Pulled 405, Now On To 495

On Saturday I deadlifted 405 for a single. There was a little more in the tanks so the quest continues. I was surprised at just how unsatisfying it felt given that I’ve been working at it for a while. I was glad I did it, but immediately I thought “now what?” which was quickly followed by “495″. Some things really are about the journey because I was a lot more satisfied with 315, 360 and 385 when I got those for the first time.

Oh well. Maybe when I get 500 I’ll feel something about it – probably “600″.

Strength Training for Cyclists

As an avid mountain bike rider, I spend a lot of time on the trails. I try to do a couple of races each year – at the participant level vs. the competitive level – and train year round to make sure I don’t shame myself too badly when the gun goes off and there’s a mad frenzy of riders hammering to be the first into the single track. The racing is a lot more fun when you’ve put the time into the practice and training. In fact, while races are won on race day, I believe they are actually won during the off season, in the gym, lifting weights and building strength. There has been a dramatic improvement in my performance once I incorporated strength training for cycling into my year round program. Below are 7 strength movements that a cyclist should perform if they are to hit their peak performance level. Note that this is not a workout, it’s a list of exercises, recommended rep ranges and my rational as to why a cyclist should use them.

1) Bulgarian split squats. Similar to a back foot elevated static lunge except the focus is on moving forward and back vs. up and down. It’s a great movement because it works each leg equally. It focuses a lot on the VMO which is critical for both peddle force production and knee stability – remember, you are going to fall and usually the only thing saving you from hitting the ground is being able to quickly put your foot on the ground to catch yourself. Knee instability at this point is going to increase the chance of falling and injury to your knee. Having the back foot elevated recruits more of the hip flexor muscles which are critical for the knee drive that pulls the peddles from the bottom to the top.

I like to work with a rep range of 12-15 for this movement.

2) Bent over standing hamstring curls – the reason you are bent over is to mimic riding position so aim for 45 degrees of hip flexon. This movement is critical because many riders do not have good hamstring recruitment – in fact, most people do not. Unless someone is moving quickly, these muscles play a role in maintaining knee stability. The hamstrings are made up primarily of fast twitch fibers so you need to focus on explosive contractions and controlled eccentric phases. Given that half of the peddle stroke is made up of knee flexon, you will need to learn how to powerfully recruit the hamstrings if you are to generate the most amount of force.

I work with a rep range of 6-8 for this movement.

3) DB bench press. Strong pec and anterior deltoids muscles are critical for holding the upper body in the right position when riding the rough trails. This movement is good at building this type of strength.

I work with a rep range of 6-10 for this movement and will alter the angle of the bench to include decline and incline pressing.

4) Bent over pronated (palms away) BB row. With trail riding, you are going to have to pull the front wheel off of the ground to clear logs and other obstacles. To do this, you will need a considerable amount of back strength. Bent over rowing is ideal for developing this. It is also great because being bent over places the upper body in the same position it would be in when riding.

I work with a rep range of 8-12 for this movement.

5) BB squat (front and back). The BB squat is one of the best strength movements someone can perform because it recruits muscles from the entire body, particularly the legs and core. Squatting deep is a fantastic way to develop the strength of the VMO muscles and it’s one of the best ways to develop eccentric strength that is needed anytime you put your feet on the ground to catch yourself from falling.

I work in a variety of rep ranges for these movements. With front squats I’ll do 3-6 reps and with back squats the range will be between 2 and 25. I’ll never do front and back squats in the same workout and like to change them up to keep my body adapting to the different movements.

6) BB deadlifting. I perform this movement primarily to work the core, lower back and glutes, but is also works the legs and upper back so it is a fantastic way to develop full body strength. It is particularly good at teaching you to recruit your glutes as you drive your hips forward to complete the movement at the top. These muscles are particularly important for force production when standing and sprinting.

I work with a variety of rep ranges ranging from 2 to 20

7) Power cleans. This is a movement used to develop speed because it is extremely difficult to clean a weight slowly – it’s impossible to be completely honest. Hip drive is absolutely critical with this movement so it’s a fantastic way to train your glutes to contract quickly. It’s also a fantastic way to training the upper back muscles to be faster along with your legs given that you are lifting the weight of off the ground from a dead stop.

I work with a variety of rep ranges with this movement but do not go above 6 reps. The goal when performing power cleans it to make the bar move as quickly as possible. To ensure that it helps to build speed, it is critical that a set end as soon as the bar speed drops by 10%. While this may seem like a tough thing to figure-out, you can feel any slow down and catching the bar on your shoulders is really tough unless it’s moving quickly.

I encourage you to incorporate some of these movements into your strength training program if you are a cyclist. You will notice an improvement on the trails and you’ll be riding faster than you ever thought you could!

