Category Archives for "Functional Fitness"

The Most Important Muscle for Longevity in Strength Athletes… and How to Optimally Build It by Eric Bowman

Thanks to the efforts of strength coaches such as Alex Viada, Travis Mash, and Brandon Lilly, we’re seeing a shift in the strength sports community.

We’ve moved from the stereotypical “fat guy with a big gut who eats three Big Macs every meal” to a leaner, fitter, healthier strength athlete. As someone who used to work in cardiac rehab and helped start two programs, this warms my heart (no pun intended).

But it also concerns me because cardiovascular exercise, especially in bigger people with various health issues, needs to be done safely in order to minimize risk. Risk can never be eliminated, but it can be minimized.

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So let’s go over some heart health advice for the strength athlete. Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor – nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so it’s tough for me to give very specific pieces of advice without understanding your situation and your goals. Take what I say with a grain of salt.

Here are the two most important pieces of advice for strength athletes who want to start taking care of their cardiovascular health.
 

Get a blood test

People ask me all the time – what supplements should I take? My answer is… get a blood test. I don’t know what nutrients and hormones you have deficiencies or excesses of. A blood test can help reveal all that.

This gives you a good start in terms of dietary changes and/or supplementation if needed. By contrast, overdosing on multivitamins may give you excess levels of fat soluble vitamins and/or just lead to you having really expensive urine from the vitamins that you pee out.


 

Get a graded exercise test

While there are various protocols for how these are done, a graded exercise test involves exercising on a stationary bike or treadmill at a gradually increasing resistance and/or speed. During these tests the evaluator will measure your ECG (heart rhythm), blood pressure, (if present) chest pain, and heart rate along the way to determine a safe cardiovascular exercise intensity range. This is the range that will enable you to improve your fitness while not working into an intensity that provokes symptoms in an unsafe manner.

When I worked in cardiac rehab, this method minimized the amount of incidents to one episode of chest pain over many years. Conversely I’ve heard of other centers that don’t give patients specific exercise intensities, and they report high rates of chest pain and even heart attacks during sessions. You don’t want that happening to you.

Also getting these tests (and just ECGs) done in general can help detect heart defects, such as the one that killed 2005 World’s Strongest Man runner-up Jesse Marunde.

Seek out a cardiologist or go to an ACSM (in the US) or CSEP (in Canada) Certified Exercise Physiologist. Make sure your practitioner has performed these tests before.

With these tests out of the way, now we move on to building our heart health with the following concepts.
 

1. Start with low impact exercise

While prowler pushes and hill sprints are quite popular, many athletes may not have the cardiovascular fitness or the orthopedic health to do them without developing pain, aggravating pre-existing issues, or just plain getting exhausted and throwing up. Plus if you’re a strong athlete, these methods are harder to recover from and should be used more sparingly.

By contrast I’m more of a fan of low-impact options:

  • Sled pulls
  • Sled walks (props to Jim Wendler for this idea)
  • Stationary bike or recumbent bike
  • Incline treadmill or weight vest walking

What about running?

Running is a higher stress activity that can have injury rates actually higher than those of strength sports. That’s not to say you should never run, but the decision to run has to be looked at in terms of the following criteria:

  • What is your general health like? If you have cardiovascular, pulmonary, or lower body orthopedic issues (like joint or muscle pain), then running may not be the best choice for you.
  • What is your baseline fitness like?
  • What are your goals? Do you plan to run or are you just using it as a general means of getting in better shape?

 

2. Prepare

Make sure to do your cardio in areas that have people with appropriate first aid/AED training in the event that something does happen.
 

3. Start Easy

When in doubt, start easy. One thing I learned from my experiences in ICU and in pulmonary rehab is that a little bit of cardiovascular fitness can go a long way in terms of improving health, disease prevention, and improving recovery from hard training.

Athletes with a Type A mindset can often (in my opinion) go way too hard on their cardio and end up puking, passing out, or just plain stalling their recovery from training.

Once you’ve had your stress test and know what exercise intensity is safe for you, I recommend starting at a lower volume and intensity.
 

