Thoughts on S&C: Assess, don’t guess – Athletics @ Shinergy[base] Vienna

 Disclaimer: This one’s going to be a bit lengthy, so I tried to include as many videos as possible to keep things fresh. 

Since December, 2014, I’m in charge of the athletics class we run at the Shinergy[base] here in Vienna. In a nutshell, the athletics class is pretty much a functional strength class for small groups. In contrast to other systems out there (which all have their benefits in their own sense), out athletics class follows a simple periodization and is preceded by an individual assessment of each athlete. Our assessment usually doesn’t take as long as, say, a full [FMS], but then again, we screen for the selection of exercises we’re actually planning on employing in the current program. This means that, although it might be beneficial for general health or long-term improvement of a functional movement base, there is no pressing need to screen for overhead competency if the plan calls for a horizontal upper body push. We can ḱeep our initial screens to a bare minimum and evaluate what we need when we need it. If this sounds careless, read on before making a judgment, your questions might be answered shortly. If not, don’t worry – there’s a comments section where you can post your thoughts. Keep in mind that this is not a PT – our clients don’t pay anything extra for screening. assessment and program individualization (note that I’m not using the term „design“ here), that’s all covered in the gym membership.

Anyway, you might have noticed I’m using both the terms „screen“ and „assessment“. I’ll elaborate on the difference in a moment. First, though, I will share some programming thoughts. Now if you’ve been following my blog, you know I’m a huge believer when it comes to the „train movement, not muscles“ credo. From an athletic point of view, this just makes perfect sense. I don’t see it in conflict with the [joint-by-joint-approach], either. Now when talking about movement patterns, I pretty much follow the industry standards. We push, pull, squat and hinge. I love [Dan John]’s take on the issue. As for loaded carries, we do them, no worries. For me, they’re more of a dynamic anti-something pattern, though, more on that in a minute.

Upper body movements are further divided into horizontal and vertical pattern – a deadlift would be a vertical pull while an inverted row is more horizontal in nature. What about the other directions, you ask? Like, sideways pushing as in a side-plan-push-up? Well, short answer, we don’t do that. There’s a cost-to-benefit ratio to every exercise. For the biggest part, I’m dealing with a non-gym-rat population, i.e., people who either want to excel at their sports and hence need a lot of ring/mat time or just want to develop functional strength for everyday living. Hence, if someone hits the gym twice a week (three times tops), you can bet I’m going to choose big-bang-for buck exercises any time. Still, there’s the issue of core training to be considered. The spine can pretty much flex, extend, lateral flex and rotate. Furthermore, it can (hopefully) resist all those movements. Actually, the resisting part is more important, especially in the beginning – after all, to quote Robert Dos Remedios, „how fast would you drive a sports car with no brakes“ (you might want to check [this] out)?

All basic patterns can be performed wither bilaterally or unilaterally. This leaves us with the following pool of movements that need to be trained:

Bilateral Horizontal Push Unilateral Horizontal Push Bilateral Vertical Push Unilateral Vertical Push
Bilateral Horizontal Pull Unilateral Horizontal Pull Bilateral Vertical Pull Unilateral Vertical Pull
Unilateral Squat Bilateral Squat Unilateral Hinge Bilateral Hinge
Spine Flexion Spine Extension Spine Rotation Spine Lateral Flexion
Spine Anti-Flexion Spine Anti-Extension Spine Anti-Rotation Spine Anti-Lateral-Flexion

The athletics class aims at incorporating all of these in every single session – in one form or the other. At the heart of the class is a five-station strength circuit. Here, we’d push, pull, squat or hinge and do two exercises that are specific to the core. Before that, we warm up with a skill block. This one’s all about gym-related movement skills. No sport specific skill here, that’s the coaches job. General movement skill is what we’re after. That could mean crawling and other bodyweight stuff, athletic endeavors like single leg medball catches on an instable surface or basic kettlebell technique work. Skill is followed by speed or rather power development. This can encompass all forms of medball slams and throws, jumps, resisted sprints, heavy swings or the like. The session is concluded by a stamina circuit, comprised of four to five exercises done for reps in a given time. Again, those exercises revolve around pushing, pulling, squatting or hinging and some core control.

