Categories
Practical application Problem solving Training theory

More speed, less haste

“Science gives direction to the forward movement; while art causes the actual progression.  Thus a false activity of science inevitably causes a correspondingly false activity of art.”

Leo Tolstoy

Complementary strength and power training has been shown to be beneficial not only in power sports (throwing, jumping, sprinting, etc) but also in virtually all other sports as well, including team sports (football, rugby, ice hockey etc) and endurance sports (running, cycling, skiing, climbing, etc).

When developing strength training protocols for both team sports and endurance sports the emphasis is rightfully placed upon heavy and/or explosive lifting, because of the inherent potentially high neural drive of this type of training. Bodybuilding type exercises and repetition schemes are stressful on a molecular level, meaning that it might both stimulate undesired hypertrophy and that recovery is long and makes it difficult to combine with sport specific training.

This choice of emphasis often has the effect that coaches do not feel the need to address the exercise selection for their athletes more than to make sure that it provides a high mechanical tension in order to provide a general and abstract high neural drive.

While endurance and team sport athletes are not power sport athletes, and while strength training for them should be treated as general rather than specific, we still should seek to keep exercises somewhat similar in movement patterns and stimuli while providing as large overload as possible. Large loads and heavy weights leads to larger neural adaptation and higher percentage of muscle fibers being recruited, but heavy weights also contribute to change in sensory and intentional qualities and might therefor “unlock” less force production to use in the field of the sport.

When people are overwhelmed by choice and when they are anxious about it, they often turn to denial, ignorance and willful blindness.

Renata Salecl

Often when discussing strength training with endurance or field-sport trainers I am told that “we train deadlifts, because they triggers neural drive”. When I ask if, while being a great exercise, there could possibly be an even better one available for their athletes they usually point to the fact that deadlifts (or whichever other exercise is their catch-all solution) provides neural drive (which implicitly is enough) and that there simply is no need to overthink exercise selection in the weight-room.

With that same reasoning one could advocate to perform only biceps curls, if they would be heavy enough to stimulate increased central motor drive and elevated motoneuron excitability. The response to this is (of course) that, in isolation, “that would not be a great base exercise for cyclists or runners or football players, since it does not involve using the legs”.

My point exactly.

Apparently there are things to consider outside of only the amount of neural drive of an exercise. When taking this too lightly we miss out on the opportunities that might lie buried underneath an attitude of indifference.

In science the expert opinion and the case study is regarded as the lowest type of evidence, as it can only tell you what worked or didn’t work for that one person, in that specific case. In order to say more general things we value science that includes data from more people, as this takes a specific context out of the equation. The more people, the better the prediction of a general average. When such studies also comply to certain standards (randomized and controlled, peer reviewed, published in high impact journals) they represent predictability which is highly regarded in the scientific community.

Systematic reviews and meta-analysis are considered to be the highest-level of evidence available. These types of reports consist of methods for systematically combining study data from several selected studies to develop a single conclusion that has greater statistical power, due to increased numbers of subjects, greater diversity among subjects, or accumulated effects and results.

It would be easy to interpret the results from such studies as the advances toward more and more exact knowledge, when they are in fact the opposite: more broad and general. They are great for predicting the average response in a certain situations, and if you want to be an average coach then you should only base your decisions on studies like these.

But I believe that being a coach should be about trying to beat the average, to be able to provide expert knowledge.

In the real world outside economic theory, every business is successful exactly to the extent that it does something others cannot. Monopoly is therefore not a pathology or an exception. Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.

Peter Thiel

When we accept that our selection of exercises matters, that we can do more than average, we face the risk of being overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of choices we have to make and therefore risk being “paralyzed by analysis”.

Not only that, but we also face the radical uncertainty of the large world: that we do not even know all the possible outcomes. It’s a world that cannot be described in the probabilistic terms of a game of chance because it’s not just that we do not know what will happen, we don’t even know the kinds of things that might happen.

I once read an anecdote about a decision theorist from Columbia University who was struggling whether to accept an offer from a rival university or to stay in his current position. Upon being urged by his colleague to apply his own models of rational decision-making in order to maximize his expected utility he responded with exasperation, “Come on, this is serious”.

To make statements about probability in the real world it is necessary to take into consideration not only the probability derived from the model, but also the probability that the model itself is true. And this we have no way of knowing. We are left to live in a world of unimaginable futures and unpredictable consequences that continue to call for necessary speculation and inevitable disagreement which often never will be resolved.

So when one has lifted ones gaze from the mechanical systems of the average, and now commit to adapt their actions to the situations they have before them, it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options and the impossibility of knowing where the consequences end.

In these cases it seems that we have to remember that the consequences of an action are not everything that follows it forever (any more than the cause of a event is not everything that preceded it). These concepts are made to be used in actual cases where we converse about taking particular actions in our lives. We need to speak about particular circumstances and particular individuals, we need to not only use knowledge about the general (the knowledge we find in systematic reviews and meta-analysis) but also move back to the anecdotal, actual, world.

I do not know – if it matters I will try to find out

Mervyn King, John Kay

It seems we could get some guidelines on how to design complementary training exercises from looking at what principles that apply and what we can say is relevant to the particular situation and person at hand.

if we begin to look at the structure of movement we find that this motor dimension includes characteristics of movement within muscles, between muscles as well as force landscapes and external body posture and joint positions.

