Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Do this single leg exercise.

In the video below you can see me demonstrating a single leg balance exercise with multi-directional reach. Aka Star Balance aka Y Balance. Or if you really want to impress your friends call it a multiplanar exercise in the sagittal, frontal and transverse plane.

Of course, I didn't invent this exercise. As mentioned above, the Star Balance has been used for a long time in physio circles as an assessment and the FMS guys use the Y balance.

Why do it?

So much of gym work takes place on two feet and is very linear. The rise of S&C, squats and deadlifts are a good thing, but there is another dimension to training that should be addressed. Lateral movement and single leg work should also be part of a well rounded programme.

This exercise is good for

  • anyone who needs balance training, fall prevention
  • running or any sport that requires you to be on one leg
  • post ankle, hip or knee injury to help build up proprioception (being aware of where you joints and body are in space) and strength.
  • as part of a warm up drill
In the video I am reaching as far as I can in each direction, and I am using three directions (Y shape). But if someone has had a recent injury, is starting to work on their balance or is recovering from something such as a stroke then the movement can be small. Some other key points:

  1. You could hold onto a chair to begin with and then try and do it with just finger tips resting on the chair.
  2. Try and maintain spine integrity, it is unloaded so I wouldn't worry about some spine flexion, but try and hinge from the hips.
  3. Keep an eye on that support knee, you don't want it collapsing in excessively.
  4. Also think about neck position, keep the back of your neck smooth.
  5. You can reach with the arms as well.
You can also do a reach forward with the leg (which I don't do in the video). Kind of like a mini pistol or heel dig. For some people this causes more issues with the knee and spine bending, so listen to your body. For others it helps to strengthen the muscles around the knee.

I used this exercise when running, and I think it helped me rehab a niggling knee issue I had. I think it also helped as I increased the miles and do more and more trail running.

You may feel it in the muscles around the hips and pelvis. I can particularly feel a stretch in the outer hip when I reach the leg behind me across the midline of the body.  It is also working the muscles around the knee and ankle.

This exercise is not trying to isolate anything, it is integrating the limbs and torso as happens in real life. You want your hips, knees and ankles to respond reflexively when running, jumping or even stepping down a curb.

Do three or four circuits on each leg as part of your warm up, or do it at any point during the day.
There is no need to 'progress' this exercise, you don't have to add in weight or stand on a bosu.

Keep it simple and effective.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hill Sprints. Do Them!

