Friday, December 30, 2011

Giving Thanks

It's that time of year, time to think back and reflect on 2011, time to search for lessons both good and bad, reevaluate the progress or lack thereof you may have made, and give thanks for all our blessings.

2011 goes down in history as probably the best year of my life. I have had the good fortune of experiencing some of the happiest days and been the recipient of some wonderful luck. It's been a great ride and I can only hope to have half the year in 2012 that I've had this year.

Over the past few years I've been extremely fortunate to get to live and work in California at Stanford University. Not only is Stanford one of the truly incredible universities in the world both academically and athletically, but the people I got to spend most of my time with are some of the nicest, smartest, and hardest working people in my profession. I was very lucky to get to be a part of the Stanford Sports Performance Team, and I am very thankful for everything over the past few years.

I was invited on some amazing journeys this past year at Stanford, getting to experience another Final Four  and then traveling to China with the Women's Volleyball team. I was able to learn from some of the best in the field while at Stanford, and made many friends along the way.

There was not much that could pull me away from Stanford, but the stars seemed to align and I was again fortunate enough to be in the right place and right time to begin a new chapter of my career as Director of Sports Performance at UMass Lowell. Not only did I get the chance to get back into hockey, but I get to do it in Hockey East. On top of that, I get to live in Boston which is a dream come true for myself and my beautiful wife, Erica, and I get the opportunity to develop my own program as the first Director in school's history.

Speaking of wife, I had the single best day of my life in 2011 as Erica said "I do!" last summer! I can't express how lucky I am to have a wife as wonderful as she is. Erica truly is the only woman who could put up and love a knucklehead like me, and I am thankful everyday she didn't smarten up before the wedding!

In addition to all of that, I have gotten to spend lots of time with my friends and family, got to see my Grandmother this Christmas, and pretty much have been having a great time over the last 12 months.

If I have learned anything this year, its that everything happens for a reason. Its corny and I can't explain it, but the way things have fallen into place is just ridiculous. If you work hard and treat people well, good things tend to happen. I will certainly try to keep that in mind as I move into 2012.

It's been a great ride 2011, thanks for all the memories!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Own the Movement before you Load the Movement

A recent forum thread I was involved in on prompted me to write about the topic of being able to complete a movement under load, but not at bodyweight.

The actual thread was regarding athletes who could not bodyweight squat, but had good technique under load. The author wanted to know why this was occuring and if it was appropriate to continue to apply load with the goal of; A. improving the movement pattern, and B. increasing strength levels.

I do not believe that it is appropriate to add external load to a pattern when that pattern is "off" under no load. There is an exception to this, which I will talk about, however my general thought is that the consequences to this are more negative rather than positive.

The problem with adding external load to a movement pattern when a person cannot adequately complete the pattern without load is that you are creating artificial stability. It's the reason many people can bench press a significant amount of weight, but have trouble with pushups. The bench is creating the stability that your body must come up with in the pushup. Without that stability, you can't push as hard or as effectively. The same holds true for working out with machines. The equipment provides the stability instead of your body.

"Whats the big deal with that?" you might be asking. Well, if you have any aspirations of getting up from the bench and moving around in real life, or if you are an athlete and need to run around and move during your sport, that "strength" that you have developed without the addition of real stability will be at minimum less useful, and at worst potentially detrimental to your health.

In the example of someone who cannot squat properly unless they are under load, what they are doing is using the force of the weight as a crutch to put them in the proper position. Stability is created by the load, allowing proper mobility to occur at the correct places so that the movement can occur. Unfortunately, this is what is known as "adding strength to dysfunction". When that weight is removed, the stability that was created and is necessary is taken away, and the all important mobility is lost, resulting in an inability to complete the pattern. It's akin to adding horsepower to a car whose alignment is off. That horsepower will result in faster breakdown, as more force is directed inappropriately causing undesired wear and tear.

So basically, "adding strength to dysfunction" means increasing the chance of injury. This is why it is so important to be able to complete fundamental movement patterns before external load is applied, and why programs like P90X and Crossfit are potentially hazardous. These types of workouts throw these rules out the door in the name of "work capacity" or "bravado" and are recipes for disaster.

However, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, there are some exceptions to the rule. In the forum thread the idea of the addition of a small amount of load actually being useful to improving the pattern was brought up. In this example, a Kettlebell was used to help the athlete "groove the pattern". While this is still the same concept of adding a load which in turn is causing artificial stability, the difference lies in the amount of load. A small amount of well directed load will create some stability, which will allow the athlete to learn how to squat properly. Again, the amount of load or force is the important concept here. Taking an athlete who cannot bodyweight squat and adding 135lbs to a back squat might result in a decent looking squat under load, but it won't help improve the unloaded movement pattern. Its just too much of a crutch. Performing a Kettlebell Goblet Squat with a 12kilo Kettlebell may in fact be just enough load to teach the neurological system how to move correctly.

You see, for motor learning to occur, there has to be just a little bit of struggle. It has to be just a bit of a challenge to the system, so that your brain can overcome the obstacle and "learn" how to move properly. This is a concept sometimes referred to as RNT, or Reactive Neuromuscular Training. Another common example would be to wrap an elastic band around the knees of someone who goes into valgus collapse during a squat. The band actually pulls the knees further into valgus, but if its just the right amount of force, it tells the brain to "turn on" all the muscles which are responsible to keeping the knees out, and voila! The person can squat correctly!

The key however is not to depend on the crutch forever. The idea should be to remove the band or to get rid of the kettlebell and perform the movement correctly. And that is where the art of coaching lies. Knowing how much load to apply, and when it is appropriate to apply it or take it away is crucial. To much load, no motor learning. To little load, not enough challenge- no motor learning.

As always, the goal of exercise should be to improve movement. Whether that means getting in and out of your favorite recliner with less pain, losing the holiday weight after the new year, or improving your speed and agility on the ice, the same fundamental concepts apply. Everything comes down to the human body, and no matter what skills you put on top of that frame, proper movement is proper movement.