(R)Evolutionary Training Principles!

I thought the title sounded interesting. Honestly, I’m not sure there is anything I’ve got to say about training that is actually revolutionary…but maybe. Today’s commentary is going to focus on the word evolution as it pertains to training. Evolution in the field of biomechanics. Evolution in my own thinking and programming. Evolution in all of our athletic bodies. Possibly more subtopics as well.

Where evolution becomes revolution is when our thinking about training evolves to a point of understanding that seems to be extremely effective and almost magical. It makes sense. We often muse “Why didn’t I (or we) think of that before?” And so it goes. There are several areas I’ve seen in my study and work with clients that will be fun to discuss and also potential enhancements (if not total gamechangers) in your own training.

Recovery is a powerful word. By definition it can certainly be interchanged with the word “rest.” However, I try to keep those separate most of the time. I refer to rests as the breaks we take during exercise or interval sessions. But I look at recovery as the restorative process which occurs between workouts. Recovery is more than just the passage of time, it’s the end result of many factors which include sleep, nutrition, passive modalities, and light training – to name a few.

Recovery is interesting to me because I continue to run into it being applied suboptimally by many individuals and programs. We are generally a culture that loves, craves, and are often slaves…to a schedule. This is very societally driven. Many athletes I know, and some that I coach, are so schedule-oriented that they pay very little attention to recovery. Most of these folks generally don’t achieve peak performances (at least for very long or up to their highest potential) and they tend to get sick or injured more often than those who recover optimally. 

One side of the recovery challenge is in program design, or the holy training schedule. If it’s working, great…but if it’s not it should be changed. This is way easier said than done with a lot of people. But better workout crafting, and recovery planning, is needed in most cases. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with your own system, or getting one off the internet, but tweaking it to the ideal structure is master-stuff. Sometimes a coach or trainer is invaluable here. Getting the dose-response relationship right, or that Goldilocks point in which key workouts provide enough but not too much stimulus, is key.

Then there is the recovery window side of the equation. How long do you go between “fitness maker” workouts and what exactly do you do in the interim? A little flexibility is good here and that is hard for the rigid schedule thinkers. I’m not saying we go willy-nilly or loosey-goosey all the time, just that being dynamic both in and between big workouts is really the secret sauce. These days we have available a lot of tech that can give us feedback, such as heart rate variability (HRV) and other means. These can have value but I don’t think they really get the job done with recovery, because they are largely extrinsic data. In other words, it’s a device telling you how you are feeling…not you instinctively assessing your recovery, training or competition readiness level, and overall health status. Sooo many times I have seen athletes have MAJOR breakthroughs when they (or we) figured out their personal output mixology.

Breathing gets talked about a lot these days and it’s indeed critical in health and performance. Sure, on one level, everybody breathes until the end, but I’m amazed at the volume of athletes (some fairly high-performing) who are unaware of the power of breathing, and who are missing out on its benefits. Breathing is tied to mechanics and physiology. We can pair inhalation with expansion and improve mobility. Breath holding and exhalation can increase compression and force output. Breathing will rapidly affect the autonomic nervous system and allow us to harness both parasympathetic and sympathetic states. I’ve seen many people become more proficient with breathing and improve their range of motion, strength, athletic skill, and health. 

As I’ve evolved from my entry into the field in the 80’s (oh I so loved that decade), I’ve learned to incorporate more information and actual practice on breathing techniques into my programming. Without getting specific here, if you learn a few simple tools and practices with your breathing, and integrate it into your training…you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Pressing movements are the pushing patterns with which we are all familiar. These include bench and overhead presses, pushups, pressdowns, and the like. In the upper body, these will focus on and develop the pecs, delts, and triceps, as well as multiple stabilizers. Pressing movements tend to require and develop a higher amount of stabilization contraction around a joint and they have both functional and athletic benefits. But they can also create higher degrees of shear (combination of compression and translation) force across joint surfaces. They can be less joint-friendly than most pulling motions in the presence of mobility loss, joint degeneration or arthritic change. 

