October 21, 2019

Continuing with USAW—Advanced Sports Performance Coaching Certification

This month, I once again returned to the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado to attend USA Weightlifting’s Advanced Sports certification.  From the USAW’s own materials:

Welcome to the second formalized education course within the USA Weightlifting Coaches Education Program.

This course accommodates the needs of those coaches who have successfully completed the USA Weightlifting and Sports Performance course but are looking to advance through the Coaches Rating System.

The emphasis is on deepening the coach’s knowledge of Program Design, Advanced Weightlifting Movements as well as the Role and Responsibility of the Coach as it relates to developing national and even international level athletes.

A comprehensive approach to biomechanics is included and a number of new topics are introduced such as anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, nutrition, strength and power principles and general physical preparation.

The expected outcomes of the course are to:

  • Allow the Coach to improve the performance of their athletes through proven practices and approaches
  • Assist the Coach in having the ability to work with athletes that are not their own both in a practice and competition setting
  • Have the ability to select exercises that can both correct flaws and bring about improved technique
  • Develop a practical understanding of competition strategies that will benefit the athlete and their performance.

While primarily lecture-based, this two-and-one-half day course provided a wealth of information that I hope to use in three specific ways: 1) advancing the ability of my personal training clients to incorporate the Olympic movements (remember, there are only two: the clean & jerk and the snatch) and their derivative movements into their programs to achieve their individual training goals, 2) learn the foundation information necessary to allow me to work with athletes who are looking to compete at both the national and international levels, and 3) improve the quality of my personal lifts—I realize that No. 3 is somewhat selfish; however, I am working deliberately to improve my Olympic lifting and build my own programing around the Olympic movements.

Taught by the extremely capable Paul Fleschler (both a former USA Olympian, ’92 and a Nat’l USAW Coach—Paul currently coaches a wide variety of athletes at his facility in Colorado Springs, Red Rocks Crossfit), this advanced course filled in many of the gaps left by the Level 1 certification—the earlier Sports Performance course devoted a significantly larger portion of the coursework to actual lifting.

I have set out the lecture topics below, along with some brief annotations and excerpts from my notes, in order to provide an idea of this course’s scope:

Principles of Coaching

The coach’s role is multifaceted.  Assigned with creating the athlete’s “vision and strategy,” “shap[ing] the environment,” “build[ing] relationships,” “conduct[ing] practice and structur[ing] competitions,” a coach must also “read and react to situations,” and “learn and reflect”—the coach should constantly be evaluating the program as a whole.  In addition, the coach should always be asking herself, “How can I make my athlete(s) better?”   Recognizing that coaching is both an art and a science, USAW emphasizes the development of the “Four C’s” of sports performance in athletes: Concentration, Confidence, Control, and Commitment.

Skill Acquisition

Athletes fall somewhere along a continuum of skill acquisition.  This continuum begins with the cognitive stage (a basic understanding of the objective of a particular exercise), progresses through the associative stage (a refinement stage, where the athlete focuses on efficiency and smoothness), and culminates with the autonomous stage (reserved for the advanced athlete, where movements have become automatic and the athlete can concentrate on utilizing the trained motor responses to accomplish specific tasks, i.e., the complete Olympic lifts).  I have, with the permission of USAW, reproduced the “quadrant model” that may be used to pinpoint where an athlete falls on the skill acquisition continuum:

The progression of an athlete's skill development—the pace of progression through the quadrants is unique to each athlete.

The progression of an athlete’s skill development—the pace of progression through the quadrants is unique to each athlete. Reprinted with permission of USAW, attributed to “Rigor and Relevance,” by the International Center for Leadership in Education, p. 16.

From a coaching perspective, Paul emphasized how it is of primary importance to avoid teaching dynamic movements like the snatch and clean & jerk at slow speeds; instead, it is necessary to teach from the “top down” and then feel the movement once the pieces can be successfully put together at speed.  As an aside, it is also important to note (and what I, at least in part, find so interesting about the Olympic movements) that no matter how many snatches and clean & jerks an athlete performs, invariably the athlete will almost always do something incorrectly—almost without exception on any given lift—there is almost always room for improvement.

As Michael Conroy suggested the USAW article on Zygmunt (see the embedded link, below), Smalcerz’s influence permeates the Advanced Sports Performance Coach course materials.  This is certainly the case when it comes to “verbal directions.”  The materials set out that proper verbal direction is a crucial aspect of effective coaching.  And, as emphasized by Paul, the coach should “only tell an athlete what they are to do, NOT WHAT THEY ARE DOING WRONG … keep it brief, a positive coach prevails”—this, above all else, is surely influenced by Zygmunt.

Physiology, Kinesiology, and Anatomy

The title fairly sums up this section.  With yet another look at the muscle fiber types (primarily the ever expanding definitions and differentiation of Type 1 and Type 2 fibers) and an emphasis on the energy systems continuums, the research makes it clear that an individual with a large percentage of Type II fibers “has a tremendous advantage in a sport such as weightlifting”—this is especially true if this same athlete has trained-up his phosphagen and glycolytic energy systems.

Biomechanical Principles in Weightlifting

Ah yes … the intersection of physics and biology.  Beyond the laws of physics that generally govern this sport  (i.e., Newton’s Laws of inertia, acceleration, and action/reaction), our course materials highlighted how speed and accuracy are of particular importance each athlete who works the Olympic lifts:  “These two qualities have a much greater relevance in weightlifting than previously thought.  In fact, the snatch and the clean & jerk, are two of the fastest, most explosive movements in sport.  Consequently, the speed of movement and accuracy of positioning the barbell are essential elements of weightlifting technique.”   However, coaches frequently have a tendency to overcomplicate and become too “cerebral” when coaching these fast and precise movements.  Paul’s words resonated with me as my mind wondered to the multitude of training techniques that I have been exposed to over the years, “[t]hese movements have been researched to death and it’s pretty simple, the “theoretical model” has been established: shoulders over the bar, bar touches high on the thigh, weight stays evenly distributed on the feet, etc., etc.”

A word about lifting shoes (agree or disagree, what follows is the current USAW position): Lifting shoes have an elevated heel and the purpose of this is to allow greater range of motion to occur at the ankle joint.  In turn, this enables the lifter to get a more upright position with the torso, which is critical for Olympic lifts and major training exercises such as the squat [see image below].  Sato et al. (2012) found that in the back squat, weightlifting shoes increased ankle flexion and decreased forward toss lean as compared to regular athletic shoes.  The authors attributed this to the heel life in the lifting shoes.  With the lifting shoes, the knees are able to travel forward over the toes, reducing the torque on the knees and hips and keeping the torso more vertical.  Lifting shoes are therefore essential to not only proper execution but to reducing the likelihood of injury [emphasis added].

Influence of lifting shoes on   squat position.  Image supplied by Michael Conroy, reprinted with permission of USAW (photo by Kenny Markwardt).

Influence of lifting shoes on squat position. Image supplied by Michael Conroy, reprinted with permission of USAW (photo by Kenny Markwardt).

Phases of Nutrition and Daily Regimen

With both a four- and five-year-old at home, I found the USAW’s paradigm for supporting athletic development extremely interesting—my wife and I have a bit more time in “Phase 1” … ha.  USAW divides development into six (6) phases: Phase 1 (<6 years old), emphasizing the introduction of a wide variety of foods at meals (I say, good luck!); Phase 2 (6-10 years old), introduces “good habits around training” (i.e., encouraging the consumption of water around activity as well as a post-activity snack); Phase 3 (pre-growth spurt), focusing on balanced nutrition and being to develop the concept of “food as fuel;” Phase 4 (during growth spurt), the emphasis remains on balanced nutrition with an increased awareness of meal timing both pre- and post- practice and training activities; Phase 5 (after growth spurt), it is in this phase where the focus shifts to developing individualized training and competition nutritional strategies—nutrition becomes tailored to the athlete’s particular body size and training load; and, finally Phase 6 (full maturation), here an athlete is fully nutritionally aware with highly-individualized prep, pre-competition, and competition nutrition regimens—although it is in this phase where both approved supplements and ergogenic aids may be introduced, the emphasis remains on individualized nutritional strategies.

The American Development Model: Long Term Athlete Development

The following LTAD (Long Term Athlete Development) model and ADM (American Development Model) serve as the basis for USAW, but also USA Hockey, USA Swimming, and USA Tennis. Developed by internationally renowned coaching educator Istvan Balyi, these programs provide the current basis for developing our country’s Olympic contenders.  In following text boxes, I have set out the core concepts of both the LTAD and ADM as they apply to Olympic weightlifting:

Play, Love, and Excel.  Play: is where young athletes learn that weightlifting is, in its simplest form, fun.  Love: once a young athlete learns the how of weightlifting and begins to develop skills and athleticism, weightlifting may start to take a priority amount other activities … the sport becomes more important and weightlifting in general becomes a bigger part of [the young athletes] lives.  Excel: now that they play and love weightlifting, a higher premium is placed on excelling at it.

“It takes 10,000 hours before you can accomplish the skill set” is frequently heard around the discussion of LTAD.  The USAW materials highlighted how the experts approach the 10,000 hours concept:

1.  Early participation, but late specialization

2.  Be patient, don’t rush development

3.  The only way to get 10,000 hours is to do other sports [emphasis original]

4.  Quality of training not just quantity

5.  As many activities as possible

6.  67% of the time should just be vigorous activity

7.  Find time to just play [emphasis original]

Compare the LTAD with the ADM:

i.  “It’s not sport, it’s culture”

ii.  Work together to drive this model

iii. Some things are transitory

a. mental development

b. emotional development

c. fundamental skills

iv. Age-appropriate development is showing results

v.  Do not get too organized

[formatting original to the USAW materials]


The above outlines of both the LTAD and ADM, reproduced and reprinted with permission of USAW, attributed to USOC/USA Hockey/USA Tennis/USA Swimming/USAW Advanced Weightlifting and Sports Performance Coaching Course Manual, pp. 47-48.

Theory of Athletic Power Production

Power production is the name of the game!  This is especially true when developing fitness (i.e. “fitness” is the ability to perform a task cf. “health” is the general condition of an individual’s body—the optimal performance of the internal organs and the body’s physiological systems).  Although I frequently stress that the primary purpose of all strength training is injury prevention, for the competitive athlete (assuming that he is not injured), increased power production should be the primary focus of his training.  From experience across a wide variety of athletic disciplines, I cannot agree more with the statement that “only athletic-type lifting (snatches, clean, pulls, and squats) has the capacity to effectively train your body’s power zone … [a] highly developed power zone offers the greatest opportunity for the transfer of weight trained power to your sport.”   Additionally, the USAW materials emphasize the role of this “athletic-type” strength training as follows:  “The primary purpose of athletic-type strength training is to increase maximum kinetic energy and increase maximum acceleration through a full range of multi-joint movements.”

