Sunday, April 30, 2006

Do you know how to use the barbell properly?

The barbell is a great tool. It gets a bad rap sometimes because it is misused and abused by those who think they know what they are doing. See the picture and grimace. I took it. Scenes like this are repeated every day in weightrooms across the country. It is my opinion that many of the "coaches" in America's weight rooms, both at the college and high school,--level have nary a clue as to how to use this simple tool help create better athletes.

My point is this: A tool is only as good as the idiot who uses it.

The barbell allows one to use gravity and variations on movement to work on strength, mobility of the hips, ankles and shoulders (imagine that!), power and torso stability. Most weight room coaches in this country limit barbell use to 3 exercises: bench press, squat and the "hang clean." It is all about maximal upper body strength and maximal lower body strength and power.

A few attempt snatches or presses, but the technical challenges of the snatch movement frustrate many; the lack of shoulder flexibility in the majority of American athletes causes even more problems. Some college "strength coaches" even teach that the press is dangerous, and can lead to cervical disc rupture! (Hmmm...don't know any true weightlifters that have suffered ruptured cervical discs. I do know there are documented cases of pectoral ruptures and death with bench pressing though.)

The exercises are blamed as being "dangerous." What if someone suggested the physical condition of the athletes was the problem--they were deficient in normal shoulder mobility? What if the coaches were blamed for not helping the athletes create and maintain the mobility they need to truly have healthy shoulders and backs?

Bottom line, other than the bench press--it is not a total body movement and it is THE LEAST FUNCTIONAL and LEAST TECHNICAL movement most athletes do--weight room coaches do not respect the complex and technical nature of total body barbell movements. Nor do they take advantage of the shoulder and lower extremity mobility these movement help create and maintain. If you have a thick neck, a bald head, a goatee and ever wore a football uniform, you're qualified to teach someone to lift weights and use a barbell. Most of these coaches do not properly prepare their athletes to work on the platform. They only see heavy weights to be lifted, regardless of technique. It a manly game; not an art that demands technical mastery and respect for its complexity.

I once observed a highly-regarded Division I strength coach work with a professional hockey player on what I think were supposed to be power snatches. I'm not sure what the exercise was or for what purpose it was being done. This individual held all of the "right" certifications for his job--CSCS and USAW Club Coach. Despite the paper trail and the DI job experience, it was clear he did not understand proper application of pure weightlifting movements to a more general program.

It makes me sad to see a great tool get a bad reputation because people don't know how to use it properly. Their ignorance breeds fear and disrespect to a sport (weightlifting) and art (weight training with a barbell) that is being lost in our culture. I hope to change that.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Health as Energy Balance: Reducing Nutrition to Calories In-Calories Out

Just got the ACSM's latest Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. The first article discusses the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Macronutrient Report, which is also titled: Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids. This is a 1331 page document originally appeared via Web in 2002 and it has taken over 3 years for it to appear in paper form; it served as the basic research behind the development of the US Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA's new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005. It is the basis of the new "food pyramid." (

From the ACSM's point of view, the document is important because is advocates physical activity and exercise as a part of national health policy on nutrition. Prior to this document, physical activity and exercise were not officially considered with nutrition; now the two are unified. In fact, the report initially caused a stink with the popular press as it recommended 60 min per day of activity; other agencies had been struggling to establish credibility for their 30 min per day recommendation.

I'm glad the two are now linked. But the following statements bothered me, however:

Explaining the necessity to balance dietary energy intake and expenditure was a goal of the Macronutrient Report. Using physical activity and exercise to achieve balance without restricting food intake, but rather taking advantage of the healthful and invigorating, but exergonic effects of exercise to balance energy intake in the absence of dietary restriction was another goal of the IOM Report.

Exercise is great; it is essential to human health. But are we, in our effort to simplify things for our overfed, under-nourished culture, reducing nutrition health to simply calories and calories out? I used to believe this--restriction, MODERATION and simple math--was the answer. But now I know it is not. It is not just about exercising enough to combat the calories we take in. It is about choosing GOOD CALORIES--the best calories that in their whole, natural form, provide us with fiber, micronutrients and macronutrients to give nutritional excellence and make health the default. Funny that since I've completely revamped my eating habits to focus completely on unprocessed, plant-based foods that I've lost over 15 lbs without actually counting a calorie? I (and many of my friends) are walking billboards that eating well combined with exercise allows the body to naturally take care of energy balance.

Have the panels of experts simply abandoned the idea of actually getting Americans to make substantial eating behavior changes--"oh the best we can do is to get people to eat a little less and move a little more?" Have we given up on the idea that people can actually change behaviors if given the right information?

