Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Superhuman Strength

What is strength?
What does it mean to be strong?
When you think of someone who's strong, who do you think of?
My answer is pretty simple and fairly ridiculous. 

Truth be told Superheros are why I got into the game. I wanted to be bigger, stronger and faster than any of the bullies that kicked my a$$ as a little kid. I wanted to be able to do things other people couldn't even fathom. I did not, however, have any desire to wear brightly colored spandex in public (despite what my friend Katie might say about me). 

My first foray into the gym involved a lot of bodybuilding. Everything was about aesthetics. Sure, I was trying to put as much freakin' weight on the bar as I could handle, but ultimately it all came down to lots of reps and lots of exercise. I killed myself with volume because that's what the physical monoliths of my youth were preaching. Arnold seemed pretty damn superhuman to me as a kid as did Lou Ferrigno. I mean, he played the freaking HULK before everything was all CGI and fake muscle suits. I wanted to look like them because In my early days I lacked the education to understand a simple truth about real strength. It's not about how you look or how big you are. Strength is more complicated than that and the superheros I worshipped nightly by flashlight were more than just big. They were invincible. I wanted to become invincible.

My odyssey into the fitness realm has had it's share of detours and odd expeditions. I spent an entire year doing only calisthenics and bodyweight exercises because I was suckered by the functional fitness goons. A little too much of my career was dedicated to mastering resistance bands and their multiple applications before realizing they were a crutch at best; something to be used as a supplement but hardly a core component of a real program. I even experimented with eccentric training, a fad that came and went about eight years ago that involved only focusing on eccentric training.  I was so drunk on the functional fitness snake oil that I genuinely believed I was the definition of strength. 

I was wrong.

Competitive martial arts taught me a lot about real functional strength. Being manhandled by a female half your size forces you to re-evaluate your standards real fast, as does learning how to shoot a takedown and literally throw another human being. I'd lied to myself. I thought my 250 lb bench press meant something. I believed my ability to rip off push ups and squats by the hundreds mattered.Then I went for my first take down and my partner laughed at me because I couldn't even move him. He was probably a buck fifty soaking wet while I was easily 180 in those days.  

Then I came upon powerlifting and olympic lifting. Watching someone who weighs less than two hundred lbs. pull three times that from a dead stop shattered the paradigms I'd created in my mind. I thought my 225 squat was pretty badass until I saw a guy smaller than me use it for his warm up. The sheer power to weight ratio of some of these athletes is freaking absurd. 

Interestingly enough I think what affected me the most was an editorial I read by a soldier on the definition of fitness. Soldiers have a different perspective on it than we do. Fitness is directly related to their ability to survive. Not working out doesn't lead to guilt or a potbelly, it could be dangerous. It could be fatal. I've always admired the mental toughness of soldiers and avidly devoured any of the reading material i could get my hands on about their training methods. Not surprisingly, the training of the modern soldier has evolved a lot in the last twenty years just as the fitness field has. I don't remember the exact quote but it was something like this. The author was talking about what it meant to be fit and simply put he said that if you can't carry a wounded squad mate and eighty lbs of gear half a mile and then keep fighting as far as he's concerned you're not worth shit.


Think about that. Do you think you could carry another human being half a mile and then do anything after that? The average American certainly couldn't and I'd guess that's probably also true worldwide. You can take this one of two ways. You can acknowledge the truth in his statement: that our culture has come so far from dependence on physicality that most of us are weak and fragile; or you can get all upset and defensive and throw all the reasons why you shouldn't have to do that and why it's unrealistic at me and that's fine, but it won't change the fact that you're weak. You can be stronger than you are and I can show you how.

Why should you care? Simple really. Strength is the foundation of everything. If you're strong you're durable and capable. You are less prone to injury and more functional in every facet of your life. Don't you want to be strong enough to protect the ones you care about whether it be from an assailant, a fire or a natural disaster? Shouldn't you be strong enough to protect yourself? With a little effort and dedication you can be. It's not as hard as you think.

Ok, well, it's not as complicated anyway. 

Strength: What is it and how do I get it?

Generally speaking there's two kinds of strength.
-Absolute strength: This is simply the measure of your ability to lift a certain amount of weight through a movement. Scores are not adjusted for lean mass or body size in any way.

-Relative strength: This is the measure of how strong you are with the size of your body taken into account. You can get complicated with it and measure relative strength as a product of fat free mass (FFM) but for our purposes here that's a little more intense than necessary. 

In my opinion relative strength is really what the everyman (and woman) should be concerned with. There's always going to be someone bigger than you and stronger than you. You can't change your genetics but you can maximize your genetic potential. 

Moderate strength goals for a lifter with 1-2 years experience (keep in mind these are MODERATE. Really.) For women just chop .25 bodyweight off each recommendation. 

Bench press : body weight
Squat: 1.5x body weight
Deadlift 2x body weight

Think about that for a second. That means the average dude who is moderately strong should be able to deadlift about 350lbs at least once. Think you could do that? The advanced goals for someone who's been lifting for more than two years are as follows.

Bench: 1.5-2 times bodyweight
Squat: 2-2.5 times bodyweight
Deadlift: 2.5-3 times bodyweight

The reason I made the guidelines for this a bit softer is because progressions slows as you become an experienced lifter. Additionally it's not terribly realistic to expect someone who's 6'4" 235 to be able to deadlift 3 times their bodyweight and I'd hardly say that makes them weak. Again, these are really just guidelines to give you an idea of what it truly means to be strong and what can realistically accomplished in a few years of hard work. These are not meant to make you think you suck just because you haven't hit them. I just want to help you guys go through the same mental paradigm shift I did.

So...how do you get there? 5 reps at a time.

