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.

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.

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.

Lift Rx ‘Circus Dumbell’ Ebook

This Lift Rx Ebook is the second in a series of manuscripts that aim to improve the performance of each athlete’s lift through a comprehensive step-by-step guide to teaching the lift from start to finish, identifying common movement faults, spot and cue corrections for these common faults, and some exercise selections to fix improper movement patterns or muscle imbalances.Lifting a circus dumbell

Although this Ebook is geared toward the amateur athletes in the sport of
strongman, the information in it is valuable to anyone who wants to incorporate the circus dumbell into their training regimen.

Download Ebook here

Programming Economy

February 10th 2017

Programming Economy is a concept that every strength athlete, regardless of their sport, should utilize. Essentially it’s the transfer of your training to your sport. How much carry over you are getting from the work you’re doing in the gym to your game day performance. I’m not going into sport specific exercises here, I am merely breaking down a set of definitions and how they’re generally applied over a training period so you can use them in your own programming. These concepts, when applied correctly and sequentially, will ensure the best version of yourself possible shows up on game day to dominate the competition.

Let’s start with a couple of definitions to standardize our understanding of this concept of programming economy. The experts in the field of exercise science (must smarter minds than mine) have different names and explanations for each definition listed, but I prefer Dr. Bondarchuk’s descriptions. I think they’re more in depth and easier to understand, so I’ve used his definitions to base my descriptions.

  1. General Preparatory Exercises (GPE): Exercises geared toward the all-around development of the athlete1,2. These exercises will increase the general level of work ability and coordination1. They also can serve as a form of restoration/recovery1.
  • Fancy name, nice definition, now what does it mean? The idea of GPE is to have you do activities or exercises that have no direct relationship to your sport. An example would be a competitive powerlifter going for a light jog or playing a few pickup games of basketball.
  1. Specialized Preparatory Exercises (SPE): These general exercises do not repeat the competitive actions as a whole or in their separate parts1,2. They use similar muscle groups as the sporting actions while serving to increase the sports results that the competitive movements depend.
  • Sounds even fancier, so what does this entail? The idea here is to perform exercises that use the same muscle groups as those applied in sport but used in a different way. An example of this would be a powerlifter performing sled drags.The powerlifter will never horizontally pull a load in competition, but they will perform flexion and extension of the hips, knees, and ankles in the sled drag as they would in a squat.
  1. Specialized Exercises (SE): These have a direct correlation to the sporting event1,2. They must replicate some aspect of the competitive event either via biomechanical structure, energy source, or range of motion that strength or sport is displayed1,2.
  • This is where things start to get a little easier to understand. Essentially these mimic the movements of the sport actions performed but with a different stimulus. An example of this would be a strongman competitor performing sumo deadlifts, or a powerlifter performing cambered bar squats. For the Strongman example, they will never do a sumo deadlift in competition, but that biomechanical position of hands inside the legs and picking up something off the ground is something they do for countless other competition events that they will perform (atlas stones, husafell stone pick up, ect…). The powerlifter will never perform a squat with a cambered bar in competition but the stimulus of a different load distribution by the cambered bar in their squatting action helps make them stronger at squats.
  1. Specialized Developmental Exercises (SDE): These exercises repeat the competitive event in their separate parts1,2. These exercises should more or less recreate all the elements of the competitive activity which make it possible to improve or develop the same or other physical abilitites1,2.
  • As these definitions get more specific, they get easier to understand. Essentially here you are performing the competitive lifts, or motions, in parts and in ways, that strengthen the lift itself as well as other aspects of different lifts. A good example of this would be a powerlifter performing a paused box squat. They are repeating their competitive event in separate parts with the pause in the hole helping to teach the body to generate enough force out of the hole without the help of a stretch reflex. This also helps translate to the starting strength of a deadlift, which is an improvement of another physical ability.
  1. Sports Form Exercises (SFE): This is the easiest and most self-explanatory. This is the sporting event or movement performed at a competition standard1,2.
  • This would be the equivalent of a geared powerlifter performing one of their 3 main lifts in full gear, completing the movements to the standard they are judged on the platform at competition.

In the end you want to know, how do you use all of this information and hitch it to the concept of training economy? The following periodized template puts these concepts into action and is geared toward the novice and intermediate strength athlete. Why not advanced athletes? Something tells me they already have this stuff figured out so I’m not going to waste my blog space on them. There will be 3 phases in which these concepts are applied. In each phase SFE will be performed first, followed by SDE, SE, SPE, and then GPE. The first phase we’ll label the preparatory phase and it will last roughly 20% of your contest prep time. Your gym time in this phase will consist of 40% GPE and SPE, 35% of SE and SDE, with the last 25% made up of SFE’s. This phase serves to prep you (go figure) for the work to come.

