Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Do this single leg exercise.

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

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

Why do it?

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

This exercise is good for

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep it simple and effective.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hill Sprints. Do Them!

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Who Are You? The type of person who exercises?

You hear it all the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its not easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ericsson talks about practice

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

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

The future is wide open.

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

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

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

Its funny how things end up.

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

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

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


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

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

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

On habits and choices

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

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

Pema Chodron (2001) The places that scare you.

Friday, August 4, 2017

And then everyone was a strength coach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everyone expected a power rack and bumper plates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Should you be honest with clients?

Should we tell clients the truth? I'm not saying we are outright lying to them, but much of the time we are not being entirely honest with them about what it will take to achieve their goals.

Imagine someone books a training session with you or enquires about training with you.

There are three key scenarios where you can be honest, or try and convince the client otherwise or essentially kick them into touch and realize your services are not the best for for them.

Scenario one: Being honest and about frequency and consistency.

Initial consultation or chat, the person tells you they can train once a week, maybe twice ( hint: this means they are coming once every 2 weeks at best). You know they can't achieve anything on this schedule. Should you be honest with them? Or start working with them, and hope they gradually form the habit, start enjoying exercise and build up to three times a week? Anyone who has worked in a commercial gym knows that option 2 is rarely successful.

We all know ideally it takes 3-5 sessions a week, focus and at least some acknowledgment that nutrition is part of the puzzle.

On the other hand, we don't want to burst anyones bubble. They have taken the step to walk into a gym, to push out of their comfort zone; however their expectations do not match the level of effort they are willing to put in.

Now. I'm not talking about the motivated people, who are going to train by themselves consistently, and want a programme and check in session once a month.

This is more the people,who decide they don't want to do anything in the programme you've written. And between follow up appointments it transpires they haven't done any training and have basically ignored your programme.

I was speaking to a colleague about all the programmes he has written, all the individual/ bespoke programmes. He was going through the names, and realized that at best 10% had actually done the programme.

That is a lot of wasted time and effort. The thing is you don't always know who is going to be the one who sticks with it.

Scenario two: I want to tone up, lose weight and not bulk up.

As the conversation moves on in your initial consultation, the client will tell you their goal, or a vague idea of a goal. If you have worked in fitness for more than a week, then the phrase you will hear nearly everyday from women is 'I want to lose weight, and tone up, I don't want to bulk up'.

Occasionally, you get a guy who also says they don't want to bulk up, but a more common guy phrase is 'I don't need to work on my legs, as I play football'. At which point you laugh in that guys face.

But seriously, back to toning. The great industry lie. We know that muscles either get bigger or smaller, fat percentage goes up or down. Yes, in the initially phase of training, a person may start by recruiting more of their current pool of muscle fibres, and become more 'neurally efficient' but at some point if you want to see an actual visual change, some muscle mass is going to have to be generated.

Mention this and a look of panic will wash over the woman's face. 'I don't want to bulk up'. It turns out they are the genetically gifted  0.001% of the female population who easily bulks up, who could have entered Ms Olympia if they had so wished and won based on training twice a week, eating 40 grams of protein a day and a post workout Prosecco.

So you point out all the guys in freeweight area who have taken enough pre-workout to stun a horse, and are trying to mainline protein to get an extra millimetre on their biceps, and are training 7 days a week.

But no, she is different, she will bulk up. You say weights and muscle mass and all she sees is Dorian Yates (or Gal Ferrera Yates, if you want to use the google). Now, of course, some women do want to do this, but mostly they aren't walking into a commercial gym to have a sit down with a trainer, 95% of women you will ever see will say they want to lose weight and tone up.

Dorian Yates back is so big: easily achieved on twice a week of a machine circuit and a bar of dairy milk. Source: every bodybuilding internet forum.

As my colleague once said to some women, 'why do you think it is my interest to make you look like something you don't want to be? If I did that, I would be out of a job, I wouldn't have any clients, Its in my interest to help you achieve the look and fitness you want.' I paraphrase here of course, I wasn't recording the conversation, but you get the idea.

You explain to the woman that lifting heavy weights at low reps might be the way to go, but this goes against the perceived wisdom, this is what big guys do. You explain all about testosterone levels in men compared to women, but she has already glazed over. She's thinking toning occurs with high reps and lots of volume, right, like in toning classes? Which bizarrely, is the thing that research shows causes increases in muscle mass given the right nutrition etc. (See Schoenfelds research on high rep ranges, 25 reps plus).

You could stay true to your ideals. Or nod your head, say you've got the perfect toning programme, mix in some machines, cardio, light dumbbells, and sprinkle in a couple of strength exercises under the guise of toning exercises. Bingo, everyones a winner, she gets results and you keep your client.

Scenario three: The trainer lies to themselves.

When you first start training people you need clients. And you may be paying monthly PT rent you need to cover. Therefore, how likely are you to turn down a client? You are just starting out, but suddenly your level 3 qualification means you can train everyone.

Can that person really be an expert on triathlon training, back pain, all injuries, marathon training, getting someone contest ready for figure competition and write comprehensive nutrition plans for everyones needs?

Or like the classic insta-chump coach, everyone get the same fully customized training and nutrition plan regardless.

You might get lucky, and someone you train wins something, gets a pro card or their injury heals up. Of course, genetics and time had nothing to do with this, it was your training programme.

This is where the industry is at now. Whereas, Alberto Salazaar is never going to coach 100m runners, some PTs can apparently coach everyone.

Wouldn't it be better to refer out, admit you don't actually have a nutrition qualification and are therefore not meant to write nutrition plans; and you don't have MRI x-ray vision and can't fix their injury, but they should go to an actual person who's job it is to do that. If Eric Cressey is referring out, then may be some trainers should do as well.

If you're in it, you're in it.

The above spiel wasn't meant to give any answers. It just is the way the industry is. Of course, adherence rates and the number of people achieving their goals is probably the same as it ever was, so what have we got to lose by telling the truth? If a business model is already broken, then abandoning it to try something new can't be any worse.

