The Barbell Coaching Series: The Deadlift Part 1

In 1987 at the World’s Strongest Man Competition in Scotland, the first ever four-time champion of the event, Jon Pall Sigmarsson, famously shouted, “there is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift!”  He was able to scream these words while holding 1153 pounds.  You should watch it here.  In that short clip, there is a lot to talk about, but in this post and video we will cover why it is important to deadlift and some tips on how to get started.


DL off floor goodHaving been involved in strength training and fitness for a while now, it seems that the fear of deadlifting is beginning to subside.  In the past, if you were not into powerlifting or strongman, or trying to be strong, performing the deadlift was a scary proposition.  People would only hear the word “dead” and think that performing this exercise was going to kill you and destroy your back.  As people are starting to learn, this is the exact opposite of the truth. The deadlift trains a very important movement pattern, the hinge.  It requires bracing of the midsection and thoroughly activates the posterior chain.  If done heavy enough, almost every muscle in the body becomes a contributor, which is why the deadlift is thought by many to be the truest test of full body strength.   From middle school to the elderly, the deadlift, or some form of it, should be in your training regimen.  

The following training advice will refer to teaching someone how to deadlift with a barbell.  Yes, there are other tools that can be used like a kettlebell or trap bar (or gigantic train wheels with a square axle like Jon Pall) but the barbell is king.  They are easy to find and easy to use, especially in the step-by-step progression we are going to teach you.  
When beginning, there are two lessons that need to be understood.  The first is how to hinge.  We have written many articles about how to load the posterior chain when doing KB swings and drills that can be used to teach the hinge movement pattern.  All of those drills will prove valuable in your trainer tool kit.  See one of our many recommended drills here.

Things start to change though when weight is added, which is why you also have to teach lesson two, how to load tension throughout the body/bar system.  The easiest way we have found to teach both of these things at the same time, is the “rack pull” or deadlift off of blocks.  

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The bar height, instead of roughly around the mid-shin when lifting off the floor, will be around the knees, just like it is in the Jon Pall video.  One of the characteristics of a deadlift is a more horizontal than vertical spine.  In the video, Jon Pall drives his knees under the bar and with a vertical spine extends the load off the ground using his knees.  When teaching beginners off the blocks we do something slightly different.  We coach people to have a smaller knee bend and a more horizontal spine, which pushes the load to the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and lats.  Just to be clear, we are in no way being critical of Jon Pall’s technique, that would be ridiculous.  He used more of a squatting technique for a specific reason just as we are using more of a hinge.  Watch the video below for specifics of how we use the short range of motion deadlift to teach beginners the basics of pulling well and pulling heavy.  

There is much, much more to come on this topic and other barbell exercises so stay tuned!

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The Kettlebell Coaching Series: The Turkish Get Up Part 1

The Turkish Get-Up is awesome and is the best exercise your are not doing. Legend claims It’s at least 200 years old and is thought to have been created for soldiers fighting with shields and swords as a means to get from their back to a standing position when an enemy was on top of them. While its history is impressive, its training impact on training and performance is even more significant. One of the most respected professionals in our industry, Gray Cook, said “The Turkish Get-Up is the perfect example of training primitive movement patterns-from rolling over, to kneeling, to standing and reaching. The Get-Up promotes the shoulders’ stability and mobility. It improves one’s strength in many patterns by teaching the importance of linkage while eliminating strength leakage.” We can’t forget, it also provides the opportunity to functionally evaluate the right and left sides.

While it is amazing one exercise can do all the above (and more), performing and coaching this exercise can be extremely challenging. As a result, many fitness professionals either pretend it doesn’t exist or do some bastardized version they think is just as good. This 2-part series will put you in a position to understand how to perform the Get-Up AND the intricacies of coaching it.

DSC_0971An ideal place to start is with your sneaker. Yes, that’s right… your sneaker. In lieu of a kettlebell, we recommend you begin this process by balancing a sneaker on your fist. We also recommend mastering the Half Get-Up before moving the to “full” Get-Up.

The Half Get-Up is separated into 5 steps:

1: Roll

2: Press

3: Drive up to the elbow

4: Post up onto your hand

5: High bridge

Here are step-by-step instruction on teaching the half get-up:

Now it’s inevitable you will come across some issues along the way. Two very common issues to watch for are the knee on the kettlebell side going valgus at the initiation of the high bridge and shoulder packing.

