Top 5 Training Mistakes

JMC and Jason Reed recently gave me an opportunity to speak on their radio program called Fresh Set. One of the topics we hit on was common training mistakes. Let's just say that my speaking skillz could use some work.

Truly legitimate disclaimer: No matter how many mistakes this training snob wants to write about, the biggest mistake is not training at all, sitting around complaining about how you look and feel and "use-ta" be way awesome.

Nonetheless, if you're awesome enough to undertake the discipline of regular exercise, get the full pay off. Try to avoid these mistakes.

1. Failing to set specific goals.

You should be specific about a few goals, both long- and short-term. Goals like "gain muscle" and "lean out" are not going to cut it. Identify and write down realistic yet challenging goals, so you see it concrete. Make sure there's a time frame. Don't try to accomplish anything too fast or set too many goals at once.

There's nothing wrong with setting a goal to complete a 5K race or half marathon if you enjoy that sort of thing. But distance running is not the measure of all things fitness. Neither is bench press THE measure of the man.

Writing out specific goals helps you choose your training wisely. For example, no reasonably fit person is going to max out their fat loss and muscle gain at the same time. If you're fairly sturdy and strong and would like to focus on your conditioning, don't also expect to put on 10 pounds of muscle.
Goals for a wiry 20 year-old may be to attain 18 body weight chin-ups and a 28" vertical jump. If those are the goals, then don't train with a body part split routine that's tailored for a 35 year-old bodybuilder who's mostly sedentary outside of the gym.

If your goal is to lose 4 pounds per month over six months and maintain that weight at 12 months, then don't train like a marathoner. I've seen people get trapped in the cycle that you simply can't win: eating less and less and jogging longer and longer distances to sustain weight loss. There are better ways to go about this.

2. Poor exercise selection.

First off, you can and should do more than just run (or walk). In this writing I proclaimed the good news that you don't have to jog!

I'm no fan of machines for strength training. Leg press and lat pull-down machines are okay at times. Chest press when you're in a hurry. But that seated torso twists machine? I've written about the ridiculous leg outtie-inny machines here.

Free weights are best; just you and some iron and gravity. Understand that a very large portion of functional strength has to do with building a strong and efficient nervous system. That simply doesn't happen when doing hard core Nautilus seated shoulder raises or Hammer Strength leg extensions.

Skipping the three sets of 8 to 12 on 10 different strength training machines should leave you plenty of time to get well acquainted with the big lifts. Squats, dead lifts, overhead presses, horizontal presses (bench, dumbbell presses, etc.), weighted dips, rowing, and weighted chin-ups. Depending on your baseline strength, stability, and mobility, it may take you 3 or 4 months to identify what variation of these lifts are best for you, and another month or two to find your groove of good form in those lifts.

ACTUAL RESULTS from doing one dead lift!
 And yes, people get hurt jumping into the best exercises like squats, dead lifts, and heavy presses when they haven't given adequate time and careful attention to the details. Be patient and move along slowly. No, really be patient.

Some of the most unglamorous advice you will read: put the time into identifying what exercise variations are best for you and perfecting form. Maybe you simply can't squat safely, but I'm pretty sure that your knees and low back will tolerate heavy single leg squats and backward lunges off a step.

Also, a lot of isolation exercises, free weights or otherwise, are rarely a good idea. This includes ab crunches. And that thing where you do a massive drop set of bicep curls, going down the rack from heavier to lighter dumbbells? You will never see a fit and strong guy doing that.

If I could pick just one exercise that's most worthy of heckling, it's tricep kickbacks. Don't let me catch you doing them unless you can press at least 193.67 pounds overhead or do eleventeen handstand push-ups.

3. Poor frequency.

What I'm referring to here is over-doing it or under-doing it on a regular basis. People seem to be gung-ho all-out or nothing. Both work against you.

Athletes push themselves hard under the weights 2 or 3 times per week, then condition for their sport twice per week on top of games and practice. That's a lot of time and painful effort for little to no benefit. Is it any wonder that performance goes down when coaches and athletes pay no respect to recovery?

On the other hand, some folks never get around to consistent exercise because they just don't have the time. If working out means packing a bag and driving to the gym and shooting the breeze and training 3 sets of 10 on 15 different resistance training machines then doing some abs and cardio then driving home; well yeah, who has time for that?

Just about anyone can warm up and then go run (or speed walk) some intervals on a hill. It takes very little time and equipment to perform variations of squats and/or deadlifts, an upper body horizontal push and pull, and an upper body vertical push and pull.

4. Too much variation.

This refers to changing things up and beginning a new training scheme every other week. While getting stale and stuck in a training rut can also be a problem, rarely do people work too hard at a good training cycle for too long. Structured variation is absolutely called for. But please understand that "never doing the same thing twice" isn't necessarily a good thing, especially for athletes.

