Category Archives: Strength and conditioning

Protein and training

Introduction

In the past couple of years, there has been a complete shift in Irish people’s attitudes towards sports supplements along with a noticeable surge in the popularity of bodybuilding and powerlifting. According to Bord Bia Periscope 2013, Irish people think of themselves as one of the healthiest nations in Europe – pretty ironic considering our rising levels of obesity. There has also been an explosion in the Health and Wellness Trend in Ireland in recent years. According to one EuroMonitor report titled ‘Sports Nutrition in Ireland’, there has been a 7% increase in Ireland’s sports nutrition industry with expectant continued growth over the next couple of years. With this upswing in the popularity of gym-going and strength training has brought a reciprocal increase in protein supplement use in the form of protein powders, bars and Ready-To-Drink (RTD).

Based on this premise, Irish companies are constantly searching for ways to tap into this lucrative protein sector with Avonmore having recently launched a popular protein milk and Glanbia having acquired the US protein bar company ‘ThinkThin’ for a humble $217 million only last month. These changes and developments in the Irish supplemental market typify the growth and success of this protein category which in my opinion will only increase with time as the consumer becomes more aware of the importance of protein in not only sports performance but also as research backing its effects on muscle synthesis and immune function grows.

What is Protein?

Protein is generally considered one of the most important food groups for human survival. Every day our body changes as cells grow, divide and die – these processes depend entirely on protein to supply the vital building blocks to our cells. These building blocks are scientifically known as ‘amino acids’ and when joined together form a ‘protein’. There are two types of amino acids in the body; ‘essential’ amino acids, which cannot be formed by the body and must be obtained from dietary food sources; and ‘non-essential’ amino acids which can be produced by the body itself. Protein coming from animal sources provides the majority of ‘essential’ amino acids. However, plant based proteins (seeds, lentils, vegetables and grains) may not offer all of these essential amino acids. It is, therefore, highly recommended for all vegetarians and vegans to eat a wide range of plant based foods to ensure that they receive all the essential amino acids needed to generate proteins in the body.

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Turkish eggs on granary bread with spiced chick peas and spinach.

How much Protein do we need?

The recommended daily amount (RDA) of protein for healthy adults is 0.8g/kg of body weight per day but this is viewed as the minimum amount for the average sedentary adult. Many factors need to be considered when calculating the optimal amount of dietary protein for individuals that exercise daily such as the protein quality, energy intake, carbohydrate intake, type and intensity of exercise and timing of protein intake. Protein recommendations are generally calculated based on a nitrogen balance assessment and amino acid tracer studies. Nitrogen balance technique involves assessing the total amount of protein that enters the body through food consumption and the total amount of nitrogen expended.

It is recommended that if you exercise regularly or participate in more than 1 hour of moderate to high intensity exercise several times a week you should be consuming more protein than what is advised for a sedentary adult. The International Society of Sports Nutrition states that an active person should eat between 1.2 – 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight on the days that you exercise.

  • Those that participate in endurance activities (swimming, biking, running) should try to consume 1.2 -1.4g/kg of protein.
  • Whereas those involved in strength activities (weight lifting) should aim for 1.4 -2.0 g/kg of protein.

We are constantly being bombarded these days with articles in the Daily Mail and online on how a high protein diet is touted as unhealthy and can even lead to medical issues such as chronic kidney failure. Some have even cited that high protein diets can enhance the leaching of calcium and heighten an individual’s risk for osteoporosis. However, both of these theories are still unclear as there is no substantial evidence to suggest that protein intakes within the 1.2-2.0g/kg of body weight range will harm or even have an adverse effect in healthy, active individuals.

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Post-gym protein smoothie- packed with berries, banana and a scoop of whey protein.

How to Up Your Protein Intake from Food Sources?

Although there are multiple protein supplements available in the Irish market, many athletes would rather eat whole foods to meet their protein needs. For instance a sedentary woman weighing 127 pounds will need about 46 g of protein per day – this can easily be achieved by eating a 3 oz chicken breast, 1 egg, a handful of almonds and a slice of cheddar cheese.

