crossfit

Arousal Theory and Strength Sports: How to Harness Nuclear Energy

At the elite level, a large difference in performance between the three medalists on the podium is not typical. We see this across various individual strength sports such as weightlifting, sprinting, and gymnastics. One percent could be the difference between missing and breaking a world record. In weightlifting, both lifts are very explosive with neither one taking more than a few seconds to complete, and optimum power output must be produced. There is often only 2.5 kg separating the lifters in the top 5 spots, meaning the smallest variation in performance can be the difference between securing a medal and failing to place. Sports, which have very little variability between the top athletes who place, express a need for training modalities that can push performance just by a slight increase.

Overworking vs. Underworking

Because numbers can easily measure weight training progress, athletes have a tendency to pursue testing methods often. The aggressive consciousness, which weightlifters seem to possess, is a rivalry against oneself, and often leads to overtraining. Athletes typically have a competitive personality, which makes them assume overworking is better than underworking.

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The theoretical goal is to design a training program that will provide stress, but not continue to the point of distress. Little room for error can be left when peaking and every competitive advantage should be used for a successful performance. These factors can be measured and maintained by monitoring mood and excessive arousal while helping avoid the negative effects of over-reaching, which can lead to over-training.

A stressor is anything that may knock the body out of balance (a.k.a. homeostasis).

*for more on homeostasis and stress read here.

The stress response is what your body does to re-establish the balance. Your body’s physiological response mechanisms are beautifully adapted for overcoming short-term physical traumas. When we turn on the same physiological responses that are provoked chronically with heightened arousal, it then becomes disastrous. Fitness and fatigue cannot exist independently and often the demands of competitive athletes do not match according to the current level of not only physiological functioning, but psychological. Almost all athletes are overworked in some capacity, and although we all want to embrace ‘the grind’, constant excitement will cripple our success for long-term athletic development.

When to Turn It On

Many of us fail to differentiate between activating a stress-response out of necessity and for the sake of it. We become accustomed to turning our anticipatory defenses into an uproar of unnecessary activation. If you constantly mobilize energy at the cost of energy storage, you will never create a reserve for when it counts the most (aka competition). Excessive arousal may seem necessary, but more often than not is hindering performance as opposed to aiding in a successful attempt.

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Arousal and Threat

Arousal is a combination of physiological and psychological activity theorized to fall along a continuum from a completely relaxed state to intense state of excitement (Moran, 2004). Arousal is suppressed and activated by the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the Autonomic Nervous System. The sympathetic nervous system prepares our body for when energy expenditure is needed. During arousal our body needs to pay attention to the task at hand, so it neglects other systems such as immune and digestion that are deemed lower priority at that moment. For example, let’s say you’re roaming the Serengeti and a lion pops up ready to eat you. In that exact moment, what is most important to your body:

  1. - Digesting the food you just ate
  2. - Defending against a disease that may harm you tomorrow
  3. - Getting an erection
  4. - Running away to ensure survival

While 1-3 are indeed important, they do nothing to help you run away from the lion and must be “ignored” for the time being.

Yerkes & Dodsen (1908) developed the inverted-U theory in an attempt to explain the affiliation between arousal and performance. The relationship is curvilinear, specifically stating performance is lowest when arousal is very high or very low, and optimal at a moderate level (Singer et al., 2001). In Weightlifting, an athlete must presumably lift the most weight possible during an optimum level of arousal, however, either hyperarousal or diminished arousal may lessen performance (Jensen, 2009).

Although heightened arousal can impair the performance of some motor tasks, the relation between a stressor and the change in arousal varies markedly across individuals. It is also important to note that there are always exceptions to the case, but the vast majority of people happen to perform better with moderate levels of arousal. What is considered a eu-stress for one individual may in fact be a dis-stress for another.

