Learn Karpov Through Kasparov

In The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin tells how as a young chess master his strength was as a creative, offensive player. His style was among the likes of world champions Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. To improve defensively, a coach made him study the great defensive players of the game, like Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov. But Waitzkin had another coach who pointed out that he could learn Karpov’s style by studying Kasparov. As a world champion and arguably the greatest of all-time, Kasparov had to have a deep understanding of the defensive nuances of chess. Without this defensive ability, he could not have been the best in the world. So, by studying Kasparov’s defense he would be able to see this side of chess from the perspective of a player with similar tendencies as him. As Waitzkin puts it in his book: “Razuvaev believed that I was a gifted attacking player who should not be bullied away from my strength. There was no question that I needed to learn more about Karpov’s type of chess to make the next steps in my development, but Razuvaev pointed out that I could learn Karpov through Kasparov.

Kasparov had already studied Karpov’s style, and distilled the essentials of his play on the board. Waitzkin, speaking the language of attacking chess, was able to read it much more clearly than if he’d studied this in the language of defensive chess.

Two of my favorite authors, Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday, have raved at length about the benefits that stoicism has had on their lives. Yet, I have no desire at this point in my life to directly study stoicism. I’ve found that by reading Ferriss and Holiday, I’ve already obtained the distilled information in a modern context. I’ve learned Seneca and Aurelius (stoic philosophers) through Ferriss and Holiday. Anytime someone says “you need to read this,” and then proceeds to tell you about the key takeaways and lessons learned, then they basically just read it for you. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read that book, or that I’m never going to read stoicism. It means that going directly to the source may not be the best learning approach, especially to start off. Start with a source that you relate to and understand, then dive deeper into the primary sources. In Waitzkin’s case, he was pressured into trying to play like Karpov, which eventually alienated him from his deep love for chess. If he began by studying through Kasparov, then perhaps he would have went on to study Karpov directly to seek out more perfect positioning understanding. But, it’s important to begin through a mean that’s easier to understand and enjoy, and then build on that.

In the strength and conditioning world, Olympic lifting is regarded as one of the best ways to increase power in. But, Olympic lifts are very technical. They combine a host of skills that take kids time to learn. During this learning phase, we’re not developing power. They need to acquire the skill first so that later on they can do it safely. So, how can we begin to develop power without the skill of Olympic lifting? We teach basic plyometric progressions like box jumps, hurdle jumps, and squat jumps, as well as kettlebell swings. We learn power through other means with a lower barrier to technical proficiency. Then, we build on these skills when we teach the Olympic lifts. Just because hang cleans and hang snatches might be the best way to develop full-body power, doesn’t mean it’s the best place to start. For adults, we may never progress to cleans and snatches, because it’s not necessary for what their goals are. For them, we’ll stick with simpler methods.

As an athlete looking to improve an area of your game, consider watching players similar to your style. When I was young, I didn’t watch Patrick Kane to get offensive ideas. The high skill style Kane plays was never the type of forward I was going to be, and I couldn’t relate to his gameplay. I watched a player like Martin St. Louis, who has a similar two-way style that I play. If you’re a high-scoring, small forward who needs to improve the defensive side of your game, don’t focus on the best defensemen or even the best defensive forwards. Watch how a guy like Johnny Gaudreau plays on the defensive side of the puck. Because although he’s known for his offense, he’s still found a way to be effective defensively in league with guys much bigger and stronger than him. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to create offense like he does. Just as Waitzkin related more to Kasparov’s style, you will be able to relate more to the way Gaudreau plays in all areas.

The concept of learning Karpov through Kasparov is a reminder to question assumptions. It has made me carefully evaluate what resources will put me on the best learning path. Just because something has always been taught one way, does not mean it’s how we should continue to teach and learn it. Where in your life are you trying to learn through Karpov when it would be better to learn through Kasparov?

The Art of the Posterior Pelvic Tilt

Last year I wrote an article talking about a common root cause of back pain. Since that time, I’ve worked with clients of all ages and demographics, and have consistently seen similar postural faults. From high schoolers, to active and sedentary adults, and now junior hockey players, the postural fault leading to low back pain, hip flexor pain, and a host of other downstream problems known as lower cross syndrome is more common than I ever expected.

To recap, lower cross syndrome is when our hip flexors and low back muscles become increasing strong and tight, and our hip extensors and abdominals become increasingly weak as a result of being in a hip-flexed position for most of our life. The result is that our pelvis gets pulled forward in the front, and up in the back by our tight hip flexors and low back, and our hip extensors and abs do not have the strength to pull it back to neutral. So, our pelvis tilts forward and our low back arches excessively.