 Here is a list of common protein foods that can easily be consumed on a daily basis;

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Protein Supplements

When it comes to protein, most of us don’t need supplemental help and can easily meet our needs from a well-balanced diet. However, those that have above average protein needs and find they are not achieving the desired effects from exercise should consider protein supplementation.

The most important issue to consider when purchasing a protein supplement is its quality. This is the main reason why scientists came up with the ‘protein digestibility corrected amino acid score’ (PDCAAS) which tells you exactly how complete the protein is and how easily digestible it will be in order to attain the necessary amino acids. This scoring system rates protein from 0 to 1. For example egg whites actually have a score of 1 meaning they are fully complete in the 9 essential amino acids and are easily digested and absorbed. It is important that your protein powder supplement should score as close to 1 as possible.

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  1. Whey protein exhibits the highest PDCAA out of all the protein powders because of its high levels of essential and branched chain amino acids to encourage muscle building during strength training. If you are looking for a protein that will help increase muscle and size then whey is the best powder. It is inexpensive and a high quality product that will reach your muscles faster leading to desirable results.
  2. Casein and soy protein isolate are also considered high quality sources and score with a value of 1.00 on the PDCAAS scale. Soy protein is an excellent alternative for vegans who can’t take whey or casein.
  3. Plant based proteins such as pea (0.69), rice (0.47) and hemp (0.46) score lower on the PDCAA scale as they don’t consist of all 9 essential amino acids. For this reason they are normally mixed together in a plant based protein supplement.

What about Protein Bars?

The main difference between protein powder and bars is that bars generally contain more calories, carbs, fat and salt for any given amount of protein. However, bars also provide a quick and easy way of getting that post workout protein snack into you. I would generally advise to always read the back of protein bars and see what exactly is in each product – you may be surprised by the hidden fibers, sugars and artificial sweeteners. I, personally, love protein bars until I realized a few years ago that I was gaining weight fast and read the back of one bar and saw that one bar was nearly the equivalent of an entire meal! However, bear in mind that these bars are manufactured for different types of exercise – choose higher carb bars (20g per serving) when you participate in higher intensity aerobic activities (running, swimming and cycling) and opt for lower carb bars (< 20 grams) for non-aerobic exercises.

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Author: Christina Higgins

Supplementation and sports

The supplement industry is massive. It has also become a major component of the fitness industry. It can also be a very misleading source of information. Much like the food industry it is a business and sometimes the information available is either biased or inaccurate. This article is going to approach the subject of supplements from a physiological perspective. It will discuss the role of supplements in physiological processes and mechanisms which can influence our performance in sport. I will approach things from a mechanistic point of view and not from a dietary perspective. It will cover some of the more popular and well established supplements on the market. There are literally thousands of pills and formulas on the market. If they are not on this list then in our opinion they probably are not worth the money.

Carbohydrate supplements.

Without a doubt these work. They are very simple. They are usually made up of fast acting sugars which enter the bloodstream very rapidly. They are particularly useful in scenarios where there are prolonged bouts of high intensity exercise. They slow the rate of glycogen depletion and can provide energy substrate for glycolysis when glycogen stores are running low. They are very well supported in scientific literature and can be very convenient during exercise to prolong time to exhaustion. Not something that’s required for rest days but can be helpful in recovery.

Protein supplements.

Another well established supplement. We should all be aware of how essential protein is in the diet of any athlete. While not essesntial, protein supplements are a very convenient way to ensure adequate protein intake without taking in too much fat. Many athletes can get enough from regular foods but strength and power athletes may struggle with the volume of food required. The relatively low volume of protein shakes and bars allow athletes to avoid gastrointestinal distress while achieving desired intakes. It is also a cost effective method. We recommend a high quality whey powder from a reputable brand. There are many blends and types of protein powders but a good whey protein will cover most needs.