Ultimately, it comes down to the art of coaching. That indefinable ability to get the best out of people, to tell them what they want to hear when they start, and gradually shape the conversation as they continue to train. If they get results they wont care. But it's going to be difficult when so many coaches promise the earth, quick fixes and easy solutions. If you're new to the industry, do what it takes, don't starve because you think everyone should do 5x5 barbell work, but keep your integrity as a coach as well.

Slim Charles: The Wire

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

You've never had it so good. You are WEIRD.

If you are reading this you probably live in the Western world, can speak English, have a computer or device of some sort and access to an internet connection.

You are probably WEIRD

You are a freak, an aberration. Most of the world does not live like this, for most of human history for most people none of this was true.

As in you are rich compared to most of the world, you probably aren't homeless, and democratic as in you get to vote every so often. Educated, you probably finished at least Secondary (High School).

You have access to a clean water supply, antibiotics and can buy all the painkillers you want.

You can say and do what you want within a certain legal framework without fear of being put in prison or arrested.

You have access to more information and knowledge than any other humans in history ever did.

If you are involved in an accident (in the UK) a helicopter will take you to a state of the art medical facility and give you the best treatment in the world for free and may save your life.

You are not trying to grow food to survive on a poor scrap of land owned by a despot you have never met. Your kids are not working in a dangerous mining operation for a dollar a day for 15 hours a day, 7 days a week.

You probably have a gym membership, go to coffee shops, eat out every so often and try to eat healthily some of the time. Depending where you live, you may have access to free healthcare and probably can go for a walk without fearing for your life.

You've never had it so good...

And yet

You are probably stressed and angry, over 70% of work related health and safety issues are stress related.

In the UK, 7.8% of the population meet the criteria for diagnosing anxiety and depression.
1 in 6 adults have a common mental health disorder
19.7% of people aged 16 or over show symptoms of anxiety and depression in 2014.
1 in 3 adults have high blood pressure
More than 25% of the population are obese.
4.5 millions people have diabetes (of which 90% have type 2)
And the number one cause of death of men under 50 is suicide.

Quote from the film Crash. Source: QuoteHD

You may have have a skewed body image and control what you eat to an extreme level because it feels like the only thing you can control. You could look in the mirror and think you are too small or too big, and be wrong in both cases.

You may self medicate with alcohol, class A drugs, prescription drugs, food, shopping or soap operas.

You live in a filter bubble to confirm your world view.

You should be healthy, fit and happy. Everything is in your favour.

And yet...

The cult of the self overtook us, women who are still paranoid about lifting weights and putting on 1 gram of muscle in case they get big and bulky, despite the overwhelming benefits of strength training; standard body image never changes for the masses.

And the young guys taking anabolics who are never stepping on stage or competing in any sport ever but want their biceps to look good in a t-shirt down da club.

We don't have to think about clean water supply or not eating. But as soon as these needs were satisfied something else overtook us, we had time to think and confront ourselves.

You could be unhappy, despite having more than any other humans in history, you could be trapped on a hedonic treadmill.

And yet...

Nearly all the diseases and conditions listed above are preventable, treatable and manegeable with simple interventions.


Its a cliche but the health system is reactive, it waits for you to break before it tries to fix you, mostly with pharmaceutical intervention.

The holy trinity of exercise, nutrition and mindfulness (or call it spiritual connection, or relaxation or spending time in nature, or being in the moment - we know all these things have a powerful effect on emotions, physical health and brain health).

And the thing about most of these things is they are essentially free. Going for a walk in the park is free. Replacing sugary snacks and processed foods with some vegetables is cost neutral. Buying less stuff, spending more time with friends and in nature and less time watching 24 hour news disaster should cost you less and make you more time rich.

Industry fail.

I'm not saying these things are easy. But somehow, in some fashion the fitness industry and leisure industry should be playing its part. Yes joining gyms and going for a swim (unless you go to a lake or the sea) costs money.

And all these pursuits can end up being middle class, white activities. They need to be spread further and wider into the population.

I don't know the answer, I don't have the grand plan. But I do know that the health 'reckoning' is already here.

The media want quick sound bite answers, it's more nuanced than that. They need to grow up and so do we.

And it has to be authentic, its not about paying lip service to schemes and bids for community projects. It has to be more.

People are angry and stressed, but at the wrong things for the wrong reasons in (in my opinion).

The industry has to step up, fuck instagram and the cult of self we helped to make. We need to take it back, it needs to be about health and well being for everybody.

Let me know your thoughts.

Statistic sources:
Various Office of National Statistics reports.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Why Run? (Last thoughts).

"This is already a long time ago, I can remember the feelings but I can't still have them. A common prayer for the over-attached: You'll let it go sooner or later, why not do it now?" - Michael Herr, Dispatches.

The eternal question?

'Because it's there' the quintessential mountaineering answer. Doesn't quite get to the heart of it.

The question should be why write, or paint or make films or sing or dance or play a musical instrument. Why create art? Running is the same, or maybe for you it's lifting weights or rock climbing or swimming in a cold lake.

Movement is a natural expression of being human, like art. To such an extent, that if you don't do any of the things listed above then there is something fundamentally missing from your life. It has to be more than being a passive consumer.

A moving koan. The answer is there, but you can't quite grasp it or vocalize it.

You run to escape, you run to go home, you run to remember, you run to forget, you run from the past, you run to ignore the future, you run for now, you run to be like someone else, you run to create your own identity, you run to lose yourself, you run to create your own myth, you run to think, you run to not think, you run because you have to, you run because it's a choice, you run because it's free, you run to be social, you run to be different, you run for your spirit, you run because no one understands you, you run to understand, you run for comradeship, you run to be part of something, you run for no one,  you run to disappear, you run to be alone, you run to feel, your run to not feel, you run to understand pain, you run yourself into the ground, you run to ground yourself, you run to see if you can find your breaking point, you run to be stronger, you run when you are angry, you run when you are sad, you run when you are happy, you run to cope, you run to create memories, your run to erase something and start again.

Some people run for PBs and split times. This seems limited in its scope. Too constrained.