Lower Cross Syndrome
Lower Cross Syndrome

 

The concept is relatively simple, and so is the solution. But, getting athletes into the neutral position that we’re looking for can be very difficult. The first step is getting people to understand the concept. This is especially a challenge with some kids. But, even adults have many misconceptions that their lower back hurts because their low back muscles are too weak. Athletes tell me how doing back extensions to strengthen their low back hasn’t helped. If you understand lower cross syndrome, this is no surprise. Their back is already strong. It’s overactive, not weak. What we need to solve the problem is proper hip extension (glute and hamstring recruitment) and abdominal recruitment, which brings the lower back to a neutral spine position. This works because the abs bring the pelvis up  in the front, and the hip extensors bring the pelvis down in the rear. The result is an overall posterior shift in the pelvis, and our muscles properly doing their job.

The next step, and I think the hardest step, is getting athlete’s bodies to understand it. The concept might make perfect sense, but getting their muscles to do exactly what we want to do can be difficult. Here are the cues I use to get the pelvis into a neutral position. All of these cues are designed to achieve the same outcome. What’s been interesting to me as a coach is how some cues that work great for some people, don’t work for others. So take what’s useful and discard the rest. But just know that the cue you discarded is exactly the cue that someone else needed.

  • Tighten your core like you’re about to be punched 
    • When you’re bracing to get punched, you instinctively turn your abs on. For some, the threat of me punching them while they’re doing a plank is all it takes to get their spine neutral.
  • Squeeze your butt
    • This is conjunction with a braced core is the essence of what we need to do. If your butt, the main hip extensor, is contracted then our low back and hip flexors can relax.
  • Extend your hips
    • Visualize hip extension as opposed to lumbar extension. Think about your hips coming forward. This can result in stronger glute and hamstring activation than if you had just said, “squeeze your butt.” Emphasize the extension beginning from the bottom of your butt first, so that the low back does not extend along with the glues.
  • Stand tall
    • Especially at the top of squats and deadlifts, asking the athlete to stand tall results in glute activation at the top of each rep.
  • Flatten back against wall/floor – “Do not let me get my hand underneath you.”
    • When doing this against a wall or on the floor, it gives the athlete a goal to reach. If their back is completely flat, then we know that the pelvis is neutral.
  • Visualize angle of pelvis in sagittal plane coming up to neutral.
    • For visual learners, it helps to use a clipboard or folder to show what the angle of the pelvis is while relaxed, and that we want to tilt it posteriorly.
  • Scoot your butt underneath you. What muscles would you have to turn on to get your butt underneath your torso?
    • That’s right. Glutes and abs.
    • Visualize and feel your butt tuck underneath you.
  • Draw belly button in.
    • Suck your belly button in as far as you can. This cue has worked great with younger athletes, even if they don’t yet understand the concept.
  • Cylinder concept: The ribs come down, and the pelvis comes to make perfect cylinder position in your torso.
    • It’s common with extended backs that the rib cage also flares up. So think about the ribs coming down, and pelvis flattening out to create a cylinder that’s parallel to the ground.
    • I have to give credit to Michelle Boland for this cue.
  • The Two-Hand Rule: This is essentially the same as the cylinder concept.
    • Place one hand at the angle of your ribcage, and the other at the angle of your pelvis. Then anteriorly tilt the ribcage, and posteriorly tilt the pelvis so that your hands become parallel. If the hands are parallel, then you’re in a neutral position.
    • This one is taken from Kelly Starrett’s book.
  • Deep Exhale:
    • In most exercises, we will also tell the athlete to have as slow an exhale as possible. This is because the diaphragm is an antagonist muscle to the deep abdominals. The diaphragm is most relaxed at the deepest point in the exhale. At this point, we can get a stronger deep abdominal contraction. Focus on letting as much air out as possible while squeezing your abs.

 

Exercises:

Now that the athlete understands the concept, and we’ve found a handful of cues to help them get into the position we’re looking for, now it’s time to apply it through exercises. Ultimately, this is where the skill can translate most effectively into sports and life. Holding a safe position while standing or lying down is great, but to cross over into the athlete’s activities, we must progressively apply more movement, more load, and more difficult situations.

