Tag Archives: Training tool

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.

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.

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.

It’s never wrong to be strong!

There are very few sports where absolute strength is unimportant. Regardless of whether or not the athlete’s bodyweight is important to performance, strength is always beneficial. A strong athlete will often be able to make up for skill more often than we like to admit. We have all seen clumsy, brutish athletes simply overpower and overwhelm more skilled opposition. In combat sports the argument is that two fighters of equal skill, bodyweight will be the defining factor. This is the reason for weight classes. Now, in a particular weight class we recognize that the stronger fighter will have the advantage.

Despite this we still argue that strength isn’t everything. While I believe other factors are just as important I will present a case for absolute strength being a critical factor. First we will look at the debate of relative strength. The Powerlifter/strongman vs. Olympic lifter is one such example. On one hand we have the Olympic lifter, a master technician who can shift weight more efficiently than most other athletes. They have incredible strength relative to bodyweight. Then we look at a powerlifter or strongman. They demonstrate tremendous strength while not being as technically efficient as an Olympic lifter. They also have much greater bodyweight which diminishes their strength to weight ratio. The following video shows how they compare when asked to squat their own bodyweight for max repetitions.

While the strongman and Olympic lifter achieve the same total reps the powerlifter has a greater total load lifted. Work done is an extremely important factor in all sports. This simply demonstrates that despite him not achieve the same reps his absolute strength allows him to beat more efficient lifters.

In the case of endurance athletes the argument may not be as obvious. Endurance athletes must sustain workloads in order to be successful. Our initial thought may be that their conditioning is going to be the critical factor. Again this is not the case. The greater an athlete’s maximal power output is, the easier he can manage submaximal work. Relative workloads become less intense. An athlete who must sustain 300watts when his max is 350watts will struggle against an athlete who maintains 300watts with a max of 400watts.

Crossfit athletes are also a very good example of this. They are often prescribed workloads which disregard any differences in the size or strength level of an athlete. In this case an athlete who must complete 20 deadlifts of 100kg, having a max effort of 150kg will need to work much harder than an athlete who has a max effort of 200kg. The first athlete is lifting 75% of their max in comparison to 50% with the second. This allows for a large advantage which may be too great to overcome even with a more efficient technique.

While I do not advocate neglecting technique or conditioning, it is important to realize the advantage that absolute strength provides. A weak yet technically good athlete will automatically be at a disadvantage. For this reason it is a very good idea to ascertain strength standards which athletes should look to achieve in their discipline. If they fail to do so it may highlight where they might struggle during competition. Very often direct attention to strength development can make a very significant impact on an athlete’s performance. Neither coach nor athlete should ever disregard the benefits of an effective strength program. It is often overlooked especially in technical sports. At high levels of competition this oversight may be the weakness that gives the opposition the opportunity they need to win.

Blueprint for big legs!

My old coaches used to say “The legs feed the wolf! There are few sports where having big, strong legs does not carry over into performance. Many people struggle to build leg size and strength while others have no issues at all. This post will discuss some factors which can influence growth of the leg musculature and how one can use this knowledge to their advantage.

Muscle is not all the same; there are several types and subgroups with different characteristics. Mostly when dealing with skeletal muscle we define the fibers as either Type 1 (Oxidative or Slow twitch) or Type 2 (Glycolytic or Fast twitch). Every muscle is made up of bundles of muscle fibers. Each bundle is from all of the same fiber type and innervated by a single nerve. The bundle and nerve assembly is known as a Motor Unit (MU).

Type 1 fibers tend to be smaller in size and produce less force. They also have excellent blood supply and mitochondrial density which makes them very efficient at oxidative metabolism. This means they don’t fatigue easily. Type 2 fibers are larger in size and more powerful. Unlike Type one they are not so efficient at oxidation and rely heavily on glycolysis, intramuscular ATP and Creatine Phosphate stores for energy. They are much more fatiguable than Type 1 fibers.

The recruitment of the muscle fibers is in order of size, from small to large. The rate and quantity of recruitment will depend on the activity. Slow, low force movements may only require a small recruitment of some type 1 fibers, whereas a heavy lift or sprint will additionally recruit a large portion of type 2 fibers.

When we are born we are genetically predisposed to having a larger distribution of one fiber type over another. With training we can influence a switch over, from one fiber type to another. The fibers will be persuaded to take on new characteristics rather than switch totally. In our earlier years of training and sport we have a large influence on the muscle fibers as they develop. In addition, our genetic makeup will naturally direct us into sports we are suited to physiologically as we are more likely to have success.

When we look at body parts and muscles, the fiber distribution can be influenced by the function. For example forearm muscles contain higher amounts of type one fibers, as grip endurance is required for relatively constant movement of hands and fingers. Legs are similar because we spend relatively large durations of time on our legs, walking and standing etc. For this reason legs will always have a relatively large amount of type 1 fibers.

Micro trauma to the fibers is the catalyst for growth. When we recover, micro tears in the fibers are repaired and the fibers become larger and stronger. Tension and metabolic stress are the two things that will cause stress and trauma. Time under tension (TUT) has long been regarded as a key factor in muscle growth. The more time a fiber is placed under tension the more damage created. In addition metabolic stress can also be quite effective at creating trauma. All we have to do is look at a track cyclist or sprinters legs to demonstrate this.

Putting this knowledge into practice is pretty simple. In order to successfully create hypertrophy in the musculature we must stimulate and cause trauma to both sets of fibers. The challenge with type 1 fibers is that they are harder to fatigue. They need higher volume to do this, and so a higher rep strategy should be employed. The challenge with the type 2 fibers is activation. Heavier and more explosive lifts are needed to activate and fatigue them. Lower reps with heavier weight, combined with some power and sprint training will be needed to promote growth of these fibers.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high reps sets to produce bodybuildings most famous legs.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high rep sets to produce bodybuilding’s most famous legs.

