Deloads and Recovery Methods You Can Use

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Recovery is a buzz topic of late in fitness and sports performance, and for good reason. However, I get concerned that without enough actionable steps and an echo chamber of “you need to sleep more” and “experts” who try to hack their way out of skill development and health, that the real recovery message will get lost. 

What is the “real message” of recovery anyway?

I had good mentors and people intervene with me at a young age to help me with recovery methods and ways to minimize injury; probably more than most in my age group, or more than most in general. These methods probably dominated most of what I did in the earliest part of my training career. Conversely, about five years ago, I got the opposite bug— I wanted to really push to the point some of the most extreme performers in the world did. I wanted to learn the limits of my body and understand the far extremes of the most extreme performance. This was in part, to not waste a generally healthy male body that was given some pre-disposition to do well in a variety of physical pursuits, but also to understand the mindset and preparation even more deeply that goes into the athletes and people I deal with day-to-day. 

In the time since ~2013, I’m happy to say I’ve been traveling that road with minimal injury roadblocks, precisely because I was able to utilize the lessons I had learned on recovery early on (and using my network).

Which leads me to now, where I feel quite comfortable saying I have learned two major lessons in the process:

  1. Schedules will help you avoid burnout and manage your fatigue

  2. Deloading makes you bigger and stronger.

I’ll address the schedules point in next week’s piece in detail. I want to touch today on the topic of deloading.

We all know in theory that de-loading is necessary and is built into any good program, as it offers a reprieve from the hard stress of the micro-cycle you just trained through, preparing you for the next upcoming training cycle. Physiologically, it’s where the super compensation and acute adaptation happens to ultimately give you the results you were looking for in your training.  Without a well-timed deload phase, you often find yourself a step behind. It’s the equivalent to not tapering off your jiu jitsu training before a tournament; or going for PR’s within days of competition.

Funny enough, it’s the deload and management of training cycles that I believe is one of the top reason I’ve been able to build up and maintain great athletes and clients for years running now. If you aren’t used to a periodized program, this type of organization is a game-changer. Among the benefits are being able to predict when you’ll be peaking and managing your fatigue and continuing to improve in what seems like and endless manner (if you’re used to the old train hard and burnout cycles).

However, I personally didn’t see the “magic” of the deload until I was forced to. I can remember coming off a hard month-long German Volume Training cycle that was written by Charles Poliquin and had drastically increased my sets per week for weeks leading up to it. When the deload week was finally just a few days away, I could feel my body starting to get run down with a cold-type of illness. This wasn’t unexpected and I took it as a cue to rest and start the deload early. What followed was a little alarming to me, as I ended up feeling weaker than I anticipated in that deload period, for much longer. I physically wasn’t able to go give my best at the gym or on the mats for about 2.5 weeks. I was concerned I had over-trained. And you know, I may have. 

But what happened next felt like magic or some weird voodoo— I shot up in weight, size and measurements in the next month that followed that illness and sluggish time. I even hit PR’s the whole next month in training. This all with very minimal/maintenance type training from me during that time.

If I had to break it down in somewhat simplistic terms: I was basically overreaching for about 6 weeks (and a few more training cycles on top of that) and had an extended “cool off” period in which I could literally grow and adapt to the training stimulus I aggressively put myself through in the preceding months.

The Mental Component

My big lesson? You have to ask yourself if your compulsion to not deload properly comes from your desire to win/get stronger at all costs, or if it’s a compulsive nervous response. An anxiety about something.  

If you think it’s your desire for strength, and that you can train through anything, then please believe me and any coach worth their salt out there, that you’ll get stronger from those well-timed deloads. 

If you want to get stronger, want to win the big one, but can’t seem to have mental peace with the deload, and struggle with the downtime, I very much encourage you to meditate on the matter and dig into what’s not letting you take a step that will actually help you. Learn why you have difficulty letting go.  

It’s high on my list of things to work on with athletes, so if you struggle with this, you aren’t alone. It also comes with no judgment, as it took some failure and real-time learning on my part to learn one of the best lessons of my career on this topic. I’ve seen too many people underperform on game day after 8 week camps and years of training, all because they pushed it compulsively until the big dance. Worse yet, I’ve seen injuries that I believe could have been possibly mitigated had some care been taken in respect to scheduling and deload.

I hope this gives you some things to think about in applying these concepts to your training.

Be well, be strong,

Mark DiSalvo

The Most Underrated Parameter in Programming

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Tempo is the most underrated and oft-forgotten factor in programming.

If a training program is presented to you that involves strength work, lifting, or calisthenics, and it does not even address tempo at all, I suggest you don’t bother with it.  

What is Tempo and What Does It Mean?

Tempo specifically refers to the speed of each phase of movement and contraction time in an exercise. It’s sometimes referred to as TUT or Time Under Tension.  The speed at which you’re expected to do a movement dictates the sets/reps, and by extension, the load. All of that translates to the desired response of the workout in the first place. Because of this, it is as important of a consideration as sets, reps and load when discussing strength training.

Translated further in an example: if you have very low weight on a bar and you’re meant to do it for a high rep count, you should probably be slowing down the tempo quite a bit to create muscular stress and NOT throwing weight around quickly. (*There are exceptions in power training of course, but this is outside the scope of this article).

