-by Dr. Michael Colgan
So many dumb exercises, so many daffy weight machines, so many useless gadgets litter gyms that I visit all over the world, it boils my blood. When I began working with athletes over a quarter century ago, men still swung Indian clubs and stretched steel springs in pretense at resistance training. And women stood in vibrating belts or pressed beefy booties on revolving wooden rollers, vainly believing they would shake or pummel off their fat.
Today it’s isolation weight machines, with restrictive pads and straps and other gizmos that ensure only a particular muscle gets exercised. Exerting that muscle’s new found strength in any free movement of sport virtually guarantees injury to untrained stabilizers and connective tissues. Then there’s the stair steppers and suchlike, designed to soothe egos more than take off bodyfat, by moving the ankles about 3½ inches.
None of that nonsense insults you here. The New Power Program is the latest update of a training system used to increase the power of athletes at all levels, from weekend warriors to Olympic medalists, in the whole alphabet of sport. From archery, basketball and boxing, through skiing, track and field, and tennis, to America’s Cup yachting –this program provides a system of weight training that fits with human physiology and the science of strength and speed development. It gives you all you need to re-build yourself as a body of power.
As we continue moving into the new millennium, the value of the correct weight training is finally becoming apparent, not only to athletes but to everyone who wants a powerful, disease-resistant body.
Dr Worthy of the American College of Sports Medicine puts it best: “Done correctly, weight training is the most efficient, effective, and safest form of exercise there is, and it won’t be long before people realize it.”
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Table of Contents: Part 1
- Got Power
- Power Parts
- Power Posture: Michael Colgan and Lee Parore
- Elastic Muscle
- Extend & Connect
- Stable Strength
- Power Cycle
- The Power Equation
- Train The Chain
- Free Movement
Athletes in a wide variety of sports continue to fall for weight training routines portrayed in muscle magazines, probably because the accompanying photos depict massive bodybuilders, who supposedly got that way (drug-free!) simply by following these routines themselves. We all know it’s a pile of pig pucky, but seeing still prompts believing. The net result is that most sports training with weights is confounded with useless and dangerous practices that do diddly to increase athletic power.
Athletes are induced to train heavy all year, for hours at a time, doing endless sets of endless reps, gutting it out through injury and exhaustion, one more rep, go for the burn, get the pump, build the mass, gotta have pain to make the gain. I want to show you why every one of these strategies is counterproductive for building power.
Working with top bodybuilders for the past 25 years, I know they don’t use them either. The only time you see the elite pictured in such flapdoodle is when they are paid to pose for magazine articles, the main purpose of which is to keep muscleheads drooling for the next new “killer” routine or “dynamite” supplement.
There are good training articles, particularly in Muscular Development magazine, but they are buried by the mass of thinly disguised magalogs, hellbent on acquiring the contents of your wallet. So my first task in The New Power Program is to dump the garbage. I take no prisoners.
Don’t Train Heavy All Year Long
Unlike bodybuilders, who do not have to perform on the playing field, athletes should never train heavy all year long. A huge pile of scientific evidence shows that doing so inevitably produces over-training, injury and long-term fatigue of the nervous system.
Any one or combination of the three can sideline you for months, and has sidelined many athletes for life. Bill Kraemer of Penn State University and Steve Fleck, formerly of the US Olympic Committee, are prominent among sports training experts who have covered the evidence of over-training and neural fatigue many times.4 But a ton of athletes, who are obviously not learning, are referred to me in desperation, after conventional weight training has done its damage.
Yet the solution is simple. The first step to athletic power is: periodize your weight training. That is, divide the year into cycles of different forms of weight work. But, before we get down to details, there’s a lot more garbage to dump.
Don’t Do Long Workouts
You see them every month in muscle mags, those long routines — apparently done all the time by the bozo in the photos — routines that would take hours to complete. Hokum for athletes for many reasons, a big one being your anabolic hormones. The most the human body can take of any heavy weight program is about 60 minutes. After that, hormone levels start to decline, neural fatigue sets in, and further weight work will not increase muscle power.
Long workouts are not the best for muscle mass either. Mr Freaky himself, Dorian Yates, the top bodybuilder in the world during the ‘90s, whips in and out of the weight room in 45 minutes.
Athletes can’t afford to spend hours in the weight room anyway. It takes too much of the time and energy they should be spending on skill training. Top levels of skill take 15 to 20 years to acquire. Once you get to the strength and power cycles of the New Power Program, 60 minutes a day is all you need.
You Don’t Need Many Sets Or Reps
For power training, if you can do six sets or more of any exercise, you are doing it dead wrong. Especially so if each set is typical bodybuilding training, and continues for 8 – 10 repetitions. As you will see in the pages ahead, by the time you get to five reps, most of the fast-twitch power fibers of the muscles have fatigued and dropped out of the contraction.6 If they’re not working, they can’t increase their power.
That’s why the “one more rep” strategy doesn’t work either. When you are fighting to squeeze out that last one or two reps in a typical bodybuilding set, almost all the power fibers have ceased firing. All you are fighting is reduced muscle involvement. If muscle fibers are not firing, then they are completely unaffected by your efforts, even if you explode your eyeballs.
Don’t Work Through Injury
You are just plain dumb if you work through injury. If I want to make sure one of my horses will be laid off for six months, all I have to do is make him jump a few gentle fences when he has a touch of tendinitis.
Injured joints and connective tissues need rest in order to heal. Yet you see dopes in gyms all the time, wrapping sore knees and elbows, and grunting on through heavy weights.
It’s no badge of courage to work out wrapped at every joint like an Egyptian mummy, more a badge of stupidity. My friend Mr Olympia, Larry Scott, is one of the best bodybuilding trainers in the world, with a wealth of experience in training champions for over 30 years. Heed his words of wisdom: “If you can’t do an exercise without injury pain, don’t do it at all.”
As Larry emphasizes, injuries to joints and connective tissue are usually localized. If you try different positions and planes of movement in various exercises, you can usually find one that allows you to exercise the body part without pain. Stick to that position and movement plane until the injury resolves. As a bonus, exercising in this way, rather than completely resting, will also speed healing.
Dump The Pump And Dodge The Burn
The celebrated “pump” is just a temporary increase in muscle size and hardness caused by an increase in blood and water flow to the muscles. Over a period, it increases muscle mass by growing more capillaries in the muscle and teaching it to hold more fluid. But it has nothing to do with athletic power.
The sought after “burn” is simply acid build-up. Whenever you exercise above tiddley-winks level, lactic and other acids accumulate in the muscles, lower the pH, and literally start to burn you. Increased acidity also interferes with neural transmission, stopping muscle contraction before the acid causes damage. Some of the lactic acid is then converted back to the primary energy molecule, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Blood flow clears the rest, and the burn disappears. Over a period, the burn does increase muscle mass. But no part of it does anything much for actual power.
The Might Is Not In The Mass
The above bodybuilding gambits do work for building muscle mass. They increase muscle water content and muscle blood content. They increase the mass of the sarcoplasm, the soft tissue that surrounds muscle fibers. They thicken muscle fibers, especially slow-twitch endurance fibers, and cause some muscle fibers to split and form doubles.
Anabolic steroids boost all these effects and can also cause muscles to grow fibers that are out of pennation. Out of pennation means they are out of alignment with the direction of muscle contraction. So they cannot function to increase the muscle contraction and make no contribution to its strength. Nevertheless, you do get much larger muscles. But they are soft and heavy with only a very moderate increase in power.
Elite athletes find that the bodybuilding methods slammed in this chapter often reduce their power. It’s easy to understand once you realize that the human power equation is the same old equation that governs all force in the Universe: E=MC2. The power a moving limb can produce is its mass multiplied by its velocity squared.
You can see that velocity, not mass, is the biggie. To move a limb at maximum velocity, the body uses the fast-twitch mass of its muscles. Any other mass is mostly along for the ride. And if you think excess mass doesn’t slow you down, try running your best 400 meters wearing a 5 kg bodybelt.
Any introductory physics book will tell you that the force required to move and accelerate an object from rest, increases as the mass of the object increases. So the larger the mass of a muscle for a given level of contractile force, the slower it can move, and the less power it can develop. Numerous conventional weight training strategies will make you bigger, slower and less powerful.
No wonder some athletic coaches don’t let their athletes anywhere near the heavy weight room. In sharp contrast, power training focuses on developing the maximum contractile force per pound of muscle mass. In the language of physics, the greater the force for a given mass, the more powerful the movement. You still grow an excellent physique, but a physique that gives you far greater power. As an athlete, you don’t want excess mass. You want muscles that produce the greatest force in relation to their size.
Periods And Peaks
Now we’ve thrown out the garbage, let’s get back to the power. The first step is to divide your year in the weight room into periods. You have to time these periods so that you achieve a power peak just as the season for your sport opens. Never do the Power Program during the competitive season. Anyone who thinks they can train for power and compete at the same time is either Superman or an idiot. I’ve yet to meet Superman.
Even for sports that go year round, you should plan your own competitive season and peak for it. Most of the elite know this well. In the sport of triathlon, for example, where we have worked with the best, top athletes often train to peak for only one or two races per year. Think about it. Mark Allen won the Nice triathlon in France seven years in a row, before changing his training to peak for the Hawaii Ironman, which he then won six times.
Some periodization programs get incredibly complex, with microcycles, mesocycles, recovery cycles, transitions, repeaters, etc. We post the KISS principle — “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” — on the wall to remind us not to get too uppity. Athletes have enough to learn without imposing complicated schedules and a whole new language on them, just for the weight room component of their training.
Because many sports have a competitive season of about six months, in this book I divide power training on the same basis. That gives 25 weeks of every year to train for power, and one week of tapering before the season begins. The 25-week period you train for power is divided into an 8-week Extension-Connection Cycle, a 10-week Strength-Stabilization Cycle and a 7-week Power Cycle. During the competitive season we spend 10 weeks on a Link Cycle for speed and 15 weeks on a Maintenance Cycle. Then you get a week off!
