In this installment, one of the world's most successful strength coaches answers your questions about training on a tight schedule, the best recovery methods, developing better balance, and the most effective type of ab training.
But first, a few (more) words on CrossFit.
Q: Coach, in your last column you talked a little about CrossFit, saying that "no athlete has ever gotten any good training like that." Have you had a chance to look a little deeper into the method?
A: A lot of individuals love CrossFit. Many of them believe it's the perfect program to achieve their goals. They're very satisfied with their progress. And I have no doubt that some individuals have never been injured from CrossFit.
That said, I have six major issues with CrossFit-type training:
1 – Lack of sufficient testing protocols
When I looked over detailed notes from a CrossFit certification, I saw protocols for beginning, intermediate, and advanced workouts using multi-joint movements. But I didn't see any protocols for testing trainees for structural-balance issues.
I've worked with Olympians in 23 different sports, along with lots of professional athletes. Before having any of those athletes do their first power clean or squat, I do a series of tests to red-flag muscle imbalances that could increase the risk of injury.
And if there's a history of injuries with that athlete, then of course that's addressed in the workout design.
I'll give you an example: Olympic shot-putter Adam Nelson couldn't do power snatches before I started working with him because he had adhesions in his rotator cuff muscles. After we addressed the injury with Active Release Techniques (ART), Nelson was able to reintroduce the exercise in his workouts. Within a month he was handling personal-best weights.
Jim McKenzie, a professional hockey player I've trained, went from a 281-pound close-grip bench press to 380 pounds in less than four months by focusing on corrective exercises – and that's without doing any bench presses at all for the first three months!
2 – Focus on a single training protocol
The protocols in CrossFit aren't appropriate for developing the highest levels of strength or power or speed. I doubt if you'll see any elite powerlifters, weightlifters, or sprinters using CrossFit protocols as their primary method of conditioning.
For example, when I trained [long jumper] Dwight Phillips for the Athens Games, we worked first on structural balance, and then on increasing his eccentric strength.
Besides winning gold medals at the World Championships in Helsinki in 2005 and the Olympic Games in 2004, in training he beat some top-ranked sprinters in the 100 meters. I didn't accomplish this by having him superset high-rep push-ups with mile runs.
Coaches often overemphasize energy-system training with athletes, to the detriment of other physical qualities. Check out any exercise physiology textbook and look at the studies performed on elite athletes and their VO2 maxes. It's not necessary for a baseball player – or a basketball player for that matter – to have a VO2 max of 70. [A VO2 max in the high 50s is considered outstanding for a male in his late 20s.]
The promotional materials I've read about CrossFit imply that this type of training addresses all the strength and conditioning needs of an athlete, but the concept of specificity tells us that if you try to excel at everything, you aren't likely to reach the highest levels at anything.
This is why we don't see individuals who can run a mile in four minutes flat that can also bench press 500 pounds.
3 – Insufficient instruction for teaching complex training methods
It takes more than a single weekend seminar to develop the competency to teach certain types of exercises, or to prescribe protocols for complex training methods. I'd include Olympic lifts, strongman exercises, and plyometrics in this category.
These training methods are sometimes criticized as dangerous by strength coaches. But when you look at why athletes become injured, you can often point to poor technique.
Interestingly enough, my first comments about CrossFit got a lot of business for my PICP coaches. They got calls from CrossFit practitioners who wanted to learn how to lift properly.
4 – Inappropriate repetition brackets for complex exercises
Although high reps and short rest intervals can be used to develop muscular endurance, these protocols shouldn't be used with some exercises.
This is especially true with Olympic lifts, where it's difficult to maintain proper technique with high reps. And it's especially difficult when supersetting Olympic lifts with deadlifts, or any other multijoint exercise. If you want confirmation, just watch CrossFit trainees do these lifts in videos on their website.
The Olympic lifts should be used to develop power. If you want to develop muscular endurance, you should use simpler movements.
