Sunday, December 23, 2012

Travelling Plank. (Progress The Plank And Make It More Interesting).

The Plank is probably one of the most popular 'core' exercises in every gym and studio in the world. But lets face it, holding a plank is boring. And once you can do it for 60 seconds you need to progress it on. Enter the Travelling Plank.

First things first, you need to be able to do a plank. If you can't hold a plank for 30 seconds, or if your lower back is bowing down like a false ceiling after a flood or your hips are so far in the air people think you are doing a downward dog yoga pose; then you need to work on your basic plank first.

If you can hold a plank, keep a neutral spine, brace if needed, keep a neutral relaxed neck then you are ready for the travelling plank.

See the video below for a demonstration.

How to do it

Before you start to move try a standard 3-point plank. This means lift one leg off of the floor and then try lifting one arm off of the floor. Try to go for a very small lift to begin with. Many people try to do a big range of movement and they have no control. You want to keep your hips level and only move the arm or leg a very small amount. Keep breathing! And keep control.

Next you are ready for the Travelling Plank. It is a cross-crawl pattern or contra-lateral arm and leg lift, in other words lift the opposite arm and leg. Then start to creep forward.

In the video above, you can see the first person doing the exercise(Carla) is staying very low to the ground, the movement has a fluid smooth quality to it. The forearms are pronated (palms down) and relaxed as they lift. This arm position puts the shoulder blades in a better position and stops people forming  a fist and tensing unnecessarily. Carla is also really getting the ankles flexing and extending to propel her forward. The 'core' stays stable and the rest of the body moves around it.

In the second part of the video you can see Nathan has a different technique. He is staying more rigid, it is not as fluid and he is holding longer between movements, his hips also move up and down more than Carla's. I prefer the more fluid technique, but both are valid. Also, to be fair to Nathan he had just finished an Olympic lifting and squat workout and was pretty much smoked.

Once you have moved forward, you can then move backwards. This is harder to grasp and not as smooth as moving forward. You will also feel the backward movement working muscles differently to the forward version, especially in the legs.

Time & Reps

Unlike the standard plank you have to think about this exercise. You can't just hang out for 2 minutes bored. It is more challenging than the normal plank, you wont be able to do it as long. I recommend creeping back and forward until your abs start burning or until your technique is compromised. There is no need to time or count reps, go by feel.

This is great variation to do in a circuit class, if you have a long stretch of mats, you can travel for distance, to the end and back. If you don't have much space, like in the video, you can move back and forward, for example, 2 steps, forward, 2 steps back, you can do this exercise on one mat if need be, though going for distance is more fun. Travelling forward 3 to 5 metres is challening to begin with.

Try It

As this is more challenging and mindful than a standard plank you wont be able to switch off and smash out hundreds of reps.

Dare I say it is more functional than the normal plank, as the core is stable while the arms and legs move, it helps to connect the body together. Much like all human gait, the opposite arm and leg are moving, you are also getting some shoulder stability and ankle mobility to boot. Now, I'm not saying it's a natural movement, you don't see any babies doing the travelling plank after crawling. However, it will challenge your core and co-ordination and is more fun than all the standard planks, and it is much harder than you think it is going to be.

As always, if your lower back hurts or anything else hurts - stop! Otherwise keep travelling until you feel that core working.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I don't need to lift weights, I'm a runner. Right?

Nearly every running magazine contains some kind of resistance training routine. Whether it be a perfunctory core routine consisting of planks and side planks or a more comprehensive leg routine of lunges, single leg squats, and even plyometrics; every month it is part of the content.

But do most runners actually do any of these routines? Is resistance training in any form part of their training program? And does it have to be?

With limited time the first thing most recreational runners drop is a weight training program, then if they are doing any speed intervals or track work that is the next thing to go if time is short. Most runners training for half marathons and marathons will have a long slow run normally at a weekend, they are loathed to drop this, but if they have to this will be the next thing to go. Until all they are left with is the standard 4-5 mile moderate run, which is relatively easy to fit in, but out of all the training sessions achieves the least amount. This should be the first thing that is dropped.

So with limited time is it worth integrating resistance training into your program. To be part of your training it needs to achieve three things:

  1. Help prevent injuries and bulletproof your body
  2. Help you run faster and possibly further
  3. Not injure you (many strength coaches seem to miss this point, if the strength program injures the athlete they are definitely never going to do it again)

But Kenyans Don't Lift Weights?

It is well documented that Kenyan runners generally don't lift weights (Tanser 2008, Finn 2012). They do intervals, fartlek, track work, they run up hills and they live at altitude but they don't lift weights.

In the USA half of all Olympic Marathon Trial qualifiers were found not to do any strength training and the other half averaged 1 to 1.5 strength training sessions per week (Karp, 2010)

So if someone of the best long distance runners in the world don't lift weights why should you?

Isn't Running Hills Like Strength Training?

Some running coaches like Brad Hudson don't believe in strength training for runners. Hudson thinks hill sprints are all the strength training that runners need. Much like strength training, Hudson thinks hill sprints will strengthen muscle and connective tissue, hence prevent injury. In addition he calls them 'muscle training', they help neuromuscular adaption and should make your running more efficient and improve running economy. Hudson outlines how to do them here.

In essence you do short 8-10 second sprints up a hill with a gradient of at least 6% (or if you're like most people just find a hill that looks steep). You build up to 10 sprints. They key is these are not hill repeats, they are all out efforts, so recovery time is long, 1 minute or more, or an easy walk back to the start between reps. You would do this session twice a week.

For most distance runners this is a great session to incorporate into your training. It will add much needed speed and strength and it is a relatively short session. Most distance runners ( and by this I mean 10k, half marathon, marathon and ultra) do no speed work or sprint work, and even if you do no resistance training these hill sprint sessions would be a great addition to your training.

But Hang On, Mo Farah & Scott Jurek Lift Weights

Steve Magness, the former scientific advisor to Mo Farahs training group coached by Alberto Salazar, states that Farah was put on a strength and conditioning programme when he arrived in Oregon (Halford, Athletics Weekly, 2012).

"Salazar has said that Farah was the 'weakest athlete I'd ever trained' when it came to doing press ups, sit-ups and single leg squats, so that was put right with three or four hours a week in the gym." (Halford, 2012:61)
Although Farahs actual program isn't outlined, we can get a hint of it from the quote above, I have also seen TV footage of him doing front squats and single leg work. Also, the amount of time devoted to strength training shows that Farah wasn't just doing one session a week. The results of his program are there for all to see, no one else could live with him on the final lap of the 5,000m or 10,000m in the London Olympics.

The one at the front lifts weights

In his book Eat & Run Scott Jurek recommends doing supplemental strength training and core work. This is interesting, as the distances he is running are 50 or 100 miles plus, so the concept of having to have a powerful sprint finish as Farah would need in the 5,000m is not the main rationale.

Interestingly in another article Jurek outlines something he calls 'super reps' ( see here )

"Leg strength workouts can vastly improve fatigue resistance without running a step. Low resistance super-reps are the best type of strength workout for runners. Super-reps are completed with low resistance for two to five sets of 50 to 100 repetitions or more. Get off the machines and perform functional exercises, such as one leg mini squats, lunges, step-ups and step-downs, to get the most benefits" (Jurek, 2012)
 This is an interesting idea, it would go against what most strength coaches would consider strength training, and there appear to be no studies investigating very high rep training. However, the concept does makes sense to me if you are training to run 50 miles and more, these type of exercises would help to build up connective tissue, and maybe we could even surmise some extra capillaries, and mitochondrial development.

Scott Jurek - one of the greatest ultrarunners of all time recommends you do resistance training

Interestingly, this has something in common with an idea  that JB Morin has, a professor and researcher in sprint biomechanics and speed development. In an interview with Bret Contreras (see here ) Morin recommends that sprinters train the ankles for endurance

"take a 20lb barbell on the shoulders and jump from right foot to left foot while on the balls of your feet, or jump with a high frequency on one foot only for 20 reps, then on the other, and so on, or from right to left over a lane line, etc…. Do this for 3 minutes – they’ll burn like crazy. This will build tremendous ankle endurance. In addition, these muscles are involved in our overall balance while standing, so they have a high endurance, don’t hesitate to “burn” them until you can not stand on your feet, they recover very fast." (Contreras, 2012)
 In my opinion this would be an excellent drill for endurance runners, as in long distance running the amplitude of the movement is much smaller than sprinting and much more reliant on ankles and calves. I would start with no weight and do simple bounces on both legs, focusing on ankle springiness, with minimal knee bend (like you are skipping), several of these drills are outlined by Bosch & Klomp in their DVD Hardlopen - BK Method (I think hardlopen just means running in Dutch, but hey hardlopen sounds way cooler).

Okay, But What Does The Research Show?

Coaching is a blend of art and science, and we can learn from what individual elites do, but what does the research show? What is the evidence?

The first thing to note is there isn't that much research (Sargent, 2007), and most of it involves distances of 5k or less, so we can try to extrapolate to longer distance as most recreation runners are probably entering events of 10k or more and probably aren't entering 1,500m or 3,000m races.

Johnston et al (1997) studied strength training in female distance runners. They did a 10 week strength training program in addition to their normal running mileage, in comparison to a control group the strength group had a significant increase in running economy. This basically means they were using less energy at any given speed than they were before, this reduced oxygen demand

"may allow one to run longer at the same speed or faster with the same relative effort" (Johnston et al 1997:224)

The strength training regime they followed was nothing fancy, it consisted of squat, seated press, hammer curl, weighted sit up, lunge, bent-leg heel raise (calf raise I guess), bench press, latpulldown, knee extension and knee curl. Reps ranged from 20 for the calf raises to 8 for the leg curl & leg extension and 6RM for squat, press, curl & lunge. I know that some strength coaches are crying at this programme right now, Leg extension - heresy! But it worked. They did this three times a week and it improved running economy. Also importantly for paranoid females and runners, they didn't increase body mass or body circumference measure, they didn't 'bulk up' but they did get stronger. Also they didn't improve their VO2 Max but they did improve time to exhaustion. Improvements in running economy can make you faster with no increase in VO2 Max. The strength may have improved their running style, therefore making them more efficient with less energy leaks or wasted energy.

