Saturday, March 30, 2013

Rehab and Training Update

I'm on a hiatus with my professional rehab right now. My insurance only clears a person for 12 physical therapy sessions in a calendar year, and I've had 13. I need to call (hopefully today) and get my next dozen cleared like they said they would.

But really, my shoulder is feel better and better. Exponentially. Even the right one, which was so much worse off, seems to be making amends.

So far I've just stuck to fasted HIIT training, traditional 30 seconds to all out failure followed by 3 mins of easy going, on the watt bikes or airdyne bike. That I do on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.

I'm most consistent with squatting since it doesn't irritate my shoulders and cause me to back off. I'm moving up through a linear progression and this week was Monday with 5x5 back squat at 235 lb, Wednesday with 8x3 front squat at 195 lb, and Friday with 8x3 back squat at 245 lb. Next Monday I try 5x5 back squat at 245 lb.

On hiatus from insurance, but I keep doing my own stuff, I's, T's, and Y's, with 2.5 and 5 lb plates. Shoulder pressing 25 lb dumbbells for sets of 10, bottoms-up kettle bell presses at 8 kg for sets of 5. Thursday I did sets of 3 presses, 3 push presses, and 3 push jerks, (nine moves in one set) and got up to a whopping 62.5 lb without feeling any pain.

Olympic lifting:
I've limited my cleans to demo weights, about 95 lbs and less, since last week front squatting still annoyed by shoulders. Since this week was pain free, I'll start adding them in again. I muscle and power snatched a 15 lb bar on Friday, and not only did it not hurt, I was able to pull through the scarecrow position, something I've never been able to do. That left me with more hopefulness than I can describe for when I finally do start training.

Greasing up my pull-ups again. I have rings set up at home, and every time I pass them I have to do at lease one pull up, which can accumulate to 10-15 pull ups in a day. After a few days, I'll make myself do at least 2 each time. Still not comfortable doing push ups, I should add in more DB benching to strengthen that direction.

Shoulders still get sore, inflamed and tight, after doing certain things, so it's all about 2 or 3 steps forward and one step back. Overall, this process is moving right along.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Musings on Women and Eating Disorders

This is a little outside my normal arena for this blog. However, having 18 years of dance training and experience under belt, you can bet your ass I've known a few women with various types of eating disorders.

I bring this up because a feminist blogger wrote a mea culpa to her readers about having an eating disorder while trying to espouse feminist ideals. You can read it HERE. The conversation turned towards the norm: it's a mental health and body image issue.

We all know it's a mental condition, born of a multitude of conditions. However, I think our conversation focuses too much on the small snippet of female mentality (let's face it, eating disorders affect women vastly more than men) that adheres to body image.

I'm going to make the argument that, yes, it's a multifaceted disease, but I believe a focus on empowerment will go a lot further than a focus on good body image.

First, I'd like to discuss the situations of people I know who have battled an eating disorder. In very general terms, of course. Most of them were dancers, but not all of them. So yes, they were subjected to the same pressures as most women, that thinness is perfection, and arguable even to a greater degree by being a dancer whose image is thrown at the audience in lycra.

But not all of these people I knew were dancers.

All of these people I knew had some aspect of their lives that made them feel out of control. Some had medical conditions that made life difficult or, at best, complicated. Many had overbearing mothers or parents fawning over their schooling, performances. The types of parents that teachers, instructors and coaches do not want to deal with.

That is the underlying similarity I see. A feeling of being out of control, which alone will knock someone's self esteem down more than a few pegs. Add in the body image issues that most of us women have to deal with, and it's a perfect storm where the mind is grasping for control of SOMETHING and here is what it can do. It can diet. That's the one thing no one can force them to do or not to do.

And wether it's anorexia, bulimia, or diet/ binging cycles, it belongs to them.

Let's take a second perspective where I'll compare my experiences among women in dance and women in martial arts.