  • Low ab activation with MB overhead. Focus on flattening back, activating abs by deepening exhale.
    • The simplest way to initially grasp the concept has been to start lying down on the floor. The reason for this is that now we can use the cue of flattening the back against the floor, which gives athlete an external indicator of whether or not they’re doing it correctly. In this sense, we’ve made the “pelvic tilt” a pass/fail test. In group setting, I can immediately see who doesn’t understand it yet, and who already has a strong grasp. I like to add the light med ball overhead just to relax the neck and shoulders.
  • Low ab activation against wall.
    • Now we’re doing essentially the same thing, but against a wall. This variation can be progressed and regressed easily. If you bring your feet further from the wall, it’s easier, and vice-versa. An athlete who is proficient in the movement, may still struggle immensely to stand with his feet just an inch or two from the wall with a flat back.
  • Low ab activation against wall with overhead reach.
    • A progression from the previous exercise. Reaching the arms overhead causes you to want to extend your back, which you will have to resist.
  • Plank
    • A great exercise, but only if coached well. Now we’re asking the athlete to maintain a neutral pelvis position while holding himself up. Gravity makes you want to extend, and you have to resist this.
    • I think that “butt down” is a bad cue with a good intention in the plank. I’m more concerned with the angle of their pelvis, than if their butt is sticking up a little bit. If the athlete doesn’t have the core strength yet to hold a perfect plank, then making sure that their whole body is parallel to the ground can result of using their low back instead of their abs. Instead, we instruct tight abs and tight glutes with slow exhales.
  • Stability Ball Rollout – only after plank is successful.
    • View the SBR as a dynamic plank. As you roll out, you must resist extension. If I could only choose to do one ab exercise, it would be the SBR/ab wheel movement. It forces us to apply the principles of a posterior tilt combined with movement. As a result, it crosses over into resisting extension on the field/court/ice well.
  • Mini-Band Walks
    • The emphasis is still on flattening the back by using glutes and abs. From a side view, the low back should almost look rounded.  
    • I also really like this movement because where the athlete feels it is a great indicator if they’re doing it right. If you can feel outer glutes then your low back is not being used as the primary hip abductor, and the side glutes are activating properly.
  • Cook Hip Lift
    • Hugging the opposite knee in causes the low back to round, and therefore not be able to activate well. Now, the extension has to come entirely from the glutes and hamstrings. If done correctly, this exercise is very humbling for most athletes with overactive low backs and tight hip flexors. They’ll realize how little extension they can actually get without the help of the low back.
    • The hip lift is a great mean of assessing active hip extension range of motion. If you can see progress with this exercise among, it says a lot about your improved ability to extend your hips.
  • Glute Bridge
    • Same thing but on two legs. Sometimes the one leg hip lift variation is too difficult just because of active range of motion restrictions. So, we let them start with both feet on the ground and instruct them to begin the extension at the bottom of the butt, and end at the top of the butt. Holding at the top with a deep exhale helps the athlete to turn on their glutes.
  • Quadruped hip extension on elbows.
    • This is another variation to get strict hip extension. Lean back like you’re doing a Child’s Pose. This, as with the hip lifts, puts the low back in a position where it can’t activate. From here, reach one leg back. Keep the toes pointed straight down as you reach the heel to the sky and hold it. You should feel your butt.

My methods have changed a lot in the last year, but the principles have stayed the same. Get out of the hip-flexed, back-extended position and teach your body how to be back in neutral. Over time, athletes who are able to develop this skill, and translate it into their sport, will not suffer from chronic low back tightness or hip flexor tightness. Their chance of overuse injuries will drastically decrease, and as a result, they’ll be able to spend more time practicing their sport because they won’t have to be concerned with overdoing it and tweaking a hip flexor or their back. As fitness professionals this is our job. It is our job to better prepare our athletes to withstand the high physiological demands of their activities. The posterior pelvic tilt is an essential skill to help athletes cope with these demands, as well as improve performance.

Regressing the Pull-up

Ahhh pull-ups. What a simple yet difficult movement. Many fear the pull-up bar, and I don’t blame you if you do. Pull-ups are hard. Several NHL first round draft picks haven’t been able to do a single pull-up at the NHL combine, so at least you’re in good company. But that’s no excuse to not seek improvement. Pull-ups are an undeniably effective upper-body movement. The question is then, how can we improve pull-ups without actually being able to do them. There are many way to regress the pull-up. Here are the regressions I use with athletes and clients. This is not an exhaustive list. These are the methods that I’ve found through training various demographics to be the safest and most effective.

Option #1: Put a knee or foot in a giant rubber band – Banded Pull-ups

The tension in the rubber band deloads the pull-up movement by helping you pull up your weight. Placing the band on your knee will help less than on your foot, because the band will not be stretched out as much, and therefore not have as much tension. The bands are great, but they do offer a few downsides. First of all, they’re a pain to put on your foot. Needing to run over to the pull-up bar during class to put someone’s foot in the band has become increasingly annoying. Teaching how to safely put the bands on has practically become an exercise in and of itself.

Also, younger kids often physically don’t weigh enough to be able to lower all the way to the bottom with the band. So, they basically end up flying up and down the pull-up bar with the band at risk of taking their feet out from under them. Probably not the safest spot to be. However, if we can find a sweet spot and get the kids doing the pull-up motion, then I like the bands, and so do the kids. For whatever reason, middle school boys love the giant rubber bands.

I use the bands more with those who particularly struggle initiating pull-ups from a dead hang. When using the band, it has maximum tension when when the person is fully stretched at the bottom. In this part of the movement, the band is helping to bring you up more than at any other point. At the top, the band has less tension, so it won’t be helping as much. The band has its place, but as time passes I find myself using them less and less and instead opting for bench-assisted pull-ups.

