Strength & Power.
Aerobic baseline conditioning.
Additional Anaerobic conditioning if recovery allows.
See to it that you temper yourself with one thousand days of practice, and refine yourself with ten thousand days of training.
– Miyamoto Musashi
Your sport or art should obviously be the primary component of these six practices. The key here is to understand that your athletic practice is the most important aspect of all your training. If you are interested in being a legitimate athlete then focus is genuinely required.
To quote coach extraordinaire, Dan John, “The goal is to keep the goal, the goal.”
If you have an element of your training or lifestyle that is interfering with your ability to train or perform your sport or art you have to decide what your focus is going to be.
You should be training or performing in your athletic practice 4 to 6 days a week.
Strength and Power Practice
The poor implementation of a strength and power practice is by far the largest and most common impediment in an athletes development.
Too many people consider the barbell a test of mettle rather than as a tool of training.
The goal of this practice is to become strong and powerful for the kind of athlete that you are and not in some kind of general or absolute sense. This means that roller derby skaters need to be strong compared to other skaters but not necessarily when compared to powerlifters or gymnasts.
The bottom line is that what you do in this practice should support – not hamper – what you do on the mat, field, track or ring.
Ideally your strength and power practice should be overseen by a knowledgeable and experienced strength coach. If a personal coach is not an option for you I recommend researching Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program or Pavel Tsatsouline’s Power to the People program.
You should be implementing your strength and power practice 2 to 5 days a week.
People often act like proper nutrition is some kind of complicated black magic or quantum level science but unless you have a severe or rare metabolic disease nutrition can be boiled down to two simple rules.
1. Eat like a fucking adult.
2. Don’t kid yourself.
If you can do this you are already out performing 90% of the population.
Eat like a fucking adult.
Eat real food.
Real food doesn’t come out of a can, or a box or a bag. Real food goes off.
No one over the age of 12 really thinks that nutri grain is ironman food or that diet coke is a healthy choice.
Eat vegetables for health.
Eat meat for strength.
Eat carbs for recovery.
Don’t kid yourself.
You know that pizza and beer aren’t getting you closer to your goals.
And the problem is not that you should *never* consume pizza and beer. The problem is that you pretend that because you ordered a gluten free base and low carb beer that you are somehow still eating well when what you actually did was fuck up a perfectly good meal.
Repeated movement patterns take a toll and the more specific and intense your athletic practice the more specific and intense stress is placed upon your body.
If longevity in your sport and maintaining a pain free day to day life are among your goals (and they should be) then these issues should be addressed by maintaining a movement practice as a part of your schedule.
Stretch what is too tight, open what is too closed and stabilise what is too loose. This can be as simple as going through a mobility routine – like DeFranco’s Agile 8 – three or four times a week or beginning a full blown yoga practice.
A meditation practice is an incredibly powerful tool for improving all areas of your life especially your athletic performance.
We’ve all had those experiences of getting into the “zone” or hitting our “flow”. Matches or performances where time seems to slow down and our ability to think, move and react seems limitless. We recognise the advantage of this state but hardly anyone actually trains to deliberately enter into it.
As athletes we are obsessed with training our bodies but so few of us put the effort in to train our minds.
The “zone” is really nothing more than consistent mindfulness. The ability to remain in and focus on the present moment without distraction.
Regular meditative practices cause actual structural changes in the brain. Just ten minutes a day can improve your will power and decision making capabilities; increase your focus and decrease your stress.
Ten minutes a day, everyday.
Developing a meditation practice doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll end up sitting in the lotus position, wearing flowers and talking in the breathy, hushed tones of someone who just finished a three day yoga instructor course.
Your lifestyle practice is primarily about making sure you stay physically, mentally and emotionally healthy. By necessity training environments tend to be fairly insular and it’s easy to fall into the pattern of eat, sleep, train, repeat. While this makes for some neat tee shirts the reality is that it’s an expressway to injury and burnout.
The specifics of a happy and healthy lifestyle are unique to each person but there are few general principles that will always apply.
Get enough good quality sleep.
Have interests outside your athletic practice.
Spend time with people.
Spend time by yourself.
Spend time simply playing.
A while back I republished a new and updated version of the popular article “The Best Supplements for General Health” where I focussed on discussing which supplements were useful in building a foundation of good overall health. They were simple vitamins, minerals and fats that help with immunity, energy levels and general well being.
This time around I want to look at some supplements that will help you get the most out of your training without breaking any laws or taking any undue health risks – nothing here will land you in jail or the hospital if you use them as described.
As always – It is important to note that I am not a doctor, and I don’t pretend to be one on the internet. If you are pregnant, have a chronic condition or are taking medication, you should consult a physician before commencing any supplementation regime.
Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Branch Chain Amino Acids are made up Valine, Leucine and Iso-Leucine and can help promote muscle protein synthesis, increase muscle growth, regulate blood sugar levels and prevent muscle catabolism.
BCAAs are also an excellent way of managing appetite during weight cuts as your liver can convert 8g – 12g of BCAAs into just enough blood glucose to alleviate cravings without slowing fat loss.
Some people also experience a reduction in fatigue while supplementing with BCAAs but the jury is still out on whether this is a placebo or a genuine physiological effect. At the time of writing most journals and text books refer to this as a reduction in “perceived fatigue”.