5 – Inappropriate exercise order
In the CrossFit "Linda" workout, what's the logic in fatiguing the lower back with deadlifts before doing power cleans? Not only does it prevent you from doing the power cleans with optimal technique, it makes it more difficult to activate high-threshold motor units. That's why you should do all your sets of power cleans before you do deadlifts.
Another problem is that combining weight-training exercises with sprints places an athlete at a high risk of injury, especially to the hamstrings.
6 – Endorsement of controversial exercises
On one website of a CrossFit affiliate, I saw video clips of athletes jumping onto cars and standing on Swiss balls. I appreciate the need to use a wide variety of exercises with clients, but not if they're high-risk exercises.
Because of these six concerns, I can't recommend CrossFit training, especially for those seeking the highest levels of athletic performance.
But in the interest of being open-minded, let's leave it at this: Despite its shortcomings, the CrossFit system is continually evolving. It'll be interesting to see how it changes as more athletes, along with nonathletes, participate in the program.
The Truth About Balance Training
Q: The American College of Sports Medicine sent out a press release predicting the biggest fitness trends of 2009. One of them is stability-ball training, because this can "teach balance." Can balance really be trained in adults?
A: In adults, balance can be regained, but not taught. If you don't already have balance skills by age 12, you're not going to improve dramatically as an adult. It's a waste of time.
Now, if you've lost those skills over the years, then balance training can help you get back to where you once were. This might help prevent falling injuries in the elderly.
Before the age of 12, balance training is really good. Kids need to play on unstable surfaces. Imagine a kid at a park jumping from rock to rock. Each rock has a different shape, so the child has to balance on it. Walking on narrow surfaces like a high beam in gymnastics can also really train balance.
One expert from Canada goes as far as to say that balance must be trained before the age of four. Some will even argue that you should start with toddlers, tapping them gently on each side as they're walking so they have to catch themselves.
That's extreme, but when it comes to developing balance, the younger you do it, the better. Skiers have some of the best balance and spatial-awareness skills you'll see, and most [of the elite skiers] got on the slopes at age two.
As a side note, swimmers are the opposite. They can barely walk and chew gum at the same time. They spend so much time in the water that their proprioception is poor. Ever see a bunch of swimmers playing soccer to warm up? They look like penguins having epileptic fits!
So, balance training is trendy, but pretty worthless for adults.
Behind-the-Neck Pulling: Don't Do It!
Q: I used to see behind-the-neck pull-ups and pulldowns all the time in bodybuilding mags. Now people say they lead to injury and that we shouldn't do them. What do you say?
A: I agree. Don't do them.
A Simple Approach to Gaining Weight
Q: I'm skinny and can't gain weight. Assuming my training is spot-on, how many calories should I shoot for per day?
A: If you're truly skinny and your body fat is below 10 percent, then I'd use this technique I learned from Mauro Di Pasquale. Eat 52 calories per kilogram of body weight for four out of five days. On the fifth day, go with 77 calories per kilogram.
So if you're 70 kilograms [154 pounds], you would eat 3,640 calories a day, four days out of five. On day five, boost it to around 5,400 calories. In my experience, this does wonders for those who need to add muscle.
Of course, I'm talking about quality food, not Pop Tarts.
I also find that a lot of skinny guys have fat phobia. I'm not saying you have to get fat to get big, but these guys have such high metabolisms to begin with that there's no reason to worry.
Now, some skinny guys just have no appetite, and I'm often asked if there's a way to increase it. The lack of appetite can be caused by a lack of B vitamins. A good multivitamin like Über Nutrients can often cure low appetite. An injection of B9 with B12 from your doctor can help too.
The Best Recovery Method
Q: You once wrote that deep massage of the connective tissue is the best recovery method. Can you expand on that?
A: Truly serious trainers who use a lot of volume will always build up intermuscular and intramuscular adhesions. For example, there's a point on the elbow flexors where you'll always build up adhesions if you curl anything above the pink dumbbells. Once you alleviate the adhesions with something like ART, your arm size and strength go up. Rolfing and neuromuscular reeducation massage (NMR) will work too.
