kettlebells

How Do You Know if You're Over-Training?

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Overtraining is a funny topic, because it’s so profoundly misunderstood. It’s misunderstood at levels that get people feeling like they’re lazy if they don’t train that day; or on the other end of the spectrum: feeling like their workout allows them to sit the rest of the week out in hopes that they "hit it hard enough already."  Neither are correct. That's more neurosis than simple objective feedback from your body.

I sometimes even hesitate to dwell on this topic in any sensationalist way because, while it's incredibly important, I never want to come off as the "told ya-so" disciplinarian parent, nor do I want to coddle and excuse what could simply be a lack of effort and discipline on the part of the trainee. Both outcomes are negative and lead to the athlete simply tuning out to what could be good advice.  So for the athletes and coaches reading this alike, I encourage you to be very aware of how to deal with overtraining in athletes and the signs of it, but trust that you have the knowledge, education and intuition when the problem arises. Don't stress; the stress is much worse.

Overtraining quite simply is the state you find yourself in after chronically overreaching in your training effort. Much can be mitigated by recovery efforts, but even the best laid recovery practices can’t outrun a body that can’t recover, adapt, and come back stronger.

I made mention a few weeks ago in my article on The Athlete of Over 30 Best Practices, that you should alter your training plans for the day if you’re feeling over-trained. But how do you know if you’re overtrained? Let’s discuss…

 

Did you over-reach in the past 2 days?

 

Overreaching in strength and conditioning circles refers to the temporary over-exertion of yourself to reach a certain short-term goal. Maybe it was you going the extra round in jiu jitsu (past your normal capacity), or having multiple consecutive two-a-days.

In the gym, it may mean that you went for your PR in a squat or deadlift in the past 48 hours. Maybe you had a two-a-day: sprints in the morning, strength training in the evening. The actual practice of this isn't "bad," but the chronic repeating of it can get you in trouble (why do you think so many programs have "de-load" weeks and times where you alter your volume and intensity?)

You can conceivably overreach for a number of sessions in a row to produce a desired training effect, but you’ll be in slippery territory if you do this unsupervised or chronically. Sometimes, high level athletes will overreach to achieve a certain goal. 

Whatever the case, you've dealt a slightly larger than normal blow to your nervous system that your body is recovering from and adapting to in order to come back stronger.  While this is happening, you’d be wise to move, but somewhere in the 60-70% total exertion/effort range max for the immediate 48-72 hours after. This could include longer duration cardio/running/biking, practicing your technique for your lifts by doing higher volume and low weight sets, drilling in jiu jitsu, etc.

To be clear, you are not overtrained at this point. However, if you chronically trained in this fashion, you’d probably be pushing into over-training territory. Precisely how much is a personal approximation and number, and is in part, measured by some of the small giveaways listed below. To figure it out first though, you must take an inventory of your body.

 

reflect, but don't get too "heady"

There are many reasons a mental malaise and brain fog can onset that are not a result of physical fatigue. Stress, distractions from work, life, family or otherwise, and simply not being present can easily disrupt your focus, and have physical manifestations. You’ll feel tired, cranky, or just physically drained.  Should you train on those days? That depends…

It’s hard to distinguish between this “attitude fatigue” and actual physical over-training.  A quick way to tell which is which is by thinking to your last 4 training sessions. Are you usually happy and enthusiastic to go and knock it out of the park? Then you may be actually in need of that extra rest day if you're feeling sludgy. Conversely, if you’re always hemming and hawing the whole way to the gym and don’t really get focused until your first set, then you’re probably simply psyching yourself out… in the bad way. In this case, training would probably be a good idea.

It simply comes down to being disciplined. You won’t always feel like training, but you should. Compliance and how much you show up and complete what’s outlined is what’s most important.

So if you’re certain it’s not an attitude fatigue incident, let’s explore these four clues:

 

Find a “benchmark exercise”

Everyone has an exercise they’re good at and simply have a higher aptitude in relation to other exercises. My personal one is the Farmer’s Walk. Besides simply being a strength and strength capacity building exercise, the Farmer’s Walk gives me a good indication to my balance that day, basic coordination, and how tense or tight I am feeling.  On most days, if I pick up a heavy kettle bell, dumbbell, or any thick-gripped implement, I feel ready to move with it. However, there’s some days where I am simply off and even grabbing a 16kg or 20kg kettle bell to do a simple warm-up is asking a lot. Moving is tough, coordination of my legs while walking is off (more on that below), and everything just feels heavier than it should.

