Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Youth Strength Training for Sports

I see a lot of eager fathers who are chomping at the bit to start their sons in some kind of strength training program so that they can prepare them for sports as early as middle school. I am a huge advocate for strength and conditioning programs for young athletes ranging from 10 to 17 years old. Ten years removed from high school, I can't tell you how I could have really benefited from working with a knowledgeable strength coach. Instead, I was given popular workouts that involved 5x5 programming, maxed out lifts and cookie cutter program design. Hopefully after reading this, you will get some new ideas that can help develop your young athletes into great performers on the field.

Most programs I have come across involve the bench press, squat, and clean. All of these are excellent choices for exercises in developing strength and explosiveness, both key components athletes need to possess to excel. However, these exercises are not necessarily for beginners. Here is a breakdown of the common exercise with a substitution I would implement with my young athletes.

Bench Press
Purpose of the bench press is increase upper body strength. Why do we need to use a barbell though? There is rarely a time in sport where your athletes will ever push against an opponent with equal distribution in both arms and without some kind of rotation in the hips.Try switching out barbell bench press with single arm dumbbell bench press and add a stability ball for self stabilizing purposes, see the video below.

This variation allows the athlete to work on equal pressing explosion (uni-laterally with dumbbells) through a full range of motion (full eccentric to full extension), resisting rotation (from using an exercise ball and stabilizing the core muscles) and working on equal power distribution through both sides of the body, something that cannot be achieved using a barbell.

Most coaches are going to be throwing fits about not knowing what their athlete's max is, but you have to realize what the goal is at this age. The goal needs to be, build a strong, functional and balanced athlete.

Another great exercise that nearly everyone uses to judge lower body strength. Problem is, most adults, let alone youth athletes new to lifting cannot properly perform this exercise. Most people have very weak core muscles, including the abdominals and erector spinae, limited ranges of motion through the hips which effects squat depth, and under developed and tight thoracic muscles which will throw off proper loading and disrupt proper technique. The first thing most coaches want to do is load that barbell with lots of weight. I know from experience, all that causes is a sore back, not so sore legs and zero confidence in my ability to squat. I had this same experience 10-13 years ago in preseason football training all through high school. That just lead to me hanging out at the leg press and hack squat machines due to over zealous expectations of adolescent athletes and a lack of confidence in my squat. Great exercises for putting on size, but really doesn't have a place in a serious weight room geared towards athletic performance.

The sandbag squat is going to teach and groove my athlete on proper squat form and depth. It is very easy to give these kids a task in which they can succeed right away and build confidence from day one. In this exercise be sure that your trainee is relaxing the shoulders back, engaging the thoracic muscles and are pushing the hips back while getting proper depth.


The overhead band squat is a tool to help activate the shoulder stabilizers, which will help support load in the next series of lifts. Even though I can overhead squat already and with pretty good form, I find it beneficial to do this as a warm up before barbell or kettlebell work. Using a band will build confidence in a new position and preparing the body for supporting load overhead. Before moving on to the next progression, watch for the inability to stabilize through the hips and trunk. This will be obvious, lots of rotation through the midsection so watch a few reps from every angle.

The next progression is barbell overhead squat. Once proper stabilization throughout the shoulder, trunk and adequate squatting depth with the band is achieved, it is time to add load through a static implement in the barbell. In this exercise I want to be sure to not worry so much about load but to look at form and any asymmetries my athletes may have. Too much range of motion is just as bad as no range of motion in the shoulder. Be sure weight is kept overhead and not behind and not too forward as to make the heels rise. Start with the bar and only increase load when there are limited asymmetries. As you can see in the video below, my client Jack, has just progressed to this progression this month. You can see in one of the reps, he loses concentration for split second and almost has to bail. Luckily he refocused in time to complete the rep.

