September 20, 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!

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.

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.


8 Hours at Life Time Fitness and My “Urban Adventure”

In April I placed two long training days on my calendar, each designed to support my longer-term training goals (i.e., primarily to promote changes in my strength to weight ratio) and to provide new and different fitness challenges.  For the first, I constructed an 8-hour training day at Life Time Fitness-Centennial (consisting of 4 group fitness classes supplemented with 3 hours of self-guided activity), while the second consisted of what I like to call an “urban adventure”­—an 8-hour hike from my home to the heart of Denver and back.  I elected to share these quirky training days as a means to encourage creativity and new fitness challenges.  If it is possible to devote a day off (I know how rare these are), or even string together a block of a few hours, consider planning a workout that is very different from your usual routine.  Consider roping a friend or a relative into participating in the challenge that you select.  If you belong to a fitness club, tap into some of the resources that you don’t normally take advantage of and see what new opportunities exist to progress your fitness exist there.  Finally, don’t forget that the simple movement of placing one foot in front of the other is a readily available activity that works wonders on our base fitness and body composition—a fitness adventure awaits right out your door.  Good luck in identifying and accomplishing your next “physical challenge.”  What follows is what I came up with last month:

8-Hour Training Day at Life Time Fitness

Although I had hoped to begin my quest to walk the entire length of Denver’s High Line Canal Trail (see the 2012 edition of the “Guide to the High Line Canal“) … a pursuit that I had initially engaged my friend Tom Frederick to join me in, the forecast for our scheduled outing didn’t cooperate.  The weather was expected to turn cold and wet and Tom wasn’t having it.  Instead of giving up on the training day (one that had long been scheduled on my calendar—albeit having moved around a bit), I elected to design another type of physical challenge.  I crafted an 8-hour indoor training day at Life Time Fitness (LTF) and pitched it to Tom.  What I came up with is set out below:

A copy of the 8-hour training day schedule that I threw together to guide our effort.

Tom met me at the doors of the Centennial LTF club at 6:01 a.m. and we got right to it … you see, the on-line schedules for the Centennial club (the ones that I used to plan our day) had not been updated yet for April, and the Vinyasa class had moved up to 6:00 a.m (or perhaps I just read it wrong).  Note: I have included a copy of the current group class schedule, here.  After receiving accepting glances from Sasha from our position just outside the studio door (a very capable Vinyasa instructor at LTF), Tom and I joined the class already in progress.  Note: As a rule, I NEVER join a yoga class late … you may disagree, but it’s just good etiquette, but Sasha runs a bit more informal class and kindly welcomed us in!  We quietly found our places and moved into the “flow.”  Note also that this was Tom’s very first yoga class … not an ideal way to begin, but he did his best to follow along through the relatively fast-paced series!  Next, the pool.  We made a quick transition to the pool where I spent a considerable amount of time helping Tom with his freestyle before abandoning him with orders to, above all else, “DO NOT stop moving.”  I managed 2600 m over the course of the next hour before heading off to the spinning class.  After some liquid nutrition (I fueled on NutriBiotic rice protein shake blended with flax seed, almond milk, and blueberries) it was off to Angela’s “Studio Cycle.”  After making the necessary adjustments to get Tom set up on his bike, I settled in to an easy cadence and waited for the class to begin.  An uptempo play list, a cycling video on the big screens, and a few sustained climbs helped pass the time (144 bpm average HR, maximum HR of 168 bpm)—only much later did I learn that Tom shares my affinity for techno remixes (check out his picks, via YouTube, original remix versions of Pink Floyd classic “Another Brick in the Wall: Part II” by Eric Prydz, here and here—both are close to the beats that propelled us through at least part of Angela’s spin class … note that, as Tom correctly pointed out, “the videos are a little crazy” but they will get you pointed in the right direction to finding more of Prydz’s work).  Another shake similar to the first, a quick change out of my cycling bibs and into shorts, and we headed off to “No Limits Circuit.”  Tom and I joined a group of 15  or so women (the class grew to over 25 by “go time” and included one other man)who were ready to do battle, “circuit style.”  Look, I have participated in these classes before … I know the scene and the routine … it usually goes something like this:  a group of extremely fit middle-aged women, lead by one of the fittest women on the planet (i.e., the instructor), brings this endurance athlete to his knees by challenging my anaerobic energy systems to their max while simultaneously revealing all the weaknesses in my ongoing endurance, strength, and flexibility training—I was glad to have Tom there for support.  However, it was not meant to be for Tom.  Despite my urging the he could, and SHOULD stay for the circuit class … after just 4 hours he had had enough!  I said my goodbyes to Tom and waited for the music, and the punishing, to begin.  The punishing came, delivered by Carrissa, the instructor and her regular “followers” … I survived, but it went exactly as predicted (144 bpm average HR, maximum HR of 177 bpm).  Drop in to a “No Limits Circuit” class just about any day of the week to see what I mean!  In the fifteen minute “break” I consumed another bit of liquid nutrition, knowing full well that it was unlikely to sit well with me and may even jeopardize my subsequent performance in the next class.  Next up, “Barbell Strength.”   As I went about collecting the items that I would apparently need for class, e.g., an aerobic step, a barbell with an assortment of weights, some smaller dumbbells, I discovered that a fellow endurance athlete and friend, Katie Loyd, was in the front row.  I visited with Katie for a couple of minutes and, after explaining was I up to, I assumed my place in the back row … I think she understood!?  (Katie is a veteran Ironman athlete and endurance aficionado.)  Funny, within minutes of starting the barbell workout I started to feel eerily weak—getting the appropriate amount of calories in was proving to be a real challenge through the first part of the day’s schedule.  As I worked through the initial barbell squat series I collapsed down onto one knee … seriously, right before I went “down” the lights starting to dim and the great to form around the edges of my vision—I had hit some sort of wall.  I was determined to continue, quickly recovered, and resumed squatting, all the while giving myself some serious self-talk like “You can do this!” … “Just shed some of the weight on the bar and keep going!”  For the remainder of the class I adjusted down my weights and things gradually turned around … it was still a challenge (and, as someone who teaches the finer points of weightlifting, I would suggest that you not use a “barbell circuit” class as your only reference for proper lifting technique … but if you have some experience moving weights around, these types of classes can offer a dose of variety to your routine).  My heart rate data for the “Barbell Strength” class: 113 bpm average HR, maximum HR of 154 bpm.  After class I consumed my final “meal” and headed to the treadmill (after a short visit to the on-site daycare to see how much Katie’s son had grown since the last time that I had seen him).  The treadmill (aka “dreadmill”) eagerly waited for me … a couple more hours of steady-state effort, as that was all that I could manage, and it would be over.  A little after 2:30 p.m. I called it a day and headed off to the locker room to enjoy the steam room and a shower.  At 3:06 I sent the following text to my friend Tom: “It’s over … that was crazy.  Thanks for showing up and participating (you could have done it)!”

“Urban Adventure”

I left my home shortly after 7 a.m., sporting my heaviest Vasque hiking boots, my Nathan lightweight hydration pack (essentially carrying only water, an apple, my phone, a visor, and some additional sunscreen—$20 and a credit card).  I accessed the Cherry Creek Trail behind my home and headed north.  The plan was to simply hike as far as I could between my departure time and 4 p.m.—I had originally contemplated and out-and-back route; however, as I worked deeper into my hike I committed to seeing just how far I could go.  I also carried my SPOT personal GPS beacon—a great little device that lets loved ones and friends (really whoever you allow access to you maps page) track your adventures … my wife enjoys coming “along” on my outings and she can use the SPOT map to get me out of a tough “spot” if the need arises (ha).  [I had hoped to share a screenshot of the SPOT map that I collected; however, it had expired from my account by the time put this post together.]  I shed some layers at Cherry Creek State Park and ate my apple, already beginning to feel the effects of some fatigue from this different mode of transportation (walking and running involve different movement patterns).  As I frequently ride the Cherry Creek Trail on my bike, I had anticipated much of what I would see on my adventure; however, I was surprised to encounter the following ant mounds … note that in each photograph, the ants had picked up some type of candy to dine on (you catch this kind of thing when you are moving at slower speed versus whizzing by on a bike).


Ants and candy (1) of (2).

Ants and candy (2) of (2).

My heart rate remained ridiculously low, around 70-90 bpm throughout my hike.  By 1 o’clock I passed into Cherry Creek North and had put over 18 miles behind me.  With my 2L hydration bag completely emptied, I landed at Whole Foods where I collected an assortment of items to eat and stocked up on fluids.  Let’s see … nearly six hours to get to Cherry Creek North … if I backtracked following the same route I certainly wasn’t going to make it home by 4 p.m.?  I had to come up with a new plan.

My lunch at Whole Foods: Water, carrot juice, kale & garlic salad, and a couple of rosemary grilled chicken breasts.

On my way in, I had noted the RTD buses and even stopped to check out the schedules at a couple of their stops.  Over lunch I used my iPhone to located the bus routes and schedules and I caught the bus heading to Nine Mile Station  (only slightly north of the Cherry Creek State Park) just beyond the Cherry Creek Mall.

