How Much Should Science Influence Our Training?

Pyramid of Scientific Evidence

Pyramid of Scientific Evidence

Should we base our training on scientific evidence? Is the best training program one that’s taken straight from a study? In my opinion at this point in the history of science based strength and conditioning we don’t have enough studies to form a consensus on optimal program design. It’s getting better, for sure. More and more studies are coming out with trained individuals. Recent studies have begun to illuminate the importance of overall training volume for strength and hypertrophy. But we’re still in the early stages of scientific training evidence.

It’s important to remember the need for consensus. One study doesn’t prove anything. Fifteen studies which all come to a similar conclusion and now you can be pretty sure their conclusion is relevant. That’s the issue with replying to a thread with a link to a pubMed article on a study of fifteen individuals. It doesn’t tell you much. However, walk up the pyramid, and posting a systematic review is going to be a much stronger rebuttal.

The other important detail is that presenting expert opinion is not an appeal to authority. Saying that opinion is correct BECAUSE it was from an expert is the logical fallacy. Because we don’t have a lot of relevant scientific evidence in the Strength and Conditioning field expert opinion is the best source of evidence we have and that’s okay.

So the next time someone on reddit asks for a scientific source or a study remind them of the current state of strength and conditioning science and show them the evidence pyramid. But they’ll probably just ignore you anyway.

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How to Transition to Flat-backed Deadlifting

Most trainees who begin Deadlifting are told that holding a neutral spine is correct form. However, many will fail to learn this movement pattern from the start or will simply accept that they are stronger with a rounded spine and continue on with that technique. Spinal neutrality in the Deadlift is a choice every Powerlifter will need to make.

The Difference

The first difference between round-backed deadlifting and flat-backed deadlifting that always comes to mind is safety. We’re taught that it’s much safer to deadlift with a safer spine. However, spend any amount of time around a gym and you’ll notice a multitude of seemingly healthy individuals pulling with a rounded back. If round-backed lifting is unsafe wouldn’t there be more lifters with back injuries?

Suffice it to say, rounded pulling is probably not going to land you in a hospital assuming your body has adapted to the position. There may be a slightly higher risk of injury pulling rounded but that’s not to say that pulling flat will guarantee that you’re safe from back injuries.

The other major difference is sticking point. Generally if you have a rounded pull you’re going to be fast off the floor and and will slow down somewhere around knee level. If you pull flat, you’re more likely to be slow off the floor but will pick up speed as the lift progresses. This is pretty important. Your choice in pulling style will determine your sticking point.

How to Tell Which Form You Use

Maybe you don’t know whether you pull flat or rounded currently. What’s the best way to know? Film yourself! Recording video of your workset is a good idea for any serious Powerlifter as it will give you feedback on various details, RPE, technique, etc. In our case filming will immediately tell us whether we pull flat or rounded.

Another pretty good giveaway is where your DOMs are localized. If you tend to feel more sore/stiff in your low-back after pulling you probably do so with a rounded back. On the other hand if you tend to have a lot of Hamstring soreness after pulling with very little low-back soreness you’re probably more of a flat-backed puller. Keep in mind these are generalizations.

How to Start Pulling Flat-backed

At this point you’ve determined that you’re pulling with a less-than neutral spine and you’d like to improve your spinal position in the pull. Again, we don’t judge if you’ve decided to pull rounded or flat. This is a personal choice everyone needs to make. But if you’d like to pull flat here’s one way to go about it:

1. Start filming all of your Deadlift sets

This is extremely important. You need to start mentally associating what it feels like to pull with a neutral spine. Video is the best form of feedback as it’s almost instantaneous. You can perform the set and double check to see that it looks the way you want it to.

2. Lower the weight on the bar

It’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to fix your spinal position just with a cue. Your body has gotten stronger in a rounded position, you need to teach it to be strong in a flat position. If you’re using percentages I’d recommend starting somewhere in the lower 70% range. If you’re using RPEs you should factor in your technique into your RPE ratings. That is, when you start to see some rounding in your form you’ll say that you’ve hit your prescribed RPE for the day.

