Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Fitness Conference - Training Impressions

My first major goal for the fitness conference was to pick up a few new things for my training. I entered into the seminar thinking I know 90% of how to train, but a few extra tricks never hurt. After all, as an ACSM certified instructor with many years of continuing education, I’ve seen most training approaches.

I left the seminar with a vague concept of how little I actually do know. Something that has troubled me with many sources of training knowledge (especially internet forums!) is a lack of reference to how professional athletes train. At best there are statements that flag the professional athletes as genetic freaks and dismiss any training advice targeted at the elite.

I always accepted this dogma, but struggled with it a little in the back of my mind. After all, why would individuals with unlimited training resources accept anything but the best? While they might be elite at their chosen sport, surely when pitted against other elite athletes the training edge has to make a difference?

The answer is, there are true professionals out there working with top tier athletes. They have advanced well beyond 5x5, but also have better things to do than force their ideas on others. Presentations at this conference were given by those world class trainers – the people working with professional athletes on a regular basis.

I learned a lot from each of the presentations. The best I can hope to do is go through the sessions I attended and list the primary takeaways I gained. This does not do the talks justice, and I encourage others to attend such a conference.

1. Art of Strength Kettlebell Training – Anthony DiLugliohttp://www.artofstrength.com
I entered into this session hoping to learn how to improve my kettlebell snatch. Instead it was focused on teaching the basics of the swing, clean, press, and Turkish get up through conditioning circuits. It was entirely appropriate given the average skill level I saw in the room. Most had never touched a kettlebell before. It was very interesting to see his teaching cues, especially given the size of the group.

I did pick up an important point on pushing off of my back leg to stand during the Turkish get up. I was dismayed at the quality of the Perform Better kettlebells and would not recommend them. By the end of the session I was gassed. While this was partially due to being sick, I think the circuit approach to kettlebell exercises has more merit than I had previously given it credit for. Given my impaired strength levels due to my cold, I did not pursue any snatch form advice from Anthony. He was swarmed by people.

2. Regenerate – Mark Verstegenhttp://www.athletesperformance.com
This was my second session, and the first where I began to recognize how limited my training knowledge is. Mark runs Athletes Performance, one of the top athletic training centers in the country. He spoke on managing an athlete’s recovery from training, with several points I found valuable:

- The training cycle starts with milestone events planned throughout the year. All training should be planned around peaks at these times, even for someone who is not an elite athlete. I started to stumble upon this with the improved results I have training for a grip contest or some other event, but he really struck home the importance.

- Recovery needs to start as soon as training ends. The quicker an athlete can get “down” from a workout, the quicker they start improving for the next session. This is something I have always struggled with and shrugged off. I avoid  training in the evening because my arousal levels stay high and prevent me from sleeping. That failure to drop back down to pre-workout arousal levels points to a training problem that needs resolution.

 - While he covered the normal recovery stuff like sleep, daily nutrition, pre/post workout nutrition, mobility work, soft tissue work, light activity, and down time, he also was a strong proponent of hydro-therapy. This is stuff like cold plunges or hot / cold contrast baths. I thought the other items were “cutting edge” and had largely dismissed hydro-therapy as feel good stuff. He presented them all as basic necessities.

- Sleep quality is as important, if not more important than quantity. Getting the same number of hours of sleep each night trains the body to adapt sleep cycles to the rest period. More is better, but consistency is a key. Alcohol within 5 hours of sleep impairs sleep quality. Waking in the middle of a sleep cycle will impair mood for the day, unless a nap is taken to reset the body.

The biggest theme was “simple things done remarkably well,” stressing the importance of compliance potential in program design. Even with elite athletes, he finds it necessary to focus on the basics and let the little things go. That is a lesson for all of us. It is also a theme he carried into his hands-on session, focusing on the items above again, through a different method of instruction.

3. Evolution of a Strength Coach – Mike Boylehttp://www.strengthcoach.com
This session was based upon an article Mike wrote about 25 mistakes in 25 years of working as a strength coach. I read the article on t-nation previously and assumed the presentation would be similar. It turns out listening to Mike speak gave me several insights, both professionally and training related. The professional lessons I’ll handle later. Regarding training:

- I need to get away from cracking my lower back by twisting it. He was the first of several presenters to touch upon this, simply indicating improving rotary range of motion in the lower back is a mistake. It is something I read previously from McGill and was also suggested to me by both physical therapists I’ve seen, but darn it, it feels good.

- I should watch for opportunities that let me screw joints into their sockets like one arm presses or one arm dumbbell rows. This is good for my joints.