The Garmin (a feature of Garmin Connect) player shows my progress (or, alternatively, click here):

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As I had an appointment that I had to keep at 5:00 p.m., I knew that I had to be home no later than 4:15 p.m. in order to shower, change, and make it—hence the “planes, trains, and automobiles” route on the way back (or, in my case, the city bus, hitched ride with a park ranger, and a taxi cab—I included a photograph of my Whole Foods lunch, bus fare, and taxi receipts as the lead photograph for this post).  Determined to put in as many miles in as absolutely possible, I walked from the Nine Mile Station deep into Cherry Creek State Park.  Again, after my vehicular excursion with a park official that I will leave unnamed but to whom I am extremely grateful (I hitched a ride as soon as I realized that I needed to get through the park in order to arrange a taxi ride to get me home on time), I landed on my feet and hiked out of the park while simultaneously arranging for a tax to pick me up at Valley Country Club (just to the south of Cherry Creek State Park).  In all, I logged better than 24 miles in a single day (just short of the marathon distance that I had hoped).  This was truly a LSD (Long Slow Distance) training day.  I simply concentrated on keeping my “heavy” feet moving (the reason that I selected heavy hiking boots over running shoes) and worked on training up my hiking/walking muscles.

I have included a slideshow of a few of the  other images from my “urban adventure” below:



USA Weightlifting – Beyond the Basics

Over the course of the last couple of years, I have dabbled in the Olympic moves (snatch, clean, and jerk) with limited success, frequently getting discouraged by the difficulty of these seemingly simple moves (I have preferred to read about these movement patterns rather than incorporate them into my ongoing training programs).  I mean you look at a clean, and you go, “Ok, I can move this bar from the floor to my shoulders.”  In practice however, it is much more difficult than it looks.  This year I decided to get serious and change from a bystander to a participant, no longer  content to look at movement “theory,” I wanted to begin formal practice.  To that end I calendared the USA Weightlifting, Level I – Sports Performance Coach Certification and made learning and teaching the “O-moves” (as they are affectionately know by those who run in weightlifting circles) a priority.  My rationale for wanting to learn more about these movement is fairly straightforward, these moves are “functional” in the broadest sense—they are ground based (as are the majority of sports and activities), they can offer a wide variety of clients an efficient workout with tremendous training adaptations (e.g., increased power, development of kinesthetic awareness, increased muscle fiber density, increased intramuscular/intermuscular coordination), and they introduce clients to fun and challenging movements—these reasons, laid out in the USA Weightlifting curriculum, are the very reasons I wanted to attend this certification course.  Over the third weekend in April, I found myself at Red Rocks CrossFit in beautiful Colorado Springs, CO.   Along with some 25+ others from both Colorado and a few from beyond Colorado’s borders, Paul Fleschler introduced both “theory and practice” and then took me way beyond the fundamentals as both an athlete and a coach.

Olympic reminders that adorn RedRocks CrossFit (many of these athletes have trained with Paul at his facilities or at the USA Olympic training center).

The Venue: Red Rocks CrossFit occupies an old trolley car building that offers the essentials and then some.  Power racks, barbells, and lots of bumper plates adorn the floors of a facility, that by both its design and decor feels “serious.”  From its high ceilings hang multiple iron rings and suspended braided ropes.  Rowing machines are the only “cardio” equipment (a frequent hallmark of CrossFit gyms).  But beyond all the necessary equipment, e.g., medicine balls, plyo boxes, PVC dowels, the thing that stands out and sets it apart from other CrossFit gyms are the large-scale tributes to the USA Olympic weightlifting athletes.  As it turns out, much of the equipment in use at the facility came directly from the USA Olympic weightlifting center, also located in Colorado Springs.

Paul Fleschler, a coach and trainer with 30+ years of experience, exuded enthusiasm for this “lifelong” sport.  Over the course of his career, Paul has competed at a national level, worked with Olympic and collegiate athletes (he was a strength coach at Indiana University in the days when Bobby Knight reigned supreme), and, like so many other coaches and trainers that I admire, he has managed to find a way to progress the health and fitness with the “everymen” of the world—average men and women who are interested in learning knew skills and increasing their fitness levels.  Oh, and I failed to mention that he represented the USA in the sport of weightlifting in the ’92 Barcelona Olympics (see more about Paul and his credentials here)!  At the outset, Paul affirmed what I have long believed, the Olympic moves should be a part of my training routine.

But you can’t just start with the clean.  One should walk before he or she runs.  And the progression of learning these hallmark O-moves, based on some 30 years of practice within the USA Weightlifting organization, begins with a general physical preparedness regimen (a general warm-up) followed by a minimum mobility assessment.  For the sake of expediency, I will pass over the details of a warm-up, just know that the completion of a comprehensive dynamic warm-up is a prerequisite for performing these movements well (as well as serving to reduce the possibility of injury).  The minimum mobility assessment, consisting of an overhead squat, straight leg raise, front squat (in “receiving” position), and an upright row with a PVC bar/stick provides a look at an athlete’s readiness to attempt the Olympic moves.  This short assessment identifies potential structural and flexibility restrictions that can be addressed with specific warm-up and even corrective techniques.  By way of personal example, I have tight latissimus dorsi muscles (upper back) and pectoral muscles.  I also perform the majority of my squat movements in the “low bar” position.  As a consequence, my overhead squat presents significant forward lean—not a problem if you wish to squat large amounts of weight, but a significant problem for getting in the proper position for the Olympic moves.  Add some decreased mobility in my hip joint and tight hamstrings and I have some work that needs to be done before I will be able to progress to higher levels of Olympic lifting!  My ongoing exercise prescription will be to work on progressing my flexibility and gradually transitioning to the “high bar” position back squat.

An overview of the weekend’s itinerary provides useful insight into how these moves are taught: Day 1: Two sections: 1) Understanding and Preparing for Weightlifting (introduction, objectives, rationale; safety and evaluation; and basic biomechanics, and 2) Learning and Teaching Techniques: Basic Exercises, Clean Related; Basic Exercises, Snatch Related; and Basic Exercises, Jerk Related and Day 2: Powers Assistance Exercises and Implementing Program Design (Day 2 also included an extended coaching session during which participants worked on the clean, snatch, and jerk movements).

Following a self-guided general warm-up, completion of the minimum mobility assessment, and dividing into small groups, we began working the progression for learning the technique of the O-moves.  First, up the “starting position.”  The starting position sets the stage for a successful moment.  As I frequently share with my clients in the weight room, “Sometimes how you start determined how you will finish!”—this is particularly true to the Olympic movements.  The keys to a good stating position are as follows: 1) all body levers are “tight,” 2) feet are straight (neutral) or slightly turned out, 3) the back is flat (or even concave), 4) the arms are straight (elbows are rotated out), 5) the head is up (again, neutral) and the eyes are focused straight ahead, 6) the hips are higher than the knees, and 7) the shoulders are in advance of the barbell.  Note: the weight is distributed evenly on the athlete’s feet prepared for the changes that take place during the movements (i.e., 1st pull: weight moves toward the heels, and 2nd pull: weight moves toward the toes).  Paul was “hands on” during the practical portions of the training (which made up more the 3/4 of the curriculum), rotating through each group and emphasizing certain critical points to the group as whole as needed.  In addition, Paul was assisted by three experienced assistant coaches, one of which, a 23-year-old female lifter, competes at the national and international level and narrowly missed an Olympic trial spot this year—she is about to begin another 4-year training cycle and dreams of representing the United States in the Olympics.  Each coach offered unique perspectives and cues to the moves that we practiced throughout the weekend.

Me, assuming the proper "start position."

By the lunch break of day 1, I  had performed LOTS of clean and clean related moves.  After lunch and another self-guided warm-up and brief work through a barbell complex, we attacked the snatch and snatch related moves.  But for the difference in the grip (the snatch features a substantially wider grip), these two moves share a great number of similarities.  Note: A surefire way to determine the proper width of the snatch grip is to use a jump rope.  The procedure goes like this: have the athlete stand with her back facing toward you, left arm extended at her side, with her right arm extended away from her hips at shoulder level.  Measure from the top of the left shoulder (the AC joint, or acromioclavicular joint) to the middle knuckle on the right hand—simply transfer this measurement to the bar.  (With the clean, the focus is moving under the bar to the receiving (aka “rack”) position, whereas with the snatch, the barbell moves on a trajectory over the head.  As with the clean, by the end of the day I had performed LOTS of snatch and snatch related, along with a good quantity of jerk and jerk related moves (the jerk features footwork where the feet split underneath the bar).  I said goodbye to my group and Paul, then headed slowly to my truck to make the trip back home to Denver.

Learning from Each Other:

The Level 1 course, in addition to providing instruction from high experienced coaches, facilitated additional learning and coaching opportunities within our small groups.  My group featured a standout named Grant Cahill.  From the moment Grant joined our group, sporting his well-worn Risto weightlifting shoes, I knew that there was something special about this 32-year-old.  Grant is a trainer who has been working through the CrossFit competition ranks, while practicing solo in his garage.  I learned a great deal from Grant as we all learned more about these movements.

