Thursday, April 12, 2018

Training Against Adversity

“Don’t train to be the best athlete on the best day possible.  Train to be the best athlete on the worst day possible.” 
 - Louie Simmons.  

This quote always sticks in my mind.  Training against adversity is the core of the CrossFit program.  At some point in every workout everyone feels their lungs burning or their muscles getting heavy.  Webster’s dictionary defines adversity as “a state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune.”   Facing adversity takes shape both physically and mentally, you must be ready to attack both.  So how do you train against adversity?  What are ways you can mentally win in competition? 
Being able to excel in the face of adversity is what separates elite sports athletes and tactical athletes from the rest of us.  You can see examples of this in athletes such as Tom Brady, Eli Manning, and in the sport of CrossFit where there is no greater example than Rich Froning Jr.  These athletes have faced major adversity both in their respective sports and at various times in their lives. In 2017, Tom Brady took his team from a 25-point deficit to win the Super Bowl, completing the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.  Before that, Eli Manning had also taken his team down field and beat the New England Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl, in what has been called the greatest upset in Super Bowl history.  Rich Froning is famous for coming back on the last day of competition to take the title of World’s Fittest Man for four straight years.  Being able to not let the odds against you bring you down is what it means to face adversity head on.  
Just recently the world of college basketball was thrown for a loop when #11 seed Loyola Chicago went all the way to the final four. I am not bashing this team, they had an amazing season (even if they beat my team Kansas State). They played excellent for the entire tournament and when they went to the final four game against Michigan they lost their composure when they started losing.  They started rushing shots and throwing the ball away.  All tournament they kept their composure and were able to beat teams that were ranked way higher than them but for whatever reason they lost it against Michigan.  After the game I said, “Michigan didn’t win the game, Loyola lost the game”.   They lost their composure towards the end and allowed themselves to be beat.  Again, this team did a great job earlier in the tournament but allowed themselves to be beat.  We will all face uphill battles in our lives, we will all face adversity, training mentally is just as important as training physically.  Tactical training is no exception.  In any selection program, it doesn’t matter how physically strong you are, everyone meets muscle failure.   
So how do you train to face adversity?  It starts before the workout begins.  For one thing, don’t stand there and think about how much the workout is going to hurt.  “Ugh, burpees and thrusters!” Look to great athletes like Annie Thorisdottir, who smiles during every workout.  Don’t tell yourself that you hate burpees, re-frame your thinking to positive self-talk like “I can’t fail a burpee rep.”  On a marathon run at mile 20, just tell yourself how you only have to keep moving no matter how slow that pace may be.  In my world of CrossFit, one of my pet peeves is when people put their hands on their knees.  I am repeatedly telling people, “That is a stance of defeat and you aren’t defeated yet!”  Stand up, take a deep breath and keep driving!  Everyone is feeling the same pain.  This strategy can also apply to life.  One of my favorite lines in the movie Lone Survivor, “You are never out of the fight!” You are only defeated when you say you are.   
In the tactical environment, focus on the task at hand.  Don’t look at it as days of the assessment.  Instead look at it as one task at a time and when that task is done, attack the next task with the same fervor.  Attack each task/mission given to you one at a time.  In his now famous commencement speech to Texas University, Admiral William McRaven talks about going through Basic Underwater Demolition (BUDS) training and facing some of the hardest training in the world and how his classmates faced it.  “If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.”  What does he mean by this?  In today’s world there are many challenges, in a workout there will be many times that you want to slow down, and in a game you will be down.  You must face these challenges head on.  Sure you can quit but what have you now taught yourself?  It’s ok to quit.  In a workout, I’m ok with you slowing down.  I’m ok with you lightening the weight.  In a game I’m ok with you subbing out to regain your composure, but I’m not ok with you quitting.  Whatever your proverbial shark is, face it head strong.  Push through it.  Hit one rep at a time, go one yard at a time, and one point at a time.  Take small steps to complete your goals.  Don’t look at the marathon, look at small steps that you can take to make the difference.  Keep your eye on the prize, not on the journey.   Having a positive outlook on your workout and smiling at all times will lead you to beat any workout that you face.  
Mental training is the hardest part of any workout regime.  Having a strong mental game and facing adversity is key to overcoming any workout or challenge life throws at you.  Doesn’t matter how slow you may go, how heavy the bar may feel, or how daunting the task at hand, never quit what you started.  Put one foot in front of the other and drive forward to face adversity head on.  

