Try Harder? No. Relax.

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“If you want to get a little zen about it, you could say that the non-doing is just as important as the doing.”

-Todd Hargrove

I appreciate and enjoy professional instruction. Coach Mary-Katherine Flemming has been a huge help to me as a runner. She’s helped me bring up my weaknesses and train smarter. I also try and take at least one ski lesson every year. Mountain biking is much safer and a lot more fun since I’ve gone through several skills clinics with Lee Likes Bikes.

I recently started working with my fellow personal trainer and boxing coach Zane Beck. He’s teaching me how to throw punches the right way. I’ve met with him twice and I’ve had a amazingly challenging workouts in just 30 minutes. We’ve broken down the mechanics of punching and it’s been fascinating.

During our last session, I could feel myself tensing up on some punches, particularly the right hook and right upper cut. Those are awkward punches so I tried harder to throw them. Trying harder was a mistake. I was too tense. Zane could see it and feel it. So I slowed down and stopped rushing. I worked to throw good punches one at a time and I worked to relax. The effort to relax led to a brief conversation similar to conversations I’ve had with my clients.

“I worked to relax…” That’s an odd concept, no? Relaxing should be easy, right? If my arms are overhead then I relax them and they drop to my side. Simple. By sitting down my legs relax. Also simple. Seems like relaxation shouldn’t even require any thought. Sometimes though, relaxation is remarkably hard to come by though, especially in athletic endeavors.

I often see clients try hard and harder to perform certain exercises, especially new exercises. For example, kettlebell swings and cleans are often performed with overly tense hands, straining arms, tight necks, and an overall rigid body. Clients try to muscle the kettlebell into the air rather than using the stretch reflex of the muscles to do most of the work. Similarly, I have a client who often defaults to rigid high tension on medicine ball throws. He braces his whole body like it’s about to be hit by a truck. The result in all these cases is poor performance, poor exercise technique, and excessive fatigue. The same teeth-gritting, wasteful strategy might be employed by someone swinging a golf club, swimming laps, or sprinting.

Thus, I work with my clients to bring awareness to their unproductive tension and help them turn it down. Relaxation can take a surprising amount of work. Bearing down harder is the exact wrong way to get better. While many if not most exercises should be performed explosively, one shouldn’t rush too much.Impatience is rarely a virtue in any circumstance. Athletic movements require the right amount of tension, not necessarily more tension.

Steve Magness is a big-time running coach, writer, lecturer, and running expert. (His recent book, Peak Performance is superb. If you want to perform better in life, not just in athletics, then you should definitely get a copy.) He captures the importance of relaxation in this recent Facebook post:

Another excellent discussion of relaxation comes from movement expert and author Todd Hargrove. He wrote The Skill of Relaxation in 2008. It includes these important points:

“Most people trying to improve their movement ability for sports will therefore spend time lifting weights to train their ability to quickly and forcefully contract their muscles.

“That is a fine idea, but it sometimes ignores the equally important flip side of the coordination coin. If coordination means all the right muscles firing at the right time, this also means that any muscles not involved in the movement must relax in the right places at the right speed at the right time. Therefore, any act of coordination requires the skill of relaxing the muscles that aren’t essential to the movement. If the non-essential muscles aren’t relaxed, they will cause extraneous movement or tension that interferes in the desired movement and wastes energy.”

Size Matters Not: Part I

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I’m very grateful to Jamie Atlas of Bonza Bodies for giving me the opportunity to write a guest post for his blog. He runs one of the big group bootcamps at Red Rocks. He’s been featured in 5280 and has been voted one of the top trainers on Denver’s A-List. Jamie also contributes a fitness column to the Denver Post. So, he’s a fairly big-time presence in the Denver health & fitness scene. He’s also been very generous to me with his time and his sharing of information. So head over to his blog for my post titled Size Matters Not. A Case for Strength Part I.  Parts II and III will appear on my blog.

