Saturday, March 28, 2015

From surgery to signing day

It's always great to see my clients sign letters of intent on national signing day, and this year was no different. It's a culmination of significant hard work and support, and it validates the years athletes and their families spend training, traveling and competing in order to someday compete at the college level.

But watching Southern Durham High School defensive lineman Jawwad Evans sign with Hampton University was especially satisfying because I knew where he'd been just two years prior.

Jawwad was a physically gifted sophomore defensive end competing for a starting spot on his varsity team during the summer of 2012 when doctors decided his nagging shoulder injury needed to be surgically repaired, and it kept him off the field for the entire season. Instead of trudging through two-a-days and suiting up on Friday nights, he pulled Therabands and rode an exercise bike in a physical therapy clinic.

After doctors cleared him to return to traditional strength training in October 2012, Jawwad began lifting and running with his teammates. He contacted me a few weeks later because, though he was making progress, certain exercises bothered his shoulder, and he was experience hip pain that he hadn't felt before. He shared with me the strength and conditioning routine his coaches had him following, and after a simple movement screen the problem was clear.

Jawwad's injury had healed, but he still wasn't ready to dive back into the rigors of his sport. He hadn't lifted heavy in months, and his hips lacked the mobility to squat low enough to satisfy his coaches. Plus, the barbell military press and olympic lifts still bothered his shoulder, and he worried about re-injuring it.

So we worked together to get him as strong as possible using exercises that kept him moving through safe ranges of motion. We swapped out exercises like military presses and deep squats and instead performed floor presses with a swiss bar and high box squats with a safety squat bar.

We also improved his olympic lifting technique, first using tire flips and later coaching the clean variations. He performed lots of extra shoulder and upper back exercises like reverse flies, external rotations and face pulls. Before, during and after each session we addressed his mobility issues with soft tissue work, ground-based movements like scorpions and rollovers-into-V-sits, and multi-planar core strengthening so he could eventually return to his team's training program and lift pain-free.

The physical challenges Jawwad faced were obvious, but there's a psychological obstacle that post-surgical athletes must overcome as well. It took awhile for Jawwad to trust his body as I added weight to the bar. At first, he never performed more than the prescribed number of reps in a set.

But a few weeks later, after a set of loaded carries, he asked me if it was okay to do more than the required distance. That was a key moment, not because I'd underestimated him, but because he trusted his own body enough to push himself. By Christmas, he'd stopped asking and instead told me when a set was too light.

After a few months of work, Jawwad had added 70 pounds to his box squat and 30 pounds to his floor press, both of which transferred to his traditional back squat and bench press. He returned to his team's training program in January 2013, won a starting job that fall and led his team deep into the playoffs in 2014.

Congrats to Jawwad and his family and best of luck at the next level!  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

From second string to signing day

As a former baseball coach who counseled players about college recruiting, I often told eager kids that "if you're good, scouts and coaches will find you." It sounds too simple, but I still believe that if you separate yourself on the field, someone will take an interest.

But Riverside High School baseball player Mason Dwinnell's situation was more complicated. Riverside has a long history of success, and many of the college-bound athletes that made the program successful played the same position as Mason. Despite a willingness to learn new positions, he spent much of his high school career supporting his older and more talented teammates from the dugout. In other words, he couldn't get on the field, so scouts and coaches couldn't see him.

During the past two high school seasons Mason's backed up two catchers, three infielders and three pitchers now playing at scholarship programs. It would have been easy for him to feel sorry for himself, give up on his dream or transfer to another school. But instead of making excuses, he made his own opportunities.

Mason's circumstances were unique, and so was his plan to earn a spot on a college roster. When we began working together during the summer of 2013 I challenged him to become the strongest player on his high school team by the spring of 2015. There was a good chance he wouldn't start until his senior year, so he needed to do everything in his power to prepare for that opportunity.

Two years later, as his senior season begins, he's added 60 pounds to his bench max, 110 to his squat and 130 to his deadlift, all while gaining only five pounds of bodyweight.  Mason's now as strong as any player in his conference. And best of all, he's already locked up a roster spot at Shenandoah University for next year.

When I look back at what Mason accomplished during our time working together, I notice three important habits that separated him from his peers.

First, he showed up. Plenty of players hit the weight room during the winter, but Mason made strength a year-round priority. That meant lifting around practice and game schedules and performing bodyweight routines when he couldn't get to a gym. It also meant lifting heavy some days and going light on others. Regardless, he found a way to make himself a better athlete every time he trained, and a series of small improvements added up over time.

Second, he kept adding weight to the bar. Perhaps the most fundamental training rule of the iron game, Mason was never satisfied and pushed hard to keep adding plates, even after his numbers surpassed the other baseball players on my record board. Nailing reps with two, three and four 45s on each side of the bar was a great motivator, and he's anxious to see the difference the added strength makes on the field.