None of those things mean that we should avoid pressing movements. I’m very careful with the use of the terms always and never. Exercise selection should be context-dependent and athlete-specific. Every Lifetime Athlete benefits from having some proficiency in a pushing pattern. However, many times we can make these movements more effective, as well as safe and comfortable, by making a few modifications. This is true with any exercise, but perhaps particularly so with pressing. 

First of all, as in most cases, if an athlete has a deficiency in movement variability and pattern access, we might look at certain corrective exercises, breathing methods, manual techniques, etc. to restore “normalcy.” However, this is not always possible in the presence of certain injuries or anatomical features, and we must accommodate what we can’t correct. Lightening load, using less than “full” range of motion, changing body position, and employing protected planes to the exercise are often very effective. I also like to use isometrics and oscillatory reps with these movements. As a classic example, many people will find a heavy barbell overhead press to be uncomfortable, or even practically impossible to perform with good form. Moving to a unilateral kettlebell press that employs triplanar (as opposed to fixed sagittal plane) motion can give many people access to the pattern. 

Squatting is a central theme in almost every conditioning program. And perhaps it should be. It’s been called the “king of all exercises” for good reason. But how you do that squat has many, many options. Selecting the ones that fit you best is really important. I like to think of the squat as the way we get our bodies up and down against gravity. I differentiate this from the hinge by viewing the deadlift as the tool we use to lift and carry objects. Obviously there is crossover, both are great and necessary…but I want to focus mainly on the squat in this portion of the discussion. 

I’ll typically train the squat in two ways with most clients. We’ll find variations that allow them to squat for mobility, approaching full range of motion, and preserving efficient pattern access. We’ll also use the squat loaded more heavily for overall strength, propulsive force capacity, and an anabolic stimulus. The trick is in setting up the movements appropriately. 

Although the choices are many, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that a front-loaded, heels-elevated squat with a light weight works for a lot of people in getting good form and full range (or closer to it). The board or ramp decreases ankle dorsiflexion demand and allows for that more vertical, “squatty” squat that is often talked about. Front-loading provides a counterbalance that helps to pull the center of gravity forward. Going light keeps the emphasis on mobility. I’ll usually find that a kettlebell goblet hold is easier than a barbell front rack position unless the athlete is a very experienced (and with high shoulder mobility) lifter. In many situations we can lower or remove the heel elevation over time. 

On the strength side of the squatting equation, my go-to is usually a (relatively) heavy barbell back squat, preferring high bar placement across the scapular spines rather than a low bar technique. In a power rack, I’ll usually set pins or use chains as a safety limit for range at the bottom of the motion. Whether the athlete squats freely, or to a box or bench doesn’t matter. I also really don’t care if the motion is a little “hingy” as long as that’s not excessive. Suggested depth of squat varies here. Unless we are dealing with an Olympic lifter who actually must bounce out of rock bottom, I’ll vary the depth between ¾ (below parallel) to as little as ¼ ROM. If it’s a slow grind…we’ll go fairly deep. If we are more interested in speed/power (to the extent that such a lift can address), we might be more explosive, changing up tempos through a shorter range.

None of that stuff is overly evolutionary, and certainly not revolutionary. But here is what I think might be. Experiment with a (slightly) asymmetric stance. Most of us have a small amount of asymmetry in the hips and pelvis (as well as other areas) and locking into a perfectly symmetrical, bilateral, sagittal plane stance can limit mobility in the squat. It can put more stress on your hips or back by forcing you to grind against boney blocks and conform to a preconceived notion of ideal. A slight change in forward-backward, and usually outward, foot placement can be amazing in how it improves your squat. I’m not talking about turning it into a split stance or lunge pattern (they are great also just not the focus of discussion here)…just a skosh. 

Without going really deep into a biomechanics rabbit hole, we have some natural asymmetry in our thoracic diaphragm that usually drives this phenomenon. That big liver on the right is sort of “pushing up” from underneath and the big heart on the left is kinda “pushing down” from above. Our guts are squished to the right and we usually end up with more weight on the back of the right foot in bilateral standing. Left pelvis is a little forward, anteriorly-tilted and unweighted. If we didn’t correct this, we’d continually be veering to the right as we moved. The body compensates by rotating the torso to the left to keep the eyes-head-shoulders squared forward. This compromises squat mobility on the left side and can lead to hip shifting during the exercise or other compensatory movements. For many people, just moving the left foot a small amount back and toed-out can provide more hip internal rotation during the squat and unlock better exercise performance. You’ll have to experiment here, but uncoupling that pelvis during your descents and ascents might be totally worthwhile.