3/13/14 Workout

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The barbell/kettlebell class I like so much is Tuesday/Thursday mornings. My track workout is also on Tuesday and my tempo run is Thursday. It’s good to put a bunch of hard work on the hard days, and do easy stuff on easy days.

The class is a very tough class. I think it may be impacting my tempo runs, thus today I decided to forego the class and do the tempo run then lift later in the day. Here’s what the day looked like:

  • 7 am 2 mi. run: easy & slow with Diva the Dog.
    • I love running with my dog!! The vet listens to her low heart rate and calls her an athlete. I love that!
    • This was a warm-up for the tempo run.
  • Tempo run: 6 mi. at 8:26 pace.
    • This was rugged! It was supposed to be an 8:23 pace but such is life.
    • I’m not certain the class damages my tempo run.  The tempo run is just tough.
    • For the next tempo run, I plan to skip the class again, run the exact same route but this time I will fuel beforehand with Ucan. Curious to see if fueling with the slow-drip carbs will improve performance.
  • 3 pm: weights
    • This was late in the day for me to be lifting.
    • According to the 5/3/1 plan I’m following, this is a de-load day on deadlifts, so I decided to do power cleans in place of deads.  (You can’t clean as much as you can deadlift.)
    • power cleans: 175 lbs x 5 – 185 x 5 – (and because I read this article from Dan John) 205 x 3 x 2 sets. In reality, I got 2 sets of 2 and that third set… I only got one. It whopped my a$%…
    • 1-leg box jumps: 4 x 4 sets. Trying to create more 1-legged power for running.
    • pull-ups: 24 kg x 5 x 5.  I don’t do pull-ups regularly (I used to) and these were tough.
    • kettlebell snatches: 24 kg x 120 reps (60 each arm)
      • We typically do 200 reps in the class.
      • I have a nice big, hot blister on my left hand and an almost-healed blister on the right.
      • I taped my left hand and that didn’t quite help me enough.
      • I was smoked at this point and I’m a big girlie sissy thus, only 120 reps.
      • Oh well…
  • The big thing: Regarding the run, I’m quite interested to see what putting some carbs in the mix does for my run next week. I’m doing my best to be in ketosis. Lack of carbs may negatively impact these types of efforts–but my track workouts don’t seem to be suffering. There’s a question here that I’m very interested in answering. Next Thursday might reveal that answer…

Making Stuff Faster

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Here’s a very interesting video from PBS by way of Scientific American.  It’s part of the 4-part Nova series Making Stuff…  This discussion is on making stuff faster. Here, the host explores how to make faster runners.

The big takeaways here are:

  • 1) Hit the ground harder and
  • 2) Keep the torso stiff.

I haven’t seen the actual episode yet but I love the analysis and advice.  A lot of runners think that simply running more will yield better running.  But if you run the same way more and more then you should expect more of the same.  In this video, the host is given a few instructions on how to run.  The result?  He gets about 2 seconds faster on a 100m sprint.  That’s a great result!

Strength isn’t discussed in this video but I think we can very safely assume that a stronger runner can strike the ground harder than a weak runner.  So squats, deadlifts, 1-leg squats and jumping should aid in this endeavor.  Also, the advice to keep the core rigid falls right in with the research and teaching of experts like Stuart McGill.

Really, though in the end, it’s the brain that’s the target here.  The runner is able to recognize faults in his running technique and alter how he runs.  Thinking and awareness are vital!

Where’s Your Weak Link? Using Exercise to Expose Weakness – Part I

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Where's your weak link?

One big concept is on my mind and it’s been expressed by several experts that I look up to. In his book Movement, Gray Cook says “True champions will spend more time bringing up weaknesses than demonstrating strength.” The great powerlifting coach Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell says, “The Westside program is all about finding where you are weak and making it strong. Your weaknesses will hold you back. Kelly Starrett discusses the idea of “making the invisible visible.” With this statement he suggests we can use exercise to expose movement problems. (He talks about this concept here, here and here.)  What does all this mean?

