The Glass is Half Full

Dr. Mark Clevenger

Let’s be honest about the current state of affairsthey suck. People are worried, losing their jobs, there’s no toilet paper, and the ONE THING we meat heads use to combat the stress of normal life, let alone our now apocalyptic lives, has been taken from many of us. THE GYM.

Like every other gym rat out there I was pissed when I heard my gym was closed. After that first initial shock, the coach and physical therapist in me began to process the situation and I realized two things. First, this is a public health issue bigger than my desire to lift in the grand scheme of things. Second, the glass is half full because this is really an opportunity to grow as a coach, athlete, and as an overall person. Time to play 20 questions to help you see the better side of this pandemics effect on your training.

Be honest with yourself, when was the last time you had a deload?

Not a missed session or two, not a taper for a competition, but an actual deload? One that is built around reducing the systemic stress on your body from heavy weights and high training volumes to let your body catch up on the fatigue you’ve been putting it through? A lot of athletes know how to push the gas pedal on the platform and in the gym, but have they ever really learned to let off and how this can help make them stronger? This forced training gap that many of us are experiencing is our opportunity to take some time away from the gym stress to physically and mentally recover.

When was the last time your training cycle consisted of large amounts of general physical preparedness (GPP?)

Let alone any GPP? As strength athletes, we’re always obsessing over that maximal number. We want to lift heavy to be strong as hell but don’t want to do the little things that allow us to recover, build work capacity (so we can compete in multiple events in a contest), or build the connective tissues that support our heavy lifting because we don’t have time or these things aren’t fun… usually because we suck at them. GPP is the base that strength and longevity is built upon and the older I get the more I’m realizing its importance. Take these few weeks and start walking. Carry your toddler around the block a few times. Do some interval shuttles. Hell, even try to go for a light *gasp* jog. If you find that a 20-minute walk carrying your young child around wears you out that’s a clear sign you’re not in very good shape and should be doing more of these types of activities. If not for your strength gains, then do it for your heart gains so you can be an active participant with that kid (or furry animal) in another 10 years. Get creative with this, find what you suck at and do more of it, so you don’t suck at it. You may find this was the missing piece to adding pounds to your total or what allowed you to not hit a wall at a Strongman competition after the third event.

When was the last time you performed body weight or calisthenic exercises as the bulk of your program?

Much of this question can be rolled back into the GPP paragraph above so I’ll leave that aspect of it alone. Research shows us that when training youth lifters we start with body weight exercises. Why? To develop neuromuscular and proprioceptive control. Why is this important? You spend most of your life moving and controlling your body which is the foundation of athleticism. While most strength athletes must be more strong than athletic (unlike say, a basketball player) they still must be able to move in fluid and controlled motion, *cough* *cough* talking you Strongman competitors. Being able to control your own body is the foundation of human movement, not the barbell (or atlas stone, or yoke.) This compares to someone who drives a race car around and around the racetrack all the time but never takes the family car out to the grocery store. They forget how to drive like normal people and end up causing an accident on a neighborhood street. So, if you struggle with body weight movements this is a great time to go back to basics and develop some of that relative strength before you wreck yourself by trying to play with your kids in the backyard because you don’t know how to move your own body.

Any nagging injuries?

I get it, when you get to a certain point in a strength sport, you’re always dealing with something. That becomes a part of the sport a certain level. Some athletes let these little things become bigger things that they try to cover up with horse creams, neoprene everything, and supportive gear, all of which ‘allow’ them to train but don’t fix anything. To those folks, this is the universe telling you to take the time to really rehab your problem. Pain can down regulate muscle activation which in turn limits force production and motor coordination, taking the time to get rid of these pains may make you stronger during this down time. Do your research, reach out to remote PT coaches for telehealth consults given the current world situation, and do the things you need to so when the zombie apocalypse finally passes, you’ll come back to the gym healthier and stronger than ever.

When was the last time you unplugged and connected with your loved ones?

Do you ever involve your family and loved ones in your house with your fitness? Depending on the level of competitor you are, your families make a lot of sacrifices for you to compete. They pick up after you, deal with you talking about it ALL THE TIME, watch the kids for you, put up with your hangry when you’re cutting, and most importantly are forced to give up their time with someone they love dearly… you. Take this time to unplug from your lifting videos on Instagram, spend time with the loved ones in your house, take them with you on walks, and involve them in your fitness as well. Now if your spouse or loved one is anything like mine, they may not like you trying to have a strict training regimen with your workouts where you’re dictating everything they’re doing. So ask them what types of things they would like to do, and do those. Moral of the story here, take this time and connect with the loved ones in your house.

I’m in the same boat as everyone else here. I’m upset I can’t train the way I want to, I’m worried about my small gym owner surviving this mess, and I’m wondering how long I have to use coffee filters in place of toilet paper since I can’t seem to find a roll at any store. Let’s all take a deep breath, remember this is a public health issue bigger than our training, and if we follow some of the points outlined above there’s a good chance when your gym opens back up you’ll make all of your gym buddies jealous when it looks like you haven’t missed a beat. Hell, you might even be hitting new PR’s to start your post apocalyptic gym life. Worst case scenario? You’ve strengthened the relationships with the loved ones in your house which is always the best type of PR.

The Top 3 Things Physical Therapy School taught me about being a Strength Coach

Mark Clevenger

Over the last 3 years I’ve had the unique experience during Physical Therapy School (PT) of simultaneously operating part-time as a freelance strength coach for Olympic Weightlifting, Strongman, and Powerlifting. While I’ve had one foot in each discipline for 3 years I’ve noticed a lot of parallels between these two fields, but I’ve also noticed there’s also a lot they could learn from each other. Now I could go onto write a big long article covering every detail on this two-way topic, but something tells me most people wouldn’t read it (TLDR). So I’ve chosen to spare you computer screen space and only discuss what I feel are some of the more important topics that need to be covered with regards to what PT school taught me about being a strength coach.

Complete the Puzzle

In PT one of the most important first steps we take when working with a new patient is the evaluation. In PT we break the evaluation down into subjective history, systems review (cardiovascular system, ect…), objective findings, assessment, goal setting, and a plan of care. While much of this information may or may not apply to this person and what brought them to you, we still need all the puzzle pieces to try and understand the whole picture of the patient. I equate it to having a jigsaw puzzle with more pieces than you need, you can still put the picture together as opposed to an unsolved puzzle due to several missing pieces.

This evaluation was the first thing about PT school that I carried over to being a strength coach (SC). How am I supposed to help an athlete if I don’t know everything about that athlete? Injury history? What’s their typical day look like? What is their warm up and cool down consist of? Nutrition? Sleep? Goals? Compensatory movement patterns? Movement constraints? Weaknesses? Motivation level? Overall health? Any question you can think of to give you more information about your client as it relates to their life, sport, and body, the better.

This is definitely something I feel is lacking in the strength training community from a coaches perspective. Too often I’ve seen coaches take on new clients and only ask them about their max’s and training goals. Don’t get me wrong that’s important to know but it leaves too much off the table and really tells you nothing about the client. I get it, we get busy and want to narrow everything down to the simplest of questions but the initial client interview is the foundation that everything else you do for that client is built on. The more information you have, the better a plan you can create for that client, the better their outcomes will be, the better a reputation you will earn. So take the time on the front end with your clients to ask a lot of questions and really listen to all of the puzzle pieces they give you.

Training should not be Spaghetti Thrown at a Wall

When I started my first outpatient clinical rotation I felt like I needed to fill every session to the brim with exercises to fix whatever issues my patients had. I would seriously do 6-8 different exercises in a treatment session. After a few weeks when I started seeing success with various patient outcomes, and feeling like I was hot stuff, my clinical instructor sat me down to review some of my patients’ cases with me. He asked me to pick out what exercises I had selected for each case had the biggest impact on that patients outcome? I honestly had no clue so I told him all of them. He asked me how I knew? I told him because the patient had positive outcome measures. He told me that patient outcomes were an important part of practice but how we got there was just as important.

The point he was making, one that I wouldn’t fully appreciate until my rotation was almost over, was that treatments were not a matter of throwing the kitchen sink at a patient hoping for a good outcome. It was about implementing exercises or changes one at a time and assessing their impact on patient performance. Learning what selected exercises worked and which ones didn’t so you could focus all of your attention on those things that actually worked. Looking back on it I can’t help but ask myself how much extra pointless work I was having patients do that wasn’t really making them better? How much faster could their positive outcomes have been if I would have learned what worked best so I could focus all of our attention on those things?

The point for us strength coaches is this: Find your clients signposts; those exercise signs that tell you what direction to take their training. We all remember those teachers in High School that assigned busy work for the hell of it and nobody liked those teachers. Don’t be your most hated High School teacher to your client, assign meaningful work that you know moves clients towards their goals or strengthens their weakness, not because you think it does but because your programming experience with them tells you it does.

