mike sirani

What Makes or Breaks an Exercise Program

No one can argue that those who see the most results from training have one thing in common. Consistency.

Being consistent isn’t easy.  Life happens; you get busy, you get bored, you get tired, and you get hurt.

You take some time off, hit the refresh button, and, because your last training plan didn’t work out, it’s on to the next program.

Working as a personal trainer, I end up meeting a lot of people when they’re somewhere in the middle of the list above.

Whether you know it or not there are many variables in your exercise programs and your lifestyle that can either set you up for long-term success or quietly de-rail you. Identifying these variables early on will allow you to better examine a training program before you begin, and put you in a position to allow yourself to be consistent and see the results you want.

  • Gradual Increase in Volume

Gradually increasing the volume of your training program over the course of weeks and months sounds simple, but it’s often missed by many gym goers. Using the minimal effective dose will keep you healthy and allow you to progress a program all the way to your end goal. Many soft-tissue injuries are the result of a drastic increase in training volume.  Perhaps this is most obvious when you look at the number of Achilles, groin, and hamstring injuries that occur at the beginning of NFL camps, or injuries to those going from the couch to Crossfit.  A program that steadily increases work capacity and tissue resiliency over time will greatly reduce your risk of injuries due to fatigue and set your body up to be able to handle workouts of greater volume and intensity later on.

Look for whether or not your exercise program has a gradual increase in volume as you progress each week and month. If you’re new to the gym this may mean you start by performing only 12 total sets in week one and 20 total sets by week four. Powerlifting programs like 5/3/1 and The Juggernaut Method also do a good job of managing volume and intensity to help you build specific work capacity in the bench, squat, and deadlift. Group training should accommodate those of different fitness levels and allow some wiggle room for some to perform more work than others in any given class.

  • Movement Quality

Appropriate volume is only part of the equation for ensuring a fitness program is going to last. The quality of your movement is what dictates whether or not you develop great hamstrings and glutes or giant calves and back erectors. This is where hiring a coach can be of great value. An educated movement-centric coach will be able to identify if you can:

  • Centrate your joints and move in and out of all three planes of motion without compensation
  • Execute proper motor patterns while keeping your joints in advantageous positions
  • Find, feel, and use the correct muscles during exercises

Keeping your joints healthy and applying stress to the correct muscles will help to improve your durability by reducing your risk of overuse,“wear and tear” injuries, and burnout.  It can be hard to objectively measure how well you move. Finding a coach or physical therapist that can assess you and create a plan that teaches you to move better is always a smart place to begin a new training program.

Consider the below situation.

Dan Shoulder Flexion
Dan Shoulder Flexion

Poor active shoulder flexion. Anterior rib flare, forward head, tight lats. Landmine variations would be a smarter exercise instead of overhead pressing.

Mike Shoulder Flexion
Mike Shoulder Flexion

Full ROM during active shoulder flexion. Overhead pressing would be more warranted for this client.

  • Variability of Movements/Implements/Load/Tempo

Variability in a fitness program will keep you healthy and prevent workouts from getting stale and boring.

Learn how to move in all three planes and master fundamental movement patterns and the list of exercises you will be able to safely perform becomes bountiful. Throughout the course of a workout, or a week of training your program, should include some form of squatting and hinging, pushing and pulling, abdominal work, and loaded carries. Do things on two legs and one leg and with two arms and one arm.

When applying external loads to movements, use different implements and choose different ways to hold them.  This will allow you to alter the movement in a manner that will help you train the correct muscles in better positions.

For example, let’s use a squat.  You could load it with a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, two dumbbells, two kettlebells, a sandbag, or a medicine ball.

You could do a front squat, a back squat, a goblet squat, a zercher squat, a potato sack squat, an offset kettlebell squat, or an offset sandbag squat; the list could go on and on. Knowing where you should start on the progression-regression list will help make the movement safer and more effective and varying the implements will challenge the movement in a slightly different manner and help prevent boredom in your exercise program.

Varying the external load in a training program is also key to getting stronger and staying healthy while doing so. This is why many sub-max training programs that accumulate volume are so successful. Decreasing volume and increasing intensity during the course of several weeks and months is much more suitable for long term strength gains than trying to push to a new 1RM each week in the gym.

