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?

Rants Training theory

A Case for the case study

Well, it may be all right in practice, but it will never work in theory

Warren Buffett

On a course for trainers that I teach, we quite early in the course teach how to teach the squat. Since I have taught this for many many years now, I know exactly how it almost always plays out.

It starts, after the initial greetings and a short warmup, with me asking the group to do some squats. I take the opportunity to look at how the group I have this week moves and acts while doing this. Then I ask the question: “How deep should you squat?” and wait for the usual answers:

– “Below parallel”, “Hip crease below the top of the knee”, “You should not get to where you butt wink”, etc

But then, after awhile, from somewhere in the room someone will say the magical two words…

– “It depends.”

The whole class will give out an “oooohh”, and possible an “aaaaaah” and look to the philosopher of the group that just stepped out of the shadows. Of course, how could we have used such simple methods when of course it depends! The philosopher has a confident smile on his face, knowing that he not just shown that he is ahead of the pack but also that he did good to push them off the peak of Mount Stupid into the unavoidable Valley of despair. And on top of that he had let the group know that he for one had left the simple answers behind, and ventured forth into the land of the gurus.

Then I ask our friend the philosopher the question that is usually left unasked: “Sure, but of what does it depend”? Here your guess is as good as mine of what I will get back, but some usual ones are “the length of the femur”, “the client’s mobility”, “the skill level of the client”, “on what he need to do“… The theme being, again, that it depends. Very seldom do I get anything that I can actually use to say how deep the person ahead of me should be asked to squat, and when I follow up with “sure, ok, how deep should I squat?” there is almost never any distinct answers given.

In some ways the first answers was more usable, even while they were less fulfilling.

Then of course, we proceed to give an answer to that question, on what it actually depends, so that we can give clear advice on how to squat no matter femur length, mobility or skill-levels.

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision

Bertrand Russel

I had a lunch recently with my friend Johan, where we, among a myriad of other things *, talked about coaching blogs. Johan voiced his opinion that this type of blogs are so full of platitudes that he bet he could internet-troll the whole genre with a blog containing absolutely no actual advice but cliches, truisms and common banality. Add in some links to the latest craze and no one would be able to separate his fake blog from most of the other (which, presumably, is not trolling the coaching world).

* I am lying of course, we pretty much only talked about sprint training

Well, he makes a good point: not much actual usable advice is given on the internet. And even when that is done the situation where it should be applied is seldom spoken about in any depth. It’s similar to if IKEA would deliver furniture, but leave out the instruction manual. How on earth would anyone get any furniture assembled then!?

With every method spoken about in broad terms, with every problem described, at least one case or anecdotal story on what was actually done in that situation should be delivered. This would make it possible for other coaches to think about how that situation differs from the one he or she has at hand, and to decide if they should try this method too.

With case stories we get a structured way to disseminate practical application and relevant localized approaches that bridge theory and situated practice, in a reciprocal process. This is the thing I love the most about trainer summits, that it’s common that the speakers describe real life scenarios, without the need to say that this would work as a universal principle.

Well, I am certainly guilty of speaking in broad terms, but I will also try to hold myself accountable to think on, and to try to present, practical applications for the concepts I put forward.

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.

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.

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.
Coaching philosophy Education for grown-ups

Education for grown-ups pt 3 – Hermits have no peer pressure

Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.

Richard Rorty

When we are making judgments we like to think that we are objective, logical and capable of taking in and evaluate the information available to us with equal weight. But in order to make sense of the world with relative speed we are prone to simplify it to the extent that we embrace information that supports our beliefs and reject information that contradicts it. Presented with someone else’s argument we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses, but we are equally blind to spot the weaknesses of our own. This is what is normally called a ‘cognitive bias’.

In the sixties Thomas Kuhns book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” changed the way we think about scientific progress. His theory sort of embraced the idea of biases, disagreeing with the idea of science as a steady, cumulative “progress”. Instead he structures science into a set of alternating “normal” and “revolutionary” phases. In the paradigm of ‘normal science’ the scientists share definitions and concepts, and engage in solving puzzles thrown up by discrepancies between what the paradigm predicts and what is revealed by observation or experiment. Since they share a common language they all work in the same direction, making great advances within that theory.