Here’s one strategy to fix a valgus knee on the kettlebell side:

Here’s a great drill to use to help with shoulder packing on the kettlebell side:

Additional key item to address:

I. What to do with your head and eyes:

It’s important to look at the kettlebell through the entire half get up. However, you should begin to teach this when practicing with a sneaker. If you think about it… there is a heavy piece of iron over your head. Given the fact that you are actively moving your body beneath it, it is a really good idea to keep your focus on the kettlebell. Safety is a real concern here, especially when venturing towards “heavy” kettlebells. We’ll go over spotting in our next post.

II. Setting up after the press

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Get very, very familiar with this position if you are going to perform and/or coach get ups. Setting up correctly after the press sets the stage for the rest of the get up. If your limbs aren’t correctly aligned you might not have the leverage you’ll need to successfully perform a Get-Up. This could mean a failed attempt OR losing the kettlebell and ending up with a serious injury to your cranium.

Notice these key points:

  1. The arm on the kettlebell side is straight (elbow and wrist), the shoulder is packed, and the fist is directly above the shoulder joint.
  2. The leg on the kettlebell side is bent at the knee and the foot is just outside the width of the hip
  3. The arm on the non-kettlebell side is at a 45 degree angle relative to the torso
  4. The leg on the non-kettlebell side is straight

III. Connection with the ground:

There are two key connections to the ground that you want to move as little as possible through the get-up.

  1. The foot on the kettlebell side
    1. This foot SHOULD NOT move once you have pressed the kettlebell while on your back and set up your limbs for the drive to the elbow. Anchor it down and keep it there. This is where much of your stability will come from.
  2. The hand on the non-kettlebell side
    1. You will often see people moving this hand around before going into the high bridge. While you must externally rotate your shoulder and as a result point your fingers away from your body, DO NOT move the location of this hand in relation to your body. If you set up correctly it’s already in the best place to provide adequate stability and leverage.

IV. Shoulder Packing:

Getting your shoulder packed and staying there throughout the get up is no easy feat, but it’s critically important for your shoulder health. You have to go over the concept of shoulder packing before touching the Get-Up. Cover this concept in other exercises (deadlifts, push ups, any/all upper body pulls, etc.) before performing get ups. This is yet another reason to master the Half Get-Up before moving the to Full Get-Up. Packing your shoulders gets progressively harder the “higher’ (further into shoulder flexion) the arm. In other words, it easiest to pack your shoulders with your arms at your sides (farmer’s carry). It the hardest to pack your shoulders when you are at or near 180 degrees of shoulder flexion (waiter’s walk, pull ups, pressing, etc.).

V. Speed bumps

Treat each step in the get-up individually. In other words, think about your next step, perform the action, and then pause. Many refer to these pauses between each step as speed bumps. We reference these speed bumps in the screwdriver video. While the get-up is intended to be a beautiful and graceful set of movements it is also intended to be approached methodically and with focus. Do not blend any of the individual steps into one. You’ll get sloppy and likely increase the chances of a mistake… and remember you still have the big piece of iron over your head so mistakes can be costly.

Please recognize there are many more items to address in the get up. While many of these will be covered in our next post, we won’t address everything as there are simply too many subtle points to address when coaching this exercise. The best way to learn EVERYTHING is to attend a live seminar. If you’re interested visit our homepage to learn more about our CKI-1 Seminar at West Chester University of Pennsylvania this October. www.fit-edu.com

Hungry for more information right now? Check out the below step-by-step half get up pictures in sequential order.

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Building Myelin, Layering Skills, and Transference

Over the past few months, we have focused our posts/attention on one exercise, the two-handed kettlebell swing. Through a series of 4 posts we discussed how to load the posterior chain, increase the chances of gluteal engagement, scapular stability, and finally, proper sequencing. (just scroll down to check them out). While we have received positive feedback about these pieces being helpful for fitness professionals, they weren’t designed to “stand on their own”. It’s time we bring them together.  Much of the source material from this piece is from “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle.

Building Myelin

Before we get deep into the discussion of myelin, practice and how they’re related lets define myelin.

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Myelin: an electrically insulating material that forms a layer (myelin sheath,) around the axon of a neuron. The presence of myelin is essential for proper functioning of the nervous system. The main purpose of a myelin layer is to increase the speed at which impulses travel along the myelinated fiber.