Creatine

Creatine has had a lot of bad press in recent years. It is our opinion that lack of education is to blame. Creatine is naturally stored intramuscularly. It provides rapid energy supply along with intramuscular ATP for sprint type activity and rapid muscle contraction. It is naturally found in many meat products. We consume approximately 3 grams of creatine per day. For many athletes supplementing with creatine allows stores to stay full. This will simply ensure that their capacity for high intensity movements is kept at optimal levels. This requires no more than 3-5grams to be taken per day. It is not uncommon to see young athletes consuming 20g and upwards daily. When used properly there is no evidence of serious side effects. Overconsumption can however, result in gastrointestinal issues and discomfort. As with most substrates in the body it is soluble in water. Like glycogen it will result in modest water retention and slight increases in bodyweight. This is not nearly as drastic as some would suggest but should be considered where body weight is important.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a well established ergogenic aid. It helps muscle contraction, mental alertness and fat utilization. Most athletes would benefit from caffeine supplementation. The major issue is that some individuals are more sensitive to it than others. In some cases people can react badly to caffeine. We recommend that it should be used in training before competition to establish tolerances. Dosage is dependent on individual tolerance. We can build a tolerance to caffeine so generally it is better to use it sparingly and only when needed. In cases of heart conditions or known caffeine allergies it should be avoided, and medical advice obtained.

Nitrates

Nitrates are found in many foods. The most common is Beetroot but they are also found in most vegetables and some commercial supplements are available. Nitrates can help reduce the oxygen cost of exercise and lower blood pressure. They can be beneficial in aerobic type exercise and can improve overall endurance performance. There is no evidence of side effects and there is no established recommendation for required intakes.

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Tart cherry juice (Montmorency Cherry juice)

This is a relatively novel supplement. There is relatively little research conducted on its use, but findings so far have been extremely positive. It is claimed that supplementing with this juice has potent anti-inflammatory benefits. It is claimed to have quite a significant reduction of muscle soreness. Some studies also suggest that it acts as an effective pain relief through reduction of inflammation.

Beta Alanine

Beta Alanine is a relatively new supplement and research is still a little incomplete. It is a limiting amino acid in the resynthesis of Carnosine. Carnosine acts as a lactate buffer in the muscle and helps keep intramuscular pH levels low. It can be beneficial during high intensity exercise where it may improve time to exhaustion. There is no evidence of any major side effects. Overconsumption may however, lead to tingling sensations in extremities. Recommended dosages range from 3-6 grams daily but there is little research completed on the optimal amount.

Iron supplements

These are perhaps a more overlooked supplement. They can be extremely beneficial to endurance and female athletes. Oxygen is carried by red blood cells, one of the main building blocks of which is Iron. Iron deficiencies can be common in both sexes and may have a major impact on performance. Tolerances for supplementation vary between individuals. The best natural source for iron is liver and red meat. It is recommended for endurance athletes and female athletes in particular as it can help keep performance levels optimal.

Omega 3 fatty acids (Fish oils)

These are an extremely popular supplement. There are many claims as to their benefits which include mental function, Anti inflammatory properties, joint function and sports performance. Unfortunately there is very little peer reviewed scientific research showing any benefits to their supplementation. While we know fatty acids are essential for cell function, there is little evidence to show that supplementation is beneficial or necessary. A healthy diet would more than likely supply adequate amounts of these fatty acids. However, these fatty acids are predominantly found in fish, which many people dislike. In this case there may be some argument for their use but again they are unlikely to be the miracle drug they are claimed to be.

Zinc and Magnesium

ZMA is the commercial name for Zinc and Magnesium supplements. There is great debate over its effectiveness. There have been many conflicting studies conducted. The general trend is for there to be no performance benefits whatsoever. However, anecdotal evidence suggest it may help with sleep patterns which may help with recovery.

Fat Burners

We do not recommend the use of commercial fat burners. They are usually a cocktail of stimulants and substances which have shown a modest increase in metabolism or fat utilization. They will not magically burn away fat. They simply help keep metabolism slightly elevated if at all. They are a risky supplement as some ingredients can potentially be harmful.

Conclusion

Supplements can often be touted as miracle drugs. The reality is that only in some cases do they play a role in natural physiological mechanisms. Most of the time they do not directly improve performance but instead aid the mechanisms which lead to performance. For example Creatine is often associated with hypertrophy. It has no direct influence on muscle growth. It does however, allow muscle contractions to have adequate energy substrate which allows for better muscle function and endurance. This results in better strength and strength endurance. The resulting improvement in training quality can then result in improved rates of hypertrophy.

