Category Archives: Strength

Squat Fix 101: Bryan Wong, Powerlifter 

A couple weeks ago we sent out a post looking for people wanting to improve their squat technique by sending us some videos of them squatting, and today we’re breaking down Bryan Wong’s squat, so if you have more advanced strength or powerlifting squatting goals, sit down, strap in, and get ready to learn about the squat!

The basics:

  • Mid-bar narrow stance squatter
  • Competing in powerlifting, goal is to move the most weight possible, an important distinction between the main goal being to build the most amount of muscle in the quads or glutes
  • Weak point, 3-4inches out of the hole

Bryan is a coach’s dream in the sense that he already has developed an appreciable level of strength for his bodyweight, but has a huge potential to improve his squat by modifying his techniques to take advantage of his leverages. Here’s some of the videos that Bryan sent us

 

Now you can either work from the ground up or the top down, but in Bryan’s case we’re going to work from the top down. If you watch Bryan’s competition squat, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the weight of the bar collapses his chest position, pushing the upper back into kyphosis (an exaggerated forward rounding of the upper spine). This moves the bar in front of the centre of his ribcage and causes him to unrack the bar with the weight on the balls of the feet, not only does this make the weight feel way heavier and destroy lifter confidence, it actually IS HEAVIER because of the longer lever from the bar to the centre of the chest. This also causes you to unlock you hips backwards or lean the torso forward to centre the weight over the mid foot, which creates a longer lever between the bar and centre of the hips at the start of the squat, meaning that a full glute contraction cannot be achieved before commencing the squat (maximum voluntary contraction happens at a fully hip locked position); this is of particular note as Bryan falls forward 3-4inches out of the hole in his squat, and a full activation of the glutes could potentially clean up his weak point through the post-activation potentiation effect of a maximum voluntary contraction, without requiring him to actually strengthen that muscle group, which takes significantly longer time. Below is a video of how we would change Bryan’s bar position to a more advantageous position

 

The next thing we’re going to look at is how Bryan is breathing in the squat. If you take a look at all of his squat videos, you’ll watch the shoulders rise before he squats. This rise is a function of using the upper respiratory muscles to draw the ribcage up to increase the volume of air in the upper portion of the lungs, the problem here is that the ribcage is already highly stable, and is supported by bone on bone structure; however, the space between the bottom of the ribcage and the top of the hips is only supported by the lumbar spine, and relies heavily on the forceful contraction and compression of the abdomen for support. In his videos you can tell his belt is too tight, restricting the downward movement of the diaphragm and not allowing the lower abdomen to expand into his belt. The expansion before contraction allows you to take advantage of the stretch reflex and achieve higher intra-abdominal pressure, which acts almost as hydraulic support for the spine, it also allows you to push out against an immoveable object, which increases the force of an isometric contraction beyond what you could do if you just flex the muscle as hard as possible. A great illustration here is to flex your biceps in a classic “which way to the beach?” fashion, as hard as you possibly can, now try to lift an immoveable object using a bicep curl motion, which contraction did you feel was harder? The same thing happens with a belt if you use it correctly. Here’s a quick tutorial on how to breath for the squat, although it’s important to note that although many people grasp the concept in theory, undoing years of improper breathing often takes a more targeted approach, so don’t get too frustrated if you can’t get it right away, and if you really struggle with this, feel free to give us a shout and we’ll try to point you in the right direction

We also happen to know that Bryan has suffered a minor peroneal strain, which by the way is a very uncommon squat injury, however if you watch Bryan’s squat, and if you understand the role of the peroneal group, it starts to make a bit more sense. The peroneals act to evert the ankle, aka turn the soles of the feet outwards and the pinky toe rotates towards the shin, but if you fix the ankle in place by planting it on the ground, the peroneals can act upon the shin to create a varus force (think bow legs).

Left: Lucas demonstrates the varus knee position, right shows a more stacked joint position

Bryan does this at the bottom of his squat most likely to create space for the femurs to clear the bone of the hips, but is still unsuccessful, as you can note by his “butt wink” or posterior pelvic tilt that is evident the deeper he attempts to squat. Although we would need Bryan in person to assess whether this is actually a bone on bone limitation, a soft tissue flexibility issue, or a lack of stability causing compensatory movement, the clues are there that this is actually a bony impingement caused by the angle and position of his hip socket and femoral neck; therefore the solution here is going to be to widen his stance. As noted above this should also allow him to stack his joints to the line of force and produce force in the same direction.

One of the ways you can check to see if you have a soft tissue flexibility issue, a stability issue, or a bone on bone issue in the hips is to check your stance with a rack supported squat, pictured below

rack-supported-squat

If you can drop right into position, with a neutral back, no significant change in your hip position in the bottom position, and can let go of the rack and hold that bottom position without any shifting and stand straight up, you’re awesome, you have an appropriate stance, and I hate you. If you need to pull yourself down into position and push on the rack or hold it for support but can hit the bottom position or close to it and keep a neutral back and hip position, you likely have a soft tissue flexibility issue in either the hips or elsewhere in the chain, like me and my achilles tears (you’ll notice that I can’t hit depth, and if i let go I comically fall over backwards, sorry we didn’t film this). If you can’t hit depth and feel a pinch or go into pelvic tilt even in a supported position, most likely you have a bone on bone impingement and no mobility drill in the world will make this a useable squat position for you, most likely you will need to widen you stance and turn your toes out, or some combination of the two until you can hit depth comfortably in the supported position. This is an oversimplified test, but, it will help many of you find a useable squat stance