While research does seem to indicate that Leucine is the most beneficial of the three, clinical trials have found no advantage to either isolating or increasing the ratio of the acid in the supplement so you are probably best off consuming a balanced ratio.
A dose of 10g to 30g depending on your size and activity levels is pretty standard. Branch Chain Amino Acids are best consumed before or during training and quantities larger than 10g should be split into two or three doses for maximum effect.
Creatine helps regenerate a molecule called Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP) which is what your body uses for energy in practically every physical process from muscle contraction to cellular regeneration. Basically, whenever an ATP molecule is ‘used’ it loses a phosphate becoming Adenosine Di-Phosphate (ADP) which cannot be used as a fuel source unless it is converted back into ATP. This is where Creatine comes to the rescue – by donating its phosphate group to the ADP, Creatine reforms it back into ATP refilling your body’s energy stores. Supplementing your body’s own Creatine allows this process to go on for longer that it would otherwise enabling you to train longer and harder.
Also, as Creatine itself is also a fuel source for short duration, high intensity anaerobic activities (like weightlifting and sprinting) supplementation can result in performance increases.
If potential weight gain is not a concern for you I would recommend taking 5g in the morning before any training and 5g in the evening before you go to sleep. If you participate in a sport where weight has to be factored into the equation just take the 5g in the morning.
At this dose Creatine must be taken daily for two to four weeks before it is likely that you will see the full benefit. You can speed up this process by starting with a loading phase where you ingest 20g daily for five days before dialling back to the recommended daily dose of 10g but this can cause gastro intestinal distress in some people.
Finally, I would recommend cycling off Creatine for one week every six weeks or so and for one full month every year. Supplementing Creatine will increase your body’s natural stores for a short period but after a while your body will get used to receiving this extra Creatine and down regulate its own production as a result. Regularly cycling off Creatine for short periods of time will help mitigate this effect.
These days more and more people are over fed but under nourished and the thing missing from the majority of athletes’ diets is sufficient protein. While bodybuilding magazines tend to recommend a daily protein intake somewhere in the vicinity of 2.5g per kilo of bodyweight, studies and experience indicate somewhere between 1.2g and 1.7g is probably sufficient unless your goal is to put on substantial amounts of mass.
While it’s nearly always better to get your protein from whole foods like meat and eggs the sheer convenience of a protein shake makes it an easy way to ensure you are consuming sufficient protein.
There are a couple of important things to look out for when purchasing protein powder. First, when you are drinking a protein shake you want to be taking in protein and not a bunch of sugar so try to find a brand that has at least 22g of protein and less than 5g of carbohydrate per 30g serving.
Secondly there is the type of protein to consider. While there are a bunch of different types, blends and brands they generally fall into one of three categories.
Whey Protein Isolate or Whey Protein Concentrate: Whey protein is a fast acting protein whose rapid absorption causes the blood’s amino acid levels to rise extremely quickly making it an ideal post training supplement. While there are differences between Isolate and Concentrate if you follow the above recommendation regarding purity they are basically minimised to the point of non-existence.
Casein: Casein protein is slow acting and its effects long lasting making it better suited to being a meal replacement than for post training recovery. During periods of training where significant mass gain is the goal a Casein protein shake before bed can aid in muscle growth and recovery.
Plant Based: These are best used if you have a dairy intolerance and cannot make use of either of the above options. While there are many, many, many types of plant based protein powders I would recommend finding a blend of rice and pea; it has a fairly neutral taste and two combined covers the shortfall found in just taking either one individually.
There you have it. No magic or secret pills with guarantees of “XtremE” gains in a shockingly short amount of time just three simple supplements which, if used correctly, should help you train a little harder, recover a little faster and perform a little better.
Simon is one of our coaches who specialises in one-on-one and small group training. Below he shares his experience and thoughts on participating in the Gymnasticbodies method of training.
I have always enjoyed doing bodyweight training. I think we should all be able to control our bodies in space, whether it is in a basic functional way, or by taking it to the next level with acrobatics and fancy movements.
Last year I participated in the Gymnasticbodies (GB) Level 1 Seminar hosted by Coach Christopher Sommers. You can read my review here.
So with my little boy Ash being roughly two months old at the time, and needing to spend more time at home (with not a lot of sleep), I decided to make the Foundation series my main training focus.
Both programs require only a limited range of equipment, so I could do a lot of it at home, and use the equipment when I was at the gym (gymnastic rings and a pull up bar).
I started the program at week 5 to 9 for each phase, as the earlier phases were very basic. I also knew it would take me nine months to get through all of F1.
One of the good things about the GB website is that it has all the programming set out for you, so you only have to concentrate on the week that you’re up to. It also has a follow along format so you don’t get to confused with all the shorthand.
There are also a range of videos you can watch if you need to remind yourself of the form and technique for both strength and mobility.
The Foundation Series uses strength and mobility in each area of the program, and it always includes strength, followed by mobility/flexibility. So if you skip the mobility you’re technically only doing half the work.