The 5x5 method is a golden oldie. People have been using it to get strong since the advent of the barbell. There's nothing crazy about it, nothing supernatural or snake oily. It just takes work. Technically the formula for the 5x5 is to do 80% of your one rep max (1RM) but that involves going for a max which can be dangerous without a spotter...and sometimes it just doesn't work that way. The body is a funny thing. 80% came from testing hundreds of people and averaging what they were doing, so the standard deviation could be like 10% (meaning 70-90% of 1RM ). Your body might only be able to do 75% or maybe it can do 83%. The best way to find out is to go lift. It'll take you a few sessions to figure it out but it's worth it and better than following a formula. You need to learn to listen to your body, not to use a calculator.

So how do you work it in?

Well it depends on what your current goals are. If you are doing a full training split on multiple days I would recommend starting each workout with 1 5x5 of a big compound movement (think squat/bench/deadlift) and then add in all your accessory work (read:other stuff) after that. For one thing working through a 5x5 will make sure you're good and warm for the rest of your workout and the other thing is that this type of lifting severely stresses your nervous system so you want to go at it when you are as fresh as possible. 

If you are doing more of a body part split (read: one or two body parts per day once a week) then work in the lifts on the relevant days. You can squat on leg day and bench on chest day, that's fairly obvious. Deadlifts could either go on leg day (although i wouldn't do a 5x5 of a squat and a 5x5 of a deadlift on the same day) or you can throw it in on back day to get a little more full body work in. As a general recommendation if you are a beginner I would not recommend doing multiple work sets of a deadlift in a given week. It jacks up your nervous system for longer than pretty much any other lift will. Increases in volume will come later, first just focus on perfecting the technique. 

You can also try an entirely strength based program. The two best ones I'm aware of are Stronglifts and Starting Strength. Personally I think starting strength is the better of the two in terms of raw strength. It is slightly less volume (3x5 per exercise where stronglifts is 5x5 every exercise) and it involves power cleans, which I love. That being said, if you are new to lifting learning a highly technical olympic style lift is probably not only unrealistic but downright dangerous. Stronglifts swaps out the clean for Bent Over rows which in some ways also balances the program out more (SS is pretty push-dominant). The exercises are shown to the right. Press, in this case, is referring to a standing overhead press. All the exercises are done with barbells and YES this matters. They are both meant to be done on alternating days with a day of rest in between. For example Monday - workout a, Tue - rest, Wed- Workout B, lather rinse repeat. You are also supposed to add 5 lbs to each lift every week. It really is that simple and yes, they both work frighteningly well as long as you keep track of your numbers and stay disciplined. I think it also bears mentioning that you should do a proper warm up before you hit your work sets, but thats really as easy as doing a couple of 3-5 rep sets of increasing weight. Just make sure you don't tire yourself out during your warm up, you god damn rookie. 

We need to move past the stigma that heavy lifting is just for jocks and meatheads. That's like saying financial planning is just for the wealthy. We can all benefit from it, no matter our age, gender, or level of strength. In fact, women more than anyone need to be convinced to lift heavier. I'm tired of hearing "I don't want to get bulky." You can't get bulky and if you don't lift heavy enough weight you won't change at all. Real progress requires hard work, ladies. I know you've got it in you.

The benefits of heavy lifting are myriad. Stronger bones and stronger joints increase your resistance to injury. The 5x5 not only increases your muscle muss but increases your nervous system's control of it leading to genuine, transferrable functional strength. When I went back to kickboxing training after I started powerlifting the difference in how the bag moved was almost comedic. Every contact sounded like a gunshot. The bag jumped and the roof rattled. Frankly, it was f*cking awesome.

Heavy lifting increases your core strength like crazy. People debate this all the time but i think the reality is fairly obvious. If you are going to support literally hundred of pounds your core has to be incredibly strong. I've seen people completely get rid of lower back pain by beginning a regimen of heavy lifting, something that most people would consider counter intuitive. It all goes back to developing those healthy movement patterns and maximizing their efficiency. Healthy movements, healthy body. Strong movements, strong body. Not quite so counterintuitive as it seems really. 

Heavy lifting also confers a mental strength that other types of training simply don't. There is a lot to be said for the mental toughness of endurance athletes, no argument there, but if you think you're tough why don't you let me put three hundred pounds on your back and see if you can even hold it up. The Brotherhood of the Iron is outlandish and borderline insane but it's also an unspoken bond between those who've been through a trial by fire and come out without quitting. Becoming Invincible isn't just about being fit. It's about being strong and tough. It's about being durable as f*ck and capable as hell in any scenario life has to throw at you whether it's a weight room floor or a zombie apocalypse. Strength matters. Period. Now go out there and lift something heavy.

Good luck and good lifting.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Mastering Movement

It' a bit of a philosophical Friday. Bear with me. It's worth it. Now watch this video. It's not an absolute must, but it serves as a solid primer for what I'm going to discuss. It's by Elliot Hulse, one of the very few bro-like strength experts who I actually think is brilliant in his own way. Check it out, at least the first minute or so. (Warning: NSFW language) If you're on your phone the embedded video may not work. You can find it here.

Strength training. Running. Injury prevention. Rehabilitation. Exercise Correction.

On the surface it seems like these are all very different aspects of human performance. As someone with a background in both performance enhancement and clinical rehab, I can tell you that many of the driving principles behind these things do seem to contradict one another. Running tends to take long bouts of repetitive motion. Strength training improves fastest with a periodized program that includes intentional variety. Getting stronger usually requires focusing on big, multi-joint, multi-muscle compound lifts. Rehabilitating injuries usually means the opposite, isolating single joints and single muscles. Corrective exercises supposedly focus on balancing imbalances and fixing structural deficiencies. As I said, they all appear to be very different.