Grant Cahill nailing a jerk, "spot on" just like he did on almost every movement that he practiced over the weekend.

Day 2 ushered in the power assistance exercises.  We initially focused on the snatch and clean pulling movements.  With these moves, the goal is to develop strength in the pull.  And, in the case of the Romanian dead lift (RDL), strength in the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.  The power assistance moves also include overhead pressing and lower body squatting movements.  The overhead movements include the push press behind the neck, power jerk behind the neck, and the jerk behind the neck.  The squat power assistance exercises include the squat (the “high bar” back squat is implied here), and the single leg squat in two varieties: 1) the split squat and 2) the split squat with the rear foot elevated.  Each of the power assistance movements are designed to serve to improve performance in the O-moves.

Prior to the final practice session devoted to the clean, snatch, and jerk movements we discussed the essential components of program design.  As with endurance training and traditional resistance training, training for the Olympic movements should be both rational and periodized (note that I frequently make the argument that nutrition should be similarly periodized).  Using the lift related movements (i.e., snatch or clean), the overhead movements (i.e., snatch or jerk), the squat related movements, and pull related movements, a systematic training program can be designed to promote ongoing positive training adaptations—the idea is to manipulate the application of stress over time to elicit consist and ongoing training adaptations.  Paul and USA Weightlifting break the basic training macrocycle into a 12-week block that includes three 4-week periods.  Each 4-week period is respectively devoted to preparation, strength, or competition.  The volume begins high at a relatively low intensity in week 1 (the first week of a 4-week preparation training block) and steadily progresses, via an inverse relationship, to week 12 (the final week of another 4-week “competition”/peak training block) where the volume is low and the intensity is high.  Note also that the number of lifting (e.g., the clean, snatch, and jerk) versus strength related exercises (e.g., pulls, squats, and overhead presses), as well as the repetition count, changes across the 12-week cycle).  Every third week serves as an “unloading” week, where the athlete’s body recovers and adapts to the systematically increasing training loads.  The bottom line is that it is not sufficient to know how to execute the O-moves, the athlete must incorporate the moves into a rational training plan that will serve to consistently advance the athlete’s training adaptations.

Homemade lifting straps fashioned from 1" tubular webbing and athletic tape (used to increase grip with the pulling exercises).

Coaching Tips & Tricks: Olympic weightlifting, by definition, is an international sport.  Consequently, a well-appointed training facility will offer weights labeled in the international standard kilograms and and not US pounds.  Most of us are familiar with the standard conversion of kilograms to US pounds (i.e., multiply kilograms x 2.2 = US pounds); however, there is an easier way to get at the correct conversion in the weight room: simply multiply kilograms times 2 and then add 10%.  For example, 60 kilograms of weight equals 132 (120 + 12) pounds—simple as that!  Also, I discovered a new type of “strap” that can be fashioned out of 1″ tubular webbing (note that this is readily available from an outdoor store or climbing store, e.g., REI).  These straps help overcome the limitation of grip strength (especially in the pulling exercises where grip is frequently a limiter when lifting heavy loads)—note also that this is why the hook grip is preferred.  As Paul pointed out, these straps have the advantage over the store-bought variety since they will not tear as easily.  You know the ones that wrap around the athlete’s wrist and then double back through (see one example, here).  Approximately 18″ of tubular webbing folded over on itself and then joined at the end with athletic tape (this tape may need to be reapplied from time to time) will yield a durable pair of lifting straps.

The entire weekend was a complete success.  Paul provided a wealth of knowledge along with some great stories that served to add a richness and context to the material that we covered in the curriculum.  In addition to the great instruction by Paul and his assistant coaches, the course participants were similarly engaged and eager to learn.  As I left the gym on the final day, the comments flying through the air where uniformly positive.  Through their diversity as trainers, coaches, CrossFit’ers, and competitive athletes, my fellow attendees challenged and progressed my learning.  The bottom line is that the Olympic moves offer the ability to promote tremendous muscular and neuromuscular development.  The snatch, clean, and jerk, along with the related exercises, are challenging and can add variety to your workouts.  Want to know more?  Contact me and I will be happy to share what I have learned (we can learn more together).  Alternatively, make an appoint to see Paul or drop in at Red Rocks CrossFit for one of the monthly “open gym” days—you will be able to joint fellow lifters and coaches in learning more about these great moves (note the upcoming “open gym” days are as follows:  see the Red Rocks CrossFit page for additional information).  Find a local lifting club or a local gym where the Olympic moves are understood and taught: two gyms that Paul recommended include Flatirons CrossFit in (see Randy Hauer for learning the O-moves) and Front Range CrossFit (see Skip Miller for learning the O-moves)—in addition to working with Paul, I will certainly be drawing additional knowledge from these local resources!  For an active blog concerning all “happenings” in Colorado weightlifting, see here.

I have included the core curriculum of the USA Weightlifting progression in the slide show that follows (these slides will hopefully serve to get you thinking about how these movements should be approached, taught, and practiced).  I am extremely grateful to Paul Fleschler and USA Weightlifting for allowing me to include these slides here (note that Paul authored the USA Weightlifting, Level I manual).  Contact USA Weightlifting to learn more (perhaps even take a the Level I certification) … you will not be disappointed!

A review of the “basics”:

As an aside, the majority of this post was drafted at The Coffee Exchange, a quaint and well-appointed coffee shop that is located just beyond Red Rocks Crossfit on Tejon Street in the Springs (click here to view the Yelp reviews of this independent coffee shop).



You Don’t Need Me, Really … You Don’t!

From time to time I encounter individuals who, due to either their independent nature, lack of availability of funds to dedicate to formal training, physical location (i.e., they live in another state) or some other valid reason are unable are unwilling to engage me in a personal training relationship; however, they remain interested improving or progressing their level of fitness.  While I believe that there is significant value in working with a well-qualified personal trainer (I would not be involved in this business if I didn’t believe that to be true), I understand the wide variety of reasons and obstacles that prevent everyone from working with a professional trainer.  Personally, although I consider my own training sessions valuable “personal time,” I know that I will typically work harder and train more effectively/efficiently when working along side a professional.  I only half-jokingly share with my clients the following … “If I could afford it, I would ideally work out with a personal trainer every session.”  This same sentiment is held even the most elite professional athletes (see the WSJ article concerning Shannon Sharpe, who, due to his training expertise was essentially left to his own devises by trainers during his NFL career, now regularly employs a personal trainer to help keep his fitness up in his life outside the NFL).  But what should one do when circumstances or “reality” prevents the ideal?  Enter Todd Durkin‘s book: “The IMPACT! Body Plan.”  Although there are many quality, “self-help,” self-guided fitness books on the market, Durkin’s book stands out among the field of current offerings and is one that I consistently recommend to clients that are looking to (or forced to) work independently.

Durkin is a star trainer (he also holds his NSCA, CSCS credential) who has had the opportunity to work with star athletes (e.g., LaDanian Tomilson and Drew Brees, to name just two).  Note: The story of Durkin’s relationship and work with Drew Brees should provide hope to those who are looking to recover from injury: Durkin led Brees out of the funk brought on by a 360-degree torn labrum tear and torn rotator cuff (a severe shoulder injury) to a complete and Championship recovery.  Durkin himself recovered from an injury that ended his professional football career at the age of 25—it was this “Impact,” sustained on the playing field, that has fueled Durkin’s drive to help others achieve peak physical conditioning.  Durkin, like me, understands that physical conditioning can be leverage to achieve what I call our “highest and best selves” (I will submit that my Christian faith commits me to viewing my ability to train, and do all things, as gifts from God).  In Durkin’s view “[w]hen you are in the best shape of your life, eating right, sleeping well, and feeling great, that’s when you achieve an energy shift.  And your energy can be directed toward creation.  And you can create whatever you want.”   Sounds good, right?

Countless other “household names,” from the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints, New York Jests, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers and numerous “everymen/everywomen” have thought so.  With a singular vision to help them unlock their athletic potentials through planed and purposeful training Durkin has helped them achieve that higher level of physical conditioning.  Durkin’s book provides great insight into both his planning and his purpose—his creative methods can be followed in a stepwise manner to help you expand your fitness.  Durkin, through his “Impact!” program conveys the motivation, accountability, and know-how that can yield surprisingly good results.

I often tell my clients, especially those that are struggling with a particular goal (i.e., usually weight loss or body composition change), “I wish that I could do it for you, because I could guarantee you success!”   But I can’t—my clients are responsible for their own outcomes.  So are you.  An excerpt from Durkin’s book mirrors my sentiment and is worth sharing here—perhaps it will motivate you to take action:

“One of my mantras—and you’ll see in this book that I have a few—is “Ready, fire, aim.”  Most of us live by the mantra “Ready, aim … aim … aim.”  And we never fire.  You say that you want to start an exercise program, but you never do; you say that you want to hire a trainer and get into shape, but you never do; you say you’re going to get a better job, but you never do; you say you’re going back to school, reconnecting with the people you love, traveling to a long-dreamed-of local.  You never do.  That’s why I live by “Ready, fire, aim”—it forces me to take action even when I feel fear, or hesitation, or uncertainty.  This program is all about action.  I’ll give you the game plan.  You take the action.  I’ll motivate you.  Inspire you.  Coach you.  I’ll also hold you accountable.  But, folks, have no illusions.  You have to take action.  You need to be there for yourself.  You need you.”