We define rational belief as one which is arrived at by the methods which we now consider reliable

A.J. Ayer

While finding confidence in people who are using the same tools as you is important for the progress of those tools, in order to see the flaws of the tool such an exchange is not enough. Because those peers, if they approve us, are part of the same network, holds the same definitions, viewpoints and biases as ourselves. For that we need to look further away however uncomfortable that may be. The moment we get caught up in our own greatness, we kill our ability to reach our potential.

But – and this is important – even the education of the revolutionary or the prophet should begin with acculturation and conformity. One should know his history before trying change it, if not only because that all that is revolutionary is parasitic on what is actually in function now and at least somewhat proven to have worked before. To attempt abnormal discourse without being able to recognize it’s abnormality is madness in it’s most literal sense. Learn first why a tool is used, before you discard it: it’s good protection against the constant onslaught of gimmicks and fads.

There seems to somewhat of a gap between science and best practice in how training principles and methods are applied, which could be explained by that on the field the specific situation at hand is seen more clearly than “in the lab” where the eyes are set on the general. And while the general is well enough for developing a tool, in order for it to also serve a purpose, have external validity, one should have knowledge on the demands of the environment where it’s to be used.

Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people…or find a different room.

Michael Dell

Once I attended an Eleiko course in Amsterdam that was taught by Anna Swisher and Mike Gattone (both now with USA Weightlifting). When the audience presented itself I remember thinking that if I would be teaching now I would be terrified because among the attendees was several doctors of exercise science, coaches for PSV Eindhoven, the dutch national track cycling coach, the Japanese national speed-skating coach and the list went on and on!

Not much later, when i did start to teach that very course, it dawned on me that it’s not a situation to be terrified of, but instead to seek out. To be held accountable by coaches way more experienced than yourself, to discuss and learn from them as well as learning to take responsibility for what you say in order to be able to hold your own when presenting. I cherish every such opportunity that comes my way.

Other heroic coaches actively contribute to the meetings between people that are not exactly ‘peers’ but ‘more than peers’ differing in experience, methodology and viewpoints.

People like Anders Lindsjö the Swedish weightlifting coach, who competed in the Olympics in 1992 and in addition to his successful coaching career still help to organize meetings between coaches with great ambition, where one are expected to present their coaching philosophies.

Or take Dutch Henk Kraaijenhof, coach of such world class athletes as Nelli Cooman, Merlene Ottey and Mary Pierce. With a career that it would be hard even to dream of, but still organize “Helping the best get better”, a small invite only seminar in Holland. With international speakers of excellent quality and offering a place to meet and to learn from other coaches who know more, possess unique skills and experiences.

I turn 45 this year and have coached sports for 25+ years, but the superior experience and possibility for growth that I can find in places like that is nothing short of fantastic. Precisely because those places are full of people who you did not choose and does not necessarily share your language and can spot the weaknesses of our thinking and for that I am deeply thankful.

When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you have an answer, when these passages makes sense then you might find that more central passages, ones you previously understood, have changed their meaning

Thomas kuhn

The common advice in coaching literature of “finding a mentor” is good, but not enough. You have to look further than that. To be better as a scientist, one better do time in the field, and to be the better coach one should keep an eye on the frontline of science.

My wife, who is very wise, sometimes says that “you don’t know what you have said until you get a response”. And while speaking to the already converted is important and will get you going, in order to increase your options outside of what you already know, outside of what is normal, you need to challenge yourself more and different.

Coach tip #3: Understand your roots. Get challenged by your superiors. Make an effort in understanding the opposing views, if not anything else it might make you understand your own ways better.

Practical application Training theory

Preflight checklist – final preparations before takeoff

Just another short intermission before finishing up my series on Coaching tips. Because the Swedish national championship in track cycling (where I was set to compete in the Masters category) was postponed a few of us riders decided to make a meet of our own, challenging last years performance.

