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A Review of the 2nd Southeast Asian Conference on Applied Strength & Conditioning, Singapore.

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Two weeks ago I had the opportunity of attending the 2nd SEA Conference on Applied Strength & Conditioning, organized by the Australian Strength & Conditioning Assoc. (ASCA). This was held in Singapore over two days. Heading into the conference, I was not too sure whether it would be worth my while to go all the way to Singapore to hear some PhDs present their research. The only person I was looking forward to learning from was, Dan Baker, PhD and also a S&C coach to the Australian Brisbane Broncos Rugby League team for 20 years, leading them to 4 titles. Boy, was I wrong and was I very pleasantly surprised by the quality of presenters who not only had a whole bunch of PhDs but also years of experience in coaching high level athletes.

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The Conference was kicked off by Dr Gregory Haff’s presentation on Maximal Strength, a key requirement for Sports Performance. According to Dr Haff, there is astrong relationship between strength and function. He had data to prove that anybody who cannot squat at least half their body weight could well be on their way to be weak, frail and prone to falls.

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For superior sports performance, Dr Haff recommends being able to squat at least double body weight.

Dr Haff is also the current president of the Colorado, USA, based National Strength and Conditioning Association which provides the gold standard certification in S&C – the CSCS.

Next up was the practical session on Acceleration and Velocity Progressions by the very able, Sophia Nimphius PhD. In team sports, acceleration and ability to change direction is of prime importance. Watch any Rugby, football match and you can see the most athletic players can gain speed quickly and are also equally adept in moving to the left or right as they are in moving straight ahead. All this they do while the ball in play.

Then we moved on the practical session on teaching versions of Olympic Weightlifting to non weightlifters. Olympic Weightlifting provides a great way to improve explosiveness and power in athletes as you cannot do the Olympic lifts slowly. I walked in to the gym and all I could do was drool. Please remember Singapore is a small city state which grapples with a lack of space so the gym was not humongous but the equipment was state of art.

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The best part of the practical session was when my Hang Clean form was corrected by Dr Gregory Haff himself!

The afternoon session had presentations on using Olympic Weightlifting derivatives for non weightlifters. We do know that Olympic lifts are ideal for creating a more explosive athlete but the debate has always been about the need to catch the clean onto the shoulders or just do the pull!

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The presenter, David Meechan, is completely on the side of using WL derivatives like Jump Shrug and Clean Pull in place of the Power Clean or hang Cleans for developing explosiveness as the Jump Shrug and Clean Pull are easier and faster to teach and believe or not produce better Force-Velocity results.

Power Clean
Power Clean
hang clean
Hang Clean
Clean Pull
Clean Pull
Jumpshrug
Jump Shrug

The last presentation of the day was by Tim Doyle PhD, on the exciting new area of Strength & Conditioning for the first responders like policemen, firemen and soldiers. Dr Doyle is using science to develop lighter equipment for soldiers and he has also been actively involved in creating fitness tests for the Australian Army which would be more appropriate than running 2 miles, push ups and pullups! His ideas are now being adopted by most of the developed countries’ militaries.

That brought the first day of the Conference to an end. All the attendees were invited to hit the bar, and get to know each other! Wait for Part 2 of this review to read all about Day 2 of the seminar where yours truly nailed neutral grip chin ups with 30 kgs of extra load for Dr Dan Baker’s  practical on Velocity based training.

 

 

The Landmine Press or how to have your cake and eat it too!

I am a great fan of the standing overhead press and feel that if you had choose between the between the bench press and the standing press, go with the standing press. Otherwise do include the overhead press in your repertoire. As Pavel Tsatsouline says, “to press a lot, you have to press a lot.” But what if you could not overhead press?

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Then what!!

Not to worry sports fan, I have the most perfect solution for you. Enter the Angled Barbell Press aka the Landmine Press:

landmine

So if you are injured and cannot overhead press but want to load the pressing muscles, the Landmine Press is an elegant option. It’s easy to set up – grab a barbell, put one end against something immovable and press. You could use a symmetrical stance or a split stance. I like to do these one arm at a time, unlike a barbell bench press.

landminesym

The landmine press ticks all the boxes – you do it standing up, the scapulae aka shoulder blades are free to move unlike in a bench press, so chances of shoulder injuries are minimized, it can be loaded with a quite a lot of weight so can be used for developing hypertrophy and strength. Depending on the trainee, it can be easily regressed so you can go from half kneeling – tall kneeling – standing.

kneeling

tallkneeling

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The landmine Press can be used to improve core strength in the transverse plane i.e. rotation plane. Most sports tend to be transverse plane focused – cricket, golf, tennis, boxing just to name a few. Initially doing these presses in a single arm fashion, anti rotation core strength is developed. Later on rotation core strength can be developed by doing it like so

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If looking to convert strength to power, the Landmine press can be easily turned into a push press or push jerk

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The landmine press is a versatile tool and can be used by all trainees, if they can get away from their beloved bench press! So try it and let me know what you think.