For the personal programs we do at the Colgan Institute, the numbers of weeks in each cycle are adapted to the individual athlete’s needs, dates of competitions and other factors. You can do the same adaptations to suit your sport. But every program we do contains at least a 6-week Extension-Connection Cycle, an 8-week Strength-Stabilization Cycle, a 5-week Power Cycle and an 8-week Link Cycle.
The full-year periodization table is laid out below. Each cycle of the 25-Week Power Training is equally important for maximizing power, so I give each a chapter ahead. If you want power, this is THE WAY.
POWER PRINCIPLE 1: Periodize
I have slammed conventional bodybuilding, because its focus on muscle mass is detrimental to athletes. Nevertheless, the techniques employed are superb for building mass. They make bodies look real good. Consequently bodybuilding has many thousands of adherents, and a thriving support industry of books, magazines, supplements and equipment. No wonder athletes fall for it. To help you avoid the hokum, here’s a small peek at the history.
Competitive bodybuilding first developed out of old carnival strongman acts. It grew rapidly in the 1930’s, after two Canadians, Joe and Ben Weider, adopted the activity as an advertising vehicle to build their vast nutrition supplement and weight equipment empire.
They formed the International Federation of Bodybuilders to promote its growth. Born of the circus for the purpose of sideshow, competitive bodybuilding was never designed for athletes, and never incorporated the science that enables athletes to reach their power potential.
Science first impacted weight training well over 60 years ago, when physicians such as Thomas De Lorme and Arthur Watkins, at Massachusetts General Hospital, began applying their revolutionary “Technics of Progressive Resistance Training” to rehabilitate patients who had suffered polio. By 1948, they had shown that three sets of an exercise, with progressive increases in weight to the maximum a patient could handle, caused rapid increases in muscle strength.
Back then, however, competitive bodybuilding was growing into a considerable cult, suffused with ritual exercises, mysterious routines, snake oil supplements, and all the glitter of the circus. The last thing its promoters wanted was their business exposed to the demanding standards of science. So they ignored it. Instead they developed ever more cunning devices and routines, the more arduous and difficult the better.
Not unlike dungeons and dragons computer games of today, they led the novice bodybuilder through progressive stages of ritual, each stage planned for quick obsolescence, until they snared both his mind and his wallet. In return, he got a nice physique and became somewhat stronger. But he developed little of the speed, agility, balance, coordination, power, or mental focus essential to athletic success.
Though their idols were the world’s strongest men, such as the great Louis Cyr, bodybuilders of that time never approached real power. They gained the appearance but little of the substance.
No Performance Required
Recognizing their failure to produce athletic power, bodybuilding promoters quickly removed from their competitions all the old strength and agility tests that they had first adopted from circus strongman acts.
Competitive bodybuilding became merely an exhibition of muscle size, shape and definition, with no tests at all to show that the muscles actually work.
From analyzing thousands of bodybuilders over the last 30 years, we have found that many of the muscular systems built by bodybuilding do not work. The physiques look spectacular, but a lot of them are functionally so weak, slow and uncoordinated in the free movements that occur continuously in sport, they are a liability for anything more strenuous than miniature golf.
But the influence of clever advertising and promotion is so strong that, over the last 50 years, bodybuilding strategies have been blindly adopted worldwide as an effective way for athletes to train with weights. In consequence today, most gyms and athletes follow systems of weight training in which useless bodybuilding routines are intricately entangled with scientific weight training. In this book I undo those tangles, so that you can discard the ineffective, and focus your effort instead on the science that will build your power.
The legendary Jack Lalanne, sometimes called “the godfather of fitness” and lived to the ripe old age of 96, first alerted me to the difference between bodybuilding muscle and functional muscle when we were on a TV fitness show together back in 1979. Jack had proved his point.
Since then, a lot of great trainers have helped me sort it all out. Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin, California super trainer Paul Chek, Professor Bill Kraemer of Penn State University, powerlifting champion Ted Arcidi, Olympic weightlifting coach Dragomir Cioroslan, Mr Olympia, Larry Scott, bodybuilding champion Franco Cavaleri and a swag of others never adopted or long since tossed out the garbage.
And my friend, Lee Labrada, with so many bodybuilding titles it would take a page just to list them, is also a fine athlete. So is the beautiful and elegant Lenda Murray, who reigned for six years as Ms Olympia, the ultimate bodybuilding accolade.
But most gyms and athletes still follow practices primarily developed to grow muscle mass for the purpose of sideshow. If you are an athlete who has been using conventional bodybuilding as weight training, carry out this test. Over the the next week, measure and record all your best strength, speed and power moves. Also record some measures of your agility, balance and coordination. Then follow the principles herein for the 25-week Power Training Cycles and measure again. The improvements should astound you.
Components of Power
Before you begin any weight training, you should know exactly which components of power that it benefits. A lot of weight training programs focus only on muscle mass and bodyfat. The Power Program, plus a good coach, trains you for them all.
- 1. ANATOMY: The length of the levers (bones), and the positions of attachment of tendons and ligaments.
- 2. SKILL: The most important. The degree to which you have learned the correct movements for your sport, so they have become automatic neuromuscular sequences in the cerebellum of your brain.
- 3. CONTRACTILE MASS: The number and size of the contractile fibers of your muscles.
- 4. BODYFAT: The amount of dead weight in fat your muscles have to carry.
- 5. STRENGTH: The force at which your muscles can contract.
- 6. BALANCE: Your posture in standing and moving, and the balanced development of opposing muscle groups that yield it.
- 7. FLEXIBILITY: The elasticity of your muscles and connective tissues.
- 8. COORDINATION: The linking of muscle chains into smooth, complex movements.
- 9. REACTION SPEED: The efficiency of the neuromuscular connections between your muscles, nerves and brain.
- 10. MENTAL FOCUS
You can’t change Factor 1, Anatomy, much. The length of your bones and the positions of tendon and ligament attachment are genetically determined, just like the color of your eyes. But a good coach can adapt your training to suit your particular structure.
I can’t help you with Factor 2, Skill either. For skill you need the best coach you can get. Skill is learned and maintained only by constant practice. But practice makes permanent, not perfect. If you practice anything incorrectly, that’s how your brain will learn it. Only a good coach can save you from learning your own mistakes.
But this book can help you change the other power factors, dramatically — the Contractile Mass of your muscles, their Strength of Contraction, the Bodyfat you carry, your Balance, your Flexibility, your Coordination, your Reaction Speed, and your Mental Focus. We start the training for power where it all begins — with posture.
POWER PRINCIPLE 2: Train with weights for strength, balance, flexibility, coordination, reaction speed and mental focus.
The old Honda we keep at the beach house has wonky suspension, a downhill lean to starboard and judders noisily whenever you try a tight turn. It doesn’t matter, because the car never runs fast or far, and chugs the three miles to town and back just fine. So it is with the unbalanced bodies of most non-athletes. They chug along fairly reliably, but only at low levels of performance.
Contrast that image with a Ferrari 355. From its 380 horse-power, V8 engine to its 6-speed hydraulic transmission and computer-controlled suspension, everything is perfectly aligned and balanced so that the car can move and turn at top speed. If any component is even a hair out of true, performance bombs, because the tremendous power of the engine cannot be fully and smoothly applied.
When I first talk about balance in my training camps, uninformed athletes snicker and yawn, perhaps at the mental image of prissy girls parading with books on their heads. But once we demonstrate how correct posture dramatically improves performance, they sit up and learn. As an athlete, you need the balance of a Ferrari. To apply the power you gain from the Power Program, you have to know how to balance your body and align it, so that it moves and turns at top speed with the least effort. It’s not too difficult to learn.
From the ancient disciplines of Yoga and the martial arts, to the modern bodywork of Rolfing, and neuromuscular training of Feldenkrais and Alexander, the principles of body balance have been known and taught for 5000 years. Taking advantage of such knowledge, I am writing this chapter with my friend and colleague Lee Parore of New Zealand, power trainer to the elite, including many of the All Blacks, the best rugby team on Earth.
His forthcoming book, Power Posture, is a must for athletic coaches and trainers. With the help of Lee’s expertise, I give you the basics here that will move you into the posture of power.
As the illustration above shows, the human body is like three inverted pyramids balanced on top of each other. The pelvis and legs form the lower pyramid. At its center is the second lumbar vertebra, which forms the balance point of the middle pyramid, the flat top of which envelops the shoulders. The head forms the top pyramid, balanced on the cervical vertebrae of the neck, in the center of the shoulders. When the body is aligned in this way, it has the highest potential power.
In this power posture, seen most clearly in gymnasts, the head, trunk and pelvis are in balanced vertical alignment. The body requires the least muscular activity, and therefore the least energy expenditure, to hold itself upright against gravity. The body’s center of gravity is also in a neutral position, from which movement can occur swiftly in any direction without the need for postural adjustment, and without losing the time that postural adjustment takes.
It’s a bit like balancing a stack of dominoes. The more carefully you align each domino, the better balanced the stack. If you place even one domino out of line, then you have to place those above it out of line to compensate. Balance of the whole stack is compromised.
Take the common postural fault of running belly out with an exaggerated lordosis (inward curve) of the lower back. Your head and butt have to stick out to compensate. My friend and mentor, New Zealand Olympic coach Arthur Lydiard, calls it “running in a bucket.” It slows you down because knee lift is compromised and your head and neck are fighting gravity every stride. It also leads to many back, hip and knee problems. Renowned Oregon runner, Steve Prefontaine, got a whole lot faster after coach Bill Bowerman, founder of Nike, corrected this fault in his posture.
Your spine has three natural curves: inward to the neck, outward at the upper back and invward again at the lower back. Feldenkrais showed us that optimal balance, and therefore optimal function, occurs when these three curves have the same angle, approximately 35º. Changing this angle by sticking your head out or your belly out, moves body mass outside the balanced vertical axis and dramatically reduces your power.