Train Your Rotator Cuff Always And Forever

As a result of the way I trained for years, I found that my shoulders hurt a lot. In high school I trained chest too much and when I found my way back into the gym as an adult, I trained only the big muscle groups – chest, back, legs, shoulders and arms – because that’s what people do. I figured I was just unlucky and had bad shoulders.

When I started working with SST, I was introduced to rotator cuff training because they have found that too many young athletes trained the way I used to – building up the glory muscles while ignoring the ones that keep the machine moving perfectly. To say that I was imbalanced would be an understatement. When I was tested on external rotations, I was only able to lift about 5lbs for 8 reps – to be considered balanced I should have been able to lift about between 17.5 and 22.5 lbs for 8. The consequence of this weakness is an unstable shoulder and pain – given that the rotator cuff muscles are the body’s primary way of adding stability to the shoulder.

Over the last few years I have trained the rotator cuff consistently through a number of different angle and positions so it is now more than 400% stronger than before. I would now consider myself balanced since I’m able to move 22.5 lbs for 8 reps. My shoulder pain disappeared and my other lifts have gone up dramatically – even ones I didn’t train – because my body is working the way it is supposed to.

I got cocky and stopped training rotator cuff thinking that now that I’m balanced, I don’t need to work at it anymore. It didn’t take long for the pain to return and the pain was as bad as it was in high school – a sharp stabbing pain that pulls you out of a deep sleep and leaves you thinking that maybe the shoulder is dissolving. It’s a pain that you cannot turn off by changing lying or arm positions. I put up with it for a couple of weeks hoping that by doing nothing to address it, it would go away. It didn’t.

So on Monday I go to the gym and before I train my shoulders and back, I train rotator cuff – 2 movements (low cable external rotations and elbow on knee external rotations) and 1 movement for the scapula retractors. My back and shoulder workout did suffer slightly – I wasn’t able to lift as much weight as I could when I didn’t train rotator cuff, but the pain went away. I slept right through the night without even thinking about my shoulders. The pain hasn’t come back either. Who would have thought that 15 minutes of work before my glory muscle work would have made me feel like new again?

Sadly, I should have thought about that. I wouldn’t let my athletes get away with not training rotator cuff. Structural balance is not a short term thing, it’s an always and forever thing because life does not provide enough opportunities to work these muscle in a way that keeps them stronger than they need to be.

What’s My Motivation For Lifting Weights?

On my Facebook wall, Tony asked me what my motivation was. It was a follow-up to a conversation we had on the weekend about lifting weights. I mentioned to him that one day I would like to dead lift 500 lbs to which he said “good for you” followed quickly with “why?” He made the accurate claim that there was no practical reason for me to ever need to lift 500 lbs.

Sure it helps my cycling – the stronger I am, the faster I will be able to climb hills. Being strong now is also going to help me age more gracefully – provided I do no harm to my body. I like that lifting weights burns calories so I stay lean, and I also like the muscle development that it promotes. These are all good reasons and if I lifted for just one of these, I think I’d have my motivation.

My primary reasons now are about personal integrity and optics.

I coach athletes of different ages and levels now and it is no longer enough to simply know what I’m talking about. I need to LOOK like I know what I’m talking about. We’ve all seen the fat personal trainer, the skinny strength coach, the gym at the gym with internally rotated shoulders who’s telling everyone what they are doing wrong – basically the people who consider themselves experts in something that they don’t look anything like – they may know what are talking about, they just look like they don’t follow their own advice so it’s tough to take them seriously. Given that I work with a lot of young people who couldn’t possible know if I’m knowledgeable, I strive to LOOK like I am knowledgeable. That’s the optics component, I try to make the visual impression that says to those who do not know that I do know.

The personal integrity component is more critical from my point of view. As much as I love coaching I need to be a sales man – if I can’t sell my services I’ll have no one to coach. I also need to sell my clients on my advice / programs. I know from my past experience that I have extreme difficultly selling things I do not believe in. Being an extremely passionate person, I can be very convincing. However, using this passion to convince someone to comply with a suggestion I know nothing about leaves me feeling kind of greasy, so greasy in fact that I have a tough time letting go of the interaction later. Basically, I’m blessed with the ability to convince others of things but feel good about myself only when I believe in what I’ve convinced them to do. This pairing means that I’m not going to be selling cars, sofas or cell phones.

Experience separates wisdom from knowledge. This is what is critical for me. Until I actually dead lifted twice my body weight, I had no idea what it was like. Once I did, I realized a lot of things about myself, the movement and the potential for injury and progress. Having had these lessons, I’m in a much better position to coach others on how they should lift very heavy weight. I’m also in a position to speak with authority about the carryover benefits of lifting heavy – you’ll be faster, your other lifts will go up, you’ll enjoy going to the gym more, life will be a little easier than it was before.