 

Are you wasting time in the gym?

I walk into the gym and see this skinny kid, about 5′ 9″ and 55 kgs dripping wet. He is at the cable machine, doing low pulley curls.

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Forty-five minutes later, I have finished my workout and see him again, at the cable machine, doing low pulley curls.

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He was obviously a beginner and had no business doing biceps curls on a cable machine. You might say that he is a one off, who does not know what he is supposed to do but that is not the case. There are so many like him and they continue to workout/train month after month on exercises which produce very little except the short term pump. The other variety which seems to be found in abundance in the gyms are the guys looking for “cuts”. They want “Bruce Lee’s body”, whatever that means!

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My usual response to such asinine statements – you need to go to Seattle, USA, where he is buried! Ask a silly question….

Most beginners will do well on a full body program where they work hard on a few compound exercises. Their goal at every workout should be to either increase the weight or go up by a repetition, while keeping repetitions in the 6-12 range. Also if they are not feeling any strain, then they are not working hard enough in the gym.

Let me lay down a few strength standards that all should be trying to attain. These come from Dan John, a famous coach and athlete. Though he prefers 15 repetitions for each of the exercise listed.

Bench Press – Body weight x 10 reps

Squat  –            Body weight x 10 reps

Pull up/chin up – Body weight x 10 reps.

Anybody who can hit those numbers will have a muscular physique and loads of usable strength to go along with it, provided they have also upped their food intake. I am talking about real food and not supplements! Please note that I have listed just three exercises but all of them work the entire musculature of the body.

After these numbers have been attained, then the trainee can look for specialized routines, isolation exercises etc. There is no getting away from the basics. Work them hard. Then, only then, think about whether you need to do curls with the pinky up or down!

 

 

 

 

The Overhead Press, the red headed step child of weight training

In the golden era of weight training, the overhead press was the barometer of upper body strength. When people referred to the Press, it was the standing barbell press and not the  bench press as it is generally assumed today.

 

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Sometime around the late 1940s, the focus shifted from the standing overhead press to the bench press. As an aside,  the golden era strongmen/bodybuilders like Eugen Sandow did not possess the chest (over)development of the bodybuilders from the late 1950s on-wards like Arnold No-last-name-required.

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Somewhere in the 90s, with the infiltration of physiotherapy in to Strength training, we began to hear how overhead presses are terrible for the shoulder health. Also the new breed of “Strength coaches” began to fear monger the shape of the acromion. This picture was often used to discourage trainees from doing the overhead press.

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The reasoning put forward was that the hooked acromion will instantly lead to shoulder impingement, supraspinatus tendon tears. So more trainees started to focus on the bench press. Comparatively the bench press is easier to load and cheat on. The chase for higher bench press numbers began in earnest, form be damned. Gym bros invented newer forms of bench press aka let me hump the ceiling while I try to move the weight 2 inches.

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Soon we began to see injuries to the chest and shoulders increase at an alarming rate. “Enthusiasts” began to tear their pectoral muscles, hail the bench press.

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The overhead press makes sure that the shoulders develop in a more balanced manner as the scapulae aka shoulder blades can move freely unlike in a bench press where they are pressed in to the bench.

The overhead press also helps in developing balance – a dire need for the (b)older trainee.

So try this for the next three months – remove all forms of the bench press from your training routine. In its place add the overhead press – barbell and dumbbell and see your shoulder health and strength improve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stand Up!

With the advent of modern gyms and the multiple types of machines, we have forgotten that in real life or on the playing field, we spend most of our time doing stuff standing upright. But somehow with the focus on the body beautiful, I see more and more gym trainees either sitting or lying down while training. While this works well if you are solely focused on hypertrophy but to use a cliche, in a sport called life, where you function on your two feet, you might be all show and no go.