Do you already put in your “time” at the gym or “time” on the road (e.g., running or cycling) or “time” in the pool (you pick the mode of activity that describes you), but frequently feel as though you are not making the gains that you feel that you should be making, or, worse still, have plateaued and are realizing no gains at all, perhaps even going backwards?  It may be time to enlist the help of a professional or find a resource that can help (perhaps Durkin’s book).  Many times we know that we need to train, so we train … but we may not know “how to train”—that is, how to train to achieve our individual goals (if we have goals at all?)  When my mind wonders at the gym, I look around and try to match up the people that I see working out with the goals that they may be training for: “What is he training for?”  “Why is she training that way?”  Frequently, I am unable to see the connection.  Don’t be that person … make your training time count, train for and achieve specific goals, get results!  Frequently, more “time” is not the answer!  I will suggest that Durkin’s book may be able to  help.  Durkin employs many of the same strategies, ones that I routinely prescribe and teach to my client-athletes (I call all my clients athletes), while emphasizing many of the fundamentals that are part of my own training philosophy!

I will hit the major points of  Durkin’s “game plan” and suggest that you “fire” and pick up a copy  (at the time of this review, you can get your own copy from Amazon for under $12).

A word about equipment (Durkin calls them cutting edge “toys”).  While Durkin provides substitutes to use in the absence of access to the supplemental equipment that follows, the “toys” WILL add additional results to your training (and add some great variety to your sessions).  TRX Suspension Trainer – an extremely portable, versatile, and “fun” training tool that uses your own body weight as the resistance.  Superbands – (I like the SPRI ones found here), used to perform multidirectional exercises and add resistance or assistance to exercises.  I frequently prescribe a TRX and SPRI bands to clients who travel frequently—extremely portable and offers a great workout almost anywhere.  Sport Cords (again, I prefer SPRI), Durkin calls these the “little brother” of Superbands—they are used in much the same way.   BOSU – used to create instability and progress a wide variety of exercises (challenges the core and increases balance).  Kettlebells (note that offers a wide variety of bells) – used to improve grip strength (which often limits performance of other resistance/strength movements) and allows exercises to performed through a great range of motion.  Most fully-equpped fitness facilities will have the majority of equipment that you need to follow the program to the letter (usually one will need to supplement with only a TRX system and a couple of Superbands).

The Plan

Prior to starting the 10-week plan, Durkin prescribes a battery of “self-test” exercises.  The overhead squat, wall slide,  hover plank, deadlift, pushup, single-leg balance touch, rack row, and the 300-yard shuttle run each serve as valuable measures of fitness and will serve as valuable  before and after metrics (do these)!  Repeat these same tests again at the end of the 10-week plan and see just how far you have come!

Durkin’s plan consists of following  seven phases of the “MUSCLE MATRIX” that are incorporated into three stages over the course of a 10-week training cycle.  This matrix includes a 15-station dynamic warmup, emphasizes joint integrity, places appropriate focus on core conditioning, strength and conditioning, adds power and plyometrics, specific movement training, and includes flexibility training.

An excerpt from “Impact” clarifies the value of the matrix: “The Muscle Matrix is a simplified system that utilized advanced training principles to deliver maximum results.  It combines training in different planes of motion (up and down, forward and back, side-to-side, diagonally, and with rotation), performing some exercises with only one arm or leg, and challenging your entire body in a diverse training environment.”

I could not agree more with Durkin’s statement that, “[l]adies and gentlemen, you need resistance training to get results in any program.”  Resistance training (adding weight, using bands, moving against any resistance) is essential to achieving enduring body composition changes and supporting improved fitness—it is essential!

Another excerpt of Durkin’s book drives this point home:  “Cardio burns the most fat.  Not true (emphasis added).  Resistance training burns the most calories overall.  When you do cardio, you’re burning calories during the activity.  With resistance training, you burn calories during the activity but keep burning them for up to 48 hours afterward.  This is knowns as excess post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or the more well-known after burn.  Resistance training also jacks up your metabolism, improves insulin resistance, and shuts down the fat-storing enzymes in your body.”  [These are all very good things.]

The plan progressively moves you through “Stage I: Training Camp” (dedicated to learning the fundamentals), “Stage II: In Season” (four weeks devoted to “mastering” the moves and learning to apply advanced training principles like plyometrics, complex sets, drop sets, and eccentric training), and finally, “Stage III: The Playoffs” (here is where it all comes together, this final push moves you toward excellence).  Try this program, you will learn, you will improve your fitness, and you will have fun!

A word about nutrition:

Durkin encourages the reader to move toward “World-Class” eating.  This is sound advice and a terrific goal and Durkin offers eating strategies to accomplish it!  The familiar training adage, “You can’t out train a bad diet” is a staple in the training world—and it’s true.  What you eat and when you eat it is extremely important (the field of nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics, that is, how food interacts with our bodies, even at the cellular or genetic level, is starting to come into the forefront of modern nutrition—food is fuel, food is medicine, and it has a tremendous impact on our health!  Durkin’s 1o Commandments work; furthermore, he has concisely outlined principles that I have long used to guide my own nutritional regimen:

  1. Get your motor started: Eat breakfast!
  2. Slow down!
  3. Fuel up before training.
  4. Refuel after training.
  5. Go wild!
  6. Remember that supplements are just that—supplements!
  7. Water your body.
  8. Keep a nutrition journal.
  9. Follow the 90-10 rule.
  10. Experiment with the IMPACT menu

Durkin correctly notes, “How you eat will help determine your ultimate success with the IMPACT program.”  I cannot agree more … give it a try!

As with all resources, I tend to “take the best and leave the rest.”  Durkin’s  10-week “body/mind fitness” plan requires me to leave very little.  Note that I personally completed 5-weeks of his program during my preparation for Ironman Cozumel and have scheduled the full 10-week program into my current year’s training calendar.  If you work out in Denver, CO and belong to LifeTime Fitness (either the Parker or Centennial clubs), and see me with my SPRI bands and TRX … chances are I am working Durkin’s plan, or incorporating some of his moves into my own routine—feel free to join in and share you own experiences and results with me!  I will encourage you to pick a copy of the “Impact” plan and work the system.  Durkin’s program applies resistance at multiple angles, with varying resistances, and at different speeds in a rational and periodized manner.  If you follow his program and train with intensity on a consistent basis, you WILL get results.

Durkin owns and operates Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA.  A world-class center that combines personal training, massage and bodywork, sports performance training, Pilates, yoga, nutrition, physical therapy, chiropractic, life coaching and more.

*Note: Don’t worry if you can’t come up with all the “toys” as Durkin offers substitute moves.  If you are a “road warrior” he also offers practical guidance on how to stay on track while you are away.

The Worst Squat Ever: Dec. 22, 2011 (Life Time Fitness approx. 12:15 p.m.)

Mark Schmukal, owner and operator of Total Health & Exercise, LLC graciously and purposely demonstrates "poor" squatting technique.

Really, I see it ALL the time. This day was really no different, but the squatting technique that I witnessed on December 22nd at the Parker, Colorado Life Time Fitness at approximately 12:15 p.m. was so bad that it inspired me to write about it (the reason I am being so specific with the details is that, perhaps, if only in jest, I maintain a fanciful hope that the individuals who were performing this “squat” session will someday read this post and consult me for guidance … I realize that it is a long shot).  Anyway, I resolved right then and there to make the first post of the new year all about the squat with hopes that it would save someone from suffering the consequences of performing squats incorrectly (the least of which is drawing my criticism).  Bottom line: if you can’t do a squat with near perfect form, then DO NOT SQUAT. Do something else, say … use the leg press machine, but don’t squat. I don’t say this to be mean but rather to hopefully protect you from a compromised spine and destroyed knees (at a minimum). This comes from someone who 1) places the barbell squat (along with the deadlift) among his “dessert island” lifts, meaning that I consider the squat an essential move, one that I might even perform if I found myself stranded on a desert island, and 2) has performed countless squats incorrectly before mastering the fundamentals (and only by the fortune of youth and God’s grace has not yet paid too high a price) and is continually striving to improve his technique.  Many in the strength/resistance community label the squat “the king of all exercises” and consider it to be the single most effective resistance training movement if performed with correct form (see Colker’s assessment, below).