Within the muscles there seems to be very little positive transfer between shortening and lengthening of the muscle (concentric and eccentric muscle contractions) and reactivity (using pre-tensioning and energy storage and returning through stiffness). Also, if we are dealing with high intensity sports, the muscle needs to operate at optimal muscle-length and this too limits the possible transfer if training outside of this length when training in the gym (it could actually provide negative transfer if this optimal length is stimulated to change).

When looking at the level of cooperation between muscles the biggest concern should be if our sport carries with it the demand to co-contract in order to be efficient when going from slack to tense. This is usually the case in high speed sports, and if so merely adding load to a movement with the use of barbells or dumbbells should be questioned, simply because of it’s potential to reduce muscle slack as it may not challenge the body to learn to develop proper pre-tension with the use of co-contracting muscles.

Note that adding load likely has benefits, such as forcing the adaption to longer fascicles (able to contract faster than shorter), but we might do well to balance them with ballistic movements from a standstill, and perform some of our heavy lifting from a dead start if this is the case.

There are more ways to waltz, than to sprint

Frans Bosch

In his new book Frans Bosch “Anatomy of agility” discusses, amongst many other things, whether similarity in outward posture is the result of constraints from underlying levels or if it is a separate characteristics of specificity.

He argues strongly that posture is formed out of necessity from the inside rather than that posture shapes the internal movement landscape: given the pressure of time of high intensity movement and the ever-changing environmental influences the body is exposed to, it has to reside to as general principles as possible to be able to adapt. As information from internal force landscapes is more general, it may therefore be more suitable for this than information from posture.

If we look at “what is used in the field”, this is also a strongly rooted approach with expert coaches, who would consider it a bad strategy to first use only soft contacts when striking a boxing bag, hitting a ball or sprinting on the track and only later use forceful technique.

We might do well to no longer proceed our complementary training (or rehabilitation for that matter) from low-intensity to high-intensity, but rather choose to advance from large forces (with few degrees of freedom in movement) to large forces (with increasing degrees of freedom in movement).

  1. Train muscles predominantly similar to the demands of the sport (concentric/eccentric or elastic)
  2. If the demands of the sports is high speed and quick reactions do choose to limit the use of the stretch-shortening reflex.
  3. Do not mimic body positions, mimic force landscapes.

The endurance and field-sport coaches are right when they say that everything we do in the weight-room is by nature unspecific from what their athletes are doing “in the field”. But if we would consider these few points when designing exercises we would likely do better than average. Given that “we do not know what we do not know” I will always advice to do some, but not much, of the things we filter away as well – a smart contingency plan is a staple of good generals.

  1. Do a some very general things as well.

However this is only the physical perspective, we are still dealing with humans. Ask the person in front of you what they consider fun, and make sure to include some of that as well. A program of fantastic and smart exercises, is merely mediocre and stupid if you cannot get anyone to do it.

  1. If someone really enjoy doing something not following from the above list of principles, it is a smart idea to include some of that too.
Categories
Corona virus Problem solving Rants Training theory

The search for the new normal

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown

H.P. Lovecraft

To stop the outbreak of the Corona virus we have radically changed almost everything we do: how we work, exercise, socialize, shop, manage our health and educate our kids.

We all want things to go back to normal. But what most of us have probably not yet realized is that it won’t go back to how it used to be in a few weeks, or even a few months. Some things never will be like they were at all.

Technology has been used quite extensively and successfully in some areas in order to work and to attend schools without gathering in numbers anymore, but the exercise industry has not been able to counter the sheer amount of loss of daily movement that the strategy of social distancing cause.

There’ll be some adaptation, of course: gyms could start selling home equipment and online training sessions, which is better than nothing, but will in no way be good enough to keep exercise efficient enough to carry the slack of the situation.

So, if not home or online training is the answer, what is? How can training be modified and used to handle this “new normal” in order to maintain physical and mental health and build healthy habits to keep us strong?

When it comes to the response to training there are clear individual variations in adaptations. While something works well to increase capacity for one person, someone else generally exhibit no meaningful improvements from the same training. An outcome that conventionally leads to them being labeled as “non-responders” to this particular type of training.

This use of language is problematic. First is the risk of promoting the general perception that exercise is not universally beneficial, and hence negatively affecting motivation for exercise. And something that is well established in science is that exercise has positive effects on health over a vast number of areas including reducing obesity, enhancing cardiac functions, reducing a large variety of disease states, improving function in life and improving mental health.

Secondly it could cause people to give up on specific modes of exercise prematurely, for instance thinking that “aerobic exercise does not work for me” or “strength training does not work for me”, when possibly it is exactly that type of training that should be carried out. However there is evidence that the number of non-responders is reduced when increasing exercise intensity and/or duration. This seems to be a useful strategy for lowering, or possibly even eliminating, non-response to training. In short: if you do it either hard or a lot, exercise seem to cause measurable adaptations in everyone.

A study in 2017 by Stanford University researchers using smartphone step-tracking data to map how active people in different parts of the world are analyzed data from 111 different countries found that Swedes took 6,000 steps per day on average while Brits took around 5,500 and Americans less than 5,000. Since walking is to be considered a very low intensity physical activity it will not have the same adaptations as more intense training, but it still form the backdrop of regular motion that forms the base of all movement that we do. More intense training adds upon that foundation.

Social distancing or all out quarantine radically decreases the amount of movement performed during normal daily routines. Most of the daily movement was done going to work and various social activities. Even if one was taking the car or the bus to work, rather than walking or biking, the vast amount of small movements within a day in society, as walking to the vehicle of choice, going for lunch with your colleagues and just to fetch “that cup of coffee” added more movement than is reasonable to replace at home for most people.