Another variable that can be manipulated in an exercise program is the tempo at which the movement is performed. Being specific with the tempo of a lift is often neglected even though it has a huge influence on what adaptations are had from the exercise.

If you’ve been performing goblet squats for the past few months with a 2010 tempo, they’ve become boring and easy for you. Now take the same weight and change your tempo to 3030.  Add feeling grounded through both feet, pushing your heels through the floor, and focusing on keeping constant tension on your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and abs I can guarantee that your easy goblet squat has become much more challenging.

Varying the tempo of lifts could result in a squat hypertrophying your slow twitch fibers or cause you to increase your rate of force production. Both are important and both are needed. Choosing the right time to apply both and using both throughout the course of a training program can make performing the same old lifts much less monotonous.

  • Adaptability/Flexibility

Things come up in life.

You have to work late.

Your kids get sick.

Traffic is worse than usual.

And now you either can’t make it to they gym or have limited time. A great fitness program is structured, but also can be flexible. On these days it is helpful to have a few workouts that are lower intensity, take less time to complete, or can be done at home.

Cardiac output and bodyweight circuits are two awesome ways to still get workouts in even when life comes up.

  • Premium Placed On Recovery

You may be able to get away with it for a short period of time, but in the end if your recovery efforts don’t meet or exceed the efforts put forth in your training you’ll likely be battling with fatigue and injury.

A good training program emphasizes the other 23 hours of your day.  Knowing what you can do to help promote your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and tissue recovery is invaluable.

Go through the checklist below and I’m sure you can do better in at least one and if not several of the categories.

  • - Sleep Quality & Quantity- Do you have a good sleeping environment? Are you getting enough hours of sleep?
  • - Nutrition- Quality & Quantity- Are you eating quality foods that promote low levels of inflammation? Are you eating enough calories to support your training?
  • - Respiration- Are you hyper-inflated? Can you fully exhale your air to help shift yourself to a more parasympathetic state?
  • - Tissue Quality- Do you get regular massages, acupuncture, or perform regular self-myofascial release?
  • - Active Recovery Sessions- Do you use active recovery sessions when you’re feeling tired or sore?
  • Mindset and Environment

You’re now making progress.

You’re moving well and gradually increasing how much you’re doing each workout.  

Your sleep is awesome, your nutrition is locked in, and you’re finally taking care of your body by prioritizing recovery.

Even with all of these important physical factors in check it can still be difficult to stick with an exercise program. If this is the case you need to reflect on your mindset and training environment.

Create short and long-term goals. Write them down somewhere next to why you’re training for these goals. A strong WHY, concrete GOALS, and internal MOTIVATION are powerful for sticking with exercise.

Your training environment also needs to be supportive of everything above. Behind the good music, sweat, and banging of weights needs to be a community of like-minded people who can push and motivate you as you work towards your goals.

Wrapping It Up

I know a lot of people who have reached their goals with different training programs. There are a lot of great programs out there that work, but not everything works forever.

I promise that if you use this article as guide you’ll become an informed and confident consumer. You’ll be able to sift through a lot of BS that is currently in the fitness industry and find a program that will set you up for consistency and success.

About the Author

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Mike Sirani is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Licensed Massage Therapist.  He earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Applied Exercise Science, with a concentration in Sports Performance, from Springfield College, and a license in massage therapy from Cortiva Institute in Watertown, MA.  During his time at Springfield, Mike was a member of the baseball team, and completed a highly sought after six-month internship at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA.

Mike’s multi-disciplinary background and strong evidence-based decision-making form the basis of his training programs.  Through a laid-back, yet no-nonsense approach, his workouts are designed to improve individual’s fundamental movement patterns through a blend of soft-tissue modalities and concentrated strength training.

He has worked with a wide variety of performance clients ranging from middle school to professional athletes, as well as fitness clients, looking to get back into shape.  Mike specializes in helping clients and athletes learn to train around injury and transition from post-rehab to performance.  If you're interested in training with Mike, he can be found at Pure Performance Training in Needham, Massachusetts.