In general, the longer your TUT or during particularly slow eccentrics, you are likely getting hypertrophy (or muscular size) benefits. One added bonus to an extremely slow tempo is that it has a very therapeutic/corrective effect to the muscles at certain low intensity percentages: because you are moving slowly, your brain and muscles have that extra time to “communicate” and you can increase motor unit activation to muscles that may be lagging as they’re increasingly placed under stress. This is why isometrics are often used in sports rehab settings or for sticking points in some athlete’s lifts.

Extremely slow tempos, in my book, would be defined as anything over 6 seconds in either phase of movement or contraction.

Conversely, the shorter your TUT or Tempo, the more you’re looking to move bigger weight. 

In strength sports, it’s pretty cut and dry as to when/why you would train with faster tempos and bigger weights. But in jiu jitsu, you must always be making careful tradeoffs for your body in terms of what strength qualities to train. For example, if you are only able to back squat or deadlift 40% of your bodyweight, I would definitely want to bring that up quite a bit and would call that a glaring area of need. However, if you’re lifting past your bodyweight in a big indicator lift (your bodyweight past 40% at least), we would definitely be looking to add more stability, identify any potential muscular imbalances, etc, and NOT turning you into a powerlifting hybrid athlete. In this case, you would train with longer tempos and moderate loads/intensities.

Applied to Grappling

In the video below, Marcelo Garcia brown belt Leigh Cohen is demonstrating a very slow Heels Elevated Front Squat.  Leigh tests more than adequately in raw strength, and his trainable qualities/needs lie more in mobility and muscular endurance, all of which are qualities very trainable by slow tempos.

To illustrate further, if Leigh’s absolute strength was the goal and his mobility was A+: we’d lose the slant board, have him lift much quicker, and probably add about 50lbs to the bar for sets of 3 or 4. 

We use tempo extensively in my training programs and in Jiu Jitsu Strength because it may be the most important variable for a Jiu Jitsu athlete to understand in their strength training. Raw weight and putting big plates on the bar feels good to your ego, but think about what helps your training the most. Sometimes it’s that, sometimes it’s not.

It may mean being Eddy Coan one day, Ronnie Coleman the next, but Ido Portal on Friday. If that analogy didn’t land: it means be smart, lift heavy when you need to, get bigger in size if you’re too small and often injured, or work your mobility if you’re stiff as steel.

— Mark DiSalvo

Part II: Why Your Grip is Weak and What to Do About It...

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Last week, I talked about the reasons your grip may be weak, no matter your experience level in the gym or on the mats.

This week, I wanted to get into ways you can effectively train your grip. This is probably what a lot of you “came to see,” but I can’t stress enough how important it is to figure out where you are on the grip strength continuum. Meaning, if you have some gnarly pec-minor issues and a weak core, I don’t care what number of Captains of Crush grip you use. So, go read last week’s blog first.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk actual grip training strategies.

Fat Gripz or Thick Dumbbells

Use these and use these often. Most of you won’t have Watson Dumbbells at your gym (and if you do, consider yourself VERY lucky), so you’ll want to purchase some Fat Gripz. Use these on just about anything you do with dumbbells. I don’t advise using these on barbell compound lifts, as the lack of control will take away from developing the bigger muscle groups you’re probably targeting when you deadlift, for example.

Train the eccentric grip, or at least use some therapeutic measures

Bring your finger-tips all together on one hand. Now, put a rubber band around your fingers, including the thumb. Open, and hold. Close back til all finger tips meet. Repeat.

Simple as that.

You concentrically use your grip muscles CONSTANTLY in jiu jitsu… and life. You need to train the eccentric portion of a true “grip” to stay balanced and healthy. It’d be like training your chest and not your back… quads, but not hamstrings. We can elaborate more in the future, but for now, understand this is a great way to passively work on your grip at your desk.

You can train the grip nearly every day, just vary the modality

The late Charles Poliquin was an advocate for every day grip training, provided you change the exercise daily. I always liked this advice, because all things considered and compared to other athletic populations: I feel grapplers develop excellent grip strength for the very reason they use their grip strength every time they hit the mat, especially while training with a gi. They have a high volume of grip training by default.

A schedule for daily grip training may look like:

  • Monday: Heavy Farmer’s Carrys with Thich Handled DB’s

  • Tuesday: Plate Pinches for time

  • Wednesday: EZ Bar Pronated Wrist Curls superset with Supinated Wrist Curls.

  • etc…

Do Relatively Heavy Deadlifts with a Barbell

I am not suggesting you become a powerlifter if jiu jitsu is your main-stay, but I certainly think and believe deadlift cycles are important in the macro view of a good strength and conditioning program for a jiu jitsu athlete. Don’t use straps.

Hang time

Get good at hanging from a bar in the “dead hang.” If you’re able to dead hang from a bar for 70 seconds or more as a jiu jitsu athlete, you’re in good company. In my own collection of data over the years, hang time is a fantastic indicator exercise for jiu jitsu.

Lastly, I’ll say that if grip training is a priority, do a few exercises for it at the TOP of each workout. If it’s your priority, it should be treated like something with priority.

Until next time,

Mark

Why Your Grip is Weak and What to Do About It

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When people, particularly grapplers, ask me about training their grip, I always attempt to classify them into two categories: experienced with a weak grip, or novice/low training age with a weak grip. The distinction matters.

