Perform Better Series – The Boyle System

The entire trip was planned around one thing – meeting coach Dan John. I checked his schedule in November last year and when we found out that he was going to be presenting at Perform Better‘s one-day seminar in Boston in March, we put that on our calender and planned pretty much everything around that day. Now all we needed were start and end dates.

With coach Mike Boyle

With coach Mike Boyle

We used coach Mike Boyle’s Certified Functional Strength Coach (CFSC) certification as the start point and coach Martin Rooney’s Training for Warriors certification as the end date (which didn’t exactly work out because we added coach David Dellanave to the end, but you get the idea).

The Perform Better seminar was awesome because not only was Dan John presenting, but so were Mike Boyle and Martin Rooney, along with coach Nick Winkelman of EXOS.

The seminar felt like a review of the Boyle certification and a preview to our weekend with coach Rooney. We learnt some great new ideas on coaching from coach Winkelman. It was just something else to meet Dan John.

Perform Better is where I like to window shop the most these days. Its an organisation that not only sells top-notch fitness equipment, but also resources in the form of books and DVDs. They are particularly known for their seminars and conferences that have proven to be opportunities of learning and networking for folks in the fitness industry world over. Since we have none happening back home, it was important that we include at least one of these as part of our trip, to experience what it feels like to learn from many great minds at the same time.

Since we learnt so much from each one of the presenters, I think they deserve their own individual blog posts.

This one is the coach Boyle instalment.

Some of the information that coach Boyle covered in his presentation was part of our CFSC, and apart from reinforcing what we had already learned, a lot of the new information that he was throwing at us at the seminar helped tie some loose ends and answer some questions that had cropped up since the seminar.

With Kevin Larrabee

With Kevin Larrabee

Our certification was run by Kevin Carr, Marco Sanchez and Kevin Larrabee (All of whom are awesome!). So this meant we didn’t really get to meet coach Boyle until the seminar, so that was pretty exciting. His presentation walked us through the system that they have developed and been successfully implementing over the years at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning.

With Kevin Carr and Marco Sanchez

With Kevin Carr and Marco Sanchez

The system is both straightforward and genius – everyone foam rolls, everyone does a dynamic warm up/ activation, some form of power work followed by strength work and finish with some sort of conditioning depending on who and when. Moves are classified into categories, and there are progressions and regressions. Why its genius and how its applied in practice is what we learnt about in detail at the certification, and there’s no way I’m going to give it away, but I do highly recommend the cert.

Coach Boyle threw numerous knowledge bombs at us at the seminar and below are some of them that stuck with me:

  • If your athlete isn’t foam rolling and stretching, you are already five steps behind. Roll first and then stretch.
  • Progressions make things harder, regressions make things BETTER, not easier.
  • When someone can hold a plank for 30 seconds or more, move on to the next progression. Think levers.
  • ‘Anti’ is the key word in core training. Core muscles prevent extension, and DOES NOT help bring the ribs to the pelvis.
  • When it comes to muscle tone, kids are like filet mignon while adults are beef jerky. Take this into account when programming the power components for someone.
  • Always focus on developing eccentric strength.
  • Don’t worry about designing the perfect programme. Design an ‘ideal’ programme. Its a recipe and not a menu. The end result should make sense.
  • Its more important to correct asymmetry than to create symmetry.
  • There can be multiple reasons for picking unilateral lifts over bilateral, but the concept of bilateral deficit is the most pertinent – the combined total (of weight lifted) of right plus left is more than right and left.
  • The key to success in this field – rip off other smart people. But – be smart enough to know when you’re wrong.

-Prashanti

Finding your own path with Cameron Pratto

So far, our journey has been fairly predictable. We visited and learnt from legends in the field of strength and conditioning such as Mike Boyle and the folks at Cressey Sports Performance, giants in the powerlifting game like coaches Murph and Russ at TPS, as well as Juggernaut’s Chad Wesley Smith, Olympic lifting from the fantastic coaches at Catalyst Athletics and a little bit of everything from Coach Conrad at Bodytribe. The common thread between most of these coaches is that they were true strength folk. They loved the barbell, loved iron and the smell of chalk in the morning.

There’s always been another side to the equation that’s not been as well explored in recent history as the iron game. Since the beginning of time, a lot of training systems have formed around moving our bodies in space. Some built around using leverage in pursuit of mastery of our own body weight and some to effectively navigate and traverse our environment. Gymnastics, parkour and MovNat are some of the incarnations of this kind of training. During this trip, we wanted to visit someone who committed himself to mastering this side of physical culture. We found that in coach Cameron Pratto, one of the founders of Urban Movement.