All these guys are telling us that rather than going to the gym and doing fun stuff that we’re already good at and simply making our strengths stronger (taking the easy route, really) rather we should find our weaknesses and work like hell to bring them up to speed.

A slightly different paradigm

I think most of us have an equation in our head regarding exercise.  It might look like this:

I exercise → I get stronger.

(BTW, the word “strong” doesn’t just mean muscular strength.  We can get stronger at swimming, biking, driving a golf ball, carrying bags of mulch, etc. “Stronger” means to improve an ability.)

There might be a few more dots to connect between those statements though. With regard to the earlier statements about weaknesses and making the invisible visible (i.e. make hidden weaknesses visible), we might see the equation thus:

I exercise → I expose weaknesses/pain/poor movement → I correct/improve my weaknesses and poor movement →I get stronger.

What often happens is that we find an exercise that we really like and at which we’re very strong.  We really like that exercise! We do it and we demonstrate to ourselves (and let’s face it, others in the gym) how strong and able we are. Therefore our already well-developed ability gets stronger.

In contrast, I think a lot of us have discovered exercises that we really don’t like. The movement pattern feels awkward, painful or somehow asymmetrical or unbalanced. We have a poor ability to execute the exercise.  In other words, we’re weak at this particular movement.  We don’t do it well and we know it. Thus we rarely if ever explore this particular exercise.  What happens?  We probably get weaker and weaker at it.

So while something we’re already fairly good at gets better, a glaring weakness gets weaker.  And what do we know about chains and weak links? At some point that weak link (poor movement pattern) is going to cause us a problem if it isn’t already. We may not even know how strong we could be if we fixed our weakness.

My rule of thumb is: “If it’s really difficult to do and you don’t like doing it, then you probably need to do a whole lot of it.”

My experience

A lot of my clients have movement problems and various aches and pains. Their weaknesses are often rooted in a forgotten ability to move properly and maintain their joints in proper position. We frequently need to dial back the exercise intensity and simply work on slow, proper, mindful movement. Sometimes this requires a frustrating level of concentration. It gets difficult. It isn’t always fun. This frustration may lead a client to say ” I just want to work out!  I don’t want to think!” In other words, he or she want to revert to their hold habits, ignore their movement shortcomings and do what they’re already good at.

This is an important fork in the road. If a client chooses to continue to focus and do the hard work of correcting bad habits–to improve their true weaknesses–then he or she will almost certainly start to see lasting improvement in the near future. This client and I will likely have a long, productive and happy relationship. On the other hand, we have another type of client.  He or she balks at the first sign of difficulty, ignores and avoids weaknesses, and in essence chooses to tread water and only marginally strengthen their limited strengths.  He or she has picked an easy but limited route. In this case, our relationship is thankfully short.

The big picture

I’m going to go into some specifics in the next post, but for now I’d like you to consider the idea that the real way to get stronger is to seek out and wallow in your pathetic weaknesses. If you think you don’t have any, then add weight, reps, range of motion and/or speed to see if things start to come apart. Recognize where you start to fail and dedicate yourself to working on those weaknesses.

Awareness

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When it comes to either pain or performance issues, we’re often told that we need to get stronger.  We need to strengthen our core to help back pain.  We need to strengthen our legs to pedal or run faster.  We need stronger arms to swim better.  Strength is important for sure. There’s no substitute for it.  It’s money in the bank.

Awareness and pain

Here’s something slightly different to consider:  Awareness.  A lot of pain and poor performance issues aren’t so much strength-related as they are awareness-related.  By this I mean we need to know how to use our muscles to control our limbs and a lot of us don’t have the awareness we need to accomplish the task.  Here’s a common example:

A client complains of knee pain.  I watch them squat, walk up and down stairs, and maybe do some one-leg mini-squats.

The glutes aren't doing their job and the knees suffer for it.

I observe a valgus collapse–the knee or knees cave in as he or she moves.

What are the consequences?

This type of movement pattern sets us up for knee ligament damage, meniscus damage, IT band pain, patella pain, and possibly back pain.  Even if the person isn’t in pain, this is a very inefficient movement pattern.  Whether running or walking, this valgus pattern makes for poor shock absorption and energy transfer into the ground. We’re slow and weak when our knees collapse like this.