Paula Radcliffe - the fastest female marathon runner of all time - doing back squats and not bulking up

In another study Paavolainen et ak (1999) studied elite male cross country runners. They gave the runners an explosive training program consisting of plyometric exercises like jumps, 1 leg jumps, hurdle jumps ( with and without weight)  as well as leg press and knee extensor-flexor exercises (whatever this means), reps were between 5-20 with less than 40% 1RM. After 9 weeks they improved their 5k time and running economy by 8.1 and 3.1 respectively. To put this in context there is typically less than 2% difference between times of the 1st place person and the 5th placed person in every Olympic distance up to and including the marathon (Sargent, 2007). This means a 3% improvement in time is the difference between winning and coming 5th.

In the Paavolainen study again there was no increase in body mass which many runners are so afeared of. This could be because plyometric & explosive muscle contractions are too short too induce hypertrophy.

Spurs et al (2003) improved running economy using only plyometric exercises like squat jumps, double leg bounds, single leg bounds, depth jumps. They improved running economy in just 6 weeks, and the subjects were running 60-80km per week. This running volume is more typical of good level club runners and those training for marathons and more.

Millet et al (2002) gave elite level triathletes a pretty basic strength program consisting of Leg Press, Leg Curl, Leg Extension & Squat in the 3-5 rep range for 3-5 sets. These elite triathletes improved running economy by up to 6.9%, which is pretty big if you're already elite.

So it seems both basic strength training & plyometrics improve running economy and 5k times. Though plyometrics seem to work quicker and appear to be more sports specific as running is essentially a sport that happens on one leg at a time.

Well trained athletes seem to hit a ceiling in VO2 max and endurance performance. Noakes suggests that performance may be limited not only by oxygen uptake but by muscle power (Paavolainen, 1999).

But does this work for recreational athletes?

Ferrauti et al (2010) did an 8 week strength program intevention on recreational marathon runners and it made no difference in performance. This is one of the few studies I could find that looked at any distance over 5k. Kelly et al (2008) did a 10 week strength program study on female recreational runners and 3k performance. Again it made no difference to  running economy or run time. It should be noted that it didn't make them worse, it just didn't improve. The important take home message here is that if you are a new runner or haven't hit a ceiling yet, the old adage of to improve running you need to run more still applies. And if you are running for recreational purposes you can add in a strength program and it wont hinder your performance, plus you get all the benefits of a strength program and a rounded fitness regime.

How About Injury?

What we don't know from the studies above is if the strength training and plyometrics prevented injury and more importantly if they increase the rate of injury.

Runners get a lot of injuries, and most runners have appalling movement screens (and I include myself in this). If you start loading this population in squats and explosive plyometric exercises what happens? This is where appropriate coaching and exercise selection come in. Some runners just wont have the mobility or motor control to do a loaded squat, and many will have appalling plyometric technique with valgus collapse and poor spinal position. However, there is an irony here that a runner may be afraid of plyometrics but  is doing well over 1000 plyometric foot strikes per mile. This leads to another question, could we improve running economy and reduce injury just by improving technique? The answer is probably yes.

Could it be that strength training & plyometrics that are properly coached will improve running technique and improve resilience of the body.

Some simple exercises can help to prevent the most common injuries. For example, Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS) is the most common run injury and can be caused by heel striking, overstriding and internal rotation of the hips (Tucker & Dugas, 2009). Irene Davis at the University of Delaware gave a small group of runners  a gait retraining program for 4 weeks,  teaching them to strengthen and activate the external rotators of the hips. All participants rated their pain at zero by the end of the study, it was 5-7 out of 10 at the start (quoted in Tucker & Dugas). It seems logical that exercises to strengthen the external rotators like clamshells, and side lying abductors would help. And then progress to squats and one leg strength exercises, emphasizing external rotation. The same exercises could also help prevent or treat ITB syndrome.

Achilles issues like tendinosis are common in runners, especially those increasing volume or going faster. This type of injury is not inflammation, the Achilles needs to be remodelled and strengthened. Swedish researcher Alfredson found that eccentric calf raises are one of the best treatments for this. It would seem prevention is always better, so adding in some eccentric calf work and then adding load to it, should be part of an distance runners strength/prehab/bulletprooofing program.

And The Core

Running magazines love a core training program. Planks and side planks are staples. Though it makes sense that there is a connection between a strong core and running technique, posture and increased injury rate, I'm not aware of anyone making a concrete connection. Michael Fredericson of Stanford University has done a fair amount of work in this area ( you can get a free download core program here ). There are some good things in this program. Personally I would avoid the crunch and wobble board work (unless you have a history of ankle sprain) and focus on dead bugs, pallof presses and I would say loaded carrys should be done by runners as well. To do a loaded carry put a weight in one hand (kettlebell, dumbbell, sandbag) and walk up and down (simple, thanks Dan John) while keeping symmetrical. If you think about it, this is like a standing side plank, a more functional side plank if you will. McGills work on this exercise has been with strong men, but thinking logically I like this for endurance athletes too.

This is one of the first pictures that came up when I put kettlebell carry into google. Apparently this person is famous too. I prefer doing this with one kettlebell - like a vertical side plank but more functional. And doing it on a ledge will help prepare you for trail running

Meanwhile In The Soviet Union

As you would expect the East Europeans tried strength training and explosive plyometrics with their middle distance runners way before anyone in the West. In his book The Block Training System in Endurance Running Verkhoshansky (2007) outlines a whole program. In typical Soviet style it is a very complicated and long winded way of telling you to use essentially 2 exercises - the squat jump and scissor jump. (He does also mention using a kettlbell jump & fast hip flexor movement with a cable attached). The Soviets  tracked their athletes for a long time, three years of data not just 6 weeks. The training program they employed using these 2 exercises plus the usual fartleks, hill repeats show an improvement in the runners doing it compared to a control group. Though the distances concerned are what I would consider middle distance, 1500m and 3000m, distances rarely done by anyone whose not a track athlete.

Also, on the front of the book Verkhoshanky has a picture of Ovett & Coe. This is somewhat bizarre, as these two athletes regularly beat all the East European runners and didn't use any of these methods! It is well documented that Seb Coe was ahead of his time in using strength training, and this would have been back in the day of the old school multi-gym. It seems unlikely that either Coe or Ovett or any Kenyan were following a complicated block training system approach. Of course, this doesn't mean it doesn't work, the research shows plyometricsd are effective.

Coe & Ovett didn't follow a block training system, but apparently they were still pretty good at running. And Coe did lift weights

What I like about the Verkhoshansky program, is the purity, just 2 exercises. Any runner should have time to fit these in.

A few other lessons can be learned from the East Europeans. Bondarhcuk was one of the top throwing coaches but his principles can be applied to any sport (Bingisser, 2010). A few principles to consider

  1. athletes have limited time & energy
  2. general strength often isn't the answer
  3. special strength often is the answer
  4. pay attention to individuality
  5. discover the role of regularity
  6. always remember technique
  1. We have seen already that many runners don't have much spare time and coaches are often reluctant try and add in strength training. Remember it doesn't have to be a long session, Verkhoshansky used 2 exercises.
  2. There is a concept of redundant strength. There is a point where having any more upper body strength will not make you any better at running, in fact, too much muscle mass could make you worse. But don't forget that in the studies outlined above, many runners benefited from general strength training to begin with, as many of them had no background experience in resistance training, the initial neural adaptions helped them.
  3. The exercises should be specific to improving endurance running. Many strength coaches miss this point, they write exactly the same training programs for endurance runners as they do for sprinters and explosive sports, this is probably because it is what they are comfortable with and what they know. Running is a single leg sport, and endurance running doesn't have much hip flexion or knee bend, remember that.
  4. Individuality in strength training for runners is important. If they don't have the technique for plyometrics or they have injuries or weaknesses, you need to address those first. If you are training yourself, be very honest about what you need to work on.
  5. Bondarchuk & Verkhoshansky have very simple programs in terms of exercise selection for sports, and they didn't change that much. The exercise programme should help you run further or faster and prevent injury. Its not about getting better at Olympic lifting, or Squats or entering a powerlifting meet or how high you can box jump, its about getting better at running. You get better at something by doing it repeatedly not by changing it too often.
  6. Technique is especially important if the runner is a novice at resistance training. Also think about your running technique, what will improve it.
Putting It All Together

At last, if you read all that, well done. In summary

  1. Any basic strength training program should improve your running economy
  2. Plyometrics seem to work quicker and are more specific, and you wont 'bulk up'
  3. If you are a beginner, to get better at running you need to run more but strength training wont make you worse and has many additional benefits
  4. If you really don't want to do strength training do hill sprints,but you really should lift weights
  5. It doesn't have to be complicated, 2 to 4 exercises, 2-3 times a week will have an effect
Based on this, a simple program could look like

Day 1

Mobility work to begin with: Clamshells, side lying abductors, glute bridge, 1 leg glute bridge, hip flexor stretch, cat camel

Strength - I like single leg work, but squats and machines all worked in the studies outlined

A1 Single leg RDL 3-4 x 6
A2 Bulgarian split squat (rear elevated split squat) 3-4 x 6

B1 Press Up 3 x 10
B2 TRX Row 3 x 10

C1 Core: Pallof Press, loaded carries to finish.
C2 Eccentric calf raise

Single leg RDL with kettlebell. If you're lucky enough, you can do this on a beach. I don't know who the person in the picture is

Day 2 - or a progression from day 1

Dynamic warm up - leg swings etc

Squat Jumps 3 x 10
Box Jump  3 x 10 - keep knee angle the same when landing as when jumping
Single Leg Bounds 3x5 each leg
Double leg bounces - stay springy - use the ankles - minimal knee bend like skipping

Single leg hops JB Morin Style with or without weight - 3 mins on each leg

Scott Jurek Hi rep finishers:
Single leg mini squat x 50/ side

Core: dead bug variation

Add in some flexibility work and away you go. Of course the above is generic, but it shows you what can be done. The options and progressions are limitless, but keep it simple people.