perpatory-phase-chart-1

As you get closer to your event you will transition to the second phase, which we’ll label the phase of acquisition. This is where we build the bulk of the strength that we wish to express when we compete. This phase should last roughly 65% of your contest prep time. It consists of 20% GPE and SPE, 50% of SE and SDE, with the last 30% made up of SFE’s.

phaseofacquisition2

As you round the final turn toward your competition you’ll transition to the final phase we’ll label the phase of expression. This is the final phase where you’ll express the strength you’ve developed through the previous two phases. This phase of expression should last 15% of your contest prep time and contain a peaking cycle going into competition. This phase will consist of 10%GPE and SPE, 25% SE and SDE, and the last 40% made up of SFE’s. A lot of strength coaches have a lot of different ways of creating this final phase going into a competition. I personally fall in line with the Louis Simmons philosophy of not completely abandoning the exercises that made you strong in the first place (ie SE and SDE) while you prepare to peak3. Peaking for a competition itself is a topic for another time. Here I just wanted to give you everything you needed up to that point since that’s where most people’s confusion lies.

phaseofexpression2

Still a little confused? This picture graph below helps illustrate these concepts together. The added transition phases are just the beginning periods of each main phase where the distribution of exercises changes over a short period of time.

programmingpic3

I hope this information, albeit a little dull and dense, serves you as a good starting point on the path of increasing your training economy. Maybe you already knew these things and applied them but were unsure what they were all called. On the other hand, maybe you had no idea and have discovered you were wasting a lot of your gym time on exercises that didn’t pay the highest return on investment to your sporting performance. Either way, these concepts when applied correctly and sequentially, will ensure the best version of yourself possible shows up on game day to dominate the competition.

References:

  1. Bondarchuk A.P. Transfer of Training in Sports: Volume II. Michigan: Ultimate Athlete Concepts; 2010.
  2. Verkhoshansky Y. Siff M. Supertraining: Sixth Edition- Expanded Version. Michigan: Ultimate Athlete Concepts; 2009.
  3. Simmons L. The Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Action Printing; 2007.

1 Cold Morning at Westside Barbell

January 7th 2017

Let me start this by saying, I did not… did not ‘train’ at Westside. Louie Simmons and the crew there were gracious enough with their time to allow a lowly independent strength coach come train for one cold January morning session. I cannot thank them enough for the opportunity and knowledge freely given to me. These athletes and coaches are the best in the country and I wanted to know how they got that way. So what did I take away from my 1 cold morning at Westside Barbell?

It all starts with how hard these athletes train. They don’t sit around and BS between sets or complain about their family or financial problems, they lift weights. From start to finish there is no fluff. I’m no stranger to hard work but these guys (and girls) pushed my physical limits from my first working set to my last. With this type of intensity I can see how Westside Barbell has produced so many great strength athletes over the years.

These athletes were not only the hardest working crew I’ve ever seen, but they were also the most encouraging. There was no shortage of cues or encouragement mid lift to make me feel like part of the group. People I had just met were shouting my name encouraging me every set. This showed me that even in an individual performing sport like Powerlifting, this crew was a team and in the heat of battle (training) together. Now I have to point out that this reflection is only of the crew I trained with which consisted of lightweight men and women. The super heavyweights, or behemoths as I call them (in a friendly way), trained together on the other side of the gym. They seemed nice but I was afraid one of them would eat me as an intra-workout snack (they were big enough to do it) if I interrupted their training.

The coaches focused on the details, the right ones. Any coach can point out the most minute and insignificant flaw or calculate every exact weight with exact percentages of accommodating resistance for each lifter. These coaches focused on quality of movement. We were having a dynamic lower body session and instead of running calculations for each lifter, the coaches looked to see if the bar speed matched the outlines of the Westside dynamic method and adjusted for each lifter on the fly. They didn’t slow down the training session changing out bands or finger clicking the calculator on their phones. They let the athlete’s movement dictate the weight, not the other way around. These are the types of details that matter and have relevance in performance.

The accessory work was just as hard as the working sets of the main lift. After doing 125 reverse hypers with weights ranging from 50-270lbs, I was asked how close I was to being finished. I told the coach I didn’t know I just filed in and started doing sets of 10-15. She asked me if I had failed yet. I told her no, which was the wrong answer. I was then instructed to perform 5 sets to failure… after 125 reps. I blacked out somewhere after the first set and went on autopilot. When I came to I was gasping for air and waddling around like a penguin. We went on to train quality reps of banded cambered bar squat good mornings and finished with some Pitshark deadlift lockout holds. Every set just as intense as the last until I was told we were done. The overall idea being that accessory work makes you stronger at the main lift. So they attacked these with the same intensity as they did for their main lifts.

Overall the 4 hour drive in the middle of a snowstorm was well worth the price of admission. My one cold morning at Westside was a good reminder to keep training intensity high, keep the cues and encouragement abundant, focus on the right details, and push the limits with accessory lifts. The rest will take care of itself. I can’t thank Louie Simmons and the crew at Westside enough for the training opportunity and hope to one day be able to return the favor.