Written by Dave Thomas
I write mostly on the Performance360 website these days, but I keep this blog around for more of my personal opinions rather than corrective or general coaching. Today I share some thoughts I’ve had about overall programming, oversights I’ve made and where we are still screwing up in the industry.
(By the way, the blog we have created over at P360 is outstanding, with consistent contributions from some smart developing coaches and minds. If it’s not a part of your training reading then I recommend you check it out.)
The Oly obsession. I love Olympic lifting and understand the benefits. I’m a certified USA Olympic Weightlifting Coach and we either snatch or clean in some capacity every week at Performance360. But, as a collective industry of coaches and lifters we need to really pay attention in how obsessed we seem to be getting with these movements. Unless you are a competitive weight lifter, they should certainly be a part of, but not the be all end all of your program. Every program would benefit from equal parts power lifts and Oly lifts, and include a heavy dose of ballistic movements (not just box jumps), isometric training, grip work, forward speed, some lateral movements (because sagittal is not the only plane of movement) and even some plain ol’ isolated hypertrophy.
I remain very critical of how low the barrier to entry is to barbell snatching while conditioning. The reps past five. The heavy snatches when you’re exhausted. They gotta go, folks. There’s ten thousand better ways to carry out a challenge than high velocity, high volume overhead lifts until you can’t feel your arms.
More isometrics and ballistics. I believe a lack of diversity in isometrics and ballistic movements are two massive pitfalls in most programming, and an area I personally fell short on in 2013 programming at our gym. One of our biggest goals in 2014 has been to include more of both, as the benefits of both are immediate.
On the surface, isometric work looks boring and unproductive. You’re just holding something or maintaining a body weight position, why would that work? Turns out, for the purpose of motor unit recruitment and strength, isometric holds (95%) trump both eccentric (88%) and concentric (89%) phases of movement in terms of the percentage of total motor unit recruitment, (1). Simply put, we are most activated and in use when we are holding weight, not moving it.
You have no doubt enjoyed the benefits of farmer walks and holds, barbell roll-outs (even though you are moving), yoga, wall sits, planks of all variety and most lately a lot of pauses and holds in movements such as pull-ups, push-ups and goblet squat holds. We’ve lately been experimenting with pauses at end range of concentrics and it’s had some favorable results so far.
This ability to recruit more units has an enormous effect on our ability to exhibit peak strength or speed by improving our neural paths, and brain to muscle communication.
Time under tension. It’s no secret that TUT is a huge part of building strength and performance. It’s another reason why isometrics such as heavy walks, holds and sled carries are very beneficial. It’s pure isometric time under tension without any concentric or eccentric muddying it up. Just non-stop near maximal recruitment of motor units with no break, a huge reason why farmer’s walks with improve just about every lift across the board.
All safe, all the time is great. For a while. Safety comes first. Always. “Do no harm”. But it doesn’t mean it reigns over everything you do like a rain cloud preventing sunny days. Sooner or later, to get to the level most of us want to achieve, we’re going to have to push our limits and step outside of our cozy nest in the trust tree. Not nose dive out of it, just slowly crawl out and onto the branch. As a coach, effectively communicating and governing over this process is perfectly acceptable, and I’d even go so far as saying it’s part of your responsibility to your client/member’s results. There’s quite a difference between jackass movements and rep schemes and challenging yourself in movements of slight compromise. The key is building up the requisite trunk musculature and stabilizing muscles. Good coaches know this and don’t bat an eye about transitioning clients into this zone. Crappy ones prevent their clients from ever doing so because they don’t know the movements.
“If you build it, it will come”. The worst mistake I see in training is also the one that’s hardest to correct, and that’s when people refuse patience and rush the process. Performing lat pulldowns and hack squats does not qualify us to immediately start deadlifting 300# for reps. Whether it’s born out of ego or not listening, on the occasion I do see injuries the culprit is timeline jumping in 95% of instances. Most people assume injury happens from poor technique and that is just not the case in real life. It happens when underdeveloped muscles are over-activated and asked to do too much.
Folks not taking the time to build up their stabilizers and deeper trunk musculature, and when it comes time to need those muscles and relied upon kinetic awareness, they are nowhere to be found. It’s also a great way to make sure you hit a plateau far earlier than you should. So slow down if you are just starting out on a serious program. You will get stronger by the mere act of regularly training your central nervous system.
Go lighter for peak extension speed. I posted an article on the Performance360 website about when it’s a mistake to perform heavy kettlebell swings, and many people completely missed the mark on my point. Look, heavy swings are great. I swing 200# for reps a few times per month so I’m not advocating swinging the Skittles. But sub-maximal swings at 70% to target angry speed and power will trump slow swings at maximal load any damn day of the week. I once read something by Matt Chan that said, “violent hip extension is a universal principle”, and it resonated with me. A bear trap doesn’t politely close shut, it snaps shut like it’s trying to maim. It has a purpose that requires speed and intent. The only way to reach that peak level of violent speed in a swing is at a weight you can control and inflict purpose upon. That’s not to say 48 kilo swingers for 100 reps should swing 18’s, but a 25% reduction in load for day of 70 – 100 swings? Absolutely. I have seen lighter swings at peak speed break more deadlift lockout plateaus than I have heavy swings in 2nd gear.
If you are going so heavy to the point it’s just rocking chair momentum, you are likely just overloading your traps by muscling the weight, over gripping in your hands and frying your forearms, and not engaging your hips/glutes at any level. Dial back, reach hip extension as fast as possible. Be in athletic, powerful control.
Bands for advanced athletes? If you have hit a plateau on gymnastic and body weight movements, break out the bands for either assistance or resistance. Yes, I am talking to you, strong guys and gals! Bands on pull-ups are not just for those who can’t do them. David Dellanave had a good article that echoes a lot of the training we’ve been doing lately at Performance360. I have been personally experimenting with band-only pull-ups the last few months, sets of 10-20 strict and it’s been enormously beneficial.
To break a volume plateau, your body must go through the volume you want to reach. And the only way to add more volume than you are regularly capable is by adding assistance. Hop on a band, activate the lats and pull. Nothing better reminds you that pull-ups are supposed to use your lats than how they feel 24 hours after 100 strict band pull-ups.
You can also use bands as resistance to wrap hand-to-hand around your back for push-ups or for increasing your vertical with banded broad jumps.
Bands are a great way to get stronger and faster without the daily abuse of weight training.
Keep it simple. Keep it stupid. One of my former teachers, Spencer Aiken, once drilled into me this very notion. That when in doubt, simplify. I’ve never been a huge fan of a percentage-based strength program. I am not saying they don’t work, there is years of smart people and Olympics results that says they do. But the easiest and one of the best guaranteed way to constantly get stronger without the rigidity of a percentage program is to simply add five pounds every time you lift. The volume shouldn’t matter too much as you will likely be able to hand that increase anywhere from 2-5R. Remember, gains are gains. Even the small ones.
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