With large variations my best guess would be that something like 75% of regular movement have disappeared from most peoples lives. It’s not about that number – we can say it’s 50% – it is still likely to affect general well-being negatively when not doing a large chunk of the usual physical activity.

The body adapts to the environment it is exposed to, which is a good thing and something we use to cause adaptations to training. It means that we can become stronger and healthier! The opposite is also true, that without sufficient stimuli we can become weaker, sicker and more fragile. When we remove a large portion of our movement we expose ourselves to that risk.

The negative adaptation to that loss of movement won’t be something that we notice, but instead it will sneak up upon us. And with the realization that things won’t go back to normal for a long while we also must realize that this is something we need to tackle now, not later.

What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.

Albert Camus

Society has evolved over thousands of years, so as to minimize the cognitive burden on individuals. And we call that minimization ‘habit formation’. We have developed rules of thumb that allow us to “just do” things that in our environment have been more or less constant. But when that environment changes, those habits no longer fit, and we cannot use the same rules of thumbs anymore.

So when normality changes it is also the time for us to rethink habit. It’s almost as if all these years you’ve been playing chess, and now someone comes along and says “Oh, now your queen moves like a pawn and the rook moves diagonally only”. Things that used to be almost automated now has to be cognitively decided. Those changes are difficult to process and confront.

Everyone wants to be healthier, but it’s very difficult to change habits. When doing so we are more likely to succeed if we impose gradual change that we can build upon, rather than a Draconian change of a large magnitude. It’s also about being able to decide to succeed: consider the difference between deciding to cut the caloric intake in half and to go to the gym three times a week. Restricting eating is something that has to be done all the time, continually throughout the whole week, whereas going to the gym is something that you just has to succeed with those few times. That’s why adding a few bouts of training are more likely to become habitual in the long run.

But like we established before, training has to be either high in load or high in volume and if we are replacing that vast amount of movement with just a few short sessions at the gym every week then it has to be rather intense. Intense here obviously means relative to the individual but “going for the heavier weights” when lifting or for the “intense and short efforts” when doing fitness. Rather than ending up doing 3 times 20 very sub-maximal reps to “get some burn”, instead opt for 4-6 reps where the last one is really, really hard. Ducking the “non-response” with 30 second sprints, with some longer rest in between them rather than going for that one longer slower interval (which could be an option if one would train more often and move more in the daily life)..

This is where home training, by yourself, through an app in your phone or with some kind of online sessions just won’t suffice in the long run. High intensity and high load training is very hard to maintain or frightening to start with on your own for most people. Social interaction and good coaching is often necessary in order to make training hard enough, in order not to be a “non-responder”.

My main point here is that people should, especially in this new normality, seek out a training facility, possibly where training is conducted in smaller groups managed by responsible and well educated coaches.

Doing so makes the step to get started minimal, and the possibility of success maximal: two things that largely benefit the habituation of training. I would suggest it to be some kind of “micro-gym”, since those have fewer members, minimizing risk of contagion while still offer social belonging and a multitude of social factors enabling you to train hard, while feeling safe and having fun!

Social distancing might be necessary in order to save lives, but they are also likely have consequences on mental health. In research conducted in China and Canada during the SARS-epidemic in 2003 found that a very large number of people that was quarantined came down with psychiatric diagnoses, especially post traumatic stress disorder. This risk was especially elevated for those with low incomes or at risk for unemployment.

Physical health benefits of exercise may take some time to happen, but where training seem to have benefits acutely is improving mental health, possible through providing some sense of control which could help to manage anxiety. A very important reason to not hesitate to keep training.

But is training reasonable during times of epidemic outbreak, or would it increase the risk of being infected, and if so, to participate in spreading the virus? Training has been shown to increase markers of inflammation, could this not be considered harmful and possibly irresponsible?

It is true that studies have shown that high intensity, intermittent exercise for relatively brief overall exercise time elicits a small inflammatory response. However physical exercise also promotes increases in the immunological function principally through anti-inflammatory response, so given a few weeks time the exposure to training have likely lowered the risk of getting sick, and with this you would be actively and successfully hindering further transmission.

Additionally, it seems that we can choose training intensity in order to mitigate the risk even from the beginning. Prolonged aerobic exercise induces a much more exaggerated inflammatory response than that of short duration high intensity interval training. So given the choice between lifting weights/doing a few sprints and adding mileage running track or road bike we might lean toward the former.

Another argument for seeking out that training facility with responsible and well educated coaches able to provide intensive training possibly conducted in small groups, because, and I repeat myself, doing intense training on your own is way harder than in a social setting guided by knowledgeable coaches.

The time to start to develop those habits for the new normal is now, not later. Things that we took for granted in society, things that are extraordinarily important for us, as human beings, human proximity and conversation and group living have been challenged. Hopefully, we will return to that again, but we might not.

A society more empirical, more analytical, more cooperative, more prosocial is something we should focus our attention towards today, maybe starting that process with a set of back squats at the gym or an all out sprint on the track?

Categories
Problem solving Training theory Weightlifting

The end is just the beginning

What we call the beginning is often the end // And to make an end is to make a beginning. // The end is where we start from.

T.S. Eliot

Skills can be enormously complex, such as playing a musical instrument, making a lay-up in basketball or performing a weightlifting exercise. In such situations the trainer might have a hard time to present all aspects of the skill at once or the student might get overwhelmed by the size of the task. A frequent approach is to divide the task into several units to be practiced in isolation. This approach is often called parts practice, and the idea is to master and then integrate the parts into the whole skill at a later time.