You are compelled to run. In bitter cold, unforgiving heat, brilliant sunshine, drab dull dark wet mornings and endless mediocre grey days. With aching joints and a pounding head. Searching for a meaning. But mainly just running to go through the motions.

But mostly it's prosaic. I once made up the statistic that 1 in 20 workouts are sublime, 1 in 20 are terrible, and 18 in 20 are mediocre/ going through the motions/ get it done. In truth I probably overestimated the number of good workouts, but you are always chasing that golden moment.

The answer as to why you do something is always clearer when that activity is taken away from you. It is always easier to know what you don't want to do with your life than what you do want to do.

For me it was the usual story, running at night and then waking up to 2 litres of IV fluid in a strange room. Be careful, we don't know.

The moment was always coming, it had been encoded in me from birth, I just didn't know it at the time. Years later someone would tell me.

He told me to be careful going West (a true story, crossing time zones can kill). But I had spent my whole life heading West, like some 'Oakie' looking for the promised land of California.

I held my breath for a few years. They told me. And I breathed out.

There would be one last hurrah,, but my heart wasn't in it. I ran into Chamonix as the sun fell behind Mont Blanc. The mountains had kicked my ass. I knew it was over. Another chapter was forming, this one was closed. An unsatisfying unresolved ending. The kind that some people hate to read in fiction books. But life is like that.

There would be no Hardrock, or UTMB, or Badwater or 6 days in Mustang.

There would be no more endless beach run that went on forever, or 10 hours passing like a minute. There would be no more sunrising on the Downs, with a distant sketch of twin windmills, as horses run towards me through the mist, as I run on alone.

And after all that 20 minutes on the road was never going to be enough.

There are other Annapurnas in men's lives, but when Maurice Herzog wrote that, he had made it to the top of Annapurna, if he hadn't, he would have kept going back like all the other obsessed mad men and 'Conquistadors of the useless'.

Like telling Picasso he could only ever use an Etcha A Sketch (to be fair Picasso would have probably done pretty well with an Etch A Sketch) or telling Monet he could only use a paint by numbers. The 5k park run was never going to be enough, so I let it go. It's not that Etcha A Sketch, paint by numbers and 5ks are bad or worth less, you just can't go back.

The dopamine rush of equipment. Seeing the rucksacks, hydration options, trainers and GPS watches. Like the paraphernalia of drug addicts. It's best to go cold turkey.

Just another story about lost love. They all are. Me and the trail were never going to be just friends, it was more complicated than that.

Who the hell wants to take the road most taken?

Like a retired punch drunk boxer who keeps making ill advised comebacks trying to recapture the glory days and getting beaten to a pulp. It's best not to step into the ring again.

If you haven't got the answer to the question after running 100 miles, then you wont answer it, so you might as well let it go and move on.

Sense memory, the way the cool air hits on a clear morning in the forest near where I live (where there isn't actually a forest, another mystery), a faint odour of earth and passing rainstorm. Molecules of pine vapor. And it all comes rushing back. A Proustian Madeleine moment of memory recall.

A forest where there is no forest.

Songs from my youth resonate, fragments remembered 'Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse..' Yes, probably.
'You get used to anything, sooner or later it becomes your life'. Yes, may be you do.

You carry it with you.

Why run? All I can say is...

       Twin Lakes.
                I kept running.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Do you need to deadlift?

More specifically do you need to deadlift with a barbell from the floor?

If you are a powerlifter, yes, you have to.

Everyone else... probably not.

The height of the deadlift is arbitrary, based on the size of an Olympic plate, it is not based on your height, limb length, mobility or spine.

If you are 5 foot tall with long arms it's not that far away, if you're 6'5" it's a long way down.

What about the sumo deadlift I hear you say? Yes, there is less shear force on the spine (you are not bending over so much), but it still depends on your hip architecture, your back may be more upright and it may be more leg dominant, but you still need to be able to pick the bar up from near the floor. I know now a hybrid position of half sumo and half conventional is more fashionable, so it might be worth giving this a go.

Ed Coan: If you look this feel free to keep deadlifting.

Don't get me wrong the hip hinge is a fundamental movement.

But so many people can't lift from the floor without losing a good neutral spine position. Or they end up using a mixed grip or straps chasing a PB and the next thing you know, something snaps and it's not the cheap straps. Getting the bar up anyway possible becomes a fixation for them and can end in disaster.

Yes, you need to be able to hinge from the hips to use the glutes and protect the back when picking all sorts of things up.

One of the best ways to spare the spine when picking an object up is the so called 'golfers lift' which is essentially a 1 leg RDL, hinging on one leg and using the other as a cantilever. But I wouldn't be doing this with 200kg. No one ever chased a golfers lift PB.

Why are you deadlifting?

Is it to chase arbitrary weight goals, hit 100kg, 200kg, 300kg+. If you enjoy the process then fine.

If you are doing it to get 'stronger', then stronger for what? For more deadlifting?

Or for a sport? Then I would contend there are better options like rack pulls, suitcase deadlifts into farmers carrys.

The farmers carry will get your quadratus lumborum activating in the back, abductor activation,  obliques, grip work and more, add in some distance and you've got endurance as well; all with much less chance of technical breakdown under a very heavy load.

If it is to increase muscle mass, then again there may be better options, such as rack pulls, RDL, cable pull throughs, kb swing.

Plus all the single leg work options such as single leg RDL.  In the single leg version, in my experience, people can normally keep a much better back position and it is more self limiting as an exercise.

What benefit is there lifting the barbell from the floor, or in some cases from a deficit by lifting by standing on a small box or step such as the snatch grip deadlift; that can't be garnered from the lifting the bar slightly higher?

For most people a rack deadlift would be a better option. This takes out the most problematic part of the lift for most people. And means they can still focus on hip hinging, gripping the bar, irradiating tension through the body and keep a better back position. The same with a snatch grip from the rack or hang position. Add in a power shrug or high pull to the movement and you've got a good overall athletic move.

Now, I'm not talking about guys who load up the bar and set the rack about 1 inch below lockout, put straps on and then do a 1 inch 400kg deadlift.