For example: Bent Hollow Body Hold (FL/PE1 60sec) then Cat Cow (FL/PE1>iM 5reps)
Here’s where all the training leads to:
Front Lever (FL)
Straddle Planche (sPL)
Side Lever (SL)
Single Leg Squat (SLS)
Hollow Back Press (HBP)
Rope Climb (RC)
While I say that I completed all of F1, I couldn’t do most of the Single Leg Squat section due to partial meniscus tear in my left knee from BJJ, it just wasn’t stable enough for me to trust it.
As I am writing this, I just had a look at the F1 programming again and they have changed the SLS programming to what looks a lot easier or achievable for people who are limited in the use of their lower body.
Now for what I thought about the F1 program. I really enjoyed it, I guess coming from a Capoeira background means that I could pick some things up a little quicker than some other people.
The program is not a quick moving program, by that I mean it’s not a super entertaining program, but it’s not supposed to be, your focus should be on accuracy not intensity.
I like the process of the step-by-step actions that lead from simple to challenging.
Also, each exercise has a ‘Mastery’ part to it. For example: Bent Arm Chin Hang (RC/PE6) which was 5x60sec which was really hard at the start, but now it’s possible (again I checked the site and it’s only 5x30sec…)
Where my mindset differs from what they (GB) are looking for is mastery, and looking for mastery in movements isn’t why I train (but doing cool movements is nice).
When I first started Capoeira, I wanted to be good, I wanted to be able to walk into the Roda and be able to keep up with whoever I was playing, and I feel the same with BJJ.
When it comes to movement it’s always good to think about the bigger picture. Basic movements lead to more complex movements, but it’s up to you how far you take it.
For me, longevity is what keeps me motivated and focused. I want to be in this game for the long haul.
Find out more about training with Simon and his background here.
(Photo credit: Unity Gym)
Specialised language and jargon isn’t just fun, it can be incredibly useful. The words we use define the way that we think about topics, and so it’s worth it to carefully refine the words we use.
Here’s an example that illustrates how obsessive I am about this stuff- the use of the word ‘pull’ when talking about the deadlift. ‘How much do you pull?’ is a common way to ask someone how much weight they can do in this most storied exercise. The very concept of ‘pulling’ evokes the sort of arm-focused back-straining effort that any good deadlifter should be working to avoid. My clients (most of whom have never deadlifted before they start with me) never hear the word ‘pull’ in relation to the deadlift, but they do hear the word ‘stand’ a lot. I judge that this conditions them to think about the lift as a lower-body-driven, body-unfolding-evenly process, as they should.
Am I being over-the-top? All I know is that I want to get better and better at teaching things. It’s no great insight to say that effective communication is at the heart of teaching. Effective use of language comes down to one simple thing- understanding what a word or term means before you use it.
I feel bad picking on a word like ‘cardio’. It’s a word that was useful for a long time. It has a clear and precise meaning (physical exercise of low to high intensity that depends primarily on the aerobic energy-generating process, but of course you knew that). Meanwhile the fitness industry is littered with nightmare words like ‘tone’ and ‘detox’, marketing terms based on fictional premises that lower the common IQ of the fitness community every time they’re uttered or written. Compared to these ‘cardio’ is a fine, worthy term.
That said, modern athletes and trainers talking about ‘cardio’ sessions and ‘cardio’ fitness is a useful illustration of how the finer subtleties of language can limit our approach to our own fitness.
Athletes who start training with me tend to have a basic understanding of Cardio Training vs Strength Training. To most of them ‘cardio’ is the huff-and-puff, lots-of-reps-at-a-time stuff and ‘strength’ is about big scary weights. A cultural aspect to this exists where many athletes think of themselves as either Strength Athletes or Cardio Athletes. This false binary is about as useful as the false binaries prevalent on the political thinkpieces you read on Facebook this morning (ie not useful at all).
If pressed, any person of average intelligence will acknowledge that our muscles AND our lungs are working any time that we exercise. They’ll further acknowledge that a set of five back squats can leave you sucking wind and a long run will make your legs feel like jelly.
Our muscles are devices that we use to move and they are powered by the various substances that fuel our body, which includes oxygen. Our nervous system is as much the generator of strength as our muscles, and these various systems interrelate in subtle and intersectional ways depending on exactly what exercise we’re doing.
Sure sure, I hear you say. That’s all true, but doing cardio still makes you good at cardio and strength makes you good at strength, right?
We had a guy attend our wrestling club several years ago, who had never wrestled before. This guy was a serious athlete, a veteran of triathlons, open water swims and many other punishing endurance events. Despite this, two minutes of wrestling would leave him a melted puddle on the floor. I remember his words at the end of his first class, said with an exasperated laugh- “I thought I was fit!”
This guy thought that he had found an activity that had shown up the limits of his fitness. He was utterly wrong. His fitness was every bit as high -level as he thought it was. It was just the wrong fitness.
This guy wasn’t aware that the body has three energy systems- phosphate, anaerobic and aerobic- and that while all three of them are working every time you exercise, there is always one in primacy. Which energy system you’re using depends on how long and how intense the activity is.
A human body is going to have a different fitness in each system. It’s a pie to be sliced up- to reach an elite level in one requires a trade-off with the other two. You noticed that the third energy system is called aerobic, right? The other term for aerobic is cardiovascular. cardio isn’t part of a binary with strength, it’s part of a ternary with phosphate and anaerobic. (I’ll get a bit deeper into all this in my next column).
