Archive for October, 2012

In training, we have something called a “master cue.” The master cue is something that you give when your client is doing an exercise that will (hopefully) correct any form defects they are developing in the heat of the set (or just keep them going with good form). For the squat, a good master cue is “ass first, hip drive.” For the deadlift, an excellent one is “chest up, drive your heels through the floor.” The skill of cueing is important in training because the cue is the smallest effective bit of information you can possibly give the client and, ironically, can be the most useful. Why not explain it before the set? Well, you should. When the client is in the middle of a set, though, they can’t possibly pay attention to a technical description of the lift or look at you doing a demonstration. They don’t have the concentration capacity to apply 100%, look at you, understand, and consciously correct their form in the middle of a squat. The master cue gives them something they can process immediately and apply. Instead of spending 30 seconds explaining which muscles they should be feeling when, you give them something easy and digestible, something that gives them the “a-ha” that they can put in effect immediately. Think about it. When I say, “chest up, push the heels through the floor,” you can do that immediately. It’s simple. You don’t even need to think about it. Chances are, while you were sitting there your back straightened a little and your chest rose just as you read that. Compare that to me saying, “Your lumbar spine should be extended but not too much, don’t engage the back till it’s past your knees, keep your ass low to the ground at the start,” and you realize the importance of the master cue.

Not to say that all you need are cues. The technical description of a lift is very important too – it breeds understanding of the true biomechanics of the lift and helps you to coach yourself. The difference is that one deals with understanding and requires thought and a mental process to ingrain it as, “that lift,” whereas the other, the master cue, doesn’t require thought, it just requires action. It is saying, “do this,” as opposed to “when you set up like this, that should be as such.” And that is the skill of the master cue.

Now, the second half.

Something I realized at the gym today while doing my bench press was the common misunderstanding (even by trainers) of the phrase, “Slow descent, fast push.” To explain the true nature of what this phrase really means (and not the misconception), I have to start with the har

d stuff.

Something I learned in physics class a long time ago is that muscles have a spring constant (backed up here: What is a spring constant? In physics, a spring constant is the amount of force required to extend or compress a spring “x” distance. Since muscle is elastic in nature  (to a point), it stores energy as it is extended and releases that energy (to a small but effective degree) to contract again.

Shamelessly edited from google images.

Now, it’s only logical to remember that muscles are not perfect springs. They do, however fit the definition as materials that store elastic energy as they deform due to force.

But how does this relate to physiology and exercise? Cue the misused “slow down, fast up” cue. The good nature is there, but the meaning has been lost behind the cue.

When force is applied to muscle at rest, the stretch muscle engages unconsciously as a result of a motor nerve feedback loop. As the muscle stretches, it contracts to oppose the force being applied to it (to prevent damage to the skeletal system, nerves, and especially the muscle body itself). An excellent example of this is the jaw clasp test: holding the mouth slightly open and relaxed, ask a friend to (or do it yourself) tap with one finger, applying the force downwards, the top part of the chin, just below the lip (the mandibular protuberance). Chances are, unless there is something gravely wrong with you, your relaxed jaw will not bounce downwards, and the masseter muscles in your jaw will resist with just enough force to hold your jaw in almost the exact same position.

If you think about this, it’s an incredibly evolutionary advantageous adaptation. If muscles were strictly under somatic (voluntary) control, chances are, our ancestors would have had far more dislocation, sublaxation, and ligament tear injuries. The system favors muscle injuries over synovial and ligamentatious injuries. The advantage of a system that experiences solely muscle belly injuries (a pulled muscle) over damage to the connective tissues of the body is that muscle tissue is vascularized. Vascularized tissue (as opposed to avascular) is tissue that has blood vessels running through it, meaning it is fed by an active blood supply. Muscle is vascularized. Connective, ligamentatious, and cartilagineous tissue is avascular. What this means is that, being that the latter three types are only fed by proxy, by synovial fluid or other means, they are much less quick to heal than muscle tissue, and more likely to heal in a less-than-useful fashion. Muscle tissue, since it has excellent blood supply, heals very quickly, flushes waste very quickly, and, when healed actively (used in the fashion it is designed while healing), will heal with a minimum of scar tissue.

