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Systems Vs. Goals

We live in a complex world. Our perceptions of the world differ from actual reality. There is so much information that our brains use filters to help decipher the overload of information, leading us to have a very incomplete picture of the world. There is so much we don’t know, leaving us to be very bad at prediction. Given this foundation, this sets us up to not be very good goal accomplishers. There is just too much uncertainty. You are better off setting up systems for yourself to succeed. Rather than having a goal of losing 5lbs/month for the next three months try just getting your gym clothes on each day. Some days you might go to the gym and workout and other days you just might not. Either way, you aren’t a failure because you aren’t in the goal setting business. We know that our brains have limited supplies of willpower. If you muster up all of your willpower just to go to the gym and train for an hour when you would rather just sit at home after a long day of work, you will have no willpower left to use on other things. Over time this is a losing strategy. Systems are great because it is a reflection of your daily habits and actions. If done right, it shouldn't take any willpower. Everybody’s system will be very different. You want to find one that works for you. One that brings you energy and helps you succeed. Any morning I am not at the gym early, I make a cup of coffee and read first thing. This doesn’t take me any energy to do. I love coffee and I love a great book. After I am done with this I actually feel like I have more energy to do the things that I wouldn’t originally want to do. Like write this blog. Goals are a specific event at a specific point in time. Due to the uncertainty and complexity of the world you are likely to fail. No matter your intentions or no matter how much work you put in. You are better off setting up a system that you enjoy, that brings you energy, and helps luck and success find you. If you are still adamant about setting goals. Set a goal, but set up a system that will lead you to the general vicinity of your original goal.

What is Injury Prevention Really About?

It appears to me that intensity is the biggest predictor of injury. Intensity relative to the structures being imposed. Driving 5mph into a wall isn’t dangerous and isn’t likely to lead to injury. Driving 50mph into a wall is a different story. A defensive back falling on your knee might not cause too much damage, but an offensive lineman getting thrown into your knee is also a different story. Deadlifting 100lbs if your max is 500 ins’t going to challenge your tissues too much, but if you keep trying to max out over 500lbs, again, this is a different story, which is why during training we manipulate intensities and volumes to not impose too much of the same stress to the system at once. Intensity will not always lead to injury. But, the more you ramp up intensity, the demand on your system goes up, and the probability for injury is just simply higher. I hate the injury prevention talk, because in a world full of randomness it’s hard to prevent anything. But, if looking at injuries through this framework, it seems to me that the best way to “prevent” injury is to create tissues, or more so, a system that is more resilient or robust. I think there are many ways to create this resilience and robustness, and with this framework in mind it becomes easier to pick the tools at your disposal to drive the adaptations you want.

Putting the Right Eggs in the Right Baskets

I’m sure most of us have heard the expression, “you only have so many eggs to put in so many baskets.” This is simply a statement about priorities and energy expenditure. You only have so much energy you can put into so many things each day. What do you want to be really good at? Where do you want to find success? Whatever your answers to these questions are, that is where you should put most of your energy and focus. In the modern age with access to so much, I see way to often people wanting to put a few eggs in many different baskets. If your only goal is to experience a lot of different things and you don’t really care how good you get at each thing, then this isn’t a problematic strategy. However, if you want to be a really successful at Olympic lifting, Powerlifting, Crossfit, Bodybuilding, or Jiu-Jitsu, it’s probably not best to do all of those things. It can be very enticing when training starts to become mundane and boring to want to switch to something that offers a bit more novelty. Again, this isn’t a huge problem if you aren’t trying to get onto the National stage in a specific sport, but it is 100% a losing strategy if your goal is to compete with the best. This idea also has implications in the general fitness setting as well. If you haven’t trained in a long time, if you haven’t been creating healthy habits around food, if your sleep is awful, and your lifestyle is overall sedentary, it is probably best to spend most of your energy on the move that’s going to conquer the most chess pieces. Starting the keto diet, training 4x/week, meal prepping, eliminating all processed foods, and starting a supplement regime is probably a losing strategy. What is the one thing you can do that will provide the biggest results? After that is accomplished, focus on something else you can start. One quality about the greats is that they all have a relentlessly narrow focus. They put all of their eggs in one basket. You get to choose where you place your eggs. There isn’t a right answer, but just know the consequences of placing too many eggs in too many baskets.