Once our trainee wrestler had these simple things explained to him he was much less frustrated. He had clear parameters for what he needed to work on, and a clear sense of reality. If he wanted to perform better at wrestling, he would have to increase his anaerobic fitness and allow his aerobic to be de-emphasized. Getting this right would mostly be a simple matter of adjusting the duration and intensity of his weekly exercise, plus one more important thing.
The more functional strength you have the less effort you need to employ in any individual movement. The less effort the lighter the demands on your energy systems. That means the stronger you are, the fitter you are, at least as far as the conception of fitness that people associate with ‘cardio’ training. There isn’t a physical pursuit on earth that a well-structured strength program won’t heavily assist with.
I aim to turn all of my clients into masters of nerdy fitness jargon. I teach every client about the three energy systems within their first two or three sessions, and work to deepen their understanding of them over time. It’s easy to understand, it helps people understand their own bodies and all truly effective gym training incorporates it. When naming the three systems I use the word ‘aerobic’ instead of ‘cardio’ because it’s relation to the word ‘anaerobic’ makes for clearer explanation. I’m thrilled for you to use the word ‘cardio’ if you still prefer it, but I’d love it of you stopped using it as a catch-all term for any type of huff-and-puff exercise. Consider it a personal favour to me.
There are fitness terms and slang that are clear, useful and elegant. There are other terms that are so counterproductive that I want to remove them from the language entirely. In the middle are a bunch of terms that are just fine but used lazily, by trainers and athletes that would rather repeat buzzwords than learn the basic facts about exercise and training.
If you’re after an effective way to set yourself above the gym-goers around you (and I know you are) then watching your words is a great place to start.
Rubi Doom and ElaStomp are both Roller Derby athletes who compete in the Canberra Roller Derby League as well as nationally. Despite their separate team alliances (Rubi plays for the Black n’ Blue Belles and Stomp’s on the Surly Griffins) they’ve been training with me as a pair for a couple of years. They’ve made stellar progress in that time despite both having a flair for creatively injuring themselves while on skates. In recent times other members of their league have begun to join them for their sessions.
For today’s column I’m going to break down the structure of the strength and conditioning sessions that they do with me. Hopefully I can use this to get across some broader points about how basic training science can be applied to specific athletic goals. I’m going to take you through exactly what they do in the gym; but first, a little context.
What even Derby?
Roller Derby is a contact sport played on a hard surface. Contact and force come at the athletes’ body from every direction while the athlete herself is also moving. As a result the risk of injury is high and so resistance/resilience to injury has to be central to an athlete’s training goals. It is a skill-intensive sport that requires offensive and defensive movement to be integrated three-dimensionally. This is best achieved by working with experienced roller derby coaches as many times a week as is physically sustainable.
A gym-based strength and conditioning program allows Rubi and Stomp to put their sports-specific physique together efficiently and safely, so that when they attend derby training they can focus 100% on their skills (as opposed to trying to service skills and fitness at the same time). Rubi and Stomp have patiently increased their work rate capacity over a sustained period, which now allows them to safely train more often while maximising the results of each individual session.
What even sport?
The first step in breaking down any sport is to examine the energy systems used.
Roller Derby bouts comprise two 30 minute halves, a duration that demands a strong aerobic base. However, these halves are further segmented into intense 2-minute periods known as jams, and athletes will be strategically subbed in and out of jams across the length of the games. Jams are the basic unit of roller derby action and they are predominantly anaerobic in nature. Anaerobic fitness is the key fitness for a derby athlete. Of course there will be moments of skilled contact and surge that require the phosphate system too, but it is most useful to think of roller derby as an anaerobic sport.
These basic facts inform our general structure for Rubi and Stomps’ training which is as follows:
Two 40-minute gym sessions a week
The technical demands of their sport mean that Rubi and Stomp need to be spending the vast majority of their training time working on their specific derby skills through drills and scrimmage. They need to be as fresh as possible in their body and minds when they train, they can’t afford to be depleted from their gym workouts. Two gym sessions a week allows for structured gains and forces me to be as efficient as possible in my programming. Keeping the sessions to 40 minutes in length means that we can push the body where it needs to go while staying in an optimal zone for fast recovery.
Strength as a priority
For at least two thirds of our training year the focus of our sessions will be on increasing strength rather than peaking our energy systems. This is because strength gains have more flow-on benefit than any other aspect of training besides skill. These flow-on benefits include:
- Increased resistance/resilience to injury
- Increased ability to recruit force and power
- Safer/more effective movement and body balance
Being stronger also makes you effectively fitter across all of the energy systems. The stronger you are the less fitness you need to complete any one physical action. As Rubi and Stomp have become steadily stronger it takes less and less time for them to peak their fitness for competition. This is a far more effective system than if we built their anaerobic system purely through anaerobic training.
Twice a year Rubi and Stomp nominate a particular bout date to ‘peak’ for. We work towards these dates and program carefully to create the best possible chance that they will be at their fittest and strongest on that date. Rubi and Stomp have been steadily increasing strength and maintain a base level of anaerobic fitness through their derby trainings so we are able to peak their anaerobic system with no more than seven weeks notice. The seven weeks comprise six weeks of training plus a deload/rest week right before the comp. This period starts with less specific conditioning work and becomes more and more specific to the duration and intensity of derby jams the closer we get to Bout Day. The deload is absolutely essential as the body needs to rest for all of the physical adaptations to complete themselves.