Finally, he never strayed from his goals. During our time working together Mason got his driver's license, finished four semesters of high school, broke up with his longtime girlfriend and gave up wrestling to focus on baseball. Some college coaches didn't return his calls, and many others did only to say they weren't interested. There were plenty of opportunities for him to lose focus and reevaluate his goals, but he knew what he wanted, pursued it and delivered.

His accomplishments are remarkable, and we haven't even seen what he can do on the field yet. Congratulations to Mason and his family, and enjoy your home field's short porch this spring!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Best Gift of the Year

It's very difficult to find products that truly capture the holiday spirit, but the folks over at EliteFTS get it right every year. 

Once again, EliteFTS has put together Programs that Work, a collection of training programs written by some of the best coaches in the world and offers it at a great price. The manuals give readers a look at how some of the strongest athletes in the world train and how coaches prepare their athletes for competition.

That's reason enough for me to buy it every year, but there's more to it than that. All proceeds from Programs that Work go to the Make A Wish Foundation. Last year alone it raised $83,000. So stop stressing out about the extra desserts staring you in the face at holiday parties, thousand-calorie glasses of eggnog and busy schedule keeping you from training three days a week and support a great cause. 



Friday, August 29, 2014

New Article Published Today

EliteFTS published one my articles today about in-season training programs. Thanks to all the athletes and coaches who helped shape my programming philosophy!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Knowing Squat

Regardless of my clients' goals, I always seem to spend more time coaching the squatting movements than any other exercise. It's amazing how such a simple (and effective) movement can be so difficult, and while correcting it requires a unique combination of assessment, analysis and instruction for each athlete, there are some universals worth sharing to help you move better, lose weight, and get strong.

For simplicity's sake I'll stick to the barbell back squat in the article, but my thoughts apply to  any squat variation.

Step One: what to wear.

Choosing the appropriate singlet, multi-ply suit or booty shorts depends on your training goals. If you're not a competitive powerlifter, olympic lifter, bodybuilder or crossfitter, you can't go wrong with shorts and a t-shirt. Choosing footwear, however, is a much more significant decision.

Squatting requires sufficient ankle, knee, hip, spine and shoulder mobility. While footwear alone does not fix mobility issues, the right shoe can help lifters squat more safely as they address the underlying issue with stretching, soft tissues and mobility drills.

Olympic weightlifting has exploded in popularity in the US, so much so that Mark Cannella, world-class coach and president of the Columbus Weightlifting Club, believes the US will compete for medals in the next 5 to 10 years. As a result, more people are squatting in weightlifting shoes.

If you're a competitive olympic lifter, wear the shoes you use in competition. If you're not, consider the impact they have on the biomechanics of your squat.

Weightlifting shoes possess are hard sole and elevated heel usually .5 to .75 inches tall. Elevating the heel shortens the distance the ankle needs to dorsiflex during a squat. It also allows the knees to travel further forward. The "forward" position that weightlifting shoes promote also helps some lifters maintain a neutral spine at a lower depth. It also becomes more quad-dominant than its counterpart.

Flat-soled shoes, on the other hand, require greater dorsiflexion at the ankle, which allows the lifter to maintain a reduced shin angle. In other words, the lifter can sit back further and keep the knees behind the toes.

Here's a picture of me squatting approximately 85 percent of my max in both weightlifting shoes and flats:

In the left image (wearing weightlifting shoes), my knees are in line with my toes, and my torso is parallel to my shins. In the right image (flats), my knees are behind my toes, my shins are more upright and my chest is further forward. Both variations are "correct," but the footwear significantly changes the ranges of motion needed to complete the lift.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Powerlifting Meet Recap

I've been a competitive athlete all my life. I played a variety of sports as a child and started lifting sixteen years ago in preparation for high school football and baseball. I continued lifting while playing varsity baseball in college and club rugby as a working adult. My current work and family commitments make it hard to play a team sport, and about six months ago I decided to find a new competitive outlet.

So I trained for and competed in the Carolina Championships on June 7. It was the first full powerlifting meet of my athletic career, and I walked away excited, humbled and proud.

I woke up at 4:45 a.m., drove two hours to Hickory, NC in several layers of clothing hoping to sweat off a couple pounds and make the 198-pound weight class. I reached the convention center early, weighed in at 194.6 and immediately began eating and hydrating.

Squatting began at nine. I opened light and hit 345 without a problem. Hitting my first attempt was key, because while I knew how to squat I'd never performed in front of judges. My depth and form confirmed. I jumped thirty pounds and handled 375 just as easily. I set my third attempt at 405. I was tempted to do more because the first two attempts had gone so well, but it was early in the day and my goals coming in were bench 300, squat 400 and deadlift 500. The third attempt felt just like the first two, and I was 3-for-3 heading into the bench press.

