Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Executing the Fundamentals

"If you do not learn to execute the fundamentals flawlessly, you will never be a champion on or off the field...I can't push a noodle. I can't make you do these things... I'm simply your coach. You are the ones who must have the desire to execute the fundamentals, day in and day out."1

One of the lifting fundamentals I stress early and often is using a focal point. Using a spot, usually eye level or slightly higher, to focus on during the execution of the pull and recovery phases of the lift makes an enormous difference in visual/vestibular integration and stability. I see lots of lifters at local meets who are technically pretty sound on the pull but lose lifts receiving the bar overhead or recovering simply because they move their heads inappropriately or do not have a fixed gaze on a static point out front. In practice with my own lifters, reminding them to use their focal point more often than not fixes any wobbliness and extra steps on recovery.

I got to watch Rio Olympian Jenny Arthur warm up clean and jerks for her session this weekend at the Rocky Mountain State Games in Colorado. I took some video of her towards the end of her warm ups. Notice how assiduously she maintains her gaze on her focal point. (First video 85kg, second video 105kg)

If you have trouble with balance or body awareness on your lifts (and pretty much any lift will improve: presses, squats, snatches, overhead squats, clean and jerks) make sure you are using a focal point. Some lifters find a lower focal point is helpful on the first pull and another, higher point at the finish of the explosion. You will "lose contact with reality" during the pull under phase (if you are moving correctly and fast enough) so having a visual reference to return to as you receive the bar is key. At meets, either at introductions or in between sessions, get on the competition platform and scope out the view. Note where the judges will be, the audience and any fixed features in front of you to use. You don't want your opening attempt to be a totally new experience! 

Misner,Ivan, Masters of Success, pg 68

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Core Values

This is a repost from my old Kata Strength Blog back in the mid 2000s. 

I really do believe that most core exercises (most, not all) personal trainers have their clients do are maybe neutral at best, dangerous at worst and for the most part ineffective at usefully strengthening the core musculature, I do throw in carefully selected extra core work in my sports performance programs. I think my weightlifters generally get enough "core" just weightlifting.

Great article in the current issue of USA Weightlifting Magazine by Richard Lansky called Approaching Core Strength From the Weightlifter's Perspective. Although it is an article targeted for athletes involved in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting, I think it has great value for anyone who trains with weights.

Lansky defines the core as "...the gross musculature of the anterior and posterior trunk, hips and mid back," as well as "the smaller stabilizing muscles of these regions." For weightlifters, the core has two major functions: 1) Force transfer and stabilization and 2) Force reduction and stabilization. The first function is the exercise scientist's way of saying, "You can't shoot a cannon out of canoe" and the second function is the corollary,"You can't catch what's shot at you in a canoe either."

In force transfer (for example pulling the bar from the floor, or the jerk drive) any flexion or extension of the spine during weightlifting movements not only puts dangerous stress on the spine, it also dissipates force the athlete is working to apply to the bar. Hip and leg extension provides the motive force and the core must provide an efficient linkage. Any sagging of the core will result in less force acting on the bar.

In the force reduction function capacity (stopping the downward motion of bar in the jerk dip, the front squat/clean and overhead squat/snatch) core flexion or extension also increases injury risk and it will also cause the center of gravity of the bar to move outside the lifters base of support...the feet...possibly causing the lift to be missed in front (core flexion) or behind (core extension). Core instability will also interfere with the athlete's ability to use the elastic and stretch reflex capacity of the lower body musculature to generate force as well as diminish the ability of the athlete to make use of the rebound of the flexing bar.

Many movements that beginning weightlifters learn as "skill transfer"exercises also have a profound impact on the core musculature. These exercises not only address technique development, they condition the lifter's body to "fire up" the appropriate core musculature in a sport specific manner. Lansky recommends that more advanced lifters who may have abandoned these exercises for technique development reconsider including them in their training in the context of core development exercises. Lansky also notes that it is important lifters learn early on to use the Valsalva maneuver to increase core stability via increased intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure.