In short: find a hill, run as hard as you can up it, rest, repeat a few times then run home. Feel better, look better.
Hills sprints are a great addition to your training.
They are not just for runners who want to improve their speed in shorter distances like 5k. But for anyone who wants to improve power and strength.
And for leg development (quads and glutes my friends). Have you ever seen a sprinter with poor legs!
They are also great for improving conditioning. I would also use them at the start of a phase for a long distance athlete (10k, marathon, and ultra distances).
If you don’t have access to a prowler or sled, hill sprints are the 'go to' for field athletes that need power and strength.
Of course, I didn’t invent hill sprints. I first became aware of them from running coach Brad Hudson, and by his own admission he took his approach from coach Renato Canova, who in turn took them from sprint coach Bud James.
According to Hudson (2008), hill sprints will
  • Strengthen running muscles
  • Make the runner less injury prone
  • Increase power and efficiency of stride
  • Take little time
  • are fun to do!
But they also have benefits for the non runner.
Power is about recruiting more fast twitch muscle fibres. It is about building fast strength, not grinding strength. It is what makes athletes explosive.
A maximal hill sprint is about maximal muscle fibre recruitment in one of the safest and least technically demanding ways.
Traditional training for this would include the Olympic lifts, plyometrics (jumps, bounding) and medicine ball throws.
However, many of these methods are technically demanding. To get the most out of Olympic lifts, you need someone to coach you to make sure you are competent. And you need access to the equipment. Plyometrics are also technically demanding and there is a large amount of force going through joints and tendons when you land.
Hill sprints require no equipment. As you are running on a steep hill you are not absorbing force in the same way as when you jump off a box.
Power is the missing element in many peoples training. They may lift weights and work on strength in lifts such as the deadlift and squat. They may do hypertrophy training. They may do steady state endurance training. They may even do some conditioning – but this is not power.
As you get older power gets more important to train. And of course, for athleticism you need some power training.
Hill sprints are part of the training puzzle.
Hill repetitions help build the ‘fitness bridge’between strength and speed.” (Hudson, p.81)
Of course, there is no reason why your training can't consist of Olympic lifts, plyometrics and hill sprints.
Why not flat sprints?
Many years ago a myself and a colleague ran a boot camp. As part of it we incorporated some track sprints. We had screened all the participants before hand to make sure they were injury free, did a long warm up and some build up sprints. Then we got them to sprint a bit harder, and 8 out of 10 of them suddenly grasped the middle of their quad.
What had happened? It was a rectus femoris strain. As their psoas muscle wasn’t used to having to flex the hip, suddenly the rectus femori was trying to flex the hip and straighten the knee fast, while putting in a near maximal effort. The muscle was pulled in 2 different directions and the middle of the muscle couldn’t cope and got strained.
As strength coach Mike Boyle says in is his book Functional Training for Sports
The athlete will use the rectus femoris to create hip flexion. This can result in the mysterious quad pull seen in sprinters or on forty-yard dash day in football.”
(A similar thing can also happen in the hamstrings, where the hamstring tries to bend the knee and extend the hip as the glutes aren’t doing their job, this can also result in pain at the front of the hip, that the person attempts to correct by stretching, when in fact it is not tight. Thanks to physio Shirley Sahrmann for that!).
Flat sprinting is more technical than hill sprints. Hill sprints actually make your technique better, it is making you drive into the hill with the front part of the foot and use the posterior chain, it is making you lean, there is less shock absorption going on. There is less impact.
Plus on tracks, everyone feels the need to sprint 100 or 200m. And if you are putting in maximal effort, this is actually a very long way! Usain Bolt may make it look easy, but not until you’ve tried it do you realise it is hard to keep form, technique and effort over those distance.
It is much better to think of the shorter sprints of American sports like the NFL, where the 40 yard dash (36 metres) is the staple. A much shorter distance and time under tension.
Or if you are doing hill sprints, think about no more than 8 seconds to begin with.
Why not use the treadmill?
On the one hand you can control the exact gradient and speed on the treadmill.
However, I don’t find treadmills very good for very short maximal sprints of 8-10 seconds.
It takes too long to increase the speed up to where you want it. Or for extra danger, you can try jumping onto it after you have built it up to the speed you want to go. The first method makes the sprint too long and you are not going at max effort at the start. With the second method, all the benefits of driving hard to overcome inertia are loss, so some the muscle adaption is lost.
I would only use the treadmill for sprints of 30secs or longer interval work.
First of all build up!
If you are a beginner they will put a massive amount of load and stress on your joints and muscles. And as a beginner you may not be able to sprint at all, but can do some faster efforts.
Yes, in the long term they should help prevent injury and improve muscle recruitment, but you have to gradually progress.
Hudson recommends starting on a hill with a 6-8% gradient, and then going to a hill with a 10% gradient. In practice, you probably just have to find the steepest hill you can near you.
My preferred format is:
  • jog, easy run to the hill you are going to use. About 7-12mins for me depending on the hill I’m running to.
  • A couple of easy build up ‘sprints’, really more like striding out (pushing slightly above your coomfortable pace), for about 8-10 seconds. If you’re are a beginner, this might be all you do.
  • Use the arms, lean in to the hill, visualise the glutes firing as you drive into the hill. Relax the face and shoulders.
  • Walk back down to start, nice and easy between each effort. Or if it is a really long hill, I gradually make my way to the top, resting by walking across the hill between each rep.
  • Then increase the effort, now near maximal for 2 x 8-10secs.
  • Err on the side of caution, less time is better, 6-8 seconds might be enough.
  • Then jog/ run home.
  • Total session time is 20-30mins.
I would then increase the number of sprints by 1 or 2 a week.
Most runners will achieve as much strength and power improvement as they can get by doing 10-12 hill sprints of 10-12 seconds each, twice a week.” (Hudson, p82)
Personally I think for the general athlete, once a week is enough. And 5 or 6 sprints might also be enough. Of course, it depends on how much time you have. Its also about listening to your body, if I start to lose speed and intensity on the sprints I stop, its no longer a maximal effort session.
You can also use markers us the hill such as trees, and sprint between them, gradually making your way up the hill, again making sure these are very short sprints. A kind of short burst hill sprint fartlek.
You could also be doing once every 2 weeks as part of a general training plan.
Even for an ultra runner I would still sprinkle them through a training cycle to stop them adopting the classic one speed, one gear, ‘ultrashuffle’, and problems of over use of the same muscles.
For a runner, you might then start to use longer hill repeats, 30-60seconds. Or if training for very long distances, I used hill repeats that were 1k or 1 mile long. (Of course, these are no where near maximal effort, and are about endurance and technical efficiency for mountain/trail running).
But I think these benefits go beyond runners. For the general athlete, and general population they are great for building strength, power, developing the legs and I believe do help with injury prevention. (and of course help you lose weight and tone up, joke).
But mostly you do them to go maximal, at the end you are stooped over with your heart beating hard and unable to catch your breath, your are in the moment, there isn't anything else to think about.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Who Are You? The type of person who exercises?