Of course Rubi and Stomp’s general fitness is on a steady increase over time, so each peak is higher than the previous one. That said, the human body is a non-linear system and it’s important to cycle your training. Trying to get better at everything all the time would be in ignorance of how the human body works.
The structure of their gym sessions is as follows:
- Core Lift
- Conditioning Circuit
I’m going to take you through Ruby and Stomp’s typical session by explaining the steps in turn:
A structured warm-up has the following aims:
- Achieving the blood flow and joint lubrication required to exercise safely
- Promoting activation in all of the bodies muscle groups, with special emphasis on any muscle groups which might be relatively weak or inactive
- Practicing the movement patterns that will be featured in the main body of the workout
All of Rubi and Stomp’s warm-up exercises are based around the movement and muscle activation required in their sport- namely hip and leg drive, engaged scapula, instinctive joint alignment, well-developed stabilisers and a strong posterior chain. They use free weights for the warm-up (either kettlebells or sandbags). Their current warm-up includes swings, rows, push presses, floor presses, squats and windmills. Rubi and Stomp have relatively balanced physiques but if at any stage a muscle group or set of stabilizers needs more attention then we adjust the range of exercises. Often bodyweight exercises can be the most effective for targeting specific muscle activation.
We do 10 reps of each exercise with minimal rest in between, the whole warm-up takes several minutes. Form has to be exact for every repetition, the warm-up is a great place to build technique. Rubi and Stomp’s warm-up weights have steadily increased over time, but lifting heavy weight is not the focus of the warm-up.
Or ‘plyos’ for short. These are exercises in which muscles exert maximum force in short intervals of time, and in which a muscle moves from extension to contraction in an explosive manner. The training benefits include:
- Training the physical response required for fast and powerful movements
- Activating and training the phosphate energy system
- Preparing the nervous system for intense work
- Training skilled movements in a low-rep context that allows for the refinement of form
Plyos occur in sets of between 10-15 seconds at a time, with 90 second rests in between. This keeps the work within the phosphate energy system, the energy system we use for maximal power. For most exercises this will mean sets of two to three reps at a time.
Rubi and Stomp rotate between a small pool of simple but efficient plyos including box jumps, explosive push-ups and cleans (with a kettlebell or bag). The low rep ranges allow them space to push for height, range of motion and heavier weight without the risk of sloppy technique or over-training. Rubi and Stomp work to a conservative minimum of five plyo sets but anywhere up to eight sets can be useful for training purposes (after that you’ve blown out the envelope for maintaining explosiveness).
Rubi and Stomp train one core lift per session. When we talk about the ‘core’ lift we’re referring to the part of the session where our physical exertion will peak. These lifts are compound barbell exercises that represent maximum physical benefit relative to time spent. Traditional core lifts include the squat, deadlift, bench press, standing press, clean and jerk and snatch, as well as variations thereof. The core lifts listed, while all technique heavy, can be mastered to a useful standard in a few months (with the exception of the clean and jerk and snatch, which are among the most technical movements ever devised by man and are arguably better used as a sport unto themselves).
Rubi and Stomp have space for two core lifts in their week, so they have one focused around the upper-body and one focused around the lower-body. Note that I say ‘focused around’ since every core lift should be a full-body compound move when performed correctly.
At the moment Rubi and Stomp’s core lifts are the Front Box Squat and the Barbell Push Press. The front box squat is a variation of the squat that regulates many of the major form cues – including posture, depth and core activation – without as much conscious effort as other variations. The barbell push press is the least technically challenging of all the core lifts. While neither of these lifts are ‘easy’ I’ve chosen them to allow Rubi and Stomp to focus on attacking heavy weight with confidence. Once this confidence is sky-high then it may well be appropriate to switch back to more technically demanding versions of the lifts.
Each core lift set is made up of between one and five reps, the optimal range for building strength. In simple terms, the lower the reps are the higher the weight will be. We cycle through the rep ranges so that the total number of kilos lifted increases steadily over time (not every session!) This is the surest measure of increased strength. Between five and eight sets will be performed, the programming for reps and sets is governed by Prilepins’ Chart.
I set a strict time limit for the core lift, only one minutes rest between sets. This slightly limits the amount of weight that can be lifted per session, which removes any risk of recovery problems. Moving through the sets quickly creates a comfort level with the activity of heavy weightlifting and that confidence begets heavier lifts. If a particularly heavy weight is being attempted on the last couple of sets we lengthen the rest to two minutes. Note that Rubi and Stomp are only able to move through heavy sets quickly because of the long period of time they’ve spent mastering the technique.
In this last part of the session Rubi and Stomp perform a range of exercises that build muscle mass and target specific muscle groups that need to be strengthened (pretty much all of them). The set-up at Elements is minimal so we use free weight and bodyweight exercises, but conventional ‘machine’ exercises such as leg press and hack squats can be useful for this purpose too.