- Squat strength can be developed by building single leg strength. Lunge variations are a great option for this and should be included in my program, especially given that I am such a poor squatter.

- Chins can be muscled at the top with the upper traps. If someone is upper trap dominant, they should focus on rowing instead. I am upper trap dominant and when I do chins, my shoulders often end up hurting. Chins are probably not the best exercise for me.

Somehow Mike managed to get through to me.  I may have read the information before, but getting it delivered in person made a huge difference in my synthesis. I hope the hands-on session was more of the same, because I recall nothing else.

4. Money: Why You Don’t Have It and How to Get It – Thomas Plumber
The keynote presentation was based upon personal trainers as a group being financially destitute. While that provided limited motivation for my career aspirations, it did offer a few interesting points on the state of training we see today:

- The large commercial gyms provide a poor option for financial success personal training, even more so than working in a small studio. Money is not made by the club or the trainer; very few of those involved really care. The trainers everyone hates are not representative of professionals in the field by any means. The most financially successful professionals are sought after experts training trainers and/or individuals running studios, including small group personal training and/or classes.

- The “hardcore” garage activities (like kettlebells or beating a tire with a hammer or battling ropes) are identified as very effective ways to train individuals at a studio. These exercises do not map well to a large gym environment with no instruction, but their value is recognized.

- The financial future of personal training is niche focused studios (older women, executives, young athletes, etc.) based upon small group personal training or small group classes. After experiencing some of this stuff with good trainers in the hands-on sessions, I could even see myself attending a studio like this. Individual personal training is intentionally made very expensive to discourage people from doing it. A lot of the kettlebell guys follow this model.

Thomas had a lot more to say about working as a professional in a field in general, which I found interesting from a career perspective but is not relevant to training.

5. 21st Century Fitness Programming – Alwyn Cosgrove
One of the primary reasons I attended the conference was Alwyn Cosgrove. He is hyped up all over the internet and even has an alliance with Elite Fitness. I’ve always found him entertaining and thought it would be interesting to hear him speak.

The first thing I was struck by when he got on stage is, he looks like someone you would find drinking in the local pub, not an elite trainer. Still, I know his reputation and paid attention. Most of what he discussed has been offered in details via his articles, but a few things really jumped out at me.

- He presented 7 components for a well rounded fitness program:

    1. Mobility, Activation and Movement Preparation
    2. Injury Prevention / Prehab / Corrective Exercise
    3. Core Training
    4. Elasticity / Reactive / SSC Training
    5. Strength / Resistance Training
    6. Energy System Development
    7. Regeneration

 - While those points aligned with the message from the other sessions, Alwyn touched on integration of all 7 components into a single work out, offering that he can create programs which incorporate them all in under an hour. This struck me as almost impossible and coupled with his appearance made me start questioning him as anything more than a marketing or motivational authority.

- Then I attended his hands-on session. After all, it is Alwyn Cosgrove. This was my first session Saturday morning and he completely wrecked me. While going through instruction and working with a group of 60+ people with very limited equipment, he went through the first 5 components above in about an hour. It was one of the best workouts I’ve had in my life, and I do not fully understand how he did it.

- His ability to increase exercise difficulty without adding weight was really impressive. The hands-on session was focused on 3 two minute conditioning circuits, with one or two exercises at each circuit. For each exercise, he had 3 or 4 variations, ranging from “I can do this” to “I am not even trying that”. The programming was masterful.

If I lived close enough to train at Alwyn’s studio for a few months, it would be a matter of “let me know how much it costs, I’ll figure out how to get it”. He is that good.

6. Training Strategies for Overhead Athletes – Eric Cressey
Eric is another one of the major reasons I chose to attend this conference. When working through my shoulder problem, I spent many hours reading and re-reading his shoulder articles from T-nation. I was interested to hear him talk about the same things in person and attended both his lecture and hands-on sessions.

Listening to him speak, it is clear he carries a mental model of how every single joint and muscle is working together in the body. He shared it all with us about the shoulder, and the detail was more than I could handle. The main thing I got out of the session was seeing Eric in person. His wrists are about the same size as mine, but he deadlifts 600lbs. That offers some insight to the potential to be found in well planned programs, IMO.

I learned much more from his sessions on the aspect of becoming a respected professional in a field, but those insights are not relevant to training.

7. Functional Movement Screen - Gray Cook / Lee Burton
My final session on Saturday and my full half day on Sunday I spent attending the lectures and hands-on sessions with Gray Cook and Lee Burton. Gray lectured Saturday evening. It was so good, I went to see the repeat lecture Sunday morning at 8am. Lee was of a similar caliber.