Option #2: Use one leg to help with the pull-up – Bench Assisted Pull-ups

Place a bench high enough underneath the pull-up rack so that the person is at a 90 degree hip and knee bend with the arms fully extended. Then, as you pull up, use your leg as if you were doing a split squat as much or a little as you need. I love this variation, and prefer it to using bands for a few reasons. First off, just about everyone can do it. Using the strength of you leg, you’re basically doing a split squat and a pull-up combined. It requires no additional set-up and monkeying around with the band. What’s also great about this variation is that in a split second you can make it easier by pushing your foot against the bench more, or make it harder by using your foot less. This ability to instantly progress or regress the movement can not be overstated for its practical benefit. These also work better for middle schoolers and adults with a pull-up phobia because the foot contact allows athletes to feel more in control as compared to the bands. Also, no danger of 6th graders flying around suspended by a band. Huge plus. The downside, for the kids at least, is that it’s less exciting. Sometimes you have to throw the middle schoolers a bone. That just requires more supervision and care on my part.

Option #3: Do eccentric pull-ups

In any exercise, the eccentric or lowering phase is easier than the concentric phase. Think about a bench press. Lowering the bar to your chest is not nearly as difficult as raising it back up. So, even if strict pull-ups are difficult the eccentric may be possible for higher reps. To do this, the athlete jumps up from the floor into the top of a pull-up, then they lower themselves down slowly. We usually aim for around four seconds on this lowering portion. This option is most applicable to athletes who can do a few pull-ups, but not a full set. So, if an athlete can do four pull-ups, then they’ll do four pull-ups. We’ll immediately follow that up with six eccentric pull-ups to continue the set.

Option #4: Include isometric holds

Often, what holds someone back from doing a lot of pull-ups, is one particular part of the movement. Usually, either the very top, or the very bottom. This is because the main movers are maximally shortened and lengthened at the top and bottom respectively, where the muscles are weakest. That’s when we include exercises liked the flexed arm hang (holding at the top), and the dead hang (holding at the bottom) to focus on grip strength and activating the lats from the bottom. We also use banded pull-ups to work on engaging from the fully lengthened position because of the band tension at the bottom. In a one-on-one setting, we’re much more specific about where the sticking point is, and what the best course of action to improve it is. In a class, we’ll do all kinds of isometric pull-up variations over the course of a few weeks to ensure that we check all of the boxes. Isometric hold competitions in classes are also a ton of fun. “Everybody jump up, last one still hanging wins,” always brings out the best in athletes. Check out me getting beat by one of our middle school athletes in a dead hang-off here.

 

This is a lot of variation, and they all have their place. If you can’t do pull-ups right now, here’s a very simple program you can follow. If you have a pull-up bar in your house, this is something you can do almost every day without any other equipment except a stool or a chair. Start with bench-assisted pull-ups. Do four sets (two each leg) of 10 reps with about 90 seconds rest in between sets. Over time, try to use your leg less and less and eventually not at all. That’s your first pull-up! Now, for your four sets, you’ll do as many strict pull-ups as you can, and then do eccentric pull-ups with a four second lowering phase until you get to ten total. At first, this will be one strict, and nine eccentric. Eventually, you’ll be able to do ten strict pull-ups.

A Letter to Young Athletes

Dear young athlete,

When opening up a fortune cookie today, I read the little piece of paper that said, “A mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.” In so many ways, more experience, more opportunities to succeed, fail, and learn provides insights that only come with time. Reflecting on my athletic career to date, here are some good decisions I’ve made, and things that I would change if put back into the shoes of a child. However, I would not go back in time and change any of this in my own life. For, that would change who I am today. But, take my experience and think about it. Consider what you would change, and what you need to keep doing.

Good decision #1: Always playing on the best team I could

For you and your family, what team to play for can be a tough decision. When I look back on my hockey career, I always wanted to be on the best team I could. Years where I jumped to a higher level were my best years of growth. In particular, my sophomore year of high school stands out when I made a big jump from high school to junior hockey. Starting before my 16th birthday, I was one of the youngest kids in the entire league. Most kids were 17 and 18, if not older. The pace of play was faster, more physical. In similar circumstances, there are two scenarios that can play out. The athlete either struggles immensely, and doesn’t get much playing time, or they rise to the level, and experience an unmatched period of growth. For me, it was the latter, and I have a few theories why. I Consider these prerequisites, boxes that need to be checked before making a big jump.

  1. A coach who will keep playing you despite mistakes.

You need to be in a place where a costly mistake won’t leave you on the bench for next two weeks. You need to be playing for someone who recognizes that it will take time to adjust to the level, and that the only way for this adjustment to happen is to allow the mistakes to occur, and allow the athlete to learn from them. In turn, you can’t be afraid to make these mistakes.

  1. The right attitude

You will not be the superstar. All eyes will not be on you. This may be the first time in your life where this is not the case. You have to be okay with working your butt off in silence. If you can develop this mindset, it will work out. If you can’t, you’ll be frustrated the whole season.

If you can find a great coach, and have the right attitude, you can be successful playing at the best level you can. Even just trying out for those teams will be immense learning experiences.