So now we know why and how the stretch reflex works, but where does it tie into the cue and the spring constant?

Contracted muscle tissue has a much higher spring constant than relaxed tissue, which means that contracted muscle stores a much higher percentage of the energy that gravity exerts on the weights in your hands as it descends than relaxed muscle. When you get to the bottom of the exercise, the energy stored in the muscles is at its maximum. This higher fraction of elastic energy already stored means that less energy will be required in ATP form to drive the weight up. As a side note: this does NOT make the exercise any easier on the muscle, nor will it affect gains in muscle mass – the amount of mechanical stress, that is, actual physical damage to the muscle tissue, remains the same for the exercise, and as such the muscle will be rebuilt and experience hypertrophy and hyperplasia to the same degree as with higher ATP energy required.

When a trainer tells you, “slow down, fast up,” know the true meaning of this cue. When you are going, “slow down,” (on what is called the eccentric phase of the rep) you should be focusing on storing the elastic energy in the muscle groups you are using. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but you’ll feel when you do it right, especially on the bench press. It manifests as a unique tightness in your muscles; it’s a really powerful feeling. You’ll feel in control, even with heavy weight, as opposed to the shaky feeling everyone’s experienced. The best friend of the powerful spring feeling is GOOD FORM. 

Now, when you get to the bottom, DO NOT “let go.” What I mean by this is relaxing at the bottom of a rep. Again, you can feel this on the bench press the best. It’s when people get trapped under the bar. Save your rest for the top of the rep. If you “wait and relax” at the bottom of the rep, you release all the elastic energy stored in the descent, and force your muscles to do much more work going back up. It’s akin to learning the rowing stroke; you never “wait” at the catch, you drive as soon as you hit the “legs vertical” point. Think of the bottom of the rep as the “trigger.” You pull on that trigger and all that force builds up to the bang as you shoot the weight up. Yanking the trigger (by just letting the weight fall back down each rep) will throw the shot off and just ruin maybe even the set.

There you have it, the “true” meaning of “slow down, fast up.” What an anticlimactic ending.

As a side note, the reason the deadlift is so damn hard is because you come all the way to the floor, put the weight down, release all the elastic energy in your posterior chain, and pick it up again. What a mean, mean exercise.

If you were to ask me why I became a trainer, the answer would probably be something along the lines of, “By default.”

I don’t mean that as a bad thing. It’s not even a knock against myself. I’m too young to be a doctor; I’m still working on bigger things. But what I love is training. This is my career for now until something takes its place (if anything ever does). Why? Because I can have everything. Being a great trainer, transcending the ordinary, requires an understanding of all fields of human knowledge. Physics, anatomy, biology, and mathematics are all integral to training. Absolutely necessary. But the great trainers are masters of philosophy, they’re wordsmiths, they’re motivators, and, most importantly, they don’t settle for “good enough.” I love this aspect. Being a trainer is much like the nature of training itself. You are never stagnant, you must always exceed your level. Honestly, I’d rather be doing something that fulfills my craving for excellence than something that pays well but leaves me empty inside. Life is too short to do anything other than what makes it worthwhile.

As an athlete, whatever you do, never accept “good enough.” This is your enemy. Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. Bruce Lee could perform one handed, two finger pushups. Men conquer the highest mountain peak every year; they climb so high that, were their oxygen tanks to break, they would surely die minutes into the descent; they climb so high that the curvature of the earth is visible. Your body is capable of truly epic feats.

Knowing how to use it… That’s something different. I did stupid things when I started. Everyone does. Things that don’t make a bit of difference in your workout, things that have the sole effect of tiring you out. It’s only by being fed up with my progress stagnating that I was able to break the plateaus I encountered.