The Most Important Skill for a Young Coach

I don’t typically like writing blogs with the headline, “MOST IMPORTANT…,” but I feel like this one is justified. If there was only one skill you could develop as an up and coming coach, I firmly believe it is what I am going to talk about here today. We are in the process of working with a few interns here at Lift Lab, which is why I think this topic is such a good one to write about right now. In my college experience I learned a lot about the science of exercise. Not much else. I remember taking a one credit hour weight training course and every single class the instructor would show us a new exercise and that was about it. At the end of the semester we had to put another student from another class through a workout. I was so lost. It was like trying to guess the amount of M&M’s filled to the top of a very large jar. Shortly after I started an internship and had to actually coach people. I was awful. It seemed like the most daunting task ever to actually talk to someone in a training environment. All I felt like I was doing was just telling people what exercise to do with a few corrections here and there. You could’ve programmed a robot to do my job at the time. I probably knew a lot about the X’s and O’s of training and a good deal of the science but was TERRIBLE at building any sort of relationship with a client. I wasn’t one of those hardcore, mean, militaristic style coaches by any means, but there just wasn’t any sort of oomph, for lack of a better word, in any of the training sessions I coached. Over the years, I have gotten better. Extremely better in my opinion. And, I think that’s what most coaches go through. I think you have to be pretty bad at one point to truly grow. Learning from my experience, I feel like I have to do my due diligence and inform young coaches as to what is most important when coaching. Brett Bartholomew calls this the “art” of coaching or “conscious coaching,” in which he wrote a really good book on the topic, but I am not sure if there is even a word that describes what it is I am talking about. I have used words like “empathy” in the past to describe it, but I don’t feel like that does it justice. So, I am just going to describe it in many words and let you take away whatever it is you want to take away. As a coach, you can know all there is about training. You can write the best programs, know all the science, talk about biology and physiology until your eyes bleed, but guess what….PEOPLE DON’T CARE. There might be 1% of the people you train that might actually find all of that fascinating, but for the most part, people just want you to help them reach their goals. And part of that is them liking you and wanting to train with you. As humans, we are all wired the same, but no two people have the same experience. Our perceptions of the environment will always be different. Two people can experience the same situation and come away with very different information about the situation. As a coach, you have to truly understand this and PRACTICE this. Everything I am about to say takes practice to get better at. You won’t read this and all of the sudden be a better coach. Practice it. It is easy for us as coaches to think all of our clients and athletes should understand the information we give them in the same way as we do. This is not the case. People learn differently. I always like to say that no two people have the same genes, childhood, hormones or the same state of the brain at any given time, therefore, how two people filter information is going to be different. We have to respect that as coaches and get better at communicating the information we want to get across. This not only applies to coaching and cueing exercises, but to also being a decent human being. Everyone’s personality is going to be different. The same type of energy you bring to one client may have to be a bit different for someone else. You may be able to express jokes a bit more freely to one client but someone else may be a bit more sensitive. Your job is to relate to them and serve them. If you can’t acknowledge their experience and relate to that in some way, you may not have them for a client for that much longer. Or, each experience with that client becomes burdensome on both parties. Your main job as a coach is to create an environment where people feel comfortable and can work hard. That is really it. When people are able to feel comfortable and feel like they have a coach that understands them, or is at least going to try, they are probably going to want to put forth more effort in their training session as well. If you coach for quite a while you may come across clients that just bother you more than others. They may just have very different personalities than you and don’t represent the personalities of most of the people you are inclined to hang out with on your free time. I really think this is a result of your own ego. It’s hard to put our lens of the world down and try to experience it through a different lens. Dropping your own ego can be hard and takes practice, but it is required to be a great coach. I have found in the past that the clients you might initially have a harder time working with end up becoming a great experience if you can drop your own self-image. I feel like I should acknowledge a small disclaimer. There will be people that are just not going to be worth working with. This might take shape in some indirect way, them trying to move you out of alignment with your values and integrity. This should never happen, because you still have to stay true to yourself. You should always think “win-win.” A win for you is being able to do the job you love within your set of values, and a win for the client is them getting one step closer to their goals while enjoying the process. As coaches, we are only human. We are going to screw up and we are going to say the wrong thing. That’s a part of life. It is a continuous process at becoming the best person and coach you can be. This requires failure. But, how you learn and how you grow from those failures ultimately decides the coach you become. I feel like this blog really should be a never ending one. But, if I could some it up very shorty for all you young coaches out there…Just don’t be a dick.

The Second New Year's Resolutions

Do you remember the start of 2020? Yeah, that was already 6 months ago. We are already at the middle point of the year. This is normally a good time to evaluate and reassess your goals you made at the beginning of the year. However, since everyone has just spent the last two months locked down at home, this circumstance is a little bit novel. Therefore, your progress might not be as linear. The Universe dropped a big steak in the ground of your progress. It is likely that many people fell off with their training and nutrition the last few months with the huge added outside stressor that is the pandemic. As gyms are starting to reopen and you get ready to get back to your normally scheduled training, I think it would be a good idea if you set some time aside to think deeply about your goals for the rest of the year. It is likely that your training load has decreased during quarantine which means your overall fitness levels have probably dropped as well. This means that you and your coach are going to have to create a new plan based around your current fitness level and NEW goals. Your new goals might not have actually changed from the ones you made at the beginning of the year, but now is a great time to reevaluate and potentially make a new game plan since we just had a once in a lifetime (hopefully) pandemic take part the last few months. It is important to understand this has had an impact on all of us. There is no denying the stress. This is why now is a good time to almost imagine a fresh start. Try to remove the past and focus on the future. The next six months of this year are what is most important now. Reassess, make a game plan and start moving forward. The last thing I will leave you with is when you focus on goals it is equally, if not more important to focus on the systems you put in place to accomplish those goals. What habits do you want to start creating now to get you to where you want to be at in the future? Most of the time it is best to start small. Small wins over time. Success is all about the compound interest of your daily habits. "People overestimate what can be done in one year and underestimate what can be done in ten." Email me: if you would like to set up a FREE consultation and assessment to get you on track to crush your goals for the rest of the year.