Ok next we’re going to make the case that Bryan should switch to a low bar squat with more torso lean, Lucas an I are also going to show you our white ass legs and some absolutely horrific mugshots, so at least that part will be entertaining. The number one mechanical advantage you can have in the squat is a short femur, not very many of us are blessed with this trait and sorry to say Bryan, you aren’t one of them, but don’t worry you’re in good company of many great squatters. What Bryan does have is a short torso, so lets take advantage of that. First and foremost, the low bar position brings the bar closer to the hips and shortens the lever whenever there is forward torso lean (the bar is now closer to the hips) if you need an example of why this is an advantage, try holding a 20lb dumbbell outstretched in your arm, now have someone place that dumbbell and stabilize it at your elbow, how much easier did that just get? in this case the fulcrum is the shoulder joint and the lever length is how far down the arm the weight is placed. The same thing happens at the hip with the back being the lever arm, although it’s not as easily envisioned. The low bar position causes the hips to shift backwards further than mid or high bar position, it also requires less forward travel of the knee, which means that the centre of the bar will be closer to the centre of the knee, this creates a shorter lever arm between the centre of the weight and the centre of the knee, negating some of the disadvantage of having a longer femur. Doesn’t this technically create a longer lever at the hip than mid bar? Technically yes, but we’ve shortened the lever by at least an inch by moving the bar down the back, and Bryan’s leverage is much more advantageous at the hip, and since the upwards force on the bar is the SUM of the hip and knee joint, we should get a larger net force once he adjusts to the new position. Below is comparison between Lucas and I showing the difference in our seated height and femur length.

super-hot-seated-height-photolucas-and-joel-femurs

Above: Lucas is about 2-3inches taller than me, but you can see our seated height is about 4+inches apart, showing that I have a shorter torso, below: you can see our legs are almost identical in length despite our difference in height. My short torso and long femur suggests I’ll do better with a low bar squat, where Lucas’ more even ratio will allow him to use whichever squat works best with his current strength ratios.

So that’s it for Bryan’s squat, he’s got some work to do, but if he implements these changes he should see a large increase in his squat numbers and efficiency. Stay tuned for the next one in this series, we have squatters with varying abilities and goals, and you’re sure to find someone you relate to! Thanks for reading and be sure to fire us any questions in the comments section!

 

Article Request Series: How has Instagram Changed Strength Training, Body Image Expectations, and Motivation?

Welcome to your front row seat to the world’s most impressive strength feats, abs shredded beyond belief, narrow waists, augmented breasts, and the world’s fittest and most attractive people at your finger tips, all you have to do is pull out your phone and scroll.

Instagram has become the unofficial home of fitness on the internet, it seems that every amateur powerlifter (guilty), aspiring bodybuilder or bikini competitor has a page and is publicly documenting their progress. On top of all these amateur and aspiring athletes, we have instant access to the world’s top lifters posting their training and competitions, and the world’s most attractive nearly-naked fitness models posting motivational photos with quasi-inspirational quotes. I would argue that no single platform has changed the landscape of fitness more than Instagram. Some of these changes have been positive, some have been negative, and for the most part, Instagram’s role in the fitness industry is still being written.

Instagram’s Positive Influence

People are starting

So has all this exposure actually inspired anyone to take up fitness and get after their goals? I’d say a resounding yes. I still remember when one of the lifters I was training told me the meet he wanted to enter sold out in 6 minutes… wait what? I missed a couple years in the powerlifting world due to a bad injury, and just 3-4 years earlier meets didn’t sell out, you signed up a couple weeks before the meet because you kept on forgetting to go online and actually fill out the form. Now there’s an explosion of new lifters looking to get their chance on the platform to test themselves, and there are even a few people in the general public who know what powerlifting is.

How about the bodybuilding shows? Right now the sport at the grassroots level is being financially kept afloat by the explosion of Insta-inspired bikini competitors and men’s physique category, outnumbering the bodybuilding, figure, and physique classes by at least 2:1 combined! The explosion of popularity in the strength and physique sports has been nothing short of phenomenal. Never before has it been more possible or in-vogue to start your fitness journey, document the entire thing, and attempt to inspire others to do the same.

Bigger goals and dreams

I know personally that Instagram has shown me that my initial goals were actually too low, and opened my eyes to what kind of strength feats are possible even at my current weight class. I can see what the top in my sport are doing, and expect better of myself. Seeing what world class lifters are doing has inspired me to chase higher goals myself, and even if I don’t hit them, I’ll have ended up further ahead trying to achieve them had I not changed my perspective in the first place

A chance to interact with the elite

I’ve actually had conversations with world’s top lifters and most successful strength coaches. Alice Matos pointed people towards an article I had written and offered some advice for my female clients, Paige Hathaway (pictured with the boxing gloves in the main picture) responded to my questions about her supplement line. I’ve learned from top physical therapists like John Rusin who has taken the time to point me towards further learning resources and answered questions about a shoulder injury, and I could list countless others, and all of this happened via Instagram. The best information and the best people in the world have never been so accessible, and you’d be surprised how many of them will take time out of their day to help you.

The Dark Side of Instagram

It’s not real

Most people know that the photos of Anllela Sagra (pictured left) and Devin Physique (pictured right) are heavily photoshopped, use professional lighting and photographers, airbrushing, hell they even shrink the skin with ice and apply other crazy industry tricks all to get the best photo possible. Even with all those tips and tricks, they’re still going throw away 80-90% of the photos they took, using only the best angles that portray a completely unrealistic image of what the model actually looks like. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “stop trying to look like the girl on the magazine, the girl on the magazine doesn’t even look like the girl on the magazine” it couldn’t be more true; however, that doesn’t seem to stop us from comparing ourselves to these caricatures of our favourite fitness models.

It can obscure your view of your own progress

I should be celebrating, so should Cam, and so should Marina, but we’re not, we’re all struggling with confidence issues directly related to our relationship with social media, specifically stuff we’ve seen on Instagram; Let me explain. Marina signed up for her first powerlifting meet in January, she’s been training hard and she’s made incredible progress, putting on 30+ pounds on her squat bench and deadlift in a matter of a couple short months, and despite her relatively short training cycle, she’s going to be competitive in her weight class at her upcoming meet in January. By all measures she’s making incredible progress, but like many others, she follows some of the best lifters on Instagram, and every time they post a video of their new PR, she just feels further behind. Cam recently added 100lbs to his bench press in record time, hitting the 4 plate mark for the first time in his life, which is something that not many people ever do, regardless of bodyweight; however, with the world at your fingertips, it’s one thumb stroke away to see someone doing 4 plates or more with ease, and it can seem like this is the norm and allow it to cheapen your own accomplishment. We tend to lose perspective of our own significant achievements with this skewed perspective that 4 plate benchers just grow on trees. I had a similar experience after missing a 635lb deadlift, and there was Jesse Norris, a weight class underneath me, pulling it for an easy 8 reps. The reality is not everyone who starts their fitness journey can end up in the world’s elite, the best are the best for a reason, but that shouldn’t stop you from celebrating your accomplishments along the way.