Novices & Grip Training

Quite simply, someone more novice to jiu jitsu or the weight room should not worry about extra grip training too much: it will be trained adequately as you get used to training with a barbell, dumbbells and hanging from a pull-up bar. It’s a skill, like much of strength, and is specific. 

The training age of a novice is simply too young to say something definitive about your grip strength. Just be sure your training has plenty of barbells, dumbbells and hanging exercises from a bar (pull-ups, hanging leg raises, etc), and you’ll begin to develop adequate grip strength in the early going.

I have seen grown men come into the studio and attempt to hang from the bar for more than 10 seconds and dropped off immediately, but their problem wasn’t some true “weakness,” they just hadn’t ever done it. 2-3 months into training deadlifts, pull-ups/flexed arm hangs, and they were hanging for over a minute on dead hang tests. That will translate.


The Experienced Athlete and Weak Grips

When you have an experienced person with a weak grip, you have a few things that could be at play, but all ends and solutions will include directly training the grip. More importantly, though, there’s a few questions and things you should look at first: namely, why is your grip weak? 

The lowest hanging fruit is your supplementary S&C as listed above. Are you just not training at all outside jiu jitsu? Start there. It may be that simple. Make sure your program, much like the advice above, has a lot of heavy bar work in it and pull ups/hanging exercises.

However, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably tried this and still struggle. 

I always look at stronger, experienced lifters and fighters with weak grip with the same critical eye and ask the following: 

How is your overall posture?

People with chronic terrible posture have a cascading list of problems, but one of the ones I am more concerned about is the idea of “irradiation”— in other words, one muscle or group of muscle’s tension creating a positive effect for another muscle.  Think of doing a 1 Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press: you’re much stronger/more stable by clenching the opposite fist and tightening the torso/core. Otherwise, you noodle under the weight to get it up. 

Do you have shoulder pain, or is it in a bad position constantly?

This is often a giveaway for tight or glued up pec minor. It runs rampant in jiu jitsu. When that pec minor is tight and the shoulders are forward/internally rotated, there is a lot of lost strength. Solving this for some takes some real work, but a balanced strength program, some manual work (lacrosse ball smashes + manual therapist) is the way to go about solving this.

How is your core strength?

This is a favorite one of physical therapists to examine; in fact, I learned it from Dr Peter Hwang (my NYC studio-mate). Weak cores are often the hidden root of weak grips because the body simply can’t create or maintain what I often call “a closed feedback loop of tension.” Meaning there’ll be no irradiation. In other words, whatever strength and tension you are able to create through the core, leaks out in the weakest part of the body and is lost.

It’s important to point out, it may not just be one of the items above; if your posture is bad, there’s a good chance #’s 2 and 3 are problematic as well, etc, so test yourself accordingly.

Once you address these things, I find the athlete’s grip comes to life. The last step is adding in more grip training directly once you’re confident you’ve worked on the items above, and you will find it increasing in strength quite a bit. 

In part II next week, I’ll go over my favorite grip training strategies specifically.

I also go over all the necessary strength and conditioning concepts for grappling in Jiu Jitsu Strength, my 3-month self guided program for jiu jitsu athletes.

Be well, be strong,

Mark


How to Deal with Injuries

*Note: The scope of injuries I am discussing in this article are not ones that you’d classify as life threatening or permanently altering. Exercise common sense and always seek emergency medical attention in cases of obvious significant injury or if your health/life is in doubt.      The types of injury I am referring to include, but aren’t limited to orthopedic: ligament/tendon, bone or safely treated skin abrasions and sutures.

*Note: The scope of injuries I am discussing in this article are not ones that you’d classify as life threatening or permanently altering. Exercise common sense and always seek emergency medical attention in cases of obvious significant injury or if your health/life is in doubt.

The types of injury I am referring to include, but aren’t limited to orthopedic: ligament/tendon, bone or safely treated skin abrasions and sutures.

You can do everything right, but if you’re involved in a sport of any kind, you can still get injured.  An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, and you may be doing more good than you know by your meticulous mobility, nutrition and recovery rituals— however, a freak accident or misstep can lead to some forced time off from the mats (rink, field, etc). When you participate in contact sports, you also must expect that something could happen at any time. 

The tendency for most is to completely shut it down and wait it out. While this is a good approach at first, there is a great deal of value in getting back to a movement ritual you can handle as soon as you’re able. Between potentially helping you heal faster and keeping you mentally and physically sharp, having a plan maintains a goal oriented approach in your life. That keeps your confidence high and goals met. It seems twisted, but there is great value in the injury process, but only for those willing to be diligent in their recovery.

With that said, here’s a few things to consider when you go down for the count…

Don't do ‘nothing’

There is a time for rest and shutting it down. That time is usually the immediate phase right after you get injured and the immediate days that follow. However, rehabbing an injury that’s more significant than a bruise is going to take more than a few days. After those immediate rest days, it’s best to get moving again— just not directly on the injured area. 

The “do nothing” approach is usually where I see things go badly for people: they get depressed, they get angsty and all manner of unpleasant thoughts because they focus so intently on what they can’t do and how different their movement ritual has become.

Whatever you can do, go and do it. This usually should start in the form of getting help.