Why is it happening?

Back to the “A” word, awareness.  Very commonly we can’t use our glutes correctly–and we’re not aware that we’re not using them.  We have what Thomas Hanna calls “sensory motor amnesia.” We’ve forgotten how to move.  (Modern living is a killer.  We sit too much!!)

Why do glutes matter to knees?

The glutes (glute maximus, medius and minimus) along with the tensor fasciae latae start up in the pelvis and feed into the IT band.  The IT band then attaches to the top of the tibia right below the knee.  In this arrangement, if we tighten or squeeze the glutes the knee will rotate outwards.  If we release tension from the glutes then the knee will tend to collapse in.  Control of the knee largely resides at the hip with the glutes.  (By the way, we could discuss awareness of the foot as it pertains to a valgus knee too.  If the big toe isn’t firm to the ground and we don’t have competent arches then the knee may collapse in.)

The keys to the knees.

What’s the solution?

Often someone with knee pain has been told they need to strengthen muscles around the knees namely the quadriceps.  This was the thinking for years.  So people did knee extensions.  The muscles near the knee definitely got stronger but that didn’t improve the walking, running, or stepping pattern that was causing the pain.  Now we understand that the glutes have more influence over the knee than the muscles surrounding the knee.  The pattern of movement is the key factor.  It’s how we use our muscles! We must become aware of how we move, and aware of how we employ our muscles during movement. If we gain awareness of the glutes then we can start to control the knee.  Strength isn’t the main issue.  (The same can be said for the deep core muscles and back pain.)

We need awareness before we can get strong, fast or powerful.  In fact, if we’re not moving well–if we’re not aware of how we’re moving–and we add weight or speed to the scenario then we’re marching headlong into dysfunction, pain, and poor performance.  It’s analogous to hammering a bent nail.  The harder we pound the more it bends and we’re headed for trouble.

Awareness for performance: the bench press

I spoke with a friend and former client of mine who’s learning to bench press.  (My ego demands that I tell you he lives in another state which is why he’s working with a different trainer.)  He told me he learned to use his lats for the bench press. (Think of trying to bend the bar into a horseshoe.)  Now, with the lats engaged he’s got a stronger foundation from which to press.  He’s called in more muscles to help disperse the work.  His shoulders are more stable. Now he can get stronger and likely avoid injury.  Awareness should come first.  (I wish I were aware of all this stuff when I was training him!)

Beyond this example, Louie Simmons in the Westside Barbell Squat and Deadlift Manual directs lifters to identify their weakness–become aware of them in other words–and work to shore them up.  He says don’t necessarily do the exercises you like.  Do the exercises that work for you.

Awareness for performance: running

First, all the stuff above about glutes and knees pertains very much to running.  Remember that.  What else should we be aware of while running?  Think about where your foot lands.  Does it land way out in front?  It shouldn’t.  If it does you’ll likely have problems.  Rather, the foot should land just barely out in front of your center of mass and the foot should land right below the knee, not out in front.  If you watch recreational runners you’ll often see the foot land out in front. Watch elite runners and that foot lands very close to right underneath.  Think of your leg as a swinging pendulum.  If the pendulum swings wide then a) your foot lands out in front, b) your cadence is slower and c) it’ll take more energy to run.  In a better situation you’ll swing your pendulum/leg in a shorter arc.  The foot will land closer to you which will result in a faster cadence and you’ll be more efficient.  You’ll be faster and you’ll be in a better position to avoid injury.  For more on this and further awareness of how you should run, check out this very informative article by Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy for Runners.