Preparation for the competition begins with the basics. For nothing can replace and nothing gives as big gains as to consistently over time do smart training, avoiding excessive stress, getting good sleep, eating good food and interacting with people you care for. Only after that should we focus on the little things, the things that give you “the marginal gains”.

I’ve found most people actually do respond well to training pretty close to their competition. Some even on the same day as the competition, the other the day before and I don’t think I have ever met anyone who performs his or her best when coming in completely from rest.

This “potentiation” should create minimal fatigue and maximum stimulation of the nervous system in order to help providing the best results in the upcoming performance. For this maximum isometric lifting, weightlifting power movements, jumping and throwing are suitable, as all of these movements activate a lot of muscle mass, but for a very short time. We should probably also include some sport-specific technical exercise or power movement, but be careful of it causing excessive fatigue. For cycling, short sprints is suitable (maybe on rollers).

And oh, yeah we should want more: those last couple of sessions should be similar to the feeling of sexual frustration.

Guess the peak cadence on the rollers?

During the last years annual trainer summit “helping the best get better” dutch sprint trainer Henk Kraaijenhof presented on peaking for competition. He told the story about when he, at the European Indoor Championships in 1987, had an increasingly frustrated Nelli cooman sit out her warm-up only to watch the opposition do theirs for the 60m sprint. And then she went out and set a stunning new world record of 7.00.

From my experience I’ve seen the same, and it extends back to the last couple of sessions leading up to the competition where I think too many do to much aerobic or anaerobic work. Some athletes think they cannot do without that, fearing they will loose their capacity, but I do not think there is much truth in that fear. The pressure of competing is better handled by learning to cope in other ways without resorting to the comfort of getting tired.

Like Henk says “in nature there not a lot of warming-up before sprinting”. And while athletes performing in longer events might do with a little more endurance in the last couple of session and slightly more for warm-up than a couple squat jumps or a few seconds of isometrics, I think it’s safe to say that most still overdo it by a landslide. ”You might pull a muscle… or you set a new world record”.

And after the basics are taken care of, just fill up with all the other little things that can tip the result over that last centimeter: swallow down the caffeine tablets with the the beta alanine and beet concentrate and pray to the sprint gods! ?

Coaching philosophy Education for grown-ups

Education for grown-ups pt 2 – Guided by principles

One is often lured into thinking that starting point of making day to day decisions in coaching is the long term plan. But it probably ought to be something else than just whatever performance goals that you have for the coming year of training (or 4 years as in an Olympic cycle). Rather than having the metrics outcomes shape our purpose, should it not be the other way around? That our basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes form and shape those day-to-day decisions?

Knowing our purpose and having a vision help us make our decisions on that daily basis and holds us responsible for taking actions that truly will translate into success on the larger scale. It serves to protect us from falling for trends and fads that might lead us astray from what we would like to be. It makes us less likely to just mindlessly repeat what others are doing or what we were given when we were athletes ourselves.

One could imagine this as a way of being able to create rules (training programs) but still be able to think outside of them and to break them when necessary. In order for such an intentional breaking of the “bounds of sense” to be a constructive and creative act, rather than as an act of disobedience, nonsense or madness, it should have the potential to be judged by others as a wise choice. And for this to happen it should conform with a viable system of concepts.

It is like when you say to your children that it is wrong to break windows. But in reality it is not always wrong: what if there’s a fire? In order to be able to set rules we need principles, otherwise we would always end up with endless “what if’s”, never being able to do anything because there is always more situations to think of where that rule would not work.

And even if we could go through all the “what if’s” they still only would apply to what we already know. The discovery of the first black swan illustrates our severe limitations when it comes to predict the future from history alone. One single observation invalidated a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. Outliers by definition lie outside the realm of what normally happens, so the past might not reveal to us the possibly of their existence at all.

Good coaches are better equipped to both learn from history without getting held hostage by it, to see clearly what’s in front of him or her and to take action because they have a coaching philosophy. And that concept makes the futile attempt at rigid pre-determined plans less important (…”everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”) instead offering us the freedom to ”roll with the punches” on a daily basis.