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Generally speaking, certain sports require distinctive arousal levels

Fine motor control requires less arousal while motor tasks, which require strength or ballistic movements, require higher levels of arousal (Noteboom, Barnholt & Enoka, (2001). Ultimately, many variables play a role in creating a successful athlete, and to appropriately accommodate those variables an individualized program must be administered. For example, not everyone will respond to a certain stimulus of physical training the same way, just like how everyone will respond to stress management in slightly different ways

New athletes often make an assumption that psyching up or creating a high level of arousal is imperative to optimally complete a heavy lift. While higher arousal helps strength, compromised coordination and technique may occur, especially if technique is still being learned. The common mistake a lifter will face is overdoing it or using techniques at the wrong moments in training. A beginner is less groomed and so the motions of their sport are not as habitual in those who have ample amounts of experience. Typically a beginner will do better with low levels of arousal because performance is based on utilization of relevant cues and narrowing of attention as arousal increases. Too many cues, or an excess of arousal, can cause the lifter to heighten his or her state of sensory sensitivity to a state of hyper vigilance. When we approach a lift with excessive arousal we can trigger inappropriate responses such as excessive physical strain associated with somatic anxiety.

Once a lifter becomes accustomed to the motor patterns of their sport, then they will be able to determine their optimal zone of functioning within the arousal continuum.

New athletes get a pass because they don’t know any better. For those of you who are familiar with training and are constantly in the weight room screaming about your next lift to come, you are wasting your time and giving us all headaches. You’ve also caused a substantial amount damage, which now must be dealt with somehow.  You simply can’t train like this as often as you’d like. Threat Matrix Theory (Visser & Davies, 2010) explains how any number of multiple outputs may form from a stress response. We do not only encounter a single variable altered during this process. Determining which part of the fatigue was caused by the training itself, and what was caused by the emotional stress of an elevated arousal state is the hard part.

A stressor may be as simple as anticipation before a competitive situation, which at first may appear as psychological, but as it manifests becomes physiological as well (Jensen, 2009). Such a response can lead to a failed lift or technical failure resulting in injury, or improper recovery causing you to peak or fatigue earlier than you should be when competition time comes (Lee, 1990). Competitive weightlifters understand competitions provide incentive for hard training. A successful meet involves more than being stronger compared to competitors of the same weight class. In addition to physical training, psychological aspects such as mood and vigor will play an important role in an athlete’s performance as well.

Don’t train harder, train smarter.

Profile of Mood States Questionnaire (POMS) is a standard validated psychological test formulated by McNair et al. (1971) which requires you to indicate for each word or statement how you have been feeling in the past week.

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Athletes scoring below norms on scales of tension, depression, confusion, anger, and fatigue, and above norms on vigor, are said to possess a ‘positive profile’ that graphically depicts an iceberg. Monitoring of mood states may offer potential methods of mitigating loads, whether that be psychological or physical.

Serious athletes will push their bodies hard enough, often riding that fine line between wellness and illness. Simply tracking how you feel related to qualitative variables, which mirror excess stress, can be of use to athletes and coaches. You can do this by writing it in your training log (if you don’t have one yet, what are you waiting for?). Remember, stress comes in all shapes and sizes and we deal with it enough, so why add more to training than necessary?

Optimizing performance is contingent upon proper stress regulation and will differ between training and competition environment. Coaches are often attempting to increase the likelihood of success within an athlete’s performance and will make most of the decisions for an athlete, but for those who do not have this advantage should educate themselves. In accordance with proper programming, mental skills training to control or alter arousal levels may be of interest. Beginning to use skills during practice will have a carry-over effect in competition, and is valuable in both situations. Utilizing such skills will not likely benefit the day of competition if not practiced.

Learn how to create a balance with combinations of relaxation and intensity. These are two things that don’t seem to go together when you first think about it. Managing arousal levels is key in not only competitive situations, but during training as well. If you experience every lift in a working set during training as a max effort lift you will pay the price. Being able to harness nuclear energy is the name of the game. Conserve it for a time when it is most necessary. To understand the stress response, fundamental knowledge not only of physiology but of psychology as well, must be possessed.

about the author

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Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.

To Think or Not To Think: The Power of Mental Rehearsal

Bases loaded, I click my shoes twice to get the extra dirt off my cleats. I take three practice swings outside of the batters box with two bats, going through my walk up routine perfectly, without even thinking. As I approach the plate my coach says, “Don’t think and just rip it." Pitch one, strike. I didn’t like it, too far outside. Pitch two, swing and a miss; I wasn’t even sure what happened. What gives? I wasn’t over thinking, my swing was PERFECT, coach said so himself. Count is 0-2 and my hands are so clammy I can barely hold onto the bat. I start to go over my last swing in my head, but then the ball comes right at me. Pitch three, perfect pitch, right down the line.

