Monthly Archives: July 2015

Training masks; the science behind them!

People like new toys and gadgets, especially ones which can improve their performance. In recent years breathing masks and gas masks have become popular amongst athletes and fitness enthusiasts. The idea originated from firefighters and the military who experience some extremely intense, physical situations while wearing breathing apparatus. The experience of wearing these masks in such scenarios can be quite overwhelming. In order to familiarize themselves with these situations they began to train while wearing their equipment. Obviously the more accustomed to something we are the more comfortable we are with it. Shortly, after we saw them to be used in the fitness community. They started to use similar equipment in search of more intense training methods.

In very recent years breathing masks have been produced commercially and specifically for the fitness and sports industry. Like any new training tool it comes with many benefits. This article is aimed at examining the physiological theory for the use of such masks. By understanding the physiological processes taking place we can make better use of such equipment.

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The major misconception which seems to have formed with the use of these masks is their ability to replicate high altitude. High altitude has been linked to many physiological benefits to cardiovascular conditioning. The concept of this relates to the partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen. Oxygen (O2) molecules move from lungs to blood and the blood to muscle through a process of diffusion. The molecules travel across thin membranes from areas of high, to low pressure. If ambient oxygen pressure is low, as it is at high altitude, less molecules cross from lungs to the blood and so forth. The amount of O2 in the air remains exactly the same (20.93%) but overall air pressure (Barometric Pressure) is greatly reduced. In order to compensate, our body first increases breathing rate and take bigger breaths. This allows us to utilize a larger portion of the lung and alveoli allowing more O2 to diffuse into the bloodstream. Another reason is to excrete Carbon dioxide (CO2). By blowing off CO2 we drop the pH level of the blood and create something known as “Respiratory alkalosis”. This allows more oxygen to be absorbed by our red blood cells. This process occurs similarly at sea level.

When exposed to this over long duration (16hrs+ per day for a minimum of two days)(Chapman et al, 1998) our body increases a hormone called Erythropoietin (EPO). This hormone when combined with iron stimulates the creation of new red blood cells, a larger amount of which allows us to transport more O2 around the blood. In addition our muscles respond to training by increasing mitochondria and capillarization of the fibres. This allows our muscles to consume more oxygen. The issue with altitude training is that our breathing rate can only increase so much and the other adaptations are relatively slow to occur. As a result the intensity of our training significantly drops. This is why many athletes choose to live at altitude and travel to sea level to train. It allows the adaptations to occur without training intensity suffering. This limitation is well documented.

Breathing masks do not alter the partial pressure of O2. They simply restrict airflow. They do not specifically filter O2 from the air. We compensate for this restriction by breathing more forcefully creating positive pressure to overcome the resistance. This is similar to techniques adopted by individuals suffering with breathing difficulties such as asthma and COPD. Pursed Lip Breathing is an excellent example of a breathing technique used to compensate for resistance. It is also something we automatically do when wearing a gum shield or mouthguard. We do not experience any increase in EPO as pressure gradients are maintained. The processes taking place at altitude are different from the ones taking place when using these masks .

In order to compensate for resistance we must breath with more force, both when we inhale and exhale. We use the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. These muscles are like any other; they become stronger when a stress stimulus is applied. When using these masks we are in theory strength training our breathing muscles. This can allow us to utilize a larger portion of our lungs, making our breaths more efficient and deeper. It also allows us to develop our breathing muscles, which will make breathing easier in normal conditions. This is of great benefit to an athlete’s conditioning as the effort in breathing will be greatly reduced.

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In addition to physical adaptations we can also experience some mental benefits. In scenarios where breathing is restricted we get a sense of breathlessness. This often causes panic. In a competitive environment panic can be a debilitating experience. Like firefighters and military servicemen, becoming accustomed to that feeling can have a great benefit. Learning to be comfortable and to relax allows our breathing to settle. Having the experience to know how to breath efficiently in such a scenario can allow an athlete to maintain composure. I believe this to be a very significant benefit to the use of such masks.

Like any new tool or training method it is very important to understand the processes taking place and the adaptations that come with them. Unfortunately there is relatively little research available on the use of breathing masks. I believe them to be an effective tool when used for the right goal. With any training an athlete wants the best results. Examining the physiological process taking place we can often learn to make best use of the tool. While science cannot always give the exact answer it usually puts us on the right track.

