nyc strength and conditioning

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

Who is Asking?

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I was asked a question last week about insulin and adrenal hormones, and why you wouldn’t want to spike them before your workout.

I field a lot of intelligent questions like this: from clients, training partners and people who write to me, to friends and family.  The answer to so many questions like it is: who is asking?

Many people who read well intentioned or even largely true training advice must keep in mind who is dispensing the advice and who their intended audience is. While there are universal training truths, you must remember the old adage: Sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul.

What do I mean?

  • In times where you hope to increase muscle mass, you’ll be sacrificing training for strength (in intermediate to experienced trainees).

  • In times where your goal is to burn fat, you probably won’t be gaining muscle (novice trainees might, but intermediate and advanced will not).

  • You do not want to take in sugar or carbohydrate to spike your insulin before you workout because it will come with performance detriment, but a wrestler or grappler who is doing two-a-days and has a strength session may actually benefit from increasing their blood glucose levels with GOOD sugars before a workout or training session.

 

I think I’m making my point. There are only so many masters you can serve, and simultaneous goals you can achieve. That's why you must establish your priority and be realistic about your situation to get better results. It comes back to the big question: Who is asking?

Often times, you have to be aware of situations where you “don’t know what you don’t know” (to borrow another old phrase). This is where professionals and coaches are critical: they help you identify who you are, what group you fit into, and how to best address your question. More importantly, they can help you prioritize your goals. Sometimes you don’t even know what questions to be asking. That’s why anyone serious about their training needs coaching in some capacity.

From the side of the professional, the coach, the trainer, the therapist: this is where we need to band together and establish good networks: if I am being asked by an olympic lifter how to “clean up” their clean and jerk for competition, that is not something I can offer finer nuance on, and I am acutely aware of that. We can work your clean, front squat and mobility to get you a bit better, but if you have very little time, and it's all mechanics of sport: I want to refer you to the best sport coach. If you ask me about conditioning, strength and mobility for grappling, then I can help you quite readily, and if a yoga teacher was asked about grappling, I would expect he/she to do the same.

I digress and offer the simple advice we opened with: if you or your client can better identify the priority in your current program and reality of the situation, you can better identify the big question:

Who is asking?

 

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.