Pain and the Brain: How to Take Control and Continue Progressing

Let me ask you a question: have you ever been in pain? Not fun right?

If you’re lucky, it only lasted a few minutes, or several hours, but there are those of you out there who’ve suffered for days, weeks, and maybe even years.

Maybe it was from a strained muscle during your last sprinting session, or a rolled ankle in a pick-up basketball game. Or maybe you injured your back years ago deadlifting, and it hasn’t been the same since.

Regardless of the cause, pain can be both frustrating and confusing. It can leave you feeling hopeless, consume much of who you are, and prevent you from doing the things you love or once loved.

If you Google “pain relief” you’ll quickly get 181,000,000 results that vary from medication and topical cream, to electronic devices and various stretches. Deciding the best course of action to take can be overwhelming and expensive.

When it comes to pain, like anything else, knowledge is power. And being able to understand what ignites your pain is often the first step towards getting back under the bar, on the field, or doing whatever it is you’re passionate about.

Pain Protects You

For starters, it’s important to understand that pain exists for a reason: IT PROTECTS YOU.

It’s there to alert you of danger, and signal for you to stop doing x before you become seriously injured. Not only that, it can make you move, think, and behave differently because it has your best interest at heart: survival.

Thus, whether you like it or not, pain is often vital for healing.

When thinking of pain and your body, think of Kevin McCallister protecting his house.

Photo Credit:  Twentieth Century Fox, Home Alone
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox, Home Alone

Instead of staple guns, paint cans, and a rope soaked in kerosene, you have a motor system, nervous system, endocrine, immune, and limbic system all trying to protect and alert your brain of potential damage.

And instead of the wet bandits, you deal with many sensory inputs that serve as threats to you and your body.

In other words, you have a system. And that system alerts your brain of actual or potential tissue damage when it’s under threat.

It’s also important to understand the amount of pain you experience doesn’t necessarily relate to the amount of tissue damage. Your brain is constantly receiving sensory cues and inputs, and has the final say on whether something hurts 100% of the time.

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To get a better appreciation for how significant a role your brain plays in pain, it’s powerful to understand context and emotional stress:

- A cut on the index finger of a baseball pitcher may be much more painful than a cut on the index finger of a sweeper on the soccer team.

- The loss of a loved one, a bad break-up, or taking on more responsibility at work can increase both muscle tension and pain.

- You have the power to take control and inhibit your alarm system.

Understanding Your Danger Alarm System

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Now that you recognize your brain is the boss and has the final say in pain, it’s also valuable to know that pain is NOT all in your head. There are specific physiological processes occurring that lead to pain.

Mechanical, chemical, and temperature sensors all tell your brain about changes in your body’s tissues, and your thoughts and beliefs are constantly influencing how you perceive these inputs.

After your brain takes into account all of the available information, it quickly decides if any of these sensors are sending danger signals. If so, pain is produced.

Photo Credit:  Butler, Mosey.  2013.  Explain Pain.
Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

The first important piece to appreciate about your danger alarm system is that sensors have an incredibly short lifespan of only a few days. Therefore, your current level of sensitivity is not fixed.

If you can reduce the demands for the production of that particular sensor(s), you’ll reduce the rate of sensor manufacturing, and in return, reduce sensitivity.

This may mean:

- Inhibition of particular muscle chains

- Decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity

- Decreasing daily mental and emotional stress

- Improving exercise technique

- Eating an anti-inflammatory diet

So, how does sensor and sensor activity relate to pain?

We don’t actually have pain receptors, but we do have nociceptors.

Nociceptors respond to everything. If something is potentially dangerous to your tissues, they’ll send a signal to your spinal cord and then your brain.

We have nociception happening all of the time, but only sometimes does it result in pain.

Wait, what?

Remember: when your brain receives an input it’s weighed with all other inputs and then makes a decision as to whether something hurts or not.

The second important thing to know when talking about your danger alarm system is that your brain is constantly changing and creating neurotags.

A neurotag is something that’s specific to you, and is very dependent on your past experiences. For example, if you were in a motor vehicle accident, the simple act of getting into a car may be threatening and cause an increase in muscle tension.

Here’s another example: the longer you’ve had a particular pain, the better your system gets at producing it.