4. Build volume before building intensity

A common saying I’ve heard is to build anaerobic power before anaerobic capacity and to build aerobic capacity before aerobic power. None could be truer.

In simple terms, focus on building endurance to 20-40 minutes per session within your desired range before adding intensity.

If you’ve built a good base of cardiovascular fitness and are cleared to exercise at a higher intensity through a graded exercise test, then you can progress to more strenuous methods.

Just because you’re a strength athlete doesn’t mean you have to be a 300-pound cardiac patient during or after your career. Take these steps to heart and let me know how things turn out.

Dr. Stuart McGill on Stiffness and Neurological Strength

Get ready for some more knowledge bombs from Dr. Stuart McGill. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the previous wisdom from Dr. McGill – go listen to what he said about finding the perfect footwear, focal point, and athlete cues in the deadlift.

I am so grateful and honored that Dr. Stuart McGill allowed me to consult with him while I was researching for Pulling Science. Like I said last time, Dr. McGill is not merely an academic. He has worked with athletes from the highest levels. He has coached champion lifters – taking them from debilitating back pain to setting PRs.

Dr. McGill has an eye for movement and detail. Listen in to this fascinating insight he had while watching the World’s Strongest Man Competition:

It’s amazing how our bodies function – that our neurology is such a massive factor in our performance. Getting this incredible stiffness starts with the setup. And here’s Dr. McGill on his cue of achieving tightness by twisting the bar:

I can personally attest to the power of Dr. McGill’s approach. He recently stopped by my facility and was helping some of our general fitness adults with their deadlifts. The look on their eyes when it all clicked for them – it was amazing!

FORGET OPINIONS. HERE'S THE SCIENCE ON PULLING.

Master Technique and Programming for the Conventional Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, and Clean Pull

After combing through the research and interviewing the experts, the result is a guide that will refine your technique and boost your pull in a safe and effective manner.

Again, thanks to Dr. McGill. I suggest your next step to hear more from him would be to head over to backfitpro.com.

Grip Training for the Pull

In my time as a coach, I have watched athletes who should be world-class end up falling short due to a lack of grip strength.

These same athletes had all the other tools necessary to be strong – amazing leg strength, an incredible posterior chain, beautiful movement, optimal mobility, and the ability to produce massive amounts of power. But they lacked one key ingredient… hands.

Hand size and grip strength are important for all sports – not just strength sports. Think about it for just a second. In football, you need hands for catching, controlling your opponent, and tackling. In basketball, you need hands for catching, dribbling, passing, and shooting. In wrestling, you need strong hands to control your opponent. Have you ever met and shaken hands with a world-class wrestler or fighter? If you have, then you know they all have death grips. You get the point.
 

FARMER STRONG

The older I get, the more fascinated I become with this age-old strength art. I remember my grandfather’s grip and forearms. They were scary with a massive amount of muscularity. He was a farmer, so he was always working grip strength. He was the original strength athlete in our family, and he constantly amazed people with his ability to carry two partially wet bales of hay in each hand and throw them on top of loaded trucks. That’s roughly 120 to 150 pounds in each hand.

Growing up on the same farm, I naturally have strong hands and muscular forearms. I was able to double overhand hook grip an 804 pound deadlift in competition. I’ve double overhand deadlifted over 500 pounds without a hook grip on several occasions. Grip is something my parents helped me with by giving me big hands. Growing up on the farm did the rest.

When my boys were born, the first thing I did after welcoming them into the world with a hug was to check their hand size in relation to the rest of their body. Luckily I did my job. Both boys have catcher’s mitts for hands.
 

YOU SHOULD TRAIN THE GRIP

But what if you don’t have large hands? You should train the grip.
What if you do have large hands? You should still train the grip.

If you have big hands (especially long and not particularly fat hands), you probably won’t have trouble with grip until you are handling some massive loads. If you have short or thicker hands, you will want to start working on grip strength as early as possible in your training career. Either way, you don’t want to wait until you are outlifting your grip.

There are two main types of grip strength: squeezing (or concentric) grip strength and holding capacity (or isometric) strength.

