Thursday, August 27, 2009

More Pressing Thoughts

I recently wrote about how I have pressing more. On a weekly basis, I have increased the volume of pressing I do by over 800%. For today's workout I pressed 75% of my 1RM (77% to be exact) for 5 ladders of 2, 3, 5 & 8 reps -- 90 total reps in just over 60 minutes. This is by far the most pressing I've ever done in one workout.

During the course of the workout I just happened to reach behind my back and perform the Shoulder Mobility test as described in the Functional Movement Screen. To my surprise, I was able to touch my hands in both directions, something I've never done before! The strange thing is that I have made absolutely no attempts at correcting this problem since I learned of it. The only thing different about my training is the increase in overhead barbell presses.

But wait, won't barbell presses, a symmetrical and bilateral movement, further exaggerate an asymmetry in the shoulders? Wouldn't it be better to use kettlebells or dumbbells and do one arm presses to help 'even out' the shoulders?

Not this time.

I turned in thousands of kettlbell presses, jerks & snatches last year when I was training like a for kettlebell sport and it did nothing for the asymmetry in my shoulders. So what is it about the barbell press that balanced out my shoulders? I think it's the simple fact that the barbell IS balanced.

A common argument for 1 arm lifts is for balance. Perhaps that is true with a strait forward strength imbalance but that wasn't my problem (my best lifts right hand were shared with the left). My problem, as Gray Cook pointed out at the CK-FMS in August 2008, was that my right scapula did not rotate like my left when I reached behind my back. After that he did some kind of physical therapy wizardry, manipulating my shoulder and then all of a sudden it was moving properly. Before turning his attention to someone else, Gray quickly rattled off a few corrective exercises I should do to lock that movement pattern in and I just as quickly dismissed those exercises and never did them again!

Ok, that's not entirely true. I did a few rolls and some stretching but I can't claim that I gave the corrective exercises the time they deserved. What can I say? I am impatient and have limited time to train. When it comes to prehab or pressing in the 60 minutes I have in between clients 9 times out of 10 I am going to press.
But wait a minute! Pressing is one of the SM corrective exercises! Wall sit with shoulder press. Does it matter that it is not a weighted exercise? I guess that's a question for Gray, but my experience tells me that it doesn't matter.
Perhaps I just needed to move both scapulae in the same direction at the same time? That’s something you can do with a barbell press.

I told Dan John the other day that I really felt like I hit a groove with my press. No more wobbling in the lock out. No more wayward travels of the bar. Just smooth, piston-like pressing that I felt super comfortable with; something I have not experienced before. And the SM scores reflect that.
So is the barbell press the cure to everyone's shoulder problems? I doubt it. But this is one instance where that seems to be the case.

More Barefoot Thoughts

Most of my training is now being done in VFF. Running, lifting, farmers walking, skipping rope, everything. For whatever reason, for today's press workout I grabbed my weightlifting shoes. Solid wooden sole, elevated heel, made for weightlifting... though I just couldn't get the feel for them. I've been lifting in these shoes for years, hit many of PR's in them, and until now, they've been the most comfortable lifting shoes I've ever worn.

I decided to switch over to the VFF after the first couple sets and although I can't claim some immediate boost of strength I did notice some subtle changes as I approached the end of my workout. I noticed that my toes started to grip the ground. I am familiar with the phrase "grip the ground" from my yoga practice as well as from Pavel's writings but this was different. There was an engagement from the feet that I had not felt before, specifically from the big toe. It just felt strong as it pressed into the ground.

I mentioned before that I am stronger with stronger feet and I think this is anecdotal evidence to that statement. It felt like I drew strength from my feet (an occurrence that is happening more regularly now). Perhaps this is what martial artists call “rooting.” Regardless what you call it or how you explain it, there's no denying that I had a sturdier base to press from today and it was achieved without the help of sport-specific footwear.

While on the topic of footwear, let me tell you about an interesting observation I have made in the last couple weeks. My regular shoes, dress shoes, work boots, etc, they don’t fit well anymore. I’ve worn size 14 shoes since highschool and for the first time since 9th grade I am wearing a 13 again. Even the rental shoes from the bowling alley (which I am sure are the same ones from 9th grade) are just too big now.

