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Cadbury & Contrasts

Sorry for another long break between posts – but I am FINALLY back to normal after one hell of a sickness. I hope you all had a great Easter for those who celebrate, and don’t beat yourself up if you ate one too many cadbury creme eggs – they’re worth it. 😉


Along similar lines of this ballistic training stuff I’ve been talking about, I thought I’d talk about something we incorporate into a lot of our workouts.  “Contrast sets” are something most people are familiar with, but many don’t know how to program correctly.  They’re ideal for bridging the gap between strength & power, and they help the neuromuscular system fire key muscle fibers despite fatigue. They’re killer, and there are a lot of different combinations you can use to achieve optimal results.

Contrast training essentially takes the same movement pattern and muscle groups for 2 exercises but varies the speed and intensity in the same set.  An example of this is seen when a lifter performs a barbell back squat followed immediately by box jumps.  The recommended reps can fall anywhere between 5-10, depending on the goal, but for athletes trying to achieve explosive power under fatigue, they want to stick to the 5-6 range.  Time under tension is important here, and using any more than those 6 reps during the strength movement will push away from the proper metabolic response.  It is also key to use enough weight to elicit a STRENGTH response, because too light will defeat the purpose.  Shooting for 85%-90% 1RM (for a seasoned lifter) is the goal.

When it comes to programming these, if you are using a TRUE contrast set in the proper % of 1RM, it is important to put them at the beginning.  They are very neurologically demanding & require the most amount of energy.  Usually picking 1 or 2 exercises to contrast per workout is sufficient.

Nick Tumminello has a great article with more examples on contrast training HERE – I don’t want to copy any of his stuff, so check it out.  He also provides great examples for just about every movement.

I tend to use front squats & lateral jumps the most, but I’ve tried a lot of the ones Nick suggests.  Anyone use contrast training in their programs?

Going Ballistic

Just finished another whirlwind week complete with two games, 3 midterms, and lots of chaos in between.  Sorry for the lapse in posts BUT no one can be mad at me because I also finally achieved 10 neutral grip pull ups in a row after programming massive amounts of them into my lifting days.  Best feeling ever. I’m really just trying to force my lats to help me fly. To be continued…

Anyway, it is officially SPRING BREAK, so you know what that means…..

party party party

Actually, no. It just means I’ll have a little extra time to write.  Since I live in Miami, sunshine blogging is a 24/7 thing 😉

This week’s topic is actually inspired by one of my recent midterms – get excited.  But really, it has become one of my favorite types of training.  In my grad program, a lot of our philosophy on strength & conditioning is based on ballistic training.  If used appropriately, this serves as a key element in improving athletic performance.  I want to go over briefly what it is, how to use it, and offer a sample workout that includes some ballistic drills.

Most people, even fitness professionals, shy away from the term “ballistic”, because it has a bit of a negative connotation associated with it.  Traditionally, you hear people get all up in arms about slow and controlled movements – and they say that the WORST thing you can do is bounce around.  If you are static stretching, then yes, bouncing through movements is counterproductive because you will change the neuromuscular response.  [Enter the image of the middle aged guy with or without 80’s style sweatband at the track bouncing through all of his stretches because he has zero range of motion – YUM] But in terms of training, a ballistic movement can bridge the gap between strength & power like nothing else.

Ballistic training is a form of training that involves acceleration and speed of movement. Similar to max power training, the muscle is forced to remain stable, but also produce the greatest amount of force in the shortest amount of time.  In order to be effective, the lift should propel you through the fullest range of motion before releasing (aka: no partial rep nonsense or “pulses” in short range – we’re talking dynamic ROM).  Ballistic training also takes advantage of the stretch shortening cycle, (the eccentric contraction of a muscle followed by an immediate concentric contraction of the same muscle) which is extremely important in terms of power output.  This is all crucial when considering the dynamic effort that goes into playing sports.  The pace at which athletes have to generate force and the dynamic stabilization and energy transfer required to perform ballistic movements go hand in hand.  When it comes to training, this is sport specificity at its finest.

So what’s the difference between ballistics & plyometrics?  Ground contact time.  Traditional plyometrics involve a VERY short amortization (landing) phase – and the quicker you’re able to overcome it, the more improved the reflex becomes.  Ballistics have a longer amortization phase and are more about dynamic stability, energy transfer, and force output.