3. Consider lowering the rep range

Lower reps can help by allowing you to practice the setup without too much fatigue. Naturally, you’ll need to do more sets to accumulate the same amount of volume but we’re more focused on quality here rather than quantity.

4. Get your lats involved

Mike explains it best:

5. Play with hip position

You may need to lower your hips if you have them fairly high at the moment. Lowering your hips can have the effect of slackening your hamstrings just enough to allow you to pull the slack out of your low-back.

6. Play with stance-width

Sometimes getting into a position where you can shove your knees out more will make it easier to get your low-back set and tight.

7. Don’t rush the setup

Often times trainees cannot pull with a good position because they never get into the good position in the first place. Take the time to get setup correctly. Don’t rush things. Only pull when you’re ready.

Why can’t I just use assistance work to target the weakness?

While it’s conceivable that something in the muscular chain is weak and will keep you from maintaining a neutral spine it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to fix it by solely working on the musculature. Rather, the issue lies in the movement pattern. You’ve learned the movement one way and now you’ve got to learn it another.

Think of it this way. Say you learn how to play the trumpet. Suddenly you break your dominant hand and can’t play using that hand any longer. Do you think you’d be able to play with the same speed and fluency with your non-dominant hand just by doing some hand strengthening exercises? No way. You have to relearn with a different pattern. It won’t be 100% starting over but it will still take time. The analogy isn’t 100% applicable to Powerlifting but I think it’s good at illustrating what’s going on.

Conclusion

If you decide to transition to flat-backed Deadlifting it will take time to relearn the pull with new mechanics. You will need to reset your expectations of your Deadlift.

For an example of a transition to flat-backed Deadlifting, check out Arian Khamesi, IPF Coach and how he fixed his Deadlift using a similar process:

Further Reading:

  1. Bret Contreras on Rounded Back Deadlifting

  2. Mike Tuchscherer’s Thoughts for Round-Back Deadlifters

What Makes a Good Program

A well designed strength program, intending the trainee to progress in muscular hypertrophy and neuro-muscular strength, will manipulate several different types of variables. To accomplish the goal of making the trainee stronger the variables must be tweaked such that they fall within the range of what is appropriate in the individual’s context. This post will explore the majority of these important training variables.

Volume

Volume is king. It is highly correlated with both muscular size and strength. We can confidently say that to continue progressing in Powerlifting one must increase volume over time. Why? Because any kind of overload (more on this later) will cause a subsequent increase in Volume. While volume is often talked about in isolation, in reality it is related to almost every other training variable. It’s a useful metric to track because it serves as an umbrella indicator of total work.

In terms of hypertrophy, volume is what matters most; intensity is less important. It is still a useful means to increase volume but if you want to get bigger just do more volume. As powerlifters we can’t simply increase volume without maintaining a certain level of intensity as we care about both size and neurological adaptations to intensity.

A good program will take into account the trainee’s current level of volume adaptation. It will present enough volume to provide a stimulus. Make the trainee do too much work and they risk becoming over-fatigued, over-reached, and possibly over-trained. Make them do too little and their lifts will languish and they will make little to no progress. Find the sweet spot and they’ll adequately progress over time.

Overload

To get stronger, you have to lift more weight. This is intuitive to most of us in the sport. Overload is one of the most important variables in a Powerlifting program and closely related to volume. I’m not going to rehash Hans Selye’s work. Suffice to say you need to present a novel stimulus to the body otherwise it’s just going to sit in homeostasis.

The need for overload is the reason that volume must increase over time. Since tonnage (one measure of volume) is weight X reps X sets we can infer that to do so we can either increase the weight, the reps, or the sets. Increase either and we have an overload effect. However, as powerlifters we must pay attention weight more closely than the other two. Our prime concern is increasing the weight of the bar over time. Therefore, if both the total volume as well as the weight on the bar increases over time you can be sure you’re presenting an appropriate overload.

Frequency

Frequency refers to how often you perform the lifts. Powerlifting has a very real skill aspect. The lifts require practice. Just like learning to play the violin the more you practice the lifts the better your technique will be, the more efficient you will be at performing the movement pattern and the more your strength will increase.

