Strongman Analytics

Strongman Analytics 

Dr. Mark Clevenger 

The title of the sport of Strongman can be deceiving, it implies that only absolute strength is tested and that the statically strongest person always wins. This cannot be further from the truth. A Strongman contest is a series of 5 different events that can test an athletes absolute strength, repetition strength, speed strength, conditioning, athleticism, and equipment mastery. Too often athletes in the sport tend to focus on absolute strength and forget to think about these other aspects of events that are worth just as much, if not more points on your score by the end of the contest. I want to walk you through an analytics process of viewing the sport so you can construct your training to maximize your performance on any given event at any competition. 

Absolute Strength

In almost every contest you will have a deadlift and overhead press variation event. This is automatically 2 out of 5 events that you are going to be tested on, so your absolute strength for the most carry over to these events should be in the deadlift, log press, and axle press. Where people get too caught up here is thinking your 1 rep max in these lifts carries over to more than just these lifts. A big deadlift does not necessarily mean a fast yoke run, or a fast truck pull, and a big log press does not necessarily mean a good circus dumbbell performance. They do help, but they are not the sole performance indicators to these other lifts. Being statically strong in these two lifts is important but they only directly carry over to these two event variations.

Knowing how important these two lifts are for 2 out of 5 contested events, the bulk of your offseason training should consist of building strength in these lifts, while your contest prep should be focused on refining your technique for these lifts. Take a look at where and why you fail at these lifts and let that direct your accessory work. Pick out 1 or 2 aspects of these lifts that you struggle at (hamstring strength, bar path, stabilization, ect…) and train those, because getting better at those will make you better at this main lift. Then go ahead and fill the rest of your training time with lower impact exercises that will help keep your joints and body healthy in the long term (*cough *cough cardio…. *cough *cough generalized physical preparedness). 

After you’ve picked a contest with some variation of deadlift and overhead press, the next question you should be wondering is when to start contest prep? This is highly variable from athlete to athlete. Some athletes need more event proficiency to maximize their current strength levels with an implement, and thus a little bit longer of a contest prep cycle. Other athletes may have greater event proficiency, or natural ability, and subsequently need less specific work requiring less prep time. With that being said, you should be honest with yourself and see where you fall on this spectrum to determine how long of a prep you need. In either case, anything longer than 12-16 weeks, including taper and deload, is too much. At that point any extra time should just be spent getting stronger and healthier during an off season training block.

Repetition Strength

Just because you’ve got a huge 1 rep max on a given event, doesn’t mean you’ve got the movement efficiency and repetition strength to crank out the number of reps it’s going to take to win an event on game day. Don’t get me wrong, it helps, but absolute strength is not the sole determining factor to winning a reps event.

The first step in analyzing a reps event is asking yourself how the weight compares to your current strength levels in that event? If it’s less than 80% of your 1 rep max then you know the bulk of your event training needs to be focused on the conditioning, repetition strength, and overall movement economy to maximize your performance. If the event is closer to 85-90% of your 1 rep max then there should be a solid mix of absolute strength work and some repetition work, to give yourself the best chance at reps on game day. Lastly, if an event falls in the 90+% range, or above your current max, then your contest prep focus needs to be on absolute strength.

Speed Strength, Conditioning, Athleticism

This is by far the most underrated aspect of Strongman. In a typical Strongman competition 3 of the events will hinge on these things. Yes, being statically strong or having great repetition strength has scored you well in two events, but if you move like molasses, do the stanky leg while carrying weight, and get winded after 20s of work, you won’t place very high in these events. The common fault I see athletes make with regards to these events is the belief that if they get statically stronger it will magically give them work capacity, make them fast, and make them explosive. It has to be understood that these qualities, while connected in some fashions to absolute and repetition strength, are stand alone qualities and have to be trained independently. 

If there’s a conditioning event (max distance carry, ect..) and you can barely move competition weight because it’s so heavy, then you probably don’t need the bulk of your event training to be lighter weight for longer distances, this is where absolute strength in the event will give you the best performance. On the flip side if the competition weight is manageable relative to your abilities, then you probably need to be hammering your conditioning and efficiency for the event (recognize a theme yet?). If this is where you find yourself, understanding the mark to beat is an important training and programming tool. This is where you guesstimate where the top performers will score and train for that mark to ensure you maximize your points earned for that event. Don’t miss out on the podium because you didn’t know what mark to train for and subsequently under perform an event that costs you a lot of points.

If you find yourself with a distance for time event (yoke, farmers, ect…) this is not about how strong you are, but how fast you are. If you can’t move fast with weight you have to ask yourself why? Is it a bracing issue? Dynamic unilateral stability issue? Hip strength? Understand why, and train the heck out of that so you can get better at these events without training them all the time. Constantly training events in this sport will wear your body down, especially moving events. So work on finding ways to get better at these events with traditional strength training methods to not only save the wear and tear of these events but this will also give you a greater carry over to other events as well. 

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen an athlete in a medley carry something heavy impressively fast, then as they transitioned back to another implement 50’ away would shuffle or light jog, then again be incredibly fast carrying another heavy piece of equipment. Then you see them followed up by another athlete, not as fast carrying objects, but was an absolute blur sprinting between the implements, making up that time they lost on the carry and actually ending up beating a ‘stronger’ competitor because of it. Time is time, it’s counting from the whistle to the finish, everything you do in that span of time matters. Being an athlete and making your body fast not only with the parts where you carry weight, but the transitions between them as well, will ensure that the best time you are physically capable of is achieved. The takeaway here is, be as fast as you can at all aspects of an event, not just certain parts of it. 