It is only through doing that I can honestly coach other people on how to and why they should. Coaching from a place of no experience isn’t doing a service to your athletes, clients or yourself, so get out there and practice what you preach!

Body Composition And Taste Buds

I believe that our taste buds serve one function when it comes to body composition – to help us be as fat as possible.

Those living on the planet now represent the best of the best when it comes to surviving on it. If they possess a trait it is because the trait helped them survive. Any traits we possess have been passed along to us through our ancestors for thousands of years. Human beings have biological tendencies towards certain behaviors and the expression of these behaviors is often unconscious.

Why humans eat fat and sugar: The basic reason is that these nutrients help us store fat in preparation for the next famine / winter. That is it. Our species used to need to have large fat store to get us through the tough times and having favoring eating the things that make use fat would help us survive.

Eating disorders (at least binge eating) are a survival mechanism. Okay, I’m probably going to get blasted for that but I believe it is true. I have spoken to a number of people who suffer from compulsive eating and almost all of them describe their binges in exactly the same terms I would use to describe my binge eating. Initially, there’s an awareness of the food. The cookies call to me, the cake makes noises in the fridge to remind me that it is there, the chocolate bar dances in my peripheral vision taunting me. If I’m able to ignore them, I am fine. The craving or awareness will go away and my day will continue.

However, if I eat a cookie, have a sliver of cake or sample a piece of chocolate, something very unusual happens. I have a sensation that I can only describe as an out of body experience. I watch, in almost horror, my hands grabbing the food and putting it into my mouth. I am only marginally aware of the sensation of eating, chewing and swallowing. Basically, I sit back and watch while my body just rips its way through the food. Through out the session I will think that maybe I should stop, that maybe 20 cookies is enough, but these are just thoughts that have no impact on the behaviour of the thing I become. I roll through the food, ALL of the food, regardless of any feelings of fullness. Even the crumbs get eaten and my fingers get licked clear to make sure nothing is wasted.

Others who gorge or binge report the same sort of feeling – like they are watching something unfold and are powerless to do anything other than watch. In fact, the reports are so similar that I am left with no option but to say that this gorging behaviour is a part of our genetic code and it is a trait that was critical for the survival of our ancestors.

Why the need to gorge? Simply put, if we stopped eating when we were full, we`d be much less likely to overeat and store fat. Everyone would be their ideal weight. However, when the seasons changed and food became scarce, we would have very little stored fat to help bridge the gap between the end of harvest season and the start of the growing season in the spring. This survival trait is antiquated in modern farming times given that there is never an interruption in the food supply. However, the consequences of the expression of this trait is becoming more and more common as high sugar and high fat foods become readily available to everyone.

I have talked to 100’s of people about the food they buy and I have yet to hear any of them convincingly tell me that they do not know what they should be eating. Without fail, they all say they should be eating more vegetables and less candy or junk food. They know that fresh foods that will rot quickly are better for them than anything they buy in a package yet their buying decisions indicate everything BUT good food awareness. Logic, it seems, has little impact on many people when it comes to what they eat.

I liken this to choosing relationship partners in that most people cannot tell you exactly why they fell in love with their significant others. Everyone is looking for something, they just don’t know what it is until they see it and they don’t know why they found it when they find, just that they knew. When I fell for Rachel, there were a number of logical reason why I shouldn’t pursue her which just didn’t factor into the decision making process. She matched what I was looking for even if I didn’t know what I was looking for and I was powerless to stop myself from falling in love.

I think of food in the same way. We are drawn to it for reasons other than logic given that most do not eat the perfect foods or eat the right amount of food for their needs. We eat that which makes us fat because we’re programmed to eat it.

Food = Fuel and Building Material

When any of my clients ask me about changing their body composition the first thing I do is ask them about their relationship with food. What I’m looking for are their thoughts and feelings about eating, how food makes them feel and their motivation for eating. Depending on what is uncovered, the solution to their body composition concerns will be different. Below are some of the things that keep coming up when I talk to people about food.

Eating only when hungry. On the face of it, this approach seems like a good idea. However, it has one major drawback, it body doesn’t always tell you it needs food. For example, many people wake up not feeling hungry and skip breakfast because of it. They may even skip lunch for the same reason. The problem is that the body no longer needs to motivate you to eat because it has begun to use protein for sugar. This destroys muscle tissue, slows the metabolism and robs the immune system of the protein needed to keep it running smoothly. Later on in the day you will feel ravenous and overeat in response to this intense hunger but unless you wake-up and have breakfast the next morning, you are going to repeat the pattern, gaining fat and losing muscle everyday you allow your feelings of hunger to dictate when you eat. Eat breakfast EVERYDAY even if you don’t feel like it. Your body needs the food.