As mentioned, frequency is closely tied with volume. The greater the frequency, the more time you will have to accumulate the necessary volume. If you only utilize a once a week frequency but have a high volume requirement your workouts will be long and arduous. On the other hand, if you perform the lift daily you can spread that volume out throughout the week which will leave you much more fresh than had you packed it into one session.

By my current understanding, the higher your frequency the better lifter you’ll probably be. This is of course relative to an individual’s context. Several caveats presents themselves to an “often-as-possible” frequency. Most of us are three lift powerlifters. We need to balance work on the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift. Doing all three lifts seven days a week is probably not practical to anyone but the most elite of powerlifters. You still need to keep in mind the requirements of everyday life.

Intensity

Closely related to both overload and volume is intensity or the weight on the bar relative to our possible maximal performance. Intensity is extremely important to a Powerlifter since our sport involves the lifting the most weight in the three lifts. Lifting at a high intensity is the quickest way to get stronger. However, it’s difficult to get an adequate amount of volume at a high intensity because the time and number of sets required can be more than what is practical.

A good approach is one that integrates an adequate level of intensity across enough reps and sets to build an appropriate level of volume. There are many ways to accomplish this. Intensity should naturally also progress over time. Intensity is the easiest variable to measure and one that most easily indicates an increase in Strength.

Exercise Selection

The simplest form of exercise selection is just performing the competition lifts themselves. However, experience and a small amount of research has shown that performing variations of the contest lifts, which emphasize an individual’s weak range of motion, can be useful in building strength for the contest lifts. The idea is that in a movement you can only be as strong as the weakest part of the range of motion. Strengthening that part of the ROM strengthens the entire movement.

For Raw Powerlifters the common weak ROMs include the bottom in the Squat, off the chest in the Bench Press, and either off the floor if you’re a flat-backed Deadlifter, or at lockout if you’re a round-backed Deadlifter. It’s important to note that the weak point in a lift is the point at which the most velocity is lost, not where it’s lowest. This is an important distinction as it’s easy to say that the slowest portion of the lift is the weakest because it’s the easiest to observe.

For more info in determining weak ranges of motion and prescribing exercises to address them check out this video and this DVD.

The Template

A template, that is what day you perform your exercises and in what order is often mistaken for a program. When designing a template one must consider the frequency of the various lifts. For many, a split template will not be ideal because it will not allow for enough frequency for sufficient practice of the lifts and accumulation of volume.

Another important consideration with templates is of course, the order of lifts performed. Specificity is also important here. The closer the order of exercises are to that of a competition, the more specific. This can be a great way to condition the athlete to a similar setup to a competition. The trade off here is of course that fatigue from one competition exercise can interfere with another.

Autoregulation

Autoregulation, as specified via programming, is a relatively new concept in Powerlifting. The idea is to adapt the weight on the bar and the total volume performed to the trainees level of fatigue on the given day. This has the effect of allowing the trainee to perform an adequate amount of work and prevent them from either doing too much and digging themselves into a high fatigue-debt or doing too little and disrupting future progress.

The concept itself is not new at all. Elite athletes have done this intuitively for decades. If they begin to feel off while warming up they may stay at a lower weight than they had planned and just do some volume. If they find that they’re “on” on this particular day they will do more than planned and perhaps try for a PR. Coaches will utilize an intuitive form of athlete regulation. They will monitor their trainee’s bar speed (by eye) and adjust the work on the fly based on past experience.

As mentioned, the act of programming autoregulation is relatively new. The most well known form is of course The Reactive Training Systems developed by Mike Tuchscherer. His system auto regulates both intensity and volume. Another form is APRE which utilizes plus sets to determine whether to increase intensity from week to week. Many modern DUP programs autoregulate based upon this concept.

Personal Investment

One variable, that hasn’t been talked about much in the past, but is getting more airtime these days is an athlete’s personal investment in a program. You can have the most perfectly crafted program but it won’t mean much if they aren’t enthusiastic enough to put their heart and soul into it. The program needs to resonate with the individual.

Several things can affect the amount of personal investment a trainee will show. A big one is their preference for novelty. Maybe they get bored easily doing the same program week in and week out. One solution for this would be to have a lot of exercise variation, even so much as so the trainee isn’t doing the same exercise two weeks in a row. You should always keep the competition exercises in but you have free-reign to vary assistance and accessory exercises.

