Home Posts tagged "Unstable Surface Training"

“If Only:” 7 Lessons from a Record-Setting Paralympic Medalist

Today, we've got a great guest post from accomplished Paralympic swimmer, Travis Pollen, who shares some wisdom to help up-and-comers avoid the same mistakes he made. Enjoy! -EC

During my Paralympic swimming career, I set two American records, won a gold medal at Nationals, and finished just one spot shy of making the team that went to London. A good deal of my success can certainly be attributed to hard work in the water. In addition to the pool sessions, though, I’m certain I owe much of my speed to weight training. I’m also certain – now that I’m both a personal trainer and graduate student in biomechanics – that my gym experience could have been even more effective had I done just seven things.

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Let’s first rewind to the summer after my first season of high school swimming, when my iron journey began in the smelly basement of the local YMCA. I’d recently stumbled upon Getting Stronger by bodybuilding legend Bill Pearl at the library. This text, though hardly “sports-specific,” became my bible.

My workouts consisted mostly of single-joint exercises performed in random order for 3 sets of 15 reps. Despite the haphazard program design, I realized significant newbie gains, and it showed in the pool. I dropped serious time in all my races the following season.

Over the next few years, I practically “maxed out” on library rentals on topics ranging from plyometrics and isometrics to active-isolated stretching and sports nutrition. Nevertheless, my progress in the weight room stalled. I eventually hired a personal trainer, who helped me get “huge,” in the words of my teammates.

But was size what I really needed? How about body-part splits, crunches, and unstable surface training? Looking back on my program, I see a ton of room for improvement. If only I had known then what I know now – if only I had done these seven things – perhaps I would’ve realized my Paralympic dreams after all.

1. If only I had adopted a training split more in line with my goals...

Although I believed I was lifting weights for performance enhancement, I was unknowingly training like a bodybuilder all along: chest and triceps on Monday, back and biceps on Wednesday, leg (singular, since I’m an amputee) and shoulders on Saturday. Muscles, not movements, were all I knew.

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In hindsight, I was more “show” than “go,” with hulking but stiff muscles. Full-body workouts utilizing techniques like supersets (push/pull) and alternating sets (upper/lower) would have been far more time-efficient. Moreover, they would have left me suppler and with more in the tank for afternoon swim practice, as compared to having two completely smoked muscle groups from my morning body part lift.

2. If only I had prioritized strength and power…

In my prime, I could do 80 consecutive push-ups, yet I could barely bench my own bodyweight. Until I obtained my personal trainer certification, I had no concept of a strength protocol. In fact, I was under the impression that the lower the reps, the bigger you get, end of story. So for fear of getting overly bulky, I spent most of my time in the 12-15 rep range, with a heavy dose of unstable surface training thrown in, since someone I (mistakenly) trusted told me that was how you get strong.

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As a sprinter, my longest race was over in less than a minute. What I really needed was not muscular endurance, but rather power. And power can only be realized, of course, with a solid foundation of strength.

3. If only I had addressed my weaknesses and asymmetries...

I’ll admit it: I skipped leg day. Often. When my schedule got hectic and I missed my Friday workout, instead of going back and making it up, I usually just started fresh on Monday with my bread and butter: chest and triceps. These workouts were the shortest – not to mention the most fun – and I had physics homework to do! I also usually saved “abs” for last, and I almost invariably ran out of time.

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Even when I did do legs, since I didn’t use my residual limb much in the water, I decided not to waste time strengthening it outside the pool. Boy, did my blind eye towards symmetry have a negative effect on my low back. Nowadays, I’ve added bilateral rack pulls, good mornings, back extensions, and hip thrusts in an effort to even out the imbalance. All in all, more of an emphasis on my lower body and core undoubtedly would have provided a performance-enhancing boost.

4. If only I had emphasized closed chain compound lifts for my lower body...

As an amputee, it was important that I play it safe in the gym. My earliest memory of a barbell involves a crowded high school weight room, the less-than-watchful eye of the athletic trainer, high pulls, and – you guessed it – crippling low back pain the next day. After that incident, when I didn’t skip leg day, I stuck mostly to machines (and single leg balancing on a BOSU ball, of course).