Mistreatment and misinformation

“you can’t even see the difference in those photos, you’re still fat! haha” – ready for these kind of interactions? That was a real comment taken from a transformation picture that trainer had posted online of one of her clients. People can be ruthless when they’re sitting behind the safety of their phone screen, and if you make your profile public, be prepared for some abuse. I personally can’t stand to read the comments on popular Instagram posts anymore, perhaps I’d like to ignorantly keep some faith in humanity. Making a change to your lifestyle or chasing a grandiose performance goal is already incredibly intimidating, the last thing anyone needs is some asshole keyboard warrior talking shit to make themselves feel better about whatever short coming of their own they’re overcompensating for.

Although Instagram is going to give you the chance to interact with some of the world’s best, for every knowledgeable person, there’s at least 20 others aggressively marketing the most ridiculous of quick fixes and lacklustre fitness products and supplements, so beware and have a strong bullshit filter on at all times.

So has Instagram had a net positive or negative effect on fitness as a whole? I’m not sure, but as an individual you can use it as motivational tool, and a chance to interact with like minded people. If you feel the negative side effects starting to creep in, feel free to check out, unfollow, go private, and take a moment to reflect on just how far you’ve come.

 

 

Article Request Series: What’s With All the Different Bars at Blacksmith Fitness?

We have a ton of different bars at Blacksmith Fitness: we have 5 different types of straight bars and 7 different specialty bars (and counting) and each one of them has a specific purpose! Because of how many questions we get about the different bars, I wanted to put together this article for you to show you how to integrate them into your training. Whether your goals are to build insane levels of strength and muscularity, work around an injury or immobility, or build explosive power or improve your sport, below is a detailed description of each bar and what they do

Straight Bars:

I’ve put together a little video that gives quick overview of the different straight bars, and you can check it out here https://youtu.be/f3BfTdp66TQ  and read on for more detailed descriptions

Texas Power Bar:

texas-power-bar

We have three of these, and they’re our best all around training bars. They’re 28.5mm meaning mid-thickness and have a good compromise between whip for the deadlift and explosive movements, and stiffness for the bench press and squat. They have moderate to aggressive knurling and grip is almost never an issue. These bars are rated well over 1500lbs, and we challenge you to load enough weight on them to do them any harm.

Rogue Ohio Deadlift Bar:

deadlift-bar-11_2_

The deadlift bar vs. a standard length power bar (pictured above)

The deadlift bar is longer and thinner to allow for more bend in the bar before the plates break the floor, this allows the lifter to get a slightly higher hip position and generate more tension through the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back before the bar breaks the ground. This is the standard competition style bar for pretty much every other powerlifting federation except the IPF. Pictured below is the deadlift bar at 635lbs, you can see how much the bar flexes under moderate to heavy loads

deadlift-635

Rogue Ohio Power Bar:

20kg-ohio-power-bar-header-h_1

This is an IPF approved competition power bar. This is the stiffest bar we have, it’s also the thickest standard bar we have at 29mm, making it the best and most stable bench and squat bar in the gym. If you’re squatting anything above the mid 400’s you’ll notice how much less this bar flexes in the reversal portion of the lift, allowing you to track perfectly according to your technique, instead of the bar flex pulling you out of your path. With max attempts, or even heavy triples, the margin for error between an easy lift and one that staples you can be millimetres, so this extra stiffness really comes in handy. Pictured below is the bar loaded with 570lbs displaying very little noticeable flex. Since we now have squatters who have hit 685 and are approaching 700 (raw) we’ll soon be adding an even stiffer 65lb squat bar into the mix570-squat-opb

Texas Crosstraining Bar 25mm

rogue-bella-bar-2-0-web2_1

If you have small hands (coughcoachmegancough) then this is the bar you’ve been waiting for. This bar is 6ft making it sway less from side to side for smaller lifters, and has a significantly thinner shaft that will allow even the smallest hands to get full finger wrap and grip. The bar has a little more flex at lower weight for smaller lifters to learn how to use bar flex to load the hips and start more explosively.

Rogue Olympic Bar:

This is a 28mm 20kg men’s olympic bar. The main difference between this bar is the different markings (slightly wider for IWF standards) and the fact that it has bearings instead of bushings in the sleeves. The bearings allow the bar to rotate faster without causing any rotation or shift in the plates that would alter the bar path on explosive movements like cleans and snatches. It also serves as a great all purpose training bar and is our second stiffest squat bar

Specialty Bars

Ok here’s where things really get fun, these are the bars you may not have seen before, they’re made for one or two specific things, but they do them better than any other bar out there. They allow lifters to key in on weaknesses and work around injuries that would normally significantly hamper or stop them from training completely. Here they are in no particular order.

Buffalo and Duffalo Bar:

fullsizerender

Believe it or not, this bar is supposed to bent (buffalo bar, not duffalo pictured)

These bars are mainly meant as squat bars, but also serve as a way to work bottom end bench press strength if you’re weak off the chest by allowing a slightly increased range of motion; however, you’d better have healthy shoulders and ensure you still feel the chest doing the work. The main reason these bars are bent is to allow a slightly lower hand position in the squat, reducing the elevation of the humerus in the shoulder joint, keeping it away from some of the more sensitive tissues in the top and back of the shoulder joint. The advantage of these bars vs some of our other shoulder friendly squat bars is that the load point isn’t changed that much from a regular straight bar, so the transfer is pretty high. When I tested my one rep maxes in November I had a small tear in one of the rotator cuff muscles in the right shoulder and hadn’t squatted with a straight bar in over 3 months, the highest I went in training was 525 for 3 sets of 2 with the buffalo bar, which was good for a 570lb squat on test day with the straight bar. The Duffalo bar, which is on it’s way as we speak, has a multi-radius bend that angles the wrists slightly better for benching, and is flatter across the back, feeling a little more like straight bar on the back.