As one can probably predict, you really don't see eating disorders among women in martial arts at anywhere near the same rate that you see it in the dance world. Is it because we have top notch body esteem? No, trust me, we bitch and moan about our thighs and that weird place on our back that fat never seems to leave.

And, hell, it's a weight class sport. We're constantly stepping on scales to determine where we stand as we approach competition. I've had nearly daily weight check-ins with sensei when I competed, while a dance instructor never once asked me what my scale weight was.

I think the main difference is that in martial arts, women are shown how they can be forces of nature, how they can control themselves, and even have (hopefully benevolent) power over others. They're empowered.

Dance, on the other hand, is all about image. The grace you put on stage, entertaining others. In a way it is service oriented in that ultimately, a job done well or poorly is how moved your audience is. The empowering nature of being able do to things no one else can be potentially washed out by the "it's about the ensemble" or "it's all about the audience" mentality.

Where I'm going with all of this: I truly believe that to protect women against eating disorders, they need to be taught a sense of empowerment and control over their situations from an early age. Being taught to feel helpless or controlled sets in young, and once that seed is planted, it is very hard to remove.

Now... how to do this is something else entirely and a topic for a completely different article.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Low Carb Athlete Debate: Volek vs. Aragon

This is my interpretation of a duo lecture by Steven Volek and Alan Aragon on the implementation and efficacy of low carb diets in athletes. Given at the NSCA Trainer's Conference in Las Vegas.

Jeff Volek, PhD
The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance
Jeff Volek is a strong proponent of low carb diets for all people, athletes and couch potatoes alike. He wrote the book mentioned above, which I've read, and has some solid research numbers to back up his claim. Most of his athletes and success stories are dealing with endurance runners, and even his book has an endurance tilt to his definition of "athlete". 

Alan Aragon
On the other hand we have Alan Aragon, a masterful trainer that has a vastly different view of carbs: to bring them too low will only hinder your growth and performance. He even was able to point to some of the same studies and show that measures that are misleading could also be interpreted in his favor. Most of the athletes that he has trained and written nutrition programs for are fitness competitors, bodybuilders, strongmen, and powerlifters. Names, people that lift lots of heavy things over going far distances.

And therein lies the rub. 

I think both speakers are completely right, and from where they are standing in the middle of their circle, I can see how they would believe their way to be the best way. I, too, beleive that being fat adapted is the best way for an endurance athlete. You have hundreds of thousands of calories stored away as body fat, even if you're very thin. And if you look at the aerobic pathway through the mitochondria, it's adapted to produce A LOT of ATP from fat, and produce that ATP as long as fat is being mobilized. 

However, when you're a strength athlete, your training and performance is often in the phosphogen and glycogen pathways. Once creatine is used up, you're relying on a supply of glucose to keep pushing through your set. The muscles that you rely on don't have nearly the number of mitochondria to keep going. 

Yeah, try and get between him and his cookie. Or beer.

I've experienced this myself with my Olympic lifting and powerlifting, going low carb made me look awesome (oh, hello abs!) but made me move slow and lose ground. So that is where carb cycling comes in. 

Thing is, neither speaker touched much on the hormonal response that body has to carbs. A response that can be manipulated and hugely beneficial for a strength athlete, but a response that isn't needed and perhaps even unwanted by an endurance athlete. 

Personal takeaway: There is a LOT of variation between individuals, but if you wanted to generalize, low carb is probably your safest bet for endurance athletes and couch potatoes, while some sort of carb cycling is best for losing weight without losing strength, and ideally, gaining strength. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thoughts on Plyometrics and CrossFit Open WOD 13.2

I know I'm a little behind the game on this. All the satirical and serious training blogs have already jumped on the workout for Open WOD 13.2. If you don't follow CrossFit, this was the workout:

10 mins, as many rounds as possible of:
- 5 shoulder to overhead, 115 lbs for men, 75 lbs for women
- 10 deadlifts, same weight
- 15 box jumps, 24 in for men, 20 in for women

I have to say, I was really proud watching how many people at United Barbell took the initiative to step down from the boxes, rather than "buck up" and do ten minutes of bounding box jumps. Many even took to step up and down for each rep. They were able to move at a steady pace through the workout, get a great cardiovascular punch, and save their achilles tendons.