I struck out, and it was the first of many times at bat where I would approach the plate with uncertainty. Dragging my head down in shame back to the dugout, my coach pats me on the back. “You were thinking too much again.”  This isn’t a flash back from an intense collegiate game, it was fourth grade little league and it marked the beginning of me critically thinking about “thinking.”

Do I ‘Think’ Too Much?

I never knew what to focus on when at bat or, as my coach would say, what not to think of, and it followed me through my entire career as an athlete. Lets jump forward 15 years to me now competing as a weightlifter. If you are involved with strength sports you may agree with me when I say it is one of the most fatiguing athletic ventures. But you're probably thinking in terms of how hard your program is physically and how you have DOMS from those back squats you did the other day.

Tommy Kono, a well known weightlifter and coach, as well as an inductee of the International Weightlifting Hall of Fame, broke down the main aspects of weightlifting success into a pie chart, which looks like this:

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50% is from the mind   30% technique   20% power development

He stated most lifters and coaches seem intent on spending no time on the first item and every little second of all their efforts on the last, until exhaustion. It's not the amount of physical strain placed on our bodies which may make us a successful competitor in the long run; instead, it's the combination of cultivating the correct mind-set so when we approach our times of physical strain we are prepared.

I can guarantee every single person reading this has been advised at one time or another that the reason they missed a lift, or didn't make the big play, was because they were over thinking, spending too much time analyzing, or rather, not relying on their “muscle memory" and instincts.

Research on memory and its various systems is vital to understanding information processing and motor performance. Muscle memory has been used to describe the observation that various muscle-related tasks (such as swinging a bat or performing a snatch) seem to be easier to perform after previous cyclic practice. It is as if the muscles “remember.” Information is perceived by the CNS and prepped for a meaningful motor response, when at some point information selected must be retained or stored for a future use.

Within a few weeks of starting a resistance training program strength increases despite little to no increase in hypertrophy. These initial increases in strength are due to neural adaptations. When we learn to snatch we are not just taxing our muscles in a physical manner. The retention and subsequent retrieval of information can be either beneficial or detrimental. For example, if you spend a year squatting improperly it will become frustrating to reteach proper mechanics because your body has adapted in more ways than one to the stimulus.

Similarly, the same concept adheres to our decision making process:  if we are groomed to think a certain way for a long period of time it will take longer to restore because the brain reverts back to its automatic decision making processes when we are faced with reoccurring situations.

By creating habits, we forge new pathways in our brain and it can be exhausting.

Lighter weight reps and sets are relatively monotonous, and we rarely think about the lift, it’s almost automatic. Often we are told we cannot think about what we want to do when attempting an action and it will occur naturally, but when we hear this, we miss the big picture. One must be present on all accounts, mentally and physically. What you should be doing when approaching a lift is actually the opposite of being on autopilot and just going through the movements. Practice builds confidence, but to reach higher levels of lifting one must become an intelligent athlete aware of the situation and in complete control of their thoughts.

How to Snatch
How to Snatch

The top 5 weightlifters will almost always be more reliable than the other competitors, suggesting consistency leading up to performance is a major factor.   The higher placed athletes in each weight class were more consistent in their performance between competitions when compared with athletes who placed in the bottom half (McHuigan & Kane, 2004). Why may this be?

The secret of weightlifting is mastering the content between your ears. I will never down play hard work, the incredible amounts of dedication and the years of training athletes put in because all of those play a role in what makes a great athlete. But to be mentally present through every step of your performance determines the outcome, and I’m not just talking about competition day.

It’s also much easier to avoid the hard work that comes with mental training. In fact, for every hour I spend in the gym, I try to put in at least half that time with mental-skills work.

For the purpose of this article, I'm going to specifically speak in terms of daily training circumstances and hold off on a competitive situation or the day of a meet for now. Incorporating new techniques during a pressure situation will likely not be beneficial. Utilizing a mental rehearsal program will take time to develop and is not a one night stand.

