The PR Hangover

By Mark Clevenger
October 20th 2016

PR’s (personal records) are the reason most people train and compete. To do something you’ve never done before is one of the most exhilarating feelings we can experience. Unfortunately as we get older we learn that sometimes these PR’s come at a price. It’s like binge drinking. When you’re 21 you can go out drinking all night, get 4 hours sleep, get up and go about your business no problem. When you’re 31 it takes 2 full days to get rid of the hangover and you burn at least 1 PTO day trying to recoup. The gym PR’s are no different, their hangover can sometimes put you on the couch for the next two days.

Why is it that hitting a big PR takes so much out of us? Doing something you’ve never done before requires your body doing something it’s never physically done before. Our bodies are terribly inefficient at things it doesn’t know how to do, requiring our nervous system to work in hyper drive to accomplish the given task. Our nervous system is highly metabolic and is subject to fatigue like all other metabolically active tissues in our bodies.  This hangover (overly tired, insatiable hunger, total body soreness) is the physical display of neural fatigue.

When our nervous system attempts to activate muscles to complete a movement at a weight it’s never done before it doesn’t know how many times it needs to discharge a signal to the muscles involved, how frequent those signals should be, or the correct sequence of motor unit activation. This causes it to go into hyper drive and is the cause of neural fatigue. Once the nervous system figures out the recruitment patterns and how much activity it needs to achieve sufficient force for that particular movement at that particular weight, then that lift (and weight) starts to feel easier to accomplish. Your nervous system now knows it doesn’t need to throw the kitchen sink at the muscles to complete the lift.

So the next time you go on the weight room equivalent of binge drinking and do something crazy like set a 300# PR on a tire flip (cough, cough), you’ll understand why you feel like the walking dead the next day. At that point burn a PTO gym day, get some rest, eat some good food, and get ready to make a hero’s return to the gym because everyone was talking about your awesome lift while you were gone.

References:

  1. MacIntosh B.R. Gardiner P.F. McComas A.J. Skeletal Muscle: Form and Function. Second edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2005.

Building the perfect pressing platform: Part 2

By Mark Clevenger
July 26th 2016

In part 1 we covered everything from the feet to the shoulders. Here in part 2, we’ll discuss the shoulders themselves and how to position them with the arms for the press. We will look to marry the safest known biomechanical principles of the shoulder to optimal performance in order to create the safest and strongest pressing position possible. This will allow you to safely move big weights for many years to come.

Everything we do from now is in an effort to create a giant helipad that the barbell lands on, rests, and takes off from. Doing so requires several talking points that must be flushed out. We will need to discuss hand placement, bar placement, define and apply scaption, forearm angle, and upper back engagement. To start, the general rule of thumb for hand placement is somewhere between the tip of the shoulder and approximately 6 inches wider than the tip of the shoulder. Anything wider than that generally creates instability, which is no bueno. As far as traditional vs thumbless grip, it’s really a matter of preference. Yes, pressing overhead with a thumbless grip can be unsafe but so can leaving the toilet seat up in the middle of the night. Understand you can drop a barbell on your head, or get stuck in a toilet at 3am, both are risks that are up to the individual to take.

barplacementNow that we have a place for our hands on the bar, we need to have a place for the bar on our shoulders. As we rotate our elbows under the bar the torque created around our shoulder creates natural tension of the musculature. This tension usually creates a shelf with the shoulder muscles that the bar can rest on. Generally the best place on this shelf for the bar is as far back toward our neck as we can tolerate.

Scaption is defined as approximately the 30-450 angle of our upper arm from the frontal plane (see picture below for clarification)1. This position creates the least amount of mechanical stress in the shoulder joint and allows for the greatest amount of muscular engagement from the shoulders and upper back1. This muscular engagement with decreased joint stress creates stable shoulders to press with.

scaption

Forearm direction should be pointed in line with the theoretical point over our heads where the weight will end at the lockout of the press. This ensures a natural path during the press from its starting point to its lockout centered over our heads. Finding this position requires some shoulder mobility by demanding us to rotate our arms under and around the bar. If this position is difficult to find then the issue is one of shoulder flexibility and requires specific exercises to increase the range of motion of the shoulders.

forearmangle

The upper back is responsible for keeping the shoulder blades retracted and elevated. By keeping your upper back engaged you make the press easier by decreasing the distance traveled by the bar and by providing functional stability for the shoulders to operate through. Both of which are necessary for efficient and successful presses at higher relative loads.

Understand that in applying these concepts there will be variation from person to person at every position we’ve discussed because no two people are built exactly alike. Variation does not mean incorrect, it just means two peoples execution of the same concept do not look exactly alike. Remember, building this perfect platform for the press is a complex process that involves the entire body. Understanding how to achieve maximal pressing performance from the application of safe biomechanical principles is the key to your overhead pressing longevity. Now go forth, apply these concepts, and press the world regardless of your sport of choice. The skys the limit.