We balance the exercise by using complementary patterns in the strength and speed blocks. That means that if, for example, we do weighted pull-ups (vertical pull) in the strength block, we’d go for inverted rows (horizontal pull) in the stamina block. This get tricky here with vertical pushes, as not everybody is up to overhead work. That’s why we screen and individualize the program. Also, I tend to substitute things like the [landmine press] or even a [wall ball] for high rep vertical pushing, as those make the angle a bit more horizontal and are thus a bit more shoulder friendly. To give you a specific example, the program for March and April 2015 looks like the following:

Skill: alternate between athletic movement, crawling variations and kettlebell technique work.
Speed: Jump & Reach (Squat pattern), Medball Chops (vertical pull pattern)
Strength: Lunge variations (chosen after an initial assessment, see chart below) (Squat pattern, anti-lateral-flexion, anti-flexion), Overhead pressing variations (vertical push, anti-extension) if feasible according to initial screen, otherwise go for landmine presses, Pull-Ups (vertical pull, anti-extension) for the overhead competent, chin ups otherwise (more horizontal angle in bottom position), Side planks (anti lateral flexion), Paloff Press (Anti rotation)
Stamina: Kettlebell swings (hinge pattern, anti-flexion) or cable pull throughs, inverted rows (horizontal pull, anti-extension), pushup variations (horizontal push, anti extension – go for atomic pushups if feasible, this adds dynamic flexion), mountain climbers (dynamic flexion, anti-rotation)
Not much dynamic extension, rotation or lateral flexion here, but other than that, we’ve got all bases covered.

Obviously, the long list of movement presented above also imposes the need of smart exercise selection. I like Gray Cook’s idea of [continuums]. Of course, there is a certain order in which exercise has to be undertaken. Also, as Gray points out, a developmental approach makes sense. As toddlers, we first learn to stabilize in the sagittal plane before moving on to other, more complex patterns. Hence, this should also be a priority in a proper S&C regime. However, sagittal plane movement is not what dominates in most sports. Rather, there’s a less-clinical blend of mult-planar movement and multi-axial rotation, along with a fair share of force moments which are biomechanically unfavorable, to say the least. Of course, with proper injury prevention in mind, all of those, need be be adressed in a controlled, safe manner. The question, now, is how to weigh the concurring training goals (sagittal plane strength and dynamic, multi-planar stability) and meld them into a sensible continuum. Here’s how we look at continuums.

The Continuums we use for S&C programming

So basically, we begin by keeping everything very basic, safe and controlled. From there, we progressively transition towards faster, more powerful, less stable alternatives that have a higher carry-over towards athletic endeavours. Now that the progession is smooth – i.e., the „how“ is answered -, the question about the proper time to actually make the transition („when“) arises. Here, we encounter the [point of diminishing results].

In a nutshell, the point of diminishing returns describes a point at which the relationship between the additional investment of resources and the resulting, additional output starts to move in an unfavorable direction. Note that in the second video above, there’re a total drop in productivity at some point. That isn’t necessarily so when training for strength. Acquiring an additional total output just requires significantly higher input as some point.

Consider the following. Going to a bodyweight deadlift is relatively easy and doesn’t require any complicated programming. Hitting a double bodyweight deadlift takes more consideration but can usually be done after a year or two of proper training. Triple bodyweight is far out of reach for most people. So, somewhere between double and triple bodyweight, there is a point that requires a tremendous amount of work to be passed, and every step along the line demands even more time and effort to be invested. For a powerlifter, strength is the single key quality. A point of diminishing returns does simply not exist for him when it comes to the three big lifts.

For an athlete (especially a fighter), things are a bit more complex. Speed, power, endurance, mobility and, most important of all, specific skill all need to be accomodated in the training process. Spending 20+ hours a week in the squat rack in pursuit of a bigger 1RM is a counter-productive waste of time. A big portion of that time would be better spent on other areas. The same concept holds true if we limit the scope to strength training. Given a time slot of, say, 120 minutes a week (including warmup and general conditioning), taking a 2.3 BW deadlift to 2.5 isn’t going to be easy. Improving rotary stability, explosive power or work capacity instead might yield significantly better results.