The trap bar deadlift is a much easier lift for most people, it is much more intuitive and how people pick things up. However, the biggest issue with the trap bar is how awkward it is to move around and load up. Trap bars normally weigh more than the standard Olympic bar, typically 30kg plus. People tend to put their back in a poor position trying to move the thing and load it up, not during the actual lift.

When I injured my back, the Jefferson lift felt fine, it never aggravated my back. I couldn't lift as much as conventional deadlift, but it felt as hard and demanding but safer. For a good video and explanation of the Jefferson have a look at this link.

The only downside of the Jefferson, is everyone is going to think you are one of those guys doing a crazy exercise for the sake of it.

Take home points:

  • If you like deadlifting, then keep on doing it, and if you are a powerlifter then you need to. Nothing I say would stop you anyway.
  • But be  a stickler for form in the gym, there should be no variation in the reps. Leave the 'whatever it takes' rep for competition.
  • Ask yourself why you are chasing numbers, are big numbers on the bar carrying over into your other goals such as improved sport performance, hypertrophy or overall strength.
  • Try rack deadlifts, the bar might only have to be slightly higher than the standard height for you to keep  better form
  • For sports performance try suitcase deadlifts, farmers walks and long jumps (broad jumps).
  • For hip hinging and hypertrophy try single leg deadlifts with dumbbells or kettlebells, RDLs, cable pull throughs, a whole range of machines, kettlebell swings and more.
  • If you've had back issues which tend to show themselves when you start to load up on the conventional deadlift but you still want to deadlift, then try the Jefferson deadlift.
Let me know your thoughts, is the deadlift a staple of your programme? Do you lift heavy all the time, or use deload periods, speed/ dynamic variations. Do you switch up the style you use? Do you think you need the deadlift for strength, hypetrophy and sport performance.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Do you need to squat?

More specifically do you need to back squat with a barbell on your back?

If you are competing in powerlifting, then the answer is yes.

If you are competing in weightlifting, the answer is probably yes.

For everyone else I'm not so sure.

The squat pattern is fundamental..

Now, don't get me wrong, I think the squat pattern is fundamental. Young babies do it naturally, and adults need it to get out of a chair.

In fact, one of the things I see with many back pain sufferers is they get out of a chair using their back, and spinal flexion, and don't use their hips or knees properly at all. It's the same with stroke patients I see, and some very elderly people, they can't get out a chair. This is sometimes because of weakness, but also an exacerbating factor is they normally have too narrow a stance, have valgus collapse and don't use any type of hip hinge at all. Many manage to get out a chair with some simple cues, without actually getting any stronger per se.

Recently, I haven't really programmed back squats for anyone.

It's not as if I never did them, I've done high rep squats in the past, 21 days of squats myself, squatted maximum, done high bar, low bar, safety bar, cambered bar, box squats. But now, if I do a squat it is invariably a front squat with a barbell or 2 kettlebells.

Squats ahoy.

There was a time when the back squat was rare. Now thanks to most gyms having power racks and the influence of a few key people, back squatting is very popular from young girls to rugby players and beyond.

Also increasingly popular is back squatting in Olympic weightlifting shoes. These allow people to go lower, in a sense give them false mobility. This has resulted in a rush of people complaining about their knees hurting squatting. The standard answer is the Dan John one, squats don't hurt your knees, what you are doing does...

However, I know from personal experience and from friends of mine continuous squatting in lifting shoes does hurt your knees and cause excruciating pain if you are squatting regularly. And as soon as you take the shoes off, the knee pain spontaneously resolves.

Now, don't get me wrong, I have lifting shoes, and for front squats, cleans and snatches I would use them if I was going heavy and really wanted focus on these moves and the sport. But as I generally don't, if I do a power clean or front squat I do them in my normal shoes I train in (inov8 F-lites).

Why are you back squatting?

There is the issue of why you are back squatting.

If you are doing it for leg development, I think there are better options. Front squats target the quads more and with less spinal loading and less chance of technique breakdown.

I know some people can't do the front squat grip, in which case I would do a goblet squat with a dumbbell or kettlebell rack squats. I am not a big fan of the classic bodybuilding front squat with the arms crossed over, it looks like an accident waiting to happen.

Alternatively, a Bulgarian split squat (rear foot elevated squat), or the leg press using one leg at a time (I prefer the one leg version as it's easier on the lower back, and stops the dominant leg taking over).

I know there is a school of thought that bilateral leg work, and specifically 5x5 on squats is all you really need to do. I respectfully disagree.

The hack squat seems to have become fashionable recently, possibly because it can be loaded up and is technically easier than a squat. To me it still seems to cause the same compression issues, and is overrated. It also seems to be exactly the same movement pattern as the Smith machine squat (legs forward, back vertical) that we used to do back in the day when gyms didn't have power racks.

For the posterior chain, take your pick from RDLs, single leg RDLs, hip thrusts, glute bridges, glute ham raise machine, Nordic hamstring curls, and various leg curl machines.

For most people I think there are better ways of targeting the legs.

For athletic purposes I think some unilateral leg work is a must, and something as simple as a bodyweight jump squat or lung jump (broad jump) would be more effective.

Athletically, I would say the prowler push and sled drag have more carry over to the field with less spine compression, less coaching and less risk of losing form and powering through anyway.

Technical breakdown.

Some of the issues with squatting I have are to do with trying to fit all people into the same box. Same stance, same depth.

If you have what Stuart McGill calls the 'Celtic hip', you are going to probably need a wider stance and squat above parallel - and no amount of mobility work is going to change this.

The shrill call of everyone having to go 'ass to grass' seems to have lessened recently.

If you have a much shallower hip socket, Eastern European hip, your squat will look text book. Very few people look like this in the gym. However, there is still no excuse to be bouncing out of the bottom with the sacrum tucking under unless there is a gold medal at stake.

Dave Draper squatting. If you look like this then carry on. Source: everyone on the Internet who thinks this is Tom Platz

If you have nice ovoid shape discs in your back (again see Stuart McGills work), you can probably take the compression in the spine. If you have a much more slender spine, there is more chance of buckling and an end plate fracture with continuous heavy loading (I'm not saying this will happen, but look at the risk reward).