Feeling Like Shit During the Pandemic

This one is going to be a bit different from most posts on this site. There will be no conceptual training talk. This is just about being a human as we go through this shitty time. And I think we have to acknowledge it is just that. Disclaimer: I am by no means a psychologist or pretend to play one on the internet. My background is purely physiology based, but I thought I would just offer my thoughts as a fellow human. From a gym perspective we just found out that our opening date was pushed back yet again, and now we don't even have a scheduled date anymore. This was really hard for me, as part of what was getting me through what I thought was the end was knowing I would be able to go back to the gym in a short amount of time. But, that is no longer the case and I am not going to lie, this made me feel pretty terrible. I was in a very much depressive mood. I say this because I know there are many other people out there feeling the same way. Being locked down inside your house is simply not good for humans. We are social animals. But, this rarely gets talked about on social media. We often see things that only tell us to stay positive. To find the silver lining in all of this. To look for the opportunities. Find a way to be productive. Etc, etc. While these thing can definitely be true, however, in a time like this when we are in a circumstance most of us have never experienced before, this attitude can be hard to call online. I also don't think most humans now a days do a great job at actually acknowledging their feelings. We are told to just feel better or to not talk about them at all. Feelings, whether positive or negative are important. Your physiology is telling you something and we have to acknowledge that as opposed to shoving it to the side. The entire point of me writing this today is to only tell you that is okay to feel like shit. I know I have finally reached the last bit of my patience. I feel like I've been keeping the good fight for most of this quarantine, but after hearing the gym opening was pushed back yet again, it was very hard. I feel better now, but I fully recognize that this time is terrible and I wish it would just go away. Most of our negative thoughts and feelings tend to linger around because we don't know how to experience them. We try to act like they aren't there or we just continue to think about the things that are causing us to feel crappy. We should learn how to just feel crappy. I feel crappy right now. I know a lot of other people are too. I hope you can take something away from this and know it is okay to feel crappy. Go feel crappy today folks.

Muscle Building Made Simple

I am a huge fan of simplifying concepts down into much simpler and smaller components. I find that many things are over complicated these days. The truth is, if you really understand something you should be able to simplify it as much as possible. This is what I wish to do here with the topic of building muscle mass. I want to start with a huge disclaimer that your potential to build muscle mass will be largely affected by your genetics. I simply won’t be able to build as much muscle mass as Arnold. Even if I took all the steroids him and the other yoked monsters used during his day, it wouldn’t happen. Many of us can work as hard as possible and still not see absurd muscle gains as some of our muscle-bound idols. On the plus side, however, is that most of us don’t ever come close to seeing the peak of our muscle mass potential. I think we lack the understanding of the best route to get there and increasing a lot of muscle mass can require a lot more effort than most people think. With the increase in popularity of various new training methods across the years I think we’ve lost the way as to the simplest route to increase muscle mass. Should we not use machines? Are barbells best? Unilateral training vs. bilateral training? Do I need to back squat? What are the best rep ranges? Due to our current circumstance of quarantine most of us have had to change our normal training regimen, and I think this situation has brought more shining light on gaining muscle mass. I think a lot of people might be starting to realize their body weight hypertrophy program isn’t yielding much hypertrophy and some may even be compromising hypertrophy. The simple truth is that increasing muscle mass is all about promoting fatigue in the muscle. If you don’t fatigue the muscle enough, you will not see the hypertrophy gains you want. I think the bigger problem people face isn’t what rep ranges and exercises to choose, but that they actually don’t know how to induce fatigue. People may think they are fatiguing their muscle because they probably actually feel like they are working hard but aren’t truly reaching a fatigued state. A study in 2017 showed that when people were asked to perform a max reps set on bench press with a weight they thought they could max for ten reps, they ended up performing far more than ten reps. The obvious result: people aren’t actually going to fatigue. On the practical side, what exercise you choose can be somewhat important. It should be quite obvious that a bench press is going to induce more fatigue than push-ups. This is where using a barbell, dumbbells, and machines (OMG he said machines!), can be the best use of your time. This equipment is going to allow you to increase the load on movements and therefore drive more fatigue and more hypertrophic gains. The sets and reps you use don’t matter quite as much as if you actually get to a truly fatigued state on your sets. An easy guideline is to perform 3-5 working sets while working to a point of 3 reps left in the tank on each set and using the last set to get within the point of only 1-2 reps left in the tank. If you can truly work to the point of only 3 reps left in the tank this is enough to drive the proper amount of fatigue, but also not killing you so you can consistently train throughout the week. Best to stick with weight that keeps you anywhere within 6-20 reps on each set. If you can pick 3-4 exercises each training session with this guideline in mind you will be well on your way to gain city. As for the nutrition component to fuel increase in muscle mass, that is for another article, but as most people know, protein is going to be your go-to. If you don’t know where to start, start by trying to eat your bodyweight in grams of protein each day. You will probably find this hard, but it will keep you eating the macronutrient that matters the most and will most likely keep you eating healthy foods in the process, because quality foods are going to yield the largest amounts of protein. Think all of your basic meats. It is my hope that this is the simplest format you have seen regarding building muscle while also being super informative. I hope this keeps you distracted from a lot of the misinformation out there and realize you probably had most of the answers all along. Most things aren’t as complicated as they seem. If you find yourself confused amongst the complexity, ask yourself if the situation can be made simpler and start asking questions to lead you in that direction. This can be said of any topic. Works Cited APA Barbosa-Netto, Sebastião; d'Acelino-e-Porto, Obanshe S.; Almeida, Marcos B. Self-Selected Resistance Exercise Load, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: November 01, 2017 - Volume Publish Ahead of Print - Issue - doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002287

Skin In the Game

We live in the information age. We have access to absurd amounts of information with just a few clicks. With this we have acquired the attitude that everything should be free. We have lost the inherent value that we should have some skin in the game. What I mean by this is we tend to not value things that we don’t put ourselves in some inherent risk. We don’t tend to complete free training programs to the same degree of accountability or effort as if we paid for them. We are less likely to listen to that album all the way through if we didn’t pay for it. This goes further than just monetary items. If we really want to accomplish our goals, we need to create a structure or a system where we have some skin in the game. This may be a bit uncomfortable, but it won’t be as uncomfortable as not achieving your goals. This is why some people say if you really want to achieve your goals post about it on social media or tell a bunch of your friends. You are much more likely to be accountable to your friends than yourself. This is because you have some skin in the game. From a training perspective there are many other ways to put some skin in the game. Don’t shy away from that higher membership fee. Likely, there is more value in that membership than the one that is $20/month and I guarantee you are much less likely to miss a training session if you just paid a substantial amount of money. Sign-up for a year contract so you make it harder on yourself to cancel and have to commit to your goals long-term. Hire a coach so you are accountable to someone else other than yourself. We all know that we take more care of things that we spend a lot of money on. The more we invest in something the more we value it. What if we started to invest in ourselves the same way? What if we weren’t as afraid of the risks we took and looked at it more as an incentive to put in the effort, do the work, and make the progress. When you have something to lose you will do everything you can not to lose it. There is a reason you have to invest money in the stock market to see financial returns. Nothing is free. We are always investing something. Let’s start doing the same from a training perspective.

