep scheme with squats. Understand, I'm not recommending this exactly, just telling you about the training I'm doing lately that is making the higher reps feel a little less laborious.

In this workout, I squat for 3 minutes and 40 seconds. The ladder consists of doing 1 rep for the first 20 seconds, 2 reps for the second, 3 reps for the third, 4 reps for the fourth, and 5 reps for the fifth 20 seconds. I do this twice.

Considering the Alternative...

One of the tremendous upsides of choosing some kind of healthy lifestyle change, even if it's not THE best choice, is that you are NOT choosing a plethora of other bad behaviors.

Consider a person who is obese that decides to walk for one hour a day every single day, working at a leisurely pace, stopping and resting during that hour as often as needed. If you were to survey internet fitness gurus, no doubt many of them would scream and curse about how 'YOU CAN'T OUTRUN A DONUT!' or 'THAT WON'T EVEN BURN ENOUGH CALORIES TO MATTER!'. They are missing the point completely - this is exactly what is meant by 'replacement behaviors'. By choosing to spend an hour walking, they are also choosing to NOT sit on a couch for an hour internet surfing and eating chips.

Choosing a positive behavior and following through, even when it may not be the best option available, can be the first step toward building positive habits that will lead to more constructive and even better decisions down the road.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Developing the Hinge with the CV Deadlift

The better part of two decades ago, I was watching VHS tapes I had purchased out of Westside Barbell and they demonstrated an exercise they dubbed the "CV Deadlift" named after the powerlifter Chuck Vogelpohl.

The "CV deadlift" is a deadlift off of a low pulley or a band anchored at the floor in front of you. Because the weight is pulling you forward, the movement requires an exaggerated hinge to keep your body's center of gravity from flying into the weight stack or support structure.

I have used this exercise with many of my students and athletes to help them understand the mechanics of the hinge, and recruit the posterior chain into the movement. Initially, it's very common for trainees to lock up their hips and squat with the bands, looking like they are waterskiing badly. But, with coaching and practice, the athlete will quickly come to understand how to flex and extend the hips, using their glutes and hammies to drive the feet into the ground.