A Balanced Athlete is a Healthy Athlete

            One of the biggest lessons I learned in PT school and clinical rotations is the value of being physically balanced. Think about it, how many pathologies do you see as a result of an imbalance to a bodily system(s)? Poor posture plus lot of heavy pressing equals shoulder problems. Weak hamstrings and glute complex plus deadlifts equal lower back pain. The point is I began to see a correlation between the overall musculoskeletal health of an athlete and number of physical imbalances they had. This could range from specific muscle weakness, to joint range of motion, to energy systems utilized in training. This sold me on the belief that the better balance we can bring to our athletes the greater their longevity in their sport of choice and healthier they will be.

Let’s be honest, how many of our clients are amateur lifters and how many are pro’s getting paid for what they do? For most of us the answer is the former, we have to keep that in mind. These are clients who recreationally compete and whether they want to hear it or not it’s just a hobby. These athletes have full-time jobs, families, and other life commitments that they need to be able to physically perform for. From a parent playing with their kids to a firefighter saving lives during a 24-hour shift, they have other physical demands that must be accounted for in training that we must keep them healthy for. By keeping athletes balanced through intelligent programming we can keep them happy in their sport with personal records (PR’s) as they get stronger, as well as keeping them happy in their everyday lives because those PR’s aren’t costing them anything from their other life commitments.

While I’ve had my hand in two baskets for the last 3 years I’ve learned how to take the lessons learned about the career I’m preparing for and parlay those into my passion for coaching strength athletes. While these three topics are not an all-inclusive insight to everything I’ve carried over from PT to coaching, they are the three biggest lessons I’ve noticed and implemented. Maybe some of these ideas help you, maybe not, maybe they’re something you already do, by any account I hope you take something positive from it for either for your athletes or yourself.

Strongman is a Jealous Lover

Mark Clevenger

I’m not going to lie, if “Strongman” were a woman, and you met her at a bar, she would be a solid 10. She would be incredibly hot, love to eat, lift heavy, and would confess that she “never does traditional cardio.” You’ve got to go for it, right? I mean, what could possibly be wrong with her? All of these first signs feel so right and then you figure it out… she’s a stage 5 clinger. If you don’t spend your every waking moment thinking about how you are going to incorporate “Strongman” into your life giving every ounce of your energy and time to her… I promise something bad is going to happen to you.

If she catches you thinking about another form of training she’s gonna key your car. Don’t have time to spend with her this weekend because of work? You’ll come home to your Playstation 4 and all of your games burning in the front yard. With all of this said, you should be asking yourself, “is she even worth it?” If so, how do you keep this stage 5 crazy at bay so you can enjoy this beautiful 10 on a daily basis?

Forgive me for sounding like a misogynistic pig while I’ve tried to illustrate a point about the sport of Strongman. The thing is, training and competing in Strongman can be the most appealing, fulfilling, and exciting sport on the planet, but only if you give it a prime spot on your priority list. This is going to mean devoting the time and attention needed for training, recovery, nutrition, and implement-specific technique work. Here are the top three things you should be ready to do to keep this dime piece happy.

Commit to her, there can be no one else

There can be no one else. If you think you can train for Crossfit, Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and water polo and be safe competing in Strongman you’re wrong. Every sport has its own unique set of sporting demands that must be addressed in training to prevent injury. The more sports we compete in the longer the list of sporting demands that must be addressed becomes, but there are only so many training hours a week that we can fit in or recover from. Eventually, things on this important list get neglected and it’s not too long until the injury fairy ends up paying you a visit. If you’re going to compete in Strongman, commit to Strongman.

Eat

If you wanna wear skinny jeans and have ‘cut abs’ all the while being able to deadlift cars and run with hundreds of pounds on your back, you’re obviously in the wrong sport. Training for Strongman is hard and requires the proper fuel to keep doing it day in and day out. If your body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs to recover, guess what? It’s going to break.

Active and passive recovery

When you’re not in the gym training, or eating to be in the gym training, you should be focusing on recovery. This includes 8 hours of sleep a night, lots of water all day every day, using a lacrosse ball or foam rolling problematic body parts every day, getting on a regular massage schedule, and going for regular walks on both training days and rest days. If you don’t focus on recovery, recovery won’t focus on you and that’s how you end up hurt.

It may sound like I’m trying to make this an all or nothing scenario, but I’m really just trying to stress the importance of sport specific training.  Do some athletes dabble in multiple sports and do just fine? Yes, but think about how many players you have you seen on the show ‘Cheaters’, that is generally the exception and not the rule. What I don’t understand is, why dabble with a 10, when you can simply have a 10? In the end, if you’re a weightlifting player who wants a side chick, Strongman is not the one to just play around with.

Commit to her or you’ll regret it.

Organizing Training Blocks for Strongman

Mark Clevenger

There are a lot of different ways to create training blocks for Strongman. Most people use the traditional ‘event day’ model where they train traditional barbell methods throughout the week and then meet with a crew on the weekend to train implements they have coming up in a show. While this method works for many very good strongman competitors I prefer to view Strongman implements not as a separate tool of training for a specific show but as a daily integrated piece of equipment meant to supplement my strength and conditioning program. This is easiest done using a conjugate model of training so that is how I will explain it here.

In order to understand how I’m organizing training blocks you need to be familiar with some terminology. I use a 3 week conjugate wave to organize my training with one maximal effort lower body and upper body day programmed, as well as one dynamic effort lower body and upper body day programmed. Maximal effort work is defined as working up to max lift on a variation of the main lift you are trying to strengthen. So for overhead days that is a variation of the overhead press. Dynamic effort work uses the competition lift itself at lighter loads to work on speed of movement and technique. Special exercises are those extra exercises in your training day meant to strengthen a perceived weakness in your main lift; i.e. upper back, lower back, hamstrings, ect… General physical preparedness (GPP) is the conditioning you use at the end of your training session. An example of this template is provided below for you to get an idea of where we are starting from.

Week 1
Max Effort Lower Max Effort Upper Dynamic Effort Lower Dynamic Effort Upper
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP GPP GPP GPP
Week 2
Max Effort Lower Max Effort Upper Dynamic Effort Lower Dynamic Effort Upper
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP GPP GPP GPP
Week 3
Max Effort Lower Max Effort Upper Dynamic Effort Lower Dynamic Effort Upper
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP GPP GPP GPP

For overhead events, the meat and potatoes of Strongman are the axle and log press. These events, and their alternate power variations, are trained every week with the use of other barbell/dumbbell press work used as a supplement to training to these two lifts. There are other Strongman lifts we see in competitions that must be integrated into training when you know those events are coming up, but if you’re strong in the axle/log strict press, push press, and push/split jerk you will be strong in those other lifts such as well (i.e. Viking press, circus dumbbell, ect..). This means you’ll just need technique refreshers for those various pressing events leading up to a show. Ideas of integrating these more odd events are provided a little later.

Press cycles should be organized so that you alternate between the axle and log for dynamic effort work which is performed as 12 sets of 2 reps for week 1, 10 sets of 2 reps for week 2, and then 8 sets of two reps for week 3. The relative percentages with accommodating resistance (AR, bands and chains) are 55/15%, 60/15%, 65/15% respectively. For those of you without access to AR simply use 70/75/80%  of straight weight for your working sets. For the push and power variations you should train those like Olympic lifts and perform them before your max effort work. I use straight weight for these at 7 sets of 2 reps weeks 1 and 2, with 5 sets of 2 reps in week 3. The relative percentages for this work is 75/80/85% respectively. To keep these max effort workouts from being too long use 90 second rest intervals between sets and cut out 10 minutes of GPP from the end of the workout day. To prevent accommodation rotate the power variations on the max effort day and rotate them into the dynamic effort work with AR from cycle to cycle. Below are several sample templates of these rotations.

Sample Table 1

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Clean and Split Jerk 7X2 @75% Axle Press 12X2 @55+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Clean and Split Jerk 7X2 @80% Axle Press 10X2 @60+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Clean and Split Jerk 5X2 @85% Axle Press 8X2 @65+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

Sample Table 2

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Axle Clean and Split Jerk 7X2 @75% Log Press 12X2 @55+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Axle Clean and Split Jerk 7X2 @80% Log Press 10X2 @60+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Axle Clean and Split Jerk 5X2 @85% Log Press 8X2 @65+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

Sample Table 3

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Push Press 7X2 @75% Axle Press 12X2 @55+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Push Press 7X2 @80% Axle Press 10X2 @60+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Push Press 5X2 @85% Axle Press 8X2 @65+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

You can see with each various cycle the log and axle lifts are rotated to prevent accommodation and the power variations are treated as Olympic lifts on max effort days, with the log and axle strict press rotated every 3 week wave for dynamic work. Now, if you had an overhead event coming up in a contest that wasn’t a log or axle you would simply replace a max effort lift with that specific event to get an idea of where you’re at with it and then let it be a special exercise you train on your dynamic day. You shouldn’t need any more than a single 3 week block of work to adequately prepare you for an upcoming competition.