You hear it all the time:

I'm no good at maths
I can't run
I'm no good with computers
I can't do this or that
I'm no good at learning languages
I'm not that type of person
I'm not a gym person
I'm more of a .....insert here what you believe you are... type of person.

Only yesterday I heard a guy in a coffee shop tell his friend he didn't have an ear for languages. And yet, he had learned one language fluently, the one he was speaking. He then told his friend he had an A-level in French. Despite this he had decided he was the type of person who was not good at learning languages.

At what point did you decide that was the type of person you were?
At what point did you decide there was a certain skill set you did not posses or there was a certain skill set that was your strong point?
Were you a child or a teenager? At what point did you think this is me?
And how many times have you changed your mind as an adult?

People adopt a series of habits and patterns and rituals and they become them.

Professor Michael Puett in his book The Path, about how we can apply some of the lessons of ancient Chinese philosophy to our modern lives, states

"What we in the West define as the true self is actually patterns of continuous responses to people and the world; patterns that have built up over time. For example, you might think, I'm just the type of person who gets annoyed easily. On the contrary, it's more likely that you have become the kind of person who does get irritated over minor things because of how you've interacted with people for years. But that's not because you are, in fact, such a person." (p.43)

A bad experience with maths or PE at school and that's you for life. Suddenly you are the type of person who doesn't like exercise or running.

Also, its easy, if that's who you are, then you never have to change, its just the type of person you are, its not your fault, you don't have to try new things.

Now this doesn't mean you have to try everything new thing in the world, every new activity. You don't have to be 'good' at everything and 'like' everything. For example, I'm never playing golf or watching Britains Got Talent.

Also, I'm not saying you have to be excellent at everything. There is a lot of ground in between saying 'I can't run' and being Mo Farah. And if you're not 7 foot tall you're probably not going to play in the NBA but you can still enjoy basketball.

However, don't dismiss activities because they may be hard or push you out of your comfort zone.

How many people leave school and never learn anything new? The pattern is set. It congeals and rusts.

You learned a series of habits and rituals and you accept them, you greet people in a certain way, in the West you use a knife and fork to eat, you drive on a certain side of the road - these were all learned - they are not you.

"We cling to a fixed idea of who we are and it cripples us. Nothing and no one is fixed." - Pema Chodron (2001)

There is no core self. It changes all the time. In the words of Chuck Palahniuk

But this means at any time you could start to choose something else, pick different 'china patterns', sit in a different place, brush your teeth with the wrong hand, be the type of person who buys a bicycle and cycles to work!

Was your view on the world and personality set by 16 years old by a few teachers, parents and friends. It doesn't mean you have to reject all this, and form a whole new personality, but don't be limited, build on this.

As a kid you learned the most complex things possible - how to walk, talk and read. And then at certain point many adults think, well I'm an adult now, I don't have try things that I may fail at or make me look 'bad', I will not push the envelope, I will seal it up and stay inside of it.

And if you only perceive the world in a certain way, and have already decided that you are not the type of person who takes up cycling or goes to a yoga, where does that leave you?

"But remember that who you think you are - and especially what you think is 'you' when you are making decisions - is usually just a set of patterns you've fallen into." (Puett & Gross- Loh, 2016).

And before you know it you never push out of your comfort zone or try something new.

Learning new things is fantastic for your brain health, learning new languages and new skills makes your brain form new connections. And the other thing that is good for brain health is exercise.

And this is where exercise rears its head. So many people like the idea of say running or being 'fit', but no, I can't do that, I'm not fit enough to go to a gym (cue flashback to running around a field in the snow at school while half the class hide behind the cricket pavilion for a smoke).

Its not easy.

Even confident successful people can crumble when faced with a new skill. Only the other day I was showing a lady around the gym, she was confident in herself, knew she wanted to get fit, she went on the cardio machines no problem, a few resistance machines no problem. Then we tried a goblet squat with a kettlebell, we were standing in the dreaded freeweights area. Her technique needed a bit of work, she couldn't get it straight away like she had on the machines. She was pitching forward a bit, had a bit of knee collapse. I gave her a bit of coaching, said not to worry, it was a new movement, just practice a bit and she would get it after a few sessions. But no, for her this was disastrous.