However, some claim that practicing parts of a task in isolation transfers little if at all to the whole task, especially if the task is rapid and ballistic. They would argue for the practice to be structured as whole practice, where the full exercise is done regardless of it’s complexity.

This is reminiscent of the Holism that was summarized in one of the principal works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle as “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. The idea is that the reduction of the whole to its constitutive elements eliminates some factors. Some sort of synergy that is lost if we separate them. The holistic perspective is seen in diverse intellectual, religious, cultural traditions and diverse disciplines throughout history.

True myth may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry, and artistic renewal. The real mystery is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is.

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Irish Potato Famine has gone down in history as one of the worst tragedies in modern history. In 1845, a fungal infestation, Phytophtthor infestans, made half of the potato crop in a single year inedible and then the blight lasted for another seven years. When the hunger ended in 1852 about one million Irish had died from starvation and a culture had been destroyed.

While the fungal infestation might be technically to blame, what made the situation so severe was the lack of bio-diversity. The idea at the time was to optimize the food production and thus mostly all farming was switched to growing the same variety of potato, a variety that had recently been shown to be very efficient to grow. Had a greater variety been planted the blight would not have hit Ireland as hard as it did, for other strains would have had different exposure to the infestation.

The take away is that reducing and overloading parts (regardless in agriculture or training) means to reduce variety that could protect from downside. And that something is inherently lost in the process of reduction, which will reduce the transfer of training. Both which directs us to make the constraints of practice as loose as possible.

Traditionally cognitive science has viewed high levels of movement variability as a problem for humans when learning a movement. Repetitive practice is often conceived of as gradually reducing the amount of movement pattern variability viewed as noise and the magnitude of variability in performance has been viewed as the foremost way for assessing the quality of control.

But movement scientists have often struggled to come to terms with the complexity humans must overcome to produce even simple movements. The infinite redundancy, yet flexibility needed to navigate the world. There are such a vast number of ways for humans to perform a movement in order to achieve the same goal, that it is hard to understand how the nervous system is not overwhelmed by all those degrees of freedom.

According to Bernstein, who initially formulated the problem, the coordination patterns for complex tasks such as playing that instrument, making that lay-up or performing that snatch begin as fixed, rigid linkages between body parts. This early learning strategy helps people cope with the extreme abundance of degrees of freedom. If the task is beyond the learner’s capacity the problem of controlling the movement system is managed by dysfunctionally constraining the available freedom of movement.

One obvious example of this in the world of weightlifting would be to “lock up the hip” in the snatch turning the exercise into something looking more like a starfish than a flexible weightlifter.

Oh, that infamous “starfish snatch”

This has lead scientist to think that sometimes less variation would mean not to imply quality of control, but quite the opposite. It seems learning would be maximized when finding the optimum amount of stochastic perturbations in a movement for more, but not too many, degrees of freedom to open up. Too little “noise” and no new information is provided to the learner to gradually unfix the initially strong couplings between muscles and joints. Too much and the movement becomes to rigid to be performed in a constructive way.

This phenomenon is well researched and called the contextual interference effect. Adding some variability, or “noise”, in the form of irrelevant movement components or difficulty when practicing movement can lead to better learning than when practicing simple movement patterns alone. This amount of exploration for the correct response to a changing landscape of performance forces learners to adapt their movement patterns regularly, increasing long-term learning benefits.

We would be better as trainers if we would define ourselves from the problems we wish to solve or the advancements we wish to make rather than what is too common: from the methods we use. For every exercise prescription we make we should always have an specific outcome in mind. Is it to synchronize the catching of the bar with stability into the ground? Is it direction of force? Amount of force? Bar control or body control?

If we think along these lines the method we use become secondary. And with purposeful movement constraints we are more likely to direct learners to the external consequences of their movement patterns rather than the internal processes of producing that movement. Shifting the attention towards the desired outcome of a movement, rather than on how it is accomplished has been shown to both enhance performance and skill acquisition. But to allow for this external focus of attention we need to always think backwards, from the end-result of a movement typical to display behavior we would like to reinforce. Then adjust the complexity of the movement pattern so that the learner can succeed, but not simple enough to be performed perfectly. The key is finding that sweet spot of learning, while still anchor it intentionally, at the end result.

We could do this with any skill in any sport but let’s take the barbell snatch as an example. If the behavior we would like to reinforce is to be able to catch the bar with slightly bent knees and hip, rather than to mimic a starfish, then the end position we should start to design our exercise for this is exactly that position. Then we need to gradually include more complexity to the skill, finding where the athlete becomes so overwhelmed with “noise” that he or she cannot intelligently handle the abundance of choices, forcing, for instance, the dysfunctional freezing of the hip and knee.

This is done by gradually adding distance of the movement, in the example of the snatch that would mean distance traveled by the bar, and then, while maintaining that distance add speed of the bar. For every increase of complexity we assess if the movement is now trained at desired difficulty, if we are still are able to catch the bar the way we want us to, but that doing so is not easy.

When working with external objects we have the option to add to complexity at each position by decreasing the time available to react by increasing the weight of that object, but there are drawbacks to this strategy as it is something that also tend to alter the intermuscular strategies used to perform the movement, and this might limit the contextual transfer of the skill.

Rather to think from the ground up when designing constraints we should start from where the desired outcome is performed.

Depending on where we first see this happening we can purposely construct a constraint forming “the optimal whole” to reinforce specific outcomes and address specific problems. This would be likely to transfer more to better movement than working with parts smaller, or larger for that matter.