Bad decision #1: Not taking off time from hockey to try other sports

If you have one sport that you really love, that’s great. But, especially if you’re still in middle school, you need to be playing other sports. The research is clear that early sport specialization leads to increased injury risk and burnout. I love hockey. When I was younger all I wanted to do was be on the ice. Every opportunity, I was out playing tournaments or pick-up and I loved every second of it. Even during baseball season, I played four or five tournaments each spring. When I was 15, I pulled my hip flexor. An injury I now know was the result of a muscle imbalance from skating too much without balancing it out. When I was 18 felt burnt out. After my third consecutive 45+ game season, I needed a long break. At an age where developmentally I should’ve been skating regularly 10 months out of year, I needed almost 6 months off to mentally refresh. It’s impossible to say for certain, but I think if I had taken more time in my youth to try a new sport, like soccer or lacrosse or golf or anything, I would’ve physically been more balanced, and mentally more eager to keep playing hockey. Whatever your favorite sport is, that sport you feel you can’t live a day without, you should take at least a few months off from it a year. If that’s soccer, pick a season to not play organized soccer. If that’s hockey, stay off the ice in the summer. Go fishing, or golfing, or swimming. In the long-term, it will make you a more balanced athlete. But more importantly in my opinion, is you’ll keep your love for the game. When you’re 17, 18 and maybe getting looked at by college coaches, it won’t feel like as much of a grind. At the start of each organized season, you’ll be more excited to get going. Maybe, you’ll find that you love a new sport just as much as the others. Try out whatever interests you, and feel free to take as much time off as you need from any sport. Don’t worry about falling behind, if you truly love it, you’ll keep gravitating toward it later on.

Good decision #2: Starting a strength and conditioning program young

When I was going into sixth grade, my mom signed me up for the Fit 2 Excel summer athletic performance class at MMU. I honestly think I went two or three times the entire summer. For whatever reason I couldn’t motivate myself to get up early. Then, that year, an upperclassman and great friend showed me a little bit around the weight room. From then on, I was motivated to improve. The next summer, and for about the next five years, I was religious with my strength training at Fit 2 Excel. There were summers where I don’t think I missed one class at MMU. Year round I was in the facility doing every youth session. I loved getting stronger, more athletic. I could see the results on the ice. My legs were no longer sore after skating, and I felt harder to knock over. I think it’s a huge reason why I’m still able to compete at a relatively high level. Without being strong, I wouldn’t have any chance playing at the pace as guys mostly all bigger than me. So, if you’re strength training right now, good. Keep it up. Ideally, if you can get in the gym twice per week for most of the year, you’re doing well. It may not pay off for years, but you’re developing and ingraining sound movement mechanics that are laying a foundation to developing elite sports skills and athleticism, as well as learning how to keep your muscles balanced and prevent injury. If you’re not strength training, the best time to start is today. If you’re eleven or older, you’re ready. Find a trainer, learn the basics, and get started. As a trainer, I’m obviously biased but to start out you need the eyes of a trainer looking at you. Whatever squat technique you learn at age 11, that’s the movement pattern that will begin to ingrain, so it better be mechanically sound.

Bad decision #2:

Not taking stretching and mobility seriously

You’re probably sick of coaches, parents, and trainers telling you to stretch more. I get it. You feel fantastic, why would you need to stretch? If you’re 15 or 16, I’m sure you’re beginning to feel a difference in the stiffness of your muscles. But even if you’re younger, starting to get in the habit now will only help down the line. I could talk about why you need to, but that I will save for another letter. For now, just trust me, when you’re older you’ll wish you’d done more. Here are some very simple ways to start making stretching and mobility a habit.

  1. Foam roll before or after working out, or before bed.

Foam rolling hurts at first, but after a little while feels like a really nice massage on your muscles. Spend extra time on your quads, hip flexors, and calves. It’s as simple as a few minutes a day. Show up to the gym 5 minutes early and grab a roller. Make it the last thing you do before bed. It doesn’t matter when, just find a time to do it consistently.

  1. Go to a yoga class

I get that it can be hard to motivate yourself to do stuff on your own. Find a yoga studio, even if you only go a few times a month. Beyond just stretching, yoga also helps with balance, and can even be a good core workout. It also helps you learn about your body, and make you more aware of your movement. Yoga can also be a great form of meditation, which is something we’ll talk about when you’re a little older. Most importantly, yoga classes are almost always entirely females, which is more fun than doing yoga alone in your room.

    3.) Check out resources like Becoming a Supple Leopard or The Happy Body. They both offer mobility and stretching “programs.” If you’re learning how to stretch, begin with The Happy Body. Becoming a Supple Leopard is more advanced and a much denser read. If you’re self-disciplined and love reading, both are great options.

    4.) Lunge

If nothing else, spend some time each day in a lunge position stretching out your hip flexors. Whenever you’re watching TV or on your phone just get off that chair and take a few seconds to get those hip flexors loosened up.

