Purpose

Disclaimer: This is going to be a long, rant-y post.

Chip Conrad is like a crazy oyster fisherman. He works really hard and spends years hunting and digging for pearls, and when we approach him seeking to learn, he smiles gleefully and says here, you take it. Trying to encapsulate everything he taught us over the last week wouldn’t just be impossible, but would also be somewhat insulting. Like a great teacher, his teachings aren’t just for here and now, but are going to serve as a beacon that we keep coming back to and realising as we continue on our own journey.

The first time I came across coach Chip’s ideas was in his DVD, building a holistic athlete. It blew my mind. He had the courage and audacity to ask a really important question, something that I felt was on the tip of everyone’s tongue (every fitness/movement person I followed at least) but no one would actually spit out – can there be more to this fitness thingy than just the pursuit of purely physical and selfish motives? And from there, he opened up a can of worms and a world of possibilities. Maybe you don’t have to pick between hippy-dippy movement and flow systems and chalk-eating, shin-bleeding bigger-stronger-faster methods. Maybe it’s okay to have fun when training instead of grinding your teeth and visualising slasher flicks in your head before a set. With his trademark infectious enthusiasm, he painted a beautiful picture of what that world could be like.

Out of all the ideas that he spoke to us about, I am only going to speak about one. This idea permeates through everything he says and everything that we learnt and did at Bodytribe Fitness – purpose.

Purpose, put simply, is ‘the why’ of well.. anything. Why do we train? Why do we want to look a certain way? Why are our training sessions set up a certain way? These questions for me opened up a dialogue with myself that, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy very much. There were some harsh truths that I found myself facing. My training was mostly geared towards two things – getting better at working out, and looking good with my shirt off. And funnily enough, neither of them were things that gave me pleasure in the present – I wasn’t really enjoying the process. Basically, one of my goals gave me happiness from an end result of beating myself up and the other from an end result of improving the way other people perceived me. This wasn’t a fun epiphany.

Over the last week with coach Chip, he made me realise something that I had forgotten. ‘Play’ is awesome. We swung from bars, climbed trees, rolled around on mats and did a whole lot of movement flows. Remember how when you were a kid, you climbed this, jumped off of that, crawled under this, rolled under that and just.. moved? If that was the last time you had fun moving, isn’t there something wrong with that? And if that was so awesome, why are most of us trying to do programs that are reverse engineered from bodybuilding, powerlifting or crossfit training methods?

I’m probably never going to compete in any of those sports.. probably. So why would I train like I was?

So here are my new goals:

  • Train to be bulletproof in any environment or context
  • Train to be capable in any situation
  • Play, and train to to be able to play harder

Whether or not an exercise is ‘functional’ or not will be determined by whether or not it supports these goals.

It’s going to take me many, many years to completely understand and decipher the knowledge that coach Chip has passed on to us, but I’m super glad that Prashanti and I met him now. I think it really has given both of us a much-needed focus for our journey.

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A big thank you to everyone at Bodytribe! You guys were awesome. Special mention to Hank, Lulu, Scarlet and Doug the pug.

-Sandeep

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Do you even lift, bro?

Do what’s necessary to get you in the right positions, and then go lift heavy – that’s definitely not what I was expecting to hear someone from Cressey Sports Performance (CSP) say. Based on the information that they put up on the internet in the form of blog posts and YouTube videos, which Sandeep and I have used (both personally and with some of the folks we’ve worked with) and learnt a lot from, we weren’t really expecting to see athletes at CSP to be doing much heavy lifting. Even though we knew that the coaches there lifted heavy, since most of the information that they put up can be classified into the ‘corrective exercise’ or ‘rehab’ categories, we assumed that’s what their trainees were mostly doing.

Clearly, we couldn’t have been more wrong. One of the first things that welcomed us as we entered the gym was the fervid noise of barbells being dropped on the floor set to the background of a playlist that everybody there seemed to know the words to. The trainees were squatting and deadlifting some heavy ass weights and doing all sorts of push ups, pull ups and other difficult-looking movements. (Ever tried an oblique hold with pallof press?)

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Coach Greg Robins watched us do some front squats and with some simple cueing, changed our lives.

It smacks us real hard – there is a lot more to it than what coaches put out there in the form of articles and videos. While the internet is an awesome platform for sharing information, a lot can be lost while trying to interpret what’s put up. We realised that the information that coaches share is usually what they feel might not be easily accessible to others or are things they’ve gained through their own expertise and personal experiences. Something as straightforward, but important, as strength training is not something they need to constantly harp about.

Every move that they were doing at CSP seemed to have purpose. A squat was a squat, sure. But nobody was made to build strength and load up just for the sake of getting stronger. They were using strength training to teach their bodies to get into good positions, and produce force from there. For example, just like how the trainees understood why they were foam rolling or spending time stretching or activating a particular muscle, they also knew that they had to be able to push off the floor and pull a heavy load in order to learn to produce force and transfer it to something like a jump.