This article is going to focus mainly on holding capacity strength, also known as isometric strength. This is the type of grip strength relevant to the deadlift, clean pull, and snatch pull. The snatch pull can be difficult because you have to overcome vertical and lateral forces in the grip. During these lifts, an isometric contraction is used to hold on. I will probably write another article someday on all the different elements of grip, but today we are focused on grip in relation to the pull.

FORGET OPINIONS. HERE'S THE SCIENCE ON PULLING.

Master Technique and Programming for the Conventional Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, and Clean Pull

After combing through the research and interviewing the experts, the result is a guide that will refine your technique and boost your pull in a safe and effective manner.

 

DEVELOPING GRIP CAPACITY: THE MORE SPECIFIC EXERCISES

Here are a few exercises I have used to create an unbreakable grip.

DEADLIFT WITH A SLIGHTLY LARGER DIAMETER BAR
A slightly bigger bar works in two ways. First, the body will adapt to the bigger diameter and over time get stronger and stronger from the new stimulus. Second and along the same lines, an isometric contraction makes the new joint angle of the hands stronger. Like Mel Siff noted in his book Supertraining:

“…isometric training also produces significant strength increase over a range of up to as much as 15 degrees on either side of the training angle. Moreover, as with all strength measurements, there is a specific force or torque versus joint angle curve for each type of muscle contraction, so that it is highly unlikely that a strength increase would be confined to a very precise angle and nowhere else in the range.”

Basically, getting stronger in the new joint angle will also strengthen the original angle. Using the conjugate method, the new joint angle prevents the body from refusing to get stronger due to accommodation. The adaptation from the new angle caused by the thicker bar will then aid with getting the original angle stronger.

I recommend multiple sets of one to five repetitions with a slower eccentric, mainly to increase the time of the isometric contraction.

BILATERAL PARTIAL COMPETITION GRIP DEADLIFT AND HOLD
A deadlift from blocks allows you to hoist more weight than a lift from the floor. I recommend using your normal grip (either mixed grip or hook grip) for specificity. If you don’t use your competition grip, you won’t be able to handle enough weight for specific adaptations to occur. In this case I don’t recommend high repetitions, as most of you will be focusing on increasing grip for your max.

I recommend three to five sets of one to three repetitions with loads greater than your current max from the floor, with holds of 15-20 seconds. When you can hold a specific weight for all sets and reps for 15-20 seconds, add weight the following session. You can use this method one to three times per week.

UNILATERAL PARTIAL DEADLIFT AND HOLD
Performing this movement unilaterally can prevent grip asymmetries, since you have to hold with each hand for equal time. The distance of the partial deadlift isn’t as important as the hold itself.

I recommend three to five sets of one to three repetitions per hand with loads as big as possible, keeping the weight the same per hand, with holds of 15-20 seconds. When you can hold a specific weight for all sets and reps for 15-20 seconds on each hand, add weight the following session. You can use this method one to three times per week.

UNILATERAL OR BILATERAL FARMER’S CARRY
This is one of my favorites because it is also good for trunk and hip stability. We perform carries one to three times every single week from our weightlifters to our general fitness folks. One key for specificity reasons: you will want to use handles with a diameter as similar as possible to your deadlift bar.

I recommend three to four sets of 20 yards. 20 yards is a good amount because you can use weight more relevant to your deadlift. Once you can handle a specific weight for three to four sets without dropping the bar, you will want to increase the weight.
 

DEVELOPING GRIP CAPACITY: THE LESS SPECIFIC EXERCISES

AXLE BAR DEADLIFTS
Personally I love these for general strength purposes. The diameter might be a bit much for totally specific gains in strength. However, considering the earlier statement from Mel Siff, you will still notice gains in overall isometric grip strength. These would be great early in a macrocycle if you were looking to increase your grip over a year’s time.

I recommend multiple sets of one to five repetitions with a slower eccentric, mainly to increase the time of the isometric contraction.

PLATE PINCH GRIP TRAINING
I love this exercise. This exercise definitely refers to capacity grip training, but it lacks the specificity of a deadlift hold. We performed these at the Olympic Training Center during my short stay. Personally I noticed a difference in grip strength – but just about everything I do for grip training works for me.