  1. Furthermore, the stronger and larger that pain neurotag becomes, the easier it is for that particular pain to be ignited.

Think of your brain like a football team:

The longer you’ve dealt with your pain, the better your team gets at running your pain play. And you continue practicing that same play over, and over and over again, while neglecting other options in the playbook. Before you know it, your offense loses variability and can only run one play.

No team wins running only one play. You must teach your offense to be curious, creative, and run a variety of plays; this is when your danger alarm system can be shut off.

Learning to drop off these neurotags and replace them with better references can be extremely valuable.

Tissue Damage

Because your danger alarm system is in place to protect the tissues of your body, it’s important to discuss what’s happening locally, at specific tissues, that causes your brain to tell you to hurt.

In the case of an acute injury, your aim must be to return the injured tissue to a functional state as QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.

Sometimes rest is best, sometimes movement is needed, other times you may need to intervene via diet, drugs, or surgery.

Pain is sensed via tissues because of inflammation, slow healing, or the tissues become unfit and unused. Movement and massage become important tools for moving tissues and sending safe impulses to your brain to help it construct positive outputs.

All tissues have a healing time, and once the healing time has passed, your tissues don’t get another chance. Managing tissues initially involved in an injury will help manage your pain down the road.

Altered Central Nervous System Alarms

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

Tissues that don’t heal properly can alter the processes of your highly adaptable central nervous system.

Remember: your brain is the command center of your entire alarm system and makes the final decision as to whether or not you are in pain. When dealing with continual impulses from weak, scarred, inflamed, or acidic tissues, your neurons and spinal cord adapt to meet the consistent demand.

At the dorsal root ganglion (DRG), a bulge before your peripheral nerve enters your spinal cord; messages from your tissues undergo some evaluation. Your DRG is sensitive and changeable and may send inaccurate signals to your brain, like telling it there is more tissue damage than there actually is.

Your DRG is also vulnerable to hormonal and chemical changes in your blood when you are stressed, which can cause signals that shouldn’t be perceived as dangerous as threatening.

The better your spinal cord gets at sending this danger message to your brain, the more sensitive your alarm system becomes.

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

Photo Credit: Butler, Mosey. 2013. Explain Pain.

When your alarm system becomes more sensitive, Kevin McCallister has to go from setting up a few Christmas ornaments on the floor to installing a super alarm system with infrared and motion detectors. Now any little input will trip the system.

Signs and symptoms of a sensitized central alarm system (an offense stuck running one play) include:

- Persisting pain

- Pain that is spreading

- Pain that is worsening past acute phase

- Lots of movements (even small ones) hurt

- Pain is unpredictable

- Other threats in life: previous, current, and anticipated

When your nervous system is continually in fight or flight mode, your brain is priming your muscles accordingly. Big boys like your erector spinae, lats, quads, and pecs are always on.

These long-term motor changes make you behave differently, hold yourself differently, and even talk differently. It can be challenging to reverse these learned patterns.

Taking Control

Step 1: Understand and Educate

If you’ve made it all the way here, you’ve already begun taking control. Developing an understanding and educating yourself about the physiology of pain can reduce the amount of threat you feel.

REDUCED THREAT HAS A POSITIVE EFFECT ON ALL THE INPUT AND RESPONSE SYSTEMS.

Many of us don’t like not knowing, and knowledge can be powerful in helping reduce the hurt you feel.

Step 2: Identify Ignition Cues

Much of the article educated you on sensory inputs that inform your brain of threat. Discovering what these inputs, or pain ignition cues, are is what will set the stage for active strategies you’ll implement to inhibit your danger alarm system.

These inputs can come from many different sensory cues and scenarios.

They vary from overactive chains of muscle at your pelvis, thorax, or cranium. Or could even come from your vision or feet.

Non-physical ignition cues that are often forgotten include mental and emotional stressors, or a poor diet.

If you go to a health-care professional to help you identify your ignition cues, it’s important that they can answer all of your questions, and make clinical decisions based on your particular presentation and objective tests that he goes over with you.

