Four years ago, I wrote What I Learned in 2006, my first year-in-review series that continues to this day. Since then, this website has gone from T-Mag to T NATION. I’ve opened my own facility, got engaged, and thanks to a little bit of both, lost a bunch of my hair.
Interestingly, people seem to be writing “What I Learned in 2009” series all over the Internet. I’ve seen the phrase flown on banners behind airplanes, “tweeted” by NBA superstars at halftime, and printed across the back of girls’ short-shorts.
But let’s get something straight, folks: you’re reading the original right here. Got it? Good. Now let’s move on.
1. Sneaker companies are largely full of $*!#.
Born to Run was the best book I read in any genre this past year.
Sure, it was entertaining, but I could say that about a lot of books. The truth is that I took selfish pleasure when author Christopher McDougall pretty much flipped the bird to every sneaker company.
You see, wearing sneakers has really screwed up the way people run, and in my opinion, has caused the exponential rise in injuries among distance runners.
I’m not saying we should all throw out our sneakers and go barefoot from now on, but I am saying that people would be smart to do more barefoot training. (Our athletes do all warm-ups and deadlifts barefoot.)
Also, it’d be a good decision to grab some sneakers like Nike Frees, Reebok Travel Trainers, old-school Puma flats, and Vibram Five-Fingers, all of which keep the foot closer in contact with the ground.
2. The majority of really jacked-up guys I see have ignored bad technique for a long time.
Over the past few years, I’ve had some absolute train wrecks come through the doors of my facility. Some are bum shoulders, others are bad lower backs, and some have so many issues that their problems spill over to the back of the health history form we use. It wasn’t until this year that I started thinking of them as a trend rather than just individual cases.
You know the one thing that most of them have in common? They’ve done one or more movements incorrectly for a long time and have piled volume on top of dysfunction. They’ve not only injured specific tissues, they’ve ignored glaring deficits elsewhere that caused their symptoms.
For example, take a guy with a history of back pain who has squatted with a rounded back for years with the “ass to grass” mentality. The back is where his symptoms are, but what caused the fundamental problem with his squat pattern?
In addition to just not having the right cues (knees out, lats tight, chest up), his problem could have been restrictions in the hip flexors or adductors, a lack of ankle mobility, poor hip internal rotation, insufficient core stability, a lack of thoracic spine mobility, a scapular dyskinesis, or poor shoulder external rotation.
In other words, the back might be where someone hurts due to their terrible form, but the combination of factors that led to this bad form may also be setting them up for anything from knee pain or sports hernia to shoulder or neck problems.
This is why I always encourage beginners to meet with a qualified coach early in their training career. An initial assessment and some technique coaching go a long way. It’s one reason why we created Assess and Correct, to empower lifters to identify and address some of their own flawed movement patterns.
Think about it like this: if you pay someone $200 to tell you what’s going on with your body and teach you proper technique on exercises that are right for you, it’s safe to say you’re going to prevent at least one injury over the course of your training career. Even if you’ve got good insurance, your co-pay for physical therapy is going to be $10-15 per visit.
If a typical course of physical therapy is 10-15 visits, you’re spending a similar amount to what you would have spent in the first place. However, in the former option, you’re not in any pain, and you aren’t missing any training time. Just some food for thought.
If you need further proof, look at world-class Olympic lifters and powerlifters. With the exception of the deadlift, their max attempts look exactly the same as their warm-ups. If you’re 19 years old and squatting 185 for heavy singles with atrocious form, you’re in for a world of hurt sooner than later.
Never accumulate volume and strength improvements on top of fundamentally incorrect technique. It will come back to bite you in the butt. Learn it right from the start.
3. Metabolic Drive® Low-Carb Vanilla works great as a coffee sweetener.
Try it out.
4. Do more grounded-to-standing transitions.
In November, I attended a seminar with Dr. Pavel Kolar, a prominent rehabilitation specialist in the Czech Republic.
Kolar presented a very interesting perspective on dynamic neuromuscular stabilization (DNS) based on developmental kinesiology. (Don’t worry; despite the name, it’s cool stuff.) The basic premise is that the nervous system and muscular system it governs are immature at birth, and must go through a very specific adaptation process to achieve anatomical maturation. There are specific neural pathways that are established as babies learn to roll over, get up to all-fours, crawl, stand up, and walk.