I recommend either pinch-gripping a 25kg or 20kg competition bumper plate. Or you can pinch-grip two metal 10-pound or 25-pound plates together. Once you can carry or hold the plates for 20 seconds, move on to a heavier and more challenging plate.

AXLE BAR HOLDS
Once again, even though the specificity isn’t there, I still love these for strengthening overall grip. Isometric work has at least some carryover throughout the range of motion, but a more specific bar will always work best.

I recommend three to four sets of one to three repetitions for 15-30 seconds. When you can complete all sets at 30 seconds, increase the weight.

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Grip strength training is so much fun. There are so many ways to train your grip to get stronger.

Obviously grip strength can help the deadlift in powerlifting. However, grip training can help athletes in their struggle to both snatch and clean more weight. A secure grip will send a signal to the body to fire on all cylinders. A weak grip can cause the body to prematurely shut things down due to a system weakness. Let’s work hard to keep the system firing properly, so we can all maximize our numbers on the platform.

Dr. Stuart McGill on Footwear, Focal Point, and Cues in the Deadlift

When I did my recent research for Pulling Science, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Stuart McGill.

There’s a good chance you’ve heard his name before. I think it’s safe to say he’s the world’s foremost expert on performance and injury of the low back. He’s performed research in the field, taught for decades, and worked with world-class athletes.

It was an absolute honor to talk with him again. I have learned so much from reading his books and even more when I’ve got to talk to him. He stopped by our facility a few months ago and blew everyone away with his knowledge.

The conversation I had with Dr. McGill was recorded. That gave me the chance to go back and review his comments as I was writing Pulling Science, and it also gives you a chance to listen in! Get ready for your mind to be blown.

FORGET OPINIONS. HERE'S THE SCIENCE ON PULLING.

Master Technique and Programming for the Conventional Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, and Clean Pull

After combing through the research and interviewing the experts, the result is a guide that will refine your technique and boost your pull in a safe and effective manner.

Here’s what Dr. McGill had to say when I asked him about what cues he gave to athletes during the deadlift:

There’s so much wisdom in what Dr. McGill says. So often we coaches get in our little camps – and it’s all too easy for coaches to think that what works for their handful of athletes is going to work for everyone.

But that’s just the start of Dr. McGill’s insight. His individual approach doesn’t stop with cues. Here’s what he had to say about footwear and focal point during the pull:

Whether you’re an athlete or a coach, try bracketing the particulars of the deadlift the way that Dr. McGill advises. You may end up finding out that a totally different arrangement could be helpful in your pull.

Thanks to Dr. McGill again for speaking with me – and stay tuned for more insight from this incredible mind.

Your Questions Answered (with Dr. Andy Galpin) – The Barbell Life 218

Andy Galpin was visiting the area, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to put him on the hot seat.

It always amazes me how he can just sit down and answer the craziest questions off the top of his head, rattling off the research with ease. This guy is on the cutting edge when it comes to the science of strength and muscle.

So get ready for a scorcher of a podcast as we get to listener questions on training for masters, dealing with limited equipment, getting strong without gaining weight, rep schemes, rest days, and more.

And we spent a ton of time talking about all aspects of the pull. Listen in to hear more about the most functional exercise on the planet.
 

FORGET OPINIONS. HERE'S THE SCIENCE ON PULLING.

Master Technique and Programming for the Conventional Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, and Clean Pull

After combing through the research and interviewing the experts, the result is a guide that will refine your technique and boost your pull in a safe and effective manner.

 

LISTEN IN TO TODAY’S PODCAST AS WE TALK ABOUT:

  • Why Dr. Stuart McGill advises to not use the hook grip
  • Changing body comp later in life
  • The best “bang for your buck” exercise
  • Is spinal flexion really that big of a deal?
  • The only real way to strengthen connective tissue
  • and more…

Why You Need to Work on the Pull

CrossFit has shed more light onto the barbell world than everything else prior combined. CrossFit has shown the world the barbell isn’t some monster that will make women masculine and turn the average dad into the Incredible Hulk (I wish).