Try it yourself. Stand with your belly out and one hand up like a traffic cop stopping traffic. Get a friend to push your hand back, using just one or two fingers. See how weak you are. Now adopt the power posture. Suck your belly back into alignment and pull up on your anus. Hold your breath and push your head back into line by pressing your tongue hard against your palate just behind your front teeth. Let him try to push your arm again. Now we’re getting powerful!
Balance Boosts Power
Whenever your body’s center of gravity is outside your vertical center – located through the second lumbar vertebra – you are slower to move in any direction. In the language of physics, whenever you stand with body mass outside the balanced vertical axis, the moment of inertia around the axis increases. That simply means it takes more energy to move.
Your power is reduced in two ways. First, some of the energy that would otherwise be applied to movement is wasted just to maintain equilibrium in the unbalanced position. Second, your body has to return to equilibrium before initiating movement. You are slower off the mark and therefore less powerful, because, as we will see, speed is the biggie for power.
Standing and moving with correct posture takes a bit of hard work. But whenever you feel like saying “to hell with it” think of small, lightweight martial artist Bruce Lee. Standing erect in power posture, he could generate sufficient power from his 65 kg (143 lbs) body, to knock down a 100 kg (220 lbs) man with a one-inch punch.
I hope you are convinced that if one part of your body is out of balance, other parts have to move out of balance to compensate. Otherwise you would fall over. So any postural imbalance induces other postural imbalances. If you stand belly out, for example, your whole structure has to change to compensate, putting stresses on your neck, shoulders, lower back, hips and knees. Remember it this way: poor posture is a pain in the neck.
And that’s just standing still. Whenever you move rapidly, the stresses of poor posture are magnified manyfold. The common error of running with the head stuck too far forward, puts about 100 pounds of extra stress on the cervical vertebrae of the neck with every stride. The strongest neck will tweak after just a few miles.
I see heads stuck out all the time in marathon running, especially with novices. The common response to the aching neck is to hunch the shoulders, thereby transferring some of the stress to the upper back muscles. A few more miles and these tweak too, and the runners slow to a crawl.
Even if they finish the race, at best the sore neck and upper back may persist for weeks, making training a misery. At worst, it will become a chronic injury, inhibiting training indefinitely, always ready to tweak whenever you make a big effort. All that pain and destruction of performance can be easily avoided simply by keeping your head erect, balanced on your neck, so that your eyes are level with the horizon.
Poor posture does a lot more damage than merely slow you down. Your muscles have a minimum resting level of activity called tone, controlled by the central nervous system.
When you are standing in balanced posture, the body is not still. It sways slightly in all directions, with the muscles continuously contracting and relaxing all over the structure to correct the sway. This slight movement, which you normally don’t notice, is an automatic response that also relieves stresses on the joints and nerves and optimizes blood flow.
If your body is unbalanced it is under postural stress. Some muscles have to work too hard to correct swaying and become tight compromising their blood supply. Others hardly work at all and eventually become weak. Over a period, postural stress sensitizes the tight muscles. They then spend all day on red alert. Parts of the muscles and connective tissues become so sensitized, they create what are called trigger points, which increase muscle tension and pain, and dramatically reduce muscle strength. Trigger points are so named because they go off unpredictably whenever effort exceeds a certain threshold.
The pain is not only localized in the trigger point areas, but also radiates to other areas against which the muscle is pulling. Janet Travell, the world’s leading expert on trigger points and their treatment, explains them best. A trigger point is a hyper-irritable point with reduced blood circulation, that occurs within a tight area of skeletal muscle or its associated fascia. It causes stiffness, pain and weakness in the muscle and surrounding muscles and connective tissues. Muscle strength becomes unreliable, because neural inhibition may shut down the muscle at any time to prevent further injury.
For an athlete, trigger points are disastrous. Because of the pain and unpredictable loss of function, the athlete quickly learns to limit the contraction of those muscles to below the trigger point threshold. Once this occurs you can no longer apply full power.
Trigger points develop not only from postural imbalances, but also from overuse, joint imbalance, imbalances in strength of agonist and antagonist muscles caused by faulty weight training, nutritional deficiencies, direct trauma and joint disease. Whatever the source, whenever a trigger point is present, the athlete makes compensatory postural changes that lead to further problems.
Even if you have no injuries or tweaks, get assessed for postural imbalances and latent trigger points before you begin the ExtensionConnection cycle of the Power Program. Unless you do, and take the steps to correct them, your increased power is sure to bring them out.
If you can find a bodyworker trained and certified in Rolfing or Feldenkrais and the Travell system, you are in luck. If you can’t, then adopt at least the strategies covered in the rest of this chapter and in the next on stretching.
Getting Power Posture
Where does your power come from? Sport (and life) occurs in an unstable, three-dimensional environment, so we better be sure of the source of our power. Oversimplified versions of martial arts – translated, I suspect, to suit Western brains – claim that all power comes from the ground.
Some even wax lyrical about Mother Earth letting “Chi” flow into you by tapping into gravitational forces. More fanciful versions call on powers in the air or even “The Force” that binds all matter in the Universe. Shades of George Lucas!
Sounds pretty stupid when presented without the mystical trappings. And it is pretty stupid. There’s no power in the ground, or in the air. The power is all inside you.
The ground serves merely as a fixed point of leverage from which to apply your power. Even a gymnast up in the air on the high bar is using the ground as a lever. The bar is fixed to the frame, which is fixed to the ground. If it were not, then whenever the gymnast swung one way, the bar would go the other.
The better your body grips the ground or another fixed point of leverage, the more power you can release. That’s why the horse stance of martial arts has feet fully planted and spread wide, pulling up and in with the inner thighs, to create tension so as to better hold onto the ground. And boxers know well that the real power punches come from a flat-footed, wide stance, with belly in and hard, to better transmit the energy.
And without starting blocks, sprinters would start like cartoon characters, feet spinning uselessly as their enormous leg power breaks the grip between shoes and ground.
Your Power Core
To best utilize the leverage of the ground, build your power posture from the ground up.3 Leverage from the ground is transmitted through the legs and through the hip joints to the pelvis. In combination with a strong transversus, obliques and back muscles to hold the organs, and hold up and stabilize the spine, the pelvic bone mass is the base of your core which transmits power up and down the body.3
This bowl formed by the pelvis and its floor muscles and connective tissues coincides well with the power center or source of “Chi” (Chinese), “Ki” (Japanese) in many oriental disciplines. It is the center of your power. Your core cannot do its job if your belly is out.
Belly out distorts your spine and allows all your organs to flop around, in and out of the center of gravity. Belly up and in, by retracting the transversus muscle, is the only way to hold organs and spine firmly in your center.
Don’t make the common mistake of training your rectus abdominis in an effort to flatten the stomach. The much admired eight-pack of muscle, running from ribs and sternum (breastbone) to pelvis, is not the structure for the job. Your eight-pack is designed and attached so as to pull the ribcage towards the pelvis.
It has nothing, I repeat, nothing, to do with a flat belly. Basic physiology shows that you cannot use your eight-pack to pull the belly up and in. The muscle fibers run top to bottom — the wrong way. So all those crunches and situps and belly-busting machines will never produce a powerful core. On the contrary, they will cause your belly to protrude!
Your belly and organs are held up and in by a thin corset of muscle called the transversus, which sits deep in the body on either side of the eight-pack, and attaches to the connective tissue behind it.
Transversus fibers, as their name implies, run from the front of the body, straight across the sides to join into your back and to the sides of the pelvis. You will learn how to train the transversus for a guaranteed flat belly later in this book.
Moshe Feldenkrais, originator of Feldenkrais training, showed us how body movements originate from the pelvis,4 your power center. So the first step to power posture is feet firmly planted and pelvis balanced over them, with belly up and in.
Seems obvious until you look around and see how many people stand belly out with legs shifting and unstable. They then have to stick their rear out to compensate. Like the unbalanced stack of dominoes, the neck then sticks forward, so the 10 – 20 pounds weight of their head is out of balance too. They run like Donald Duck and have more tweaks than you have hot dinners.
You can have a loose belly without sticking out your rear. Such people usually have too flat a curve in the lower back (less than 35º). Top trainer Lee Parore calls these athletes “Pink Panthers.” You should have your posture assessed to determine whether you are a Pink Panther or a Donald Duck.
Both types need to pull the belly up and in. But only the ducks need pull in their rear. The panthers should do the opposite, that is, work to maintain a neutral spine by maintaining the curve.
Lift Your Anus
Folk tend to think of the pelvis (from the Latin word for “bowl”) as a solid, bony bowl that holds the organs. Not so. The bones of the pelvis form only the sides of the bowl, leaving a big hole in the bottom.
The bottom of the bowl is made of muscle. If that muscle is not strong, then a strong transversus and obliques, which pull in the gut, try to push your organs out through the bottom of the bowl. Especially so during sports and weight training, where there are many instances of large, rapid increases in intra-abdominal pressure.
The clearest example of weakened pelvic floor muscles is after childbirth, during which the muscles become damaged by the action of the abdominals and uterine muscles in releasing the baby from the womb.
Some birth training systems do a great job of teaching the mother-to-be to bear down on these muscles and damage them, but then fail to teach her how to repair them. That’s one big reason behind the thriving US industry in diapers for older women.
Athletes with weak muscles of the pelvic floor can suffer similar incontinence problems. But the main reason for strengthening these muscles is to help you hold a firm gut for the transfer of power.
The muscular floor of the pelvis is the base of your column of power. If it bulges, power dissipates. So, in addition to pulling the gut up and in for good posture, you should also pull up on your anus. I cover exercises for strengthening these muscles in future chapters.
Get Your Head Straight
Body movements originate in the pelvis, but they are all directed by head movements. If your head is out of place, usually by being stuck forward, nothing works properly.