Besides general core conditioning with the usual suspects of core movements, Lansky recommends the following weightlifting movements for core conditioning:
  1. Power Cleans and Cleans + Front Squats
  2. Jerk Drives 
  3. Overhead supports and Jerk Recoveries
  4. Power Clean + Front Squat + Jerk
  5. Snatch and Clean Pulls to knee height
  6. RDL + High Pull
  7. Snatch Grip Behind Neck Push Jerk + Overhead Squat
  8. Overhead Squat
  9. Overhead Stationary Alternating Lunges 
  10. Overhead Walking Lunges
  11. Overhead Step Ups
  12. Drop Snatches/Snatch Balance

Lansky particularly likes overhead squats as a way to condition the stabilizing core musculature in a manner specific to the needs of weightlifters. This recommendation reminded me of Dan John's high regard for the overhead squat. The overhead squat and exercises related to it may very well be the best movements going for simultaneously training the linkage between the lower body, the core and the upper body. They aren't easy and they aren't pleasant but easy, pleasant and effective rarely go together, except in infomercials.

I would also add to the above list overhead squats starting from the bottom position...I do these from time to time and they really provide excellent feedback on what is and isn't happening in your own core strength. The Chinese Lifter in the photo above is doing these with a jerk width grip...since he is one of those rare squat jerkers. If you have the shoulder flexibility to do overhead squats with a jerk grip, then by all means do these too. If you don't currently have the flexibility you can ease your grip in over time...varying grip width will vary the training effects as well. One writer has observed that some Chinese Weightlifters can overhead squat from the bottom position more than they can front squat. The Chinese lifters also do snatch grip overhead static holds for time, several minutes in some cases. I've tried this one too and besides being another core wrecker it will give you some valuable feedback about how solid your overhead lockout really is!

2017 edit: CSU Ram recruit Hannah Freeman making her planks nasty, brutish and short.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Some Kettlebell History

Note: This is a repost of a piece I did in 2007 to provide evidence of a "third way" for how to train with kettlebells. At the time, controversy was raging in the USA "kettlebell community" (all 50 of us, lol) over the "correct way" to use what was then a still esoteric (and for recreational trainers, a vaguely dangerous looking) implement. Hard Style on the one side, GS/kettlebell sport style on the other side, and a few of us straddling the fence (very uncomfortably) arguing for a contingency approach: kettlebells as one more tool in the strength and conditioning arsenal to address particular strength and conditioning goals. (As if one of the most revered Russian weightlifters and sports scientists ever, A.S. Medvedev, didn't know what he was doing.) 

My perspective now is pretty much the same as it was then. (I think.) Kettlebells, like barbells and dumbbells are tools. For athletes who are using kettlebells for supplemental resistance training, they only need to learn and follow the basic biomechanical rules and techniques for safely lifting heavy things that apply to all implements.There is no "one true way" to solve the few idiosyncratic hurdles kettlebells present. However, once lifting weights veers into sports whether Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, Kettlebell Sport then to succeed one has to learn, and master techniques and apply training strategies specific to that sport. 

Mike and I are in the early stages of producing a Barbell Strategy Kettlebell course: "Kettlebell Strategy", perhaps? Stay tuned.

In his book, the Russian Kettlebell Challenge, Pavel Tsatsouline discussed several populations that have used kettlebells as a part of their training. Among those discussed were Russian Olympic Weightlifters. Since Olympic Weightlifting is a serious hobby of mine I was very interested in which kettlebell lifts and set and rep schemes the Russians might have used.

Pavel didn't go into great detail in RKC about what exercises the Russians used, but he did mention the great Russian weightlifting coach and sports scientist Medvedev recommended 24 shoulder and arm exercises and 29 leg and torso exercises. Although I plan a more thorough treatment (one in which I hope to combine Medvedev's, Rodionov's, Verkoshanksy and Vorobyev's kettlebell recommendations with current American Weightlifting training methods) here is brief summary from A.S. Medvedev's chapter from the 1986 textbook Weightlifting and It's Teaching Methodology. Part 2 will cover additional exercises.