In theory, the barbell squat is strikingly simple; however, in practice it becomes fairly complex due our individual variations in size, posture, muscle development, coordination, and flexibility.  The basics of performing a correct barbell squat are set out below in six steps:

  1. Approach a squat or power rack with the barbell set at approximately shoulder height (use the seam of the armpit as a good guide or set the bar at mid-sternum level) and, prior to gripping the bar, check to see that the barbell is centered in the rack (left to right); the squat is one of those exercise where how you begin in large part determines how you will finish … so start well!;
  2. Step under the bar keeping your feet at approximately shoulder width (toes may point out to 30°; however, I recommend a “toes forward” setup if you have sufficient flexibility to reach the appropriate end position), and “trap” the bar on your trapezius muscles (the bar should sit 1-2 inches below the back of the neck with the hands spaced significantly wider than shoulder width to accommodate the lower bar position—drawing the elbows toward the floor helps to “trap” the bar lower on the back, this is known as the “low bar” position and provides a platform for the safest squat execution), use a closed, palm-forward “active” grip (meaning that you should engage your forearm muscles) with your thumbs wrapped securely around the bar or, alternatively, resting on top of the bar (the thumb frequently hangs out on top of the bar as the weight becomes substantial)—it is essential that the wrists be in line with the forearms.  Note: if working on the power or Olympic moves, a “high bar” position is preferred; here the bar is positioned above the posterior deltoids at the base of the neck with a grip that is only slightly beyond the width of the shoulders.;
  3. Before moving the bar out of the rack and beginning the lowering movement, draw your shoulder blades down and back, engage your gluteal muscles (i.e. your butt), and draw you abdominal muscles “in” toward your lower back—the idea is to keep your back straight while minimizing forward lean as you descent through the eccentric (the lowering phase) of the movement.  When moving the bar out of the rack, take only a moderate step back (it is not necessary to travel several steps with the bar);
  4. Squat, keeping your weight evenly distributed between heels and mid-foot, unit your thighs are parallel to floor and the hips drop below the top of the patella (the top of the knee—this is key, descending to a level other than parallel is not a squat … period … don’t fool yourself, the complete range of motion is necessary to reap the effects of this fundamental exercise);
  5. Pause at the bottom (between the eccentric, down phase, and the concentric, up phase … note that you can choose to utilize the the stretch-shortening cycle and immediately return from the bottom instead of pausing) and return to the starting position by initiating hip extension (“hip drive”) from the bottom (note that the goal is preserve a consistent angle between the hips and the shoulders … the hips drive upward  and not forward).  It is very important to finish the movement by making sure to extend until the hip return to the starting position)—maintain a neutral head position, with the eyes gazing forward throughout the movement (ideally, keep your head in a neutral position with the eyes focused on a point approximately 5-6 feet in front of you);
  6. The body is kept “tight” throughout the movement, also note that the downward movement focuses on hip and knee flexion, while the upward movement focuses on hip and knee extension—it is important to finish the squat by fully extending the both the knees and hips.

The squat is a fundament, core exercise (note that the term “core exercise” is frequently confused … in this context it means a structural exercise that directly loads the spine and NOT a movement that is some equivalent to a crunch or other abdominal moves; however, the squat places significant emphasis on the trunk musculature).

Although much has been written about the barbell squat (due to the quality of the movement, the barbell squat, or some variation of it, is included in nearly every resistance training or fitness guide).  Perhaps one of the most complete treatments of the squat is provided by Rippetoe M, Kilgore L.  Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training.  2nd ed.  Wichita Falls: Aasgaard; 2007.  Over the course of nearly fifty, single-spaced pages, Rippetoe covers ever consideration of the squat and I have set out some of his major introductory points below:

Rippetoe begins with a quote that captures what I have often felt, “[t]he squat has been the most important yet most poorly understood exercise in the training arsenal for a very long time.  The full range of motion exercise known as the squat is the single most useful exercise in the weight room, and our most valuable tool for building strength, power, and size.”—I cannot agree more!  The power of the squat stem from the recruitment of large groups of muscles, forced to move “in exactly the way the skeletal biomechanics are designed for them to be used, over their anatomically full range of motion.”  In addition, the comprehensive nature of the squat movement, especially when correctly performed, “produces hormonal responses that affect the entire body … [n]ot only is the core strengthened, it is strengthened in the context of a total physical and mental experience.”  It is from this endocrine response that the bodybuilding adage of “squat to grow” stems.  Invariably a question concerning safety rears its head when speaking about the squat and Rippetoe addresses it straight away: “The full squat is the preferred lower body exercise for safety as well as athletic strength.  The squat, when performed correctly, is not only the safest leg exercise for the knees, it produces a more stable knee that any other leg exercise.  The important part of the last statement is the ‘when performed correctly’ qualifier.  Correctly is deep, with hips dropping below level with the top of the patella.”  On this point we also agree (see above)!  Rippetoe supports my admonition that “[a]ny squat that is not deep is a partial squat, and partial squats stress the knee and the quadriceps without stressing the glutes, the adductors, and the hamstrings.”  If you are limited by inflexibility through the squatting movement, you would be better to develop the requisite flexibility by performing prerequisite movements, than performing “full” squats incorrectly.  Begin with an understanding of the proper squatting movement and then develop the necessary skills and movement patterns to allow you to capitalize on the benefits of this essential move.  Avoid the temptation to perform partial squats, as the abbreviated movement is unbalanced and exerts significant shearing force (an anterior shear) on the knee.  Furthermore, the hamstring muscles are intimately involved with the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament, which also prevents the tiba from sliding forward)—the hamstrings are only engaged in the full squat!  As a result, the full squat is necessary to increase hamstring strength and thereby protect the ACL.  Note, as Rippetoe further points out, “athletes who are missing an ACL can safety squat heave weights, because the ACL is under no stress in a correctly performed full squat”—in the properly executed full squat the “anterior force provided by the quadriceps is balanced by the posterior force provided by the hamstrings.”  Before directing you to read the remaining 50+ pages of Rippetoe’s work on your own, I want to include a final thought about the squat that he makes so powerfully.  The goal of the squat is to stimulate a training response and increase your strength and power as an athlete (or encourage hypertrophy, depending on your training goal).  To that end, the problem with the “partial” squat is that it encourages heavy loads which, unfortunately, causes significant and frequently excessive spinal loading that can lead to premature and unnecessary injuries.  Rippetoe hit another home run with his observation about running up big numbers via partial squats: “Your interest is in getting strong (at least it should be), not in playing meaningless games with numbers … [i]f it’s too heavy to squat below parallel, it’s too heavy to have on your back.”

Final Key: For all forms of the barbell squat, the barbell ends up centered over the mid-foot in the bottom position!

Many authors, including Rippetoe (above), also identify kinesthetic awareness as a necessary component of proper squatting technique.  Kinesthetic awareness refers to the ability to sense muscular movement and position; specifically, the movement of a body part in relation to the ground or the body as a whole.  In the weight room, the sensory inputs received from visual cues, verbal cues/hearing, muscles, ligaments, tendons, are skins are collectively processed as a display of this sensory skill.  Frequently, as is is the case with the squat, we can develop specific muscle memory that will allow us to  perform movements properly time and time again.  This is why it important to develop good squatting techniques from the onset or, if our form is less than ideal, begin anew to develop the proper technique!

If you want to perform a technically correct squat, then follow the six steps outlined above.  If you want more (much more) read “Starting Strength, 2nd. edition.”  And, if you are interested in perhaps even learning a new progression to the back squat, I will encourage you to get your hands on a copy of the April, 2011 edition of the NSCA‘s Strength and Conditioning Journal (I have provided a link here, where you can read the abstract or purchase a copy of the article).  “A Teaching Progression for Squatting Exercises” by Chiu and Burkhardt outlines a sound and somewhat novel progression that works to promote proper biomechanics for the squat (note: the back squat is the move we generally associate with a “squat”).  Chiu and Burkhardt present a 4-stage progression that moves an athlete through the following progression: 1)  a plate squat, 2) overhead squat, 3) front squat, and 4) back squat.  One of the benefits of this progression is that it allows for early identification of biomechanics limiters (e.g. flexibility or muscle strength) that frequently serve as barriers to performing proper squats.  In particular, the plate squat allows the athlete to encounter resistance and promotes rapid motor learning (as the authors correctly note, motor learning adaptations often are responsible for the rapid gains that are achieve over the course of the early sessions)—I also focus my attention on the frequently present anterior pelvic tilt acts as a confounder here.  Specifically, the plate squat, while loading the spinal column, identifies (depending on whether the athlete exhibits hyper- or hpyolordosis) weakness of the erector spinae or weakness of the anterior trunk musculature (primarily the external obliques and recuts abdomens).  Once proper form is achieved with the plate squat, achieved with the torso “upright in the deep squat position, the legs rotated anteriorly with the knee in from of the toes, and the weight distributed across the forefoot and rear foot,” the largely “self-correcting” overhead squat is introduced—the overhead squat is self-correcting due to the fact that “it is difficult to perform incorrectly as long as the feet remain flat with the knees and barbell properly positioned.”  Like the authors, I agree that overhead squatting is an essential movement in working toward proper squat form, as it “develops and maintains the important qualities of ankle, hip, and spine and shoulder complex flexibility, while strengthening the lower extremity and stabilizing musculature of the shoulder complex and spine.”  Next, the front squat, which also requires an upright position of the trunk, provides the athlete an opportunity to attempt additional weight.  For some athletes, the front squat should potentially mark the end of the progression—the authors correctly note that there is a lack of evidence, at least as to developing leg strength, of any benefit of the back squat over the front squat.  Chiu and Burkhardt only suggest moving on to the back squat once the athlete has successfully completed front squats with “substantial resistance.”  Regardless of the bar position selected (e.g. high or low), the techniques developed through the profession of the plate, overhead, and front squat support the proper movement pattern of the back squat.  Once again I find agreement with the authors in instructing athletes/clients to keep the elbows pointed down, instead of outward (behind the body), as this position promotes keeping the torso in an upright position.

