A Case for Athleticism

It’s fantastic how quickly the online strength and conditioning community grows. 70’s Big started in 2009, and I’ve been coaching since 2005, but the number of athletes has never been larger. Powerlifters, weightlifters, CrossFitters, and general trainees range from the kid that never exercised growing up to the professional athlete. All of us have something in common: improving performance. Despite our intentions, most of us leave out critical components of athleticism.

CrossFit bills itself as the everything program. Almost ten years ago we talked about it in terms of a General Physical Preparedness (GPP) program. GPP programs have their roots in Russian sport science with respect to periodization. In Supertraining, Mell Siff describes that GPP “is intended to provide balanced physical conditioning in endurance, strength, speed, flexibility, and other basic factors of fitness” (pg 315). GPP was either followed by or performed congruently with Specialized Physical Preparation (SPP). This type of phase was commonly used in younger athletes who had not specified in a particular sport, but it could also be used as an introduction phase after a long off-season. Siff even points out how a hypertrophy (or muscle building) phase can be included with GPP. Historically GPP was used as a phase instead of a training paradigm.

We see trends of using phases in a variety of sport or competitive based events. Smart CrossFit competitors know they can’t train hard all year, and usually when their competitive season is over they’ll reestablish a training base or work on deficiencies in their fitness. Then their training will filter back into preparing for competitive events. This is almost ironic given how we used to consider CrossFit as a GPP program, but a large portion of its annual calendar forces most competitors to shift to a SPP approach in order to adequately prepare for “the open”.

What about those who don’t have an annual training cycle? Or don’t care about CrossFit or specific national events in a sport? It’s almost a negative stigma to not specialize in a type of competition, because not specializing likely means not performing to the utmost ability. For example, a guy recently wrote me asking why I did or didn’t compete in various sports and what my opinion is. And I think he honestly wanted to be blessed off on not specializing in order to dabble in several sports throughout the year.

Within the online strength and conditioning community – which includes the social media concerning CrossFit, powerlifting, weightlifting, etc. – there are general trainees. They want to be strong and fit, but don’t specialize their training because they don’t want to or don’t care to. There’s also the “applied fitness” trainee – a term we used in FIT to describe military, law enforcement, and people with active jobs. Applied fitness trainees often train for a reason and can’t specialize in order to preserve performance for work. In other words, they can’t afford to specialize.

Regardless of their reason for not specializing, it behooves these populations to maintain a broad proficiency. Nearly all exercises in “the big three”, CrossFit, powerlifting, or weightlifting, are linear in nature. A snatch, box jump, or squat require the trainee to face one direction without deviation. Even movements where the trainee’s feet move, like a box jump, Olympic lift, or burpee, do so in one direction. All of these movements are fantastic for building the capacity to be athletic, but doing them does not make someone athletic.

An argument could be made that a muscle up or snatch is an athletic movement – because they aren’t easy – but they are skills that require practice. I don’t want to get into a “Athleticism vs Skill” argument; it doesn’t have a clear delineation. Instead, I want to focus on how training for the big three competitions excludes important elements of athleticism such as reaction, lateral and angular movement, and change of direction.

John Welbourn said in 2013, “Athleticism only really becomes glaring apparent when you force an athlete to move in space as it relates to another competitor, task or obstacle” (Link).  I don’t know if I agree that this is the only time it’s apparent, but I do agree moving in space and reacting to a competitor, task, or obstacle is inherent in athleticism. Reaction is important and differs from an exercise because the conditions are in flux. During a squat or snatch, gravity is the only deterrent, but team sports with an opponent requires a player to react to an opponent or their actions. Moving in space and navigating obstacles is part of the definition of “mobility” we used in FIT. Movement in sport or reality is not simply linear and could be in any direction, often requiring an individual to change their direction. This might be like a juke, or it could be flowing into a room properly to shoot bad guys.

Ultimately, these are components of athleticism that aren’t included in training programs. If a trainee wants to remain or become athletic, these components need to be a part of the program because simply doing CrossFit, weightlifting, or powerlifting isn’t enough.