The research shows that resistance training does improve running economy in distances up to 5k. No one knows the optimal dosage or exercises or the best ones to do, that's where the art comes in. There is very limited research in this area, and research relating to Olympic lifts and running and ultra running and any type of strength training is non existent (if anyone wants to fund my PhD on this, let me know).

Run coaches have been reluctant to add in resistance training due to lack of time, lack of knowledge and if it ain't broke don't fix it attitude. But we have seen that Mo Farah and some of the best runners in the world do lift weights.

Strength coaches have more or less based their long distance running programs off of traditional sprint programs, making runners faster at sprinting. Which is okay if you are elite and are sprinting at the end of the race to be top 3 but are much less applicable to the average 10k runner who wants to improve their PB, and avoid injury.

Resistance training in any form, just twice a week is a worthwhile addition to nearly every training schedule. It can improve your running economy, help prevent injury, make you faster, improve your posture and doesn't have to be complicated.

So go out and run (and lift some weights too).


Bingisser M (2010) Simplifying Bondarhcuk. Modern Athlete & Coach. 48(2) 27-31
Ferrauti et al (2010)
Kelly et al (2008)
Finn A (2012) Running With The Kenyans
Halford P (2012) The Appliance of Science. Athletics Weekly. October 4. 60-61
Johnston R E et al (1997) Strength Training in Female Distance Runners: Impact on Running Economy. Journal of strength & conditioning research. 11(4) 224-229
Jurek S (2012) Eat & Run
Karp JR (2010) Strength Training for Distance Running: A Scientific Perspective. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 32(3) 83-86
Millet GP, Jaouen B, Borrani F, Candau R (2002) Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running economy and VO2 kinetics. Med Sci Sports Exerc 34 (8): 1351-1359.
Paavolainen L, Hakkinen K, Hamalainen I, Nummela A, Rusko H (1999) Explosive strength training
improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J Appl Physiol 86 (5):1527-1533.
Sargent D (2007) The Effects of Resistance Training On Running Economy - A Review. UKSCA, Journal of strength & conditioning (no number or vol)
Tanser T (2008) More Fire. How To Run The Kenyan Way
Tucker R & Dugas J (2009) The Runners Body
Verkhoshansky Y (2007) The Block Training System in Endurance Running.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

So Many Mobility Exercises So Little Time. Which Ones Should You Do?

There are hundreds of mobility exercises, and some are better than others. With limited time, which ones should you do? Which ones will achieve the most in the time available? A quick straw poll amongst the trainer and coaches I know, revealed the following three to be our current favourites.

Of course, these aren't the only mobility exercises or drills we do and depending on your individual needs, injuries and goals there may be better choices for you. With that caveat in mind, here are three mobility exercises you or your clients should try.

Cat Camel

Why Should You Do This?

If like most people you spend much of your day sitting, or driving or stuck in one position your back gets glued up and stuck. The cat/ camel can provide some active flexibility for the back with minimal loading. It is often a starting point for people with back pain. It is proven to reduce the viscosity (makes it less glued up and reduces friction) in the spine & torso (McGill, 2002 & 2007). Before you work out or anytime during the day when you have been stuck in one position jump down and do some cat camels to get the back moving more efficiently. The beauty of the cat camel is just about everyone can do it

How To Do It

On all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips. Then get the whole spine to move up and down - neck, middle back and lower back. Note this is not a stretch, in the video above you can see Nathan starts with a very small range of movement. There should be no grimacing or pushing into the end part of the movement. You only need to do 6-10 of these to get the effect of reducing viscosity in the back, there is no need to do anymore.

What Can Go Wrong?

Some people, especially those who have had or do have back pain can find it very hard to move their spine. They think they are moving their back up and down but they are not, their spine has turned into a breeze block. Look for compensation in the arms and shoulder blades. It is possible for someone to have no spinal movement and literally be bending their arms and shrugging, this has no benefit.  The person who does this is going to need extra cuing and coaching.

Also some people with sciatica may find the flexion (arching up) part of the movement increases their symptoms (McGill, 2002), they need to reduce the movement. As always, all movement should be pain free, look out for the pain face and breath holding.

Lastly, generally avoid any spine bending first thing in the morning when the back is at its stiffest and the discs have re-hydrated overnight. Otherwise, you can do this exercise any time of day.

Boot Strapper Squat

Why Should You Do This? 

I have found that this exercise is one of the quickest ways to improve someones squat depth and technique. I think Dan John probably invented it, but don't quote me on that.

There is something about the movement pattern that the body responds to. It could be because it combines a hip hinge/ deadlift movement with a squat movement. It could be because this is the way humans move when developing as babies, we generally pick weights up off the floor using a deadlift movement and when we learn to squat it is from a bottoms up position. As babies we crawl, then bear crawl and then get into a squat position and stand up.

Even if this movement has nothing to do with developmental kinesiology, it does work. I've seen clients who couldn't squat to anywhere near to parallel without knee collapse and loss of control, get to a below parallel good position squat after less than 10 repetitions of bootstrappers.

How To Do It

Grab a kettlebell by the horns, as in the video. There is something about the kettlebell shape and the way the weight pulls downwards that makes it conducive to this exercise.

Then drop into a squat position, there is a good chance you or your client will not be as mobile as Nathan is in the video clip above. Just drop as low as possible with good technique - neck neutral, lumbar spine neutral, knees pushing outwards. It's also best to do this barefoot, so you can see any compensation in the feet or ankles (trying to lift up or turn out excessively).The next stage is to push the kettlebell backwards low through your legs and push the hips up and back at the same time. You end up in a hip hinge, RDL position, again the spine is neutral, as is the neck (no cranking on the neck or looking up) and the knees are slightly bent, you should feel the tension in the hamstrings. And then slowly drop back into a squat and bring the kettlebell back up to the goblet squat position. The depth and quality of the squat should improve as you do the repetitions.

I have seen several video clips of people doing this exercise fast and for high reps, using it more as a conditioning exercise. I prefer to do it as in the video I filmed above, a smooth, controlled tempo, doing up to 10 repetitions as a mobility drill before a workout.

What Can Go Wrong?

This is one of those exercises that doesn't work well in a group training environment. You will demonstrate it, and then when you look around the class to see what people are actually doing you will cry.

Most common is for people to round their back, not hip hinge, crank their head forward and up and anything else you can think of that is wrong. Therefore, I would generally only do this exercise one to one with a client, that way you can correct and cue as needed.


As invented by Brett and Gray Cook. Hence, I have embedded their videos here as they can explain it better than me.

Most of your clients are going to look more like Brett Jones doing the exercise above. In other words, they are going to find the position hard and are going to need some props. Some might have good mobility like the video below with Gray Cook demonstrating with someone who has good mobility.

Why Should You Do This?

Did you not watch the videos above? This is going to work on your T-spine mobility, hip flexor/quad of the down leg and the lateral hip muscles of the top leg. Plus, you can work on your diaphragmatic breathing while holding the positions.

How To Do It

Like in the videos above! Most people are going to have to use some props under their knee and under their head, use whatever you have to hand, towels, yoga block, foam rollers.

What Can Go Wrong?

Some people will not be able to grab their lower leg and put it into a stretch position. In which case, a band or strap could be used, careful though, this causes some people to tense up and lose upper body positioning. These clients may be better off not trying to grab the lower leg; they should try a rib roll to begin with, just focusing on the T-spine and middle back.

Someone says they feel it in their lower back? Check the front knee/ leg position. Their hip might need more flexion and they may need that leg up on a prop to stop twist in the pelvis if they are tight in that area.

Also, look out for the pain face again. This might be a challenging mobility exercise, but you shouldn't be grimacing or holding your breath. Some people want to be martyrs and refuse to use props. Remind them this is not cheating, but actually making the movement better. No forcing, no bouncing into the movement and no pain!

Wrap Up

Try these if you haven't already done so. And if you have any mobility exercises or drills that you think are essential or should be in a program let me know.


McGill S (2002) Low Back Disorders: Evidence Based Prevention & Rehabilitation
McGill S (2007) Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance
Cook G & Jones B Kettlebells From The Ground Up DVD

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Anterior Pelvic Tilt (A Paradox, A Question, Some Possible Answers)

In this post I will cover anterior pelvic tilt, back pain, why your tight hamstrings may be trying to save you, why trying to counteract pelvic tilt with strength exercises may not work, open scissor posture and how the diaphragm could be the culprit. But first, the question.

Why do some people have excessive anterior pelvic tilt and lordosis when standing but when then go into 4-point kneeling quadruped they are able to get their spine into neutral, and sometimes when they lay on their back the spine is nearly flat? But when you return to standing they can't tilt their pelvis, they can't achieve a neutral position, they are locked in anterior tilt and hyper-lordosis.

If it was a structural issue they wouldn't be able to tilt their pelvis in 4-point kneeling and the back wouldn't go flat in supine. If it is a 'tight' muscle, why is that muscle not tight when they are on the floor?

I have observed this over and over again. As a background, I deal with a lot of people with lower back pain, but not all the people I have observed this in have back pain, but most do. I also see this mainly in women, again, mainly because I probably see more women with back pain and in classes, but also I just don't see this anterior pelvic tilt in many men.

But first things first.

What is anterior pelvic tilt?

Pelvis rotates down and forward, lower back becomes 'excessively' curved
If we consider a level pelvis to be neutral, then if it tilts down and forward it is no longer neutral, anterior pelvic tilt (APT), if it tilts the other way the pelvis has gone posteriorly and the lower back can end up flat. You can also get a paradoxical lumbar curve without the pelvis moving, the curve goes the wrong way, I have observed this in men, according to Pavel Kolar (prague school,, Dynamic Neuromuscular Stablization -DNS) this is caused by hip dysplasia. (I will say no more about this).