Get the right diagnosis 


You may find this surprising, but you won't always need the MRI or expensive medical consult. Over the years, I found this out the hard way: hearing stories of clients (and even myself) going to emergency rooms, urgent care clinics and the like, only to find the clinicians being inconclusive or unsure. There is great value in ruling out significant breaks or damage in these settings, but there are many times where a more carefully chosen medical consultant would have been far more beneficial to your sanity, time, and wallet. 

Instead, find a physical therapist with a background in high impact or strength sports, and get them to diagnose you soon after you suffer an injury on the scale we are discussing (refer to the disclaimer above). If you aren't able to get a confident diagnosis from them, they'll refer you out, and that's when you should pursue the MRI's of the world. Again, please use common sense with this: if you are obviously dealing with a severely broken bone, significant head trauma, or anything like that: you should seek immediate medical attention. 

Outside of some really bad injuries, most physical therapists are willing and able to give you confident diagnoses on the basis of what they see and how you're moving. More importantly, they can give you actionable steps that day to help you begin to heal properly. This is why I recommend any injuries in the scope mentioned above be diagnosed and looked at by a physical therapist (if possible) first.

Find your point person. 

For those who are on a training program and keep records of it: you already understand the value of that program to your improvement and progression. Coming out of an injury is no different: you put yourself in the best position by assembling the same plan for your rehab. 

After you know what you’re dealing with: use that PT from above or find a physical therapist, athletic trainer, massage therapist or qualified trainer to be the person to guide you through the journey. Come up with a plan together and mostly importantly, be sure you are clear on what you need to be doing day to day, and week to week. No ambiguities.

This is an important step because it eliminates the potential negatives at both sides of the personality spectrum: for someone who is a bit gun shy about their rehab and return, you may need the input of the point-person to push you in the right direction when you’re feeling unsure. For the “full speed ahead!” type of folks, you will benefit from handing over the reigns to a knowledgeable neutral party so you don’t do too much too soon.

If you can't afford the regular treatments of a professional, try to find room in your budget and time to do whatever you can afford. You will need the regular contact and an objective (i.e. not you) viewpoint to help guide your progression. I feel comfortable saying the money you do spend will be the best you ever spent because it's an investment in you and your expedited return to something you love.  

Push the other non-injured body parts hard

When I tore my MCL in the fall- I hobbled and took an Uber to the gym the next day (forgoing my customary 20 minute walk for obvious reasons). I did the longest, highest volume workout I could come up with on my upper body. I made a plan to bring up my bench press in the weeks that followed, and to work on my arms secondarily for size. Leg workouts and jiu jitsu were obviously out of the question. 

Now you may not share my extremism or desire to be that into it, but I suggest you get to the gym as soon as you can safely move there. Moving and being active in other places while you heal is one way to actually speed up the healing process. Moreover, it can really keep your confidence high.

Set goals you can achieve while injured

It’s easy for time to get away from you in the best of times, but in times of injury, that luxury is no longer in your hands: you’ll heal as fast as your body is able. Instead of waiting around for that to happen, set humble goals that you can achieve in roughly 4 week timeframes. Is your knee injured? Work on a pull-up PR. Is your elbow injured? Work on squatting a weight or # of reps you never thought previously achievable for yourself. Are both sets of limbs injured? I bet you can train yourself to do a 5-minute hollow-body hold! 

For those in jiu jitsu: practice something as small as hand-fighting, or basic mechanics of back control or whatever position doesn’t cause pain. Going through the reps and improving a smaller aspect of your game is a great way to keep your mind sharp and invest in your future skills post-injury.

I think you see where I am going. The value here is that as you keep achieving goals, you stay confident. Confidence breeds a fertile mind for success, and that will make your day to day much nicer.  

The Takeaway


There’s always something you can do when you get injured; so don’t let yourself be pulled too far from your goals in the time it takes to get back to 100%. Injuries are a reflective time, and if you’re prone to negativity, the above steps will help you keep a positive outlook on what otherwise can be a frustrating time.

A parting tip: if you’re reading this and are currently 100% healthy, I recommend bookmarking it for that rainy day— when you get injured, we often aren’t thinking with as sound of mind and having a guide on hand is a good idea.

The Strength Program of a Top Jiu Jitsu Contender

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Some projects demand something beyond your current conception of "the best of you." In training, it's the coaching relationship between two people. You both rise to the level of each other.  There’ll be no level to rise to if you don’t actively build up your environment to meet the level of expectation and performance you set for yourself. I believe these moments define us.

I met Rehan Muttalib, jiu jitsu brown belt and multiple title holder at all belt levels, through jiu-jitsu: Rehan and I attended the same academy in NYC while he lived there. From the moment our mutual friends introduced us, we clicked. I later found out, it’s because we had both done our homework on one another: he had read some of my articles, followed my social media, and heard some things about my training methods from others. And I knew he was a stud athlete and intelligent competitor who was simultaneously attending medical school while adding medals to his resume in jiu jitsu. 

In a general sense, I am very interested in high level performers and people who do multiple things well. I often loved the ideal of the “renaissance man” as a kid, and aspired to live my life in a way that was both interesting to me, and gave me the room to explore anything I found myself engaged with. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the era of Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson.  