At the higher level of the sport spectrum (where you find your national and international athletes), there isn't much difference in strength and/or power between competitors, so what it ultimately comes down to is what’s going on in their brain.

As stated in my last article, we are not born with this state of mind...it takes grooming. I attempted to end off explaining that mental skills are qualities that develop over time, just as your muscles do. So lets start with our first step into mental training and dissect one of the most reoccurring problems I see.

Often when attempting a heavy weight one may change how they approach the situation compared to when lifting lighter repetitions. Granted, hitting a new PR can be scary. Sometimes we get stuck thinking about the number rather than what we know we are supposed to be doing. Especially if this number has been haunting us for a while. The situation I repeatedly encounter when working with athletes is their inability to see the difference between how they approach their lift, not on a technical level, but a mental one. Typically, the athlete will try to critique their form immediately:  “I pulled too early, I was slow, I’m just too weak.”

My first question is what were you thinking when you approached the bar and placed your hands on it? My next is, what were you thinking when you were warming up with a weight you can do but isn’t so easy to handle? Lastly, what about your warm up sets? Typically three different answers are given. This is the main problem, there is no consistency.

Plato Quote
Plato Quote

Conducting a Mental Rehearsal

Many of us seem to think our mental approach only needs to be turned on when we attempt heavy lifts in the snatch, and clean and jerk. But it starts with the warm-up attempts. Mental rehearsal is not day dreaming, but rather a drill of precision. The technique is not concerned with positive statements or self-confidence boosting, which is a separate entity.

As you approach a mental rehearsal, you visualize yourself performing the lift and doing exactly what you want.  This, in turn, creates neural patterns in your brain just as if you had physical performed the action (Porter, 1990).

The pattern relates to practicing, which is an extension of physical training. Each time you utilize this technique you reinforce your memory, so when a pressure situation arrives you're well prepared and confident of accomplishing the task at hand.

Before you approach the bar you must visualize the lift being done in your head. The method of which you choose to do so will vary with each of us.

Here is an example of how I mentally prepare for a snatch

1.  Look straight ahead and drive up with your chest

2.  Slow and controlled form the start, push the ground away from you with your heels.

3.  Push into the hand on your back (a cue my coach gives me)

4.  Barbell to belly button & turn over fast, sit hard.

5.  Press into the bar with your lower traps.

6.  Remain in the bottom position until you are settled, don’t "rush out”

You need to have a mental game plan. When you are lifting, this entire script is not going through your head. It’s more like the dress rehearsal before the actual movement occurs. Before I approach the bar I typically have my back to it with my eyes closed. When you block out vision, you isolate the inner physical sensations around you. I prefer to mouth/ speak what I’m thinking out loud. I think of the lift in two phases, the pull and the catch, this personally helps me break down the complexity.

We all have different weakness and strengths; this isn’t a cookie cutter outline for everyone. Take time to develop your mental skills and figure out what you must focus on. Actually sit down and write it out, then simplify it just like I did above.

Understanding how the motion of the lift feels as well as looks is important. An automatic reaction should be a desired one which is done through practice. You have to ask yourself:  are you just going through the motions to get the lift done or are you training with purpose? This is most important when we do our accessory work and our lighter lifts. Often these attempts are rushed and spent less time on (mentally) compared to the main lifts. I know this was true for myself, originally they were less fun and not as rewarding or exciting. The moment I began to understand how important it was to take every single detail of my training into account was the moment I actually progressed.

When you approach the bar as it becomes heavier with each rep, it is not often that we are so physically tired as to why we can’t lift the weight, but mentally drained. If we are not prepared for our lift, or we have scattered thoughts, it may be detrimental to our physical capability. The possibility of using self-talk strategies too often, commonly termed ‘analysis to paralysis’ or ‘over thinking’ may often result in negative performance. Having a habitual approach to the bar will off set this manifestation of over thinking. Attempting to think about 100 new corrections before you snatch a heavy weight isn’t the time or place. And if it gets to that point it’s time to strip the bar and move on.

Dani Snatch
Dani Snatch

Some key concepts to be aware of when you approach your training session:

1.  Visualize the completion of the lift before you attempt to do so.

2.  Be consistent. Pick a strategy and stick with it. Follow through.

-If you’re focusing on sitting hard during the lift that day, don’t overthink your pull.