Myelination: the process of forming a myelin sheath around a nerve to allow nerve impulses to move more quickly.

Circuits: A grouping of nerve fibers that work simultaneously and/or in series to complete a particular movement or task

Now that we have gotten that out of the way lets talk about the relationship between practice and myelination.  New research has revealed that myelin, once considered an inert form of insulation for brain cells, may be the holy grail of acquiring skill. Daniel Coyle has described this new information as a revolution that will forever change the way we view talent and practice. Here’s an excerpt:

“The revolution is built on three simple facts. (1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons—a circuit of nerve fibers. (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy. (3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.”

UnknownWhen we take part in “deep” (quality, mistake focused) practice of a skill where quality learning occurs (anything from playing the piano to deadlifting) we build myelin. The more deep practice the better and the more mistakes you make (and learn from) the better. The phrase practice makes perfect has been thrown around for generations and while logical, we didn’t have any scientific basis to back this up. What has been discovered is that it’s really deep practice that makes perfect. Myelin grows in direct response to deep (mistake focus practiced).  For instance, once a mistake is made, it is more beneficial to stop, evaluate what went wrong, and try to immediately fix it on the next attempt than to plow through and disregard your errors.  Twenty minutes of deep practice can easily trump an hour of mindless practice. Daniel Coyle described this process as follows:

“Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop, think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit farther each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively.

As it relates to fitness and high skill work like a kettlebell swing, clean, snatch etc. it’s critical the student takes part in deep practice early on. Being mindful of your position in different parts of a movement and more importantly developing and understanding of what good positioning is… is essential for building myelin.

Layering Skills

Another aspect of building myelin is quality coaching.  A master coach, pinpoints flaws and knows how to address each one and in the right order to optimize performance.  A quality coach needs to have an abundance of knowledge about their given subject (coaches need to build myelin just like their students).  What a quality coach does is recognize exactly what makes their student improve, take them slighlty out of their comfort zone and guide them to the next level.  Every student needs to be handled differently because they all respond to different motivations.  If you have a vast supply of tools in your coaching toolbox (interpersonally and skill specific) you will be a more effective coach.

DSC_1151Bringing this back to the kettlebell swing, if you notice your student is not able to grasp the idea of hinging, put the kettlebell down and do a drill that will help them to feel the movement and positions you want them to achieve.  For a beginner with little movement skills, this is often all it takes to get them out of their comfort zone.  Hinge drills with a piece of PVC pipe and high tension front planks will do much more for this person than swinging a kettlebell. Once they master the hinge and high tension plank have them perform swings to apply this new skill. The coach must then begin to layer in additional skills as needed. Staying with the example of the kettlebell swing these additional skills should include “core firing” / “tightness” at the top of the swing, shoulder packing, DSC_1157and then sequencing.

Here’s the order we use when layering skills in the kettlebell swing:

  1. Hinge
  2. Core Firing / Tightness
  3. Shoulder Packing
  4. Sequence

**Please note: Our last 4 Kettlebell Coaching Series Posts addressed how to coach each of these ** View the coaching videos here 

Transference

If you want to develop complex skills, the drills used to improve them must have a direct transference to your goals.

Another practice that helps to build myelin, and was briefly mentioned above, is slowing a skill down to a snail’s pace. The above section referenced the hip hinge drill as a tool to help teach the kettlebell swing. This is drill is purposefully performed SLOWLY.  It’s important to feel the top and bottom positions in the swing before actually performing the exercise due to the speed of movement.  The swing is essentially a hip hinge on steroids. No race car driver begins their career driving at 200 mph!  He or she probably started with a bike, than a go-cart or 4-wheeler, then maybe some small dirt track races.  They most likely spend at least a decade racing at lower speeds before safely and effectively driving at 200 mph with other cars only inches away.  Now you might say, I’ve had my drivers license for 20 years does that mean I can drive a car 200 mph?  The obvious answer is no, but the reason why may be cloudy.  Driving to work and back has no transference to racing.  By law, you are allowed to drive 65 mph  on some highways in our area.  Therefore, your circuits are only myelinated for driving up to 65 mph.  And what happens when someone gets too close to us?  We beep our horn at them!  We are used to a nice cushion around us.  Driving a race car requires much deeper  and more specific practice than driving our sedans to a grocery store provides.