Equipment Mastery

The argument I hear too often in Strongman is that you don’t need the equipment, you just need to be strong. Although competitors can take the equipment specifications for contest training too far (what are the exact dimensions of the farmers’ handles? What is the exact height of the pull for the car deadlift? Ect…), the idea that you don’t need to be proficient with a piece of equipment is absurd. That’s like telling an Olympic discus thrower that they don’t need practice with the discus, they just need to be powerful. Yes, it helps, but there is technique to every different event we do for our body types, and knowing the details of how to make an event work for you is a significant part of contest preparation. 

Lastly, understanding the gear allowed for a contest and how your body is best aligned for a movement pattern is hugely important. Did they say no deadlift suits in the event explanation? If it will help, throw on the suit. Did they say no deadlift suit but didn’t mention briefs? If it will help, throw on your briefs. Are you allowed to wear grip shirts or double soft/hard belts for the overhead? If so and it helps, wear it. Are you a shorter athlete who can get a wide stance and knees under the bar on an elevated deadlift? I guarantee you can pull more that way than a traditional stance with the bar under your knee. In the end, use any equipment or technique that is allowed that will help you maximize your strengths or leverages in every event for the sake of gaining the most points on game day. 

The Point

The point I’m trying to make with all of this, analyze every detail of every event, in every contest you sign up for. Compare this to your strengths and your weaknesses, and let that dictate your training. Stop getting caught up in having a big deadlift and big log press (yes these are important but not everything) and neglect the aspects of other events that equally determine your final points standings at a show.  Far more often in this sport we see a better all around athlete beat out a much stronger athlete because of how they prepared their body for each event. Remember, in the end it is called Strongman, but there are many different types of strength and none so more important than another.

Managing the Aging Strongman Athlete

Dr. Mark Clevenger, Jr.

Father Time is undefeated. Period.

As strength athletes in our younger years we get away with abusing our bodies so much with things like partying all night then training the next day, eating garbage all the time, not getting enough quality sleep, lifting far too heavy far too often, not warming up (or cooling down,) and neglecting the less novel aspects of fitness like mobility and general physical preparedness. Along the way our bodies try to give us clues that we’re abusing it, but we often neglect to see these until it’s almost too late. You wake up one day and realize how labored simple daily tasks have become; the fact that you can barely reach over to put your socks on in the morning and you can’t remember the last time your back didn’t hurt. These are signs of the changing winds, regardless of what your sport defines as a masters athlete, if you feel this way… you’re now a masters athlete. This doesn’t mean the ride is over, it simply means it’s time to start listening to your body and adapt your training and competition mindset to accommodate your body’s needs so you can stay in the ring with Father Time a little bit longer. 

The biggest problem I see with managing the masters athlete is their lack of attention to details. Training is easy. We’ve been doing it for so long we know how to go out and lift hard but we either don’t know, or haven’t prioritized the foundational pieces at this stage of our life that allow us to keep training. So let’s take a look at some of the details that will allow you to continue training and competing against the young guns, even as you start to get a little long in the tooth and start receiving socks instead of Xbox games for Christmas.

Sleep. 

For the love of everything holy, get this one right. Move your schedule around to allow for this. Learn to become more efficient in handling your life responsibilities so you can have this. Your body recovers while you sleep. Less sleep = less recovery=less productive training. You can only train what you can recover from, so not making time for this just means the less you get to do in the gym. 

Nutrition. 

You need to make sure your body is adequately fed and hydrated to optimally recover. You need to have blood work done every so often to make sure you don’t have any holes in what your body needs or any imbalances in your hormone profile. Your metabolism isn’t what it used to be and any missing ingredient over time can lead to long periods of suboptimal training and decreased recovery overall, which limits your platform performance. 

Training Volume and Intensity. 

For the masters athlete less is almost always more. Focus on the important compound lifts, depending on where you are in your competition cycle, and limit the amount of heavy compound accessory lifts in your program. You can treat many of your accessories as prehab/rehab exercises or even as general physical preparedness (GPP). The days of walking away from every training session doing the stanky leg because you pushed your squat or deadlift workouts to their limit have to stay behind you. At this point in your career you already know how to grind, the goal now is making sure your body feels as good as it can from session to session until game day. That is what is going to maximize your performance. 

Active Recovery. 

Yes, you need more general heart health GPP in your life. Heart health activities… like cardio, keep you healthy and will help you recover faster. It doesn’t have to be running, just find activities that get your sweat glands going and your heart pumping and do more of those things. Active recovery is not just GPP. Yes, you need to be doing mobility work on the regular. Fact, as we get older we get stiffer. The more optimally your body moves the better it feels, the less it hurts, and the better your athletic performance is overall. Find a mobility routine or yoga class that works for you and do that several times a week. Another good recovery option is a 20 min pump session with bands or body weight a few times a week. This can do wonders for body recovery. So if you’re feeling beat-down, drop the barbell for the day, grab some bands and go to work. Your next training session will thank you. 

Be Selective. 

Your body can’t prep, peak, and compete every 3 months like it used to but that doesn’t mean you can’t still compete on the big stage. Pick the shows that get you to the highest level you’re capable of and be strategic in those selections. Choosing to go all-in on a contest full of events that are not your jam has a high probability of you not getting that bid to a higher level show. This forces you to do another show shortly after, just to get that bid, which only beats you down further throughout the year and leaves less time to prepare for the big dance. Invest your money where it counts when it comes to show selection. 

Lastly, learn to be ok with these changes. You still get to do this thing you love, just how you go about it looks a little different… and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Heck, you may find other areas of your life improve as a result of how differently you are approaching your body and training. The difference between managing yourself as a masters athlete and continuing to train like you’re 23, is like the difference between lasting 12 rounds with Father Time and walking away from the game fulfilled, OR getting knocked out in the 9th and always looking back wishing you had done things differently.

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.

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.

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.