The next session in the gym she was adamant she did not like the goblet squat, did not want to do it again, despite the fact at this point she had probably only done 20 reps total in her life, and spent 2 minutes on the exercises. But because she had not grasped the technique and skill instantaneously she did not want to continue.

I have had a similar thing even on cardio equipment, a cross trainer that's a bit different to what people are used to, you say you just need to do this and this, and the technique needs a bit of work and next thing they are saying 'I don't like this machine I want to get off', after 90 seconds. This is code for 'I didn't come here to learn a new skill, or feel like you are judging me, or to look like I can't do something, I am adult now, I don't need anyone to teach me anything'.

What they expected and reality don't match and their brain doesn't like it, the ego kicks in, fear kicks in.

It is hard to break habits, set new patterns and learn new things, as Anders Ericsson says in his book Peak

"Getting started is easy, as anyone who has visited a gym after New Year's knows. You decide that you want to get in shape or learn to play the guitar or pick up a new language, and so you jump right in...Then after a while, reality hits. It'd hard to find the time to work out or practice as much as you should... you start missing sessions. You're not improving... It's why gyms that are were crowded in January are only half full in July. So that's the problem in a nutshell: purposeful practice is hard." (kindle edition of the book)

But as adults, its easy to duck out, no one is making us go back to school or go to the gym. The television and social media feeds are waiting to anaesthetize us as the end of another hard day.

My friend is learning to play guitar, its hard, he's an adult with a job. I can explain and show him things on the guitar which are easy to me, because I learned them when I was a teenager. Conversely, this same friend is a very good rock climber, he has been climbing for years. I'm trying to be better at climbing, but compared to him I'm terrible. He can free climb something in his flip flops which looks like El Capitan to me. But we are both trying to push out of our comfort zone, willing to fail and let go of that ego a little bit.

Ericsson talks about practice

"The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do - that takes you out of your comfort zone - and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better. Real life - our jobs, our schooling, our hobbies - seldom gives us the opportunity for this sort of focused repetition..."

Fitness is a skill, many people perceive themselves as time poor, I don't have time to learn these exercises, I just need to get fit and lose weight. This is missing the point. They don't want it to be a skill or a process, they don't really want to change anything.

The future is wide open.

Something inside us likes the world to be stable and fixed, but if you never explore new things you may never find parts of you that you never knew existed. You go to a zumba class and suddenly find out you love dancing, you avoided swimming your whole life because you lacked confidence, you get a few lessons and suddenly you enjoy going for a swim to clear your head and like using the pool on holiday. You get the idea.

As coaches, it is up to us to show this to clients.

In 2009 I walked into a book shop in London and bought a book by Christopher McDougall. It was about a sport I hardly knew anything about; ultra running. Then a few years later I saw one of the lead protagonists talk in London. A couple of years after that I went to Leadville and run a 100 miles in a race that seemed mythical and for super humans to me 5 years before. If I had a fixed idea of who I was none of this would have happened.

Its funny how things end up.

So the final word to that person I saw talk in London, Caballo Blanco. During the talk someone asked him 'Can anyone run 100 miles?'. He answered 'If they want to'.

Can you be the type of person who exercises?
If you want to.

Can you change?
If you want to.
This applies to all things.


For my tribute to Caballo and my thoughts when I went to see him talk

On why it is hard to form a new habit and how to do it

On how habits are embedded in your memory and how you become them

On habits and choices

Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh (2016) The Path.

Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool. Peak, Secrets from the new science of expertise. Kindle edition quoted.

Pema Chodron (2001) The places that scare you.

Friday, August 4, 2017

And then everyone was a strength coach.

There was a time when people working in gyms were fitness instructors and personal trainers. But this wasn't cool enough.

It started to get a bad reputation, the barrier to entry was low, the qualifications were easy. And no one was going to pay an online 'fitness instructor guru', it just didn't have a cool ring to it.

Being a strength coach was much cooler. All those guys training people in American high schools, and in their garage and selling online products were strength coaches.

Before you knew it, power racks sprung up and people were powerlifters and following Westside. And there were dynamic effort days and bands and chains. And if you didn't know a buffalo bar from a Texas power bar you might as well have still been balancing on a swiss ball with Paul Chek.

And then Olympic lifting was a thing. 10 years ago there wasn't one Olympic lifting technique video on the internet – I know because I looked for them and couldn't find them, so I went and did the lifting course back in 2007/8.