Rubi and Stomp’s regular array of circuit exercises include variations of squats, rows, deadlifts, presses, good mornings, lunges, pull-aparts, front raises and sit-ups. These are all selected for their efficiency at building functional strength. When we’re in a strength cycle the reps are performed slow and steady at weights which promote focus on technique. When training towards an anaerobic peak they only use exercises that they can perform correctly with speed and intensity. For example, in a strength-focused circuit Rubi and Stomp will often have barbell deadlifts as an exercise, which they are well-practiced and good at, but I would never have them do that exercise under huff-and-puff fatigue.
The circuit is easily adjusted to focus on whichever energy system we need to be training at the time. The exercise choice is less important than how hard Rubi and Stomp are working and for how long. Conditioning rounds are always less than 6 minutes and are often only 30 seconds in length. Everything in the circuit is measured in time rather than number of reps. If the exercise choice and round length is correct then the required physical exertion will happen regardless of how many reps are performed. Ask Rubi and Stomp if you don’t believe me!
After that it’s cool-down time on the rower, right about the 40-minute mark.
Every aspect of Rubi and Stomps sporting performance has improved dramatically in the last couple of years, but for me the coolest part is seeing how much harder they are to injure than they used to be. I’m only one member of a large team that has facilitated that and full credit goes to Rubi and Stomp themselves for their consistent attendance and patient attitude, particularly in the face of my constant bad jokes.
This is part 2 to Nick’s debut series of articles outlining how sheer obsessive nerdiness is the most powerful super power of them all. You can check out part 1 here.
There are a lot of enjoyable, pleasurable things in life that aren’t working on your health and fitness. These are often quantified as ‘bad habits’ — stuff like eating fast food or surrendering a whole weekend to your Netflix account (just to name two personal favourites). My conviction is that you can’t quit a bad habit. What you can do is build a good habit that becomes a priority to the point that it crowds out the bad habit. The great news is that most ‘bad habits’ become perfectly fine things to do once you do them a lot less — in fact they can become healthy recovery practices for your downtime between training sessions.
How do you build a good habit? It’s gonna mean getting over The Hump. The initial soreness, the fear, the distrust, the anxiousness of the new environment and the lure of familiar comforts.
I’ve gotten pretty good at getting new clients over the hump (I’m not perfect of course). My approach is very simple — I talk. Non-stop. I tell them exactly what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what results they can reasonably expect and when they can expect it. I invite their questions and when they stump me (rare but it happens) I don’t front, I go look it up.
Do my clients think I talk too much? Probably. I’m okay with that, since my clients tend to know more programming science than the average freshly minted personal trainer. They’re no more likely to perform a squat without proper form than a firefighter is to point the hose the wrong way. They just know better. The best part for me is that results are relatively normalised across my client base, whether they are ‘naturally’ hard-working or not.
Of course I’m not ignorant of the prevailing trends in modern gym training. I appreciate that there are modern exercise systems that present themselves as sport-and-training-system-in-one, and they take place largely in gyms. I’ll likely weigh in on this phenomenon more in a future column, but in the meantime let me clarify what I’m saying. I’m saying that Mental Toughness has become a runaway idea within gym culture and is frequently overstated in terms of its importance to athletic success. The focus on attitude as the be-all and end-all can be used as a smokescreen by mediocre coaches and just plain isn’t as effective as a knowledge-based approach.
Let’s take an example that’s close to my heart — say you want to get stronger. Let’s say much stronger, exceptionally strong relative to the population. If you’ve ever been on the internet or in a gym you might have seen this process related in quite dramatic terms — No Pain No Gain, Embracing The Grind, Paying The Iron Price or whatever else. At the very least, it has likely been presented to you as a matter of hard work and sacrifice above all else.
Well hard work is an essential component, though not in the sense of mindless grinding. Sacrifice too, technically, though that’s a bit overwrought; it just means you have to commit some time and also choose it over other athletic goals. Anyway, more determinant than both of those is the refinement of your goal to a specific definition of strength. Do you want to be functionally strong in your everyday life or in a specific sport, do you want to be competitive in a strength sport or is there a very specific physical action you want to complete?
Once you know what your goal is you can structure for optimisation — the exact amount of work per week to achieve your results. No more, no less. This should be expressed as a range with upper and lower limits to allow for the non-linear system that is the human body. Luckily we’re in 2015 and have access to decades of Eastern block training and research as well as the work of elite western strength coaches such as Louie Simmons and Glenn Pendlay.
Ultimately you can break your months, days and weeks down into optimal rep and set ranges across a minimum of effective separate exercises. Spoiler warning, it’ll involve some skill-intensive movements, often (but not always) performed at a weight heavy enough to demand technical excellence. Once this is all planned out you can go into every session knowing exactly which stimulus you’re targeting and whether your focus in the moment is on speed, hypertrophy or any of the other attributes of strength. You’ll also have the parameters to make the inevitable changes and adjustments that come which the unpredictable nature of the rest of your life.
Got pretty nerdy there, didn’t it? (Again, I just offered some heavy spoilers for future columns).
It always gets nerdy with me, because I can’t escape the fact that a lot of people have been doing this to a very high standard for a very long time. I’m not the guy who’s produced dozens of Olympic athletes, but the brutal truth is that I don’t have to be; that guy’s lifetime of knowledge is available for study and absorption by a spoiled Westerner such as myself. What excuse do I have not to know this stuff? Even though I’m decades of experience away from matching these guys as a coach and my clients aren’t training for a world championship they all still deserve the best possible programming.