A couple of things to consider:

  1. If the anterior pelvic tilt isn't accompanied by any back pain or movement restriction is it really a problem?
  2. Some people have genetics that pre-dispose them to APT, this is most commonly seen in sprinters, therefore it may have an advantage for certain movements. Also be careful when looking at sprinters and some people, it may look like they have excessive APT or lumbar curve due to the size of their glutes. The glutes give the illusion of a large lumbar curve, but when you look at the lumbar spine in isolation it is  'neutral'.
What causes APT & hyper-lordosis?

As stated above it could genetics. Two other obvious scenarios: if someone is 8 months pregnant or is carrying an extra 2 stone on their gut then the reason for the APT are obvious and no amount of 'corrective' movement or breathing will make a difference.

In the women I mainly observe this in it could due to several reasons

  1. Cultural: stick out your bum, push out your chest and suck your abs in to exaggerate your attributes!
  2. Lifestyle: women wearing high heels, changes the whole kinetic chain, weight is shifted forward at the foot and everything above compensates. To be fair to the women I have observed this in aren't always big high heel wearers.
  3. A compensation or protective mechanism: If flexion is painful then the body compensates by going into extension to spare the spine and avoid the pain. But why does it go so far into extension, if neutral is also pain free?
All these can result in the classic Janda lower crossed syndrome - tight erector spinae, weak abdominals, weak glutes and tight hip flexors. However, why aren't the erector spinae tight when laying down, they can easily do a knee hug stretch, and some clients can even do core work in supine with a neutral spine, but in the plank or press up position they typically drop back into hyper-lordosis.

In standing, the pelvis tilting down can also be accompanied by the ribs going up or flaring. This results in something that the DNS folks call open scissor posture, and the point where the scissors are pivoting and where the most pressure is occurring is typically in the lumbar spine.

Open scissors posture: the front of the scissors is the pelvis and ribs moving away from each other. The pivot point is in the lumbar spine - ouch!

Toe Touches and Hip Hinging

Using the SFMA there are four scenarios, they can touch their toes (multi segmental flexion in the SFMA parlance) and it is either painful or not, they cannot touch their toes and it is painful or not painful.

The painful scenario is most obvious, flexion causes pain, they are forward flexion intolerant and are avoiding flexion because it hurts. I don't actually see the painful scenario that much in the APT clients, more typical is they can't touch their toes and it is not painful or you ask them to touch their toes and they put their hands on the floor - they are mobile...too mobile.

To the hip hinge, there are three scenarios I see

  1. They do the hip hinge, and the APT corrects itself into a normal lordosis, this doesn't happened that often, however much you coach
  2. They go into even more hyper-lordosis, with the lordosis extending up into their thoracic spine. Typically see this with the mobile Yoga types
  3. As soon as they hinge, their lumbar spine goes into flexion and rounds. They have the hip mobility of a breeze block. Therefore, they need to increase hip mobility, but not in the hip hinge position standing, because they just don't get it in this position. In this case taking them to the floor and doing a rocking squat could be a starting point, with the hips unloaded, and in this position their body doesn't have to worry about the ankle and all the other joints trying to keep them upright.

You can try to get the person with APT to squeeze their glutes. I normally demonstrate this, as when I squeeze my glutes my pelvis tilts in quite a big way. Normally 2 things happen when they try to squeeze their glutes

  1. Nothing happens, they squeeze but there is no glute contraction. If they have back pain or hip pain the glute may be inhibited, they have glute amnesia (listen to audio lecture with McGill and Liebenson where McGill states they have now proved this in the lab, )
  2. The glutes contract but the pelvis doesn't move, the APT is not being caused by the glutes not working.
All the standing glute work in the world trying to strengthen these muscles doesn't work in these cases. RDLs and Good Mornings and all that don't do anything,the glutes don't fire, or they do fire and the APT remains. And the client still has APT, excessive lordosis and is still moving through their lumbar spine.

Take the person into a supine 2 leg bridge, but be careful, at the top of extension you can see their lumbar spine actually going into more lordosis with no glute involvement. And at the start of the movement, watch, their lumbar spine flattens, they have gone into posterior pelvic tilt, but check, the glutes may still not be working. They can get into PPT in supine with no glute activation.

To really isolate the glute action here, try the one leg glute bridge aka cook hip lift. This is humbling for many people, hug one knee in and then bridge up, see how far they get with no lumbar spine help.

There are quite a few videos on youtube showing the cook hip lift, here is one 

Tight Hamstrings?

Typically if the person can't touch their toes they tend to think they have tight hamstrings.

However, in nearly every client I can think of, as soon as you lay them on their back and get them to do a straight leg raise (ASLR in the FMS) they can easily achieve 70 degrees, and most women are getting 90 degrees. And if they have 70 degrees or less, they nearly always get more range of movement with simple passive help. This shows two things, when their hamstrings are unloaded in a supine position they show normal range of movement, and if it can be passively increased immediately could it be something on the front of the thigh that doesn't have the strength to life the leg up.

I find people want to stretch their hamstrings for 4 reasons

  1. Someone told them their hamstrings were tight, like a physio
  2. They can't touch their toes - see above why in most cases the hamstrings are not short
  3. They actually feel tight all the time
  4. They want to stretch because they like it, they are good at it, and everyone has always told them more flexibility is a good thing
In the back pain client the tight hamstrings may actually be protecting them. If someone has lower back pain and finds forward flexion painful then

"If the hamstrings are tight and short they effectively prevent pelvic tilting." (Chaitow et al, 2002)

"In this respect, an increase in hamstring tension might well be part of a defensive arthrokinematic reflex mechanism of the body to diminish spinal load." (Vleeming et al, 1997 quoted in Chaitow, 2002)
 So the tight hamstrings are preventing movement that may cause pain. I would personally say that the hamstrings are actually contracting all the time rather than being 'tight'. And if they have normal ROM supine then they definitely aren't tight, your body is doing what it can to protect your spine when you stand up, if it has no other option it uses the hamstrings. These people also typically get hamstring cramping in a glute bridge.

Extension, Centration and The Mind

Normally when I ask a person with APT to lean back in standing (multi segmental extension) they can do it and there is no pain, and all sorts of McKenzie extension positions don't make any difference to pain in those with back pain (pain could stay the same, go away, get worse, or not be a problem on that particular day). On that note, it is surprising the amount of back pain patients who have had facet joint injections when extension doesn't hurt but flexion does.

If we take the person to half kneeling hip flexor stretch position we have taken out any influence from the ankle and knee joint. In this position, it is quite normal to see the hip not extending properly, the glute not firing and the lower back going into more lordosis and increasing APT, as well as the person feeling a big stretch on the front of the thigh. Is the lower back compensating for lack of hip extension?

Also, it is important to note that the person in APT doesn't feel like they are in APT, they feel normal. In the case of forward flexion back pain, has the body gone into extension to avoid pain and over compensated. Even with or without pain, has the body decided this is the default postural position, it believes it is centred. It could be compensating for head forward posture or ankle restriction or a whole host of things in the chain, but it thinks this is normal. To use Weingroff core pendulum analogy, the pendulum had swung into flexion, so the body overreacted and swung the pendulum too far into extension.

But this is only happening in a loaded position, note that when the spine isn't being loaded by gravity in standing it can go back to neutral. The brain is in control. The person has what Kolar and the DNS guys would call 'body blindness'. In the movement system Feldenkrais they talk about a Homunculus in your mind, a little version of you in space, your body has an image of where you are in space, and it may not match reality, you need to reset the system.

In the standing loaded position.

"internal forces developed by our own muscle are often more detrimental than external forces..external forces are decisive in what way external forces apply on our system." (DNS course notes)
You get told to strengthen your core or back or posterior chain, but strengthen what? In standing we're making the position worse, we need to take the person into unloaded positions or more 'primitive' postures if you will. If we change the function we may be able to change the structure (Lewit, Kolar) with the right exercise.

Its not a strength issue or a muscle issue, its a motor control issue. Having said that, there might be one muscle you need to work on first.

The Diaphragm and a possible answer

Breathing is the fitness concept de-jour at the moment, and I will cover it in more detail in another post. However, I think we need to explain exactly why breathing and the diaphragm is so important, especially when it comes to back pain. Firstly the diaphragm actually attaches to the lumbar spine and ribs, as well as many other structures and muscles in the abdomen and thorax (Chaitow, 2002), so it would seem we should train it like the other core muscles. Secondly, "the lower back is stabilised via intra abdominal pressure" (DNS notes). The diaphragm pushing down when you breathe in and helps to stabilise the spine. And in people with lower back pain this may be lost.

Nearly all the people who I have seen with APT and/or lower back pain demonstrate paradoxical breathing, which means their diaphragm and ribs move up when they breath in during normal relaxed breathing. When it should move down when they breathe in.

In a study by Kolar et al (2012, JOSPT) they scanned the diaphragms of people without back pain and compare them with those who had had chronic back pain for 6 months. In the MRI scanner, they did three things, 1) lay down normal breathing 2) then got the person to do isometric flexion of an arm 2) then isometric flexion of a leg.

(I have taken the image below from the paper, before anyone sues me, it is available on the internet for free). On the left is the diaphragm movement during normal breathing of a non painful subject, image B is the movement of the diaphragm in a person with chronic back pain.

Source: Kolar et al, JOSPT, vol 42, no.4,

But the key point is shown in the graph below, when the person is relaxed there isn't much difference between the back pain and non pain people, but as soon as the back pain people have to apply resistance the diaphragm shoots up, it becomes higher in the thorax and the amount it is moving is a lot less than in the non painful subjects.