This is a very challenging exercise on the brain and body. Simplistic in theory, but challenging due to the neurological component of this lift and all the muscle stabilization needed to execute this lift efficiently. I am not a fan of back loading exercises for youth athletes, and it is in my opinion that in order to start back squatting, your athletes need to earn that privilege. Overhead, front and back squats, in that order of progression. Unlike back squatting, a good number to shoot for over time would be to perform an overhead squat with as much load as the athlete's bodyweight. This would deem, exceptional overall strength.

This is a very popular lift and a favorite of many football strength and conditioning programs. I have seen very few people who are qualified to coach this very complex exercise. It takes years to perfect any Olympic lift. Enter the frosh football team, know it all 14 year olds. To think, we as coaches can get an entire team to perform these lifts with proper technique would be asinine. Focus on the benefits and then think of a solution. The purpose of the lift is to develop power through triple extension (ankle, knee and hip). Here is a great way to substitute the barbell version, but not sacrifice the movement.

If you notice, all we did was change the tool we used in the lift. The movement is the same. Triple extension is accomplished and we have a young athlete who got a workout in today and not a lecture. He/she now has accomplished a skill, and can get all the benefits of a barbell, with a sandbag, and still accomplish the same goal. Now the coach has more time to game plan for next week's game instead of teaching 50 kids how to perform a proper clean. Below is a video demonstrating a sandbag clean.

When developing youth athletes through strength and conditioning programs it is important to remember that they are new to all this. They need a coach who can accommodate all levels of fitness and athleticism without expectations of that of an 18 year old varsity star athlete. If this means changing traditional tools and programming then it is your responsible as a coach to change the tool and change the program. The days of measuring results hitting the weights with max loads, need to be thrown out and newer programing and ideology needs to be taking place. Coaches need to realize that a bigger max lift does not necessarily mean the result equals a better athlete.  I will not make the same mistakes with my athletes as my coaches did with me. Try these implementations and see how fast your youth athletes start getting stronger and how that carries over to the playing field.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bags, Bells and WarMachines @ Urban-WarFit

First time breaking out new training tools and programming at a such a big 'box'; Urban-WarFit in Scottsdale, AZ this past weekend. Had some great coaches from the Ultimate Sandbag Training System with Josh Henkin, kettlebells by Anderson Training Systems with Troy Anderson and War Machine-CrossCore180 suspension system with Brendan Cosso.

Here are some pictures showing the athletes and coaches who attended. We all learned a ton of new techniques and programming on strength and conditioning and got a great workout all day. Really want to thank owner, Rob Pyfer for hosting the event and opening up his box to everyone. Be on the lookout for these tools and programming into Urban-WarFit's WODs. It was a great experience to have so many knowledgeable coaches in one place, sharing ideas.

Also be sure to 'friend' Urban-WarFit, CrossCore and Henkin Fitness Systems on Facebook.
Coach and Owner of Urban-WarFit Rob Pyfer, Coaching up Chris Shembri

Coach Troy Anderson Getting Urban-WarFit Warmed up with a Unique Kettlebell Circuit

Working on Rotation and Anti-Rotational Upper Body Movements with the WarMachine

Coach Brendan Cosso Introducing the WarMachine Suspension Trainer to Urban-WarFit

Coach Brendan Cosso Showing the Versatility of the WarMachine, from Elite to Rehabilitation

Coach Josh Henkin Instructing an Intro to Sandbag Training

Ali Pyfer Performing a Sandbag Clean

Coach Dan Graziano Demonstrating a Shouldering Squat

Friday, June 17, 2011

Protein Supplements and Excuses

As a coach I get asked a lot about supplementation, especially protein shakes. There are literally 1000's of protein products on the market, and to the uneducated consumer, who have recently started their new healthy lifestyle it is hard to distinguish among the products that are most effective to accomplishing your personal goals.