Convenience eaters. One client said that she only ate when she was hungry. I probed a little deeper and it became obvious that she is a convenience eater – she would eat whatever was right in front of her when the hunger started. She suffered from low energy in the morning and tended to eat high sugar foods around 3 PM every day. The solution we came up with was to replace the junk convenience foods with healthier options – she got rid of all the chocolates and candy in her office and now has almonds, fruit, and protein shakes. She also eats breakfast every morning REGARDLESS of her lack of hunger. Her lack of energy stemmed from a lack of fuel and now that she’s filling the tank first thing in the morning she is more alert and doesn’t find herself so hungry around 3 PM when she reaches for the more healthier snacks.

Carbs for energy with sedentary people. Another client tends to eat too many carbs because they say they are “needed for energy”. The problem is that this person is not very active and not active enough to burn off all the food they are bringing it. Their believe that carbs provide the body with energy is correct, but the amount of carbs one eats should be balanced by the amount of activity they perform. If there isn’t much activity one should limit their carb intake and use vegetable sources vs. refined grain and sugar products.

Fat avoiders. A common habit is to avoid fat as much as possible. This believe stems from the antiquated notion that fat makes people fat. The issue with this belief is that it is only true if one eats a lot of fat and too many carbs or eats too much in general. Your body uses fat for most of its activities. Other than high intensity movement and brain activity, both of which rely on sugar, the body is constantly using fat for energy. Keeping this in mind it’s clear that the need for sugar is reduced if one is not involved in high intensity movement. Since there’s a trend for very active people to be leaner, there’s a very good chance that you won’t be looking to alter your body composition if you need carbs because you’ll be active enough to burn whatever you are eating.

Carb avoiders. The inverse is also present – there are people who are carbophobic and will eat as few carbs as possible. This often presents a problem because many of these people are active and require sugar for fuel. By eliminating it, they are forcing their body to breakdown protein to generate sugar for intense movement. Often, the body will use muscle tissue as the protein source which will result in a reduction of lean body mass. This is not a good thing because gaining muscle is an active process requiring energy and time. When we use muscle for energy we are taking a step backwards in the body composition game. The key is to eat sufficient amounts of carbs to fuel the intense movements and to eat them surrounding the workouts. From my personal experiences, I have found that I can ride further and faster if I eat carbs before my rides and if I consume dextrose and whey during the ride. I also grow more when I consume dextrose and whey before and during my weight workouts. But if I have a huge feed of pasta on an off day, I get tired and probably fall asleep soon after.

Infrequent eater. Another approach is to eat large enough meals so that you only need 2 or 3 of them per day. This does help fight off hunger because large meals require more time to digest. However, the longer something stays in your stomach, the longer your body is going without the nutrients the meal provides. It is possible for someone to have lower blood sugar while having a full belly. Remember, food doesn’t impact the body until it leaves the stomach and begins to be absorbed into the blood stream in the intestines. Smaller meals that require less digestive time are better for body composition than larger meals that require a lot of work to break down.

Certain food avoiders / eating too much of one type of food. Many people eat the same foods day after day, rarely switching out foods or adding new ones. The problem with this approach to eating is that it boosts the chances of not getting all the nutrients your body needs. As much as I like my oatmeal, I NEED to eat blueberries every now and then to boost my antioxidant intake. However, if I ate nothing but blueberries I would suffer from low protein and likely end up getting sick. The main reason I hear for avoiding food or eating too much of one type is that of preference – “I don’t like blueberries” or “I like chicken”. While I can relate to liking particular foods, people who eat solely for enjoyment reasons need to adjust their thinking to regard food as fuel and building material.

Changing your body composition can be a challenge but by making a few changes in the way your approach and think about food will make this challenge a little less daunting:

  1. Food is fuel and building material for the body. It is fine to eat for enjoyment occasionally, but most of the time when you eat it is for nutrition.
  2. Eat breakfast EVERYDAY regardless of your hunger.
  3. Eat smaller meals every few hours.
  4. Eat only as many carbs as you need to fuel your activity level and eat them surrounding your activity.
  5. Surround yourself with healthy foods so when you get hungry you reach for them.
  6. 30% of your food calories should come from healthy fats. 0% should come from trans fat.
  7. Eat a variety of foods and try to eat seasonal foods from your geographic environment because they contain a lot of what is needed to thrive in your environment.

UPDATE – I took a second pass at this topic a few months later in the post titled Food As Fuel and Building Material (again).