Conclusion

This is of course only an overview of the variables that will be accounted for in a well designed Strength program. HOW they should be manipulated could be the subject of its own post and perhaps I will return to it at a later time.

How to Progress in an Autoregulated Program

mikememe2

I think one of the potential unintuitive aspects of completely auto regulated programming is how to progress. At least, answering questions on the RTS forums has made me think so. If you’re already utilizing work-up sets to calibrate your initial workset it’s understandable that some days you’ll end up working up to a heavier initial. This is fully autoregulated progression. But what about those spans of weeks where you keep hitting your projected topset. Should you ever add weight?

This is my recommendation: Start out adding five pounds to your projected e1RM each week. This will mean adding five pounds to each of the workup sets as well. Do this for a cycle. Do not force the topset. Continue to auto regulate. Observe how often you’ll be able to hit the projected initial and how (and if) it deviates from the specified topset RPE. Pay attention to what happens around high-stress weeks, if you program them. Eventually you’ll get a feel for a practical progression scheme.

Personally I’ve found that if I program @9 five pounds is a fairly sustainable progression. Lower RPEs seems to allow for a higher rate of progression, perhaps via lower accumulated fatigue. More experimentation is needed.

Thoughts on Knowledge and Strength

As I’ve gotten older I’ve been fortunate to develop a strong sense of self-awareness. While this is generally a good thing as it keeps one humble it can also present some disadvantages in the development of one’s image in a field. I’ve often found myself reluctant to engage in conversation/debate about a subject, even if I feel I have good points to add. I often second guess my opinions and ideas. Again, this is a good thing but staying out of the conversation altogether eliminates many opportunities for learning.

In powerlifting there’s a natural bias to ascribe more knowledge and experience to a stronger individual than a weaker one. This is a useful heuristic because it allows us to quickly make predictions about the relevance of the information an individual put forth. However, that’s all it is, a heuristic. We have to remember that the stronger individual is not always the more knowledgeable one. It’s important to keep this in mind as more individuals enter the sport of Powerlifting. We would all do ourselves a disservice if we disregard the ideas of less experienced individuals.

I’m not a particularly strong Powerlifter (yet). Nor am I very experienced in Programming and Coaching. I’m no Mike Tuchscherer or Matt Gary and I would never pretend to be. Does that mean I have no place in the conversation? Does that mean I should stop blogging and wait a number of years before I express my thoughts on the subject? I would argue no. While I haven’t been lifting as long I have been using my brain for most of my life (at least I’d like to think so).

If there were two individuals, one who stayed out of the conversation, put her/his head down, trained hard for 10 years, and another who trained just as hard but contributed to the community, engaged in debate and allowed the experience of others to suss out her/his own thoughts, who would be better off? I’d argue the second person. It’s quite possible the first individual would have some unique ideas on how to train but it’s also likely they would have simply stumbled onto existing ideas because of the lack of community to bounce them off of.

Particularly relevant to blogging is the need for practice. If I had the desire to write about Powerlifting (as I do) I’d naturally improve through practice. Should I write in seclusion without any feedback? Or should I present my ideas (no matter how naive they may be) and allow others to respond and pick apart my writings. Again, I’d argue the latter is a more productive course.

One would be wrong to say that knowledge is more important than strength and experience but you’d also be wrong to claim the converse. A good Powerlifting coach will be the confluence of knowledge and experience. I’d argue that a good Powerlifter would also fit this mold (or at least her/his coach would, if they have one).

I’ll close by saying that it’s difficult to write a blog on a topic without occasionally sounding like a source of authority. It’s a constant trade-off. You want to highlight your personal shortcomings while at the same time no one would want to read your writings if you sound too unsure and wishy-washy. All I can promise is that I am fully open to feedback, be it good or bad, as long as it’s constructive, and you’re welcome to call me out when I speak from too high a position of authority.

RPE vs. Percentages: Pros and Cons

I’ve written in the past about how RPE is a form of intensity abstraction; it removes the need for a lot of information. This time I wanted to compare RPE to percentages and talk about some the advantages it has over percentages and even some of the disadvantages (there are some).