I believe this has happened primarily because we have swallowed the bodybuilding dogma that we need to do to body part training. I overhear people how they work only one body part a day – today is “chest day” or “arms day”. But we do know that the greatest transfer to most activities whether daily or sporting comes from using the barbell. And lo behold, most of the exercises using the barbell make you stand. Training with a barbell while standing also improves balance, which most young people take for granted. But ask a senior citizen and he/she is most concerned about falling down and not “pecs and bis”. Unfortunately senior citizens training under Physios and doctors tend to be put on machines because hey, after all machines are “safe” to use. Or it could be that the Physios and doctors do not train with weights and do not know how to cue others.

You say what does training with a barbell have to do with improving balance and I say lift a loaded barbell over head while standing or squat down with a loaded barbell across your back and then tell me you are not working on your ability to balance!

Upright training has another important side effect – the core gets trained in the way it actually should be. The core has to actively stabilize the torso while heavy loads are used in exercises like squats, dead lifts and overhead presses  and their various variations. In fact the earlier we move training the core from supine to upright, the better the training effect and transfer to real life activities and sport.

Let us try this experiment for the next three months. Use only the barbell and dumbbells when you go to the gym. Also no lying down to do bench presses or sitting down to do any exercise. Find variations of all exercises that can be done standing. Here is a partial list – squats, lunges, dead lifts, over head presses, land mine presses, bent over and single arm rows, bicep curls and tri-cep extensions. Since I am partial to full body routines, pick 4-6 exercises from the above list and work your entire body in a single session. You can do 3-4 sets per exercise and about 6-10 repetitions per set.

If you diligently follow my above suggestion and work hard, expect to see a leaner and more muscular you at the end of those three months. Before I wind up, make sure you are getting quality food into you with lots of protein, good fats and some carbohydrates.

Write to me with your questions and suggestions!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Put your running shoes on!

This is a statement I hear too often, “I lift weights to be big and muscular. I would lose all my size if I ran. Have you seen those scrawny marathon runners?” Another one goes likes this, “I will become weak if I do cardio/running. I get all the cardio I need by lifting my weights fast.” One guru claimed that his style of lifting would make you lean, without the “dishonor of aerobics”!

The above statements usually give me a headache as they show much we have moved away from functionality into the realm of fantasy and fiction. Let me make it clear that I am not saying that everybody should be running marathons but that the most important muscle in the body is the heart and it needs to be trained in the correct fashion so that it continues to function properly, unless your ambition is to be a muscular corpse.

Let me back up a minute and explain in the simplest of terms – the cardio vascular system and its function. Please keep in that people do advanced degrees in the cardio vascular system, so what you are going to read over here is going to be rudimentary at best.

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Basically the heart pumps out oxygen rich blood to the body while pumping out carbon dioxide heavy blood to the lungs. Since the heart is a muscle, it responds to exercise by becoming larger/hypertrophy.This is where the gym bros and others seem to lose the plot. When the resistance/intensity increases, blood pressure goes up, the heart has to work much harder to pump out the blood. The wall of the left ventricle thickens due to the overload, so that the heart can pump harder. This leads to a decrease in the volume of the left ventricle. This is known as Concentric Hypertrophy and can lead to heart health issues over a period of time. Most people doing cardio these days focus on the high intensity intervals aka HIIT. Tabata, which I wrote about earlier, is one of the more popular forms of doing HIIT.

For improving Cardio vascular health and performance, it it necessary to work at lower intensities. Long slow endurance work improves Cardiac Output, lowers blood pressure and increases the volume of the Left Ventricle by stretching it. This is called Eccentric Hypertrophy and is beneficial for heart health.

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Most gym bros balk at this style of cardio but seemed to forget that even today most professional bodybuilders include 2-3 days of incline treadmill walking. Please read that again – not HIIT but brisk walking on an incline. The heart rate is kept in the Aerobic Zone 55%-65% of Max Heart Rate. This is ideally done with a heart rate monitor. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, then if you can maintain a conversation while doing cardio, you are in the Aerobic Zone. I recommend that everybody do this type of cardio for 30-45 minutes for 2-3 times a week.

Initially, this type of conditioning might affect a person solely focused on hypertrophy, mildly affecting recovery. But as the Cardio-Vascular system improves, recovery will in fact improve, muscle size and strength will go up. Thus its a win-win situation. Now go out and get some low intensity conditioning.

Medals, Medals everywhere but how many for India?