3.  Stop thinking about the previous lift & focus on the task at hand.

-It’s over, move on. If you keep thinking about it, it’s likely it will keep happening.

4.  Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

-Instead of finding the flaw in every lift, focus on what you did correctly and re-structure your words for the next attempt.

-Avoid mentioning the technical mistake and instead replace it with a corrective measure in order to maintain focused on the task at hand.

-Do not harp on what you did wrong, focus on the cue which will guide the movement.

5.  Always approach the bar with conviction.

-All of your hard work deserves fierce confidence in your capabilities. After all, what have you been training for?

6.  Just because it’s an accessory exercise doesn’t mean it’s less important.

-The same rules apply; they wouldn’t be in your program if they didn’t matter.

7.  Over analyzing should not take place outside of the gym.

-Stop worrying about WHY you missed your lift. Instead be constructive and write down what you’re going to do to change it.

-Your mental rehearsal may change from training season to season as you acquire new skills or weaknesses. This is not necessarily a bad thing; we would never want to be stagnant. There is always something we can work on to better ourselves.

about the author

fac188db2d11c567ecf4133a5a44ea64.jpeg

Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.

Minus the Fanfare: Blend Methodologies for Well Rounded Performance

You want to be strong, but you're not into the whole knee wrap, smelling salts, arched back powerlifting thing. You want to be big, but you're not into the whole protein powder, hulking out, fake tan bodybuilding thing. You want to be fit, but you're not into the whole kipping, Reebok Nano, 150 wall balls for time CrossFit thing. You want a little bit of everything – minus the fanfare. And you can have it. Simply by adopting the best aspects of each of the aforementioned methodologies (and ditching the superfluous shenanigans), you can create a custom training plan for increased strength, size, and stamina all your own. Here's how:

For strength, look to powerlifting. Make the basic barbell lifts (or variations thereof) the foundation of your training program. After a thorough dynamic warm-up, begin each workout with some type of squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, pull-up, or row.

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Over the course of the training week, perform each of these major lifts at least once. Go heavy (4-6 reps), focusing on lifting the weight as explosively as possible while maintaining perfect form, and take plenty of rest between sets. Utilize progressive overload by adding weight, reps, or sets each and every week.

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After you've done your strength work, shift your attention to muscle building. For this, borrow from bodybuilding. Incorporate both multi- and single-joint movements, sticking to the 8-12 rep range (though higher rep sets can certainly be employed, as well). Count "one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand" during the lowering, or eccentric, phase of every rep. Rest incompletely between sets.

For extra time under tension, work similar movements back-to-back with the following templates:

  • Compound set: multi-joint to multi-joint or single-joint to single-joint (ex: push-ups to dips)
  • Pre-exhaust set: single-joint to multi-joint (ex: bicep curls to lat pull-downs)
  • Post-exhaust set: multi-joint to single-joint (ex: walking lunges to physioball leg curls)

Once you've gotten a solid pump, conclude each workout with some high-intensity circuit training. Race the clock and attempt to beat your own previous best performance, but never substitute speed for movement quality.

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Here are a few of my favorite bodyweight circuits:

For time: 25 reps each of inverted rows, push-ups, bodyweight squats, and straight leg sit-ups (all 25 reps, broken up as needed, must be completed before transitioning to the next exercise)

For 10 minutes: As many rounds as possible of 10 inverted rows, 10 push-ups, and 10 bodyweight squats

21-15-9: burpees and inverted rows (21 burpees, 21 inverted rows, 15 burpees, etc.)

There you have it. No need to get caught up in the frivolity of any one style of training in particular when you can have the best of all of them at once. With an intelligent fusion of powerlifting, bodybuilding, and circuit training, incredible gains in strength, size, and stamina are all yours for the taking.

And if, for whatever reason, your gains or enthusiasm ever begin to wane, there are always elements of gymnastics, Olympic lifting, and strongman to add to the mix. But those are topics for another day.

about the author

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Travis Pollen is an NPTI certified personal trainer and American record-holding Paralympic swimmer. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Biomechanics and Movement Science at the University of Delaware. He maintains a fitness blog and posts videos of his “feats of strength” on his website, www.fitnesspollenator.com. Be sure to like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/fitnesspollenator.