There are thousands of supplements on the market. Many have solid scientific support and evidence. Others are marketed based on weak or incomplete evidence. Unfortunately athletes and individuals under pressure or desperate to reach their potential may feel that they need every little possibility for progress. As a coach or athlete you must realize that patience is important and one must concentrate on the process rather than the goals. It is also important to note that there are many supplements and substances that are banned and harmful to health. It is essential that athletes choose reputable “drug screened” brands. Often paying a little more for quality can prevent issues later.

The importance of weight training in-season!

In the professional era of sport the competitive season has become longer and athletes get very little rest. The modern athlete is not comparable physically to athletes ten years ago. Modern sport science and recovery techniques continue to drive the physical capabilities of athletes forward. The modern athlete is heavier, leaner, stronger, fitter and faster than ever. Most of this comes from the continuous development of training techniques but also because of the expectations on the athlete. A professional athlete works full time. When they are not on the pitch doing skill work they are in the gym. When they are not in the gym they are in the kitchen or in the treatment rooms of physiotherapists recovering for the next session. This is the way sport is in the modern era. Those who don’t keep up will be left behind.

Youth athletes nowadays train almost as hard as the professionals. The training age and physical maturity of most youth athletes is way ahead of where it was in the past. Schools players are more driven and better coached and their physical development is much more advanced. The level of competition in schools has developed these young athletes from quite an early age. With the result that younger athletes are coping with higher training volumes and demands than ever before. See  https://hamiltonsport.com/2015/04/13/training-age/

When we look at a competitive season in most sports there is quite a short off-season. Traditionally most athletes would look to further their physical development in the off-season. In the past this may have been as long as four months. Now many athletes have no off-season or maybe only a number of weeks. This means that for many to continue to develop they must do so in-season. Recovery is the main concern with this. Tired athletes become slow physically and mentally and performance suffers. Modern technology and sport science has allowed us to monitor athletes much more closely so we can be more accurate with training. Athletes can now train just enough to elicit adaptations without hindering performance.

Good coaches monitor their athletes efficiently and in a manner which allows them to adjust training very easily. By analyzing the athlete’s performance on a number of indicator tests they can see how fatigued the athlete is. There are many techniques, from RPE rating and verbal feedback to countermovement jumps and barspeed analysis. Most coaches understand how important it is to be flexible with training and know when and what to change. Often an athlete will come into the gym expecting to lift weights but instead be given a simple mobility routine. It all depends on the monitoring and fatigue management protocols adopted by the training staff. Professional sport utilises monitoring to ensure athletes are always in the phase of training that is planned in accordance with the season goals and performance priorities.

Many believe weight training to be something which cannot be completed during the season as it fatigues athletes and slows them down. This is not always the case. When used appropriately weight training can actually be used to excite the nervous system leading to an improvement of contractile function. This means it can actually make an athlete faster for a short period of time after the session. This is known as a PAP response which you can read more about here. www.hamiltonsport.com/2015/01/31/post-activation-potentiation/

Because of the length of some seasons and competitions in relation to the off-season or rest periods, it may be necessary for an athlete to train to maintain abilities. Athletes typically begin to lose some motor capabilities after about 10 days. If they do not continue to train, the ability slowly fades away. However, it takes approximately 40% of original training load to maintain their conditioning. Continuing to train albeit at a reduced level will allow them to stay at their potential throughout a season which may last up to 10 months in some cases without a break. Waiting this long to get back in the gym would literally put a player back a full season in terms of their physical development. For younger players this would have massive implications on their career.

In addition to physical development, in-season training plays a major role in injury prevention and game preparation. Often during long seasons athletes build up imbalances which, if not corrected, can develop into chronic and acute injuries. Maintaining some strength work focused at developing a balance of strength and movement can be a very effective preventative measure.

Maintaining and S&C program is essential for most modern teams especially when some players may be called up for international duties. Leinster Rugby Imagery. Picture credit: Dáire Brennan /

Maintaining an S&C program is essential for most modern teams especially when some players may be called up for international duties. Leinster Rugby Imagery. Picture credit: Dáire Brennan

In modern sport a squad extends wider than a starting team. Subs and reserves play a much more active role as game intensity increases. At a moments notice a player may be expected to start when they may not have had game time in several weeks. The only way to prepare them may be to simulate some of the physical demands of the game in a gym setting. It is essential for all squad members to be ready to play at match intensity despite not getting adequate match time. The strength and conditioning program is extremely important to these players.