You’ll face sticking points. Everyone does. When you do, go read. Research. Do. When doing one thing gives you an undesirable result, there’s only one option – do something different! Don’t be afraid to try new things (within reason). Look up how to break plateaus. I can promise you that without the drive to learn new techniques, to truly exceed yourself, you will go nowhere.

Bruce Lee once said, “Be water.” It’s my motto. When water encounters an obstacle, it doesn’t push against it, doesn’t get fed up. It simply flows around. Water carves a canyon not through raw strength or anger but through persistence.

Approach your training with the same persistence. Changes will not happen overnight. Rome was not built in a day. Be persistent in your training and when you encounter an obstacle or a sticking point, be water and find a path with which to flow around your plateau.

Drug abuse:

Well, not really drug abuse, but they’re drugs and a lot of “athletes” abuse them to some degree. I’m talking about preworkout supplements.

Admittedly, I used them a while ago, and I thought they were helpful. I’ll go on the record and say they weren’t (knowing what I know now). For about 6 months of my lifting career, I used “Jack3d” (“used” being language evocative of imagery like heroin users passed out in alleys, really Jack3d is just a drink mix), a PWO (preworkout) containing, amongst a host of other agents, DMAA (Dimethylamylamine) and caffeine. We all know what caffeine does, so let’s skip that for the time being. The other compound, however, is less well known (Skip to the next paragraph if you’re not that interested, the rest of this one gets pretty dry). DMAA or 1,3 methylhexanamine is a compound containing 6 carbons and an amine group. Alright. But beyond that, it should definitely be noted that the structures of DMAA and amphetamine (yes, that one) are very similar (with amphetamine substituting a benzene ring at the end opposite to the amine for DMAA’s 3 carbons).

If you skipped that part, I don’t blame you. Now on to the fun stuff. First off, I’m not going to call DMAA meth. It’s not. But related as they are, DMAA shares some of its stimulant, expectorant, and psychoactive properties with Methamphetamine. It’s very worth noting that, although no true studies have been done (the supplement industry is unregulated), many users claim that the comedown effects from substantial DMAA supplementation were not unlike amphetamine comedowns.

My personal experience: I liked it. For a while. The first couple doses make you feel like the king of the world. You’re aggressive, on point, and full of energy. To drive that point home, one thing I attribute entirely to the Jack3d was my daily testosterone-pumped rock-out session on my way to the gym in the summer, windows down, screaming the lyrics to my favorite metal songs and probably terrifying the hell out of other drivers on the road. Get to the gym; squat Jupiter, curl Venus, and bench press the Sun. But after a week, Jack3d becomes much more sinister. You aren’t looking forward to taking your PWO, you’re just doing it to get through the gym. You feel sluggish, unmotivated, and just all-around crappy if you don’t get your fix. Yes, it really is like this. As I write it, I realize how much I sound like Nikki Sixx. Jonesin’ for that next dose, maaaaan. That’s why I quit. And it wasn’t really hard: you feel awful for about three days and you’re over it and thanking God it seems like that’s all it did to your body.

I’m not saying don’t take any of these supplements (Jack3d removed DMAA from their mixture some time ago). I’m saying know what you’re in for and know that if you take a supplement, you might not ever really know what you were in for. Remember, in Schwarzennegar’s days, it was acceptable to take anabolics; remember that it takes about 20 years for damage to really appear in your body.