The reality? They're not. They're all the same thing. At the end of the day it all comes down to fundamental human movement.

Exercise science is a constantly evolving field. Sometimes the direction is confusing to me, but one of the prevalent paradigms that is beginning to rise to the forefront is this: the mastery of basic human movements trumps all else in terms of genuine fitness and functionality. That's why you start to hear trainers referring to "movements" rather than "exercises." I do it fairly frequently. To some it may seem like semantics but in my opinion it's not only different, but understanding the difference can be both useful and instructive.

If you've read this blog at any length then you know how much I harp on proper form and technique. I've already stated that in terms of both getting the most out of your workouts and preventing injuries proper technique is paramount. It's also larger than that, quite a bit larger. The key to true functional fitness is the attainment of healthy movement patterns and building strength in and through those movements.

This may seem like a bunch of esoteric fitness guru b.s. but I'm going to try to break it down to make it a bit more accessible. I'm not trying to sell you on some mystical fitness philosophy. I'm trying to point out a simple truth that we've been dancing around for years and for some reason we've only recently come to acknowledge. I'm not blaming anyone. It's something I've only recently come to realize myself.

I have a bad hip and a bad shoulder. They're both old injuries from when I used to do MMA. My hip is jacked up from throwing high kicks without the proper flexibility or focus on technique and my shoulder is messed up from a combination of jujitsu training, throwing too many punches and having landed on it wrong one time when a girl half my size flipped me over her back. (Yes, that happened. No, I don't want to talk about it.) 

Both of these injuries plagued me for years. While I was working at the physical therapy clinic I would frequently request fixes from the PTs to the point that they all became somewhat annoyed with my constant pestering. Now, I can understand not wanting to do more work for free after having put in a ten hour shift, but I never really did understand why they would seem so irritated until one of them explained it to me. Basically the general consensus was that I was constantly injured and in pain because I was constantly doing dangerous and (in their opinion) stupid things to my body. They could give me a "fix," but ultimately I would just go back and spar with someone and undo whatever good their fix had done. This underlies one of my biggest problems with the PT profession. Do nothing is not a solution. 

In the short term, resting injured joints and muscles can have obvious benefits. That is not what I'm talking about. What I'm saying is that frequently if you ask a physical therapist how to stop the pain you get in your shoulder from say, heavy bench presses, their answer will be painfully simple: stop doing heavy bench presses. As far as I'm concerned, if your solution to an athlete's nagging issue is to tell them to stop participating in an activity they clearly love, you are a poor practitioner. There are obvious exceptions, i.e. if you just had your hip replaced you probably shouldn't try to go back into your tae-kwon-do class, but if you are an otherwise healthy individual and the only solution they can offer is, "stop," then they aren't doing their job. I think, unfortunately, this solution frequently arises simply because the practitioner has run out of options and is frustrated that they can't solve their patients issue. Giving up, however, is not the appropriate response, nor is telling the patient to give up as well.

Anyway, back to my injuries. After having tried all sorts of different "rehabilitative" techniques I decided to step back from martial arts for a while to give my body time to repair itself. The trouble was that my injuries had become so bad that they were preventing me from even working out normally. I couldn't do a set of pushups without my shoulder flaring up and if I ran at any speed more than 6 miles per hour my hip and groin would get so tight that I would be walking funny for days. Honestly the pain had gotten so bad it was just a part of my day-to-day. It wasn't ever 10/10, but it was constantly there in the background, buzzing and annoying me and always ready to scream at me anytime I moved too quickly or in a slightly incorrect direction. 

So what did I turn to? Powerlifting. It seems like a bizarre choice until you examine the underlying logic. What was causing the injuries to flare up was a lot of intense, fast and repetitious movements at both joints. Powerlifting training typically involves sets of very few reps and very simple motions. You squat, you deadlift, you bench and sometimes if you get really ambitious you overhead press. I would also throw in some pull-ups to balance it out. That's pretty much it. With just those five movements you're hitting all of the basics. It may seem counterintuitive but after a couple of weeks of training basic movements with heavy weights a really interesting thing happened: my pain went away.

For a while I figured it was just that the pain was gone because I was no longer doing the things that would set it off. I was worried that were I to go back and try any of that stuff, it would come right back. I stuck with the heavy lifting for another month or so until my joints were feeling so good that I figured, hey, what the heck. I did a CrossFit workout that involved a gnarly combination of sprinting, push ups, pull ups, and dips. 6 months prior that would have been a direct recipe for sitting on my couch in pain all weekend, unable to walk with my arm in a sling. But that's not what happened. I crushed the workout and there was no pain, just that amazing workout afterglow of having beat the ever living sh*t out of yourself while loving every second. 

I've been doing this fitness thing for a while now. I've been reading, researching and self experimenting with all sorts of modalities and philosophies for almost thirteen years. I have a degree in the subject and several certifications and even with all of that education and practical experience the realization hit me like a freight train. I was wrong. All that time and all of those years, I'd been doing the wrong things.

I was focusing on numbers and times. I was more interested in the way I looked in the mirror than the way my joints felt at night. I always went as hard as I could no matter what because no pain, no gain, right? Wrong. Oh so very, utterly wrong.

Powerlifting requires complete mastery of the technique involved in each individual lift. Mastery of the technique involves serious structural integrity and flexibility through every joint and muscle. You can't do a real squat with tight hips and poor thoracic extension. You can't bench press properly with overly tight shoulders and you really can't deadlift well if you have terrible posture. The same muscles and anatomical configurations that aid in your ability to do those lifts, aid in your bodies ability to function at a maximal capacity.

So why are we told to stay away?

