Quiet Please

September 30, 2012

Another lengthy time since my last post and so another post begins with an apology. Between writing for Breaking Muscle three times per week, a couple of print mags in Australia, normal work and then training for an Ironman the days just seem to slip by. That’s only going to get worse as tomorrow begins my actual run in plan to the Ironman in March 2013.

Along the way I’m discovering so many things so quickly I find it amusing. Amusing because I see and hear many “coaches” espousing “facts” about training they have no knowledge about. One of the many good reasons to hire a trainer is they’re simply experienced than you. Even if you began lifting weights the same time they did they’re still more experienced than you. Obviously you’d have the same amount of personal lifting experience but they have a little secret up their sleeve. They have clients to learn from. Every single client I train is like another training session for me in terms of how much I understand about a specific exercise or method of training. So over a year, if I train even as few as ten hours per week of clients by the end of the year I will have an extra five hundred hours of knowledge than you do about training. In terms of specific exercises let’s just say that we both average twenty-five reps on a specific exercise per session (doing something like 5 x 5). In a given week we’ll hit seventy-five reps if we’re training three times per week. But I’ve got ten clients doing those seventy-five reps so I’m seeing seven hundred and fifty reps each week. That’s 37,500 reps more than you I’m learning from this year alone. Now imagine I’ve done that for ten years…

The education as a trainer comes in the immersion. In watching the reps. In seeing what happens both during, and more importantly after. Because it doesn’t matter what you lifted today if the result was that the next time you came into the gym you were weaker or you played worse. Only the result of training matters. So the time spent doing it yourself and in watching others do it magnifies your knowledge and allows you to make better guesses at what should happen when you tell a client to do something.

And this is where the lies come in. You meet a trainer, a “coach”, who tells you that they can help make you better at a given sport if you follow their program. Well, maybe, but in a lot of cases they have no actual evidence that their ideas will work. It’s like taking marriage advice from an unmarried councilor or financial advice from a guy living out of his car. Somehow though, in the world of fitness and personal training, you will see overweight coaches giving out fat loss and diet advice or even selling programs on it. And this flows through the entire field of performance training – speed training, jump training…the list is nearly endless and nearly always perpetrated by someone who has limited experience with the subject matter but just wants to make a quick buck.

Another big problem, given most trainers don’t stick at it for more than a few years, is that many simply have nearly zero actual experience. While limited in experience what they seem to have is a great grasp of slick SEO skills and an ability to drive traffic to their blog and website. I’m reminded of comments I’ve heard in the hospitality field with the influx of reality shows like Masterchef. All these people are flooding to kitchens for work thinking they’re about to be the next Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey and then are shocked to find that cooking is long, brutal hours with little financial reward. With shows like The Biggest Loser and easy access to YouTube as well as the lies told by the training education companies about making six figure incomes as a trainer there are plenty entering the field with stars in their eyes. In the fitness industry it’s all about blogging and social media to draw attention to yourself and make a name. I guess I’m showing my age when I wish that people would just shut the hell up and do their jobs. Frankly I couldn’t care less what a nearly brand new trainer thinks about getting ripped without cardio. Nor do I want to see video from someone who just went to a kettlebell course on the weekend posting videos all over YouTube displaying the correct way to do a technique. Go spend a few years practicing. Get your 37,500 reps of watching in and I’ll bet you’ll be ashamed of those videos you posted of yourself the weekend after your HKC or RKC.

When you combine these two – the lies and the lack of experience you end up with what I think of as the biggest issue in training. Namely, people who just don’t know when to shut the hell up. The nature of sport, from a trainer’s perspective, is often frustrating. It’s great to get an athlete who performs at a certain level and after months of work with you suddenly performs at a higher level. The only issue with that is that if the athlete has made the concerted effort to address their strength and conditioning they are probably highly motivated and also giving extra attention to their sport skills training. So how can you claim credit for a victory when their fight skills will have improved too? There are very few sports that you will see a direct correlation between how an athlete performs and their performance in the weight room. Obviously lifting sports, and I understand from conversations with others to an extent the throwing events in field athletics too, but beyond those you won’t find a sport where the performance of the sport isn’t the over riding factor of success.