Simply put, if an exercise is hard that you know should be easy, you may want to reconsider training that day. Take a longer warm-up, get into some harder working sets to see what happens, but don’t be surprised if you need to alter your workouts.

The same goes for combat sports, particularly grappling. If you’re feeling really sluggish and a lack of sharpness after 10-15 minutes of warming up and a few times through your favorite pass or sweep, you may want to stick to drilling that day.

Check your breathing

If you are sore, tight, stressed, or simply not having a good day, the chances that you are dysfunctionally breathing are quite high. You're probably breathing through your mouth, and/or possibly infrequently, and sighing and grunting a lot. If that's you, simply take a few deep diaphragmatic breaths and see what happens. I wager you'll find a lot more calm.

On the bright side of this practice, you'll have focused and altered your state in a very positive way for your training session. The relaxed demeanor and increased mobility of your tissue will allow you to fully utilize everything you have for the training session.

On the other side of the coin, if this still reveals some fatigue, you'll have taken the first step to putting your body in a "healing" state by blunting your sympathetic nervous system, and moving yourself into the parasympathetic realm, allowing your body to start healing better.

Grip strength

I notice amongst athletes and avid gym-goers alike, that grip strength is one of the first things to go as they approach overtraining and chronic overreaching territory. This observation is only valid of course, if people have a standard warm-up or some exercise that they’re used to using a heavy gripping effort for that we can compare it to session-to-session.  

We usually notice this at the beginning of a workout when someone is going to pick up a dumbbell or kettle bell they’re used to handling for warm-up purposes, or if they go to hang from a bar. Invariably, when they’re a little overly fatigued, it feels heavier to them than it should.  This has a lot to do with your nervous system readiness, that is, how quickly your body and brain are communicating to execute what you’re asking of it. The physical therapists I work with often equate grip strength issues to core issues as well; so if you're overly sore and damaged through the torso, and your grip isn't up to snuff, then we may have a reduced training load on our hands.

I particularly like to do a shoulder warm-up series with kettle bells to warmup before workouts. On the days in which I am a little over-trained, I find myself a little slower to process the grip of the thick handles, and it simply feels more difficult than it should to work with 12 or 16kg. 

Balance

Tripping on the mats? Doing a farmers walk and having issues staying under center? Not unlike grip strength feeling weak, your balance and all the systems that dictate it (vestibular, etc) can be the first to go when your body is shuttling its resources elsewhere. Often times, it takes a set or two to get your body and balance in sync, but if it’s going past the initial warm-up, you’d benefit from scaling back that day.

 

PROGRESSION AND PERIODIZATION ARE REAL THINGS

I find there’s two ends of this spectrum: people who very obviously have a lot on their training plate and are feeling burned out, and people who train much less frequently, but still feel burned out.  Both individuals are making mistakes of programming and periodization.

Don’t get discouraged if you’re feeling a bit over-trained and it’s coming from just a few workouts per week. You should already be logging your exercise (if you take it seriously), so go back and see what your total number of workouts was in 1 month. Increase that number by roughly 10-15% the next month to help build your capacity. Secondly, heed the next bullet point (more on that below. Spoiler alert: improve your recovery habits).

However, maybe you’re the opposite; maybe you’re burning out and it’s because you’re training TOO much. Remember, give yourself 48 hours if necessary between strength training bouts, and don’t expect to be king of the ring/mats the day after a hard strength training session either.

 

Identify Your Recovery Errors

The best laid plans can be easily laid to waste if your recovery efforts are tainted. The tried and true advice of proper sleep, diet and stress management go a long way. If you feel like you do everything perfect, but are chronically stressed and subsequently, under-slept, you WILL suffer. There is no way around this and I see it ALL the time. Stress management can derail all your training efforts and increase your chance for injury, blunt your progress, and make you retain unwanted weight. This is not an exaggeration and it's something I deal with almost weekly with clients and athletes (I live and train in NYC, after all...).

 

don't worry...

The worst thing you can do is worry. Remember, all these markers and symptoms are objective feedback from your body that something is off. They aren't a statement of judgement about you as an athlete.

Start becoming more mindful of everything above and you'll give yourself a much deeper window into your recovery habits. If you are indeed overtrained, you will be able to diagnose and appropriately respond to keep yourself healthy. It bears repeating that the majority of people reading this article may not need this advice now, but being mindful of these things can actually enhance and help you train harder and smarter later, as you can proceed full speed ahead if you are covering the spread and having no ill effects. We didn't cover everything, because that could be a book in itself, but I hope this got you all thinking about the topic.