Safety Squat Bar aka The Yoke Bar

hatfield-safety-squats-ssb

Performing some Hatfield overload squats with a pause with the SSB

 

The safety squat bar is the most shoulder friendly option we have in the gym. It allows a totally neutral shoulder position or even a hands free position once there are plates loaded on the bar. Because the hands are elevated in front of the body or not anchored at all in free squat variations, the role of the lats in keeping the torso stiff and upright is greatly reduced. If you’re one of those squatters that falls forward in the hole, and your chest has sunken (i.e. you can’t see the logo on your chest very well anymore) or you tend to get compressed when you unrack a heavy squat, this bar is for you. It forces you to work the vertically running thoracic extenders harder than almost any other bar, and the load position makes it a really nice blend between the upright torso of a front squat but still keeping a little more load on the posterior core and chain. Another excellent use for this bar is getting those with AC joint pain to do any type of squat by turning the bar around and loading it like a front squat. This takes the arm pads and displaces the pressure across the traps instead of the collar bone, reducing pain, as well as allowing a more neutral grip putting less total pressure on the joint. Below Aaron (aka “Socks”) is pictured using the safety squat bar in this manner

aaron-410-ssb

There are so many other cool uses for this bar, but the last one I’ll touch on is using them for dead squats to develop the deadlift. You do this by loading up the bar on the safety pins with your hips around the same height you’d start start your deadlift, and then squatting the weight straight up using your deadlift pattern. This is great for adding some extra volume to the deadlifting muscles in their specific muscle action without taxing the central nervous system as hard as putting the a bar in the hands. With stronger lifters or heavily stressed athletes this can be the difference between getting a productive session in or driving a nail into their recovery

The Cambered Spider Bar

cambered-bar-good-morning

This 80lb beast is always trying to pin you to the floor! Say you fall forward in the squat, but it’s not because your chest is falling, it happens when you come out of the hole, and your hips shoot up while your shoulders go nowhere. There are many reasons this can happen beyond the scope of this article, but the cambered bar fixes all of them. It’s an awesome bar to work the hamstrings and glutes with exercises like the good morning (shown above). As opposed to a straight bar that just wants to push you down, the weight is on a hinge off the shoulder that wants to drift forward, increasing the action of both the hamstrings and the glutes in their hip extension role (think hip thrusting). Use the forward handles if you want to decrease the role of the lats and focus more on the lower and upper spinal erectors, or use the side handles to keep the back tight like you would in a regular squat, allowing you to handle more load with the hips. Like all of our other specialty squat bars, this allows for several shoulder, elbow, and wrist friendly positions

Swiss Bar Aka Neutral Press Bar 

aaron-swiss-bar-press

Aaron aka “Shorts” has had multiple shoulder dislocations but still gets his pressing in with the swiss bar

This is one of the most versatile bars we have in the gym. It centres the shoulder in a more neutral position than a straight bar, it works the shoulders harder than a straight bar and is great for anyone with a weak midpoint in their bench press that isn’t related to a technique error, it’s wicked for hammer curls, working the hard-to-train long head of the triceps, allows people with posterior shoulder pain to overhead press, and I could keep on listing. Long story short, if you have a limitation in the shoulder wrist or elbow that is keeping you from pressing with a straight bar, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find a grip on the swiss bar that works for you. It also works great for rows, allowing you to bring the shoulder blades together and squeeze the mid back harder than you could with a straight bar. The neutral position with arms tucked more closely replicates the pressing pattern that most athletes will use in a standing position, especially if they have to deal with contact from other opponents. This bar allowed me to still get some pressing in with a torn rotator cuff and reduce the amount that I lost on my bench press to only 30lbs over 12 weeks, where had I had to stop pressing completely I most likely would have lost 40-60lbs more

The Trap Bars aka Hex Bars

luke-460-trap-bar

Luke Allard Deadlifting 460lbs with the wider trap bar (80lb bar)

You’ve probably seen these before, so instead of telling you what to do with them, I’ll tell you why we have two different ones. The first trap bar, pictured above, has wider handles, working the traps and the upper back harder than the narrower version. It also has a built in deadlift jack for loading and unloading plates, and is long enough to fit inside a rack, meaning you can throw on some straps and do some serious overload work with it if need be. Combined with the extra long loading sleeves and our interlocking plates, you’ll give up before it will, guaranteed! The other cool thing you can do with this bar is perform a partial or full range overhead press where the bar travels perfectly overhead, vs a straight bar that you have to move the head out of the way, placing more stress on the front of the shoulder capsule. We also have a more standard length trap bar pictured below

camille-farmers-walk

Camille rocking some farmer’s walks with the standard length trap bar

This trap bar is better for smaller people, Camille is approx 5’2″ and the wider handles put her in a snatch grip position, severely limiting the amount of weight she could lift or carry, but the smaller trap bar isn’t just for smaller people. The straight down arm position is better for trap bar jumps, and allows most people to carry more weight on loaded carries, overloading the hips, feet, knees, and ankles more effectively than they could on the longer bar.

So that outlines our current assortment of specialty bars at Blacksmith Fitness, but we’re always looking to solve problems and make our assortment even more effective. Hopefully now you can see that if you’re using the same generic straight bar for everything, you’re missing out on some serious strength, speed, power, and growth, and most importantly the ability to stay healthy while training. At Blacksmith we’re all about the important details and providing the most effective training and equipment available. In the coming weeks I’ll be doing some more articles on the other types of specialty equipment we have in the gym, but for now it’s onto the next requested article!

Does Your Workout Scare You? It Should.

I was reading an article by Charles Staley about the psychology of lifting weights and it got me thinking about my own training and the research I’d done on the topic. Like Charles, I too often wonder why the arguably most important aspect of physical performance is just brushed off as an after thought. The brain is your most powerful weapon when it comes to displaying the abilities you’ve trained your muscles to do.