Weightlifting Technique

USAW’s position is the same as my position: “[t]he most fundamental element of weightlifting is the training of technique.”  As Paul stressed in the technique lecture, the best ways to execute the snatch and clean & jerk have been researched to death—the methodology of moving weights on a barbell overhead is essentially settled (as the course materials make clear, “performance technique has not undergone radical changes in recent years.”  From a coaching perspective, it is the precise execution of the known movement patterns that drives the best performances.  According to Paul, “as long as the athlete’s movement is efficient, the athlete is making ongoing progress and avoiding injury … these are each indicators of positive technique, plus the ability to develop force and speed”—I concur.

Assistance Exercises

Although largely a matter of convenience, exercises designed to address technique concerns, improve work capacity, support injury prevention, and improve performance have been classified and ordered to support ongoing training.   Our USAW coursework divided assistance exercises into movements for the snatch, clean, and the jerk.  I have set the various assistance exercises below. (If you are not familiar with these movements, I will encourage you to locate a qualified USAW coach for instruction—the purpose of these movements is to correct errors, NOT introduce them!)  As an aside, now that USAW provides a video archive of both the competition lifts, as well as semi-competition, life related, and power and strength exercises that can be accessed here.

Snatch Movements:

Press in Snatch or “Sots” Press (see Viktor Sots)
Block Snatch Pull + Power Snatch + Overhead Squat
Snatch from the Low Blocks
Snatch without moving the feet
Snatch onto Low Blocks (boards)

Clean Exercises:

Clean Hip, Clean Above Knee, Clean Below Knee
Block Clean Pull + Power Clean + Front Squat
Clean from Low Blocks (boards)
Clean without moving the feet
Clean onto Low Blocks (boards)

Jerk Exercises:

Press in Split
Jerk Step
Split Clean from Blocks
Jerk Behind + Jerk

Regardless of the specific exercise selected, according to Paul, “[c]oaches should select assistance exercises that improve technique, increase work capacity, and strengthen body levers in both the pulling and receiving positions.”

Faults and Corrections

At least at the coaching level, this is where the wheat is separated from the chaff.  The ability for a coach to observe movement patterns and spot the faults is one thing, the ability to then provide the appropriate corrections is another thing entirely.  At a most basic level, the answer is always to reinforce proper technique, but that doesn’t provide sufficient guidance.  As mentioned earlier, almost every lift contains small errors—frequently, these errors would be almost imperceptible to all but the most accomplished coach.  I have set out a couple of the most common faults, as well as possible corrections offered by USAW, that I frequently encounter when instructing and executing the snatch and the clean (the foundation of the clean & jerk).  For the snatch, an athlete frequently exhibits a “press out” (i.e., not receiving the bar with arms fully locked out).  Whether the cause is insufficient force at the top of the pull, the athlete being sluggish getting under the bar, or a more general weakness in the receiving position, the result is the same … a press out and, consequently, at least for competitive purposes, a “no lift.”   The corrective exercises include those that “emphasize the pull and force application” and the USAW materials further suggest, “pulls, shrugs, and lifts from different positions, particularly from the blocks.”  Another suggested correction would be working  “3 stage snatches”  (high hang, above the knee, and finally, from below the knee).  For the clean, I have placed emphasis on what the USAW labels “excessive foot stomp.”  The oft-repeated saying, “Loud feet equal slow feet” comes immediately to mind.  Two potential causes are often working in tandem with this fault: 1) the lifter has his weight positioned too far forward at the start of the lift, and/or 2) the lifter is “overly anxious or aggressive.”  The USAW materials set out with precision why excessive foot stomp is not effective: “[i]t can lead to the barbell crashing [emphasis original] onto the lifter.  It slows the turnover of the barbell and hampers the timing of the lifter to push up against the barbell.”  The possible corrections include 1) practicing the clean in “with the feet in the land position” (this effectively slows the speed of the barbell, forcing the athlete to “hold their levers” and “keep the barbell close to the body”—the feet preset in the land position also encourages the lifter to “push up against the bar”).  Additionally, low blocks (boards) can be used to encourage both speed under the bar and a quick application of force up against the bar.  In this exercise, squares of  3/4″ plywood are placed outside the lifter’s feet prior to the start of the lift.  The lifter then completes the exercise while landing on the “boards”—landing on the elevated boards “forces the lifter to really react to the feet hitting the ‘platform’ quickly.

Competition Preparation

As part of the multifaceted duties and responsibilities of the coach, the scheduling, preparation, and logistics of competitive events requires attention to details that can make or break and individual athlete’s or even an entire team’s competitive performance.  In addition to travel concerns and specific venue considerations (i.e. think of the potential nutritional challenges attendant to certain international competitions), there is a sizable amount of “competition tactics” that a coach may use to attempt to get the completive edge over other athletes and place more of his athletes in the medals.  From counting attempts, to designing  the proper warm-up schemes, the coach is charged with much more than just getting his athletes to hit their opening lifts.  As the USAW materials make clear, while “Hit your opener!” is a good rule of thumb, the precise opening lift needs to be based both on training results and “objective reflection between both the coach and the athlete” (I would add this two way reflection should occur both during the training leading up to a competitive event and at the time of the event.)

Program Design

This is where the rubber met the road for me.  I am striving to improve programming for my athletes and my own progress as a lifter.  The opening paragraph of the chapter accurately describes the challenges in this area: “Training in weightlifting or [s]ports [p]erformance is a complicated task and does not respond to any theory without giving careful attention to the fundamental principles that govern it.  There must be collaboration between the factors of volume, intensity, frequency, and the selection of exercises [emphasis added].”  The goals of program set out below mirror, at least in part, Paul’s words concerning the use of assistance exercises: “Coaches should select assistance exercises that improve technique, increase work capacity, and strengthen body levers in both the pulling and receiving positions.”  The USAW’s program design model is consistent with Paul’s emphasis, see below:

Goals of Program Design

  • Improve Performance
  • Reduce Injury (both the rate and intensity)
  • Refine Technique
  • Increase Work Capacity

All training programs should contain the following qualities:

The view from my chair … for my clients out there, note the emphasis placed on recovery.

The view from my chair … for my clients out there, note the emphasis placed on recovery. Reprinted with permission of USAW, attributed to “Quantum Strength Fitness,” by Pat O’Shea, p. 15.

1.  Easy to understand and monitor

2.  Be of cyclic nature

3.  Have built in checks of progress

4.  Allow for individual creativity

5.  Allow for the inclusion of remedial movements for error correction


Reprinted with permission of USAW, attributed to “USAW Weightlifting Coaching Course Manual,” p. 106.

When one overlays these goals with an understanding of modern periodization, it becomes clear that most programs need to be highly individualized (this is most certainly the case when working with any athlete beyond a true novice).  The individual strengths and weakness of each athlete, the “athlete’s age, gender, somatotype, and skill level,” along with other important considerations like availability to train, nutrition, motivation, etc. each play a role in successful program design.

Sports Psychology, Gaining the Mental Advantage

Any time the topic of sports psychology comes up I immediately think of the “Flow” series of books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—pronounced (cheek-sent-me-high)—the positive psychology state of total absorption in an activity, characterized by intense concentration, a loss of self awareness, an optimal level of challenge (neither too great, nor too easy), and the sense that time is flying.  I frequently find the flow state (it’s akin to the colloquial “being in the zone”) when I am training.  The USAW materials capture a bit of “flow” via the inclusion of the “Triangle Model for Optimal Performance,” where optimal performance is set at the peak of the triangle and defined as “performing at the best of your ability (not simply winning).”   Both “optimal development” (the person influence of weightlifting on the individual, i.e., healthy self image, discipline, etc.) and “optimal experience” (this is the “learning” component, i.e., having fun, gaining personal fulfillment, feeling more competent and worthy, etc.) make up the base of the performance triangle.  USAW places special emphasis on mental skills.  The remaining course material in this area addressed goal setting, self-talk (both positive and negative self-talk can have tremendous impact on athletic performance), imagery training, arousal management, concentration, pre-performance routines, non-judgmental thinking, and confidence.  At its core, the material devoted to sports psychology is a recognition to the seemingly inescapable mind-body “inseparability.”

The optimal performance triangle, reprinted with permission of USAW, attributed to “Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology,” by Robert Weinberg (2011), p. 106.

While the majority of our time during the advanced course was spent in the classroom, Paul managed to incorporate two breakout sessions where we were able to focus on moving a real barbell around (primarily advanced techniques and assistance exercises, specifically those designed to address flaws in lifting technique).

Zygmunt & Paul

Zygmunt & Paul

While it is always interesting to learn from Paul (Paul taught my “Level 1” USAW course and set me on my path to begin training in the Olympic movements) and spend time at the OTC, I particularly enjoyed two moments over my most recent long weekend in Colorado Springs : 1) my opportunity to listen to Zygmunt Smalcerz both field questions from our group of students and observe him coach resident athletes, the 73-year-old USA Resident Team Coach (Zygmunt is also Olympian, earning a weightlifting gold medal in 1972) … I can still the echo of his words, albeit with his thick Polish accent—Zygmunt emphasized the need for “speed strength,” stressed the importance of dynamic warm-ups, core strength as a safety measure to protect an athlete from injury, and highlighted the importance of actual strength—i.e., given the choice, Zygmunt would elect to work with a strong athlete over a well conditioned athlete … in his words “strong takes a long time to develop,” and 2) during a break between lectures, a rare opportunity to swim a mile in the OTC pool (a really neat and unexpected treat).

I want to encourage weightlifting athletes to get involved with USAW and/or a USAW-certified coach.  Look for sanctioned clubs and coaches in your area and take advantage of the wealth of information that USAW offers.  For USAW coaches, take the next step and participate in the advanced course!

Climbing a Fundraising Mountain

A early-season image of The Grand captured by my friend and climbing partner Greg on his way into Jackson, WY a couple of weeks ago.

A early-season image of The Grand captured by my friend and BCM climbing partner Greg on his way into Jackson, WY a couple of weeks ago.

Over the past couple of months I have been working to achieve my fundraising goal of $5,000 to support the work of Big City Mountaineers (BCM).  Thanks to the generous gifts of many contributors, I have now surpassed that goal and am looking to raise even more money to help the young people that BCM serves.