I am simply sharing with you an observation. I am not claiming barefoot training has made my feet shrink (as if I care). I actually measured my feet to the nearest 1/8” to get fitted for the Vibram’s, and when I stretch my foot out it remains the same. But when I just plant my foot and step, I am now measuring a 1/8” less than I was when I sized myself 3 months ago. As crazy as it sounds, I believe I am holding a higher arch now that I have been training barefoot.

This is very loose science right here but I have made an observation and I have a theory. If the podiatrist that fitted me with orthotics 5 years ago still has the molds he took of my feet, perhaps I could test my theory but for now the only evidence to support my claim is a closet full of shoes that don’t fit anymore. It does appear that I have a higher arch now, and there is no question my feet have thickened and toughed up (always a good thing) but other than that, all I have to offer you are a few odd details about my feet.

Why should you care?

Because I am stronger with stronger feet. And I bet you are too.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Steel Bending, VFF, Yoga & Dan John

The following is a report on my current training goals and how I've successfully married the completely unrelated pursuits of steel bending, barefoot running, yoga and strength training minimums as per Dan John.

My first priority training goal right now is steel bending. All sorts of steel; short, long, flat, round, horseshoes, hardware, whatever. I'm about a year into a long and slow process of conditioning my hands to the pressures of bending steel. I just recently bent the Ironmind red nail and although that is considered by many to be an elite level of bending, I feel like I'm only scratching the surface of my potential. Best of all, I'm having a lot of fun in the process!

Because I'm having so much fun, it's difficult to find the right training balance of this potentially dangerous activity. I can't train too often, or too hard, less I get hurt. I have to wait patiently until the tissues adapt to such forces. Even if I can block out the pain involved in bending steel, I must gradually increase the workload... my body demands it!

I'm still figuring out how to progress in this type of conditioning, one that has nothing to do with my muscular or cardiovascular development. I imagine that anyone who has been down this path had to pave their own way. Because steel bending involves trauma to the body, not to mention belief and commitment from the mind, it makes it a highly individual endeavor. Experienced benders can offer only general advice to those who inquire about steel bending programs. Just the sound of a "steel bending program" sounds ridiculous! Each man must find his own way.

Very similar to the desensitization process I'm going through with my hands, I'm going through with my feet via barefoot running (not quite barefoot, but the Vibram Five Fingers is about as close as it gets). The goal here is a multi-faceted one. I want to strengthen my feet, I want to be in good cardiovascular shape and I want to shed a couple pounds of bodyfat; so I run in VFF's. Sometimes I run sprints, sometimes I run miles, sometimes I run while carrying really heavy weights (more on that later) but I do so all in the VFF's and it all goes towards the aforementioned goals.

Barefoot training is not a new concept but it is a new experience for me. I'm about 2 months into training in the VFF's and so far what I have found is that the stronger my feet are, the stronger I am. Pavel wrote about the mechanoreceptors in the hands and feet in his book Power to the People and he explained why you should lose the lifting gloves and soft cushioned shoes (if you haven't read this book, I suggest you do). I can't help but think that desensitizing my feet is somehow helping to desensitize my hands for steel bending. Regardless of any relation there, I can tell you for certain that with stronger feet I am now a better runner. In fact, the last time I checked I had improved my 1.5 mile time by 30 seconds and my 3 mile time by 90 seconds.

The other thing that barefoot training is doing for me is helping my yoga practice -- I can hold poses much longer and much steadier now. I've been practicing yoga on and off for nearly 10 years now. I find that I feel much better, and move much better when I am doing yoga at least a couple times a month. Plus it's always fun for a 225lb steel bending weightlifter to attend a yoga class full of petite women who are into things like organic granola and saving the trees and have them inquire about my training and compliment me on my flexibility. It happens every time. :)

With all of these different pursuits you may wonder where I fit in my strength training and what Dan John has to do with any of this. In order to prioritize steel bending and running, I have cut my strength work back to bare bones minimum. Dan John has helped me to realize what that minimum is for me and not only has he given me a new perspective on what strength training is but he's also been kind enough to provide me with a little guidance on that which ails me, my overhead press.

First let's talk about what strength training is according to DJ:

1. Lifting a weight off the ground
2. Lifting a weight overhead
3. Carrying a weight for distance

I think you really need to understand training to be able to appreciate this perspective. Tell this to your average gym rat and he'll probably ask what you do for your bi's. Huh? Nevermind. These 3 things are the fullest expressions of total body strength! I can see that now.

