Thursday, July 29, 2010

No more Cap'n Crunch

Gratuitous self-promoting time here on EFL. Have a look at my latest mini-article on Men's Health UK site. But I have to admit it was the MH editor that came up with the Cap'n crunch line. Why are those damn guys always so much better at writing than me...

This article was informed partly from a Dr. Stuart McGill article aimed at personal trainers that I wrote about previously. The subject of core training, while important, is ridiculously hyped (What? Say it ain't so!). McGill often points out that what should seek to achieve in training is "super stiffness" in the core. And while most people haven't a clue what that really means, nor do most care, at least about stiffness there, I'll break it down a little.

Dr. Lenny Parracino, a much smarter person than I could hope to be, said in a talk that the structure of our core serves to not only stabilize the spine, which is crucial for survival, but in order to act as a mechanism to transfer energy between the lower and upper body.

In other words, when you throw a punch or run you are transferring energy between your lower and upper body. If some of that force is lost through it's journey through the core due to lack of tension the your punch will be weaker or you'll run slower.

Or if you are in the gym deadlifting and your core is able to maintain a stiff, stable back then not only will you not be able to lift as much as your legs or upper back might allow, but the lack of stability puts excess stress on other structures such as your lumbar vertebrae, resulting in injury. Same thing for runners or cyclists, although it may take more time for dysfunction to develop.

So without further ado:

  • Don't do crunches, do Swiss ball planks

  • Avoid because... "The rectus abdominis – commonly known as your six pack – does not function primarily to bend the torso, but rather to brace the spine and transfer power from the hips to the upper torso," explains personal trainer Chris Bathke. What's more, he adds, a recent article by one of the foremost researchers on core and back health, Dr Stuart McGill, outlined how our lumbar discs can only take so many repetitions of flexion (such as a crunch) before injury and pain occur. Cap'n Crunch is a breakfast cereal. Not an aspirational nickname.

    Do instead... Swiss ball planks

    Why? They work the core the way nature intended – with little to no strain on your back. And they work it hard.

    Form Assume a plank position with your elbows on a Swiss ball and feet on the ground. Tighten your glutes and brace your core as if about to get punched. Now push your elbows against the Swiss ball while maintaining a stable torso. Three sets of 30 seconds should suffice.

    Progression Take the same position on the ball but this time move your elbows in a circular pattern (likethis chap). Again, make sure there is as little movement in your torso as possible. Do 15 seconds one way then switch directions for two or three sets.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Research Review: Energy Cost of Running

Back to reviewing some research literature here. The study I chose is a joint project between the University of Montreal and University of Poitiers, France, and concerns the effect of plyometric vs. weight training on the energy cost of running.

Source: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24 (7) 1818-1825, 2010.

The energy cost of running refers to the effort needed to achieve a particular running performance. Or in other words is a measure of the effort and relative intensity needed to run a certain pace for a determined distance. The less effort it takes one to keep a pace the longer the runner can hold that pace, and so the better their performance will be.

In the introduction the authors cite various studies that looked at how runners improved their performance through plyometric training (explosive work such as depth jumps and rebound work. The present study took 35 trained endurance runners and divided them into plyo groups and a group that did strength training.

The strength training group did  ONE session per week of from 3-6 sets of 8 repetitions of lower body squats in a smith machine (poor choice in my opinion) at a relatively high intensity in order to maximize peak force output. The other group did reactive rebound jumps from a 20-60cm box in order to improve power output. Both are fairly low volume, high intensity protocols.

Another group did no strength or power work, only endurance running.

Results: Both strength and power training groups improved the efficiency of the energy expenditure, with the depth jump group showing slightly better improvements. Results were better for the lower level runners than more experienced runners, which the authors hypothesize is because stronger, higher level runners need higher intensity and greater volume to affect their performance - which makes sense.

The bottom line is that doing some form of strength and power training, even only once a week, which is far from optimal according to other research out there on athletic training, does produce results. So if you are an endurance athlete looking to improve your performance then you should get on a strength & conditioning program designed according to your condition and needs.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Endless Summer

It's that time of year again. Pool parties and summer BBQs are in full swing, and now it's time to show off your hard work. But what if you aren't yet in the kind of shape you want to be? Well you still have a bit of time, but there is no time to lose. And be honest, it would pretty cool to show up at the summer party and display some enhanced athleticism in smoking all-comers in volleyball game. Or maybe an impromptu cage fight is more your speed. Either way it's better to be all go -n- show. Whether or not it's smart to hit the kind of parties that involve elbow strikes is another matter.