The Olympics are over. Athletes from various countries have wowed us with their skill, determination and the will to win. Despite sending the biggest contingent ever, India could only manage two medals! The finger pointing in the Sports Ministry has begun. Expert committees are being set up to look at why we failed and what we can do to win more medals.

I really love the reasons that are trotted out by all and sundry. Indians do not the have the right physique, Indians are too poor to be bothered about sports, Indians do not eat meat blah, blah. Same old tired reasons we have heard over and over again.

We seem to forget that an athlete is the end result of a system. When an athlete fails to perform at the highest level, the system needs to be looked at, not the athlete. The failure of the athlete is a symptom of the system not performing. We can compare the state of hockey with a non Olympic sport, Cricket. Hockey is stuck with wanting to produce dribbling stars, a la Dhyan Chand, while the world has moved on to a very fast game of passing the ball and very high levels of fitness. In Cricket, we seem to adapt to newer formats very quickly and continue to produce world beaters one after another. Earlier players used to be from big towns and cities but now smaller places are proving that they too can produce great Cricketers.

Lets look at the sport of Boxing. Till the last Olympics, everybody felt that Boxing was thriving in India. Youngsters seem to be joining the sport in droves, women Boxing was doing well too. India was producing stars in Boxing by the dozen, hell even Bollywood was making movies about them. Then the politics and and infighting in the Boxing Federation started, so much so the Indian Boxing Federation was banned by the International one since the elections were not held on time. Indian Boxers have been competing without the support of a national federation and we expect them to win medals!

Similarly with wrestling, Sushil Kumar, the bronze medalist from London Olympics sued the Wrestling Federation that he should be allowed to take part in the selection for Rio 2016. He lost the case but then at last minute, Nar Singh Yadav, who was going to represent India tested positive for steroids. Excellent performance Wrestling Federation of India – actually they should be given a gold medal for creating uncertainty and unnecessary anxiety in the minds of the wrestlers!!

If we look at countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Morocco, which are poor etc but produce champions. Hmm, I wonder how do they that? They did that by focusing on a few events, creating a system of finding and grooming talent and then letting them compete.  Indian athletes still do not get enough international competition exposure and thus when faced with pressure, fail to even equal marks they have set at home or while being selected. And the reason for competing less often – usually it is the federation or the Sports Ministry which did not get the visas on time! This comedy of errors, one could have a great guffaw at, except that it leads to a loss of athletic talent over the long run, with disillusioned and discouraged athletes not really putting their 120% in training and in competing.

If we want to compete and win medals at the Olympics and other sporting events, we need to get out of the adhoc mentality that is prevalent in the Sports Ministry. I hear calls for focusing on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but we are already too late for 2020. I can bet in other countries, athletes have been selected and working hard for Tokyo while we set up committees to analyze the 2016 debacle.

Let me end on the fact for an athlete, Olympics do not come every 4 years. For him/her, Olympics happen every day because if he/she are not training and improving, their competitor surely is.

 

 

 

Strengthen. Don’t Stretch

Go to your typical orthopedist with back pain and after they have put you through the mandatory MRI, you come away with a diagnosis that your hamstrings are “tight” and you need to s-t-r-e-t-c-h them and everything will be okay again. If you went to a typical Physio, you would be told your hip flexors are “tight” and you have APT. While you wonder if that is the AIDS of the Physiotherapy world and soon you will die because the “tight” hip flexors will get so tight that your knee will be inside in your nose. You are mercifully explained that APT stands for Anterior Pelvic Tilt and to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the hip flexors so that everything will be okay again.

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Hip Flexors

In all this that is tight and that is not so tight, most clinicians seem to forget two very important features of the body – Reciprocal Inhibition and Synergistic Dominance.  I know that sounds like some foreign language but it is quite simple. Reciprocal Inhibition is defined as the process of the muscles on one side of a joint relaxing to accommodate contraction on the other side of that joint. Joints are controlled by two opposing sets of muscles, extensors and flexors, which must work in synchrony for smooth movement. For example the biceps and triceps are the flexors and extensors of the elbow. While bending the elbow, the tricep has to relax and while straightening the elbow, the bicep has to relax.

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Biceps & Triceps

For the back pain sufferers, the hip flexors would be “tight” and lead to weak or inhibited hip extensors aka the Glutes or muscles of the butt. The tight hip flexors could happen because of extended sitting or because of posture. The remedy to tight hip flexors is not stretching them but strengthening the weak Glutes. This would lead to a balance between the hip flexors and glutes and might also ameliorate the back pain!