Programming the different Strongman deadlift variations into training is probably the easiest lift to integrate into a 3 week conjugate training block. With so many different types of deadlifts used in the sport rotating all of them in on max effort days gives the athlete a good idea of where they are at with each lift year round. I then use the dynamic days to train the traditional deadlift since the higher that number goes the higher all the other deadlift variations will go. I don’t think it can get any simpler than this. An example is listed below.

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
13” Deadlift Max Deadlift 12X2 @55+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Axle Bar 18” Deadlift Max Deadlift 12X2 @60+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Frame Deadlift Max Deadlift 10X2 @65+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

To this point everything seems very standard and I’m sure you’re asking yourself where all the other random Strongman events go? The easiest to place to start, on the coattails of deadlift/squat programming, is the yoke runs, farmers runs, and atlas stone loads. In order to use these pieces of equipment for specific strength and conditioning purposes we have to understand what parts/systems of the body we are using them for.

When we use the yoke properly, arms pressing out or wrapped around pulling in, we are engaging our upper and mid backs to stabilize the load so our legs can move efficiently. This load itself in conjunction with the moving weight challenges our core dynamically as we walk (quickly) from one point to another. So if you find your upper back, mid back, or midline stability are issues in your deadlift or squat with heavy working sets you can implement heavy yoke walks on max effort days in place of a special exercise. These runs should be shorter in distance and higher in intensity. If you find that these issues only arise with higher repetition sets after fatigue starts to set in then implement lighter yoke runs for a longer distance on dynamic effort days by substituting these runs for one of the special exercises. These runs should be longer in distance and of a lower intensity. An example of each is provided below.

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 12X2 @55+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Yoke Run 5X100′ @60%
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 12X2 @60+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Yoke Run 5X100′ @65%
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 10X2 @65+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Yoke Run 5X100′ @70%
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

 

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 12X2 @55+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Yoke Run 3X50′ @80% Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 12X2 @60+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Yoke Run 3X50′ @85% Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 10X2 @65+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Yoke Run 2X50′ @90% Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

Much like the yoke walks, farmers runs are great tools to strengthen your upper back, mid back, midline stabilizers, and grip. These too can be substituted as the yoke is on max effort and dynamic effort days as shown above using the same distances and intensities. Lastly, atlas stones when performed with an emphasis on the ‘high pull’ from the upper back become a great tool for strengthening your dynamic hugger muscles (chest, biceps, and internal rotators), hips, mid and upper back. For general strength and conditioning purposes, not competition specific purposes, you can use these on lower body dynamic effort days with lighter weights for volume. Substitute these as a special exercise and perform 3 sets of 8-12 reps with only one pickup from the floor per set and resetting in the lap between repetitions. This will minimize the stress on the bicep while maximizing the strengthening effect on the hips, chest, mid and upper back.

In terms of implementing other random event training (tire flip, husafel carries, sandbag runs, sled work, keg carries, ect…) into your general strength training routine, use these implements as part of your GPP at the end of workouts. Rotate the implements carried, alternate distances traveled, use different timed sets, and add other various forms of external resistance to these carries (sled drag from the waist while carrying a sandbag, sled pulls with a weight vest, ect…). By rotating these implements into your GPP blocks you constantly work the technique of the implements, increase your speed with the implements, raising your general work capacity with the implements, as well as increasing your specific strength with each implement. Many of these different implements can cause a lot of wear and tear on the body or excessively strain on certain muscle groups so I always recommend working with light to moderate weights of each implement relative to the athletes strength to prevent excessive wear and tear. When you start prepping for specific items in an upcoming competition you can start to go heavy with these tools.

Some closing notes about organizing training blocks for Strongman. Strongman implements are not a separate piece of training equipment only to be used when you have a contest coming up, they are integral pieces of equipment meant to strengthen lagging areas of your body in order to lift more weight. Implementing these tools as I’ve outlined not only allows you strengthen weak points but also helps you become proficient at the individual implements themselves. This way when you do become contest specific in your training you’ve already established a broad base of strength to build your competitive performance from. Enjoy the process of experimentation with the plug and play framework provided until you find the right programming balance that works for you.

Accommodation vs Specificity: Battle of the Training Concepts

Mark Clevenger

As an athlete and competitor in the strength sports you may have heard a lot about specificity and accommodation. At a glance these two concepts could not be farther apart from each other. At one end of the spectrum we have specificity telling us that the things we do most often are the things we will become best at. On the other end, there’s accommodation telling us that the things we do most often become stale to us and will eventually make us weaker. Now I’ve taken some liberties and paraphrased a bit on these concepts for simplicity’s sake, but they seem to be as different as Marvel and DC comics in the exercise science universe. While they may seem like polar opposites these theories are actually both correct, it’s only a matter of when and how you apply them to your training that makes them both right.

Accommodation: A Vegas buffet

Think of accommodation as the base of your sporting performance pyramid. We want this base to be as wide as possible since the wider the base, the taller the peak. In the strength sports, this base consists of pure strength but how can you quantify ‘pure strength?’ Is it a strong deadlift or squat since those are total body lifts? Is it a strong overhead press since that is the king of upper body lifts? A strong yoke run since it’s a more dynamic movement? A strong machine bicep curl… just kidding. The correct answer is, all of them. Being strong across a broad spectrum of static and dynamic lifts is not only the definition of a wide strength base, but a solid one too. This is the definition of accommodation, building strength that is not specific to one or two movements but built across multiple physical and movement facets through varied training means and conditions.

Specificity: That friend that only wants to eat at Chipotle

If accommodation is the base of our pyramid then specificity is the peak. It’s true that the things we do most often are the things we become best at… to an extent. This specificity can only take us as high as our base is wide. So if I’m not very strong and I specialize in the bench press for example, I will see great gains in a short amount of time if all I did was work on my bench press. However, it wouldn’t take long for my strength gains to slow, stall, and then reverse because my peak was only as high as the base I built under it. Now if I’m a very strong individual I will also see great gains in strength from specializing in a given lift but my peak will be much higher because I’m starting with a larger base compared to the hypothetical weaker version of me (the real version of me is pretty weak too, just sayin’).

Your Point?

The takeaway from all this is patience. Play the long game in your strength sport and take the time to build a large solid base by preventing your body from accommodating to your training through training many different physical strengths and movement facets with varied training means and conditions. You will sacrifice a few podium finishes early in your sporting career for numerous podium finishes in the middle and later phases.

Preventing Accommodation

If accommodation is the state where our bodies get used to something, then variety is the krypton to accommodation. I believe a conjugate system of training is best suited to facilitate this type of concurrent training variety. The best definition I’ve come across for the conjugate method comes from Managing the Training of Weightlifters, “The conjugate method consists of momentary influences on the key motor quality to the interconnections corresponding to the specific activity, while preserving the structure of the sport exercise1.” This is essentially is saying that training sessions should utilize a variety of special exercises and special developmental exercises to strengthen a specific competitive lift, in a specific training session, where the competitive lift itself is not necessarily trained. An example of this would be when a powerlifter uses floor presses as their main lift on their ‘bench press’ training day, or an Olympic lifter that performs cleans from elevated blocks as the main lift on their ‘clean’ training day. These exercises must be varied within the context of a concurrent training schedule, employing a combination of the maximal effort method, repetition method, variable method, interval method, or dynamic methods while keeping some aspects of the form and function of the competitive lift in mind1,2. This is what is called the principle of dynamic correspondence, the further removed we get from the form, function, and energy system used in the competitive lift the less transfer of training we get from these exercises2. No need to channel your inner college art student here, sometimes the smallest exercise variations can deliver the best results.

It is important to understand that this movement variety is not specific to just exercise selection but also the type of strength expressed in the selected exercises (speed-strength, strength-speed, explosive strength, ect…) This means the type of strengths required for the competitive lift must also be trained in variety using dynamic correspondence.

This training variability designed to prevent accommodation must also be applied to the accessory work performed in a training session. These exercises are designed to attack weaknesses in the competitive main lift on that training day. Using our bench press example, let’s say they struggle with their lockout, which indicates weak triceps. This lifters accessory work should be varied and selected around strengthening this weakness. For these accessory lifts don’t set out to create ‘A Clockwork Orange’ Picasso-ish masterpiece because at the end of the day the transferred training effect will be so low that it won’t make your competition lift any stronger… and then you’re just wasting your time.

Detailed programming to prevent accommodation is outside the scope of this article but you can find specific information about programming to prevent accommodation in my article ‘Programming Economy.’ Here you’ll find an outline of exercise organization and volume for each training block leading up to a competition.