Good decision #3: Staying in Vermont and playing for the Lumberjacks

At some point, you won’t feel content with where you’re at. You’ll feel frustrated, like you’re tired of the grind, or feeling like you could be playing at a higher level. You’ll say to yourself, “If only I was on that team or playing at that level, then things would be better.” I will be starting my fifth year of junior hockey this season. I’ve seen it all in terms of kids coming and going from different teams for all different reasons. A common theme I’ve noticed is that kids who aren’t happy in one place, won’t be any happier in another place. Those kids will blame their performance or unhappiness based on every external circumstance imaginable. I challenge you, whenever you feel frustrated or longing for something different to first look inside at yourself. Are these problems I could solve by doing something different? How can I make a more positive impact on this environment? Is it possible that these issues are the result of my actions? The grass is not always greener. Accomplish everything you can where you are at, before you think about moving on to “bigger and better” things. I’ve been with this organization through winning and losing seasons, coaching changes, and everything in between. I’ve been able to first look internally at my personal struggles, instead of blaming external circumstances. Anywhere else I could have gone, would not have been as good a place for me. I’m incredibly grateful I’ve been able to play hockey at a high level and live at home, while nearly all of my hockey friends have had to move away at a young age. To graduate at MMU, and to now be able to work at Fit 2 Excel have all been blessings as a result of staying with it. Make the Big Time Where You’re At.

Closing thoughts:

Learn to work hard. If you’re motivated, this will be easy. You won’t need someone to tell you to wake up early, to eat healthy, to go to the gym, or to seek out extra skills work. Working hard is the easy part. The hard part comes when you realize that hard work isn’t enough. You need to work smart as well. You’ll need to learn to ask yourself tough questions, and answer them honestly. If you’re always thinking of how to become better not solely through effort, you’ll discover strategies that I’ve yet to discover. This could bring you to a level beyond what you thought possible. So get after it, and have fun along the way.

Sincerely,

David

Three Simple Ways to Improve Sleep

There is no doubt that sleep is important. After all, we spend approximately one third of our life sleeping. We’ve all had to go through days surviving on just few hours of sleep, and we all know how much it sucks. Being a great sleeper, ney, a skilled sleeper, is so overlooked. If you have systems and strategies in place to sleep well, everything else in your life improves. You won’t feel as tired in class or at work, you won’t have to dread the alarm clock going off, and you’re thinking throughout the day will be much clearer.

Convincing kids to focus on improving their sleep has been incredibly frustrating. In my experience working with a lot of adolescents, a common reason for this is that many don’t have a growth mindset about sleep. They don’t few it as something they can work on to improve, just like their sports or their schoolwork. I hear so often, “Dude, you don’t understand, I can’t fall asleep until at least midnight.” Just writing that down is making me frustrated. The first step is to embrace the fact that sleep patterns and sleep quality are within our control. But, just like anything, it requires a little effort and commitment. Here are three simple ways to get back into our natural sleep rhythms, and improve sleep.

  1. Get off all screens at least one hour before you go to bed

Screens like our phone and TV emit a high concentration of blue light. Anytime our eyes see blue light, it signals to our body that it’s day time, like the sun is shining and the sky is bright blue. So if you’re up playing video games or staring at your phone until you get tired, you’re sending signals to your brain that it’s day time, that you need to be alert and awake. You’re fighting an uphill battle. Start making a point to have a screen curfew. Turn your phone off well before bed and replace the time with something conducive to relaxation. Read a book, play with your dog, talk with your family members. To all of my clients who have a hard time developing the habit of foam rolling and stretching before bed, this is the perfect time to implement those practices as well.

You don’t have to do this cold turkey. Accustomed to going to bed at 11 right now? Put your phone away at 10:50 and replace those last 10 minutes before bed with something relaxing. Next week, at 10:40, and so on. You’ll start to notice how tired you get those last few minutes before bed when you’re not in the presence of anything stimulating you to be awake. Another benefit for me personally as a result of this habit, is I’ve been able to accomplish a lot in the last hour of my day. I’ve been able to read more books, and set aside more time to stretch and foam roll. The long-term benefits of this, in conjunction with much better sleep, cannot be ignored. Turn off your damn phone.

     2. Normalize your circadian rhythm

Sleep is a hormonal battle. In the morning, we naturally secrete hormones, like cortisol, which keep us alert. Late in the day and at night, melatonin is produced to allow us to relax and easily fall asleep. These hormones have an inverse relationship. So when cortisol is high, melatonin is low, and vice versa. Our bodies naturally should be in line with the day and night cycles of our planet, with high cortisol levels in the morning, and high melatonin levels at night. So, anything that throws us off that rhythm will be damaging to our sleep quality. Generally speaking, we’re looking for activities or strategies that raise cortisol and make us alert early in the day, and keep it down as we get closer to night. Doing this will normalize our natural circadian rhythm. Some simply strategies to improve this are:

  • Getting sunlight early in the day
  • Exercising early in the day
  • Avoid blue light exposure close to bed (put your phone away)
  • Reduce stresses close to bed
    • Relax, unwind, ideally you’ve already done your exercise. I know that some kids have sports practice at late hours, and that that is something you’ll just have to work around, or avoid. If that’s your case, make sure everything else is on point for those days.
  • Wake up and go to bed at more or less the same time each day. Yes, even weekends, you’re throwing your body for a loop by staying up way later, and sleeping well into the afternoon. Power naps are game changers on those days.