So what's the deal with plyometrics and how should one use them in training?

Plyometrics is about training the stretch-shorten cycle (SSC), or stretch reflex, to strengthen muscles, increase agility, power, and supplement conditioning work. Notice I said supplement conditioning work. Plyometrics in and of themselves, even though they can get your heart pounding, aren't meant to be used as conditioning moves.

Jumping up on a box is the first, basic level of plyometrics. It starts with a quick drop into a partial squat, a countermovement of the arms, and explosion off the ground onto a platform. The training goal here is to get the athlete to turn their energy around quick, from the drop to lift off. You often see untrained individuals do a slow descent or even a pause at the bottom of the partial squat because this motor pathway and engagement of the SSC has never been trained or tapped into. It's like you can almost see their motor units turn on one by one at the bottom...

Depth Jumps
What you see in CrossFit, the bounding box jumps, is akin to depth jumps. There are a lot of progressions that coaches and trainers familiar with plyometrics take their clients through to prepare them for depth jumps, not the least of which is dropping from a lower platform and jumping onto a slowly increasing target platform.

The key to proper depth jump technique is watching the heels on the ground. Does the athlete's heel barely kiss the ground or not touch at all? Is the turn around quick? Then the athlete is well suited for the height of the depth jump.

But on the other hand, does the athlete take more than a split second to make the turn around? Are the heels coming in full, sustained contact with the ground? And even worse, does the athlete seem to land flat footed? The depth drop is too high.

Here's what I'd like to see for progressions in CrossFit boxes:

Obviously, start athletes out with stepping down until they demonstrate that they can proper engage and recruit power from through the SSC and countermovements in the jump.

Then, and I know this will slow people's WOD time down, but they should suck it up, have them drop from a lower box or even a stack of plates and jump up to their target box. Watch their heels and their turn around time. As they become more proficient at it, the initial depth drop height can be increased until they're ready for bounding from and jumping to the same box.

And of course, proper care of your achilles is going to go a long way!

Monday, March 18, 2013

On a more personal note...

I had my second shoulder scoping on February 27th, a Wednesday morning. The second time through was much smoother than the first, knowing exactly what to expect, knowing how I was going to react to the pain killers and anesthesia, etc.

Being more in the know meant I proceeded with less scaredy-cat caution. I was out of the sling in 24 hours, I stopped the pain meds in 48 hours except to sleep, and was using the arm again in restricted ways by the weekend.

I think that has helped it heal much faster. At the two week point, I was further along in the left shoulder than I was at a month with the right shoulder. Even my physical therapist ( I have a new one now) was surprised by my post surgery range of motion. I'm still ahead with the right shoulder, but as I type this, not by much.

What I'm sadly dealing with now is that my insurance only covers 12 PT sessions in a calendar year. I'm scheduled for my 13th session this coming Tuesday, after which we scheduled a break so that I could work on getting my insurance to approve another set of 12.

I'm trying to do my own PT work, knowing already what my last PT did, I'm trying to pin it down to a few exercises that should get me moving along quicker once my current PT decides that it's time for strengthening work.

The frustrating thing is it's now March, and I've basically been out of commission in some way since mid-December. Taking the first month to sit back, relax, and think about what I wanted to do as far as athletics is concerned was nice. Now I'm ready to get back to it. And the patience and waiting is picking away at me.

Training is my Prozac.

I'm definitely more on edge than normal. I get sad easier. I get anxious easier. I stay that way longer. And my daydreams inevitably drift back towards training, competing, and the like.

It's finite, though, and I have to keep reminding myself of that. In the meantime, I'm doing lots of things that don't bother my shoulder: rowing, airdyne, squats, sit ups, even some super light dumbbell pressing. LOTS and LOTS of self massage with lacrosse balls, foam rollers, etc.