Source: Kolar et al, 2012, JOSPT, vol 42 no 4. for full article
During strenous activity the breathing pattern in a person with back pain is altered. In a cross sectional view the front and middle of the diaphragm doesn't get recruited but the back part does, this basically pulls the spinal column up and forward causing shear forces which may make back pain worse. Also with the diaphragm higher you can surmise that intra abdominal pressure is lower and the spine is not as stable.

And this may cause the back to be unstable. Of course, there is always the possibility that the back pain caused this dysfunction and not the other way around.

"One possibility is the lack of postural diaphragmatic activation is substituted by excessive activation of the superficial lumbar paraspinal muscles, which may lead to hypertrophy and, eventually, result in lumbar hyperlordosis and/or anterior pelvic tilt. Future research should study this mechanism as possibly contributing to or even underlying the etiology of low back pain symptoms." (Kolar et al 2012:360)

Breathing incorrectly may cause the muscles in the back to become over-developed, until you addres the breathing issue those erector spinae may continue to be rock hard and switched on.

So the first port of call to resolve APT and back pain may well be breathing correctly. See the video below from Evan Osar (though he doesn't mention it all in the video this is essentially the DNS method, he does mention DNS and Kolar a fair amount in his book). This video basically covers what I woudl consider the first thing to do with someone who had APT and back pain. Note the three dimensional nature of the breathing. You will find that many Yoga disciples can easily breathe forward into their abdomen, but they will find it difficult to breathe into their back, which can really help stabilise the spine, relax the lower back and get the area into a more neutral position; all with nothing more than breathing. Simple, but easily missed in our rush to load up with weights.

In Summary

Hopefully this post has raised a few questions and given a few answers.

  • Firstly, trying to correct posture in standing with standard strength exercises may never work. You need to unload the system and reset it. And ask yourself why you are correcting it in the first place
  • The muscles just do what the brain tells them to do. The movements don't have to be complicated, they should be simple and slow to begin with, and can be quite high repetitions (15-20 reps, re-learn the motor pattern) This could be the DNS approach or a movement system like Feldenkrais or whatever exercises you find work best for you.
  • Start with breathing, the diaphragm influences spine position and stability
  • Free up muscles that are over- working, for example, 6-10 repetitions of the cat camel are proven to reduce viscosity of the muscles either side of the spine. Then progress to endurance and strength exercises like the bird dog.
  • You could then move onto more strength type moves, but stay in these more primitive positions to begin with, could be kneeling rocking squats, then cook hip lifts as well.
  • Half kneeling hip flexor stretch with core braced and back in neutral may be appropriate if your movement assessment highlights an issue.
  • The hamstrings are probably not tight and don't need stretching, they need to switch off, but they will only do that once other muscles are doing the job for them
  • The details matter
  • Breathing exercises can even be done in between sets of strength exercises, integrate into the training program
  • If somethings worth doing, do it everyday, I think Dan John said that.
The End at last


Chaitow L et al (2002) Multidisciplinary Approaches to Breathing Pattern Disorders. Churchill Livingstone
Kolar et at (2012) Postural Function of the Diaphragm in Persons With and Without Chronic Low Back Pain. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy. Vol 42, no 4
McGill & Liebenson From the Lab to the Trenches

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Older Folks Can Lift Weights Too (Especially Women)

It's never too late to start exercising and it's never too late to start lifting weights. In one study residents in a nursing home aged 72 to 98 did a 10 week strength training program, and improved their muscle strength, stair climbing and walking speed (see here).

Women especially can be nervous about lifting weights. They have traditionally gone to toning classes where 0.5kg pink dumbbells are common place, and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s might start to gravitate towards classes like Yoga, Pilates, Aquafit. There is nothing wrong with that, at least they are getting some exercise and staying active.

Just say NO!

Things have changed in society, 60s the new 40, 70s the new 59 or whatever. A couple of studio instructors were telling me the other day that when they first did their exercise to music qualifications, the advice was that any woman over the age of 50 shouldn't do a crossover step in a grapevine just in case it caused their hip to pop out of its socket. Hopefully we've moved on from those days.

I wanted to give you a couple of example of how women in their 60s and 70s can lift weights and build strength. It's time to break the stereotype.

Case Study 1

My personal training client Pat is 74 years old, in the picture below you can see she is trap bar deadlifting 50kgs. On this day Pat did 2x5 with 50kg and then 2x3 with 55kg - which equals her bodyweight.

My PT client Pat gets set to lift 50kg for 5 reps, 74yrs old

First rep complete, 4 to go. Next set was 55kg

I've been training Pat for about 5 years or so. Although she had been active her whole life, she had never really engaged in strength training before. In case you're thinking 'I can't do that' I've got arthritis, so has Pat, as well as few other issues. Since training, her arthritic shoulder has increased range of movement, decreased pain and got stronger. (Also look at this here)

A typical training session consists of foam roller, mobility work - really working on the thoracic spine and hips to improve mobility. These days Pat actually does all her mobility work before our session, so we can then get straight into weights. Then we might do a movement like the goblet squat to improve mobility, squat pattern and the classic ADL (active daily living activities), or another quad dominant movement like a step up (weighted of course). Or we might start with a hip hinge movement, broomstick warm up, RDL, rack deadlift, trap bar deadlift and so on. To work on mid back posture and shoulders we typically do a whole range of rowing movements like DB row, rope face pull, TRX row and so on, as well as some pushing work such as TRX press up and the core, and some assisted stretching and mobility.

The most important thing is Pat is open minded and will try all exercises, we've done Turkish Get Ups, powerclubs, indian clubs, prowler pushing, loaded kettlebell carries, sandbags and anything else I can think of.

We do ZERO cardio in the classic sense. We may finish a session with a prowler push or loaded carry, which in my opinion is much more specific to the older individuals needs. Pat doesn't want to run 10k but she wants to be able to go shopping, work in her garden, improve her posture and bulletproof herself against injuries and falls. Sometimes we do more circuit based training with higher reps, 12-15, but mostly we do strength work, 8 reps, 5 reps or less and supersets as well.

Let me remind you, Pat is 74 years old, and lives independently by herself.

Case Study 2

Faye, 66yrs old, prowler push finisher after a weights session
Faye has done classes her whole life, spin, aerobics, bodybalance, as well as taking part she also teaches them. She only started lifting weights few months ago in our PT sessions. In fact she was so nervous of the gym, she would only train with her friend.

Lifting weights in the gym has been a revelation for Faye, as she told me yesterday, she loves the weights, it suits her body type and explosive muscle type. In her own words, she has been doing cardio for years and struggling, but with the weights she has found her niche. Yesterday, Faye did an 80kg trap bar deadlift for 3 reps, and it went up fast and easy. Bear in mind, Faye is classic class participant, and up until a couple of months ago hadn't picked up a dumbbell heavier than 5kg.

Again, we do ZERO cardio in the sessions, as I know Faye gets enough cardio with the spinning and classes she does. Training consists of strength moves like overhead pressing, bench press, incline bench, squats, deadlifts and rows (all of which Faye has picked up the technique for almost immediately, if Faye had been introduced to strength training in her 20s I wonder how much she could have lifted eventually?!). Again sessions are varied and can include cables, TRX, sandbags, but barbells and dumbbells are central.

Mid prowler sprint. Oh, and the lady in the background is Faye's training partner. She is only in her 50s, has had 2 hip replacements, teaches yoga, spin and lifts weights

So there it is, Faye is 66 years old, never lifted weights seriously until a few months ago and is now trap bar deadlifting and pushing the prowler

Exercise - the magic pill

Research now shows that the benefits of exercise are unequivocal. In a recent article in the New Scientist, the author stated

"It has the potential to prevent more premature deaths than any other single treatment, with none of the side effects of actual medication."
Exercise has been shown to reduce the rate of heart disease, stroke, obesity, cancer and Alzheimer's. It is twice as effective as the anti-diabetes medication Metformin, a weekly 'dose' of it halves the risk of breast cancer and reduces bowel cancer risk by 60%. And in one study of older individuals it improved memory by 15-20%. (New Scientist, issue 2879).

As diabetes researcher Erik Richter says

"It's a wonder drug"
It's never too late

A recent study of 1,800 people in Sweden over 75 years old, showed that an active lifestyle increased life expectancy by 6 years. Swimming, walking and gymnastics (not sure what the Swedish define as gymnastics) alone increased life expectancy by 2 years. Even after 85 years old, healthy lifestyle factors increased life by 4 years. See here for details

Most studies focus on cardiovascular training and health (one study of 50,000 people showed 16% of all deaths were due to lack of cardiorespiratory fitness, more than obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol combined! And twice as many as smoking!!). So you still need to do your cardio training in some form (push a prowler, weights circuit?!). But the benefits of lifting weights are clear, get stronger and function better. Yes ladies, go to your Pilates and Yoga classes, but don't think lifting weights is dangeroous or wont be beneficial. You'll be surprised.

Come and see me talk at LIW

This year I will be doing a presentation at Leisure Industry Week (if you know what this is) in Birmingham (The Midlands not Alabama) on the 19th and 20th September. The title is Engaging The Older Population In Exercise, its free, so come along. Even if you're not interested in the subject (of course, my seminar will be awesome) feel free to come and have a chat about back pain, DNS, kettlebells, ultrarunning or whatever.

In the mean time go lift some weights, or get your female clients lifting some weights.


Coughlan. A (2012) The Best Medicine. New Scientist issue 2879 vol 215.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Top Ten Things Online Strength Coaches & Trainers Should Stop Doing Right Now

The internet has transformed the fitness industry. When I first started in this industry in 1997 there were very few sources of information. There were certification courses provided by a handful of companies, then we had magazines like Muscular Development, unless a coach appeared in one of these magazines they were off the radar; and if you were really serious there was the Human Kinetics catalogue, where you could buy a book and hope it was worth the outlay of cash.

Now there is information overload. There are websites, blogs, ebooks, pubmed. This has democratised the flow of information. Anyone remember the days when journals were only available in university libraries and you had to spend hours flicking through abstracts or down in the nether world of the 'stack' looking for a paper? (yes, I'm that old, in case you don't know what the stack is, its like the garbage crusher in Star Wars episode 4, and if you don't know what that reference is I can't help you).