Where the strength world has rules and patterns that appear strict and sure, the movement realm seems to be much more aligned with the right side of the brain. There is creativity, artistry and room for intuition. With a beautifully minimalist tell-show-do coaching style, coach Pratto walked me and Prashanti through two personal classes where we explored a movement-first approach to training.

Like a ___ stone

Like a ___ stone

The biggest problem with parkour as a training method seems to be it’s lack of scalability to a group class. Skilled parkour coaches are few and far in between, and because it is such a fledgling training method, few coaches are experienced and educated enough to coach it to a group without fear of injury and with emphasis on individualized progression.

With coach Pratto, training primarily takes place through the mastery of individual skills and then incorporating those skills into movement combos or courses. He is a firm believer in letting trainees figure out their own style and their own paths, and only interfering if there is a significant inefficiency or potential for injury. He believes that this minimalist coaching style allows a trainee to figure out the answer to these environmental movement puzzles themselves, and this enhances retention of those skills, rather than him feeding them the answers.

The first day, our class took place outdoors, where we worked on underbar, wall-running and climbing techniques, as well as various quadrupedie techniques that acted as the first few variations to work towards hand balancing and handstand techniques. Coach Pratto speaks to us about how he would deal with such a session if it was a group class, giving us examples of how classes are divided into groups of more experienced and less experienced practitioners. It is a parkour class though, so he doesn’t face too many folks who are so far out of shape that he needs to work with them personally on basic movement patterns before having them tackle their environment.

The second day, we visited the indoor space that Urban Movement shares with another gym. This is where they get even more creative due to the safer environment and the ability to manipulate the space. They’ve built some incredibly cool climbing frames that you can pull apart and set up using some easy-to-remove joints. It’s like playing in a giant set of tinker toys. He shows us the vault boxes and the variety of two-by-fours that they’ve assembled to have clients work on balancing and low-gait movements before advancing to the elevated movements that are usually associated with Parkour. In this safe environment (because everything is padded), he coaches us through some basic balancing and rolling drills.

I’ve always been fascinated with parkour. In a world like ours that encourages us not to interact with our environments and being passive observers, parkour is a big part of the key to restoring a connect that we once had. Coach Cameron Pratto opened a window of possibilities for us into that world. Climbing through it, is up to us.

– Sandeep

Where they finally spoke in kilos

Even though I’m highly competitive, I don’t enjoy all kinds of competition. I gravitate towards and tend to be better at the kind where I don’t have to work with a team and am only representing myself. After sprinting, strength sports have appealed to me the most in that regard, and the explosive, competitive nature of Olympic weightlifting in particular has fascinated me. 

Weightlifting consists of two lifts – the snatch and the clean and jerk. In the snatch, the lifter has to take the barbell from the floor to overhead in a single movement, and in the clean and jerk, from the floor to the shoulder and then overhead.

Since they’re highly technical, there is a lot that can go wrong from not doing the lifts right, and since I had no interest in spending a whole lot of time in undoing bad technique, I decided not to dabble in it until I had the chance to formally get coached in the lifts. I stuck to watching videos and studying about the lifts, apart from the occasional attempts at figuring them out.
 
This past weekend, Sandeep and I attended a two-day seminar coached by Kara Doherty and Blake Barnes, both of whom are part of the popular weightlifting gym Catalyst Athletics. A big fan of coach Greg Everett who runs Catalyst, I was really excited about finally getting the chance to properly learn the lifts from experienced coaches. What was perfect about the seminar was that not only did we learn how to do the lifts ourselves, but also how we could teach them to others. 
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Kara and Blake were awesome coaches

 
From being super scared of ever trying a snatch or clean from the floor (I always stuck to the hang version) and receiving it in a proper squat (I only did power cleans and snatches), I finished the weekend with a not-so-heavy-but-pretty-decent snatch and a bodyweight clean. 
 
When I think about it, more than the fact that I had two awesome coaches working with me, it was due to the emphasis that they laid on progressions and regressions that really enabled me to get comfortable with and understand the lifts. They broke down each move into multiple steps and it always at least took us at least four levels of regressions before even actually attempting the main lift. I’m going to interpret and refer to these lifts as regressions and progressions, while folks from Catalyst prefer considering them as ‘variations’.
 
I’ve roughly summarised below the progressions that we worked with for the snatch, and why we did each exercise. A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches by Greg Everett is a great place to go to for further reference and regressions to the clean and jerk. An even better idea would be to find a coach who knows what he/she is talking about. 
 