Bear in mind that I’m not advocating laziness or complacency here. Also, I’m well aware of the fact that in high-level athletics, a 1% difference in a key quality (e.g., speed or reaction time) can indeed make a difference. That’s not what I’m talking about here, though. Our classes are not necessarily geared towards pro-athletes. Rather, we’re dealing with national and international level amateur athletes, recreational athletes and some weekend warriors. Standards need to be chosen accordingly. In one of his [articles], Chad Waterbury proposes 2.5x bodyweight for the squat or deadlift (whichever is stronger), double bodyweight for the other one (whichever is weaker) and 1.5 x bodyweight for the bench. As Chad points out, these are not requirements but goals. As much as I love and pursue strength, those figures are too high for the people I work with. Don’t get me wrong here, I absolutely believe I can get some of them to that point. However, the amount of work I’d need them to put towards that goal probably doesn’t stand in a sensible relation to the demands they meet in their sports or daily life. Figures that make more sense to me are more like the following:

  • 1.8 x BW Deadlift or Squat (whichever is better) for men, 1.5 for women
  • 1.5 x BW Deadlift or Squat (whichever is worse) for men, 1.3 for women
  • 1.5 x BW Bench Press for men, 1.2 for women

For practical reasons, I have everybody squat the way that’s best suited for them in terms of biomechanics. Someone with bum shoulders just doesn’t need to squat low bar. Zombie squats and front squats minimize knee shear forces and allow for a vertical tibia, making it the exercise of choice for the ACL deficient (at sufficient depth). Some favor olympic-style high bar squatting. That’s fine with me, as long as movement quality is acceptable. All people aren’t created equal.There’s some coherent thought on the topic presented [here].

Before we start talking quantity, we still have to consider quality first. Quite frankly, I believe that everybody with a healthy back can deadlift. After all, nothing you do in the gym is more functional than picking heavy stuff up without blowing your discs. I mean, after all, we do this all the time, right? There’s a post over at [Sparta Point] on how [Deadlifts Can Cure Back Pain, Not Cause It].

Still, not everybody should be deadlifting with a barbell. Placing the weight nearer to a person’s COG allows for a more vertical back angle, less shear stress on the spine and more quad utilization. I didn’t make this up, a study by Swinton et al back in 2012 covers this. A reference to the study is made [here], if you fancy the cliff notes version. In case you’re a geek (such as me), [PubMed] is your friend. So, before we start lifting heavy stuff, we have our athletes get into the deadlift bottom position with a fully loaded bar – one that is so heavy that no one even thinks about picking it up. This one’s just an assessment to check wheter a person can get into a proper deadlift position or not, that is all. Those who can’t will be given a more squatty version, such as – you guessed it – the trap-bar or landmine deadlift.

Back to quantity. Following the above presented line of thought, we’ll have our athletes (at least those who pass the deadlift screen and are injury-free) perform a 5 RM test and extrapolate the 1 RM from there. I know that this kind of testing isn’t perfectly accurate, but it’ll do. Once somebody hits 1.8, I’ll have him switch to single leg single arm work in order to hammer that core strength.

As for pushing, we’ll be employing push up variations again. Mike Robertson (amongst others) has [made a point] on why the push up is an awesome exercise. I agree. Not only does it bring a ton of anti-extension core stabilization demands (which is a good thing – one less pattern we need to worry about when choosing the remaining exercises), it’s also much easier on the shoulders than, say, bench pressing. This is due to the fact that the scapulae are allowed to rotate freely – as opposed to a bench press where they get pinned down on the bench. Now since fighters tend to have terribly beaten up shoulders, the push up is a good idea. Interestingly, though, it’s not only fighters who suffer from excessive kyphosis and a head-forward posture. Working a nine to five desk job will pretty much do the same thing to the average Joe’s posture.

Just as with the deadlift, it’s a good idea to have a standard in place to check for the right time to transition from bilateral to unilateral push ups (i.e., single arm push ups). Basically, we could go through the math here, but then again, this [has been done] [more than once]. Hence, we’ll jump right to conclusions – go ahead and check out the links if you wish, the rest of this article isn’t going to run away. Just as with the deadlift, we’ll keep stuff rather easy. The first separation is based on the simple test if somebody is able to perform a single, full push up. For those who can’t, we’ll regress to incline push ups. Next check is to see whether said athlete can do 12 consequent push ups (smart, huh?). Those who can’t will stick with regular push ups until they can. No rocket science here. Next step is adding weight. I’ve come to prefer the backpack mount I’ve learned from [Benni] over the dip belt. This is because the weight is distributed over the shoulder girdle rather than the lumbar spine, thus loading the pressing muscles to a higher degree. Also, there is no need for any additional incline. Check the pictures and you’ll see what I mean.