Shoulders and Arms

  1. Double KB Clean, 10-12 reps, medium tempo
  2. Double KB Clean + press, 6-8 reps, medium tempo
  3. Double KB Press, 8-10 reps, medium tempo
  4. Double KB Curls, 5-7 reps, slow tempo
  5. Double KB High Pulls, 5-7 reps, medium tempo
  6. Double KB Upright Row, 4-6 reps, slow tempo
  7. One arm press from shoulder, 3-5 reps, medium tempo
  8. One hand x 2KB press (overlap handles) 3-5 reps, medium tempo
  9. See Saw Press, 3-5 reps each side, comfortable tempo
  10. Bent over row, two hands x 1 KB, 6-8 reps, comfortable tempo, relax/stretch at bottom
  11. Double KB Bent over row, 4-6 reps, comfortable tempo, relax/stretch at bottom
  12. Double KB Alternating Bent over row, 4-6 reps each arm , comfortable tempo, relax/stretch at bottom
  13. Double KB Shrug, arms to side, 8-10 reps, slow tempo, relax/stretch at bottom position
  14. Shrug, One Arm, 8-10 reps then switch sides, slow tempo, relax/stretch at bottom position
  15. Shrug, 2 Hands x One KB, bell in front, 9-11 reps, slow tempo
  16. Double KB Circular Shrugs, arms to sides, 5-7 reps forward, the 5-7 reverse, slow tempo
  17. Floor Press, 1KB, legs spread apart, 6-8 reps, medium tempo
  18. Double KB Floor Presses, legs spread apart, elbows tight to body, 6-8 reps, medium tempo
  19. Alternating Floor press, 2KB, legs spread apart, elbows tight to body, 5-7 reps each side, medium tempo
  20. Pullovers, reclining, 1 KB 2 hands, legs spread apart, 5-7 reps, easy tempo
  21. Reclining Shoulder Girdle "Twists", 1 KB 2 hands, legs spread apart, set kettlebell on each side 5-7 reps, easy tempo
  22. Pullovers + Reclining Shoulder Girdle "Twists", 1 KB 2 hands, legs spread apart, 5-7 reps each side (pullover set KB to one side, then pullover set KB to the other side) easy tempo
  23. High Bench Rows, (lying on stomach) 2 KBS, 6-8 reps easy tempo
  24. High Bench Alternating Rows, (lying on stomach) 2 KBS, 6-8 reps easy tempo

Medvedev's instructions for beginners is to begin with the 16kg bells and afer 4-6 weeks move up to the 24kg bells. "Later" move up to the 32kg bells. No more than 3 "lessons" a week for beginners and no more than 30 minutes per lesson. Lessons should be at the same time each day. Beginners should also start with a conservative set and rep scheme: 3 sets x 3 reps per exercise. As strength improves over the 4-6 weeks, beginners should have worked up to 5-6 sets of 3-4 reps. The recommended rep ranges for the above exercises are for more advanced athletes.

Legs and Torso

Medvedev recommends using 5-6 exercises performed in circuit fashion with no rest between exercises, but beginners may take up to one minute if necessary. As fitness levels improve, more exercises can be added. To assure improvement and development of leg muscles always include some squats. Either with one KB on one shoulder, or squats with a KB on each shoulder, or perform suitcase squats "hindu squat" style.