Implementing Specificity

The specifics about implementing specificity into your training can also be found in ‘Programming Economy.’ A general rule of thumb for intermediate lifters (no need to advise the top guys, something tells me they already have this stuff figured out) is to test their competition lifts four weeks out to see where they’re at, then spend the next two weeks focusing only on becoming as proficient with their competition lifts as needed in order to determine realistic goals for their lifts on game day. The last week should act as a deload where they perform active recovery workouts the first few days of the week and then rest until the competition. For this intermediate level strength athlete who competes three times a year this comes out to three calendar months of specificity training, which in the grand scheme of strength training still allows them to spend the bulk of their training time building their strength base.

For the novice lifter the rule is to test their competition lifts three weeks out to see where they stand and then spend the next week focusing on proficiency to give them an idea of an attainable goal to shoot for. They would then deload in the last week just like the intermediate lifter. This novice athlete needs to gain competition experience, so I suggest competing four times a year. This gives the novice lifter three calendar months of specificity training, leaving plenty of time to continue getting stronger while still giving enough opportunities to gain invaluable competition experience.

The biggest problem I see in the strength sports is when athletes specialize too far in advance of a competition. Initially they will see great results, thinking they have it all figured out, and then accommodation creeps in and their numbers drop or injuries start to occur. More often than naught they compete and hit numbers far below what they should have if they had not specialized so quickly. Most of these athletes then believe they didn’t work hard enough and come back for their next competition specializing even farther out with higher training volumes and intensities which only makes the cycle repeat itself to a greater degree. Use these time frames I’ve listed above for optimal sporting performance. If you choose to specify outside of those time frames, you’re asking for the accommodation ninja to roundhouse kick you in the face for the KO.

In The End

Accommodation and specificity are yin and yang to each other in the strength world. Both concepts can serve every strength athlete depending on how they are used in everyday and overall training. As with anything in this world, too much of one thing is not a good thing. By taking these concepts and applying them to your training you’ll set yourself on a path of sporting achievements and longevity. In the end, that’s what competing is all about right? Lifting at the highest level possible for the longest time possible. So become the Benjamin Button of your sport by using accommodation and specificity correctly and when you retire you’ll leave your competitors wondering how you were so good for so long.

References:

  1. Laputin N.P. Oleshko V.G. Managing the Training of Weightlifters. Livonia, MI: Sportivny Press; 1982.
  2. Verkhoshansky Y.V. Fundamentals of Special Strength Training in Sport. Livonia, MI: Sportivny Press; 1986

Active Lifting vs Passive Lifting: The Key to Training Longevity

Mark Clevenger

There are two types of lifters in this world, those who primarily lift with active structures and those who lift primarily with passive structures. In order to understand what type of lifter you are we need to give some definitions to these concepts. I define active structures as contractile tissues, or skeletal muscle. This tissue is the driving force of all biomechanical motions in lifting. Passive structures I define as connective tissues that help facilitate the movement produced by the active structures. I’ve chosen to grossly oversimplify each tissue type for the sake of keeping this article form being too nerdy or technical. I want the bigger picture painted with broad strokes in order to make the concepts easy to understand and apply. So hang on to your seats as we discuss the concepts of active and passive lifting, determine what type of lifter you are, and how becoming one type of lifter over the other will increase your lifting lifespan.

The idea that the body lifts, or moves, an object with great form and technique we will call active lifting. This is where joints are stabilized and moved through active structures in order to execute a given lift. In this scenario, the active structures are the pure driving force of motion with the support of passive structures helping them do their job. I equate the active structures to someone driving a car from one destination to another while the passive structures are Google maps telling the driver where to turn step by step on the journey. Google maps aren’t driving the car, you are. You are in control from point A to point B, Google maps is just telling you how to get there.

“…there’s essentially a right, and wrong, way of lifting.”

The idea that the body lifts, or moves, an object with bad form and technique we will call passive lifting. This is essentially where some point in the kinetic chain is inactive while contractile components around this snow birding segment are creating an area through the inactive segment where motion is primarily being facilitated by passive structures. A good example of this the Ninja Turtle rounded back in a deadlift. The spinal erectors and lats have turned off and now the leg muscles are generating pull through the passive structures of the lower to mid back while your arm muscles and traps are holding onto the bar for dear life. Here Google maps in the lower to mid back is driving the car with you in it… and we all know apps can’t drive cars, Google maps is not Skynet and Terminators haven’t time-traveled to stop a robot induced apocalypse… yet.

So why does our body assume the passive structure posture in certain lifts? The answer can be as simple as a muscle weakness. The muscle giving out is not strong enough to hold the position or perform the task it’s asked to perform while a given weight is being moved. The correction for this should be obvious, strengthen the weak muscle (or group of muscles). Sometimes the answer is a matter of mobility, the athlete is not physically capable of assuming the position it’s being asked to assume so the muscles required to prevent passive lifting are never active to begin with. Maybe the problem isn’t one or the other but a combination of both.

“A good coach has eyes for both gross motor function and muscle activation.”

The mobility scenario is more often than not a cop-out for many athletes and coaches who are not skilled enough to coach complex movements or adapt movement patterns to allow a lift to be performed with active structures over passive structures. While true examples of this scenario are less common, when they do occur it’s usually due to postural changes that have occurred over long periods of time (protracted shoulders, shortened hip flexors/hamstrings, ect…) or are purely anatomical in nature (excessive anteversion of the femur). In the case of postural mobility restrictions, start doing soft tissue work and exercises to correct the defective posture. For the anatomical problem, get creative and find a pain-free way to perform a given lift. An example of creativity would be having an athlete with anteversion perform sumo deadlifts from low blocks which clears the hip of impingement in most anteversion scenarios.

So how do you know what type of lifter you are since there are so many different lifts and endless strength deficits or mobility scenarios that can apply to all of these lifts? My best advice is to find an experienced coach to work with. A good coach has eyes for both gross motor function and muscle activation. I know everyone cannot afford a quality coach so for these athletes simply set your fancy smartphone up and record the lifts, record them from different angles, then watch for both gross motor function and muscle activation. The internet is full of great sources to teach us how to perform almost any lift imaginable and what muscles are doing what at each phase of these lifts. Watch the video and ask yourself, am I using the muscles I’m supposed to be using to move this weight? Do I look like a Ninja Turtle when I deadlift? Do I do the chicken wing when I bench? Coach yourself through intrinsic (I feel something) and extrinsic (I see something) feedback into a perfect movement pattern. When finding a weakness this tells you what muscles need more attention in training. When you find yourself unable to get into positions, figure out why and address that mobility problem when applicable. If the problem is suspected to be anatomical in nature get it checked out from a medical professional then get creative and find ways to keep lifting pain-free.

“…passive structures are like a fully loaded AK-47. You only have so many bullets to use before you’re empty.”

By becoming an active lifter you’re improving your quality of movement and increasing the shelf life of your passive structures. I tell people all the time that passive structures are like a fully loaded AK-47. You only have so many bullets to use before you’re empty. If you waste all of your bullets before you’re thirty, you’re going to get to the performance battleground of your 30’s without any ammo and will hurt yourself. These passive structure injuries take a long time to heal which will keep you from training/competing, and what fun is that? No one want’s to dish out copays, visit Dr’s, and go through surgeries that will leave you on your rear end for weeks or months… Plus that whole time you’re out of the gym the weights will miss you. So train to become an active lifter and keep the weights company so they never forget who you are.

Over the course of this short article, I’ve tried to simplify a complicated subject to make a point that there’s essentially a right, and wrong, way of lifting. One way is the long game which leads to a lifetime of training and all of the health benefits that come from it… like looking good with your shirt off. The other way is a sprint where short-term gains are sacrificed for lifting longevity which keeps you from a full life of the health benefits of lifting. I think we can all agree which of these two scenarios is ideal. So go forth and lift with your active structures carrying that full magazine of passive structure ammo with you throughout life, never having to worry about whether or not you have enough ammo to make it through a training session or competition.

My Top 5 Strongman Training Prerequisites

Mark Clevenger

My Top 5 Strongman Training Prerequisites

Having trained many different clients from various backgrounds into the sport of Strongman I’ve noticed some common strengths that many athletes have been lacking for the safe execution of Strongman training. Now this doesn’t mean these clients aren’t ready to train with Strongman implements, it just means they have certain training needs that must be addressed at the beginning of their Strongman journey in order to keep them safe and maximize the amount of weight they can move. The following is a list of my top 5 Strongman training prerequisites and are the most common areas of strength that must be addressed for the safe and effective execution of Strongman training.