Awareness for weight loss

So we’ve discussed awareness as it pertains to pain and performance.  Where else does it matter?  Do you want to get leaner and generally healthier?  Then you better be aware of your eating habits.  Very similar to poor movement patterns, poor eating habits will over the course of time do great damage to our physique and overall health.  The problem is a habit is an unconscious thing.  We’re not aware of our habits!  We eat mindlessly in front of the TV.  We’re caught without healthy food to eat so we resort to fast food or packaged frozen dinners.  We take nibbles of junk snacks thinking that we’re not eating that much garbage, but by the end of the week we’ve consumed a lot of crapola.  The result?  We look and feel like a sick, sluggish mess.  What can we do?

Keeping a food journal is by far one of the most effective and cheapest things you can do to help become aware of your eating habits.  You can use any notebook.  Or you can use an online program such as MyFitnessPal.com.

Does this sound inconvenient?  Writing out 1/2 cups, tablespoons, grams, etc. can be a hassle. Guess what.  You don’t have to employ painstaking detail to get the benefits of keeping a food journal.  You don’t even have to track every meal every day.  If you eat some M&Ms, write “M&Ms.”  If you eat a salad write “salad.”  If you can only manage to track breakfast three days a week then that’s better than tracking nothing at all.  The point is to start to become aware of your eating habits.  Any progress at all is progress.  Awareness must come before you can expect to see change.

Awareness elsewhere in life

How are you handling stress?  What time do you go to bed?  If you’re trying to get in shape or you’re training to compete, you better know these things.  If you’re aware of your workouts but your not aware of how you’re resting then you’re compromising your ability to lose weight and compete.

Hard exercise is stress.  So is work.  So are some of our interpersonal relationships.  Alcohol and sugary foods cause stress.  The winter holidays are full of stressors.  If stress goes up in one or more areas then it must come down in others.  Otherwise you’re courting illness, injury or at the very least extreme fatigue.  If you’re feeling pulled in 100 directions then it may be a good idea to scale back your workouts a little.  Don’t give up though!  Recognize that more/harder exercise won’t help you if you’re highly stressed.  Finding some way to decrease some of your stress is critical to good mental and physical health.  Take stock of these things.  Be aware of what’s going on in your life.  Then you can take measures to manage things.

Shifting Gears from Strength to Endurance Work: Part I

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Springtime in Denver means it’s time to bicycle.  So now I’ve shifted my focus from heavy strength and power work to endurance work.  (I never did hit 500 lbs. on the deadlift.  I did however pull 435 lbs. for two reps.  I’m content with that.)  Endurance activity and strength/power work lie at two opposite ends of the exercise/movement/exertion continuum.  From what I’ve read and in my own personally experience, it’s very difficult if not impossible to develop a high-end level of strength while also training for an endurance event like the Sunrise Century (which I’ll be doing in June.)  Simply put, trying to maximize one area of performance means the other will suffer.  If you try to maximize all areas then you won’t reach your potential in any one.

Terminology: Endurance, Strength, Power

I’ll define some terms.  Endurance work is something like long distance cycling, running, or cross-country skiing.  These are long-duration activities executed well below the participants’ maximal abilities.

Maximal strength work is often a slow moving, short duration type of thing. If you attempt to lift a maximum weight you won’t be moving it very quickly. Heavy deadlifting, bench pressing and squatting typically move slowly. These activities can only be sustained for a very brief amount of time–several seconds at most–before the muscles fatigue significantly.

Power sports require a combination of strength and speed. Think of a shot putter, long jumper or an Olympic weight lifter. These athletes must move a fairly heavy object very quickly. Maximal power may be expressed in two seconds or less.  Power sports and endurance sports occupy the furthest opposite ends of the exercise spectrum.

So what happens if we decide to mix endurance work, strength work and power work together?

Endurance Work May Inhibit Strength Abilities

The National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) offers a document titled Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training for Strength/Power Athletes.  Here we have evidence that suggests mixed results for combined strength and endurance work.  Several studies suggest that endurance work impedes strength gains.  Other studies show no interference.

Confusion and questions come up when we start to dissect the studies.  The article states:

“Differences between these studies may have been due to differences in the length of the studies, experience level of the subjects, and the training protocols utilized. For example, studies differed with respect to the specific exercises performed, whether strength and endurance training were performed on the same or different days per week, the sequence of training modes (strength before endurance or endurance before strength).”