Then we have too much lordosis, too much arch in the back, I see this with quite a few women squatting. They can be quite stiff in the hips and compensate with the back.

Then there are people with limited shoulder mobility, normally guys, and even getting the bar onto the back is problematic and causes shoulder issues before they even start.

Then there are the people who shift to one side under load, twisting and having one leg stronger than the other. These aren't  necessary bad things, its just the way this person is built. But I don't think bilateral back squatting is going to make there leg strength more equal or change their movement for the better.

To paraphrase Gray Cook, people are loading up their dysfunction for no other reason than they think they need to back squat. They then breakdown and they could have got the same results with a different exercise.

Now I know many of these issues can be fixed by coaching, cuing, using  a box, adjusting peoples stance and depth, using different bars on their back. However, most clients don't come to you to get better at back squatting, they come to you to lose weight, or get stronger or more toned. And in my experience for many of these people, save yourself time and do something else instead that gets them the results they want.

Squat patterns that I use.

Sit to stand to box or chair - the fundamental pattern for rehab clients.

TRX supported squat and deep squat for lats with exhale at the bottom - good for turning off the lats, breathing and giving people the confidence to squat lower.

Goblet squat - nearly every session I do includes this, use a dumbbell or kettlebell.

1 kettlebell rack squat - asymmetric loading for core and more.

2 kettlebell rack squat - one of my favourites for added anterior core activation and a great leg workout.

Barbell front squat if someone can get in this position, if they can't I wouldn't bother with various bodybuilding versions I would do kettlebell rack squats instead.

Bodyweight jump squat for athletic development if needed.


Is the barbell back squat bad? No. Do I use it with most of my clients anymore. No.

Let me know what you think.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Forming new habits. Part 5: Choice.

For part 2, 3 and 4 go here, here and here

Why do you make the choices you make?

Why do some people choose to exercise and eat healthily and others don't.

Every day you are exposed to an enormous amount of information. According to Plassman et al (2012)

"Each second we are exposed to an estimated 11 millions bits of information that reach us through our senses, yet humans are capable of processing only around 50 bits of that information."
Think about that for a second (and if you did, 11 millions bits of information were just missed by you). Your brain filters information so it doesn't get overwhelmed.

Your brain and body use autopilot, short cuts and what Daniel Kahneman calls fast thinking all the time (see part 2 for a description of this system 1). Without it you would probably be paralyzed by indecision everyday. You get up, shower, clean your teeth, get to work without much thought. These become habitual activities. When you travel somewhere new, have you noticed how much you have to concentrate, in the car you have to turn the radio off and really focus on the sat nav and the road, not the same as when you do your daily commute.

Certain decisions have been taken out of your hands from an early age. Where you were born and your parents preferences have already determined the language you speak, the foods you culturally like, the school you went to, many of the hobbies and past times you chose. You may not even be aware of other choices, you can't miss a food you've never had or are not even aware of. And that job you drifted into after school or university, it may have not been your top choice, but possibly, only years later you realize you want to do something else.

This fast system of shortcuts is useful. Going out for a coffee on your lunch break if you live in a big city could be overwhelming. If you were really to evaluate all the options you would have to go to every coffee shop, try every different type of coffee, weigh up the price and distance from your work places and then make a decision (okay, I may have actually done this). Whereas, most people will intuitively go to the same coffee shop and order the same drink.

If the choice is limited it is easier, only one coffee shop, you go there. Only one gym, you join that one. In fact, it has been shown the more choice people are given the harder they find it to make a choice. In one study, given  a choice between two different types of jam, you pick one quite easily. Given the choice of 10 or 20, then what? You are frozen with indecision over a pot of jam.

Extrapolate that to big life decisions like choosing a career or partner, the number of variables is overwhelming. This is where the shortcut, intuitive system, works best.

Dijksterhuis et al (2006, good luck pronouncing that name by the way) state that conscious thought works best when you are making simple choices like "buying towels or an oven mitt" but more complex matters like choosing a house, or car (or life partner) should be left to unconscious thought. What they call "deliberation without attention". Your unconscious mind has much bigger processing power and your conscious mind finds it hard to focus on more than one thing at a time.

When buying a car, studies have shown people make better decisions when they don't consciously think about all the variables.

Dijksterhuis et al (2006) got people to choose a car based on 4 attributes or 12 attributes (safety, mileage etc). They were given 4 minutes to think about their choice, or 4 minutes distracted by doing anagrams. The people who were distracted doing anagrams and therefore used their unconscious mind, made a much better choice when choosing a car when they had to think about 12 attributes.

We make emotionally driven choices all the time. We are not even aware we are making them.

Companies and marketers know you can be influenced, so they exploit these systems.

You are influenced by marketing even when you think you are not.

Think about all the advertising you are exposed to. Does it influence you? Of course not, you are smarter than that. Or may be not.

In a study by Bagdziunaite (2014) three group of people were shown commercials before going in to a store to buy paint.
Group 1 - random commercials
Group 2 - random commercials plus adverts for brand A paint
Group 3 - random commercials plus longer adverts for brand A paint

They were then told to go and buy some paint for redecorating.
Group 1 - 78% chose brand A
Group 2 - 94% chose brand A
Group 3 - 100% chose brand A!!

Group 2 and 3 also spent more time looking at brand A on the shelf. And guess what, 23 out of 25 participants did not perceive the link between exposure to advertising and their purchase.

And ALL of the participants who saw brand A remembered it, but reported it did not affect their choice!

Now think about the adverts you are exposed to, the filter bubble you live in, the shops you go to, the choices you make. In the supermarket, trying to make healthy choices...

Plassman et al (2012) state
"At fast decision speeds a significant number of food choices were biased towards the food items with bright packaging, even when subjects preferred the taste of alternative food options." 
In fact, given less than 1 second you will choose the most salient thing, given a second or more you will choose your preference,

Now given that most foods that are brightly packaged are processed, and if someone has been eating unhealthy for a while and has certain in built preferences, what choices do you think they are going to make?

You will choose from the menu on offer. 