In Santa Monica where I used to live, summer means hanging out at the old Muscle Beach climbing ropes and using the rings and gymnastic bars. If you've ever been there you've seen people with impressive physiques and real functional strength. In fact recently old school UFC fighter Oleg Taktarov was there climbing the rope next to my client. Now there's a guy that could tear up your backyard fight club picnic.

I've also seen plenty of meathead looking guys walk up and try to show off to their girl only to quickly find out real quick they don't have the strength to make it up a rope. I'm not saying you have to forget curls forever, but you could do worse than incorporating some athletic aspects into your training. The following program may have some exercises and protocols that you might not have tried before, but nothing works better to break out of a rut than a program you've never done. If you are like me or my clients than undertaking a challenge itself is a good motivator, and makes time in the gym more enjoyable. And be honest, when was the last time you walked out of the gym thinking 'Damn! That was fun'?

Strengthen Your Base
Everybody knows that strength and muscle mass are interrelated factors important in performance and aesthetics. But rather than try to reinvent the wheel I suggest that those looking to get ready for beach season not drop what we know works. I've had clients do very well with 3 sets of 5-8 reps or similar variations like Dan John suggests with the 2-3-5 rep protocol.

Two to four days per week of some basic lifts done with either of those rep/loading schemes will work for a lot of people, depending on your current training status of course. If you just looking get big or up your numbers in the big three then do what's appropriate for that. But for the rest of us just make sure you are getting in a lower body hip dominant movement, a knee dominant movement such as the front squat, and upper body vertical/horizontal push and pulling movements. So if you plan to do strength work twice a week it could be as simple as a deadlift variation and a horizontal pushing movement one day, a squat and upper body pulling the other. If you are doing three days per week then you can obviously add a vertical push and pull and some unilateral lower body work. I usually stick with no more than two exercises per day using the strength protocols listed above, then move on to the metabolic strength work. Any more and it can eventually be a bit much for some to recover from.

I would also apply normal guidelines when dealing with imbalances or tweaks, so if your posterior chain is stronger than the anterior then emphasize front squats for a cycle of 4-6 weeks or vice versa. If your shoulders are internally rotated, as with most guys I see in my work place, or if your shoulders act up then work more upper body pulling pulling to help remedy the situation.

Incorporating metabolic strength work
If your gym is anything like mine it's less crowded now than it was in January, so we can be a bit more creative in setting up some fun metabolic circuits. But even if it is crowded these are designed to use minimal space and equipment to avoid possible headaches in dealing with crowds. You won't need much more than a few dumbbells, cable station, or squat rack. If you have access to kettlebells, rings etc... then all the better.

The idea here is to incorporate challenging movements into a full body protocol that can still produce hypertrophy, but also engage multiple energy systems (oxidative, glycolytic, phosphogen) and thus improve body composition. But the intensity and volume are such that your central nervous system will not get hit so hard as to impede recovery. That said I would advise a deload or back off week every four weeks.

My philosophy on working muscle groups with this type of work is best summed up by Dan John's quote that “The body is one piece.” Further, noted physical therapist Gary Gray says we essentially have one muscle because every muscle is connected to every other through kinetic chains and fascial lines, so for the sake of our experiment here forget futile attempts at isolation and instead enjoy introducing your shoulder to your core to your hips. You may even notice you move better and your joints are less achy after a month of this work. Though you might not notice it now all those dumb things we do to our shoulders and backs come back to eventually bite you in the ass.

Concerning how we'll implement the metabolic strength work, depending how you like to work timed sets, such as a timed density circuit such as in my last article, or ladder sets are excellent protocols. Either way you'll probably end up doing a similar amount of volume and total work. If you prefer doing a set number of reps then ladders might be up your alley. And if you work with a training partner than all the better. You can compete against each other to see who can finish the circuit first, or work against the clock. If done right the following ladder sets should push you nearly to the point of getting light headed. In other words if at some point you aren't wondering why you put yourself through this then you aren't going hard enough.