*Side not NYU did a study on this particular topic and you can read the study

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Abdominal Training

It’s doesn’t matter what fitness program you decide to try, when someone walks into your facility the first thing most people want are 6-pack abs.  Most, if not all, people want the “beach body” and nothing says “beach body” like sculpted abs.  Walk through a shopping mall or food market and as you approach the register you will find a Men’s Fitness magazine or a Cosmo magazine stating some trainer has found the secret to gaining 6-pack abs in four to six weeks.  Anyone worth their weight in strength and conditioning knows the value of training the core, but for what purpose are you training?  What is core training?  What is the best way to train the core?  Training the core is one of the most elusive and misunderstood methods of all training.  
What if I told you that judging 6-pack abs is probably the worst way to tell if someone has a strong core?  6-pack abs mean you have a good diet or good genes.  Training your core is much more than training just the abdominals.  There are many muscles that comprise your core (psoas, iliacus, quadratus lumborum, and your rectus abdominis) when training these muscles, we are training the core as an entire system, rather than a simple muscle.  When it comes to strengthening the core, lying in the supine (on your back) is one of the worst ways to train. Let’s dive into this.  For years we have been taught that sit-ups or crunches are great for strengthening your muscles.  Hell, when I was in the army we would do sit ups and leg raises in hopes to get good abdominal strength for a physical training (PT) test.  Here is the problem: when we want to increase leg strength we do squats with weight, or when we want to increase arm strength we do curls with weights but when we want abdominal strength we don’t use weights.  When you do body weight exercises we are working on local muscular endurance but not strength.  In order to build strength we must use weights.  Another factor is the abdominals are only concentrically contracting for about 30 degrees above parallel when doing a sit-up, above that 30 degrees they are isometrically contracting and the hip flexors are doing the rest of the work.  So, if we are doing sit-ups and going to 90 degrees, the hip flexors are actually doing majority of the work.  The best way to strengthen your core is to do standing work.  Power cleans, power snatches, weighted squats, and land mines are all better ways to strengthen your core, especially since the majority of strength sports require you to do your work in the standing position.  If you are on your back, you are usually losing.  In a Russian study during EMG analysis scientists learned that doing bent knee sit ups, which is the way most do sit ups,  can have serious consequences on athletes needing dynamic range of motion of the hip flexors.  Anyone who has ever done 2 minutes of max sit ups and then go into a 2-mile run can attest to this.  The first 400-800 meters are usually spent loosening up your hip flexors that were beat up during the sit ups event.  When we do sit-ups we are doing local muscular endurance, not working on muscular strength.  Another common misconception in the military is leg raises or flutter kicks increase abdominal strength.  Again, the focus is on local muscular endurance and if that’s what you are after then great, but they don’t work on strength since the abdominals do not cross the pelvis- they are only held isometrically.  The psoas muscle does cross the pelvis and you can strengthen that muscle with leg raises but word of caution: since the psoas does attach to the lower back, it puts a great amount of stress on the lower back.  There are better ways to attack that muscle, as described above.  In the CrossFit world we love our GHD sit ups and they are great for powerful hip flexion but just like in sit ups the abdominals are mostly held isometrically and it’s more of an exercise on the hip flexors and the glutes and hamstrings.  When training the core always know what you are training whether it be strength or muscle endurance and don’t fall into the trap thinking that exercises on your back will be better than the standing exercises.  
Speaking of the training of abdominals, let’s talk about weight belts.  This seems to be the first thing people want to buy.  Weight belts were not designed to support your lower back.  They are a proprioceptive tool designed so you can properly brace your core.  Am I saying that weight belts are bad? Absolutely not.  But know how to use it.  When you wear a belt you want to take a deep breath in through your diaphragm and push your belly into the belt.  This intra-abdominal pressure is used to brace your lumbar.  The physical belt itself does not support your back.  My problem with belts is it gives people a false sense of security that their back will be protected just because they are wearing a belt.  
Abdominal training is obviously very important and should be an integral part in any fitness program.  The commercial gym industry has come up with everything under the sun to sell many myths to the general public, putting people with great abs on their packaging to show how great their new great program is.  Remember 6-pack abs generally mean you have either good genes or a great diet as abdominal strength is not always synonymous with aesthetics.  Don’t just train your “abdominals” but address the core as an entire system! 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Strength Training for Running