Categories
Maximum Speed Practical application Problem solving Strength training Strong legs makes their own path

Strong legs makes their own path pt 2 – Finding your balance

”The aim of physical preparation is to go beyond the level of motor ability that can be achieved by the sole practice of the chosen ability”

Michael Pradet

The only training that is certain to stimulate exactly the parts that makes up the full competitive movements and pathways for performance are training that is consisting of exactly those movements, performed in the same context as in competition. That is, doing the actual sporting events, and this is where training should start and what should always be included in a training program. But there is reasons for not only training the sport in specificity, such as the need for overload and variance. At some point we just can’t get better from doing the sport alone.

Training should certainly be designed to provide similarity when it comes to muscle action, cooperation, joint movements and energy systems as the movements performed on the field in the sport. But sport specific training should not only focus on physiological aspects of adaptation. Movement control needs to be universal because, possibly, of limited storage capacity for “motor memory”. Regardless of “size” of the memory, storing fixed sequences for all possible movements would certainly result in “choking”, because that would mean that you would have to find the exact match for the situation at hand before acting.

Instead movement seems to be structured by “patterns” so that the central neural system can let the body self-organize to a certain extent, and therefor fulfill both the need for speed to action and ability to handle variation in the environment where movement is performed. The same patterns would allow us the flexibility needed, for instance, to run both on grass and in sand.

Also, strength is not an isolated quality, but an integrated aspect of eventual performance. The ability to use a high number of muscle fibers in order to produce a a lot of force depends on how skilled or trained the athlete is in the specific movement.

There is a sort of “parental control” at work in order to protect the body from forces it is unsure that it can handle. A 100m sprinter can not be allowed to produce the same amount of force in a football game as when he or she is on the track. A football player have practiced to absorb the force produced when faced with the need for a sudden change of direction. A sprinter, who can produce force something like 6 times the bodyweight per leg, have not and if allowed to express this force on the pitch it would mean to risk serious injury

To cope with this, force production is linked to related movement patterns, not only in similar physical structure but also in similarity of sensory patterns (seeing and feeling) and intention. Exercises that are very specific to the sporting movements are very specific in all of these, but hard to overload without changing these sensory and intentional qualities. Movements that are easy to overload, are also very different and will therefor “unlock” less force production to use in the field of the sport.

This line of thought concerning the role of coordination and learning in order to express force and power is outlined to great detail in Frans Bosch landmark book “Strength Training and Coordination”. In the book this dichotomy between specificity and overload is neatly presented in the image above, as the central/peripheral model, a problem that all coaches have to deal with. Then he goes on to notice that most inexperienced coaches spend a lot of time in the ends of the model, which is a safe starting point, but advising that more time should be spent in the middle zones of the model. A zone where both some similarities when it comes to those sensory and intentional qualities can be included, while still also offering some overload when it comes to force production of the muscles.

“Do you want to be strong, or do you want to lift heavy weights, they are not necessarily the same”

Jerome Simian

Last year I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation from the French coach Jerome Simian, who thinks in similar terms when it comes to movement quality. Jerome, who is the coach of Kevin Mayer – world record holder in Decathlon – talked about the importance of technical movement, the fundamentals of human movement that are common to all efficient movement patterns. He gave the advice that acquiring the ability to do a strict, perfectly coordinated, full squat will help improve the hip, pelvis and spine relationship. The ability to synchronize the opening and closing of these joints in order to maintain balance is one of the fundamentally common efficient movement patterns. The main point being that there is nothing to gain for an athlete, other than a powerlifter perhaps, in sacrificing perfect form for more weight on the bar.

Actually, too much time spent during strength training on movements that are not similar at all to the sporting movements, or performed in a synchronization between joints vastly different from the sporting movements can actually lead to a lowering of the performance in the sporting. This negative transfer can arise due to changes in coordination (from changes in muscle action and cooperation) or too much fatigue, no matter how much the athlete can improve the lifts used in training. And just because there is no general answer of “how much is too much” (and if there were this would also change with time), it makes good sense to prioritize keeping track of improvements in the sporting movements rather over whatever kilos someone can squat.

But back to the question regarding single leg versus double leg and heavy versus light weights. Both science and practice has repeatedly shown increases in various measures of sports performance with the inclusion of bilateral exercise in the training program. But single leg training too has been shown to do that. A caveat being that for single leg training this has, as far as I know, only been studied in untrained subjects. My own experience however is that, if done heavy enough, single leg training is also a potent stimuli for strength.

Learning from coaches like Frans and Jerome we start to get a good idea that we would like to

  1. Keep movement somewhat similar in movement patterns and stimuli
  2. Overload as much as possible while satisfying rule #1. Large load means larger neural adaptation and higher percentage of muscle fibers being recruited.
  3. But do not let the main movement mechanics break down or change during the set

Similarity should be sought in producing force using the same muscles, in similar directions. That means that I would argue for single leg movements for developing maximal leg strength for sports played on one leg (cycling, team sports, track and field, racket sports, etc) and double leg movements for those that have movements performed symmetrically (power lifting, weightlifting, CrossFit, etc). Similarity in sensory and intention in this context is obviously hard, but means mostly to have a clear, and similar, beginning and end of the movement.

Further, I would generally do these movements heavy: 1-5 repetitions per set, and I would not do as many sets as the athlete could do being cautious of unnecessary muscle-damage.

(Nothing should ever be set in stone and obviously what the athlete in front of me enjoy the most will also matter when making these choices, but we are talking general rule of thumb here.)