Another thing that struck us was how everyone at CSP was crystal clear about the role they play – they are the ‘strength and conditioning guys’. While their average trainee is a specialised athlete, they realise that they aren’t <insert sport> coaches. On the other hand, they are also aware of the fact that they aren’t physical therapists. They are constantly trying to help their trainees move better, but aren’t ‘fixing’ anyone.

CSP intern Eric Temple was awesome!

CSP intern Eric Temple was awesome!

Bottom line – making sure that we put our bodies in the right positions is critical for safety and optimal force production, and strength should never be built over dysfunction, as the popular saying goes. But there is no purpose to constantly working toward getting into better positions and moving better without really getting anywhere on the strength curve. Strength training reinforces good movement patterns and can be ‘corrective’ by itself, if done right.

We understood the massive difference between ‘corrective work’ and good old ‘coach’s eye’.

And since we’re on the topic of folks lifting heavy stuff at CSP, here’s Sandeep hitting a PR of 355 pounds on the deadlift on our first day there! Maybe it had a little something to do with the fact that Tony G was training in the same room as we were!

-Prashanti

Lessons from Chad Wesley Smith

Sandeep and I attended an all day powerlifting clinic by Chad Wesley Smith of Juggernaut Training Systems today. Below are some of my notes from his presentation and advice between lifts. Its important to keep in mind that these are points that can easily be taken out of context or misinterpreted, and that the below information is purely my personal interpretation of some of the larger concepts that coach Chad touched upon. There was probably a whole lot more that preceded or followed most points, and the Juggernaut website is a great place to go to if you’re looking to fill in the missing links.

  • Chad does/did a lot of volume work to get his muscles big. Mass moves mass.
  • Determine where you are on the pyramid of strength. The lesser experienced you are, the more you are going to benefit from general training for longer. The more experienced and advanced you are, especially if you compete, the more specific your training needs to be.
  • Build that upper back. Do a lot of pulls – horizontal and vertical. If your scapulae don’t move on the pulling movements, they don’t count.
  • Accessory lifts should be aimed at fixing weaknesses. Don’t try to PR on your accessory lifts. Work at an RPE of 8, and always have one more left in the tank. If you can’t justify why you’re doing a particular accessory move, you shouldn’t be doing it.
  • Make all your lifts. Do submaximal lifts and gain confidence under the bar.
  • When setting up for a lift, think about pushing your obliques out, by breathing through 360 degrees. Setting up for a lift should be uncomfortable. “Your head should pop off or you should poop your pants.”
  • Lesser experienced lifters should train at higher intensities more often. This is because a beginner’s highest intensity is still not high enough in an absolute context and the goal here is to gain more experience with high intensity training. New lifters can also get away with higher intensity training because recovering from a 400 pound lift will always be easier than recovering from a 900-pound lift.
  • Its always better to deload before you know that you need it. Either reduce intensity by 60% and keep volume where it is or vice versa. If you’re feeling too beat up, reduce both by 60%. Do not sit on your ass. Do not introduce any new stimuli (New exercises, for example).
  • Early specialisation of youth athletics is an epidemic and should not be encouraged.
  • Think of the deadlift as a vertical jump. Push off the floor and jump up and back. Maintain lat tension throughout – “protect your armpits”.
  • Good technique allows you to express strength the best.
  • If your deadlifts fail because of poor grip strength, hold every last rep of every set at the top for 10 seconds. Load 50% of 1RM and do timed holds for 20 – 30 seconds.
  • Be process-oriented instead of focusing on long-term goals. Enjoy the process.

-Prashanti

Lifts like Jane

Like most 50 something women, she got herself a gym membership so that she could get in better shape, look less flabby and better in a dress. Twelve years later, at 62, Jane Stabile’s intentions haven taken a tangent – “Wanting to be in a lower weight class is a much better motivation to lose some fat rather than looking good in a dress,” says the powerlifter, who has broken several world records.

As we chat at Total Performance Sports, where she currently works as their business manager, Jane explains to me how she’s spent most of her adult life as a non-athlete, with barely any physical activity.

Her first trainer quickly realised that she was one of the stronger trainees that he had worked with, and taught her the squat, deadlift and bench press. “Lifting heavy things appealed to me,” she says casually, “But I can’t catch a ball. I’m not good at other sports.”

Since her trainer wasn’t a powerlifter himself, learn the lifts is all she could do at that point. She then found another gym in Maine where her strength was put to good use – she was trained by two powerlifters and attended her first two powerlifting meets. “It was at my second meet that I heard about Murph, and I’ve been coached by him since,” she says.

Powerlifting is a strength sport, where athletes have three attempts at lifting maximal weight on three big lifts – the squat, bench press and deadlift. In the last 10 plus years that she’s been lifting, Jane has set and broken quite a few world records in the 67.5 kg, 75 and 82.5 kg weight classes in her age category. To put things in perspective, she can squat 402 pounds (182 kgs), deadlift 375 pounds (170 kgs) and bench over 200 pounds.