Even though information doesn't now have to be filtered through official magazines, a couple of things have occurred. Firstly, most information regarding fitness is still really in the hands of a few coaches and websites (maybe less than 10). Secondly, there is an explosion of people providing information on the interwebz (yes, I'm writing this on a blog, the irony is not lost on me). This has resulted in many people regurgitating the same stuff, or resulting in certain trends, the same phrases which once seemed fresh are now old hat because they have been copied so much. It has also given rise to the internet coach, a person who has made a name for themselves purely based on their internet presence - which in many cases is not a bad thing. But in many cases, they have jumped the shark.

So without further ado, here is my rant.

1. 'bang for your buck exercises'. 

This phrase is trite and worn out. When the first person used it, it was a good way of explaining the exercise. But now a week doesn't pass without someone using this in an article or blog post. Yes, we get it, this exercise achieves multiple things, just find another way of saying it. Also when an American writes this it kind of fits with their language, British people saying it sound like try hards stranded somewhere in the mid atlantic. Note to some of the big online magazine/websites, if you get an article with this phrase in, edit it out. Lastly, they can't all be 'bang for your buck' exercises.

2. 'heck' and 'hell'.

Another phrase that is over used. For example, 'I've got nothing against isolation work, heck, I even do the occasional bicep curl' and 'hell, I've even been known to do some steady stated cardio'.

Its attempt to seem friendly, and folksy with the reader. Heck, I'm just like you. Again, if you're American this phrase might be something you use in every day life, if you're from anywhere else in the world, probably not. There isn't anything wrong with the phrase per se, it's just become tired from over use. Hell, we all have words we use too much, maybe I use the word maybe too much, I don't know but maybe. There's nothing wrong with trying to develop your own writing style, just don't copy everyone else. Great coaches aren't necessarily great writers.

3. Producing crap ebooks.

(Firstly, thanks to William Wayland at for suggesting this via a twitter conversation a while back)

I've bought quite a few ebooks and products over the years. Some have been excellent, some a rip off.
An example, of a good product is Evan Osars book Corrective Exercise Solutions to Common Hip and Shoulder Dysfunction, basically an entire text book for $9.99, bargain.

Others have not been such good value, you pay $29.99 and when you get the book it's a 10 page double spaced pdf with no pictures or video links, re-hashing the same old information and 5 pages are blank exercise templates for you to fill in. You've been ripped off.

One time, I felt so ripped off by the ebook that I had purchased from a well known online strength coach I emailed to complain, and gave him several examples of other ebooks that I had bought for the same price or less which were superior and excellent value. At first, I got an email back from one of his back-room staff, saying I should be grateful that I had this secret information from such a world class coach and it was worth much more than I paid. I then emailed back, pointing out all the spelling mistakes, they hadn't even proof read it, and that even the exercise pairings A1, A2 etc had been printed wrong. To be fair, at this point, they apologised and sent me several other products for free. Note, this is the only time I've complained, and I've probably bought over $1000 of  fitness products over the years on the internet.

Take home message (another overused phrase) - if you produce a product, make sure its worth what you are selling it for, it should be professional and not be a re-hash.

Real books too

This doesn't only apply to ebooks, there is one company famous for producing some very slim books with a ton of ad copy in the back pages for an exorbitant price. This made sense 10 years ago, when it was a small company, and no one was buying books on kettlebells (back when I first bought a book about it, there were no kettlebell videos to watch on youtube). But now, nearly all online coaches go on about this company's certification program and everyones got a kettlebell. So the book that cost me £30 plus back in the day, should really retail for £5 now.

BONUS: Sick of 10 pages of ad copy when you try to buy a product, me too. Just tell me about the product and let me buy it, I dont' need sentences highlighted yellow. Pages, repeating the same information over and over again. Apparently, this marketing approach works. Not anymore, telling me a product is worth over $450 and then selling it to me at $77 doesn't work, I know its never going to retail at $450 because its not worth it. And there is a good chance its not worth $77 either. Several times, I was going to buy a product but gave up because of the ad copy, and then when you press the buy button, suddenly you get offered some extra special bonuses. I don't want them! Stop selling fitness products like a Viagra internet scam.

4. Making me pay for stuff then giving it away for free.

So I've invested $75 in your DVD, and then as the months pass I see content from the video being posted for free. I'm not talking about people doing their own youtube videos of your exercises or illegal bit torrent. I'm talking about the actual coach or trainer who owns the video.

I always like to pay for the products I buy. Most strength coaches and trainers put effort and time into their products, and deserve to get paid for their intellectual property, they're not multi-billion companies.

But then don't give away the product for free that I have already paid for. Now this could be because the coach wants to sell more of the product, so puts out more clips and extracts to entice customers, until there is nothing left to know. Others might not have any new ideas, if they put their best idea or program in a paid for product what else have they got to drive traffic to their website or blog? Then others might suddenly get an opportunity to write for a big online magazine or print magazine, bingo, time to bring out their best program which you just paid for.

5. Taking videos of everything.

Now, there is nothing wrong with producing instructional videos on how to do a new exercise. I watch these all the time. 'Heck', I've even produced a few in my time as well. But some trainers seemed to be engaged in their own personal Truman Show. You don't need to film every workout, every lift, every client. And I don't need you to take a photo of every burger or steak you cook, I know how to use a grill thanks.

6. 'I am experimenting with...'

The finish to this sentence changes depending whats in fashion, at the moment it goes 'I am experimenting with intermittent fasting'. No you're not, your just trying it out. N=1.

This is a phrase that coaches and trainer use to sound more scientific than they are. Intermittent fasting is the classic example, for years, it was all about eating 4 to 6 small meals a day and if you missed breakfast you'd probably fall into a diabetic coma. But then intermittent fasting became the diet de jour. If you've built a reputation on doing the opposite, then what to do? Easy, you don't say you were wrong, and you sure as 'hell' can't just rip off  the people who have been doing it for years like Brad Pilon and Martin Berkhan. So what you do is start experimenting with yourself and your clients and you start getting great results from this new approach. And before you know it, they've written their own ebook on the subject. There is only so many ways you can say 'don't eat', but somehow they've managed it.

Now. I've tried intermittent fasting, I've tried 36 hours while only eating casein hydrolysate, and 2 days only eating vegetables. Note, I was just trying something out, I didn't realise I was experimenting, and at the end of it I didn't suddenly feel like I was an expert and could write an ebook on the subject. Personally, I felt terrible, but that's not the point.

Of course, some coaches have a measured approach and deal with the subject in the right way, see the way Neghar Fonooni and Nia Shanks write about intermittent fasting. Or if you live in the UK, watch the Horizon program about intermittent fasting, its going to tell you more than most ebooks.

Note, this is about intermittent fasting, its about coaches who 'experiment' with Olympic lifting, kettlebells, diaphragmatic breathing etc and then suddenly become an expert after a week.

7. Thinking who they train is normal or the same as everyone else.

A few years ago, a famous strength coach intimated that if you couldn't get a female client to do 12 pull ups with a few weeks of training you had failed as a coach. Of course, this was laughable, but it raised an important issue, the online coach might have a client base that is completely different from yours.

If they have always trained elite athletes or college athletes their idea of normal may not apply to you or your clients.

If you've only got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

A few years ago, training like a powerlifter was the way to go, then it couldn't just be powerlifter training, it had to be westside with bands and chains, and conditioning all had to be sprints and prowler pushes, then it got replaced with Olympic lifting. Many Olympic lifting coaches could not comprehend that certain people weren't suited to the lifts.

And if you happened to use a resistance machine, god help you, you would be a pariah for failing to keep true to the path. But what if you're client was a type 2 diabetic, morbidly obese, never been in a gym in their life, just had a stroke, had chronic back pain, was 2 months out from a hip replacement, or was just plain afraid of going into the freeweight area by themselves. Suddenly, the college athlete model doesn't work.

Yes, eventually some people might end up incorporating some of the techniques of powerlifting and so on, but don't be afraid to say that you know your own needs and your clients better than someone else.

Don't be dogmatic.

8. Driving traffic to your website with pictures of hot women.

without the internet I would never have found this picture of Pauline Nordin. The internet surely is a wonderful thing!
Of course, I'm hoping this strategy actually works, and it means I can justify the above picture.

9. Making top 10 lists.

Stop making top 10 lists, as well as top 5, 20 and 50. Its a lazy format. But then again I read they are some of the most popular posts on the internet. If you can't beat em...

Addendum : honourable mentions:

  • sending me constant emails advertising your friends products. Some coaches send links to newsletters, blog posts & content, others just want to flog you stuff constantly. Stop trying to smash a nut with a sledgehammer. 
  • Coaches who go up river like Colonel Kurtz. One minute you're telling me some relatively useful things, next minute you're telling me you can workout my hormone profile by doing a fat caliper test on my chin. Or literally telling me if I take the 'blue pill' the nutrients in my body will re-partition themselves. Snake Oil is the new placebo.
  • And you are not in the trenches, you are in an air-conditioned gym.

So there it is. Without the internet I wouldn't be doing half the stuff I do now with coaching and training people, and the amount of free information available is astounding. This is a bit of a tongue in cheek rant, but like anything its always good to try and raise our game.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Train Like An Olympian. Think Like An Olympian.

Over the last week we've witnessed some amazing performances in the Olympics. I was lucky enough to be in the Olympic stadium on day one of the athletics, where I saw Jess Ennis break the British record in the 100m hurdles on her way to heptathlon gold. Elsewhere, Britain continues to dominate in the velodrome, seemingly breaking world records every time we hit the wooden track. In the rowing more gold medals, and athletes pushing themselves so hard they had to be lifted out of the boat at the end by Steve Redgrave. (Yes, I'm British, so I am somewhat bias in all the events I have mentioned, to redress the balance in the weightlifting seeing a guy lift triple his bodyweight overhead and another guy squat jerk 204kg at a bodyweight of 77kg is enough to fire anyone up).