What's the Big Deal with Fitness and Why You Should Want More

The growth of Crossfit, Bootcamps and other GPP (general physical preparedness) programs have truly erupted onto the scene over the past 5 years.  Crossfit, or the sport of fitness, serves as a great example.  It started as a simple website back in 2001 with no affiliates, and now can be seen on ESPN and has thousands upon thousands of affiliates scattered across the world.  This fast paced growth merits a deeper look at what fitness truly is, whether or not you need it, and if you should want more.

What Makes Up Fitness

For starters, let's take a look at several of my favorite attempts to define fitness (these are the first definitions listed by the way):

www.dictionary.reference.com:  "health"

oxforddictionaries.com:  "the condition of being physically fit and healthy"

www.merriam-webster.com:  "the quality or state of being fit"

Hopefully you find those as comedic as I do, and want a better answer.

When attempting to define fitness, you must first determine the separate pieces that form the whole.  An easy way to think of this is to consider what grouping of general physical skills added together most adequately forms fitness.  Mel Siff goes into great depth on this subject in Supertraining, but to keep things simple we'll turn to the Crossfit Training Guide because it's user friendly and provides a well rounded list.  There are more technical lists out there, but this will get the job done.

Before I go any further, I need to clarify that I'm neither endorsing nor telling you to do Crossfit.  That's a topic for another day.

But on page 19 of their training guide they list the following as the 10 general physical skills that make up fitness:

  1. 1. Cardiovascular/Respiratory Endurance
  2. 2. Stamina
  3. 3. Strength
  4. 4. Flexibility
  5. 5. Power
  6. 6. Speed
  7. 7. Coordination
  8. 8. Agility
  9. 9. Balance
  10. 10. Accuracy

If we think long and hard we may be able to come up with one or two items to add to the list, but top to bottom it's pretty solid.  We can say with a fair amount of confidence that an individual displaying adequate ability in each of these categories is physically fit.

A Definition And Why It's Important

Knowing the components, let's consider an adequate definition.  I'm personally a huge fan of Tadeusz Starzynski's and Henryk Sozanski's definition of physical fitness in Explosive Power and Jumping Ability For All Sports:  "Physical fitness is movement potential that determines an athlete's readiness for solving tasks (1)."  This makes perfect sense and immediately answers the question of whether or not you should care about fitness or GPP.

If we slightly re-word the definition it may become clearer:  your overall fitness level determines how suited you are at solving different athletic tasks.

Think of fitness as a toolbox.  The greater your fitness level, or the better you are at the 10 general physical skills from above, the more tools you have in your toolbox.  The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more prepared you are to solve various tasks.

Likewise, if you focus on only one of the above general physical skills, say cardiovascular endurance, then you turn into a one trick pony with limited ability to perform any other task.  BUT...that's not necessarily bad depending on your goals.  If you want to be an elite distance runner, you HAVE TO SPECIALIZE, or else you'll never be able to compete at the highest level.

And the same goes for powerlifters, olympic lifters, and every other sport on the face of the earth--in order to be truly great at something, some form of specialization must occur.

We're going to talk more about that in a minute though, so let's come back to why fitness (what I prefer to call GPP) is important in the first place:  it builds a foundation for continued success.

The Pyramid Approach

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Think of your training life as the above pyramid.  Fitness or GPP goes on the bottom and must be broad, or else the pyramid will be built upon a faulty structure.

It's your chance to build a movement foundation by playing and performing a large variety of tasks, so that you're brain has a chance to learn.

This is opening up an entirely different can of worms, but it's a travesty the number of kids now who start playing one sport and one sport only from the time their 8 years old.

Where's the variability?  Where's there chance for them to learn how to move?  It's no wonder injury rates are through the rough in youth sports these days because kids are skipping the foundational stage and going straight for high level performance.

Sorry, but you're 8 year old kid will get way more out of participating in multiple sports, and engaging in unstructured play.

The base of the pyramid is also where you build up work capacity.  Think of it this way:  you want to have a large gas tank that can refill itself rapidly so you can train hard, recover, and push the envelope more often.