The term muscle confusion has been used to describe variety. Varying reps, exercises, and other training variables so that you never adapt to one thing. The bad news is that you never adapt to one thing. Muscle confusion is great if you want to be perpetually sore and never find your true limits in any performance measure. I call that chasing fatigue. Why are you getting tired and (later) sore? "Confusing" your muscles is a lot easier than challenging them head on to do 2% more/faster/higher than they did 2 weeks ago.

Again, be patient. Beginning slow and easy seems to build a "training momentum" that helps you continue to roll when things really get challenging. Schedule your routine and set your goals over months and years, not days and weeks.

5. Incompatible nutrition

I'm no nutritionist, but running two miles 3 or 4 times per week is not a license to eat like a stray animal. I've wondered how adult men can play some pretty intense basketball 2 or 3 days per week and look exactly the same year to year. I'm really not one to judge others, but they are often the ones complaining about getting heavier. On the other hand, super strict dieting and other fast weight loss tricks will come back to get you one way or another.

If you're training like a bear to gain size or strength in the middle of practices and an active life style, for heaven's sake, eat. A lot. It's much harder to put on lean (muscle) weight than it is to lose (fat) weight. If you're training hard and eating boatloads of mostly healthy food and somehow getting a big beer belly, deal with that later. Until then you need to eat to support muscle growth and not worry about getting simultaneously more ripped. Putting on some muscle always causes the body to appear more "ripped," even if you have not actually lost any (fat) weight.

6. Oh, and here's a bonus training mistake that I don't see often, but a big one nonetheless.

For heaven's sake, WHY?

Seriously get off the unstable surfaces unless you're rehabbing a significant ankle or knee injury/surgery.


High Performance Minutia

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I don't think you're nervous enough
It happened to show its own face
Search for the soulless ends
Now point him towards rest. 

      -Chevelle/Highland's Apparition

Power = Force X Velocity

There are many methods (exercises, program design, equipment, supplements, etc.) of developing a powerful body. Some of them are nearly worthless. Quite a few provide an ounce of benefit in exchange for a boatload of effort and expense. The few that deliver that tiny edge with little expense? Those are the details you want to give some attention.

A recent edition of the Strength and Conditioning Journal  contained three studies on the type of strength and conditioning minutia that I can stand behind. If you want to develop more power in training and achieve new heights in competition, get scared and have some caffeine.

Researchers noted wins and losses of high level power lifters, collecting data on various hormone levels before, during, and after competition (1). Although all competitors experienced a surge in testosterone after their events, the winners hit a higher level than the losers. It feels great to compete and to be finished, and victory is sweet.

More importantly, those with the highest cortisol levels before battling the weights demonstrated superior lifts. The ones who lifted the most were nervous, excited, on edge. There are a number of ways that elevated cortisol is thought to improve athletic performance. "Fight or flight" helps the brain, nervous system, and muscles to lift things, apparently about 2 to 3% heavier than those with less cortisol.

The second study examined the effect of caffeine on bench press performance. All subjects performed a bench press test after having either caffeine or no caffeine (on two different days). After a moderate does of caffeine, subjects completed (on average) two more repetitions in a bench press test and reported lower levels of perceived exertion.

This study adds to a long line of evidence (some of which I talked about HERE) that caffeine helps your body to move better and your mind to feel like pushing it. But don't overdo it, rock star.

The final study measured each participants vertical jump under three slightly different conditions. The conditions were 1) jump as high as you can, just jump, 2) jump for maximal height, reaching toward a target, and 3) jump as high as you can over a hurdle set near the subjects estimated peak jump height.

Subjects jumped highest when a challenging hurdle was placed in front of them. I've had suspicions on this for quite a while. In the back yard, I've made friends jump onto and over picnic tables and lawn chairs stacked on boogie boards. 

Jumping into naked air is kind of lame. Jumping toward a target is good for some motivation and feedback, but it's not the same as jumping OVER a challenging obstacle that scares and mocks you. You have to ignore any hint of fatigue and make every jump count, or else you pay a little. The result is a lot of repeated, extra high maximal effort jumps, which adds up to a killer vert.

                                                 O's ottoman jump

Forget the supplement stack, the fancy chrome exercise machinery, and the reverse undulated periodization lifting schedules. Cortisol, caffeine, and lawn chairs are your ticket to Awesometown. And rest, we all need rest.

Maybe it should have been Awesomeville. I don't know, I haven't been there myself. I was just excited to see some verification of the back yard and basement observations.

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1. The effects of training volume and competition on the salivary cortisol concentrations of olympic weightlifers. BT Crether et. al, J Strength and Conditioning Research 25(1) 10-15, 2011. 

2. The effects of caffeine ingestion on mood state and bench press performance. MJ Duncan et. al. J Strength and Conditioning Research 25(1) 178-185, 2011.

3. Kinematic and kinetic variation among three depth jump conditions in male NCAA DIII Athletes. JP Smith et. al, J Strength and Conditioning Research 25(1) 94-102. 2011.