The Snatch Balance Series:
  • Overhead (OH) squat – A big lesson for me on the OH squat was maintaining a relaxed wrist position on the OH position. When I say relaxed, I don’t necessarily mean loose and dangly. By not keeping the wrists tight, you are able to maintain the bar in a much more stable position (just past the center of the forearm). I was also taught that one doesn’t generally maintain the hook grip in the OH position. 
  • Pressing snatch balance – By keeping the bar on your shoulder like in a back squat, you get under the bar into a squat, while pressing the bar OH. This is a slower, more controlled regression where you gain confidence in getting under the bar.
  • Drop snatch – Add some speed and an aggressive elbow lockout to the snatch balance press for this move. This move teaches you to reinforce speed and maintain technique through transitioning to the bottom of the squat. 
  • Heaving snatch balance – With just a dip, the lifter is forced to get under the bar without moving his/her feet. Their ability to maintain contact with the bar and generate force against it is tested and improved upon in this lift.
  • Snatch balance – Only after multiple goes at this move was I able to consistently hit the same receiving position at the bottom of the squat, without compromising on speed. 
From here, we went on to do multiple progressions to do a snatch from the mid hang position (mid-thigh), progressions to the snatch from the floor and finally the snatch. 
 
By the time we got to the heaving snatch balance, not only was I super comfortable with each of my positions, but I also knew exactly knew what my issues were. This meant that when I finally did the snatch, I mentally calm and focused, even though I had a mental check list of everything that I needed to focus on, I wasn’t freaking out. 
In all, it took us about 12 steps, multiple callouses, torn shins and an entire day before we even attempted the snatch. And this was because it was a seminar, where the intention was for them to teach us as much as they could in a short amount of time. In a real life training situation, while some folks might skip some or all of these steps, some might spend weeks or even months on just working on these before getting to the main lift. Some others might use them in their warm up.
Lesson learnt – A good way to learn a lift is to do it correctly over and over again. A better way would be to understand its intricacies, break it down accordingly and progress your way up to the lift.   
Dutch Lowy runs BlackBox, the gym that hosted the seminar. He was also in 2 CrossFit Games!

Dutch Lowy runs BlackBox, the gym that hosted the seminar. He was also in 2 CrossFit Games!

 
-Prashanti

Ultimate athleticism with coach Shank

As we landed in San Diego, I thought about how we almost didn’t do this part of our trip. The plan was initially to go straight from San Francisco CrossFit to my sister’s place in Austin, TX. Coach Max Shank was a last minute addition to our epic pilgrimage. Although he’s been around for a long time, he does seem to keep a somewhat low profile on the fitness interwebz. But when his awesome book ‘Ultimate Athleticism’ came out, he seemed to be everywhere. I came across him when I read his guest post on Tony Gentilcore’s blog, and I had this faint feeling that I had seen him somewhere. And then it hit me. He was this guy:

Shank-onearmhs

He was that crazy model for the photos in Convict Conditioning. The book was filled with pictures that made me go, ‘No way. Definitely Photoshop!’ in my head, and this was definitely the worst offender. A one-arm handstand push-up.  I’m pretty sure that this is a feat that less than 1% of human beings on the planet are capable of doing.

What made it even more nuts was that coach Shank openly admits that when he was 18, he couldn’t bench 95 lbs or do a single chin up. It made me realise the magnitude of focussed, methodical and intelligent work that had been consistently applied over 10 years. This was no accident. Coach Shank was a seriously smart dude, and we had to visit him.

Visiting him at his gym, Ambition Athletics, in the city of Encinitas near San Diego, we were not disappointed. Coach Shank is.. ahem.. a little smaller than he looks in the photos and videos. But he’s built like a pitbull. He looks like he could crush my chicken neck with his pinky.

The plan was to spend an hour with him personally to learn about his training, programming and how he runs a fitness business, and then jumping in to one of their group classes after so we could experience the magic first hand.

Coach Shank is a big proponent of Bruce Lee’s minimalist teachings, and it shows in everything he says to us. His speech is lucid and he seems to have incredible clarity of thought. We hang on to every single word he says and frantically take notes as he explains to us how he organises the different classes at Ambition Athletics and how he programs for them.

His focus for himself and his clients seems to mostly be skill-strength acquisition. They spend a lot of time in the 1-5 rep range and work at a high levels of relative intensity. This combined with his absolutely genius 80% rule (terminate the set when you need to work at more than 80% effort level), seems to produce an uncommon level of strength that is scale-able to a group class.

Another big part of his programming seems to be the mobility work that he incorporates into almost every aspect of the class. Coach Shank is Functional Movement Screen and Z-Health Performance certified and has come up with/made popular again some really cool mobility drills. His thoracic bridge and medial nerve flossing videos have changed my life and resolved neck and upper back pain that I’ve been suffering with since my computer gaming days.