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Reciprocal inhibition leads to synergistic dominance – in the above example since the glutes are the prime movers in hip extension and they are weak/inhibited, then the helper or synergist muscles, the hamstrings, take over. The hamstrings work well as a synergist to the Glutes but are not meant to be the primary extensors of the hip. This could lead to hamstrings strain and/or back pain.

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Again the solution is to strengthen the Glutes and not stretch the hamstrings. In this case, reciprocal inhibition can be used to shut down the over active hamstrings by activating the quadriceps first before working on the glutes.

Two simple exercises are used for activating and strengthening the glutes – the glute bridge and prone hip extension.

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Glute Bridge
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Prone Hip Ext

People with overactive hamstrings will feel them cramp while doing the bridge. Simply tighten the quadriceps before doing the bridge.

Similarly with the prone hip extension, tighten abdominal muscles before doing the hip extensions, so that the extension happens from the glutes and not the low back muscles.

Most of us in the fitness world tend to “chase the pain” all the while forgetting that the problem could be elsewhere. Time to look at the body as an interconnected whole and not a collection of body parts!

 

 

Is that a Tabata or are you just happy to see me!

We want to get more for less, so whether it is buying groceries or buying a car, the customer wants more while paying less. This attitude has now extended to how we approach fitness. A casual perusal of headlines in various magazines and newspapers loudly proclaim how we can now do less work or spend less time in the gym and get the same or better results. Tim Ferriss, progenitor of the 4-hour week idea, is marketing the 4-hour body.

The cornerstone of doing less and getting more philosophy seems to be the Tabata protocol. Tabata is the hottest buzzword and is attached to any program to make it sound very futuristic and “sports sciency”. The trainee goes away happy because hey the program was invented in a Sports Science lab and the trainer goes laughing all the way to the bank.

The Tabata protocol gets its name from Dr Izumi Tabata, a well known researcher, who did this study:

Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max.  Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30

with highly trained cyclists. The cyclists used it for 6 weeks and showed marked improvement in aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels. The protocol was 20 seconds of all out cycling and 10 seconds of rest repeated 8 times for a total of 4 minutes. The 20 seconds of all out cycling was measured at 170% VO2max. Here VO2 max is determined by having the cyclist ride the mechanically braked cycle while measuring oxygen uptake and gradually increasing the wattage until the oxygen uptake no longer continues to rise.  This is 100% of VO2 max and it is often associated with complete exhaustion. So now imagine increasing the intensity to be 170% VO2 max.

When this study came out, people in the fitness industry were like “yayy, we can get fit in 8 minutes flat. Imagine the number of clients we can get through the gym is such a small time.” Gyms saw Dollar signs everywhere. But and it is a very big BUT the part that was glossed over was that the intensity has to be at a vomit inducing 170% VO2 Max. How many regular clients can hope attain this intensity in a commercial gym? In fact, how many of our clients should be looking to train at that intensity? Just because you are doing 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off which comes to a 2:1 work rest ratio, does not mean you are doing Tabatas. What completely amazes me when I come across “expert trainers” claiming in mainstream media that Tabatas are for everyone and then the exercise they recommend – planks. Statements like these make my brain hurt. Yes, you are doing interval training but not Tabata.

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We have gotten to a point where the general public is being told that in comparison to interval training, steady state training is useless. Since interval training is all that is required and since interval training is good, then 4 minutes of Tabata is even better. So drop and give me 20 seconds of planks NOW!

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Do not get me wrong because in a well designed training program, both steady state and interval training are important. The way to go about is to start with steady state training and as fitness improves and the trainee can tolerate increased intensities, interval training can then be introduced.  Another thing that most “experts” have glossed over is that in the Tabata study, the interval training group stopped improving after 3 weeks while the steady state guys improved till the very end of the study.  This shortcoming of the interval training method has been known to the Endurance sport coaches for more than a century now!

I know you will say that I am behaving like some uppity purist and unnecessarily getting into semantics. So what if it is not really Tabata but it is close to it and that’s good enough.  But if we want to be taken seriously as professionals then we need to have some standards and those standards have to adhered to across the board. It drives me bananas when terms like “core”, “functional” are thrown around by trainers while they really do not know their meaning. But then the other day I met a friend who told me that she ran the Mumbai Marathon. I was very impressed till I came to know she actually ran the 6 km fun run which is part of the Mumbai Marathon jamboree!

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