We don’t have a definite answer to this question.

In my personal experience I run into difficulty if I ride/run a lot while also lifting a lot.  I become too sore and stiff from one activity to perform well at the other.  So I have to reduce one type of stress as I increase the other. Further, I find that riding my bike up mountains quite sufficiently addresses my strength needs. (Now we’re starting to get into the SAID Principle or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.  Then we start to ask whether strength developed in the gym has any effect on strength expressed on a bike…)

In subsequent posts I’ll examine the effects of endurance work on power performance.  Then we’ll drive the other way up this street and ask the question, “To what degree does strength and power work affect endurance performance?”

 

 

Ski Conditioning

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The ski season is very (VERY!  VERY!) close at hand and appropriate preparation is in order, so here’s a plan I put together.  Several capacities are key to good skiing performance: endurance, flexibility/mobility, strength/power, and power-endurance.

The periodized plan is composed of three four-week training blocks with each block separated by one week off.  The first two training blocks consist of three gym workouts per week.  The final block has two gym workouts per week.  The week off should allow for thorough rest and recuperation prior to beginning the next block.

Emphasis is placed on training a certain capacity in each block, but the other capacities are trained as well so that nothing is lost as the plan progresses.  For instance, though strength is emphasized in the first block, endurance and balance training also takes place.  The skiing performance capacities I’ve addressed and my thoughts on each are as follows:
1.    Endurance (already established over the summer through running and biking): I must have the endurance to stay on the mountain all day at altitude.  The endurance base will be maintained over the course of the plan.
2.    Strength: Skiing is very thigh-dominant thus I must have very strong legs to ski well.  A strong trunk and upper body is essential for powerful turns.
3.    Mobility/Stability (two sides of the same coin): Effective ski technique requires tremendous hip and leg mobility during turns, especially at high speeds.  While the legs and hips must be mobile, the trunk typically must be rock-solid and stable during turns.
4.    Power: Strength must be transfered to power.  It’s not enough to be strong and slow to ski well.  I must be able to express strength at high speeds.
5.    Power-endurance (Here’s where the training gets very specific to skiing.): Skiing requires one to be powerful over and over again for several minutes.  Then the skier typically gets a rest of several minutes while he or she rides back up to the top of the mountain.  So it’s not enough to be powerful once and then rest.

Here’s the plan:

  • Block 1: Strength & Mobility
    • Strength Day
      • front squat: 3-6 reps, 4-8 sets
      • bench press: 3-6 reps, 4-8 sets
      • face pull: 8-12 reps, 3-4 sets
    • Balance Day
      • single-leg squats from a box
        • heel reach forward
        • toe reach back
        • toe reach forward
        • rotational squat
      • single-leg bent over dumbbell row
      • single-arm overhead dumbbell press with frontal plane hip drive
    • Mobility Day
      • multi-directional lunges with varied arm drives
      • dips
      • rotating cable pulls from various angles
    • Endurance: running and biking throughout the week
    • One week off
  • Block 2: Power
    • Day 1
      • multi-planar jumps/hops: 6-10 reps, 3-4 sets
      • barbell clean to front squat: 3-5 reps, 4-6 sets
    • Day  2
      • Kettlebell swings: 8 reps, 3 sets
      • Kettlebell swipes or chops: 5-8 reps, 3 sets
    • Day 3
      • long jumps: 6 reps, 3 sets
      • dumbbell or barbell push press: 3-5 reps, 4-6 sets
    • Endurance: same as block one
    • One week off
  • Block 3: Power endurance
    Due to the high stress of these workouts, only two are performed per week.

    • Day 1:
      • barbell complex
      • clean
      • front squat
      • bent row
      • Romanian deadlift
      • floor press
      • followed by multi-planar jumps/hops
    • Day 2:
      • Kettlebell complex (may vary widely)
        • snatch
        • clean
        • chop
        • press
        • swing
      • running or rowing intervals