On the same course were some guys who were going to open something called a 'crossfit gym'. None of us had lifting shoes, we all did it in trainers, the coaches running the course didn't even mention lifting shoes. And I went back to the gym and had to practice with metal weight plates on a normal floor.

Fast forward ten years and there are coaches on the internet who by rights should be coaching the Chinese team with the expertise they appear to have – not hanging out at the local gym or critiquing peoples technique on the internet.

And everyone expected a power rack and bumper plates.

And trainers wanted to be coaches, and everyone had to deadlift and squat. Because coaches had respect and weren't poorly paid cleaners in disguise. Who could blame them, '20 years of schooling and they put you on the day shift'. And this stuff was way more interesting than standing next to a treadmill and asking someone if their RPE was 12 or 13.

And one of the safest sports started to throw up injuries. Things that were rare became common places such as end plate fractures in the spine. And your Doctor is not really looking for it because who fractures an end plate? Someone under massive spinal compression.

And heavy unilateral lifting without qualification ended up with people breaking their pelvic rings.
And then everyone wanted to train like an 'athlete' or train 'athletes'. Well kind of… Take some plyometrics and put them together in a long intense class format and give it to a bunch of people who haven't jumped off the ground since they were skipping in primary school. And there were blown ACLs and ruptured achilles.

And some of the biggest fitness/ class companies in the world started to put together HIIT/ plyometric workouts. But they didn't grasp it, they didn't fully understand it. They hadn't immersed themselves in it for years. And then 50 year old women started to rupture achilles because they were doing exercises designed for Soviet athletes.

And the strength coaches had everyone Olympic lifting, and I was guilty too. And those clients who just wanted a bit of weight loss and tone were doing cleans and jerks without screening, and had no business ever doing these exercises. Like suddenly introducing your client to the sport of javelin or hammer throwing when they are 60 years old.

And people who had no business putting a weight over their head in a deep squat were trained relentlessly for a sport they should never had started because strength was good and reps were bad unless they were metcon reps. And anything above 5 reps was cardio.

And cardio was a joke, because a fat man in a lifting suit said so.

And young injury free coaches who were used to training young injury free contemporaries who did sports like rugby thought this was a universal template. Regardless of spine disc shape, or injury history or training age.

And these coaches who were used to training high school athletes and college athletes, with GOMAD a gallon of milk a day protocol, and 5x5 was all you would ever need convinced the poor guys and girls in the local gym that everyone could be trained like this. Because they had never encountered anyone who couldn't do 10 pull ups straight off or who couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath.

But women started lifting weights, and lo it was good. For their body shape started to change. And booty was the new boobs, and fitness was this years model.

But don't talk about the back injuries and the stupid sit ups. And everyone wore lifting shoes all the time, and wondered why their knees hurt when they back squatted.

Now there were powerlifters, crossfitters, and strongmen and Olympic lifters in every gym, and the bodybuilders hid in the corner (even though they weren't really bodybuilders and had never entered a competition, but they clung onto their bodypart splits and preacher curls like the Golden fleece they knew it was) but their time would come again. The rise of the fitness model was about to happen, fake tan sales and posing stage costume sales were about to explode. And the fitness competition organisers knew this, and their were posing coaches, and online nutrition programmes, and people who placed top 50 in their local bikini comp were now not just strength coaches but figure coaches and body transformation coaches.

(and it was okay to objectify women and make them strut around in stripper heels as long as you tack the word 'fitness' to the event, because that's empowering, how very post modern, and as my friend heard the compere say at one of these event 'don't forget we're not just judging their bodies, but their faces as well'; at least they were being honest, T&A with quarter turns were now fine, we could all look and not feel bad like the bad old days of the 1970's and Miss World competitions. Now they didn't even pretend to want world peace, they just wanted a supplement sponsorship deal and 100,000 insta followers).

And of course, guys had fitness comps as well, where they wore board shorts and fake grins, but mostly everyone laughed at them because they weren't strength coaches.

And it was all fine, there was more choice than ever. But somewhere along the line, quality was forgotten.

And most of the strength coaches out there doing their job everyday had no internet presence. And knew training individuals was always an individual programming decision, and they thought deeply about methods of training and the philosophy of it all. But they were not trying to be all things to all people.

It was the best of the times, it was the worst of times. Everything it could ever be was right there, but it was ever so slightly off target. And it could have been so good, it could still be.

But wait long enough and everything will go full circle again and again and again.