As with all training variables, new drills or exercises should be very basic. Add in ladder drills, particularly things like the Icky shuffle and two feet in each hole while moving laterally. Use cone drills, like the 5-10-5-meter shuffle, lateral shuffles, the L drill, or the M drill. Things like the M drill allow the trainee to open their hips and move at a 45-degree angle forwards and backwards, which is often neglected in favor of lateral work. A reactionary component could be accomplished with a square of cones, the athlete in the center, and another person calling the number of a cone. The athlete quickly moves to touch the cone and moves back to the center. This could be done for consecutive reps for time, which will satisfy the competitive nature of CrossFit training partners. Another classic reaction drill is the “mirror drill” from basketball or soccer where one athlete mirrors the movement of another. The athlete being mirrored tries to fake out or lose the other.

Drills like the ones above can be implemented as conditioning or before lifting after a general warm-up. Unathletic people can improve their athletic capacity, athletic people can maintain or improve theirs, and, most importantly, all parties involved will improve their soft tissue to prevent injury. For example, if the lifter or CrossFitter plays flag football in which they catch a pass and turn up field to sprint, and they haven’t done any short sprinting and movement drills, it wouldn’t be surprising to tear a hammy. In fact, this dumb ass author did such a thing in 2012. And in 2010 he rolled his ankle at the first CrossFit Football seminar after months of solely lifting. Getting hurt doing something simple definitely makes one feel unathletic.

Most trainees choose to specify their training into a particular sport or competition, but the truth is only a small percentage of dominant competitors need to do so to continue to win. Furthermore, for the applied fitness or sport athlete, they need to focus on building or maintaining athleticism for both the sake of performance and preventing injury. Spending a phase in the training year on performance and/or including drills on a regular basis to maintain or improve athleticism will truly make a trainee capable over broad modal domains. Simply add agility and reaction drills as conditioning or as part of a warm-up, and you can be more than just fit or strong; you can be athletic.

Repost: Prilepin’s Chart

Prileipin’s Chart is the result of a lot of Russian research done with Olympic weightlifters. It depicts the optimum number and range of reps given a certain percentage to increase strength. The researchers looked at bar speed, technique, and the lifter’s next competition max and developed the following numbers (for more on Prilepin’s Chart and it’s use on strength training, check out this solid article by Tim Kontos on EliteFTS).

The “Percent” column indicates the percent of the lifter’s 1RM. The “Reps/sets” column represents the range of reps that can occur for a single set. The “Optimal” column shows the optimum number of total reps at this percent range to implement a correct dose of stress (fewer reps would be too low a stress, more reps would cause too much stress). The “Total Range” column indicates the lower and higher extremes a lifter could use when lifting in the indicated percent range. For example, the 55-65% row says that a lifter would use three to six reps per set, the optimal rep total is 24 reps, and the range of total reps is from 18 to 30. If the lifter used sets of 3, they could perform 8 sets to achieve the optimal 24 rep total.

This chart is a very good way to structure a training day, though it isn’t really necessary unless you’re more of an “advanced intermediate” type of lifter (i.e. someone who has been using intermediate programming for at least six months, and probably at least a year). Let’s say you found yourself going hard too often in your training, and de-loads were necessary and often. If you actually looked at your percentages and rep totals, you might find that you’re essentially doing three heavy days a week. Instead, you could fluctuate your week’s training better (perhaps with a Heavy-Medium-Light set up) by orienting your training sessions with Prilepin’s Chart.

If Monday you went heavy, the chart would help you see that “heavy” is anything over 90%. You’d do about four total reps by hitting a couple doubles or some singles, and you definitely wouldn’t breach the ten rep mark — it would just be superfluous training volume at this percentage. If you kept the rep ranges the same, you could aim to improve the weight slightly the following week. This is essentially what is done in the Texas Method and Advanced Texas Method protocols (though numbers of sets and reps are modified for goals, like raw powerlifting).