A lot of people think lifting heavy is just for meatheads and morons. It's how you get hurt. You guys know how I feel about that. You get hurt from being stupid, not from going big. Accidents do happen, but claiming that lifting heavy is dangerous is tantamount to saying eating makes you fat. Sure, it's possible if you're not paying attention but that hardly makes it an absolute outcome. Lifting heavy forced me to learn how to truly squat in an anatomically beneficial manner for the first time in my life. Lifting heavy forced me to learn how to use proper posture to stabilize myself while deadlifting and doing overhead presses. Lifting heavy forced me to re-program faulty movement patterns into healthy ones and the benefits were far more than simply adding a hundred pounds to every lift.

After you learn how to squat properly every time you bend down to pick something up your bodies preferred method of doing so is healthy and reinforces a beneficial pattern, rather than placing unnecessary stress on the wrong structures and eventually leading to a silly and completely avoidable overuse injury. It teaches you how to land properly, how to use your legs to absorb shock. Learning how to lunge is an incredible asset to any athlete because it teaches you how to stop and drop your center of gravity in a healthy way. Whether you're catching a frisbee or reaching for a lacrosse ball, an athlete who can forward, side and crossover lunge properly is going to do it faster and with less chance of injury than the one who was never taught how to do so. The same principle applies for every basic movement: overhead pressing teaches you how to lift things over your head safely, pull-ups can teach you how to climb better and how to use the pulling muscles of your body to do just that; pull. Think about how profound the effect on your overall health would be if you had a healthy and proper running gait as opposed to a dangerous and inefficient one.

This is also why I have a negative view of things like the Bosu and all of that obnoxious, overly complicated "functional" fitness crap that certain vendors are pushing these days. These accessories can be good to change it up from time to time, but every program should be built around basic human movements. There's nothing basic, functional, or transferrable about hopping onto and off of a Bosu while waving a weighted bar over your head like a ninja turtle on meth. There's also a lot of evidence that the balance you learn on an unstable surface only translates to other unstable surfaces. In other words, being able to balance on a Bosu won't help you balance better on flat ground. Seems counter intuitive I suppose, but think about it. You're training your nervous system to respond to a lack of stability. When you stand on a stable surface you're now providing a stimulus you haven't trained for and as such, your body responds by not knowing what the heck it's supposed to do. Pretty straight forward, really. 

When we move properly we are stronger, faster and more efficient. We are also healthier and less likely to get hurt. It absolutely bears mentioning that the bio-mechanically correct way for me to do these motions will not be exactly the same as the way you do them. Every body is different and as such every movement is unique. That is not to say that there aren't certain guidelines you should follow and any trainer worth their salt should be capable of teaching them to you. 

Also, on that note, there is a trend in gyms these days that I want to warn you guys about: Corrective Exercise Specialists. Do not trust these people. Despite what I said about physical therapists earlier, I do think that they are frequently incredibly intelligent and highly educated. I have my issues with their practice but we all know that nothing is perfect. In order to become a PT you need a bachelor's degree and then a 3 year doctorate. People with a CES basically claim to be able to do what PT's do and you don't even need a high school diploma to become one. If that doesn't make you skeptical I would seriously question your capacity for rational thought, or at the very least assume you have a drinking problem. One of the best things I learned form my foray into powerlifting is that the best corrections, very simply, are regressions. If you can't do it right, lower the weight until you can. If your form sucks you have no business lifting that heavy weight any way. Check your ego, go back to the foundation and build it correctly. In many cases muscular imbalances are the result of improper movement patterns. Fix the patterns, and you should fix the imbalances as well. 

Humans are obligatory movers. It's the reason we so thoroughly admire athletes and feats of physical prowess. We are drawn to their examples on a primal level. Throughout history our survival and the advancement of our societies has depended on our physicality. Whether it was the ability to hunt down a meal, escape a predator, or defend ourselves in a large scale physical conflict, human beings are obligate physical creatures. It is a defining aspect of who are and it seems, as of late, most of us have forgotten that. If you're here and you're still reading, chances are you aren't one of those people. Frankly, I think that's pretty awesome and I hope it never changes.

Good luck and good lifting. Happy Friday folks.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Scientific Skepticism

This post is something I've been meaning to write for a while now. I spend a lot of time reading journal articles and other peer reviewed research but I also spend almost an equal amount of time browsing fitness forums and the web pages of other "fitness experts" in the blogosphere. A humorous phenomenon that seems to occur on a daily basis throughout these forums is the trolls showing up in droves to write in angry shout-y caps "SOURCES!?!?!? WHERE ARE YOU EFFING CITATIONS YOU EFFING STUPID IDIOT!?!?!????"

No, but seriously. It gets that bad sometimes.

I've had this conversation with a couple of people in terms of why I don't cite my own sources. I've been trying to come up with an explanation for all of you that doesn't just sound like  intellectualized egotism or some remix of, "well, I don't need sources because I only speak the truth." The problem is there really isn't a better way to say it. A large part of why I don't cite is because I try, to the best of my current ability, to only give you guys the truth. I try to look at both sides of the coin (read my articles on why I both love and at times question Crossfit) and I have no problem retracting a statement or admitting that I was wrong when I come across something that proves it to me. There is, however, a larger reason as well.

This article showed up in one of the forums that I frequent. If you don't feel like reading it, that's cool. It's basically a point-by-point rebuttal to an article about why running is bad for women, which can be found here. If you follow my blog, you know how I feel about long term, steady state cardio. Generally speaking, I'm not a fan. The reason, however, is hardly because it's bad for you. The truth is that if the only reason you're running is for the purpose of fat loss, there are probably significantly more efficient modalities to get you to your goals. I don't run because my current goals are all related to powerlifting. Not only will running not help me get to squatting 405 for 5, it will directly inhibit my progress.