I’ve taught proper lifting technique and programming to a lot of different people by now. Their dedication in terms of consistency and attendance has varied widely, but there’s two things I’ve seen born out 100% of the time:
- once someone knows how to train an exercise properly, why the technique is important, and what they’re getting out of it, they can’t bring themselves to do it the wrong way any more
- those clients that DO put in a longish period of consistent, structured training — achieving dramatic results without mishap or injury — will then keep going, farther and farther into advanced levels of physical transformation.
Of course this effect is cumulative. It can take a fair few sessions to build trust in a system and lots of questions to accept an information source. That’s the other big part of my job, building context and subject knowledge for clients as quickly as possible. It’s also the easiest part of my job, because I love to share this completely free information. ‘Cause I’m a huge nerd.
What’s my practical point? It depends who you are:
Gym-Goers — are you getting the results that you want? If you strip away your trainer’s charismatic persona, the friendliness and emotional support of your training partners and the rush you get from your sessions, is there still a sense of real progress? I ask because all those other elements are actually pretty easy to find, but real (and by real I mean sustained and lasting) physical transformation is a much rarer thing.
Trainers — look, I have no doubt your clients love you. You’ve nurtured and supported them through their ups and downs, you get invited to their birthday parties and they trust you with their deepest secrets. My (unfair) question is this — have you repaid their trust with real, lasting results? Do you regularly interrogate your own knowledge base to make sure you’re working with the best possible information? Have you given your clients the knowledge that will make them independently fit for life, long after you’ve moved away or been hit by a bus? Or have you hoarded the knowledge in a misguided attempt to increase its market value, or worse, to prevent it being subject to scrutiny or second guessing?
Gym Skeptics — It’s true, most gyms are cringe-worthy ego-mines full of Bros, Posers and Brosers. But the great thing about those people is that they’re so easy to beat at their own game. If you have average intelligence, a modicum of critical thinking skill and even a touch of nerdiness you can easily exceed the results of the gym junkies around you.
It all starts with well-tested knowledge and in my humble assessment, finding great teachers. The latter can take a bit of work, but the former has never been easier and my hope is that this site can be a portal to the high-quality information that lies just beyond the Valley Of Fitness Fads.
I’ll be beginning with articles that zero in on some of the concepts I’ve touched on above, both the nitty gritty structure of how to train and the broader issues of teaching and learning within the wide world of gyms.
I invite you to come back and check them out, but I won’t try and convince you with a big speech. Experience tells me that if you get something out of them, you’ll come back on your own.
Again and again and again.
NEXT TIME — A CASE STUDY IN SPORTS-SPECIFIC STRENGTH
Nick is that indescribable scent you smell right after it rains . He is available for Personal Training and instructs the Strength & Power and Freestyle Wrestling programs. Check out his personal site Form=Function.
Nick is truly obsessed with developing technical excellence in everything he does whether he’s writing songs for experimental indi pop groups or lifting ridiculously heavy weights without mussing his hair. Here he reveals the secret to his superpowers: Nerdiness.
- A crucible of pain and ordeal in which the worthy temper themselves into elite paragons of achievement and beauty.
- A testing environment in which superior character is revealed and your primal worthiness as a human being can be objectively defined .
Is this conception familiar to you?
How about this one:
- A combination of army drill sergeant, life mentor, spiritual guide and infallible fitness expert.
- An exemplar of physical achievement with a hyper-natural connection to the intangible heart of physical excellence.
If these definitions seem commonplace rather than laughable then there’s a good chance you’ve spent some time in the modern first-world fitness environment.
Now, I’m as much a fan of heroic narrative as the next person, but the deeper I get into my practice as a PT and strength coach, the more the current discourse and language around gym training concerns me.
‘Pain is weakness leaving the body’. ‘Failure is not an option’. ‘Something something Beast Mode etc’. All very pithy and galvanizing. On the other side there’s these, ‘I know what to do, I just don’t do it’. ‘I’m just lazy, I hate exercise’. ‘I don’t have the willpower’.
- An intrinsic ability to work hard and be disciplined under harrowing conditions.
- An innate potential to do the things that others won’t or can’t
- A trait that can reach full flower via the perfect combination of having a great coach and being a mentally tough athlete.
This is a definition that we’re all very comfortable with, right? Everyone knows that some people are just better than others, right? Some people have ‘the right stuff’, ‘what it takes’, etc.
We also know that drawing out someone’s best performance involves working them under the toughest conditions, right?
Before I take this line any further, I should level with you. I’m not a very tough person. I like living pain-free, in comfortable surrounds and at a pleasant temperature. As a general rule I like to get along with people and make them feel good. I’m not keen on yelling, and I’m naturally suspicious of inspirational quotes or memes. The only time I’m an alpha male is in a karaoke bar. To reiterate, I’m not tough.
On the other hand, the sport that I compete in, freestyle wrestling, is very tough. Just training for it requires high levels of strength, power and endurance, as well as the durability to be smacked against the ground a few hundred times a week.
So how has a non-tough guy like me, low on natural talent and late to the game, managed to compete in such an uncompromising environment?
The answer is nerdiness.