There is a myth that humans will make rational economic choices. Choosing between an apple and a snickers, you choose the one that costs the least or has the most benefit for you. Except in the Western world the cost difference between these purchases is irrelevant.

The value you assign to anything is subjective. For example, chocolate or strawberry ice cream have no intrinsic value, you make a decision which one you prefer (Padoa-Schioppa, 2011). And if one is not available, it doesn't figure in your decision making process.

Or put it another way, do you want a £1000 or a glass of water? The answer is obvious unless you just came out of the desert, you're dying of thirst and someone offers you that choice. Context matters.

The orbital frontal cortex (OFC) front part of your brain has neurons that are particularly active when you prefer one option. They are not sensitive to the menu, but decide based on what is on offer.

For example, Padoa-Schioppa (2007) offered monkeys* raisins or apple slices. Monkeys prefer raisins, but eventually when the monkeys are offered 3 times as many apple slices to raisins they switch to choosing the apple. The OFC neurons then start to fire off more, as they react to one decision that is clearly better than the other.

This also happened when the monkeys had to choose between drops of water and kool aid. The monkey prefer water, until they were offer 6 times as many drops of kool aid to water, and then they switched and chose the kool aid and the OFC part of the brain was more active and helped make this decision. They even did this when they were given 2 food options they had never encountered before, they would make a choice and then switch if significant quantity of their less preferred option was given.

What does this mean for you? It means you can switch your own choices.

I read somewhere that you should crowd your diet with healthy choices. If you eat enough vegetables and whole foods, you will 'crowd out' the unhealthy options. (Sorry, I can't remember where I read this, if this is your idea, let me know, and I will credit you)!

Eventually, you brain will choose from the menu you on offer.  You can control the menu and the quantity of the menu as well.

You go to a petrol station...

How does this all work in practice. A classic way people lose track of their diet.

They have gone to a petrol station to fill up the car. This is a top down conscious decision.

But then in the shop they are confronted by chocolate bars and crisps. All brightly coloured. There are no healthy options on offer, you're hungry (you've just left the gym) and you are not carrying any healthy snacks.

Before you know it you are making a bottoms up decision, you had no intention of buying chocolate. But it's there, and the menu on offer is chocolate or more chocolate. Before you know it you are in your car eating a snickers and your diet has been derailed before you've even had time to think. The pleasure centres in your brain are firing off and you go home and wonder what happened.

Why you will be fooled by expensive wine and works of art.

The orbital frontal cortex helps you make choices. And the medial part of it (mOFC) is believed to activate more when you experience pleasantness.

In one study by Plassman et al(2008) they measured the activation of peoples brain in an fMRI scanner while they were given wine of different value, they were told the wine cost $90 or $5 o $10. Of course, there was no difference in the wines but people experienced more activation in the pleasantness areas of the brain when they thought they were drinking the more expensive wine.

The perceived price did not change the activation of the primary taste centre of the brain, but the expectation of how good it was meant to be changed the activation in the pleasantness centre of the brain.

(And as a side note: Wine experts can't even tell the difference between red and white wine when blind folded!).

In another study people valued works of art more and had more engagement in the mOFC when they thought they were painted by an expert rather than a novice. Of course, none were painted by an expert.

If I told you I painted this you'd give me £1 for it. But if I told you Jackson Pollock did, you might be willing to pay way more.

This has led to the idea of "placebo marketing".

Why do people spend £200 more on a computer because it has an apple on it? (like the one I'm typing this on).

In the world of fitness and nutrition you could use this effect to your advantage. If you spend £80 a month on a gym membership or get the platinum super duper personal training package with the best trainer in town, you may well perceive that your results will be superior to the £20 a month gym and the free programme you got given.

You may possibly work harder and just have more belief in the product.

In terms of nutrition, the super detox juice you bought for £6 a glass may seem more beneficial than the apple and bag of spinach you bought in the supermarket.

This may also explain why people see famous online coaches, posting up pictures of clients, and testimonials. You may automatically perceive this person as an expert and expect to get results when you buy their programme or online product.

Even if objectively the expensive options are no better than the cheap options.

Where does this leave us?

So you know your brain is now making decisions on autopilot all the time and whether you like it or not marketing can influence you.

Here are a few take home points relating to health and fitness

  • Make it as easy as possible for your brain to make the right decision. Reduces the cognitive load. This is why Steve Jobs wore the same outfit everyday. Put your gym gear in your bag ready to go in the morning. I once heard someone give the advice of sleeping in your gym kit and then getting up and going, it might be going too far, but you get the idea.
  • Put the gym session or class on your schedule, it becomes an autopilot activity.
  • Not sure what to do in the gym, get a plan/programme that is not too complex and stick to it. Again it will take another decision out of your hands.
  • You will choose from the menu on offer. Fill your cupboards with healthy options, crowd out the unhealthy.
  • Be prepared when out and about. Take your own snacks with you, a box of nuts in the car may stop you buying chocolate in the garage. Also prepare your own lunches.
  • Avoid the office on cake day!
  • Trying to give up fizzy drinks/soda? Try drinking 6 glasses of water when you feel the need for a soda. (I'm serious, give it a go, but don't over hydrate).
  • You can change your preferences with regards to food, they are subjective and you can switch them.
  • Take a shopping list to the supermarket. Take your time, when tempted by bright colours and packaging. Pause, take a breath and stick to the list.
  • You may think the more expensive product is better, it may not be.
  • OR if you are a personal trainer or gym, people may perceive your product as better if you charge more and be more willing to listen to you if they perceive you as an expert. (Testimonials, qualifications etc can help with this).
  • Sometimes your brain will make the right decision without you thinking about it, especially if it is a complex decision.
  • Beware of placebo marketing and living in a filter bubble.
  • Your environment and the people you surround yourself with will influence your choices. The old adage that you are the sum of the 5 people you spend most time with is true. Expand that to environmental influences, the websites you visit, the TV shows you watch, the books you read.
  • Buy cheap wine and tell people it's expensive. They wont know any different!