I’ve talked previously in the “how mirrors make you weaker and ruin your fitness” articles how your brain actually lifts the weight; your muscles simply do what they’re told to do. If you get a large impulse of electrical activity from the brain and spinal cord, you get a massive contraction of the muscular tissue, although it’s slightly more complex than that, barring any underlying disease, it’s not that much more complicated. Pavel Tsatsouline has a great quote “your muscles already have the strength to lift a car, they just don’t know it yet”

We’ve all heard the stories about the untrained woman who lifted a car off her child after a car accident, or the 100lb woman who while under the influence of suspect substances managed to snap her leather restraints and throw an entire hospital bed at the hospital staff – so what explains these feats? Whether through the extreme stress of a life or death situation or the altered chemical state, the brain was able to bypass all its preset limitations and apply a true maximum effort. If a 100lb untrained woman can do these things, just imagine what you could do. Now I’m in no way recommending that you put a gun to your head or munch on some bath salt preworkout powder before your next squat session, but it gives you some insight into just how powerful your mind is

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right” – Henry Ford

I have 110lb women that are significantly stronger than many 250+lb men, even some of those who are actively training, do you dare try and explain this difference quoting “genetics” as the reason? Of course the 250lb man has every physical advantage here, the real difference is the way the two groups approach the task. One group approaches the task with focus, they expect to get stronger each week, expect to see results, and have faith in themselves and the process, the other group doubts themselves, doesn’t believe they have the power to change, makes excuses, and fears the task, or mild discomfort. Group 1 will outperform group 2 every time, regardless of the genetic potential, especially if given enough time. I used to believe you were either group 1 or group 2 and nothing could change that, however, I no longer believe this to be true, but it will take a focused effort inside and outside of the gym/sport to commit to this new style of thinking.

“I think therefore I am” – René Descartes

If you’re looking to take advantage of the mind’s incredible power, Josh Bryant, my friend and coach has a great article here http://www.joshstrength.com/uploads/PLUSA_Article_Sep2009.pdf about the power of visualization and belief systems, he sent me this article before testing my 1 rep maxes in one of the first training blocks I did with him and it really didn’t have impact it should have at the time.

Back then I was invincible (or so I thought), nothing scared me, not 600lbs on a deadlift or squat bar, not insane training volumes that would leave me in hilarious predicaments when I had to somehow make it down to the toilet the next day, not my separated sternum or torn rotator cuffs, that nagging pain in my right knee, none of it mattered, every bar I walked up to I expected to lift it – I could recover from ANYTHING! Until one time I couldn’t…

The Power of Fear

Most of you who read my writings know that I had a head and spine injury that sidelined me for 3 years and kept me from training up until late march of this year. I’m now for the first time attempting to peak and seeing where my strength lies in comparison to my pre-injury numbers, and in the last week before deloading I missed my squat weights not once but twice. I’m dealing with medial and lateral elbow tendonitis and a minor migration of the radius across the elbow joint that is especially painful when I squat, to the point where my spotter had to take the plates off the squat bar after I missed the lift and I could barely untie my shoes until the elbow moves back into place. For the first time in my life I’m afraid of pain, and afraid to get under the squat bar.

The squat is especially terrifying right now, because it puts pressure directly on the previously injured area of my spine and I can feel the pressure there more than anywhere else, coupled with the pain response from the elbow, I get an overwhelming rush of negative images and my mind wants to give up, as a result while doubling 510lbs last week, I missed 515 completely the first time, and singled it and got pinned on the second rep the second day I tried it. All I can think about is getting crushed and spending another 3 years trying to walk down the street without getting dizzy, all those experiences are sitting there in the back of my subconscious waiting for me to let them in, and this time I did.

Just like you can use your mind as a weapon, you can let it work against you, this to me is where the character development in training lies. If you ever hear people who have achieved great things through weight training talk about how training has made them a better person, a better business owner, communicator, helped them conquer their fears/phobias etc. this is how it happens. On Saturday I’m going to get another chance to hit 515 for 2, and all the same thoughts will be there, the same fear, that same pressure (I’m fine, I’m medically cleared to train max intensity), and the same elbow pain (ok maybe not so medically cleared here), and I’m going to have to make the decision to get under that bar, put it out of mind and get after the squat.

I may fail again on Saturday, and I may fail again the week after deloading when I test my maxes, I may fail next training block and the one after, but none of it matters. I only lose when I stop trying to conquer my fear, stop trying to fix my elbow and the shoulder causing it, stop trying to dial my training program, stop communicating with my coach, and give up.

If your training program doesn’t scare you a little, it’s probably not making you the best person or athlete you can be, it’s not giving you the opportunity to develop the skills to deal with fear or failure or to appreciate success when you achieve it. Conquer in training, and dominate in competition. In the words of Dave Tate, “prepare, perform, prevail”

Now get after it!

Is My Training Actually Making Me a Better Athlete?

Is what I’m doing in the gym actually making me better at my sport, or is it making me better in the gym? It’s probably not a question you’ve asked yourself when you stepped into the gym to get stronger for your sport, but it’s one you should ask yourself quickly if you want ensure you’re improving, or worse, actually hurting your sport performance. If you’re looking to get faster, hit harder, make quicker decisions, improve your conditioning or any other sport performance marker read on to see some of the key questions and concepts you should consider

Movements vs. Muscles

If you know how much weight you can use on the leg extension machine, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not training effectively for your sport. Bodybuilding and fitness training has taken over social media, which is awesome, however, this often gives the impression that this is the only way to train. I cannot think of a single sport where the quadriceps contract in isolation, in fact, unless you call going to the doctor to get your reflexes tested, I’m willing to bet my entire life’s savings that there isn’t one (dirty bet by the way, there’s actually no such thing as true isolation). The point is that in sport you’re required to produce power in specific movements, with contribution from many muscles all working together in incredible synergy to produce force in a specific direction. The further you get away from using common chains of muscles to do these movements and training one muscle at a time, the less likely you are to see an improvement in your sport by strengthening them. I wish we could all bicep curl our way to the NHL, but sadly biology screwed that one for us.

