Monday, December 11, 2006

What's your function?

It's a season of resurrection not the least of which that of Rocky Balboa. Besides a thorough stroking of the amygdala, the movie is always a homage to simple, functional training and it's the only time I like comparing myself to Burgess Meredith.

In the film, whether Rocky has access to world class facilities or hefty logs carried through several feet of snow, he always opts for simple training that gets the job done. He works the same movements over and over again with varied loads and varied volume. It appears as if his training is a product of his coach's stubborn superstition and mythology coupled with the fighter's, well, cerebral limitations. Did I mention he wins?

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu professore Marcelo Alonso teaches well-worn movements in a wise study of 'what works.' In the Gracie camp, the focus is very much on the minutiae of the movements and it's a painstaking process in which we're often reminded that it takes 10,000 repetitions before a submission is done correctly. When I asked Cindy Hale, a local brown belt and amazing athlete under Gracie Baha what contributed to her rapid rise in the sport, she said, "I rolled. A LOT." Training the movements over and over again against a variety of opponents taught her to execute submissions smoothly against a variety of opponents. Simple. Without the will or the time to invest in repetitious movement studies, I heard a fighter exclaim in exasperation, "the only thing wrong with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the Brazilians."

Intuitive trainers who are passionate about performance don't let the science narrow their view or get tricked into thinking they have the mysteries of the body solved. It's training movement not muscle and letting the science sort itself out. But when there's new and sexy equipment out there and clients demand a technical explanation for everything we do, it's hard not to surrender to a place in which anatomy charts have our backs.

Mel Siff has as deep an understanding of the intricacies of the human body as you're likely to find and yet his advice regarding training has more to do with what we don't know than what we do. In his analysis which appears in an article called "So this is how the muscles work?", he lists some of the most important limitations of traditional kinesiological analysis:

  1. It does not take into account the contributions to movement by distant muscles which do not cross the joints involved in the action.
  2. A given external movement pattern is not necessarily produced by the identical muscle actions every time that the movement takes place (this issue was also discussed by Dr Bernstein and in a recent copy of the Scientific American)
  3. Recent research has shown that biological systems like the body do not necessarily rely on highly predictable, determinate, linear events in which one action always results in a specific result or in a result whose magnitude depends directly on the original stimulus. Thus, the body often tends to invoke processes that scientifically are known as nonlinear, indeterminate, random, chaotic or ‘fuzzy’. So, a small change in one muscle can produce either a small change, no change at all or even a large or damaging change in the external movement. Some workers who believe that injuries are caused by measurable ‘muscle imbalances’ invariably neglect to mention the important fact that apparently insignificant or indiscernible changes in muscle activation or lack thereof can serve as an even more relevant factor in the injury (and recovery) process. This means that all of their complicated muscle kinesiology descriptions and tests may be entirely irrelevant. The tricky part is that we currently have no way of determining exactly what the cause of anything but the most traumatic contact or impact injuries is. Much the same is true about chronic pain. In plain words, anyone who claims otherwise, is not telling you the whole truth.

And, in his conclusion:

"Because of this multiplicity of actions associated with multiarticular complex movement, Zajac and Gordon stress a point made by Basmajian (1978), namely that it may be more useful to examine muscle action in terms of synergism rather than agonism and antagonism. This is especially important, since a generalised approach to understanding human movement on the basis of breaking down all movement into a series of single joint actions fails to take into account that muscle action is task dependent."

Now if Burgess Meredith assigned a bunch of isolation exercises to address specific imbalances to facilitate greater range of motion at the shoulder and if Rocky spent his last two weeks doing 'wall angels' it may have been a whole different movie. What's fun is when organizations that tout a higher understanding of this business called training manage to prove how ineffective sexy new equipment is in contrast to simply training movement.

Bursting Balance Bubbles

An article appears in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Volume 20, Number 4, November 2006 published by NSCA entitled 'Isometric Squat Force Output and Muscle Activity in Stable and Unstable Conditions.' In the article, of which I'll spare you a lot of the blah-blah anatomically-referenced noise, the conclusion when testing a standard squat against a squat executed on those blow-up balance disks, was as follows:

  • "The primary finding in this investigation is that isometric squatting in an unstable condition significantly reduces peak force, rate of force development and agonist muscle activity with no change in antagonist or synergist muscle activity. In terms of providing a stimulus for strength gain no discernable benefit of performing a resistance exercise in an unstable condition was observed in the current study." Yep, the darn things are useless. What is useful, however, is squatting - the plain, old-fashioned kind.

Mark Rippetoe, author of 'Starting Strength' has 25 years experience in the fitness industry, 10 years personal experience as a competitive powerlifter and a sound contempt for organized science. His coaching cues are sparse but effective and he can sum up his feedback with a loud proclamation. That's "bull%^&*!" he'd say in that southern kind of way and with a special emphasis on the drawled 'bull'. I only got the benefit of his coaching for an afternoon but it was clear that he'd filtered through all the unnecessary to create a simple 'what works' for squatting. In the spirit of sound, functional training, and since it's Monday and CrossFit Eastside will have us all squatting 5x5, I offer the following:

Squat, Old School
5 Sets of 5 reps at 80% of your 1 rep max
If you don't know your 1 rep max, estimate conservatively

If you're not ready for weight, work on form:

10 Squats
10 Push-ups
10 Rounds

Focus on form. If it deteriorates to the point that you're tipping forward on your toes or bending excessively at the waist, limit your rounds

Even better, if you don't want to wait until we meet again, drop by CrossFit Eastside tonight at 6p. Michael and Carrie can give you additional expert coaching and help you determine proper loading. I'll be there and I'll happily introduce you around.