Fitness, Health and Stress. What Are We Really After?

For the time I have spent in the fitness and strength and conditioning industry I have really struggled to define fitness. Everyone sort of has an intuitive sense of what it is, but I think that all of the definitions so far have been very abstract and don’t really dial it down to anything concrete and specific. Crossfit defines fitness as “work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” I respect this definition, but I surely have no idea what it means. I am not even sure what work capacity means anymore because your work capacity is going to be very different depending on the context of the work. I recently watched a video of some guy in the middle of nowhere who builds an underground pool with nothing but a stick. I thought to myself, “this is the fittest guy on Earth.” But, he would for sure not win the Crossfit games. So, how can we come up with a definition of fitness or health that can actually be measured and/or applied across a broad range of environments? I’m not sure if it is actually possible. Context will always matter, and humans adapt very specifically according to their environment. This is why I want to talk more about stress and one’s ability to cope as being a better representation of health and/or fitness. Your body doesn’t necessarily know what specific stressors are. It just responds to stress with the stress response, which is just a sympathetic response from your nervous system. I think this is crucial because it applies across all environments. Running from a tiger centuries ago is physiologically identical to lifting a barbell over your head when it comes to stress. This is why I think stress gives us a good representation to work with. We use exercise and create healthy habits to make ourselves more resilient to stress and help manage stress. Exercise is a way to create a stress response but more importantly come down from that stress response to a more parasympathetic state (rest and digest). People who are chronically stressed and experience the negative symptoms associated with that don’t know how to turn off their stress response. Going into the physiology of stress would take way too long and there’s people way smarter than me that do that. One of the all-time greatest books on stress is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. Basically, if you don’t know how to turn off the stress response you are going to experience an increased likelihood of many physiological and psychological consequences long-term. Elevated heart rate and blood pressure, weakened immune system, likelihood of being overweight, depression, diabetes, just to name a few. Stress negatively contributes to pretty much any disease you wish not to have. Exercise and fitness are ways we artificially create environments that help us manage stress. Stress isn’t the bad part, it’s the lack of ability to create the stress response and turn it back off. Bringing in some predictability in the context of exercise and the gym is a way we can work on managing stress. Meditation, having good friends and family are additional ways to help us better deal with stress. Using this representation for health and fitness can give us a broader framework to work with. With this representation we can see how people that we might typically think of as being very healthy might not quite be so. I remember reading way back about gardening and farming being the healthiest occupations. This is low stress and pretty easy to recover from. Reaching to the far edges of performance probably isn’t the healthiest path long-term. Same with idea of taking steroids and putting on insane amounts of muscle mass. We all know small dogs live longer. Humans are no different. If we can create better habits that help us manage stress, we are likely to become healthier. Meaning, we can decrease the likelihood of being diagnosed with various diseases and negative physiological and psychological disorders later on. This representation doesn’t include how sexy your muscles look (though, if that’s your goal, I’m with you!), but it takes into the account the things that really matter. This representation is comprehensive, which is why I think it works. If there is a better definition or representation out there, I am all ears.

Training Less For More GAINS?!

I was reading a section out of Tim Ferris' book "Tribe of Mentors" this morning, which a guy described how he started training fewer times a week and saw more of a benefit to it. This is something I often think about because your health is a result of a lot more than just your training program. Health is about many variables and choices. What is your sleep like? How is your nutrition? Do you try to spend time outside? Do you go for walks? How do you cope with stress? What is your social life and relationships like? All of these variables and the choices you make surrounding them matter a lot more than whether you train or not. Often times going to the gym and training feels like the most important variable we should take control over. All of the fit and healthy people you see crush it in the gym so so should you. However, what you see on the surface level isn't always the best predictor of health. Excessive training can start to mask some of these other variables. You could not sleep well, you could be super stressed from work, your diet can start to slip, but hey, you made it to the gym four times this week! This is when I believe training can start to actually become a detriment. Your adding more stress to all the stress that you haven't been able to manage, and your body starts to adapt accordingly. Meaning, less gains. What would it look like if you dropped your training down a session or two a week? Could this help you focus more on your sleep and nutrition? Could this allow you more time to go be social with some friends you haven't gotten the opportunity to hang out with in a long time? Could you actually be more adept to managing major stressors in your life? Your body has a hard time differentiating stressors. Some times we need to find ways to manage our stress than to just continue to add more when we don't realize we're adding more. That's what training more just for the sake of training more can do. Maybe you don't need to train less, maybe you do. The only person that can truly answer that is you. Just understand all of the variables associated with health and that your training can actually effect all of the other variables that can be equally as important. No one cares if you train five days a week but don't see results because you get two hours of sleep a night.