As part of my fundraising campaign, I used variations of the following text to solicit contributions and I think that it accurately conveys my feelings on this worthwhile charity and my personal fundraising efforts—I have set it out below to encourage you to generously support BCM:

“I recently committed to joining Big City Mountaineers for a charity climb of the Grand Teton this summer (August 2014).  As I begin my specific preparation for the climb, I am also beginning my fundraising campaign.  I am kicking off the fundraising component with some personal e-mails to friends and associates.

Although the BCM fundraising model allows the “Summit for Someone” climbers to fundraise to cover the cost of their individual participation, I have elected to personally submit the entire cost of my place on the Grand Teton climb so that every penny that I raise will go to support the underprivileged urban youth that BCM serves.  To that end, know that I would be grateful for any contribution that you might deem appropriate to make to this worthwhile charity (please note that my association with BCM is new—my wife and I contributed financially to the BCM organization last year—and I will continue to vet the work of BCM as I increase my involvement in the organization and subsequently work as a volunteer mentor with the underprivileged urban youth that BCM serves).  Please know that BCM works directly with adolescents from the Denver metro area as well as those from five other major metropolitan areas across the country.  I have included a link to my personal fundraising page here.  Also know that soliciting contributions is not something that is within my “comfort zone”; however, I believe in the mission of BCM and, at the very least, wanted you to know what I am up to!  Thank you in advance for your consideration.

My Best, – Brian”


Extreme Physiology Online Learning

This month’s installment is about something I already did and also about something that I would like to encourage you to do.   Over the course of the past two months I participated in a free online learning opportunity provided by Stanford University.  Along with over 10,000 other students from 144 foreign countries, I “virtually” joined Dr. Ann Friedlander and her dedicated colleagues (notably Corey and the EP101 team) for an interactive course on extreme human physiology.  Entitled Humanities Sciences: EP101 Your Body in the World: Adapting to Your Next Big Adventure, the course presented some of the latest peer reviewed information on how extreme environments impact our bodies (because Dr. Friedlander is an exercise physiologist, she expanded the impact of physiology presentations to explain adaptations and provide strategies to improve athletic performance in environmental extremes).  Through entertaining experiential videos, scripted lectures, expert/experiential interviews, and robust additional reference material, the EP101 course explored and exposed the effects of cold, heat, aging, stress, altitude, and variable pressure on the human body.

The “Course Info” tab on the Stanford site leads with the following:

“Want to climb mountains and fly fighter planes? Want to skydive? Want to travel around the country to meet science experts that generate the knowledge we learn? Want to learn practical physiology about how the body adapts to cold, heat, altitude, stress, age and variable pressure? If so, you have come to the right place.  The course includes six physiology topics organized into six sections. Each section will include a story video, video lectures, expert interviews, and additional materials. The material was designed to be experienced in the order below, and takes approximately five hours per section to complete. However, feel free to experience the material in whatever order, and depth, that you like! Many of our students just watch the story videos, and many complete the whole course. But beware! You might get hooked.”

Perhaps check out the course “preview” video here.  (An alternate link for course registration can be found here.)   While not part of the actual course material, I can assure you that both the “Expert” interview with Jonah Willihnganz (“Storytelling”) and the “Experiential” interview – “Science Communication with Tom McFadden” (as well as a subsequent YouTube view of his “Oxidative It Or Love It/Electron to the Next One“) will perhaps make you think anew about the often perplexing Krebs Cycle … etc., etc.; and, perhaps more importantly, how we convey complex subject matter to our intended audiences —I similarly assure you that the “guts” of this class are significantly higher minded than McFadden’s video(s), but I think viewing some of his material may stimulate some of your own creative juices.

I am recommending this course as a fellow adventurer, explorer, athlete, and human being—feel free to jump around and review what sections interest you and take away some useful “pearls”—again, I think the two interviews highlighted in the introductory material are insightful and offer broad applicability to many disciplines.

While the course is no long “live” (and, as a consequence, instructor and peer discussion is now limited), the material remains available via the Stanford site—note that if you are interested in earning CEU credit for this course (USAT offers 5 hour credits), Dr. Friedlander and her team expect to offer the course again later this year.

USAW’s “Supercompensation” Programming Model

In the new year I found myself at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, CO (along with 40 other coaches and 2 former Olympic athletes—Cara Heads and Oscar Chaplin III,  from 26 states and 2 foreign countries) attending the inaugural USAW (United States Weightlifting) Program Design Course—a course specifically designed to highlight the benefits of the supercompensation model for both weightlifting athletes and athletes looking to improve sport-specific performance.  I have set out a synapsis of the course curriculum below:

USAW‘s inaugural “Program Design Course” at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO.  This first of its kind program will cover the following topics: fundamentals of program design – philosophy and expected outcomes of program goals – the role of periodization in improving athlete performance – the concept of long term athletic development and its influence on training – the super compensation model approach to programming – the rationale behind exercise selection – sharing of training models – creating, editing and monitoring training programs (practical time with spreadsheets).  The program constitutes an 8-hour course covering the parameters of designing safe, effective and progressive programs for both competitive weightlifters and sports performance athletes.

Lead presenter Michael Conroy, USAW’s Director of Coaching Education, who is almost universally, and also somewhat iconically, referred to as “Conroy” laid out the basis for the supercompensation model and its specific components.  Note that this training model, at its core, builds from the well-established foundation of periodized training.  The model’s specific elements are built out of the following principles: 1) technique drives your program (note, Conroy believes, much like I do, that errors learned early on are almost irreversible), 2) emphasizes thinking “sets over reps”; recognizing that increased training volume is frequently, if not universally, linked to an increased incidence of injury, and 3) rest/recovery is as important, even a true equal, to work, and 4) all training is merely a “template,” that can/should be adjusted.  Note that Conroy admittedly recognizes that “less is more” is a tough sell to most American athletes.  I have reproduced the two slides from Conroy’s PowerPoint presentation that broadly summarize the supercompensation model:

Supercompensation Model for BOTH Sports Performance and Competitive Weightlifting

Supercompensation model for both sports performance and competitive weightlifting (reproduced with permission of Michael Conroy & USAW).

Weekly Training Cycles

Weekly training cycles (reproduced with permission of Michael Conory & USAW).

The super compensation model (originally attributed to Ivan Beritov, circa 1959—note, that like Conroy, Beritov placed emphasis on the quality of training over the quantity of training as well as the necessity for programmed rest and recovery) cycles through repeated progressive overload cycles, each with varying applications of stress—with the super compensation model, the focus is on weekly training through each cycle.  Consider the following from Beritov: “When an athlete is training, the body undergoes stimulations which traumatize it, wear it down, tire it out, and even destroy it.  If a recovery period follows these training sessions then the tissues will be restructured and the athlete’s body will come back, not only at its former level, but even surpass this level in the case of a sufficient stimulus.  If appropriate control measures are not used such a preponderance of break-down and build-up leads rapidly to injuries.”   The hope is that through managing the cycles and stimulus, each adapted to the athlete’s specific needs and abilities, that the athlete will be able to achieve uninterrupted and ongoing positive performance adaptations over extended periods of training time.   Important Note: The only difference in the supercompensation programming between the sports performance athlete and the completive weightlifting athlete are the exercises selected and plugged into the respective programs.  The following slide (summarizing the scientific contributions to the super compensation model of both Vladimir Zatsiorsky and Mel Siff) illustrates the application of the supercompensation programming:


(reproduced with permission of Michael Conroy & USAW)

I have reproduced the prescriptive intensities recommended by Conroy in the following table:

Week 1 2 3 4
Cycle One 70% 75% 65% 80%
Cycle Two 75% 80% 70% 90%
Cycle Three 85% 95% 80% 100%
Note: Every 3rd week of each cycle will have a reduction in both volume and intensity.

While the majority of Conroy’s presentation was directed at program design, i.e., the exercise prescriptions for each of the cycles and weeks within the super compensation model, a brief discussion of technique could not be avoided.  Sport is dynamic and the O-lifts (are as good as they can be bad).  The snatch and your clean and jerk (the two competitive Olympic lifts) represent the end result of all of an athlete’s training.   In Conroy’s opinion, the worst thing to do to correct a snatch or clean and jerk is to do these moves!  Rather, Conroy recommends working the analogs and assistance exercises, derivatives of the complete movements to train them up.  For emphasis, according to Coach Conroy, “[b]eing proficient in the snatch and the clean & jerk is the result of all the training that is do so the athlete can snatch and clean and jerk … [c]oaches should select exercises that will improve technique, increase work capacity and strengthen the body levers in both the pulling and receiving positions.”   Conroy identified the following seven classes of weightlifting movements: I. “Hang” Movements, II. “Power” Movements, III. “Block” Movements, IV.  “Combination Movements,  V. “Assistance” Movements, including A. Pulls, B. Presses, C. Squats, VI. Remedial Movements (note that the remedial exercises include hyperextensions, reverse hyperextensions, V-ups, abdominal crunches, hanging leg raises, isometric holds, etc., etc.), and VII. General Fitness Movements (i.e., isolated resistance movements).  The following slide clarifies the uses and application of the various classes of movements:

An Overview of the Types of Weightlifting Movements and Their Usage

An overview of the types of weightlifting movements and appropriate usage (reproduced with permission of Michael Conory & USAW).

Again, with ALL credit to Coach Conroy, consider the following exercise “menus” to be used for programming purposes:

Press in Snatch Snatch
Power Snatch Knee Snatch Split
Power Snatch Below Knee Snatch without moving Feet
Power Snatch Knee non Stop Snatch Jump on Box
Power Snatch Hip/Knee/Below Knee Snatch Stop after Start
Power Snatch Snatch/Below/Knee/Knee/Squat
Power Snatch Split Power Snatch/Snatch/Squat
Power Snatch/Squat Power Snatch/Overhead Squat
Muscle Snatch Snatch Pulls
Snatch from Hip Snatch Pull/Power Snatch/Overhead Squat
Snatch from Knee Power Snatch/Overhead Squat from Box
Snatch Knee non Stop Snatch Pulls from Box
Snatch Below Knee Snatch Pull/Power Snatch/Overhead Squat from Box
Snatch Box Knee Snatch Balance
Snatch Box Below Knee Snatch Push Press/Overhead Squat
Power Clean 2/3 of Thigh Clean
Power Clean Knee Clean Without Moving Feet
Power Clean Below Knee Clean Standing on 3/4″ Board
Power Clean more Stop Clean Jump on 3/4″ Board
Power Clean 2/3 of Thigh/Knee/Below Knee Clean Stop after Start
Power Clean Split Clean Below Knee/Knee/Start
Power Clean/Squat Power Clean/Front Squat
Power Straight Clean Clean Pulls
Clean from 2/3 Thigh Clean Pull/Power Clean/Front Squat
Clean from Knee Clean Pull
Clean Knee non Stop Power Clean/Front Squat from Box
Clean Below Knee Clean Pull from Box
Clean Box Knee Clean Pull/Power Clean/Front Squat from Box
Clean Box Below Knee
Press in Split
Press in Front
Press in Back
Push Press in Front
Push Press in Back
Power Jerk in Front
Power Jerk in Back
Split Jerk in Front
Split Jerk in Back
Power Clean Split From Box
Clean & Jerk
Overhead Squats
Back Squats
Front Squats

Reproduced with permission of Michael Conroy & USAW.