The first thing that you must understand is that nothing beats food. With most of my clients who always on the run with work or kids activities I get many excuses as to why they are not seeing results. Some might blame the coach, but we all know better than that right? This is where protein shakes come in as a 'supplement' to a an individual's diet. I always stress the 3 most important meals of the day to a strength athlete or anyone trying to become leaner and perform better are breakfast, post-workout and before bed. For purposes of this blog post we will assume protein shakes will be our only option. Again I want to be sure that you, the reader understands that laziness to cook food is an unacceptable and after reading this first paragraph, if you are still too lazy to prepare a shake you should probably just stop reading now.

1. Breakfast is the meal that gets our metabolism back on track after starving ourselves all night with sleep.Sleep is very important, During sleep our body rests and recovers from daily stresses, repairs torn micro muscle fibers from effective workouts. The energy required to perform these repairs comes from your nutrition. If the body spent 8 hours repairing itself, it is likely that our body is also needing to refuel to continue not only repairing muscle, but also being able to perform everyday tasks and to ensure proper brain function. That is why if we are wanting to be lean and ready to seize the day, it is essential to get in a balanced breakfast of moderate to high protein, moderate carbs and healthy fats.

Protein recommendation: Whey, Casein, Whey Blend (mix of proteins such as egg, beef, whey, casein, etc.)
*These proteins are also great when you cannot eat whole foods; solid meal replacement here if needed

2. Post-workout is the time our body needs the most assistance in recovery from tearing up muscle fibers and pushing our mind and body to the limits. Thinking that to get leaner, you need to cut out calories wherever possible is erroneous when it comes to post-workout nutrition. You have lost a lot during the workout, now replenish it. We have a 'window' of time to maximize our recovery of 25-35 minutes after completing a workout, so be sure you prepare ahead of time to bring your shake to the gym with you or keep a container in your car so it is always with you. It is essential to get protein in our system as quickly as possible. Therefore we need a protein that is faster acting than our breakfast protein.This shake will consist of high quality, fast digesting protein. I prefer to look for products that have 25g+ protein per serving, minimal carbohydrate and minimal fat. We can always have a meal when you return home an hour or two later with healthy carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes or rice to replenish our glycogen in the muscles. Your shake and meal should be very low fat. Fat will slow digestion and as I stated previously we want to get protein to the muscles as fast as possible. If you are a morning workout person and find it difficult to prepare a meal a hour or two later, then add carbohydrates to this shake in the form of waxy maize, dextrose, maltodextrin, glucose, Gatorade or a pre-made mix you buy at the supplement store which will help replenish muscle glycogen. There are a lot of options for carbs post workout, so depending on your goals I would recommend something above or completely different (If you have questions shoot me an email I can better answer your questions).

Protein recommendation: Whey Isolate

3. Before bed is usually followed by a confused look. "What about eating after 7pm?"


It's not IF you eat, its WHAT you eat. The reason this question is usually asked is because most people tend to gravitate towards the pretzels, chips and ice cream at night while unwinding in front of the TV. Reference back to breakfast when I said our bodies go under some serious repairing and processes while sleeping at night. Our body cannot function or repair properly if there is nothing to repair with. If we do not have the nutrients to fuel the repairs of our body, the job doesn't get done. Assuming we get 6-8 hours of sleep at night, we need to have something sustainable through the night to breakdown and use so that we keep a positive nitrogen balance in our blood and promoting an anabolic environment to build muscle and burning fat. The only way we can ensure that is to take a slow digesting protein shake about 30-60 minutes before going to bed.

Protein recommendation: Casein

No matter how great your coach is, or if you have all the weight room knowledge there is, if you fail to refuel, replenish and repair, you will NOT see results and will never accomplish your goals. Making excuses are not for people serious about accomplishing and overcoming physical and mental hurdles in the weight room. If you are willing to put in the work and making lifestyle changes without excuses, then a sense of accomplishment will be with you at the end of the day. Remember...

"If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you'll find an excuse ."

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why Do You Back Squat?

Is it because that’s what huge guys do, your football coach said it would develop more strength; you read too many Muscular Development magazines that IFBB Pros say they do? I challenge any of you reading this to ask yourself if you can come up with any real explanation as to why back squatting is so great.