I honestly can’t think of a single time I competed in a martial arts competition against someone who was stronger and fitter than I was. Yet I’ve been beaten up and down the mat more times than I can remember. The reason is because my opponents all had more skill than I did. Fighting sports in particular have a very shady link with performance training – factors such as confidence, being intimidated by the opponent, a bad call by the judge – can all play deciding factors in a fight. It doesn’t matter how much you deadlift.

Which gets me to where I am now. I haven’t even started training in earnest for my Ironman yet and I already can’t count the number of times someone has told me to deadlift, to get my deadlift bigger because that will help me run faster. Now, I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure I could deadlift the entire Kenyan Olympic marathon team yet be outrun by them in the first kilometre. While my deadlift isn’t massive by any stretch (about 150% of body weight at the moment I would estimate) I will bet any amount that compared to any elite Ironman competitor I have them all by at least 30kg. But I can’t keep up with any of these people because my skill at the sport (in this case aerobic strength) isn’t as good as theirs. Yet still these same people persist – “don’t forget to lift heavy”, they say all the while displaying a complete misunderstanding of the most basic premise of sports performance training. It’s the skill at the sport that matters. And while they’re on their couches seeing if they can somehow manage to out snatch a doughnut I am out swimming, riding and running about twenty hours per week. Over the last year I’ve racked up nearly a thousand hours of those skills according to my training journals compared to their zero in those three disciplines.

The funny thing about training, even with all the great resources that are available these days, is that the “no pain, no gain” mentality still exists. If one set is good then two is better. Four must be even better. This is another area of confusion from many of these armchair “coaches”. They see an endurance athlete, one with near zero strength background and do some strength work. The result is obvious, isn’t it? If you take someone who has no strength training background and just give them a little then they’ll improve. But, at the point where the strength sessions start to impact on their endurance sessions, either for time because of the need for more frequent strength training sessions or in terms of recovery because of the heavier weights being lifted as the athlete gains strength you will see sports performance drop. In classical sports science literature the magic 2x body weight squat and deadlift is often cited as a good goal as after this point specialist training is required to see further gains in strength which will have a negative impact on sports training (from a recovery and frequency perspective). But what sports does that work for? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in any kind of running race, beyond 200m, who you could apply that to. There’s no squat rack at the finish line, just a clock that records who was fastest. So running fast is the key to success for running fast.

One of the things I’ve always pushed myself to do is to be uncomfortable. I didn’t necessarily do some of the things that I’ve done because I was overjoyed at the thought of it. Training for a marathon is not and has never been my idea of a good time. And I’m pretty sure running a marathon after riding 180km is also not going to be much fun. But I’m out there learning. If all I learn from this experiment is that endurance athletes have no need at all for a big deadlift then I’m already one gem of wisdom ahead of all the fools who think it is. Staying in our comfort zone doesn’t push us as people and it certainly doesn’t expand our horizons much as professional trainers. The saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” applies here. That’s great if you have your little niche interest, your special thing that fulfills you on a visceral level. But do your clients have the same attachment to that one thing? Along with their need to be known and have a big following trainers these days are keen to be niche oriented. That’s all well and good and it makes business sense, but when your niche revolves around a tool – like kettlebells or TRX, for example, – what happens when you find someone who just doesn’t like that tool? All of a sudden you’re out of a job.

The funny thing about being a strength guy is that there are many tools available – kettlebells, TRX, body weight, barbells, dumbbells, odd objects. Just as there are many ways to train endurance – swim, ride, run, row, circuits, pack walk. If you’re only experienced with one, at some point you need to make yourself uncomfortable and go learn some things. If the only race you’ve ever been in is to the front of a buffet line then perhaps you should try entering a fun run. Trust me, it’ll be good for you in more ways than one (you can thank me when you can see your ties for the first time in a decade or live past fifty instead of having a heart attack). Until then please just be quiet because all you do when you offer advice about as subject you clearly have no experience in is just embarrass yourself. Likewise if you’re new to the game, stop telling us all how clever you are because you ripped off someone else’s work. You may impress your clients but everyone else just sees you as a thief. Instead of spending time developing your brand and your blog try just getting good at your job and paying attention to your clients.