That being said, I have to admit that the first time I read the article on why women shouldn't run, there were some things about it that I bought into. I agree that excessive running in lieu of any other type of training is not the best thing for your body. There's plenty of evidence that it is hard on your joints and your bones. It's also frequently bad for your posture and may cause you to prematurely appear significantly older than you are (although a lot of times this has more to do with constant sun exposure experienced by outdoor runners than a true effect of the exercise itself). The truth, however, is that most of these things can be combatted by a balanced training regimen and running in moderation rather than to an extreme. It's not that running is bad for you, it's that too much running is bad for you. Go figure.

Anyway, the point of me bringing up these articles was not to rehash a conversation on running. Rather, what I want to point out is the main theme of the first article which, from where I'm standing, isn't truly about running either.

We live in the information age. I would love to say that we live in an era where free access to information is abundant but it's way past that. Spending too much time on the web is akin to being water boarded with information. Anyone and everyone with internet access also has access to thousands of informational sources whether they be peer reviewed journals or some know-it-all blogger like me. On the one hand this is great because it expands the discussion of important topics beyond just the realm of academia. You no longer need a PhD to have access to scientific journals or to participate in a conversation on  cellular signaling pathways. Unfortunately the most significant downside of this information age we inhabit is that it seems just about everyone believes that because they're being allowed to participate it means they are qualified to do so. We are rapidly developing armies of arm chair experts who have no understanding or knowledge outside of their internet escapades. This has to stop.

Variety of perspective is absolutely crucial in terms of developing real knowledge. It's always valid to be able to examine a problem or a question from a multitude of viewpoints and attempt to apply more than one mode of thought or scientific paradigm to get answers. This should not be mistaken for saying that even though you never graduated college or even high-school, having spent a thousand hours reading forums means you are just as qualified to evaluate scientific research as someone who has a PhD. You're not, and all of you people need to stop. You're not helping. You're hurting all of us.

When the first article was posted on the forum a funny thing happened. Everybody hopped off the "running is bad" bandwagon and jumped right onto the "author who wrote that article is bad," bandwagon. This was not the author's intent. They say so, right there in their own words. Their intent was to show people that ultimately we all need to be intelligent enough to educate ourselves and draw our own conclusions. You should not accept anything as infallible despite how incredible and accurate aspects of it may be. This should also not be understood to be a blank check that gives all of us the right to decide whatever the hell we want is true. That would also be missing the mark.

The reason I don't cite is actually pretty simple. If I put scientific articles in my blog, would you read the entirety of every one? It's okay, I don't always read the citations and I have a strong educational background in a scientific field. The reason I don't use citations is because they don't carry the validity that the cultural hive-mind seems to have placed in them. The first article I linked to makes an excellent point of saying that simply because a statement is followed by a string of small letters hardly imbues it with any kind of truth or reality. The reason being that scientific papers (with the one LARGE exception of review articles) are extremely specific. There are no papers out there that have deliberately investigated every single effect of running or lifting on the human body over the course of a lifetime. Why? Well, because it would be borderline impossible to conduct such a study. Think about it. You would have to track someone from the moment they were born until the moment they die. You would have to do this for not only one person, but at least thirty or more randomly selected subjects to give your study any remote kind of statistical significance.

Instead, what most authors do is use a biased view to choose the studies they like and then string them together into an argument they think proves whatever it is they are trying to prove. I can tell you scientifically that running will prevent significant muscular hypertrophy from strength training. I can also tell you that the repetitive impact from running can and will frequently lead to impact-related overuse injuries such as joint deterioration and stress fractures. I can put these two things together to make what APPEARS to be a convincing argument that running is not good for you. The problem is that in doing so I am ignoring literally hundreds of articles that extol the benefits of running, from increased aerobic system capacity and cardiovascular health to maintaining lean muscle mass as you age and improving cognitive function.

Starting to see what I'm saying?

The problem with using scientific citations is that frequently the people that are throwing them around are not, themselves, scientists. This may sound elitist but it's not meant to be. It's merely acknowledging that the world of academic science has a language all it's own. If you don't speak the language your interpretation of what they're saying means next to nothing.

Any good scientist will tell you that the significance of a single paper is questionable at best. Just because one paper demonstrated a result does not, as far as the larger body of science is concerned, mean that the study constitutes a scientific fact. All it means is that the results of this study must now be considered as a possibility. It's not until a result has been observed numerous times by multiple different researchers that it starts to become the general consensus. Therein lies the problem.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Fitness is pervaded by snake oil salesmen who will use whatever tricks and arguments they can get their hands on to show you why their particular flavor of snake oil is the best one for the job. As soon as a single study is published that they think may help boost their sales numbers, they're all over it, showing it off to all of their followers and potential customers as inarguable scientific proof that they were right all along.

Right all along. Come on, people. Even Newton wasn't entirely correct. Just ask that Einstein guy, he'll tell you. Newton had it mostly right, but there were some things he didn't get. Hell, even Einstein didn't get everything right.

I'm not telling you all of this to get you to reject science as being useless because it clearly isn't. All good scientists are skeptical until their own personal experience proves something as true or there is a large enough body of evidence that it's not worth debating.

So, again, why don't I use citations? It's simple. I don't have anything to sell you guys. I'm not operating on a financial incentive to get you to believe me over someone else. I'm doing this because I love the subject and I love writing. Frankly, I also probably like most of you guys too, so why would I want to lie to you?

I promise I will always do my best to tell you the truth and to correct myself whenever I'm wrong. If you want me to send you the sources for something feel free to ask and I'll do my best to comply. I apologize if you find this post disheartening or if it sounds like "don't trust anyone because they're all liars." That's not what I'm trying to say. I'm simply emphasizing the following points: Do your research. Consider the sources. Maintain a healthy skepticism until it becomes foolish or fanatical to do so. I will do my best to continue giving you valid, scientifically based opinions and providing you with other sources who are doing the same. Just like the X-Files said, the truth is out there. The thing is it often takes some true effort to find it.