References:

  1. Neuman D. A. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System: Foundations for Rehabilitation Second Edition. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.

Building the perfect pressing platform: Part 1

By Mark Clevenger
July 8th 2016

Regardless if you’re a Crossfitter, Strongman, or Olympic lifter, the press is a cornerstone of your training. The concept itself is very simple, press the weight over your head. The proper execution of said concept is anything but easy. I want to take a look at the press from an osteokinematic, biomechanical, and maximal performance viewpoint, in an effort to marry the three into the safest and strongest pressing position possible. This first part will cover everything from your feet to your shoulders.

The stability of every platform starts with its base so that’s where we’ll begin. We want a base of support that is wide enough to offer sufficient stability while not being so wide that we lose the ability to generate maximum power from hips for any power variation of the press. A general rule of thumb is the wider your feet get past your hips, the greater the decrease in force production through the hips1. I have found the happy medium between base of support and power production for most people lies with the feet directly underneath their hips or just slightly wider than their hips.

We can’t sufficiently discuss the position of the feet without addressing the toe angle. This angle of the foot itself serves two main purposes: First, it positions the entire leg for maximum recruitment of the lateral rotators of the hip and the gluteus maximus. Recruitment of these muscles is important not just for producing force in the power variation of the press, but they also help stabilize the pelvis during these dynamic movements1. A stable pelvis during these power movements will decrease the risk of lumbopelvic injuries and increase force transmission from the legs and hips to the bar2.

The second main job of the toe angle, in conjunction with a wide enough base, is to allow the vertical dip and drive of the torso. This movement is a combination of lateral rotation of the thighs, abduction of the thighs, flexion and extension of the knees, and slight flexion and extension of the hips. All of these movements increase the overall amount of active musculature involved across the hip which produces a more stable pelvis and generates greater force production. Lateral rotation and abduction of the thighs are what create room for the pelvis to drop vertically. Without this, athletes will be inclined to hinge forward at the waist which will create horizontal displacement of the bar in the drive. This displacement creates an external moment that makes the execution more difficult than it has to be.

Gym Log Press

Moving up from the pelvis we get to the area that creates stability in both the thoracolumbar and pelvic regions, the ‘core’. Our posterior back muscles are actively engaged when we are vertical and under load by supporting our torso to keep it upright. The other anterolateral (AL) muscles of the core must also be braced to share the weight of the external applied load and to help stabilize the pelvis. These AL muscles have anterior, lateral, and posterior attachments to the pelvis, the ribcage, and around to the fascia of the lower back2. Without the active engagement of these muscles the pelvis is more susceptible to movement and because of the relationship the pelvis has with the lower back any movement here will create some sort of flexion or extension in the lumbar spine2. Any flexion/extension here under load is a can of injury soup with your face on the cover.

Hopefully you’ve found this information useful and applicable to your press.  Stay tuned for ‘Building the Perfect Pressing Platform: Part 2’ where you will learn how to position your hands and arms.

References:

  1. Neuman D. A. Kinesiology of the hip: A focus on muscular actions. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Therapy. 2010; 40(2): 82-94.
  2. Neuman D. A. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System: Foundations for Rehabilitation Second Edition. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.

Bringing Balance to your Force: An Argument for Focused Anterolateral Core Training in Strongman

by Mark Clevenger
July 6th 2016

A strongman has a strong back. This is the foundation that strongman programming is built upon. The muscles of the back help stabilize the axial skeleton (core) through which our appendicular system (limbs) work. It allows for the transmission of force from the ground to heavy things we move from one place to another. The problem with a lot of strongman programming is the lack of core work. The focus is only on the muscles of the back and ignores the anterolateral (AL) core musculature. These ignored muscles include the ‘traditional’ abdominals, both sets of oblique’s, and the transverse abdominis. These muscles are the Luke Skywalker of our core force, bringing balance to the axial system for the betterment of strongmen everywhere.

IMG_1147

Traditionally, most of our training volume is utilized for our main lifts. In these lifts the back bears the majority of the burden from the weight.  In addition to these main lifts we perform additional isolated accessory movements to further strengthen our backs.  Taking it even further, we perform more strongman specific movements, like carries and loads, which again are meant to strengthen our back.  Then we may do some planks or Russian twists for a couple of sets at the end of a workout and call it a day. In this scenario, the posterior core musculature is disproportionally strengthened when compared to the AL musculature.  Granted, these muscles are not able to move heavy weights like their posterior compadres, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

The greatest issue with such a muscle disproportion in the core is the increased risk of injury. There is no shortage of available data that support the idea that stability of the spinal column and static balance of the core is directly correlated to trunk flexor, extensor, and lateral endurance measures1,2. This proves there is a need for a strong relationship between both the large powerful posterior core muscles and the smaller weaker muscles of the AL core. Any large gap in strength and endurance between the posterior core musculature and the AL core musculature leads to instability of the spinal column and static balance of the core. This instability and loss of balance under large loads, like during deadlifts or keg carries, is a personal invitation from you to the injury monster for him to come to your training session and ruin your day.