Normally, the best time to add these into a training program is with a more advanced lifter transitioning from a strength phase to sport specific or power phase.  I say “advanced” because you always want to ensure that technique is sound and muscular imbalances are corrected before attempting to accelerate movements – even if you’re only using body weight.  Including ballistics, even if they’re only in a dynamic warm up, will help ease the transition from strength to power by keeping a lot of the traditional moves while simultaneously adding elements of force output (rebounds, hops, skips,).  This sets up a great base for max power efforts later on.  Adding ballistics is also a great way to maintain total body power while limiting intensity.  Despite the fact that plyometrics aren’t apparently fatiguing, they are very demanding on the neuromuscular system and therefore can only be used so often in a training session.  Ballistics help to bridge the gap and keep an athlete/lifter neuromuscularly conditioned for their sport.

Here is an example of a traditional workout:


Bulgarian Front Squat

DB Box step ups


Glute ham raise

Kneeling plate raise

Plate trunk rotation


Here is the same workout made more “ballistic” for a transition from strength to power training

Deadlift (or Clean pulls, High pulls from the floor, Trap bar DL’s with shrug, etc)

Front loaded bulgarian power skips (essentially a bulgarian with a hop)

DB box step ups w/ rebound (step ups with speed)

Plate blocks (video here:  )

^ Enjoy the amazing narration, it kills me every time.

Dips to knee raise (knee raise for energy transfer & trunk connectivity)

MB lateral swing to jump (energy transfer w/ hops)

Kneeling plate raises

Plate trunk rotation

Essentially all we did was add some kind of speed component to a few of the lifts while keeping the base of the workout very similar.  When adding ballistics to my workouts I’ve noticed that not only have I had some improvement in the bigger lifts (squats, deadlifts, etc) – I’ve also improved my speed.  The other awesome thing about adding these into a program is it helps periodize sessions & control volume.  I’ve been able to maintain strength with fewer workouts, which enables my body to recover better and therefore continue to improve when I go heavy.

Anyone else familiar with this type of training?

Conditioning is not complex – or is it?

I know, the title of this post is too clever.  Thank me later.

But for real: barbell/dumbbell complexes are intense- they build strength, “blast fat” (which is a hilarious term) and give a heck of a conditioning workout in a short time.  They’re the ultimate time saver in the gym – but you get massive benefits from including them in a program.  To keep it simple, a complex is just a sequence of moves that flow together using the same modality (dumbbells or a barbell).  They’ve been written about a lot in the fitness world – but I still rarely see people program them (correctly) into their workouts.  I get why – they’re beyond a lot of people’s comfort zones, it is hard to know exactly where to put them in a program, they’re sometimes hard for beginners to write/perform on their own, and they are FAR from glamorous if done correctly.  Usually when I’m done with a few rounds of complexes, I’m laying in the middle of the gym not caring who has to step over me.  Trust me, though, they are worth every painful second.