Things may go wrong because of abnormal early development, abnormal training protocols, or trauma, but we can look back to this “ideal sequencing” of learned neural pathways to try to re-optimize function. It essentially throws the idea of EMG right out the window, and focuses on sequencing of patterns (even including specific breathing and tongue positioning!) to get things back on track.
I sat next to Mike Boyle for the entire seminar, and we got to chatting about how we could directly apply this complex stuff with our athletes to prevent people from ever getting injured in the first place. We both planned to get our athletes back to some of the “roots” of development: integrating rolling and moving from ground-based to upright movements.
First, if you haven’t started using Turkish Get-ups, definitely start working them in.
Second, try some get-up-and-go sprint starts. We start athletes facing away from their targets, roll over with greater than 90-degrees of hip flexion on the top leg, and then accelerate out.
Third, don’t neglect single-leg movements like lunges and split-squats. By just lightly touching the trailing leg on a lunge or split-squat to the floor, you’re actually doing somewhat of a ground-to-upright transition.
5. Having “perspective” is different than having “experience.”
Just a few weeks ago, a 6-3, 230-pound pitcher came in with a program from his strength coach, a guy who’s been in the field for a long time. Here’s what his Monday, Wednesday, and Friday lifting schedule looked like:
Power clean, bench press, military press, squat, sit-ups.
Yes, that’s really it.
On paper, this kid is an absolute stud; he’s tall, big, and reasonably strong on all of these lifts. (He ought to be since he does each of them 10,000 times per year.) The only problem is they weren’t doing crap for his performance. He throws a whopping 82 miles-per-hour, which isn’t any harder than he threw in high school.
Here’s a kid who had a history of shoulder pain and the single-worst collective flexibility assessments I’ve ever seen in a pitcher. Yet, his “strength and conditioning” program included zero focus on flexibility, single-leg work, horizontal or vertical pulling, dedicated rotator cuff work, or movement training. I’ve seen it at the other end of the spectrum, too, where guys receive something along the lines of “leg extensions, leg curls, dumbbell curls, dumbbell flyes, lat pulldowns.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not crapping on college strength and conditioning coaches. I’ve been involved in collegiate strength and conditioning myself, and I have over a hundred friends that work in that sector now. I’m just using this as an example. (It happens in the private sector as well.)
On paper, this strength coach has more experience than me, Alwyn Cosgrove, Mike Robertson, Chad Waterbury, Jason Ferruggia, Jim Wendler, or a number of other contributors to this site. Experience implies that someone has done something for a long time, even if that “something” hasn’t changed.
I got shit on a lot early in my career because I was publishing articles without a ton of experience. As an example, my first article here at T NATION, Cracking the Rotator Cuff Conundrum, was published when I was 22, about a month into my first year of graduate school.
At the time, I’d been in a ton of shoulder pain on-and-off for close to five years, and was actually scheduled for surgery three months after that article was published. My research into my own problem took place because my shoulder hurt like hell to the point that it kept me up every night and ended my tennis career.
I read everything I could, applied that new knowledge to rehabbing myself when some physical therapists couldn’t, and then got my issues squared away to the point that I canceled my surgery and benched over 400 pounds in competition.
I gained perspective, and I’ve gotten enough e-mail feedback to know that article helped thousands of people. Now, 82 articles later, I’d like to think that TC is glad that he took a chance on a guy with “perspective” rather than just going off of “experience.”
Perspective, as defined by dictionary.com, is “the faculty of seeing all the relevant data in a meaningful relationship” (1). If you just have 20 years under your belt of turning on the lights to the weight room and then printing out the same program over and over again, you have experience, not perspective.
That’s what makes guys like Mike Boyle, Dan John, and Dave Tate so special. They have more experience than all of us, but are always seeking a way to gain a better perspective.
And, yeah, I’m sure a lot of people will still shit on me for writing this at age 28. Oh well.