Athlete Specificity: Beginner vs Advanced

At the time of writing this article the 2016 Olympic Summer Games are underway, putting the best in the world on display in many sports, and along with all the coverage of the sports themselves, there’s little snippets of how the athletes are training, which is probably one of my favourite parts of the whole games, however, for sake of entertainment they usually cherry pick the most intriguing parts of the training process, leaving out the whole foundation of what makes those methods effective for that person at that time. Sports science has shown us that what may improve a beginners performance can actually make an advanced athlete worse and what may improve an advanced athlete’s performance may actually decrease performance or injure a beginner.

Let’s quickly define what I mean by beginner, intermediate and advanced. First and foremost this has nothing do with sport skill; you could be the best player on your team but still be considered a beginner when it comes to strength and conditioning. Since most sports require some level of leg strength and contact with the ground/ice/field for simplicities sake we’ll be using the squat as a basic measure of strength requirements.

Beginner: Anyone with less than 2 years of strength and conditioning experience involving a barbell. You squat less than 1.5x your bodyweight.

Beginners need to get stronger with basic compound exercises, meaning all the basic human motions: the squat, the hip hinge (deadlift, pull throughs, kettlebell swings etc.), the horizontal press (pushups, bench press etc.), horizontal pulling (barbell row, dumbbell row, t-bar row etc.), vertical pull (chin-ups, lat pull downs, single arm cable pull downs etc.) vertical press (military press, kettlebell press, barbell angle press etc.) core work and loaded carries (farmers walk variations, planks, rotational drills). now is a great time to learn some explosive drills like olympic lift variations, but these shouldn’t be loaded significantly until adequate strength and technique has been acquired. At this point getting the entire body stronger in al directions will make you faster, more efficient, and more powerful

Intermediate: 2-3 years of strength and conditioning experience. You squat between 1.5 and 2x your bodyweight. You have almost reached the required strength levels for your sport.

Intermediates have gained significant levels of strength and have seen some improvements in their sport performance due to their training. They can still get some performance improvements from further strength but we’re starting to reach the level of diminishing returns, more of the training time should be spent on the movements relevant to your sport, for example a sprinter would want to work more on the hip hinge and horizontal speed than on upper body pressing movements. Training organization should fluctuate in accordance to the time of the year (off season vs. in-season training). At this point you will have to start working on general qualities (i.e. power, speed, power endurance) with separate methods – as simply getting stronger won’t lead to the same level of fitness as separating these methods

Advanced: At least 3 years of strength and conditioning experience. You have reached the strength requirements needed for your sport. You squat between 2 and 2.5+x your bodyweight or more depending on the demands of your sport. You can no longer improve sport performance by simply getting stronger. Your training is now highly specific depending on time of the year, your specific qualities that need to be improved. How these qualities will be transferred from weight room skills in a closed environment to the unpredictable environment of competitive sports is one of the most complex and highly debated issues in all of sport training. At this point every athlete has a strength and conditioning coach, or at the very least a coach that also programs the strength and conditioning aspects of training.

Sport Specificity

First of all, there’s actually more similarity in many sports than athletes like to admit “Rugby is way different than American football, it’s not even close to the same sport!” it’s true, in terms of tactical means, there are some similarities but a ton of differences, but from a physical preparedness standpoint both sports involve contact with the field, quick cutting ability (aka agility), explosive straight line speed, contact with other athletes, etc. each position in each sport will require these in varying degrees, where the real difference lies is in the conditioning requirements of the athletes. Rugby is much more continuous sport whereas American football is divided into plays with separate offences and defences and special teams; this requires completely different energy system training. So here are some questions that you want to ask when determining the needs of your sport:

  1. How do I produce force? Is it in a straight line, or am I required to generate forces in many different planes?
  2. How much force do I have to produce? Think shot-put vs badminton
  3. How long to I have to produce this force?  Think powerlifting (unlimited, but average of 6s per lift) vs long jump (0.2s or less)
  4. How stable is my playing surface (field vs ice vs snow etc)? How will I balance?
  5. What do I come in contact with, and how predictable are these collisions? Remember to factor in collisions like hitting an implement like a puck or ball. What muscles will need to stabilize these collisions?
  6. How long are my games? Do I have breaks or shifts, or am I required to move for long periods of time?

These are just a start, but if you can answer all these questions, you’re well on your way to designing an effective program

Strength to Weight Ratio Requirements

“I gained 25lbs this off season!” is something you want your offensive lineman to say, or maybe your net front presence defenceman, power forward, or shot-put athlete. If your sprinter comes back and says the same thing you may have a problem, and if your cross country runner or triathlete comes in and says that, you definitely have a problem (provided they weren’t severely underweight to begin with).

As an offensive lineman your job is to put the D-Line on their ass, or make room for the running back etc. you generally don’t cover a ton field during a play, and that extra mass is going to make you harder to move, provided a good amount of it was muscle, you’ve improved your sport performance. Now a sprinter is required to move as quickly as possible, so 25lbs of mass is more weight that he or she now must move at an incredible rate. The name of the game in speed sports is power to weight ratio, so unless that 25lbs came all from fast twitch muscle fiber growth (which by the way is almost impossible)  you have a problem. Sure you may have marginally increased strength, but if it doesn’t offset the amount of mass that came along with it, you’re now slower.

If the endurance sport athlete comes in and says they’ve put on 25lbs over the off season, i don’t care if that weight was muscle or fat, you have a problem. 25lbs of extra tissue is 25lbs more you now have to keep alive, and supply oxygen to during your races, meaning that the demand on your metabolic systems is now much higher than it was before, and since the forces you’re required to generate in long distance running is between 6-10x less than those generated in sprinting, you’re not going to see much of a performance enhancement coming from that extra muscle mass. Don’t get me wrong, distance runners absolutely must strength train – it improves running efficiency and reduces injury risk, but their training had better have minimal impact on bodyweight.

What Type of Conditioning Do I Need?

This topic really deserves it’s own article, and it will get it, but for now, appreciate that the body has different energy systems and different fuel sources. Although there is some value to training some systems outside of the ones that you normally compete, the take home message is that as the season approaches you should be using conditioning exercises that closely replicate the duration of movement and the duration of rest that you’ll see in your competitive environment, which leads me to my last point

When Do I Practice and Compete?