To review:  your overall fitness level dictates your propensity for long term success and performance.  The people who skip this step entirely usually see some moderate gains in performance on the front end, but typically get injured or fail to see continued progress because they have a faulty pyramid.

You Want More

Over time, however, it's natural to specialize in certain tasks over others.  People will naturally gravitate towards tasks they perform well or enjoy doing.  It's at this point in time people begin to move up the pyramid.  They take whatever the end goal is and put it at the top.

The rest of the pyramid will be filled with whatever specialized tasks are important and necessary to move up the levels of the pyramid.

For example, say somebody wants to be a competitive olympic weightlifter.  The clean and jerk, and snatch will fill the top spot because that's the final goal, and the other levels of the pyramid will be filled with more specialized traits like absolute strength and strength speed.

Although specialization is necessary to truly become exceptional at something, you must first build a base that gives you an adequate chance to succeed.  You can't skip over levels when building the pyramid.  You have to be methodical and fitness/GPP is the first step.

But herein lies the problem:  fitness may make you good at a lot of things, but in order to be truly exceptional you have to specialize.  Tradeoffs have to be made between certain fitness qualities because physiologic adaptations are incredibly specific.

This is why you train a football player different than a soccer player, and a baseball player different than a basketball player.  There's just no such thing as an "athlete" program that will prepare you for any and everything.

Now you may be reading this and saying:  "James, that's all fine and dandy, but I'm very happy with just training for overall health and fitness"... And to you I say awesome.  Whatever your goals are I encourage you to pursue them.

But I know there are many people out there, and maybe even you, who are tired of the general fitness trend.  You have specific high performance goals that you just can't seem to reach, even though you bust your ass in the gym x times a week.  And for this I blame the fitness trend.

99% of the time these people come to us with questions about why they haven't been able to reach a certain goal it's because they're trying to be "everything" all the time.  I can respect your desire to be well rounded, but you have to remember there will always be tradeoffs in training.

Are there genetic freaks out there who tend to be pretty damn good at a lot of things?  Absolutely, but I'm not throwing my programming methodology behind the top 1% of the human population.

So...what's the point of today's post?  Be specific with your goal setting, and then draw out a pyramid that'll get you there.  Start at the bottom, and then get more specific over time until you have acquired/built up the necessary skills and fitness qualities to allow you to succeed at your desired skill.

Oh, and be willing to call B.S. on the fact that everyone and their mom trains "fitness" since it's technically everything.  Ask more questions, and demand specific answers as to why you're doing what you're doing, and why you're working on what you're working on.

Now that my mini rant is complete, go have an awesome weekend.

about the author

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James Cerbie is just a life long athlete and meathead coming to terms with the fact that he’s also an enormous nerd.  Be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram for the latest happenings.

 

 

 

References

1. Starzynski, Tadeusz, and Henryk Sozanski, Ph.D. "What Is Fitness Preparation."

Explosive Power and Jumping Ability For All Sports

. Island Pond, VT: Stadion, 1999. 3.

The Olympic Lifts: Are They For You

So the other day I found myself in a globo gym esc environment. I think it was a YMCA, but I'm not entirely sure.

Either way, while I was trying to get a lift in on the road I couldn't help but notice two fine gentlemen approximately twenty feet down to my left.

They looked to be in their mid 20's, and were probably working professionals or grad students at one of the nearby colleges.

What grabbed my attention you ask?

Well...let's just say they were trying to do power cleans, and doing so quite unsuccessfully.  It looked like they were reverse curling and humping the bar into submission, as opposed to performing the beauty that is a power clean.

All kidding aside, I'm not one to sit hear and bash other people.  I hate that.  My hat goes off to both of them for at least making it into the gym and working hard.  For all I know, they just wrapped up a 10 hour day at the office and the fact they made it in to train is awesome.

But...as I watched them lift all I thought to myself was:

"Man.  These guys could be getting so much more out of their training right now."

Which got me thinking about the olympic lifts, and how popular they've become over the past several years.  You used to hardly see anyone performing olympic lifts outside of high school, college and professional weight rooms, but now they seem to be just about everywhere.

Not only that, they've become a pretty divisive issue:  some coaches swear by them, while others are moving in the opposite direction.

As I pondered this more and more I finally decided to sit down and write a post on the subject, so here we go.