Be well,

Mark

 

ps- If you have any rituals or signs you notice in recognizing overtraining, leave a comment below.

 

There Are Two Ways to Lose Weight

I would characterize a lot of what I do as weight management.

Weight loss goals can vary. For some of my clients, the goal of losing weight is to better their life and health, whereas I have others who do so for sport. I even have people who want to gain weight, usually because they want to be stronger or for aesthetic purposes.

For those who are looking to lose weight for their health, or who may just be looking for a big change in their fitness, there is an important distinction one must understand:

There’s a difference between dieting and losing weight as a lifestyle change, and dieting and losing weight aggressively for a goal. The time tables vary greatly, as do the speed of results, but both are equally valid approaches. I say this upfront because you must go into your weight loss with the right expectations.

Lifestyle Changes

The "weight loss as a lifestyle change” idea gets thrown around all too often without proper context. I do believe we should always aspire to be doing better in our everyday life and it should be reflected in our actions. But to lose weight progressively as a result of a lifestyle change is much different than planning a short term weight loss where the goal is purely changing the number on the scale.

With this approach, I won’t be asking you to very strictly measure your food. Instead, I’ll give you strategies to help you become mindful of your portions, we’ll keep a food diary (at first), but I won’t necessarily recommend calorie/macronutrient counting, or even weighing all of your food. I want you to learn bigger concepts, and to learn to read how your body feels. This takes time and longer term, you will become a better person for it. In the short term, however, it’s important to have your expectations aligned with the reality of dieting this way.

These are realities to losing weight this way:

·  It sometimes means slower weight loss for those already at a healthy weight. Those who are overweight will lose weight quickly at first, but it will eventually be a bit more measured.

·  You will inevitably hit plateaus, and they may last a while. You will have to do work to figure out how to overcome these plateaus.

·  You have very low risk of ever rebounding to your old weight.

·  You will create new healthy lifestyle habits, improving not only your overall physical health, but also your mental health and quality of life.

 

Aggressive Plans

You’ll always move more quickly with shorter term weight loss plans (or “diets”) simply because the parameters of the plan are a bit more aggressive in nature. They mean to accomplish a very clearly defined goal that is tied to numbers or some measurable performance marker.  

They are profoundly effective. I am of course speaking only to safe, responsible programs here, and nothing that is drug induced or depriving in a dangerous way.

What are some of the reasons you’d lose weight like this? You’d be trying to do any of the following on a shorter timeline:

·  You’re trying to “reset” your body and clean the palate. Some would call it a “cleanse,” but it’s really just a fresh start.

·  You’re trying to lose a stubborn amount of weight.

·  You’re trying to “transform” your physical appearance quickly.

·  You’re trying to lose weight for performance reasons.

·  You find that you just do well with a disciplined, strict approach.

When losing weight this way, you’ll have to measure what you take in, be it portions, calories, macronutrients. Whatever the metric is, it must be measured. This isn’t always the case for “lifestyle changes,” and it’s the reason why aggressively dieting works the way it does.

 

It’s important to know that this is not always meant to be permanent. The idea of permanence is flawed anyway, but the real key is that these plans get you to where you want to be and from there, you can manage. I don’t think most people would care to spend their life measuring everything on a food scale or traveling with measuring cups. That’s why these plans should not be something you do “forever.” Most people WILL burn out eventually. It’s the reason people "yo-yo" when going off a temporary weight loss plan or “diet”: they may have pushed themselves too hard and tried to maintain an impossible standard.

Here are some realities to losing weight this way:

·  You’ll move much more quickly in the direction of your goals.

·  There will be more sacrifice.

·  You’ll learn a tremendous amount about yourself and grow mentally.


Overall, neither one of these plans is inherently more difficult than the other as it ends up being very personal. I would wager that lifestyle changes are a little more difficult to make depending on your level of malleability, but they exponentially increase in ease and happiness as you go through your everyday life.

The main reason I took time to write this is because I want to make sure everyone understands what they're getting into whenever they choose the path that they do to lose weight. Like I said, there's nothing wrong with either one, but they all present unique challenges. 

If you have any experiences to share, I encourage you to comment below or send me a message sometime. I always like hearing the journey of others. 