Are you training in the weight room the same way in season as you are in the off season? This might be the biggest mistake I see athletes making, they either train way too hard during the season, trying to add 4-5 sessions on top of 4 practices and 3 games a week, then they wonder why their performance is suffering and they feel so tired all the time. On the other hand there’s the athlete that continues their 2x per week program into the offseason and doesn’t use the extra recovery ability to significantly improve their performance and therefore misses a huge opportunity to get an advantage over their competition. Your training should vary around the other demands in your sport training schedule, giving respect to the emotional demands of competition and their effects on the body systems. Some sports require general athletic abilities to be kept at a relatively high level most of the year, where some, like many fight sports, may require those abilities to peak at specific time several times a year – your training plan should reflect this!

If you take anything away from this article make it this: Training programs should be athlete specific first and foremost, sport specific, and take into consideration the other demands of the sport competition and practice schedule. If you do this, you’re way ahead of the guy following the program they got off bodybuilding.com

 

 

How Gym Mirrors Make you Weaker, and How to Hack the Visual Systems for Better Performance (Part 2)

  

Now last article I hinted at the partial and fully blindfolded method, and how and when to use them. If you haven’t read part 1 of this article go read it now. Seriously, click that little menu button, and go to the home page and it’s the article right underneath this one. For those of you that won’t, here is the basic points:

  1. Your brain lifts the weight; your muscles are passive and just apply the force they’re told to
  2. Vision is incredibly complex and takes a lot of attention and focus – “brain horsepower” that isn’t being used to power your muscles
  3. Mirrors invert the image and your brain must work even harder to produce an image. This makes you react slower, and your output to the muscles weaker
  4. Looking in the mirror, you make small mistakes that you can’t see, often leading to pain and cumulative injury. Mirrors actually make your form worse.
  5. You have an internal movement analysis system call the proprioceptive system, and it’s faster and more accurate than the visual system. Increase the output of the proprioceptive system by focusing less on the visual and more on the internal
  6. Face away from the mirror when working in the rack

So hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that mirrors aren’t helping you in your quest to improve your form or increase your strength, and the take home point was to turn around and face away from the mirror while in the rack, this time around I want to take it a step further, and show you how you can hack the visual systems to improve strength and coordination, and improve athletic performance, here’s how:

The relationship between vision and the inner ear, how less than 1% of your vision takes 50% of the brain’s visual processing, how an exercise fits on the stability continuum changes the need for focal vision

Try this:

  1. Take your squat position, and put your arms straight out in front of you (think old school zombie movie or frankenstein)
  2. Close your eyes
  3. Squat to the bottom and hold for a 3-4 seconds
  4. Return to the start
  5. Bonus points if you can have someone film you eyes open vs eyes closed
  6. Repeat the experiment with one leg in front of the other and do a split squat
  7. Repeat the experiment by taking one leg off the ground and doing a single leg deadlift

Chances are that if you are a decent squatter that you accomplished the bodyweight squat with little difficulty, and with the eyes closed, it was smooth and you may have noticed some sensations you don’t normally notice (glute stretch in the bottom, the thighs pressed against the torso, tension in your knee etc). If you filmed the two attempts, you’ll probably notice that the eyes closed version looks smoother and more controlled than the eyes open one. Chances are the split squat was harder, but you probably still did it. If you weren’t able to do the first two, then your proprioceptive system needs some work, but fear not, there’s instructions on how to improve below. Now for the one legged deadlift; if you did it, congratulations, you have a very efficient proprioceptive system, but even if you did, it was probably pretty damn difficult and may have taken you a couple of tries.

So closing the eyes improved the bodyweight squat but made the split squat and one legged deadlift worse. In all three of the exercises we closed the eyes to increase the output of the proprioceptive system (much like the blind man example in part 1) and took away the visual system’s scanning of the external environment. So what was the difference, and how are we going to use this information? The biggest difference was the stability demands of the exercise; with each progression the exercise selection became more unstable.

Low stability demand exercises, think two feet on the ground or torso supported, centre of gravity (the weight being used) is at or below the hips, and moving in one plane (not twisting or rotating in multiple directions) i.e. deadlift variations, bench press variations, T-bar rows, barbell hip thrusts etc. rely more on your strength than on your ability to balance. These types of exercises benefit from eyes closed or or fully blindfolded methods by taking the attention normally spent on the visual system and allowing you to focus it entirely on the internal cues arising from your proprioceptive system. This can increase the control you have over that motor pattern, leading to more efficient patterns of muscle recruitment, better movement quality, and increased strength.

Somewhere in the middle of the continuum lies exercises like loaded squats (these are different than our bodyweight example because the centre of gravity is higher), split squats, lunge variations, and other exercises where you actually move through space or rotate like barbell twists. These exercises have a high strength and high stability demand, and therefore completely closing the eyes doesn’t usually improve performance or the rate of skill/form acquisition, this is due to the relationship between the horizon and the inner ear.

You may have had a bad cold or ear infection and felt incredibly dizzy or had mild vertigo; this happens from changing or closing off the input from the inner ear. When the information from the inner ear and the visual system don’t agree, this causes huge problems for you and the resulting confusion usually leads to dizziness, nausea and generally a shitty day. The inner ear and visual system work together and check each other to help you make a decision on where you relate to the pull of gravity and the horizon. So as the stability demands of an exercise increase, so does the need for the visual system, so does this mean we need to take all that valuable attention away from our proprioceptive system and neural drive to the muscles? No, we can use a portion of the visual field instead.

Less than 1% of our visual field takes up 50% or more of our brain’s visual processing power. It’s the 2-3 millimetres right in the center of our visual field and it’s responsible for all the fine detail we see. Try it out, focus on the “O” in this random assortment of letters STKFFTRFOGHTSTVVS now try to read the rest of the letters without changing your focus from the centre of the “O”. The thing is, for exercises in the middle of the continuum, we don’t need this type of focus, we just need a general sense of where we relate to the pull of gravity, and most of that information comes from the very bottom of our peripheral vision. This is where the partial blindfolded method comes in. If you tie a blindfold so that it comes just below the bridge of your nose, the relationship between the inner ear and the visual system is maintained, and your balance improves drastically; however, you still take advantage of the higher output to the proprioceptive system and higher neural drive to the muscles. Meaning all the good things mentioned above, smoother motion, increased strength, and better movement quality still apply.