In conclusion, modern sport is rapidly developing. The physical capabilities of most athletes are also developing. There are larger demands on the athletes in terms of the amount of training required to be competitive. Fortunately modern science has allowed us to support this development. We understand the body much better nowadays. We need to embrace change and learn what we are capable of achieving. This won’t happen if we sit, wait and just rest all the time. Athletes are more motivated than ever and understand that professional sport is a full time job. Progress is essential and they and their coaches will be doing everything possible to ensure it continues. In-season strength and conditioning is now an essential component in the success of a team or athlete.

Complexes for fat burning!

There are many solutions for burning fat. The general theory is the energy balance, in the form of calories in, calories out. An energy or calorie deficit will undoubtedly lead to weight loss. The question is, will it create fat loss? Weight loss and energy balance are tricky as we assume that weight loss is in the form of fat. This is not always the case; energy usage is fairly unselective meaning it will burn both fat and reduce muscle. In fact, some suggest that during chronic energy deficit, muscle may be lost as part of a survival mechanism. The body adopts a philosophy where it looks to reduce energy consumption via muscle and retain energy stores ie. fat. This leads to a reduction in overall bodyweight but a retention of body fat.

In order to lose fat we must create a mild calorie deficit so as to avoid this survival mechanism and promote or at least retain lean muscle. One great method is through the use of complexes. Complexes string together a number of resistance exercises as a form of superset. The involvement of multiple muscle groups with little rest creates a large metabolic demand. The resistance aspect also promotes muscle adaptations and potential hypertrophy. By switching through movements one can use a relatively heavy weight as local muscle fatigue is reduced. Overall it ticks the boxes of what we try to achieve when looking to specifically target fat.

A complex can be relatively short and completed within a 10minute timeframe. It can be used effectively as a finisher style exercise at the end of a regular training session. It can also be combined with some traditional cardio to create a conditioning session.

Here are some examples of complexes.

Pure Complex

  • Barbell Deadlift
  • Barbell bent over row
  • Hang clean
  • Push press
  • Back squat

Rotate through the exercises for one rep and repeat 6 times for a full set

Conditioning Complex

Beastly circuits are a popular form created by ex Allblacks coach Ashley Jones

  • Barbell Deadlift
  • Barbell Row
  • Power Snatch
  • Overhead squat
  • Back squat

Complete 6 rounds then 3minutes on treadmill for one total set, repeat for 6 sets with no rest.

Excellent example of a barbell complex (Courtesy of www.defrancostraining.com)

Complexes are great for promoting lean muscle and muscular endurance. The fact that they burn a lot of calories is a major bonus. They should be used to promote fat burning where strength levels are a priority. Traditional cardio is also a popular method but may not support strength levels as effectively. Complexes can be a useful tool for athletes who must improve body composition but also maintain strength levels. They can also be used as a conditioning tool as it supports muscular power endurance which is beneficial to many sports.

A coach can be quite creative in structuring complexes but it must be noted that technique can be compromised under fatigue. Simple multi joint exercises are most effective; Olympic lifts and gymnastics should only be attempted with technically advanced athletes. They are an effective tool which can cover a lot of needs in a fairly time efficient manner.

Recovery Tools: Active Recovery!

Recovery has become a core factor in every athlete’s training and success. There are many recovery methods which can be employed all targeting different things. Not all methods work well for everyone and people will have their favourite. This is normal as the processes of each method are slightly different. Some things will simply have a better effect on certain individuals than others. One popular and convenient method is active recovery. In terms of effect it appears to be relatively beneficial to everyone.

When we exercise we produce metabolic by-products. These by-products can interfere with muscle contractions and contribute to fatigue. While we exercise we have a system to clear these by-products and consume them. When we stop, the rate of clearance reduces and they can be left to accumulate. Eventually they will be cleared up but at a reduced rate. Some gentle exercise post training can help ensure these metabolites are cleared effectively.