Working from these menus a coach can effectively advance positive adaptations for both the sports performance and competitive weightlifting athlete.  When combined with the remedial and general fitness movements, the variety in program design becomes essentially limitless.  Consider the following slide as it applies to exercise selection and our country’s Olympic weightlifting athletes:

Advanced Assistance Exercises Utilized by the USA Resident Team at the OTC (reproduced

Advanced assistance exercises utilized by the USA Resident Team at the OTC (reproduced with permission of Michael Conory and USAW).

With a firm grasp of both the supercompensation cycles and the relevant exercise selection menus, Coach Conroy directed us to work on actual programing via the multiple training spreadsheets that he provided—this somewhat interactive “breakout” session allowed us to experiment with both exercise selection and the selection of multifactorial training inputs (sets, reps, etc.).  In addition to providing “basic training” Excel-based programs, Conroy introduced training templates for readaptive training, conceptual training, classification, undersetting, “Calpian” training, as well as specialized (i.e. in season) sports performance programs.

In summary, whether designing programs for the sports performance athlete or the competitive weightlifter, the supercompensation model allows for continuous positive adaptations.  Supercompensation supports what should be the goals of ALL training programs, i.e. 1) improved performance, 2) reduce the rate and intensity, if not prevent, injury, 3) result in improvements in technique, and 4) increase an athlete’s work capacity.  As Coach Conroy added, in the quest of these goals, all training programs should contain the following qualities: “1. [e]asy to understand and monitor, 2. [b]e of a cyclic nature, 3. [h]ave build in checks of progress, 4. [a]llow  [for] individual creativity [both coach and athlete], and 5. [a]llow for the inclusion of remedial movements for error correction.”   Great presentation Coach Conroy!

A Final Takeaway:  7 Points to Key On When Coaching The Olympic Movements

Early in the day, Conroy indicated that there were 7 key points that every coach needs to be able to identify to successfully work with athletes when instructing the Olympic moves.  As the day drew to a close and as part of the open Q&A segment, I asked for Conroy to enumerate the 7 “keys” (what follows comes directly from my notes):

  1. Start of lift: body levers are tight (take all the slack out).
  2. The barbell comes back to lifter IMMEDIATELY (does not go around the knees) – think “MUST KILL HORIZONTAL DISPLACEMENT”!
  3. Hips and shoulder rise at the same rate.
  4. The 2nd pull MUST BE faster than the 1st !   There is no such thing as a “hip pop” the pop would be horizontal displacement (instead, as soon as brush, the shrug occurs), see again, #2 supra.
  5. The shoulders are tight (traps must be engaged, this provides the fulcrum to pull under the bar).
  6. The arms only bend to pull the athlete under.
  7. The feet move from the jump to land quickly and quietly (the quicker the feet are on the ground the faster you can push up against it, athlete should strive to be “ninja quiet”).  Note: The difference between the jump and land is only 1 shoe width, this controls the area of base.

I put together a small gallery of  images from the OTC … if you ever get a chance to visit the facility, I can highly recommend the experience (it is exciting to be on the training campus in any capacity … tours are offered daily (you can obtain more information here):

More on the “O” Lifts

Almost a year ago (this is my first substantive post since returning to my blog) I traveled to Boulder, Colorado to gain additional insights on the Olympic lifts (just for clarification, there are only two: 1) the clean and jerk, and 2) the snatch).  Why Boulder?  Well, because Boulder is where Randy Hauer lives and trains.  I was referred to Randy (you can find the highlights of Randy’s training bio here) via Paul Fleschler of Red Rocks CrossFit, a former USA Olympian and national USAW lifting coach when I had inquired about working with a coach a bit closer to home.  While one can readily argue the relative convenience of training up in Boulder versus down in Colorado Springs, I was happy to have the referral—always looking to gain new perspective (as an aside, I continue to be amazed by the amount of athletic expertise that seems to reside in Boulder, Colorado).

On two separate occasions (2 sessions, separated a week apart from one another) I found myself at Flatirons CrossFit Strength and Conditioning (FCSC).  Even before I crossed the threshold of FCSC, I was met with the unmistakeable sound of bumper plates hitting the floor … the sound escaping the confines of this fully-equipped CrossFit/Olympic lifting facility and wafting into the parking lot.  As I entered the gym I was met by Tim, the hulking owner of FCSC (and, by the weights I saw him moving on my two visits, giftedly strong).  After filling out the customary waiver of liability, I was left to my own devices while I waited for Randy to appear … as is my habit, at least when I am traveling sans children, I arrived early and I used the next 10 minutes to put myself through a dynamic warm-up (I used Durkin’s 15-movment regimen: 1) Jumping Jacks, 2) Gate Swings, 3) Pogo Hops, 4) Seal Jacks, 5) Bodyweight Squats, 6) Side Lunges, 7) Lung & Rotate, 8) Reverse Lung & Rotate, 9) Carioca, 10) Forward Skipping, 11) Backward Skipping, 12) Frankenstein Walk, 13) Dynamic Frankenstein Walk, 14) Inchworms, and 15) Hip Swings.

My first session would be devoted to the power snatch (Randy, like many coaches, teaches from the snatch) and the second, the clean.  Randy arrived, put me through a well-practiced movement screen, and we got busy working on the power snatch.  As I had only purchased an hour of Randy’s time ($90), we moved methodically through the snatch progression, but I could have spent all day with him —we also managed to work on flexibility drills, my personal “limiters.”  I frequently say that “I have the flexibility of an icicle” and it is something that I am continually working on.

Randy Hauer

Randy Hauer

A week later I returned to Randy’s charge to work on the clean movement.  What follows are my disjointed and fragmented training notes from my second session (dedicated, in large part, to the power clean):

Clean Session: #1) high-block (bar stays close in, elbows go even further back as the bar moves up … the elbows pull back further in the power clean than the power snatch.  Drill: bar racked (1-thumb into the knurling) – especially here, close eyes, put the bar to the hips … bar goes lower than in the snatch due to the more narrow grip.  #2) above the knee, the bar gains speed, focus on keeping the chest up and the hips back.  #3) bar on the floor, (slower tempo to above keen, racking motion, knees go back, then forward) … to achieve better lifts, you need more speed on the bar, work on racking speed, elbows up.  Note: time the rack to “hit” at the same time as the feet!  Two additional movements: 1) front squat – work on depth; the goblet squat is also a useful tool here; and 2) snatch balance – bar behind neck (careful)—work in the rack, jump-to-press overhead.

As was the case with my initial visit for the snatch, flexibility (not just at the wrists … ha) proved to be the area where I needed to devote most of my attention when working on the power clean.

As I had after the first session, I left Randy and FCSC with my head swirling, thinking of all the concepts that I had learned and all the work that I would need to do over the coming weeks and months to make improvements in the Olympic moves.  The Latin phrase “repetitio mater studiorum est” (“repetition is the mother of all learning”—another priceless benefit of a liberal arts education)—crept into my head and I vowed to put this wise, although in some cases, inefficient, adage into practice—repetition, repetition, and more repetition IS the key to learning these moves.  In addition to inviting me to return to FCSC for workouts and continued practice (the gym offers a $20 drop-in rate, and you will likely find Randy working with athletes when you visit), and a promise to pass along an introductory program via e-mail.

Bottom line, whether you are a fitness client, an endurance athlete, a CrossFit devotee or someone who is just looking to expand your toolbox of functional resistance training movements, I will encourage you to seek our Randy (or another qualified USAW coach) and get on with learning the technique of the Olympic lifts and their building blocks.

I don’t wish to summarily give away Randy’s programming, but his “beginner” program included a 3x a week regimen of power snatch and power clean movements (both at above and below the knee positions in addition to work from the floor), overhead and front squats, as well as snatch and clean grip deadlifts.  Randy kindly granted me permission to set out his beginner program and I have included it below (you may also access it as a .PDF file here):

4-Week Beginner Program 1*
*courtesy of Randy Hauer


Hang Power Snatch Above Knee 5 sets x 3 reps
Hang Power Clean Below Knee 5 sets x 3 reps
Front Squat 3 sets x 5 reps
Snatch Grip Deadlift + Shrug 3 sets x 5 reps


Hang Power Snatch Below Knee 5 sets x 3 reps
Overhead Squat 3 sets x 5 reps
Hang Power Clean Above Knee 5 sets x 3 reps
Standing Press 3 sets x 5 reps


Power Snatch (floor) 5 sets x 3 reps
Power Clean (floor) 5 sets x 3 reps
Front Squat 3 sets x 5 reps (make last set lighter than Monday’s)
Clean Grip Deadlift + Shrug 3 sets x 5 reps

Note: Add a little weight each set if possible but always maintain good technique.

See the important note concerning technique … if you don’t know how to accomplish these moves, go see Randy  or seek out the expertise of another qualified USAW certified coach.

Where I Have Been … Where I am Going

I frequently tell my clients that it is important to not let life events get in the way of their training and their ongoing commitment to a healthy lifestyle.  I understand all too well the implications of not doing what we all know is right, that is, eating right, engaging in regular exercise, and allowing for sufficient rest and recovery.  At various times in my life I have failed to heed my own advice and my general wellness and fitness have suffered accordingly.  At least to some degree, the past twelve months have been one of those times.

About this time last year, my wife and I set out on an earnest hunt to find a new home.  This proved to be an extremely stressful process, as we were determined to find a larger home (with the addition of Quinn and Laird we had outgrown our former digs) with access to better schools, etc., etc.  This, at least in part, explains my absence from contributing regularly to this blog.  Although I managed to maintain a healthy diet (for the most part … the pizza delivery truck visited our new home a  few more times than I would care to admit), the move and my changing responsibilities (having elected to spend more time with our children being a “domestic dad” while maintaining my training business and trying to establish myself with my painting as an artist—the new space allowed me to move my studio home) made a move away from high-volume endurance training a necessity.  Instead, albeit but for my somewhat crazy 2-hour-a-day walking quest (see below), the move and my new commitments have made me focus on more targeted and intense training in order to progress my fitness.  I am frequently surprised and a bit amused by how things work together.  The shift in my training focus over the last twelve months coincides with my discovery of some novel training programs provided by Coach Dan John (look for more on this strength coach in coming posts), my long-overdue reading of Dr. Phil Maffetone’s classic training volume entitled “The Maffetone Method: The Holistic, Low-Stress, No-Pain Way to Exceptional Fitness” (Maffetone reaches the conclusion, that for many athletes, “less is more … less training usually produces better athletic performance,” and, finally, my election, thanks to some ongoing encourage from my wife, to look seriously at the CrossFit model—I am now a CrossFit Level I trainer!