That's all for now kids. Good luck and good lifting.


Oh, and umm. This. Yea. 

Because apparently I'll never learn.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Big Bad Rubber Bands - The Do's and Don'ts of Band Training

In many ways I'm a firm believer in a minimalist, basic approach to working out. I like barbells.  I like heavy weights. I like multi-joint, compound movements. Generally speaking a lot of stuff that is touted by the "functional" fitness community like the BOSU, airex pads and cute little color coded medicine balls makes me cringe. It's not that these things are intrinsically bad, it's that frequently people tend to use them instead of the exercises that you should really be building your programs around.

I used to have an extremely negative view of resistance bands and band training. Frankly it just seemed like some sissy sh*t that would appeal to gym newcomers because of how easy it was. How are you going to hurt yourself with rubber bands? They're so much more welcoming than a bunch of big, scary iron weights. Then I started working at an orthopedic rehabilitation clinic where the majority of resistive work was done with bands, particularly where the upper body was concerned. I had several extensive discussions with one of the therapists there who in addition to being a DPT had a NSCA-CSCS, NASM-CES, NASM-PES, NASM-CPT, ACSM-CES, RKC and was Grey Cook FMS certified. You can look these things up if you really want but they're basically just different exercise certifications. The point is that this guy not only knew his stuff, but was always actively increasing and improving his knowledge of exercise and movement.

He changed my views on resistance band training fairly quickly by identifying the best uses for them. I am going to attempt, to the best of my ability, to recall what he told me so that you guys can put it to use.

Resistance Band Training: The Basics

     Super Bands - These basically look like giant, black rubber bands. I've also heard clients compare them to the belts that are on your car's engine. Either way, they are large rubber bands that typically come in one of two widths and then a variety of different colors which represent different levels of resistance.

    Sports Cords - Also known as JC Bands, a patented product invented by Juan Carlos Santana, one of the premier figures in functional training and the owner/founder of the Institute for Human Performance down in Florida. This is what they look like.

They are great for all sorts of things because you can use the cloth piece to anchor them to just about anything. They also come in a variety of resistances, indicated by the color of the band. 
     Dual Ended Resistance Tubing - These are the resistance bands that have a handle on each end. In my opinion they are merely an inferior version of the sports cord. They're difficult to anchor which makes them difficult to use effectively. They are frequently billed as one of the best pieces of portable fitness equipment. Strictly an opinion, but I think they're garbage. 

     Thera-Band - Last but not least we have Thera-Bands. Like Band-Aid to adhesive bandages, TheraBand is one of those products where their brand name has become synonymous with their product, regardless of the actual manufacturer. These look like long thin rubber bands and are typically sold in rolls of different resistances, once again coded by color. Thera bands are interesting because they're the duct tape of resistance band training, meaning with a little ingenuity you can pretty much make them into anything. That being said, the heaviest resistance of Thera Bands is roughly as heavy as the weakest resistance of JC bands, so they do have their limitations.

There are an infinite number of combinations and iterations of these four types of bands, but these are the main variations you're likely to encounter and the only types of bands I've ever really used to any effect.

Resistance Band Training: The Do's and Don'ts

DO - Use resistance bands for therapy/rehabilitative exercises. In general the resistance curve of a band is the opposite to the strength production curve of our muscles. What this means is that the resistance of the band is highest when we are at our weakest. 

Your muscles tend to produce the most amount of force when they are at about 75%-25% of their total length, with their ability to produce force reduced if they are longer or shorter than that. A resistance band continually becomes more difficult to move the more it is elongated. As a result, if you have a damaged joint resistance bands can be great for therapy because they force you to become stronger where you are the weakest and therefore the most likely to re-injure yourself. We use therabands of different levels for almost all internal/external rotation exercises of the shoulder for specifically this reason. 

Additionally using bands allows you to exercise certain joints with large/complicated ranges of motion (think your shoulder and hip) in a variety of different angles and directions without placing undue stress on the rest of your body. Think about it like this. When you lift a weight, the resistance is always in one direction - down to the ground. You are working against gravity. Therefore, in order to change the force vector you have to change your body position. By anchoring a band in a bunch of different locations and at various heights you can quite literally work your joints/muscles at any angle while sitting or standing straight up. This is another huge part of why bands are an excellent rehabilitative tool.

DO- Use resistance bands as a way to help break through plateaus. If you are having trouble performing pullups, looping a super band to the pull up bar and then placing a knee or a foot through the loop can help you work a movement that would otherwise be out of your reach. You can also use them to help you improve your bench press or your squat. Frequently power racks will have anchors along the floor for bands so that you can loop them over the barbell and then attach them to the ground. Exposing your body to a different kind of resistance (bands are variable resistance, as discussed above, as opposed to free weights, which do not change in resistance level) means a different kind of stimulus, this may be just the change your body needs to break through that plateau.

When used this way bands help to develop not just strength but power, your ability to produce force and to do so quickly. Because the band is increasing in resistance as you move, it has a natural braking effect on your movement. Forcing yourself to combat this braking effect of the band helps your nervous system to fire in such a way that you significantly improve your power production. This is great for any athlete or someone just looking to change up their routine. It should be noted (although it may be obvious to some of you) that when you first switch to bands you should also significantly decrease the weights you use for these lifts until your body becomes accustomed to this type of training. 