Ladder Sets

The rep scheme is a descending pattern of 10/8/6/4/2 reps of each exercise. So for the first round do 10 reps of each movement, then 8 and so on down to 2. Rest is self regulating, but in general rest a little more during the first round of ten reps as you'll be using a load close to your 10 rep max. Start at 60 seconds rest after the first round, then reduce it by 20 seconds after each subsequent round so that by the last two rounds of 4 and 2 reps respectively, you go straight through with no rest between exercises. You might also notice that the total volume is equivalent to doing the ol' 3x10, so don't be surprised if by loading these exercises up you get some hypertrophy. I suggest starting out with a 12 rep max weight.

2a. One arm inverted row (10 each arm, or 5 each if you need to)
2b. Bulgarian split squats. Start with ten each leg.
2c. Single leg Romanian deadlift (5 each side on the first round, 4 the next etc...)

If the circuit above is too easy with your estimated 12rm weight then go a bit heavier. Or you can reduce the rest, depending if you want to emphasize hypertrophy or conditioning. If you are more concerned about building as much muscle as possible then load up the weight on the Bulgarians and deadlifts. But if your goal is to drop some fat then simply try and reduce the rest as much as possible, similar to the way a density circuit works. You can even time this circuit from start to finish, then try to beat it the next time you do it. I do this with certain clients and it tends to work well as a motivator.

After doing the ladder circuit it's time to wind it up with an anaerobic finisher. The purpose here is to put your body into oxygen debt while challenging you with some athletic movements.

The first finisher is as follows. Do as many reps of each exercise with a full range of motion and perfect form as possible for 20 seconds, then immediately move to the next. Rest for 60 seconds after the last exercise. You'll start with 2 rounds the first week, then bump it up to three the following week. If that is too easy then simply do 30 seconds of each movement.

Putting it together

A workout
1. Deadlift 3x5
2. Barbell bench press 3x5

10/8/6/4/2 reps of
2a. One arm inverted row (10 each arm, or 5 each if you need to)
2b. Bulgarian split squats. Start with ten each leg.
2c. Ab rollout

Finisher: 20 seconds of each movement for 60 seconds total work x 2 rounds.
3a Med ball jumping burpee (holding a med ball do a burpee followed by a broad jump)
3b. Farmer carry. Pick up 2 heavy dumbbells or kettlebells and carry them around.
3c Kb or db swing

The above examples will comprise one day, so I'll give you two more examples of complete days including strength work, a ladder set, and anaerobic finisher. Also notice that these get you moving in different planes of motion.

B workout
1. Barbell front squat 3x5
2. Barbell bent over row 3x5

10/8/6/4/2 reps of
2a. Lateral lunge
2b. One arm overhead press
2c. Single leg Romanian deadlift (5 each side on the first round, 4 the next etc...)

Finisher: 20 seconds of each movement for 60 seconds total work x 2 rounds.
3a. Alternating jumping lunge
3b. Spiderman pushup
3c. Jump squat

C workout
1. Barbell power clean 3x5
2. Weighted chin-ups 3x5

10/8/6/4/2 reps of
2a. Dips (weighted if possible)
2b. Cable woodchop
2c. Single leg squat to box(5 each side on the first round, 4 the next etc...)

Finisher: 20 seconds of each movement for 60 seconds total work x 2 rounds.
3a. Renegade row
3b. Db squat to push press
3c. Lateral skater lunge


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Big Move

Apologies for not posting the past couple of weeks, but we are in the process of moving from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. It's been a while in the works and the right opportunities arose.

To all my clients and colleagues at Equinox Santa Monica, and everyone else reading this I know in the area I thank you for being good friends. Believe me, I have learned as much from you as from any other source.

So two days until we hop in the car and drive north, where I will soon be working out of Edge Performance Fitness.

It's hard to tell from the website, but it's a beautiful, open facility with an as yet untapped large outdoor area (that will change very soon!). Having no machines nor mirrors, it's not the typical gym but is exactly what I want in a facility - one that encourages movement and health. I'll be bringing all my tools to the gym, so it will certainly be an adventure in getting acquainted with the community and building my network again.

I'll be posting soon with reports, pictures, and video of the new place.