These guys offer something I have wanted for some time – 7 exercises to screen a person for movement dysfunction. Their premise is that an individual can be lean, well muscled, and pain free, but still move poorly. Over time, those poor movement patterns will lead to injury. The first thing someone needs to do when initiating an activity program is to get their movements screened. If dysfunction is found, they should see a physical therapist for assessment and possible corrective exercise.

The actual sessions focused on a sub-set of the movement screen, opposed to the full program. It is a weekend seminar in itself. Still, I learned a few things that justify the cost of my entire conference by themselves.

- The reason my right foot externally rotates on deadlifts and my right knee sometimes clicks when I squat is I do not activate my glute medius. I asked Lee about this at the end of one of the sessions, and in about 30 seconds he showed me how to loop a band around my leg while I deadlift, pulling my knee inward. Immediately in response to my thigh resisting this internal pull, my foot stopped externally rotating during the deadlift.

- I’d read about this trick to stop the knees from falling inward on a squat, but never thought about it related to my foot position on a deadlift. He said to practice my deadlifts with the band in position for a few weeks, and I will do so. While seated at one of the lectures, I was actually managing to make my foot rotate internally by flexing a muscle in my hip. It was cool.

- The reason I cannot do an overhead squat properly has nothing to do with thoracic spine mobility. I figured since I can front squat and back squat, my inability to overhead squat must be an upper body problem. I was wrong. I can’t do a full squat! Gray spent a major portion of his hands on presentation demonstrating that if someone cannot squat down with their arms vertical overhead that there is a stability problem that needs work.

- I do not understand how to correct the stability problem yet, but a good starting point sure seems to be fixing my glute medius issue through training my deadlift like Lee suggested. A major focus of the lectures was that fixing muscles that are tight or not active is not the most important course of action for resolving a movement problem. Instead, the body needs to be re-trained to move correctly in the pattern that was deficient. I do not fully grasp how to do this yet, but it is good to be aware of the need.

- The problem I have with my right hip tightening is most likely directly caused by my failure to active my right glute medius. The reason no amount of stretching makes the tight muscle go away for the long term, is I have not fixed the core problem.

- Since a tight muscle is a compensation for a flawed movement pattern, one needs to be very careful when stretching to remove the tightness. When this happens, the compensation that was allowing a person to move safely despite their flawed pattern is gone. Removing the compensation without fixing the pattern introduces a risk for injury.

- As a kettlebell enthusiast, I always looked at Brett Jones’s partnership with Gray Cook on DVDs as a case of John DuCane adding another name to media that will be marketed to the Dragon Door faithful. It turns out Gray is one of the most respected physical therapists in the nation. He travels the country working with professional sports teams and elite military units. I had no idea. He is a great example of one of the experts out there that has better things to do with his time than force his answers on the general public. Lee is another one, probably even less appreciated than Gray.

I actually tried reading Gray’s book about a year ago, and ended up giving it away because the detailed information just did not align with what I knew to be true. I wish I hadn’t. Eventually I would like to attend the weekend seminar on the functional movement screen. While there is one in Indianapolis in July, I do not think I will have assimilated enough of the information I am already working on to justify it. Their website offers a list of professionals who use the screening tools, I may chose to work with one of them instead.

What now?
Clearly I have taken in far more information than I can act on at once in my own training programs. The craziest part is what I have written above is only a small portion of the information presented at the sessions I attended at the conference. Not only that, I could only attend one of the four sessions offered at a specific time. I know so little.

I need to choose a few select pieces of information and act upon them. Once I have fully integrated those lessons into my training, I will look back upon this write up and choose others. Initially, I am going to address the following:

1. I need drop my arousal levels back down to normal after training sessions. Appropriate cool downs coupled with hot / cold contrasts may do this. If not, I will look for other ways of doing this. My recovery may be seriously impaired by a failure to do this.

2. I need to learn to activate my glute medius when I deadlift, and then when I squat. This will start with using a band pulling my right leg inward what I deadlift. I think it may point to the reason I have such a hard time getting out of a deep squat and could also lead to a properly executed overhead squat.

3. I am going to focus on incorporating exercises that allow me to screw my joints into their sockets, including multiple variations of lunges. Rather than trying to add weight whenever I can, I will also pay attention to varying these exercises to increase their difficulty through more challenging movement patterns.

My training has vast opportunities for improvement. I will do my best with what I have gained, but a single weekend of lectures is not even close to enough to learn everything that was presented. Attend this conference on a yearly basis will be a major training priority for me.