Lest you think I have become a soft couch potato (I haven’t), I have provided a bit of a “recap” a couple of  40-day training periods that have occupied my attention over the last year.

40 Day of Walking

At the trailhead of my 40-day walk "course." (Just west of the intersection of Broncos Pkwy. & Parker Rd.)

At the trailhead of my 40-day walk “course.” (Just west of the intersection of Broncos Pkwy. & Parker Rd.)

The idea was simple and emerged, at least in part, from my reading of the words of Coach Don John (see my links to his various books—these will lead you to additional articles authored by John). It was designed to be a straightforward physical challenge: walking, at an athletic and deliberate pace, for 2 hours each day for 40 consecutive days.

I initially began this challenge on Thanksgiving Day morning.  Excited to begin something of my own design and to test a theory (although not new, I will attributed to Dan John) that “everything works … for at least six weeks.” I set out from my home and headed to the boundary of Cherry Creek State Park. The morning was bright and clear and although I had felt great when I started, by the turnaround I was feeling ill (chills, persistent nausea, etc., etc.)—I made it home in just over 2 hours only to be reduced to a heap by the early-afternoon—the Nora virus struck me and our household HARD (I have only half-jokingly shared with my family and friends that this sickness may have ruined me on subsequent Thanksgiving holidays for the next few years)—yes, it was that bad!

Effort renewed … after knocking off a full week for recovery, I began anew on November 30th.  I walked deliberately and consistently for 40 days, each session was held to a mandatory walking time of at least 2-hours. On several days I walked early in the mornings, while many more of these “walks” kept me out way into the night—the added scheduling demands of our recent move made my schedule very inconsistent but it had no effect on my determination.  All of my walks were solo with the exception to two: 1) on one occasion I ran into my friend Tyler Walton (Tyler literally ran into me—out tapering for his upcoming Phoenix marathon, and 2) I shared a snow-covered trail walk at Deer Creek Canyon Park with my client and friend Greg Londo.

But I was not “alone” as I used my iPhone to pass the time. In addition to walking a consistent route (this allowed me to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other without having to focus on navigation, footing, and traffic hazards), I used the time as devotional and “downtime.” Here again I developed a system that I adhered to each of the 40 days. I used the first 30-45 minutes to listen to an iTunes messages from the church that my family attends (see messages from Smoky Hill Vineyard here) while working through a variety of audiobook titles in the time that remained.

When asked by Greg what was the hardest part of this exercise, I informed him that it was the ongoing challenge of getting out and covering the mileage, day-in and day-out … even squeezing in these challenging “hikes” on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day!  This is so true about many things in life … showing up is frequently the hardest part.  And, the result of this challenge on my fitness?  Well, I purposely did not record any metrics over the course of the 40-days; rather, I kept this time unstructured and simply relied on the fact that, at a minimum, it has long been understood that walking is an activity that promotes health.

Why walking?  Walking provides a unique recruitment pattern and serves as an efficient mechanism to establish baseline aerobic fitness while offering numerous other health benefits.  Having competed in several “ultra” distance (i.e., 50-mile runs, multi-day stage runs, Ironman, etc.) events, I can personally attest to the special benefits that athletic walking imparts to the endurance athlete—walking frequently can allow for increased volume with a minimum of recovery.  A recent article in the IDEA Fitness Journal, entitled “Walking Extravaganza!”  (October 2013) bears out these and the other benefits of walking.  The article leads with what most of us already know: “[i]t’s simple, inexpensive and brimming with health benefits.  The scientific literature backs this up, concluding that the cumulative effects of walking can reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease, help in the treatment of hypertension, improve insulin/glucose metabolism for the prevention and management of Type 2 diabetes and aid in the treatment of some musculoskeletal disease.”  The IDEA article further addresses and “answers” some of the common questions surrounding the use of walking as part of a fitness prescription: 1) identifying the average adult walking pace at 2.8 miles per hour, a pace that naturally results in the use of fat oxidation as the body’s primary fuel source, 2) defining the often recommended “brisk walk” as a walk of moderate-intensity (noting that the actual pace will vary for each individual) while further identifying that a 100 steps/minute generally will equate to moderate-intensity, 3) describing the relationship between the addition of load (i.e., weight) and the walking modality—illustrating the load placement effects how “[m]uch of the energy cost of walking results from activating the muscles that control the body’s center of mass, 4) highlighting how, at least at slower paces, head-loading, walking with a backpack, or even carrying weights in the hand can offer energy-saving efficiencies, 5) explaining how the use of a weight vest can be used to vary intensity/energy expenditure, 6) identifying the inclined treadmill as another way to increase intensity while reducing the load placed on the lower extremities (cf. with increased pace), and, finally, 7) explaining the energy expenditure variance between walking and running (i.e., running generally results in 30% higher energy expenditure).  Most interestingly, the authors show how a walking program can be adapted to incorporate the benefits of HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training).  Want to read the complete article?  Send me an e-mail and I will use my “client share” tool to give you access to the complete article.

An Extension of 40 Days of Walking: 40 Days of Strength

Taking even more from Coach John (actually from John’s nod to the legendary strongman Pavel Tsatsouline, who apparently challenged John with the following workout: “For the next 40 workouts, pick five lifts.  Do them every workout.  Never miss a rep, in fact, never even get close to struggling.  Go as light as you need to go and don’t go over 10 reps in a workout for any of the movements.  It’s going to seem easy.  When the weight feels light, add more weight.”), I simplified my lifting regimen and, by focusing on 5 basic moves, repeated them consistently without rest for another 40 days.  (Focusing on “the things I need[ed] to do rather than the things I want[ed] to do”—AND doing so while “always striv[ing] for a quiet head, efficient movements and sense of calm while training”—Dan John).   My modification of Pavel’s challenge proved to be another extremely challenging workout regimen, with even more of a “showing up” challenge.  I selected the following as my 5 movements: Deadlift, Bench Press, Bent-Over Row, Barbell Curls, & KB Swings (Russian)—the 40-day scheme allows for great variety.  Note that my focus was on improving strength, so I cut the rep scheme down to 5 repetitions for two sets; however, I used the KB Swings as my “metabolic hit” and increased the sets and reps to 2 x 50.  The results: Deadlift up 22%, Bench Press up 10%, Bent-Over Row up 15%, Barbell Curls up 17%, while progressing the kettle bell weights up nearly 50%.  This was workout proved to be a rewarding yet grueling challenge (it was simply NOT an option to miss a workout … to that end I joined a second gym located very close to my home in order to ensure that I could always get my workout accomplished—I was committed to do whatever it took to progress through the 40 days).

Where I am Going …

I am continuing to define my training goals as I work toward my 50th birthday (that milestone remains some 6 1/2 years off); however, I am a on a personal quest to set myself to up to maximize my fitness potential on a daily basis as I work toward the “50.”  As I begin to contemplate new training goals for the upcoming new year, I am find myself fixating on a couple of training guidepost exposed by none other than Coach John: “[s]trength training for lean body mass and joint mobility trumps everything else” and “the movements [I] am ignoring are the things [I] need to do.”  I will keep you posted on what my training looks like; however, I can give you a preview by highlighting my growing interest in both CrossFit and the application of the Olympic movements to my training regimen.


Transition Program & Record Keeping

Over lunch the other day with a client I ended up explaining how my thoughts on resistance training have changed over the last few years, especially in regard to programing (i.e., the frequency, intensity, and volume of resistance training sessions).  At the heart of our conversation was my admission that my thoughts about resistance training programming have changed dramatically since I started in the weights game so long ago.  My training and my work with a wide variety of clients has solidified the need for individualized programming, regardless of the goal; however, I currently am going through a bit of a transitional period as to how to best define fitness and, perhaps even more importantly, how to best achieve that measure.  Additionally, the strength and resistance training game has focused my attention on how it is imperative to take the “long view” when looking at fitness goals—in addition to setting measurable short-term goals, it is helpful to realize that significant and enduring changes in one’s fitness can take a long time to accomplish (note that this is particularly true when it comes to adding lean muscle mass as you get older).

I recently put together a fairly straightforward resistance training program to help me get back in the weight room—actually I never left, rather, this helped me stay fresh and come in with a bit higher intensity.  While I am increasingly focusing on large, multi-joint movements, the program set out below is a 6-on, 1-off split routine of the low-frequency, high-intensity, short-duration, muscle isolation variety (italics added for emphasis … recall, that I am in “transition”).  As none of the moves are technically complex (with the exception of the barbell back squats), this program can be used by a wide variety of clients.  For me, it bought me a bit of time in the weight room to allow me to develop some more complex training program for next year!  Feel free to use this program to progress your own fitness goals or even as an introduction to resistance training (if you don’t know how to perform a good squat, feel free to see my thoughts on the squat set out here).  Use this program in good health and don’t hesitate to employ a professional to help you learn the appropriate movement patters (feel free to shoot me an e-mail and I will do my best to help you out).  Note: I would recommend using Week 4 as an “unloading” week, i.e., drop the weights down a bit then return to your Week 3 numbers on Week 5.  Additionally, this would ideally be a 6-week program, where you allow an initial preparatory week of training to set the stage for the work to come by getting comfortable with the movement patters (this also allows you an opportunity to note your machine & rack settings in order to move more efficiently through each workout).

Add a preparatory week to make this a 6-week program and mark Week 4 as an “unloading week” (dropping the weights down a bit).

A high resolution .PDF file of this program can be found here.

A bit about record keeping.  I firmly believe that keeping accurate training records is essential to achieving one’s fitness goals.  First, if you are committed to the idea, the training log serves as a tool that drives accountability.  Second, and perhaps even more importantly, the training log provides insights about what works and what doesn’t on an individualized basis.  Over the years I have used a variety of systems and, just so you don’t think that I never fail to record my training activities, I do advise taking periodic breaks from record keeping and training “free”—unencumbered by a training journal and perhaps devices that track workout intensity (i.e., heart rate monitors, GPS, etc.).  However, in a bit of a determined effort to get all of my training data down in one place, I recently purchased a couple of college notebooks and labeled the first book as follows:  “7-Year Plan: Book 1.”  The title reflect my interest in taking the long view!  I am challenging myself to gain 14-20 lbs. of lean muscle mass in 7 years.  To some this may seem like a relatively low bar;  however, for my age (42) and considering my body type (a true endomorph) this seems about right.  The weight range allows some flexibility to adjust to how I feel carrying the additional body weight and how these changes in body composition fit in to my ever-evolving definition of fitness.  When I fill up Book 1, I will carry on with Book 2, etc., etc.