Your head makes up about one-tenth of your body weight. It sits naturally a tad forward of the center of gravity, a evolutionary design flaw inherited from our four-footed ancestors, which is why the strongest and largest neck muscles occur on the back of the neck. Otherwise we couldn’t hold our heads up.
Sticking your head further forward, however, dramatically increases compressive forces on the front of each vertebra by up to 100 pounds. You cannot operate at full power with your spine under such an unequal compressive load.
To help move the head back into alignment, press your tongue against your upper palate, just behind and above the teeth. This tongue lock is part of the power posture which links the head, neck and spine into the power center of the abdominals and pelvis. Whenever you do a power move, use a firm tongue lock. It never fails to boost your power.
We have a rule in the weight gym which applies equally well to any tough move you have to make in life. Before moving any weight, center yourself — neutral spine, belly up and in, anus in, head in and balanced, tongue pressed on upper palate. Relax in this centered, balanced position and take in a full, slow breath. Then begin the a forceful move. Makes life a whole lot easier.
POWER PRINCIPLE 3: Learn Power Posture. Bum in, belly in, anus in, head in, and lock your tongue.
The length of your bones is set by your genetic heritage and childhood nutrition. It cannot be altered, except by arduous, long-term surgery and drugs. But the range of motion of your limbs and spine is determined more by the habitual movements you make. It can be improved dramatically by simply changing those movements.
Knowing how to improve your range of motion is crucial to athletic power. The length of your stride, the degree you can bend and twist without strain, the arc through which you can move your arms, even your speed of movement, all depend on the ﬂexibility of your joints and the length and elasticity of your muscles. Muscles cannot apply their full power unless you can move limbs freely throughout their full range.
We all know well how a stiff neck or back or shoulder restricts our movements. Yet many athletes we ask, don’t make the mental connection between the temporary limits imposed on movement by stiff muscles and joints, and the permanent limits imposed on performance by poor flexibility. Most athletes do stretch, but often in a perfunctory or incorrect way, and with only a vague notion of the benefits. Many consider stretching an unimportant part of their training. I hope to convince you otherwise because, without good ﬂexibility, you will never be able to apply your full power.
Stretching Prevents Injury, Boosts Speed
Some research shows little beneﬁt from stretching. But when you examine the stretching programs used they are pathetic! And that’s being kind. Controlled studies using decent stretching programs all show substantial reductions in muscle and connective tissue problems and more rapid healing of injuries.
Numerous studies show that ﬂexibility training also increases speed of movement. Why this is so was unclear until recent research by Terara et al at Kyoto University in Japan. They showed that ﬂexibility training enables movements to be made with less energy.
Important work by Wilson at the University of New England in Australia shows why ﬂexibility‘ reduces the energy required to move. Muscles that are more ﬂexible show greater use of what is called elastic strain energy. In practical words, you go off like a stretched rubber band. You will learn more later how stored elastic energy boosts speed of performance and gives you that big edge on power.
Range Of Motion Boosts Power
The increased power of movement resulting from ﬂexibility training is further enhanced by increased range of normal motion. In a representative study, Hortobagyi and colleagues at the University of Physical Education in Budapest, Hungary, trained healthy students in stretching, three times weekly for seven weeks. They used six exercises for stretching quadriceps, hips and hamstrings. Subjects were then tested for ﬂexibility. The distance that subjects could stretch in front-to-back splits, for example, increased by an average of 9.5 inches for each leg, a total of 19 inches.
At the Colgan Institute, we have improved the power of many runners by increasing the ﬂexibility of their quadriceps, hips and hamstrings. Over our 8 week Extension-Connection Cycle, ﬂexibility in the front-to-back splits improves by up to 12 inches for each leg, a total of 24 inches. This improvement translates into a passive increase in normal stride length of up to 4 inches.
Such an increase in stride length makes a big difference to performance. Here’s a prime example from our ﬁles. The records show a runner who had a stride length of 53 inches before the stretching program, and a more powerful stride length of 56.8 inches after 8-weeks of stretching.
Before the program, we counted his strides in two 10Ks with a pedometer. He required an average of 7,417 strides to complete the race. After the stretching program, he completed a 10K in 6948 strides, 469 fewer strides. Compared with the distance covered with his former stride length, that’s an improvement of 633 meters.
Some coaches have criticized ﬁndings like these, saying that, though the stride is longer it is also slower, because the leg has to move a greater distance. Not so. As the studies above indicate, the lesser energy cost per stride enables the leg to move at a greater speed for a given level of energy. So the cadence or leg turnover speed of runners on stretching programs does not decline. And running times often improve dramatically.
For the runner noted above, his 10K time had been stuck between 40 and 41 minutes for a year, with a personal best of 40:02. Over the next six months he continued stretching and we used the pedometer to count his strides in several 10K races. He took 6923 — 7160 strides. Compared with his old stride, he gained between 400 and 700 meters in a 10K. His personal best time improved by a whopping 2:05 to 37:57.
Despite such findings, gym programs rarely work with range of motion as a component of athletic power. But that’s going to change fast. Leading the charge is the Les Mills Bodybalance Program from New Zealand, which uses an integrated combination of yoga, balance and stretching exercises.
What Are You Stretching?
Stretching is not simple, despite the many books and charts on gym walls that make it seem so. Done wrongly, it is a source of many injuries on the playing ﬁeld. Renowned marathon coach and former Olympian, Jeff Galloway, repeatedly warns runners against incorrect stretching, and some coaches reject it altogether. Here I tell you the right way, because the scientiﬁc evidence shows that the right stretching dramatically increases athletic power.
First, you have to know what you are stretching. Numerous athletes we ask, believe they are trying to stretch not only muscles and their surrounding fascia, but also tendons and ligaments. No way José!
The tendons are thick, tough bands that connect your muscles to your bones. They are composed mostly of inelastic collagen ﬁbers. That makes them about as stretchy as a heavy leather belt. You can tear tendons by extreme or ballistic stretching. But tendons do not stretch.
The ligaments are bands of ﬁbers that connect bone to bone. They also contain collagen ﬁbers but in a mix with a good proportion of stretchy elastin ﬁbers. So ligaments do stretch. But should you stretch them?
Generally, no. To do so renders the affected joint hyper-mobile and weak, because the over-length ligaments no longer hold the bones ﬁrmly together. The net result is multiple joint problems, including cartilage breakdown from uneven stresses and arthritis in later life. Don’t stretch ligaments.
You do want to stretch muscles but their surrounding spiderweb of fascia makes it difficult. Fascia are the thin sheaths of connective tissue which surround and hold together muscles and individual bundles of muscle ﬁbers. Although thin, fascia are composed mainly of collagen ﬁbers, and are difﬁcult to stretch.
Worse, fascia shorten with age, poor posture, and muscle imbalance. They also shorten during rest after exercise.10 Shortened fascia are a big cause of the stiffness you feel the morning after a big workout. Shortened fascia shorten the muscles they hold and reduce their range of motion. So you do want to stretch the fascia along with the muscles.
How Muscles Stretch
I want to spell out how muscles stretch, because I have been guilty in the past of using lovely-looking stretches from books and videos, without thinking whether or not they work. Most of them don’t.
Each muscle is composed of bundles of muscle ﬁbers called fasciculi. Each muscle ﬁber is made up of 1000—2000 thread-like myoﬁbrils.
Each myoﬁbril is a chain of short segments called sarcomeres. And each sarcomere is made up of pairs of short protein rods called actin and myosin. Muscles lengthen when these rods slide past each other.
When the muscle is relaxed, the actin and myosin rods slide back to an habitual resting position. So each sarcomere has an habitual length. Correct stretching lengthens the muscle by causing the actin and myosin rods to adopt a new habitual resting position which lengthens the sarcomere.
Muscles also become longer by another adaptation to stretching only recently conﬁrmed in studies on animals. Regular stretching causes myoﬁbrils to grow longer by growing new sarcomere segments. As yet there are no human studies, but I’ll bet my back teeth they will hit the journals in the next ﬁve years. These are important ﬁndings for athletes, because the longer a muscle becomes, the greater its range of motion and the more power it can generate.
I’ve sketched the basic physiology of ﬂexibility because it shows why the grunt and groan stretching you commonly see in gyms is next to useless. If a muscle is contracted at the time of stretching, the actin and myosin rods cannot slide to a longer resting position. All you are doing is straining the tendons. Here’s the key. A stretch can change a muscle so that it is longer after being stretched, only if the muscle is relaxed while it is being stretched.
Hamstrings provide a great example. Dozens of books show standing hamstring stretches, from simple toe touches to extreme one-leg ballet bar stretches.
Unless the athlete has had extensive yoga or ballet training to relax the muscles, none of these stretches work.
Whenever you bend from the waist in a standing position, the hamstrings contract automatically to stabilize the pelvis.
They cannot stretch because, unless you have had the right training, you cannot relax them. All you are doing is straining the muscle tendons and over-stretching the ligaments of the lower back. The ﬁrst rule for successful stretching is: relax the muscles being stretched.
The second rule is warmth. Cold muscle means short, stiff muscle, and especially tight fascia, the hardest part to stretch. Studies show that a 10-minute warm-up greatly increases muscle elasticity.
Though commonplace, jogging is not a good warm-up. Slow jogging delivers a vertical jarring force to the knees, hips, and back about four times that of fast walking. It causes muscles to tighten rather than relax. Use walking, cycling, rowing, stair-stepper or cross-country machines as your warm-up. Breaking a sweat is the criterion. Always warm up before stretching.
Excessive effort is a major reason folk fail to become ﬂexible with regular stretching. Never force a muscle and never bounce. Pushing to pain, popular in some programs, brings only inﬂammation, injury, and shorter, tighter muscles. Comparison studies of low-force versus high-force stretching, show that the lower the force the greater the permanent lengthening of the muscle.
Stretch only to the point of comfortable tension, then back off until the muscle relaxes. Then stretch again to a second comfortable point and back off again until the muscle relaxes. Repeat once more to reach the point of maximum comfortable stretch. Always use minimum force.