Did I mention I was in the Olympic stadium on day 1 of the athletics when Jess Ennis broke the British 100m hurdle record

But can mere mortals take anything from the way these athletes train and think, and apply it to their own training? I think they can. You may not have the luxury of being a full time athlete, and your goal might be to lose half a stone or run 10k in less than 60 minutes, but you can take certain principles and start using them straight away.

The basics

The first thing to note is that most athletes training consist of basic exercises and drills that anyone can do. Yes, there are a few secrets that they are not going to tell anyone, and in the case of British Cycling they really did have the Secret Squirrel Club working on these type of developments. However, the basics remain fundamental. The Chinese, Turkish, South American and North Korean weighlifters do essentially the same exercises as everyone else. They have to practice the clean and jerk and the snatch, and do some accessory lifts, but to get good at lifting weights you have to lift weights. It's the same with running, to be good at running you have to run, you have to put the time in. Whether you're Kenyan or Mo Farah or looking to run 10k, there are really three basic things you have to do

  1. Sometimes run long
  2. Run some hills
  3. Sometimes run fast, using intervals
This applies to fat loss, too often people search for the magic holy grail, obsessing about the details when they haven't even covered the basics (that green tea supplement ain't doing nothing if you're troffing a big mac and fries everyday). This article here by Nia Shanks covers the basics of fat loss and also contains this great quote from Dan John

"I think many of us think this way: If it’s free or simple or easy to understand, it can’t be as good as something that’s expensive, complicated and difficult to figure out on your own"
Consistency again, No one wants to hear about the hard work

After winning the 10,000m Mo Farah said this in his post race interview

"120 miles, week in, week out, long distance is a lonely event, what you put in is what you get out"
You can see the full interview here.

Mo Farah and his training partner, Galen Rupp, beat the East Africans, but they had to put the work in, they were still running 120 miles a week. It doesn't matter if you have the best coach in the world you still have to put the work in, no one is going to do it for you.

Geraint Thomas (member of Britain's winning Team Pursuit Squad in London 2012, that also happened to break the world record) said a very similar thing. The hours in the velodrome, sometimes from 7am to 10pm at night, the endless repetitions and hard work and grind.

So the question is how much do you want to achieve your goal, what are you willing to sacrifice? You could have a full time job and other family responsibilities, but if you want to lose that weight, if you want to run that distance, what are you going to do differently. How much time can you give to it? And on those dark winter days when no one cares about your goals, what's going to drag you out of bed to go for that walk or prepare those meals for the day? How about never missing a workout for a year or two years.

Decide how much time and effort you are willing to give to your goal, and then stick to it. And have a contingency plan, you know what barriers you have, you know when you might waiver and fail, you know when your busy times at work are. At some point you might get ill, then what? Have a plan.

At some point something or someone will attempt to derail you, be ready for it.

"The Aggregation of  Marginal Gains"

The above quote is by Dave Brailsford, Performance director of British Cycling. To quote from the team sky website

"We've got this saying, 'performance by the aggregation of marginal gains,'" Brailsford continued. "It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do."
In elite sport, 1% can be the difference between winning gold and being at the back of the field.

The problem with many amateurs is they start looking for the 1% gain when they haven't covered the 99% first. For example, the bicep curl is a 1% exercise. There is no point in doing it if you haven't got the basics covered; squat, deadlift, pressing movement and pulling movements. But a lot of young guys, especially, get it the wrong way around, they do tons of bicep curl variations and ask you how they are going to hit the outer head of their bicep when they can't do a chin up or a deadlift. I'm pleased to say I do see this gradually changing, where I work the squat racks and platforms are always busy with people doing squats and deadlifts and presses, and much of that can be put down to the coaches on the gym floor.

Don't chase the 1% until you've got the basics squared away.

But then look at EVERYTHING you do. The time in the gym, is it efficient? What you eat, what you do at work, your sleep patterns, the people you spend the most time with. Are all these things conducive to you achieving your goals. If not, how can you change them, will a 1% change be enough to reap rewards.

For more on the British Cycling approach see here, here and here

1% Flip it

However, there is another way of looking at the 1% if you are not on a pro cycling team and don't spend all your time in wind tunnels wearing lycra.

Jamie Staff, former member gold medal winning member of the British Cycling team, knew before the Beijing Olympics that to win he needed to improve his time by 2.78%, so he went about improving everything by 2.78%, improving his squat in the gym by this amount, dropping his bodyfat by this amount and so forth. In a NY Times article he states

 “When you break it down, it’s actually really small gains in all those small things that when added together make a huge difference”
You can apply this to your own goals. Say you want to lose one stone in weight, and for ease of calculation lets say you currently weigh 150Ibs. If you focus on losing just 1% of bodyweight per month (1.5Ibs) you would have lost the stone in 10 months, losing a mere 0.375Ibs per week, which is hardly noticeable, but over 10 months adds up. Of course, if you're in Biggest Loser territory you can lose way more than this just by doing the basics.

Setting PBs in the gym can be the same, squat is 150kg, increase by 1.5kg per month, and you've got an 18kg increase in 12 months. Of course, in reality, progress is rarely linear, and as a beginner you can make big jumps by improving technique alone.

You can also apply this principle to nutrition, change one thing at a time. One less chocolate bar per week, one less glass of wine, one more serving of vegetables per week, over a year these things add up. Exercise volume, its the same, 10 minute walk one week, increase by 1 minute per week over a year and you've got 60 minutes exercise per day.

But don't forget the basics.

And these things take time. You have to be patient. Increasing numbers of young guys are taking performance enhancing drugs, these are recreational lifters, with no desire to compete anywhere, but with anabolics easily available on the internet and an instant gratification culture, they will go for the easy route before looking at the basics, and then all the other 1% they can improve on. A clean rider won the tour de france (Bradley Wiggins), therefore this marginal gains stuff works.


What do Victoria Pendleton, Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins, Jess Ennis and Lu Xiaojun all have in common. They all have a coach. And all of them have mentioned their coaches and support team in post event interviews (well, I don't know about Lu Xiaojun, but I'm sure he mentioned it when the Chinese state media interviewed him).

Jess Ennis has a coach - but maybe she wants a new strength & conditioning coach - I am available

And most of them have a whole team behind them, including physiotherapists, sports scientists, biomechanical analysis, chiropractors, psychologists and nutritionists.

The athlete also has to have total faith in their coach, their support team and their program.

But for some reason, the average gym-goer seems to think they can train themselves, write their own program or get their program from a magazine (or in most cases don't really have a plan or program, 'I think I'll do some chest and biceps today', 'I think I'll go for a 20 minute run today'). The only problem is, its very hard to assess your own weaknesses and strengths, what you need to work on, when you should back off and when you should push it and when you need to go back to the drawing board.

Coaches come in all different guises, some were world class athletes in their own right, for example, Mo Farahs coach Alberto Salazar,  Jess Ennis's coach Toni Minichiello seems to have always been a coach and was never an elite athlete  (I could be wrong, as there is surprisingly little information about him that I could find) and  it seems to be law that nearly all Olympic weightlifting coaches are an old fella in a tracksuit who will slap his lifters on the shoulders and if they are a female lifter on the ass as well!

The lesson here, is firstly a coach can really help. Secondly, don't be fooled by the appearance of the coach. Too often, in the gym environment the trainer who looks like a bodybuilder get the guys who want to bulk up (and the women sometimes who want to lose weight). I doubt Lu Xiaojuns coach has ever jerked 204kg and Toni Minichiello has probably never run a 12.54 100m hurdles, but they know how to coach and get the best from their athletes. Look for the coach who has got results and can prove it. Of course, athletes at the top of many sports are genetically gifted (save the genetics vs training argument for another day), so find a coach who has also got results with ordinary folk as well.

Kenyan coaching - a lesson

You might be thinking, this is all very well, but I don't have access to the facilities and support team that these pro athletes do, and you may be thinking that there is a 'special secret' training technique or drug that you don't know about.

Over to Kenya, the antithesis of British Cycling, in as much there is really no system or scientific high performance strategy. Of course, being born at altitude and spending your formative years running to school helps, and you can't change that, but this is true of many countries who don't win any long distance event.

If you want to go and train in Kenya, you can, there is no secret training camp. Adharanand Finn's fantastic book Running With The Kenyans outlines his time training there, and Toby Tansers book More Fire has several training programs of the elite Kenyan runners listed. And before going to the USA Mo Farah also trained in Kenya.

The most successful distance running coach in history is Brother Colm O'Connell, an Irish missionary with no background in coaching before moving to Kenya. So don't be fooled by appearances. With nothing more than a stopwatch and a track of rubble, they have dominated until recently all long distance events.

The secret is there are no secrets, do the basics every day, run, get up at 5am and run, run in a group, eat and run and rest, run long hills, do punishing hill sessions and go easy and back off when you need to. If anyone has taken to basics and turned them into an artform, it's the Kenyans.

Personal Training or Coaching

What is the difference between a personal trainer and a coach. This is my take on it. People employ a personal trainer because they need extrinsic motivation, they want someone to make them come to the gym, they want someone to count the reps. Sometimes there is balance of power issue with a personal trainer and client. Its not unusual for clients to tell their trainer that they don't want to do this or that, and they want a new program after two weeks because the current one isn't working. There can be a fair amount of second guessing the trainer, especially if the trainer is newly qualified or is trying to build up a client base, they are financially dependent on the client and sometimes do things to please the client rather than get results.

The coach is different. Yes, there is a dialogue, but the athlete must have complete faith in their coach. The British Cycling team and Rowing team have complete faith that they have the best coaches and system, there is no second guessing.