My Personal RAGNAR

D2R2 was intended to mark the end of my ’12 race calendar; however, early in July a friend (and former client) asked me to participate in this year’s Coloardo RAGNAR relay.  Knowing that if one tend to says “no” all the time that one ends up friendless and alone, I agreed.  Shortly after saying “yes” to this event, I discovered that RAGNAR (at least CO’s version) had been surrounded by a bit of controversy, see here for more details on that.  I am not big on controversy and, upon at least my first look at the issues surrounding this event, I lost most of my enthusiasm for participating.  However, I had said yes, needed to reconnect with a friend that I had let slip away, and therefore I continued to train for my part in this multi-stage relay.  Once I returned from D2R2 I really felt the gravity of rather spontaneously adding yet another event to my race calendar—I was tired of the long  hours of training and time spent away from my family and other pursuits.  Bottom line: I made the decision to pull out of RAGNAR.  As I told “Captain Dan” (the extremely well organized leader of “Team Six Degrees”) when I asked him to dip into the list of alternates (there were several other eager runners looking to give RAGNAR a go), “I have never backed out of a race obligation, nor have I ever quit any race that I have ever started …I have no intention of leaving this team in a bind!?  However, if you have another capable runner ready to go, I would be inclined to do so [meaning, let another runner take my spot].  Another runner took my spot and I was set “free” … the race/training year was over (as planned).  Whew …

But was it?  Look, I like to finish what I start and even thought I was officially out of ’12 RAGAR, I had trained up and therefore decided to run my own multi-stage event.  Because other plans had now occupied the official RAGNAR weekend, I started my event on September 6th at 1:00 pm.—”My Personal RAGANR” would therefore end on Friday the 7th at 1:00 p.m.  I had been assigned the following legs by the Six Degrees team: Leg 12, 2.9 miles – EASY, Leg 24, 4.0 miles – MODERATE, and the final leg, Leg 36 – VERY HARD [these are RAGNAR’s assignments, not mine)—the fact that I was assigned the final leg resulted in my wife labeling me the Sanya Richards-Ross of the Six Degrees team.  Each of the legs shared the following net elevation changes, -142 ft., -46 ft, and +611 ft—I have ready access to these elevation profiles right out my front door.


So, that’s what I did.  Three legs, spaced out over 24-hours … all the excitement of running a multi-stage event without the need to ride around in a van for 24 hours and miss some additional time away from my wife and small children—I undoubtedly missed the opportunity to enjoy some fantastic running, early-fall Colorado splendor, and a chance to make lasting memories with a friend and 10 other motivated runners.  Look, this post is not about signing up and pulling out of race events and commitments (I DO NOT recommend either); however, it is about not letting logistical details stand in the way of your training and racing goals—you can find a way to run your race on your own terms (the only down side is that chances are that won’t get another cotton [I suppose these days, a “technical” garment] T-shirt to store unworn in your closet)!  When plans change, extenuating circumstances arise, things “come up” … go run your own race!

I received the post-race report from my friend Scott, with Team Six Degrees and, as I suspected, they did just fine without me:  winning the “Submasters Men Regular” division and finishing 12th overall (out of 164 teams) with a time of 26:40:12.8 (that’s a 8:31/mile pace over the 200+ miles–nice job).

Want more information on RAGNAR?  Check out the “RAG-mag” from this year’s race, you can take a look here.

D2R2—An Epic Ride in the Northeast

Earlier this month I joined my friend Houston Joost for the epic D2R2 180K randonee ride.  Although the event had been on my calendar for nearly two years, up until the end of April, I had not fully appreciated the challenge that the D2R2 could potentially present.  Houston’s Facebook comment: “How is your training for the D2R2?” got my attention.  Up until this time, I was like … “Hey, great, another cool century ride (ok, a century plus 10 additional miles) … I don’t need to train for that?” … or did I?  As I sought to answer that question I discovered that the D2R2 holds a well-deserved reputation as one of the most difficult rides on the eastern seaboard.  It was time to get training.  Based on a survey of ride reports (follow the links listed at the end of this post) I selected a new Giant TCX 0 cyclocross bike and started logging training miles.  Note: Altough the predominant number of bikes in the D2R2 are cyclocross bikes, along the way I saw a wide variety of rides: sleek carbon road bikes, classic randonee rides, mountain bikes, 29ers, and everything in between (as the NE is home to many custom bike shops, there were many bikes that are, at least in my mind, works of art … my friend Houston’s bike being no exception (see below).  Three months to get ready for 110 miles on dirt roads that presented 19,000 ft. of elevation gain …

I made my way to Boston on the Friday, the day before Saturday’s D2R2.  Houston met me at the airport and delivered us to the home of his in-laws who had generously agreed to host us for the D2R2 event (we could not have had better hosts … thank you “Uncle Tim,” Mary, and Grace).  A brief note about my pal Houston.  Houston was my friend in college (undergraduate school at Westminster College) and, before Friday evening at the Boston airport, I had not seen him in person for nearly 20 years—our reconnection had been what, at least for me, has been a series of orchestrated reunions that have come about as a welcomed byproducts of social media (i.e., Facebook).  Houston and I picked up where had left and reconnected as we made our way to Somersville, CT.  Note: The D2R2 begins in Deerfield, MA and then routes riders through both Massachusetts and Vermont).  Houston had recently moved to beautiful California (Marin County.) from Philadelphia, is a high-flying corporate entomologist with FMC, a husband to a skilled corporate lawyer, and father of a busy 18-month-old and expecting a little girl on the way in November … there would be no shortage of things to talk about during our 1 1/2 hour trip to CT.

Following a dinner of Mary’s legendary lasagna, Houston and I headed out to the garage to assemble our bikes and prepare for the upcoming ride.  Note that Houston and I had each elected to ship our bikes to Uncle Tim’s to ensure that would be there for the ride, unwilling to leave our fate to the airlines (Houston had also mailed some CO2 inflators and while I mailed an additional package of nutritional products in order to avoid TSA security issues while carrying on luggage). Houston elected FedEx, I chose UPS and each were waiting for us when we arrived.  As a perhaps interesting aside, although I had received a delivery confirmation from UPS earlier in the week, I received an e-mail on Friday morning alerting my (via Tim) that Houston’s bike had arrived but mine had not!  Uh, what … !!!???  This caused a bit of a stir in my home as I tried to get to the bottom of where in the world my bike was.  Hmmm … delivery confirmation, August 15th, “left at garage.”  Electing to not be denied my shot at the D2R2 I grabbed another set of pedals from my road bike and an extra set of shoes and stuffed them into my bag … surely I could find some type of bike to ride!?  After a couple of yet unanswered e-mails to Houston and Tim seeking clarification, I called Mary on my way to the airport.  After the initial and friendly introductions … “Great timing Brian, your bike arrived just 10-minutes ago …”, Mary informed me.  Whew … before leaving my truck I removed my extra pedals and shoes, confident that my gear was already waiting for me in Connecticut.  Only later that night did we learn that it was Houston’s bike, and NOT mine that was delayed and only delivered on the day before the D2R2 event!

By 11 o’clock, with a near steady rain continuing outside (the rain had cut both Houston’s and my check ride to all but a single lap around the driveway—it had started to rain shortly after nightfall) we headed to bed, more or less ready to go … departure time for the ride up to Deerfield was set for 4:45 a.m. By 11:30 I had exchanged my final text and with my wife asking her to pray that my bike would hold together and closed my eyes to catch some sleep; however, Houston had other plans (we were sharing a room) … you see, Houston snores (this fact proved to provide a bit of fuel for some lighthearted banter over the remainder of the weekend).

I greeted the morning, and the rain, at 3:50 a.m. and through on my GLXY kit, prepared a bowl of thick cut oatmeal supplemented with some rice protein and a banana (the fresh fruit had been set out after I had turned in by our hosts … again, tops!), and spent a few minutes organizing my nutritional products (i.e., mixing a couple of 2Xs-strength Perpetuem, dividing up my solid food and gels, etc.) before being joined by both Houston and Uncle Tim—Tim had braved the early morning hour to see us off (truly a great guy and it was very nice of him to wake early to share  the morning with us and see us off).

While Houston drove, I spent a few more minutes fiddling with my nutrition and organizing my hydration backpack.  A word about hydration … in years past the D2R2 has offered blistering heat and saturating humidity.  Although this year’s event provided perfect weather (light rain in the a.m., cool temperatures, and overcast skies that did not completely clear unit mid-afternoon), given my level of training/fitness, the prospects of coming up short on water did not appeal to me, so I “hedged” and carried a 3L hydration bag.  Although the prior three months’ of training had yielded a good strength to weight ratio, my choice (which, by the way proved completely unnecessary, added nearly 15 lbs. to my frame) and, in hindsight, was a poor one—the D2R2 offers amble support that a rider can complete the with only minimum reserves, e.g., two bottles, a bit of supplemental nutrition, and a couple of spare tubes/CO2 cartridges.

We arrived shortly before 6 a.m. and following a routine check-in we were rolling by 6:15-ish (my Garmin said 6:19 a.m.)—the D2R2 allows an open start, riders begin when they are ready.

The slideshow (above), includes images of me “solo” along Stage 3, the set of laminated cue sheets that I made for the event, me celebrating with a complimentary pint of craft beer at the end of the day, a map of the D2R2 courses, my bib #33 atop an article in the Greenfield, Mass “Recorder,” along with my friend Houston just before heading out on Stage 3.

Stage 1

Houston was already rolling when I entered the starting shoot and clicked on my Garmin Edge 500 and 910XT (I wanted to do a little additional testing and, given the length of the event, I elected to wear the 910XT to ensure that I would have odometer for the entire course—see my post on the 910 here).  I let Houston stay out in front and purposely held back, preferring to follow rather than lead in order to get a feel of what would be in store for the remainder of the day.  I also needed to “follow” as my first cue sheet had been attached backwards … Stage 1’s laminated sheet was facing down and was nearly inaccessible due to the manner in which it was attached to my handlebars—again, I jokingly wanted to blame Houston for that as there had been a bit of mix-up as Houston helped me attach my cue sheets to my bike during bike assembly.  Houston kindly played tour guide for miles 1 through 36 (I am certain out of a feeling of guilt … ha!), stopping to make sure that I made the many blind turns and changes in course.  I apologized for holding him up, only to be reassured that he appreciated the brief rests that these stops offered.  Stage 1 offered nearly 6,000 ft. of climbing on surfaces that ranged from unadulterated asphalt to washed out, rock-strewn, gravel and bare, wet dirt.   From behind, I cautiously met the repeated climbing challenges while watching Houston steadily power along out in front.

