In part 1 of the series we spoke about the importance of screening, specificity, education and expectations and managing exercise frequency and volume. If you missed part 1 of this article series I recommend going back and reading it first. Next we’ll keep on trucking into the next 4 key principles I like to employ in my programming:
5) Skill Practice
Learning and mastering complex exercises takes time and discipline. I like to think of it this way. Sports like olympic lifting, gymnastics, running and rowing are sports that people devote their entire lives to gaining mastery in. It makes sense that if you’re now involved in a fitness program that combines all of those disciplines into one activity that you’re not going to be super proficient in every skill right away.
These activities should be given time and practice and not always treated like another exercise performed in sets and reps. If your programming is going to include complex movements like snatching, cleaning and muscle-ups then ample time must be devoted to mastering these exercises.
When learning or practicing complex skills it’s usually best to practice them in a fresh state at the start of a workout (only to be trained in a fatigued state if that’s what you’ll be expected to do in competition).
I for one am not a big fan of putting complex movements into a workout in an extremely fatigued state (For the general population). You’ve got to take my physical therapy background into account. When I see someone get hurt performing a complex movement like a muscle-up it’s usually in a fatigued state or part of a fatiguing workout. I feel that there are much more basic exercises (pushups, rowing, running, burpees, wall balls etc.) that can be used to get a great conditioning effect without the risk of injury when your technique breaks down (This of course has to change if you’re programming for athletes who are going to be seeing this in competition, then it’s a matter of maintaining technique in a fatigued state).
This also means having basic progressions for both the advanced trainee as well as the new guy or gal. Everyone can stand to improve upon these skills if we’re looking for perfect movement
I make sure to spend a large chunk of time working technique on every movement I perform. This goes for all exercises. This means working on kipping technique before kipping pullups and toes to bar. This means a large barbell warm-up with several warm-up sets before attempting a workout with olympic lifts. This means several sets (sometimes an obnoxious amount according to my team mates) of a given exercise before working toward the working sets for the day. This also means treating exercises as skills in a workout as well. If technique starts to fall off it means it’s time to call the set, rest or take weight off the bar.
6) Unilateral Emphasis
If you’re a fan of Gray Cook you’ll know that he commonly states that the second best predictor of future injury is an asymmetry from the left to the right side of body. Trouble is, if you’re living in a world of barbell work, you’re not really getting much of a chance to correct any asymmetries you’ve got within your body (whether that be strength, balance or mobility).
Despite not being movements you see too frequently in competition I love using single arm and single leg work. I use a lot of dumbbell and kettlebell exercises. I love step-ups, pistols, lunges, single leg deadlifts and all of their variations. I really like using gymnastics rings for things like pushups, pull-ups and rows. If we can hammer out these asymmetries not only will we be less prone to injury but subsequently better athletes (One of the best ways to halt your progress in the gym is getting hurt).
These exercises are a great addition to any program but are going to fit in best in an offseason training program where you can afford to decrease the volume of double leg exercises like olympic lifting and squatting. Keep in mind that throwing in several additional single arm or leg exercises is going to increase stress on your body and other exercises will have to be tailored to keep your body from overuse.
7) Condition the Body for the Upcoming Demands it will be Facing
Achilles tendon ruptures and hamstring strains are fairly common in weekend warriors. It makes sense. If you take someone who’s deconditioned to running, jumping and changing direction and then throw them into a game situation their body’s will most likely not be up to the task.
The same goes for workouts that have a high volume of a given exercise. I get more emails then I’d like to from athletes who hurt themselves from workouts like “Randy” (75 snatches for time) and “Karen” (150 wall balls for time). I think we can also agree that achilles tendon ruptures occur more frequently during high rep rebounding box jumps then lower rep box jumps. The high volume of a given exercise can cause technical failure as well as tissue failure.
This is why I don’t program too many high rep met-cons or chippers. Sure the occasional chipper is a boatload of fun but I feel that the large volume of the same movement over and over can shift the risk to reward ratio in favor of risk.
I also think it’s extremely important to condition your athletes for the occasional workouts that contain a ton of volume of a given movement. When the open rolls around once per year and we can be sure we’ll see high rep workouts like Karen then it becomes important to slowly prepare your athletes for this over the previous few weeks and months. Throwing a big workout like Randy into the rotation without any preparation can really bang up someone’s shoulders.
This is a huge reason I make sure I’m programming all of the most common exercises on a regular basis. I want to ensure that your body will be prepared for the stress it will take over time and that your body won’t be shocked by anything.
Around this time every year (right after the open) people want to jump on a strength or olympic lifting program. This is an excellent idea. Where things go wrong is when people start following programs designed for elite level athletes and try and perform their met-con right on top of that.
Keep in mind that programs like Smolov and the Gayle Hatch squat program (although fantastic programs) were designed for elite athletes who compete specifically in olympic weightlifting. This means that for the average Joe or Jane these programs should probably be modified. On top of that these programs weren’t meant to be performed concurrently with other programming. You’ve got a double whammy here, an incredibly challenging program designed for elite athletes combined with more programming all at once. When you think of it this way it makes sense that people can start having achy knees after trying this.
My strategy is to slightly increase the volume, frequency and intensity of these lifts gradually over time. It might not be as sexy as “adding 100lbs to your squat in 13 weeks” but consistency, dedication and patience over time will get you to where you need to be with less risk.
8) Exercise variety
Fourteen years ago I read an article by Paul Chek entitled “Pattern Overload.” My take-away from the article was that if you’re overusing the same exercises again and again over time you’re going to wear your joints in a predictable fashion. It makes sense that we should be occasionally substituting squatting for lunging and pistols for step-ups. We should also probably be occasionally loading exercises differently to get a different stimulus.
Using sand bags, dumbbells and kettlebells can be a nice substitute for traditional barbell work. Lunges, step-ups and single leg deadlifts can substitute for squats and deadlifts as well. Occasionally performing movements that incorporate lateral or frontal plane movement and rotation can also provide a great training stimulus, promote symmetry and make for a more well rounded athlete.
We can easily go to the opposite end of the spectrum here as well. We don’t want to randomly throw crazy exercises at people either. Exercise selection should be specific to the demands of the athlete’s sport and progressive in nature. We don’t want to be throwing random exercises at our athletes just because they look cool and subsequently not working toward their goals or allowing poor movement because the exercise is too difficult. We’re losing specificity and increasing risk of injury by doing that. No bueno.
So that’s it for this week. Next week we’ll go over some more fun stuff.
If you’re interested…
Im obsessed with working out,
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How to Train With Knee Pain (Part 2)
Is Cupping Just Another Fad?
Can We Predict Who Will Get Hurt Doing CrossFit (TM)?
9 Critical Principles for a Successful Off-season Program (Part 3)
9 Critical Principles for a Successful and Injury Free Off-season (Part 1)
How to Modify Overhead Pressing for Shoulder Pain
How to Modify the Squat to Eliminate Painful Pinching Hips
How to Modify Squats for Painful Knees and Lower Backs