A person who has a multi-faceted approach to life where they perform highly in many areas, is a special person to me. It’s those clients who I am happy to lend my services to. I learn an equal amount from them. Maybe more. But shhh, don’t tell them that… 

The Foundation

One point both Rehan and I bonded on and the one that ultimately solidified our relationship, was that we both saw value in traditional, results based strength and conditioning. Rehan had been around weight rooms in multiple sports, particularly football, and saw the power a strength coach can have with a good program. At the highest levels of the sport, strength matters.

It’s funny I even have to say that, because an outsider would think— “strength training and sports seems like peanut butter and jelly.” However in jiu jitsu, there are a lot of strange ideas that persist about strength training that are very dated and antiquated. One such idea is that you don’t need strength training.  

Unfortunately, I believe jiu jitsu, and grappling sports more generally, are in the dark ages with strength and conditioning. There’s a few guys who get it and have been successfully through many of these rodeos (both coaches and competitors), but largely, jiu jitsu like many combat sports, is a breeding ground for charlatans and weird ideas of fitness and “sports specificity in training” to take hold. 

Sadly, it sometimes takes an ass whooping – and even worse,  brain damage - for people to realize how important strength is in these sports. I’ll address that in a future blog, but I am happy to see that there is a definite turn around lately. I credit Gordon Ryan’s amazing transformation and his subsequent domination of the jiu jitsu scene this past year for the turnaround in attitude. Athletes are proud folks and may not admit it, but he definitely got a lot of people in the gym and calling/texting me about training sessions. (Thanks Gordon!)

Establish Priority

The first place you would naturally start any strength and conditioning program with is establishing a priority. As one of my teachers and mentors, Charles Poliquin would say, PRIORITY MEANS ONE!

I had Rehan for two major tournaments, Pan Ams and Worlds, and we had a priority established for the first, and a priority for the ultimately longer camp to Worlds. So we had two, but we never tried to work on both at the same time. 

Pan Am Priority (approximately 4 weeks to complete): establish better strength and movement through the scapular region.

Worlds Priority (3-4 months): Leg strength in the posterior chain to enhance the crown of his game: his world famous guard play.

On Scheduling

Rehan and I talked at length early on about the ultimate goal being Worlds in June 2018, but since we started training together in February, we knew we’d have Pans, a handful of IBJJF Opens and a few other opportunities that would pop up along the way on the competition circuit.

It’s really important that grappling competitors understand that you only get 1, and at most 2 peaks in performance per year. Meaning, you can only train your way to perform physiologically at your VERY best twice per year. You’ll maintain that peaking performance for a little while, but the window closes relatively quickly. If you push as hard as you did to get there continuously  you will burn out. I can’t predict your consequences, but it won’t be good. 

This comes from years of research and cross analysis in many sports for decades (by scientists all over the world).  This doesn’t mean you can’t compete and compete often— but you should know which tournaments you want to be at your very best for. A classic jiu jitsu example of a dual peak would be Worlds and ADCC (on the years a top athlete qualifies for both and both are happening). 

With this in mind, we chose to peak Rehan for Worlds. All I programmed for him, his training and his entire life, was based around getting him to peak on June 2, 2018. This was mapped out carefully, and we used classic concepts of periodization to do it.

 

The Monkey Wrench, or One Logistical Difficulty….

There’s just one thing: Rehan relocated mid-camp to Los Angeles. I’m in NYC. 

We did over half of our work together remotely, with me checking in on him every day, and me averaging a visit to the west coast every other week for April and May to check up on him, train him and tweak his program in person. While this was a big change, it is something I chose not to dwell on. We made it work.  Nothing needs to stop progress if you’re committed to making it work. I can tell you between our daily conversations and his training logs, he didn’t ever miss a step and he made every performance in the gym as effective as I could have ever hoped it to be.

 

The Training

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"Before 30, you train with your balls. After 30, you train with your brain."

- Ben Pakulski, IFBB Pro and Bodybuilding Hero

You have two age factors to account for when training anyone: chronological age, and training age. Rehan and I felt that the paradigm was different for an athlete who had been to the rodeo many times. The high level athlete who knows their body and has been using it for a long time, and who is very familiar with their sport, needs to treat their training differently than a young 20-something who is still working toward their prime.  Rehan at the time of writing this is 31 years old and with at least 15 years of hard multi-sport training (and 8 in jiu jitsu) on his odometer. 

Thus, we had a manifesto: Training smarter to train harder. There would be no blindly hard, bruising sessions without purpose just for the sake of saying we “trained hard.” There would be no extra time spent in the gym that didn’t need to be done just to say we were there. Everything had a purpose. Recovery and down time would be treated with the same seriousness and care as training.

High level athletes, particularly those who have been competing, training and involved everyday  for many years (around a decade), have what I call a high training age.

Rehan had a very high training age: being a former Division I NCAA football player (defensive lineman), playing football growing up, and already a decorated champion in jiu jitsu at all levels, he came with experience.

It’s always important to choose your priority, but I always have to know the training age of the athlete first. The reason for this is you can reasonably assess how much strength they have to gain in what we might call the indicator lifts, or just more generally, the big lifts we hope to add strength to. These correlate with better performance on the mats (they do NOT predict it, but there is a high correlation). 

In a nutshell: the lower your training age, the more rapid room for growth you have. The higher your training age, the more you have to carefully program to bring about more modest gains than someone in their first 3 years of strength training.