  1. Good Morning (note: what we call RDL these days), One KB held in front, shoulder width stance, straight legs, slow lowering, quick raising, 8-10 reps. Repeat with 2 KBs, one each hand, 8-10 reps
  2. Squat, 1KB held by handle behind head w/ both hands, 8-10 reps, easy tempo
  3. Snatch High Pull, 1 KB, two hands, from ground to overhead, 8-10 reps, easy tempo
  4. Pistol Grip KB Clean to Shoulder (Bottoms up clean) from ground, 5-7 reps each side, medium tempo
  5. Snatch, from ground, 5-7 reps
  6. Double KB Clean to shoulder, from ground, 4-6 reps, easy tempo
  7. Double KB Snatch, from ground, 4-6 reps
  8. Squat + Press From Shoulder (clean 1 kb to shoulder, squat recover to standing position and press) 4- 6 reps, slow tempo, repeat opposite side
  9. Side Bends, KB each hand hanging to side, feet together, bend side to side, 8-10 reps slow tempo
  10. Alternating Side Bend + Row, KB each hand hanging to side, feet together, bend to one side while opposite arm rows upwards; KB tracks alongside body, 8-10 reps each side, slow tempo
  11. Trunk Rotation w/ KB held behind head, 3-5, reverse direction & repeat, slow tempo
  12. Squat + Jump (no weight) 3-5 fast tempo
  13. Twisting KB Pickup, KB outside left leg, bend and twist to pick up with right arm, replace, repeat for 5-7 reps and then switch sides, slow tempo
  14. Kettlebell Swings, 2 hands 1 KB, swing above head height, 8-10 reps fast
  15. KB Hip Abduction, affix kb to foot, bend knee, abduct leg, 8-10 reps, switch sides, slow tempo
  16. One legged Squat, 1 KB held behind head, 4-6 reps each leg, medium tempo
  17. Side Lunges, 1 KB behind head, 5-7 reps, slow
  18. Lunges, 1 KB behind head, 6-8 reps per side, medium tempo
  19. Toe raise, 1 KB behind head, 8-10 reps, high as possible, medium tempo
  20. Toe raise on blocks, 1 KB behind head, 8-10 reps, high as possible, slow tempo
  21. Single Leg Knee Extensions, Affix KB to foot, Sit on High Bench, 3-5 reps each side, slow
  22. Double Leg Knee Extensions, Affix KB to each foot, Sit on High Bench, 3-5 reps, slow
  23. Elevated Single Leg Knee Extensions, Affix KB to foot, Sit on High Bench, elevate thigh off bench and extend knee, 4-6 reps each side, slow
  24. Elevated Double Leg Knee Extensions, Affix KB to each foot, Sit on High Bench, elevate thighs off bench and extend knee, 4-6 reps each side, slow3-5 reps, slow
  25. Seated Good Morning, 1 KB behind head, straddle bench, fold forward, 6-8 reps, slow
  26. Seated Side Bends, 1 KB behind head, straddle bench, 8-10 reps, slow
  27. Seated Torso Twists  (face front, turn to side, return to face front all reps to one side first, then switch) 10-12 reps each side, medium tempo
  28. Seated Full Twists, complete twist right to left then left to right, 7-9 reps each side
  29. Roman Chair Situps, 1 KB held on chest, 6-8 reps slow

Bonus Material:
Verkoshansky has a chapter in this same text book with an extensive list of mostly dumbbell exercises for the general weight training of athletes and "developing strength endurance and power for athletes of different classifications."
Here is an interesting KB drill paraphrased as closely as we could get it:
Most athletes need to get from point A to point B as explosively as possible. Here is an exercise for improving explosiveness. Hold 2 kettlebells of equal weight (16, 24, or 32kg) one in each hand. Position two benches of equal height on either side. Benches should be between 60-75cm (24 - 30 inches) in height. Stand between the benches and jump up, landing one foot on each bench. Step down and repeat.

Much thanks to Vladimir Garbovsky for his patient help translating the text with and to Pavel for taking time out of his busy schedule to provide photocopied pages of his original Russian text. Vladimir is of Ukrainian descent and speaks Russian fluently. Even though he is no stranger to the weight room (he plays defensive end for West Chester University football team) much of the translation was nonetheless difficult to put into English weight room idiom. There were no pictures, and the exercises were rarely named, just descriptions so we had to use "translators license" quite a bit and no small amount of pantomime which raised some eyebrows from the students in the Library trying to get some studying done. Any errors are surely mine, but I think we got it pretty close.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Strength Training Alternative Facts

I'm not going to engage in serious political discourse here, but I, like many other folks around the world, found Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway's phrase, "Alternative Facts" a bit Orwellian, a bit outrageous and if you can be amused by creeping fascism, actually pretty funny. 

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan (look it up) famously observed, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts." "Alternative Fact" is just political double speak for an outright prevarication or at best, a disprovable perception or myth. 

So I thought it would be fun to present a list of alternative facts as they pertain to my particular area of expertise. 