Why we like the Clean Pull

Most Strength and conditioning programs will utilize an exercise which develops the triple extension. The triple extension is comprised of the ankle, knee and hip joints extending in unison. This movement is common in the vast majority of sports and athletic movements. For that reason it is obviously a good idea to try and develop it. Possessing a powerful triple extension will allow an athlete to run faster, jump higher and hit harder. There are many exercises that can develop a powerful triple extension. The clean and snatch are two very popular choices along with most forms of jumping exercises. One exercise which is perhaps less popular but just, or even more effective is the clean pull. (See Below)

The clean pull is the first and second pull portion of the clean. It can also be performed with a snatch grip to create the snatch pull. We like the clean pull because it possesses all the beneficial aspects of both the clean and snatch while significantly reducing technical demands. The first and second pull movement can take quite some time to teach and become proficient at. Often athletes don’t have time in their schedule to focus on technical skills or a lift which is not their chosen sport. For that reason we want to get the benefit from an explosive triple extension movement but do not always have the time to teach it up to a level where it contributes to performance. In addition to time constraints Olympic lifts such as the clean and snatch require mobility and strength in some joints which some athletes do not possess.

Athletes can build massive amounts of power and force generating capacity while reducing injury risk. Many programs will incorporate cleans and power cleans as the benefits of these are well established. The issue is that unless the athlete has reasonable technical skill and mobility, there is a tendency to cheat the exercise. This is especially true where load is seen as a priority. Its benefits can be significantly reduced when this occurs. The clean pull allows athletes to move high loads in a relatively safe fashion. It eliminates a portion of the clean which many athletes have difficulties with.

Recommending an exercise because it is easier or less technical is not something that I’d normally recommend. The reality is that in many scenarios athletes can waste time on things which in the grand scheme of their training are unproductive. The clean pull is a fast and efficient way to develop power in an athlete. It can be used in many circumstances where the clean cannot. One such example is during season in contact sports where athletes regularly pick up minor sprains and strains. The wrist and shoulders are extremely common areas to suffer. This often eliminates many lifts which require athletes to catch overhead or even in front rack position.

In addition to them being a good alternative they can also be a great supplemental exercise. Athletes can often handle heavier loads when performing the clean pull vs. the clean. Building good strength in this portion of the lift can contribute significantly when cleans are then performed in full.

While we don’t suggest avoiding Olympic lifts they are not always necessary or suitable. They should be performed for an established reason and not because they are popular. Many athletes struggle with them and see little benefit. Clean pulls provide an excellent alternative in many scenarios. We firmly believe that the components that make up every program should have purpose. Clean pulls build a very powerful triple extension easily, safely and effectively. This is why we like them.

Hamstring savers!

The hamstring is a major risk area for many athletes. Hamstring strains and tears are possibly one of the most common soft tissue injuries amongst sportspeople. The most common presumption amongst athletes when they suffer from hamstring issues is that it’s a flexibility issue. Not an outrageous assumption but often not the problem. Many athletes spend a considerable amount of time stretching and foam rolling etc. to improve flexibilty in hopes of preventing issues with little success. While there are qualified medical professionals to provide information on the epidemiology of hamstring injuries we will focus on what can be done in your training to help.

In terms of flexibility we have often seen athletes with excellent flexibility strain a hamstring. Our first thought is to examine the warm-up protocol. A good warm-up should improve elasticity within the muscle fibres and reduce the chances of injury. Even with an extensive and effective warm-up the same players seem to be susceptible to the same injury. Eliminating flexibility and warm-up from the list of causes has led to another much less discussed issue which could be the cause.

Muscle imbalance is often associated with small stabilizer muscles but can also be present in much larger muscle groups. When an athlete has got good overall strength, muscular imbalances can be hidden. This is especially true for the lower body. Most strength programs will have a squat type movement. It is an excellent full body exercise. When time restrictions are present in training it is often used as the sole lower body exercise. For many athletes this is not an issue and they see great overall development using the squat on its own. Some however, develop a technique which utilizes the Quads and Glutes much more so than the hamstring. They can lift heavy loads and so we assume they are strong even though the hamstrings may not be doing nearly as much work as they should be. When these athletes sprint they have great power generated from quads and glutes but the hamstrings are lacking. This weak link is where the break in the chain occurs.

In order to prevent injuries athletes should make sure they develop all the muscles involved in the movements they perform. This sounds obvious but can often be hard to achieve. There are several strategies one can employ. Firstly using a unilateral exercise in addition to the squat can help fill in the gaps. Adding a lunge or step-up type movement can be a major benefit and is highly recommended. It puts an athlete in a different movement plane which is often more movement specific and utilizes more appropriate muscles and activation patterns.