Istvan Javorek is the father of complexes (because, with that kind of name, of course he is) and he explains his intentions with this punishing system: “My Original Goal with the Complex exercises was to find an efficient and aggressive method of performance enhancement that saves time and makes the program more enjoyable.” ….And by “enjoyable” we mean “deadly”.  But who doesn’t love blood, sweat and tears?  
I’m kidding – sort of – but these exercises really do add a lot of variety into your program and they are MUCH more entertaining than running.  Nope, that’s not an opinion – just a fact.
Similar to circuit training, these complexes are ideal for body composition changes due to the easy manipulation of work:rest ratios. Complexes will use a set weight (usually 35-55 for women, and maybe 60-75 for men) and combine movements in a specific pattern. You have a ton of flexibility in terms of how many reps, how many rounds, and how to set up the rest periods – all dependent upon training goals.  Want to get diesel?  Add more weight, go less times.  Want to go build stamina?  Drop weight, add more sets.
There are a few different ways to construct complexes, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that this is a CONDITIONING workout.  You want to perform moves in rapid succession with very little transition time – so it is important to pick moves that flow well together.  It is also awesome because you don’t have to worry about people taking your equipment – just clear some space & hit it.  For example, check this video:
When I go home to upstate NY in the winter and running outside is an absolute disaster, barbell complexes are a staple in my programming.  [One of the few reasons I’m reppin the Syracuse tshirt in the vid – also a shout out to some fabulous friends back home].  It helps me keep my strength and technique on most of my lifts and helps me stay conditioned.  I wrote up this complex in December with two goals in mind: 1) conditioning and 2) some split stance and core stability work – hence the overhead & reverse lunges. I typically pair the movements based on the ease of transitioning the bar.  In this case, I go hang clean with a high receive, which sets me up perfectly for any front loaded movement: a front squat, or in this case, a push press.  I chose the overhead lunges because the bar was already in the top position from the previous push press.  After the lunges, when I brought the bar back to chest level (front loaded position) it was easy to perform front loaded reverse lunges.  Finally, I brought the bar back down and performed the RDL+Row combo.
The other unique thing about this complex is I chose to do 1 rep of each move in succession.  I only showed one progression on the video, but one “round” of that complex consists of 3-4 times through the entire progression.  By the time the round ends, you’ve performed 4 hang cleans, 4 push presses, 4 OH lunges each side, 4 reverse lunges each side, and 4 of the RDL/Row combos.
Another (more common) approach is to perform the exercises in succession, like a circuit.  Here is another example:
In this video, I chose 4 front squats, 4 push presses, 4 reverse lunges per side, then 4 RDLs and 4 rows.  After that, you would rest for a certain time (45 sec-2 minutes, depending on your goal and your training tenure) and hit it again for a few rounds. I happen to like using 4 reps at the moment, but I’ve seen anywhere from 3-6 being used.  Keep in mind the total time you’re working & plan it accordingly.
The best way to start incorporating these into your training is to do them on their own day.  If you already have specific “cardio” or “conditioning” days built into your program, try substituting barbell complexes in there as the the main component.  You won’t really have the energy to do anything else, but you’ll become a monster at them.

There is no off switch

When you get used to this type of training, you can start playing around with when you use it.  Sometimes I save these until the end to finish with, and other times I’ll start my workout with them if I know I don’t have anything else extremely taxing planned.  There’s no “wrong” way – just make sure you’re comfortable with the moves before you try to do them.  ALSO – if you start to lose your junk and you become a hot mess, drop the weight down.  This isn’t about getting the rounds done any way possible.  Its about getting the rounds done and looking like a person.  I don’t have time for injuries, sorry.

If you use these in your training – what’s your favorite combination of moves?

Real women lift REAL weights (3 lb dumbbells need not apply)

Alright, you knew it was coming.  This is my PSA to all females out there who are afraid to lift weights and get strong. I’m going to grit my teeth and make this as nice as possible, so just zip your lips and read.

I’m really just so so so so so so tired of hearing the nonsense girls say when it comes to fitness.  As usual, I blame the Kardashians…. because I blame them for everything.  In reality, though, anyone that endorses those stupid tone-up shoes and has a trainer [Tracy Anderson] that insists: “We don’t want to take away Kim’s amazing curves, so we just do specific movements to tighten the skin and to pull the muscles tight against the bone.” can just fall off the planet.  Yes, she really said that (People Magazine – go ahead, click it, and then lets get #ThingsSmarterThanTracyAnderson to trend on twitter)

Rock > Tracy Anderson

Guess what?  There is no such freaking thing as tightening the skin around your muscles – that’s just gross and weird.  Unless you’re talking some serious Nip/Tuck, you will not find that sort of nonsense occurring in the gym.  That requires a scalpel and some Frankenstein stuff.  Put it out of your mind.

Another thing I need you to forget about is body builders.  You are all brainwashed into thinking that lifting weights = body building, and that if you start picking up weights you’re going to start looking like those tan bikini-clad mini-hulks.  I’m not saying bodybuilding isn’t bad ass, because it is, but most of us aren’t training for that.  To be brutally honest, the extreme amount of dieting, supplementation, discipline and volume of training that it takes to be a bodybuilder is completely out of the relm of possibility for just about all of us…so stop flattering yourself.