I went to and put in my age and gender and activity level. The website suggested I consume 2200 calories a day, and says I need the same amount of milk and veggies (3 cups!) every day. Those who know me, know I am ROTFLMAO at this suggestion:

3 cups of ANY veggies a day (MyPyramid divids veggies into dark green, orange, starchy, other and beans/peas--AND THEY SAY I should shoot for a whole 3 cups of dark green veggies PER WEEK!--out of 21 cups of veggies total in a week!)
2 cups of fruit
3 cups of milk--a DAY!!!! (Of course, they say soy or other calcium fortified products "might not provide the other nutrients found in milk or milk products." Score a BIG one for the dairy industry!)
6 ounces of meat & beans
7 ounces of grains

This is SAD. The people who are supposed to educate us about nutrition and health have given up the ghost and watered the message down to calories, portions and BMI numbers. This does nothing but keep the status quo and satisfy special interests. Calorie counting / energy balance and portion restriction alone is pissing into the wind of the obesity hurricane that is upon us.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Learning from Cesar, The Dog Whisperer

I'm reading Cesar's Way --the book by Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer. It is fascinating. His story and his understanding of nature, energy and dog vs human psychology not only make for a great read, but also a great educational experience.

When working with dogs, Cesar uses this philosophy: Exercise, discipline, affection--in that order. Most Americans do the following: affection, affection, affection. Most of our canine companions are missing fundamental aspects of their physiological and psychological well-being because we do not understand their world. We anthropomorphize them into our "furry children" and do them a great disservice. No wonder they have the plethora of behavioral issues and health issues!

Cesar was on The Diane Rehm show last Thursday. One caller was lamenting her dog's issue when Cesar asked how much exercise the dog got on a daily basis. The caller remarked that the dog was walked "3-4 minutes" every day. Cesar just chuckled. One of his main points is that our dogs do not get nearly the exercise their physiology demands; they have way too much energy to expend on a daily basis and when this is pent up, issues arise.

But isn't the "3-4 minutes" of exercise per day thing just like us? We neglect not only our own physical and mental health, but that of our pets. No wonder we are a culture of neurotic, depressed, overweight idiots! We think our technology and our manipulation of fundamental biological principles--Mother Nature--is the answer to a healthier, longer live. We do not work with nature, we work to overrule it. That is our mistake.

Stay tuned for a future post on Cesar's concepts of "calm-assertive" energy when dealing with pack animals. I think Cesar should consult with private male high schools. The whole "exercise, discipline and affection"--in that order, along with the use of "calm-assertive" energy might go along way toward managing the fine young men at my husband's school. Now, I'm not suggesting they are anything like dogs, but I'm fairly certain they don't get anywhere near the physical activity they need to, on a daily basis, be in the "calm-submissive"--relaxed and receptive, as Cesar says--state that would best facilitate learning. Makes perfect sense, right?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Does a coach have to have been a great athlete?

I was thinking about coaching yesterday, as I gave myself a dose of my own video-feedback medicine. I will never be a good weightlifter. I am fairly strong for my age and gender, but the power/speed just isn't there and the lack of ankle mobility combined with the patellar arthritic changes (12 years of volleyball) make it challenging for me to hit full squat positions. The video absolutely shouted that at me--and it was good to actually see how I moved, and see that I make many of the same mistakes I critique in my athletes and clients.

Nothing like the painfully raw truth to open your eyes.

That said, it made me think about the impact I have had on athletes, whether it has been in volleyball, basketball, cycling or weightlifting. Masters or school-agers. There are those that believe a great coach must have been a great athlete in that given sport. I disagree. There are many great coaches who have been great athletes; there are also those coaches who have not been good athletes. A great example is swim coaching legend Bill Boomer. Apparently the guy never swam a day in his life, but as coach at the University of Rochester in the 1980's he revolutionized and developed many new concepts in the sport of swimming. Google Bill Boomer and see how influential he's been.

So if you have a good eye, an understanding of human mechanics, maybe some anatomy and physiology, passion for the sport and know how to effectively communicate, you can be a successful coach! Any comments? Anyone know a great athlete who's been a complete flop at coaching? I think we can all name a few of those.

So, even though I am sometimes a bit disappointed in my struggle to succeed at various sporting endeavors, I take solace in the fact that I can have a positive impact on other athletes of all ages. It makes a person feel good to get comments like the following from two young athletes:

"Of course, I will keep you updated as to how things are going. In fact, I would love to have you involved in my lifting to whatever extent possible. You offer very good training tools, and great insight...."


"I have greatly enjoyed working with you these past years. Thanks for everything you have done for me. I also appreciated you working with me over the summer, on my knees and my back and getting me ready to play vs. Vianney, which we won."

Nothing like winning the big game against the biggest rival to make an athlete really appreciate a coach! :-)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Sports Performance as a Commodity

I really appreciate the effort Vern Gambetta makes to educate and provide educational resources--many from other disciplines--to the people, virtual or otherwise, around him. He is very generous. Many of these resources are out of print and their value can now only be communicated by word of mouth. Other notable people in the industry tend to guard their resources as "secrets"--fearful the next guy might make a buck or two. But Vern is an educator at heart, and teachers teach and attempt to make those around them better. Cool.