It was over three hours before we began benching. I partnered up with someone during warm ups and we agreed to spot each other during our competition lifts so we'd be familiar with each other's lift off. I opened with an easy 275, handled 292, but failed with 308. I'd handled more than 308 in training, but on that particular rep I didn't have the tension I needed through my back and shoulders during the liftoff. I lowered the bar, paused and waited for the press command, drove the bar off my chest but stalled halfway through the press.

It was 4:00 by the time deadlifting began, and the day was beginning to feel long. I'd dealt with lower back issues in the weeks leading up to the meet and had greatly reduced my deadlift training in hopes of keeping it healthy enough for three heavy pulls. If it felt good, I believed I could set a PR. If not, even my opener could bomb.

My warm-up felt good enough, and my first attempt of 445 went up smoothly. The meet organizers brought in fantastic equipment for the competition, and if you've never pulled heavy with a deadlift bar, you should try it. The increased flex makes a huge difference and feels great. My second attempt with 475 was a bit slow, but I locked it out and set my third attempt at 501. As I watched the other competitors in my flight grind out their final attempts, set PRs and walk off the platform to cheers from the audience it provided a much needed boost at the end of the long day.

When it was my turn to keep the momentum going I took my place behind the platform and waited for the command. The deadlift is unique because there's nothing between you and the audience except the bar. When I got the "bar's loaded" command I stepped onto the platform, set my feet, measured my grip, pulled my shoulder blades toward my hip pockets and let it rip. The rep took what felt like an hour to move from my shins to lockout, but as I heard the drop command from the judge I saw three white lights. I stumbled off the platform, caught my breath and pulled for the other guys in my flight.

Even though I fell short of my goal, I was proud to take part in the meet. The older I get, the more difficult it becomes to find meaningful opportunities to compete. At thirty years old, with a wife, kids, full-time job outside the fitness industry and recent injury history that includes shoulder surgery and a venomous snake bite, competing felt like an accomlishment in and of itself. I tell my athletes that if you want to be the strongest players on the field, bench 1.5-times your bodyweight, squat double and deadlift 2.5. While my numbers are average at best in the powerlifting world, at least I'm still on the right side of that rule.

My performance also taught me some valuable lessons about my training. Having the meet on the calendar kept my training much more focused. Paying to compete on a specific day kept me motivated and accountable. In addition, I now know to include heaver squats, more paused benching and less pulling in my next phase of training based on my training leading up to the meet and what I did with my attempts. I can also see the benefit of competing with a coach or training partner who can help you choose weights, watch and record attempts, and provide good company during the long stretches of time between events.

Overall, it was a great day. I learned a lot, met a lot of great people and saw some really impressive lifts by men and women of all sizes and ages. Hats off to Steve Maxon and the USPA for running an awesome meet. I look forward to competing again.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Underrated: Seated Good Mornings

I issue all my athletes a disclaimer when they begin training with me: As much as we all want to look good in front of the mirror, it's the muscles in the back of the body that generate power when running, jumping, hitting, throwing, tackling and touchdown dancing. Therefore, we spend most of our time strengthening the muscles you can't see in the mirror.

I've never had client become too strong in the hamstrings, glutes and back, so we work tirelessly to develop the posterior chain in a variety of ways.

Good mornings are a valuable exercise because they pound the hamstrings, glutes and low back yet require less recovery time than heavy squats and dead lifts. I'm including the seated variation more and more often in my advanced clients' and personal training programs for several reasons:

- It's difficult. 400+ pound squatters don't need more than 185 pounds to generate a training effect.
- It hammers the lower back. If you have a healthy but weak lower back, performing multiple sets of moderate reps will fix it in a hurry.

It develops flexibility. Hinging the hips from a seated position stretches the hamstrings differently than the standing variations. Flexing and extending the upper back during each rep also builds thoracic mobility.

- It reinforces good technique where you need it most. Many of my clients fall forward at the bottom of the squat because they lack the core strength to maintain their arch. When performing the seated good morning upper back rounds and arches the back during each rep. This helps maintain the posture they need to handle PR weights at the bottom of squat later on. Starting in a seated position also forces you to fill the belly with air and push the abs out, which assists the upper and lower back.

Try performing 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps after your main lower body exercise for 4-8 weeks. Pay attention to your foot placement, start light, and enjoy the extra power it creates at the start of your pulls and the bottom of your squats.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

NC Strength Coaches Clinic Recap, part 2

Jim Wendler - - London, OH

The second half of the day began with a disclaimer.