Prilepin’s Chart also allows for proper progression. If you’re less adapted to using its protocol, then you would stick to the lower end range of reps within a given percentage. For example, instead of using 15 to 20 reps in the 80-90% category, you’d stick to the lower rep range of 10 and build it up over time (perhaps adding a rep or two every week). You can see how it’s easy to apply more stress via total tonnage than simply adding weight, and this is also why you’d want to be more advanced before even worrying about any of this. Less adapted intermediates can make plenty of progress with a good training template and not over working themselves, but this Chart can corral those who are ignorant, belligerent, or not on a given template (hmm, two of those three describe Brent…).

Westside Barbell and Louie Simmons are the primary sources that educated the general strength population on Prilepin’s Chart. Louie based the DE/ME structure on these percentages and rep ranges and has tweaked them over the years (I’d suggest getting a copy of the “Westside Barbell Squat and Deadlift Manual” if you’re interested to see his implementation). Things are tweaked because a) the Westside lifters are using supportive gear and b) the above chart is based on the the quick Olympic lifts. Supportive gear will assist the lifter in his performance, so heavier percentages can be used. The Olympic lifts have a much lower time under tension and can be typically labeled as “sub-maximal” with respect to absolute strength, so a powerlifter or strength athlete will typically use fewer reps than an Olympic weightlifter. Also, Tim Kontos pointed out that a sport athlete (who is running, attending practice, or using a broader range of lifts) will use fewer reps so as not to apply too much stress that would inhibit the rest of the training.

Prilepin’s Chart is a good tool to use for experienced lifters, yet it can give a good programmer a strategy for how to plan his session, week, and training. Take a look at your own training and see how it compares with these rep ranges. If you decide to use it, remember to start with the lower rep ranges. If you experiment with something and it works well, then let us know (but include your stats and previous program). Don’t forget that less experienced lifters will complicate a good progression by trying to adhere to percentage-based training.

Memorial Day 2016

I typically use the same post every Memorial Day to remind American readers of their freedoms. Every year, families and friends gather to grill meat and wave flags, but getting a day off from work and drinking a beer doesn’t really do justice to those that have lost their lives in service of the United States of America.


A flag from the WTC rubble in 2001.

I won’t spin tales of heroes, sacrifice, and death. I won’t ask you to thank anyone or give a donation. All I ask is that you live honorably. Most service members believe this country is worth enduring a lot of shitty situations. There’s an idea that despite our flaws, America is an amazing place to live full of righteous people who work hard, have personal responsibility, and always try to improve.

Do not let them down; live honorably. Convince the families of the fallen that their loss was worth it. Convince the service members who still toil that their effort is worth it. Take responsibility of your life and actions, respect others, and never, ever stop trying to succeed. Teach others how to do the same.

The only true memorial is to live this way, to live honorably. Everything else is an obligatory charade. This is not a day if celebration, but of remembrance. Lest we forget.

Werner Günthör

The other day I used a sweet picture of Werner Günthör. In an effort to teach all the newer readers, here’s a post I wrote in 2010 about him (with minor edits). 

Meet Werner Günthör, a powerful athlete from Switzerland. Günthör was an athletic shot putter who stood 6’6″ and weighed close to 300 pounds of pure 70’s Bigness (this website lists him at 130kg). His best put was 22.75 meters in 1988 in Bern — that’s about 74.5 feet. Günthör won a bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics as well as three world championships in the late 80s and early 90s. He also won an indoor world championship and European championship. You can find videos of Günthör training on YouTube. His training was awesome, and here’s my favorite video (the last sequence is the best):

How awesome was that? It’s not a bad idea to model conditioning work after Günthör’s plyometric training, particularly jumping and bounding. Ease into these movements, especially if you haven’t done them since high school athletics; plyometrics will initially be stressful on the joints and soft tissue.

Here is another video of Günthör and who I assume is his training partner. The whole video is an impressive showing of athleticism and displays the old school mindset of including related physical conditioning to training.

Ladies will want to fast forward to 1:43.
More intense plyo training at 2:38.
3:33 is the start of a hilarious montage of Günthör doing all kinds of awesome things, including playing tennis. You can’t really get an idea of how massive this guy is until he wedges a racket in his fist. There’s another really funny part that I’ll let you see for yourself, so this would be the best part of the video if you were strapped for time.

Günthör is one of my favorite athletes because of his explosive training and awesome style. A 70’s Big man indeed.

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