This not only applies to athletes but also to bodybuilders. The secret to growth is to cover all your bases and keep things simple and consistent. Using a combination of high and low rep training will provide a good overall stimulation making sure you are covering everything. When used as a part of a simple progressive training plan and combined with adequate recovery any athlete will build bigger stronger legs. The key point is to target the fibers effectively so they respond. If you rely on one technique exclusively it is unlikely that you will have long term success.

As with most training, athletes must try and learn their weakness and how to fix them. They can then target the issues with a balanced program to give them a well rounded base. The more familiar they are with the physiological factors involved the more effective a training program can be!

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Science of strength!

In this post I will discuss the physiological components that make up physical strength. In general the strength of a muscle is determined by its cross sectional mass. When we assess the improvement of strength in a muscular contraction, we see a significant increase in force output in a short space of time with no change in mass. This shows us that there is also a neural component that plays a significant role in strength. In order for a muscle fiber to hit a peak contraction it must be stimulated fully. A beginner to strength training will be unable to reach his true max because he will be neurally untrained. This means he is not capable of using all his muscle fibers or even capable of using the select few to their full potential.

When we want to move, we send a chemo-electrical signal from brain to the muscle which results in a contraction. The more signals we send the more forceful the contraction. In order to achieve maximum contraction we must have a constant and rapid train of impulses coming from our brain. The route the impulse takes down the nerves must be capable of sustaining and transmitting these signals. Early in our training it is these nerves which improve at delivering stimulus, that results in strength improvements.

There are several factors which can prevent us achieving maximum contractile forces. We have safety mechanisms which prevent us reaching our limits in order to prevent damage to our muscle tissue. These mechanisms are largely involuntary and are not simply a case of pushing harder. When we train the thresholds for these “safety switches” raise, allowing us to lift more. This is partly because our muscles become more conditioned and less susceptible to damage but also because our overriding mechanisms improve. We can prove this theory by using a simple maximum voluntary contraction test on a muscle. An athlete produces their strongest contraction and when it peaks we add extra stimulus externally with an electric impulse. The peak will increase significantly higher than voluntary stimulus could achieve, proving there is more force possible.

So how do we increase strength? There a couple of areas which can be improved. First we need to train the movement. Becoming more accustomed to the movement helps us learn the pattern of muscle activation required to perform the action effectively. Second we must improve stimulation and muscle activation. The obvious method is working closer to our maxes which in theory requires a “close to max muscle contraction”. Become accustomed to producing maximum force will improve the mechanisms involved over time. This can be taxing on both the central nervous system (CNS) and the muscle structure itself. It will require structural recovery which takes time. Speed training is an excellent variation as it allows us to improve the rate of impulses coming from the brain. More ballistic type exercises such as jumping are a good way to improve rate of neural transmission. Adding bands or chains to sub-maximal weights for particular lifts can also be another variation to include. The increased resistance over the range of the movement requires an accelerated contraction.

Adding chains can be very effective at improving neural components involved in strength. Photo source: www.clintdarden.com

Adding chains can be very effective at improving neural components involved in strength. Photo source: www.clintdarden.com

These types of training are excellent ways to improve the neural component of strength without needing any structural recovery. They are demanding on the CNS and as always adequate recovery is necessary. The next area to work on is increasing muscle mass. This involves hypertrophy of the muscle fibers which occurs over a much longer period of time.

Becoming strong is important to all athletes but understanding what makes them strong can be just as important. The body adapts quickly and so a multidirectional approach can help progress in terms of consistency. Often athletes employ the maximal lifting approach exclusively and plateau quickly. Combining different methods over a periodised training plan can make sure that an athlete continues to improve in the long term and achieve full potential.

Post Activation Potentiation

Also referred to as a PAP response, Post Activation Potentiation has been a tool in an athletes training arsenal for decades. The basic theory is that if you lift a heavy weight you can perform a more explosive contraction soon after. So for example you might do a heavy double on back squat. Immediately after you may do box jumps or something similar and exceed expected performance. The underlying mechanism explaining this is actually quite simple. When you perform a heavy lift or contraction you must activate larger motor units to produce a more forceful contraction. These larger motor units are often referred to as type 2 muscle fibers. These fibers are generally larger and have greater capacity to produce force than smaller fibers. When activated they become slightly more sensitive to further activation for a short period of time after. When you go to perform the next contraction it will be relatively easier to produce force as these motor units are “excited”. Due to changes in sensitivity, the rate of contraction may also be significantly improved. This allows for a better power production overall.

Not a bad example to use. Photo by Hookgrip at www.hookgrip.com

Not a bad example to show. Big lift allows for a big jump!  Photo: Hookgrip at www.hookgrip.com

Not only can this PAP response be useful for improving power, it can also help improve strength endurance. I use the term endurance loosely there. It may allow you to perform more reps at sub-maximal loads without directly influencing fatiguing factors. For example, max repetition bench press is a common test used by many contact sport teams used during team physical testing. One or two singles close to max effort prior to the test can in fact improve the result. This is provided that the athlete does not go overboard and induce fatigue prior to the test. Often the athletes state that the weight initially feels lighter in comparison to a standard work up, warm up protocol. The PAP response can also be used in a hypertrophy program where back off or drop sets are being utilised. This is quite simply due to larger motor units being pre-activated, making a more effective use of available motor units, resulting in an improved performance. Larger volume in terms of weight lifted per session translates well into these types of programs.

While this is not a new concept or theory, the underlying mechanism is often overlooked and therefore under utilised. It is quite an effective tool and one which I have seen positive results from. Having an understanding of this concept allows a coach to be a little more creative in finding ways to help an athlete reach their potential.