Still the main problem is that for “the reps that count”, the ones where we have to use our strongest muscle fibers, the mechanics are likely to change. But I think that there is a solution: a “hack of the system” to duck the problem with lack of balance affecting the movement mechanics. Regardless if this mechanical change comes from fatigue and/or intensity.

Hand assisting the movements allows you to provide just so much balance so that the movement mechanics are kept the same (maintaining good movement), but not too much to provide sufficient neuromuscular stimuli. Further, the help maintaining stability can be controlled and increased when fatigue accumulates. This might decrease the load placed on the body slightly, but – and this is important – to exactly the extent that you are capable of handling that very moment.

In many ways it seems to provide a perfect compromise in order to build maximum usable strength! So how could this look when it comes to strengthening the legs?

My two favorite movements are for this is the hand-supported split squat fathered by Fred Hatfield and Cal Dietz performed with the safety-bar.

The key is to not allow the hips to open quicker than the knee, and slightly “leaning into” the support makes this possible with quite heavy weights. This also provides the feeling of “going forward” which might provide som similarity to the sporting movement from a sensory information standpoint. Clear and distinct final position is coupled with an equally clear starting position, that could be varied with elevation of front or back foot.

If you have access to a flywheel training device then you can replicate my next favorite exercise that we call “old man with a stick”, which is similar in design just that using the belt makes it easier to really “go for it” with less possibility for a missed lift. And with the sticks it’s also not possible to “cheat too much”.

I quite like the relative balance of the trap bar and use that quite a lot too, but apart from that I haven’t used many other movements for the maximal strength of the legs (for sports played on one leg) in quite some time.

Fewer movements and less volume on “the far end” of overload leaves more time to work that “middle zone” that Frans Bosch talks about in his central/peripheral model. Movements that might not working maximum force production but still overload force produced and with more related movement patterns. Movements as (weighted) jumps, throws and weightlifting derivatives, which I think adds so much much both to transferrable force production and to include sufficient variety in training to avoid the stress of boredom and monotony.

Just a small selection of the exercises that could be done in this “middle zone”

Since implementing this line of contextual thinking for my athletes concerning their maximum strength work I’ve seen very good results on the field while doing way less of it.

I think it’s very easy for coaches to get stuck “chasing kilograms on the bar” and ending up thinking that every athlete should commit to a “starting strength” type of power lifting program in the weight room, where in reality probably not many should. A more efficient program might yield better transfer of force production, but still free up time for specific work in the gym or on the field.

Categories
Maximum Speed Practical application Problem solving Strength training Strong legs makes their own path

Strong legs makes their own path pt 1 – Does it really take two to tango?

A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward.

Franklin D Roosevelt

Stronger legs is associated with enhanced general sports skills as rate of force development and external mechanical power expressed in movements like jumping, sprinting and change of direction as well as specific sport performance. It is also enhanced with decreased injury rates. Since athletes started accompany their on field training with exercises in the weight room, the undisputed king of the movements to get stronger legs has certainly been the squat.

The Hegelian Dialectic holds that conventionality, staying within the box of conventional thought, gives rise to a thesis. Every thesis eventually gives rise to an antithesis, a challenger: a rebel arises, assaulting the conventional barricades of the thesis. A fight ensues and out of the ashes rises a third idea, a synthesis, resolving the conflict, and becoming the new normal, the new thesis.

It’s hard to find more obvious examples of this than when Mike Boyle stood up in 2009 and said “don’t do squats anymore” declaring the first and foremost tool used to create strong athletes is obsolete.

I am no cultural anthropologist, but it seems to me that this very moment was important in order to create the rift between the functional movement-crowd, who laugh at those training like powerlifters, and the old-school weight lifters rolling their eyes when seeing the guys doing the split squats.

Obviously the initial idea was met with a backlash, and both sides have since then sharpened their arguments. And the main arguments for single leg exercises goes something like this

  1. Most sports are played on one leg at a time, hence they are more specific and should transfer better to sports performance
  2. The requirements of proprioception (the sense that people have of knowing where the parts of their body are) and core stability is greater when doing single leg rather than double leg variations
  3. Single leg exercise balances out imbalances in strength between sides of the body, as you can no longer shift more onto your potentially stronger side making up for the lack of strength of your potentially weaker side.
  4. Less stress placed upon the lumbar spine, decreasing the risk for back injury

Whereas the bilateral (double leg exercise, like the squat) proponents line of arguments would be similar to the list below

  1. You cannot load the single leg lifts like you can the double legged variations.
  2. Specificity and mimicking is not the same thing: the goal is to strengthen a function, regardless of how it looks.
  3. The loading on the spinal column might be less in absolute terms for single leg exercises, but it is also both asymmetrical and done with less balance.

Basically the first arguments form both sides is regarding specificity and transfer of complementary training into sport performance. The main point for the unilateral-side is that regardless of the lesser overload being put on the athlete performing the single leg exercise, the movement being more similar in the joint-synchronization, the coordination of movement between body parts, to what he or she does on the field should yeld more carry-over of what capacity is increased.

Car analogies are popular to use with this line of reasoning, such as that if we “increase the engine while still driving on bad brakes and tires” we would still not be able to express the strength of that engine. This strategy seeks to increase the robustness of the movement pattern by keeping them contextual, so that the system as a whole will shift towards a greater force production.

And single leg training would potentially allow for more overload of the legs, as less core strength is likely to be required when moving lesser loads. Removing this as a limiting factor might just build stronger legs.

The comeback would be that this still limits the possible overload that you can place on the system as a whole. And because of this you would limit both the mechanical loading on the whole muscle and tendon, as well as not stimulating the central nervous system and synapses, thus missing out on neural aspects of improved force production.