Donkey Shoulders

Shoulders can be a bit tricky, to say the least. They're like donkeys, responding better to a smart coaxing than a kick in the ribs. The more you try to force them, the more they inflame and stubbornly resist. And don't try to sleep on one - a sore shoulder or a donkey.
I've learned to be pretty conservative with exercise and hands-on mobilization directed at the shoulder, at least for the initial visit or two. Shoulders will refuse to do their part very well until you've addressed the lay of the land around them, namely the scapula, thoracic spine, and soft tissue restrictions of nearby muscles and fascia. 

Understanding finnicky donkey shoulders (as well as many other orthopedic problems) requires a good grasp on the concept of a symptom threshold. Symptom threshold is why it's challenging (or dishonest) to say precisely why any one body part is not happy.

Many people have tears in the cartilage ring that deepens the shoulder socket (the labrum), rotator cuff tears, or other structural defects of the scapula. Many times inflammation of the involved tissue is visible when viewed under a microscope. But not all of those people have problems. Many of them function fairly well because they haven't reached the threshold of pain...


There's usually a number of factors that contribute to crossing that threshold. I've read and learned through experience that while most people manage to get by, their body is just a step or two removed from threshold.

A fall, a heavy strain, or last weekends painting project may have seriously stirred up a shoulder pain, but there are often factors that have been years in the making. Those "years in the making" issues often keep the involved tissue from healing correctly after trauma.

Shoulder... mistakes.

 A typical example of the symptomatic threshold might look something like this:

-Most people sit for a significant amount of time with their thoracic spine slumpy, their shoulder blades protracted and arms rolled in front of them (poor static posture - factor 1).

This exercise is good for physical therapists.
Do it if you want to go to rehab.
-Then don't exercise much, or they go and exercise, performing far too many pressing movements (poor exercise program selection - factor 2).

-The exercise and other movements takes place in that same kyphotic, protracted position (improper movement patterns layered on poor posture - factor 3).

-They have weak rotator cuff and upper back muscles (factor 4).

-Maybe they have a type 3 acromion. This is a slight structural issue of the shoulder blade that allows less space for the upper arm bone and shoulder tendons (factor 5).

-On top of those issues that were present all along, the person suddenly gets a "factor 6." Maybe that's a weekend golf tournament or tree pruning competition. Or maybe there's trauma, like a fall from a horse or bike.

The point is that there's some kind of heavy strain, trauma, or repetitive overuse that's simply the straw that broke the camel's back. The shoulder that had been sitting on the brink of a problem crosses the threshold, and ouch.

When it's been a few weeks and the shoulder has not recovered from factor six, you really do need to address the other factors.

Simply resting and taking some medicine will often get the shoulder back below threshold. But all it takes to get back to square one is an awkward reach, throw, or lift. The more modifiable factors that you can address with rehab and other modalities, the better chance you have of keeping that shoulder functioning how you want it to. 

That's about the best we can do. 
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weather the weather

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Lately the weather
has been so much better
and consequently so have I .          

-Reliant K

Many of my patients claim they can tell when bad weather is coming. They feel it in their joints, and I believe them. Why does bad weather seem to cause people to turn into meteorologists?

After reading some reviews like this semi-scientific look into meteorology, I imagine that grandmas knee couldn't do much worse than the local accuweather team, especially if grandma reported the forecast with charm and charisma.

"Yeah, it's going to rain tomorrow. Or maybe snow. About zero to ten inches."

Wintery mix? Is "wintery" a word? Spell check says no.

Anyway, one reasonable explanation for the achy and stiff joints has to do with barometric pressure.
Every moving joint in the body is encapsulated by a tough connective tissue called the...joint capsule (imagine that). Joint capsules add a little stability and secrete synovial fluid. Synovial fluid delivers nutrients to joint structures and helps to lubricate the spin, glide, and roll that takes place between cartilage and bone.

There's good evidence that synovial fluid responds to changes in barometric pressure, just like any other type of fluid. When the barometric pressure drops, the pressure of the synovial fluid also drops, which may cause fluid retention within and around the joint capsule. 

Under normal circumstances, a little change in the pressure and fluid content of the joints is no big deal. You don't hear many teenagers going around forecasting rainfall based on how high they can elevate their shoulders. But degenerative and inflamed joints are highly sensitive to such changes in pressure.

Change is the key word here. There has been no clear scientific connection between specific joint symptoms and barometric pressure. If anything, it's simply the change in barometric pressure, altitude, humidity, and other conditions that are thought to lead to symptoms.

In other words, moving to Florida is not going to fix arthritis, and a bad back should be able to tell when good as well as bad weather is coming. Everyone hurts more on a gray February day in the mid-Atlantic. A week in Aruba may be "medically necessary," indeed, but your synovial fluid won't be thanking you for all the change.

And if your physical therapist asks if his plan of care has left you moving better, worse, or no different, whatever you do, don't put the blame on you. Blame it on the rain. Yeah, yeah.

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