DO - Use resistance bands as an alternative form of cardio/ as a warm- up. I use bands with my in-home clients all of the time because they offer a simple and portable type of resistance. In general I try to focus on body weight or suspension training if we're going for strength or muscular hypertrophy, but I will frequently use circuits of different resistance band exercises to challenge their cardiovascular systems. A really simple circuit would be something like alternating sports cord rows followed by alternating sports cord chest press followed by a sports cord squat pull down. Each exercise would be done for 30s-1 minute and the circuit would be repeated 3-5 times before moving on to the next complex.

Sports cords are also great as a warm up tool because they allow you to mimic movements that you may be doing in your program (rows, presses, pull downs, etc) at a much lower resistance and with a little bit more speed. This helps you to get your blood flowing, raise your body temperature and prime your nervous system with the movement patterns you're going to be working on. It's also fairly common practice in powerlifting circles to use either a band resisted deadlift or a band resisted squat that is performed explosively to prime your CNS for a maximal lift or new personal record attempt. 

DO - Use sports cords for core training. Due to the variability of options in anchoring the sports cord, you can perform movements that would otherwise be fairly difficult to set up. Two of my favorites are hi-low and low-hi chops with core rotations coming it at a very close third. 
One of the nastiest core exercises I've ever come across is also one of the most simple. Attach a sports cord to something that is about waist height. Now position yourself as if you're going to do a core rotation with your body perpendicular to the anchor point. Extend your arms from your body fully keeping your hands roughly in line with your belly button. Now side step away from the anchor point. Once you can't walk any further, hold that position for 10-30s. Repeat. Trust me, it sounds easier than it is. 

I suppose it bears mentioning that theoretically you can do these things with a cable column but resistance bands offer a more constant resistance, even if you go quickly. If you move quickly with a cable column you may "jump" the weight, allowing you to cheat a bit by using momentum.

DON'T - Use resistance bands as a substitute for the real thing. I can't stand watching people standing on some tubing and doing shoulder presses or standing inside a super band with it looped under their feet and over their shoulders and doing squats. In a pinch if yo have no other options I suppose it is better to have some resistance rather than none at all, but don't get comfortable using resistance bands to replace real exercises, because they can't.

DON'T - Get too creative. Sometimes I see people doing complicated martial arts or what looks like an interpretive dance number while holding bands anchored to two different points and standing on one foot. It may look impressive to you but remember what I always say - basic human movements and their mastery trumps EVERYTHING. Is what you're doing with those bands natural in any way? Will you ever use that type of movement other than right now? Then why are you wasting your time? Functional fitness should be just that, functional. If the exercise you are doing has no real crossover then it is anything but.

DON'T - Get carried away. Resistance bands are an excellent tool when applied in the appropriate manner. That doesn't mean you should be incorporating them in every exercise or even every workout. If you're getting stagnant and you want to mix it up, by all means, give it a shot. If you're injured and you need a low impact, easily transported mode of resistance again, by all means try it. Just be reasonable. They are meant as a supplemental training tool, no more and no less. 

That's pretty much it. The take home for this is simple. Resistance bands can be an excellent complement to a well rounded program, but focus on the basics first. Bands are meant to help you squat and deadlift more, not to replace them entirely, at least not from where I'm standing. 

PerformBetter.com is the site that we ordered most of our bands and such from back at the clinic. They can be a little pricey but overall it is a very solid website for all sorts of fitness equipment and educational tools. Definitely at least worth a look.

Good luck and good lifting.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Sugar, Water, LIES.

My subject for today doesn't just apply to the world of fitness, it's a bit larger than that. What I want to talk to you guys about is drinking the kool-aid. If you're not familiar with the phrase it's a colloquialism that basically means ascribing to any cult-like philosophy and refusing to acknowledge the detractors and counter-arguments regardless of how well researched or educated they may be.

I was having a conversation about CrossFit last week with an old classmate of mine. She's both the manager of a commercial fitness facility and the head coach of a collegiate field hockey team. In other words, she's someone who knows a fair amount about fitness in both the general sense and strength and conditioning as it relates to high level athletes.

She read my post about CrossFit from a few weeks ago and decided to do a little investigating of her own. Now, before I get into any of this, I want to point out that I've already stated I think CrossFit is awesome as a training philosophy. I love the intensity, I love the focus on movement over exercise and frankly I just think CrossFit is a lot more fun than most of the workouts out there. I'm also a little sick in the head and enjoy things like working out until I'm nauseous and/or vomiting, so take that for whatever it's worth.

The first place she went on her educational venture was to the CrossFit website. Again, I've said that this website is a pretty great resource for tons of free information about nutrition and a database of workouts that quite literally goes back for years. This is not what she found. This is. 

This is a screen capture from the Crossfit FAQ. It can be found here. While I strongly agree with several of the claims on this list there are two that are not only disingenuous but poorly informed and poorly argued.

Number 1: Gymnasts learn new sports faster than other athletes. Oh do they now? That's interesting, because I have to tell you having grown up surrounded by gymnasts and martial artists I can tell you pretty conclusively that this claim is bullsh*t. 

Now, the organization could have taken the time to explain what exactly they mean by learning faster, but they don't. They just make an absurd claim and move right along because they know the vast majority of readers will see it and nod their heads. What I believe they are referring to is motor learning, your body's ability to form and utilize new motor patterns. If this is in fact what they mean then there is a degree of validity to it.

 Gymnastics is a sport that is subjectively and aesthetically judged. Gymnasts are required to pay extremely close attention to every facet of their movements and the positioning of their body through those movements. As a result they have a highly developed sense of proprioception (awareness of their body in space) and an accelerated ability to learn highly technical movements. I would personally argue that this extends to any sport or activity that is judged in a similar way as I've seen profound levels of motor learning from martial artists and dancers as well. Now, despite the truth that is readily apparent in this claim, there is to me at least 2 huge problems with this statement.