6. An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight.
My fiancée typically has to get up pretty early. I, on the other hand, am self-employed and set my own schedule, so I never see athletes before 10 a.m. We go to bed at the same time (around 10:30 p.m.), but I’m still up by 6:15 a.m. at the latest. I’m sleeping less than the ever-coveted eight hours per night, yet I’m still as productive as ever. What gives?
I’m getting more hours of sleep before midnight, and I wake up without an alarm. The end result is I get a ton of stuff done early in the day (I’m actually typing this at 6:11 a.m.). Now, if I sleep 12 a.m. to 8 a.m., I notice a huge drop in performance, even though it’s more sleep.
After reading into this a bit more, you’ll actually see that most sleep specialists don’t say that simply shifting your sleep schedule to be more pre-midnight heavy is a good idea for everyone. Rather, they’re big into making sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time each night and morning according to your body’s own “internal clock.”
That said, most guys’ sleep schedules are dictated by work and family, so the idea of getting to bed earlier to wake up on your own does have some near-universal merit.
7. Congenital laxity correlates with anxiety attacks.
In one of my favorite books of 2009, Clinical Application of Neuromuscular Techniques: Volume 1, the authors note that those with congenital hypermobility are significantly more likely to also have “an increased tendency to anxiety and panic attacks” (2).
I deal with a ton of baseball pitchers, many of whom have seen success in part because their congenital laxity allows them to do some crazy stuff with their shoulders, lower back, and hips to create deception, generate velocity, and get further down the mound.
Anecdotally, this is something that’s definitely been the case in my experience with pitchers. The guys with the loosest shoulders tend to get worked up very easily and major in the minutia.
This correlation probably doesn’t mean much for the T NATION audience, but try to remember it if you happen to go on a first date with a girl who mentions she’s hypermobile. While it might seem cool that she can tie herself into the human pretzel, there’s a good chance that she’s a complete whack-job. (Which, incidentally, means she’s probably great in bed.) Every rose has its thorns.
8. Don’t ignore adductor length and tissue quality.
I wrote an article called Construction by Adduction a few years ago here at T NATION, and a ton of those principles still apply today. Above all else, people need to be stronger and more regular with single-leg movements because they require equal contribution of the adductor and abductor muscle groups.
However, that article really only spoke to the strength aspect of the often-overlooked adductors. You also need both adequate tissue length and quality. Otherwise, you’re at risk of not just groin strains, but also hip labral tears, sports hernias, and knee and lower back pain. I included a picture of what a crappy adductor looks like after an aggressive Graston® treatment.
Suffice it to say the bruising eventually becomes non-existent when the tissue becomes less “grainy,” but it can be a little uncomfortable in the interim. A cheaper and more convenient (but not nearly as effective alternative) would be foam rolling; we prefer to do it up on a stretching table. Looks just like a monkey humping a football!
Once you’ve attacked the tissue quality, it’s on to tissue length. I like to include split-stance kneeling adductor mobilizations in the warm-up; this drill gets athletes to go into abduction in both hip flexion and extension, which is important because some adductors are hip flexors, and others are hip extensors. Be sure to keep a neutral spine throughout the movement.
It can also be held at either end of the range-of-motion as a static stretch.
Don’t ignore it, particularly if you’re someone who has a history of playing soccer or hockey. Trust me on this one.
9. Stop trying to be everything to everyone. Leverage your strengths.
In the past, I was a one-man show. It’s nice in title only, as I was also a super stressed-out loser who had no life.
In 2009, I realized just how damn good my staff was, and got a lot better at delegating and trusting them. For example, I don’t do any billing, scheduling, or nutrition stuff anymore; we have guys who do that better than I do. Dropping those three tasks opened up more time to leverage my strengths: training athletes, doing evaluations, programming, and interacting with agents, teams, doctors, rehabilitation specialists, and other professionals with whom we deal.
What really psyched me up was that it gave me more time to read a lot more. I may have still worked the same number of hours, but since I enjoyed what I was doing a lot more, the tasks were easier to accomplish.
I also have an accountant, financial manager, lawyer, and literary agent. They save me time, help me focus on my specialties, and give me a level of specialization I could never dream of getting on my own.