     One of the best courses I have ever attended was the CrossFit Endurance seminar (I hate when people call them “certifications” but that’s for another time). The basis of the course teaches the foundations of teaching the CrossFit endurance methodology to others.  Brian McKenzie is one of the greatest fitness minds I have ever had the privilege of listening to.  We go over nutrition, running technique, and strength and conditioning.  When we leave the course, it’s common to see people working on their “pose running” technique as well as digging into their macros and dialing in their nutrition and that’s all fine and good but there is something missing.  The less common things to see is people working on the strength side of their running.  Contrary to popular belief strength is a critical side to being a better runner.  
     As a strength a conditioning coach in a military town I am routinely asked to help people prepare for assessments and selections or military schools and I always ask what they need to work on and it’s always the same thing, “Matt I need to work on my running”.   The problem with this idea is running is such a broad term.  Do you need to work on your distance running or short sprints?  Do you have trouble with cardiovascular endurance or muscle endurance?  You have to know what your wink link is before we can go into devising a plan to address the issue.  Now I can go into the cardiovascular endurance in another article but I’ll say this and every real runner will agree the 2 mile run is a sprint, it is not an endurance event.  With that said we have to train military athletes to be sprinters,  not long distance runners!  
     So how do we train like sprinters.  Well let’s first state a fact, running is the most dangerous sport on the planet.  More injuries are caused by running than any other sport out there.  Now we can argue all day about why that is,  the overuse of cushioned running shoes, lack of proper warm up, or just the simple fact that more people run than play football or baseball.  One of the main ways we can get rid of these running injuries is by increasing our use of strength exercises in the running world.  Another great fitness mind once said, “you want to be better at deadlifts, don’t deadlift!” Now you have to understand the context but the principle can be applied to running.  When I see many people want to be better at running their 2 mile, they they increase their volume and inevitable get injured.  My suggestion is to find your wink link in your chain and strengthen the muscles in your legs to increase your sprint times.  Let’s take a 400m sprint for example (remember 2 miles is a sprint).  What I would suggest is sled dragging for time, not running with the sled as running with a sled distorts running form.  Let’s say I want to bring my 400m sprint from 2:00 to 1:50, what I would do is drag a heavy sled for 1 minute and 50 seconds for several intervals.  Eventually as the weeks go on I will take that sled further and further in the 1:50 seconds.  I can do the same for and 800m, 1 mike, and 2 mile runs.  To keep this conjugate, I can constantly change the weight of the sled or the distance of the sled to allow me to constantly change the stimulus on the body.  Other ways to increase running strength, deadlifts, kettle bell swings, and squats are very useful tools for increasing the leg strength around the running muscles.  Finally don’t forget about the abdominals!  Now when you run you are not in a state of flexion or extension of the trunk so sit ups and crunches are not the best at what we are going for.  As stated in our last article, you must train isometrics! You truck is in a isometric contraction when you run so you must train isometrically.  Two great excersises are the GHD sit up to parallel and force the legs to drive you up rather than the truck flexion and the hallow rock holds.  Both these excersises hold you core in a strong isometric contraction similar to proper running position.  Training the correct muscle group will make you a better runner, for sprints make your efforts short and high intensity for longer marathon runs make your strength work lighter and go for longer sets to build up the local muscular endurance.  
     Now I have not listed nearly all the exercises that you can add to your training but remember cardiovascular endurance isn’t the only thing you should be training to be a better runner.  Local muscular strength endurance is critical to achieve success in running adventures!! 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Importance of Training Isometrics

When we talk about human movement there are three main motions that we must focus on.  They are concentric, eccentric, and isometric.  Concentric is the motion of the distal ends of the muscles moving closer to one another.  Eccentric is the distal ends moving away from one another.  Isometric is the term we use to describe no change in joint angle.  In relation to a common movement like the squat, concentric is the way up, eccentric is reference to the way down.  Many consider eccentrics to be “negatives”, although this isn’t always the case, it is a simple way to look at it.  When it comes to the squat or other movements, most people are aware of the first two but few are aware of the third which is isometric.  If one is going to be the best athlete they can be they must train all three.  
What are isometrics?  Isometrics means that there is no change in joint angle. So, in order to perform true isometrics, you must first find a way to prevent yourself from moving. In a squat, you can set a spotter’s arms above your bar and drive the bar into the spotter’s arms on the way up. You can do the same on the deadlift. These will prevent the bar from traveling any further and fixate the knee and hip angle. Ideally you will set the pins at your weakest portion of your deadlift and pull the bar all the way to this point and keep pulling as hard as possible into the pins.  A common fault seen here is the athlete will just hold the bar at the sitter’s arms or pins. In order to truly do isometrics you must keep driving the bar into the pins and spotter. A less ideal way to train isometric will be to do pause squats or pause deadlifts. The downside to this method is it doesn’t train true isometrics as the muscles begin to experience fatigue. As the muscles fatigue your body will change positions and then you lose the effect of the isometric hold since now you are in a different position. With all this said, don’t overuse isometrics. Isometrics are all part of a big picture in strength and conditioning. Because of the stress that is put on the body the body does become sore very quickly from doing these types of movements. I typically train isometrics once a week. Properly done isometrics will make you a stronger athlete. 
Now that we know how to do isometrics, I’ll explain why we do isometrics. Even though it is not the most important part of a movement or something that should be over-trained, it is imperative to still be trained and its importance cannot be overlooked. One thing that people fail to realize is that when you squat there is a split second between the eccentric portion (down) and the concentric portion (up) when there’s an isometric pause. There has to be this pause because in order for the body to reverse direction the body must first stop. This is the absolute worst position the body can be in while in a squat. The more comfortable you are isometrically, when you are stuck in this “uncomfortable” position you will have the ability to overcome and keep driving through until you complete the lift.  When it comes to the Olympic lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk, I can now use isometrics to adjust a person’s positioning to put an athlete in a more ideal position. By using these isometrics I can have the athlete put full force into the bar yet still have the athlete adjust the hips or shoulders or even make them shift the weight on their feet to get them to become aware of their positioning.  As most coaches and athletes know, Olympic lifting is a sport all about positioning. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, if you are out of position you will never be able to perform at your peak levels.  

Isometrics are a valuable tool in a coach’s tool box.  When properly done, isometrics will help an athlete not only get stronger but also get comfortable in ideal positions.  Whether it’s squats, pulls, or presses building strong isometric contraction will help you become a stronger athlete.