How about high stability demand exercises? Ones in this category include high velocity movements, especially overhead, or exercises where your head and or body will be moving through space in large degrees. Examples would be the olympic movements and their variations, any kind of jumping or plyometrics, or anything involving catching an implement. For these types of exercises you react not only to gravity, but also to another objects, or are required to manage other significant multi-planar forces; this is what vision is designed for and you need to use it in it’s entirety. That being said, many of these movements can be broken down into components that would fit into the medium to low stability demand area of the continuum, and improved. Once those improved pieces are reintegrated into the whole movement, the whole movement usually improves by better sequencing, improved strength, and hitting key positions in the movement. For example, a kick in soccer could be reduced to the lower leg swing, it could be made more efficient, strengthened, and increased in power, then when the athlete integrates that motion into the full kick with lead up, an increase in shot velocity and accuracy occurs.

You’re now miles away from that person who was squatting in the mirror with terrible form and nagging knee pain, but what if that nagging knee/ankle/hip/shoulder pain isn’t going away? In part 3 I’ll go over how to modulate the visual system to improve that nagging discomfort that could be related to joint stability.

How Mirrors Make You Weaker and Ruin Your Fitness (Part 1)

“Why do you always have your athletes facing away from the mirror when they’re in the rack?” – Great question. Actually I often take this a step or two further and partially blindfold or have them close their eyes completely depending on the stability demands of the exercise. Here’s why, and how you can instantly improve your fitness by the simple act of turning around.

Those of you who have ever trained in a hardcore gym, athlete specific weight room, or spent some significant time in a good physiotherapist’s training room will probably have noticed one of the biggest differences between these facilities and a commercial gym (aside from the lack of redundant machines) is the lack of mirrors, but unless you’ve asked, you probably don’t know why. So here’s the slightly watered down technical explanation and some common sense examples

Lifting with your brain, attention pools, the visual system, the power of proprioception, and the blind man that can hear exactly where you are:

The first myth that needs to be dispelled is that you lift weights with your muscles. Sure they actually provide the force to overcome the inertia, but muscle tissue is actually pretty dumb tissue, it’ll respond to pretty much any electrical impulse, like a electrostim machine, a taser, or sticking a fork into an electrical socket (seriously why in this day and age do I actually have to tell you not to do this?). However, we’re going to assume you’re not hooking yourself up to your car battery every time you want to move the couch, so in everyday life the “battery” creating the electrical impulses that command your muscles to contract is actually your brain. Without the brain and spinal cord sending small electrical impulses to the muscles at all times you are literally reduced to a glorified immobile puddle of flesh that is being held together by your ligaments and bones.

Ok so the brain is pretty important; however you may have heard it doesn’t multi-task very well. Which is partially true. I don’t want to get too much into multi vs central attention pools and their effects on motor performance, but one thing we can agree on is that the more complex the task, and the more options we have, the less likely it is that we will be able to do anything else at the same time with any shred of competence. For example, If I take you out to the driving range and ask you hit a few balls, whether or not you suck to begin with, you will suck way more if you’re asked to recite the alphabet backwards while setting up and taking your shots, or you will slow significantly in your reciting while you hit the ball, but without fail, you will suck more at one of the tasks than if you were to do them separately. Now what the hell does this have to do with squatting in a mirror?

Vision is extremely complex; not only does visual information come in upside down, but it must be broken down and then reconstructed before it is interpreted and the brain makes its best guess as to what’s out there – and make no mistake, it is a guess; our visual systems are easily fooled. How complex is the system? The process is so specific that some neurons respond to lines that are exactly 45 degrees, but not to ones that are 44 or 46 degrees. So needless to say your vision is taking a lot of cognitive energy (about 30% of the cortex is dedicated to this task vs 8% for touch and 3% for hearing), and when you look in the mirror you’re inverting the image again, and your brain thinks you’re an asshole for making the process even harder. Consequently, you must focus more of your attention on processing visual information and less on the task of coordinating those millions of electrical impulses that are controlling the muscles involved in your squat. Just like when you were 10 and playing with your remote control car, when the battery dies the car gets slower and reacts poorly; your muscles are no different. So by simply looking in the mirror to improve your form, you’ve actually made yourself worse at the task, and made yourself slower and weaker. You’re also taking away some of the attention from a very powerful system of motor coordination: the proprioceptive system.

Unlike the visual system that focuses on the external environment and how you relate to it, the proprioceptive system is an internal system that communicates positions of joints in relation to each other and muscular tension differentials, among other things, and it just so happens to be way faster and more accurate than the visual system for coordinating movement. The problem is that we’re hard wired to accept visual information as more important and more accurate; however, if you just turn around and face away from the mirror, you never give your brain the chance to override proprioceptive input with doubly inverted visual information,  and you’ll instantly starting moving better. A common phenomenon that occurs when you turn someone around and face away from the mirror is that previously painful movements are suddenly pain free; this occurs by correcting small, visually imperceptible, movement errors that cause tissue to be overloaded.

So this proprioceptive system is pretty bad ass, but can we make it even better? What about the blind man that can hear exactly where you are in a room, how does he fit into all this? Well he provides a real world example of how you can hack the visual system to improve the other sensory systems. Most of us know that blind people have better developed sense of smell, hearing, and touch to respond to their external environment, and this is partially due to the attention that is not being used to run the visual system. We can take advantage of the same effect and increase the sensitivity of the proprioceptive systems by partially blindfolding athletes or asking them to close their eyes. There are specific instances as to when to apply one over the other, more on that in part 2.

For now, the take home points are:

  1. When you look in the mirror you make form worse and your output is weaker
  2. Turn the hell around.

Make sure you don’t miss part 2 by subscribing to the Blacksmith Fitness Facebook page, and for many other fitness/athletic training articles ranging from elite hockey training to cutting up for summer