"I'm gonna say some things you might find offensive," Wendler warned, "but I'm not trying to offend anyone. I was raised a different way."

He then paused for a few moments of awkward silence before diving into the four principles that form the backbone of his newest book.

1. Use multi-joint movements.

While the traditional squat, bench, dead lift and press work best for most people, it's important to have a big arsenal of variations that fit the needs of individual athletes.

"We all know there are athletes who look like a dog taking a dump when he dead lifts," he said. "Let them use a trap bar."

Variations of the core lifts should be used as accessories, but limit the variety with in-season athletes.

"Mastering one exercise variation is key for in-season training so they can perform them without soreness," he said.

2. Start too light

Wendler believes starting light improves and maintains good technique.

"The core lifts should be focused work. Make sure athletes are doing the lifts correctly and with purpose. The minute you let bad form pass, get your resume ready because you don't care anymore," he said.

3. Progress slow

The key to progressing slow is finding the right training max. Wendler bases his loads off 90 percent of his one-rep max because it accounts for the athlete's stress levels.

"90 percent is key because lifters have bad days and athletes have REALLY bad days (because of additional stress). If the athlete feels great, let him set a rep max or add joker sets up to a 3-5-rep max."

Working at 90 percent also ensures the athlete has a chance to succeed every day.

"If your athlete's hitting the required reps, but no more, he's feeling 90 percent that day," he said, "but he's still reaching his goals." 

4. Set PRs

"Have a multitude of rep records with different weights in each core lift. It helps save athletes from themselves on the days they're feeling stress."

Working with rep maxes also eliminates the need for "test days," as every session measures where you stand in comparison to previous records.

"Intelligent programming makes it easy to create a legion of kids dying to show you what they can do," he said.

Bonus: Things Wendler hates.

- Skipping the warm-up: "If you don't have time to warm up, you don't have time to train."

- Multitasking: "What's better: a great squat session or a complete but rushed session?"

- Conditioning in a power rack: "Time with a barbell is time to get strong."

- Neglecting jumps and throws: "Do box jumps or hurdle jumps and throw (don't toss) a med ball with a partner. Wherever the ball lands, your partner has to throw it. Whoever is driven farthest away loses."

- Neglecting pull ups: "There are three reasons why athletes can't do pull ups. They're either too weak, too fat or injured." 

- Hypocrisy: "Soft-bodied coaches produce soft athletes. If they see you kick your own ass they will respect you. Do not expect greatness from athletes if you do not expect greatness from yourself."

Eric Hegedus - High Point University - High Point, NC

Dr. Hegedus is the founding chair of High Point's Doctor of Physical Therapy program and the director of Targeted Enhanced Athletic Movement (TEAM), a community-based health and wellness program designed to improve athletic performance and prevent injury. He shared his thoughts about physical performance tests.

"Would you stop an injury if you could?" he asked.

The room full of coaches nodded. 

"But how?"

"FMS," someone answered.

"A physical performance test must be reliable, valid and responsive," he said. "The FMS does not have all three qualities. No performance test is perfect. Use what you know, but remember--you don't know everything."

Hegedus then walked us through a simple squat test and showed four examples of athletes whose movements revealed significant risk of injury and discussed effective interventions:

1. Valgus collapse: fix with hip extension exercises (but not more squatting if they do it poorly), hip abduction and landing technique.

2. Ankle mobility: stretch (be sure foot is neutral) and increase ROM (dorsiflexion)

3. Tight lats and pecs: stretch, soft-tissue and increase ROM

4. Poor core stability and/or hip mobility: strengthen core and increase ROM

I drove home from Winston-Salem with a pocket full of new business cards and a head full of new training ideas for myself and my athletes. If you're south of the Mason-Dixon next January, don't miss this clinic!  


Sunday, February 9, 2014

NC Strength Coaches Clinic Recap, Part 1

For years, Wake Forest University strength and conditioning coach Ethan Reeve has organized and hosted the North Carolina Strength Coaches Association's annual clinic.

Coach Reeve takes pride in bringing in the best coaches in various fields of strength training, and this year was no exception. Here's a recap of what I learned.

Rich Lansky - Optimum Performance Training Center, Sarasota, FL

Before running a large group of high school football players through his snatch, clean and jerk progressions in Wake Forest's varsity weight room, Coach Lansky told every athlete (and observer) to "forget what you think you know." His progressions were simple but sound, and the athletes improved significantly during the session, but what impressed me the most were his verbal cues and one liners. Some of his most memorable include:

"You cannot jump too high."

"If the athlete's heels kick toward their butt it means they're falling forward." 

"If your feet are too wide when you land, you'll become part of someone else's highlight reel."