Both arguments are sound to me.

Next, there is the argument of structural balance, leveling the differences in mobility and strength between sides of the body, from training one side at a time. Which is an argument that both “sides” share to some extent, for neither is advocating to train muscles fully in isolation. And with compound movement a synchronized chain of action is strengthened while being carried out.

Something that could be said against the idea to make all athletes symmetrical is that the fastest man we’ve seen so far, Usain Bolt, showed that you could be running with an asymmetrical stride (from scoliosis and a right leg a half-inch shorter than the left) and still be the apex predator of the track and field.

So while addressing all asymmetry seems overly categorical, when faced with pain or dysfunction we need to react and remedy somehow. And when the hands or legs are not connected by a barbell, or one side is trained at a time, more degrees of freedom are appears. This could good for the people with dysfunction in the hip or shoulders, because that means that they can let their body “solve the problem”, finding ways to move without pain.

So, again, both arguments would be sound depending on the context.

Finally, the loading of the spine is usually mentioned. Lesser loads on the spine and the injury risk should decrease with it. Yes, but one would not want to spare the spine from loading altogether, because this would not build the muscles needed to stabilize the spine in sports and life. So the truth would seem to be somewhere in between to much and too little. If you tolerate high loads, then that might be better. And certainly, as we shall see, lesser loads calls for higher volume of training, which translates into something that is also a possible cause for injury: fatigue.

The argument of bilateral force deficit, that the total amount force produced during two unilateral contractions is greater that the force produced a single bilateral contraction, seems quite irrelevant as it seems that both types of training can improve strength to a similar degree, but with specificity of movement yielding the most benefits (an argument already made).

When it comes to training strength there is multiple ways to skin the cat, but all of them includes sets of exercises that are completed close to, or to the point of failure to work the largest motor units and to induce sufficient mechanical and neuromuscular stimuli. This means we could be using either moderate loads and higher number of repetitions or heavier loads coupled with a lower number of repetitions.

But by keeping volumes lower and intensity higher, we would be where we need to be from a strength point of view, and never tired from too much complementary training. Which could render us unable to do well on the field where true specificity, and true speed, is to be found. Excessive fatigue alter movement mechanics both in and outside of the gym, having implications for training practice and injury risks. If we are making our athletes unable to train at the speed demanded from them come game time we are at best not setting them up to win, and at worst they are not able to react quickly enough to unexpected events rendering them susceptible to injury.

As a general rule: chasing maximal neural drive and velocity in each lift enables us to get more out of less. With more stability and balance, as you get standing both legs, you get just that which should seem to favor double legged exercises.

But irrespective of exercise used movement mechanics are changed when approaching that point of failure. Specifically a reduction in moment at the knee made up for with an increase at the hip and the lower back. And when this coordination in movement between body parts is changed we are no longer being contextual and we are now overloading muscles, rather than the desired movement.

The triple extension, the synchronized opening of the ankle, knee and hip, that is so important in sports because it allows to produce maximum power against the ground, is compromised when the knees extend ahead of the hips. This could even lead to altered extension mechanics, if we do it often enough, something deeply undesirable for most athletics.

So, heavy weights coupled with intent might offer improved force production from central stimulation – but when doing so also changes joint synchronization and muscle coordination. This seems to me very problematic for heavy strength training. At best meaning the capacity will not carry over as well as it could to the field, and at worst actually decreasing sports performance.

We are faced with a dilemma where there is no correct choice to be seen.

  1. Overly fatiguing athletes is just not ok, they must be able to perform their best in their sport specific sessions.
  2. Double leg strength movements might be less intentional, but suited for heavier loads coupled with a lower number of repetitions – minimizing fatigue – but might because of that disrupt joint-synchronization.
  3. Single leg strength movements, while more intentional, are nicely suited for moderate loads and higher number of repetitions. But when doing that, the repetitions up until those last ones are neither working the largest motor units nor giving much neuromuscular stimuli. But causing quite a bit of fatigue. And when we get to the “money reps” we still have the drawbacks of the altered movement mechanics.
Disillusioning, but we shall try to find the best way forward in the next part.
Categories
Martins training Problem solving Weightlifting

A case study in problem solving: saving the snatch

Let’s take a short detour before continuing on the series on coaching and talk about something very dear to me: the snatch and why it is important in a strength and conditioning program.

Part of my work is as a weightlifting trainer. I teach “the lifts”, meaning the snatch and the clean & jerk, as a part of my job to build better athletes and as a educator employed by Eleiko, the leading manufacturer of high-quality barbells in the world. I am heavily invested in them and knowledgeable on when they are useful and when they are not.

But that does not fully explain my love for the lifts: When I’ve been injured (and I have been injured many times since I have been doing sports for almost 40 years) I have always been the most worried when I have not been able to do these specific lifts, and particularly the snatch. Going from training hard to lift as many kilos as possible (despite that being quite few) I have, when faced with the possibility of never again snatch a barbell, almost been depressed. I am not meaning to reduce the people that actually have this psychological diagnosis, but it’s the only way I can describe just how much I love the movement of the snatch. And how strong my drive is to be able to do it again.

I’ve always worked back to it, and every time my efforts to lift aesthetically better, capturing and getting energized by the rapid coordination under load, the display of ease and effortlessness when you get it right, for me it’s poetry in motion. The weight have not mattered to much to me the last couple of years, I was never that strong anyway. And by no means is my technique perfect. But I can still remember those snatches where I just got that out-of-body feeling of weightlessness only to come back to my senses sitting in a deep squat, balanced both down into the floor and up against the bar.