As you can tell we are fans of the “Talent Code” and highly recommend all coaches read it. We also feel if you are training others with kettlebells it’s critical to your development as a coach and to the safety of your students you get a coaching focused kettlebell certification. When it comes to teaching bells it’s all about having a systematic well thought out approach.

In our Level 1 Certified Kettlebell Instructor (CKI-1) you will learn:

  1. Our system for teaching each of the Kettlebell Big 3 (Swing, Goblet Squat, Turkish Get Up)
  2. How to developing your coach’s eye
  3. Corrective exercises and coaching drills to “fix”movement flaws,
  4. Simple yet effective programming strategies.

Visit our homepage to see our upcoming seminar schedule. www.fit-edu.com

The Kettlebell Coaching Series Pt 2: Glute Activation

Glutes. There is a lot of talk about butt muscles these days. Two months ago Tiger Woods blamed his poor play on the inability to fire his glutes during his swing.  While we are not sure that was the problem for Tiger, lack of muscular contraction in the glutes is an issue for many people. As a result, a lot of time and effort is spent by trainers, S&C Coaches, and performance coaches simply trying to get the glutes to “fire”.

Here’s a very brief anatomy / physiology review of the glutes

glutes2The glutes along with the “abs” are prime stabilizers of the pelvis and torso. The gluteal muscles are a group of three muscles which make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. The three muscles originate from the illium and sacrum and insert on the femur. The gluteus maximus is the largest of the gluteal muscles and one of the strongest in the body. Its action is to extend and to laterally rotate the hip, and also to extend the trunk.

Everyone wants to “strengthen their core”, but it seems we overlook the glutes. A term was coined (not sure by whom) to describe the inability to contract the gluteal muscles. That term is “Gluteal Amnesia”. Basically it means we forget how to contract our glutes. This is a real issue for some people. Sitting for long periods can lead to the gluteal muscles atrophying through constant pressure and disuse. This is also associated with lower back pain and difficulty with some movements that naturally require the glutes (i.e. rising from the seated position, and climbing stairs).

Glutes and Swings

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When it comes to kettlebell swings, a strong gluteal contraction is critical to produce adequate power to correctly perform the movement and to stabilize/protect the lumbar spine. Based upon the information above it is clear steps might need to be taken in order to make sure the glutes do their job in the swing to prevent disaster. There are many simple drills to help students fire those glutes.

Here’s a few we really like…

Please keep in mind that there are many, many more options. However, we have found these drills to be effective in helping students learn to reach a high level of Maximum Voluntary Contraction (MVC). MVC is the greatest amount of tension you can apply to a muscle. It is important to ensure your students can generate an adequate level of glute MVC before performing swings.

Given the risk… why swing at all?

It is the fitness professional’s job to measure the risk and reward of each exercise. When the reward outweighs the risk it’s reasonable to consider adding the exercise in question. We all know that there is an inherit risk in swinging kettlebell, aka a cannonball with a handle. However, good coaching combined with the right movement prep and drills can significantly reduce the risk of injury in the swing. Additionally, the potential rewards are substantial. Research has proven that kettlebell swings are an incredible exercise for your “core”, posterior chain, and more specifically glutes. Two recent studies published by Stu McGill and Leigh Marshall in January 2012 and another by Kreutzfeldt Zebis and colleagues in July 2012 showed a very high MVC of the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings).

Muscle % MVC
Glute Maximus 76
Glute Medius 70
Semitendinosus 115
Bicep Femoris 93

McGill also included a case study on Pavel Tsatsouline and when swinging a 32KG bell he was able to achieve 100% peak muscle activation in the glute maximus and over 150% in his erector spinae.

As a frame reference, the glute MVC numbers for some other “hip extension” exercises are 55% MVC in the Deadlift and 52% in the Sumo Deadlift (as per Bret Contreras).

Bringing it together

Teaching your students to brace their core to protect their spine and minimize “energy leakage” is a basic skill that MUST be taught. Practicing this skill until it becomes automatic is critical so that your student can safely progress to higher level activities. While kettlebell swings are a great hip extension exercise that helps develop strong glutes, laying the foundation of gluteal activation and general bracing strategies are essential, otherwise swings simply aren’t safe.  If you follow this model, adding swings to a student’s program will upgrade their movement skills and general fitness.

http://www.fit-edu.com