Step 3: Learn Active Coping Strategies

With your ignition cues identified, you can now go about implementing active coping strategies. These may include:

- Learning about the problem

- Exploring ways to move

- Exploring and nudging the edges of pain

- Staying positive and establishing a supportive and enthusiastic team around you

- Making plans

- Finding de-stressing activities

Step 4: Your Hurts Won’t Hurt You

Once you begin to use active coping strategies, remind yourself that hurt doesn’t always equal harm.

Step 5: Pacing and Graded Exposure

Your nervous system needs you to gradually increase your activity level. Be patience and persistent.

- Choose an activity you want to or need to do more of

- Find your baseline

- Plan your progression

- Don’t flare up, but don’t freak out if you do

- Look at the whole picture. Stressors come from various places in your life

Closing Thoughts

Much of this article touches on what happens when pain persists long past the time it takes for tissues to heal.

If you’ve recently had an injury, remember to manage your tissues and manage other stressors in life, like getting better sleep, better nutrition, and making time for things like meditation.

If your pain has been persistent and worsening, think about what happens when your nervous system becomes sensitized and you install your super alarm system. Learn active coping strategies and teach your offense to run new plays.

Be curious, be creative, feel, and find yourself living a much happier and pain free life.

about the author

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Mike Sirani is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Licensed Massage Therapist. He works at Pure Performance Training in Needham, Massachusetts. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Applied Exercise Science, with a concentration in Sports Performance, from Springfield College, and a license in massage therapy from the Cortiva Institute in Watertown, MA. He was also a member of the Springfield College baseball team, and interned at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA.

References

Butler, D., & Moseley, L. (2003). 

Explain Pain

. Adelaide City West, South Australia: Noigroup Publicatinos.

How Do You Train For The Long Haul? Develop An Aerobic Base

Note from James:  Today's guest post comes from a friend of mine Mike Sirani.  Mike does great work, and I was pumped when he agreed to put this post together.  Enjoy!  

P.S.  If you'd like to be considered for a guest post, then go here

Be honest with yourself, when is the last time you had to wait for something you wanted?

In today’s world, waiting is a thing of the past, and patience is foreign to most 20-something year olds.

Want food? Let’s go to the drive-thru.

Need to deposit a check? Take a picture of it.

Want to talk to girls? Just swipe right.

In a society that wants results fast, fitness has followed suit. High-intensity training has become an everyday staple in the workout routines of many young adults.

You see, the human body is extremely efficient and it will do what it has to in order to adapt and survive when placed under stress.

Think of starting a high-intensity, “no pain, no gain” training program as a crash diet. Drastically cutting calories will lead to rapid weight loss, but eventually the scale stops moving. You’ll begin to feel tired, have little energy, and let’s face it: you’re not going to be strong.

Continually training with a high-intensity program is quite similar. Results will come quick as your body adapts to high levels of stress. Next thing you know, you’re telling all of your friends how (insert name of training program here) is the best thing ever, and how you’re going to go even harder next week, striving for better results.

Eventually, sooner than later for most, the fun will stop. Successes will slow down or cease, you’ll become worn out, lose motivation, and/or get injured.

Developing a robust aerobic system will help to prevent the above scenario and allow you to better attack anaerobic training when the time comes.

An Aerobic Base, You Must Have

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This is where developing an aerobic base comes into play. Picture your conditioning as building a pyramid. It is crucial to have a big sturdy base, and that base is something that can’t be built in a matter of days. It takes weeks and months of consistent work.

The base of your pyramid grows bigger through achieving eccentric left ventricular hypertrophy, better delivery of oxygen to working muscles, an increase in the number and size of mitochondria and greater capillary density, an increase in aerobic enzymes, and a shift of the autonomic nervous system to a more parasympathetic state (rest and digest).

The development of your aerobic system is paramount towards your ability to recover from intense training sessions.

Don’t get me wrong and think all I do is work on increasing the size of my mitochondria. If you want to be a stud, you better get in there and move around some heavy weight.  But, if you’re into being a monster for the long haul, it is crucial you’re able to recover better than anyone else.

Monsters can reciprocate between their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Monsters can deadlift 3x their bodyweight, but also have a resting heart rate under 60 beats per minute.

Monsters can turn it on and shut it down.