The Smart Way to Get Back to Training After Quarantine

First off, I would have to say that I am pretty happy to be making a post about what to do when the quarantine ends as compared to a month ago when I was writing about what to do during quarantine. This means that we are almost out of the gate in getting back to a seemingly normal. Most people have probably dropped off when it comes to their training compared to when the quarantine started. If you are a strength athlete you might not have had access to a barbell for over a month, if you are just training for general fitness the only thing you may be doing now is going for walks, and some may have dropped off completely. These things aren’t all that bad. It’s probably good for a strength athlete to work on developing and tuning in other qualities once in a while, walks pose an insane benefit to overall health, and shit, some people probably could use some time off. The key aspect to focus on here is that there is probably some sort of detraining going on. Performance in relation to specific outcomes will tend to drop off as soon as your overall training volume starts to drop. And that’s what we’re seeing right now. Covid-19, for most people has caused overall training volume to drop. When quarantine is over, and everyone can go back to the gym I am willing to assume most people are going to want to go in guns blazing because they haven’t had the same enthusiasm and access to equipment the last month or so. Now, I respect this mindset and understand where it’s coming from, but it will be very important to your overall success to be a bit more cautious. Performance and training volume are two variables that show positive correlation for the most part. When training volume increases so does performance, up to a point. And, vice versa. So, if overall training volume has been significantly dropped over the last month, the next not best thing to do would be to spike it way back up. To make a long story short, your body is just not going to know how to handle it because it’s been getting used to this lower or nonexistent amount of training volume. The best approach when gyms open back up is to gradually increase training volume from your NEW baseline level, and NOT where your baseline was before quarantine. If this is your approach, your body should respond quite well to this gradual increase in dosage of training volume and you should get back to your previous baseline fairly quick. It is important to remember that we’ve only been under quarantine for a hair over a month, which is really not that long in the grand scheme of things. There is no need to be on a mission to make up all the gains you missed during quarantine, because in all reality it wasn’t that much time for you to get THAT detrained. With smart training you can get back to where you were in no time and you will look back a year from now and forget this all even happened.

Not Doing Just As Good As Doing

When working hard towards our goals we are always seeking things that we can be doing or things that we can be adding to our lifestyle that will help us achieve these goals. When do we ever ask ourselves to drop things? Or, stop doing things? Likely, dropping the negative components of our lives will just as much lead to positive outcomes as adding positive components into our lives. Most of the times we might find it easier to STOP doing something than to add another complex task into our already complex and chaotic lives. Stop eating sugar. Stop hanging out with negative people. Stop watching T.V. Stop drinking. Remove the distractions. Remove the easy to fail aspects of your life. I understand all of the things in which you should drop out of your life can be equally challenging as adding a positive behavior. However, the more you can start to look at eliminating things rather than always trying to add something that may cancel something else out, the more straightforward the path to success will appear. The path to your goals isn't necessarily paved by adding new behaviors or learning new information, but by dropping the negative out of your life. Likely, we already know the negative things that are getting in the way. We might not know the best workout routine or the next best diet, but we have a strong intuitive sense of what NOT to do. Start not doing rather than just doing. Still struggling on finding the negative aspects to be eliminated? Email me, and I can help you find the right path forward.

How Much Do Sets and Reps Matter?

Before I knew a lick about strength and conditioning, I thought sets, reps, and the specific exercise I was doing was the magic concoction to the “gain train.” I would go into the rec center at Ball State and if I didn’t feel like I was performing the perfect set and rep scheme I would feel like I completely wasted my time. I would go back and forth in my head about what was best and would look up programs on to find the magic program. I think the unnecessary stress I put myself through debating which set and rep schemes were the best, probably had a more detrimental impact on my progress than if I were to just go into the gym and work really hard at something random. Anyways, I am here now and think I know quite a bit more about training than I did in those days. In fact, I cringe when I think about my thought process back then. Let’s look at what sets, and reps really are. Sets and reps are just a measure of your training volume. It is a measure of the stress that you intentionally give your body in the form of training to elicit certain adaptations. The sets and reps aren’t the important part. The important part is the stress or training load that you are implying. Sets and reps are important because it is such an easy way to measure and continue to measure your training volume. It has been so useful that we’ve been using set and rep schemes for decades and still use them now. The real variable that matters is stress. We actively seek to apply more stress so that our clients can adapt and start to make progress in the direction they want to go. Sets and reps are just a way to measure that. At the end of the day, it isn’t sets and reps that matter so much as it is the training stress that we are applying. We have to make sure we are applying the appropriate amounts at the right time and that we are progressively increasing the dose. You can have 3 sets of 10 on something for 4 weeks straight, but if you aren’t increasing the weight you are using, then you are a lot less likely to make gainZ with a capital “Z.” For most of the people that we train this is the key factor to remember. Gradual and progressively applied stress over time. For strength athletes or individuals that are super well trained (people that are more resilient to stress), you can probably get away with applying stress in a more abrupt way. Make sure that you are using sets and reps in the appropriate way. The scheme doesn’t matter as much as if you know your training load is gradually progressing. The principle of progressive overload has been used forever because we know that it works. Just make sure you are actually measuring it.

What Is the Goal of Movement?

Movement is behavior. Behaviors occur for many reasons but they all serve to produce a specific outcome. Some worthwhile, some not so much. So, movement occurs to achieve a specific outcome. What that outcome is is determined by the individual client. The path to get there is determined by the coach. We use movement as a path to reach that destination. We have to strategies to move: compression and expansion. Compressive strategies are really good at moving a lot of weight and moving at high velocities. Compressive strategies are also really good at limiting motion. Which is also why they help us run fast and squat a lot of weight. The last thing you want to do squatting 500lbs is to start to turn. Expansion strategies are not so good at helping us move a lot of weight, but are really good at allowing motion to occur. Learn to expand the back side of your rib cage in between your shoulder blades and boom you've just increased non compensatory motion at the shoulder and neck. What does all this mean? It means you pick your two strategies based on the outcome you want. Training a Powerlifter or Olympic lifter? You want compressive strategies all day. Training someone that just wants to get lean and live a healthier life? Compressive strategies sometimes but much more expansion-based strategies so they can move well and feel good. There is a continuum. Push compressive strategies too much and you might end up with some joints that don't feel very good. In that instance, expansion strategies you must. Push expansion-based strategies too much and you might not be driving enough adaptation to produce specific results you want. What do you want? What does your client want? There is always a give and take. You simply can't be the strongest individual and move really well.