Take What’s There

The biggest advantage RPE has over percentages is, of course, autoregulation. It allows you to adjust your numbers on the fly. The best part (at least from a strength coaching stand-point) is that you can account for both good and bad days in the trainees program.

With percentages, if the trainee is feeling good and decides to go up in weight they have to deviate from the program. That’s okay if you’re under the watchful eye of the coach and they give you the go-ahead but otherwise the trainee might be introducing variables the coach didn’t specify. On bad days the trainee only has the percentages to go off of and will potentially dig themselves a larger fatigue debt.

Using RPE in a programming allows you to take what’s there on any given day. If you’re supercompensating and your strength has improved over last week you will take advantage of it just by following your programming.

Built-in Progression

If you run a percentage based routine over a number of weeks your strength may have increased at numerous points throughout that routine. If there’s no specified progression you’ll never take advantage of that strength increase and therefore experience an overload effect.

Even if there’s a specified progression scheme (ex. +5 lbs, +10lbs per week) there’s no guarantee it will be appropriate for the trainee. If the trainee accumulates too much fatigue on a week (due to outside stress or what not) that five pound increase could be enough to push them further into a fatigue debt. Or maybe it’s the other way around and five pound isn’t enough to really take the new strength into account.

As mentioned earlier, RPE will take advantage of what’s there. If you’ve gotten ten pounds stronger you’re going to have an extra rep or two in the tank. This is also extremely convenient for the coach. They no longer have to guess at an appropriate weight increase across the weeks.

Required Calibration

One of the downsides to using RPE is that, most of the time, you can’t just jump right into your worksets or topsets. There is some calibration required because you are autoregulating and do not know exactly where your strength is on the given day. This is most often accomplished using one or more workup sets which allow you to hone in on your worksets for the day.

Lack of Predictability

It should be obvious by now, but anyone who is autoregulating knows that it’s hard to predict training variables. With percentages (as long as they aren’t too high) you can be pretty confident in your intensity and total volume on any given day. This will allow you to make broader predictions about the training cycle.

I’m sure you can tell by now that I’m bullish on RPE but it’s a good exercise to sometimes consider the downsides.

RTS Classroom

classroom

RTS Classroom is one of the best ways to invest in your knowledge of the sport

Today I wanted to mention one of the best resources available for students of the sport of Powerlifting. I’ve read a lot of literature on Powerlifting and strength training (except for Supertraining, no one reads Supertraining). I’ve certainly learned a lot from reading but if I’m to be honest I’d have to say that I’m generally better at learning via auditory means. I find training literature to generally be extremely dull and it takes a lot of concentration to finish it.

When I heard that Mike Tuchscherer was starting a series of online lectures about powerlifting I immediately jumped on board. I’d read his book and bought several DVDs from the site and I learned so much just from those alone. I’ve been subscribed since the beginning and I can honestly say I’ve learned more about the sport in the past year via RTS Classroom than from all of the strength literature I’ve read. Mike has an amazing ability to organize, condense, and summarize important training concepts.

One of the best aspects of RTS Classroom is that Mike is constantly growing the amount of content and also the topics it covers. In the past few months he’s had Mike Zourdos (of DUP fame) come on board and give lectures he’s originally prepared for his university students. Ben Esgro has also been giving lectures on Nutrition including IIFYM and reverse dieting.

Here are some examples of the topics that have been covered in RTS Classroom:

  • Autoregulation Fundamentals
  • Block Periodization
  • Exercise Selection
  • Concurrent Training
  • Skeletal Muscle Physiology
  • Nutrition Fundamentals and Fallacies

One of the points I made in my recent article published by RTS is that you can’t go wrong by learning more about your sport. In my opinion, RTS Classroom is one of the best resources available today for those looking to increase their knowledge and become a student of the sport. I highly recommend it and encourage you to sign up.

I wanted to note that (other than being a moderator on the RTS Forums) I am not affiliated with Reactive Training Systems. I am advocating for RTS Classroom solely because I think it is a fantastic resource for anyone who considers themselves a student of the sport.