Heres to getting back in the game stronger than when I left it!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Motor Units, Strength, and Size

This is a summary of a talk I attended at the NSCA Trainer's Conference in Las Vegas. It's a topic I feel that many people can take back to their own programs to get the most out of them.

The key to training for strength and hypertrophy gains lies in maximal recruitment of motor units. What does that mean?

First, a tutorial on motor units.

A motor unit is the bundle of muscle cells that are controlled by the same neuron. Muscles that need more dexterity, such as those of the forearms that control the fingers, have a higher nerve to muscle cell ratio, whereas muscle that have fewer varied functions, such as the hamstring, have a lower nerve to muscle cell ratio (fewer nerves to muscle cells).

Anatomy of Motor Units

Common "knowledge" in gym circles is that as your muscles tire out, you start to recruit more motor units to finish the job. This is the reason behind drop sets. I'm sure you've seen, or been, that guy with the 5 lbs dumbbells looking like he's going to pass out doing bicep curls. Just a few more to hit those last muscles.

Not so fast. What you're actually experiencing is the fatigue, and subsequent drop out, of motor units doing the movement. Maximal motor unit recruitment can only last about 10 seconds. Why is that? More anatomy time!

Each muscle is made up of three types of fibers. Type I is considered slow twitch, they last the longest to fatigue but produce little force. Then there are type IIa (fast twitch, slightly more metabolic capacity) and type II b/x (fast twitch, most powerful, beautifully anaerobic).

When you flex or lift a weight, the first muscles activated are the low power, long lasting type I fibers. As the weight gets heavier, or as the athlete moves faster, type II fibers get recruited. Max effort attempts at speed or load will tap into the type IIb/x, along with all the "slower" muscle types.

Three types of energy systems. 

Notice in the above chart that the phosphagen, also known as the phospho-creatine system, taps out around the 10 second mark. That's where your type IIb/x motor units are going to give out. After that, you're not training for speed so much as hypertrophy. (The differences between types of hypertrophy is a whole 'nother can of worms.)

So how do you best train for maximum motor unit recruitment? 

I've already mentioned two: as heavy as you can go, or as fast as you can move for up to 10 seconds. Though I'm sure you've all seen the muscle and strength on a gymnast: there is a third way. Time under tension in an isometric. One reason that those male gymnasts have such incredible biceps and shoulders are the max tension holds they put on their levers in positions such as the iron cross and front and back levers from the rings.

He looks so zen. 

Isometric bicep contraction during the iron cross, in order to protect the elbow, is the best example most of us can imagine.  

Take Away: 
To recruit most motor units:
- Lift HEAVY
- Lift FAST
- Hold weight as muscle extension

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

NSCA Trainer's Conference 2013

I just spent the last weekend, also my birthday, in Las Vegas to attend the NSCA's Trainer's Conference on Friday and Saturday. I'm still suffering from some information overload.

Next large gap of free time I have, I'll have to go through all my notes, the presentation handouts, and even the presentations I didn't get to attend, and organize my thoughts, figure out how to implement some new ideas and techniques, and decide what information to follow up on


Until then, quick points:
    • There is still a lot of debate around low carb dieting for athletes. Listening to the Volek and Aragon debate, it would seem to be that the biggest variation is in what sort of sport you participate in, and at what level.
      • You can't deny that carbs have hormonal effects beyond their calorie content. What neither speaker talked about is using that hormonal influence through intake timing to their advantage. Something I think is essential for highly competitive athletes.
    • Battle ropes - I’ve never felt my lower lats burn like that before and I can’t wait to acquire some for my shoulder rehab.
    • Should you train your clients like athletes? Babe Ruth wasn’t exactly hot, so maybe focus on skills training doesn’t have a place.
    • According to Schoenfield, in the squat the first 60 degrees of knee bend puts the most tension on the ACL, afterwards which the hamstring tension takes the pressure off
    • Mark Nutting demonstrated the ease that participating in new social media platform, Vine, where you post looping 6 second videos.
    • In understanding motivation, you have to understand that most people have forces outside the gym that are actively trying to discourage their improvements. They need to feel like they have autonomy and are getting things right, even when you are “making” them do work and teaching them something new.
      • As a corrolary, people love time progressed feedback. The more tracking strategies you have (strength, weight, circumference, time to distance, etc) for them to feel good about, the better.