Rehan came to me with some appreciable numbers in the main lifts for a grappler, and had a history and knowledge of body building. In other words, he had a good degree of gym literacy. This made me program for him in the weight room at an intermediate-to-advanced level (more below on that).

You also must know the reality of the sport you’re dealing with: 

For Rehan’s first mini program before Pan Ams, I chose to get his scapular retraction working a bit better and we used some mobility techniques that I learned from my years working with Steve Maxwell. You can find most of these in his mobility videos, but my favorites, which ultimately comprised Rehan’s daily rituals were the Single Joint Mobility Movements.

One technique I like quite a bit is the Farmer’s Carry with a Kettlebell in the Rack Position. It can stimulate the lats and trapezius muscles, depress the shoulders (taking you out of the shoulders-hiked and small-neck jiu jitsu posture), and then forces you to keep that posture while you get in some back handed GPP (General Physical Preparedness) with the farmer’s carry. You also learn to maintain that position when you have to. It really did the trick. 

We’d also progress to things like Dead Hangs on a Pull Up Bar and Scapular Pull Ups to get the body warm and things working in the proper order. 

A sample of his program for a day on the strength training of the upper body would look like this:

  • A1) Overhead Press (Neutral Grips DB)
  • A2) Pull Ups (Weighted progressively)
  • A3) Trap 3-Raise or Rotator Cuff Work

Classic, good pairing of exercises in an antagonistic co-contraction organization. It’s simply the most effective way to pair these types of exercises.  The prime mover of the last exercise rests while the formerly antagonist muscle group works on the second exercise. This organization is something I learned from Poliquin and has been built on and replicated by many great coaches.

Traditional strength programming would dictate you would want to work strength first, and then, hypertrophy if that was a desired outcome. Jiu jitsu is a weight class sport, and while I wanted to strengthen the posterior chain and work his legs in cycles of higher reps to facilitate this, you must be cognizant of putting weight on (or taking it away) from a top contender at his weight class. If he missed weight because I made him look like Dorian Yates, then I am severely out of touch as a strength coach.

 However, Rehan and I took what we knew to be a little bit of a risk. In retrospect, this wasn’t much of a risk at all.

Rehan is what I’d call a volume responder: he does well with high volume training. Intensity should be used relatively conservatively with him, and only to switch things up. With that in mind, we could lean on higher volumes of work in the weight room. The aforementioned risk I mentioned, was him putting on too much size (and going over his weight limit): being so responsive to volume.

A shot from the beginning of 2018. 

A shot from the beginning of 2018. 

A shot 3 days out from Worlds from Rehan's Instagram (May/June 2018). 

A shot 3 days out from Worlds from Rehan's Instagram (May/June 2018). 

We chose to have a little bit of a body recomposition go on in the course of the 4 months. Here is where the risk comes into play: already being around 10% body fat and frequently on weight throughout the year, he didn’t have to lose anything, but we could make him weigh the same 175-178lbs that he already did, but much, much leaner and more muscular. So that’s what we did. We built a bigger, better engine. 

Between working out with me, and the many hours of jiu jitsu training per day, his energy expenditure bought us some wiggle room. The other thing that we did was never hang out too much or for too long in hypertrophy rep ranges (8-12). We did a lot there, but they were carefully accounted for.

His lower body program became low-key viral and a joke around some jiu jitsu circles, as he’d often post on Instagram that he was doing my “leg day” with all kinds of painful emojis. It became a thing of mild legend. What was he up to on those days?

Well…

6-8 reps, training a functional hypertrophy base. We’d go down in reps in intensity phases, and up in accumulation phases. That was the crux. 

The Front Squat is my grappler staple squat. Few exercises are able to increase relevant strength for grapplers in a way that doesn’t over-train them. 

You always have to remember that jiu jitsu sparring rounds are almost like mini strength sessions that a high level athlete will basically be completing every day. Over-training is a very real risk in strength training these athletes, because they are often teetering on over-training just from their sport alone. Quite simply: their jiu jitsu class can be like a workout on its own.

The highest ROI came on the Step-Up. It addressed everything that needed to be addressed in his program and areas for growth. Without going too much in the weeds, Step Ups are severely underrated as a tool for calf, ankle and foot strength, but also ultimately for balance and proprioception. All things that are important for a guard player.

 I lean heavily on unilateral work for athletes. Split Squats and Lunges (Walking, Drop, Stationary, etc), all find their way into my programs very often depending on need and what that week calls for.

Deadlifts are a popular choice for grapplers and I used the deadlift once per week in 3 week bursts, and would de-load or ditch the deadlift all together depending on many factors in the 4th week of a cycle (sometimes every third week). I notice that volume responders, particularly jiu jitsu athletes, burn out quick if you lean on the deadlift too much. As the competition drew near, the deadlift happened every other week.

Did I just give away the recipe? 

The Results

Before (Left), February 2018, and after (Right) May 30, 2018.

Before (Left), February 2018, and after (Right) May 30, 2018.

  • The body recomposition
  • Bringing up his strength and objectively measuring it in the indicator lifts and reported performance increase on the mats
  • Upgrading and enhancing his recovery practices to fuel him into the next day.