The second approach would be to train the temperamental muscles directly. Most good strength programs will have a hamstring orientated exercise present, owing to the high prevalence of hamstring injury in athletes. The concern here is the execution of such exercises. Again alternative muscles can take over and hamstrings can still be neglected. Exercises such as Romanian Deadlift (RDL or Stiff Legged Deadlift), Glute-ham raises and Reverse Hyperextensions are all popular hamstring exercises. It is very common for these to be performed incorrectly. Athletes with strong lower backs can easily perform these movements with high load and work around the hamstrings. Obviously the first recommendation is to make sure they are being observed carefully to ensure proper technique. In a team training scenario this is not always possible or effective.

In efforts to overcome these issues and protect the hamstrings a solution is needed. The Nordic hamstring curl may be the answer. It is extremely hard to cheat on this exercise and it will promote excellent hamstring activation. Using a slow or even paused eccentric phase, the hamstrings cannot hide. It is relatively easy to instruct and needs very little equipment. Often an athlete with enormous deadlift strength will be humbled by this simple bodyweight exercise. For that reason it should be high on the list of priority exercises. It can be easily scaled for athletes from beginner to elite level. Research has also suggested it to be quite an effective tool. The preventive effect of the Nordic hamstring exercise on hamstring injuries in amateur soccer players – a randomized controlled trial, Van der Horst, Smits, Petersen, Goedhart, and Backx, in Injury Prevention (2014).

Often injury prevention is a little like detective work. The obvious answer is not always correct and the solution is not always clear. Ensuring an athlete has strong well developed hamstrings can be the missing piece of the puzzle. Hamstring injuries can be both debilitating and frustrating. The level of recurrence can be quite high. There are a number of considerations which have been discussed which should be considered when constructing an effective strength program.

Keeping it simple!

The world of fitness is heavily influenced by marketing and advertising. Fitness now seems to be not so much concerned with sport as it is body image. With a result knowledge and theory have been diluted by sensational claims and marketing. You do not have to look too far for new radical training programs that guarantee all your goals to come true in half the time of any other program. This is all part of the industry and things are unlikely to change.

Most high level athletes have qualified coaches to help them avoid such distractions. Young athletes and the average Joe on the other hand, often rely on what is put in front of them. As a result, they either follow outrageous plans or jump from one to another as the sales pitches keep getting better. The ironic thing is that the basics work best. More often than not the most advanced athletes train with the simplest programs.

Often when discussing training with coaches of other athletes or teams it becomes clear that there are no secret weapons. The best athletes all seem to be doing extremely similar programs competing in totally different sports and cultural backgrounds. There are tweaks based on the nature of their sport and individual needs but the basic structure is always pretty similar.

The Squat, Lunge, Deadlift, Bench Press, Row and Chin-up are the foundation of all strength programs. They cover all basic movement patterns. There are variations but these exercise patterns are always present. Any additional exercises are determined by the sport and any prehab/rehab needs of the athlete as an individual. Rep schemes are dependent on the goals. Strength, Power, Hypertrophy and endurance goals will have appropriate and fairly standard rep ranges. A standard strength session will rarely last much longer than an hour to an hour and a half. If it does then there is either some special consideration to duration or technique/skill that is being addressed. If a session lasts longer, then one should question the efficiency of the workout design.

Some might question why they cannot achieve elite level abilities following simple programs. The answer is quite simple. Elite level athletes achieve elite level status as a result of genetic suitability to their sport coupled with years of execution of appropriate training. You don’t look like a 10 year veteran weightlifter after a year of training no matter how hard you train. Also important to note is the support structure of an elite level athlete. Having dietitians, chefs, doctors, physiotherapists, psychologists and coaches available at all times makes a very significant impact. In addition, having the time to focus on both training and all that makes up recovery puts them at a huge advantage. One could follow one single program in both an amateur and professional setting and there would be no comparison in the results.

"The missing piece of the puzzle"

“The missing piece of the puzzle”

The take home message is that no matter how things are pitched the basics work! Simplicity leaves less room for error and when consistent it is very rare one cannot make steady progress. Short cuts do not exist in natural circumstances. It is important not to fall for the most glamorous program as you will simply be fooling yourself. We have a very simple philosophy with our athletes. If they are making progress then things are working. “If it aint broke don’t fix it”, athletes often want the next stage of their training before progress stalls. It is important for coaches and athletes to realize that progress is key. Deviating from a plan can often be greed related. It is important to have modest goals and the discipline to not get carried away. Often trying to do too much is the biggest error in training. Often our athletes make their best progress when we strip their program back to the basics.