I wanted to share a concept I read last night from "The Omnivores Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. The book discusses food production, along with many other aspects of agriculture, ecology and biology. In a section discussion industrial "organic" versus artisianal "organic" enterprises, he makes a great point that is applicable to the current trend of something I would call "industrial" sports performance. By "industrial" I mean entities like Velocity and Frappier Acceleration who sell the commodity of sports performance training on a very large scale; so large, they have even franchised the product. (Just so everyone knows, I was a part of the Velocity machine at one time. I lasted exactly 5 months and 4 days as an associate sports performance director.)

Here's the quote:

"Industrial farmers are in the business of selling commodities...a business where the only viable competitive strategy is to be the least-cost producer. The classic way any industrial producer lowers the cost of his product is by substituting capital--new technologies and fossil-fuel energy--for skilled labor and then stepping up production, exploiting the economies of scale to compensate for shrinking profit margins. In a commodity business a producer must sell ever more cheaply and grow ever bigger or be crushed by a competitor that does."

Those entities that sell sports performance to the masses, do exactly this. They sell impressive 24,000 square foot facilities, turf, or high speed treadmills to draw in the masses. And while some of their underlying concepts are good, the end-product is so watered-down--the teaching environments so sub-optimal and the labor so unskilled. The bottom line is survive to make $$$--not truly educate parents, coaches or athletes on the value of general physical preparation and movement. Check out the turnover at your local Velocity or Acceleration; check out the longevity of their franchises. Some survive; many do not.

For a different perspective on the sports performance model, check out The Center for Athletic Performance, just south of Kansas City, MO. Scott Moody and his staff have higher goals than just making money or selling bling--they just want to be better and do right by the kids and the parents.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Smart, Steady Progress Brings Success

The old adage "Slow and steady wins the race" has been floating around in my head lately. But I have modified it a bit.

I attended the National Junior Weightlifting Championships last month in Florida and had the chance to see some very talented athletes compete. Some were vying for spots to compete internationally for Team USA at the Junior World Championships and the Junior Pan Am Championships.

As in all sports, there are some physically and mentally talented athletes who compete beyond their age. These individuals break School-Age (17 under) and Junior (17-20) records; and the sport community becomes very exited to see a potential Olympic champion. And not unlike other sports--swimming and little league baseball come to mind--there are those young super studs that disappear. These wonder kids never make it to the senior ranks or the big leagues, as they break down physically or psychologically, or they just become weary of having spent a childhood pursuing a dream that might not have been their own. The rate at which the athlete progresses is lauded, rather than how the athlete progresses--steady, consistent 6/6 meet performances, demonstration of technique mastery, demonstration of fundamental physical preparation.

One of my personal concerns with any young athlete is the lack of fundamental general physical preparation and the lack of sport-specific technique and physical preparation. You can see this in weightlifting events when the athlete over-reaches--successfully lifts a weight, but does so in spite of significant physical deficiencies. Examples of this include 1) severe valgus movements at the knees, indicating deficient hip strength; 2) loss of neutral spine while pulling from the floor or coming out of the bottom, indicating poor total lower extremity and core strength; 3) the ability to clean a weight, but then not jerk it successfully, due to a lack of hip/core/upper quarter strength with weight overhead; 4) hips out of sync with shoulders off the floor, with an excessively hyperextended neck and lumbar spine, usually indicative of poor posterior chain strength and core stability.

Even though a particular competitive lift might be successful, displays of physical deficiencies would seem to me to be a red flag for regrouping and working on the athlete's "physical scaffolding," laying the basic strength groundwork and making sure proper technique motor patterns are in place. This is in anticipation for the time when the athlete is truly physically ready to make the big lifts and when it really counts--at the senior level, nationally or internationally. If the athlete is allowed and encouraged to constantly over-reach, and fails to fix even the smallest of physical or technical deficiencies, these deficiencies will rear their ugly head in the future. And once these compensations are grooved into the motor system, the chance to revamp technique or the willingness to take the time for the athlete to spend maybe up to 6 months or a year to bring strength levels up to par, has passed.

Records at a young age are nice; they can be very motivating. Consistent performance in competition, mastery of technique and demonstration of fundamental strength mechanics are the hallmarks of good coaching and athlete preparation. The true measure of a good coach is whether or not s/he has the knowledge and the relationship with the athlete to make the athlete understand the importance of smart, steady progress--and the guts to choose it over records--personal or national--when given the choice. Would you rather your athlete become a 13-20 year-old national "has-been" or an athlete with a healthy 5-10 year career at the senior international level? Do you choose hype over health, preparation and smart, steady progress?