Looking at the body composition results in the images above, you can see Rehan had extraordinary results. The rough numbers tell a better story: he successfully "recomp'd," as he weighed in at roughly 175lbs in both photos (at the time of taking the second photo, he was actually closer to 173lbs). Meaning, we were remarkably successful at building muscle and keeping him squarely in his weight class. Rehan deserves a lot of credit for this, as he dialed in his diet to a point most athletes aspire to. For those who always ask what is more important in body recomposition: diet or exercise-- I say both and you have to have congruent practices in both when your goal is to change your body composition. Rehan's results only reinforced this to me.

I did not speak at length here about the importance of recovery methods: we did some of our best work here. I'd like to devote future articles to this, but I'd be remiss and misrepresenting this project to you all if I didn't drive home the importance of the work Rehan spent in the other ~20 hours of his day "working in" as Paul Chek would say.

I would like to say in closing that strength and conditioning for jiu jitsu is not so different from the well-established practices of S&C in other major sports. You simply have to identify what the important muscles are, if the athlete needs more strength or more power, body recomp, and ultimately how to get them there. We make this process overly complicated, but it needn’t be.

One of my personal missions is to communicate to the world that that jiu jitsu athletes are their own class of athlete and need their own individualization in strength and conditioning. They are not wrestlers. They are not judo players. They are not MMA fighters. While there are parallels, their strength and conditioning must be different by virtue of the fact that modern sport jiu jitsu takes place on the ground, as opposed to the other grappling arts I just mentioned. It was important to me that not only was Rehan’s program carefully individualized, but was not overly inspired by popular grappling programs in other sports.

Flash forward to now, a few days out from Worlds as I write this, and I am very satisfied with the progress Rehan made during this whole camp. From a strength and conditioning perspective, it’s been an absolute dream: full compliance, great communication, and excellent results.

Working with Rehan has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I am very fortunate to have a great roster of clients who all are devoted, thoughtful and committed to bettering themselves, and Rehan is no different. 

As you can see from the photos above, he’s had quite the transformation. I couldn’t be more satisfied with the results and the physical preparation for him that went into this camp for Worlds. We did everything we possibly could to set up the best environment for success.

 

Be well, be strong,

Mark

 

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The Law of Sticking to a Program

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The Law of Sticking to the Program:

 

We are remarkably bad at evaluating our current state.

A trained eye, or a familiar one, is much better at that.

We are good at sticking to plans.

But we are really bad at making them.

Better to have someone else (help) make one.

 

That’s my “Law of Sticking To a Program” If you stopped reading here, you’d get all the wisdom needed to excel in the weight room and sports. But it’s never that easy, now is it?

Here’s how I arrived at the above idea:

Give us room to wiggle out and we will. And you know what? It’s not a sign of some lack of discipline. It’s usually (perceived) self preservation. It’s ourselves being kind to ourselves.

Most of the people I train, including myself, train hard. There are many days I think to myself, “there’s absolutely no way I am hitting the numbers on my squat program today.” I’ll be groggy, tired, out of sorts, and that’s the time I feel most nervous about doing physical things.

There’s also people who walk into my studio some mornings that look like the train rode them instead of the other way around. Their early warm-up sets look objectively terrible, but they slowly start to come to life after a few rounds through, and the moment the real workout begins, they show up and crush everything I outlined that day.

Had I asked them when they walked in if they were in the ideal training state, most would answer in the negative. That would have set a powerful tone. We spoke into existence the idea that today was going to be a bad session. That’s really bad for a few reasons:

  1. The problem with the ideal training state is that it’s remarkably elusive. If you’re a competitor, chasing the ideal competition mindset is like finding a pink unicorn. Instead, you learn to focus and create opportunity in whatever state you find yourself. You train repeatedly to make your worst day default to a state you’ve rehearsed over and over.
  2. If you’re a very thoughtful person about your training and overall health, you’ll be quick to want to preserve yourself. If you take enough of those days and look back at your training logs, you’ll realize you logged far too few workouts to get the results you were looking for. Ask me how I know...

The days that are hardest to get yourself out there are the ones that you need to be there. On these days, you simply need to progress (and not perfection, as Charles Poliquin would say), improve (and not prove, as Cobrinha reminds us often), and put points on the scoreboard (in Mark Bell's words). It's not about setting a PR every day. 

I’ve shared my rule before about dreading the workout vs. dreading the commute: where if I dread the workout more than the commute, I’m probably just being a coward. If the commute seems hard, that means I may be in some pain (how hard is it to drive or take a train somewhere after all?).

From the coach's perspective, this is one of the moments you have the biggest opportunity to show the power of coaching. If you privately identify some type of monkey wrench in the training efforts of a client early on, but know it's not a case of overtraining (or if you're convinced you aren't going to have to send someone home), you can actually do a lot to help the mindset and confidence of the individual by having them go through and excel in the workout. Doing difficult things while being unsure of your current state may be the best training stimulus out there. By the end, I am certain they'll remark how glad they were that they went through with the day's efforts. You'll have the quiet satisfaction of knowing you did the right thing, and their confidence moved up a few ticks on the meter.

I'd be remiss if I didn't say that one big takeaway from this all is the power and beauty of coach/player or coach/client relationships: you both do it together. The definition and context of these titles can change too, especially for the individual lifter or fitness goer. That person you consult on your training effectively has a coaching relationship with you. So when I say that we are bad at making plans- I actually believe that that it can be done by ourselves, but in reality, it's never by ourselves. Ask for help. Talk it out.