31 Alternative Facts in Weightlifting and Strength Training

1) Muscle turns into fat if you stop lifting weights
2) Weightlifting is dangerous.
3) Weightlifting will stunt children's growth and damage growth plates.
4) Squats damage the knees
5) Weightlifting makes you slow
6) Weightlifting exercises should imitate sports specific movements
7) Weightlifting will make you big and bulky
8) Weightlifting takes unecessary time away from sports practice
9) Runners shouldn't lift weights because they only need endurance, not muscular strength
10) The Sots Press is done from behind the neck with a snatch grip
11) Genetics don't matter: with enough hard work anyone can go pro 
12) Online "canned" lifting programs are sound if the online coach is online famous
13) The best weightlifting teams have the best online marketing
14) Weightlifting makes you less flexible
15) More is better
16) Supplements are absolutely necessary
17) Deadlifts damage your back
18) Weightlifting increases risk of injury
19) Cardio is more effective than weightlifting for general health
20) Machines are safer and more effective than free weights
21) Strength training causes high blood pressure
22) You should never lock out the joints while weight training
23) Weightlifting exercises should be done slow and to failure
24) Powerlifting is more effective than Olympic Weightlifting for sports training
25) Olympic Weightlifting is more effective than Powerlifting for sports training
26) Instability training with weights is more effective than weight training on a stable surface
27) Weightlifting will make you too sore to perform your sport
28) Weightlifting strength does not carryover to endurance sports
29) Holding your breath during squats (Valsalva maneuver) causes strokes
30) Weightlifting is boring and no fun
31) Online coaches know more than your real life coach (because they are online, duh)

Mac Crawford, a former lifter of ours demonstrates the flexibility required to do a proper Sots Press.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Meet Wrap Up: Front Range CrossFit FallWeightlifting Meet

Mandi gets to power position, finishes and celebrates her PR !

We took eight lifters, 4 men and 4 women. Individual performances were very good averaging 75% successful attempts. In the Team competition, our women finished in 4th place and the men took 3rd place. 

Barbell Strategy Weightlifting continues to build so we had several new lifters this meet. Carter and Cleo, both CU students, joined us earlier in the summer and lifted as novice (first meet) junior age (20 and under) athletes and both did very well. Cleo got the gold in the 75kg juniors and Carter in the 85kg juniors took silver. 

Diana and Ross moved here from Washington, DC and are mostly acclimated to the altitude now, but still getting their training back in the groove. They both had solid performances while testing the water; Ross with a 4 for 6 effort taking Gold in the 69kg class and Diana in the 69s with a 5 for 6 performance. Both enjoyed a sprinkling of PRs in the process.

Our established members did very well too. Master lifters Tim and Elizabeth O'Connor both took Bronze Medals in their respective sessions with PRs along the way. Jim Jones, coming back from a nagging shoulder injury and surgical repair, posted a solid, conservative 6 for 6 performance to secure silver in the Masters +105 division. We will see some big numbers from Jim again. 

Mandi gets the "comeback lifter" award for her 5 for 6 performance with PRs in the snatch, clean and jerk and total. She had a couple of rough meets earlier this year but really put it all together Saturday. 

Thanks to Jordan for coaching Saturday and EJ for loading and coaching Sunday. And thanks again to Jordan and EJ and Ross and Diana for schlepping me back and forth to the meet venue! 

The next local meet is November 19 at Roots CrossFit in Boulder

And the next big meet for Colorado is the Colorado State and Open, February 11-12 

Let me know if you intend to compete at either of the above meets and we will make sure to have you covered!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Practice Your Weightlifting Like a Chess Master

The great Cheryl Haworth 3 time Olympian and 2000 Sydney Bronze Medalist. A master class in bar path dynamics.

Chess masters don't become chess masters playing chess all the time. Simply playing chess games will not improve your own chess game past a certain point. Chess Masters got to be chess masters by studying and analyzing the games of Grand Master players, learning their logic and tactics while acquiring a repertoire of moves and counter moves to apply in their own games. Learning to immediatley recognize patterns on the board, the classic attacks and counters, anticipate future moves and how to respond appropriately takes years of practice. By the time one achieves Grand Master status, a large part of the execution of game is informed by having "seen it all." Novelty and innovation arises as a choice, not an accident.