Unless you are a competitive powerlifter or bodybuilder, there is likely no legitimate reason why ‘leg day’ (assuming you’re not the general population of gym goers that actually works out something more than arms and chest) should revolve around the back squat. Now am I saying that you should eliminate the back squat from your repertoire of leg exercises, absolutely not! I want to examine other ways to work out the legs but also get more bang for your buck.

Let’s go back to the title of this article and answer; why do we back squat? If you are in fact a regular guy or gal you are likely working out to improve on lean muscle mass, fat burning and the ever so popular catch phrases, ‘functionalbility’ and ‘core strength.’ Back squatting does improve lean muscle mass which in turn does burn body fat. Assuming you are a very good squatter you can indeed improve core strength, albeit in one plane of motion, you are strengthening the core. From a functional movement standpoint, when in life do we ever load something on our back and squat down? On many occasions I have picked up an object such as a bag of groceries from a squatted position and lifted it up to a shelf or table though. I have also had to pick up flimsy sacks of mulch out of the back of a truck and place them on the ground, or help load and unload an old 85lb dog with bad hips in out of my old Jeep (miss my old Lab, Rocky and Jeep). Fact is, as active and busy people we constantly are putting load in front of our bodies, and never behind. If we can come to an agreement that we do indeed function like this daily, then I ask you all again, why do we back squat?

One could argue (and I will all day) that the front squat is a much more functional lift than the back squat and that in order to make everyday tasks easier (or my definition of functional training) more emphasis should be placed on front squats.  There is a lot of negativity that comes with the front squat and with that I can understand, until I began to explore innovative ways to incorporate that movement with other pieces of equipment besides a barbell. The number one complaint I have from ‘soccer mom’ is that her wrists hurt, or ‘I used to play college football at division 19 NERF football dad’ is that he cannot move, because his range of motion is shot from rotator cuff injuries. Sorry guys and gals but I am not going to let front loaded squats get in the way of making you become strong, functional and lean.

My favorite exercise to introduce front loading to, is the bear hug squat using my Ultimate Sandbag. Because I am able to apply load closely to the mid-line of my client I am coaching I am able to alleviate many excuses or pain quite often associated with front squats. Ailments such as lower back pain from excessive leaning forward are eliminated with proper loading of the mid-line or making the sandbag part of the body. Absolutely no wrist or shoulder pain because I am teaching proper thoracic muscle flexion. And no knee pain from your knees drifting over the feet too much, because of the sandbag’s weight shifting back so that proper hip flexion and hamstring/glute activation can take place by decelerating and accelerating through the heels. 

Using the Ultimate Sandbag, we can simulate the example earlier of lifting a dog in and out of the Jeep by performing a Zercher squat. Not only do we get to work or thoracic muscles and legs properly but you will notice a Zercher squat resembles a standing front plank giving you or your client a more efficient method of training multiple muscles at once. Once we have established our basic front loaded squatting methods we can then dig into advanced exercises for athletes or anyone looking to step up their fitness levels even more. By adding staggered bear hug and Zercher stance, you can put yourself or client into an unstable position, which will give us a more neurological effect meaning more muscle activation.  This movement is great if you have infants. If you are a mom or dad, how many times are you on the floor with you baby playing with them and have to pick them up from the floor, or evening leaning over inside a crib to pick up your toddler? I am sure a lot of times, so let’s be sure you can handle that range of motion and ‘live’ weight for the sake of not only the baby, but also your knees and lower back.