The transition to unilateral exercise is not a straight-forward one. There’s just a whole bunch of variables that need to be considered – the single arm push up introduces a strong anti-rotation component (placing even higher demand on multi-planar core stabilization), while at the same time allowing for some body english, i.e., changing the working angle of participating muscles. Still, to keep things easy, we’ll just consider the purely mechanical aspects for the time. Hence, we’ll perform a 5RM test on the weighted push up. Performing five proper reps with one third of bodyweight as additional load means that the pressing muscles have all the strength they need to perform a single arm push up. Consider this: in a single arm push up, two thirds of your bodyweight need to be pressed with one arm. Loading the shoulder girdle directly results in a more or less full increase in load, i.e., adding 15kg to the shoulder girdle will increase the load by something nearer to 15kg than 10kg. This means that for a 75kg athlete, bodyweight alone will contribute 50kg to the load. Adding another 25kg makes a total of 75kg. Considering the fact that five repetitions can be performed somewhere near 85% 1RM, this yields a (hypothetic) 1RM of around 88kg. This makes a load per arm of roughly 44kg. Not quite the necessary 50 (remember, this is what has to be lifted for a 75kg athlete – two thirds of bodyweight), but a little bit of an incline can do wonders here. After all, it’s not necessarily raw pressing strength I’m after when prescribing single arm pushups. Rather, it’s a blend of pressing strength, anti-extension stability and anti-rotation stability – the type of core control you’ll need when throwing hard punches. Again, there’s a [nice article] on Sparta Point that examines the single arm pushup from an injury prevention point of view.

When it comes to pulling, we’re blending a qualitative measure with a quantitative one. There’s quite [some information] on the topic of pushing/pulling balance and how it affects shoulder health. Therefore, we’ll be assessing pulling strength in the context of pushing strength. Again, this will be done with a 5RM, this time on the bent over row. The corresponding values are easily obtained from the push up assessment. If there’s a significant discrepancy between pushing and pulling strength (with pushing strength being much higher), targeted strength work for the pulling chain is warranted. This basically means bent-over rows or double KB rows, whichever is more convenient. On the other hand, if pushing and pulling match AND pushing strength is good enough to warrant single arm work, we’ll go down a similar road for the pulling stuff by employing renegade rows and / or [single arm offset inverted rows]. Again, this yields a ton of core stability and therefore has a high carryover to athletic activities. Also, if the’Re good enough for Diego Sanchez, they’re probably good enough for you…

As for the core, we’ve got the anti-extension pattern covered in every case through pushups. There’s not a lot of load in that pattern, but then again it seldom is, if you think about it. Anti-flexion is covered by the deadlifting stuff. Long live the compound lifts. Depending on the individual exercise selection, there might already be a ton of anti-rotation going on. In that case, some dynamic rotation training is in order. This decision can be made as soon as there is unilateral work in play, regardless of whether we’re looking at single leg single arm deadlifts or single arm push ups. Remember Mike Boyle’s words: „Before we teach an athlete to generate rotation, he must be able to control it“. This one is huge, especially in terms of long-term health preservation. That is why, for those who only do sagittal plane stuff (due to their relatively low strength levels), anti-rotation training has precedence over rotational training. This might frustrate some people, but then again, what we like to do is seldom what we need to do. Training, by definition, is about results. We aim to deliever. During my [FMS certification course], I picked up a great dynamic anti-flexion, anti-rotation exercise that is highly scalable and delievers big time. That’ll be „Core 1“, i.e., the first of two specific core exercises for those who are otherwise trapped in the sagittal plane with their training. The third video below shows Renata and myself demonstrating the exercise. Guess Renata is better at this than me.

Those who are already incorporating a ton of anti-rotation will transition towards dynamic rotation training. The Cable Push Pull Rotation is one of [Dr. Gottlob]’s favorites for that matter. If it’s goo enough for Europe’s godfather of back health, it’s probably good enough for us.

„Core 2“ will be [single leg med ball catches], if feasible on an unstable surface. This one’s not so much about developing strength but rather getting everything to fire at the time and in the way it should. Strength alone ain’t enough. There needs to be purpose, and control. After all, the class is called „Athletics“, not powerlifting (as much as I respect powerlifters – they exhibit great control and purpose, but my athletes just aren’t PLs).