I’m no life coach, but I have to assume that just about everyone can find a little more happiness in outsourcing when it’s feasible.
10. Z-12™ is awesome.
I mentioned this in the interview Nate Green did with me, but it warrants repeating. This is my favorite supplement that has been released in a long time.
11. I’m kind of like Mark Twain, but I lift more heavy stuff.
I recently read that Mark Twain wrote three versions—none of which were completed—of The Mysterious Stranger, which was eventually published after his death. I also heard that he’d often write extensively on some topic then tear it up if he wasn’t happy with it.
I have 39 unfinished articles I’d intended for T NATION and they date back as far as 2005. Some of them might be pretty good with some polishing, and others are complete crap that I haven’t gotten around to deleting. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who has ADD or is hard on himself.
12. Don’t ignore breathing patterns.
Let’s say you’ve been banging your head against the wall for days and you’ve got a headache. Do you just pop some Advil, or do you stop banging your head against the wall?
I hope you choose the latter. In other words, I hope you choose the cause rather than just treating the symptoms. Now, apply that to those of you who have chronic “tightness” in your neck and pecs. Why would those muscles get so balled up?
If you had to ask me what some of most common soft tissue restriction sites in the upper body are, I’d immediately rattle off pec minor and major, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, and levator scapulae. What do all these have in common?
They’re all respiratory muscles.
More specifically, they’re all muscles that work overtime when the diaphragm doesn’t do its job. If you don’t “belly breathe”, you’re going to “chest breathe” and that’s where this tightness can originate. You lose the postural role of the diaphragm that keeps the rib cage down. It’s like tightening the strings up top and loosening the ones down below.
So, the question is, do you drop loads of money on massage of these upper extremity muscles (take Advil), or do you fix your breathing patterns (stop banging your head against the wall)?
The first step is honestly assessing your breathing patterns, and you can see it from just watching from behind as someone takes deep breaths. Do the shoulders rise or is there a good, symmetrical expansion further down?
Here’s a basic drill I picked up from Neil Rampe, a brilliant guy with the Arizona Diamondbacks:
Position yourself on the floor on your back and put your feet up on a box to flex the knees and hips to 90 degrees. Flatten your back against the floor, and take one to three minutes of deep breaths into your belly.
Put one hand on your stomach to make sure that’s where you’re expanding, and the other hand on your neck to make sure you don’t feel your clavicles (collarbones) elevating or the muscles in the neck tensing up. Start out just thinking of moving your belly up to the ceiling, and over time, as you gain familiarity with the movement, you should work toward feeling “symmetrical” expansion, almost as if you’re filling a balloon in your stomach and it’s expanding in all directions.
Simply fixing breathing patterns to make them more diaphragmatic can make a huge difference. Start with a shorter duration (45-60s) and make sure to get up slowly since you may be a bit lightheaded.
13. If you’re going to have soft tissue work done, you better follow it up with flexibility work.
It goes without saying that regular soft tissue work, whether it’s general (massage) or more focal (ART®, Graston®), is of undeniable benefit in both treating and preventing injuries. However, as I learned in a conversation with physical therapist John Pallof, the benefits of these treatments can extend beyond the painful part, but only if you put in extra time yourself.
For optimal results, it’s important to stretch the tissues that have just been worked. Once you’ve “disrupted” the tissue and created the desired response, the next step is to re-establish proper length. So, as an example, if someone had soft tissue work on the rectus femoris (a muscle that both extends the knee and flexes the hip), you’d want to stretch into knee flexion and hip extension.
Generally, we shoot for multiple sets of 60-second holds over the course of the day following the soft tissue work.
Don’t think the work is done after a soft tissue treatment or even foam rolling. You’ve got to re-educate those tissues on how to deform properly.
This certainly wasn’t an exhaustive list of what I picked up in 2009, but it did reaffirm what I suspected I already knew.
With that said, what did you learn in 2009 and how do you plan to apply it in 2010 and beyond? Let me know in the discussion forum!
- Delany, J, & Chaitow, L. Clinical Application of Neuromuscular Techniques: Volume 1 — The Upper Body: 2nd Edition. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2008.