Chiu L and Burkhard E.  A Teaching Progression for Squatting Exercises.  Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2011; 33, No. 2: 46-54.

Don’t let the name scare you away, but a book by Carlon Colker, M.D. entitled “Extreme Muscle Enhancement” (2nd. edition) adds some additional thoughts that can be used to progress proper squat technique and gain effectiveness from a squat regimen.  Note that Colker’s book is a no-nonsense guide to bodybuilding (think serious hypertrophy = muscle growth).  As with all resources, I tend to “take the best and leave the rest,” but Colker presents many solid training principles and plans in a single concise volume.  In the introduction to quadricep training, Colker labels the squat as the “king” of weight room movements and mirrors my thoughts about the need to perform the movement with attention to correct form: “[b]y far, squats are the single most effective resistance motion there is and ever will be, if done correctly [emphasis added].”   Colker labels his 10 major points concerning the squat as follows (my summary and additional comments follow in parentheses: 1) “Warm-up before you squat.” (recommending non-impact, non-ballsitic aerobic motions, e.g. a stationary bike); 2) “Always do a full-range-of-motion squat.” (reiterating that there is no such thing as a “quarter” or “half” squat); 3) “Descend slowly.” (control this movement, as high-speed movements with only small compromises in technique can lead to big injuries); 4) “Create a “pocket.”” (tightness at the bottom without a dramatic bounce: note that this different than saying that one should not take advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle—rather the transition between eccentric, down and concentric, up is “controlled”); 5) “Use a heel lift.” (this is an aid to overcome flexibility issues that jeopardize the lumbar spine when the forward movement, or excessive forward lean is present); 6) “Maintain a natural arch in your lower back.” (correct position of the neutral, lordodic spine); 7) “Never lock out your knees at the top of the rep.” (I am not extremely concerned with avoiding lockout; however, under significant loads this can be problematic—I would add that the “active” knee position is correct, but the athlete must “finish” with the hips, that is, return to the hips to the natural position at the top of the squat movement; 8 ) “Higher reps rule for legs.” (as a general rule, the legs DO respond to higher rep counts)—try adding higher rep ranges (15-25) if nothing more than for variety); 9) “Stretch after squatting.” (this is simply consistent with the latest information that suggests that static stretching decreases strength and power if completed prior to a strength/resistance training workout); 10) “Don’t start a squatting routine before you’re ready.” (THE POINT of my entire blog entry).

Coker’s book is a good resource, pick up a copy to read more: Colker CM.  Extreme Muscle Enhancement.  2nd ed.  Manasquan: Pro Source; 2007.

The bottom line: I love the squat; however, I understand that it is a technically demanding movement that requires a requisite level of flexibility, kinesthetic awareness (or at least a fair amount of proper coaching in order to learn the correct movement patterns), and training discipline.  Embrace the challenge to learn to squat correctly and you will be rewarded with tremendous training gains.  Whether your goal is increased strength, power, or muscle growth, the squat is a gateway for achieving each of these training adaptations (it can be a fundamental move in maintaining and progress general fitness).  If you lack the flexibility or experience to perform a proper squat, use the principles and resources outlined above to get there.  The increases in flexibility that allow for proper squat technique take time to develop; however, a rational, systematic, and consistent training plan will get you there!


Highlights from the NSCA Endurance Symposium

Earlier this year I attended the NSCA Endurance Symposium at the NSCA headquarters in Colorado Springs, CO.  I have long-held a respect for the NSCA and have been a member since beginning my training career (I am also a candidate for the CSCS certification and expect to take the exam sometime of the course of the coming months).  I received notice of the two-day endurance-specific symposium from the USAT and jumped at the chance to attend.  Continuing education is frequently a mixed bag, i.e. some are great, some are o.k., while still others are nearly a complete waste of time.  The NSCA event fell solidly in the first category—it was great!  What follows are some of the takeaways that I found noteworthy:

Note: If you ever get a chance to visit the NSCA’s headquarters, do so—it is a beautiful training facility that is appointed to train athletes at the highest level.

The symposium featured four primary presenters: Benjamin Reuter, PhD, CSCS, *D, ATC; Matthew Rhea, PhD, CSCS, *D; Robert Seebohar, CSCS; and Randall Wilber, PhD, FACSM, with Sam Callan providing only a short presentation on the current state of technology used to monitor training (e.g. HR, GPS, Smartphones, and power meters) along with the attendant issues surrounding data transfer and management.   You can view the complete bios of the presenters here.  In addition, participants were provided with an opportunity for basic instruction on a few of the fundamental, compound Olympic lifting moves, namely the barbell squat and power clean.

Benjamin “Ben” Reuter, PhD, CSCS, *D, ATC, presented “Introduction to Endurance Training,” and “Injuries and the Endurance Athlete.”  A couple of my takeaways:  First, Reuter correctly defined endurance sports as “specialized movement” that places specific demands an athlete’s structural and metabolic systems.  These structural demands are fairly easy to conceptualize, as specific modes of activity (e.g. swim, bike, and run) place unique demands on the athlete’s body.  Metabolic specificity is a bit more removed from the mind of the typical multisport athlete; however,  it should frequently be at the forefront of an athlete’s mind when training.  Specifically, Ben emphasized that while three different energy systems function to meet the energy demands (by way of review: phoshagen, glycolytic, and oxidative systems) and all these systems are functioning all the time, each contributes a different portion of the energy necessary required depending on the stress placed on the body.  I frequently reference this concept with my clients and attempt to have them visualize the three energy systems distributed along a sliding scale.  Each contributes a different proportion of the energy required depending on the specific stress/activity the athlete is engaged in during a particular movement or training period (e.g. the phosphagen system primarily contributes to a single resistance training repetition; cf. the oxidative system primarily contributes to the energy demands of a multi-hour run or bike).  An understanding of the roles these separate but interdependent energy systems play and then training with metabolic specificity can lead to training breakthroughs.   Second, Dr. Reuter reviewed the common contributing factors to movement impairment and injury: muscle length, as well as muscle performance capability at different lengths (that is, a muscle can be weak or strong at specific lengths), joint mobility/flexibility (or lack thereof), anatomical impairments, psychological impairments, developmental factors, and environmental factors.  Frequently an athlete faces one or more of these issues on an ongoing basis and, as a result, one or more of these factors often degrade the endurance athletes training and racing experience and outcomes.  In combating these issues, either singularly or collectively, one can improve his or her “endurance performance.”  Note: There is a difference in “endurance training” and “endurance performance” training.  I frequently explain the difference between the two to my clients by means of the analogy of comparing what the posture and running technique of a marathon runner typically looks like at mile 1 of a marathon versus what his or her posture and running technique look at mile 26 of a marathon—in most cases these two pictures are very different.  The marathoner who completes the marathon has arguably completed sufficient “endurance” training; however, if posture and technique are severely degraded from the start to the finish then perhaps the athlete did not complete sufficient “endurance performance” training.  The elements of “endurance performance” training typically include resistance, flexibility, and balance training (there are certainly others that I incorporate into the endurance performance training mix).  As Dr. Reuter correctly highlighted, a typical endurance athlete overemphasizes cardiovascular, pulmonary, and metabolic training and underemphasizes underlying biomechanics of the modes of activity that they participate in (e.g., the skeletal, muscular, and nervous system components of movement).

In my opinion, Matthew Rhea, PhD, CSCS, *D was the star of the weekend.  Although each of the presenters made significant contributions, Rhea zeroed in on the benefits of rational, programmed, and functional strength training for the endurance athlete (an area of particular interest to me).  As with each of the other presenters, Dr. Rhea managed to illuminate some key points.  First, stress is stress—meaning that when designing any training plan, it is important to consider all of the program variables (i.e., resistance training can’t simply be added “on top of” an existing periodized endurance training program).  Ultimately, the reasoned application of stress provides the basis for any training prescription.  Second, Rhea exposed the longstanding fact that most studies that relate strength training and endurance performance go the opposite way from what might reveal a benefit to the endurance athlete.  Specifically, “most studies have merely looked at the interference of aerobic training on anaerobic properties [e.g., strength, power, and hypertrophy], fewer have examined the potential positive effect of these anaerobic modalities on endurance performance.”  Rhea, is a serious student of the literature, and he synthesized various research studies into a type of meta-analysis that revealed that among highly trained runners “strength training” (i.e., explosive and heavy load weight training) improves long-distance  running economy 3-8% (with a mean of 4.6%).   Note: similar efficiencies have been shown with cyclists and nordic skiers (where both specific biomechanic economy and muscular power improved).  Accepting the positive relationship between increased muscular strength and improved muscular endurance, the question becomes when to add the resistance training?  Base, build, and peak phases all provide opportunities to apply resistance training to the endurance athlete and, while the addition of resistance training may open the door to overtraining (this is most common in highly-trained athletes), additional research has shown that there is a corresponding decrease in common overuse injuries!  The application of any strength training program must be rational and tailored to the fitness and recovery capacity of the individual athlete.