Loaded backpack training is a phenomenal way to increase fitness. The cool way to describe it these days is to call it “rucking!” Of course I say “what the ruck!” All jokes aside, I’m using this with more athletes these days. Rucking has long been a part of the conditioning programs I design for backcountry hunters and mountain athletes, and it’s a key component in my online course Fit for the Field. But loaded backpack training is great for many other athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Combining a well-fitting pack, with an intelligent load and distance progression, can be a great adjunct to many programs. A basic walk suddenly contributes to greater aerobic fitness, muscular endurance and core strength. 

Rucking is awesome and you don’t necessarily have to head into the backcountry with a heavy load, going off-trail, and being super gonzo. It doesn’t even have to be an official hike. I like to have folks do neighborhood walks or community ambulation with the pack, often as a part of a more comprehensive workout. Right now I’m getting ready for hunting season, and I am getting out once or twice a week in the field for pack training, but I’m also working out in my neighborhood. I’ve got a ¾ mile loop around the block that I’ll hit a few times per week, just walking briskly. I started at 30 pounds early in the summer and now I’m up to 75 pounds. I’ll go just a little higher and call it good. It’s incredible how “easy” this is starting to feel and that’s the goal. Several of our local Fit for the Field and Training Tribe participants have been doing the same thing and their reports of increased fitness are impressive. 

Slow fitness is a term I’ve been using a lot lately. By this I’m referring to the type of training that mostly uses slow movements. Most people do some cardio, lift a little, then stretch a bit. All good. Just not good enough. Slow fitness is the foundation of training and it should probably make up as much of 80% of our training patterns. However, if we don’t train speed, power, and agility (the characteristics of winning athletes, most animals, and highest-functioning humans) those traits eventually dwindle and ultimately disappear. Cutting, sprinting, jumping, dragging, and tumbling can be scaled appropriately for any age or level of fitness. We need to keep these capacities in our gene pool. Seriously.

Seasonality is another of my favorite words. I guess I have many favorite words. That stated, I penned an article a few years back to describe how my use of the term has evolved. Basically, the seasons change and so should we. All the other animals alter their activity, feeding, and behavior patterns with the seasons, and we humans should really be no different. The article goes into great detail so I won’t dive too deep into it here. You can always check that out if you are interested, and of course I’d be honored for you to do so. There are five major levers that we can and should adjust through the year. The amount and timing of our sleep. The relative intensity of our training. The total volume of exercise and athletic participation. The calories we consume in relation to that activity pattern. And the amount of carbohydrate we use as fuel. It’s not rocket science, but it is science. Good science. Evolutionarily consistent. Giving consideration to seasonality, as opposed to just doing the same thing all the time, might actually be revolutionary.

Acceptance of reality is the last but not least of the evolutionary principles worth considering today. It’s primarily the recognition that LIFE happens. Schedules change. Things come up. Sleep and nutrition can occasionally vary from ideal. We might be tired or have a minor injury. Any of these issues and more are just the realities of human existence. When we accept these occurrences as somewhat natural and unavoidable, and don’t stress over them too much, we not only make peace with our performance levels. We maintain our health in the process.

I talked to a client yesterday. He’d been busy over the entire summer working on his new property. Long days of building, moving, and other responsibilities had left him little time or energy for training. We’d put together a very basic maintenance plan which was admittedly quite minimal in the training department. His reserves had to go to his home project. But he couldn’t resist jumping into a local 5k, just to spin the wheels a bit. He had a decent performance but it wasn’t quite up to his usual standards. At first he was a little disappointed. But after we discussed those realities I’ve been talking about, he felt much better about the situation. I think that’s the message for all of us. Do your best but be at peace with those natural ups and downs in this dynamic journey.

That’s all for today, folks. Thanks so much for being with me, and I wish you all the best. Keep evolving. In your training. In your thinking. Maybe do something revolutionary!

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