Choosing paint research
Expensive wine research
Monkeys choose raisin or apple
OFC in making choices overview
Plassman et al "Branding the brain"
An Introduction to Neuroeconomics: How the Brain Makes Decisions. www.coursera.org
An Introduction to Consumer Neuroscience & Neuromarketing. www.coursera.org

*Yes, I find the research involving monkeys problematic, as they don't get to choose to be part of the study. But it is what it is.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Experiments in Hypertrophy: Part 3 - Reps, Rest and Tempo.

In parts 1 and 2 I covered the best training splits and how many exercises to do. For part 1 and part 2 go here and here.

Note: if you don't want to read the whole post, skip to the bullet points at the end which tell you everything you need to know.

Rep Ranges.

The classic hypertrophy rep range is 8-12. Most guys (and women) training for mass spend the majority of their time in this rep range, with the occasional venture into the strength range of 6 or less during winter bulking phase and into the higher 12-15 'endurance' range when getting ready for summer.

But some athletes appear to increase muscle mass and never go near the 8-12 range. For example, Olympic weightlifters are normally way below this and Crossfitters are normally near maximal or doing some crazy high rep range (55 rep deadlifts anyone?).

So what does the research show. Previously in part 2 I outlined Brad Schoenfelds research where one group did 7x3 and another 3x10 and basically got the same results and improved muscle hypertrophy. However, the 7x3 workout took more than twice as long as the 3x10 and the strength group started to break down and complain of overtraining.

In a follow up study Schoenfeld et al (2016) did something interesting, they compared 3 sets of 2-4 reps with 3 sets of 8-12 in experienced lifters. This meant there wasn't a big difference in volume, 3 sets of 2-4 is achievable. Both groups did 7 exercises to failure in the prescribed rep range with 2 minutes rest between sets. They measured the cross sectional area of the triceps, biceps and lateral thigh before and after the 8 week trial. There was an increase in biceps in both groups but not much difference, an increase in triceps in both groups but not much difference and an increase in lateral thigh in both groups but a statistical significant difference between groups, with the 8-12 rep range working best. So even though the study shows moderate 8-12 rep range to be better, both schemes increased cross sectional area and when you look at the raw data it is really not that much different. The authors put some of the strength groups success down to the novelty of changing the programme, as most participants were training 8-12 before the trial. Unsurprisingly the group training heavy increased their squat 1RM the most as well.

But what about high reps?

Two studies stand out showing very high rep ranges, Schoenfeld et al (2015) compared 3 sets of 8-12 reps with 3 sets of 25-35 reps, using 7 exercises, 3 times a week.

Both rep schemes significantly increased the cross sectional area of the biceps, triceps and quads. There was no significant difference between the groups. None of the high rep group had lifted with this many repetitions before despite being experienced lifters. But they were experienced, this was not 'newbie' gains. It could be they were targeting the type I endurance fibres, whereas normally they would be targeting the same fibres all the time - the type II ones.

But don't be fooled, very high reps to failure is taxing, as Schoenfeld says "half the subjects in the low load group puked during the first week of training"!!

And in another study by Fink et al(2016) which was actually about rest periods (which I will get to later); they were using 4 sets of 40% 1RM for squat and bench press to failure,  in non experienced lifters (but involved in sports). All the participants showed significant increase in cross sectional area for triceps and thighs and they all increased their 1RM! The cross sectional increase was 9.8% and 10% in the triceps in both groups in the study. The paper doesn't say how many reps they were doing but the authors say it didn't drop below 12 even on the last set and using their data I have worked out the rep ranges would have been between at least 19 and 36 per set!

The authors say that low load training (less than 30% of 1RM) may cause a prolonged period of post exercise muscle synthesis compared to 90% 1RM.

We know that muscle growth is due to a whole range of factors such as mechanical tension, metabolic stress, chemical release, hormones and more.

In this case the conjecture is high reps may result in sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, so called non contractile protein and fluid. For the average gym jock, this makes no difference. Mass is mass.

Where does this leave us?

From personal experience low strength reps don't increase muscle mass that much in me. But the mass it does produce is qualitatively in my opinion denser and more likely to be the functional strength and power fibres. What is known as myofibrillar hypertrophy. I respond best to higher reps for hypertrophy.

In reality, for most trainers the rep range will vary with the exercise. For example, no one is going to try a 3 rep max rear delts flye, but a 15-25 rep rear delt flye seems reasonable. The same could be said for calves, if you are going to train them. This then comes down to the old adage about different parts of the body having different fibre mixes, if the calves are mainly type I endurance fibres then high reps would work best. Conversely, no one is probably going to do 3 x 35 reps for pull ups, so the exercise itself makes you go into moderate rep ranges.

Some things intuitively don't make sense, for example, if you do 35 reps of deadlifts you are inadvertently doing Crossfit. Whereas, 35 reps of a bodyweight 1 leg glute thrust would work.

The research does seem to show the benefits of high rep squats increasing muscle mass, see my post here on high rep squats. This is a taxing exercise but well worth putting in occasionally.

Exercises like cable flyes and machines lend themselves to high reps 12-15 whereas I think things like your classic dumbbell bench press are better in the 8-12 rep range.

I also like timed sets, set a stop watch for 35 or 45 or 55 seconds and then see how many bicep curls or press ups you can do with controlled tempo. This type of training keeps you honest!

I think many guys avoid high rep training because it is hard and burns, plus you have to leave your ego at the door and venture over to the chrome dumbbells.

Could you use interval endurance/ training?

Given that very high reps of 35 have caused hypertrophy could you not use sprint intervals on a bike or rower or ski erg or hill sprints to increase muscle hypertrophy? If the intervals are all out intense 10-20 seconds I can't see why they wouldn't work. The size of track cyclists legs is probably a testament to this.

I would also think exercises like prowler pushes could result in increases in muscle mass and strength depending on load and timing.

The perfect rep.

One thing I have really being trying to do over the last few months is feel every rep.

It doesn't matter what rep scheme you use if all your reps are crappy.

Really try and feel the muscle you are working on every rep. Let go of the ego of the weight, there is always the temptation to try and move up to the next set of dumbbells on the rack. Before you know it, you are going partial range and cheating the weight up.