"There ain't no macho when you're trying to learn a skill" (In other words, 'don't be in a hurry to load the bar')

"If an athlete jumps forward (during a snatch or clean), they're jumping too early"

"When the bar's overhead, reach up and touch the sky" (to engage the lats)

"I've never kicked a guy out of my weight room for doing extra work."

When a coach trains a large group of athletes, how you communicate instructions is crucial. Lansky's verbal cues were spot on.

Zach Even-Esh - Underground Strength Coach, Edison, NJ

Zach took over for Lansky and immediately had the athletes put away the straight bar and pull out the trap bars. He spoke for a few minutes about his training system and why his athletes use the trap bar.  Then the athletes performed 5 sets of progressively heavier sets of 5 reps as he floated around the room to troubleshoot.

"The bar's trying to pull you down," he told one athlete whose back was rounding. "Pull it back!"

I asked him why he coached three bigger guys to "touch and go" instead of resetting between each rep. Many coaches prefer a dead stop between dead lift reps, and even Zach himself told the group to "never rush the set up- when the body locks in, the mind locks in."

"These boys are 200-and-change, pulling 185," he said. "They should be able to keep their shit tight and touch and go."

That's what I like best about Zach; he fosters an attitude that's just as important as any exercise or weight. He talked more about building toughness after the athletes finished a push-pull-jump circuit.

"You don't always need to be told what to do," he said. "When no one's watching, go outside and do a good old gut bustin' workout. 100 pushups. Sprints. Run hills. Pick up something and carry it.

"Big guys--don't lie to yourselves. You can do pushups, pull ups and climb ropes. Move your body!

"That will make you tough. That will give you an edge." 

Mark Seaver -WFU coordinator of sports performance, Winston-Salem, NC

Coach Seaver outlined the Wake Forest baseball program's annual training plan by first describing the typical WFU baseball player. Big, strong power hitters that are the exception, not the norm, as more than half of the current roster weighs less than 200 pounds and only one weighs more than 215. Therefore, he prioritizes explosion and power over added mass. To better prove this point, he showed videos of Albert Pujols ( 6' 3", 230) and Andrew McCutcheon (5' 10", 190) each hitting home runs.

Despite being 5 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter, McCutchen creates the same amount of batspeed and the same result because he's more explosive, Seaver said.

The baseball program's annual training plan consists of 9 blocks that complement the competitive season. Strength training microcycles usually consist of a strength days, power days and mobility days that include lots of single-leg, wrist and forearm supplemental exercises.

Every year the team participates in the "Omaha Challenge," a competition that involves squatting 220 pounds for reps, medicine ball throws for distance, bar holds for time and relay races during which 4 guys carry one guy for 100 yards. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Last chance to buy Programs That Work 3

Planning a new workout routine for the new year?

Only three days left to buy Programs that work 3.

89 training programs. 40 bucks. Every penny of your sale goes to Make A Wish.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The bench press is not evil

'Tis the off-season for baseball players, which means it's time to get big, strong and fast.

For many of my local players, November, December and January is their only true off-season, leaving little time to focus on improving their athleticism.

While I scramble to rehabilitate lingering injuries, correct movement patterns, improve mobility and flexibility, add mass, increase strength and improve speed and explosiveness, players' priorities are always the same:

They want to bench heavy and often.

Despite the never-ending debate over the bench press' value as a exercise (particularly for overhead athletes), my stance remains the same. All of my baseball players bench, and here's why:

1. They love benching. If I leave it out of their training plan, they stay after or go to a commercial gym and do it anyway. I need them excited to get strong, so the last thing I want to do was wake away their favorite exercise.

2. Sound coaching minimizes injury risk. I spend extra time teaching proper technique (elbows tucked, shoulders braced, lower body positioning, etc.), and spotting to ensure the reps they're performing will benefit their careers.

3. There's a variation for everyone. Everybody performs some king of horizontal press, but some of my players only flat bench with a straight bar for a few weeks every year. Others don't do it at all. If an athlete is injured or dysfunctional we reduce the range of motion by substituting floor press or board presses, adjust the hand placement and degree of shoulder rotation with dumbbells or a swiss bar, reduce elbow irritation with a thicker bar or Fat Gripz, or perform joint-friendly pushup variations.

Ultimately, a committed, excited athlete will always make bigger gains. Consider these tips, harness the power of the bench press and use it for good, not evil.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Get strong, support Make A Wish

How much is getting stronger worth to you?

My online clients pay $250 for three months of programming and consultation. My in-person clients spend more than that in two weeks. Sport coaches invest $100+ for my team training programs. I myself spend hundreds of dollars each year on books, DVDs and clinics that help me get stronger and enhance my clients' results.