Another advantage of increasing the amount of AL core work is the translation to our strongman event specific performance, like in our log presses and stone loads. Available data shows us that overall core strengthening leads to an increase in trunk strength and lower leg functional stability2,3,4. Obviously training the complete core strengthens the complete core and adds to stability of the spinal column, but the effect of increased lower limb functional stability can come as a surprise. Considering the fact that the core is a conduit of force transfer between our appendicular system and the ground, it is easy to see how a more stable transfer of force can create better positional stability for the limbs operating through it. Coincidently, this includes 100% of all strongman exercises.

If you’re a Sith lord on the dark side of AL core training and you’re thinking about joining light I’ve got a good place for you to start. For the sake of education let’s look at some of the components that warrant consideration when programming for your AL core .First, consider the 3 types of motion your AL core operates in: Anterior flexion, lateral flexion, and axial (torso) rotation. These 3 elements should be worked at least twice through each microcycle. Second, consider the type of contractions these muscles are capable of producing: Concentric (shortening), eccentric (lengthening under tension), and isometric (tension produced without movement). You should cycle though each of these contraction types with each of the above mentioned types of motion every other microcycle. Lastly, don’t think about training your AL core in terms of sets and reps. Instead, think about it in terms of time spent under tension (TUT). You should start by trying to accumulate at least 4 quality minutes of TUT that is dispersed among the types of motion and contraction types listed, with 8 minutes being the eventual goal to reach. I’ve included a 4 week mesocycle of AL core training exercises and progressions below.  The exercise section includes elaborated descriptions for clarity and do not always represent the traditional name for each. Exercise progressions should only be used when previous exercises, with prescribed quality TUT, have been achieved consistently. This mesocycle, in conjunction with the information listed, should help start you on your path to becoming an AL Jedi.

BeginALCoreTemp

We know how important a strong back is to strongman since these large muscles are at the center of almost everything we do and they rightfully deserve a lot of attention. The problem with posterior chain and core training arises when we neglect the AL core muscles in our programming and training. These muscles provide significant contributions to both injury prevention and exercise performance. We must not ignore these essential muscles and allow them to become disproportionately weaker than their posterior counterparts.  The next time you train and think there is no time for your AL core, that is Emperor Palpatine calling you to the dark side. Ignore his call by choosing the light and your strongman career will prosper.

References:

  1. Barati A. Safarcherati A. Aghayari A. Azizi F. Abbasi H. Evaluation of Relationship between Trunk Muscle Endurance and Static Balance in Male Students. Asian J Sports Med. 2013; 4(4): 289-294.
  2. Bliss L. Teeple P. Core Stability: The centerpiece of any Training Program. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2005; 4(3): 179-183.
  3. The Effect of Core Strengthening on Lower Leg Functional Stability in Football Players. R. M. Tarpy. California University of Pennsylvania. Master’s Thesis Proposal. libweb.calu.edu/thesis/umi-cop-1009.pdf. 2005. Accessed May 14, 2016 at 4:01pm.
  4. Sellentin R. Jones R. The Effect of Core and Lower Limb Exercises on Trunk Strength and Lower Limb Stability on Australian Soldiers. Journal of Military Veterans Health. 2012; 20(4): 21-35.

Why Strongman?

Imagine that you want to build your pyramid of fitness and at the top of this pyramid is a physical goal that you have set for yourself. Having that peak in place tells you where you want your fitness to go. With the end game in mind, now you have to take your first step towards it. How do you get there? No matter what goal you have set at the top of your pyramid the base is the same for all of them, strength. Raw strength is the trait every professional or recreational athlete possesses and displays in one capacity or another. Bodybuilders, football players, powerlifters, crossfitters, and even runners all possess either high values of absolute or relative strength.

Strongman is a sport that is built on the concept of displaying strength across multiple physical domains with various implements. Training for this is focused on feats of physical strength and mental toughness. Considering that the bottom tier of anyone’s fitness pyramid is built on the foundation of strength, it only makes sense that strongman training is the first step for everyone looking to improve their physical performance.  Resistance training for strongman is the start of your journey and will be key in turning you into the mentally tough and physically strong individual you’re striving to be.