Why There is No Such Thing as BAD Movement

The new wave in the fitness industry the last 5-10 years has been over movement. The old school thought was just pick heavy shit up with a barbell and you’ll be fine. Then, someone came along and said, “you’re going to hurt your back!” Now, enter the new wave of fitness professionals that are making the all mighty buck by telling someone they are moving “wrong,” and that they have the “correct” way to move. Boom, all your problems solved, right? Ha, no. I would like to ask any professional who says there is an inherently wrong way to move to explain to me why. I mean, really explain to me why a certain movement is bad. My guess is that they will tell me it’s because someone is going to get hurt if they move a certain way. This is an understandable answer, but I don’t think the way in which someone moves determines injury as much as other things do. Let me offer some context. First, there is no good and bad in regard to movement. There is just movement. Movement is just a representation of the human system. The human system is expressing movement in the most energy efficient manner in respect to a certain outcome or goal. A desired way to move is going to be different for each individual. Bottom line, the human system doesn’t make mistakes. It operates off of prior knowledge and energy conservation. It is expressing movement in a certain way for a reason. To say a certain representation of movement is bad or wrong doesn’t respect the complexity and efficiency of the human system. To say movement is bad or wrong in regard to a specific outcome, that is a different story we can talk about. But you can’t just say certain movements are bad just because they are. This requires a much bigger discussion. So, let’s talk about movement in the context of outcomes. I think the biggest thing that people need to understand or get some clarity around is what do you actually want the outcome to be? Achieving certain outcomes requires intention. Why are you having them do THAT specific exercise? Why do you want them to perform it THAT way? How I would have a Powerlifter squat is very different compared to how I would have a postnatal woman squat. I’m sure you’ve seen someone squat for the first time and thought to yourself “what in the world was that?” Because it just looked like something that doesn’t resemble most of the squats you’ve seen in your life. So, this is an obvious case of someone performing a squat in a “bad” way, right? I know I am being picky about terminology, but it is for a reason. The example of that terrible looking squat is because it is the only way that person really knows how to squat. It is the most energy efficient way that person can squat given prior knowledge and experience. So, I wouldn’t say it is a “bad” squat just because. I don’t think that person would be able to squat that way for very long before getting hurt or before muscles that don’t typically work efficient in a squat give out. In this context, given the outcome wanting to be achieved (more work output), I would say it isn’t the best way to squat. Let’s quickly talk about movement and injury. Moving a certain way is one way someone can get hurt or injured. BUT (and this is a big hairy “but”), is it actually the movement that is causing the injury or something else? I would argue until the cows come home that it isn’t the movement but the load. Imagine deadlifting with the roundest back you possibly could. Do that with 10lbs on each side of the bar. Fine, right? Now do it with 400lbs. Yes, the round back deadlift with 400lbs is much more concern for injury than the 65lbs deadlift. Now, also imagine 10lbs of pressure being placed on the outside of your knee. Now, imagine a 380lbs offensive tackle falling on the outside of your knee. Get the point, right? Now, you might be thinking that I am just picking an easy argument, but this has some real-world practicality. It goes back to how I said I would have a Powerlifter squat in a much different way than a postnatal woman. Typically, the movement required to lift heavy loads steals motion and expressing movement in a certain way with lower loads can increase motion. Again, outcomes matter. Do I want to steal someone’s motion to put 100lbs on their bench press or do I want them to increase motion because they can’t sleep at night due to neck pain probably because they can’t turn it to the right? Neither is better than the other. It comes down to the outcome you want to achieve. The information in this article could’ve been more related to getting serious about what your outcomes are rather than saying movement isn’t bad, but that was intentional. I was motivated to right this article because I see far too often how many people criticize certain movement or categorize them as “bad,” without any context or even mentioning context. As with most things being looked at through a critical lens, context matters. Why shove the knees out on a squat? Why arch the back? Why perform band pull-a-parts? Why “turn” the lats on? Why squeeze the glutes? Why press the ribs down? Why exhale here and not there? Why get “tight?” If you can’t answer the why in regard to the outcome you want to achieve and how performing a movement in that way is going to achieve that outcome, you might want to reassess your purpose as a coach. That may seem harsh, but these are people we are dealing with. Words matter, and the field has no time to be moved backwards because people want to make an extra buck by fearing people into thinking their movement is bad.