Although there are times when partial range may be beneficial such as when doing 21's, in most cases go full range.

Also note in all the studies above they make the participants go to failure.

Lift with focus and intensity!

How long to rest?

The research is not consistent on this issue.

Schoenfeld et al (2015) compared resting 1 minute versus 3 minutes when training 3 sets of 8-12 reps. This research actually showed resting longer was more beneficial for hypertrophy. The authors state that in the long rest group "muscle was significantly greater in the anterior thigh and a trend for greater thickness in the triceps brachii"

However, when you look at the actual data from the study, there is not that much difference between groups. And as the authors state 1 minute is probably too short but 2 minutes would be long enough.

The difference in the anterior thigh would makes sense. As anyone knows, leg exercises such as squats are systemically taxing and need longer rest than some upper body exercises. A tricep kickback might only need 30 secs rest.Therefore, regional hypertrophy in the body may mean different rest periods (and rep ranges) for different body parts and different types of exercises.

Schoenfeld et al state

"Longer rest periods can allow for the completion of a higher number of repetitions and the maintenance of a higher training intensity and volume, and this may allow for greater muscle activation per set."

However, another researcher studying elderly men (average age 68) found a 1 minute rest period was better than a 4 minute one, and resulted in greater gains in lean mass and strength.

And don't forget how much longer it takes to rest an extra 2 minutes per set, that would be an extra 6 minutes per exercise for 3 sets, and an extra 42 minutes if you do 7 exercises. If you used those 40 minutes to do additional exercises and sets with less rest would you get better results?

And could you not maximize time efficiency with rest by doing supersets and if you are alternating limbs, say in a tricep exercise, one side is resting while the other is working?

High reps need less rest.

In a study already mentioned, Fink et al (2016) compared resting 30 seconds with resting 150 secs when lifting 40% 1RM squat and bench for 4 sets.

Both groups got increases in muscle mass and strength, with no significant difference between groups. And the blood work showed the metabolic stress for both groups was the same.

This shows that when doing very high reps, 20-35 - then you can rest less. Caveat being if you have ever tried to rest 30 secs between high rep squats you will blow up or throw up.

Where does this leave us?

Most studies that are not testing different rest periods seem to use 2 minutes.

In reality now I do not measure rest periods, by the time you changes your weights over, take a sip of water, write in your training diary what you just did you will be ready to go again. This means I am probably resting about 60-90 secs at most and no where near 3 minutes. The difference between resting 2 or 3 minutes is very marginal and other factors come into play

If you are mainly interested in strength, definitely rest longer.

Supersets are a good way to maximize rest efficiency, for example superset a dumbbell row with dumbbell chest press.

In my opinion, isolation exercises like tricep extensions and high rep exercises like rear delt flyes will need very little rest, 30 secs, legs will need more.

The caveat is special training techniques like descending sets and rest pause, where rest may be 10 secs or less, which I will cover in part 4 of this series.

In my experience, most clients and women will not rest enough when you are training them, they will rest a few seconds and try and go again. This means you need to educate them and make sure they are going to real failure!


There was a time when tempo was big, mainly because of Ian King and Poliquin programmes. You would see things like 51X0 and 3111 written on programmes.

Normally referring to how fast you should lower a weight, eccentric, then concentrically press it up and may be squeeze and hold a peak contraction.

This seems to have fallen out of favour recently. I would imagine probably because when you are trying to focus on perfect reps and counting to 15, the last thing you want to do is try to count exact tempo as well.

The caveat would be triphasic training, this is using eccentric, concentric and isometric contraction in a specific way. For an explanation of triphasic training go here, and how to apply it here.

The eccentric phase is the part of the movement causing muscle soreness. Sports like Olympic weightlifting and track cycling do not have much eccentric loading of muscle but can still result in muscle mass. (Yes, I'm aware these groups may do some training use eccentric loading and possibly have chemical assistance). Soreness is not necessary for growth but we all like the feeling of DOMS!

In most of the studies I have read they normally get the participants to do a 2 second eccentric and 1 second concentric. This would seem about about right, I would probably go closer to 3 second eccentric and possibly a 1 sec squeeze on things like latpulldowns , with an explosive but controlled concentric. But I wouldn't spend too much time thinking about this.

Of course, I am talking specifically about hypertrophy training here. Strength and power are different.

One thing I would avoid is super slow training, this seems pointless to me, as do super slow concentric phases.

No studies involved women!

Its important to note that none of the studies cited used women. It was the usual young male college student in most cases.

Would women respond differently to high reps, and different rest periods? Who knows. Someone needs to do that research.

Take away points.

  • You can increase muscle mass in all different types of rep ranges, 2-4, 8-12, 25-35
  • Moderate rep ranges are probably better than lower reps for hypertrophy.
  • Keep most of your training in the 8-12 rep range for hypertrophy but..
  • Try some high rep stuff, its hard, and occasional strength work. In other words periodise and vary. Leave your ego at the door, the chrome dumbbells are calling you!
  • You could try 3 total body sessions a week, one strength 3x2-4, one moderate 3x8-12, one high rep 3 x 20-30. 
  • Different exercises lend themselves naturally to different rep ranges and rest periods. 
  • Try some high reps squats!
  • Different body parts can be trained with different rep ranges and rest periods. Rest longer on legs.
  • Rest period, if you are an experienced lifter self selecting will work best.
  • Rest 30-45 secs for small body parts/isolation work and very high reps.
  • Rest 90 to 120 secs for compound movements, legs and taxing exercises.
  • The benefits of resting 3 minutes is marginal at best for hypertrophy and very boring and time consuming. If you have time give it a go and see if it makes a difference.
  • Tempo, don't get obsessed, slow eccentric 2-3 secs, fast concentric, squeeze hold where you can.
  • To increase 1RM do more work in the 2-4 rep range, and rest longer. Bizarrely your 1RM will also increase if you do high rep training with minimal rest.
  • Go to failure at some point. Not on every set, but definitely on some of your work sets.
  • Think about executing the perfect rep and feeling the muscle working probably trumps everything else for hypertrophy.
Next time special techniques - rest pause, descending sets and more.