  1. Wake up da butt: The amount of people with underdeveloped and underutilized glutes that lift weights astounds me. The glutes are primarily hip extensors and abductors which are motions you will be doing a lot in Strongman. We use these motions to pick up odd objects from the floor, speed walk with odd objects, violently put odd objects above our heads, the list goes on. So make training your rear a priority and you will make your significant other smile while increasing the amount of weight you can move in the gym.
  2. Hammies!: If the glutes are Batman in the DC universe of weightlifting than the hamstrings are Robin. These are also powerful concentric hip extensors and eccentric knee extensors, both strengths are necessary to stand up with any type of heavy weight, which is something we do a lot of in Strongman. These muscles may not be as ‘sexy’ or fun to train, because they’re not, but they are an absolute necessity for success and longevity in Strongman.
  3. The power belly: The anterolateral (AL) abdominal musculature assists in the static and dynamic stabilization of the pelvis and spine. This is just a fancy way of saying the muscles of the ‘core’ are responsible for helping keep the spine and pelvis from moving while we lift something from the ground, put something over our head, or carry something in random positions on our bodies from one point to another. The stronger these muscles are the safer your back is and the more weight you can handle. Now this doesn’t mean you should do endless amounts of crunches, the muscles of the AL core are very dynamic in their individual function and must be trained as such. For more information about this see my article titled ‘Bringing Balance to your Force: An Argument for Focused Anterolateral Core Training in Strongman’ to learn how to optimally train these important muscles.
  4. Strongman = Strong back: To protect the back and keep it healthy we must strengthen the muscles that share the load with it in static and dynamic movement (the anterolateral core muscles, glutes, and hammies) as well as the main bearers of the load themselves, the actual muscles of the back. Careful application of a loaded spine, a loaded spine in motion, and the direction of applied force on the spine, all warrant special considerations and must be approached with caution. The best advice I can give within the scope of this article would be to locate a certified strength coach or sports physical therapist to educate you on this topic and teach, or coach, you through strengthening your back in preparation for Strongman.
  5. Welcome to the grind: The last type of strength I’ve noticed in my converts to strongman has been the mental game. A lot of athletes don’t know how to safely struggle with heavy weight. They either tension hunt when it gets heavy and force themselves into compromising and dangerous positions under load, or if it doesn’t go up easy they bail the lift. Both show a lack of mental focus on their bodies and the lift itself when the weight gets heavy. The first scenario shows an athlete who is disconnected from the way their body is moving and is only concerned with finishing the repetition without regard to how it’s finished, which is dangerous. The second scenario shows an athlete who is afraid to, or physically doesn’t know how to, struggle with heavy weight. By learning how to struggle with weight, or becoming aware of tension hunting under loads (which is usually indicative of a weakness in the chain, hint-hint, wink-wink), athletes will drastically reduce their chance of injury while drastically increasing their strength gains.

This is by no means an exhaustive list that considers all athletes from every different background imaginable, but it does include what my experience with transitioning athletes into Strongman has been. Most athletes think they have strong posterior chains (bullets 1-4) until you ask them to do a good morning, or GHR, or stability plank in the TRX. So before engaging in the sport of strongman, regardless of your background, put yourself through a gamut of test and measures to assess the strength of your posterior chain and core before putting a heavy yoke on your back or doing heavy atlas stones. By taking the time to assess the strength of these areas before throwing yourself under Strongman implements you’re going to ensure a solid base to build your sporting performance from while protecting yourself from injuries that can derail your participation or prevent you from competing in Strongman all together.

Bigger is Not Always Stronger: Fallacies of Muscle Hypertrophy for Strength Athletes

Mark Clevenger

Today’s diet and fitness industry preys on the insecurities of the masses. We live in a world where mass-marketing movements of companies, coaches, and trainers aim to exploit these myths on unsuspecting athletes at every available turn. From the notions that juice cleanses will result in immediate weight loss to the idea that the only (and best) way to lose fat is through endless amounts of cardio, the fitness industry is in no short supply of unsubstantiated BS. So hang through some technical terms as I establish an argument against one of these particular misconceptions- the fallacy that working out to make your “muscles bigger” will make you stronger, faster, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Hypertrophy is generally defined as the growth of a tissue or organ as a result of increased size of individual cells1. For sporting performance there has been a quest for skeletal muscle hypertrophy since it was established that a muscle with a larger cross sectional area produces greater force than a muscle with a smaller muscle cross sectional area (a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle)1,2,3,4,5. Unfortunately, strength athletes are so pre-occupied with getting those ‘gains’ or getting ‘big’ that they find themselves believing, and trying, every stupid broscience tip that comes down the fitness fallacy pipeline to increase their muscle mass in the hopes that they will become their strongest selves.

There are primarily two different types of hypertrophy:

  1. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy- The growth of the structures supporting and surrounding the contractile elements of the muscle fibers such as the sarcoplasmic reticulum and sarcoplasm2. This type of hypertrophy is the result of body building style training regimens.
  2. Sarcomere hypertrophy- Growth of the contractile components of muscle fibers2. This type of hypertrophy is the result of strength speed and speed strength training, aka powerlifting and Olympic lifting style training regimens.

HypBlogPic

The problem with sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is that there isn’t much growth in the parts of the muscle fibers that actually cause a muscle contraction. This can limit how strong of a contraction you can get. Since sarcomere hypertrophy has a greater proportion of contact area of the contractile elements which results in a stronger muscle contraction, sarcomere hypertrophy should be the goal of all strength based athletes. It’s important to point out that there are no distinct lines that can be drawn between these two types of hypertrophy in training, meaning while training in a bodybuilding style which produces more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy this does not mean that there is no concurrent sarcomere hypertrophy happening and vice versa. The training styles just mean that a greater proportion of one is happening over the other.

Now here is where the butthurt comes in for those coaches who prescribe inadequate, ill-advised, and malformed hypertrophy ‘templates’ aimed at exploiting strength athlete’s misinterpretation of the “muscle size equals strength”  fact. The biggest problem with this ‘fact’ is that it’s taken out of context. It completely ignores the neurological contribution to force production (strength) as well as the appropriateness of hypertrophy for the athlete given their training history2,6. In motor control and force production, the nervous system is responsible for the number of fibers active at any given instant (number coding), the rate at which fibers are firing (rate coding), and the sequence of fiber recruitment (pattern coding)2. A big muscle is no good if the neurological components I’ve outlined have not been sufficiently trained for all the different types of sporting strength an athlete requires (speed strength, strength speed, explosive strength, acceleration strength, ect…).

What this means is that every athlete has a training period of 6-8 years (6 for lightweight athletes and 8 for heavier athletes) that their body maximizes strength gains via neuromuscular coordination and development in the absence of significant muscle hypertrophy6. Essentially, it takes our nervous system 6-8 years to maximize the muscle mass we already have, so why would someone want to take concentrated training time away from strength and skill development for muscle mass to get ‘stronger’ if they haven’t finished maximizing their current muscle mass for strength? How much in strength gains are you leaving on the table by taking this concentrated time away from strength and skill? Yes, in time the increase in muscle mass will make you stronger but in the meantime you could compete in higher weight classes when you haven’t fully developed your current strength potential.  Hypertrophy training (and most techniques associated with it) will make you stronger, but not nearly as strong as you would be if your primary focus was purely on developing your sport specific strength and technique in your main lifts. This is the equivalent of an Olympic lifter concentrating on hypertrophy to get stronger before they’ve ever completely mastered the snatch or clean and jerk. This isn’t to say hypertrophy of muscle and connective tissues during those 6-8 training years doesn’t occur, it’s just not the significant contributor to the observed strength gains from training.

Deciding if hypertrophy training is beneficial or just a time-suck involves thinking through the needs of the individual athlete in their specific sport. Is mass a requirement in order to be competitive or to compete at higher levels of your sport? For a high school senior defensive tackle coming into their freshman year of college football, they will need to put on weight in order to compete at their position. Hypertrophy training for a strength athlete in this position would be appropriate. For the powerlifter who is naturally incredibly strong and wants to compete in higher weight classes for increased competition and notoriety associated with competing at that level, hypertrophy training would be appropriate. So, while the general rule for the strength athlete is that those who have less than 6-8 training experience should focus solely on strength and worry about hypertrophy after that, there are some special circumstances that must be considered from athlete to athlete.

So where have the feathers been ruffled? Wait for it… Wait for it… Right… Here. With all of these facts we can conclude that the mass produced hypertrophy templates from internet ‘coaches’ are useless for the majority of strength athletes. Almost all of them are rooted in the traditional sarcoplasmic hypertrophy style of training (body building concepts) that we all formally associated with muscle building to make us stronger… until we were further educated… like through this article. As strength athletes, this style of training and specific type of hypertrophic adaptation, does us little good and can even be detrimental to our specific sporting strength. These athletes (with the exception of those outlined above) would yield more benefit from continued strength training geared toward their sport.