 

      3. Plan your sleep and workouts, and schedule life around that.

Every high school student has seen this picture:

Choose two

Frankly, I think this is ridiculous. If you make sleep number one, the other two improve. I don’t need scientific data to tell you how crappy you feel in class the day after staying up until two am, or how poorly your sports practice is the day after a night out. Forget about trying to talk to your crush on four hours of sleep. My money’s on the nerd who got a full nine hours. When you make sleep a priority, and plan it first, it elevates the other areas of your life. Could you imagine a time when you’re not always tired during the day, and fall asleep without issues? It should be obvious that in this state, it would be much easier to get your schoolwork done, perform better in your sports, and socialize. “But, but, you don’t understand, there’s literally not enough hours in the day to get all my work done and still sleep enough.” I call BS. All it takes is taking a close, honest look at how you’re actually spending your time. How much “study” time do you spend checking Instagram? Are you wasting hours each day on time-consuming but unimportant tasks? For these questions, and other productivity help, I highly recommend The 4-Hour Workweek.

This may all sound great, but it sounds like I’m going to have absolutely no social life if I follow all of this advice. This is true. I don’t encourage you to follow all of it all the time. I had a long period of time where I took this way too far. So don’t be stupid like me. Go out on a weekend, impulsively go bowling at one am. Hell, stay up until the suns starts coming out laughing with your buddies. You’ll look back and have no regrets. If you’re super type-A like I am, look at it this way: Once in a while, the healthy benefits of social interaction outweigh the benefits of a good night’s sleep. I honestly wish I’d learned this sooner. But, you shouldn’t be up playing video games until midnight on a regular basis. You shouldn’t be going down the YouTube rabbit hole after dinner. Live your life, stay up late, do fun stuff with your friends, but be able to real it back in and get back to work within the next few days.

Personally, I haven’t found anything to be a better performance and productivity hack than mastering sleep. If anybody is interested in learning more simple, easy to apply tips on improving sleep, pick up Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson. In it, Stevenson goes into more detail about some of the things we’ve talked about, but also dives into more methods to improve your sleep.

Regressing the Push-Up

Many have coined the push-up “the king” of upper body exercises. It’s a staple of just about every strength and conditioning program, and probably one of the most commonly performed exercises in the history of exercise. I remember being 10 years old and doing push-ups in my room simply because it was one of the only exercises I knew. The push-up is not a cure-all for upper body strength, but there is little doubt that it does have a important place in most strength training programs. For me, the push-up is at the top of the list in terms of pushing movements. From a practical standpoint, I frequently utilize the push for a few reasons. Mainly, the push-up is not only an upper body exercise, but also a core exercise, much like a plank. Along with teaching how to properly press, it also incorporates the principles of stable core positioning. For beginners, I also gravitate towards the push-up because it is a closed chain exercise. A closed chain exercise means that the the hands or feet (in this case hands) are not moving. In a push-up, the hands don’t move, but in a bench press, the hands are moving. The fixed position is more stable. For beginners this is advantageous because it takes away the variable of instability at the shoulder joint. For these reasons, I tend to start off developing upper body strength with the push-up.

 

However, push-ups are not easy. For most people, properly executed push-ups take time to progress to. As such, it is important as a coach to offer alternatives to regress the traditional push-up. These alternatives must maintain the key focus of the exercise, and set up the athlete to be able to progress to regular push-ups in the future.

Key coaching points:

Before we talk about regressions for the push-up, first we must be on the same page with what exactly we’re looking for with regards to a well-performed push-up. Coaches have argued about the proper push-up technique for decades. Yet, there are a few concepts that most agree on.

  • Core control – antiextension

It doesn’t matter how strong your upper body is if you can use it while maintaining your spine in a safe position. Engaged your abs and squeeze your glutes in order to tilt your pelvis into a neutral position.

  • Shoulder position

Push-up shoulder position is fairly controversial…. Should the elbows be at 90? All the way tucked in? In between? Does it matter? Regardless of where the elbows are, the priority is establishing a position where the shoulders are functioning safely and without compensation. The problem with having the elbows flared out, is it puts the shoulders in a rounded-forward position (think hunched shoulders). Over time, many folks who do push-ups and bench press like this will, unsurprisingly, wind up with rounded posture and later pain. Most people struggle to keep their shoulders back when pressing, so I cue “down and back,” or “elbow pits forward.” The one that personally clicks for me the most, which I learned from Kelly Starrett’s Becoming a Supple Leopard is “screw the hands out.” Regardless, all three effectively get the shoulders back to a neutral position, where it is safe to press.