Reality versus Research

August 17, 2012

One of the things I most love about research is that it is passionless. If it’s correctly done the result isn’t something that is skewed in any way by commercial interests.

So when a piece of research comes out that talks about the effects of conducting both strength and endurance training at once I’m all ears. For years the fitness and performance industry has relied on hucksterism and clever ad copy to fool people into thinking that it’s one or the other, black or white, yin or yang. I will be the first to admit I am not a person who operates well in the grey area of life and am very much a black or white person. However, one of the tenets of the RKC system, one if it’s core values is the hardstyle principle of the duality of training. Of tension and relaxation. Of flexibility and strength. If we can have these notions contained as opposites then how come no one has been looking at strength and endurance? And that’s really where my current training has gone – seek out the truths about what I think of as ultrafitness. What are the possibilities when it comes to strength endurance? There are plenty of great examples of strength, sadly many of them look like a quick walk around the block would do them in and that doesn’t seem like it’s a great definition of health to me. Because underlying all of this is my goal to spend this second half of my life healthy as well as fit.

This piece here is a good read on the summary of findings from some new research as well as this piece here. The second piece provides some deeper summary and there’s some things I find very interesting.

“Power is most susceptible to decrements than strength or hypertrophy. Power athletes should therefore, be the most conservative with cardio / endurance training.”

This is written backwards for endurance people. What it says is that strength and muscle size don’t seem to detrain much during endurance training but power does. So your endurance athlete is going to have better success by filling in the gap, so to speak, and performing power exercises than they will by performing strength exercises. Looking at the nature of running for example – a squat won’t help you run but some bounding or jumping will. Looking at the training of even elite level endurance athletes you will see a variety of low level plyometric/ power based activities in there such as jumping, bounding, medicine ball throws and the like.

In my own training I’ve been finding that the kettlebell clean and jerk is my best friend when it comes to my training. There’s something about the move that I feel helps my body stay loose and supple versus the rigid performance of a lift like the deadlift or a press. This suppleness is needed, I feel, to help stave off injury while running. I think of running as a series of rebounds one after another. The goal is to lose no energy from one bound to the next, perpetually just reversing the force caused by each step. The better your body can act like a spring the easier that will be. To an extent I want my body to be a stiff spring so it efficiently does this, however, too stiff and I become like a piece of wood unable to reverse force. There’s that black and white hardstyle thing again – both stiff and supple at the same time.

This next bit I found very interesting –

Running produced greater decrements in BOTH hypertrophy and strength than cycling, when done concurrently with resistance training. This may be due to greater skeletal muscle damage caused by the high eccentric component of running. For example, distance running has been found to produce large increases in muscle damage whereas ultradistance cycling did not.

This has been my experience completely. I had some issues with running for about two months and was just swimming and riding. The moment I started reintroducing running my lifts started to struggle a bit. In my jerks I seemed to lose my leg drive overnight. Where my squat had been approaching 100kg (nothing spectacular but please keep in mind that I was told about eighteen months ago I’d never be able to squat again so a 125% body weight squat makes me pretty happy) I’ve had to drop it back to body weight on the bar. This drop of about 20kg from my squat doesn’t seem to affect anything. My legs are just too tired to be able to cope with it. When I dropped my squat neither my riding nor running were affected. It may have even made my running better as my legs were less fatigued. However, other than my jerks and pressing this doesn’t affect any other lifts.

One of the things that really gets me is that many big names in strength coaching all seem to be scared of any kind of aerobic work stating that it will make you weak, cause you to suffer from muscle atrophy or otherwise turn you into “an eleven year old stamp collector”. While this excerpt above indicates that you will likely lose some mass from lots of running, you could either run shorter distances or ride as that doesn’t seem to affect muscle wastage.

Let’s just review a few things about the aerobic system. For starters it’s the main operating system for your whole body. You spend a vast majority of your day having to work aerobically so you better hope it works well. The muscles of your cardiovascular system can only work aerobically, further highlighting how important it is to have this system in good working order (unless you don’t like the idea of a set of heart and lungs that work well). Post exercise, whether it be in between sets or post workout, it is the aerobic system that is in charge of promoting recovery. Pavel even has an entire training concept called Fast and Loose from it. More recently some clever guys in Western Australia did some research showing that easy aerobic work between sets improved recovery thereby aiding maintenance of power production throughout a workout.