The back squat is now an everyday phrase being coined as the most functional movement one can perform. However, I’d like to throw the deadlift in the ring as a movement that’s just as important. I just wrapped up writing my latest guide, Pulling Science, so the topic is fresh on my brain.

FORGET OPINIONS. HERE'S THE SCIENCE ON PULLING.

Master Technique and Programming for the Conventional Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, and Clean Pull

After combing through the research and interviewing the experts, the result is a guide that will refine your technique and boost your pull in a safe and effective manner.

Since I will be addressing weightlifters, powerlifters, strength and conditioning athletes, and general fitness enthusiasts alike, I will refer to the deadlift most of the time as the pull. Weightlifters normally perform clean pulls, snatch pulls, or clean deadlifts. Since I will be referring to the pull mechanism as a whole and not just the deadlift exercise, pull seems less confusing.
 

DANGERS OF THE DEADLIFT

I believe most of us pull something or lift something off of the ground as much or even more than we put something on our backs and squat low to the ground. Most of you reading this are not in need of convincing – or you probably wouldn’t be reading an article from a weightlifting/powerlifting coach and former athlete. But there are still some people out there who hate on the pull for some reason. Some will say it is too dangerous, which totally frustrates me. Now that I am 45 years old and my body is worn down from years of training, pulling is the one thing I can do with little to no pain.

Any exercise can be dangerous if you perform it incorrectly. Heck, you can tear a biceps if you jerk too hard during a curl. However, performed correctly the deadlift is not only safe but will help prevent injuries on the field, on the platform, and in life. Deadlifts add much needed muscle from the traps all the way down to the ankles. Pulls are especially great for adding muscle mass to all the muscle groups aiding in spinal flexion, hip extension, knee extension, and grip strength. That’s a lot of muscles that all of us use for so many various tasks in sport and life.

Basically if you want to run faster, jump higher, or lift a car off of someone, you should train the pull.
 

WHAT ABOUT WEIGHTLIFTING?

If you’re a powerlifter, you have to train the deadlift obviously since it’s one of the three movements you compete in. But in the world of Olympic weightlifting, the pull or clean deadlift is much more widely debated. The debate has always baffled me, but nevertheless it’s a major point of discussion.

I think this is more of an old school generation debate. The reasoning some have against any type of clean deadlift or pull is that the speed is different from the competition movement – so they believe it will throw off the actual clean or snatch. What they are forgetting is that, in regards to fast twitch muscle fibers, it’s all about intent. If I am trying to pull as fast as possible, the fast twitch fibers are firing like crazy.

Here’s another point: if I add some hypertrophy to the muscles required to perform spinal flexion, hip extension, and knee extension, those areas now have bigger muscles to produce more force. There are two main ways we can get stronger, and those ways are bigger muscles and better efficiency from more of a neurological response. There are other aspects that come into play like muscle attachments and muscle fiber type, but those things are fixed my genetics and therefore out of our control. That leaves us with either getting bigger muscles or getting better at the movement.

Heavy pulls are going to slap some major beef onto the same areas required to perform snatches and cleans. Therefore, you will be able to produce more power in those movements if you practice those movements. When you think about it, the argument makes no sense. We know from Coach Bryan Mann that squats are directly related to increases in sprint speeds and vertical leaps. Obviously squats aren’t as fast as either one of those movements, and yet squats still contribute to the improvement in those movements. Why? It’s because squats strengthen the muscles required to sprint. Therefore an athlete is enabled to sprint faster because their muscles are now able to produce more force into the ground.
 

CASE STUDIES ON THE PULL

Common sense science aside, I have seen pulls produce better results. Most recently, I cut the squat volume down on two younger weightlifters on my team, Morgan McCullough and Ryan Grimsland. I added intensity and volume to the pull, and both boys have experienced major improvements in a short amount of time. Both boys competed at the Youth Pan American Championships in early June. Both have added major kilograms to their totals in the past two months of focusing more on the pull. Morgan has added 8 kilograms so far (17.6 pounds roughly). Ryan has added 9 kilograms so far (19.8 pounds).