Regressions:

Regression option #1: Gravity

If push-ups are too difficult simply because of the load it places on the upper body, a simple yet effective option is to place the hands on an elevated surface. In this variation, the push-up becomes easier simply because the load is decreased. What I love about this, is how easy it is to adjust to the athlete. I love watching week by week as the bench slowly lowers, eventually reaching the floor.

 

Regression option #2: Add mini-band

Adding a mini-band to a push-up comes from the same concept behind Mark Bell’s Sling Shot®. This is a variation we typically use with people who really struggle with keeping their shoulders in a safe position. Oftentimes, placing the band around the elbows instantly fixes a shoulder fault in the push-up because it forces the athlete to keep their shoulders relatively in in order to keep tension on the band. If the elbows are flared out, the band will slide up your elbows and hit you in the face. I also love to include a band in the repertoire of those who are right on the cusp of being able to do standard push-ups. Those who may only be able to do 2 or 3 quality push-ups can do 8 to 12 with the band. This is because the band adds a lift off at the bottom of the push-up, where the movement is most difficult. I find myself using the bands for push-ups more and more, and started using them as a warm-up for any heavy pushing exercises.

Pushup with band

Regression option #3: Going to knees

Doing push-ups on the knees I generally like to avoid if logistically possible. The main reason for this, is because push-ups on top of being an excellent upper body exercise, are also a great antiextension exercise. Going on your knees takes away the majority of this core training effect. It’s also way too common that when you’re on your knees, the intent of maintaining a stable core and shoulder positioning is forgotten. We see hips flexed, elbows flare out, and the overall quality decrease. With that being said, push-ups on your knees is still a suitable variation. Oftentimes in a class setting, athletes will go to their knees after doing as many regular push-ups as they can. In the summer outdoor classes for example, we utilize push-ups on our knees as a way to extend a push-up set, without needing any extra equipment.

Wrapping Up:

Based on my experience, push-ups can be made into a suitable, effective exercise for clients of all different demographics using these regressions. Wherever you’re starting out, I encourage you to find a variation that is difficult for 8-12, and perform 3-4 sets. Use the principles of basic progressive overload. As time goes by, you can make the exercise progressively more and more difficult until regular push-ups become possible. Even if you’re already at that point, use mini-bands and benches for warm-up sets, to do higher-rep sets, or to work on perfecting your push-up mechanics.

Essentials of Abdominal Training For Sport Part 3: Antilateral Flexion

So, we’ve learned how to resist excessive lumbar extension, and rotation. What’s left? We’ve worked in the sagittal plane and the transverse plane, so that leaves resisting lateral flexion about the frontal plane. Lateral flexion is essentially bending at the side. With this, the main muscles we’re targeting are the obliques, which are located on the sides of the abdomen. With the inclusion of antilateral flexion alongside the antirotation and antiextension, the athlete can now resist movement in all planes of motion.

Planes-of-Motion-300x226

The two groups of exercises we use to train this are:

  1. Side plank
  2. Suitcase Carries (or other loaded carry)

Side Plank – The side plank is without a doubt the simplest place to begin. It’s the lateral version of the front plank. With that in mind, a lot of the cues and important points will be very similar. We’re going to squeeze the glutes, push into the floor, and focus in on the deep abdominals. Just like the front plank, the athlete’s attention will be on the breathe, where the goal is to get long exhales in order to further activate the deep abdominals.

side-plank.jpg

Suitcase Carries – In this exercise the athlete will grab a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand and carry it like a suitcase. The weight will attempt to bend the athlete down to the side, and it’s their job to resist this and keep shoulders and hips square. In the past, I made the mistake of letting athletes go too heavy on this exercise. Although the athletes could hold it and walk, one shoulder was hiked down, and hips were swayed in one direction. So, start off relatively light with this one, get a feel for the concept of resisting bending at the side. Then, while maintaining that, feel free to grab a heavier weight. The nature of this exercise has more moving parts than the side plank. As such, we don’t usually introduce it until side planks can be done proficiently. Cues for suitcase carries are the same as the side plank. Engage abs and glutes, and focus on slow deep breaths.

Suitcase Carry
Suitcase Carry

I also really like the 1-arm bottoms up KB Carry, as it adds a shoulder stability component and is a challenging exercise that can be done with less weight.

Wrapping Up:

As alluded to in the introduction, we now have exercises to safely and effectively train the abdominals in all planes of motion. Incorporating a core program with progressions and regressions from all three categories is not only key to improving performance, but also to preventing injuries. Abdominals trained to resist movement effectively are essential to keeping the spine in safe positions. Ultimately, this is what will allow our athletes to continue to develop athletically and lower chances of pain and injury.

 

Works Cited

“Planes of Motion.” 30 Minutes of Everything, 30 Minutes of Everything. Digital Image