So knowing all this – the faster recovery, the obvious health benefits and that according to the new research that done right it won’t interfere with strength training – why is it still cool to hate cardio?

The simple fact about modern life is this – we are all couch potatoes. Even most trainers don’t get an opportunity to train more than an hour most days. I hope your maths is good enough to figure that means that they are only active for, at most, 1/24th of their life. How can such a seemingly physical job be so low on activity level? And if that’s what they do, these bastions of fitness and health, then how much are their clients realistically going to do? In these days of quickie thirty minute PT sessions (what’s that, a warm up and one working set?) how many people are honestly getting more than an hour and a half of activity a week? Let’s wind the clock back a little and see that the car has only been around for just over a century. Man has been around for a few hundred thousand years in his current shape and this new piece of evolution – the return to an immobile amoeba – is brand new. When I started venturing down this path of move more and doing some cardio I realized that man has become a square peg in a round hole. We’re designed to be aerobic. We’re designed not to eat food requiring processing, and by this I include breads and juices. So instead we come up with ideas like carbs are evil, or fruit has too much sugar because we move so little we can’t handle the amount of potential energy stored in these foods. We need to return to moving more, not less and the fitness industry isn’t helping. Call me old fashioned but I don’t think you can call yourself in shape if you would struggle to run around the block without falling into a wheezing heap.

The short term over reaction that I first heard Ian King speak of in relation to stability training has also reared it’s ugly head in regard to this backlash against the jogging craze of the 70s and 80s. Now we’re almost saying it’s ok to be out of shape and strong, just don’t be one of those crazy jogging nuts. I’ll admit that I’m not keen on the skeletal appearance of elite endurance racers. That isn’t my idea of fit and healthy. But I believe it is possible to be both. Guys like David Goggins exist – strong and fit – and they serve to remind us that this combination of both strength and endurance work is possible and it isn’t detrimental. For my part, I haven’t really noticed a huge drop in my strength beyond what I’ve mentioned. There’s a fair chance that due to the volume of swimming I’m doing that my shoulders are simply too fatigued to go any heavier, in the same way that running is fatiguing my legs. I’m not particularly strong, not by RKC standards or even seasoned lifter standards. My strength has been stagnant for years and maybe the addition of aerobic training won’t hurt it at all simply because my level of strength is so heavily ingrained in me now that my body always just believes that certain lifts are within me. Likewise I have plenty of people I’ve met who could just about walk a three hour marathon because their fitness is so high from years and years of hard training. Like how a kid who was once a championship level swimmer can always swim faster than you even after years out of the pool – they just have that inherent latent ability. I’m pretty sure it’s possible they could add strength to that ability and easily maintain most, if not all, of their endurance capability by slowly adding strength over time.

Don’t believe the hype – running won’t kill you. It may decrease power output in the short term (no studies available on what happens long term if runners stick to power based training) but it won’t affect strength or muscle mas too much (the latter being mostly a function of diet and adequate fueling I believe). Don’t forget that we were not designed to sit. We are the most powerful aerobic creature on the planet and trying to go against our make up isn’t going to serve you well ultimately. Add some endurance work, follow the guidelines of the Venuto article and see what happens. i think you’ll be surprised at how positive it is and I’ll bet your waistline will thank you for it too!

Training for Easy Endurance

June 3, 2012

It seems like forever since I had the spare time to write a blog post about everything. It’s been about ten weeks now and so much is going on it’s hard to find the time.

The first thing I will say, is for my training updates you should check out my page at Breaking Muscle. My training log is a weekly event there and covers my biggest issues for the week. Breaking Muscle is also the source for all of my latest and greatest thoughts on kettlebell training such as this article on the swing, or this one on RKC training. So if you check here and nothing seems to be happening please head there because there’s three updates a week from me on there.