Stage 2

As we embarked on Stage 2 and, after receiving a “yes” answer to whether the remained of the event would offer more of the same types of challenges as Stage 1, I knew that I “had it”—barring an accident, severe illness, or a catastrophic mechanical failure (all things that remained possibilities) I would have the legs to complete the D2R2 180K.  I gradually started to meet the larger climbs with more confidence only to watch in disbelief as Houston started to fade.  A couple of stops-and-starts, followed by a couple of tries at my best encouragement, followed by addition prodding had done little to change Houston’s outlook.  He was complaining of fatigue, static elevated HR, headache, etc. … outwardly agitated, this veteran D2R2 riders (Houston had completed this same ride last year), in his own words, was “cooked.”

D2R2 “lunch.”

Stage 3

As we rolled out of second checkpoint, across yet another covered bridge (see the photo gallery above), and began the next climb Houston pulled the “rip cord” and informed me that he would not be continuing on.  Despite my multiple encouragements that things would surely turn around (athletes frequently experience alternating periods of highs and lows during long-course endurance events) Houston made up his mind that continuing would not be worth the “cost” and called it quits … he would return to the staging area via a more direct route, eat, take a nap, and patiently wait for me while I finished what I had set out to do—he would be waiting for a LONG time (my day “official”: 13 hrs., 32 minutes, and 43 seconds)!  As I shared with Houston later that evening, for the next 20-miles or so I kept expecting him to miraculously reappear on the course … this; however, was not to be.  I also thought of Houston again when I realized that I had left my iPod (along with a custom playlist for this event in my luggage) … I had discussed bringing it along with him the night before before we mutually decided that, given our many shared interests and long absence in real time communication, could more than fill 12 or so hours with conversation.  With Houston’s premature departure I was left with …  well, I was left with the sounds of the stunningly beautiful New England countryside, the banter of other cyclists moving along the route, and conversations shared with a new group of cycling friends that I joined toward the start of the final stage.  Throughout the day the landscape was stunning.  Pastoral farmers, historic homesteads, rock walls and battlements dating back to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, rolling brooks, streams, and rivers were the order of the day.  At one portion of the third Stage, I flagged down another rider who graciously agreed to take my picture by an idyllic stream—remember the D2R2 is a ride NOT a race!  After navigating solo for much of the post-lunch stage, I joined a small group of cyclists as we headed for the final stage and ultimately, the finish.  We shared navigation duties and, after dropping what until this point had been my meticulous attention to the cue sheet, I paid a price for it … we missed a significant turn onto Call Road (before the iron bridge on Route 112) and continued on 112 for nearly 2 miles (this miscue, along with another earlier one missing Jurek Road (no sign) as well as some other minor missteps yielded a total mileage for my day of 120.4 miles).  The additional 4 miles before facing the legendary Patten Hill climb further rattled some of the already weary riders in our little group.

Stage 4

By the time we reached the final checkpoint I was ready to get home.  I knew that Houston was waiting for me and that our hosts were expecting us for dinner (a dinner which, once I got to it, was the perfect ending to an amazing day: caprese salad made with local tomatoes, sweet corn (again, fresh and local), a thick T-bone, a regional craft beer, followed by homemade peach cobbler—outrageously good and most appreciated).  Our group scattered a bit, only to come back together to accomplish the remaining navigation challenges with precision.  The air was dimmed with twilight along with statements like “never again” or “I can’t wait to eat spaghetti and meatballs,” “that beer is going to taste so good,” etc.—the type of stuff that is frequently thrown about at the end of an exhausting outing or expedition, as we completed the remaining series of climbs and began the short descent to the finish.  Earlier in the day, Houston had informed me that the saying at the D2R2 … “when in doubt, climb” … this proved true on multiple occasions throughout the day.

I crossed the finish line, followed by my friend Dave, only to be greeted by a round of applause from other riders enjoying the festivities and food offered at the finishing line.  I acknowledged them with a wide smile and a couple of nods before heading across the field to meet Houston.  Houston greeted me with a congratulations and had me pose for a photo.  It was over—an event two years in the making had come and gone.  As Houston packed up out bikes, I made my way over to pick up the commemorative pint glass filled with a well-deserved beer that I subsequently shared with my friend Houston before heading home.  Dave came over and thanked me for my encouragement (and I thanked him for his company), I exchanged additional congratulatory words with, and met the children of two other riders who I had shared the last miles of the ride with before heading to the car for the final time.


The D2R2 is an “epic” event.  The event has a great vibe and offers something for nearly every class and calibre of rider.  My ride was made even more memorable by reuniting with an old college pal and through the introduction to our gracious host family.  As I was reminded by Houston’s uncle, a former Navy SEAL, “The only easy day is yesterday.”—Well said Tim … can’t wait to see what is next!

Many others have contributed to the body of knowledge about the D2R2 and several good “ride reports” can be found by surveying the following links:

(1), (2)(3) (one in four parts), and (4) 

For those wanting even more, I have posted a copy of the  ’12 map and cue sheets—Enjoy!

The Zone (You May Want to Get in It) … and More About Sugar

I am not sure how I missed this one, but thanks to a client (thank you Terri), I recently read “Enter the Zone” by Barry Sears, Ph.D.—author and leading researcher in the area of the hormonal effects of food, as well as an innovator in the area of intravenous cancer-drug delivery systems, Sears’ 1995 release, and its companion books, have now sold more that 5 million copies.  Sears’ work is an important one and provides the scientific foundation for the Paleo movement that is currently popular among dieters, fitness aficionados, and elite athletes (Paleo has grown in large-part due to its link to the tremendously popular CrossFit movement).

For those of you that train with me or read my “nutrition” blog posts, you already know that I firmly believe that nutrition plays a vital role in promoting wellness, improving fitness, and progressing an athlete toward his or her training goals.  I routinely speak of nutritional periodization and how it is important to have the dietary “inputs” supporting and meeting the needs of an athlete’s “outputs.”  Cycling and varying the requisite amounts of micronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats should be done to support one’s activity level, training cycle, and athletic goals.  Long a follower and promoter of  the likes of Dr. Mark Hyman (i.e., “Ultrametabolism,” “The Ultra Simple Diet,” etc.) and Mark Pollan (i.e., “In Defense of Food“) with his short mantra of  “[e]at food, not too much, mostly plants” that can serve most individuals very well, my food ethic revolves eating clean, organic when possible, “real” foods … you know, things that don’t come out of a box and typically have a single ingredient (i.e., an apple … Ingredients List: apple … period).  You may also recall that my personal physical transformation, from an obese midwestern kid to a healthy and vibrant adolescent and, now as an athletic adult, had roots in the the high-carb, low-fat revolution promoted by the likes of Nathan Pritikin and Dr. Dean Ornish.  The transformation in my own understanding of the important role of “healthy fats” and the need to focus on the quality and quantity of lean protein sources along with “good” carbohydrates (those with both low glycemic index—the rate at which a carbohydrate enters the bloodstream, and lower glycemic load—the actual grams of carbohydrates contributed) has taken along time—in hindsight, especially in the area of developing considerable lean muscle mass, I did my self a disservice by adhering to the high-carb, low-fat regimens during my youth.  Today, at least for me, it is all about maximizing the nutritional value of my meals and supplementing my training and lifestyle goals with the corresponding proper ratios of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.  I know consider myself somewhat of a master of  body composition, if only at the personal level, as I have been able to consistently make minor tweaks in my nutrition to best align my body composition with my current training goals.  I realize that I have figured out what works for me, but I also realize that we are unique individuals … what may work well for me, may not work so great for you (however, current research supports that, as is the case with so many things, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve when it comes to basic physiological responses … there are some general principles that work for the vast majority of us).  Additionally, I am neither a physician nor a certified dietician; rather, I am an athlete and trainer that reads a great deal on this subject and has conducted countless nutritional “experiments” on himself to improve my health and athletic performance.  I am simply presenting the highlights of Sears’ work in hopes that it may prove beneficial to others, especially my clients that are seeking to change their lifestyles, improve their body composition, or achieve increased athletic performance.

I have laid out a few of the major points that Sears presents in his best-selling book below and I will strongly encourage you to pick up a copy and give this title a read.  Sears book is both educational and well organized, while at the same time providing a possible roadmap to achieving optimal health.  At the very least it provides the reader with another tool to combat an expanding waistline along with many of the associated health issues that are plaguing our country; specifically, heart disease, obesity and Type II diabetes, and cancer.  Note: I especially like Sears’ voice, as he writes not only with the credentials of a world-class researcher, but identifies himself as a “genetic time bomb”—Sears’ father died of a fatal heart attack at age 53 and his three uncles, each in their fifties, also suffered the same fate (a significant family history of coronary artery disease).  A true believer in using food as medicine, Sears presents a plan that can be used to help move you to “permanent fat loss, great health, and all-around peak performance.”

At the core of his program, Sears emphasizes a powerful class of hormones called eicosanoids (eye-KAH-sah-noids) … eicosanoids act as “master switches” that control virtually all bodily functions (i.e., the cardiovascular system, immune system, etc.)—Sears suggests that food can be used to impact the body at the cellular level to reach and maintain a balance of these hormones in order to promote wellness an optimal athletic performance.  Sears uses the descriptive phrase “dietary technology” to label the means by which people may achieve “a state of optimal healthy, physical performance, and mental alertness that’s called the Zone.”  According to Sears, “[t]he Zone is a real metabolic state that can be reached by everyone, and maintained indefinitely on a lifelong basis.”  Finally, Sears emphasizes that the Zone is not just about wellness; rather, it is about achieving “optimal health.”  To get there, Sears dictates that we must treat food for a what he believes it is: a medicine.  Sears’ directive is to treat food, in both the proper proportions and consumed in a controlled fashion as an “intravenous drip,” mirroring the words attributed to Hippocrates so long ago of “[l]et medicine be thy food, and food be thy medicine.”   Bottom line, according to Sears, the size of our waistlines and our health (among other things) depend on our body’s hormonal response to the foods we eat.  This response can be managed by introducing foods, in the proper combinations and at the proper times, to promote optimal health—this is the key to the Zone.