So in order to meet these facets with the bare minimum I've cut my strength work down to 2 lifts -- the clean & press and the farmers walk. (Interesting to note that the C&P is one of my weakest lifts while the farmers walk is one of my best.)

For the last 3 months I've been pressing almost everyday -- an easy 135 for 2 sets of 5. I got the idea to do this from Dan's book Never Let Go (which reminded me Pavel also suggested this in PTTP). I'm not used to training a lift with this kind of frequency so I figured I would hit Dan up with a few questions about when to progress in weight and how often I should test my max. He was kind enough to answer my questions, my follow up questions and my questions thereafter. I should be paying the man for the advice he's given me but since he didn't ask I'll just buy his products, tell you what a nice guy he is and tell you that you should buy his products too!

After about 8 weeks of pressing 135x5 everyday I started cleaning each rep and mixing 3x8 and 5x5 workouts into the set/rep scheme. A few weeks later and my 1RM is up 5lbs from where it was when I was 20lbs heavier. Dan then suggested I do 2, 3, 5, 10 reps for 3, 5 and 2 ladders, and then test my max again. Problem was the first time I did this workout I hit my max on the 10th rep of the first ladder, second ladder I only got 8. Fine. Dan tells me to do 2, 3, 5, 8.

An interesting thing about ladder workouts is that they seem to confuse the body. I swear the 2 & 3 rep sets seemed to be the most difficult whereas the 5 & 8 rep sets the bar just flew up. This workout better than doubled the volume of pressing I was used to and caused noticeable hypertrophy in my shoulders that lasted long after the pump was gone. I've got another week before I test my max again but I'm feeling confident about adding another 5lbs to the bar. And though it's a little farther off, a bodyweight press is in the future as well.

As for the farmers walks, I know I said DJ was a nice guy but he is really a sinister S.O.B. who "does what [he] can to ruin peoples day" (direct quote). I guarantee you will curse name if you try the following workout...

It was about a month ago when I listened to a podcast that featured Mr. John. In it he suggested a workout in which you farmers carry a pair of 85lb dumbbells "as far away" as you can for 10 minutes. Then carry them back. I first tried this (20 minutes after I had listened to the podcast) with a pair of 70lb kettlebells. To make up for the 15lb difference I (foolishly) went downhill for the first half of the workout leaving the uphill climb for after I was already spent. Long story short, I made it a half mile in 10 minutes, it took me 19 minutes to get back home and then another 10 minutes to lie on the sidewalk and contemplate why I had subjected myself to such a thing. Somehow I think DJ knew this would happen. What a jerk that guy is.

It wasn't more than 2 weeks later (after I recovered) that I tried the workout again using 88lb kettlebells. (I know, glutton for punishment, but I had to at least give it a go with the prescribed weight.) This time I went uphill first and saved the downhill trip for the way back. That was a lesson I learned in about 19 minutes as per the last attempt. I traveled 3/4 of mile all in all, and it only took me 13:30 to get back. To my surprise, I did this workout again exactly one week later and carried the 40kg KB's an entire mile, only this time I did it in 3 laps around the block at my own pace, simply because I needed to periodically check on my daughter. But I digress...

Now is a good time to mention that all of these farmers walks were done in VFF. You think your feet get sore running in Vibrams? Try carrying a couple hundred pounds as far as you can over and over again and see how your feet feel the next day! Do this for a couple weeks and take note of how your feet feel during the workoutS as you progress. I mentioned that I am stronger with stronger feet, see if you don't find the same to be true.

I find it very interesting how all of these seemingly unrelated goals have blended together. I've found complete harmony in several extreme forms of training and I'm making gains on every front. Thanks goes to the following people for helping me on my path: Adam Glass for recommending Dennis Rogers' Oldtime Strongman University. Thanks to mc for securing the RKC discount on VFF's. Thanks to Dan John for all the help with my pressing program (I will let you know how the next max effort goes). And thanks to everyone else who is kicking ass and taking names! From the athletes, to the trainers, to the business gurus and to the ones who are doing it all -- keep up the good work!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Good Morning Maryland

Here is a clip from the ABC2 News "Good Morning Maryland" show where I teach unsuspecting construction workers the trick to tearing phonebooks...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

5/16" drill rod

Bending progress is coming along nicely. Here's my first attempt at red nail sized hardened tool steel...