In other words, good information isn't cheap. That's why I'm so excited to be a part of Programs That Work 3, the 2013 edition of Elite Fitness Systems' holiday training manual. For less than the cost of one private training session you get 89 different training programs designed by the best coaches and trainers in the business.

Programs that Work 3: The 2013 MAW eBook

Better still, every penny of it goes to the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana chapter of the Make A Wish Foundation.

Two volumes of programs, one great cause. Help yourself and others this holiday season by ordering your copy today.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Training in India, episode 2

I was back in India for Thanksgiving and trained at the Bombay Gymkhana in South Mumbai a few times. Just like last time, I enjoyed the unique environment more than the training sessions themselves.

The Bombay Gym is a beautiful complex built by the British in the 1870s. Because I married the right woman, I received a lifetime membership as a wedding gift.

The facility has a cricket pitch, squash, tennis and badminton courts, swimming pools, workout equipment, several restaurants, library, juice bar, barber shop, and siesta room.

The men's workout room is a tiled area underneath an awning. Cricket balls fly into the safety netting throughout the day (grown men play their favorite sport for hours during the work week all over the city), which gave me plenty to watch between sets.

The gym also has an enormous staff, including assistants that load and unload barbells for you. During their idle time, when the manager isn't around, they grab dumbbells and squeeze in their own sets of curls and shrugs. During one quiet afternoon, I watched a little guy in his work uniform crank out set after set, each time drifting from gym entrance to the dumbbell rack, grunt out sets of 20 or more shrugs then returning to his post for nearly an hour.

Not everything was absurd, however. Local training methods have come a long way since my first experience in Mumbai nine years ago. Several rugby players finished their workout with farmer's walk medleys. An older gentleman performed rotator cuff exercises between his sets of bench press.  Harihar Sahu, one of the gym's personal trainers and an amateur bodybuilder, introduced himself as I was finishing up my session. He asked me about powerlifting meets and shared some illuminating thoughts about Indian eating habits and the challenges they present for his clients striving to add mass.

As for my own training, I'd finished 6 full weeks of solid training at home so I decided to avoid the barbell altogether and take advantage of the pulley machine and full rack of dumbbells. I cancelled my gym membership three years ago and train with the basics in my garage now (one of the best decisions I ever made), but I do like machine rows. I did them several times, plus a lot of dumbbell bench and shoulder press, and face pulls, single leg RDLs, Bulgarian split squats holding just one dumbbell, walking lunges in the grass and lots of low rep, heavy ab work.

On the last day of my visit, as I walked out of the gym towards the street to catch a cab home two roosters walked between my feet to pick at crumbs next to two men eating lunch on the ground by the car. The men didn't notice the birds because they were too busy staring at me, a foreigner, crawling into the backseat of the tiny cab and tell the driver where to take me.

Anything goes in Mumbai. It's a city of 20 million people and countless animals, ignoring each other's personal space as they make their own way and gawk at "goras" like me trying to get home for lunch. I can't wait to go back.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Two ways to rest-pause

We've all been there: You've trained for a few years and know how to get stronger. You set your sights on a new PR and carefully plan your training. You get tired, sore and stiff but never miss a session. You follow your own (and everyone else's) good advice and take a week off. When max day finally arrives you turn your music up loud, load the bar and attack...only to get stapled by the same weight you tried weeks before.

Frustrating as it is to see weeks of training produce no gains, it's an important step for every lifter. It means you've transitioned from "beginner" to "intermediate." That's great, but to keep moving forward you'll need to adjust your programming.

Athletes with a few years of experience in the iron game often call me when their progress stalls. I always begin the conversation with a series of questions:

What are your goals? 
What are you doing when you train?
Why are you doing it?
Do you have a training log? 

the training log is vital because it shows me exactly what the athlete's not doing. It can tell me that he's strong enough to hit a new one-rep max, but needs to adjust the volume of their warm-up sets to get it. That he's performing enough volume, but not at the correct intensity, or that he's pounding away at the lifts that get tested, but never performs variations to give his body a break.

If you train with a spotter, a great option for intermediate and advanced lifters looking to jump-start their progress is rest-pause training. There are numerous ways to perform a rest-pause set; in this post I offer two types: one for improving size and one for strength.

Option 1 (size): Extended Sets

Extended sets allow lifters to perform eight reps with their 6RM (about 80% of your 1RM) by adding short rests during the set. In short, you perform a few reps (stopping short of failure), rest 15-20 seconds, perform 1-3 more reps, rest 15-20 seconds, perform as many reps as possible (usually 1-2) as possible.

For example, an extended set looks like this:
Unrack the bar, perform 5 reps, rack the bar
rest 10-15 seconds, unrack the bar, perform 2 additional reps and rack the bar
rest 10-15 seconds, unrack the bar and perform one additional rep.