Caffeine: the wonder drug. Really, I’ve seen studies done that say it slows brain aging, reduces fatigue, fights diabetes, causes weight loss, etc. True or not, it’s been pretty well time-tested. My parents drank coffee and their parents before them. Today, before my workout I had a big cup of Dunkin’ Donuts original blend, ground up 30 seconds before being put in the french press. Needless to say, it was a cathartic experience. About 15 minutes later (keep in mind, I’ve been off PWO’s for about a year), I was jacked up and ready to go lift some heavy things. So, I went to the gym and had a great workout. The point of that story? Coffee can turn a crappy day into a great one at the gym. In good conscience, I can’t knock caffeine. It’s the most widely used psychoactive drug and has probably saved the lives of a few hundred tired shift workers on the way home. I love it. Who doesn’t love it? In good conscience, I can, however, tell you to use it in moderation: the body adapts to any substance you put in it, regardless of whether or not you want to. In one way, it means you don’t have to pee every five minutes when you have a cup of joe. In another, it means that taking caffeine before your workout for two months straight means you probably have just killed the benefit. Use it in moderation and cycle it in a fashion that you and your body are comfortable with.


Sorry. There was no other way I wanted to phrase that. There are some things that should not be done. Having your client stand on a bosu (balance) ball and lift one leg after another or do crunches on it is just stupid. Not only are crunches stupid, but balance balls are stupid. Sure, they have maybe one or two legitimate applications, but in my ignorant years I used one, made no improvement balance-wise, then years later did my squats with good form and almost hover across the ground. There’s a reason you never saw Schwarzeneggar, Columbu, or Zane on balance balls.

Crunches: doing them with good form is acceptable. And I mean acceptable in a very abstract, pseudo-sarcastic way in that I’d never use them. Done badly, they are a great way to ruin your back and give you false hope of washboard abs. Much better exercises are the hanging leg raise and the plank, isometric exercises that train the core in the manner in which it was “designed” to function. Which segways into my next point….

“Functional movement:” There’s functional movement and then there’s “Advanced Training Functional Exercises for Building Strength Applicable in All Situations.” Beware of this special brand of Bullshit. The “ATFEBSAAS” is the typical thing that you see from big box gyms and trainers trying to make a name for themselves. The kind of assholes that think that the more complicated the exercise is, the more strength it must build. These guys will have their clients stand on a Bosu Ball (with one leg) and do front raises with a 10lb dumbbell, all while telling them to “feel it in their abs” and timing them to make sure they got a solid fifty reps in. This sort of idiocy is what gets people hurt. To this I respond, “Functional movement? So you’re telling me in the wild, our ancestors had to lift one leg on an unstable surface, raise something with a straight arm, and squat all at once?” Obviously they didn’t. The squat is a functional movement (How do you get onto the toilet?). The OHP (overhead press) is functional. I cannot think of a more functional movement than picking something very heavy off the floor (oh how I love the deadlift).

Spot reduction:” The notion that you can do an exercise and have the fat “melt off” is asinine. It’s harsh, I know, but true. Trainers telling clients to “do some crunches, we’ll get that belly off!” did not spend enough time studying metabolism. Energy does not simply come from fat. Everything has to go through the blood. There is physically no other pathway for materials to get to the muscle. Humorous as it would be, fat cannot just “go” into the veins or “melt into muscle,” either. To spot reduce, the body would have to “know” which part of the body you were trying to “tone” (God, I hate that word). The body can’t know this. Fat cells are not connected to somatic nerves, meaning there is no voluntary aspect to ANYTHING fat cells do. Your body has a demand for energy, uses signaling hormones to tell the fat “hey, tank’s low, buddy,” and the fat cells (all over the body) happily oblige. If you want abs, you need to cut your body fat percentage. Pro tip: cut carbs out of your diet. Intake of simple carbohydrates creates an insulin spike; insulin is the hormone almost entirely responsible for fat deposition.

Running: I’m going to take heat for this. I’ve come to terms with that. But running is an end, not a means. I’m really not being as big of a jerk as you might think. I promise. I love running. But good lord does it really take it out of me. There’s a reason all good marathon runners (with the exception of Dean Karnazes, look him up) look like they crawled out of a crypt in Egypt. Long distance running is something incredibly demanding on the body in all ways. If you’re looking to put on mass or even look aesthetic, I would back off on the running. All it does is burn calories, destroy your muscles and joints, and wear out your legs. It does not build muscle. What I meant by “an end and not a means” is that if running is all of what you want to do, do it! Do squats, bicycle, and deadlift to get your 100m, 5k, or whatever up. But if you are not a runner, are not interested, or even hate running, for the love of God do not feel obligated to do it. Especially if you are a bodybuilder or a powerlifter, running will do more harm than good. Save yourself the year of progress that I lost.