Sears contends that the dietary laws that we live by are largely the product of fad or fashion (even experimentation).  Of late,  the encouragement to those seeking to live a healthy lifestyle to “eat less fat and more carbohydrates” has had just the opposite effect on the waistline of Americans (not to mention the concomitant increased incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and many types of cancer).  Take a look at the USDA’s food pyramid that has served as the nutritional guidepost from 1992 until 2005, see  it here (in its latest iteration, released in June of 2011, the USDA’s primary food group symbol currently goes by the name of “My Plate”—learn more here). That is the so-called “American paradox” of the low-fat lifestyle, people are eating less fat, but are actually getting fatter!

Sears is one of the few authors that points out that there is significant difference between weight loss and fat loss!  An individual can lose weight via loss of water, lean muscle, and fat but we are each genetically limited to the amount of actual excess body fat that we can lose in any given period of time*—Sears highlights that our “weight” represents a composite of all of these elements as well as structural components (i.e., bones and connective tissues, etc.).  His review of the macronutrients role in both performance and weight loss yields the following keys: 1) fat doesn’t make us fat, rather, it is excess carbohydrates that get stored as fat that is the primary culprit for the additional fat around our midsections—the real metabolic player here is increase insulin levels, and 2) exceedingly high-protein diets drive ketosis that yields loss of water weight, a decrease in lean muscle mass, and “primes” our existing fat sells for rapid “rebound” storage once carbohydrates are reintroduced, and 3) Sears echoes the statement one of my favorite quotes from an outlier in the bodybuilding world, Dr. Warren Wiley: “[f]at on the lips does not equal fat on the hips.”  In fact, Sears emphasizes this point at the end of the chapter entitled “The Fattening of America” by listing the following as two of the keys to permanent weight loss: (1) dietary fat does not make you fat, and (2) you have to eat fat to lose fat.  *The week is a typical guidepost and most individuals are limited to 1 to 1 1/2 lbs. of fat loss per week.

The foundations of the Zone diet (I would suggest that you not label Sears’ plan as a diet; rather, as a nutritional strategy for promoting optimal health), are derived from the Neo-Paleolithic diet (lean meats, fruit, and fiber-rich vegetables), the anti-aging diet (i.e., calorie restriction), a growing understanding of the vast hormonal effect of the foods that we eat (especially on the insulin/glucagon axis), along with the body of scientific research that has grown out of the 1982 Nobel Prize winning study of eicosanoids (a large class of hormonal “controls” that are produced in the wake of food consumption—as Sears suggests, “you’re only hormonally as good as your last meal, and you’re only as hormonally good as your next meal”).  Sears stakes his reputation as a scientific researcher that eating “Zone-favorable” meals will result in positive changes in your health and, may even diminish (if not protect against and even cure) a wide range of disease states, e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol elevation and imbalance (i.e., ratio of LDL:HDL), obesity and Type II diabetes, atherosclerosis and restenosis, blood clots, cancer, AIDS and autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, nervous system disorders (specifically, MS), arthritis, reproductive disorders, chronic pain, skin conditions (the most common being eczema and psoriasis), even depression and addictive disorders such as smoking and alcoholism/drug addition—quite a list!!!  But it doesn’t end there, Sears further suggest that a commitment to a long-term “Zone-favorable” nutrition strategy may even promote a longer lifespan (the Sears program is a calorie restricted diet).

So what is the Zone?  Simply put: the “Zone” represents a range of protein to carbohydrate ratios that extends from about 0.6 and 1.0, with the “ideal” target ratio of 0.75 (note, as Sears correctly identifies, every individual is unique and some trial and error may be required to achieve the real goal; that is, “hormonally correct meals”—some of us have a genetic predisposition to exhibit a muted response to carbohydrates, while others—myself included—fast track excess carbohydrates directly to body fat).  The starting point is to determine the requisite grams of protein that you need to consume each day.  This number can be readily calculated by taking your lean muscle mass (LMM) and multiplying it by an “activity multiplier” (Sears includes easy calculation guides in the associated Appendices). Once you have your “number” the remaining carbohydrate and fat components fall easily into place.  In “Enter the Zone”  Sears provides a “block method” that is easy to use and provides ready access to Zone-favorable meals.  In Sears’ program, a single “block” of protein is 7 grams, a block of carbohydrate is 9 grams, and a block of fat is approximately 1.5 grams—don’t get hung up on the fat issue … others have … most lean protein sources contain hidden fat, therefore explaining the reduction in the fat block grams (if using “pure” protein sources, then 2x each fat block to achieve the correct ratio).  Note: Don’t let the “blocks” alter the understanding of the caloric contribution of each of the macronutrients, i.e., 1 gram of protein = 4 calories, 1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories, and 1 gram of fat = 9 calories—it is the macronutrient ratios, not the caloric contributions, that are important for eating a in a Zone-favorable manner; however, the caloric composition of a Zone-favorable diet looks approximately as follows: 30% protein, 40% carbohydrates, and 30% fat.  Using the block system, the goal is to keep each meal at 1:1:1 ratio1Each So let’s assume that you require 112 grams of protein each day, that leaves you 16 “protein blocks” to space equally throughout the day.  A typical female would consume 3 blocks each meal, while the typical male would consume 4 blocks—working from the protein blocks, each meal would look like 3 protein blocks:3 carbohydrate blocks:3 fat blocks or 4 protein blocks:4 carbohydrate blocks:4 fat blocks, respectively.  For snacks … I bet you guessed it: 1:1:1, protein:carbohydrate:fat.  In supporting material, specifically, “A Week in the Zone” Sears introduces an even simpler “1-2-3 method” for creating Zone-favorable meals.  With this method you simply create meals that include 1 gram of fat, for every 2 grams of protein … add the grams of fat and protein to yield 3 grams of carbohydrates—simple as 1-2-3 (you then extrapolate accordingly to meet your individual macronutrient goals).  Simper still, you can get very close to building Zone-favorable meals by using the “eyeball” method.   Begin with a standard dinner plate and cover a third of the plate with a lean protein source (recall that an appropriate portion of protein is typically about the size of the palm of your hand and also only as thick).  Next, fill the other two-thirds of your plate with vegetables and fruits (recall that you should minimize starchy vegetables, e.g., potatoes, corn, etc. and instead focus on consuming the higher-fiber leafy greens, while similarly avoiding the higher sugar and GI/load fruits like bananas and dried varieties—note that Sears makes a distinction between Zone-favorable and Zone-unfavorable fruits and vegetables and provides useful lists to help guide your selections in each of his books).  Finally, add a small amount of healthy monounsaturated fat to complete the meal!

I have set out a few examples of what a typical “block” looks like for a each of the macronutrients below:

1 protein block = 1 oz. skinless chicken breast or 1 oz. turkey breast

1 carbohydrate block = 3 cups brocolli (raw), 1 cup if cooked or 1/4 of a canteloupe

1 fat block = 1/3 tsp. olive oil or 1 macadamia nut

Wait before you stop reading and say, “Well, I am going to STARVE!” take a look below at a couple of the 4:4:4 meals (4 blocks of each macronnutrient) that I literally threw together in minutes, a quick dinner and a quick breakfast:

A “Zone-favorable” 4:4:4 dinner: black beans, lean grass-fed beef, sautéd spinach, avocado, and a cup of organic decaffeinated coffee.

A “Zone-favorable” 4:4:4 breakfast: 2/3 cup cooked oats (GF variety), a 6 egg-white omelet with 2 tsp. olive oil, 1 cup sautéd spinach, 1 cup of organic strawberries, and a cup of organic decaffeinated coffee.














1Note that Sears, who has experience with working with a wide array of elite athletes at both the collegiate and  professional levels—from the prestigious Stanford collegiate swim team to the triathlon legend Dave Scott—allows for an additional block of fat for these athlete … the truly elite athlete would eat a ratio of 1:1:2 (adding an additional block of fat for each block of protein).

To quote Sears “a Zone-favorable diet is a protein-adequate, low-fat, moderate-carbohydrae program” and this is exactly how I will present it to you.   The Zone can either be seen as a tool to drop a few excess pounds or, as I prefer to view it, one of another possible roadmaps that one can use to promote optimal health and accomplish fitness and lifestyle goals.  I, like Sears, believe that the conventional wisdom (at least of late) to consume a diet dominated by carbohydrates with the inclusion of minimal fats is dead wrong!  I further believe that excess carbohydrate consumption—at least for the majority of individuals—can be blamed for the obesity epidemic that has its grip on our country (just take a look around at what typical Americans eat and the size of their waistlines) as well as the many complications that stem from being overweight/obese (usually goes hand and glove with a sedentary lifestyle … this is a vicious cycle).  At the biochemical level this all makes perfect sense: excess carbs, increased insulin, increased fat storage … physiology 101!

A little Zone experiment.  I chose to enter the Zone for a week during my busy summer training schedule and I elected to do it by accessing one of Sears’ companion books, specifically, “A Week in the Zone.”  This companion book sets out a step-by-step Zone meal plan for both a typical female and a typical male and, as part of my experimentation, I decided to follow the “female” program—this was primarily to combat any push-back from my male clients that the caloric guidelines of the male program were too restrictive to follow.  Results: not only did I achieve the 1 1/2 lb. loss of excess body fat, I experienced increased mental clarity, noticed performance gains in both strength and endurance (I maintained a nearly 40-mile/week running volume that was supplemented with nearly 150 miles of cycling), while failing to be pained by any sense of deprivation.  I only had a week to commit to this experiment and, again (at least for me), the results were intriguing—An important disclaimer: with the exception of the calorie restriction, I typically fuel on a similar percentage of macronutrients found in the Zone-favorable diets (admittedly, I do utilize higher carbohydrate days to support additional training volumes).  I will end with a quote from Sears out of “A Week in a Zone”:  “… the Zone is a powerful, yet simple to use dietary program that will allow you to lose excess body fat, reduce the likelihood of chronic disease, and enable you to live a longer and better life.  All of these benefits come from you ability to use food to lower excess insulin levels.”  I agree.  I plan to revisit the Zone program later this year and investigate if is possible to actually increase lean muscle mass (as Sears claims) while following a calorie restricted program … I will make a note to report back on my findings!


An associated note from the desk of our pediatrician:  During a recent wellness checkup for one of our children, our pediatrician, who is also a recreational runner and health conscious, eagerly shared some information with me concerning the role that sugar plays in determining our health—our pediatrician is very aware of my work as a trainer and my interest in promoting wellness and athletic performance.  I have provided a link to the information that she shared with me here.  Bottom line: Dr. Lustig’s presentation (Dr. Lustig is a neuroendocrinologist at UCSF, specializing in childhood obesity) identifies sugar as a powerful liver toxin (sharing the same biochemical pathways as the very well-known liver toxin, alcohol).  I highly recommend that you view Dr. Lustig’s entire presentation or read the summary that our pediatrician shared with me!