Crushing 8 reps with your 6RM is guaranteed to add mass. It also helps lifters transition from a high-volume, low-intensity training block into a low-volume, high intensity block.   

Choose one squat, deadlift or pressing exercise each session and perform 2-4 extended sets for six weeks. 

Option 2 (strength): Clusters

Instead of resting for 3-5 minutes between traditional heavy sets of 1-3 reps, cluster multiple reps of your 3RM by taking short rests (10-20 seconds) between each rep. This allows you to perform more reps with a heavier weight in a shorter amount of time. The short rests between each rep also provide opportunities to practice your set-up and technique.

Load the bar with 90% of your 1RM, perform 4-8 singles, racking the bar and resting 10-15 seconds between each rep. 

For example: 
Perform 1 rep, rack the bar, rest 10-15 seconds
Unrack, 1 rep, rack the bar, rest 10-15 seconds
repeat 2-6 more times, then rest 3-5 minutes

Clusters are a great way to practice singles with a heavy load while also adding more volume in less time than traditional sets allow. Choose one squat, dead lift or press variation and perform 2-4 sets if 5-8 reps for 6 weeks.

Find a good spotter, choose the rest-pause method that best fits your goals, and reap the benefits of your hard work!  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Toughness: Pro strongman Clint Darden's take

I wrote about toughness after reading Jay Bilas' book and meeting him in April. Since then, I've been looking deeper into toughness and strength sports by asking teammates, friends, colleagues and clients a simple question:

What makes a strength athlete "tough"?

They've given great answers, so I'll be sharing them from time to time on the blog.

"The honest answer is that I just don't know. I think that anyone who can give you that answer that you are looking for right off the better at telling people to be tough than actually being tough.

Somehow people have branded me as a tough guy for one reason or another over the last few years but I'm just as average as anyone else. Everyone is tough... It's that single parent that works 60 hours per week and still has time for their child. That is tough. It's the people riding their bicycles to work in Hungary at 4 in the morning, an hour each way at freezing temperatures, to a job that they may or may not get paid at this month. It's the overworked, over stressed, sick and nauseated 300 lb father changing his son's diaper in the bathroom of an airplane at 3 in the morning...tough.

What makes people 'tough'? Tough is not something that you can decide to do in order to be tough. Tough guys don't sit and say 'I'm going to be tough'...those are the guys posing in their sun glasses and designer jeans. Tough is something that is JUST DONE. Tough people see a path that must be followed no matter the difficulty level. There are not left or right turns. There are no easy paths along the way. there is only one path and they accept anything and everything that is on that path because the destination is something worth having for them.

For some people that is that their child grow up with everything that a child needs, not knowing that they are any different than any two parent home. It's freezing for hours on a bicycle just for a shot at some money at work so that you can buy some lunch meat for your family to eat that night at the dinner table. It's changing your son's diaper when you are sick just because it's part of raising a child to become a man one day.

I think it is difficult for someone to accept their path as the only path. A basketball player PLAYS THE GAME OF BASKETBALL. It is not glamorous. They play hurt, bruised, hungry. I've worked with MLB players and let me tell you...their life is not glamorous. Those guys hurt and play hurt all the time. No complaints...THIS IS BASEBALL! A Strongman does not complain about how an Atlas Stone rips the skin from their forearms, a powerlifter does not complain how a squat bar takes the skin from their upper back, and OLY lifter does not complain about the skin lost on their clavicles from cleans and front squats. It is all part of ACCEPTING their path and that it is just part of the path. Accept that this will be hard, it will hurt, and that it is just part of what you do. After is ONLY pain.

There are no tough guys out there...only those who accept their path and those which choose to stand still.

Clint Darden is a professional strongman currently living in Cyprus and preparing for his first olympic weightlifting international competition. Follow Clint's training and videos at, like him on Facebook or visit to learn more.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Shoulder Series

This is my most basic shoulder routine for throwers and athletes with shoulder issues. It's not new or fancy, but these three simple exercises will strengthen the rotator cuff, depress the scapula and correct imbalances that develop from excessively internally rotating the shoulder (throwing, benching or hunching over a computer all day). Use them as a warm-up or as assistance exercises after your main lifts.

Perform 2 sets of 10-20 reps of each exercise.

1. Scaption: Your arms should form a 45-degree angle with your body. Do not raise them above the shoulders. Keep the shoulder blades down and back throughout the entire range of motion (no shrugging).

2. Reverse Flies: Pinch the shoulder blades together as the hands travel up. Stop when the arms are in line with the shoulder blades and slowly return to the starting position.

3. External Rotations: Be sure to maintain an neutral wrist position. Think about wrapping your shoulder blade around your ribs as you complete each rep.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Jim Wendler on Toughness

I recently wrote about toughness after reading Jay Bilas' book and meeting him in April. Since then, I've been looking deeper into toughness and strength sports by asking teammates, friends, colleagues and clients a simple question:

What makes a strength athlete "tough"?