Take slow even belly breaths throughout stretching. Belly breathing aids muscle relaxation. Exhale as you move into a new stretch position. Inhale as you back off. Exhale as you stretch again. an extreme abdominal and back stretch. Belly breathe while you stretch.
I’ve watched many athletes rushing through stretch routines, holding each stretch for 10-20 seconds, often forcing the stretch because they know its too quick. Better not to stretch at all. The muscles never elongate, because they have insufficient time to relax. And the athletes complain they just can’t get flexible.
Major muscles can stretch in a relaxed state to about 50% longer than their usual resting length. They will only do it if you wait. Especially, you have to allow time for the fascia, which are often reluctant to relax.
To move in and out of a stretch three times, while allowing the muscles and fascia to relax, take a minimum of 60 seconds. It’s a whole lot better to do 10 good stretches for two minutes each, than 30 in a rush. Allow at least 60 seconds per stretch.
You may be very tight when you begin a stretching program. Be patient. Every time you force a stretch you inhibit your progress. But if you persist for six months of correct daily stretching, results will amaze you. Stretching is an exercise in patience.
When To Stretch
Don’t stretch after training. Your muscles are tight and full of the metabolites of fatigue. In that condition they are prone to stretch injury. After the muscles have relaxed from training, 50 minutes or so after, stretch in a hot tub or a hot shower with the water playing on the muscles being stretched, after lying in the sun on the beach is a perfect time to stretch.
Stretching during your morning shower works well too. Most important is to stretch, after warm up, immediately before training. Think of it as essential preventive maintenance for your muscles.
Advanced Stretching: PNF
The stretching method I’ve outlined is sufﬁcient for the needs of most athletes. But some folk have tight problem areas, and some sports such as martial arts, gymnastics, and various events in track and ﬁeld and winter sports demand extreme flexibility. For these we have developed a system called PNF-R, that is proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation plus rotation.
The PNF part has been used by physiotherapists for more than 50 years. Studies with gymnasts show that PNF offers beneﬁts additional to passive stretching, for both ﬂexibility and performance. The only problem is, you have to do most PNF stretches with a partner.
In the PNF version of the seated hamstring stretch, resistance is provided by a partner as the subject contracts the hamstrings, gluteals and lower back muscles to move out of the stretch. The ﬁnal stretch often looks extreme, but is achieved without forcing.
CAUTION. You should ﬁnd a certiﬁed bodyworker to teach you PNF. Learning the method on your own is hazardous. Most beginners tend to force the stretches and injure themselves. At our Sports Nutrition and Training Camps, we do a two-hour intensive training before allowing participants to use PNF on their own.
- Do an initial passive stretch to the point of mild tension. Inhale.
- Against partner resistance, contract the muscles that would move you out of the stretch for 5-10 seconds while exhaling. Start lightly and ﬁnish with a strong contraction. Inhale.
- Exhale and move back into the stretch to a new point of tension for 30 seconds.
- Repeat this sequence twice more, each time moving a little further into the stretch, as the muscles which would move you out of the stretch lose tone and relax.
Maintaining a strong, ﬂexible body is always an exercise in patience.
Rotation Of The Joints
The new dimension we have added to our stretching program is rotation (R). The technique itself is not new, however, and has been part of ballet training and some martial arts for hundreds of years. It is effective because of an important characteristic of human anatomy. We are designed so that all natural movements have a rotational component. To allow for that component, at the point of stretch, we get athletes to rotate the joint. With my friend, top trainer Steven Macramalla, we have used rotation to develop stretches that produce amazing gains in ﬂexibility.
Whether you use PNF or not, employing rotation each time you stretch yields elongation of a much larger proportion of the muscle tissues and fascia involved. You also get the stretch While they are moving under torque at full extension, exactly the sort of stress your muscles and fascia undergo during the extreme movements of sport.
To summarize: each stretch starts with a passive stretch. If you have an experienced partner and have learned the technique, it continues with three sequences of PNF (you can do almost as well without the PNF part). Each stretch sequence ends with rotation of the joint at the point of greatest stretch. There is no better way to increase your range of motion and, along with it, your athletic power.
The Seven Keys To Stretching
- 1. Relaxation
- 2. Warmth
- 3. Minimum Force
- 4. Breathing
- 5. Long Duration
- 6. Rotation
- 7. Patience
Learn them by heart and repeat them daily to yourself with every session.
Stretches To Avoid
Hundreds of stretches litter athletic books and magazines. Some are excellent, others are OK but many are as useless as tits on a chicken. A few general principles will help you avoid them. First, as we’ve seen already, stretches should load muscles and fascia, not tendons, ligaments or joints. Second, the muscle must be able to relax in order to be stretched.
In general, any standing stretch in which you have to bend the torso towards the knees, such as toe touching, or ballet bar stretches, require a lot of training to do correctly. Unless you are expertly trained, the hamstrings contract reflexively to stabilize the pelvis, thereby transferring the stress to the lumbar ligaments.
In addition, in most athletes, ballet bar stretches cause reflex contraction of the piriformis to stabilize the thigh, and also stress the sciatic nerve.
Some athletes at my lectures object that ballet dancers and gymnasts do these stretches all the time and can tie themselves into pretzels. Having worked with elite dancers and gymnasts, I agree that they do use extreme stretching exercises.
But their sports demand extreme flexibility movements, and the ability to do them with relative safety is a result of years of stretching training. Even so, these athletes suffer more joint problems than athletes in other sports, and often require a whole chorus of bodyworkers to keep them viable.
Standing lateral stretches for the adductors and abductors don’t work well either. In a standing position both these sets of muscles usually contract reflexively to stabilize the leg. They cannot stretch because they cannot relax.
A third rule in choosing stretches is: never put your knee in a weight-bearing position on the ground for any stretch. It’s an invitation to ligament or cartilage damage. The common hurdler stretch and the kneeling quadriceps and hamstring stretches are the worst offenders. Another bad effect of standing and seated stretches in which you bend the torso forward, is pressure on the sciatic nerve. Done repeatedly this pressure damages the nerve.
Initially, sciatic nerve damage is symptomless. It progresses insidiously over years, until it shows as a strong pain from the buttock down the back of the leg to the heel often radiating to the shin. It is the root cause of many chronic back and leg problems in athletes, especially as they age.
You should do everything to prevent it. Use a thick foam pad whenever you stretch on the floor, and avoid stretches that put the sciatic nerve under stress.
|Avoid These Stretches||Reason||Avoid These Stretches||Reason|
Stretch — Puts
damaging stress on
lower back ligaments.
stretch because it is
to stabilize pelvis.
Stretch — Puts
damaging stress on
lower back ligaments.
stretch because it is
to stabilize pelvis.
Stretch — The
stretch because they
are contracted to
stabilize the pelvis.
Tensor and IT Band
Stretch — The gluteus
and tensor fascia lata
because they are
to stabilize the pelvis.
The IT band does not
stretch because it is a
Hurdler — Puts
damaging stress on
ligaments of lower back
Stretch — Stretches
hamstring but puts
damaging stress on
lower back ligaments.
Stretch — Puts severe
damaging stress on
lower back ligaments.
|Reverse Tailor — Puts
damaging pressure on
knee tendons and
|Quadricep Stretch —|
pressure on knee.
|Hurdler Stretch —
pressure on ligaments
The Right Stretches
For athletes, the weight-bearing structures of the lower back, hips and legs need far more stretching than the non-weight-bearing structures of the arms, shoulders and upper back. Impact stresses of running, jumping and side-to-side motion shorten the muscles and tighten the fascia. As a direct result, most athletes we test have sub-optimal ranges of motion in the lower half of their bodies.
We analyzed the research literature and the records of more than 9000 athletes in our computer database to find out which muscle groups cause the worst problems. Below are the muscles that athletes need to stretch most. And following are the best 15 stretches to do the job.
- 1. Gluteus maximus, and associated lower back muscles for hip extension and lower back flexibility.
- 2. Piriformis and five other associated muscles at the side and back of the pelvis, for lateral hip rotation.
- 3. Iliopsoas, rectus femoris and tensor fascia lata, for hip flexion.
- 4. Adductors of the inner thigh for hip adduction.
- 5. Gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and tensor fascia lata for hip abduction.
- 6. Hamstrings for hip extension and knee flexion.
- 7. Quadriceps for knee extension. Rectus femoris of quadriceps for hip flexion.
- 8. Gastrocnemius and soleus for range of motion of foot, ankle and knee.
- 9. Lower back and lower abdominals for spinal rotation, flexion and extension.
POWER PRINCIPLE 4: Stretch every day.
The Vital 15 Stretches
1. Gluteus Stretch
Lie on back. Bend one knee with foot flat on wall. Cross other leg over bent knee. As you become more flexible, you can use hands as shown or push with foot against wall to apply minimum force to increase the stretch. Rotate hip joint by drawing small circles with knee of stretched leg.
2. Piriformis Stretch
Stand at a bench a bit less than waist high. Lay one leg on bench as shown. Lean against bench and support torso with arms to allow piriformis and other hip lateral rotators to relax. Maintain normal spinal curve. Rotate joint by circling torso sideways, from over knee to over foot.
3. Iliopsoas Stretch
Lie on bench as shown. Hug knee to chest with hands to keep lower back close to bench. Allow other leg to hang freely over end of bench. After muscle has relaxed, use hands to increase stretch by applying minimum force to hanging thigh. Rotate thigh of hanging leg in hip socket by drawing small circles with knee.
4. Adductor Stretch
Lie on back with buttocks touching wall. Allow legs to slide sideways. After muscles have relaxed, use minimum force with hands on thighs to increase stretch. You should not feel tension at inner sides of knee or in groin. Rotate thighs in hip sockets by circling feet in both directions.
5. Abductor Stretch
Lie on bench as shown with upper leg crossed over lower leg. Allow upper leg to relax over end of bench. Rotate stretched thigh in hip socket by drawing small
6. Hamstring Stretch
Lie as shown. To increase stretch, use minimum force to pull foot towards head. Rotate hip joint by circling raised leg out to side and back to center. circles with foot.