When we do more intense muscle contractions where a lot of force is applied, muscle stiffness can occur. Stiffness is when the fibres fail to fully relax causing a temporary shortening of muscle fibre length. Gentle movement can help break up this tension and reduce stiffness. Active recovery can be quite effective in doing this. The submaximal contractions allow the fibres to relax back to resting tension.

Another mechanism it can influence relates to bloodflow and temperature. In order to repair damaged muscle cells after intense exercise they need a good supply of nutrients. This supply comes from the blood. Increasing bloodflow to tired muscles ensures they get a good supply. In addition increasing local muscle temperature can help the muscle fibres loosen up and restore contractile function. Gentle exercise activates the muscle pump which flushes blood through the muscle as it contracts and relaxes.

These three mechanisms have some quite favorable benefits on getting back to top performance in a short period of time. An important factor and one which many people get wrong is when and how to do active recovery. Active recovery first and foremost should not contribute further to fatigue. Intense exercise is not recovery; it is simply another session. Often people perform hard conditioning instead of resistance training believing it promotes recovery. While some aspects may have a similar effect, the benefits are cancelled out by the increased metabolic and cell stress. A reliable intensity to work at is 50-60% of Heart rate reserve. The session need not be any longer than 30mins to be effective. We recommend low load bearing exercise to reduce any further stress on joints etc. Swimming, crosstrainer and biking are excellent choices.

Deciding when to employ active recovery is also tricky. In most cases we should employ some sort of short active recovery in our warm down procedure. This allows us to clear metabolites immediately after a session as well as stabilizing core temperature in a more gradual manner. Some like to use recovery sessions on their day off. In this case promoting bloodflow and reducing stiffness are the main mechanisms. This scenario is problematic as one must refrain from turning recovery into more conditioning work. While for some, running and rowing may be suitable, many heavier athletes will actually induce more fatigue and joint stress using these exercises. A 5k run is not a recovery session it is aerobic training, while less intense it simply applies a different type of stress.

It is important for athletes to understand the purpose of active recovery and the mechanism by which it works. Just because a session is of lower intensity it does not automatically become recovery work. The sole purpose of active recovery is to promote a restoration to a rested state and therefore maximum performance potential. It has a clear purpose and application. Smart athletes recognize the difference and they reap the rewards of using it effectively.

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.

Isometric training!!

There are three types of contractions that muscles can perform. These are Eccentric, Concentric and Isometric. Each one refers to the action of the muscle.

  • Eccentric contractions are where the muscle contracts while the fibres are lengthening.
  • Concentric contractions are where the muscle fibres contract while they are shortening.
  • Isometric contraction is when force is being applied in a situation where the muscle fibre neither shortens or lengthens. The joint is generally in a fixed position when this occurs.

There are also some scenarios where the rate of lengthening or shortening is slowed to a point where it can become quasi-isometric in nature. This resembles the type of slow grind that can be experienced when performing near maximal lifts.

Isometrics are useful in training as quite a lot of force can be applied in a relatively safe way. The high forces require an extremely large neural input. It can be a great way to train the neural aspect of strength. In addition it can prepare muscles and tendons to tolerate very high forces which may occur suddenly during sport. This makes isometric training quite an effective injury prevention strategy.

While there are benefits to training with isometrics it can be difficult to perform safely. Certain equipment may be necessary in order to effectively perform a movement isometrically. It also requires some experience of lifting in order to breathe appropriately. Because you must maintain a valsalva or “Bracing” position for a prolongued period there are some risks associated. People with high blood pressure or who may be prone to fainting should avoid such types of training.

Performing these types of movements is relatively simple for the experienced lifter in an adequate facility. Take for example a squat movement. The athlete should set the spotter pins above the bar at an appropriate height (1/4 squat depth etc) with safety bars just below. Using proper technique they simply squat the bar until its path is impeded by the spotter pins. They should continue to exert as much force as they can for a prescribed time. Because they are squatting against a “fixed” bar they wont need to the load the bar as load is now redundant.

Isometrics can be a useful tool in an athletes training method arsenal. While it should be utilized by experienced lifters, certain applications and variations can be utilized by other athletes also. Used in an efficient training program isometrics can be effective in improving strength levels and preventing injury.