They've given great answers, so I'll be sharing them from time to time on the blog.

"Toughness isn't really synonymous with strength sports (or any sports). Yes, for young athletes (kids), sports are the BEST way we have to develop some important attributes that can help develop them as people. Toughness is one of them. I have written about this many times in 'non lifting' articles I have written as well as other 'non lifting' books.

But really, toughness requires some kind of adversity. There is no real adversity in a very controlled situation such as lifting weights or sports. If you believe there is adversity and toughness shown, thank whatever god you pray to because you have lived a blessed life."

- Jim Wendler

Jim's athletic resume includes division I college football, an elite powerlifting total, the 5/3/1 training system and a wealth of fantastic articles at EliteFTS, T-Nation and

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Underrated: the close-grip incline bench press

One exercise I use to build upper body strength is the close grip bench press. I like it for several reasons:

1. It requires less load. My own close-grip incline max is about 85 percent of my regular bench max. I've found this to be true with my clients as well, which makes it a good choice for athletes who are at end of a recovery block and transitioning back to max-effort work or need a short (1-3 week) break from heavy benching.

2. It's a happy medium between vertical and horizontal pressing. Because you can control the angle of the incline, it's a good option for athletes who can't press overhead.

3. It's a longer movement than an overhead press or bench press. Longer movements require a greater range of motion and more time under tension. Because of this, the exercise can be extremely challenging with comparatively light weight.

4. Great carry over to the bench press. Benching more (especially without benching more) is always fun.

Here's a clip of Adam, a professional basketball player, performing a rep with 285. It's a good exercise for him because he has issues with bar speed when he benches. His triceps are strong, but he misses reps because he's slow off his chest.

It's also a good option for him because he's 6' 8" and can't do standing overhead presses in a gym with short ceilings.

I cued him to explode off the chest, so that he'd produce enough bar speed to finish the rep.

Next time you want to be humbled, try the close-grip incline bench press. A month later, you'll bench more. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

A physical therapist's take on toughness

I recently wrote about toughness after reading Jay Bilas' book and meeting him in April. Since then, I've been looking deeper into toughness and strength sports by asking teammates, friends, colleagues and clients a simple question:

What makes a strength athlete "tough"?

They've given great answers, so I'll be sharing them from time to time on the blog. 

I think the mental toughness comes through routine, in that you’re willing to put the time and effort in at the gym even though it’s nice outside, your buddies are doing other fun activities that seem at the time more appealing, other excuses that can get in the way (ie homework, job, etc.).

Physical toughness comes from knowing when to push that extra bit thru muscle soreness, not joint pain and to focus on what you’re doing as opposed to just going thru the motions. 

- David Roskin

David's a renown shoulder guru. He's worked with hundreds of throwing athletes and helped me tremendously with my own shoulder issues. Eight months after surgery I was having all sorts of issues, and David convinced me to step away from the barbell and let the shoulder heal. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but it was exactly what I needed.

After several weeks of fixing my posture, improve my breathing and rediscovering normal range of motion, I returned to training and never looked back.  

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Benching More Without Benching More

Anyone familiar with the Westside method has likely experienced this first hand, but my athletes continue to find it so dumbfounding that it's worth sharing.

Last week one of my pitchers went to the gym with his buddies and discovered he could bench a lot more than he could in June, even though he didn't perform a single rep of traditional bench press all summer.

"How can that be?" he asked me.

Years ago in an old Deep Squatter FAQ, Louie Simmons wrote "use a series of exercises that work the target muscles in a 'whole is greater than the sum of it's  parts' scheme." I saw great results in college when Mark Watts introduced me to the Westside method and I've used variations of it with many of my clients. 

I considered my pitcher's training age, strengths, weaknesses, FMS results and game schedule and picked a combination of exercises that would strengthen his weak areas while also minimizing his risk of injury.

He performed a steady diet of floor press, neutral-grip dumbbell bench press, tricep pushdowns, a variety of rows and tons of upper back and shoulder work. Despite the absence of traditional benching in his program, when he rolled into that commercial gym with his buddies his chest, shoulders and triceps were much stronger, which in turn improved his bench max.


"Your muscles don't know the difference between a bench press and a floor press." I told him. We picked safer exercises, challenged your body to push bigger weights and it adapted."

As the year moves on and he hits a true off-season we may do some benching, but since he's had success both in the gym and on the mound without it there's no real need.

Do yourself a favor this fall. Drop the bench press for a couple months, read up on Louie's max-effort training, replace it with variations that hit your weak points and watch your numbers take off.