I spoke before about training for endurance and how to accumulate that training so that you wound up with considerable fitness. That post is here. Some things that I need to amend have already made themselves evident –

Training for strength with an “easy strength/ 40 day plan” is a bad idea. The short version is it’s too often and tightens the body up too much for the important training. In particular it makes running VERY difficult.

A better option is three days per week, like most athletes train. I can even see a time when this should be cut down to two sessions and then finally removed completely in the final few weeks to allow as much recovery as possible.

Anyone who says that long course athletes should be doing heavy barbell work knows nothing about endurance training. For starters, “heavy” is relative. If I trained “heavy” in the squat for me right now I wouldn’t be able to run or ride effectively for at least two days after. This muscle fatigue would likely also impact my swimming too believe it or not. I plan on squatting, but never going above 100kg. That’s 125% of body weight for me, and will provide me more than enough strength for everything I will need. At the same time it won’t break me down, won’t make my back sore or tight and won’t necessitate too much recovery.

To save the shoulders as much as possible never use a straight bar for any pressing. To many, this will be strength training heresy but it makes good sense. A fixed bar doesn’t leave you much wiggle room to fit your body under the bar. Your posture is going to be a bit off from hours spent riding or swimming and your shoulders fatigued and possibly even verging on impingement if you swim a lot. So what you need is a way to get weight overhead that gives you room to fit that lift to your body, not the other way around. And this is where kettlebells and dumbbells fit in.

Some lifts should also be gotten rid of – back squat because your shoulders will probably not like it; the pistol because your body is likely spending enough time hunched over from riding and performing a lift with load that mimics that is actually going to add to your potential troubles, not make them better. There’s a few more but those two are the biggest issues.

The biggest things you need to spend your time on are – stretching, sub maximal plyometrics and recovery. Seriously. If you plan to be able to train the hours you need to chew up miles at high speed then you better have those three nailed down.

The actual endurance training is such a big topic it needs a dedicated post (at least) on its own. So let’s save that for another time, but for now, if mile munching is your goal, start thinking about weeding out lifts that aren’t in line with those goals. At the finish line no one cares about your deadlift.

Go Outside and Play

March 20, 2012

Maybe I’m showing my age, but I remember a time when kids didn’t play indoors. Ever. Unless it was absolutely pouring outside. Read the rest of this entry »

Because it’s there

February 28, 2012

What is it that has driven man out of the swamp, down from the trees and to the top of the food chain? To push the boundaries, discover new continents, travel into outer space and test the limits of our own bodies?

Mallory famously replied to the question about why he was climbing Everest with, “Because it’s there”. And I would bet that if you asked top athletes why they had spent their entire lives in the quest for a faster time, a longer throw or a bigger lift that they wouldn’t really have an answer for you as to why they do it. They just want to see what they can do. Read the rest of this entry »

Make use of pain

February 22, 2012

Humans are an odd lot. There’s no denying it.Without wanting to get all touchy feely and start deeply analyzing the human mind (and also because I am not a therapist, nor do I play one on TV) it should be pretty obvious that as a species we really only have two driving forces in our lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Fear, loathing and saddle pain.

February 9, 2012

Have you ever done something that was so bad the thought of doing it again made you fear it? Read the rest of this entry »

It’s all Easy

January 24, 2012

Right now there’s a small revolution going on. It’s being played out in small gyms, PT studios and garages. You may not even know it exists. For years the fitness industry has tried to force people into little boxes and onto machines that are so expensive that only large gyms can afford them. You do know you’ll never be able to run and get fit without a special $20,000 treadmill, right?

Wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

What the Pros Do

January 9, 2012

Recently I ran across this article here. While it may make many pause for thought, I’m not bringing it to your attention so you are worried about your mortality. Rather I’m wishing to point out that how doctors choose to be treated is vastly different to how their patients get treated. Funnily enough, that’s how it is in the fitness industry too. Read the rest of this entry »

Easy Endurance

December 21, 2011

If you’re a fan of kettlebell training then you know all about the new book out by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline titled Easy Strength. The title may be a bit of a misnomer – it’s not suggesting that gaining in the gym is easy in anyway, more that the path that you should travel to get there is actually a lot less steep than you think. Read the rest of this entry »