Recalling her first world record as one of the most exciting memory in her lifting career, Jane talks about her final attempt on the deadlift. “I felt really good and wanted to go up in weight by a little on my last lift.” Her friend pointed out that she was only 5 pounds away from a world record and urged her to add those extra two tiny plates to the bar. After some hesitation, she went at it and a world record of 170 kgs was set, “It came up, and wasn’t even that hard!”

With lifting as much weight as she does at her age, concerns about safety, joint health and what not, are bound to arise. Jane, who has never suffered even a single injury so far, puts it simply, “Powerlifting badly is not safe for your joints. Squatting properly is a lot safer for your knees than not squatting at all.”

But surely she must take some extra precautions when it comes to recovery. Does she go through measures like contrast showers? “I don’t want to suffer!”, she laughs. “I just spend a lot of time in the bath tub.” Take a long bath after a hard deadlift workout is her straightforward advice.

Sandeep and I had the privilege of watching two of Jane’s training sessions – one squat and one bench press – as she preps for a meet later in April. Earlier that day, Jane broke into her new bench press shirt and hit some heavy singles, and finished off her training session with some dumbbell rows and band-assisted pull ups. Clearly a lot more collected about her awesome training session that one would expect, Jane says that the best thing that she likes about powerlifting is that everyone is always cheering for everyone, even competitors. “Its an unusual sport,” she says. While she admits that she always loves seeing her records being broken, her competitive streak kicks in and she is quick to add, “As long as I can keep making the records, the younger ones can come and eat them up.”

Speaking from experience, she says, “Don’t worry about how people perceive you as a woman. Just go out there and lift.”

I’ve always whined about how I started lifting a little too late at 24 and that I missed the opportunity of ever being able to be a competitive lifter and doing well at it. I guess I won’t ever be doing that again.

-Prashanti

 

 

 

Home of Boston’s Strongest

Loud death metal blares through the speakers. The air smells of iron. A giant one-eyed bulldog stares at me. The largest people I have ever seen are lifting barbells loaded up with what looks like the weight of a small car or a full grown cow. The entire floor is literally shaking from people on the weightlifting and deadlift platforms. This is Total Performance Sports, the baddest gym I have ever seen with my own eyes.

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Despite looking and being as badass as it is, it isn’t intimidating at all. All the coaches are incredibly nice and are very approachable.

The first day, we showed up with no real agenda, hoping to get a fly-on-the-wall experience of a powerlifting gym, but what we got was so much more. We watched the coaches get in their workouts post lunch. It is lower body day.

All preconceptions of ‘heavy’ and ‘hard’ are shattered.

After that, Coach Russ Smith (the nicest man I’ve ever met) spends all afternoon with us. He explains his workout to us and walks us through some of the awesome equipment at TPS. The gym is stocked with top-end equipment from Westside Barbell and EliteFTS. We try out the belt squat machine (best-machine-evarr!), the reverse hyper machine and the sleds.

He also changes my life by cueing me on maintaining a neutral spine. And later that day, he runs their ‘Gutts and Butts’ class for just one person – me. Due to the crazy weather outside, no one else showed up.

The next day, I get to workout with coach Kevin Cann, the only person at TPS who doesn’t seem to weigh over 200 pounds or make the floor tremble as he walks. The workout is power cleans and squats (never say back squats). We finish up with some single leg circuits.  That evening, I get to watch the TPS Method class, a semi-personal training class aimed at regular folks who want to get in awesome shape. The class is pretty packed, and about 20 people show up early and start warming up. The pace of the class is tight, quick and controlled. The culture at TPS is reflected in every aspect of this class. All trainees have their own workout logs, everybody watches everyone else’s sets and while there is enough time to rest, there is no real down time.

The next day is our last day there, and we show up early to sit down with coach Kevin. He patiently answers all our questions about programming, nutrition and the running of a gym like TPS. We then watch the coaches get in their afternoon workout. Later, coach Russ takes the time to coach us again, me on the OH press and Prashanti on the back squat. Coach Russ is an amazing coach and teaches us everything we need to know to adapt these moves to the population that we’re going to work with.

That evening we watch their 5-3-1 group class coached by coaches Russ and Chuck. It’s a packed class, and it’s awesome to see that there are more women than men.

The few days that we spent at TPS have made such an indelible mark on us and have definitely set a tone for this trip. The culture is so thick in the air here that it’s impossible to miss it. From the signs on the walls to the cold, well-used barbells and plates, everything screams purpose and function in the service of strength. If you want to get stronger, TPS will embrace you. This is definitely a big part of what we’re going to take back with us.

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And it’s convinced Prashanti to compete in powerlifting when we go back home.

A big thanks to coaches Murph, Russ, Kevin and Phil, Jane (who Prashanti will introduce in the next post), Tarik and Anthony at the front desk and everyone else that we ran into!

– Sandeep