7. Hip Rotation
Lie as shown. After lower back and external oblique muscles have relaxed, use upper leg to press lower leg while twisting torso in opposite direction. Rotate hip joint by drawing small circles with knee
8. Quadriceps Stretch
Lie as shown. Hold ankle and pull upper heel into buttocks. Maintain normal lumbar curve. Rotate joints by drawing small circles with knee of stretched leg.
9. Gastrocnemius Stretch
Stand as shown. Keep rear heel firmly on floor. Maintain normal lumbar curve. Stretch by moving body towards wall. Rotate joints by drawing small circles with knee of unstretched leg.
10. Soleus Stretch
Stand as shown in gastrocnemius stretch, but bend rear leg about 15º. Keep heel flat on floor. Don’t lean further forward. Keep buttock above bent knee. Rotate joints by drawing small circles with bent knee of stretched leg.
11. Back Curl Up
Lie as shown (right). Hug knees to chest. Curl up more to increase stretch but keep head on pad and neck relaxed. Rotate spine by moving knees to one side then to the other.
12. Abdominal and Back Stretch
Lie on Swiss ball as shown. Extend arms to increase stretch. Rotate spine by tilting torso to one side then to the other.
13. Seated Spinal Twist
Sit as shown (right). Use elbow against knee to increase stretch. Rotate spine by gently rocking in and out of stretch.
14. Side Stretch
Sit as shown (left). Reach overhead towards foot to increase stretch. Rotate spine by gently twisting torso one way then the other.
15. McKenzie Stretch
Lie face down. Keeping hips on floor, push torso up with arms. Rotate by drawing circles with torso.
Top 12 Upper Body Stretches
The Vital 15 Stretches cover the lower body which becomes most stiff in athletes. Shoulders, arms, chest and upper back also benefit from regular stretching, especially regarding their range of motion and ability to stand rotational stress.
To take advantage of these benefits without devoting even more the athlete’s precious gym time to stretching, we incorporate upper body stretches into weight workouts by doing two opposing stretches in the rest period between each superset.
1. Arm Rotations
Swing one arm in 10 giant circles allowing it to fall like a lead weight in rhythm with exhaling. First swing anti-clockwise with palm up as arm travels upward, rotating to palm down as arm travels downward. Oppose this motion by swinging arm in 10 clockwise circles in rhythm with exhaling, with palm up as arm travels downward, rotating to palm down as arm travels upward.
2. Spinal Rotation
Hold post as shown with arms straight and palms facing each other. Rotate whole body away from post, exhaling at maximum point of stretch. Rotate in and out of the stretch in rhythm with breathing. Oppose this motion by spinal rotation on the opposite side.
3. Back Shoulder Stretch
Stand at bar (left) with arms straight and palms up. Let head fall between shoulders, swinging first towards one shoulder, then towards the other, exhaling at the maximum point of stretch.
4. Back Shoulder Stretch (2)
Do Stretch 3 with palms down.
5. Front Shoulder Stretch
Stand at bar (right) with arms straight and palms down. Allow body to sink by bending knees. Stretch one shoulder, then the other, exhaling at maximum point of stretch.
6. Front Shoulder Stretch (2)
Do Stretch 5 with palms up. Do Stretches 5 and 6 in opposition to Stretches 3 and 4.
7. Arm Stretch Back
Stand at post as shown (left), with arm straight and palm facing forward. Rotate body away from stretched arm, exhaling at maximum point of stretch. Rotate in and out of stretch in rhythm with breathing.
8. Arm Stretch Back (2)
Do Stretch 7 with palm facing backward.
9. Arm Stretch Forward
Stand at bar (right) with arm straight across body and palm facing forward. Use other forearm to push away from post, exhaling at maximum point of stretch. Rotate in and out of stretch in rhythm with breathing.
10. Arm Stretch Forward
Do Stretch 9 with palm facing backward. Do Stretches 7 and 8 in opposition to Stretches 9 and 10.
11. Forward Hang
Hold bar as shown (left) with arms straight and palms forward. Allow body to hang forward in a relaxed curve, exhaling at maximum point of stretch. Rotate body side to side in circles in rhythm with breathing.
12. Backward Hang
Hold bar as shown (right) with arms straight and palms facing each other. Allow body to hang backward in a relaxed curve, exhaling at maximum point of stretch. Rotate body side to side in circles in rhythm with breathing. Do Stretch 12 in opposition to Stretch 11.
Extend And Connect
Your power in any movement is always limited to the strength of the weakest link in the movement chain. From the photo you can see that this chain is formed by four basic structures:
- The joints between bones.
- The ligaments joining bone to bone.
- The tendons joining muscles to bone.
- The muscles.
Most sports injuries do not occur to bones or muscles, but to joints, ligaments and tendons.1 These injuries occur especially when the joints are in extension and rotation under load, just the sort of situation that occurs with athletic effort. So it is imperative in a power program to strengthen the joints and connective tissues of the power chain before you make big gains muscle strength. Jumping into heavy weights without doing so, leads inevitably to injury, both in the weight room and on the sports field.
Following The Human Design
The Extension-Connection Cycle runs for eight weeks. It focuses on multi-joint, full-extension exercises, that train the joints and connective tissues in the complete rotational movements the muscles are designed to make. The biceps complex, for example, not only bends the arm but also rotates the forearm from full pronation (palm down, pinky out) to full supination (palm up, pinky in).
All free movements of sport incorporate these rotational components. That’s why most bodybuilding curl exercises for the biceps, which are done with hands supinated and locked in one position by the bar, just don’t cut it because they allow only partial non-rotational movement.
They are okay for building bigger biceps, but not for building biceps that will function in the movements of sport. You make rotational joint movements in all everyday activities, but rarely under the conditions of full extension and heavy load that occur constantly on the playing field.
The ExtensionConnection Cycle is designed to strengthen joints and connective tissue under these extreme conditions, to protect them from the increased stresses imposed by the large increase in muscle strength you will gain from the Strength-Stabilization Cycle. You cannot use this strength effectively and safely unless you do extension-connection training first.
- You do five workouts per week, done as three days on one day off, two days on one day off. You will like the days off.
- You use moderate weights, 60 – 80% of 1RM. The maximum weight you can use for one repetition, is called the one-rep-max or 1RM. So if you can do a single bicep curl with 100 pounds, you would do extension-connection training using 60 – 80 pounds.
- You do sets of 6 – 12 repetitions, the ideal range for increasing connective tissue thickness and strengthening joint structures, thus preparing the body for the heavier strength and power cycles.
- You do three sets of each exercise. First, a light warm-up set of 10 – 12 reps, using 60% of 1RM, concentrating on form and extension. Second, a heavier set of 8 – 10 reps, using 70% of 1RM. Third is the heaviest set of 6 – 8 reps, using 80% of 1RM.
- You do 6 – 8 exercises per workout. As you will see in later chapters, hormonal limits on effective weight training allow a maximum of 24 sets per workout, which limits the possible exercises in the Extension-Connection Cycle to 6 – 8 exercises per bodypart. Don’t worry, when you do the best exercises, and do them properly, you will not want to do more.
- You use supersets. As many of the exercises as possible are done in opposing supersets which make up supercycles. In an opposing superset, a set of one exercise, which extends a limb or rotates a joint in one direction, is followed immediately by a set of a second exercise, which bends the limb or rotates the joint in the opposite direction. As with the example shown in the photos below, each set of bicep dumbbell curls is followed by a set of tricep kickbacks. So three supersets, each of two exercises, make up the supercycle.
- You use short rest periods (30 – 60 seconds), between each superset. During this time you stretch. So training tends to becomes a bit anaerobic by the last of the three supersets of the supercycle.
Between supercycles, use longer rest periods (2 – 3 minutes), to let breathing return to normal, and to allow a good proportion of creatine phosphate to regenerate in the muscles. We cover creatine phosphate in detail in a chapter ahead.
During the 8 weeks of Extension and Connection it is important not to exceed 80% of 1 RM for any weight.
During this period you are teaching not only your connective tissue to become stronger but also your nervous system that controls all movement. Overload that system and, just like a computer, it will crash: that is, shut down to protect itself. From thereon in you are teaching it to crash.
As Masters of Tai Chi know well, “…the nervous system learns best when you whisper to it.”
POWER PRINCIPLE 5: First train joints and connective tissues with the Extension-Connection Cycle.
In any free movement, the main muscles involved are called prime movers. The muscles that hold the joint in the desired plane of motion are called stabilizers. The prime movers can move the body effectively only if the stabilizers of the joints are strong enough to hold the limbs exactly as desired.1
Sounds complicated, but it’s dead simple. Say you are sprinting. As you lift each knee forward, the prime movers — the quadriceps — perform the lift. The stabilizers, principally the adductors of the groin and the abductors of the outer side of the thigh (plus numerous other muscles of the hips and back which stabilize the pelvis), hold the thigh and knee in a straight line, parallel with the direction you want to go.
If you train the quads, but neglect the adductors and abductors, then, at high power output, the leg becomes unstable. The knees wobble with each stride, because the stabilizers fail to hold them against the forces transmitted up the leg caused by the uneven ground or changing angles of footfall. Every wobble jiggles your whole body and slows you down.
We see this problem constantly, especially with athletes who have heavy upper bodies to control, such as professional footballers and basketball players. The worst problems occur with those whose leg training consists of squats done on a Smith machine, and leg presses, extensions and curls done on isolation machines. All these machines mechanically hold the body in place and prevent the stabilizers being strengthened. These athletes develop tremendous quadricep strength, but their leg stabilizers cannot take the increased stress.
Athletes rarely sprint in a straight line in their sports, so their legs are subject to greater side-to-side forces than the legs of other runners.