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Unfortunately, the leg press and leg extension don’t offer nearly the same carryover to swim starts and turns as squats, deadlifts, and cleans. As it turns out, with proper coaching and lots of practice, I can actually perform all the aforementioned big lifts on one leg – and pretty darn well, at that.

5. If only I had trained my core for three-dimensional stability...

Swimming is all about slicing through the water with as little drag as possible. A floppy midsection that snakes from side to side with every stroke not only leaks a ton of energy but also creates serious drag. Unfortunately, ask most swim coaches, and they’ll tell you the way to a strong core is a few hundred crunches, V-ups, and Russian twists daily. These movements are minimally sports-specific, however, as the only time flexion occurs in swimming is during the flip-turn. And even then, several muscles in addition to the abdominals help generate the movement.

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To create the rigid, canoe-like core that’s truly needed for swimming (and all sports, really), core stability work is the key. Anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion exercises, plus rotational medicine ball work, surely would’ve afforded me a gold medal trunk and hips.

6. If only I had foam rolled and dynamic stretched...

Warm-up? You mean jogging to the gym and static stretching before hitting the leg press? For some reason, despite the fact that I routinely observed the college track athletes doing stick work, butt kicks, and lunges with a twist, I – along with the rest of the swimming community – failed to make the connection that these very same tools could benefit me. If, instead of endlessly stretching my triceps to no avail, I had just done some soft tissue work with The Stick each time I hit the gym, I’m positive it wouldn’t have taken them two hours to unknot every swim practice.

7. If only I had logged my workouts and practiced progressive overload...

We all like to be sore, but the reality is that soreness is not the best barometer for a good workout, especially when it detracts from performance in the target sport. I vividly remember a workout in which I did so many pull-ups I was unable to bend my arms for several days afterwards. Needless to say, this made swimming incredibly painful.

A much better way to assess the merits of a workout is through comparison to previous ones. By simply jotting down my weights, I could have actually tracked how I was doing from session to session and season to season. A workout log would have eliminated the guesswork and provided an impetus to add weight each week, instead of hovering at a 115-pound 10 RM bench press for years on end.

Until Time Machines Are Invented

Each item on the list above seems like a no-brainer now. At the time, though, I believed myself to be decently well-versed in training methodology – or at least as best I could be given the library’s offerings. Even if I didn’t know everything, I assumed my trainer was up-to-date.

If I could go back in time in my quest for Paralympic glory, I’d take with me The High Performance Handbook and get to work again that first summer. But until time machines are invented, I’m happy to settle for educating up-and-comers so they don’t repeat the same mistakes I did.

About the Authortravis7

Travis Pollen is an NPTI certified personal trainer and American record-holding Paralympic swimmer. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Biomechanics and Movement Science at the University of Delaware. He maintains a blog and posts videos of his “feats of strength” on his website, www.FitnessPollenator.com. You can also find him on Facebook.


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Unstable Surface Training: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

In my latest article at T-Nation, I take a close look at training on unstable surfaces and how it impacts performance and health. Check it out:

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While this is a lengthy article, it's still just a quick glance at a very complex topic. If you're interested in learning more, I'd encourage you to check out my e-book, The Truth About Unstable Surface Training.

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Exercise of the Week: 1-arm Bottoms-up Kettlebell Military Press

I'll admit it: I was far from an early adopter of kettlebells.  These great training implements were apparently first introduced in Russia in the 1700s, yet I didn't really use them much until the past 3-4 years.  So, I guess you could call me a late adopter. For the record, this wasn't just a belated protest of the Soviet Union; I was also the guy who held out on getting a cell phone until after I graduated college.

In the context of this article, though, my stubbornness is actually a good thing, as it means that I heavily scrutinize things before I adopt them.  And, of course, that means that our clients at Cressey Performance don't use new equipment or exercises - and I certainly don't write about them - until I'm sold on their efficacy.  While I was sold on their efficacy several years ago, one set of exercises that I had to put to the test myself were overhead bottoms-up kettlebell variations, and in particular, those that were actual presses and not just holds.

I am, in fact, the perfect guinea pig, too.  You see, I've got a bum shoulder that's probably going to need surgery someday.  I was supposed to have it on 2003, but learned to work around it and have a successful training career in spite of some structural limitaions that came about during my youth tennis career.  That said, one of the exercises that has always hurt - regardless of how hard I rehabilitated it - was overhead pressing.

To make a long story short, I've been able to do the 1-arm bottoms-up kettlebell military (overhead) press pain free for a year or so now.

This is likely due to one or more of three different factors...

1. The instability afforded by the kettlebell.

If you look at the research on unstable surface training, muscle EMG is generally unchanged under unstable surfaces, even though force out put is dramatically lower.  What does this mean?  More of the work you're doing is for joint stability than actually moving serious weights.  That can be a great approach for folks with old injuries like mine.  In other words, adding instability means you may be able to maintain a great training effect in spite of less external loading.  Keep in mind that this applies much more to the upper body - which functions in both open- and closed-chain movement - than the lower body, which is almost exclusively closed-chain movement. I discuss this in great detail in my e-book, The Truth About Unstable Surface Training.

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2. The Plane of the Scapula

You'll notice that in the video above, the path the kettlebell takes on the way to being overhead is slightly out in front of the body.  Effectively, it's right between directly out to the side (frontal plane) and directly out in front (sagittal plane), as both of these positions are rough on the wrist with kettlebell training and don't lend themselves well to an individual being overhead comfortably.  As an added bonus, the plane of the scapula is generally much more shoulder friendly position as well.

3. More of a grip emphasis.

Anecdotally, you'll see a lot of the brighter minds in the business talk about how increasing grip challenges also helps to better turn on the rotator cuff, which fires reflexively.  We know that your cuff fires automatically when you pick up a suitcase or deadlift, so it makes sense that it would fire more "potently" when the grip challenge is more significant.  While this process, known as irradiation, hasn't been clearly defined or researched, it definitely seems to hold some water.  And, it goes without saying that you'll get more of a grip challenge with a kettlebell than you ever will with a dumbbell.

With these three factors in mind, I've made this my first overhead progression back with clients who are trying to get back to overhead pressing following a shoulder injury.  We have to do a lot of other stuff to get to this point in the progression, but I definitely see this as one of the initial "tests" of how good that shoulder is doing.

Keep in mind, too, that we're just talking about what goes on at the shoulder.  There are also a lot of core stability benefits, too.  By pressing with only one arm at a time, there's a greater rotary stability challenge.  Plus, all overhead pressing are great anterior core exercises, as you must effectively position the core and rib cage to ensure that the scapula and humerus do what they are supposed to do; you're resisting excessive extension the entire time.

With that in mind, you might be interested in checking out my new resource, Understanding and Coaching the Anterior Core.  This 47-minute presentation covers everything from functional anatomy, to the impact of breathing, to exercise progressions/regressions, and programming recommendations.  You can check it out HERE, where it's on sale at an introductory discount this week only.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 12/7/11

Here's this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading:

The Effects of Stable versus Unstable Surface Training on Performance of Division II Female Soccer Players - I was psyched to see this presented in the most recent Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, as these researchers verified the findings of my master's thesis.  Essentially, we found that even a small dosage of unstable surface training interferes with the development of strength, power, and aerobic capacity.  For more information, I'd encourage you to check out The Truth About Unstable Surface Training, which summarizes our findings, rationale, and practical applications.

The President's Cancer Panel Report - I thought Brian St. Pierre did a great job of presenting this valuable information very succinctly; it's all stuff that we should know. The Contreras Files: Volume 1 - I love reading Bret Contreras' stuff because he is constantly working to add to the body of knowledge, whether it's in doing research of his own, or translating research into usable formats for coaches, trainers, and lifters.  This is a great example. Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!
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Upcoming Reinold and Cressey Seminar

I thrilled to announce that I'll be collaborating with Mike Reinold once again - this time on a seminar, Functional Stability Training, to take place on Sunday, November 20, 2011 at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA. Here's the agenda for the day:
  • Functional Stability Training – An integrated approach to rehabilitation and performance training – Reinold
  • Recent Advances in Core Performance - Understand the concept of Functional Stability Training for the Core, true function of the spine, and how this impacts injuries, rehab, and training – Reinold
  • Maintaining a Training Effect in Spite of Common Lumbar Spine and Lower Extremity Injuries – Outlines the causes and symptoms of several common injuries encountered in the lower extremity, and how to train around these issues to keep clients/athletes fit during rehabilitation – Cressey
  • Understanding and Controlling Extension in Athletes – Looks into the causes of and problems with excessive lumbar extension, anterior pelvic tilt, and rib flairs in athletes – Cressey
  • Lunch (Provided)
  • LAB – Assessing Core Movement Quality:  Understanding where to begin with Functional Stability Training exercises for the core – Reinold
  • LAB – A Dynamic Progression of Core Performance Exercises  - Progression from simple core control to advanced rehab and training techniques – Reinold
  • LAB Understanding and Controlling Extension in Athletes – Progresses on the previous lecture with specific technique and coaching cues for exercises aimed toward those with these common issues – Cressey
  • LAB Advanced Stability: Training Power Outside the Sagittal Plane – Traditional power training programs are predominantly focused on the sagittal plane, but in most athletic endeavors – especially rotational sports – power must be displayed in other planes of motion – Cressey
It's our goal to optimize the learning environment and have lots of interaction with all of those in attendance, so to that end, we'll be keeping the seminar to 50 people or less.  Given that our Optimal Shoulder Performance seminar in 2009 sold out in under a week, this one is sure to do the same - so don't delay in registering, if this is of interest. For more information, or to sign up, check out www.FunctionalStability.com. Here's what some of our previous seminar attendees have had to say about their experiences seeing us live:

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Kicking off ‘Stache Bash 2010

Retail stores have "Black Friday" and online retailers have "Cyber Monday" for their holiday sales at this time of the year - but I've never been one to go with tradition - or party for just a day when I can party for an entire week.  So, I created my own week-long sales event that will help to wrap up "No Shave November." I'm calling it 'Stache Bash 2010 - because I'll soon be rocking a mustache to round out the week (and drive the ladies wild).  As of right now, I'm just rocking the Circle Beard (moutee) - and while it's not a hit with my wife, our puppy doesn't seem to mind, as evidenced by his nap on the couch with me during football on Sunday afternoon!

Here's how it'll work...

  • Each day, I'll rock a new facial hair with a new one of my products on sale at a hefty discount.
  • With each day, I'll also provide some new content to go along with these sales promos.
  • My products will go on sale Tu (today), We, Th, Fr, Mo, and next Tu - which means that the weekend is open.  With that in mind, I've reached out to a few friends to see if they'd make their top-notch products available to my list at solid discounts on Sa and Su - so don't forget to check back in over the weekend.
  • I've sequenced all of this so that if you do opt to purchase multiple products, they'll ship in the most convenient and affordable way possible (i.e., Building the Efficient Athlete, Magnificent Mobility, and Assess & Correct will all be on sale together).
  • I'll leave each item on sale for 48 hours, as I know a lot of folks are in different time zones and may read this blog a day or two late.
  • The month will wrap up with me turning in my man card to be clean shaven once again on November 30.
So, without further ado, let's kick this sucker off with a 30% off deal on The Truth About Unstable Surface Training. This e-book has helped to clarify the role of instability training for a lot of folks in our industry, but what many people don't realize is that it goes into great depth with respect to strength exercise progressions for training enthusiasts who may be outside the fitness profession.  You can click HERE to purchase directly or click HERE for more information.  Just enter the coupon code STACHE to apply the discount at checkout.

“I used to advise trainers and other strength professionals that they must always continue to develop themselves and continue their education by reading every book and article and attending every seminar – but I was wrong. My advice now is to be very selective with the resources you seek out and the research and products you obtain. There is so much misinformation in the fitness industry and so much junk on the internet that it’s easy to be misguided. “So what is the right information? Without hesitation, I can say anything from Eric Cressey. His e-book, The Truth About Unstable Surface Training, is no exception. Learn how unstable surface training originated in a rehabilitative setting and led to one of the biggest controversies in the fitness industry today. I was honored to get a first look at this resources. It was not just the literature review, studies, strength exercise demonstrations and progressions that were eye-opening; it was the practical applications. As always, Eric provides a thorough explanation of complex ideas. “If you’ve ever found yourself – or come across someone – using the term “functional training,” you absolutely must buy The Truth About Unstable Surface Training right now! Jim Smith, CSCS Author, Combat Core: Advanced Torso Training Again, that coupon code is STACHE and is good through tomorrow (Wednesday) at midnight.
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Unstable Ankles: It Ain’t Just the Sneakers

I got the following questions from a Show and Go customer this morning and thought I'd turn it into a quick Q&A: Do high-top basketball shoes provide any significant stability and safety advantages over low-tops that would make me NOT want to buy low-tops? When I played hoops in high school my ankles rolled over at least once every few months, so it feels obvious that there's a lot more to the stability equation than the height of the ankle on the shoe. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I sent him to these two articles: Nike Shox and High Heels The Importance of Ankle Mobility Then, I gave him the following advice: "I would never put one of my athletes in high-tops. The introduction of the high top and the addition of big heel lifts in sneakers is, in my eyes, the cause of the epidemic of anterior knee pain and the emergence of high ankle sprains. And, you're right that there is more to the stability equation than the height of the shoe: the muscles and tendons of the lower leg (particularly the peroneals) actually have to do some work to prevent ankle sprains. Put yourself in a concrete block of a shoe and tape your ankles and you are just asking all those muscles to shut down." For more information on truly functional stability training for the lower leg and core, check out my e-book, The Truth About Unstable Surface Training.

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Stuff You Should Read: 8/24/10

Here's a look back to some featured posts that might interest you: Deloading in Maximum Strength - While The Art of the Deload goes into a ton of detail on a variety of deloading strategies, several folks have asked me how it specifically applies to the Maximum Strength program.  This clears things up. Lower Back Savers Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 - This three-part series at T-Nation are among my most popular articles there. Unstable Ground or Destabilizing Torques - This blog will make you think about what you see when you watch sports on TV - and, more specifically, how athletes prepare themselves for those demands.
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Spring Training Sale!

If you read this blog with any sort of regularity, it should come as no surprise to you that I'm really pumped up for the upcoming Major League Baseball season, as we saw over 30 professional baseball players from 21 different major league organizations this off-season at Cressey Performance.  My excitement hit another level earlier this week when I spent some time down in Ft. Myers, FL in the thick of things prior to pitchers and catchers officially reporting yesterday. In honor of this big date in the baseball world, I thought it'd be as good a time as ever to announce a sale on a few of my products.  From today through midnight on Thursday, February 25, you can get 30% off on The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual, The Truth About Unstable Surface Training, and The Art of the Deload by entering the coupon code FEB2010 at checkout from the Products Page.

uotm This is actually the first time that The Truth About Unstable Surface Training has ever gone on sale since its release, so don't miss out on this opportunity to pick up some first-of-its-kind research and the practical applications associated with it.

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Again, just head HERE and enter the coupon code FEB2010 to get 30% off your order. Go Red Sox!
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The Best of 2009: Stuff that was Fun to Write

Thus far this week, we've covered the top articles, product reviews, videos, and guest submissions of the year.  Today, I just wanted to cover the stuff that was fun for me to write (or film) - and it isn't just exclusive to EricCressey.com. Birthday Blogging: 28 Years, 28 Favorites - I just remember that this thing rolled off my fingertips as I wrote it on my 28th birthday. What Folks are Saying about the Cressey Performance Majestic Fleece - I just remember that we had to film this about 47 times because none of us could stop laughing.

The Opportunity Cost of Your Time - I don't know why this one was fun to write, but it was.  I suppose it might have something to do with the fact that I started out at business school, and then moved over to the exercise science world to complete my undergraduate degree.

The Truth About Unstable Surface Training - This was actually introduced at the end of 2008 (and written in sections between 2005 and 2008), but deserves mention in light of its first full year of availability.  I'm most proud of this work because it took a ton of time to compile both the literature and our original research, which was the first of its kind.  Nobody had looked at how a long-term training lower-body unstable surface training intervention would affect healthy, trained athletes' performance.  This book presents not only those results, but a series of practical application recommendations that are of value to any strength coach, personal trainer, or other fitness professional.

Lower Back Savers Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 - Featured at T-Muscle, these were really fun to write because I had a chance to be dorky and practical at the same time, blending research with what we've anecdotally seen in those with lower back issues.  Honestly, I still have enough content to write a part 4, and that may come around in the next few months.
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