A few days ago Dave Brailsford was interviewed on BBC Breakfast news, yes he said you need talent and commitment, but without commitment talent was no good and he also stated

'fundamentally it's all about coaching'
Intrinsically motivate yourself

In a study by Connaughton et al (2008) they interviewed elite, world champion  and Olympic athletes to find out what type of mindset they have. They found athletes had three attributes regardless of the stage of their career

  1. Having an unshakable self-belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals
  2. Having an unshakable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents
  3. Having an insatiable desire and internalized motives to succeed
In short, all the motivation quotes and pictures in the world aren't going to help if you can't motivate yourself

And two underlying mechanisms were cited again and again

  1. Coaches' leadership
  2. Social support
 Find a support team, a coach if you can, who will show you what you need to work on and what you can ignore.

Ultimately, you have to have no doubt at all that you will succeed in your goals.

Time for another Dave Brailsford quote, this time from an interview in The Independent newspaper

"You have to work out, is this athlete intrinsically driven? Is there that burning desire inside them, to continue to compete, to continue to improve, to continue to go through all the pain and the hard work, the nutrition, the lifestyle, the sacrifices you have to make. If you look at all the great champions … it's not to do with anyone outside, it's what's inside them, they're special in that respect. And if you haven't got that, it doesn't matter how much talent you've got, you're never going to get sustained success."

A good coach gives you belief and confidence. But you must have an internal drive, and as we will see at the end of this article, it is possible to cultivate that.

Over training

Many beginners are fearful of over training. Somewhere along the line, someone told them that if they did weights two days in a row or went for a run for two consecutive days they would explode, their muscles wouldn't recover and they would get injured.

Olympic athletes show you how much you can train and how much you need to train. Now, I don't expect you to run 120 miles a week or weightlift for 3 sessions a day, but lets face it, those 5 hours a week you're doing probably aren't going to lead to over training. The average Kenyan school kid is doing more.

But build up gradually, and you'll be surprised how resilient your body is.

At the other end of the extreme are clients who want to smash it every session. They do hours on end. As the old adage goes (I think it was Charles Staley who said it first, but I could be wrong) - stop chasing fatigue, chase performance. If the fatigue doesn't make you faster or stronger or lose weight, then why are you doing it?

The classic example, is when people start using plyometric drills as metabolic conditioning. They start jumping around with awful technique and not really creating any plyometric effect. This is where the coaching part becomes relevant, if they can't do it properly there is no point in doing it. Its also making the client aware that elite athletes rest 2,3,4,5 minutes between plyometric exercises. Its about maximum power and explosiveness, always know why you are doing something.

Even Kenyans take it easy...sometimes

In the excellent documentary 'Born to Run - The Secret of Kenyan Athletics', the presenter Eamonn Coghlan travels to Kenya to see how they train. In one scene, David Rudisha (edit: now Olympic champion, 800m world record holder, first man to run under 1.41) goes back to train with Colm O'Connell at his old school. Not only, does one of the greatest middles distance athletes of all time train with school kids, he does exactly what his coach says. The session is surprisingly easy, they practice running with tempo and rhythm and being completely relaxed, they do a long easy warm up and then do a few laps around the school yard and that's it. The presenter Eamonn can't believe how easy the session is. As Colm points out, not all sessions have to be hard, yes, they will have some very hard sessions, but other session have different goals which in the long term make the athlete better. In another scene the athletes do yoga and stretching. I highly recommend watching this documentary if you can.

The take home message is, training can undulate, when you train hard, train very hard, but when you need to recover, then do so.

Even Chinese lifters warm up with the bar

While watching the weightlifting at the ExCel live and also on TV, I noticed that before the clean and jerk even the top lifters warm up with the bar. That's right Lu Xiajun and Lin Qingfeng, gold medal winning lifters still warm up with the bar. Then I saw one of them put just 40kg on the bar to continue the warm up. The reason they are so technically good is they practice the moves over and over again. If the top lifters in the world still do a warm up with the bar and practice the movement then you probably need to as well.

Lu Xiaojun squat jerks 204kg at 77kg bodyweight. Unless you were born on Krypton and now live on a planet with a yellow sun then I wouldn't attempt this. Oh, and he still does bar work to warm up.

Under training

The opposite of training all the time and never undulating or varying your approach is not training enough. Some people seem to think that the once a week gym session is going to help them lose that weight or transform their bodyweight. Please don't ask me why you haven't lost weight when you do Pilates once a week, go on the treadmill for 10 mins and don't modify your eating habits.

Put some effort in. If you can't commit time to your goal then you will fail. A few sets of bicep curls with a 5 minute chat in between aren't going to cut it. In Olympic weightlifting, if you follow yourself you only get 2 minutes rest between maximal efforts. Get the job done. Focus.


While I was watching the heptathlon high jump in the Olympic stadium (did I mention I was in the Olympic stadium?!) it struck me that all the athletes keep jumping until they fail, they end on failure. You have to be willing to push out of your comfort zone, find failure and then learn from it, what could you have done differently. Learn to fail and use it to drive you on.

It was the same watching the weightlifting, lifters fail all the time, they go out, fail a lift and then compose themselves and go again. It was surprising to me how many lifters failed an attempt and then came out and got it the second time, or even put the weight up and then got the new weight. Even those who had already won the event, would often come out for their third attempt and try for a PB or world record when they had no need to. Push yourself, compete against yourself.

Train with people who are stronger than you or faster than you can help, as can having a coach, pushing you past levels that you previously thought were your limits.

As Dave Brailsford said 'you will lose more than you win', but you have to keep trying.

Lin Qingfeng. The look of a man who will win at all costs. He doesn't use the door, he just walks through the wall, unstoppable.


Okay, maybe you're still thinking, that's all very well, but I have a full time job, I can't afford a coach and I'm not moving to Kenya. Well here's a non Olympic example for you. Scott Jurek, American ultrarunner, won the Western States 100 mile run, Badwater 135 mile run, Hardrock 100, Spartathlon 152 mile run. He had no coach, for most of his early career he was working in a running shop or as a Physical Therapist, and was in a sport with no prize money and in the early years of his career no sponsorship. He would train by running to and from work, and at weekends, with no money and in debt before he became the face of ultrarunning. I highly recommend you read his book Eat & Run.

If you want it enough, you'll do it.

As If

I recently finished reading a book called Rip It Up by Professor of Psychology Richard Wiseman. I highly recommend it.

It is based on a principle first explained by philosopher William James over a hundred years ago

'If you want a quality, act as if you already have it'
 Common sense tells you that your emotions cause behaviour, for example, you are happy so you smile, or you are an extrovert therefore you have outgoing behaviour. In fact, research has show over and over again that the reverse is true. Behaviour causes emotion, if you smile you will feel happier, if you adopt a 'power posture' you feel more confident, and if you tense your fist hard for a minute your testosterone levels will go up. This is the opposite of positive thinking in many ways.

If act like you are an elite athlete, train like an athlete, look at every aspect of your life like an elite athlete, then you will take on some of their attributes (now this doesn't mean your are going to run a 9.63sec 100m but it does mean you will attack your own personal goals in a more professional manner and are more likely to achieve them).

Elite athletes have a coach, get one if you can, or even just get someone to write your training program for you. As one of the athletes in the study by Connaughton said

"When we got into the elite standard of training we were very structured in our training. My coach and I would plan out the training month by month."
In summary to train like an Olympian and think like one

  1. Work on the basics, practice, put the time in
  2. Once you've got the basics, think about everything else you can improve, the 1%
  3. Get a coach or a support network
  4. Internalise your motivation. When its dark and cold and you need to get up and train, only you can motivate yourself
  5. Act as if you are already elite in the way you approach your training and goals.
Final thoughts - slaying the dragon

One of my favourite athletes (and commentators) of all time is actually a sprinter - Michael Johnson. If you don't know who Michael Johnson is, you probably live in a cave somewhere, but in short Olympic 200m and 400m champion in Atlanta and the most insightful commentator on athletics with a no nonsense approach; not sugar coating and not dumbing down for the audience. His approach to training and attitude always really appealed to me, the results spoke for themselves.

In his book Slaying The Dragon (now out of print, but you can pick up a second copy for a couple of quid) he covers many of the techniques that helped him become a champion, one of these areas is crafting self discipline. If you have set yourself the target of doing 50 press ups or 10 intervals, then do 50 not 49, do all 10 intervals not 9; apply this principle to all aspects of your life and not just your training. Also, importantly remember that the journey can be hard, yes you should enjoy your life, but cutting calories is hard, pushing away that cake is hard when everyone around you is eating it,turning off the TV and putting in another training session when you feel fatigued is hard. As Johnson says

"Ask yourself: 'Why am I doing this?'....when it comes to practicing self discipline, don't fool yourself; go ahead and admit that fat free cheese doesn't taste as good. It only works if the end is something you really want. Remember, this is a decision you consciously made. Remind yourself why."
(Of course he wrote this before everyone went high fat and low carb and then intermittent fasting crazy, because what is the point of low fat cheese - hello taste?!).  Remind yourself on a daily basis why you are doing what you are doing.

Michael Johnson - 'Do the 50th push up' and check out that satorius muscle on his leg!
"after you have stared long enough into the dragon's eyes, there is nothing left to do but slay the dragon. For each of us, that dragon is the thing closest to the center of our lives. It is our core, our ambition, and our joy." - Michael Johnson

In an interview on BBC Breakfast Dave Brailsford mentioned 2 other things, get a decent pillow so you sleep properly and use handwash so you have less chance of picking up infection and then not being able to train. If Brailsford says it, I'd probably do it!

British Cycling - they use round wheels, decent pillows amd hand wash

Further Reading

Connaughton D et al (2008) The development and maintenance of mental toughness: Perception of elite performers. Journal of sports sciences. 26:1, 83-95
Finn A (2012) Running With The Kenyans
Jurek S (2012) Eat & Run
Johnson M (1996) Slaying the Dragon (out of print)
Tanser T (2008) More Fire. How To Run The Kenyan Way
Wiseman R (2012) Rip It Up


Further watching

Kenyan running doc

for those who can't access BBC website, here is Lu Xiaojun lifting 204kg

Julia Rohde - just because