Two key takeaways from Rhea’s “Program Design” and “New Updates on Prescribing Cardiovascular Exercise” that are worth highlighting.  First,  when designing a resistance training program for an endurance athlete, it is important to focus on movement patterns and not muscles—the key is to train specific movements that are most likely to translate to endurance sport activities (this is includes training both the prime movers and the associate stabilizers, thereby gaining both muscular endurance and postural/biomechanic efficiencies).  Rhea’s point translates well into a definition of the often used term “functional fitness.”  With permission, I have reproduced Rhea’s slide below:

Differences between functional and dysfunctional fitness (courtesy of Dr. Matthew Rhea, PhD, CSCS, *D)

Accepting the distinction and focusing on “functional” training, subsequent program design ultimately should balance the overall training stress applied, include a variety of training stimuli, and the selection of specific resistance exercises should focus on sport-specific movement patterns, core stabilization (as this supports biomechanic efficiency in every mode of activity), as well as dynamic movement patterns.  Finally, the takeaway from Rhea’s “Cardiovascular Exercise” presentation will not make many of my multisport friends very happy.  This is because the conclusion that Rhea has drawn from studying the latest literature, as well as in his personal coaching practice, is that it is necessary to train with a much greater degree of precision when prescribing exercise intensity  than previously thought—simply piling on additional miles is not the answer and will not lead to the desired training/racing breakthroughs! (Note: Rhea is a principal in the development of a testing system, see Race-Rx).  The following two slides (again, reproduced with permission) highlight the essential points:

The all to common "add miles" approach to endurance training (courtesy of Dr. Matthew Rhea, PhD, CSCS, *D)

The need for precision in prescribing training intensities (courtesy of Dr. Matthew Rhea, PhD, CSCS, *D)

Robert Seebohar, CSCS presented “Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete.”  Although I have a had the pleasure of hearing Bob speak before (he presented at the USAT-Leve I certification that I attended in Seattle, WA), it was good to  hear Bob’s latest thoughts on athlete nutrition.  Note that Bob has an active coaching practice here in Colorado and his book “Nutrition Periodization for Athletes: Taking Sports Nutrition to the Next Level” is a concise and useful guide to customizing nutrition for optimum performance—it is in my library.  Additionally, I frequently refer clients who are struggling with nutrition issues to Bob as he is a valuable and experienced resource.  At it’s essence, Bob presents nutrition periodization as a means to “support the body’s energy needs associated with the different training volume and intensity stressors throughout the year to elicit positive physiological responses.”  In sum, I couldn’t agree more!  To dig deeper into Bob’s methodology purchase his book (add it to your collection) and visit his vibrant website,

Along with his notable Qlympic credentials (a veteran advisor for athlete of five Olympic Games), Randall Wilber, PhD, FACSM used both science and “real life” experience to highlight some salient points in his presentations entitled “Overtraining: Causes, Recognition and Prevention,” “Altitude Training in Preparation for the Competition at Sea Level and Altitutde” and “Environmental Factors and Endurance Performance: Heat/Humidity and Jet Lag.”

Overtraining: Undoubtedly overtraining is a significant negative training response; however, there is a fine line between productive training, overreaching, and finally, overtraining.  The distinction between overreaching (the step just before overtraining) and overtraining is dramatic and significant.  Overreaching exhibits over the course of a few days (at most), is reversible with added recovery, and is a generally positive training adaptation necessary to improve performance; however, true overtraining is long term (lasting weeks or even months in severe cases), is irreversible with added recovery, and is a negative training adaptation that results in a performance suffers chronically and will serve to end an athlete’s competitive season.  Athletes that slip across the divide that separates overreaching from overtraining exhibit numerous performance, physiological, immunological, biochemical, and psychological symptoms.  These symptoms range from consistent decreases in performance compared to previous efforts or competitions to a persistent apathy and lethargy.  After reviewing the often complex symptoms and physiological models of overtraining (of which, I might, add Dr. Wilber identifies the endocrine system as the primary driver), he outlined 7 strategies to keep avoid falling into the overtraining trap.  (Dr. Wilber presented 5 models of overtraining: 1) glycogen depletion (chronic), 2) immunosuppression (elevated stress hormones), 3) autonomic nervous system imbalance, 4) central fatigue, and 5) elevated cytokines.)  Here are the strategies: 1) recognize the overtraining risk factors (note that many of the risks factors are associated with the personality type that of individuals that are commonly drawn to multisport/endurance endeavors, e.g., perfectionist, Type-A, or as I like to classify myself, “Type IA—a play on the slow twitch muslce fiber type, and excessive motivation, etc.), 2) rely on a scientifically sound training program (i.e., a periodized program that allows for sufficient recovery), 3) utilize detailed monitoring of training repines[s], 4) nutritional intervention (increase carbohydrates), 5) monitor biomechanical and biological markers, 6) application of specific training guidelines during systemic (providing the answer to the question, “Should I train when I am sick?”), and 7) recovery techniques (including passive rest).

Altitude Training: I can only hit the “highest” (ha) of highlights here, as the application of altitude training is an exceeding complex training prescription.  Dr. Wilber’s most fundamental point: everyone can benefit/achieve a positive training response from altitude training if it is carried out correctly.  Although I won’t go into the physiological details here, three important nutrients may likely need to be supplemented prior to and during altitude training; specifically: 1) water, 2) iron, and 3) carbohydrates, as each support energy production as the lower partial pressure of O2 results in the body’s hemoglobin molecules to be less saturated with O2.  Hydration is critical as respiratory H2O loss is magnified at altitude (cool dry air) along with urinary H2O loss (the byproduct of increased energy expenditure).  Sufficient iron levels are critical when training at altitude, as iron plays a critical role in energy production that is amplified at higher elevations.  Also, relative to training with metabolic specificity, carbohydrates must be increased when training at altitude to meet increased energy demands (they should be the preferred substrate when training at altitude).  Finally, Dr. Wilber provided the following answers to the four “million dollar questions” surrounding training at altitude: 1) What is the optimal altitude at which to live/sleep/train?  Answer: 6560 – 8200 ft.  2) How long does the exposure need to be?  Answer: 3-4 weeks at > 22 hrs. per day.  3) How long does the training effect last after returning to sea level?  Answer: 3-4 weeks, but the training response is highly dependent on the individual.  And, 4) Is simulated altitude (hypoxic tent/or other training aid) effective?  Answer: Evidence suggests so, but the necessary “hypoxic dose” must be obtained (it appears that this beneficial effect can be obtained in fewer hours per day, 12-16 hrs., but a higher simulated altitude must be used, e.g., 8200-9840 ft.

Environmental Factors: Heat/Humidity and Jet Lag:  Dr. Wilber again did not disappoint in bringing the science to two common training issue: 1) racing/competing in a hot and humid environment, and 2) racing/competing after a long flight.  Interestingly, the battle to racing at a hot and humid venue can be won even if you don’t live in a rainforest!  Dr. Wilber presented four strategies: 1) natural acclimatization (i.e., go to the hot and humid race venue and train there in advance), 2) pre-acclimitization (simulate conditions in advance of arriving at the race venue), 3) euhydration and thermoregulation (whereby fluid is preloaded, pre-competition and replaced, post-competition to keep the athlete’s body in a normal state of hydration), and  4) pre-cooling and cooling (use of ice vests, whole body COLD water immersion, ice packs, etc.).  Although it requires careful planning, an athlete can acclimatize  to these foreign conditions by following a relatively short program where both the training duration (up to 90 minutes) and training intensity (up to race pace) are gradually increased while simulating the race venue environment (note this is typically achieved by wearing additional layers of cotton clothing—cotton, not the pricey technical stuff that we typically train in, is in order here).  The goal of each of these strategies is to maximize performance while minimizing performance degradation or producing any of the specific types of heat illness (e.g., heat cramp, heat syncope, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, or hyponatremia).  Our Olympic athletes, under Dr. Wilber’s care, follow a complex schedule to “align their bodies with their destination” (utilizing a sliding schedule of gradually adjusting the sleep-wake cycles and is supplemented by the use of artificial bright light exposure).  Of three variables that can be managed by the traveling athlete: 1) the time leading up to departure (e.g., the week prior), 2) in flight activity, and 3) post-arrival (the 1-3 days, or more, before competition begins; the “in flight” and “upon arrival” are the most critical.  Dr. Wilber reviewed the use of several ergogenic aids for the in flight leg, including compression hose/suits, nasal air filters (he personally recommended the use of the “Breathe Pure” brand), nasal saline spray, anti-bacterial hand gel, melatonin, prescription sleep sids (e.g., Ambien), the use of caffeine, as well as the timing and composition of in-flight nutrition—each can be used by an athlete to mitigate the negative effects of lengthy air travel.  The “upon arrival” time must also be managed to ensure solid performance.  As a general rule, Dr. Wilber suggested that high intensity training should be avoided for the first few days, while bright light exposure (assuming a substantial time in the air) should be administered.  Apparently, an athlete who has been exposed to potential jet lag may exhibit reduced fine motor skills and impaired coordination, thereby opening up an increased risk of injury.