Similarly, one does not get proficient at the snatch and the clean and jerk by only practicing the full lifts all the time. Breaking down the full movements into their constituent parts and progressions gives the athlete an opportunity for motor pattern "deep practice." Weightlifting coaches have devised hundreds of variations designed to contribute to the development of the two competition lifts. Like any other exercise, progress in the weightlifting movements depends on a variety of stimuli, otherwise the body simple stops adapting and in many cases will regress. Monotony in practice is the enemy of progress while a little sensorimotor chaos reasonably prescribed is an ally. 

Assistance exercises and supplemental exercises are tools the coach and athlete have available to address weaknesses that negatively impact the competition movements and that the competition movements themselves are inadequate to address. For example, if your first pull is consistently off balance and loose, practicing "lift offs" and "halting pulls" will be more productive than hammering away at the full lift. 

As a coach, it is important to have and convey to your athlete an accurate mental template of the fundamentals of good lifting. Athletes should study video and try what they see, that's part of learning movements. But they should also be able to discern quality movement and be able to detect technical errors. 

By the time an athlete is competing regularly, the full movements should be automatic sets of "well rehearsed movement" and (ideally) impervious to venue, nerves and the increasing weight on the bar. That depth of virtuosity and consistency comes from years of deep practice and high level motor skill acquisition which requires regularly taking the lifts apart and putting them back together again.

And squats. Lots and lots of squats.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Strength, Stiffness and Elasticity: Improving Running Efficiency via Strength Training


Performance in distance running is between 80-99% dependent on aerobic metabolism. There are three ways to improve endurance: either improve lactate threshold, increase VO2 max or improve Running Efficiency (RE) or some combination of all three. This post will focus on strength training as a means to improve RE and lower metabolic costs.

There have been many studies over the years that have shown improved RE from low rep, relatively heavy weight training. Typically, runners weight training on their own or getting innappropriate coaching advice will go too light and perform too many repetitions per set in an attempt to recreate additional endurance work and/or avoid unwanted weight gain. This approach is misguided: the goal of improved RE requires the athlete to get stronger to generate higehr forces more rapidly, thus strength training with lower reps and heavier weights that tap into Type IIa fibers are appropriate. Doing so will compliment the slow twitch/sports specific skill training. Additionally, because the volume is low and the intensity is high, strength adaptations are mainly neuromuscular and do not involve muscle growth (hypertrophy) or associated weight gain. 

It may be that the primary factor between world champion marathoners and middle of the pack athletes is the ability to sustain efficient running technique for the duration of the race. Efficient running technique is highly dependent on strength, "In endurance running the stance leg absorbs three to four times the runner's bodyweight on each landing. To keep that up for a long time, endurance runners must be able to recruit relatively large motor units with submaximal effort - in other words, long distance runners have to be strong." (Bosch, pg125, Strength Training and Coordination) The stronger the runner, the less energy is required to run. 

Optimum RE can be thought of as repeatedly executing high forces while performing the least amount of work possible. Think of  it this way: isometric actions (no changes in length of the muscle) produce the highest forces but do no actual mechanical work and thus have lower metabolic costs. (Fenn Effect, Fenn 1924) Muscle fibers that do change length whether eccentric or concentric produce less force and do more work at higher metabolic expense. Therefore, runners whose technique produces mainly force (isometric actions that make use of the elastic properties of the muscle/tendon unit) will be mechanically and metabolically more efficient than a runner whose technique requires more mechanical muscular work and expends more energy. Perhaps "hitting the wall" towards the end of a race is as much a function of  insufficient strength contributing to technical inefficiency as it is lack of adequate fueling. 

Another way to think of it is strength training performed correctly teaches the athlete how to "take the slack out of the system" so the body can make as much use as possible of elastic properties: "free force"  The stronger the muscle, the better the athlete can reduce slack, the less effort is required to produce the stiffness and springiness which are hallmarks of efficient running technique.

Distance runners who engage in appropriate strength training while continuing to train their events should expect to see improved performance, enhanced technical endurance with no weight gain. Hitting the weights consistently could mean faster times with less perceived effort and greater fuel efficiency.