Instead of talking about celebrities who aren’t real people, I’m going to make this nice and simple.  Did anyone watch the US women’s soccer team over the summer?  If you didn’t – go sit in the corner. For the rest of you, did Abby Wambach or Hope Solo look like crazies on steroids?  No. Would women kill to be Alex Morgan (or would men kill to be WITH Alex Morgan?) YUP.  Do they all lift weights?  You better believe it. And I’m talking real weights – not cute little colored dumbbells.  They are soccer players.  They squat more than you weigh.

Alex Morgan

Abby Wambach

Reality check: women do not have enough testosterone to become huge no matter how much they lift – and it does not change with the increasing intensity of your work out.  You would need to supplement (legally, or illegally) your face off, and even THEN, you wouldn’t reach the status a man does because of those pesky sex hormones and their fluctuation.  In fact, I DARE YOU to try to bulk up.  Nia Shanks, author of the Beautiful Badass blog and part of the Girls Gone Strong movement (which you should check out, btw) claims to be so confident that you won’t, that if you start training FOR REAL and you get bulky, she’ll allow you roundhouse kick her in the face.  I’m just as confident – so when you’re done kicking her, you can come find me. Be warned: I kick back.

I’ll even use myself as an example.  Now before everyone jumps down my throat, I recognize that I’m actually in the minority.  I put on muscle easier than most, and everyone knows I train with weights, so a lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them they won’t get huge.  Fortunately for all you doubters, I have photo evidence. (NOTE: I do not have access to photoshop or any other fancy editing tool and if I did, I wouldn’t know how to use it.  All these pictures you can find perfectly untouched on my facebook.) Boom.

Before I lifted heavy weights, my body composition was relatively the same, but with higher body fat.  Genetically, I am short and stocky, and I would be whether I decided to play video games, run marathons, or lift weights.  I’ve always been a higher size in clothing, and my measurements have only changed slightly over the years.  Ironically, though, what ended up happening once I started serious training was my waist size decreased, and so did my arm circumference, even though you can see visible muscles now.  This is due to the corresponding decrease in body fat, NOT the excess growth of muscle tissue.  Unfortunately, there was no increase in height despite my huge desire to dunk a basketball. Oh well, another life….

Here is a picture of me playing lacrosse during my freshman year of college.  Besides playing lax and the occasional (awful) gym workout, I was not particularly in shape.  I could do regular body weight push ups, but no pull ups, and I didn’t squat, deadlift, or do anything remotely awesome.

Me in 2007

Notice my arm size (this is important) and the presence of a small gut (haha thats just funny).

Now, here I am junior year, after coming back from an ACL injury, completely changing the way I ate and after doing A LOT of heavy strength training.  At this point in time I could complete a body weight pull up, over 30 push ups, and I was squatting around my body weight (which at the time was 160).

Me in 2009

You’ll see that my broad shoulders are still the same broad shoulders they always were, they didn’t magically appear.  My arms, however, are actually slightly smaller, the gut is mainly gone, and my legs have muscles peaking out – muscles that were there already, NOT ones that hypertrophied enough to warrant a jump in pants size.  In fact, I dropped quite a few pants sizes between freshman and junior year.

Here is a more recent photo of me taken just a few months ago – at this point I can complete 5 WEIGHTED pull ups, squat 225 for reps and deadlift 235 for reps and you’ll notice that not much as changed in my body composition from 2009 to now. The only thing that has increased is my strength (and therefore, my awesomeness)

Me in 2011

So here’s my main message: most of you are smart enough to know that not everything you read in the magazines is the truth.  You know that celebrities are photoshopped, you know diet cleanses are stupid, and you know that being skinny isn’t always healthy.  Well here’s a new one: women can (and should) lift weights without worrying about getting bulky.  Use your brains, because I really want you guys to stop being so afraid to challenge yourself.  You’re missing out on AWESOME workouts – and you’re missing out on GREAT accomplishments.  No one said you had to enter a powerlifting meet, but I hope that by putting myself out there I have helped you realize that strength is something to strive for, not shy away from.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, or you just want to read into this more, please check out this article: (its absolutely hilarious – if you like what I write, you’ll love this). Also check the blog & videos of Nia Shanks.  You’ll thank me for it.  And if you ever use the phrase “I just want to get toned” in my presence, I promise I will go out of my way to make you feel bad. 🙂