Be well,

Mark

Bulletproof Your Shoulders for Combat Sports (and Life)

Your neck hurts, your shoulders are tight. Maybe you had one of those "rotator cuff tears" years ago. You try to massage the sore spots, maybe throw around some dumbbells and do some shoulder exercises here and there. You find a popular rotator cuff exercise and do it.

No relief?

That's because you may be treating the wrong area. If your issue is scapular stabilization: it's all in the back. Specifically, the area and muscles around the scapula. 

As a "scapular sufferer" of many years myself, the following workout and video came from years of picking up little tricks from trainers, athletes, fighters, instructors and physical therapists.  What you see is a weekly little routine of mine to stay flexible, strong and healthy.
 

What's In A Scapula

The scapula refers to your shoulder blades, essentially. It's connect to the humerus (upper arm) with the clavicle.  In Latin medical terminology, it's referred to as "omo." (Probably where the word "omoplata" comes from, too.)

If you bust out an anatomy book or are familiar with anatomy yourself, it probably just clicked as why your scapula is involved with your shoulder pain: it's directly connected to it all.

Most importantly though (read carefully long-term shoulder injury sufferers): the rotator cuff muscles are indeed involved in scapular issues, but most of the time, they're only relevant in issues of internal and external rotation of the humerus/arm. Pictured above are the muscles responsible for scapular stabilization: the trapezius, serratus anterior, levator scapula, and rhomboid muscles. These are the muscles, if weak, cause you day-to-day issues because they physically cannot complete the job of maintaining your posture.

When the scapula can't be in a nice relaxed position, or better yet, in a nice state of retraction during movement, you begin to take on the T-Rex or Velociraptor pose. If your shoulder blades were wings, and you wanted to open them, you wouldn't stay hunched-over in those dinosaur poses, you'd be puffed up, chest out, shoulders back and proudly opening those suckers. 

This is how you want to think of your posture. If you're a forward head sufferer, internally rotated shoulder sufferer, are a boxer or kick boxer, or play a lot of butterfly and open guard in jiu jitsu/combat sports, you need this program.

Perhaps even more importantly, if you're a runner, you need a strong, stable upper back. You are physically unable to run with proper form without it. Ever have lower neck pain after or during running? My money is on this as the culprit. 

Let's talk solutions (I could talk science and anatomy all day, but most of you don't care/need that).


The Program

I've written out what you'll find in the video below for your quick reference, though I recommend watching for proper form demonstration.

Warm Up:

  • Indian Club Shoulder Rotation (straight arm) -
    • 3 x 12
      • If you do not have Indian Clubs, you can easily get them these days and they are well worth the investment for the constant shoulder-pain sufferer. HOWEVER, 2.5 dumbbells can be used for similar effect, but it's not the same asymmetrical weight distribution which really causes the deep stretch and work.

Workout:

  • Kettlebell Arm Bars
    • 3x/side, 30 second holds minimum
  • "Scapular" Push-Ups 
    • 3 x 10 
  • "Scapular" Pull-Up 
    • 4 x 10
  • Deadlift
    • 3 x 10 to start*, light weight (~70% 1RM)
      • When using a main/major lift in a corrective manner, you're going for stability, not 1RM record setting days.  Let's be honest, your "record setting form" is shitty. Here, we're trying reinforce the positive attributes of proper deadlift form: retracted scapula, strong and stable trapezius muscles all stabilizing the load.  Aim for that. Secondly, we're after good, strong postural endurance. We have a higher rep scheme to test the integrity of your postural endurance. Start slow.

All of these exercises are demonstrated in the video above. You can also easily add this sequence to existing strength programs up to 3-4 times per week.


Say good bye to omoplata-like pain while you're laying on the couch and let me know how these exercises are helping you.

Finally, I'll close by saying I recommend following my Instagram and Facebook page, as I give daily updates on performance enhancing tips through simple, achievable measures. I'll always blog (I have the heart of a writer), but if you want more "constant attention," you'll find it there.

Take care.

How To Increase Your Gas Tank (if you're a Jiu-Jitsu or Combat Athlete)

Photo credit:  Leon Maia

Photo credit: Leon Maia

The number one thing I hear from any jiu jitsu athlete when they're looking for strength and conditioning advice is how to improve their "cardio," or their gas tank. 

In reality, there are any number of factors that affect this (and in order to give you the best answer, I'd need to evaluate you). Any educated answer someone will give you probably will help, but realize it ALL starts with your breathing. There is no silly, exhausting circuit I could put you through, nor rope I could have you swing that will improve your cardio if you can't breathe. 