Thinking Differently About Solutions

If you are reading this you probably have some form of fitness, health, strength or athletic performance goals. Most of the times our solutions to meet these goals are constrained by our current models of how the world is, how it works, and our place in it. This is influenced by our neurobiology, hormones, environment and genes at any given moment. Behavior is complex. Throw those things into a blender and wha-la! Out comes a behavior. Now, that isn’t necessarily what this article is about. That’s way past my pay grade and expertise. I just wanted to create a background of information. Basically, we are limited by our biology and environment. We are only going to search for solutions to our goals within those confines. Thinking differently is hard and our brains want to reject any sort of information that doesn’t conform to our current biases. If we are big into the foundational strength movements, we are unlikely to be persuaded by any sort of new information brought to our attention as to how there might be better ways to train your fitness and weight loss clients. I want to state right now by saying that we don’t have the right answers. We are just offering up what we think the best answers to solutions are based on our past experience. We can’t fully perceive reality and we work with mental models that are useful, but not always accurate. What I am challenging you to do with this article is to think differently about solutions and offer yourself up to having your mind changed. I don’t think you have to abandon your current model but let some information that you otherwise would blow off as “stupid” inside that little mind of yours. Be open to trying different interventions. You might be surprised as to what works that you originally didn’t think would. Let me offer up something that I recently changed my mind on. I recently told someone that I don’t think sprinting is a good training protocol for anyone other than an athlete that needs to sprint in their sport. However, because we are currently in quarantine and our constraints with our clients have changed, we have to look for some other solutions. I had a client reach out and ask if he could have some sprinting stuff on his program. This is someone I would normally never program sprints for. I said yes and tailored a sprint and running workout best for his current level of physical fitness. Turns out he is really enjoying it and is more consistent with this running program than he was coming into the gym before the quarantine. This is something that surprised me. If we don’t open ourselves up to other possibilities, we are only hurting our own chances to succeed as along with the clients we train. Likely, there is a solution out there that we just have to search and work a little harder for. Don’t be set on having ONE way to do all things. The Universe is complex, and humans are complex. There are many ways to achieve one goal. Be open to possibilities.

Managing Expectations During Quarantine

We find ourselves in a difficult predicament. I wrote a few weeks ago about how we should be a little extra grateful for the barbell as we find ourselves having to complete at-home body weight workouts realizing they just aren’t the same. Today, I wanted to quickly discuss how we should tailor our expectations and our goals during this period. Most of us find ourselves without access to gyms and to the equipment we most often used to get super-duper strong. We also don’t have the same direct access to coaches and our typical routine that helped us stay accountable. You might find yourself severely lacking motivation and accountability as you navigate these strange times. Knowing all of this, I think we should all tailor our expectations and our goals. If you have access to the same amount of equipment you may be able to continue on as usual. Most people don’t have that access. Right now, times are super stressful, and our typical routines have been thrown into oblivion. It is my belief that because this very unusual situation was thrust upon us and most of us are finding ourselves operating in a completely different structure, we find it hard to continue to do the things that were so easy for us previously. This is why we should change our goals and expectations. Trying to keep up with where we were before is unrealistic given the circumstances. Keeping the same goals may seem very daunting as you ask yourself, “why can’t I just keep doing what I was before?” It’s because it’s a completely different environment and stimulus and is too much for your brain to handle. So, what do you do? You sit on the couch because that’s easy for you brain to manage. So, if we can set our expectations and goals a little bit lower, we can free up some cognitive energy to get up off the couch and start doing a little training. This training could be as simple as a 20-minute walk or a 30-minute body weight workout. The key is to get up and do SOMETHING. Anything. If we can change our expectations to match our circumstance it can be much easier for our actions to match those expectations. You simply aren’t going to be able to maintain the strength you had with the barbell if you don’t have access to a bar. Fortunately, you will be able to make that strength up when you get back to the bar. This should be no problem. Now can be a time to work on some things that you didn’t take the time to work on before. Work on some conditioning, get creative with training, work on plyometrics, or use this time to focus on a new skill entirely. You don’t HAVE to train like you were before. You might be surprised as to how fresh you feel physically and mentally when you get back. Being able to adapt to circumstance is a characteristic we need to achieve our goals in the short term and the long term. Being that type of person will set us up for long-term success. That means being able to tailor our expectations in this crazy moment we are in. No matter what you do, DO something. Stay on the path and stay moving forward. Don’t let this be a setback. Let this be a steppingstone to further success when the world gets seemingly back to normal.

3 Reasons for the Trap Bar

Way back we discussed the utility of the trap bar and how you can use it to your advantage in Weightlifting. I want to take that a step further and discuss a few reasons as to why it is a good tool for pretty much any person to use. 1.) Weight Distribution The trap bar is a great tool to use in the deadlift because it centers the weight in the middle of your center of mass and not in the front like a normal bar would. This can be beneficial because it can take some stress off the lower back that newer athletes may feel, and allows them to use (and feel) their legs a bit more in the deadlift. Some people can’t deadlift all of the time because of the stress it places on the lower back. The trap bar can be a great substitute to keep someone deadlifting without causing unnecessary damage. 2.) Technique Branching off from the last one, the weight displacement of the trap bar also allows an athlete or client to learn the technique of the deadlift, and a more athletic position in general. Most people can struggle with the deadlift right away because the bar is in front of them and they can’t get their shins forward enough to feel a “right” position. This typically results in someone bending through their back to get down to the bar. Because the trap bar allows an athlete to center themselves inside the bar, they can get their shins forward more, their back flat and their legs involved in the lift. If someone’s deadlift technique isn’t up to your standard have them try a trap bar first. 3.) Increased Total Load/Volume Because the trap bar distributes the weight in the middle of your center of mass, and therefore doesn’t put as much load on the lower back, many people can get a lot more training out of it. This takes place in the form of intensity (more weight on the bar), and volume (total load moved in multiple training sessions). The traditional lifts like the back squat and straight bar deadlift can tend to beat athletes up and therefore they can’t do them as frequent. The trap bar can be a great tool to keep the intensity and volume of training high without beating an athlete down. In training and more specifically strength sports there is this common notion that we have to stick to the traditional lifts with the barbell. I think this knowledge is a bit outdated and we can optimize our training a bit more by utilizing a few tools at our disposal. As discussed in this article, the trap bar is one of them. It is important to not get too attached to one training model that you can’t create the best possible outcomes for your clients. If you know the principles, as in this article how weight distribution can influence the biomechanics and stress demands on the deadlift, then you can have a better understanding of what tools can be useful to create the outcomes you want.