”I would say that honestly I wouldn’t be half the coach I am if it wasn’t for the challenges presented to me by working with Annie. Whether it’s the experiences like coaching at the Games, designing training programs, refining movement or simply answering her questions about why we are doing what we are doing, there are countless lessons I’ve learned.”

Jami Tikkanen

Jami Tikkanen is one of the most highly regarded coaches in CrossFit. He should be, having coached Annie Thorisdottir to two titles and Björgvin Karl Guðmundsson onto the podium. He is also one of my favorite coaches in the CrossFit world since he has a philosophy that goes well with my own, not only putting himself in the position to change and shape his athletes but also realizing that for long term development the athlete also has to be able to change the coach to some extent.

For Jami it seems to be not only about the medals won, but also about the journey and the change that this journey will impose on the people taking part of it. He does not speak like he has all the answers, instead takes a pragmatic approach that might allow him to work with and help many different types of athletes.

Let’s compare this with quotes on coaching philosophy from legendary football coach Louis Van Gaal, who managed Ajax to win three league titles and the Champions league and Ben Bergeron who trains some of the world’s fittest athletes like CrossFit-superstar Katrin Tanja Davidsdottir who has won the Games twice.

“The problem of scouting for Ajax is the club’s unique mode of play, which means that you have to assess whether a player’s qualities will match a position within the system”

“What does he look like? This is my first priority. Based exclusively on appearance. Yes, even his hairstyle”

“Not everyone fits into the system. This has been proved often enough. To the regret of Ajax and also, of course, to the regret of the players involved”

Louis van Gaal

“Most importantly, a great coach can get inside their athletes’ heads. They know what motivates them, what pushes them, when they typically rest, their strengths and weaknesses. Do they respond better to whispering or yelling? When they are dragging their feet in through the door, do you need to give them a little push to get going, or do they really need to take a rest day?

Ben Bergeron

Bergeron goes on to say that building athletes “starts with building better people” and that “behind every champion, regardless of sport or discipline – better people make better athletes”.

He seem to share with Van Gaal a knowledge of a “best way” or “best system” and one can imagine that with them it’s more of a one way street when it comes to be their athletes. Either you fit into this particular system and “bring home the bacon” or they are not the coach for you. Different principles guiding the process, apparently all able produce Champions.

What should be avoided at all cost is to have principles that you don’t let guide your coaching decisions. In his excellent book on coaching Brett Bartholomew makes the point of authenticity being the linchpin for all great coaches and gives the metaphor that morale on the battlefield comes from unity more than anything else, and that the rise and fall of that unity is always felt by the ranks. If words are spoken and actions are taken, one should mean them, and that this goes a long way towards maintaining a sense of unity with those around us. “Excellence is self-evident, and so is bullshit” Brett goes on to say.

If Brett is right (and I think he is) it might do you well to, every now and again, think about why you coach and what you want you legacy to be (Medals? Money? Fame? Relationships? A System with capitol S?).

And maybe, in order to try to keep authentic, instead of only measure the reduced qualities of the athletes (like the back squat or the vertical jump) also look in the other direction, past even the macro-level of the training plan, and try to measure our own adherence to our philosophy? Would not that also include the specifics of the athletic performance as parts of the whole?

The metric I use I have stolen from one of my favorite coaches, Anna Swisher, who I had the pleasure to work with during a couple of years when she worked for Eleiko Educations before moving on to the role of Coaching Education Manager for USA Weightlifting. The first time I attended a seminar she taught she told me about the “wedding test”. That she, as having a coaching philosophy being largely about relations with her athletes, found that the greatest win for her as a coach was if she got invited to her athletes weddings – if they regarded her as family of sorts. Not a casual buddy of course, as this would compromise the work to be done and the decisions that has to be made. If you cannot also deliver performance then you’re likely not “wedding material”. More like being relatable, as in having a good relationship.

I would like to extend this metric onto other anniversaries as well, like birthdays (because I do like parties) but apart from that shortcoming I found the thought-experiment very usable!

Coach tip #2: Measure what is more likely to keep you authentic, rather than the adherence to rules.