As you finish reading this and watching the video I have set up for you, I want you to again start thinking more and questioning what it is you are doing to improve yourselves daily and more importantly your clients and athletes that lack the great knowledge that you as coaches and trainers already possess.  I want you to keep back squatting, but I also want you to find other ways to get better. I will be the first to admit, I am a numbers guy, and I want the big squat. Take it from me, if you can incorporate these methodologies to your current regime, I promise only better results will follow, and yes that means a bigger back squat if that is what you really want.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

#1 Thing Missing From Your Workouts

As a strength and conditioning coach who dabbles in the corporate gym arena half the day and a simple sweat box the other half, I constantly hear the word ‘core’ thrown around a lot (yes in the corporate gym). When I see this ‘core’ training taught to clients/athletes, it mostly consists of very sedentary exercises such as sit-up variations, planks, and BOSU lunges/squats.

The issue we run into when this is the basis of all core training is that the coach/trainer who is putting the client through this is only experiencing the tip of the iceberg in terms of core strength and stability. What I mean by that, is that there are multiple movement patterns being left out the program design, that over time will not challenge the client/athlete and eventually lead to a key component in the kinetic chain that is underutilized and could result in injury or lack of reaching full potential.

To go into greater depth lets break this down into some simple science. We, as humans move in 3 planes of motion. The first is the Sagital Plane, which will incorporate a lot of your strength building exercises such as squatting, deadlifting and benching.  Frontal Plane is the next movement pattern. A few common exercises associated with the Frontal Plane would be side lunges and dumbbell lateral raises. The last and most neglected plane of motion is the Transverse Plane. These movements involve rotation, much like an athlete would do naturally to compete in anything from the swing of a gold club or baseball bat, the ability for a shortstop to bend over for a ground ball and make a quick release to first base, a basketball player receiving a pass in the post and pivoting around the defender for a layup or dunk.

Common Transverse Plane exercises often consist of Russian twists, cable chops or full contact twists. All good exercises, but how do they compare when we put our body in not only Transverse Planes but also the Sagital or Frontal Planes at the same time. Now, hopefully I got your brain turning and thinking of what the hell I am talking about. Let us take a look and breakdown cable chops. Either way you do them; down, across or up, there is only an emphasis on the acceleration aspect of the motion and very little concentration on the deceleration of the cable chop. Again good exercise, but how can we maximize this motion and make it better? How can we manipulate the load other than weight itself to make this more taxing not only on the stabilization of major movers and stabilizers but also giving it a greater neural response? How can we work flexibility while improving strength and stabilization at previously unexplored ranges of motion (ROM)?

All of those questions must be asked regularly if we want to get the most out of our clients, athletes or ourselves. Going back to the cable chop, what if we were able to change the load dynamically using an Ultimate Sandbag (USB)? Using a sandbag changes everything we know about the chop. We are going to have to not only accelerate the bag, but also absorb the shock coming back by pivoting and loading the hip through the hamstrings and glutes, and then pivoting the other way and re-accelerating the bag once again repeatedly. By implementing the USB, we have eliminated the cable which requires more stabilization by the lower body, upper body and CORE. Without a doubt this will cause a greater neural response from these new variables, resulting in a stronger and more functional body through multiple ROM. This is just one example of how we can use different tools to achieve better results and avoiding plateaus (See videos below on some of my favorite core exercises implementing multiple planes of movement).

Before some of you reading this get your panties in a bunch about what I am saying, let me be the first to say I too use a lot of exercises in my own training in the Sagital and Frontal Planes. However, I think it needs to be addressed to everyone, how much we are not implementing very important movement patterns in our program design and missing out on unlocking our full potential, not matter if our goals are quality of life or training for strength sports. Since working in exercises in the Transverse Plane I have seen great improvement in not only strength, but also my flexibility in my hips and shoulders, as well as a very noticeable difference in posture and thoracic muscle strength which has improved my posture. I have also went from needing chiropractic care 2 times a week to once a month because of strengthening all core muscles such as my back and hips, not just abdominals.

While sit-up variations, planks other popular ‘core’ exercises are good, it is our job as coaches and trainers to educate our athletes, clientele as well as ourselves on new and fun ways to progress to our fullest potential.  Below I will go over a few of the tools I use for my athletes and clients that will hopefully open doors to new and exciting program design.