The Lifts

Let' quickly take a look at a few different olympic lifting variations, just so we're all on the same page going forward.

The Clean and Jerk

The Power Clean

The Snatch

The Power Snatch

There are many variations to the olympic lifts, but these are some of the most popular and make it relatively easy to understand the other ones.  Other notable variations I did not include are the hang clean, hang snatch, hang power clean and hang power snatch.  These are performed the same way as the above videos, except the lift does not start from the floor.  Take a look at this hang clean video and you'll know what I mean:

Positives

When you perform the olympic lifts with proper technique, you can derive a lot of benefit from them.  In fact, one could easily make the argument that they get you the most bang for your buck.  For example, they:

Teach you to generate/put force into the ground

Are great for power development in the sagittal plane

Teach kinesthetic awareness

Can cause hypertrophy

Create positive neural adaptation by increasing intra-muscular and inter-muscular coordination

*if you don't know what intra or intermuscular coordination are, then checkout this free webinar.

Train functional stability through the core

Help maintain and possibly increase range of motion

While that's an impressive list, there are some downsides to the olympic lifts as well.

Negatives

Technicality

For starters, these lifts are highly technical, and while technicality alone shouldn't be a deterrent, it raises a significant issue:  time.

If you read anything written by the Chinese or the Russians concerning the development of their lifters, you'll know their athletes do thousands of reps with a wooden dowel before ever touching a weight.  As a coach, I have to question if I have enough time to both teach the lifts, and get a training effect out of them.

For example, am I getting a young kid who I'll have under my wing for an extended period of time, or am I getting a professional athlete who has 12 weeks to prepare for camp?

High Movement Demand

The olympic lifts put a premium on moving well.  In order to perform a legit clean and jerk, and a legit snatch, you better be able to move like a boss.

In my experiences thus far, I just haven't met many people who walk in day one with the capacity to perform these lifts.  Not only do they lack the necessary amounts of "range," they also don't know how to move.  Things that seem simple, like a hip hinge and a squat, often need some serious work.

So...it's a timing issue again:  how long will it take to improve range of motion, how long will it take to train basic movement patterns, how long will it take to get technique down etc etc.

I Can Get the Same Benefits With Other Options

For as great as the olympic lifts are, I know I can get the same benefits from an athletic standpoint using far less technical movements and exercises.  I can squat, deadlift, jump, throw, and sprint, among other things, to get after the same list of benefits from above.

So it raises the question:  do I need to spend a lot of time with these exercises, when I can plug in other options that are simpler, possibly safer, and just as effective?

Questions to Ask Yourself

Ultimately, it's impossible for me to sit hear and tell you whether or not you should be performing olympic lifts.  I know nothing about you, and the answer to that question varies from person to person.

What I can give you though are some questions you can ask yourself to help guide you to the right decision.

What's my skill level?

This is really combining two questions:

1.  How well do I move?

2.  Can I perform the lifts with good technique?

If you're good on both, then you just need to worry about whether or not the olympic lifts are specific to the demands of your sport.  If you aren't good on both, then you really have to consider the next two questions.

How much time do I have?

As I discussed above, time is really important.  How much time do you have before you need to be ready for x?  And can you afford to devote any of that time to learning a new lift?

Are there other ways to reach the same end goal?

This one is pretty self explanatory, but once you have an end goal you need to determine the fastest, safest, most efficient way to get there.

What does my sport demand?

Do you need to throw a baseball or do you need to play football?  Do you need to compete in olympic lifting?  Do you want to compete in Crossfit?  Do you need to play soccer?

All of these situations are different, and before making a decision you need to consider what each athlete needs to be successful.

Closing Thoughts

The olympic lifts have been around for a long time, and watching someone who's good at them is like looking at a beautiful piece of artwork.  The timing, the flow, the strength, the power...it's really a sexy thing when you break it down.

For as beautiful as a well executed lift can be though, a poorly executed lift is just as ugly.  It's like watching a really bad train wreck in slow motion.

So, what I want you to do is ask more questions.  Go out of your way to clear yourself to perform these lifts as opposed to just doing them.

Because at the end of the day the olympic lifts aren't inherently good or bad, they are what they are until you put them in a specific context.

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