After the private session with him, we workout with the noon group class folks. Our coach is Holly Mersy, whose journey in the fitness industry sounds real similar to our own. She started off as coach Shank’s first intern and then worked her way up to a coaching position. Although the class is pretty big and consists of folks of very different fitness levels, she handles it really well all by herself. It’s a really fun class and a great training environment.

The brief time that we spent with coach Shank was incredibly educational, and we’re really glad we didn’t miss out on the opportunity.

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– Sandeep

‘Starr’struck at SFCF!

Many months ago, when there was no real plan in place, and Sandeep and I were still just talking about going on this trip, coach Arvind Ashok told me that I should definitely visit San Francisco CrossFit and that it was the kind of the gym that I would love to train at. I took him very seriously, and told Sandeep that we HAVE to go, and last week, we did.

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It was incredibly coincidental that the first CrossFit Open workout was announced the same week that we were there, and obviously, I HAD to do it for the fun of it.

The workout didn’t sound too intimidating, especially because I had the option of doing the scaled version. This was important for me personally because I suck at doing the kip, and 15 toes to bar over multiple rounds wasn’t particularly encouraging. I ended up doing a partly scaled version, so my workout ended up looking like this:

AMRAP in 9 minutes:

  • 15 knees to elbows
  • 10 deadlifts with 75 pounds
  • 5 snatches with 65 pounds
    (Yes, I used 2 bars)

Followed by:

1 rep max clean and jerk (Time cap – 6 minutes)

But despite the modifications to the original workout, I had no confidence going into it for two reasons. Firstly, it was a new atmosphere with new people and I’m easily intimidated. More importantly and relevant to this situation, I am quite inexperienced with most moves in the workout except the deadlift and maybe the (push) jerk.

I was in wave two of the group doing it with me, so this meant folks who completed the workout first provided various tips – definitely do a “full clean” and remember to switch grip on the deadlifts were the two that came about the most. I didn’t do either – I did hang cleans and ended up using the hook grip on my deadlifts. Like for everyone else, the deadlifts felt like active recovery between the other two moves, and the snatches were what trumped me the most.

I ended up with a total of 6 rounds and a little more and in 15.1a, I managed to clean close to bodyweight (105 pounds), but failed on the jerk. I successfully cleaned and jerked 95 pounds.

Lessons learnt from doing the workout:

  • CrossFit is crazy. I absolutely love it.
  • Technique trumps brute strength
  • I need to wear pants or some sort of shin guards when I deadlift.

To be honest, I learnt a lot more earlier that week when I had the opportunity to take coach Diane Fu‘s Strength and Conditioning class twice. The first workout was fairly straightforward. Seven rounds of 3 hang snatch singles, each from 3 different positions – the hips, above the knees and from the floor. This was to be followed by 3 sets of 10 reps of (2-inch) deficit snatch grip deadlifts.

We were doing the 7 sets of 3 singles so that we could understand how to and get better at being able to maintain consistent positions throughout the movement. This especially helped me because one of the biggest things I’ve been struggling with is ‘jumping’ when the bar crosses the hips on all my lifts, and I have the tendency to jump too soon on most. She also coached us to always look straight ahead at the horizon at an ‘immovable’ object because most of us had the glaring tendency of looking down because “we were thinking about what we wanted to do” with the lift. On the deficit deadlifts, the idea was for us to load our legs for longer than on a regular deadlift.

The second workout we did was 3 front squats followed by a jerk (going into it from the 3rd squat). When we got to a point when we were unable to take the load overhead, we worked up to a heavy set of triples. Immediately after each set, we did 5 box jumps and the goal was to jump as ‘vertically’ as we could. The idea here was to see if we were able to effectively and efficiently generate power after our heavy set of squats.

What was interesting about both workouts for me was how she had programmed it in such a way that she challenged performance and our ability to maintain technique when fatigued.

One of the highlights was definitely us getting generously coached by K-Star. He fixed both mine and Sandeep’s front rack positions. He picked on our compensations and physically moulded us into where he wanted our wrist and elbows to be. Initially, I was quite annoyed at how alien this new rack position felt, but as I did a few sets, I realised that all he had done is reinforce my shoulders to be in an externally rotated position and I ended up feeling a whole lot more stable.

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We were initially to do an assessment, spend a whole lot of time and money on introductory sessions since we’ve never done CrossFit before and all that jazz before we could take part in any of the classes. But K-Star took one look at me and waived all that stuff. He did make me a fair deal – I’d have to buy everyone at the gym beers if I ended up moving terribly, and I’d be immediately kicked out of class.

I guess I lost my only potential chance at getting a drink with K-Star.

-Prashanti