Understanding that hypertrophy is not necessary for strength athletes with less than 6-8 years of training and doesn’t require special training regimens or templates is a concept that many online coaches and generally ignorant coaches alike will rebuff. These coaches make their living perpetuating the broscience falsehoods of hypertrophy training (via bodybuilding style workouts) and preying on your fear that you have to get bigger to get stronger. The proof is in the pudding and the pudding is the field of exercise science. If you’re a strength athlete within 6-8 years of training (with the exception of certain athletes defined earlier) just train for strength. Don’t get lost in the fallacy that hypertrophy is your only path to getting stronger. Motor control and force production (muscle strength), at its core is a complimentary neuro and muscular system that should be trained as such. I hope this article has clarified some of the myths associated with hypertrophy for strength athletes and will save some of you time (and money) from broscience coaches who would love to steal both from you if you hadn’t educated yourself on your sport specific training needs.

References:

  1. Macinstosh B.R. Gardiner P.F. McComas A.J. Skeletal Muscle: Form and Function. Second Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2006.
  2. Siff M.C. Facts and Fallacies of Fitness. Sixth Edition. Denver, CO; 2003.
  3. Baechle T.R. Earle R.W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Third Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2008.
  4. Verkhoshansky Y. Siff M. Supertraining. Sixth Edition. Ultimate Athlete Concepts; 2009.
  5. McArdle W.D. Katch F.I. Katch V.L. Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. Eighth Edition. Baltimore, MD: Wolters Kluwer Health; 2015.
  6. Medvedyev A.S. A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting. Livonia, MI: Sportivny Press; 1989.
  7. Ogborn D. Schoenfeld B.J. The Role of Fiber Types in Muscle Hypertrophy: Implications for Loading Strategies. Strength and Conditioning Journal. April, 2014; 36(2): 20-25

Top 6 Competition Day Philosophies for the Strength Athlete

Mark Clevenger

Last week I wrote a short article about my Top 6 Training Philosophies for Strength Athletes. This week I want to follow up with my Top 6 Competition Day Philosophies for these same athletes. These philosophies are rooted in the concept I call ‘controlling the controllables.’ Exercising control over these variables will ensure no matter how the event plays out you walk away within the framework of success that you construct for yourself.

  1. Set yourself up for success: Going into a competition define your success beforehand with goals that are within your physical abilities. Don’t set the mark outside of your reach (I’m going to deadlift 1,000lbs!) because you’re only going to get discouraged and upset with yourself when you don’t reach it.
  2. Stick to the plan: If you’ve trained a certain way with certain equipment for certain events, compete in that manor. Comp day is not the time to change the way you do anything. Don’t allow some unknown variable into any of your lifts that could lead to a decrease in performance, even if you believe the change has huge upside to increase your projected performance. Always take the safe bet rather than the risk everything you’ve worked for bet.
  3. Savor the moment: You’ve worked your tail off to be on the platform with all eyes on you, that moment is yours. With that in mind don’t let it be bigger than the task at hand, you still have to execute the plan regardless of how the competition is playing out. In the end the moment is yours but isn’t bigger than what you’ve come to do.
  4. Throw the book out the window and take the test : To this point you’ve been thinking about everything from your goal, to your training, and everything in between. Competition day is what all that thinking has led to but is not the place for any further thought. You’re beyond prepared because everything is second nature to you at this point. Just go pass the test.
  5. Celebrate your successes: Be happy with your PR’s and goals that were met. Go out and have a drink, eat a good meal, and spend time with those who supported you throughout the process, after all you earned it. Don’t let the honeymoon period of success last longer than 1 week. Enjoy the victory then set a new goal and start the process over again. Keep the things in your training that made you successful and apply them to future goals.
  6. Own your failures: Your failures are yours and no one else’s, just like your successes. Take ownership of what you did wrong and make it a positive. Dwelling on failures does you no good and never learning from them makes you destined to repeat the same mistakes. Make it a positive learning experience and move on.

Many of you probably use most of these concepts in competition already. For those of you who don’t, write these things down, commit them to memory, and apply them on game day. I promise exercising control over these 6 variables will yield you a >95% success rate within the framework of success as you’ve defined it. This success will keep you positively engaged and competing in the sport you obviously love.

Top 6 Training Philosophies for the Strength Athlete

Mark Clevenger

It took many years for me to figure out my own personal set of training philosophies. I learned through much trial and error how to set myself up for success no matter my circumstance. At the heart of my 6 training philosophies is the concept I call ‘controlling the controllables.’ When you learn to exercise control over these 6 variables you will find how much better the quality of your training becomes as well as the outcomes from it.

  1. Have a defined training goal… one of them… and make it realistic: The problem most people have is they want to do everything, run marathons, deadlift 600lbs, yada, yada, yada. Unfortunately the human body doesn’t work that way. The theory of specificity states the things we do most often are the things we get best at. If you never get around to something enough to elicit an adaptation because you’re too busy doing twenty different and contradictory things, you’ll never get really good at any of it. Make one goal and go get it.
  2. Make a plan to achieve that goal… and make it realistic: Be smart with your programming and structure it with the end in product in mind. Everything you do should be geared towards completing the objective. There are a lot of paths to get to the same destination but some are shorter and more efficient than others.
  3. Respect the process: If your goal and plan are both realistic then the path before you is laid out with the destination in sight. If you try to take short cuts and deviate from the path you will inevitably get lost. This just adds to the amount of time it takes you to get to your destination and more often than not leads to injuries. Respect the process and the process will respect you.
  4. Write everything down: Record every imaginable aspect of your training in a log so you can chart your progress. This data will also allow you monitor what’s working in your training and what isn’t, which leads to more efficient training and goal objectives that are met much sooner.
  5. Save your bullets: Training is not the time or place to use garbage form. Your repetitions should be pretty, all of them. Bad form I essentially define as moving weights with passive structures (connective tissues such as tendons, ligaments, and fascia) instead of active structures (muscles). These passive structures are like loaded magazines for your AK-47 of performance. If you waste all your bullets in training you’re going get to the battlefield with an empty clip. Empty clips = injury, injury = no training, no training = no goals.
  6. Eat, sleep, recover: If your goal has any significant meaning to you than you’re training hard for it. Give your body what it needs to recover and then some. Don’t let these little things create a big thing like failing to reach your goal.

Some of you probably already use these ideas in your training. For those of you who don’t, write these things down, commit them to memory, and apply them to your everyday training. You’ll quickly become the Superman/woman of goal achievement and have everybody asking how you did it.

From Middle Weight to Light Weight; Making the Cut

Mark Clevenger

It’s human nature to think the grass is greener on the other side but there are some instances where you just have to find out for yourself. Last March I got the idea to cut weight classes for Strongman from a 225 lb Open Middle Weight (MW) competitor to a 181 lb Open Light Weight (LW) competitor. I wanted to perform better in the sport as well as experience the process of dropping weight classes. I looked at the MW event weights, then at the LW event weights and thought, “Hey, drop a few lb’s and I could totally murder that!!” Plus, as a coach, I understand the value of hands-on experience with the things we teach. Anybody can write up (or purchase) a macro template with a water cut for weight loss while training, but can they give you the intimate details on everything they will experience throughout the process? I wanted to be able to give my clients these details so they can learn from my experience and not just my knowledge.

In order to track this process, I have outlined my brief background in strongman and details of my experiences with weight cutting complete with some of the “ah-ha” moments along the way.

Diary of a 30-year-old Football Player

I started my journey into Strongman 6 months after my college football career ended back in 2015. I had dropped 15 pounds of ‘playing weight’ (from 240 to 225) pretty easy working out on my own and was looking to compete in something to fill the competitive void left by football. I coached part time at a gym that was hosting a novice Strongman competition and the owner asked if I would participate so he could have a coaching presence competing to represent his gym. I respected the hell out of this guy and agreed based on the request more than my desire to do it. As it turns out, this was the beginning of my love affair with Strongman.

Now, I was a blocking Tight End in college (at 30, mind you) who specialized in moving people where I wanted them to go, because of this experience my dynamic strength was through the roof. The downside of this experience was the fact that my shoulders and lower back were completely wrecked which severely limited my static strength in the press and deadlift.

“I was starry eyed for success and in March of 2016 I decided to purchase my Renaissance Periodization weight cut template and start my journey to the LW Open weight class.”

After a few shows where I bombed my static events I started looking at other weight classes. My wondering mind convinced itself that I had some excess weight to shed and that the static weights for the LW Open division were manageable at my current abilities. Key phrase here moving forward, current abilities at 225 lbs. I figured with manageable static weights in those events coupled with my dynamic strength abilities I could go and compete at a high level. I was starry eyed for success and in March of 2016 I decided to purchase my Renaissance Periodization weight cut template and start my journey to the LW Open weight class.