As a caveat: barefoot running will DESTROY your calves. In a good way. Do it at maximum once every couple of weeks. Look up online how to run without hurting yourself. A good way to ensure that you don’t is to remember that your calves are supposed to function naturally as shock absorbers, to capture the energy that your body comes down with, store it, and let it loose as you drive with your legs. A lot of sprinter’s PR’s were set barefoot.

Machines: First off, why would you spend $2,000 on something that does three exercises when you can buy a good barbell and 400lb’s worth of plates for close to $1k and do almost every exercise imaginable. Doesn’t make sense to me. But beside the economics of barbell vs. machine, a technical question arises. Why would anyone think that it’s safe to take your body, adjust the backrest to something and strap in, load up 140lbs for a chest press, and press that weight in an unnatural and limited range of motion. It is not. I destroyed my rotator cuff in high school and that changed everything about lifting for me. Never had surgery, but I know when I’m doing something wrong because my shoulder complains whenever the anthropometry or physics for an exercise is wrong. It’s how I learned how to bench correctly and it may even be a blessing in disguise. Where I’m going with this is that I can tell in my shoulder when I’m on these “chest fly”, “dynamic bench”, or “third stupid name” machines that something just ain’t right. If you are going to use a machine instead of a barbell, good form (which is not needed on the puzzle-piece precise machines) must absolutely be substituted for knowing how to correctly set up the machine correctly for your anthropometry. Be a fraction of a setting off and you could impinge one of your rotator cuff muscles between your humerus and clavicle. Or wear the hell out of your wrist. Trust me. Just learn how to lift with barbells and dumbells. You’ll look so much cooler with your original knees and shoulders when you’re 75. 

The elliptical: I have a special place in the pit of my heart for this dumb machine. Obviously whoever designed it wanted people to work out without ever doing any work. Even with resistance on, the motion is at least 50% momentum. You’re essentially driving a huge flywheel when you pedal. Next time you’re on one, go ahead and do whatever you do, but in the middle, lift one leg and stop pedaling. Money says, the machine’ll keep going for another three or four “steps.” This is not good. If working out was easy, everyone would be fit and you and I wouldn’t be quite as awesome, would we? Do yourself a favor; do your squats and power cleans and feel good that you have a constitution strong enough to voluntarily do the hard stuff. Oh, and by the way, for the ladies: the key to a great butt is not the elliptical or the stair climber. 1) Do sets of six heavy squats. 2) Repeat for about two weeks. 3) Enjoy your jeans fitting a lot better.

Inneffective stuff:

Bicep curls: They really suck. Better variations are things like the concentration curl, overhand curls, and most importantly, the weighted chin. I can’t explain why, I really don’t know, but my arms have been their biggest when I do my chins, concentration curls, and leave it at that. Do ’em heavy.

Behind the neck press: Don’t do this. It doesn’t exercise anything that the OHP doesn’t, but it gives you the added bonus of a shoulder injury.

Kipping anything: I’m sure it has it’s place, but I never kip my pullups. For one, I really don’t want to knock any equipment down, and secondly, my rotator cuff is fragile as is, I don’t need “Dynamic Motion” ruining it any more than it already is. Strict form builds muscle. Flailing to use momentum on the drive upwards does not. Who is going to be stronger? The guy who uses his quads, glutes, and calves to jerk the weight up in an OHP, or the guy who does it with strict form? If the answer isn’t clear, go train both and see which is harder.

Fit dog owners should study this.

From my favorite imageboard, a little heavy on the profanity but still hilarious none the less.