Over a period, such incorrect leg training reduces sprinting speed. Despite the much greater strength developed in the prime movers, the stabilizers become less and less able to keep the leg moving in a straight line. It’s no wonder that numerous coaches still believe that heavy weight training somehow makes athletes slower.
On the contrary, weight training makes you faster, a lot faster, but only if you do it right. Doing the Strength-Stabilization Cycle each year is a critical component of the Power Program that enables you not only to increase the strength of prime movers, but also to stabilize the joints to withstand the added stress whenever that increased strength is applied.
The Strength-Stabilization Cycle runs for 10 weeks. It focuses on free weights and cable exercises that demand full participation of the stabilizers in addition to the prime movers.
- You do five workouts per week — done as three days on, one day off, two days on, one day off. The days off are blissful. You use moderate to heavy weights, 70 – 110% of 1RM.
- You do sets of 3 – 10 repetitions, the ideal range for increasing strength with stabilzation.
- You do three sets of each exercise. First, a warm-up set of 8 – 10 repetitions with a moderate weight (70% of 1RM). Second, a heavy set of 3 – 5 repetitions with 90 – 95% of 1RM. Depending on your vitality on the day, the second set can be done for 1 – 3 repetitions with 100 – 110% of 1RM. Third, is a set of 4 – 7 repetitions with 85% – 95% of 1RM.
- You do six exercises per workout plus two light maintenance exercises. The number of different heavy exercises is limited to six per workout for two reasons. First is the strenuous nature of the work. Second is the time it takes to complete them. Remember, you can work heavy in the weight room a maximum of 60 minutes before hormonal and neural fatigue start to shut down muscle responses.2
- You use supersets. As many exercises as possible are done in opposing supersets to make up supercycles. In an opposing superset, a set of one exercise which extends a limb or rotates a joint in one direction, is followed immediately by a set of a second exercise which contracts the same limb or rotates the joint in the opposite direction. Each set of cable laterals, for example, is followed by a set of cable pulldowns. So three supersets, each of two exercises, make up the supercycle.
- You use short rest periods between superset pairs of exercises (about 60 seconds). During this time you stretch.
- You use long rest periods between supercycles (3 minutes) to allow regeneration of a large proportion of creatine phosphate in the muscle.
POWER PRINCIPLE 6: After extension and connection training, train stabilizers and prime movers with the Strength-Stabilization Cycle.
I’ve seen it happen a gazillion times. Young, fit athletes think they are invincible and go straight for the power. They jump into heavy, whole-body exercises such as deadlifts and high pulls, which involve many muscle chains simultaneously, and arm and shoulder joints and their connective tissues at full extension. Then, after a few weeks, they are gob-smacked when their lower back or rotator cuff or some other weak link gives way under the strain.
From over a quarter century of using weights with over 10,000 athletes, I can tell you that no one, no matter how fit and strong, should do whole-body weight exercises without first training for three to six months for extension, connection and stabilization.
Before ever starting the Power Cycle, prepare your body faithfully by completing the Extension-Connection Cycle and the Strength-Stabilization Cycle. You have to complete these preparation cycles every year. Otherwise you will end up both over-trained and injured.
Once prepared, however, the Power Cycle will quickly bring you to a power peak, right before your competitive season — a peak that will last almost all season long. The Power Cycle runs for 7 weeks. It focuses on bringing together all the weight work you have done during the previous 18 weeks.
It links strengthened joints and connective tissues to strengthened prime movers and stabilizers, in a network of complementary muscle chains that permit smooth, efficient transfer of power from the ground, or any fixed point of limb connection.
To achieve this goal, you need to do whole-body movements which involve multiple muscle chains simultaneously. The best weight exercises, such as high pulls, deadlifts and squats, are covered in later chapters.
- You do only three workouts per week — one day on, one day off, with an extra day off at the end of each week. You need a day off between each workout to allow for recovery. You will relish recovery days.
- You use heavy weights, 80 – 125% of 1RM. Such weights are very challenging and should not be done casually. Focus, concentration, form and posture are paramount. Before working out always warm up your whole body with light aerobic exercise. When working heavy, our rule in the gym is: Never touch a weight till you’ve broken a sweat.
- You do sets of 1 – 6 repetitions, the ideal range for power. Also, you do light warm-up sets in the movement of each exercise to set your posture and form and prepare the particular muscles involved. These warm-up sets are not counted for the workout, but are essential preparation.
- You do each exercise for four or five sets, depending on your vitality on the day. After a light warm-up in the movement, the first set is 5 – 6 reps with 80 – 85% of 1RM. Second is a heavier set of 2 – 4 reps with 95% of 1RM. Third is a heavy set of 1 – 3 reps with 95 – 105% of 1RM. Fourth is the heaviest set of 1 – 2 reps with 100 – 125% of 1RM. (The fourth set is optional, depending on how good you are feeling on the day.) Fifth is a set of 1 – 3 reps with 100% of 1RM.
- You do only four exercises per workout. Unlike the preceding two cycles, exercises are no longer done in supercycles, because multiple muscle chains are involved in each.
- You use long rest periods (3 minutes) between sets and between exercises to allow for recovery of strength. During these periods, stretch lightly. Research shows that rest periods of about 3 minutes between sets of heavy exercise result in greater strength increase than short rest periods (less than 1 minute).2 Because of these long rest periods, your time in the gym may stretch beyond the ideal 60 minutes, but the rests and stretching allow you to extend this time a little without deficit. The Power Cycle is summarized below.
After seven weeks on the Power Cycle, you should be at a peak for the start of your competitive season which you should have set your calendar to be one week away. Taper off for that week, with light weight work, covering the whole body, using the weights and exercises of the Extension-Connection Cycle. Do not do power exercises. Now that you know the programming of the 25-week Power Program, you are ready to slot into it the best exercises for athletes, and, to learn to do them in the most effective way. Not a simple task, because many of the weight training exercises used today grew out of competitive bodybuilding.
It bears repeating that competitors in bodybuilding are concerned with the size and shape of their muscles, to exhibit them on stage. They do not have to use their bodies in sport, so they pay little or no attention to developing functional muscle. Consequently, many bodybuilding routines create muscular bodies that look good, but cannot perform on the playing field. For athletes, functional muscle is paramount. If you want to build muscle that performs superbly in any situation, the following chapters give you all the tools you need.
POWER PRINCIPLE 7: After extension, connection, strength and stabilization training, train with the Power Cycle for power.
The Power Equation
For over 30 years, we have measured the power of numerous professional footballers, from the Green Bay Packers, the Padres and the Giants, to the All Blacks rugby footballers of New Zealand. They are big boys. But their power is often suboptimal for their mass.
Some footballers fail to develop optimal power, because old beliefs still influence them to do everything possible to put on weight, both muscle mass and an overcoat of bodyfat. They have the mistaken idea that the extra mass confers great power because, once it is moving fast, their mass times their velocity blasts them through opposing defenses.
Trouble is, these guys don’t believe they are subject to the laws of physics. All force in the universe conforms to Einstein’s equation E=MC2. Put simply that means: force equals mass multiplied by velocity squared.
To take an example, if you have a mass of say 100 units and a velocity of say only 50 units, then E (energy or force) = 100 (mass) multiplied by 50 X 50 (velocity). The mass component of the power is worth 100, but the velocity component is worth 2,500. That’s why a high-velocity rifle can fire a light rubber bullet through a one-inch board. Speed is the biggie for power.
Like the big bodybuilders they copy in their training, some professional athletes carry enough mass to knock down a barn. But, they are not strong enough to get it moving at a real fast speed. Their power is limited by the very muscle they worked so hard to gain.
Case In Point
Here’s an example using actual athletes from our files. Case 1 is a professional footballer who trains in the conventional bodybuilding way for mass. At 6’ 4’’, he weighs 120 kilograms (264 lbs) and carries 18% bodyfat, that is, 21.6 kilograms (47.5 lbs). So his lean mass is 98 kilograms (216 lbs). With that mass, he can bench press 405 and squat 530, so he’s no slouch in the strength department. But, hindered by excess mass, his fastest 40-meter dash is only 5.6 seconds, or 7.14 meters per second. We will take that as the measure of velocity.
The maximum power Case 1 can generate in hitting an opponent is E=MC2, that is his total mass multiplied by the square of the speed he can move it. For running that is:
120 kg bodyweight times 7.14 meters-per-second velocity2 = 120 X 7.14 X 7.14 = 6119 units of power
Of course, his slow speed off the mark means that faster opponents rarely let him accelerate long enough to reach that maximum power.
Case 2 Now take Case 2, a footballer who trains for power rather than mass. Also at 6’ 4”, he weighs 105 kilograms (231 lbs). So he is 15 kilograms (33 lbs) lighter than Case 1, a big deficit in traditional beliefs about football. But he is only 10% bodyfat (10.5 kg, 23.5 lbs).
So he carries 94.5 kilograms (208 lbs) of lean mass, that is 3.5 kilograms (8 lbs) less lean mass than Case 1. The important point is, Case 2 is stronger than Case 1. Though he has less muscle mass, Case 2 can bench 420 and squat 560. So his strength per pound of muscle is higher than that of Case 1. His body composition is also leaner, with little dead weight of fat to carry. Stronger muscles and less bodyfat enable him to achieve a 40-meter dash time of 4.5 seconds (8.9 meters per second). So the maximum power Case 2 can generate (E=MC2) is:
105 kilograms bodyweight times 8.9 meters per sec velocity2 = 105 X 8.9 X 8.9 = 8313 units of power.
That is 1194 more units of power than Case 1. Though Case 2 has less total mass, he is 20% more powerful, moves faster and hits harder. He beats Case 1 every time.
What I didn’t tell you is that both cases are the same guy. Case 1 was when he first came to the Colgan Institute for a power program. Case 2 is 12 months later. In the past, large, over-fat, slow athletes could score in football and other sports because of their sheer mass. Those days are over. Now the elite all train for power. All the top athletes of today know well that strength without excess mass is the key to speed. And speed is the key to power.