Training Levels of Weightlifting

I view training for Weightlifting a little bit like training for golf. It isn’t as much of a sport about brawn. People might disagree with me about this. And, possibly for good reason because there a lot of Weightlifters out there that are putting up huge numbers on the squat. However, in the early stages of training that isn’t going to be a big point of emphasis. When discussing Weightlifting, I think it is important to realize there are genetic freaks out there that would’ve been successful no matter what sport you threw them in to. It is important to not use these people as a point of reference. Most people you train will not be like that. In all reality, most people you train will not have received much from the genetic lottery when it comes to performance. This is all right, but it becomes a lot more important to know how to train these folks. I think it is important we separate Weightlifting athletes into three categories: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Beginner At Lift Lab, we work with a ton of beginner lifters. Some who have never even touched a barbell before or some that have never done a snatch or clean and jerk before. I think we have a very solid system in place to quickly develop these types of lifters. Beginner lifters in Weightlifting need the basics. And when I say the basics I mean overhead squatting, overhead pressing, snatch deadlifting, clean deadlifting, paused deadlifts in certain positions, snatch and clean pulling, pressing from the split jerk position, etc. Similar to a beginner Powerlifter, I don’t think a beginner in Weightlifting needs as much specificity of the competition lifts. Their lack of experience in the sport will significantly decrease the utility of the full competition lifts. They will be way better off at mastering the basics that I discussed above, so that when they start increasing the volume of the full lifts, they can get more out of them. Most of a beginner’s progress will be purely from technical gains and not strength gains. Intermediate I think the intermediate level will be where most people spend most of their career. I think there is very wide-ranging talent at the intermediate level. I would classify all lifters that qualify for an American Open Series event at the Senior level would be considered intermediate. If you’ve ever been to one of these events you probably have noticed there is a lot of discrepancy with talent. There is a world of difference between the A session lifters and the D session lifters. To build a picture of what I’m thinking, I would say most of the A session lifters at these events are still at the intermediate level. Now, let’s get to the point. Intermediate lifters will need more specificity of the competition lifts. Intermediate lifters might need a bit more strength training than beginners. An intermediate level lifter’s program will see less of the basics from the beginner and more full lifts. Most of the intermediate lifter’s gains will come over time from more practice with the lifts and some strength gains as well. An intermediate lifter might get to the point where their lack of strength is a limiting factor. (When they clean a few kilos less than their front squat). However, I still think those are unusual cases. Advanced Let me start this out with a little disappointment. To be an advanced lifter in the sport of Weightlifting you have to be born with some genetic advantages. If you’re 6’5” tall, I’m sorry, you’re just never going to be an advanced lifter. Some people’s physical structure and talents will favor them to be more advanced in the sport than the rest of the population. That’s just what the sport selects for. To me, an advanced lifter in the sport of Weightlifting is someone who is competing in international events. I would also say, if you are in the A session of Senior Nationals you probably qualify as an advanced lifter as well. As a disclaimer, I will say that I have not coached any advanced lifters through multiple, continuous training cycles. I have trained with advanced lifters and have been involved coaching some, but just slightly. So, feel free to completely not listen to what I have to say next. Advanced lifters in the sport of Weightlifting have, more than likely, put way more hours into the sport than your average individual. Following is some boring news….For an advanced lifter to continue to get better, they just need to continue to put in the hours of work. I think for an advanced lifter, because they have been in the sport for so long, might need a more “balanced” approach so they can stay healthy. Most people hate the word balance, and I do too, but you have to remember these folks have been in the sport for close to ten years. Some even more. That’s a huge demand physically and mentally. So, as a coach, I think it is important to know how to keep these individuals engaged physically and mentally, especially in the “off-season” with no competition in the near future. Time for the X’s and O’s, which everyone loves. For an advanced lifter, they probably need WAY more specificity than anyone else. The technical gains you are looking for in an advanced lifter are very small. They probably aren’t going to get anything from a 1/3 deadlift like a beginner would. Their technical gains will mostly come from gaining more repetition from the main lifts. I also think you can overload advanced lifters in certain lifts. Like a behind the neck jerk, and other various lifts from blocks where they might be a bit stronger. This way, it can lend to some strength gains on the main lifts. In conclusion, the goal for beginner and intermediate lifters is to make them better from a technical standpoint and a strength standpoint. For an advanced lifter, I think you just have to make sure you don’t screw them up. The beginner lifter will adapt to almost anything, and an advanced lifter already has the tools, you just have to keep them on the right track.

Coaching Speed Training

The best speed training is the training that doesn’t get overly coached. Speed is a very dynamic activity. As coaches, if we sit there trying to nit pic every detail the athlete is likely to miss the point, and suffers from paralysis by analysis. Often times things are happening so fast that we simply can’t understand all the details of the situation. The best speed training is one where the activities and the exercises themselves take care of the outcome you are trying to achieve. If an athlete lacks the ability to accelerate and get full separation, start them in a half kneeling position so they are forced to do this. Speed and skill development works by breaking a bigger more complex task down into smaller elements. These smaller elements allow an athlete to achieve a desired outcome you might not get with the bigger task. You then apply the work and the success from these smaller, less complex elements back into the big task itself to elicit the results you want. Think about the outcome you want from acceleration and skipping drills, and then apply those elements into a 60 yard dash. You simply can’t quite coach speed. Even if you could, the athlete would probably fail when introduced back into a more chaotic environment. Set the athlete up in an environment where the constraints allow for the outcome you wish to achieve. This is why play when athletes are young is the best type of speed training.

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