I've routinely observed strength gains of up to 10 percent 24 hours after these treatments. Anyone who's been training properly for more than three years should get one of these deep-massage tune-ups once a month.
A final note on deep massage: It's as fun as getting the inside of your nostrils scraped with a mentholyptus-coated potato peeler. Believe me, it's no day at the beach, but the rewards are worth it. If your strength doesn't increase the following workout, get another therapist.
Limited Time to Train
Q: If you only had time to train for hypertrophy three times per week, for 30 minutes each session, how would you train?
A: Well, training three times a week for hypertrophy is like trying to fart against a hurricane. You're not going to get big like that; it's more like maintenance training.
I just got back from the International Strength Symposium and the research is quite clear: The hypertrophy response is a function of volume, provided you're working with weights that are at least 70 percent of your one-rep max. Mike Mentzer is probably convulsing in his grave.
But let's say you're in med school, have a very limited amount of time, and don't want to be called "pencil neck." Here's what I'd do:
First, I'd stick to four main exercises: squat, chin, dip, and deadlift. Your nervous system would get bored of the exercises, so you'd need to use variations: snatch-grip deadlift, deadlift with a trap bar, etc. I'd vary the deadlift every six workouts.
For squats: front squat, back squat, etc. For chins, varying the grip and the angle of traction should do the trick – do sternum chin-ups, for example. An alternative to dips could be dumbbell presses.
Use an A-B-A, B-A-B split. Monday and Friday one week would be squats, chins, and dips. That's your A workout. Wednesday would be deadlifts, some kind of a press, and maybe dumbbell rows. That's your B workout.
The next week you do your B workout on Monday and Friday, and your A workout on Wednesday. In the third week you're back to your original schedule.
This type of plan with these movements will at least allow you to do better than most guys in the gym who do dweebo programs they got from Muscle & Fatness with exercises like kickbacks.
Loaded Ab Training
Q: I know you like to add resistance to abdominal training, but what's the best way to do that?
A: Try accentuated crunches on the bench. This exercise was first demonstrated to me by John Sullivan, one the best guys in the industry. It'll expose your rectus abdominis to a different type of stimulus, with the right amount of eccentric loading.
Here's how to do it:
- Set up a bench in front of a cable machine. Lift the backrest to a 35-degree incline, with the highest part of the bench closest to the cable machine. Set the pulley about halfway between the highest and lowest positions, and attach a long rope. Grab the ends of the rope, position yourself on the bench with your back toward the machine, and start with your hands on your shoulders. Roll your shoulders forward just enough to feel the resistance.
- Sit up until your torso is just past 90 degrees, relative to your upper legs. Make sure you keep your lower back in its natural arch – you don't want to round your back.
- At the top position, extend your arms above your head and slightly forward.
- Lower your upper body under control, keeping your arms extended with your elbows bent slightly. At the bottom position, bring your hands back down to the front of your shoulders.
You'll feel this one the next day!
The Best Predictor of Being a Badass
Q: What single task would you say is the best test of overall strength and athleticism?
A: Ask any coach who has experience getting people strong (in other words, not the ones who have their athletes bounce around on BOSU balls), and he'll tell you: running with a load on your back will show you quickly if someone is athletic or not.
Think of the super yoke in strongman competition.
Side note: In Hungary, they used to have a competition where the athletes had to do all sports... except their own. Pole vaulters would always win. (Skiers would come in second.)
Why pole vaulters? Aside from the balls it takes to do that event in the first place, they need speed, lower- and upper-body strength, and great time and spatial awareness. They're freaks – athletes who can do anything.
Curls for Athletes
Q: Do competitive athletes need to do biceps curls?
A: If you're a badminton player, no. If you're a rugby player who needs strong elbow flexors to keep the ball from being snatched away, then curls are beneficial.
It's a function of how much strength you need for your sport, how much the biceps are involved in the sport, and how much time you have to train in the off-season.
"Athletes don't need to do curls" is one of those blanket statements that doesn't always apply. And most of the coaches who say it never got anyone strong for those sports anyway.