    Also, particularly on the second day, I heard a decent amount of scoffing towards, jabs at, and snide remarks about CrossFit. I love the methodology of CrossFit. I love that it gives many people the chance to feel like an athlete, and even compete as one, where they may never have had the opportunity before. I recognize many of the failings (low level of entry to coaching, little to no oversight from HQ about safety, unchecked egos, etc), there are many gyms that are fantastic and get great results from their members. In one lecture, I was one of two people who coached at a CrossFit facility. And herein lies the problem as I see it.

    Many in the CrossFit world have no interest in going outside that world to gain knowledge, expand their understanding, and bounce ideas off practitioners of other methodologies. Those inside CrossFit see those outside CrossFit as “others” who “just don’t get us” and lag behind as they cling to their outdated ways.

    Those outside the CrossFit world, who have been raise up either in personal training arenas or athletics, see CrossFit and those involved as ignorant or proper methods, closed minded to new information, testosterone driven, and immature. CrossFit, to them, is like that teenage boy who is going to drive too fast without a seatbelt because, dammit, no one is going to tell him what to do.

    There are so few of us who cross those boundries that one side will never get to know the other. The animosity will continue. I don’t think CrossFit is going to go away anytime soon.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Which bar to use?

If you train at your typical Big Box Gym (24 Hour, Bally's, Planet Fitness, etc), you're not going to have this problem. If you can't lift the 45 lb standard "men's" bar, you're relegated to the machines.

But any real strength and conditioning facility or any CrossFit gym will have a variety of bars to choose from, the most often used are the 15 kg "women's" bar and the 20 kg "men's" bar. What I often see is that women automatically go for the "women's" bar, and the guys for the "men's" bar, even if that bar isn't the best choice for the movement or weight they are going to use it for. So, here are some general guidelines. 

1) Will you need to drop the bar?

If so, follow this rule of thumb: only drop a bar once the total weight in bumper plates is equal to or greater than the weight of the bar. So, if you're a guy and you only want to jerk or snatch 65 lbs, and you use a 45 lbs bar with 10 lbs plates on each side, don't drop the bar. If you must drop the bar, use a "kid's" (25 lbs) bar with two 10 lbs plates on each side. That's 40 lbs of bumper and 25 lbs of bar, totally safe to drop. 

(uh-oh, looks like you'll have to go to YouTube to watch it.)

2) Pressing vs. Pulling

One of the main reasons that a 15kg bar is nice for women is that the bar itself has a smaller diameter so it's easier for our dainty lady hands to grab. (I'm sure none of us have dainty hands anymore, though. Holla if you love your callouses!) If you're squatting or pressing, your hold on the bar isn't as essential as when you're doing deadlifts, cleans, or snatches. If you're strong enough to work in with the guys, don't shy away from using a 45 lbs bar for pressing and squatting, the math is easier and it's not going to matter nearly as much. 

I also think women should work in with the men more often. Make them nervous. 

3) Consider your warm up

If your top pressing weight is 45 lbs, you don't want to start with the 20 kg bar, and you shouldn't start with the 15 kg either. Start with that training bar your gym hopefully has at 10 or 15 lbs and give your muscles and CNS the right warm up volume to have a good shot a a PR and start making some gains!

Also, it's totally okay to switch bars in the middle of a workout. When my shoulders are unhappy, I'll start with a kid's bar to warm up movement before moving to the 15 kg bar. Ain't no shame in it.

Any other consideration I may have missed?