As indicated on the part on continuums at the beginning of the post, we do not only choose the right exercise for the task, we also set the parameters according to the goal. This means that for more experienced trainees, an emphasis will be put on higher loads and less repetitions, while rookies play it safe by adding a structural base first. The following table gives an overview over the

Push Up Row
Landmine DL 3-5 Incline Push Up 8-12 Bent Over Row 8-12
Kettlebell DL 5-8 Bodyweight Push Up 8-12 Renegade Row 4-6
Barbell DL 3-5 Weighted Push Up 5-8
Single Arm Single Leg DL 4-6 Single Arm Push Up 4-6

The „stamina“ part at the end of the class is pretty much an HIIT circuit. Here, the complimentary patterns are trained with higher velocities and lighter load. In a sense, we’re talking power endurance here, not strength endurance. By complimentary patterns, we mean that for a hinge in the strength part, a squat is trained in the stamina part. Horizontal pulling / pushing in the strength part is matched with vertical pulling and pushing in stamina. The circuit is comprised of 5 activities, again, push, pull, squat/hinge and two core control exercises. Rounds will be at 15 seconds, with the circuit being performed in an i-go-you-go fashion. That means that the group splits in groups of two and works in an alternating fashion. After the first partner finished his interval, the other gets ready and starts his. The resulting rest period is slightly longer than the work interval (consider this: 15 sec work, 2 sec for the other partner to get ready, 15 sec work, 2 sec to transition to the next station = 15 / 19 work / rest). So far, so good. Going for high-rep, high-velocity overhead work isn’t for everybody, though, so here we need another qualitative assessment. We’ll „borrow“ [one from Eric Cressey]. This one’s super easy and doesn’t require more than a couple of seconds.

Those with proper overhead competency can go haywire on [thrusters] for their pressing pattern. On the other hand, those who need to pay some attention to shoulder health will instead go for [Wall Balls]. Check out the following two videos to see the difference in shoulder flexion between, say, Wall Ball and Thruster. Both groups do jump squats for power endurance in the squat pattern.

Both of these make the pressing angle a bit more horizontal and spare the shoulders. Vertical pulling comes in the form of med ball slams done for reps. One could argue about whether or not chops are indeed pulls, but then again, everything can be discussed and argued. Remember, safety first. I’m not going to employ stuff like butterfly kipping pull ups and the like. Also, due to our facilities layout, O-Lifts that result in dropping the bar are out of the question. „Do what you can with what you have where you are“, as Teddy Roosevelt said. „Core“ comes in the form of [sit throughs]. No, this ain’t a fighting class, but I see no reason not to use martial arts specific drills. After all, this is where I come from and after all, the Shinergy[base] is first and foremost a competency center for martial arts and holistic movement. Also, there’s lots of multi-planar, dynamic stability in both moves, with relatively high cardiac-respiratory demands and low to moderate impact.

In case you’re wondering why there is no unilateral or asymmetrical work in the stamina parts, that’s by design, not accident. Over the last months, we’ve expanded the whole thing from one round of 20/20 to two rounds of 20/20 to two rounds of 30/30. Next step is the introduction of more rounds, namely, three. This is inconvenient for unilateral stuff, though, so we’ll skip that and rather stick with bilateral exercise until we hit four rounds.

Now while all of the above might sound as if we were making things unnecessarily complicated (after all, you could just hit the gym and do your typical 3 sets of 10 on curls, kickbacks and bench presses, right?), that ain’t so. Actually, we’re following a rather simple, structures approach:

  1. Do no harm
    • don’t get your athletes hurt
  2. Assess don’t guess
    • look at both movement quality and performance markers for individual program design
  3. Train like an athlete
    • think movement, not muscles
  4. Follow a developmental approach:     
    • train stability first, then transition to dynamics
    • start with bilateral exercise, but keep the goal unilateral
    • work sagittal plane strength as long as feasible, then switch to more athletic endeavors
  5. Address individual needs
    • what we’re good at is usually what we like, but seldom what we need

In Mai and June, this leads to the following screening and assessment pipeline:

  •     Assess overhead competency
  •     Establish a 5RM on the deadlift
  •     Establish a 5RM on the weighted push up
  •     Establish a 5RM on the bent over barbell row

That’s pretty much it. From these 4 informations, the program can be derived from the following flowchart. Want to see the whole thing in action? Join one of our classes at the [Shinergy[base]] and experience the results for yourself!

So long,

take care

Mai / June Program Flowchart

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