Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Philosophy of Strength and Health

The following exchange occurred this past weekend at a Crossfit Olympic Lifting Trainer Course in Springfield, MO.

"So what elements of Crossfit do you think are best for your athletes?"

"None of them. I don't do Crossfit. I just help teach the weightlifting stuff."

"Then what programming do you think is best?"

"I don't think there is one best way. I guess you could say I follow a 'functional training' mantra and do what I think is best for that athlete, at that time, given her/his needs. My philosophy is based on training movement, not muscles. There are some basic movements: squat, lunge, push, pull, rotate, walk, run, jump, crawl, throw, catch, hit, kick. The goal is to create basic musculoskeletal durability, physical competency and movement literacy in the context of sport and/or life."

I always find exchanges like this very interesting. So many people get caught up in the idea of one true way, or finding the one best certification/course. It's not just about finding the right exercises. It's about having a well-rounded, grounded philosophy and acquiring a great big tool box that you can use to address each situation, individually.

People often ask me how I got to where I am now. Well, here goes, in a nutshell. My current philosophy wasn't built in a day and it is constantly evolving.

1. My undergraduate studies gave me a terrific foundation in critical reading, research, basic biological science and how science works. I was and still am a geek. My major at the University of Chicago was HiPSS (History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science and Medicine). I chose to specialize in the biological sciences and then took courses in the history and philosophy of science and biology. Organic chemistry and biochemistry nearly killed me, but I made it.

During those 4 years, I also played volleyball and competed in track. I had no idea that what I was doing in the classroom would ever help me understand what I was doing on the court or in the discus ring.

2. My graduate studies (MS in Kinesiology) at the University of Illinois-Chicago gave me a great foundation in biomechanics, anatomy, motor control, physical education and exercise science. I enrolled in this master's program after I decided to apply to physical therapy school, as I needed a few more courses. It was my great fortune to have crusty old PhD/PE teachers and coaches like Warren Palmer, who did basic research on lipid metabolism, and Robert C. Hickson who did seminal research on concurrent strength and endurance training. I also took a great course in sport psychology from Gloria Balague. Palmer’s Experimental Exercise Physiology lab course had us replicate famous experiments on glycogen sparing and muscle hypertrophy—in rats. They were not my favorite, but they helped me realize I wanted to focus on applied human movement, and not get a PhD in physiology.

3. My graduate studies in the Washington University Program in Physical Therapy gave me the knowledge and tools to evaluate movement and to progressively apply movement/exercise to promote healing and function. Big skill acquired here: EVALUATE the situation and DOSE the EXERCISE--i.e. the basics of programming. Here I found my passion for movement science.

And during our graduation ceremony, Kathleen Dixon said something I carry with me to this day:

Before I go to that great plinth in the sky, it is my dream that every person visits his/her physical therapist every 6 months, just like they go to the dentist, to get a musculoskeletal health check up.

Those words were seared into my soul. But in Missouri in 1997, a physical therapist could not see an injured or healthy person without a physician's referral. That would all change with the new Missouri Physical Therapy Practice Act of 2000 and drive my vision for what would become Iron Maven Physical Health & Performance.

4. My job with Derrick Crass, PT at MECCAH in 1998 allowed me to work in an environment that had both orthopedic rehab and athletic development. Derrick was seriously ahead of his time with MECCAH. This was a critical time in my development. I learned about the sport of weightlifting from Derrick (a 1984 and 1988 Olympian in weightlifting) and I attended Vern Gambetta's Building and Rebuilding the Complete Athlete seminar.

These two things really opened my eyes. I came to the conclusion that basic rehabilitation and elite performance are actually on the same movement continuum; that they should be approached with the same philosophy, just with different levels of intensity. My tool box grew immensely during this time, as I was challenged to program for all different levels of patients and clients. I also earned my CSCS and USA Weightlifting credentials at this time.

At this point I began to realize most rehab professionals didn't appreciate how resilient the average human body can be when given the appropriate time and stimuli. This is exactly what elite athletes can do after bad injuries; the impossible can be possible. And I came to the conclusion that many PTs have a skewed view of normal human function, given their constant interaction with injured, unhealthy people. This fact, combined with their own lack of fitness, exercise and sport participation, leaves them with a very narrow view of normal human ability. If your own knee never bends past 90 degrees in a squat, why in the world would you think it might be good or necessary for anyone else to do so?

And what was I doing? I was learning to clean, snatch, front squat, push press, lunge, bound, sprint--getting into the best shape of my life, all without a R medial meniscus and the knee pain that plagued me during college volleyball.

5 Seven years of work in various rehab, wellness and sports performance settings gave me experience in working with variety of athletes/clients in all kinds of settings—homes, tiny treatment rooms and luxurious training facilities.

All of these experiences contributed to the foundation of my current philosophy. For sure I have been greatly influenced in sport science, coaching and rehab by Mike and Meg Stone, Shirley Sahrmann, Stuart McGill, Vern Gambetta, Joe Pryztula and Derrick Crass. I have benefited greatly by my time around some of the great American weightlifting coaches--Lou Demarco, Harvey Newton, Mike Burgener, John Thrush, John Garhammer, Ursula Garza--and observing their meticulous detail to technique and preparation. And all of these individuals have been gracious in sharing their successes along with their failures. But none have convinced me there is one true way. There are the needs of the athlete and the demands of the task—and you go from there.


To sum up, here are some things you might think about:

  • There is no one true way; no magic exercises. But there are exercises that are more valuable than others. Some may have no value at all to certain athletes. You must determine what is necessary to do and have a rationale for it. Don’t just copy blindly from others.
  • I'm a fan of the sport of weightlifting but I don't think cleans and snatches are the secret to athletic success. They can be an integral part of a program, at the right time.
  • Strength and power are optimized when they are developed in the context of sport skill; without context, they may be a hindrance.
  • Mobility and joint health must be included in regular programming, not as a separate injury prevention program. Good training creates mechanical resilience and mobility—that is injury prevention. Think "build up" not "break down." If an athlete is constantly battling injuries, there is something wrong with the programming--too much volume, intensity is too high, exercise selection is inappropriate, or technique is lacking.
  • Process and patience are paramount.
  • Programming is part art and part science. If you don't have a foundation of basic exercise science, get some. Then find someone to mentor you and guide you on art of programming. It ain't just reps and sets. And more isn't necessarily better.
  • Learn how to evaluate and assess. If you don't know where you are starting, how can you get to where you are going?

Good luck on your journey toward your own philosophy of strength and health.

Monday, April 04, 2011

What I Do

It is my life's passion and vocation to give young people the physical infrastructure & movement literacy to tolerate the forces/demands of their sport. And also mentor them as to what it means to be disciplined, to work with intensity, to carry themselves with dignity, and to make themselves--and those around them--the best they can be.

That's how I roll.

Sorry I have been away from the blog for a while. Significant developments are in the works. I hope to elaborate soon.