POWER PRINCIPLE 8: Train for maximum strength per pound of muscle, not for mass.
Train The Chain
Individual muscles of bodybuilders can be unbelievably strong. In the isolation movement of a leg curl machine, for example, I have watched a certain 300-lb professional, with calves like house bricks and hamstrings that might hold a suspension bridge, do 10 reps with the whole weight stack, with one leg, chatting to me the while. But asked to sprint up a 60-second hill, he declined purple-faced after one try, protesting: “I don’t want to rick my back.” He has tremendously strong muscles, but weak links between them, so his body doesn’t work well when he has to exert all of it at once.
Athletic activity requires both strong muscles and strong links between muscle groups. As an athlete, you need your calves to have power links right up your leg to the hamstrings, gluteals and lumbar spine. You also need to be able to contract every muscle fully at the multiple angles of limb placement and wide ranges of eccentric torque that occur in the free movements of sport. You need to be able to carry out these movements at maximum muscle contraction, without fear of injury holding you back. You cannot achieve that goal by weight training with machines that isolate your muscles.1
Even if you don’t get injured in your sport as a result of strengthening isolated muscles, the strength you gain under a typical bodybuilding program is of little use. The transfer of power in free movement occurs only through a linked chain of muscle groups. If any muscle, or any link of connective tissue in the chain remains weak, the power is dissipated.
I saw a dramatic example of this problem in a Strongman contest a while ago. Lou Ferrigno, of Incredible Hulk and Hercules fame, was beaten by smaller men in lifting a weight overhead.
He complained that his waist was too small to lift heavy loads above his head. In fact, the waists of some Olympic weightlifters are even smaller, and they lift much heavier weights than anyone in the Strongman brigade. Though he is a very powerful man, on that day, Ferrigno was an example of bodybuilding’s failure to train muscle chains. In his case, it was the chain from the calves through the hamstrings, gluteals and lower back, up the latissimus, through the trapezius and upper back to the rotator cuffs, that permits the step-by-step transfer of power necessary to hoist heavy weights aloft.
The principles herein teach you how to train that chain. It’s not just the muscles and connective tissues you have to link. It’s also the integrated sequential firing of the central nervous system.1 You have to practice the skill movements of your sport many thousands of times in order to link them into smooth sequences of automatic neural outputs. Eventually, you can perform them smoothly, rapidly and powerfully, without thinking about it. You have to practice in the same way to link muscle chains into automatic sequences. Super-trainer Paul Chek has shown us all, that without these sequences, the strongest muscles, trained in isolation, don’t do diddly.
The most common example of weak links caused by incorrect weight training is the rotator cuff — the complex of muscles and tendons that stabilizes your shoulder. The shoulder joint is a shallow cup of soft tissue, designed to allow the largest range of movement of any joint in your body. Unless it is held together more strongly than the muscles that pull on it, you better stick to fru-fru aerobics for exercise.
When you ask most bodybuilders about shoulders, they wax lyrical about deltoids, the much admired three-headed cannonball of muscle that caps the shoulder joint. Ask guys at the gym what they do for their external rotators, and 90% give you a blank look. Many don’t even know where they are. Yet, unless you train power into the four muscles and their tendons that stabilize the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder, strong deltoids are a liability.
These four muscles — the infraspinatus, the supraspinatus, the subscapularis and the teres minor — are shown in the figures.
These muscles are small, not visible from the front, hardly even visible in a mirror from the back, so are rarely trained in bodybuilding. Yet they are essential for raising your arm to throw a ball or javelin, pushing from the front or side, and pulling from front, side or overhead.
Swimming, baseball, basketball, football, judo, karate, tennis, gymnastics and many other sports all depend on these babies to transfer power from the chest and back, through the shoulder girdle, to the arms. The external rotators are so important, and such a frequent source of shoulder injury, that I cover them in detail later in this book. If you have had shoulder problems, or if you want to avoid them, you should follow along to to the letter.
The rotator cuff is part of 22 major muscle chains we have identified at the Colgan Institute that are essential for sprinting, vertical and long jumping, lifting overhead, pushing, pulling, throwing, hitting, lateral acceleration and gymnastic movements. Over the last 26 years of measuring athletes, we have isolated the most common weak links in the chains. We designed the Power Program to focus especially on strengthening these links.
POWER PRINCIPLE 9: Strengthen whole muscle groups in concert. Train the chain.
Gyms are awash with isolation machines, each one adorned with strange and wishful tales advocating its use. Gym owners love them because they are safe to use, they require little supervision, and you can get two machines into the same space taken by one person working with free weights or cables. If you are an athlete seeking power, leave them for the wannabees.
Except during rehabilitation, where particular weakened, injured muscles require restoration, machines that train muscles in isolation cannot improve your power. Even Arthur Jones, king of the Nautilus empire that started it all, finally realized that their utility lay in rehab. These machines are not designed to produce functional bodies, but simply to enlarge and strengthen individual muscles.
For this purpose, many isolation machines work well. But their very design is anathema to athletes. The restraining straps and pads, the restricted arcs and planes of motion, and the fixed intensities of resistance for each position of arc, introduce two big causes of athletic injury. First, their design prevents these machines from strengthening the muscle in the multiple rotational planes of action, multiple angles of loading, and multiple intensities of resistance in any position that occur all the time in the free movements of sport. The muscles remain weak in all but the particular movement of the machine. Second, the design of isolation machines prevents them from strengthening the stabilizing and coordinating muscles and connective tissues. Hence, the muscle chains involved cannot operate properly in any free movement, because the joints through which they transfer their power remain unstable.
Machines Cause Injuries
Remember, all athletic activity requires free-movement power. So machines with fixed movements are not only useless for training athletes, they are downright dangerous. It is both useless and dangerous, for example, for a gymnast to strengthen his triceps on a machine, in the hope it will improve performance by keeping his arms straight on the pommel horse. Simply maintaining arm position on the pommel horse during free movement, requires the coordinated action of 48 muscles of the arms, shoulders, chest and back, plus all their connective tissues. To strengthen the triceps more than other parts of this system, puts all the rest at risk.
In his recent book, Arnold Schwarzenegger advises that even bodybuilders should do no more than 30 – 40% of their training on isolation machines. He cites his fellow bodybuilding champion and chiropractor, Franco Columbo, stating that these devices cause numerous injuries and are ineffecive for muscle growth.
Top powerlifting coach Louie Simmons, who has trained some of the strongest guys in the world, tells his clients that if a gym has more machines than free weights, think again before even going through the door.
Yet I see athletes everywhere using weight machines. If they are so bad, why are gyms not buried in mountains of lawsuits? Because using the machines in the gym is very safe. Injuries rarely occur in the gym. But when you take the unbalanced and unstable body — trained with these machines — to the playing field and expect it to perform in free movement, the whole system goes to hell in a handbasket.
It’s hard to prove to a court of laymen that injuries during sport are caused by previous training with machines in the gym, but that’s where many of them originate.
The master at demonstrating how stable free movement is the basis of athletic power, is physiotherapist and top trainer Paul Chek, who practices in San Diego, California. Chek emphasizes how the sports field is an unstable environment, in which athletes cannot apply their strength safely and accurately, unless all the stabilizing muscles of the joints have been trained in conjunction with the prime movers.
Chek advocates the rehabilitation device, the Swiss ball, as the ultimate unstable platform. In a series of excellent videos, he has raised Swiss ball exercise almost to an art form for athletic training.
Run Wobbly To Run Straight
Not all free movement exercises are good power training. A great example is runners who train primarily on flat roads, rubber running tracks and treadmills. Unless you are sprinting, smooth, even surfaces put little stress on the stabilizing muscles of running motion. So these runners tend to have unstable joints.
When they come to my training camps on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, San Diego and in Queenstown, New Zealand, these “asphalt addicts” have to run rough mountain trails, where the uneven ground wobbles their ankles, knees and hips every stride. We can clock them on the treadmill running comfortably at a 10 mph, 6:00 minutes per mile pace. But on a mountain trail, they are dying at a 7:00-minute pace. After a few days, they often groan of sore ankles, knees or lower back.
Some coaches fail to emphasize that running only on smooth surfaces, with all the focus on speed or distance, is only half the way to learn to run. It just doesn’t train the stabilizers essential to enable the body to run in a straight line. Instead, the athlete learns to fake it, making constant corrections to unstable joints, by using little swaying movements of the hips and upper body. Every one of those side-to-side movements takes motion away from the forward direction, increases the distance you have to cover, and slows you down.
Free Weights For Free Movement
A few machines are useful when exercises on them are combined with free-movement exercises to train the whole muscle system. The leg extension machine is OK for warm-ups when done lightly with single legs, and when sets are alternated in supersets with the leg curl machine. That way the quadriceps are trained sequentially with their major antagonists, the hamstrings.
But do not think that these machines provide leg training. You need at least six free-movement exercises in your leg program. You need the front and back lunges and the diagonal and plié lunges to strengthen the leg and hip stabilizers, especially muscles of the groin and the connective tissues of the knee and lower leg.
You also need the squat and the deadlift to link quadriceps to abdominals and psoas, and groin and hamstrings to gluteus and major muscles of the back. Without these free-weight exercises, training legs with most leg extension and leg curl machines, leg presses, hacks and Smith machines is a big cause of knee, groin, iliotibial band and lower back injuries on the playing field.
The only forms of weight training that permit free movements similar to the movements you use in sport, are free weights and weighted cables. They are also the only forms of weight training that train the stabilizing and coordinating muscles and connective tissues that link the muscle chains all over your body and stabilize your joints. They are all you need.
POWER PRINCIPLE 10: Use free-movement exercises with free weights and cables. Avoid isolation machines.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Renowned scientist, lecturer and best-selling author, Dr. Michael Colgan’s professional memberships include the American College of Sports Medicine, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the British Society of Nutritional Medicine. He is also on the Council of International and American Association of Clinical Nutritionists.