The first is that motor learning is a skill developed over large amounts of time and a huge part of it is innate. Gymnasts make it to the elite levels of their sport because they were born with a higher proficiency in motor learning, not simply because the practice of gymnastics has imbued them with a higher level of proprioception and muscle memory. The practice does, of course, improve these innate proficiencies but to claim that beginning the practice of gymnastics will get anyone and everyone who tries to the same level of motor learning is almost comical. That would be like saying that the study of advanced calculus will turn you into a mathematical genius, regardless of your initial level of understanding.

The second issue with this statement is that to me it demonstrates a poor understanding of "sport." Obviously becoming bigger, stronger and faster will help you perform better in most sports and athletic endeavors. That being said, any competitive athlete can tell you that there is infinitely more involved in learning and playing sports than simply memorizing the movements. Being able to squat three hundred pounds won't teach you field awareness and rowing an insanely fast 5k won't help your passing instincts. Personally, I have a very high level of motor learning. I can learn complicated and technical movements very quickly and it has been an asset to me in my professional field. Even so, I am an average athlete in most conventional sports because I never grew up playing them. To use another metaphor, saying that motor learning makes you the best at sports is equivalent to saying that hitting a heavy bag makes you the best boxer. Sure, you understand the proper mechanics of throwing a punch but to quote one of my favorite athletes and fitness icons of all time, Bruce Lee, bags don't hit back and neither does a squat rack. 

The last claim on the list is that "the world's most successful athletes and coaches rely on exercise science the way a deer hunter relies on an accordion." While I do appreciate their sense of humor this is a completely ridiculous statement but not because it's a lie. It isn't.

My educational background is in exercise science and I can tell you we are not a terribly well respected field. We are considered a soft science by most other scientific professionals and I think its mostly because compared to them, we're still fairly new. As we progress in our ability to do meaningful scientific work and implement our research in a significant way I really believe the prevalent attitude toward our field will change. The reality is maybe we'll get there, maybe we won't, but that's somewhat beside the point. CrossFit claims to be an evidence based approach to fitness. What does evidence based sound like to you? Science...that is quite literally what the scientific method is based on. Assumptions and rules based on repeatable and reproducible results. Evidence. So if your organization is claiming to be the next big thing in the world of exercise and your argument is that you are doing so in a scientific, evidence based manner, why would you go out of your way to basically sh*t on the people who are trying to do the same thing?

Simple. Because you have a financial incentive to do so. A lot of what CrossFit claims is evidence based is questionable at best and at worst, downright dishonest. I've said it over and over: fitness is a field of specificity and CrossFit is a workout that is anything but. That doesn't make it inherently bad, in  fact if you are working out just to be fit in a general sense without a specific goal in mind CrossFit may be the best method for you. As soon as you have a specific goal, however, CrossFit rapidly loses it's advantage. They can't tell you that, of course, because they need you to shut up and give them your money. A lot of it, like, at least $150 a month. And don't forget the $150 start up fee and introductory sessions. Who's going to want to pay them $300 to get through the door if they are willing to acknowledge their own weaknesses? So instead they've created an incredible brand image around their absurdly shredded athletes. I will say, as far as images go it's very enticing but so is a pitcher of kool-aid when you're thirsty. That's hardly an indication of any substance. 

The reality is that if you are billing yourself as the next big thing in science/evidence based fitness, you should be trying to contribute and improve the body of exercise science; not attempting to get everyone to disregard it completely. Would you trust an oncologist who tried to tell you that as a whole, the field of oncology is nonsense but you should take the prescription medications he's peddling? Would it encourage you to believe that he can cure you simply because he doesn't have cancer? This is one of my biggest frustrations about CrossFit. Most of the high level CrossFitters and competitors got their base of fitness in another pursuit and then turned to CrossFit which means that saying, "look at our athletes, look at how jacked they are," is once again completely disingenuous. Yea, they're all ripped, but what does that have to do with me or why I should listen to you? The truth? Absolutely nothing.

I think it also bears mentioning that despite the organizations claims, almost no professional athletes use CF as a training methodology. They all have team strength and conditioning coaches with masters degrees in, guess what? Yep. Exercise Science. They can say whatever they want on their website because it's their website. The reality, however, is that the world's most successful coaches and athletes don't much care for CrossFit either.

I'm going to stop beating up on CF now. One of the most unfortunate things about the organization is that most of the people I know who are professionally associated with CF are very humble, intelligent and highly educated people. Kelly Starrett, their staff Physical Therapist and the guy who runs MobilityWOD.com is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant and forward thinking minds in the field of human movement. There is a lot of great stuff to be said about CrossFit. That is not tantamount to saying that they are infallible because they are far, far from it. 

I think CrossFit is great. I think Paleo is great. I am not a fan of the cult of CrossFit or the cult of Paleo. You know these people, they're everywhere. As soon as you mention you're working out or trying a diet they tell you "you have to do this one. CrossFit is the best. Paleo is the best." Oh is it? And how do you know that? Do you have any idea what my goals or capabilities are? Is your recommendation actually based on attempting to accommodate my needs, or your own need to propagate the myths your cult has sold you? You can go right on drinking that kool-aid my friend but I don't want any part of it. 

Fitness is a field pervaded by snake oil salesmen. There will always be a self proclaimed guru flashing his perfect smile and chiseled abs to tell you his brand of kool-aid is the best and only. There is no "best." There is no "only." Be wary of anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. Take it all in, learn from these people what you can (if anything) and leave the garbage behind. You don't have to WOD twice a day and pay $150/month at a box to benefit from CrossFit's training principles nor do you have to eat only grass fed pasture raised beef to see improvements from Paleo's nutritional guidelines. Educate yourself. Keep what's useful. Forget the rest.

Don't get caught up in a cult. Don't drink the kool-aid.

As always, good luck and good lifting.