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

Coaching philosophy Education for grown-ups

Education for grown-ups pt 1 – The good listener

”For dogma is expressed in the form of assertion, and is unshakeable, but at the same time any practical opinion can be said to harmonize with it”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

In many educational contexts teachers are identified as communicators of values, skills, and knowledge from a certain community. They are regarded as instructors or drill sergeants rather than coaches and their students are identified as recipients in a practice and of being initiated into an acceptance of the givenness of that knowledge and those values and skills. We feel tempted to say to these students that they must do as we conceive ourselves doing. 

This view of teaching seems problematic as it presupposes that we can know in advance what it means for the students to go on the way we expect them to. And if they do not accept this givenness of our knowledge is then that dissonance located only in the student?

Regardless of which a teacher must let his students understand themselves and their actions in order to apply them to new, always different situations. And then it does not suffice with conformity, to always following instructions. That does not create the necessary agreement, the attunement, between environment, body and teacher.

This is difficult, because just as for the craftsman that only have a hammer and for whom everything looks like nails, so often we mistake the rules we are following as working even when they are not.

”As a coach, adopting a top-down approach is bound to fail. You do not want silent and ignorant athletes that just follows orders. Knowledgeable athletes become partners and improve the training process”

This is how maybe my greatest coach inspiration Dan Pfaff answers a question in the fantastic new book “Training talk – conversations with a dozen master coaches”. He likens the coaching process with a company that is constantly at risk of failure if management cannot listen to and adapt its processes to a constantly changing world. And believes that the management does well to listen to the “worker on the floor”, since he is usually the one who both first sees new problems as well as finds new solutions to them.

And all the while there are certain foundational pillars of a movement or a task that needs to be stable, to always happen, for a movement to even be of that type. In the beginning of learning, or when re-learning something, we are forcing behavior into something that is not currently natural and those common building blocks are sometimes not known to the student at all. Then the guiding towards a discovery and stabilization of those “general rules” might certainly include instructions and commands, but always with an eye open for what follows them, for what they meant in this situation with this student. 

Real teaching can never be a one-way road – it is also education of the teacher. And the good coach is the one who listens as actively to his students as he wants the students to listen actively to him or her.

But being a good listener is not only something that we should aim for only for our students, but also for ourselves as well. Only expressing our own opinion, or being so distracted by technology or our own thoughts makes us isolated, misinformed and intolerant. To be a good listener one has to play down one’s own ego, one’s own thoughts. It’s all too easy to fall into behavior that closes the discussion more than we would like, like the tendency to interrupt leading to half-finished sentences and an inability to absorb what is truly said.

Kate Murphy, who has written a book about being a good listener, says that something she has noticed in all the really excellent listeners she interviewed was that they all had a very calm demeanor. This expresses an openness, that while it could be unnerving, also forces the talker to weight their words more carefully. Because to someone who actually listens one has to take responsibility for what is said. Maybe that means that the archetypical “no nonsense” American football coach often portrayed in TV series is not producing a fruitful climate for either conversation or learning?

Usually the beginning coach greatly overestimates their own knowledge or competence, and is thus less likely to view a situation with eyes open to what sets it apart from other situations he or she has been exposed to, while the wiser and more experienced coach would be more likely to ask questions and to explore different viewpoints before deciding on a plan. This is not only to please the student, but because the student, or other peers, actually can contribute to a more constructive plan.

My friend, who is a well-regarded and highly experienced Sommelier in the Michelin guide-domain of fine dining, once said to me that nowadays, as opposed to earlier in his career, he always asks his guests what type of wine they prefer and then simply just gives them that wine all night. Obviously he also has to know when and how he should break this general rule, and it is in this knowledge his brilliance in his craft is to be found. Making the effort and having the wisdom to to read the situation at hand is what separates the novice from the master.

But as well as it might be true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I think good intentions is quite often a predisposition for keeping on one’s toes, taking the risk of being corrected, in the coaching role. And hence I will give this advice in order to be a coach rather than a drill sergeant:

Coach tip #1: Find students you care for