Kentucky’s Strongest Man

Over the course of the next year, I moved 4 times (2 of those cross country) which made dieting and training difficult. The inability to consistently cook and prep my meals due to big moves and transitional housing stalled my weight loss to around 210 lbs. After finally getting settled with both my diet and training in July 2016 I set my sights on Kentucky’s Strongest Man in October. That title was too cool to pass up competing for.

“My deadlift dropped almost 100 lbs and my overhead progress had completely stalled. My dynamic strength had taken a hit too.”

I weighed in at 205 lbs and competed in the Novice LW Division (don’t judge me) which I subsequently won. Although I won, there was a noticeable strength decrease in my competition performance. My deadlift dropped almost 100 lbs and my overhead progress had completely stalled. My dynamic strength had taken a hit too but the performance effect was negligible considering how good I naturally was at it (thanks Depauw Football!). How much of this decrease in static strength was all the stress associated with moving coupled with inconsistent training and how much of it was losing weight I can’t really say. I can say that while cutting weight classes, don’t do it and move 4-5 times (several cross country) during the process. I equate it to pulling up your pants while you’re still going to the bathroom, it makes a mess and more work for you in the long run than if you were patient and waited until you were finished.

Goal Set- Eyes on the Prize

After this win I set my sights on the Open LW division for the Savage Strength Challenge in April of 2017. My weight drop from 205 lbs to 190 lbs happened from November 2016 to February 2017.

“I was totally ripped but had little to no fat left to lose.”

Over this time my deadlift progressed had stalled but I was beginning to make headway on my overhead. My shoulders felt like they were finally healing from football (2 years later) and I was able to lift the way I wanted/needed to improve their strength. After several years I could finally move my arms over my head without wincing and looking like an old man. The weight loss problem at this point became the fact I was totally ripped and had little to no fat left to lose. This is great if you like being ripped more than you hate being hungry but most of us don’t operate like that. Plus it was the dead of winter so I couldn’t even walk around in public without a shirt to show off. The timing for this all around was very poor.

If It Fits Your Macros

From February through the beginning of April I adjusted my macro’s and was able to get my weight down to 186 lbs. I was eating like a rabbit, always hungry, tired all the time, couldn’t train with the intensity that I was accustomed, and constantly felt like trash.

“I felt like an angry troll, with abs!”

I had become short tempered and pissy to everyone around me. The best description I can come up with is that I felt like an angry troll, with abs (put that in your mental image bank). I attributed this continued drop in weight to a loss of lean mass because my lab values came back with low testosterone and excessively high values of Creatinine and BUN (Blood Urea Nitrogen). My continued strength loss was an obvious physical effect of my body catabolizing my lean mass which the lab values verified since the byproducts of protein breakdown were reflected in both BUN and Creatinine.

The Water Cut and Rehydrating

The week of the competition I used a water cut to get me down to 178 lbs the Thursday night before the 24-hour weigh in on Friday. By that night my skin started to turn grey and my face was so dehydrated I looked like Skeletor from He-Man. I couldn’t stand up too fast because I would light headed and almost pass out, my pissyness was amplified, and just moving around in general was exhausting. At this point I didn’t even know if I could get on the board for any of the events on that Saturday which was a scary feeling.

“Weight goal met! I weighed in on Friday at 178.2 lbs.”

Before and After

Beforeandafter

After barely eating/drinking anything on Thursday I weighed in on Friday at 178.2 lbs. I immediately downed a gallon of Gatorade/coconut water/Creatine/and Pedialyte mix. I had looked forward to eating so much for so long, but knew I needed electrolytes and fluids ASAP. My plan was to down the fluids and eat everything within arm’s reach. After that gallon of fluids I felt sick and my stomach was totally stretched out with no room for food. It took over an hour until I had enough room in there to pound a double bacon cheeseburger with extra-large fries from Five Guys Burger and Fries!!

I Eat All The Things

I ate until I felt sick again and stopped. Over the next two hours I randomly snacked on maple butter blondie bites, Oreo’s, and Complete Cookies. Three hours after eating at Five Guys, I ate Chipotle with double meat and extra rice, again eating all of it to the point of being sick. Two and a half hours later I had Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese from Applebee’s with a Maple Butter Blondie. I got all the way to the last bite of desert and couldn’t finish it. I felt so sick I didn’t want to move. I went back to the hotel room and managed to down a Casein protein shake and pass out.

Overall I honestly didn’t care how sick I felt, I was food deprived for so long at this point that nothing, not even my own body, was going to tell me I couldn’t have the food I craved and missed. By the end of Friday (a 10,000 calorie binge eating fest) I was starting to feel normal, outside of the over-full sick feeling, but was still worried about being able to lift heavy at the competition.

Game Day- Savage Strength Challenge

The next morning I got up really early, downed another gallon of Gatorade/coconut water/creatine/and pedialite mix, went to IHOP for stacks of pancakes, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and bacon. An hour and a half later I had waffles and eggs from the continental breakfast at the hotel before getting ready to go compete.

“I left the hotel and weighed in at 194lbs. Yes, I gained almost 16lbs of water and food weight in 24 hours!“

I was amazed at how good I felt at this point. I almost felt human again and was looking forward to competing. I did one last weight in to see the difference before I left the hotel and weighed in at 194lbs. Yes, I gained almost 16lbs of water and food weight in 24 hours.

First Place- Men’s Open Light Weight

I walked away with my first, first place finish in an open weight class. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good gauge for performance because only one other guy in my weight class showed up and he zeroed several events. All I had to do to win was 1 rep for three events, carry a heavy yoke farther than 20ft, and carry a heavy Husafell father than 107ft.

“I beat the other guy long before we both got on the platform. I worked harder to prepare and it showed.”

I was there to win and didn’t want to risk injury and lose to lesser competition so I only did the bare minimum to win. I wanted to push my limits and see what kind of toll everything had taken on me but at the end of the day it’s always about the win, no matter how you get it. I felt guilty afterwards but a teammate put it best to me, I beat the other guy long before we both got on the platform. Even with the weight cut, I worked harder to prepare than the other guy and it showed.

We went out to eat that night as a crew and then drove three and a half hours home. I continued to eat everything in sight from Sunday until the following Saturday and watched my weight get up as high as 198 lbs.

“I felt amazing all week and was hitting numbers I hadn’t hit in nearly two and a half months. My body was finally back to functioning normally and I could feel it.”

I was able to resume training that following Monday in preparation for our next contest since the previous Saturday (competition day) only tallied up to a moderate event training day in comparison to the amount of energy and effort I put forth. I felt amazing all week and was hitting numbers I hadn’t hit in nearly two and a half months. Out of curiosity I went into the doctor the following Thursday after the competition and had my lab values taken again. My testosterone, Creatinine, and BUN were all within normal ranges. My body was finally back to functioning normally and I could feel it.

The Moral of the Story

So what was the purpose of me telling you my backstory into Strongman and the long road I traveled from MW competitor to LW competitor? I wanted to share this experience with you to give you a first-hand account of weight cutting for strength sports and what I learned from it.  In the end, the hardest lesson learned is the hardest to swallow, just get stronger. The grass isn’t greener on the other side, the process will not be fun, you will not be your strongest you on game day, and it’s just an excuse to play down to the competition. I’ve heard stories of other athletes traveling this path without losing strength and even PR’ing events, but I was not one of them. If your weight is close to the cutoff naturally and all you have to do is cut out a little bit of food a week or two before, go for it. If you’re 45 pounds off… just get stronger.

I find myself questioning how much stronger would I be today if I hadn’t wasted those 6 months or so of harsh dieting and just ate to perform instead of under eating to underperform. Granted the experience cannot be replaced and I can use this as a lesson to others but that doesn’t mean I would do it again knowing what I know now.

So go forth, eat to be happy, train to compete because you love it, and everything will fall into place where it belongs. If that’s on the podium, great. If not, at least you didn’t torture yourself for several months and were a complete a-hole to everyone you love around you. Depending on how you look at it, either way it’s a win.

Movement Economy in Sports

April 5th 2017

If I asked the average athlete to define movement economy for me, I would probably get some form of a generic answer in the ballpark of “exercising correctly.” While variations of this answer, along with this specific answer itself are not entirely incorrect, they do lack substance. In this article I aim to clarify this concept and operationally define movement economy as it relates to sporting performance through a detailed and layered description for athletes to use in both training and competition.

The broadest sense of movement economy in sports starts with the theory of specificity. The idea that the things we do the most, and the manner in which we do them, are the things we become best at. So if I’m an Olympic swimmer, I would want to perform exercises that have the most transfer of training to my sport in both movement selection and energy system utilized1,2. Now, this doesn’t mean other less specific exercises and energy systems don’t have a place in my periodized training depending on what phase I’m in, it just means they don’t make up the bulk of any of my training cycles. In this instance with regards to movement economy in sports, according to the theory of specificity, I would want to become proficient at the exercises that directly make me a better swimmer. You can see that this broad concept is also rooted in the idea of programming economy for sport. I will refer you to my article titled ‘Programming Economy’ for a more detailed description of this foundational concept of movement economy.