A better case study would be Travis Cooper when he was training for the 2015 Senior World Championships. I was one of his three coaches at the time, with his main coach being Glenn Pendlay. Travis sustained a back injury that nearly sidelined him for the competition, which would have also significantly lowered his chance for the 2016 Olympics. Heavy squats of any kind would flare up his injury, but deadlifts didn’t seem to bother him at all. We opted to take a clean-deadlift-only approach with pulling two to three times per week.

Not only was he able to compete, but he actually totaled a lifetime personal record, which is always harder at a world championship (due to the travel, time difference, and the conservative nature of the meet). At that moment, I knew my hypothesis of pulling importance was not only true but that pulls might be even more important than I had thought.

If you know anything about the Chinese weightlifting team, you know they are one amazing group of athletes. They are crushing world records at a rate faster than any other country. They are also the most jacked team on the planet, making them the coolest team as well. I have never seen a Chinese athlete without a massive set of traps, lats, and spinal erectors. Guess what? They pull! They pull frequently, and they pull heavy with both heavy snatch pulls and heavy clean pulls. It’s obviously not hurting their performance.
 

MORE REASONS

Here are some other benefits of the pull:

  • Faster sprint times
  • Higher vertical leaps
  • Longer broad jumps
  • Increased muscle mass in the hips, back and legs
  • Decreased injury rate on the field due to the stabilization of at-risk joints
  • Strengthening of the core (all the muscles supporting the spine and pelvis)
  • Decreased injury rate of the average adult performing household and other adult activities
  • Better posture

The key is how you perform the movement. If you are an adult wanting to get generally fit, I recommend using a double overhand grip with a neutral spine. Obviously if you’re a powerlifter, you are going to use either a mixed grip or hook grip. You can also use a little spinal flexion to make the lift a bit easier because when the spine flexes it gets shorter front to back. That makes hip extension a bit easier, but probably increases the risk of injury. I say probably because there is still some research that needs to be done. Some people don’t seem to be affected as much as others, but I would still err on the side of caution. My friend Dr. Stuart McGill says it’s dangerous, so I am going to go with what he says. That’s his area of expertise. As a powerlifter, the reward might be worth the risk to you. That’s a personal decision to make.

However, when it comes to adults performing general fitness, I’d say to keep a neutral spine, never use straps, and keep a double overhand grip. If you have to use straps to lift the weight, it’s too heavy for your goals. People performing general fitness are trying to look and feel better. You will be able to reach both goals with a neutral spine and double overhand grip.

If you are a sport athlete (football, basketball, wrestling, soccer, etc) or an Olympic weightlifter, I definitely recommend keeping a neutral spine as well. A neutral spine is required to perform a heavy snatch or clean. A neutral spine is also more sport specific to field athletes. Not to mention, as Dr. McGill says, “Proximal stiffness around the spine leads to distal power output in the legs and arms.” I’d also forego strap use with athletes simply for the benefits of increased grip strength – leading to easier tackles, better take downs in wrestling, and any other movement requiring a strong grip.

For Olympic weightlifters, strap use can go either way. If you have a strong grip, I’d recommend using straps if your hands are already beat up. Weightlifters perform so many pulls that the health of their hands can be a real issue. However, if grip is an issue (like it can be for some people with small hands), you might want to perform heavy clean pulls without straps.
 

FOR MORE…

Pulling Science goes into much more detail than this. In the book, I included six pulling programs. There is also the advice from some amazing coaches and athletes like Dr. Stuart McGill, Stefi Cohen, Dr. Andy Galpin, Hayden Bowe, Dr. Aaron Horschig (Squat University), and many more. I break down the science in a way very easy to understand, and then I give the real world advice from the top sources. I also give my own advice for strengthening the pull. This book is one of the most complete books that I’ve written, so I hope that you will enjoy it.

FORGET OPINIONS. HERE'S THE SCIENCE ON PULLING.

Master Technique and Programming for the Conventional Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, and Clean Pull

After combing through the research and interviewing the experts, the result is a guide that will refine your technique and boost your pull in a safe and effective manner.

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