At the end of each day’s presentations, attendees were treated to some hands-on experience in the beautifully equipped NSCA training center.  Technique and modes of teaching proper technique for plyometrics, physioball exercises, dumbbell resistance exercises, and barbell Olympic lifts to endurance athletes were presented and practiced.  These techniques and exercises were presented as a means to improve performance and injury prevention as it applies to endurance athletes.

One view of this extremely well-equipped exercise facility where the practical sessions took place.

I want to extend a special thanks to each of the presenters who shared their expertise and knowledge on these fascinating endurance sport topics.  For more information, please contact the NSCA.

A second view.


Shannon Sharpe and you? … and me?

The December 21st, 2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal featured the following article as part of its regular “What’s Your Workout” column: “Football Player Leaves the Field, Not the Gym: After a Stellar 13-Year Career in the NFL, Shannon Sharpe Maintains a Severe Fitness Program and a Disciplined Diet.”  For those of you that may not know, the “What’s Your Workout” column appears regularly in the WSJ and highlights the workouts and fitness routines of a wide variety of individuals … stories that encourage us by revealing how other “real” people stay in shape.

I frequently reference the Shannon Sharpe piece to my clients as an introduction to the concept of physical and nutritional discipline, especially to those who are looking to make significant “lifestyle” changes.   The article and my attendant comments have been so well received that I thought it could prove useful to a slightly wider audience.

The article highlights five noteworthy points that I want to share: 1) Shannon plans his workouts in advance (e.g., sets out his clothes the night before); 2) he focuses on intense cardio exercises—Shannon obviously understands the benefits of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training—I have provided an excerpt from “Total Heart Rate Training” by Joel Friel, the “father” of heart rate training, see “Misconception #2,” that explains why this is important and the quasi-myth of the fat burning zone); 3) he has unshakeable discipline which has a way of influencing others (e.g., see the comments concerning Marino, Brown, and Esiason); 4) he devotes one day each week where he emphasizes cardio (an important part of developing a useful aerobic base); and, perhaps most importantly, 5) Shannon makes his nutrition a priority and his pocket book backs up this commitment—he has made a choice to purchase high quality food (i.e. average weekly food bill of $600); also, he understands the basics of metabolic efficiency/metabolism (eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day) and meal timing; note that he also avoids late-day spikes of insulin by utilizing low glycemic index carbohydrates and making sure that the majority of his complex carbohydrates are routinely consumed by noon).


From “Total Heart Rate Training” by Joel Friel

Misconception 2: To Lose Weight, Exercise in the “Fat Burning Zone”

The myth of the “fat-burning zone” has been around for a few decades now, and, like most myths, it has an element of truth to it.  It’s true that when you exercise at a low intensity your primary source of fuel is fat.  So why isn’t going slow always the best way to shed blubber?  Let’s examine what happens during exercise.

The body has two primary sources of fuel to use during exercise—fat and glycogen.  Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored in the muscles.  During aerobic activity both glycogen and fat are used simultaneously to provide energy.  At low intensity a greater percentage of fuel comes from fat, but some of the energy is also supplied by glycogen.  As the intensity of exercise increases—for example, going from walking to running—the body gradually begins to use more glycogen and less fat.  At very high intensities, such as long sprints, most of the energy is supplied by glycogen, with relatively little coming from fat.

Still sounds like slow exercise is the way to go, right?  Read on.

The confounding factor has to do with how many total calories are burned during low-intensity and high-intensity exercise.  When you are going slow, fewer calories are used per unit of time than when going fast.

Let’s say, for example, that there are two 150-pound people, each with 30 minutes to exercise.  One walks and the other runs.  Our walker covers 2 miles and burns about 200 calories.  Of these, 70 percent came from fat, for a total of 140 fat calories used.  The runner covers 3 miles in the same 30 minutes and consumes 330 calories, with 60 percent of them derived from fat—198 calories.

What is comes down to is this: Do you want a big slice of a little pie, or a small slice of a big pie?  While you’ll usually take the pie any way you can get it, the bigger the pie (the higher-intensity workout) is definitely the better for burning fat.

And there’s more.  For some time after the workout, perhaps a few minutes to a few hours, your metabolism is elevated above baseline levels.  Suet is melting away even though you are sitting at your desk.  The higher the intensity and the greater duration of the workout, the higher the metabolism and the more calories that are burned.  When it comes to counting calories, high intensity results in more calories expended than staining in the so-called fat-burning zone.

That doesn’t mean you should always exercise intensely.  When starting an exercise program, going slowly reduces the risk of injury.  Also, easy exercise days are needed after hard days, to allow muscles and other systems to recover.

Nutritional Discipline and the Glycemic Index

Shannon has made a commitment to his nutrition that he backs up with his time and financial resources.  Shannon tries anticipates life events (e.g., travel, work assignments, and family commitments, etc.) and takes nutritious foods with him.  He also emphasizes meal timing, spacing 5 to 6 meals out throughout  the day and, in his own words, tries “to get all my complex carbs in by noon.”  By utilizing lower glycemic index complex carbohydrates earlier in the day, Shannon effectively avoid the consequences of the blood sugar roller coaster ride that most individuals take every day.  Instead of spiking his insulin levels over and over through the day, Shannon gets his complex (or “good) carbohydrates in early in the day to fuel his active lifestyle and avoids the associated fat storage that results from bringing high loads of carbohydrates in late in the day.  Note that this is the opposite of what most individuals, instead, many Americans allow themselves to feed on a near constant supply of simple sugars (“bad” carbohydrates) throughout the day and then top it all off with a high carbohydrate (usually the processed white stuff) at the very end of their day—the consequences of this habit are visible our waistlines, hips, and buttocks … just look around!?

A Look at My “Food Ethic”:

The beauty of being both an observant and dedicated athlete is that you learn a great deal by trial and error.  I have developed a personal “food ethic” and an approach to nutritional excellence by referencing countless resources and through much trial and error.  However, recently I discovered a collection of books that fairly summarize what I have come to discover on my own.  If you are looking for some nutritional guidance, I can highly recommend the following resources: 1) “In Defense of Food” by Mark Pollan (there are many other titles that have shaped my food “ethic” but this is a really important work), Pollan’s mantra of “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” resonates with me.  I will also recommend “Ultrametabolism” by Mark Hyman, M.D.  Although styled as a weight loss book, this book provides a healthy outline for increasing vitality and sports performance.  As for endurance sports-specific, check out Bob Seebohar’s book,  “Nutrition Periodization” (it has it’s value, although I don’t agree with everything).  There is SO MUCH information in this area (much of which is conflicting, contradictory, and/or confusing), but you have to just dive in and start building a nutrition foundation.  First rate nutrition, especially for those who are looking to move beyond the standard energy balance concept of “calories in versus calories out”  (which unfortunately, is the bedrock principle of managing body composition—new nutritional science continues to suggest that both what we eat and when we eat it impacts body composition), involves a significant investment of time, money, and self-discipline.

Note: There is no magic contained in these books; however, these titles, admittedly in there individually incomplete and sometimes inconsistent ways, provide a foundation for my current personal nutrition philosophy, particularly, a type of “food ethic” that I subscribe to and one that I hope that you find beneficial to your own pursuit of wellness!

I devote a considerable amount of time and financial resources to both food selection and preparation.  As a means of cutting down on the time spent in the market, I have compiled a couple of grocery lists that use to guide both my family’s and my clients’ shopping (as I cycle through nutritional periods, these lists cover both my more plant-based nutritional “periods” as well as those that include lean, organic animal-based proteins).  Remember, keep it fun … I always try to bring home one new food that I don’t eat regularly each time I visit the market (preferably one that doesn’t have a label on it or come in a box).  I hope that you find these lists helpful:

Grocery List for Clients

My Family’s Personal Shopping List

Shannon Sharpe Article, citation (I would have liked to have provided an active link to the article or provided a reprint; however, the the WSJ charges dearly for such access.  If you are unable to locate the article, please send me an e-mail and I will provided it to you via my WSJ account):

Football Player Leaves the Field, Not the Gym.  (2010, December 21).  The Wall Street Journal.  (Western, ed.) p. (   ).  Or online:  Murphy, Jen. (2010, December 21).  Football Player Leaves the Field, Not the Gym.  The Wall Street Journal.  Retrieved March 31, 2011, from: