Athlete Spotlight: Mark The Mason

spinal nerves
spinal nerves

Mark is one of our adult clients. His son has trained with us for the past 5 years or so and Mark joined us about a year ago. Mark is a stone mason and is used to working with heavy things like boulders, slabs of granite, and other mason-y things. However, when Mark first started with us, he was in not-so-great shape. Mark had fallen into a hole. He was walking backwards on a job site and fell into a large, deep hole. The fall caused some MAJOR damage to his neck and right shoulder. Discs at C3 and C4 were crushed which translated into terrible nerve pain and weakness in his right shoulder. He spent months on pain medication and in rehab to regain some semblance of function. Mark walked in our doors just under a year after his fall.

When he started, understandably, he was pretty weak. (After 9+ months of barely doing anything, it wasn't a surprise.) His core strength was very, very low and he had difficulty with a lot of the beginner exercises because of it. Planks were his nemesis and he would shake after 10-15 seconds.

We started him out on trap bar deadlifts, with only 65 lbs. He stayed around that weight for at least 2 months while we hammered core strength, single leg movements (oh how he "loved" split squats!), and slowly built up the stamina and strength in his shoulders.

After 2-3 months we tentatively tried pushups. He could do a few with his hands elevated but he tired quickly.

Mark worked hard. He showed up every Tuesday and Thursday morning for his training sessions. He was consistent and steadily Mark grew stronger.

Pretty soon, he was doing pushups on the floor again. (he can knock out about 40 in a session now!) He can now perform split squats and step back lunges without wobbling, and even holding weights! He's graduated to landmine presses with both shoulders (a feat unthinkable during the first 6 months). He's even started crawling (bear and tiger crawls) while dragging chains. (How I wish I had a video of that!) Mark blew past old barriers and is stronger than he was before the fall.

His deadlift inched upwards and we moved him to straight bar, conventional deadlifts. He was a little nervous at first and we worked on his form for a couple months. Then, he was feeling snazzy one day two weeks ago, and decided to increase his weights.

He hit his first PR of 215 for 3:

Then, about 5 minutes later, a second PR of 225 for 3:

Up until this point, the most he'd ever done was 195. He was SO excited that he could barely wait to tell his son his accomplishments. He was giddy and practically skipping around the gym for the rest of his session.

Mark works pretty long hours but he says that he has a much easier time making it through the day. He told me he had to crawl up a steep hill last week that would have been nearly impossible a year ago. This is music to our ears since our whole goal was to increase his strength and make daily living a breeze.

We are so grateful to work with Mark. He always has a smile on his face and a laugh that's just waiting to burst from his mouth. His dedication is inspiring to our other clients and we're eager to see what he'll accomplish in 2015!

Rate Of Force Development Part 2: Training and Increasing RFD

Last post, I went over some of the terms and definitions of rate of force development (RFD). I also mentioned motor units (MU) and if, at this point, you have no clue what I’m talking about, go back and read it. It’s right here. Why should you care about increasing your rate of force development? Answer: power sports (which is every sport to some degree) are dependent upon the ability to produce high levels of force at any given moment, like running away from a T-Rex.

There are two main ways research and experience backs up to train RFD: explosive strength training (Newton et al. Med. Sciences Sports Exer. 1999) and maximal load training, i.e. picking up heavy stuff. (McBride et al, J. Strength and Conditioning Research 2002). It should be noted that most of the research has been done with isolated muscles/movements (it’s a lot easier to test the quadriceps muscle in a leg extension machine than the various muscle groups in a deadlift) and so it can be a little tricky to apply to real life. However, where science has holes, the experience of coaches fills the gap!

First: force = mass x acceleration Keep this in mind…

Explosive training (speed work) is taking a sub-max load (say, 50% of your one rep max) and moving it as fast as possible, with good form obviously, for 1-3 reps per set. That’s key- as fast as possible. Those high threshold motor units, the ones that produce the most force, are recruited to move that weight quickly by contracting quickly. Even though the load is light, the acceleration is high. By challenging your system to move loads supa fast (actual speed measurement), we can increase the force production by increasing the acceleration part of the equation. This is one way to train and increase RFD, by working on the "speed" (or "velocity" for the nerds) part of the equation.

Typically at SAPT, we program 1-3 reps for 6-8 sets with a strict :45-:60 rest period. Why the rest parameters? We want to keep the nervous system “primed” and if the rest period is too long, we lose a bit of that ability to send rapid signals to the muscles.

Maximal load training, aka picking up some freakin’ heavy weight, will typically be above 90% of your one rep max, likewise we keep the rep range between 1 and 3 (mainly because form can turn to utter poo very quickly under heavy loads if the volume is too high). This untilizes the other part of the force equation, mass. If the acceleration is low, the mass has to be high in order to create a high force production. Once again, neural drive is increased and those high threshold MU’s are activated. The threat of being crushed beneath a heavy bar can do that.

Bottom line: As the an athlete's RFD increases –> the recruitment threshold of the more powerful motor units decreases –> more force is produced sooner in the movement –> heavier weights can be moved/athlete becomes more explosive in sport movements.

Think back on poor lifter B from last post who had a really low RFD during his 400lb deadlift attempt. Being the determined young man that he is, he trained intelligently to increase if RFD through practicing speed deadlifts (to get the bar off the floor faster) and maximal training, (to challenge the high threshold units to fire). Pretty soon, instead of taking 3 seconds to even get the bar off the floor, it only takes 1 second of effort and instead fo straining for 5 seconds just to get the bar to his knees, he’s able to accelerate through the pull and get it to lock out in just under 4 seconds. Success!

For sake of the blog post, we could assume he always had the capability of producing enough force to pull 400lbs, but could produce it fast enough before his body pooped out. Now, with his new and improved RFD, 400lbs flies up like it’s nothin.’

Another thing to keep in mind is the torque-angle relationship during the movement. Right… what?

All that means is the torque on the joints will change depending on their angles throughout the movement, thus affecting the amount of force the muscles surrounding those joints must produce. For example, typically* the initial pull off the floor in a deadlift will be harder than the last 1-2 inches before locking out due to the angle of the hip and knees (at the bottom, the glutes are in a stretched position which makes contracting a little tougher than at the top when they’re closer to their resting length.) Same concept applies to the bench press, typically** the first 1-2 inches off the chest are more difficult than the last 1-2 inches at lockout. The implication of all this being  the muscles will have different force-production demands (and the capability to meet those demands) throughout the exercise.

Knowing this, we can train through the “easier” angles and still impose a decent stimulus to keep those higher threshold motor units firing the whole time. How?

With chains and bands! Yay!

Aside from looking totally awesome, chains provided added resistance during the “easier” portions of the exercise to encourage (read: compel) muscles to maintain a high force output throughout the movement. Watch Conrad, The Boss, deadlift with chains: 

At the bottom, when the torque-angle relationship is less favorable, the weight is the lightest and as he pulls up, the weight increases as glutes must maintain a high  level of force output to complete the deadlift. No lazy glutes up in hea’! Bands produce a similar effect. Check out the smashingly informative reverse band bench post Steve wrote here.

There are other ways and other aspects to discuss (like the fore-velocity curve... but that is a tale for another day!), but quite frankly, this blog post is reaching saga-like proportions so I’m going to cut it here. And remember kids:

*unless your name is Kelsey Reed and you have a torso 6 inches long… but can’t lock the pull out.

** unless your arms crazy long.

Training: Separates the Winners from the Not-Winners

“The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.”

From what I could gather from a quick interwebz search, this is a quote taken from General George Patton (though swap “training” for “peace,” but the spirit of the quote remains the same.) I strayed across it this morning and it accurately portrays the life of an athlete. There is the competition season and there is the off-season. The off-season should be reserved for rest and recuperation from competition and building up strength for the next round of competition. (Charlie will delve into this in the coming weeks.)

*sigh* Often, though, we see kids (as young as 9 or 10!) competing all. Year. Round. For the ENTIRE YEAR. (For more on this topic, click here.) There are a plethora of problems with this (overuse injuries at young ages, burning out, peaking to early in life, not to mention having zero social life…) but I’ll focus on an aspect that frustrates and saddens the SAPT coaches, one which we are constantly lamenting: total lack of training in favor of competition. Everyone wants to compete but no one wants to train to prepare for competition. (this goes for big boy and girl athletes too. You can’t compete all year-round.)

Competition season often has erratic schedules and can wreck havoc on eating habits, sleep schedules, and the ability to train regularly. That’s expected for a few months, but if an athlete is competing all the time, when will he/she recuperate and grow stronger? How will the joints (and their surrounding tissues) that get abused and overused during the season ever recover? Strength training not only strengthens muscles, but the tendons and ligaments too, which helps prevent overuse injuries because the tissues are more capable of handling the competition performance.

Taking an off-season (a TRUE off season, not playing on a club team) is crucial for long-term athletic success, both in the sport of choice and life. We see a lot of baseball players and volleyball players at SAPT. We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of players with shoulder/elbow issues and (more the ladies) ACL repair surgeries. And NONE of these kids have even completed high school yet. That’s not supposed to happen. Here’s an article about the retirement of Dr. Frank Jobe, the first surgeon to perform a Tommy John surgery (reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow). The quote that stuck out to me the most was:

Jobe and John are alarmed by the numbers of 12- to 17-year-olds who are having the operation.

“It’s like an epidemic, and it’s going to grow exponentially,” John said. “These kids are rupturing the ligament. They’re playing year-round baseball.” Justin Verlander, he argued, does not pitch-year round. Why do teenagers?

“The ligament needs rest,” Jobe said.

And that doesn’t just apply to baseball players. It’s an example; apply this across the athletic spectrum to athletes who compete in year-round sports. It’s insane and as a coach, it breaks my heart to see athletes hurt and unable to compete (or function in daily life) in the sport they love. The frustrating aspect? Most of these injuries could be prevented if athletes just strength trained in the off-season with a dedicated focus on getting stronger and building an athletic foundation upon which their specific skills would only flourish (not diminish as some people are wont to think).

Worried the sport specific skills would evaporate over a “long” off-season? Fine, twice a week, work on a few specific skills, for example, lay-ups, volleyball serves, hitting (baseball)… but don’t compete. Get stronger, eat well, sleep well, and I guarantee that the next competition season will be stellar.

Looking For A Challenge? Try the Snatch Grip Deadlift

Do you think you’re rather adept in the weight room? Feel pretty strong? You approach the loaded barbell, it’s deadlifting time, oh yeah, you’re a beast at this. Suddenly, the door creaks open behind you… a slow cadence of footsteps approach (maybe there’s a jingle of spurs to add to the ominousness).

“So, *snort* you think you’re some-bod-ee huh?” says a raspy voice. “Heh, heh, heh, heh,” the voice laughs derisively.

Beads of sweat break out on your forehead and the chalk on your hands slowly starts to disappear on your sweaty palms. It can’t be. Not him. Not today…

The snatch grip deadlift.

Yes, the snatch grip deadlift, the most humbling lift to ever saunter into a weight room. O! The abhorred and feared snatch grip deadlift! The bane of lifters’ pride everywhere. Like Mad-Eye Moody, the snatch grip deadlift looks a little scary, destroys weakness with the fervor of Moody attacking Death Eaters, and will humble proud lifters by turning us into bouncing, white ferrets.

Thus, if you’re at all interested in improving athletic performance, growing stronger, and upping your Jedi Mastery, then the snatch grip deadlift (SGD) needs to be in your strength box.

Why do them?

- The SGD improves hip mobility and increases the posterior chain muscles’ (glutes and hamstrings namely) strength rapidly. The starting position of the hips in a SGD is much lower than in a conventional pull, forcing the hips lower than a conventional or sumo stance. (Hooray mobility!) The hips must go through a greater range of motion which stretches the glutes and hamstrings at the bottom thus increasing the demand on said muscles to produce force. If the initial pull off the floor in a conventional deadlift is the weak link, the SGD is an excellent tool to strengthen the hamstrings (which play a prominent role in the first few inches off the floor). *Note* if you’re hip mobility blows and you’re unable to get to the bottom position without crumpling your spine, elevate the bar to a safe height, work on your mobility, and gradually decrease the elevation.

- Due to the wide grip, it challenges the upper back musculature and increases muscle recruitment of the following: erector spinae, rhomboids, rear deltoids, and the trapezius. Fellas, if you’ve ogled Bane’s traps, the SGD is for you! Ladies, you should not shy away from a muscular and well developed back; we don’t have enough testosterone to look like Bane (though, in my head, I am the female Bane) so train hard and do not hesitate to add SGDs into your training!!

Strong backs = more pull ups

- SGDs increase vertical jump height (all the basketball and volleyball players just perked up their ears…) Wha? That’s right, a very good jumper Please note that there will be additional updates from Power charter school during roster verification. will rely hip extension, not knee extension, to grab some air. Hip extension is created by glutes and hamstrings where as the quads and calves are responsible for knee extension. As informed readers and lifters, you all know that the glutes and hamstrings are FAR MORE POWERFUL than the quads and calves, especially in jumping. Look at these two pictures.

Notice any difference? The first is knee extension dominant while the second is hip extension dominant. Olympic lifters train the SGD (since it’s part of their sport) and I think their verts are pretty good?

Hopefully by now you’re convinced that you should add SGDs to your training. Let us, therefore, speak upon the subject of form.

1. Choose a conservative weight. Anywhere from 50-70% of your max. Actually, I’d start even lower if this is the first time, but that’s your decision.

2. Set up like a conventional stance, feet somewhere around shoulder-hip width.

3. Find your grip width. Kneel by the barbell, spread out your arms. Bend 90 degrees at the elbow, and move your hands straight down. That’s your grip (or at least a good starting point. Depending on your levers, you may have to adjust). I would do this before you’re first rep just so you don’t feel funky at the top. I’d also do this when no one is watching because, as my husband pointed out, you’ll look like you’re trying to do the Robot.

4. Grab that barbell, deep breath and brace.

5. Drop hips into position. (Read Dip, grip, and rip)

5.5. (as you drop the hips) Pull shoulder blades down and together and try to bend the bar around your legs.

6. Rip that sucker off the floor. Repeat steps 1-6.

CLICK ME FOR VIDEO  (curse the lack of embedding! Yes, I know my knees are a bit wide, but I have a funky hip that won"t let me pull my knee in more.)


1. Round upper or lower back for the love of all things iron! If there’s rounding you need to either a) lower the weight or b) elevate the bar since your mobility might not be there yet.

2. Pop your hips up before lifting the weight off the ground. This movement is a sure fire way to piss off your back.

3. Rush your reps. NO BOUNCING the barbell between reps. Reset each time. Be patient, young padawan.


- Practice your set up. Load the bar up heavy enough that you know you can’t pull it off the floor. Practice your grip and dip (see, you need to read that link about gripping, dipping, and ripping….). Pull yourself into the bottom position (maintaining a neutral spine) and hold for :20-:30. Repeat 2-3 times to work on the necessary hip, ankle, and upper back mobility.

- Use a hook grip. Not at all related to Captain Hook. (an actual hook would be rather useless in this case) Here’s a picture of the hook grip:

I switched to using it for my conventional deadlifts (to great success! Your grip is much stronger like this which negates the need for a mix grip (one hand under, the other over) the heavier sets.) and the SGD can produce a funky grip and it’s nearly impossible to use a mix grip on a SGD. The hook grip takes care of that. Though, it can be rather uncomfortable near the thumb joint (until you get used to it)

So, my fellow iron lovers, has the snatch grip deadlift won over your heart?

Strength Training For Referees: The Other Side of Athletics

Lift. Heavy. Things. That's a shocker, right?

But seriously, strength training regularly is exactly what refs and umpires need to stay in tip-top shape and last through the last second of the game. Weak referees tire, fall behind, and are not a metaphoric coursing river.

The physical demands of referees, at least the ones who run around with the athletes, do not deviate much from what is required of the athletes themselves. And those judges/refs who don'trun around, you should still lift heavy things as a general rule for conquering life. The basis of all movements (including standing during a whole match) is strength. Does your back get achey towards the end of the match? Prevention lies in the iron:

Granted, as the one observing the game, instead of playing, skill practice is not necessary. Being strong is. Can I say that enough in this post? Being strong is a necessary component to all aspects of athletics (and, really, life).Thus, weight training is vital to maintaining a healthy referee.

The beauty of strength training is that it doesn't have to be complicated; consider too that since you're not on a rigorous sport schedule (i.e. practices), your training can be rather minimal while still providing the stimulus needed to gain strength.

Let's say you have 2 days a week to strength train. What do you do? I recommend a full body workout on each day. Dan John presented a framework for training programs. I love it; it’s simple, quick and easy to remember.

Hip hinge (deadlift variation, glute bridge variation or swings)

Squat variation (goblet, barbell, bodyweight)

A Pull (such as a horizontal row variation or a pull/chin up)

A Press (i.e. push-up, bench press, overhead press etc)

Loaded Carry (Farmer Walk variation)

That will hit just about everything and you needn't spend hours in the gym. Hit a total of 25-30 reps of the main movement of the day (such as a 5x5, 5x6, or 4x8 set/rep scheme) and around that same total for the other assistance work. This allow for enough volume to actually have an effect and not too much so that you're overloaded.

Or, if you have 3 days at your disposal, you might want to do a lower, upper, and total body day. Keep the total number of exercises between 4 and 6, with the same 25-30 rep goals.

On the more shallow side, out-of-shape referees tend to draw criticism and heckling. No one wants that.

I know this is a brief post, but it's very simple and I don't want to overcomplicate things. And, frankly, if you're a referee, umpire, or judge, you were probably an athlete yourself and you understand the importance of maintaining strength; I don't want to belabor the the point and insult your intelligence.

Pick up heavy things. Swing Big Bells. And do Chin Ups.