And without the ability to shut it down, you won’t be a monster for long.

Off Switches

Now that you understand the value of your aerobic system, I want to give you tools for building the base of your pyramid. Think of these tools as off switches. If you’re in the midst of training in an aerobic block, think of it as collecting off switches and making your pyramid base bigger. If you’re currently in a higher intensity training block, use these off switches in a more literal sense – as a way to promote recovery between intense training sessions.

  1. Cardiac Output Training

Cardiac output development is continuous activity. This is what you think of when someone tells you that they did “cardio.” It can be done by walking, biking, or on other pieces of aerobic equipment.

This type of traditional cardio can become very monotonous and quite boring, so consider choosing a modality, or combination of modalities, listed below:

Sled Pushing or Dragging

Medicine Ball Throws

Slideboard

Bodyweight Circuits

The important part here is that you purchase a heart rate monitor, and keep your heart rate between 120-150 beats per minute for anywhere between 30-75 minutes.

At Pure Performance Training, we’ve had a ton of success using low threshold developmental movements that promote reciprocal movement and abdominal strength. Below is an example of a circuit used during a cardiac output training day.

A1) Bear Crawl Box x10 yards/each

A2) Sled Push x40 yards

A3) Half-Turkish Get Ups x6/side

A4) Push-Pulls x10/side

A5) Supine KB Pullover x10

  1. Tempo Training

Tempo training will lead to hypertrophy of slow twitch muscle fibers.

Unlike cardiac output training, which focuses more on central adaptation, tempo training will lead to adaptation of specific tissues. The exercises that you can choose here are limitless. Below are a few of my favorites:

Squats

RDL’s

Split Squats

Push Ups

Landmine Presses

Focus on performing the exercise with a 303 tempo. Thus, 3 seconds on the way down, no pause at the bottom, and 3 seconds on the way up. It is key to keep constant tension throughout the entire set.

You can progress tempo training by either increasing the number of sets (ex. moving from 3 sets on week 1, to 6 on week 4) or by increasing the time of the set (ex. 45 seconds to 60 seconds).

High Intensity Continuous Training (HICT)

HICT training will develop the oxidative properties of fast-twitch muscle fibers. In other words, it makes you stronger and more explosive for longer.

Be warned though because this type of training is tedious, so I highly recommend finding a friend, doing it outside on a nice day, or making a sweet playlist – because you can get bored quickly.

Here's how to do it:

Using either a spin bike (set to a high resistance) or performing step-ups (with a weight vest on), explosively perform 1 rep, rest 3-5 seconds in between reps, and repeat for 10-20 minutes.  For example, do one step up as explosively as possible, rest 3-5 seconds, do another step up on the opposite leg as explosively as possible, rest 3-5 seconds, and continue for 10-20 minutes.

To progress HICT training, you'll want to increase the total amount of time you work for.  You can do this by by increasing the time of your set (moving from 10-15 minutes), or by breaking up shorter timed sets into a series (doing three 10 minute sets)

Respiration

I wanted to touch on this briefly.

Just as aerobic fitness causes a shift towards the parasympathetic nervous system, exhalation does the same--fully exhaling will cause the parasympathetic nervous system to fire.

Living in such a go-go society, many of us are hyper-inflated and have no idea what it feels like to fully exhale. To compliment aerobic training, clients of mine also learn how to properly respire with an emphasis on getting air out.

Finishing the Pyramid

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Once you’ve built a substantial base for your pyramid, you’ll be able to construct the above layers and really get after you anaerobic training.  Think of this this way:  the larger your base, the larger the subsequent layers can be on top of it.  This is primarily because you'll be able to recover like a champ from high intensity training, and thus be able to push it more often.

Ultimately, your ability to shut it down after going beast mode will be what makes you a monster for the long haul.

about the author

Mike Sirani is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Licensed Massage Therapist. He works at Pure Performance Training in Needham, Massachusetts. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Applied Exercise Science, with a concentration in Sports Performance, from Springfield College, and a license in massage therapy from the Cortiva Institute in Watertown, MA. He was also a member of the Springfield College baseball team, and interned at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA.  You can connect with Mike on Facebook and Twitter.