We all breathe, but we don't all breathe properly or efficiently. Many people will breathe short, "crocodile" breaths through their neck/upper chest, breathe only through their mouth, or worse, aren't breathing until absolutely vital, triggering a panic reflex that many call "the panic breath." This is problematic for many reasons, but chiefly among them is the state you often find yourself in when you're breathing inefficiently is a state of anxiety, panic or "flight."

THE DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATH


 A proper breathing practice starts with learning a proper diaphragmatic breath. You can practice this by first trying to inhale and visualize/try to fill your stomach with air. Exhale fully, pushing all air out of your stomach, visualizing and using your Transverse Abdominis and rectus abdominis as the prime movers in your effort (ie: the muscles of the stomach). 

 A progression from here is then trying to breathe through and into your stomach while simultaneously filling your chest with air. When doing so, visualize your rib cage in a true "3D manner," expanding outward from all angles (even through the back) upon inhalation. When exhaling, visualize the same abdominal muscles and be mindful of any additional muscles you may be recruiting. 

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE / The PROGRAM

 

Kettlebell Swing

I'm a big fan of the kettlebell swing, because in order to generate the most power, you need a fast, efficient exhalation. The only reason you see sub 150-lbs men and women swing a 32K or higher kettlebell with graceful form, explosive power, and model-like extension and thrust in their hips is because their breath garners so much power. 

You probably know how to kettlebell swing. That's great, keep doing it, but to modify the form and perfect it the way I'm talking about:

  1. Concentrate on exhaling quick and sharply through the mouth, ending in a sharp "hiss" as your hips come to a full extension at the top of the swing. Notice how in the photo above, my mouth is very clearly exhaling, almost like I'm forcefully blowing out a candle. Think of that visual: you're blowing out a candle using the breath you "collected" in your stomach at the top of the swing. 
  2. Get really good at this before continuing to my progression below. Use a lower/moderate weight kettlebell. I recommend a 35 lbs / 16 KG. Once you're efficient at that. Move on to...


Breathing Ladders 

A ladder set can best  be described as an ascending rep scheme that follows a pattern. For example, and for our use, we're counting up to 15 reps, starting with 1 rep on the first set, 2 reps on the second, 3 on the third, etc. After you've completed set 15, you've completed 120 total repetitions. 

"The Breathing Ladder" protocol is where we put our breath efficiency to the test. Between each set, you may only take the amount of breaths that you performed in each set.  So it looks something like this:

1 swing- place KB down- 1 breath
2 swings- place KB down- 2 breaths
3 swings- place KB down- 3 breaths
Etc. until 15 swings/15 breaths 

The breaths can be at any pace, but you cannot take more breaths than reps you performed that set, and they must be deep, diaphragmatic breaths. I like to place my hands on my stomach, near my obliques, to ensure I'm getting the full three dimensional breath. 

REGRESSIONS/ALTERNATIVES

If the kettlebell swing is contraindicated for you or not quite your wheelhouse, you can regress it to the hip bridge. This is a great way (and really the true starting/novice move to learn it on) because you'll be breathing on your back, which many find is the best way to learn breathing diaphragmatically.   The protocol is the same otherwise: use the ladder technique. 

I'll get into further progressions from here in later articles, but all the strength coaches out there can certainly see the endless possibilities you can use with advanced athletes and trainees. 

Lastly, I'll close by saying these workouts, especially the diaphragmatic breaths and hip-bridges, don't seem like grueling workouts. They aren't. They weren't designed to be that way. This is essentially retraining your body to do something it should be doing properly, but somewhere it went awry. You'll begin to notice the benefits of these techniques on the mat, when you gas-out less, and when you hear your opponent breathing heavy and hard, but you're calm and relaxed, despite being the victim of their side control. 

Think of your current lung capacity like a powerful V8 engine. Big engines use lots of gas. If you're not breathing, you're not giving that V8 engine any gas. Cars with no gas are useless.

So do you really need to be flailing ropes around until you're blue in the face if you're not breathing? That's actually probably why you're blue in the face.

- Mark

Note:  Because of the demand and interest, I am developing an online course on this very subject. It's available for pre-order now by clicking here or visiting the DiSalvo Performance Academy.

For another great companion to this workout, I highly recommend Steve Maxwell and I's video on Breath Control Workouts and old Russian breathing techniques. You can grab that here