Week of 9/21/2014

Tuesday 23, Sep 2014

#Deadlift w/ belt
345 x 5 @6
365 x 5 @8
345 x 5 @7
345 x 5 @7.5
Work capacity is crap

#Bench
205 x 3 @6
215 x 3 @7
225 x 3 @7.5
215 x 3 @7
215 x 3 @7
Feeling some elbow discomfort. Gonna hammer shoulder mobility

Thursday 25, Sep 2014

#Front Squat
205 x 6 @6
215 x 6 @7
225 x 6 @8
215 x 6 @7
215 x 6 @8

#Floor Press
195 x 6 @6
205 x 6 @7
215 x 6 @8.5
205 x 6 @7
205 x 6 @8

Friday 26, Sep 2014

#303 Tempo Squat
245 x 4 @6
260 x 4 @7
275 x 4 @7.5
260 x 4 @7
260 x 4 @8
This movement does not lend itself well to RPE

#Pin Press (chest level)
205 x 4 @7
215 x 4 @8
205 x 4 @7
205 x 4 @8

#3ct Pause Deadlift
225 x 6 @7
245 x 6 @8
235 x 6 @8
Wow, my fucking coach sucks

Decided to group my training log posts together so as not to spam my blog with them

How I stopped my Squat from leaning to one side

This one’s a bit more practical and one of those “this has worked for me”. Obviously, if you’re having the same issue this might not work for you. However, I wanted to toss this out into the ether just incase I might be able to help someone out there.

When I first became serious about Squatting I was plagued with elbow pain (which hasn’t fully abated but has a different cause), specifically in my left elbow. This is a fairly common phenomena with Low-Bar squatters. Around the same time I noticed, from constantly filming my sets, that I had a significant lean to my right-hand side. Perhaps this is best illustrated by a video from my first meet:

This seemed to correlate with elbow pain and conceptually it made sense to me. If the bar was lower on the right-hand side it would pull up on my left arm irritating the connective tissue. I figured something was tight and pulling my right shoulder lower than my left. So I spent a lot of time hunting for trigger points on my right-side, specifically foam rolling the lats as I felt they were probably the primary issue. It got me largely nowhere.

I was able to compensate for the issue by actively shrugging my right shoulder up during Squats sets. This was suggested to me by Tom Campitelli and it worked fairly well until heavier sets where it was difficult to concentrate on keeping the shoulder higher. The pain abated but the issue persisted. Eventually the pain came back as well and I began hunting, once again, for an answer to the issue.

I had assumed that my shoulders were just asymmetrical as a result of an anatomical anomaly. I asked the 70’s Big guys if they had ever seen anything like this and Mike Battaglino made the correct call. He’d said that in the past his scalenes and traps and gotten tight in the past and he’d seen something similar. This was an entirely new idea for me as I’d spent all my time trying to treat the opposite side of the body than where the tightness had been occurring.

Scalenus.png

“Scalenus” by User:Mikael Häggström. ¹

Trapezius Gray409.PNG

“Trapezius Gray409” by Mikael Häggström. ²

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The trap/neck area is a hard area to hit. You can’t foam roll it, it’s pretty tough to hit with a lacrosse ball (other than the top of the traps). I had some success with a theracane. But what worked the best (and has continued to work) is hitting the area with a car buffer prior to Squatting. The car buffer works well for this because the machine does most of the work (as opposed to other methods which require your bodyweight or manual pressure). You can also push on it to apply additional pressure.

What’s worked for me is starting with the top of the traps and grinding on as much trap as you can reach back for, then working on the top of the traps and grazing the scalene muscles as much as possible. The neck is a very sensitive area (at least for me) so gentle pressure is all that’s required.

For further reading on this topic check out Paul Ingraham’s post on neck trigger points.

References:

1. “Scalenus” by User:Mikael Häggström. Original uploader was Mikael Häggström at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:IngerAlHaosului using CommonsHelper. (Original text : Image:Gray387.png). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

2. “Trapezius Gray409” by Mikael Häggström. When using this image in external works, it may be cited as follows: Häggström, Mikael. “Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014”. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.008. ISSN 20018762. – Image:Gray409.png. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Reactive Training Systems: The Pitfall Programs

If you haven’t seen it I had an article published by Reactive Training Systems. The Pitfall Programs