What do I mean? Well just for instance, ask me about the energy systems involved in my sport, the specific breakdown of aerobic, anaerobic and phosphate. Ask me about the bio-mechanics of sound combat sport footwork.
Ask me about optimal recovery envelopes for super-compensation. Ask me about sports-specific strength training. Ask me about macro-cycles and neural adaptation and Prilepin’s Table. Just don’t ask me unless you have at least an hour to kill (probably better just to wait for future columns).
The brain I use for fitness is the same one I’ve always used for cataloging comic books and vintage punk records. When I’m not in the gym (which is often), I’m frequently geeking out on the history, science and modern cultural movements in sports and exercise.
Partly it’s just the way I was made, partly it’s the mentors that I’ve trained under, but most of all it’s that I don’t want to be hurt. I want to spend as much of my life feeling good and having as great a time as possible, and I want my sport to be a part of that for many many years to come. I will use every fact and figure available and ignore any popular ‘wisdom’ I need to to achieve that.
Don’t get me wrong, wrestling for me is a brutal, ego-crushing Everest that I climb a millimeter at a time, and my athletic career is nothing to hang a reputation from (I’m nationally ranked in Australia which means my skills are equivalent to the average Bulgarian 12-year old).
The thing is, I don’t value the sport for it’s toughness or it’s status among sports (good thing too, because it has zero status in this country). I value it for it’s reality.
It’s a sport that can only be won one way, that is, by doing it more correctly than the other guy. Attitude is a huge, essential part, but there’s no sudden underdog victories achieved through determination and believing in yourself. Just correct application of trained strategy and response. Sexy right?
So my sport has influenced my sensibility, but more important still has been my experience with clients. A giant nerd like myself tends to attract nerdy clients, often people who weren’t part of a sports or gym culture before they came to work with me.
That means that I’ve had to be conscious of presenting the gym as an accessible, culturally neutral space in which people can build a knowledge base about their own bodies. In the process I’ve developed some very specific definitions that guide my practice:
- A classroom environment containing purpose built equipment, in which physical skills can be learned and refined.
- A laboratory environment in which principles of physical development can be enacted and tested under safe conditions.
Safe conditions. Here’s where my personal bias becomes obvious.
As an athlete I know that the world of sport is one of risk and unpredictability and I relish that.
In the heat of competition, victory is often achieved by pushing yourself beyond your normal safe operational parameters, and the ability to do that doesn’t appear spontaneously. I encourage my athlete-clients to compete in their sport frequently to help build the capacity and judgment to take it to ‘the place’ when required.
When programming for said athletes, I build specific, deliberate moments into the workouts in which they push their parameters beyond the platonic ideal of technical perfection. But note that I say moments. I expect the vast majority of reps performed in the gym to be as close to perfect as possible.
As a client myself, I still train under my long-term strength coach. I look at the gym as a tool to ensure that the body I take into the ring is as resistant to the unexpected as possible.
I have hours of wrestling technique to learn and practice every week, I need to bring as much mental focus and physical freshness to that process as possible. To that end, my strength and conditioning sessions need to comprise the minimum amount of work necessary for me to get stronger and fitter, no more.
As a gym coach, I know that there is no reasonable scenario in which my client should ever be injured in the gym.
In my six years doing this type of work I’ve had one (minor) client injury occur and it was a direct result of my ignorance and incorrect application of knowledge. I don’t intend for it to ever happen again. People are putting their physical wellbeing in my hands, and that responsibility can’t be overstated.
Safety aside, people are coming to me for results. Not endorphins or a sense of community or improved self-image, although those are all likely side-benefits.
They come to me wanting to transform their bodies in specific ways, and my job is to make sure it happens. Sure, it’s ultimately up to them since it’s their choice to keep showing up, but I need to know that if they do, then they’ll get the results they want. It’s not easy, but it’s not really that difficult either.
My clients will tell you that I’m not a shout-y call-you-to-get-you-out-of-bed trainer. I don’t ‘push’ my clients in the traditional sense. So what’s my actual job, as I see it?
- A teacher who specialises in the skills required for physical transformation, relative to athletic performance, injury rehabilitation or general functional movement.
- A coach who facilitates the acquisition of specific goals for individuals or groups.
I have a skill set and a knowledge base. The things I know take time to learn, but they can all be learned by a human of average intelligence. You can pay me to teach them to you. That, to me, is the only service that I offer, the only thing I have worth charging for.
Good teaching is my sole product, because the knowledge is free. I have no special secret system, everything I know is already out there. My business lives and dies on my ability to communicate it to people who would otherwise find it cryptic and forbidding. In doing so, I’ve discovered something really cool.
Willpower isn’t a thing. Not the way it’s been sold anyway. While it is absolutely essential to be consistent, do the work, and move outside your comfort zone, the mechanism for doing so is simple and quantifiable.
People do things that they understand. When you can draw a line between an action and a positive outcome, you’ll do that action again. The more clearly you comprehend a process and how it works, the easier it is to invest in it. No faith required.
Stay tuned for Part 2 – Practical Examples!
Nick is the band you discovered in highschool long before anyone else did. He is available for Personal Training and instructs the Strength & Power and Freestyle Wrestling programs. Check out his personal site Form=Function.