There are a lot of Insta-trainers and “novel thinkers” that would have you believe that you’re a “life hack” away from getting over the hump, but it’s not the case. Consistency in training, showing up and doing your best are really all you can do. And you know what? That is enough.

Be well, be strong,

Mark

Sleep is Sometimes a Logistical Difficulty

Every place you live has realities to it that make living optimally a little less… optimal.

Being far removed from an urban center makes certain training methods impossible because no one in the area has a gym. Try training jiu jitsu in the far reaches of a town 3 hours from the nearest semi-urban center. Maybe there’s no real gym within a few hours drive either.

Cold, far northern climates may have issues with diversity in food crop and livestock.

NYC’s issue is sleep. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise for a city whose catchphrase is “the city that never sleeps.” The same goes for any large, first-tier city’s population: they’re under-slept.

I’ve been having this conversation with people for the past 8 years: I would deem the chronic lack of sleep that happens here (or doesn’t happen here) as the number one barrier to living a healthy, high-performing life in NYC 

I am no stranger to this. I dole out sleep advice regularly, and practice much of it, but if I had to pinpoint the number one thing I would change about my health and performance, it would be sleep.

One slightly disturbing image I often heard as a young 20-something who had just moved to NYC was the reports of people who had once lived here, but left. “It chews you up and spits you out” they would say. They were usually talking about rent, work and life though.

But I think that if they just slept a little better, they may still be here.

Let’s explore:

This whole conversation starts and ends with circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythm refers to your body’s ability to pick up on the time of day wherever you find yourself. This is important because it helps your body produce the right hormones at the right time, and ultimately regulate when you’re awake and when you get tired for the evening.

Little things like light pollution, low-hum (or loud) noise disturbance, and a lack of time in nature, can all contribute to you being kicked out a little farther from your natural circadian rhythm.

The one thing that cities, and even larger suburbs, have in common is excess light. It comes from light poles, buildings, shopping centers, traffic, and anything that emits light. That’s why it’s such stark contrast when you go to certain states or countries that have light ordinances or are just simply more secluded, and you can actually see the light that comes from the stars in the sky.

Regardless, the artificial light, especially if it’s of the blue variety, has a powerful effect on you. It can make you more sensitive to detecting the time of day, and thus, your body has a difficult time going through it’s normal hormonal rounds during the day.

I also believe that low level noise that isn’t therapeutic has an effect on us. If you understand the science and theory behind binaural beats, you could quickly surmise that there’s probably negative frequencies of sound that can have an effect on us. I often call the low level noise of traffic or street noise in the background of life in NYC/big cities the "negative binaural beat-" that even when you’re not paying attention to it or actively bothered by it, it is still causing a slight disturbance in your body’s ability to chill and find itself a little more parasympathetic dominant (which ultimately aids recovery).

If you care about your body and its performance, like I do, then you need to be serious about having healthy sleep hygiene. Otherwise you are literally digging a recovery hole that will be harder and harder to emerge from. Specifically, you're very likely to undermine the very mechanism in the body that helps you develop a healthy circadian rhythm. 

I don’t like to take things lying down. It became enough of an issue for me that losing an hour of sleep here and there (and also already having the deck stacked against me for every reason I outlined above), was enough to start actively working on it and make a list of solutions for the urban city-dweller who needs more sleep.

Here's what I am doing to change it:

Set a timer to go to bed.

I’m not starting with the ideal of 9:20PM or earlier. I’m simply starting to wind it back by 1 hour and will add 15-20 minutes to wind back more each week. Habits take time to build and you must make your environment conducive to accepting these new habits (more on that in future blogs).

It’s easy to lose track of time in the evening, so I have an alert set for 9:45PM each night to tell me to go to bed.

 

Ritual

I make sure my next day’s equipment/gear is packed earlier in the day, and not before I go to bed.  When I am sleepy, I don’t want to do anything. The act of preparing for the next day will wake me up.

 

Sleep Mask

I have always found sleep/eye masks remarkably useful on road trips and plane rides for sleeping. Before using them, I never was able to sleep anywhere besides my bed. However, when I use those things, I turn the lights out-- literally and figuratively

 

Black out shades

I grew up with these as a kid- they work, and you won't want to return to sleeping without them. Sleep masks are unnecessary if you have true blackout shades.

 

Airplane Mode on the phone.

Buy into it or don’t: but you should put your phone on airplane mode at night (and preferably out of the bedroom) to help kill some of the vibrations and sounds you’ll inevitably forget to silence. You’ll also be less likely to be on your phone and exposing your eyes to blue-light. There's also the whole electro-magnetic wave thing that may or may not be true, but I certainly notice a difference.

Perhaps most importantly, talk to your spouse or partner about your plans

I didn’t expect my girlfriend to buy into everything I was doing wholeheartedly (as we are on different schedules), but it’s important that the people closest to you support you. She did, and is now even more on board than me in some ways! 

I started drafting this blog about 2 weeks ago, and can say that after 2 weeks of these changes, I am doing much better already. Try them out and feel free to share any of your own in the comments. 

 

Be well, be strong,

Mark