Many more times than I would have liked it to be the last couple of years I’ve been at the doctor where the phrase “too bad that broke out when you was this young” has been spoken. And while already 45 this year, it’s still a little too early for some of the hereditary diseases I carry with me. One of them is Dupuytren’s contracture which is more common in the Nordic countries than anywhere else in the world, and is a condition in which one or more fingers become permanently bent in a flexed position. I have always known that this might impair my ability to lift at some point, and it surely affect my gripping ability to some extent already.

But it was not this that put a stop to my snatches, but two bones having gotten crushed together and now forming a large osteophyte (bony projection) on the top of my left hand. This affects my extension of the wrist causing my quite some pain when extending together with radial deviation and loading at the same time.

Every time I’ve snatched the barbell pulls the wrist into such a position and I experience pain, both acutely when I do the movement as well as the coming days and that is why I haven’t snatched a barbell since early 2019. Regardless of how silly it would be to say that I must to be able to do what I help my athletes to do in order to be a good coach, I can’t help but feeling exactly that.

So late last year I made an effort to check it out thoroughly with x-rays of all the different types, analyzed by all the doctors. And it does not look like I can fix the damn wrist. Not only that but there are much more problems with my joints and apparently “you will be in quite some pain at some point of your life”. Well, that I don’t know but I’ll cross that bridge if I get there.

When it comes to training there are alternatives. Actually quite good alternatives, and some coaches even thinks that the olympic lifts are far over-valued tools in the coaches toolbox. The normal arguments against them are

  1. They take to long time to learn – the lifts are complex, perhaps the most complex lifts that there is, and that the time learning them could be better invested in other things.
  2. There are better options for power – loaded jumps create more force at a faster rate.
  3. True ballistic/throwing/tossing options are better – lifting barbells require deceleration before the catch.
  4. Mobility restrictions make them hard to perform to it’s full extent, and some mobility restrictions (as poor ankle dorsiflexion) almost makes the deep catch impossible.

And I would agree with the above mentioned objections apart from the time to teach them – maybe that says more about teaching ability than the lifts usefulness? But I do all the jumping: loaded, unloaded and assisted. And I do a wide variety the ballistic movements. I do this every session in the gym, because I agree that they are better as primary exercises to improve rate of force development.

This is just one example of one of all those exercises (by the way, jumping with heavy medicine balls is brilliant, I don’t know why I’ve never seen anyone do it – much easier to let go of at the top of the jump to save from the loaded landing than with dumbbells or trap bars).

“An efficient pattern catches this weight, not a group of muscles. This amazing feat of power and skill cannot be done without near perfect flexibility and perfect application of coordination, quickness and power. This is mobility and stability at its finest, working behind the scenes so the prime movers get all the usual credit.”

Gray Cook

Regardless of what you think of movement screenings as the one advocated by Gray Cook in his “Movement” book, you can’t really disagree with the thoughts on the olympic lifts? When you drop the notion that they must be primary lifts, and instead think of them as the perfected assistance lifts providing you with everything you need when it comes to teach the body to leverage it’s muscular systems.

  1. It’s an amazing joint screening tool – if you can catch a bar deep and correctly provide exactly the pressure needed to sit upright there you are OK.
  2. It reinforces muscular balance for other heavy training.
  3. It build resilience in the entire kinetic chain, from feet to shoulders.
  4. The demands of coordination provide a foundation on which will favor all other training.

The more time and energy you can put into the primary lifts the better and faster adaptation you will get. So not spending too much time on assistance exercises makes a lot of sense and if you can do one exercise only to adress almost everything, then you have struck gold.

And as the physiologist Bengt Saltin said at Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland a few years back, that “mobility is a vital issue for the elderly person” and that he “recommends people exercise both the upper and lower body in order to maintain flexibility” and adding that “we should spend our whole lives gearing up to having as pain-free an old age as possible by leading an active lifestyle”.

It would seem vital to work to keep the mobility and stability that I have because not only do it result in fewer falls in elderly but also in improved recovery when they do occur. And while this could be done with multiple different exercises it is preferably accomplished with the most demanding and complex one: the snatch. Because all the jumps and throws in the world can not substitute the snatch despite all the rate of force development they can provide!

So let me not wear sackcloth and ashes and be depressed anymore, and instead think on how we could once again reap the benefits of the snatch. And since it does not seem to have to be performed with heavy weight in order to provide most of these benefits, maybe we can use that to change the movement so that it does not produce the same amount of radial deviation as this is what causes the acute pain.

Let’s think it over: the wider the grip the more deviation, but the narrower grip the harder demands of upper back and shoulder mobility. While this is hard, especially for an older guy like me, if it is be possible it would actually be more beneficial despite restricting the possible weight to be lifted. If not functioning as a primary exercise, then this is not a problem.

(lifting in jeans and with untied shoes is optional)

I have now done two sessions with a narrower grip, and while I need to address some of the chain reactions from the different bar position (where did that donkey kick come from?), I have done snatches again with zero pain. When adding a little more to the bar the weight did force the wrist into a painful position, but it might be doable with a narrower grip, which I probably need to “future proof” me anyway. Regardless I will work towards that.

My philosophy is as always “better small and frequent hits than large ones seldom” and I think that doing one or two sets in the warmup or at the end of each session should suffice. And if not, then I’ve at least tried and will have to think of other strategies (because giving up is not an option).

Featured photo by Joel van der Vie