While the theory of specificity and the concept of programming economy, broadly outline the programming aspect of movement as it relates to sporting form, it fails to cover the specific movement patterns of the individual performing the exercises prescribed. After learning new movement patterns our bodies tend to quickly and grossly adapt these patterns to the capabilities of the individual in an effort to merge the function of movement with the minimal amount of metabolic energy expenditure required3. Our bodies will integrate and accommodate their own unique combination of dimensions and mechanical characteristics so that they arrive at specific movement patterns for an exercise which is most economical for them4. Essentially our bodies will perform the exercise prescribed, outside of the influence of fatigue and intensity, within our physical limits in a way that uses the least amount of energy possible. This sounds like the epitome of movement economy in sport right? I mean, how much more economical can our bodies be if they naturally adapt to movement in the most energy conserving way possible within the physical limitations of the individual? While this notion sounds like the holy grail of an operational definition, it fails to address the effect of fatigue and intensity on movement, which is the foundation of any sporting event. It also fails to address the potential for increasing movement economy, which as we will see is correlated to increases in sporting performance.

So when thinking about increasing movement economy two big questions should come to mind that need to be addressed. Can an athlete’s movement economy be increased? If so, how?

With regards to these questions, we must start by understanding the role of movement economy on energy consumption. Generally, the less dynamic appendicular and axial displacement that a person mechanically generates outside of what is absolutely necessary to complete a physical task, the less energy they will use. Example: If I perform a bicep curl where I bend forward, pop my hips, curl my arm, and flex my shoulder, how much energy have I used compared to standing erect and neutral while performing a strict arm curl without flexing my shoulder? They both achieved the desired outcome but the ‘cheating’ version created the most appendicular and axial displacement, and thus used more energy. The less body movement utilized to reach a movement objective is the backbone of our operational definition of movement economy in sport.

Now that we understand the backbone of our operational definition, we can start to address the two big questions. Any deficiency in movement economy can essentially stem from 3 major sources, they can be fatigue induced, structurally induced, or strength failure induced. Fatigue induced refers to how our attention to movement detail goes out the window as our heart rate and respiratory rate get really high. Our focus shifts from monitoring our movement in space to, “I hate this, why am I doing this” and then to “just get the next rep.” This is when our elbows start to drop in front squats causing a forward trunk lean, or kipping pull ups become less rhythmic and more spastic like a flopping fish. If you just took the time to slow down a minute and refocus on your form it will save you energy (and help prevent injury) for the rest of the workout. Sometimes to take 2 steps forward we have to take 1 step back. The best part about this movement economy deficiency is it can be fixed right now and everyone has direct control over it.

The second movement economy deficiency source refers to those which are structurally induced. This is where we lack the functional range of motion (ROM) across certain joints to perform a specific exercise as efficiently as it could be performed if we had full functional ROM in those joints. This is where mobility work and redneck strength coach engineering comes into play. The long term answer to this problem is stretching and mobility work aimed at achieving a desired ROM across a restricting joint in a certain movement pattern. The problem is this takes a lot of time and doesn’t happen overnight. That doesn’t mean you should ignore it, it just means you have to work at it a little every day until the mobility fairy visits you one night and blesses you with the ROM needed to efficiently perform the movement you’re aiming to improve. Not sure where to start on this? Find a local Physical Therapist and make an appointment.

The short term answer to structurally induced movement economy deficiencies is what I call redneck strength coach engineering. Let’s say you have trouble getting into the front rack position for front squats (this is my go to example). Should you just perform them to the best of your abilities? Even if this makes you hunch forward during your squat, creating greater torque demands on the spine, and shifts your COM forward forcing you onto the balls of your feet? The correct answer is no you shouldn’t. This not only requires much more energy to perform the movement in this manner, but performing broken reps like this increases your risk of injury. Plus, it does nothing to increase your ROM/mobility. This is where you become a strength coach and engineer ways to perform prescribed movements closer to the economical standard so you can safely put in more work. For the example given, you could use lifting straps around the bar that will help you achieve higher elbows, a more upright posture, and more stable front rack position. Just by tweaking how the movement is performed you have increased your work abilities for the training session and reduced your chance of injury.

The Third movement economy deficiency source is strength failure. This is where you are performing perfect repetitions and everything’s going great, then one muscle group gives out and you find yourself performing reps in a manner that is sapping every ounce of available energy from you. A good example of this is yoke walks for strongman. The reason you wrap your arms around the implement, or have your hands inside and press out on it, is to create stiffness in your upper back. This helps stabilize the core which creates a more efficient walk under heavy loads applied to the upper back. If your upper back gives out because it’s not strong enough to perform the action it’s tasked to do, the implement starts to move around, your steps become random, and your core begins to torque and flex under the load. Moving in such a manner requires so much more energy than when walking with the yoke and the only thing moving on your body is your legs. The moral of this story is, if you have a limiting factor in your movement economy that is strength failure related, back off the weight to perform the reps correctly, and start to program more exercises into your training to bring this freeloading muscle group up to speed with the rest of your body.

If you’re an athlete in any sport finding ways to improve your movement economy in your training and sport should be a top priority for you. One of the common denominators for successful athletes at the highest levels of all sports is impeccable movement economy within their sporting performance. With increases in sport-technical indicators we see an increase in sport qualification, which leads to high achievements and sport mastery5. In other words, at these higher levels of competition the natural selection process tends to eliminate athletes who have failed to either inherit, or develop, characteristics which favor movement economy in their sporting performance6. I like to use Rich Froning as a good example. This man won the Crossfit games 4 years in a row and every time I watched him compete, every repetition of any lift he performed looked the same. From the first rep, to the last, there was very little variation. His movement economy was almost perfect and that’s one of the reasons why he was always in the top 3-5 finishers in every event, and subsequently had more gas in the tank at the very last event compared to all the other competitors. So if you compete, in anything, movement economy in your sport should be something you pay attention to for every repetition you spend at the gym and on the platform. Need mobility work? Do it. Not strong enough in a certain area of your body? Get stronger there. Tired and not paying attention to your body while training? Suck it buttercup and pay attention to it. This is a major part of how great athletes are created.

To review the outline of this operational definition, we started by talking about the theory of specificity and programming economy, and how this helps narrow the scope of our programming, exercise selection, and means of exercise application. With the programming in place, it’s important to understand that outside of the influence of fatigue and intensity, athletes will quickly learn to perform the prescribed exercises as efficiently as possible within their physical limits, but sporting performance is not void of fatigue and intensity so we shouldn’t be content with this. We should ask ourselves, can we make it better? This led us to defining the means by which movement economy is decreased and movement deficiencies occur, excessive axial and appendicular displacement. From here we worked to categorize the 3 types of movement deficiency sources that create this energy consuming movement pattern, fatigue induced deficiencies, structurally induced deficiencies, or strength failure deficiencies. Being able to recognize the source of these gives us the opportunity to either spot correct them (fatigue induced), or work to correct them through mobility training and exercise selection (structurally induced and strength failure). At this point, understanding the impact of these dysfunctional patterns on sporting performance is to understand the correlation between high movement economy and sport mastery achievement. All of this information together helps complete our understanding of how movement economy is compromised, corrected, and maximized which gives way to an understanding of how this operational definition is applied across the spectrum of various training environments and sporting events.

Now I’m not a smart guy, nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, so I’m not just trying to make something more difficult than it has to be. Just like anybody else, I appreciate simplicity for simplicity’s sake, but as athletes we have to understand the complexities of certain concepts as they relate to our sport in order for us to progress. This is why I have clarified the concept of movement economy and operationally defined it for athletes to use both in training and competition. So take this information, implement it into your training, and become a movement master in your sport. Your PR’s will thank you for it.

References:

  1. MacIntosh B.R. Gardiner P.F. McComas A.J. Skeletal Muscle: Form and Function. Second Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2006.
  2. Powers S.K. Howley E.T. Exercise Physiology: Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance. Eighth Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2012.
  3. A. Sparrow K.M. Newell Metabolic energy expenditure and the regulation of movement economy. Psychonomic Bullitin and Review. June, 1998; 5(2): 173-196.
  4. Anderson T. Biomechanics and running economy. Sports Med. August, 1996; 22(2): 76-89.\
  5. Medvedyev A. S. A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting. Livonia, MI: Sportivny Press: 1989.
  6. Behbacke R.R. Duffin J. The entertainment of breathing frequency by exercise rhythm. J Physiol. Nov, 1977; 272(3): 553-561.